30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #27 Stephanie Feldman

Photo: Theday.com

Photo: Theday.com

The Angel of Losses by Stephanie Feldman is a wonderful novel – beautifully written, engaging and surprising. It’s also full of wonders: miracles, myths and mysteries.

Marjorie and Holly were as close as two sisters could be. They adored their grandfather, who lived with them and told them enthralling stories about the White Wizard and an angel, even though he sometimes got angry when they asked too many questions. Both girls were heartbroken when he died.

Things turn strange

But by the time we meet Marjorie and Holly, things have changed. Marjorie is a Ph.D. student researching the ancient anti-Semitic legend of the Wandering Jew, and spending more time in the library than with her family or friends.

Although they were raised as  Christians, Holly has converted to Judaism, changed her name to Chava, and married into an ultra-Orthodox splinter community with mystical beliefs so strange even other ultra-Orthodox groups look askance at them. Marjorie and Holly (she refuses to call her sister Chava) have barely spoken in months.

Then Marjorie finds one of her grandfather’s notebooks – which he had begged his son to destroy after his death – and discovers something shocking. Her grandfather has written down all the tales he used to tell about the White Wizard, but in the notebook the magical man is the White Rebbe, a rabbi who has been blessed with the power to perform miracles and cursed with immortality.

A survivor bearing a dreadful secret

What’s more, Marjorie realizes that her beloved grandfather had been lying to her all along. He was Jewish, it turns out, a survivor of the Holocaust bearing a dreadful secret. He was also the carrier of a legacy so powerful and mysterious it will take all of Marjorie’s strength and intellect to track down the truth and protect her family – particularly Holly’s newborn son.

“He’s coming for me,” Marjorie’s grandfather tells her in what she hopes is a dream. “And then he’s coming for you.”

Ancient mysteries and present dangers

But who is “he” – the White Rebbe? The Angel of Losses that the Rebbe must confront? The mysterious old man who seems to follow Marjorie everywhere and dole out tiny fragments of the story she’s so desperate to understand? And what do any of these ancient mysteries have to do with Marjorie and Holly? The only thing that’s clear is that Marjorie must figure it out, because the life of her infant nephew is at stake.

“A breathtakingly accomplished debut”

Ellah Allfrey of NPR Books called The Angel of Losses a “breathtakingly accomplished debut,” and I couldn’t agree more. The book sparkles with sharp, fresh images and gorgeous writing.

For a novel about angels, miracles and Jewish history from the medieval era through the Holocaust to modern-day New York City, The Angel of Losses is as suspenseful as any mystery story. You don’t need to be Jewish to enjoy and appreciate the novel. Everything you need to know is in the book, along with a healthy dose of wonder.

“I still believe that writing is most exciting when it’s an act of discovery,” Stephanie Feldman said. In that case, it must have been thrilling to write The Angel of Losses. I know it was thrilling to read.

Get a free copy of The Angel of Losses

The paperback edition of The Angel of Losses was just published a couple of weeks ago. I’m delighted to have two copies to give away.

There are two ways to toss your name in the hat to win a copy.

You can contact me through this blog and let me know you’d like a copy.

Or better yet, you can sign up for my monthly newsletter to be eligible to win this and other free books by women writers. I give away one or two each month. When you receive the newsletter, just hit reply and tell me which book you want.

I’ll choose a name from those who contact me. (Sorry, I can only ship to U.S. addresses.) I hope you will enjoy this enthralling novel as much as I did.

Angel of Losses

Art and outrage

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire took place 104 years ago this week. It inspired grief, outrage, the birth of a union, a host of labor laws and many books, including a brilliant novel called Triangle, by Katharine Weber.

I wrote about the novel a year ago, and thought I’d share the blog post with you again during this anniversary week.

From the archives

Triangle weaves together the stories of Esther Gottesfeld, the last living survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911; her scientist granddaughter; and a feminist researcher who asks Esther to share her memories and then listens a bit too carefully. The novel is riveting and challenging, with complex characters.

Who owns history?

Weber deftly builds both the mystery at the heart of the novel and the tense drama of the Triangle inferno. Small details that at first seem to provide only texture to the story later loom with horrifying impact.

The ending of the novel sent me racing back to the beginning with a new understanding – or at least new questions – about the plot. Triangle does not yield its insights easily, which makes it the best kind of book group selection, ripe for animated discussion.

Who owns history? The person whose story you believe.

 A tragedy and a legacy

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire was a predictable and preventable tragedy that killed 146 workers – mostly young immigrant women – at a clothing factory in New York.

Triangle fire w bodies

Dozens of the workers leaped to their deaths from the top floors of the blazing building, an image that anyone who lived through 9/11 can conjure all too easily. Even more people burned to death, many of them trapped behind locked doors in flaming workrooms. Others crawled onto rickety fire escapes that collapsed and sent them plunging to the sidewalk.

More than 350,000 people marched in the streets of New York to mourn the garment workers. Outraged by their needless and excruciating deaths, factory workers organized and won many of the workplace safety laws we take for granted today.

A story less known

A year before the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, some 20,000 women who worked in garment factories had gone on strike to demand better wages, a shorter workweek (52 hours), and specific safety measures. These working class women, many of them Yiddish-speaking immigrants, drew the support of New York’s suffragists, some of whom were women from the city’s wealthiest families.

Photo: hbo.com

Photo: hbo.com

The suffragists raised funds for the workers, bailed them out of jail, and organized mass rallies to generate public solidarity. Across the city, factories conceded to the workers’ demands, acknowledged the unions, and improved workplace safety.

Photo:: UNCPressblog

Photo:: UNCPressblog

But not the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. The two owners – Max Blanck and Isaac Harris – refused to unionize and refused to address safety concerns, including workers’ calls to leave factory doors unlocked and provide functional fire escapes.

A year later, these safety issues cost 146 people their lives. Yet they cost the factory owners nothing – in fact, the two men profited from the tragedy. While they settled lawsuits by paying family members $75 for each lost life, the owners received insurance settlements of $400 for each worker killed. The two men went on to run other factories, accumulating and ignoring citations for the very safety violations that had led to the carnage at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory.

Haunted

The lessons of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire – both learned and unlearned – continue to haunt us today. A powerful novel like Triangle takes you into that world, and part of you is likely to remain there for a long, long time.

Triangle book cover

30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #16 Brenda K. Marshall

The world is full of glorious novelists who don’t appear on best-seller lists or magazine covers, who support themselves with other work while they quietly produce their gifts to the universe. I think Brenda K. Marshall is one of these.

Gifts to the universe

She teaches at the University of Michigan, and her first book was a work of pedagogy called Teaching the Postmodern. Then she moved to fiction with her first novel, Mavis, published in 1996.

But I didn’t discover Brenda Marshall until 2010 when a member of my book group, who was friends with Marshall and also taught at Michigan, suggested we read Marshall’s latest novel, Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For? The book was a revelation.

The violent birthing of a state

In the novel, two educated young women from Philadelphia move with their families to the Dakota territories in the sod-busting, homesteading years before Dakota become a state (much less two). One woman is in love with the other, and marries the brother of the woman she loves so they can stay close. The deft, confident narrative swoops from this woman to a young girl from Norway to an old politician who describes himself as “pretty close to honest,” to a rapacious profiteer. If you read the introductory chapter you’ll get a good sense of the novel: smart, witty, and fresh.

Marshall brings the reader inside the experience of the violent birthing of a state. You see the bleak, majestic prairies, the families struggling to stay clean in their houses made of earth, the women trying to tame this new world and their own hungers, the men whose only language is money, making back room deals that will ruin families and futures they care nothing about.

She doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of the frontier experience, giving her lively attention to the brutality faced by Indians and immigrants alike, the venality of the men who carved up the country for their own benefit, and the suffocating, inescapable power that men held over women who had no right to call anything their own.

“A secret is a story we keep to ourselves.”

The characters are engaging, from sharp, energetic Frances with her hopeless love for her sister-in-law to a camp cook who hides more than one secret. In fact, many people in the novel have secrets they hold close. What’s a frontier for, if not to reinvent yourself?

“A secret is a story we want to keep to ourselves,” Brenda K. Marshall said in an interview on The News in Books blog. “A story doesn’t have to be true to be powerful. If you tell a story enough about yourself, you can convince yourself that it’s true.”

Brenda K Marshall

The best book club book of all time

My book group has gathered every month for more than 20 years to read books by and about women. After all that time and all those books, is it possible we have agreed on a favorite?

Yes. Our favorite book club book of all time is Triangle, a novel by Katharine Weber.

The book weaves together the stories of Esther Gottesfeld, the last living survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911; her scientist granddaughter; and a feminist researcher who asks Esther to share her memories and then listens a bit too carefully. The novel is riveting and challenging, with complex characters.

Who owns history?

Weber deftly builds both the mystery at the heart of the novel and the tense drama of the Triangle inferno. Small details that at first seem to provide only texture to the story later loom with horrifying impact.

The ending of the novel sent me racing back to the beginning with a new understanding – or at least new questions – about the plot. Triangle does not yield its insights easily, which makes it the best kind of book group selection, ripe for animated discussion.

Who owns history? The person whose story you believe.

 A tragedy and a legacy

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire took place 103 years ago this week. It was a predictable and preventable tragedy that killed 146 workers – mostly young immigrant women – at a clothing factory in New York.

Dozens of the workers leaped to their deaths from the top floors of the blazing building, an image that anyone who lived through 9/11 can conjure all too easily. Even more people burned to death, many of them trapped behind locked doors in flaming workrooms. Others crawled onto rickety fire escapes that collapsed and sent them plunging to the sidewalk.

More than 350,000 people marched in the streets of New York to mourn the garment workers. Outraged by their needless and excruciating deaths, factory workers organized and won many of the workplace safety laws we take for granted today.

A story less known

A year before the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, some 20,000 women who worked in garment factories had gone on strike to demand better wages, a shorter workweek (52 hours), and specific safety measures. These working class women, many of them Yiddish-speaking immigrants, drew the support of New York’s suffragists, some of whom were women from the city’s wealthiest families.

The suffragists raised funds for the workers, bailed them out of jail, and organized mass rallies to generate public solidarity. Across the city, factories conceded to the workers’ demands, acknowledged the unions, and improved workplace safety.

Not the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. The two owners – Max Blanck and Isaac Harris – refused to unionize and refused to address safety concerns, including workers’ calls to leave factory doors unlocked and provide functional fire escapes.

A year later, these safety issues cost 146 people their lives. But they cost the factory owners nothing – in fact, the two men profited from the tragedy. While they settled lawsuits by paying family members $75 for each lost life, the owners received insurance settlements of $400 for each worker killed. The two men went on to run other factories, accumulating and ignoring citations for the very safety violations that had led to the carnage at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory.

Haunted

It may seem we’ve strayed pretty far from the topic of favorite book club selections. But that’s the power of a good book: it takes you on a journey out of your world and into another. And with a haunting novel like Triangle, part of you is likely to remain there for a long, long time.

Triangle book cover

Reading Women Continued: H – Z

Read Women 2014 by Joanna Walsh

Read Women 2014 by Joanna Walsh

Continuing on the theme of reading women authors in 2014 – a mini-movement launched by the writer and illustrator Joanna Walsh – here are more selections my book group has read over the years. We read books by and about women.

Again, these books represent our collective decisions, not necessarily my personal recommendations. I’ve loved many, but not all, of them.

In a previous post, I listed authors from A – G. Scroll down to find it.

Here are authors from H – Z.

  • Haigh, Jennifer – Mrs. Kimble
  • Hamilton, Gabrielle – Blood, Bones & Butter
  • Hamilton, Jane – A Map of the World
  • Hamilton, Masha – The Camel Bookmobile
  • Harris, Joanne – Chocolat
  • Hazzard, Shirley – The Great Fire
  • Hegi, Ursula – Stones from the River
  • Heilbrun, Carol – Writing a Woman’s Life
  • Hulme, Keri – The Bone People
  • Hurston, Zora Neale – Their Eyes were Watching God
  • Huston, Nancy – Fault Lines
  • Jones, Ann – Looking for Lovedu
  • Karr, Mary – Lit
  • Kearns, Rosalie Morales – Virgins and Tricksters
  • Kerman, Piper – Orange is the New Black
  • Kingsley, Mary – Travels in West Africa
  • Kingsolver, Barbara – Flight Behavior; The Lacuna; The Poisonwood Bible; Pigs in Heaven
  • Kornblut, Ann – Notes from the Cracked Ceiling
  • Lahiri, Jhumpa – Unaccustomed Earth; The Interpreter of Maladies
  • Larson, Nella – Passing
  • LeGuin, Ursula – Left Hand of Darkness
  • Lessing, Doris – African Laughter
  • Levy, Andrea – Small Island
  • Lively, Penelope – Moon Tiger
  • Livesey, Margot – Eva Moves the Furniture
  • MacDonald, Ann Marie – Fall on Your Knees
  • Maloy, Maile – Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It
  • Markham, Beryl – West with the Wind
  • Marmon, Leslie Silk – Ceremony
  • Marshall, Brenda – Dakota, or What’s a Heaven For
  • Mason, Bobbie Ann – Feather Crowns
  • McDermott, Alice – After This; Charming Billy;
  • Messud, Claire – When the World was Steady
  • Min, Anchee – Red Azalea
  • Miner, Valerie – Trespass
  • Morrison, Toni – Paradise
  • Mujica, Barbara – Frida
  • Munro, Alice – Runaway; Too Much Happiness
  • Naslund, Sena Jeter – Ahab’s Wife
  • Naylor, Gloria – Mama Day
  • Nemirovsky, Irene – Suite Francaise
  • Nunez, Sigrid – The Last of Her Kind
  • O’Brien, Edna – Country Girl; The Country Girls Trilogy
  • O’Connor, Flannery – Three by Flannery O’Connor
  • O’Faolain, Naula – Are You Somebody?
  • Orleans, Susan – The Orchid Thief
  • Otsuka, Julie – The Buddha in the Attic
  • Ozeki, Ruth – My Year of Meats
  • Patchett, Ann – Bel Canto; State of Wonder; Truth and Beauty
  • Piercy, Marge – Sex Wars
  • Prager, Emily – Eve’s Tatoo
  • Prose, Francine – Reading like a Writer
  • Proulx, Annie – Postcards; Shipping News
  • Quinlen, Anna – One True Thing
  • Reichl, Ruth – Tender at the Bone
  • Robinson, Marilynne – Gilead
  • Roffey, Monique – White Woman on a Green Bicycle
  • Roy, Arundhati – The God of Small Things
  • Sebold, Alice – The Lovely Bones
  • See, Lisa – Snowflower and the Secret Fan
  • Senna, Danzy – Caucasia
  • Shields, Carole – Unless; The Stone Diaries
  • Sittenfeld, Curtis – American Wife
  • Skloot, Rebecca – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
  • Smiley, Jane – A Thousand Acres; Duplicate Keys
  • Smith, Abbe – The Case of a Lifetime
  • Smith, Patti – Just Kids
  • Smith, Zadie – White Teeth
  • Soulif, Ahdaf – The Map of Love
  • Stockett, Kathryn – The Help
  • Strayed, Cheryl – Wild
  • Strout, Elizabeth – Amy and Isabelle; Olive Kitteridge
  • Summer, Jane – The Silk Road
  • Trapido, Barbara – The Traveling Hornplayer
  • Tremain, Rose – Sacred Country
  • Walls, Jeanette – Half Broke Horses
  • Waters, Sarah – Fingersmith; The Night Watch; Tipping the Velvet
  • Weber, Katharine – Triangle
  • West, Dorothy – The Wedding
  • Wharton, Edith – The House of Mirth
  • Wilentz, Amy – The Martyr’s Crossing
  • Wilkerson, Isabelle – The Warmth of Other Suns
  • Williams, Lena – It’s the Little Things
  • Winterson, Jeanette – Art and Lies; Why be Happy when you can be Normal; Written on the Body
  • Woolf, Virginia – A Room of One’s Own; Mrs. Dalloway
  • Zeller, Zoe – The Believers; Notes from a Scandal