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.

WILLFUL DISREGARD a potent Swedish novel that takes a psychological scalpel to romantic delusions

Willful Disregard

Willful Disregard

By Lena Andersson

Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death

Other Press: Feb. 2, 2016 (paperback original)

$15.95, 196 pages

 

Lena Andersson is a well-known newspaper columnist, social commentator, and novelist in Sweden. Willful Disregard, her fifth novel and winner of Sweden’s highest literary honor, the August Prize, is her first book to be published in the U.S., and it is an impressive introduction to a writer with keen insight into love in both its universal characteristics and its modern trappings.

Andersson probes the mind of thirty-one-year-old journalist Ester Nilsson, who becomes infatuated with artist Hugo Rask when she is asked to write an in-depth profile of the semi-legendary older man. From their first interview, they seem to be intellectual kindred spirits, and Ester is entranced.

Over the following weeks they meet for meals or drinks and their long conversations about art, philosophy, and culture continue. Ester is smitten and believes Rask returns at least some of her affection despite the relationship’s platonic nature. It appears he is involved with another woman, at least in some fashion. Ester is so enamored of Rask and so convinced that her future lies with him that she leaves her long-term boyfriend. Undoubtedly, Ester reasons, Rask is disengaging from his other commitment as well. Ester hangs on Rask’s every word, gesture, and action, obsessively analyzing each for its true meaning with regard to his feelings and their burgeoning relationship. She squeezes impossibly rose-colored interpretations out of the most minor of words and deeds.

Andersson proceeds to probe Ester’s thoughts and emotions with laser-like intensity. The ruthlessly unsentimental narrator sees through Ester’s pretensions and rationalizations into her true motives, flawed thinking, and overwhelming need to “only connect.” In doing so, Andersson has written one of the most accurate explorations of the self-deception and madness of new love that I have ever encountered. In that sense, it reminds me of Scott Spencer’s brilliant Endless Love (although her prose style is tersely analytical where his is richly nuanced and Romantic).

In fact, if there is a writer Andersson puts me in mind of, it is Elena Ferrante. As with the Italian novelist behind The Neapolitan Quartet that begins with My Brilliant Friend, the writing is distinguished by a fierce and unrelenting psychological dissection of every character and relationship. But Andersson also displays a sharp wit and the ability to find the bittersweet humor in most situations. I can’t recall the last book in which I was tempted to highlight so many pithy lines of description and explanation.

A few examples should suffice.

At one point, Ester awaits Hugo’s call, which is not forthcoming. “She had to occupy herself with something while waiting for her life to start. She looked at the phone. Perhaps she had it on silent by mistake? No. No one had called, and no text message had arrived unnoticed. She rang herself from her landline to check her mobile was working. Sent herself a text. Everything worked as it should.” Later that day, the narrator notes, “It was three o’clock and he had not called. She had coffee in a cafe and an extra-large pastry with it, on account of the situation.” Both observations are bitterly true, full of pathos, and from a distance, undeniably funny.

When Ester believes Rask has lied to her, she sends him a ferocious text message. “It was a highly condensed communication, as strained as dread and panic become when they conceal themselves behind haughtiness. Its tone exuded contempt rooted in self-respect. It was a message you could cut yourself on. And she censured him with all the justification of the scorned.” [I’ll pause to allow you a moment of recognition.]

Not surprisingly, Rask pulls away in response. When, later, she and Rask discuss this situation, Ester discovers that his view of their relationship, and relationships in general, differs significantly from hers. Her naivete is astonishing for someone her age, who is clearly not inexperienced in matters of the heart. Is she simply irrational about love despite being coolly rational about everything else? Is this her first great infatuation? True love? Or does her delusion rise to the level of mental illness? (For the record, this is not “Fatal Attraction” territory.)

Is it so strange that “[S]he chewed endlessly over what had happened, with herself and with anyone who would listen, going through what she could have done differently at such-and-such a time or on such-and-such an occasion, if only she had known things would turn out as they had”?

When Ester has no choice but to conclude that the “relationship” is over, she suffers intensely. “Grief cannot remain acute indefinitely,” the narrator informs us. “It soon gets moved to the day ward and the rehabilitation clinic. Ester anaesthetized herself with company and people she would not have spent time with had she been harmonious rather than half dead. She did everything in her power to avoid being alone with herself…She was not stoical but in shreds, totally frayed.”

Although Andersson never introduces Ester’s friends individually, she makes effective and drily humorous use of them as a background character. “The girlfriend chorus was kept very busy. It interpreted, comforted, soothed, exhorted and indicated new directions of travel. She had to break free, it said, and she repeated: I’ve got to break free from this idiocy.”

A brief encounter with Rask months later rekindles her not quite extinguished hope. She decides to call him. “She was ringing because the itch was back, the malarial love itch that is always latent once it has invaded the cell system, lying ready to break out at any time.” This is exactly right. We have all been there, male and female alike.

Andersson perhaps puts this concept best when the narrator observes that “everything in existence wants to live, and hope is no exception. It is a parasite. It lives and thrives on the most innocent of tissue. Its survival lies in a well-developed ability to ignore everything that is not favourable to its growth while pouncing on anything that feed it and help it to live on.”

While Ester Nilsson is uniquely flawed and misguided in love, she is often Everywoman, at least as far as I can tell from observation and experience. I suspect that most readers will experience conflicting emotions when they read Willful Disregard. They will think, This woman is crazy. She is nothing like me! I would never do that! Mere pages later they will think, Oh my God, I’ve done that! That is so true. What was I thinking?

As I read Willful Disregard, my reactions ranged from cringing and shaking my head in disbelief, to laughing and nodding my head in agreement — all in recognition of its essential truth. Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones) sums up this cherry bomb of a novel best when she says, “Willful Disregard is a story of the heart written with bracing intellectual rigor. It is a stunner, pure and simple.”