30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #2 Kim Barnes

These days I’m writing about Thirty Women Novelists You Should Know. In alphabetical order, today is #2: Kim Barnes.

Turns out I didn’t discover her

Like many writers I believe I’ve discovered, Kim Barnes had a distinguished writing career long before I stumbled upon her work. For instance, her first memoir was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. I’ve read only one of her three novels, but loved it enough to know I want to read more of her books – and to introduce other readers to her if I can.

In the Kingdom of Men is about a young couple from Pawnee, Oklahoma who move to Saudi Arabia in the 1960s so the husband can work for an American oil company. The wife, who grew up in poverty under a strict Pentecostal religion, suddenly has an Indian houseboy and a Bedouin driver, and nothing to do but chafe under the familiar restrictions the Saudis place on women. The novel does a wonderful job of creating characters and exploring the many political, racial and gender issues at play in the burgeoning oil partnership between the U.S. and the Saudis.

We all live in a dangerous neighborhood

I was first drawn to the book by its title, since I believe we are all living in the kingdom of men and it’s a dangerous neighborhood. The novel captured me with its vibrant depiction of the American oil companies’ frantic efforts to domesticate the Saudi landscape and people, as well as the book’s examination of the dangers – and temptations – of empire.

The main character, Gin, is complicated and compelling, always probing to find the limits of her freedom. As a reader you fear for her, cheer for her, and wish she could live in a less confining era. The novel brilliantly illuminates conflicts of culture – not only the tensions between the Saudis and the Americans who live in guarded compounds on their land, but the tensions between democracy and the rampaging capitalism of the oil companies. And I particularly loved how friendship served in the novel as both a means of redemption and insurrection.

I’m stealing this

On Barnes’ website, the discussion guide for In the Kingdom of Men concludes with this odd and thought-provoking question, which I am absolutely going to steal for my own discussion guide for Her Own Vietnam: “If you could save one life in this story, whose life would it be?”

Kim Barnes

Kim Barnes

30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #1 Carol Anshaw

As I count down the days before Her Own Vietnam is published, I wanted to share some thoughts about my favorite novelists. If you’re not already familiar with these wonderful writers, I hope you’ll give their books a try.

Over the next few weeks I’ll post (in alphabetical order) about Thirty Novelists You Should Know. And guess what – they’re all women.

#1 Carol Anshaw

I discovered Carol Anshaw in 1992 with her first book, Aquamarine. In that novel she creates three alternate and equally plausible lives for Jessie, an Olympic swimmer who almost wins a gold medal but loses it to the Australian swimmer she has fallen in love with. Or was it love? Did the Australian woman woo her only to break her concentration? And which of the three possible futures does Jessie experience?

My admiration for Anshaw’s writing has grown through all four of her novels including her most recent book, Carry the One, in which young people on the way home from a wedding get into a car accident that will affect the rest of their lives.

What I admire

Here’s what I love about her work. Anshaw creates warm, lively, complicated characters who live in the real world, not in a fictional bubble. They recognize the impact of public events on their personal lives, as well as their capacity to help shape those events.

Her books are witty, with the smart, sharp-edged humor I most enjoy. Many of Anshaw’s characters are lesbians, but the books are never about the fact that they’re lesbians. She is a master at writing dialogue that’s realistic and revealing. Throw in some great Chicago locations (my home town) and you have the perfect mix.

 Where’s the love?

I know she’s a New York Times best-selling author, but it has always seemed to me that Carol Anshaw is underappreciated as a writer. I wonder if it’s because of the naturalistic way she writes.

Her plots unfold in ways that seem inevitable, as if anyone could see that the characters had no choice but to make those particular decisions. Her characters speak like your smartest, funniest friends, and they strive and stumble just as we all do.

Anshaw makes it look easy to write that way. It isn’t.

Carol Anshaw (thefeministwire.com)

Carol Anshaw

Egg Heaven has arrived!

Egg Heaven cover

If you love short stories, appreciate writing that shimmers with quiet beauty, long to be transformed by brief, intense immersions into other people’s harrowing and astonishing lives – then go to Egg Heaven.

Nine short stories about waitresses who work in diners and customers who can barely afford to eat there. Nine living worlds created in a Southern California no tourist will ever see. Diverse characters connected by filaments of hope amidst all the different ways a human can hunger.

I won’t even pretend

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 November will publish my novel.

So no, I won’t even pretend to objective. But let me tell you some of the things I love about this book.

Let me count the ways

With a few deft strokes, Robin creates indelible characters. For example, one character takes up less than two pages, yet is unforgettable as she tries to recruit a desperate young woman into the Marines by assuring her she will save money because “quite frankly honey, you will be too dog tired to spend it.”

The book creates a powerful sense of place. Long Beach, California and the elements themselves serve as characters. I reveled in descriptions such as “the long sigh of the outgoing surf,” and “So deep was the strength of the ocean that she could feel it shudder beneath her.”

Pages glint with beautiful writing and haunting evocations of loss. For instance, we experience a young woman playing her section of a piano duet she used to play with her twin sister, who has recently been killed. “She played her part like the one leaf in a bush that shivers in the wind when all the others are still.”

Don’t take my word for it

It’s not just me – lots of people love Egg Heaven. In the influential journal Foreword Reviews, Sara Budzik wrote, “Parks is a master of the short story and of using elements of place and resource as common threads between people. She connects lost souls to something they found in these diners and restaurants, and it connects us all with the poetry of the human experience.”

The book’s official publication date is October 1. But you can pre-order now if you click here. Read Egg Heaven, and let me know what you think. You won’t be sorry.

To be read: Egg Heaven

Women and War

Fatigue shirt

My father served on Okinawa in World War II. That 21-year-old Army lieutenant from Chicago probably could not have imagined that 70 years later the U.S. military would still be a dominant force on Okinawa, setting the rules and occupying twenty percent of the land on that tiny, crowded island.

Above the East China Sea

Of course, you don’t need to wear a uniform to be transformed by war. Just ask the two teenaged girls at the heart of Sarah Bird’s luminous and compelling novel, Above the East China Sea.

Okinawan daughter Tamiko Kokuba has eagerly embraced the Japanese propaganda about the crudeness of her own culture and the superiority of the “true Japanese spirit.” She only learns the truth in 1945, when she and hundreds of other Okinawan girls are pressed into service in the nightmarish cave hospitals of the Japanese army.

In 2014, Luz James has just moved to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, yet another leap in the endless hopscotch of her life as the daughter of a single mom who’s a gung-ho U.S. Air Force sergeant. But this new assignment is different, because Luz’s beloved older sister has just been killed in Afghanistan, and Luz isn’t sure she wants to keep on living.

The two girls, separated by generations and cultures, are connected in ways Luz only begins to discover as she learns how to reckon with her family’s history and the long shadow of empire.

As a reader and a writer

As a reader, I was enthralled by Above the East China Sea, and felt bereft when I finished the book and was forced to leave its fictional world. As a writer, I was deeply impressed.

An immense amount of research must have gone into the writing, yet it never seems didactic. I learned a good deal about the history and culture of Okinawa, and fascinating details about the lives of today’s “base kids,” bouncing around the world from one U.S. military post to another, perpetually unable to claim a hometown. Sarah Bird also does something interesting and unexpected with the narrative point of view toward the end of the novel.

Beyond women and war

It’s no mystery that the concept of women and war intrigues me, since I wrote a novel about a woman who served in Vietnam and the impact that experience had on her and her family. So I was surprised to discover that I had only read 10 of the 50 novels described in this excellent article by Soniah Kamal.

Kamal defines her list, quite rightly, not as women writing about war, but as women writing about “conflict, displacement and resilience.” Her list includes some books I’ve loved: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver; American Woman by Susan Choi; Small Island by Andrea Levy; The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat; The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing; Bel Canto by Ann Patchett.

Given the spaciousness of Kamal’s definition, we can all probably think of other novels that might have been included. For me the best – or, depending on your point of view, worst – thing about Kamal’s article is that I now have 40 more novels to add to my to-be-read list.

Book fever


My current to-be-read pile

My current to-be-read pile

I don’t’ know about you, but I have so many books I’m longing to read that it’s a wonder I can make time for frivolous things like work or sleep.

What I’m reading now

I tend to have a few books going at once, in different genres and different formats. Here’s what I’m currently reading.

  • We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride (novel)
  • The Visionist by Rachel Urquhart (novel – audiobook)
  • The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison (essays – ebook)
  • Rare and Commonplace Flowers: The Story of Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares by Carmen Oliveira (biography – ebook). This one’s for my book group.

What I plan to read

In the photo above, you can see my stack of books to be read. I also have a TBR stack you can’t see, because it contains ebooks and audio books. These include:

  • Abroad by Katie Crouch (novel)
  • The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (novel)
  • Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks (novel)
  • Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary (nonfiction)
  • Above the East China Sea by Sara Bird (novel)
  • Some Sing, Some Cry by Ntozake Shange and Ifa Bayeza (novel)

Bookstores: part of the problem

Part of my problem is that I live in Washington, DC, a city with a rich culture of independent bookstores.

Busboys and Poets, for instance, is a small local chain of restaurants. Each restaurant holds a tiny jewel of a bookstore, and each conducts regular readings and programs – all designed for politically progressive people. If ever a commercial venture was built to siphon away my paycheck, it’s Busboys and Poets.

But they’ll have to stand in line behind Politics and Prose, one of the nation’s pre-eminent independent bookstores. Politics and Prose has a fantastic – and relentless – program of readings by wonderful authors of all kinds. On Saturday I heard Adele Levine talk about Run, Don’t Walk, her moving and witty chronicle of working with amputees at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. On Thursday I’m going to hear Amy Bloom discuss her new novel, Lucky Us

Libraries: also part of the problem

Of course, all of these books, including audiobooks and ebooks – even Kindle books – are available from the public library. That helps my budget. It doesn’t help me fight the fever.

Book fever

I’ve got it bad. Am I suffering alone? Let me know what’s on your to-be-read list.