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.

Christine Sneed on Rachel Cusk’s OUTLINE: A master class in voice, tone, insight

Christine Sneed -- Adam Tinkham Rachel Cusk Outline

By Christine Sneed

Rachel Cusk, where have you been all my life?

Admittedly, that’s a ridiculous question because she’s been on the planet a few years longer than I have and has nine or ten well-regarded books to her name, some of them winners of or finalists for prestigious prizes.  If I’d been paying closer attention, reading more reviews or browsing more adventurously in bookstores, I would have known to pick up one of her novels or memoirs before last winter.

It was after looking over the New York Times Book Review’s list of the 2015 ten best books of the year list that I bought a copy of Rachel Cusk’s most recent book, Outline.  I read it in two days, but many readers might finish it in a few hours; I had to resist the urge to read it quickly, and I kept thinking that here was a book I’d have to assign to one of my writing classes, even if assigning a cherished book often ends in disappointment—the response from students is rarely what I’m hoping for.  Reading might be a solitary activity, but it is lodged so firmly in community—both the real and the imagined.   When I read a book I love, I want everyone I know to read it and love it too.

Cusk’s ability to establish an almost hypnotic intimacy with the reader was one quality that immediately drew me into Outline, as was the voice of the first-person narrator, which manages, somehow, to seem both detached and confiding.  Outline is also often very funny; the humor that characterizes many of the observations and exchanges throughout the book is skillfully deadpan.

The main character, an Englishwoman who travels to Athens to teach a summer writing workshop, has recently gone through a divorce and is the mother of two small children who are back at home in England. Their pull—both the children’s and the divorce’s—on the narrator’s consciousness is one of the many undercurrents that heighten the book’s feeling of suspense and immediacy, though Outline is not a thriller in any traditional sense.

As the many incandescent review excerpts featured on the dust jacket of the FSG hardcover edition of Outline attest, it is a book that defies categorization.  As Julie Myerson stated in her review for The Observer, “This has to be one of the oddest, most breathtakingly original and unsettling books I’ve read in a long time…Outline is a triumph of attitude and daring, a masterclass in tone.”

The novel is organized into ten chapters, each featuring an extended conversation between the narrator and another character, sometimes more than one.  Characters are often in transit—on a plane, in a speedboat, on foot, and the book’s own narrative momentum is, in a sense, mirrored by the characters’.

As I read Outline, W.G. Sebald’s novels frequently came to mind—also difficult to categorize (due most especially to their merging of historical fact, autobiography, and fiction).  Austerlitz and The Emigrants in particular were in my thoughts, but all of Sebald’s books feature journeys of some kind.  Other similarities between Outline and Sebald’s work that I noted were the restlessness and enquiring tone of the often-displaced narrators, the melancholy, despite the subtle flashes of humor, and the ghostly, just-off-stage presence of the author.

After finishing Outline, I read Cusk’s 2012 memoir about her divorce, Aftermath, which I’d heard from a friend was the subject of some controversy upon its publication—Cusk was excoriated by critics for invading her family’s privacy (she and her ex-husband have two young daughters) and predictably, for narcissism.  Despite knowing from Outline that Cusk writes with restraint and wasn’t likely to resort to melodrama, I was curious to see if Aftermath would deliver any incendiary or salacious details about the author’s divorce.

I’ll put it this way, if I’d been assigned to review Aftermath, my one complaint would have been about the very restraint I so admire in her writing.  By the end, I wasn’t sure why Cusk and her husband decided to divorce, except for what in a general way must account for most, if not all, divorces: as with any of our most intimate and formative relationships, outside forces inevitably arrive and exert hostile pressure, and eventually, it changes us, along with the terms of our relationships, despite any attempts we might make to protect them.


Photo of Christine Sneed: Adam Tinkham

 

“AmWriting” — Chrissy Kolaya talks with Christine Sneed and Alison Umminger about the challenges of the writing life

A huge thank you to Read Her Like an Open Book for giving me a chance to talk with two writers I deeply admire and think of as my literary big sisters, Alison Umminger and Christine Sneed. — Chrissy Kolaya

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Chrissy Kolaya is a poet and fiction writer. Her work has been included in the anthologies New Sudden Fiction (Norton),  Fiction on a Stick (Milkweed Editions), and Stone, River, Sky: An Anthology of Georgia Poems, as well as in a number of literary journals. She teaches writing at the University of Minnesota Morris, where she’s one of the co-founders of the Prairie Gate Literary Festival. Her first novel, Charmed Particles, was published by Dzanc Books in November 2015. [Read my review here.]

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Alison Umminger is a professor of English at the University of West Georgia.  Her short fiction has won the Lawrence Foundation award from Prairie Schooner, and been published in numerous journals.  American Girls is her first novel.

Christine Sneed -- Adam Tinkham
Christine Sneed‘s stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, Massachusetts Review, The Southern Review, New England Review, Greensboro Review, Pleiades, and a number of other publications.  She is the author of the novels Paris, He Said and Little Known Facts, and the story collections Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry and The Virginity of Famous Men. She lives in Evanston, Illinois and teaches for the graduate creative writing programs at Northwestern University and Regis University in Denver.

CK: Would you each tell us about your new book?


American Girls
Alison: American Girls is about a 15-year-old who steals her mom’s credit card and runs away to L.A., where she researches the Manson girls, hangs out on a television set with her sister’s boyfriend, and becomes a little less shitty than she was at the start of the novel. It’s low on plot and heavy on voice/atmosphere, and I originally conceived it as a kind of love letter to Los Angeles.

The Virginity of Famous Men

Christine: The Virginity of Famous Men, my forthcoming short story collection, will be out in mid-September. In “Beach Vacation,” a mother realizes that her popular and coddled teenaged son has become someone she has difficulty relating to, let alone loving with the same maternal fervor that once was second nature to her.

In “The Prettiest Girls,” a location scout for a Hollywood film studio falls in love with a young Mexican woman who is more in love with the idea of stardom than with this older American man who takes her with him back to California. “Clear Conscience” focuses on the themes of family loyalty, divorce, motherhood, and whether “doing the right thing” is, in fact, always the right thing to do. The title story, “The Virginity of Famous Men,” explores family and fortune and picks up a year and a half after Little Known Facts, my second book, left off.

CK: California looms large in both of these books! I’m curious about the idea of revisiting your own literary territory as Christine does in her title story. Christine, would you talk a bit about the experience of returning to these characters? What are some of the challenges and rewards?

Christine: It was a lot of fun to imagine my characters from Little Known Facts a year and a half after where that book ends. A few people had asked if I was going to write a sequel to this novel, and I don’t have plans to – other than this short story. I guess the challenge of writing about them now is whether or not I remain faithful to the tone of that novel and portray them in a believable way. I hope I succeeded. The reward was that I again had a good time writing about fame and its effects on the relatives of the famous.

CK: One of the things I find especially encouraging about the writing world is the work writers do to build and maintain vibrant and supportive literary communities, both in person and online. What are some of the most inspiring/creative things you’ve seen others do to build literary community?

Christine: I love that on Twitter there are hashtags devoted to reading picks, e.g. #fridayreads and #amreading, which I think can generate a lot of buzz for many authors.

In Chicago, where I live, there are more than 50 “live lit” series, one of which I used to help direct and curate, Sunday Salon Chicago. Due to the number of reading series in any given week here, so many writers are able to read new work, sell books, meet other writers, and in some cases, create lasting friendships and working relationships.

There’s a lot of support for writers in this city, in general, and also, quite a few independent bookstores with staff devoted to promoting the books of local authors. Much hand-selling goes on, and I think more and more writers and publishers see this as a key factor in a book’s success.

Alison: I think some of the online communities (the functional ones) are pretty amazing for sharing information and encouraging folks along the way. The NaNoWriMo is pretty awesome for getting folks motivated in the midst of their busy lives — and I love hearing about some of the mini-retreats that groups of writers arrange for working collectively, with a team atmosphere. Writing can be so lonely and isolating, and yet I think a certain amount of feedback along the way is essential.

CK: What are you most proud of doing to build and maintain literary community?

Christine: As mentioned above, I helped to organize Sunday Salon Chicago for two years, which was a labor of love for everyone involved. Like many recurring reading series, my co-organizers and I couldn’t pay our readers; we didn’t charge admission for the readings, in order to reach the widest audience possible, and we weren’t paid for our work either.

On my website, I also do Q and As with writer friends who are promoting new books. It’s a lot of fun, and it helps get the word out to a few more people who are likely to pick up these titles and share them with friends, too.

Alison: Well, I feel like I am part of a “little writing group that could” that includes Maggie Mitchell and one other member — three of us worked on novels together, and two have made their way into the world since our group’s inception. I also joined a group called the Sweet Sixteens this year, made up of hundreds of folks with debut YA and MG novels. I’m mid-way through reading sixteen debut novels, and that’s been a wonderful way for me to get to know other YA writers.

CK: Alison, did you always imagine yourself writing for a young adult audience or has your audience changed throughout your writing career?

My agent had been telling me for years to try YA, but I have a lot of trouble thinking of books in terms of genre. I happen to love writing books about younger characters, because adolescence is so intense and so many things happen for the first time. I feel like Anna’s story happily fits what YA is right now, and I’m thrilled to be part of the lively and diverse YA community.

CK: In the razzle-dazzle of book promotion, it can seem to readers and emerging writers as if you must be one of the lucky few who’ve won the talent-and-good-fortune lottery. What were some moments of struggle for you along the way, and what advice can you share with writers who find themselves reading this while in the midst of one of those challenging moments?

Alison: Well, the distance from my “I want to be a writer” moment to a hardback with my name on the spine was 23 years, so I’d say I’m a walking advertisement for persistence. I wrote a literary novel before this one that was rejected by at least 40 publishers, many of whom genuinely liked it but saw no larger market for the book. That still kind of breaks my heart, but the marketing aspect of books is very real, and I think writers need to be realistic about what that means. I’ve had students who are very talented, but very niche writers, and I encourage them to look for smaller presses and not be discouraged if agents aren’t lining up at their doors.

Christine: I think you have to learn to manage your expectations when it comes to a book’s sales and reviews – i.e., how many copies will sell and how positive the reviews will be (provided you get reviews, which certainly isn’t a given, especially with mass market periodicals).

You can never predict what will happen, as obvious as that sounds. I wish it were easier to earn a steady living from writing, but it’s extremely difficult, and I keep reminding myself of something my friend and fellow writer Karen Brown said recently: “The next book!” as in, the next book will be the one that breaks through in a way that will allow you to stop having to scramble so much for teaching work and other paying gigs and permit you to focus more on your writing.

CK: What advice would you give your younger writing self?

Alison: Your real life is pretty separate from and far more important than your work, so don’t put so much value on being a published writer. And enjoy the process of writing the book — that’s the real fun part.

Christine: As I said earlier, learn to manage your expectations. No book’s trajectory can be predicted. The writing has to be the focus, always.

CK: What’s next for each of you? 

Christine: I’m working on a new novel and a little bit of nonfiction and short fiction. In the fall, I’ll be doing some readings in Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin to promote The Virginity of Famous Men.

Alison: I’m working on another YA novel, also a realistic contemporary piece. It’s very early in the drafting process, so I’m trying to stick with it even though the book isn’t exactly talking to me right now. Pants to the chair method, as my dissertation director so wisely once told me.

CK: I love to root for the underdog. What’s a book or author that you’d like to see more folks fall in love with?

Christine: Zoe Zolbrod’s memoir The Telling is an excellent book that I recently read that was published in May by an independent Chicago press, Curbside Splendor. I loved Alison’s book too – American Girls (UK: My Favorite Manson Girl). I hope it finds readers far and wide. And your novel, Chrissy, Charmed Particles.

Alison: In terms of YA, I just loved Devil and the Bluebird by Jennifer Mason-Black, and I’m super excited for the brilliant Dana Johnson’s story collection, In the Not Quite Dark, which is out this month. She’s one of the best short story writers out there, and I hope this finds its way onto lots of reading lists this summer.

CK: Thanks so much, Alison and Christine! Thanks Bill, for hosting our Q&A and for all the work you’re doing to bring together readers and literary fiction by women!


Photo of Christine Sneed: Adam Tinkham