Ben Fountain is getting a lot of press for his debut novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which was nominated for a National Book Award.
What I like about this story is that Fountain was 54 when the book came out and he talks openly about the long slog it took to write this book.
Another novel I reviewed earlier this month, The Lifeboat, was written by a woman in her fifties. I am drawn to these stories of writers who need time to publish their first novels as they feel like a nice antidote to the Jack Kerouac myth of writing a book in three months. Some people may be able to sit down and write a great book in one draft, or in a couple of years. But many people can’t and I feel that the expectation that good writing comes easily has stopped many authors from making it to the end of their first books. Many people have a clever idea for a novel. Many writers write the first 60 pages of their book. But it takes time and work to revise and polish an idea. It is nice to hear stories about people who took the time to do so and are now getting props for their work.
Leaving the Atocha Station
By Ben Lerner
Coffee House Press, 2011
Adam Gordon is an American poet spending a year in Spain on a writing fellowship. Told from a close first-person point of view, this book recounts the ups and downs of his year as he struggles to communicate in a language he does not fully comprehend and grapples with what it means to be an artist. The book’s fluid storytelling guides the reader through the minutiae of Adam’s day—every coffee, every cigarette, every visit to the Prado and a lot of time trying to talk to Spanish people.
I enjoyed this book because it gracefully captured a liminal feeling that I have experienced when living overseas This book is voice driven, without much story arc, but I still found it engaging, mainly because how true it felt. The bulk of the story revolves around Adam’s Spanish girlfriend Isabel, who he is not sure he wants to commit to and who is not fully committed to him; his friend Arturo, who he meets randomly in a bar and turns out to also be an artist and art owner; and Arturo’s sister Teresa whom Adam is attracted to, but unclear what to do with his attraction. The narrative drama, however, is the backdrop to Adam’s musings on art, life and truth. He is an American unleashed for a year and Lerner takes us on a ride with him.
This book was widely reviewed, a winner and finalist in book contests and chosen for a handful of “best of” lists. Lerner is also a poet with three books of poetry under his belt. He teaches on the faculty at Brooklyn College.
The ABA just came out with the November Indie Book List
Two first novels are mentioned:
The Stockholm Octavo, by Karen Engelmann
Described as a suspenseful,l layered story set in 18th century Stockholm. Compared to Elizabeth Kostovo’s The Historian. ‘Octavo’ is a type of fortunetelling
Crossing on the Paris, by Dana Gynther
Described as a story of three woman travelling on a transatlantic ocean liner from France to New York City in the post-WWI era.
Both look intriguing to me!
The Lifeboat, By Charlotte Rogan
Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown and Co, 2012
After Grace Winter is rescued from a lifeboat, in which she spent 21 days floating in the Atlantic Ocean, she is arrested, along with two other women, for attempted murder. The year is 1914. Grace and her newlywed husband, Henry, were travelling fist class passage from London to New York when their ocean liner, the Empress Alexandra, suffered an unexplained explosion and fire. In the chaos of the evacuation Henry makes sure Grace gets into a lifeboat. She does not know his fate while she spends 21 days at sea with 38 other survivors.
I don’t usually pick up historical fiction, but I found this premise intriguging and I was completely engaged by this book. It is a literary pageturner. The story, told from a close first person point-of-view, chronicles the survival on the lifeboat—the initial attempt to flee the fiery boat; hopes of rescue; the leadership of John Hardie, the only crew member on the boat; the dwindling food supplies; and the wearing damp crowded conditions—while also telling the story of how Grace got on the boat and what her hopes had been for life in New York with her new husband. Drama builds as the days at sea add up and tensions rise. The story explores class and gender differences of the time as some of the women in the boat begin to disagree with the survivalist choices made by the men. The writing is engaging and personal.
The author’s story is also intriguing. The NYTs wrote that Rogan signed her book contract right after her 57th b’day.