Five Worthwhile Books You May Have Missed (Part 1 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’ll be publishing a series of three posts in which I share some books that are worth your valuable reading time. Today, we’ll start with three novels, a short story collection, and a novel-in-stories from the U.S., Australia, and Sweden.


The Virginity of Famous Men: Stories

By Christine Sneed

Bloomsbury, 2016

Christine Sneed is an astute observer of contemporary life, as she demonstrated in her debut collection, Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, and her 2015 novel, Paris, He Said, which dissected a complicated May-December relationship. In her latest collection, she probes the contrast between expectation and reality, and the many ways in which we fool ourselves about who we are, what we want, and the choices we make. The characters in these stories are flawed but recognizably human and they earn our compassion. And while Sneed exposes the truth about them, she clearly feels empathy for their all-too-familiar struggles. Small but irrevocable actions occur and lives are changed.

The opening “Beach Vacation” captures a mother-son relationship in a moment of transition, as the mother realizes her high school senior son is no longer the boy she adored but instead has become a young man she doesn’t recognize. Every decision involves a battle of wills. He keeps secrets from her. He treats her with indifference or disdain.

When she discovers him by the hotel pool, talking to a bikini-clad older woman, it hits her. “When had it happened? she wondered. When had he become a boy who felt that his mother did nothing but limit him, that she lived only to hold him back, to keep him from experiencing the things adults claimed as their inalienable right? He wanted sex, possibly love, and he was determined to have them, whether she wanted him to or not.”

Sneed takes a metaphysical and drily humorous tack in “Roger Weber Would Like to Stay,” in which vaguely dissatisfied 39-year-old Merilee is visited regularly by a debonair ghost — a former concert pianist — who offers observations on her thoughts and desires, as well as critiques of her pleasant but dull year-long relationship with a divorced accountant. There is a hint of Shirley Jackson-style darkness as Merilee attempts to figure out what is real and what is not, and more importantly, whether she is sane.

What really stands out in this collection is the range of Sneed’s content and style. “The All-New, True CV” shows off her skills in biting social commentary and satire. “The Prettiest Girls” follows a location scout to Mexico, where he encounters an aspiring actress who views him as a ticket to stardom. “Clear Conscience” immerses readers in a family drama centered on a particularly thorny ethical dilemma. The title story revisits the protagonist from Sneed’s debut novel, Little Known Facts, as he labors under the weight of his actor father’s legend and persona.

Sneed’s stories are serious and shaded, as if sketched with charcoal, but they move quickly, highlighted by her realistic dialogue and frequent insights into the human heart.


The Golden Age

By Joan London

Europa Editions, 2016

Joan London is a highly regarded author in her home of Australia. She deserves to be better known everywhere else. She has a gift for depicting both character and place, and her prose style is uncluttered yet elegant. In her latest novel, The Golden Age, she examines the polio epidemic that began in 1949 and continued for a decade.

Twelve-year-old Frank Gold, a recent immigrant to Perth from Hungary, is sent to the children’s hospital of the title to recover, and there he befriends another patient, Elsa Briggs. They keep up each other’s spirits through the vicissitudes of the dread disease and its various treatments, including the iron lung. The Golden Age is also the story of their parents, who cope with their children’s illness and life in Australia in varying ways. Frank’s mother was a famous pianist in Budapest and remains in denial that their life is in uncultured Western Australia now. His father, Meyer, is a hard-working delivery man who is grateful for the second chance Australia has given him and his family, and he intends to adapt and thrive, whatever the cost. Elsa’s mother, a perfectionist, struggles to accept that Elsa will not be the daughter she wants. Her attentions shift to Elsa’s siblings, making Frank’s friendship ever more valuable. The director of The Golden Age, Sister Penny, serves as a bridge between parents and their sick children, and her relationship with one parent becomes particularly important. Though dedicated to her charges, she has her own vulnerabilities.

This is an absorbing and deeply compassionate novel by an author who deserves a much wider audience. When you read it, you will see why it won the Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, The Patrick White Literary Award, The Queensland Literary Award for Fiction, and The New South Wales Premier’s People’s Choice Award.


Bertrand Court

By Michelle Brafman

Prospect Park Books, 2016

Just coincidentally, Bertrand Court is another book with a distinctly Jewish sensibility. Brafman’s novel-in-stories immerses us in the lives of the suburban Washington, D.C. street’s residents and their relatives and business partners. She combines old-fashioned character-based storytelling with a raft of compelling contemporary issues that move the plots along crisply.

At the center of the book are the intermarried Solonsky and Weiss families, whose lives are a tangled host of vines climbing up the family tree. We start in the early-to-mid 1990s, where we meet the three Solonsky siblings: Hannah, who is pregnant again after struggling with miscarriages in her effort to conceive a third child (“Baby #5” narrates the opening story) and whose husband, Danny Weiss, has his hands full; Eric, whose intermarriage to Maggie presents complications when their first child is born; and Amy, the family free spirit who might be ready to settle down. The Solonsky grandmothers, Goldie and Sylvia, have had a close but fraught relationship; Brafman moves back to the 1930s to reveal what set their conflicts in motion, as well as to introduce a family heirloom that plays a key role many decades later.

Two caveats: 1) There is a lot of Jewish culture here (but not much Judaism per se), so non-Jews may find some of the stories both somewhat confusing and potentially informative. But it is not central to the conflicts, which are universal and thus very recognizable. 2) This is really more of an interconnected series of stories than a novel, so there is a lot of variation in time, place, and circumstance, and the book doesn’t wrap up as neatly as one would expect in a traditional novel.

Bertrand Court is a family melodrama elevated by its social and psychological concerns and Brafman’s sensitive characterizations of complex and flawed humans.


Quicksand

By Malin Persson Giolito

Translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles

Other Press, 2016

Before becoming a writer, Malin Persson Giolito was a lawyer with the largest firm in Scandinavia and an official with the European Commission in Belgium. Quicksand, her fourth novel but her first translated into English, is a riveting and disturbing read, an indictment of modern Swedish society, from childrearing and education to immigration and the justice system.

Eighteen-year-old Maja Norberg has been in jail for nine months, awaiting trial for her part in a massacre at her high school that left her boyfriend and best friend dead. Quicksand is superficially a courtroom drama, but that is just the access point for Persson Giolito to explore the circumstances that led the outstanding student from a good family to a series of decisions that have made her a pariah across Sweden. Quicksand reminded me of the controversial 2007 murder case of American foreign exchange student Amanda Knox and two recent novels loosely based on her experiences, Cartwheel by Jennifer DuBois and Abroad by Katie Crouch.

Quicksand stands out for several reasons: Maja’s absorbing (and self-absorbed) narration, the ruthless psychological portrayal of the main characters, the crisp and realistic dialogue, and Persson Giolito’s incisive analytical powers. You will tear through this 495-page “case study” with the single-minded intensity that only the best novels produce. And it will give you much to ponder in the weeks and months after you have read it.


The Book of Esther

By Emily Barton

Tim Duggan Books/Crown, 2016

While dystopian fiction is all the rage now, there is something to be said for “alternative history” fiction, too. These speculative novels ask the “what if?” questions we all wonder about or, in some cases, pose questions that have never occurred to most of us but are intriguing and thought-provoking.

Emily Barton imagines an alternative 1942, in which a nation of warrior Jews called the Khazars exists between Germania and the city of Stalingrad, both literally and figuratively. The story is set in motion when Germania invades Khazaria, and Esther, the daughter of a high-ranking government official flees across the steppe to find a legendary village of kabbalists who can turn her into a man. She believes this is the only way she will be able to persuade her people that the invaders don’t just mean war, they seek the elimination of the Khazars, and to lead them into battle for their very existence.

The Book of Esther is a multi-genre hybrid fiction that is equal parts speculative, historical, literary, and feminist. This is a polarizing novel that, more than most, can only be judged in the reading, not from a synopsis like this. While not everything she attempts is successful (it rarely is in this type of novel), she deserves credit for her inventive creative vision.

Psychotherapist Lisa Gornick’s LOUISA MEETS BEAR is a complex and memorable novel-in-stories

Louisa Meets Bear  Lisa Gornick -- Sigrid Estrada

Louisa Meets Bear

By Lisa Gornick

Picador: July 12, 2016

320 pages, $16.00

Lisa Gornick is rapidly staking a claim to being one of our best writers. With her last novel, Tinderbox (2013), and now this collection of linked stories, she has served notice that she is a writer of consequence. Gornick’s background as a psychotherapist educated at Princeton, Yale, and Columbia has provided her with piercing insight into a range of recognizably flawed and very human characters, and she has used this skill to good effect in Louisa Meets Bear.

Each story can stand alone as an elegant character study distinguished by well-chosen telling details, but together these ten pieces combine forces to become a novel exploring the lives of Louisa, William “Bear” Callahan, and the friends, lovers, and family members who move in and out of their complex lives over a period of 25 years and across North America and Europe.

The opening story, “Instructions to Participant,” concerns a re-entry student majoring in social work as she conducts her first home visit, which goes awry in a particularly heartbreaking way. The story is narrated by her daughter, Lizzy, who is Louisa’s cousin. She becomes pregnant in college and decides to give her baby girl up for adoption. The two seemingly unrelated plot strands turns out to be closely connected. This story will haunt you long after you finish the book.

The title story and the closing “Nate in Bed” are unusual in that they are written in second person. In the first, Louisa looks back and addresses Bear, her on-again, off-again boyfriend in college and grad school, as she tries to make sense of their love-hate relationship. In the latter, Louisa is the mother of a 16-year-old boy, Nate, whose recent missteps she is trying to understand so she can guide him forward. In the hands of a lesser writer, these two stories might be awkward and artistically unsuccessful, yet Gornick writes with impressive command of her characters, stories, and prose.

We encounter Louisa  again as she learns the truth about her parents’ marriage and her mother’s death in a car accident (“Lion Eats Cheetah Eats Weasel Eats Mouse”). In “Misto,” we catch up with the daughter Lizzy gave up, Brianna, who is now sixteen years old and on vacation in Venice with her adoptive parents, Richard, a lawyer, and Lena, a hospital administrator. Two important people from their past, Richard’s old college roommate and Lena’s dying father, haunt their present as they try to figure out their next steps in these fraught relationships.

“Priest Pond,” set on Prince Edward Island (part of Canada’s maritime provinces) and the Upper West Side, is the best story Alice Munro never wrote. Charlotte McPherson, a lonely and depressed mother from rural PEI, drives her pickup truck to New York City in an attempt to find her long-incommunicado son, Eric. She has the name and address of someone who might know his whereabouts and is praying that this person can help her. Dr. Rendell is much more than Charlotte expected and knows far more than where Eric might be; she knows he is a different kind of young man than his mother believes.

The penultimate story, “Barberini Princess,” explores the relationship between a therapist and the Colombian immigrant who cleans her office each Saturday; they rarely see each other, yet they have inadvertently found a place in each other’s lives in a most unexpected way. That’s one of the noteworthy traits of these stories; they are not predictable. In particular, you will never see the end of the novel coming.

While a few of the stories (“Priest Pond,” “Raya in Rapahu,” “Barberini Princess”) don’t quite fit into the “novel” concept, they don’t interrupt the overarching narrative because they feature similar settings and themes. They are also among the strongest selections in Louisa Meets Bear‘s novel-in-stories.

If you appreciate intelligent fiction intended for grown-ups, Louisa Meets Bear is a book worth reading (as are Tinderbox and A Private Sorcery). This is a mostly somber collection, but there are moments of laughter, love, and quiet contentment that capture universal experiences. Other readers may not yet be familiar with Lisa Gornick, but you should not hesitate to experience the intellectual and emotional satisfaction that can be found in her writing.

LOUISA MEETS BEAR is an impressive novel-in-stories that follows family and friends across 25 years and two continents

Louisa Meets Bear  Lisa Gornick by Sigrid Estrada

Louisa Meets Bear

By Lisa Gornick

Sarah Crichton Books/FS&G: June 9, 2015

304 pages, $26.00

Lisa Gornick is rapidly staking a claim to being one of our best writers. With her last novel, Tinderbox (2013), and now this collection of linked stories, she has served notice that she is a writer of consequence. Gornick’s background as a psychotherapist educated at Princeton, Yale, and Columbia has provided her with piercing insight into a range of recognizably flawed and very human characters, and she has used this skill to good effect in Louisa Meets Bear.

Each story can stand alone as an elegant character study distinguished by well-chosen telling details, but together these ten pieces combine forces to become a novel exploring the lives of Louisa, William “Bear” Callahan, and the friends, lovers, and family members who move in and out of their complex lives over a period of 25 years and across North America and Europe.

The opening story, “Instructions to Participant,” concerns a re-entry student majoring in social work as she conducts her first home visit, which goes awry in a particularly heartbreaking way. The story is narrated by her daughter, Lizzy, who is Louisa’s cousin. She becomes pregnant in college and decides to give her baby girl up for adoption. The two seemingly unrelated plot strands turns out to be closely connected. This story will haunt you long after you finish the book.

The title story and the closing “Nate in Bed” are unusual in that they are written in second person. In the first, Louisa looks back and addresses Bear, her on-again, off-again boyfriend in college and grad school, as she tries to make sense of their love-hate relationship. In the latter, Louisa is the mother of a 16-year-old boy, Nate, whose recent missteps she is trying to understand so she can guide him forward. In the hands of a lesser writer, these two stories might be awkward and artistically unsuccessful, yet Gornick writes with impressive command of her characters, stories, and prose.

We encounter Louisa  again as she learns the truth about her parents’ marriage and her mother’s death in a car accident (“Lion Eats Cheetah Eats Weasel Eats Mouse”). In “Misto,” we catch up with the daughter Lizzy gave up, Brianna, who is now sixteen years old and on vacation in Venice with her adoptive parents, Richard, a lawyer, and Lena, a hospital administrator. Two important people from their past, Richard’s old college roommate and Lena’s dying father, haunt their present as they try to figure out their next steps in these fraught relationships.

“Priest Pond,” set on Prince Edward Island (part of Canada’s maritime provinces) and the Upper West Side, is the best story Alice Munro never wrote. Charlotte McPherson, a lonely and depressed mother from rural PEI, drives her pickup truck to New York City in an attempt to find her long-incommunicado son, Eric. She has the name and address of someone who might know his whereabouts and is praying that this person can help her. Dr. Rendell is much more than Charlotte expected and knows far more than where Eric might be; she knows he is a different kind of young man than his mother believes.

The penultimate story, “Barberini Princess,” explores the relationship between a therapist and the Colombian immigrant who cleans her office each Saturday; they rarely see each other, yet they have inadvertently found a place in each other’s lives in a most unexpected way. That’s one of the noteworthy traits of these stories; they are not predictable. In particular, you will never see the end of the novel coming.

While a few of the stories (“Priest Pond,” “Raya in Rapahu,” “Barberini Princess”) don’t quite fit into the “novel” concept, they don’t interrupt the overarching narrative because they feature similar settings and themes. They are also among the strongest selections in Louisa Meets Bear‘s novel-in-stories.

If you appreciate intelligent fiction intended for grown-ups, Louisa Meets Bear is a book worth reading (as are Tinderbox and A Private Sorcery). This is a mostly somber collection, but there are moments of laughter, love, and quiet contentment that capture universal experiences. Other readers may not yet be familiar with Lisa Gornick, but you should not hesitate to experience the intellectual and emotional satisfaction that can be found in her writing.

Untranslatable: Writing Fiction in the Garden of Uncertainty — Or: Being uncertain is a quality that writers cultivate

Laura Long.public.Maine  Out of Peel Tree 2

By Laura Long

The artist is at home in the wilderness of uncertainty; you might say we cultivate a garden there. “I dwell in uncertainty,” Emily Dickinson wrote. Flannery O’Connor said the only experience a fiction writer needs is a childhood, and I suspect the baffled elements of a childhood are particularly good seeds. For example, when I was small, I obsessively wondered who my parents were before I was born. They rarely spoke about the past. Adult reticence, in general, shocked me. How could a person drive across the country, or go to war and back, or have survived the Great Depression, and have almost nothing to say about it? Now I know adults were busy with all the things that fill adult brains, and I was on a different wavelength. I was in love with the magic carpet ride of fairy tales. I thought adults had taken journeys and refused to share their stories. I imagined they kept the stories inside, like secret books only they could open.

So when one of my parents happened to sing, I listened intently to detect evidence of their past lives, which I was sure was present in their minds like a palimpsest of old paint colors on a wall, almost visible beneath the thin veneer of the present day. My mother sang a love song, but it wasn’t for my dad–who was it for? My dad sang a song about fishing, “You get a line, I’ll get a pole, we’ll go fishing at the crawdad hole. . . ” but when had he ever gone fishing? Silly questions. After a while–by the time I was in fourth grade and rational–I knew these were “just songs.” But in a way they weren’t “just” songs, because they came from a sense of pleasure and ease  and desire that was specific to the singer. The grain of the singer’s voice seemed to hold a secret key to personality and history. Singing conveyed an unspoken essence, almost a personal perfume.

*

For me, writing fiction has remained akin to wondering about those songs, about how to tell stories that are somehow unspeakable. These days, we expect to find answers easily and clearly. Students need to know this? Test them. You don’t know? Google it. Who is that person? She’s on Facebook. It can be a defiant decision to let yourself have questions and experiences that make you feel lost, that make you aware of losing your bearings. You don’t know how to Tweet this wittily? You might be onto a story.

Writing fiction can feel like poring over words that aren’t translated into my usual English. In my visits to Scotland, where my sister lives, walking in the rain, and ducking in and out of it, is part of the texture of everyday life. Scots have many expressions for rain; “smirr” is a mist; “dreich” is a cold, miserable day when the rain is “coming down in stair rods”; to “skoosh” is to spurt, such as rain gurgling out of the downspout. These shift into metaphors: a misty “smirr” is a passing fancy; “dreich” describes a wretchedly boring person; “skoosh” is a spurt of anything, such as a spritz of perfume, or a squirt of lemon into a drink, which leads to “skoosh” as a Scottish word for lemonade. (“A glass of skoosh, please. I’ll sit outside, there’s just a wee smirr. Glad it isn’t dreich like yesterday.”)

Writing fiction entails trying to get the frame of mind of characters, the mesh of a person and the world they live in. A writer dreams into the texture of a character’s felt life, their consciousness. Suppose a character named Myra lived and died in Edinburgh; that’s the  basic plot–life happens. The writer wonders: what in Myra’s life is smirr, is dreich, is skoosh? That is, who drifts through in the smirr of Myra’s half-remembered dream; what dreich drags her down; and what skooshes, swooshes, and surprises Myra?

Writing fiction often feels like being being smack-dab in the middle of the mess of life. But somewhere in the mess is what matters. We read to see how a story gives shape to and makes sense of the mess. For example, how to describe a person realizing that he is not special, that any meanness the world dishes out might happen to him, indiscriminately? In War and Peace, young Nikolai Rostov is running away from a skirmish and realizes that a French soldier is about to kill him. “Me, whom everyone is so fond of?” he thinks, astonished. Death could happen to me?

To me, the best fiction describes the almost-indescribable. It asks questions more compellingly than it gives answers. In his timeless essay “Not Knowing,” Donald Barthelme writes, “Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult, but because it wishes to be art. . . what we are looking for is the as-yet unspeakable, the as-yet unspoken.”

*

My recent book Out of Peel Tree is a novel in stories, a delightfully flexible form. There’s an overall family saga, and most of the chapters can stand alone as stories. A few of the longer stories took years to write. The material would not take the shape of fiction easily, but these messy stories breathed down my neck (rather huffily and rudely sometimes), hummed in my ear, demanded completion. I often felt I was writing a fictional poem because I wanted to get to some essence of what words can’t say. I sought what poets may call the sublime, what transcends the ordinary, but my characters had to go through the muck of life to get there. They had to deal with each other, unlike the speakers in poems, who may address another but don’t really have to mess with them.

Here are some questions my characters asked: A child wonders, who was my mother when she was a teenager? A man on parole wonders, how can I stay close to my new lover, when I still feel the bars of the prison cell in my head? An old woman wonders, if I move to a new apartment, will the comforting ghost of my husband accompany  me? A woman wonders, now that my fiancé has cancer and I don’t want to marry him, how do I tell him? The stories don’t answer the questions so much as investigate the territory of the uncertainty.

I would like to write a book about creative writing just so I can have a chapter in the middle that consists of blank pages. The chapter title would be: This is where no one can tell  you what to do. There is no path through the snowy woods or the strange city. You figure out some big part of writing on your own–and keep doing so. I don’t know why certain characters with murky questions kept nagging me. But they did, so I tried to give shape to some passages in their lives, articulate a story implied by a haunting tune.

Laura Long’s first novel is Out of Peel Tree [my review], and her two poetry collections are The Eye of Caroline Herschel: A Life in Poems and Imagine a Door. She has published in many magazines, such as Southern Review, and been awarded Barthelme, Michener, and Virginia Center for Creative Arts (VCCA) Fellowships. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia and teaches at Lynchburg College and in the low-residency MFA Program at West Virginia Wesleyan. She is working on her second novel.