Earlier this summer, I got a copy of Golden Hill by Francis Spufford from an English friend. The book published in the UK last year and she said it was a fun read, historical fiction set in New York. I don’t read much historical fiction, but I love it when a friend suggests a book that I have never heard of, so I gave it a read. It was only when I enjoyed the book enough to read up on the author that I discovered this was a debut novel.
The book is set in 1746 and revolves around Mr. Smith a young man who has just arrived in New York from London. He has a bill for 1000 pounds and when Mr. Smith goes to cash it with a local merchant, he is told that he has to wait until another ship arrives from London to verify that this bill is real. Mr. Smith, who never reveals why he is in New York or what he plans to do with his money when he gets it, spends his time in wait with multiple wealthy New Yorkers, including Mr. Lovell, the man who wouldn’t cash the bill, and who has an attractive daughter who Mr. Smith flirts with.
I don’t want to give away too much of the story as it starts out slow, but picks up drama as Mr. Smith runs into trouble in his new home. But this is an entertaining read and also a look at 18th century New York City when the city only had 7000 residents and was provincial when compared with London.
Spufford lives in the UK and has published five non-fiction books. If you want to learn more about the book’s plot, The New Yorker also wrote about it.
Happy summer reading!
Yvvette Edwards’ A Cupboard Full of Coats is a favorite debut. I reviewed it back in 2013. It’s a novel about family and loss, and I blew through the book, while treasuring her writing and insights. It was a book that should have gotten more attention than it did.
Last year, Edwards published her second novel, The Mother. It is as moving as the first. Writing again about family and loss, The Mother focuses on Marcia Williams, a mother whose son was murdered and how she comes to terms with his death. I was riveted.
Set in London, Ryan Williams was a successful and responsible 16-year old boy who was stabbed to death by another teen, Tyson Manley, after school. The book recounts Tyson’s trial. Told in a close first-person point of view, the book recounts Marcia’s grief as she sits through the trial and learns the details of her son’s relationship with Tyson; they were connected though a girl, Sweetie.
As the trial progresses, Marcia becomes increasingly alienated from her husband, Lloydie, who is in such denial about his son’s death that he can’t attend the trial nor talk to Marcia about it. This novel is a powerful look at how a mother who tried to provide all he could for her son realizes that she ultimately couldn’t keep him safe, and how she begins to rebuild her life in the wake of this terrible loss.
I was so moved by this story and the way Edwards grapples with themes of race, crime and loss. This is a sad book, but deeply engrossing.
Edwards lives in London and is working on her next book. Waterstones published an interview with her about the book and her process of writing it.
I’ve been thinking of you for months. I’ve read books that I wanted to tell you about. I’ve even drafted blogs posts that I didn’t make live. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t think about you, dear readers. Sorry for my absence.
I have not stopped reading debuts, but at the end of 2016 I found myself reading books by authors at all stages of their careers and I have continued to read widely this year. I thought Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad was a masterpiece. I tore through Vivian Gornick’s latest memoir, The Odd Woman and the City. Then I read Mohsin Hamid’s debut, Moth Smoke, which was published 17 years ago, and is an intriguing look at wealth and power in Pakistan. I can’t wait to read his latest, Exit West.
As my reading list rambles, I’m considering a new twist on the blog where I continue to write about debuts, but also write about reading and writing more generally. My ideas are in the whisper stage right now.
More to come and in the meantime, I’d love to hear about any books that have captured your attention lately.
Thanks for your patience!
Proto Libro celebrates its fourth anniversary this month! As I look back on the news and reviews I have covered, I feel like authors who are publishing later in life are getting featured on blogs and in the mainstream media more than they used to. Bloom is a blog that only publishes articles about debut authors over 40. 35 over 35 is a blog that started last year, and features a yearly round up of authors publishing debuts after 35. And I also see more traditional media outlets featuring older authors, making an older person’s debut a story to follow.
The latest in this trend is in Poets & Writers magazine, which this month is publishing excerpts from five authors who debuted after 50. All of the authors were new to me and are mainly published in small presses. They feature a novelist, a poet, two short story writers and a memoir writer.
The memoir, Rust Belt Boy, Stories of an American Childhood, by Paul Hertneky stood out to me the most. This is likely because my family comes from the Rust Belt, and the economic decline of this area feels so relevant to the political debates consuming our country. The book, which I have not read yet, is about Hertneky’s childhood in Western Pennsylvania and how the small town he grew up transformed at the end of the 20th Century as the Steel Mill era came to an end.
I have put that one on my to-read list.
Happy reading all and thanks for your ongoing support of Proto Libro!
Ways to Disappear
By Idra Novey
Little, Brown and Company, 2016
Ways to Disappear is about a Brazilian author, Beatriz Yagoda, who goes missing in a tree. Emma, Beatriz’s American translator, travels from Pittsburgh to Salvador to help Beatrice’s children, and her publisher, find the author, who was not found in said tree. Told in short snappy chapters, the search for Beatriz leads to an unlikely series of events and discoveries, including that Beatriz had a lot of debt from gambling.
The author, Idra Novey is an American writer and poet who has translated Clarice Lispector. I love Lispector, a Brazilian author. For those of you who do not know her, she is a master of the absurd, quirky short story. Ways to Disappear feels almost like an homage to Lispector, while being distinctly the work of another writer.
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but I enjoyed this book as much for its writing and language as for the story. Novey’s love of language infuses the book. And there is a meta-layer to the story as Novey is a translator writing about a translator and her relationship with a missing author. If you’re looking for a different kind of novel, with beautiful language, this is a great one to pick up.
Novey teaches writing in the New York area and has also published books of poetry.
Many articles are written about debut writers who get a big advance and whose lives are changed by having their books published. But only a few have such luck/opportunity. For most debut novelists, their book comes out, and after the flurry of readings and reviews, they return to a life much like the one they led before.
Merritt Tierce, in her essay, “I published My Debut Novel to Critical Acclaim—and Then I Promptly Went Broke,” published in Marie Claire, writes about her post-debut struggles. Her novel, Love Me Back, was widely written about and got much praise when it came out in 2014. She has sold over 12,000 copies. But this is still not enough to pay back her advance, so she has made no money from the book since it published. The essay is an honest look at how hard it is to make a living as a fiction writer, even if one does write a successful book. I appreciate having this story shared, even if it is not as uplifting as the ones about those who get a big advance..
And here at Proto Libro I have fallen behind with my reviews, but have some I’m working on and will post next month. I find Fall is a nice time of year to settle in with a good book.
Thanks for reading, stopping by!
Bookends is a New York Times Book Review column in which two writers write about one topic from two perspectives. This week’s column is: Why Do Debut Novels Command So Much Attention? Leslie Jamison compares the appeal of debut novelists to the NBA draft and suggests that reading debuts gives readers, “the chance to read an author before she has become a legacy.” Ayana Mathis looks at the weight of the debut, and delves into the extent to which, “a debut novel is a piece of the writer’s soul in a way that subsequent books can’t ever quite be.”
Both pieces offer lucid insights into the power of the debut and acknowledge that for every debut that gets a big advance there are many worthy books that never sell, nor make it into bookstores. The two views provide insightful looks into why the debut novel is such a marketable book—as either the next hip book to read and talk about at a party, or the book that the author needed to write to feel fulfilled.