16 December 2016


I’ve been way behind in postings, and writing, but I have been reading and wanted to share a few novels worthy of your time. I will publish my own “best of” list in the new year, but in the interim, there are two lists especially interesting: Maria Popover at Brainpickings favors non-fiction and her taste is impeccable, and NPR put together a critically acclaimed list not for the average reader. Whatever you choose, happy reading and happy new year.
Writers like Melanie Finn rarely get the attention they deserve. Published by small press ,Two Dollar Radio, with the tagline Books too loud to Ignore, THE GLOAMING is a literary mystery with a big heart. Pilgrim Jones, has been abandoned by her husband for another woman, while traveling in Switzerland. Reeling from the punch, she tries to process how she had been so mistaken about the solidity of their marriage, until she learns her husband wants the children she refused. To add insult to injury, Pilgrim is subsequently involved in the death of three children, but she has no recollection of the accident nor can she fathom the consequences. How can she? She is in the grip of despondency and confusion, and in that despair, everything seems more oppressive, more furtive and mysterious. And then there is the curse of the witch doctor… but no spoilers here. Pilgrim takes off impulsively, and remains, in a small town in Tanzania, where she becomes embroiled in all sorts of secret histories. The novel is a journey toward redemption that involves several odd, equally down and out characters struggling to survive in a foreign culture. Just as Pilgrim takes halting steps towards a new future, she goes missing, and the characters in her midst take up the story. With subtle but steadily increasing tension, the narrative shifts time and place and voice, but the story remains cohesive. Make sure to read every word, as this Kenyan-born American writer is one to watch [this is her second novel]. Even when she slips into the abstract, or especially then, her descriptive language is a delight for the literary reader.
THE MOTHERS is a great title for this debut novel, for though it relates the story of two young women, and the man they share, the legacy of absentee mothers hovers over them. And, in a brilliant turn, author Britt Bennett deploys the collective voice of church mothers as if a Greek chorus, framing the narrative as the great church ladies can. The mothers of the fictional “Upper Room” congregation, in Oceanside, California, have seen all and know all. You might even believe you stepped into Flannery O’Connor’s deep south, except for all the familiar coastal references. In a community bounded by church and military, adolescent Nadia, the only child of a mother who has recently committed suicide, is running a bit wild until she is anchored by the wounded wild-son of the Pastor. Bright and determined to fulfill her mother’s wishes for a larger life, Nadia finds solace with Luke as she bides her time until college and keeps her secrets. From the point of view of plot, there is little new in this novel. We’ve read about young women in the grip of grief, and we’ve read about the trauma of accidental pregnancy, and we’ve also read about the type of wounded and innocent young woman who forms the third angle of their love triangle. It’s not the story that makes this book so good, it’s the telling. I was captured by the simplicity of descriptive prose, the realistic and compelling characters, the natural dialogue, and the propulsive narrative. Bennett is a writer to watch.
I am an unabashed fan of Colum McCann, a New Yorker with Irish roots. His fictions stand up to the legacy of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde and often blend the real world and the underworld. If you somehow missed the National Book Award winner LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN, make sure to read this exquisite homage to NYC pre-9/11. Now, in 13 WAYS OF LOOKING, he presents an inventive grouping of one novella and three stories, all captivating. The title novella, based on a Wallace Stevens poem, which includes excerpts of that poetry at the start of the thirteen segments, introduces an old man, his caretaker, his abhorrent son, and an assorted cast of restaurants workers where he regularly takes his lunch. We know from the start a homicide has occurred but not sure who or why. Not an uncommon set of characters, or set up, but an uncommon series of events, and an unexpected, perfect ending. Police detectives are meticulous in their search to solve the crime, and McCann said in an interview with the NY Times they work like poets. The story What Time is it Now, Where you are? deftly depicts the writer’s dilemma: how to match the words to the reverie? A writer agrees to contribute a story to a holiday edition of a magazine, and expects the task to be easy enough, until he finds himself distracted, disenchanted with his own work, and generally captive to daily living. In the end, of course, his process reveals the very essence of creativity. I recommend to aspiring writers as well as readers. Sh’Khol describes the terrifying day when a mute thirteen year-old boy goes missing, and every doubt his adoptive mother has ever had haunts her. The final story, Treaty, is simply astonishing. Something one of the great Colombian writers might have written. An elderly nun, who as a girl was brutally tortured and held sexual captive, sees her captor on television, now a famous peace negotiator. Talk about irony. She revisits every horrific moment in her mind and resolves to confront him. No spoilers – read it! One of the most amazing endings I’ve ever read.

Find yourself a quiet space during this holiday season, and all the busy seasons of our lives, and read these powerful and sensitive fictions. Relish each one and reflect on how fragile we are, and redemptive we must be.