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.

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MOTHERS AND OTHER STRANGERS a suspenseful study of a fraught mother-daughter relationship

Mothers and Other Strangers

By Gina Sorell

Prospect Park Books: May 2, 2017

$16, 314 pages

It’s not unusual for adult children to become estranged from their parents. Sometimes it’s a psychological and emotional necessity, other times it’s simply the result of unfortunate events or misunderstandings. As the old saying goes, we don’t get to choose our family, and there’s no guarantee we will like each other, particularly as time goes on and we build separate lives.

Gina Sorell’s debut novel, Mothers and Other Strangers, explores this fraught territory with compelling results. It is a complex family drama, a dual (and dueling) character study, and a suspenseful mystery all in 300 pages.

Elsie is 39 and an ex-dancer living in Los Angeles when she learns that her mother, Rachel, has passed away at home in Toronto. More than just physical distance separates them; they have not spoken in two decades. Rachel, it turns out, is what we used to call “a real piece of work.” She is a mean-spirited narcissist concerned with how she appears to others and following her own spiritual muse around the world. She is not interested in being a mother, even though her husband passed away when Elsie was an infant. So, Elsie grows up seeking her mother’s attention and approval, but receiving little of either, and ultimately doing her best to raise herself.

When Elsie returns to Toronto to sort through her mother’s belongings and tie up the loose ends of her life, she finds that little has changed in her apartment in a luxury highrise building, and that her mother did not appear to be the wealthy woman her lifestyle had always suggested she was. What happened in the last 20 years? Did it involve her devoted membership in The Seekers, a “new-agey” spiritual group based in Paris, and her obsession with their charismatic founder, Philippe? When someone breaks into the apartment and turns it upside down looking for something – although it’s clear to Elsie there is nothing of value in the apartment of this elderly woman – she begins to suspect that her mother had led a different life than she’d thought.

Elsie’s return to Toronto forces her to examine a past she’d long quarantined, and the structure of Mothers and Other Strangers moves back and forth in time to reveal Elsie’s life, increasing the mystery and tension as the plot progresses. How did a child born in South Africa end up being raised in Canada? What really happened to her father? Why does she have nightmares involving a house fire and a black caretaker? Why did her mother view the Seekers as her family instead of Elsie? Why couldn’t her mother love her?

As Elsie peels back the layers of her mother’s life, she confronts her own traumas and the resulting demons that continue to follow her. Little is as it seemed to either the younger Elsie or the divorced adult Elsie. Mothers and Other Strangers could have been written as a straight suspense novel or as a close study of an exceptionally difficult mother-daughter relationship. Instead, Sorrel has combined the two to generally good effect, although it occasionally makes for odd pacing. For example, just as the enigma of Rachel’s life becomes particularly intriguing, we are taken back to Elsie’s teenage years as a gifted dancer who steadily establishes her independence from a mother who is absent physically and emotionally. Both aspects of the story are compelling, but one makes you turn the pages faster, and readers can become greedy about a complex, thought-provoking plot. Wait! What happens next?! Why? How? No!

Suffice to say (no spoilers here!), Elsie moves back through her mother’s life, to Paris and on to South Africa, to discover her many secrets, including the one that had proven the most impervious of all: Why was Rachel the person — and mother — she was? By the end, she has changed from a mystifying and heartbreaking stranger into a flawed young woman fleeing her own tragedies and attempting to build a life for her daughter and herself. Elsie learns, as do we all, that who we are is a direct result of our parents’ character and choices, and that they are, like us, deeply imperfect people.

Eavesdropping: Michelle Brafman on how Bertrand “Ray” Farkas taught her the power of listening

Kittner_20140916_4310This election season is bringing out the worst in all of us, myself included. I’ve laughed at photos of Trump’s face superimposed on a horse’s ass and gleefully pored over the precise words Melania stole from Michelle. I’ve scream-ranted about Trump’s xenophobia, fat-shaming, and misogyny and have diagnosed him with a slew of mental disorders I’ve pinched from the DSM-5. I’ve done this all in front of my children, undermining years of effort to teach them how to see the gray in the world and in people, something I value deeply as a mother, writer, and human being.

The incessant candidate bashing hurts my ears and my heart. I want the shouting and the hating to stop. I also want my mentor, the late Bertrand “Ray” Farkas, back.

I recently had dinner with Ray’s daughter, and we agreed that her father, an Emmy Award-winning television producer for NBC and numerous other programmers, would be having a field day with this election if he were alive to see it. Without question Ray would have dined out on the memes and jokes and feared the potential of a Trump presidency.

Ray also would have put aside his personal feelings to do what he did best. Listen. From very far away. Ray’s approach to television news was unique and often copied by other producers, sound technicians, and photojournalists. Here is how his bio described his work: “He believed in conversations — not interviews, eavesdropping — not intruding, no lights, and keeping the camera far away from his subjects. He was devoted to time, place and context — little things, not big things, that television can do better than any other medium. But seldom does.”

I picked Ray as my mentor when I was a television producer, but he taught me as much, if not more, about writing. He implored me to pay attention, always, and to listen to silences, where Grace Paley said “little truths growl.”

ray-farkas-photo-by-bob-burgess

Ray removed himself from the conversation in order to record people talking to one another. He did so by attaching wireless mics to his subjects, sitting them down at a diner booth or park bench, and setting up his camera yards away. He used long lenses and a foreground composition (his email address was Foreground@aol.com). These shots were not only visually interesting, but they gave the viewer the sense that he/she was eavesdropping on a private discussion.

Eavesdropping is a writer’s lifeblood and demands a different kind of listening, a subtle craning of the neck, a curiosity about a conversation that’s just out of our reach, a commitment to closing our mouths and opening our ears. This trait was Ray’s calling card as well. He never shoved a mic in someone’s face, ever, and not because he wasn’t aggressive in his desire to tell a story. Ray captured some of the most tender moments in U.S. history: the aftermath of 9/11, the unveiling of the Vietnam Memorial, and numerous others.

In “Interviews 50 cents,” (a magazine series featured on ABC, PBS, and Slate V), Ray teamed up with former NPR journalist Alex Chadwick and traveled the country setting up interview stands.

Ray and Alex shared the belief that everyone has a story: a Key West man negotiating his life with AIDS, an ex-con musing about his future at the Indiana State Fair, and myriad participants who plunked down two quarters to unburden themselves. I learned how to listen for such stories, which led me to write my own imaginary ones, culminating in Bertrand Court, my book of linked narratives about the kind of characters who might have popped up at one of Ray’s interview stands.

If Ray were alive, one of the networks would have called him to produce a series on the election, maybe because one of his disciples, an idealistic, slightly offbeat, producer like myself would have made it happen. He collected us like stamps. He would have meandered over to a diner, ten or so miles and a whole universe away from Capitol Hill. He would have drummed up both a Trump and a Hillary supporter, not politicos, but mechanics, teachers, or insurance salesmen, people who are fed up enough to want change and passionate enough to think that one of these candidates will give it to them.

Ray would mic them, place a ketchup bottle in the foreground, and set up his camera outside the diner. The light would be fading, and they’d talk, forgetting that he was sitting outside with a headset, both blissed out by their expression of honesty and scared by the unbridled fear and anger that is guiding this race. And there would be no mics waved in anyone’s face.

Ray would thank these people and arrange another such pairing. And after a long exhilarating day of shooting, he would call it a night. The next day he would go through his footage and tweeze the most genuine and raw moments and mix them with the natural sounds of the cash register, the fryer, and a Springsteen anthem on the jukebox. He’d find an editor to piece all the elements together, exactly to his satisfaction, and the final product, shot through the haze of a pro-mist filter, would contain no shred of sentimentality.

Merely watching one of Ray’s pieces would remind us to put our mics down and listen with the rapt curiosity of an eavesdropper. We’d reenter the conversation with more civility. And we’d be much prouder of who we are, once the yelling finally stops.


Michelle Brafman is the author of the novels Washing the Dead (2015) and Bertrand Court (2016) (both published by Prospect Park Books). Her writing has appeared in Slate, Tablet, Lilith, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the minnesota review, and elsewhere. She teaches fiction writing at the Johns Hopkins MA in Writing Program and lives in Glen Echo, Maryland with her husband and two children.
Photo of Ray Farkas by Bob Burgess