A Reading List for Men Who Talk to Me About Hemingway

  

By Angela Palm

At AWP this year, I was caught off guard when a young, white male writer said to me, “I’m surprised you’re not more well-read.” I was surprised, too — because I’m an author and editor and thus well-read through the nature of my chosen profession. Surprised, because over the course of my reading life, which is longer than his by at least a decade, I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of books. Surprised, because all day while I work in my home office, I’m surrounded by mounds of books that I’ve read or will soon read.

The young man and I had been talking about the ending of “Escape from Spiderhead” in George Saunders’ collection Tenth of December, and he brought up a short story by Ernest Hemingway to make a point about what short stories ought to invoke and how. I admitted to having read just three books from Hemingway’s oeuvre—none of them story collections, and none of them recently. That’s when he made his claim.

I walked away from the conversation stunned, without formulating a defense, and later it occurred to me that this wasn’t the first time I’d been told that I’m not well-read. Last spring, I was chatting with a white male musician about literature, and he, too, expressed similar surprise that I had not read the books that he held dear. This time, the authors were Marcel Proust and, again, Hemingway. I confess: I haven’t read Proust at all. And I’m fine with that.

When I thought about why I hadn’t read the works these men read and loved, and why they had no qualms about assessing my readership as subpar based on whether I had read these works, I realized that I hadn’t often sought out many works by white, cis, male writers since I’d been made to read them as an undergrad. It’s not that I find them problematic (though they sometimes are) or uninteresting or unworthy of reading—I’m sure I’m missing out on some great books—but I do feel I often already understand the human and worldly concerns frequently expressed in those works because I’ve been taught to consider them since I could read English. I’m hungry for other concerns, other voices, other characters. When selecting books to read for pleasure, I gravitate instead toward works by women, queer writers, and writers of color. This, to me, is being truly well-read.

I find that I most want to read contemporary stories about women, written by women who are writing right now, alive right now. Stories that are not only well-written, engaging, and full of heart, but also that inspire or influence my own writing in some way.

So, here are five short story collections by women that impressed me or motivated me in some way. Five books I couldn’t put down, a few of which I’ve read more than once.

* * * * *

Every Kiss a War by Leesa Cross-Smith (Mojave River Press, 2014)

I discovered Leesa Cross-Smith’s work about five years ago via Twitter. I had come to Twitter in search of an online writing community and access to what indie lit journals were publishing. I began reading Leesa’s flash fiction online and was blown away by how she finesses a sentence, impresses a mood, a universe of joy and pain and longing, upon the reader. The way even her half-page flash stories gutted me. Her characters’ heartbreak became my heartbreak. Leesa’s work reminds me that every sentence can slay, ought to slay, and that life’s too sopping wet with intensity and love and disappointment and miscommunication and things said and not said to waste words on lightweight sentences. When Every Kiss a War came out from Mojave River Press, I bought two copies.

Almost Famous Women by Meghan Mayhew Bergman (Scribner, 2014) 

I heard Meghan Mayhew Bergman read a short story from her second book, Almost Famous Women, at a reading in our home state of Vermont. Meghan had studied the lives of women who were, well, almost famous or lived lives adjacent to fame in some way but were in their own right worthy of fame, giving them new life through her stories. My favorite story in this collection is “Norma Millay’s Film Noir Period.” (Norma Millay was Edna St. Vincent Millay’s younger sister.) Meghan’s stories bring fascinating women out of obscurity and put them in the spotlight, and she inspires me to seek out and tell the unexpected tales, the stories no one has heard.

The Other One by Hasanthika Sirisena (University of Massachusetts Press, 2016)

I met Hasanthika when we were Bread Loaf fellows last year and I fell in love with her work instantly. Her debut collection moves between Sri Lanka and the states, contending with the aftermath of civil war at home and abroad, bringing to life a cultural history and trauma I previously knew very little about. Here we have characters old and young, connected and scattered, presented with humor, hope, and certain beauty as the world changes and exhales. Hasanthika writes the way I hope to write fiction: coming right up to the matter at hand, unflinching. And her stories’ endings, to my mind, are masterful examples of how to close. They seem, somehow, to contain the entire world.

Half Wild by Robin MacArthur (Ecco, 2016)

Robin and I were paired for a string of readings last fall because our first books were released the same month, were both Indie Next picks, and we both live in Vermont. Robin’s stories have a lyric, musical quality to them. When I heard her read the line, “The one who wanted something other than what she was born with, who nursed me until I was three (little titty-monkey), the one who lays her hand on my shoulder when I come home from class and says, ‘Angel, you be good. You be real good, baby-o,’” from the story “Creek Dippers,” I knew two things: we were going to get along well, and I had to buy that book immediately. Now, when my sentences start sounding too mechanical, I open to a random page of Half Wild, and I remember the way words can sing—in a manner both half wild and wholly unexpected.

Doll Palace by Sara Lippmann (Dock Street Press, 2014)

Sara Lippmann is another writer I discovered on Twitter. The short stories in her collection, Doll Palace, often span only a handful of pages but somehow manage to precisely capture the modern lives of girls and women. Sara’s writing shows me, again and again, how narrative voice can propel everything from character to plot. Take these two short sentences from a story called “Tomorrowland,” for example: “Enthusiasm is contagious. I worry my daughter will meet a nice man.” Many of the stories in this collection are written in the first person. Whenever I try my hand at that point of view, I return to the dog-eared pages of Doll Palace to remember how to say things without saying things. How to lead a story through first-person point of view without directing.

* * * * *

If I could rewrite my responses to those men, I’d say, “Have you read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Mia Alvar, and Roxane Gay? Sandra Cisneros or Louise Erdrich? No? Leesa Cross-Smith or Robin MacArthur?” I’d give them this list. I have no doubt I’ll find myself in this position again—cornered by a man heralding Hemingway. Next time, I’ll be ready to reframe the accusation, quick with my response.

 

Angela Palm is the author of Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here (Graywolf Press), an Indie Next selection, winner of the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, and a Kirkus Best Book of 2016. She lives in Vermont, where she works as an editor. angipalm.com/

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Chaos Outside the Study Door: Virginia Pye on Balance in Writing and Life

Virginia Pye author photo 2_0  virginia-pye-books

Last night, at a bookstore reading in Boston to celebrate the launch of her second novel, the author mentioned the “mental multitasking” required of women writers. We must live double lives, she said, or even triple, I’d suggest, as we juggle writing, paid work, and often, family.

The day before, an aspiring writer and friend sat on my back patio and lamented how she can’t make time to write during the academic year. Her job as an elementary school librarian and her community involvement are so time consuming, though also greatly rewarding, that there’s nothing left in her mind late at night or early in the morning when she finally pushes aside the tasks of the day and sits down to write.

Another friend, a best-selling author with three young children, recently texted me: “I’ve not been working, in any real way, for something like two months. And I feel almost panicky about returning to my manuscript.” That she is highly successful and widely respected seems only to ratchet up her anxiety, not calm it.

Frantic, worn out, and living multiple lives, the woman authors of probably every book that Bill Wolfe so skillfully reviews on this blog writes with chaos just outside their study door. Male authors no doubt face similar, difficult pressures as those experienced by women, and of course each artist’s challenges are unique, but for the purposes of this blog that focuses solely on women writers, I’m interested in sharing my own experience and that of other women I know who have pursued writing through various stages of life. They may not have recently made a big transition in their lives, as I have by moving to a new city, but with children careening about, or paid work to complete, not to mention spouses or partners who require a certain amount of attention, we women writers must struggle to block out the noise of our lives.

In her journal, Virginia Woolf wrote, “My mind is churned and frothed. And to write I must be a clear vessel.” If anything, achieving this ideal state of mind has become even more elusive for women writers. To succeed at putting meaningful words on the page, the woman writers I know juggle complex schedules, financial pressures, and the needs of loved ones in order to find the clarity Virginia Woolf described.

Before I had children, it was easier for me to create the ideal conditions for writing. I taught writing at a university and tutored at a high school, but I still managed to write daily. When my first novel didn’t sell, I pressed on and wrote another one. I had a strong second draft under my belt when I gave birth to my first child. The delivery was complicated and left me exhausted and debilitated for months. The experience of having almost not survived made me all the more grateful to be a mother.

In the first months, my attention was focused on recovering and and enjoying my daughter. The thought of writing hardly occurred to me. I remember my husband setting up the changing table on what had been my writing desk. The irony of that choice wasn’t lost on me, but it didn’t matter: I had no regrets about putting writing aside. And in the following years, I continued to prioritize being a mother over being a writer of long form fiction.

But eventually the urge to write began to return. I first found myself penning poems, mostly about motherhood, but also about nature and gratitude for life. Eventually, these became prose poems. Then they became short essays on mothering. Then finally, I wrote short stories in which I created fictional characters and worlds, my imagination reignited and engaged once again.

By then, my son, born three and a half years after my daughter, was ready for preschool. I had spent almost eight years being a full time mother. Although not every moment was idyllic or easy, I loved those years with my children. But as I returned to writing, I was now ten years older and with no published novel to my name. I felt greater internal pressure to write than when I’d been an aspiring writer in my late twenties and thirties and had all the time in the world. As a result, I dove back into the practice of novel writing each day when the children were off at school. I returned to my craft with a vengeance.

I remember feeling keenly aware that some of my peers had continued to write published novels while having children. That hurt my ego and made me ache for the legitimacy that being published bestows. But in looking back, I can see that I couldn’t have done it any other way. I needed to recover from childbirth then commit myself fully to being a mother, building up my reserves in order to raise my family, and perhaps also in order to have the mindset to eventually return to novel writing. Now, as a recent empty nester, I relish my uninterrupted days. At the same time, I miss the clamber and vitality that I had grown used to in our home.

Today, I see more women writers who are young mothers and who also somehow manage to publish highly accomplished work at the same time. I envy their sense of purpose and success, though I know it can’t possibly be easy.  The pressures on these women are enormous, but they still manage to maintain their imaginations and inner lives. Pursuing their work, even in brief, free moments, helps these admirable women maintain a sense of themselves when they might otherwise feel like they’re drowning in the monotony and challenges of motherhood. I remember that feeling and how hard it was to strike a balance.

The world continually distracts us from our work at the same time that it nags us to be successful. We feel we should be at peek productivity all the time, in every season of our lives. But for many of us, that isn’t possible. We need the fallow periods as well as the ones in which we write with sharp focus. Both of my published novels were written fluidly and with a clear sense of purpose, but I have a half dozen other unpublished ones, including the one I’m working on now, that took years to write. Each book has its own rhythms, its own demands on our imaginations and lives. If everyday living swamps us, then I think it’s helpful to accept that fact, until, once again, the balance shifts and we reach a place where writing can become a top priority.

On Facebook and Twitter, every other friend seems to be publishing a new book every other week. I’ve recently seen posts by women writers who have dashed out final scenes before going into labor, or written right through chemo treatments, or while dealing with the death of a parent. If true, those are remarkable achievements. But I’ve also seen mention recently in reviews and interviews that some authors have “lost” whole years to travel, or childrearing, or in the case of a recent young man who was compared to Dickens, to years of playing video games. While I don’t recommend that distraction, who can say what feeds the mind of the writer?

We need to have faith that our skills as writers will still be there when the time is right for us to create. My best-selling author friend and my school librarian friend will each get back to their writing when the time is right, and perhaps because their lives are so full right now, they’ll return to it with a new and more enlightened mind. The increased wisdom and empathy that we gain from living our lives well is surely reflected in our writing.


Virginia Pye’s second novel, Dreams of the Red Phoenix, was chosen as a Best Book of 2015 by the Richmond Times Dispatch and was called “riveting” by Library Journal. Gish Jen wrote, “Gripping, convincing, and heartbreaking, Dreams of the Red Phoenix is a real page-turner and thought-provoker—wonderful.” Virginia’s debut novel, River of Dust, was an Indie Next Pick and a Finalist for the 2013 Virginia Literary Award in Fiction. Caroline See in The Washington Post called it “intricate and fascinating,” and Annie Dillard described it as, “A strong, beautiful, deep book.” Her award-winning short stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times Opinionator, Literary Hub, Huffington Post, The Rumpus, The Tampa Review, The Baltimore Review, and elsewhere. Please visit her at www.virginiapye.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

SHINING SEA deftly explores the life of an American family amid a half-century of social upheaval

Shining Sea  Anne Korkeakivi 2016

Shining Sea

By Anne Korkeakivi

Little, Brown & Company: Aug. 9, 2016

276 pages, $26.00


In only two novels, Anne Korkeakivi has become one of my favorite writers. Her debut, An Unexpected Guest, was an unexpected literary delight in 2013, a novel that managed to combine deep insight into characters and relationships, a surprising level of suspense, and supple, sensual prose into a stunner of a book. Much was made of the book’s re-vision of Virginia Woolf’s day-in-the-life classic, Mrs. Dalloway, butAn Unexpected Guest stood on its own two Ferragamo heels just fine.

Korkeakivi returns in August with a completely different sort of novel, a family saga set in varying locales ranging from California and Arizona to the UK and Africa and spanning the years between World War II and 2015. Across five “books” she immerses us in the life of the Gannon family, starting in 1962, when 43-year-old Michael Gannon, a WWII vet, suffers a fatal heart attack while painting the house. He leaves behind his beloved wife Barbara, four children, and an unborn baby girl. Death is the unexpected guest in Shining Sea, which explores the seemingly endless ripples Michael’s death — and war generally — causes in the following decades.

The story moves in leaps and bounds through the years, using key social events to shade in the context of the family members’ lives and effective flashbacks to fill in key details from the intervening years. Barbara holds both the family and the story together with her unfailingly generous spirit. We learn how she and Michael met in a California military hospital when she nursed him through his recovery from the Bataan death march in the Philippines. Their love undergirds the family and the story even long after Michael has died. Korkeakivi uses his death and that of two other characters in and shortly after the Vietnam War to explore the long-term effects of war and the grief experienced at the loss of loved ones.

Korkeakivi moves the plot across time and space as the story shifts focus from Barbara, who eventually remarries, to middle son Francis, a sensitive soul cast adrift by loss. We follow him to Woodstock, seven years after his father’s death, and later to London’s late 60s “groovy” scene and then to the Inner Hebrides islands off Scotland.

Rebellious older daughter Patty Ann struggles with the consequences of repeated poor judgment but gives her mother a grandson whom she adores and who provides light at the end of this often dark novel. Ultimately, the family is spread across the world, from the California coast to the desert of Phoenix (where Barbara’s life is reborn through her marriage to a good but surprisingly complex man), from Europe and Africa to a secluded farm in rural Massachusetts.

Shining Sea reminded me of a compressed version of Jane Smiley’s recent Hundred Years Trilogy (Some Luck, Early Warning, and Golden Age). While the latter covers twice as much time, concerns many more characters, and is written with far more detail, Shining Sea has a similar impact. In particular, the novel surprised me with its emotional punch. I was skeptical that Korkeakivi could write a family saga with serious issues at its core in less than 300 pages, but to a large degree she has succeeded. I cared about the key characters (and still do, as they wander around in my mind). The plot is compelling, with mysteries at the heart of a few subplots, and her prose is seamless and elegant without calling attention to itself.

The key to the artistic success of Shining Sea is Korkeakivi’s ability to move the plot and develop her characters by implication; she displays a deft hand at knowing when to move quickly and allow the reader’s general knowledge to fill in the background and when to slow down and focus on the moments in the characters’ lives that will define them and affect us.

Shining Sea probes the unpredictable and often inexplicable nature of the lives we lead. Barbara gives voice to the novel’s theme when she says, “The thing about life is that it is so damned confusing. Such a web, each piece of it dependent on something else, something that can be as tiny as a smile from a stranger or as huge as heart disease. The good all tangled up with the bad.”

Powell’s Books recommends 25 women to read before you die

powells-thumbnail  powells-city-of-books

The staff at Powell’s City of Books in Portland, one of the country’s (and the world’s!) best bookstores, have compiled a list of 25 women writers you need to read. I haven’t read all of these writers myself, but I can certainly vouch for many of them being worth your valuable reading time (Adichie, Armstrong, Atwood, Didion, Erdrich, Hempel, Solnit, Tartt).

As if you didn’t already have enough to read, here are 25 authors who have published well over a hundred books among them.

You can read the full article here.

As with any such list, the results are at least partially random (there should be little dispute about the inclusion of writers like George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, and Louise Erdrich). Just off the top of my head, I would add Jane Austen, Alice Munro, Jane Smiley, Elena Ferrante, Ali Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri, Lauren Groff, and Karen Russell. Every such list is guaranteed to be a very personal set of preferences.

Who do you think should be on this list? Reply in the Comments below. 

Author Christine Sneed on The Pleasure of Influence

Christine Sneed by Adam Tinkham

Every day, many times a day in some cases, I find my thoughts turning to the work of a few fiction writers whose books I feel an almost romantic attachment to.  This list of literary idols changes on occasion depending on what I’ve been reading or teaching in the past year or two.  A writer whose work I’ve just read will join it, and another will step back into the shadows, though each of these admired novelists and poets drifts in and out of view on many days like clouds floating by in a sometimes-blue, sometimes-gray sky.

During graduate school and the years immediately following it, I became fully aware of the influence these writers exerted, men and women who were near-constant, benign specters that circulated in and out of my thoughts. The first two were Jim Harrison and Alice Munro.  As a poetry MFA student at Indiana University in the mid-90s, I often thought about the work of Dean Young and Lynn Emanuel, two poets I wished desperately to emulate.  At the time I first read their work, I was only a couple of years out of college and not yet – embarrassing as it is to acknowledge in these polarizing times – politically aware or engaged with the world in a way that extended beyond my own comfortable frame of reference.  I was beginning to learn to think abstractly, and was also making my first, awkward attempts to imagine lives and points of view different from my own.

Needless to say, I wasn’t writing poetry anything like Young’s and Emanuel’s, two geniuses whose poems still make me feel an almost maudlin gratitude for the experiential possibility and sentiment and language that their work presented to me in my mid-twenties.  Their words woke me up, I realize now, almost twenty years later, and this is the same thing that the short stories and novels of the fiction writers who keep company with each other in my head do, too.

In the last year and a half, I’ve been thinking every single day about the work of Scott Spencer, a writer whose third novel is the intensely intelligent, sensual, and devastating Endless Love (a 1979 National Book Award finalist).  This book makes the kind of emotional and psychological impact that devoted readers are likely to encounter maybe once a year.  Its point-of-view character, David Axelrod, is seventeen when the catastrophic house fire that he describes at the novel’s start occurs, a fire that he purposely set in order to alert his adored, off-limits girlfriend (by paternal decree) and her family to the flames. David didn’t, however, expect his small porch fire to become a full-blown conflagration.  With his confiding, reasonable-sounding voice, David is probably the most skillful rendering of an unreliable narrator that I’ve ever encountered.

I’ve read several of Spencer’s other novels, e.g. Men in Black (which is of no relation to the movie franchise), The Rich Man’s Table, Willing, and A Ship Made of Paper, and the writing is often very funny in addition to being beautiful and smart.  His books burst with so many moments of linguistic brilliance. Below are a few of my favorite sentences from the opening pages of Willing:

“I was a face in the crowd, a penitent on the edge of a Renaissance painting, a particularly graceful skater in a Breughel, the guy in the stands at the World Series…his hand on his heart and his eyes bright with belief during the singing of the national anthem.”

“I carried my desire within me like a tray filled with too many little cups of ceremonial wine: one false step and the whole thing comes crashing down.”

“Physically, I was of the type no longer commonly minted, a large serious face, a little heavier than necessary, broad shoulders, sturdy legs, hair and eyes the color of a lunch bag.” (That lunch bag does me in every time – I don’t think I’ve ever seen it used as a color before now.)

Another writer with Chicago ties (Spencer grew up on the south side of the city and quite a bit of Endless Love is set in the Hyde Park-University of Chicago neighborhood) is Rosellen Brown, who writes poetry and prose with equal genius.  Her novels-in-verse, Cora Fry and Cora Fry’s Pillowbook, are, in some ways, like a literary, small-town, page-bound Sex and the City (forgive me if you’re reading this, Rosellen; I love Sex and the City, and Cora, maybe, would too?).  And then, her novels, among them, Before and After, Autobiography of My Mother, and Tender Mercies (no relation to the Robert Duvall movie) are all so different and ambitious and alive.  As for the short story form, “How to Win” is frequently anthologized, and is included in the John Updike-edited Best American Short Stories of the Century.

It’s the quality of aliveness that I’m always looking for in every poet’s or novelist’s work.

Two other writers who are frequently in my thoughts: Penelope Fitzgerald and Mavis Gallant.  I read The Blue Flower (one of Fitzgerald’s later novels and the one that got her noticed more widely by American readers) about fifteen years ago, and I remember thinking, “I didn’t know a novel could be like this. How did she do this?”  The Blue Flower is set in the late 1700s and is based on the life of the German Romantic poet Novalis.  It is so witty, smart, and wry, so of-the-moment, it seemed to me, that the events recounted in this novel (which won the National Book Critics Circle Award) could have been set in the mid-90s, when Fitzgerald was actually writing it.   Mavis Gallant – if you haven’t read any of her work yet, I envy you your discovery.  I suggest starting with Across the Bridge or her marvelous New York Review Books Classic collected stories, Paris Stories, with a foreword by Michael Ondaatje.

I remember Martin Amis describing his relationship with his favorite books and their authors in his memoir Experience (he’s another writer I’ve been obsessed with – for one, his 1995 novel The Information is a wild and amazing book!)  He wrote that a quality he loves about books is that they’re always there waiting for him, like old friends.  Even in the middle of the night, he can go to his bookcases and, reassuringly, find the books he loves.

How comforting to know that we have these friends, that we have a whole set of voices and experiences waiting to be heard and lived (again, if we’re rereading) whenever the impulse strikes us.

Christine Sneed‘s third book, the novel Paris, He Said, was published on May 5 by Bloomsbury. Her first book, Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, won AWP’s 2009 Grace Paley Prize and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her second book is the novel Little Known Facts, published in 2013. Her stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, Ploughshares, New England Review, Glimmer Train, and a number of other journals. She teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign and Northwestern University. Twitter:@ChristineSneed  
Christine Sneed photo by Adam Tinkham

Jessica Anya Blau: My Favorite Women Writers of the 1950s

Jessica Anya Blau 2013-07-10-JessicaBlau

When most people think of women of the 1950s they think of poodle skirts, ponytails, and mothers wearing aprons with their hair stiffly molded into the shape of fancy dinner rolls. When I think of women of the 1950s, I think of some of my favorite writers. Here’s a list of my top four. Feel free to tweet this list and add all the women you noticed I missed.

Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith. Otto Penzier said of Highsmith, “She was a mean, hard, cruel, unlovable, unloving person.” Everything I’ve read about her makes me believe that to be true. However, she wrote some damn fine books that have given me weeks of great pleasure. Most people are familiar with Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train, from the Hitchcock movie. I, too, love the movie. But the book is just as fabulous.  Read it, and then read The Price of Salt, my next favorite Highsmith book. Once you’ve finished those, it’s time to get to the Ripley series, including the first book, The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Francoise Sagan

Françoise Sagan. A film was made about Sagan’s life (it’s French, and I love French films but haven’t seen it yet). Her life was certainly cinematic—she had two husbands, many lovers, and a long-term lesbian affair with the French Playboy Magazine editor Annick Geille. Oh, and there was also the gambling in Monaco, the coma after the car accident, and the drugs and alcohol.  Her first novel (written before the drugs and alcohol, when she was only 18), Bonjour Tristesse, is a lovely, fun, quick read that will make you wish you could run to the French Riviera, rent a house, and write a character as wonderfully spirited as Sagan’s Cécile.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks. Instead of gambling in Monaco or just being downright mean, like the two writers above, Gwendolyn Brooks spent her life writing.  By age 16 she had published 75 poems.  (I, on the other hand, was wearing a black crochet bikini and making out with boys on the beach at 16, flighty fool that I was!) I love reading Brooks’ work, and I love reading it aloud. Brooks’ poems are so beautifully rhythmic, you can do hand claps or jump rope to them. Start with the collection Bronzeville Boys and Girls. I promise, you’ll be a Brooks devotee after a single stanza.

Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor. No list of great writers—male, female, of any decade—is complete without Flannery O’Connor. There are many great books about her, her life in rural Georgia, her love of peacocks and peahens, her Catholicism and her premature death. They’re all fascinating; go read them. But first, read anything and everything she’s written. Start with the short stories if you haven’t read them already. Begin with the collection A Good Man is Hard to Find. These stories contain characters that will stick with you like your extended family—people you’ll know and think about for the rest of your life.

Jessica Anya Blau is the author of three novels. The Wonder Bread Summer, her third novel, won various “beach read” contests from NPR, CNN and Oprah.com’s book club. Jessica is the author of the 2008 bestselling novel The Summer of the Naked Swim Parties, which was named a Top Summer Read by “The Today Show,” The New York Post, and New York Magazine. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University’s Writing Seminars Masters program, Jessica has published more than two dozen short stories. Her second novel, Drinking Closer to Home, came out in 2011. Her honors include a “Family Matters,” Glimmer Train Finalist in 2008, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Scholarship in August of 2003, the Santa Barbara Independent Fiction Contest Winner in July 1998, and the Eclectica Featured Writer in August 1997. Jessica was born in Boston and raised in Southern California. She earned a BA in French from the University of California, Berkeley. She lives in Baltimore with her husband and two children.