Tell the Wolves I’m Home
By Carol Rifka Brunt
The Dial Press
Jane Elbus is a teenage girl living in Westchester in the 1980s when her favorite uncle, Finn, a visual artist, dies of AIDS. Alienated from her older sister Greta, and distanced from her accountant parents, who are swamped with tax season, Jane strikes up a friendship with Finn’s ex, Toby, a man she never met while Finn was alive, because her parents think Toby “murdered” her uncle by giving Finn AIDS. The story begins right before Finn’s death. He was an accomplished artist who never made as much of his talent as he could. His final painting is a portrait of Jane and Greta, and the portrait becomes a character in the story, as it joins the Elbus family after Finn’s passing.
Brunt is adept at capturing the angst of awkward 14-year old June and her alienation from her talented sister, who has the lead in the school production of South Pacific and is under consideration for a professional role in Annie. The plot of the story twists and turns in pleasing and unexpected ways. You could call this a sisters, or mother – daughter story, but at the same time Brunt explores the affects of AIDS on life in the 1980s and the role of art in families. Just as June is not as talented a performer as her sister, as the story unfolds it is revealed that her mother, the accountant, although not as talented as her brother Finn, also has artistic gifts.
I picked up this book from the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers shelf at my local Barnes and Noble, without knowing anything else about the book or author, and I am glad I did. Brunt is an American, but currently lives in the UK. This book was nominated for a bunch of awards and lists in 2012. And she also got over 4,000 votes in the Goodreads Best Fiction Choice Awards, coming in right after Junot Diaz in that year-end round up.
By Patrick Flanery
Riverhead Books (Penguin), 2012
Sam Leroux, a white South African academic living in New York City, is invited to write the biography of Clare Dane, an eminent white South African novelist. Sam returns to South Africa to interview and work with Clare in the Western Cape before moving to Johannesburg with his American journalist wife to live. From the first page of the book it is revealed that the Clare and Sam have a connected history, but neither discusses their past connection as the stories of their lives unfold.
Told in four voices the book captures Sam’s present story, both of their histories and Clare’s fictional world via chapters titled, Absolution. Flanery, an American now living in the UK, does a great job capturing the precarious social situation of contemporary wealthy white South Africans who live in large homes with plenty of help and yet exist behind walls and carry panic buttons when they go out. He also provides a brief look into the anti-apartheid movement.
Absolution is one of the best books I read this year. It is ambitious, thought-provoking and very real. It is also a book that unfolds as you read it. As details are revealed about the characters’ present and past lives, the connections between Clare and Sam twist and turn. This book is as much about storytelling as it is about the story itself and I liked how seamlessly Flanery did that. He kept me turning the pages, eager to put the story together and learn the “true” histories of Clare and Sam. I don’t want to give much more of the story away as the reward of reading this book is to read it without knowing where it will take you.
Nominated for many book prizes this year, Flanery is a remarkable author.
The Snow Child
By Eowyn Ivey
Reagan Arthur/Little Brown, 2011
Alaska, the 1920s. After giving birth to a stillborn baby, Jack and Mabel leave the comfort of Pennsylvania to become homesteaders near the Wolverine River, Alaska, where their lives turn to the magical. The book begins with the arrival of winter and at the same time, the hotel in the closest town, which has been buying pies from Mabel, cuts off their order, leaving them to survive off the land. As the Wolverine River starts to freeze over, and Jack and Mabel wonder if they have enough food for the long winter, they meet a young girl in the woods—their snow child.
This book is exquisitely rendered. The story is small, with most of the action happening near or around Jack and Mabel’s cabin. The only other characters are the snow child, Faina, and the Benson family, who live a few miles up the road, but the story is expansive and moving. Jack and Mabel are a middle-aged couple who, after living through tragedy, reinvent themselves and their love for each other in this new world. The first 200 pages cover their first winter in Alaska, when they struggle to make ends meet. But then the abundance of summer arrives and they see the land where they have relocated anew.
This book is as much an homage to life in an Alaskan cabin as it is to the story it tells. Ivey lives a subsistence life with her husband and children. They haul water to their home weekly. I felt her closeness to the land in every page.
I can’t say I would love to live in an Alaskan cabin, but I loved this book.
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 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.