Back to Books

For a while now, I’ve been writing about outrage. It’s time to get back to books, if only for a moment.

I needed a thick, engrossing novel that would erase the rest of the world, and I’ve found it in The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova. A young American woman named Alexandra Boyd flies to Bulgaria to teach English. The day she arrives, dazed with jet lag, she accidentally ends up with a piece of luggage belonging to an elderly Bulgarian couple and discovers, to her horror, that it holds someone’s ashes in an urn.

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30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #17 Laura McBride

As the holiday season approaches, I join all novelists in secretly wishing people across the land would awaken to find shiny copies of my book under their tree or menorah or waiting for them on the kitchen table. Hope you’ll find some inspiration for literary gifts in these posts about women novelists you should know.

“You’ve got to read this book.”

I learned about Laura McBride in the best way. A friend I trust said, “You’ve got to read this book.” The book was We Are Called to Rise, and the title alone (from an Emily Dickinson poem) would have drawn me. But I might not have stumbled across the title without my friend’s recommendation.

In We Are Called to Rise, four tragic story lines are narrated by four diverse characters: a woman whose marriage is collapsing and whose son has returned damaged from his third deployment in a war zone, a 22-year-old soldier recovering from a mysterious war wound, a middle-aged woman who advocates for children involved in court cases, and an 8-year old Albanian boy who is adapting far more swiftly than his parents to the strange world of America. All of these stories converge into one moment of hope in a gritty, sun-blasted Las Vegas no tourist will ever see.

I particularly appreciated the sections written in the point of view of Bashkim, the young boy. I often find child narrators annoying – either too cutesy or preternaturally wise. 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 in a world where events sometimes seem to lack all meaning. Las Vegas, perhaps our country’s strangest city, also takes a star turn in this novel that is all about what is not visible on the surface.

A mature sensibility

This is Laura McBride’s first novel. She was 53 years old when it was published, and you can sense the mature mind and heart behind the text. For example, in this passage McBride takes us inside the thoughts of Avis, the woman whose son has returned from war as a frightening stranger. She grew up in poverty and chaos, and has managed to eke out a happy, stable life for herself. Now in middle age, she sees it beginning to disintegrate:

It all matters. That someone turns out the lamp, picks up the windblown wrapper, says hello to the invalid, pays at the unattended lot, listens to the repeated tale, folds the abandoned laundry, plays the game fairly, tells the story honestly, acknowledges help, gives credit, says good night, resists temptation, wipes the counter, waits at the yellow, makes the bed, tips the maid, remembers the illness, congratulates the victor, accepts the consequences, takes a stand, steps up, offers a hand, goes first, goes last, chooses the small portion, teaches the child, tends to the dying, comforts the grieving, removes the splinter, wipes the tear, directs the lost, touches the lonely, is the whole thing.

We Are Called to Rise has gotten wonderful reviews, and appeared on the published “must read” lists of such literary luminaries as Isabel Allende. But for me the most powerful inducement was my friend, telling me this was a book I could not miss.

Laura McBride

A quote to savor

Quote

For some reason I’m often inclined to contemplate quotations on Sunday afternoon. This one is from Laura McBride’s wonderful novel, We Are Called to Rise.

We are inside the point of view of one of the characters. She grew up in deep poverty and managed to eke out a happy, middle-class life for herself. Now, in middle age, she sees it all beginning to disintegrate:

It all matters. That someone turns out the lamp, picks up the windblown wrapper, says hello to the invalid, pays at the unattended lot, listens to the repeated tale, folds the abandoned laundry, plays the game fairly, tells the story honestly, acknowledges help, gives credit, says good night, resists temptation, wipes the counter, waits at the yellow, makes the bed, tips the maid, remembers the illness, congratulates the victor, accepts the consequences, takes a stand, steps up, offers a hand, goes first, goes last, chooses the small portion, teaches the child, tends to the dying, comforts the grieving, removes the splinter, wipes the tear, directs the lost, touches the lonely, is the whole thing.

Words to savor.