Five great reads you may have missed (Part 2 in a series)

So many books are published each year that it’s impossible to keep up, even if you focus on only one type of book (e.g., literary fiction, short stories, crime novels, books by women). Add to that our busy lives and the many and constant distractions, and it’s easy to see how even passionate readers can miss a lot of good books. So, as my small contribution to solving this problem, over the next few weeks I’ve decided to publish a series of three posts in which I share some books that are worth your valuable reading time.


Pachinko

Pachinko

By Min Jin Lee

Grand Central Books 2017, 481 pages

If 2016-2017 is remembered for anything beyond the political nightmare we find ourselves in, it might be as the years Korean fiction – by both Koreans and Korean-Americans – reached critical mass and got a lot of attention. The Vegetarian by Han Kang won the 2016 Booker International Prize (though it was originally published in Korean in 2007, it wasn’t translated into English until 2015); Everything Belongs to Us by Yoojin Grace Wuertz, Shelter by Jung Yun, and How I Became a North Korean by Krys Lee have also received acclaim.

But the book that is likely to stand as the definitive “Korean” novel is Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, published last February. The story of one Korean family from 1910-1980, Pachinko harkens back to a more traditional storytelling than much of contemporary fiction, combining the melodramatic family saga and literary fiction. When Sunja, a young girl in a fishing village, finds herself pregnant and abandoned, she needs an escape to avoid shaming her family. A visiting minister offers her a chance to marry and move to Japan. Thus begins the story of ethnic Koreans living in Japan, where they are treated like second-class citizens (at best).

Pachinko is one of the most immersive reading experiences I’ve had in recent years and focuses on a theme that I always find compelling: the immigrant’s struggle to acculturate, with the attendant schizophrenia of the Old World and New World pulling you in different directions. This is particularly so when one’s appearance broadcasts that one is different. The cross-cultural tensions in Pachinko, combined with Lee’s smooth, controlled prose, held me in thrall. This was a time and place and experience I knew nothing about, and Lee was a riveting guide through the family’s lives in a rapidly-changing Japan (has any country changed more than Japan from the 1930s to the 1980s?). Pachinko is one of this year’s must-reads. And I suspect it will remain a must-read for many years to come.


The Pathless Sky

The Pathless Sky

By Chaitali Sen

Europa Editions 2015, 312 pages

Chaitali Sen has written a timeless novel of love and life in an authoritarian society. She has wisely chosen to leave the country and time unstated, making her story universal, and yet it feels so timely and specific that it can be said to accurately capture our zeitgeist. (In that sense, it is somewhat like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.)

While books that tread this territory can feel coolly unemotional, with characters often representing ideas, The Pathless Sky achieves an emotional intensity through its flesh-and-blood characters and the hypnotic quality of Sen’s prose. It is the story of John and Mariam, who meet while in college and spend the following years in and out of each other’s lives for reasons both personal and political (with an emphasis on the lower case “p”). John is studying geology, a powerful metaphorical contrast with the fickle nature of human efforts, particularly those of authoritarian governments.

The characters’ opposing natures and the random, inexplicable actions of the increasingly militaristic police state combine to test their relationship in a hundred different ways. We never stop rooting for their love to triumph because it can be all we have left in such circumstances, the human struggling against the machinations of tyranny. The Pathless Sky could well have been titled Love in a Time of Oppression (apologies to Garcia-Marquez).


Hour-of-Daydreams

The Hour of Daydreams

By Renee Macalino Rutledge

Forest Avenue Press 2017, 235 pages

One of the more promising developments in fiction over the last several years is the increased presence of Asian writers. These are voices telling us stories we need to know, both because it’s good fiction and because the fictional world should correspond to the actual world. After many years as a journalist and nonfiction book editor, Renee Macalino Rutledge has published her debut novel with the literary fiction independent press that recently brought us the powerful Landfall by Ellen Urbani.

The Hour of Daydreams is a “reimagined Filipino folktale” about a country doctor named Manolo whose marriage to Tala is disturbed by his belief that she has wings that allow her to fly up to the stars at night. Tala is indeed hiding a secret from Manolo and it’s creating a divide in their marriage and their conceptions of fact and fantasy. Macalino Rutledge weaves this magical tale through the voices of several characters, and the result is a hybrid of folktale and contemporary fiction, merging myth and modernity as it explores marriage, gender, and culture. I was not surprised to see that this book has been compared to the work of Isabel Allende; indeed, The Hour of Daydreams reminded me of The House of the Spirits, with its elegant prose-poetry, brooding sense of possibility, and Macalino Rutledge’s ability to cast a spell over the reader.


Heat and Light

Heat and Light

By Jennifer Haigh

Ecco 2016, 435 pages

Jennifer Haigh is one of our best writers, yet she’s not quite a household name. Her second novel, Baker Towers, introduced the town of Bakerton in northwest Pennsylvania, where coal is king, but in the years following WWII, an increasingly weakened and aging king. Through her subsequent novels, Haigh explored contemporary concerns with compassion and insight (the effect of a child’s rare disease on her family in 2009’s The Condition, clergy sexual abuse in 2011’s Faith). In 2013’s News from Heaven, she returned to Bakerton in a series of interconnected stories that brought readers up to date on the current lives of the locals.

With last year’s Heat and Light, Haigh has laid claim to this part of Pennsylvania in the same way William Faulkner did with the fictional Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi. This time, oil company reps have come to town to purchase the drilling rights beneath residents’ homes so the companies can search for natural gas through the latest method, fracking. Crews pour in from Texas, creating tension with the local folks. The impact of illegal immigration complicates matters further. Haigh explores the impact of this changing circumstance on a large cast of characters, including a prison guard, a nurse, a farmer, a pastor, and a visiting activist.

What makes Haigh stand out is her uncanny ability to inhabit so many characters so fully. They walk and talk like people we know or have encountered. And she makes us care about each and every one of them as they try to cope with a changing world that has turned everything upside down in Bakerton. In her review of Heat and Light in the New York Times, Janet Maslin compared Haigh’s concerns and style to those of Richard Ford, Richard Russo, and Richard Price. She certainly belongs in such esteemed company. If you read Heat and Light, be prepared to continue with Baker Towers and News from Heaven; before long, you’ll know as much about life in Bakerton as its residents do.


the-given-world-paperback

The Given World 

By Marian Palaia

Simon & Schuster 2015, 320 pages

The Given World takes us back to the height of the Vietnam War in 1968 to tell the story of Riley, a teenager whose older brother Mick is fighting in Vietnam. When he goes missing, Riley decides to go in search of him. Over the course of more than two decades, we follow Riley from her childhood in Montana to San Francisco, and ultimately to Vietnam.

Palaia tells the story out of chronological order, starting with Riley as a thirty-something woman in Saigon approximately 25 years ago. We are taken back and forth in time and in and out of characters’ lives, giving us a firsthand sense of Riley’s chaotic inner and outer life. The Given World is a powerful coming-of-age story, with a range of narrative voices that provide one gut punch after another, especially Riley’s tough-but-tender sections. This is a dark story, but enough bands of light cross it to give you hope that Riley will find her brother or at least herself. At the very least, she wants to know what happened to Mick. In a life of broken promises, abandonment, and addiction, she wants answers and closure for a change.

What really stands out in The Given World is Palaia’s ferocious writing. She dives deep into the characters’ psychic pain, and she conveys that in her vivid prose and well-chosen concrete details that capture Riley’s life in Montana and San Francisco. The Given World is a book of heartbreak and hope, a rough ride, and a satisfying read.

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“Your story is the best one to tell.” Marian Palaia on writing who you are and what you know

Marian Palaia 2016  the-given-world-paperback

By Marian Palaia

Here is a thing I have been known to tell beginning fiction students: Write about someone who is not you. I tell them this because I am trying to get them to use their imaginations. I am trying to head off the production of another batch of more or less true “short stories” about break-ups, disloyal friends, summers in Paris or Stockholm, winter breaks in Cancun. Of course when you — most of you, of us, straight-out-of-high-school freshmen — are young, and have had our hearts broken, found out our best friends are not who we thought they were, or traveled to Mexico or Europe for the first time, the number of experiences we have had, against which to compare these, is limited. Because it is, these experiences shine exceptionally bright. I totally get this part, but it’s my job to push my students past their limits (as writers). They do not always go willingly.

When I ask students to try to imagine being someone else, whose stories might be more interesting and more complex than the ones they tend to gravitate to, it sounds simple enough, but it isn’t, because they have already been told, over and over, Write what you know. At face value, this is usually taken to mean, Write true stories, starring you. Also, as Willa Cather had it, “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.” And while I don’t disagree with this theory (though it might be a bit of an exaggeration), because there is much in each of our lives that is unique, I do believe it takes most writers a long time to recognize what parts are worth mining, what is most rare and distinctive about their stories. So they write about their trips to Paris, because trips to Paris are what is different to them. Because their lives have been normal, fairly uninteresting, for all they, so far, know.

So I try to explain what “write what you know” means to me. But it’s hard. Maybe because it is a moving target, and it means different things at different times. Maybe it is the DNA sequencing of a tiger, and maybe it is what you know on an emotional level to be true. In the latter case, you might find the proper combination of words and formation of imagery that what your reader experiences is exactly what you were after. Or maybe you won’t know what you’re after, which is not only fine, it is good, so long as you are writing what you know in your heart to be true. Another moving target, but moving targets come with the territory.

A middle ground is one I roamed often in my early writing years (like, 20 of them). It was more or less a schizophrenic place, where I did make things up, but at the same time felt beholden, too often, to adhere to the verifiable truth. My life has been other than ordinary (whatever that is, I know), in that my trajectory was pretty much all over the place, in that there was zero track-able trajectory at all — there was just me, launching myself, mostly blindly, into whatever space was in front of me at the time. Without going into too much detail, for many years I thought writing short stories meant tacking pretty endings onto true stories of fucked-up-ness. Or not pretty, but ways I wished things had turned out, things I wish I had done. Gotten a gun, for example, and shot the bad guy — the real guy, a poker player, who thought breaking into my house to beat me up was the best way to get me to come back to him — and driven off into the mountains with the good guy (the nonexistent one, the perfect boyfriend all the girls in workshop fell in love with) and the cat (also fictional, but the story needed something furry, as a foil) and the pint of Jim Beam (based on a true story lasting years). Etcetera.

For a long time I thought the fucked-up-ness was the story, and this mindset prevented me from creating anything that was more than a series of “punk westerns” (as my workshop mates in Montana called them). Eventually I ran out of punk western stories, and sort of grew up, or maybe it was the other way around. In my forties I embarked for a while upon a “normal” existence (job, benefits, bureaucracy, house, dog, alcoholic boyfriend), and when, after five or six years, it threatened to do me in (I really suck at bureaucracy, and boyfriends), I went back to school, at 54, to get my MFA. And even though I had “grown up,” I still felt beholden to writing old truths, until I took a nonfiction class, which gave me a place to put my real stories, which opened up a vast landscape of lying, which is what fiction writers are meant to do. Problem solved, as in, not exactly.

The first piece of what turned out, 12 years later, to be my first novel, The Given World, begins, “So that was me, going on 18, not too tall, no tits to speak of, brown hair to my ass, parted in the middle and brushed intermittently, worn just far enough out of my eyes so I could see, but my peripheral vision was not what it could have been.” That was me. She/I worked in a gas station, drove a ’67 Mustang convertible which looked like it had been through a war, dreamed of becoming a diesel mechanic (and perhaps joining the Army to do it), smoked copious amounts of dope but didn’t handle being stoned very well, and was more than a little crazy. Heard voices, really. Drove and drove, in search of, on the run from, imagining total wreckage at every turn. That kind of crazy. My kind.

Fast forward to the MFA, the nonfiction workshop, the addition to the story of more stories about this girl, who became Riley, who became (so the real-life story goes) less and less me and more and more herself. As she became more and more herself, the book became a whole lot better, until it became a novel about a girl who was not me. Whew. Except. At least half the book is still me. On the “write what you know” emotional and psychic level, a lot more than half. What goes around comes around.

Horror writer Stephen Graham Jones, in a recent interview with Indian Country Today, uses hypothetical vampire cats to talk about his experience:

. . . the trick is, whatever you write, you invest your whole self in it. So what I have to do when I write about vampire cats in space or whatever is find the story in there that’s actually me, dealing with my dad or with women or something like that. And once you have that emotional core, that dynamo spinning, it just makes the cats in space come alive in a good way.

That spinning dynamo is key (vampire cats, metaphorically, a little less so), and an incredibly difficult thing to teach. Lorrie Moore was my first MFA teacher. She told me, in essence, to write the hard stuff, the stuff that hurts. I believed her, and found that I could write “painful”, without soft landings or happy endings, and I began to, because I was ready. Because I had already gotten all the punk westerns I had in me out of the way. I just needed someone to tell me. And since I do not write horror, or any sort of speculative fiction, instead of vampire cats I had real people — real messed up people — and my relationship to them. A few of those who were closest to me had died by the time I wrote the book (a few others are now hanging on by a thread). My version of cats in space was to bring them back to life, which was a gift, but which also required digging my heart open with a dull implement, like a spoon. I did what Lorrie said. I am very attached to these characters, who were and are my people, and very protective of them, as it turns out. I wasn’t exactly prepared for this.

When I read about my book (newspaper and blog reviews, Amazon, Goodreads, etc.), I often encounter acceptance and understanding of these not-so-imaginary characters (“me” included), and I think, “Yay! Somebody got it.” Less often, but still often enough, Riley’s choice of traveling companions and her inability to get her shit together, in a linear fashion, are a huge source of frustration for readers. At first I was surprised by this, not to mention hurt by what some folks said. I have been advised by more experienced writers to not even read my Amazon and Goodreads reviews. (They say they don’t, and I believe, like, two of them, though it does become much less of an obsession as time goes on.) The easy thing to do would be to decide that these frustrated readers have clearly never had anything bad happen to them, and therefore do not have the perspective necessary to understand Riley and her posse of misfits. That would be the easy thing. But.

I have come to accept, not because I wanted to, but because I have had to, that if the problem is not some reviewers’ un-empathetic (my take, on my worst days) impatience with Riley, some of it must be with my stubborn insistence on telling a mostly relentless series of dark truths, to the point that a lot of readers want nothing more than to be let up, relieved, and released from them. I cannot express how hard this acceptance has been. I’m not even sure yet it has been acceptance. But I do get it, as much as, being me, I can.

Here is a connection, though, which is not completely tangential: a thing I have at times given some thought to, but had not applied directly to my work, but was reminded of recently, at an event at which three writers — all women — spoke about writing, and publishing, and being female in the world of books. They talked about Claire Vaye Watkins’s excellent Tin House essay on pandering, which is (loosely) about women writing what they know men will accept, because it is written, however consciously or unconsciously, to hew to a male aesthetic. They talked about “likable” characters, and whether or not female characters, written by females, are expected to be likable, whereas male characters, written by males, can be anything they damn well please. And it hit me: “Right? There it is.” Riley is not likable throughout much of the book. She is not meant to be likable; nor was I trying to write a character whose nature was to be disliked. Likability was the last thing on my mind as I was writing. Fuck likable. People are complex and messy and they do stupid things. Sometimes they do stupid things over and over for long periods of time, trying to sort it all out — three steps forward, two steps back, or two forward and three back. That. Is. Life. That is male life, and it is female life and it is non-binary life. It is what we all share. One would hope.

If I got to choose, I would say the book that The Given World most closely resembles, in structure, subject, trajectory, is Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which I loved when it came out, and still love after many reads. (I even have the movie poster.) I do not claim to be the writer Johnson is, or was then, but my writing is not, either, what seems to bug some readers about my book. What bugs them is its disjointedness, its main character’s inability or refusal to walk a straight line. I started wondering, so I looked at some reviews of Johnson’s book, and I don’t know if “gratified” is the right word for my reaction to what I found, but it might be. What I found was that readers (percentage-wise, as Jesus’ Son has many more reviews), found our main characters and our story-telling styles equally aggravating. The terms “hot mess,” “lost,” “disjointed,” “not inspiring,” and “broken” are very familiar to me, and would be to Johnson if he read his Goodreads reviews (which I doubt he does, with absolutely no evidence to back me).

One person’s take on Jesus’ Son, pretty much representative of both our one- and two-star reviews:

“Don’t waste your money on this book! If you want to read about drug use and wasted lives, feel free. (Angry at the book club member who picked this book over Tenth of December.)”

I know of at least one book club member who is in similar trouble for recommending The Given World, for exactly the same reason. Long story short, it doesn’t matter.

What matters is, when you are ready to go digging at your heart with a spoon, disregard the advice (from that exhausted teacher) at the beginning of this piece, about your story maybe not being the best one to tell. Your story is the best one to tell. It may take you a while to find it, but if you work at it long enough, you will. And maybe I was too relentless with mine, because I was telling a story I had to get out of me, because I had been carrying it around for so long. It is dark. It is bruising. It is fucked-up-ness piled on tenderness piled on more fucked-up-ness, leading to something that looks something like redemption might look after it has been buried in a pile of refuse under a pile of rocks for a very long time. It is still my story, in more ways than one. And despite its relentlessness, I don’t know, if given the chance, that I would write it any other way.

This essay was previously published on Medium on April 5, 2016. 

https://medium.com/galleys/fuck-likeability-write-what-you-know-write-who-you-are-f4fc7dba8176#.3sxwnz1jf


Marian Palaia is, according to her website, a “writer, wanderer, shit disturber.” Her debut novel, The Given World, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2015. It made the longlist for the PEN/Bingham First Novel Prize, and was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” pick and an Indie Next selection. Born in Riverside, California, Palaia currently resides in San Francisco and Missoula, Montana. To support her writing habit, Marian has been a teacher, a bartender, a truck driver, “chip girl” in a poker room, and the littlest logger in Lincoln, Montana, where she and Ted Kazynski were neighbors, sort of.

Of The Given World, Lorrie Moore said, “Marian Palaia has assembled a collection of restive seekers and beautifully told their stories of love and lovelessness, home and homelessness, with an emphasis on both makeshift and enduring ideas of family. It has been a long time since a first book contained this much wisdom and knowledge of the world. She is a strong, soulful, and deeply gifted writer.”

Huffington Post on 10 women who didn’t publish until they were over 40

RobinBlack2014     mira-jacob  lydia netzer

Left to right: Robin Black, Mira Jacob and Lydia Netzer

 

Today’s must-read. Kudos to RHLAOB faves Robin Black, Rachel Cantor, Mira Jacob, and Lydia Netzer! I’ve heard only good things about Marian Palaia and Claire Fuller. You all know Elizabeth Strout as the author of Olive Kitteridge, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009, and Amy and Isabelle, her debut in 1998; her latest novel is The Burgess Boys (2013).

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/10-women-authors-who-published-after-age-40-you-should-read_55d4df55e4b055a6dab2a673?eqr27qfr