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

Are you a book nerd? A quiz

There are people who like to read. And then there are people who are truly bookish. Which are you? Take this quiz to find out.

Photo: Petr Dosek

Photo: Petr Dosek

Take the quiz

  1. Does your heart beat a little faster when you step into a bookstore or library?
  2. Do you start to feel panicky if you are waiting in line somewhere with nothing to read?
  3. Have you ever wept or lost sleep over the fate of a fictional character?
  4. Do you sometimes grieve when you finish a novel, because you have to leave those characters behind?
  5. When you go to someone’s home for the first time, do you immediately check out their books?
  6. Do you live among stacks of books that resemble a redwood forest?
  7. If you have an e-reader, does it contain more books than you could possibly read in a lifetime?
  8. Do you often have more than one book going at a time?
  9. Have you ever snuck out of a party to read for a couple of minutes?
  10. Have you ever cancelled or declined a social event so you could stay home and read?

Your score

If you answered yes to 3 or more of these questions, you are a certifiable book nerd. My condolences. It is a chronic condition and there is no cure.

But to help keep the cravings under control, you should quickly sign up for Being Bookish, my free monthly newsletter: book talk, giveaways, and other stuff that only a book nerd could love.

Sign up here. You’ll feel better.

 

30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #20 Mary Doria Russell

When you open a novel by Mary Doria Russell, there’s no way to prepare yourself. Her books are so vibrant, so varied, you can never know what to expect. All you can rely on is that each book will be compelling, animated by ideas and gripping plots as well as by the human hunger for connection.

Creatures of God

The Sparrow, Russell’s first novel (and my favorite), was published in 1998 and takes place in the near future. The Jesuits send into space a mission team composed of a handful of priests, a scientist, a Jewish intellectual who has just escaped a lifetime of indentured servitude, and a doctor and engineer who are married to one another. Scientists have heard music being broadcast from a distant planet, and somehow the Jesuits get the jump on international governments and send their team of linguists, artists and clerics to meet the other creatures of God. Decades later, the lone survivor of the journey, a Puerto Rican priest who speaks a dozen languages, finally tells the Church hierarchy what happened on the planet, when humans first encountered extraterrestrial beings and God broke all their hearts.

Resonance for our own time

In 2008, Russell published Dreamers of the Day, a beautifully written historical novel with deep resonance for our own time. The book is narrated by Agnes Shanklin, a Cleveland woman who has spent her life serving and obeying others. When she loses her entire family in the influenza epidemic of 1919, she decides to take a long trip to Egypt. There she falls in with such historical figure as Lawrence of Arabia, Gertrude Bell and Winston Churchill. Agnes – who informs readers that she is telling us this story from beyond the grave – is a minor observer of the Cairo Peace Conference in 1919, in which the colonial powers, notably Britain, carved up the Middle East and created a new state called Iraq. Agnes is a memorable personality, and the Middle East history is fascinating and tragic because we know how it all turns out – and we learn from this novel that it didn’t need to be that way.

Trust

If I didn’t already trust Mary Doria Russell as a writer, I would never have picked up her 2011 novel Doc – and that would have been too bad. I have no interest in Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, or the milieu of the American West they personify. But this book was completely engrossing, thanks to the skill and warmth of the author and her narrative voice. The real-life characters Russell presents in this deeply researched novel are nothing like the mythic characters we’ve seen in a hundred movies, and the book is all the more fascinating for that. Her latest novel, Epitaph, builds on Doc and is already collecting strong reviews although it won’t be published until March 2015.

Who is she?

So who is this protean writer? She’s a Ph.D. with degrees in cultural, social and biological anthropology. She’s written six novels, won armloads of literary awards, been nominated for a Pulitzer prize – and had an asteroid named in tribute to one of her novels, an honor few authors can claim. Right now Mary Doria Russell is working on a book about the early days of the American labor movement. I can’t wait to read it.

Photo: Jeff Rooks

Photo: Jeff Rooks

My year in books – Part 3 of 3

Each year, I share a list with brief descriptions of the books I read that year. In 2014, the book I read and re-read the most was my novel Her Own Vietnam, as I prepared it for publication. But that still left time to read 45 other books – some of which might be just right for you.

Books are listed in alphabetical order by title. An asterisk (*) indicates a book I particularly enjoyed. I’ll post the list in three parts:

I hope you’ll find some good choices for your own reading in 2015. Feel free to share this list with other book-loving friends.

NONFICTION

AWOL on the Appalachian Trail by David Miller

Enjoyable first-person account of a man who escapes the corporate cube farm and, with the support of his wife and children, strikes out to hike the full 2,168 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Although I would never undertake one, I am drawn to books about other people’s epic hikes. This one had all the standard elements: descriptions of the hike and its challenges; appreciation of nature and a life lived out of doors; colorful depictions of other hikers with their strange trail names (the author’s trail name is AWOL); a reflection years later on what the hike meant to him and his family – all well told, with solid, crisp writing.

*Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

A collection of smart, brave, incisive and pain-tinged essays about the flammable places where race, gender and popular culture meet. Like many essay collections, this powerful book is best digested in bite-sized pieces. It will stay with you.

*Home Fires by Don Katz

At first glance I thought: 640 pages that chronicle four decades in the life of a Jewish family in America? No thanks; I have a Jewish family of my own. But the book is riveting, and illuminated much about the decades of social and political upheaval everyone my age has lived through. An interesting note about the author (whom I know slightly): he is the founder of Audible.com. He had a distinguished career as a writer before he got the idea that people would buy audiobooks over the Internet.

*In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides

Riveting account of an American ship that in 1879 sailed beyond the known world in search of the North Pole, and found disaster and revelation in an Arctic land few humans had ever seen. The author does a fantastic job of creating a propulsive narrative about conquest and survival by weaving in details from the crew’s journals, letters from their family members, newspaper stories, and academic theories about what lay beyond the map. He also illustrates with devastating clarity how swiftly the incursion of Americans and Europeans into indigenous Arctic communities destroyed their cultures and the environments they relied upon.

*Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

What does it mean to be poor and black, to be a man or a woman, in America? In this searing and thoughtful memoir, the author of the award-winning novel Salvage the Bones revisits her growing up amidst extended family in rural Mississippi. “You need to know how we’re living and dying here,” she wrote. In her young adulthood, five young men she loved died violently, including her younger brother. The book is about their deaths, but even more about their lives and the lives of the women who bore them, raised them, loved them and buried them – a whole community trying to eke out a life beneath the crushing weight of racism and poverty.

The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane

A British literature professor takes long walks – weeks and weeks long – across the ancient paths that traverse England, with a few side trips to Spain and the Himalayas. In precise and poetic language, Macfarlane’s thoughts wander with his feet, weaving in history, literature and personal stories that range from folklore to his own grandfather. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, particularly his descriptions of England’s chalk downs. But I could not help thinking of the wife he left behind to take care of their small children and all the responsibilities of family life while he took off on his rambling adventures.

*The Passage of Power by Robert Caro

Fascinating chronicle of Lyndon Johnson’s life during the tumultuous years 1958 through 1964, during which Johnson wielded enormous power in the Senate, reached for the Presidency with a baffling strategy guaranteed to fail, became Vice President, and gained the Presidency in a way he never expected. Oh, and he launched the War on Poverty and the most transformative civil rights policies since emancipation.

Rare and Commonplace Flowers: The Story of Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares by Carmen Oliveira

A strange hybrid of a book – part novel, part biography, part undigested chunks of research about the almost 20-year romantic partnership between a Pulitzer Prize winning American poet and the brilliant, intense Brazilian aristocrat. I knew nothing about either woman or their relationship before reading the book, and now feel well versed in their chaotic history.

*The Soil will Save Us by Kristin Ohlson

I come from generations of apartment dwellers, and I don’t care about the soil. (Although I do like to eat – and breathe). But Kristin Ohlson’s sparkling writing and clear, persuasive case compelled me to care – and made me understand both the promise and the stakes of what she called “our great green hope.” Full disclosure: Kristin is a friend of mine. But I read and loved her first book, Stalking the Divine, long before I met her.

Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal? By Jeanette Winterson

Winterson’s well-written, powerful memoir of growing up in a cruel, twisted family that loved Jesus but hated everything about Jeanette that was special.

 

 Any suggestions?

Any ideas for great books to read next year? Suggestions welcome!

TBR 7-14

My year in books – Part 2 of 3

Each year, I share a list with brief descriptions of the books I read that year. In 2014, the book I read and re-read the most was my novel Her Own Vietnam, as I prepared it for publication. But that still left time to read 45 other books – some of which might be just right for you.

Books are listed in alphabetical order by title. An asterisk (*) indicates a book I particularly enjoyed. I’ll post the list in three parts:

I hope you’ll find some good choices for your own reading in 2015. Feel free to share this list with other book-loving friends.

FICTION M – Z

The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardarm

This is the second book in the “Old Filth” trilogy. (Filth is an acronym for “Failed In London; Try Hong Kong.”) The novel focuses on Elizabeth Feathers, an adventurous young Englishwoman who grew up in the East and spent much of WWII in a Japanese internment camp. She meets and marries Eddie Feathers, a rising attorney who is too conventional for bold Betty. They meet in Hong Kong and stay married for decades, finally retiring in old age to a Britain that feels alien to them. Betty Feathers is a vivid character, drawn with verve and wit by the author. A very enjoyable read.

*Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Every decade or so I reread this stunning novel, and each time I find something new to appreciate. The novel takes place in London, during a single June day in 1923. World War I is over, but its impact can be felt everywhere. Clarissa Dalloway, an upper class woman in her 50s, is preparing to throw a party. Peter Walsh, who once loved her and whom she rejected for the more predictable Richard Dalloway, has just returned to London after five years in India. A veteran is going mad in a way that makes perfect sense after the horrors of the war, and his immigrant wife is growing desperate. All of these people and more connect and intertwine and pull apart in unexpected ways as Clarissa Dalloway’s past and present collide.

Next Life Might be Kinder by Howard Norman

A sad and strange novel about a man whose wife has been murdered yet continues to hold long conversations with him almost nightly on a remote beach in Nova Scotia. Like the ocean, the novel is animated by undercurrents – the lure of the past, literary and cinematic allusions, therapy, “situational ethics” – that at different points both muddy and clarify this story of grief and determination.

*The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

In the years after the first World War, a young woman (Frances) and her mother are forced to rent rooms in their large house in suburban London to lodgers. They need the money and have room to spare: both of Frances’ brothers were killed in the war, and her father soon died, leaving them penniless. The married couple who move in are politely known as paying guests. Sharing a home is fraught enough, but then Frances and the wife fall in love. A domestic drama evolves into a murder and a trial at which not only a defendant but ideas of class, gender, loyalty and duty are under interrogation. The novel is gripping and suspenseful, and does a brilliant job of conveying in crisp human detail what it was like to live at that time, under those constraints. I particularly enjoyed the details about early 20th century housekeeping.

Redeployment by Phil Klay

These fine stories peel back the skin to show the pumping blood behind the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as experienced by combat soldiers, administrative staff, ministers, chaplains and more.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

Who knew Elizabeth Gilbert could write like this? The sweeping novel follows the Whittaker family – particularly Alma, the brilliant and singular botanist – through centuries and continents as she seeks the coded messages God sent to humankind through the secrets of evolution. An enjoyable romp of a book, shot through with ideas and curiosity.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

A middle-aged couple, devastated by their inability to have children, decides to move to Alaska. One night they build a snowman in the shape of a young girl, and the next day they see the girl running through the forest. I am weirdly drawn to stories that take place in cold locales, so I particularly enjoyed the details of what it’s like to work a farm in Alaska. The novel offers compelling characterizations of the couple and their neighbors.

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

The fact that sociopaths have become such stock figures in popular culture may be due in part to Patricia Highsmith. This brilliant novel is about a young man who has all the yearning, striving and desire of other men – everything but a conscience. He kills the man whose love he was trying to win, and begins to live the victim’s life. Written in flat, simple, ice-cold language, the novel brings you deeply inside the terrifying Mr. Ripley and compels you to understand his drives and motivations.

Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore

A moody, intimate novel about the bonds between two sisters and the childhood secret they’ve kept for decades – even from themselves.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

A brief, beautiful novel about Mary, the mother of Jesus, who looks back on her life in the months following her son’s death, as her own death approaches. She never believed he was divine; considered his followers “misfits” and “men who couldn’t look a woman in the eye;” and despite the apostles’ conviction that her son’s horrific death will change the world, Mary cannot believe the sacrifice could possibly be worth it. I found this simple, powerful book very moving.

*To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

This is one of my favorite novels, which I reread every so often just to appreciate the beauty and precision of the language. Woolf’s portrayal of the two main characters, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey – whose first names we never learn – and of the tidal sweep of their relationship amidst their eight children remains powerful. The novel also contains the most shocking parenthetical phrase of any book I’ve ever read. This time around, I listened to the novel as an audiobook. Juliet Stevenson is the perfect narrator for Virginia Woolf.

The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol

Powerful short stories that explore how political events can scald human lives with the briefest touch, and what it’s like to search for or flee from a home on this turning planet.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frye by Rachel Joyce

A pleasant novel about a bland, repressed, middle-aged Englishman who strolls to the mailbox to drop a letter to a dying friend, but surprises himself and everyone else by instead walking across England to the friend’s bedside.

The Visionist by Rachel Urquahart

I’ve attended two high schools called Shaker High, one in Ohio and one in upstate New York, so I’ve always been curious about the Shakers. This novel pulls you inside their world during an era in the 19th century when girls were seized by visions of the divine. Another teenage girl with visions come to the Shaker village, left there by her mother as the family flees a traumatic event in their town. The newcomer is paired with a girl who grew up in the Shaker Village, and the two become close. But are the new girl’s visions glimpses of the divine or something else?

*We are all Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Award-winning novel about what it means to be human, and to love those who are not. When the narrator was 5 years old, her twin sister was torn away from the family for reasons that may or may not have been her fault. The fact that her sister was a chimpanzee is both the point and beside the point of this excellent book.

*We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride

Four tragic story lines narrated by four diverse characters converge into one moment of hope in a Las Vegas that tourists will never see. I particularly appreciated the sections written in the point of view of Bashkim, an 8-year-old boy. I often find child narrators annoying, either too cutesy or preternaturally wise and mature. Bashkim is unusually mature and responsible, but in the way that is typical of the children of immigrants, who must serve as their parents’ translators and protectors in their new world. The book brings the four main characters to life, with all their shortcomings and desperation, and the deep daily heroism of trying to do their best. Las Vegas, perhaps our country’s strangest city, also takes a star turn in this wonderful novel that is all about what is not visible on the surface.

Where’d you Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple

A renowned architect experiences a trauma and moves from Los Angeles to Seattle, where she lives with her Microsoft-guru husband and her adored daughter in a deteriorating mansion. The architect, Bernadette, has grown agoraphobic and has hired an online assistant to take care of life’s chores. Things get tricky when the family is about to embark on a trip to Antarctica. Bernadette’s skewering of Seattle and its culture was perhaps the most entertaining part of the book. This is a quirky, satirical novel that hides its dark heart in a veneer of frothiness.

Coming Up 

Tomorrow: nonfiction.

In 2015: who knows? What books do you recommend?

Photo by David McSpadden

Photo by David McSpadden