30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #12 Lily King

As I count down the days to the launch of my novel Her Own Vietnam, I’m writing about wonderful women novelists.

Gorgeous writing and powerful emotional pull, if you like that sort of thing

I’ve now read three of Lily King’s four novels, and I still can’t say exactly what it is that stamps a novel as a work of Lily King. The books are so different, set in different times and places with characters who share little in common, united only by the gorgeous writing and the powerful emotional pull of each novel.

The Pleasing Hour is about a young American woman who goes to Paris to work as an au pair and escape a tragedy in her past, only to find that the past is more alive in Europe than anywhere, and that tragedy shadows us all.

In The English Teacher, a high school English teacher with a teenaged son marries a man with teenagers of his own, and her world begins to unravel. Once you read this book, you’ll never think of Tess of the D’Ubervilles the same way again.

Euphoria

Her latest book, Euphoria, is about three anthropologists in the 1930s, studying and living among tribes in Papua New Guinea. The three scientists – an American woman who has written a shocking and best-selling book about the sex lives of a tribe, her Australian husband and an English man they know only slightly – plunge into a love triangle that’s a vortex of passion, intellectual zeal, rivalry, ambition, and perhaps a dash of madness.

The novel immediately creates an atmosphere of peril and strangeness. By the time I read the first five sentences, I was hooked: I had to know what had happened and what would happen next, even though I suspected it would be harrowing. And it was – harrowing, and uplifting and most of all, fascinating. The details about how anthropologists conduct their work and their lives were astounding.

A growing sense of dread

As I read, I was gripped by a growing sense of dread, both that something awful was about to happen and that the book was coming to an end. You know that feeling of grief you have when you finish a beloved book? Well, authors feel that too, as Lily King wrote here.

On my bookshelf, Lily King’s Euphoria stands next to Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. It seems fitting.

Lily King

Lily King

It’s Egg Heaven Day!

Egg Heaven cover

Today, October 1, 2014, two exciting things are happening. First, the nation’s newest feminist publishing house – Shade Mountain Press – is bursting onto the literary scene with its first book.

Second, Shade Mountain’s first book – the short story collection Egg Heaven, by Robin Parks – is finally available.

The critics love it!

In Foreword Reviews, Sara Budzik wrote, “Strong characters immersed in gentle moments of great significance set against a backdrop of struggling diners and restaurants along the southwest coast give Egg Heaven a flavor of its own. Robin Parks has carefully caressed each detail of her writing into focused visions of some of the most complex human emotions—grief, love, resentment, redemption… Parks is a master of the short story.”

In Booklist, Ellen Loughran said, “This engaging collection, with its predominance of female characters, appeals most strongly to women but will reward any short fiction reader who picks it up.”

Now it’s your turn.

Both of these are influential journals read and respected by booksellers. So the fact that they love Egg Heaven is important. But not as important as what you think.

If you appreciate writing that shimmers with quiet beauty, want to immerse yourself in a Southern California no tourist will ever see, hope to understand all the different ways a human can hunger – then go to Egg Heaven.

I won’t even pretend to be objective

The author, Robin Parks – who won the Raymond Carver Short Story Award – is a long-time friend of mine. And Egg Heaven is the first book published by Shade Mountain Press, which in one month will publish my novel.

So no, I won’t even pretend to objective. But it no longer matters what I think about the book. Egg Heaven has been born.

You can order Egg Heaven here. Savor the nine stories. Then let me know what you think. 

30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #7 Jennifer Haigh

Only 40 days until my novel Her Own Vietnam is released! In the meantime, I’m blogging about 30 women novelists you should know.

The quiet power of Jennifer Haigh

Jennifer Haigh is one of those writers, like Alice McDermott, whose quiet and modest narrative voice hides how beautifully she creates complex, breathing characters and situations.

Her first novel, Mrs. Kimble, told the story of three women who, over time, all make the same mistake of marrying Ken Kimble. While not my favorite of her books, it won the 2004 Pen/Hemingway Award for debut fiction.

Families and communities on the cusp of change

Baker Towers blew me away with its exploration of life in a Pennsylvania mining town called Bakerton in the years following WWII. The towers in question are not church steeples or university spires, but two gigantic piles of coal waste – which tells you all you need to know about why the daughters and sons of the Novak family try so desperately to escape or resign themselves to the town.

This year Haigh came back to Bakerton with News from Heaven, a collection of interconnected short stories that provides a ground-level glimpse of small-town America as it vanishes before the eyes of its dwindling residents. The town has been mined out and is now collapsing in on itself, and its families must learn to live in the empty skeleton of their hometown, or go elsewhere to build new lives.

The Condition portrays a family in dissolution. A daughter has Turner’s syndrome, which keeps people perpetually in a childlike state; the afflictions of the other family members are less easy to diagnose.

The moment before it all falls apart

My current favorite of Jennifer Haigh’s novels is Faith, a surprisingly fresh take on a situation we are all too familiar with: a Catholic priest has been accused of sexually abusing a young boy. The novel is narrated by the priest’s sister, who illuminates the situation from several points of view, including those of her brother and the mother of the child he is accused of violating.

The book provides an intimate view of a working class, devoutly Catholic community in New England as their faith in the Church is beginning to crumble. You can watch the book trailer here.

What happens next

Jennifer Haigh told the novelist Caroline Leavitt, “I write novels for the same reason I read them: to find out what happens next.” Read Haigh’s books for the plot – or for the breathtaking portrayals of familiar worlds in the process of disintegrating.

Jennifer Haigh

Jennifer Haigh

30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #6 Sonya Chung

I’ve been sharing some thoughts about my favorite novelists. You may already be familiar with many of them, but I hope you’ll find some new favorites of your own in this list.

 Only one, but it’s a beauty

Sonya Chung has written only one novel so far, and it’s a beauty. Long for this World is about a war photographer who is injured in Iraq and goes home to recover in New York.

“Home” is an ambiguous concept for her, since she has spent the past decade traveling to all the world’s worst places, preserving images and losing people. When she learns that her father has abruptly left her mother and gone to visit his brother in Korea – the first time he has returned to his home country in decades – the daughter goes to find him, bringing her cameras, her childlike Korean, her weariness and her curiosity about this mysterious notion of family.

According to whom?

Chung was 37 when Long for this World was published – a late bloomer, according to some standards of the literary world. This, of course, ignores her many published and lauded stories and essays. And it’s a nonsensical standard to begin with (says the writer who also published her first novel at 37).

In response, Chung went on to found Bloom, a literary website that features writers whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. The site’s tagline is “’Late’ according to whom?”

You can find Sonya Chung’s writing all over the Web. What you won’t find – yet – is her second novel. Wait for it. Watch for it. It’ll be worth it.

Sonya Chung

Sonya Chung

30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #4 Jillian Cantor

As the publication date for my novel draws closer, I’m thinking and writing about 30 Novelists You Should Know. And they’re all women.

What if?

What if Margot Frank, Anne Frank’s older sister, had survived the concentration camps? What if she tried to shed her past by moving to Philadelphia and creating a new identity for herself as a non-Jewish woman named Margie Franklin?

This is the premise of Jillian Cantor’s compelling and haunting novel, Margot. The book takes place in 1959, just as the movie version of “The Diary of Anne Frank” sweeps across America.

A fresh look at a well-known story

A vast number of people throughout the world have read The Diary of a Young Girl. (For a fascinating examination of the book’s reach and impact, read Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife by Francine Prose.)

I read Anne Frank’s diary as a teenager and have reread it as an adult. Like most Jews of my generation, I’ve also read a large amount of Holocaust literature.

Margot is something different. It centers on the sister we never knew, the one we readers saw only through our peripheral vision because we couldn’t take our eyes off Anne. And it provides a shocking glimpse of the casual and pervasive anti-Semitism in post-war Philadelphia, just years after the horrors of the Holocaust had become fully known.

An appalling inspiration

Cantor’s inspiration to write Margot emerged from an appalling event. She was only yards away when Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot and six people were murdered, including a girl only a little older than Cantor’s own children. You can read about it here.

A writer to watch

Jillian Cantor has written another novel for adults and three for teen readers. I learned about Margot through book reviews, and had not been familiar with Cantor before that. I’ll definitely be watching for future work from her.

If you read Margot, read it for the story – and to see how a writer’s words can transform a tale so familiar into something new and evocative.

Jillian Cantor

Jillian Cantor