Fathers’ Day favorites: 12 Novels by Women for the Men in Your Life

In honor of Fathers’ Day, I’ve compiled a list of novels by women that fathers (well, men in general, actually) should like. One of my objectives in starting this blog was to encourage men to read more fiction by women. I don’t think I’ve succeeded, but it’s a battle worth continuing to fight.

The following novels feature compelling characters  (both men and women), involving plots, a powerful sense of time and place, enough action to satisfy the typical male’s requirement that “something happens,” and that certain something that just makes me think they would appeal to guys.

Sparta cover art  Roxana-ROBINSON-2-C-David-Ignaszewski-koboy

Sparta — Roxana Robinson

Roxana Robinson’s Sparta  may well go down as the definitive depiction of the costs of war paid on the home front. In a gripping third person narrative, Robinson shadows Conrad Farrell upon his return from four years of front-line duty in Iraq. Sparta moves back and forth in time from Conrad’s tour of duty to his return home.

But the core of the story concerns his attempts to cope with PTSD, reestablish his relationships with his family, friends, and girlfriend Claire, and to reintegrate into a civilian world that he finds mystifying and occasionally even infuriating. He has left some crucial part of himself behind in Iraq and struggles to find his true self again. To an observer he appears to be the ideal American warrior specimen, but inside he is psychologically and emotionally shattered.

The last section of the book is something of a page-turning thriller, as the reader wonders what Conrad will do to solve what appear to him to be overwhelming and unsolvable difficulties. If I had to choose one novel about the experience of Iraq War veterans coming home that will still be read in 20 years — and likely considered a modern classic — it would be Sparta. It is required reading for anyone who cares about the human costs of war.

Hundred Year House paperback  Rebecca Makkai 2013

The Hundred-Year House — Rebecca Makkai

Rebecca Makkai’s sharp-witted sensibility is at work on every page of The Hundred-Year House, an entertaining and absorbing novel that combines genres into an appealing and unique hybrid. Her second novel (following 2011’s The Borrower) is a literary mystery, a multi-generational family saga, a ghost story, a portrait of several marriages, and an exploration of the creative life set in three different eras (1929, 1955, and 1999), reflected in the novel’s three sections.

It is 1999 and Doug and Zee Herriot have agreed to live in the expansive carriage house on the Chicago-area estate of Zee’s eccentric mother, Gracie Devohr, and her Y2K-obsesssed stepfather, Bruce. Zee is an English professor at the local university and Doug, currently unemployed, is researching the life of minor American poet Edwin Parfitt with plans to write a biography. What would possess a young couple to live with the wife’s parents? Well, the price is certainly right, but for Doug it’s the fact that Laurelfield was once an artists’ colony at which Parfitt was a regular guest.

Makkai has cleverly structured The Hundred-Year House in reverse, so we experience Doug’s investigation into the life of Edwin Parfitt and the estate’s past as we travel back to 1955, when the house changed from arts colony to a private residence once again, and 1929, when the colony was in its heyday. And the family’s secrets are also revealed by going back in time. Makkai juggles several plot strands with aplomb, and there are plenty of surprises in store for attentive readers who are trying to solve the mysteries of Laurelfield alongside Doug.

This is a wickedly plotted and colorfully peopled novel that makes for a completely engaging read, full of perplexing mysteries, skillfully revealed (and often twisted) explanations, and a palpable sense of time and place.

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We Are Called to Rise — Laura McBride

Laura McBride’s debut novel captures the times in which we live with a story that skillfully weaves four narrative strands into a compelling and unforgettable tapestry. Set in the neighborhoods of Las Vegas, We Are Called to Rise tells the stories of a middle-aged woman whose marriage has suddenly collapsed, an eight-year-old Albanian immigrant boy whose family is struggling culturally and economically, and a recently returned Iraq War vet with a head injury and PTSD. The fourth narrator, who appears occasionally, is a social worker who becomes a Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for the boy.

The lives of these characters intersect in a moment of violence that is shocking and yet seemingly inevitable. The second half of the book explores the aftermath of an event that has left Bashkim’s future in limbo. Although alternating narrators can sap the momentum from a novel when not done well, McBride keeps the chapters to a manageable length and never keeps a character offstage for long. As a result, the story moves at a steady, increasingly tense pace. McBride presents us with a vision of a world in which good people step forward and try to make someone’s life better, in which a “new normal” can come out of a tragedy. In which little things matter immensely.

The Tusk That Did the Damage  Tania-James-1024x682-MelissaStewartPhotography

The Tusk That Did the Damage — Tania James

Occasionally a book comes seemingly from out of nowhere to grab you by your heart and mind and leave a permanent impression behind when you’re finished. It is a masterful work that explores the various aspects of the illegal ivory trade in southern India. By combining timeless conflicts among humans and between humans and both the animal kingdom and the natural world, James has crafted a book that will hold most readers spellbound.

James uses a three-pronged narrative to provide readers with a panoramic view of life in the highlands of southern India, where elephant poaching is widespread. The first narrator we encounter is “The Elephant,” known as the Gravedigger. He was orphaned as a calf and raised to be exhibited, but his years of mistreatment have led him to escape his captors for a life of freedom and revenge. When the opportunity is presented, he kills humans and “buries” them and attempts to cover them with brush, virtually “erasing” them in the process.

Then we are introduced to the first-person narrative of a studious and ambitious young man named Manu, who has known only a life of extreme poverty and abuse as the son of a rice farmer.

The third point of view is provided by an American documentary filmmaker, Emma, who has recently graduated college and, along with her best friend, Teddy, is attempting to make a film about an Indian veterinarian who is attempting to rescue elephants calves and reunite them with their mothers (who are said to reject calves if they have had contact with humans).

Manu’s older brother Jayan is a small-time criminal who is part of a large poaching ring. Manu dreams of education as his escape from a life of few options and struggles to stay out of Jayan’s life. While nothing truly excuses the ivory poachers, we learn what drives them to destroy these incredible creatures in order to obtain their valuable tusks.

James weaves the plot strands together, turning the screw steadily toward the story’s inevitable tragedy. For The Tusk That Did the Damage is a tragedy despite the best intentions of some characters. The core of the novel is the universal conflict between idealism and pragmatism. The Tusk That Did the Damage is a short, sharp shock of a book that will leave readers with much to think about.

Friendswood  Rene Steinke

Friendswood — Rene Steinke

Rene Steinke, author of the 2005 National Book Award finalist Holy Skirts, has returned to the literary scene after nearly a decade with a timely and absorbing novel. Friendswood explores two issues that are seemingly discrete but are actually intertwined: corporate polluters turning a residential neighborhood into a toxic waste site and sexual abuse by high school athletes in a small town that worships football. In both cases, the immoral and possibly illegal behavior of privileged actors is indulged by the majority, who value economic growth and athletic prowess over questioning their way of life, the choices they make, and the cost of both.

The narrative is shared by four characters. Lee is a mother turned single-minded environmental activist when her teenage daughter Jess dies from a strange cancer. Jess’s death eventually drove Lee and her husband apart; now her life revolves around her part-time job in a doctor’s office and monitoring the adjacent property, the site of a former refinery. When she discovers that the site is belching toxins from the soil again, Lee moves from vigilant to vigilante.

Hal is a former mediocre high school athlete struggling to make a living in real estate; he is living vicariously through the athletic exploits of his son, Cully, and hoping that a recent religious rebirth will save him, his business, and his wilting marriage. Willa is a 15-year-old student with an artistic streak and an eccentric persona that doesn’t fit easily into the culture of this small town located between Houston and the Gulf. Dex is a classmate of Willa and Cully with more on his mind than just football and girls. Their lives intersect in ways they could not predict, even though readers probably can.

Time has passed since the toxic cleanup and town leaders believe part of the former refinery property is safe for new residential development. Big shot developer and former football star Avery Taft wants to bring this project to fruition, and Hal is desperate to persuade Taft to retain him for his realtor services. Lee has discovered worrisome materials during her nocturnal prowling behind the fences and attempts to alert the few influential people who are sympathetic to her unpopular obsession. Dex develops a romantic interest in Willa, as Cully begins to see her as an easily manipulated potential conquest.

Steinke grew up in the actual Friendswood, Texas, and she knows small towns and their residents well; she knows that football, religion, and the oil business are often the Holy Trinity in such places.

Kind of Kin  Rilla Askew

Kind of Kin — Rilla Askew

Kind of Kin author Rilla Askew deserves high praise for managing to explore the lives of those on both sides of the immigration issue without turning it into a one-sided screed. While Askew’s position is clear, Kind of Kin uses multiple narratives to put us inside the kaleidoscope of immigration politics at the national, state, and local levels.

The novel’s protagonist is Georgia “Sweet” Kirkendall. Her father, Bob Brown, a taciturn but respected local mainstay in the tiny town of Cedar, Oklahoma, has been arrested for harboring illegal aliens in his barn, to the surprise and disappointment of friends and family. Even more strange is the fact that he refuses to hire a lawyer or put up a defense.

His parentless grandson, 10-year-old Dustin, is forced to stay with Sweet, who is already struggling with her own son, a young bully named Carl Albert, and her husband, who works long hours out of town and has grown emotionally distant from Sweet and Carl Albert. At the same time, Luis Celayo has entered the U.S. illegally to search for his long-lost sons, who went north to work. The plot is enriched considerably by the fact that Sweet’s niece, Misty, is married to an illegal alien who has been deported but has made his way back into the country. Then Dustin disappears, and the hunt for him drives the story to its dramatic conclusion.

While on paper the plot may sound melodramatic, it does not read that way. Instead, it comes across as a realistic depiction of the many lives affected by the political decisions made on the issue of immigration and immigrants’ rights. The narrative is fast-moving, the various viewpoints are woven together smoothly and logically, and the characters act like real people, not cardboard cut-outs intended to stand in for points in a political or legal argument.

Kind of Kin is a deeply involving story whose headlong momentum makes you turn the pages faster as the novel progresses. Kind of Kin would make a great choice for book clubs, as there is much to chew on within its 400 pages of powerful prose. For everyone else, it is worthy of this high praise: It is a terrific, thought-provoking book that you won’t be able to put down or soon forget.


The Home Place — Carrie La Seur

In Carrie La Seur’s masterful debut novel, The Home Place, her protagonist, Alma Terrebonne, has done everything possible to leave her dysfunctional family and its tragic history behind in Montana. She escaped by earning a scholarship to a small college outside Philadelphia. Having distinguished herself there, she then attended Yale Law School. Now, fifteen years after the winter car accident that killed her parents and took her younger sister Vicky’s leg, Alma is a hard-charging workaholic corporate attorney in Seattle living the sophisticated urban life. She is content, or has at least persuaded herself that is the case.

But a phone call from Billings changes everything. Vicky has been found dead of exposure in one of the city’s drug-infested neighborhoods, and Alma is called home to help arrange for the funeral.  Once back in Billings, she learns the details of Vicky’s death, which generally appears accidental but which has also raised a few red flags for Detective Ray Curtis, a Crow Indian whom Alma knew in high school. With her lawyerly mind now fully engaged by a complex problem, Alma works with Curtis to dig out the truth of Vicky’s death from under its mysterious circumstances. They are both suspicious of some of Vicky’s acquaintances, who are involved in the meth manufacturing and distributing business.

While her mind is thus engaged, Alma is pulled back into the past by her family and their ancestral ranch an hour out of Billing, “the home place.” Her grandmother Maddie is still the loving and feisty white-haired matriarch, but age has caught up with her. Eleven-year-old Brittany had been living an unsettled life with Vicky and is now in need of a guardian. Matters are complicated further by a predatory coal mining company “land man” who is trying to get neighboring ranchers to sell their property.

La Seur has woven all these strands into a seamless tapestry. The Home Place is a character study of Alma’s belated coming-of-age as she faces her family’s tragic past and complicated present, a mystery that becomes increasingly suspenseful, and a love letter to the Big Sky country of southeastern Montana. In many ways, The Home Place is the type of novel I like best: literary fiction with an ethical dilemma or mystery at its core, well-written and respectful of readers’ intelligence, but warm-hearted and well-paced.


The Bees — Laline Paull

The Bees combines the best traits of a thriller, a character study, a hero’s quest, and a dystopian fantasy to powerful effect Just as Richard Adams made readers care deeply about a warren of rabbits in his 1973 classic, Watership Down (perhaps the best novel for adults featuring anthropomorphized animals), Laline Paull’s The Bees will have readers worrying about the many threats, both external and internal, to the members of one hive in an English orchard.

Flora 717 is a dutiful member of the sanitation workers, the lowest caste in the hive, when it is discovered that she can speak (the “flora kin” group is mute). For her part, Flora is deeply conflicted between her genetic predisposition to “Accept, Obey, and Serve” (the workers’ mantra) and her rational and critical mind, which causes her to question, disobey, and ultimately lead.

As she demonstrates her intelligence, bravery, and devotion to the Queen, she moves up literally and figuratively in the world of the hive. But her proximity to the Queen, the Priestesses, and the drones makes her privy to knowledge she would be better off not knowing. Before long, Flora has become a threat to the Queen in a way she could never have imagined.

Beyond its intense and exciting plot, The Bees is distinguished by its well-drawn and credible characters. On one hand, Flora is consciously reluctant to follow her own path, for nothing could be less like a bee, yet she is compelled to take certain actions, as if her mind is being controlled by a force greater than herself.

The novel’s other noteworthy accomplishment is the way Paull has seamlessly incorporated a wealth of fascinating information about bees without bogging down the narrative. Her background in screenwriting has resulted in a cinematic thriller with several scenes you are unlikely to forget. The Bees begs to be turned into a movie; the question is whether the CGI experts will dare to attempt it.

Paull has provided filmmakers with a riveting story featuring a gamut of memorable characters and a unique setting. In the meantime, readers have the opportunity to experience The Bees in the movie theater of their own mind.

Man Alive paperback 10-7-14  Mary Kay Zuravleff

Man Alive! — Mary Kay Zuravleff

We are all fascinated by the idea of a person being struck by lightning. What is the actual experience like? How harmful is it (since we know victims are not always killed)? What effects is the victim left with? Are they changed psychologically or spiritually, in addition to the physical changes? How do their families cope with such a shocking event? Or maybe I’m one of the few people who wonders about these things.

Man Alive! answers these questions with the story of psychiatrist Owen Lerner, who is struck by lightning while putting a quarter into a parking meter one inclement afternoon during his family’s summer vacation at Rehoboth Beach in Delaware.

In the weeks and months that follow, Owen recovers from his physical wounds (entry and exit points of the lightning, skin grafts for burns, etc.). But it is his psychological changes that throw the Lerner family off its axis and into a spinout. The long months of recovery wear on his wife Toni’s patience, especially the changes in Owen’s personality: the frequent space-outs, odd and even offensive comments similar to Tourette’s Syndrome, and his preoccupation with barbecuing. Owen’s relationships with college student twins Will and Ricky and 16-year-old daughter Brooke become increasingly confused and fraught with misunderstandings.  And Owen becomes his own ultimate psychiatric patient, suffering from several disorders at once.

As with any involving novel, Man Alive! is full of the conflicts large and small, profound and mundane, found in most families. But the stakes are higher. Will Owen ever fully recover and become himself again? Or is this new Owen the permanent Owen? What effect will that have on his marriage with Toni?

Zuravleff explores the characters, conflicts, and questions with sympathy and a cutting wit. She takes Owen’s predicament seriously but also finds much humor in his shifting personality and struggle to reground himself in the life he has known. The fast, snappy dialogue among the members of this smart, ambitious family provides much-needed humor to balance this serious examination of a man, a marriage, and a family. Man Alive! is an intriguing examination of the way extreme situations can utterly alter marital and family dynamics and how humans react to change both inside and outside themselves.

River of Dust  Virginia Pye

River of Dust — Virginia Pye

One of the great joys of the reading life is the ability to travel to other times and places, to experience life among other peoples and cultures. Virginia Pye’s River of Dust, though not a joyful novel, offers those pleasures in abundance. River of Dust is a character study of a man of great faith enduring a spiritual crisis, a close examination of the dynamics in a young marriage, a suspenseful missing persons story, and a jaundiced travelogue.

A few years after the Boxer Rebellion of 1898-1900, Reverend John Wesley Watson and his young wife, Grace, have been sent by the church to engage in missionary work in the small Chinese city of Fenchow-fu in the drought-stricken country northwest of Beijing. After making a name for himself building schools, roads, and a hospital, the Reverend (as he is called throughout the book) and Grace, along with their three-year-old son Wesley, move out of the missionary compound to a tumbledown house well outside of town. Before they can even move their bags into the house, a pair of Mongol bandits accosts them and kidnaps Wesley. The compelling plot of River of Dust is thus set in motion. Who are these men, why did they steal Wesley, and what do they want with him?

The Reverend becomes justifiably obsessed with hunting down the nomads and reclaiming his son. He sets out with his man, 60-year-old (but very capable) Ahcho, riding across the badlands in search of the bandits and young Wesley. Many Chinese mock the Reverend and his “Lord Jesus.” They call him “Ghost Man,” some with grudging respect, some sarcastically.

River of Dust is the story of this young couple’s encounter with a strange nation: its wide range of people, incomprehensible culture, and primitive religious superstitions. Like most imperialists, whether political or religious, the Watsons and their fellow missionaries believe they understand China and its people’s needs and that they can make a difference in their lives. They soon discover that this may not be the case. China is far more complex than they had imagined.

Pye has done a masterful job blending several elements into a story about sympathetic characters operating under the most challenging of circumstances. There is much here that will fascinate, surprise, and even shock the historically and culturally curious reader.

The Enchanted  Rene Denfeld

The Enchanted — Rene Denfeld

There are some subjects one would not imagine being interested in reading a novel about. A story concerning the prisoners in a rundown prison’s Death Row and those who work with them — the warden, a female legal investigator hired for death penalty cases, and a fallen priest — might seem to be just such a novel. But there are also some novels that are so special that they transcend their subject matter by creating a reading experience that leaves an indelible impression on one’s heart and mind.

Rene Denfeld’s The Enchanted is just such a novel. The Enchanted is an absorbing and haunting meditation about finding beauty and peace amidst unrelenting violence and heartlessness, the nature of sin and salvation, and forms of love in the most unlikely of places.

The Enchanted is narrated by an unnamed Death Row prisoner in the oldest prison in the state, a stone fortress in which the walls weep from the omnipresent Pacific Northwest moisture. The investigator, known only as “the lady,” is working on the case of another prisoner named York, whose crimes are of such an inhuman nature that they are not even mentioned by the narrator — who admits that his own crimes are so heinous that they too should never again be spoken of.  The priest is a broken man who has violated his vows and has come to the prison as both a last stop and a chance at some form of salvation. The warden is a good man doing a difficult job about which he has no qualms; some people’s crimes justify the punishment of death, but he takes no pleasure or satisfaction in seeing it carried out.

It is an irony common to much of the greatest literature that one can write about inconceivably dark, painful subjects with one’s heart, soul, and mind open to the beauty and satisfaction that can sometimes be found in such circumstances. As tragedies from Shakespeare to Arthur Miller show, one can experience catharsis and be ennobled from reading about a flawed and deeply human character’s life and their experience of death.

StationElevenNorthAmericaHiRes  Emily St. John Mandel by Dese'Rae L. Stage

Station Eleven — Emily St. John Mandel

In this spellbinding novel of a post-apocalyptic world, St. John Mandel ponders whether art can save us — or at least help us to maintain our humanity long enough to start rebuilding our world. Station Eleven won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, was a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and made the long-list for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (UK). It was also a huge bestseller, proving that thought-provoking literary fiction can be embraced by mainstream readers.

Station Eleven begins with the death of famous actor Arthur Leander during a performance of King Lear on a winter night in Toronto. EMT Jeevan Chaudhary is in the audience and attempts to save Leander, to no avail. Watching from behind a pillar onstage is eight-year-old child actress Kirstin Raymonde.

Later that night, Chaudhary receives a phone call from his friend, an ER doctor at a Toronto hospital, telling him the so-called Georgian Flu (from the former Soviet Republic) appears to have reached Canada and is worse than anyone expected. He advises Chaudhary to get out of Toronto immediately but not via the airport, since that is where the flu entered the country. In short order — dramatically and plausibly rendered by St. John Mandel — millions perish and the city goes dark. Chaudhary eventually decides to risk heading out for safer territory to the south.

The novel then begins its many shifts in time and place, moving back in time to examine Arthur Leander’s life. Then we move forward 20 years, after the flu has wiped out most of humanity, at least as far as the survivors along the west coast of Michigan know. Living in small groups, people carve out a brutal living in former towns and isolated outposts.

Moving among these locations is the Traveling Symphony, former members of the symphony combined with an acting troupe. The TS community includes Kirstin Raymonde, the child actress who was onstage with Arthur Leander the night he died. This group of artists appears to be the most democratic and socially cohesive group of survivors. Will their art be enough to salvage and maintain their humanity and bring it back to the feral people they encounter?

Station Eleven is a riveting read from start to finish. St. John Mandel’s vision of the nightmarish “end of the world” is frightening without being gory, as well as generally plausible. There is a deep thoughtfulness and measured tone to her writing that keeps Station Eleven from becoming a melodrama. The result is a haunting, heartbreaking tale of humanity brought to its knees, humbled, and then slowly able to begin creating a new world, in which they can see glimmers of light on the horizon.

Other recommended novels:

The Untold — Courtney Collins

The Gods of Gotham — Lyndsay Faye

A Guide for the Perplexed — Dara Horn

Black River — S.M. Hulse

The Moor’s Account — Laila Lalami

The Cutting Season — Attica Locke

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste — Valerie Martin

The Half Brother — Holly McCraw

Jacob’s Folly — Rebecca Miller

The Goldfinch — Donna Tartt


“What My High School Reading List Taught Me About Women”

I missed this piece when it was published in August. Author Mary Kay Zuravleff posted a link to it on her Facebook page this morning, and I think it needs to be read as widely as possible, so I’m sharing it here to keep it moving along.

Natalie Howlett’s essay, published on the Feminspire website, is must-reading for those who care about literature and women, especially young women. As a high school English teacher, I realize that we need to choose books for our curriculum with more thought about the messages our choices send and the effects they can have.

We have the opportunity to show young women that writing by women matters, that their lives matter. And we have the chance to send a message to young men that books by women are not just about women and for women, but that women have as much to say as men about important subjects, including men’s lives. Perhaps we will eventually be able to effect a change in men’s reading habits. Considering the huge role women play in the lives of men, we ought to be paying more attention to what women artists of all kinds have to say.


MAN ALIVE! explores the life-changing effects of a lightning strike

In honor of today’s publication of the softcover edition of Man Alive!, I am re-posting my review from February 2014.

Man Alive paperback 10-7-14

Man Alive!

By Mary Kay Zuravleff

Picador: Oct. 7, 2014

304 pages, $16.00

We are all fascinated by the idea of a person being struck by lightning. What is the actual experience like? How harmful is it (since we know victims are not always killed)? What effects is the victim left with? Are they changed psychologically or spiritually, in addition to the physical changes? How do their families cope with such a shocking event? Or maybe I’m one of the few people who wonders about these things.

Man Alive! answers these questions with the story of psychiatrist Owen Lerner, who is struck by lightning while putting a quarter into a parking meter one inclement afternoon during his family’s summer vacation at Rehoboth Beach in Delaware. One minute the family is about to get something to eat, and the next, Lerner is flying through the air and landing flat on his back on the sidewalk.

In the weeks and months that follow, Owen recovers from his physical wounds (entry and exit points of the lightning, skin grafts for burns, etc.). But it is his psychological changes that throw the Lerner family off its axis and into a spinout. The long months of recovery wear on his wife Toni’s patience, especially the changes in Owen’s personality: the frequent space-outs, odd and even offensive comments similar to Tourette’s Syndrome, and his preoccupation with barbecuing. Owen’s relationships with college student twins Will and Ricky and 16-year-old daughter Brooke become increasingly confused and fraught with misunderstandings.  And Owen becomes his own ultimate psychiatric patient, suffering from several disorders at once.

As with any involving novel, Man Alive! is full of the conflicts large and small, profound and mundane, found in most families. But the stakes are higher. Will Owen ever fully recover and become himself again? Or is this new Owen the permanent Owen? What effect will that have on his marriage with Toni? What happens when the man you love is still there, right in front of you, apparently the same man he has long been, and yet he is not at all the same? Toni alternates between caring for and about Owen and being philosophical about their circumstances specifically and the role of accidents and health issues in the wider world. Driving home one day, Toni “loops through neighborhoods of oversize homes and early Bethesda cottages, knowing than mansion and rambler alike hold life-threatening illnesses, precarious finances, or the simply syrup of unhappiness that is part of every family recipe.” She is “as contrary as a magnet: some days, she clings to his side, full of love and gratitude; others, she’s repulsed by him.”

Zuravleff explores the characters, conflicts, and questions with sympathy and a cutting wit. She describes Fitzgerald High School in Bethesda-Chevy Chase on Back to School Night: “Banners in the atrium advertise the school clubs, from Nerdvana Tutoring and Home the Helpless to Gluten Free to Be You and Me. Ricky edited Great Scott!, the school’s literary journal, with Mr. Holt, and he was in Infinite Jesters, a math club.”

She takes Owen’s predicament seriously but also finds much humor in his shifting personality and struggle to reground himself in the life he has known. While in the hospital, he struggles to walk on his damaged left foot while wheeling along his monitors and bags of fluid. “His body has been divided up among the many specialists,” writes Zuravleff, “each of whom gets a bodily function, limb, or organ. Some of them get his machines, which give off the green, green graphs of home.”

The fast, snappy dialogue among the members of this smart, ambitious family provides much-needed humor to balance this serious examination of a man, a marriage, and a family. Readers get to know Owen and Toni intimately, for better and worse, as they are not always the most likeable or sympathetic characters; they are like real people, frustratingly unpredictable and multi-faceted. One of the pleasant surprises of this book is the realistic marital sex scenes; it’s nice to see a long-married couple engaged in spirited bouts of love-making that are both very sexual and crucial to keeping their relationship glued together.

Man Alive! is a character study of an eccentric and prickly couple struggling to overcome especially challenging circumstances. While the cleverness of the writing occasionally gets in the way of the narrative by reminding the reader how smart and funny Zuravleff is, it is an intriguing examination of the way extreme situations can utterly alter marital and family dynamics and how humans react to change both inside and outside themselves.

Guest blogger Mary Kay Zuravleff: Out of the mouths of teen daughters oft come literary gems

Mary Kay Zuravleff

Who wants to join a year-long class to revise their novels? Optimistic that if I build it, they will come, I spent yesterday drafting a course description and syllabus. Of course, I also spent the day with my teenager and in a freelance consultation on a memoir and trying to learn Excel and and and. When the dog needed a walk, I decided we all needed one, and I did what all mothers do, which is everything at once. Any more, I’m not even sure I could do one thing at a time.

The dog was no help, but the daughter—oh, the daughter was magnificent. Our topic was short novels that my hypothetical class could not only read but also dissect. To better understand their own novels, we would isolate all the working parts of a few good books, starting with the first line. Generally speaking, the entire book is in the first line. The entire book is also in the point of view, verb tense, structure, plot and subplot, characters, language, and ending. Come to think of it, I should probably be teaching a course called Mapping the Novel Genome.

Eliza and I took turns urging Zelda along—the dog is twelve now and it’s 90 degrees here, so putting one paw in front of another is something of a chore. Meanwhile, my daughter started listing short books for my consideration. “What about To Kill a Mockingbird?” That was her opening suggestion! Most excellent idea and daughter. I’d been wanting to reread Harper Lee’s masterpiece, which in addition to being short is also a first novel. And not only that, many first novelists gravitate to that structure: an adult looking back on a traumatic childhood experience.

Next up: “Or Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Everyone’s already read it, probably.” Another gem. It’s enlightening to take apart a well-constructed book that has made it to the top of everyone’s list and to revisit technically a book you read for pleasure. All that and humor too—really, it was a great idea. Maria Semple uses quirkiness to serve her plot, which is rarer than you might think. So many writers confuse imagination with outlandishness. As with everything else, there needs to be a reason that a character has two heads or that gravity no longer works in your fictional universe.

I was still playing out the joys of Bernadette when Eliza said, “What about that book about the girl growing up in the South? It’s on the bookshelf by your computer.”

That bookshelf is for some of my favorites. “Ellen Foster?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “I read that.”

So I was doing something right. Ellen Foster, like To Kill a Mockingbird, is also a first novel, and there’s reason to believe that if either were released today, it would be classified young adult. The winning voice that Kaye Gibbons conjures for Ellen Foster and the character’s clear quest—to get herself adopted and to be rid of her dad—could well-serve a revising writer. I still remember the malaproprisms Gibbons invented for Ellen: her dying mother suffered from “romantic” rather than rheumatic fever as a child, which underscored not only the mother’s weak heart but also her horrific marriage.

The hits just kept coming: The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I chimed in with Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Unlike the first three suggestions, which Eliza had read, these were books on her wish list. Now they were on mine, too. I was only planning on choosing three novels, and if you haven’t noticed by now, every single book she proposed was written by a woman. To be fair, she’d recommended Animal Farm and Fahrenheit 451, great short novels, which I’d rejected because I wanted to stick with realism, and I’d suggested The Great Gatsby, which she rejected because she didn’t like it. Did I need to find a novel written by a man because it was written by a man? Frankly, I’m always paying attention to keeping my lists balanced—I serve as one of the curators of the PEN/Faulkner Reading Series, which aims for a diverse and thrilling mix of writers. Eliza didn’t think it was important, and certainly literary journals, national newspapers, and writing conferences don’t break a sweat including a representative number of women.

Which is why I was surprised at her final suggestion. “What about a Terry Pratchett book—any one of them.”

Here was the only proposal that didn’t fit. Pratchett writes long, clever fantasy novels, and our entire dog walk we’d been discussing the need for short, realistic books. That’s when I remembered her surprise when she discovered that Terry Pratchett was a man’s name. Back then she’d told me that he wrote so well, she’d assumed he was a woman.

Mary Kay Zuravleff is the author of Man Alive! (FSG, 2013), named a 2013 Notable Book by the Washington Post, which called it “a family novel for smart people.” She is also the author of The Bowl Is Already Broken and The Frequency of Souls, which won the American Academy’s Rosenthal Award and the James Jones First Novel Award. Mary Kay serves on the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, and she is cofounder of D.C. Women Writers. www.mkzuravleff.com


A conversation with KIND OF KIN author Rilla Askew: Turning issues into great fiction

Rilla Askew  Kind of Kin  Kind of Kin paperback

I recently reviewed Oklahoma-based writer Rilla Askew’s powerful 2013 novel, Kind of Kin, on the publication of the paperback version (since the hardcover came out in Jan. 2013, before this blog existed).  http://wp.me/p3EtWm-80  I had the opportunity to speak with her several times recently and we finally managed to have a conversation “on the record” for Read Her Like an Open Book. She is so smart, so articulate, so passionate, and so down-to-earth that I both respect her immensely and like her a hell of a lot. She’s good people, the best that Oklahoma has to offer.

As you read her responses, you will see that she is a natural — and gifted — storyteller, an explainer par excellence. While this might be the longest interview I’ve posted, I think it reads the fastest because Rilla is a compelling writer and speaker. You just have to listen to her. If you haven’t read Kind of Kin, I encourage you to do so in the strongest possible terms. It is an important book that doesn’t fall prey to the polemical indulgences and heavy-handedness of most serious, contemporary issue-oriented novels. It is first and foremost a terrific story, well-told.

We discussed the influence of Oklahoma on her writing, the inspiration for Kind of Kin and the process of writing it, her reading life and the authors who have inspired and influenced her, and the growth of book clubs, author appearances, and social media and their impact on writers and publishing.

You were born and raised in Oklahoma and still live there. It seems to be in your heart and soul and thus in all your writing (as Mississippi was with Faulkner). What about your home state speaks to you and demands that you tells its stories?

In my heart and soul, yes. That’s a perfect way to put it. The pull of Oklahoma is so powerful to me—the harshness and beauty of the landscape; the fierce wind, sky, weather; its complex, violent, and paradoxical history; and the disparate cultures that have come together here all make for an inexhaustible source. Like Faulkner and his little postage stamp of native soil, I’ll never exhaust it. I moved to New York thirty years ago, and my husband and I still divide our time between Oklahoma and the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, but Oklahoma is always “home” in the truest gut-level sense.

In particular it is Oklahoma’s race history that grips me. I see the state’s narrative as a microcosm of the larger American story, distilled, transmogrified into a more intense, compelling, and in some ways grotesque version of itself. From the tragedy of the Trail of Tears, when Native peoples were forced here from their homelands in the 1830s, to the dramatic Land Runs of the 1880s, to the great oil boom and Tulsa Race Riot of the early 1920s to the mass exodus of poor whites during the Great Depression, Oklahoma’s story, like America’s, has been one of migration, restlessness, land hunger, violence, decency, deception, faith. It’s also the story of the coming together of America’s three founding races, Black, White, and Indian, and the resulting clash and cohesion of that narrative underpins all my work.

What motivated you to take on the issue of illegal immigration in Kind of Kin? Were you writing out of anger, frustration, disappointment, or some other emotion(s)?

These same themes, Oklahoma as microcosm, have continued into the twenty-first century as the state’s Hispanic population grew. In 2007 the Oklahoma legislature passed what was then the harshest anti-illegal immigration law in the nation. (This was three years before Arizona passed their SB 1070 that received so much national attention.) I’d written Fire in Beulah about the Tulsa Race Riot, and I knew well that it was not just individual racism and prejudice that led to that horrific conflagration, when some 10,000 whites stormed into the Black section of Tulsa and burned it to the ground, killing an untold number of people, though the best guess is around 300. It was also legislation, laws passed by the state, that targeted a specific group—specifically the laws of racial segregation which were the very first laws passed by Oklahoma’s new legislature as soon as it became a state. The racial prejudice carried into Indian Territory by white southerners was encoded into law by Oklahoma lawmakers. And this new immigration law, HB 1804, was designed to target Hispanics, there’s really no other way to interpret it, and indeed there was a great exodus of Hispanics from the state soon after it went into effect because of the climate of fear the law produced.

Then too, I was raised strongly Southern Baptist in Oklahoma and know well how the dominant culture here considers itself Christian. This is especially true of many state lawmakers. Yet they had passed with large majorities in both houses this law that could and would target families and individuals. The law made it a felony to harbor or transport undocumented immigrants—essentially made it a felony to be our brother’s keeper, to be a good Samaritan, to do the things that Jesus taught. Irony is not even quite a sufficient word for that.

And finally, my niece was married to an undocumented Mexican man who got stopped by Tulsa police for a driving infraction, was held for immigration, and deported. I saw personally what happens to children when their daddy is there one day and vanished the next, what happens to spouses, to families.

So I had a sociopolitical worldview, a spiritual worldview, and a personal family experience, all of which forged my opinion of the law itself. I hadn’t thought I’d write a novel about it, though. I just thought somebody should. I kept saying to friends: you should write about this. Somebody should write about this.

Then one morning in February 2008 I woke up with Dustin’s voice in my head, quoting his Aunt Sweet, saying: “Your granddaddy is a felon. He’s a felon and a Christian. He’s a felon because he’s a Christian.”

And the work unfolded from there.

I was particularly impressed by the seamless way you wove a contentious social, political, and economic issue into a complex and compelling family drama. The story never turns into a polemic; the focus is always on the very human characters and their dilemmas. As a writer with a strong socio-political bent, how do you combine the two strands?

One of my favorite novels is Richard Wright’s Native Son. In the early part of the novel, where we stay with Bigger’s story, live his fear and rage, his powerlessness and violence, the myriad ways he is buffeted and stressed by America’s race history, I’m moved as a reader, and I understand on the powerful, experiential level that fiction affords much more than I can articulate, not only about Bigger himself , through Bigger, and it’s in this way, that, as Flannery O’Connor said, the best stories resist paraphrase.

But in the later chapters, when the novel becomes a mouthpiece for Wright’s political views, the fiction fails. As a reader, I lose interest. The human story is diminished, Wright’s ideas take precedence, and the book devolves into a polemic. This could be said of some of the other great writers of that era as well, and because I do hold strong political and peace-and-justice views, I’ve tried to watch out for that in my work.

I have heard from a very few readers—usually those with a more conservative worldview—that they do find Kind of Kin to be one-sided. One Goodreads reviewer said the Christians and immigrants are all good and the lawmakers and law enforcement are all bad. I had certainly hoped I was offering a bit more nuance than that, though I’ll confess it is true that I use the sheriff’s blustering for comic effect. (But then nothing Arvin Holloway does is as outrageous or harmful as a certain Arizona sheriff I could name.)

I wanted to speak to the fact that immigration is a deeply complicated issue, with no simple solution, but no doubt my personal feelings bleed through. Still, I tried not to make it a polemic, and the book certainly doesn’t purport to offer any answers. It simply says that human beings are affected, families are affected, little children are affected by laws that lawmakers make.

Can you describe your writing process, from the genesis of the book’s theme or concept through writing and revising? Who, if anyone, reads your earlier drafts? Do you belong to a writers’ group?

A novel for me always begins with the ‘thing’ I want to write about: Oklahoma’s immigration law in Kind of Kin, the Tulsa Race Riot in Fire in Beulah, the dispossessed and downtrodden during the Great Depression in Harpsong.  Usually the thing I want to write about also determines place and era. Next come the characters whose story I’m going to tell. Then I start researching and drafting the novel.

I go to the library in whatever place I’m writing about and look at microfilm files of newspapers and periodicals for the period. A lot of the details of everyday life in Harpsong came from my parents, who grew up during the 1930’s. I’ve been listening to their stories of the Depression all my life! I drive around the landscapes I’m writing about. I buy books and books and books related to the subject and time and place, and I immerse myself in all kinds of things—politics of the era, newspaper ads showing what they wore and how much they paid for bread or washing powder.  For Kind of Kin I spent a lot of time at the capitol in Oklahoma City learning how the Oklahoma legislature works. Sometimes the research itself leads me to story elements, and sometimes what I’m writing in the story tells me what I need to research and find out about.

It takes me a long time to draft a novel, and I do an incredible amount of revising as I go along. I wish I could write a looser first draft and then go back to revise the whole thing, but the fact is, if I’m not happy with the language on a sentence by sentence level, I can’t go forward. I just have to keep honing and shaping the language to make it right. Thus it takes me three to five years to write a novel.

I have four primary readers. My husband Paul Austin reads the work as I’m drafting it. Often I’ll show him pages or even paragraphs as they’re finished, and he gives me excellent feedback, especially in terms of dramaturgy and character motivation, because he’s an actor and director and all-around man of the theatre, so he knows well how conflict and rising action and climax and character intentions work.  My sister Ruth Brelsford reads passages in larger chunks, but still in early draft forms. She doesn’t give me feedback but serves as that reader out there waiting to hear the story, waiting to find out what happens next. She helps me keep the narrative moving.

When I have a completed or nearly completed draft I share it with my friends Constance Squires and Steve Garrison in Edmond, Oklahoma. They’re fiction writers, teachers of writing, and long, long time friends. They both have such deep knowledge of how fiction works and a keen sense of my work, my intentions, and they also know Oklahoma well and true.

The four of us exchange work on an ongoing basis, Connie and Steve and Paul and me. My husband is a writer, too—primarily of plays, poems, and essays. We work together as a foursome, sitting around the living room, three of us giving feedback to the fourth on a full draft of a novel or play or story. We’ve been doing this for over a decade. It’s the closest thing to a writing group I have.

What did you think when Odyssey Bookshop in Massachusetts selected Kind of Kin as its First Edition Club book for January 2013? (That is how I discovered the book immediately after its publication.) What was that experience like? How do you like author appearances and book signings generally?

Most novelists know about Odyssey’s First Edition Club, but I’d had a bit of firsthand knowledge of that wonderful independent bookstore, too, from when I taught at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2001. Although Amherst has some of the best bookstores around, I still drove over to South Hadley when I could just to enjoy the atmosphere at Odyssey and peruse the shelves. So it felt like a very special honor when I learned that Kin had been selected for the First Edition Book Club. It was a delight to travel there from Oklahoma and sign so many copies that I knew would go out in the world to unknown places (like Bakersfield!) and unknown readers (like Bill Wolfe!). It was also a pleasure to meet readers, listeners, who came out on a snowy frigid night in January to hear me read. At least one writer who came that night has become a Facebook friend, and we saw each other recently at the AWP conference in Seattle.

I always have a good time at author appearances and signings, whether the gathering is small or large. I enjoy reading for audiences because it satisfies the old actor in me, but above all, I like meeting with readers. You know we work in such solitude, and we send the story out there without knowing how it’s received, a message in a bottle. Yes, we do get to know what some readers think through Amazon or Goodreads reviews, but many readers do what I do with a book—simply read and savor and experience and never contact the author to say, “This meant something to me.” So I’m especially grateful for readers like you who not only read and savor but write about and share.

I really love the opportunities I’ve had to talk with readers—whether at signing events or meeting with book groups. It’s a delight to me to engage with that third party in the magic of fiction, to talk with the great imaginer, our partner in this endeavor: the reader. There’s first the author and second the characters, and third and most-important, the reader, without whom the writer and characters are nothing.

I’m very aware that the full life of the work happens precisely one reader at a time. If I’m doing my job right, the reader feels engaged not with me but with the characters, that lived life of the mind, the imagination. When I get to meet someone who says, “This story meant something to me, these characters engaged me,” I’m moved and happy.

Are there any plans to turn Kind of Kin into a movie? It seems very cinematic to me. And there are certainly a lot of great roles in it that would be perfect for a strong ensemble cast. I could see Alexander Payne doing a nice, understated job bringing it to the big screen (rather than having someone with more commercial sensibilities turn it into a melodrama).

Ah, I wish, I wish. More than one reader has commented on the cinematic nature of both Kind of Kin and Fire in Beulah, but I’ve not had any filmmakers approach me yet.  Your idea about Alexander Payne is a terrific one. I’d love to see what he would do with Kind of Kin.

What is your take on the recent gender equity issues in publishing and media coverage of literature? How can we get more men to read fiction by women?

These are good questions, and I’d like to have some helpful thoughts to offer, but alas, I don’t. I recognize that there is gender bias, and I’m sure I’ve been on the receiving end of it from time to time (there are some reviewers, in particular, I could name), but it’s not something I spend a lot of energy on—largely, I think, because I hardly have enough time and energy to get my own work done.

This is one reason I’m so grateful to people like you who do pay attention, and who declare, as you do with your blog and other articles, that women writers are worthy to be read! The fact is, I think one of the best ways to get men to read more fiction by women is exactly what you do on a daily basis, which is read and review it, and also to point out how much they don’t.

Has the tremendous growth of book groups and book blogs had an impact on your book sales or your experience as an author who is “out of the spotlight” in Oklahoma?

I’ve had delightful experiences with book groups. I visit them every chance I get, whether in person or by Skype or by answering their questions via email. Whether the growth of book groups and book blogs has had an impact on sales for me, though, I really don’t know. This is another one of those areas I probably should pay more attention to but don’t. All I know is that I enjoy book clubs tremendously when I get the chance to join them, and that your blog, in particular, has been a great boon to my spirits. I guess sales results remain to be seen.

What authors have had the greatest impact on you as a reader and/or writer? Why? What classic or favorite novel would you like to put in every reader’s hands?

In the beginning it was the great Southern white writers who most influenced me—Faulkner, as you may have surmised, and Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers. The next wave of influence was the powerful mid-century African-American writers whose work changed America itself, American letters, and, once I began to read them, my entire understanding of the world: Richard Wright, yes, and that great Oklahoma-bred author Ralph Ellison, and most significant for me, James Baldwin. A number of American Indian writers have also had a profound influence on me, especially Joy Harjo, Joe Dale Tate Nevaquaya, and Sherman Alexie.

Classic works that I would put in every reader’s hands would be Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, James Baldwin’s two collections of essays Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time, and his remarkable, utterly moving story “Sonny’s Blues.”  

What have you read in the last year or so that really made an impression on you? Who deserves more attention? Are there any “young” writers you’re especially impressed by?

Ben Fountain’s fabulous collection of short fiction Close Encounters With Che Guevara stunned me with its force, its fierce intelligence, its powerful reminder that the U.S. is not the center of the world. I was captivated by Louise Erdrich’s The Round House—for me, it was the kind of reading experience where the characters stay resonating with me all day as I go about my ordinary life, and I can’t wait to get back to them when it’s time to go to bed and read at night.

Two books that came out in 2013 that I completely loved, that are written by friends of mine, and that, though they have received good attention, deserve even more of the world’s notice are Man Alive! by Mary Kay Zuravleff and The Virgins by Pamela Erens. Though they are very different novels (the former being about a child psychiatrist being struck by lightning and the latter a novel about a transgressive love affair in an elite boarding school), they share a wicked, knowing, language-drenched intelligence that makes me savor every sentence even as I’m carried along with these complex characters in a story that keeps me wanting to know what happens next. I encourage your readers to check these writers out!

I would also encourage readers to check out the writer Constance Squires. Her first novel Along the Watchtower came out in 2011, a wonderful coming of age story about an ‘army brat’ growing up in Germany and Oklahoma, and her short fiction appears regularly in a variety of journals. She’s a friend of mine, yes, but she’s also a writer to watch!

What are you working on now? Do you write short stories or essays while you’re working on a novel? What do you like about both the long and short forms? Will you try the YA market like so many other authors have in recent years?

I have two novels brewing, but just now they are both on a back burner, and they’re both so nascent that I’m hesitant to talk much about them, except to say that one is set in the Cherokee Nation around Tahlequah, Oklahoma, during the 1970’s, and the other is set in Tudor England during the reign of Henry VIII—a bit of range there. I don’t in fact know if either of them will turn out to be the next novel, in terms of what comes out next. Some other story may nudge its way to the fore, as Kind of Kin did.

I can’t work on other things while I’m at work on a novel. I’m a slow writer and I need full immersion in the era and characters and material of the longer works, so I just have to stay with it. But because I’m teaching just now and doing lots of travel, I’m not ready to go into the deep immersion a novel requires, so I’ve been working on shorter pieces—primarily nonfiction. I’ve had a couple of essays appear in recent months, one  about rattlesnakes in Tin House and one about tornadoes in TriQuarterly. Good ol’ Oklahoma subjects. I’ve just finished a piece on racial profiling, ways I’ve seen that phenomenon play out in my godson’s family, which I hope will appear somewhere before long.

By instinct and habit and reading passions, I’m most essentially a novelist, but I do like writing essays. I haven’t tried my hand at stories much in recent years, although that’s where I began as a writer, and my first book, Strange Business, was a collection of short stories. I have trouble narrowing my focus to the sharp focus short fiction requires, have difficulty making it about this moment in a character’s life, this distilled essence. I always want to make it about too many things. I admire the masters of short fiction and love to read them, but it’s not a natural fit for me. My latest story, “Ritual,” published in a recent issue of St. Katherine’s Review, came in at 10,000 words—that’s pretty long for a short story.

I doubt I’ll try the Young Adult market, though I’d never say never about anything having to do with writing. But I seldom read YA books, don’t think I have a natural feel for it—though the YA lovers in my life, my goddaughters and nieces and nephews, keep me apprised of what’s happening. You never know.

What is your daily routine, both in terms of writing and your “regular” life? In other words, what’s a day in the life of Rilla Askew like? What are your non-writing interests and activities?

Just now I’m teaching at the University of Arkansas and am traveling a lot between Fayetteville and southeastern Oklahoma, where Paul and I have a home and my parents live. With so much driving and teaching, that’s about all I’m doing just now. But the semester will be finished in May and we’ll return to the Catskills, where Paul operates the Liberty Free Theatre. I’ll get back in the writing groove, and frankly, when I’m working on a book, that’s about all I do. As someone (Jane Austen? Virginia Woolf?) once said: “A writer wants an uneventful life.” Has to be so, at least for me, otherwise I have no space in my head for the work. So the simplest answer to ‘What’s a day in the life like?’ is this: not much.

I try to get up very early to write, and I stay with it as long as I can (I’ll have to give myself a self-imposed timeout from Facebook come May!), and when the day’s work is finished, I walk two miles on our country road. If Paul has a play running, I’ll go see that in the evening, or visit with friends, or read. When I’m doing research for a novel, much of my reading is not for pleasure but really directed toward the work. We don’t have regular television but do have Netflix via the internet so sometimes I’ll watch shows in the evening, but I know I do better to read.

That’s it, that’s the rhythm: rise early, write, walk, read. Oh, and eat, of course, and do laundry, and all the ordinary things, but it probably looks pretty boring from the outside. The routine is interspersed with trips to Brooklyn to see my godchildren or into Manhattan to see plays or go to readings or trips to Oklahoma to see family and friends. A good life, if unglamorous—or anyhow, it suits me.