30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #23 Shelley Ettinger


Shelley Ettinger

Vera’s Will by Shelley Ettinger is a powerful family saga that spans continents and generations. You’ve probably read many novels that could be described that way. I’ll bet you’ve never read anything like Vera’s Will.

The book begins in Czarist Russia in 1903, where the Resnikoff family – Jewish and leftist – Is brutally attacked during a pogrom. We see the rampage mostly through the eyes of five-year-old Vitka, who understands less than we do about what the hate-crazed men – some of them neighbors and co-workers – are doing to her mother and father.

An outsider in so many ways

Ten years later, Vitka Resnikoff has become Vera Resnick, a modern American girl living in New Jersey, embarrassed by her parents’ immigrant ways. Vera is already an outsider: no longer Russian, not quite American. As if that’s not enough, she falls in love with another girl – the only two women in the world, they feel sure, to be so blessed and so cursed.

Years later, after her lover dies of influenza, Vera in her grief marries a punctilious man who moves her from working class Passaic, where everyone in her family is a leftist activist, to bourgeois Manhattan, where he speaks of nothing but his business. After years of loneliness, Vera falls for another woman. Vera’s husband, backed up by all the scientific experts of the day, declares that Vera is too sick to be allowed to raise their two sons.

Intertwined but alone

He takes the children away but Vera eventually finds them and follows them to suburban Detroit, where her sons grow into resentful adults. Vera nurses one of them through his WWII war injuries. He marries and has a daughter named, unwittingly, after Vera’s first, lost love. That daughter also grows up to be a lesbian, and the second storyline in the novel is hers.

Ettinger does a wonderful job of creating two crisp, lively narrators, each voice sharply distinct and suffused with character.The intertwined story of these two women, grandmother and granddaughter, who share so much but know so little about one another’s lives, create a moving and satisfying whole.

“Gals like you aren’t rare.”

They are engaged in their own struggles but also in the restless world around them. Through their eyes and their activism we see wars, McCarthyism, labor action, the civil rights movement, the rise of the women’s and lesbian/gay rights movements – a history of social change in America. When the granddaughter comes out to her brother in the 1970s, he musters the same tired scientific arguments that Vera’s husband once used. And yet, as Vera’s sister-in-law tells her in the 1940s, “Gals like you aren’t that rare. Did you think you were the only one who parts her hair on the other side?”

A surprising pleasure

Lately I’ve been reading some of the bright, brittle novels written by talented authors in their twenties and thirties. Most of these books I’ve enjoyed, and a few I’ve admired. But what a pleasure it is to read a book written by a novelist who brings a sense of history and her own lived wisdom to the task. Here’s an example:

This is more than grief, Vera knows. This is rage… This kind of fury. This kind of pain. When wrongs are done to you and yours. There is a righteous wrath that picks you up and sweeps you away. Sweeps you clean. And the anger is good, and the anger is true – but it takes you to a far country where no one can live all the time.

The world of Vera’s Will is a far but familiar country. I was sorry to leave it.

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30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #22 Pamela DiFrancesco

When Pamela DiFrancesco first approached me about reviewing the debut novel The Devils that have Come to Stay, I said no. I had never heard of a subgenre called Acid Western, but whatever it was, I knew it was not for me.

Wrong on all counts.

A riveting novel

The Devils that have Come to Stay is a riveting novel. You can read it to see what happens next. You can read it as a powerful indictment of the cruelties of the Gold Rush years in America or of capitalism itself. You can read it to submerge yourself in unique characters and a distinctive historical place and time.

The novel is allegorical: a nameless Narrator takes an epic journey to find his wife and his own redemption, along the way meeting up with a Native American man with strange powers whose moral mission is larger than his life, and a terrifying Stranger whose lust for gold has made him vicious and vulnerable, a perfect man of the Gold Rush. At the same time, the book is so grounded in the specifics of daily life in California during the Gold Rush – what people ate, how they dressed, how they spoke – that the hallucinatory aspects of the book are balanced by its tangible details.

So what is an Acid Western?

It started as a film genre in the 1960s, which the film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum said, “expresses a counterculture sensibility to critique and replace capitalism with alternative forms of exchange.” The word “acid” refers not to the harshness of the stories – although Devils is quite stark – but to the hallucinogens that were popular when the genre was launched.

Pamela DiFranceso explained it to me like this: “The book is literary fiction. While my novel uses the tropes of a subgenre, it offers social and political commentary, and the search of the individual for a greater consciousness that represents a struggle beyond his own. I like to think my book is a western in the same respect that Cormac McCarthy’s books are.”

Pamela had me at “literary fiction.” And their self-description didn’t hurt either: “a genderqueer person writing through a radical leftist lens.” (Pamela prefers to be referred to as the non-gender specific “they” and “their” rather than “she” and “her.”)

Q&A Interview

Here is my interview with the novelist Pamela DiFranceso.

Q. How did you first become acquainted with the subgenre Acid Western?

A. My first introduction to the Acid Western genre was through Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, which is generally considered the epitome of the genre (even though it came about 20 years after the most popular moment for the genre).

Q. Do you consider acid Western to be the subgenre you’ll continue to write in, or did it seem appropriate only to this novel?

A. This will probably be my only Acid Western. While I really enjoyed writing in the genre, I like challenges and so am always pushing myself to do new things. My second novel is set in a dystopian New York City in the not-so-distant future.

Q. What prompted your interest in the underside of the Gold Rush years?

As someone who’s studied alternative views of history, I knew that the Gold Rush couldn’t be the spirited, exciting time that many Americans take it to be. Between the years of 1845 and 1870, somewhere around 120,000 Native Americans in California died from violence and new diseases brought by westward expansion. As I studied the time period, I learned more about the brutality of westward expansion, from capitalist violence like the foreign miners’ taxes levied only against Chinese and Latin American miners, to tales of the beheading of Mexican men that supposedly spoke to the North American narrative of beheading Mexico in the Mexican-American war. The more I learned, the more I wanted the real story of the Gold Rush to be told.

Q. It seemed to me that the authenticity of your portrayal of life during the Gold Rush era is what enabled the more hallucinatory moments in your novel to soar. What kind of research did you do to portray the era in a realistic manner?

A. I spent so many days in the New York Public library poring over books. I read Me-wuk folk tales, books that chronicled weather patterns and foliage growth in California in the 1840s, books on the social history of the time, books on the day-to-day items used then. I copied vernacular out of diaries and hung up a list to look at while writing dialogue.

I feel like you have to do these things any time you’re building a world in a novel. You need to know how the world sounds and feels and tastes and smells, if you’re going to make that world come alive on the page. And if you’re going to push the boundaries of realism, like I did in this book, you’d better make that world all the more solid and real first.

Q. What made you decide to write a novel with three main characters, all of whom are men – and nameless?

A. Though the main characters of the novel are men, there are several characters who push the boundaries of gender in the novel – in fact, I would consider one of them to be one of the heroes of the novel. Due in part to my own gender identity and that of my partner, I was fascinated to learn that gender was often a shifting and fluid thing during the Gold Rush era. For example, very few women traveled West during the Gold Rush, and thus many ’49ers often ended up taking on traditionally female roles. There was no small amount of homoeroticism going on. What’s more, many people who were assigned female at birth took on the roles of men either in dress, socially, or both. Some certainly were trans men, but other were women who wanted to live adventurous lives and felt they couldn’t do so as women. The boundaries of identity in the Gold Rush were as shifting as the landscape itself.

Q. Anything else you’d like potential readers to know regarding your novel? Or you?

A. When I first started sending this book out to agents and publishers, I received what was probably the best rejection letter ever, stating that it was far too dark for it ever to be published. I kind think of that now, and how what one person sees as something that should never see the light of day, other people enjoy enough to put the work of a bunch of people behind. I think there’s a lesson in there about being an artist – it’s all about finding the people who think what you do works.

It’s their party

The Devils that have Come to Stay was published on February 13, 2015. At my book launch party, you could get wine. At Pamela’s launch party, you could get $13 tattoos.

Read this novel, and then look out for Pamela DiFrancesco’s next book. I have a feeling it will be something to behold.

Get a FREE copy of The Devils that have Come to Stay

I’m giving away a free copy of Pamela’s novel through my newsletter in March. For a chance to win it, simply sign up for my free newsletter, and when you receive the March edition just hit REPLY and tell me which giveaway book you want.






Quick update about one of the 30 Women Novelists You Should Know

The Enchanted, the fabulous novel by Rene Denfeld, just won an esteemed Notable Book award from the American Library Association. Here’s how they described the book: “Death row inmates await escape through execution in this weirdly gorgeous tale.”

“Weirdly gorgeous” is exactly right. Congratulations to Rene Denfeld and the other writers whose books were honored.

Want a free copy of The Enchanted? Sign up for my newsletter and a chance to win one.

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30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #21 Wendy Lee

Photo: Hillery Stone

Photo: Hillery Stone

Wendy Lee’s second novel, Across a Green Ocean, starts out simple and sad. A middle-aged woman, Ling Tang, gazes out at the lawn of her suburban house, which hasn’t been mowed since her husband Han died suddenly a year ago. Like the overgrown lawn, the novel seems familiar at first, but grows more mysterious and compelling the further you explore.

Saturated in secrets

Ling Tang and her husband are Chinese immigrants who raised two American children: Emily, an over-achieving immigration lawyer married to an entitled white man, and Michael, a gay man who has not yet found his footing as an adult or come out to his family. Michael is not alone; his sister and mother have secrets too, as did his father. The Tangs are saturated in secrets, straining to love one another despite realizing they don’t know each other at all.

When Michael discovers in his late father’s papers a recent letter from a Chinese friend that says, “Everything has been forgiven,” he makes an impulsive trip to China to finally learn something about his taciturn father’s past. What he discovers cracks the deep reserve that has kept his family members isolated from one another.

A ghost on the tongue

Lee does a masterful job of presenting the reader with a pivotal moment and only later revealing its meaning. We revisit certain scenes, each time seeing it from a different character’s point of view and deepening – or completely overturning – our previous understanding of the event. The book sparkles with lovely descriptions, for example a woman sipping tea until “the bitterness became a ghost on her tongue.”

But what I enjoyed most about the novel was its depiction of life in America as an immigrant and as the child of immigrants. Ling, from Taiwan, visits other immigrant households and “recognize[d] the way people displayed English magazines… on the coffee table, while the newspapers in the kitchen were in their native languages. She understood what it meant to try too hard.” Emily says her parents “were such immigrants – putting mothballs in their closets, keeping furniture covered in plastic, refusing to drink tap water unless it had been boiled, not trusting the dishwasher to get the dishes clean.”

Across a Green Ocean is a moving depiction of people dealing with exile, isolation and the cruelly broken immigration system in the U.S. – and a set of relatives struggling at long last to become a family.

The sigh of exasperation heard round the world

On the first day of 2015, the novelist Celeste Ng (Everything I Never Told You) published an article in Salon designed to “fix our Asian-American women writer blind spot” after being told by one conference organizer too many that, “There aren’t a lot of you out there.” Ng’s article provides a long but admittedly incomplete list of such writers, including Wendy Lee, whose first novel, Happy Family, was published in 2008. Dig in.

Want a free copy of Across a Green Ocean?

In February I’m giving away a copy of Across a Green Ocean, which was just released on January 27, 2015. For a chance to win this and other free books, sign up for my free monthly newsletter, Being Bookish.

Green Ocean



2015 – The year of free books

I’m excited that over the coming year I’ll be blogging about several newly published books. Most will be released for the first time in 2015; some are paperback editions of books that were published to great acclaim in 2014. And do I need to mention that all of the books will be by women authors?

Even better, I’ll be giving away copies of these exciting books to a few lucky people who subscribe to my free emailed newsletter, Being Bookish.

Do you really need something new in your inbox? Maybe.

If you are truly bookish, come on and sign up for the monthly newsletter, which offers book talk, links to readerly resources you may not have discovered yet, and general nerdiness about all things literary.

And of course, let’s not forget the inducement of free books. Subscribers will get the chance to snag free copies of newly published (or soon-to-be-published) books.

The Enchanted – in paperback February 2015

In February, for example, I’ll be giving away the new paperback edition of The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld.

Rene Denfeld was #8 on my list of 30 Women Novelists You Should Know. But I wasn’t the only one to rave about The Enchanted. It was one of the most acclaimed and talked about books of 2014.

Enchanted UK

Reviewers loved it. The novel was named among the top 10 in 2014 by diverse sources that ranged from Library Journal to Goodreads to Powell’s independent bookstore in Oregon to the Foyle’s chain of bookstores in the U.K.

At left is the cool new cover of the paperback version in the UK. The US version is below.

Rene_Denfeld_Red carpet

Rene D. on the red carpet.


The book was translated into several languages, nominated for numerous literary prizes, and won the prestigious French award, the Prix du Premier Roman Etranger.

If you haven’t yet read The Enchanted, you’re in for a mesmerizing literary experience. Take a look at this December 2014 interview with Rene Denfeld by the writer Elissa Wald if you want to whet your appetite for the novel.

Who doesn’t love free books?

To sign up for my monthly newsletter and be eligible for the book giveaways, click here.  Because who doesn’t love free books?

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