Marina Keegan was an aspiring essayist, playwright and author of short fiction whose talents were burgeoning before she was killed in a car crash in 2012. She was most renowned for her essay “The Opposite of Loneliness,” which was featured in Yale’s 2012 commencement activities. Through the efforts of her family and friends, Keegan’s works have been assembled as a book, also titled The Opposite of Loneliness, a collection which deserves as much celebration as Keegan herself.
Keegan’s fiction is grounded and believable, populated with disarming characters yearning to divulge their intimacies to readers. In “Cold Pastoral,” a girl laments the death of a boyfriend she only recently began dating, and is racked with guilt as she witnesses his ex suffering more than she is. “Challenger Deep,” which portrays a small crew trapped in an unpowered submarine stuck at the bottom of an oceanic trench, is Keegan’s most unsettling, imaginative and beautiful tale.
Keegan’s essays gleam with scholarly poise as she acknowledges the complexities of approaching adulthood with a teenage candor. “Against the Grain” is a reflection on growing up with Celiac’s disease, and the embarrassing safety extremes her mother went to out of love. “Song for the Special” is a gentle reminder of humanity’s diminutive existence in the vast universe we inhabit.
What makes The Opposite of Loneliness so wondrous is not its posthumous publication; each piece is brimming with a nearly unattainable blend of worldly presence and youthful hyperbole. It’s so depressing that Keegan’s talents were stifled at such a young age. This collection resonates in reverie of the marvels that would have been.
Ever find yourself in an ordinary day and yet you feel an unnerving disconnect with others for no obvious reason? David Guterson’s Problems with People: Stories is a collage of individuals who find themselves in such unhinging, if oddly indistinguishable, moments. Reading these 10 tales will make you feel like you are observing a stranger walking into a cold drift of social ineptitude. In “Paradise,” a divorcee, unsure of the future, finds himself in the passenger seat of a Honda Element driven by a silver-haired beauty he met via match.com. A well-meaning man, along with his unshakable cancer-ridden sister, is locked inside a game reserve in South Africa in “Pilanesberg.”
Each story unapologetically illuminates the oscillating and retracting nature of boundaries. These unpredictable lines, which divide cultures and perspectives, often inflict devastating detachment through innocent dealings. In “Krassavitseh,” questions of race and history are raised as a man takes his inquisitive elderly father on a Jewish Tour of Berlin. A benign American in Nepal encounters Maoists blocking roads and an intelligent child with impeccable shoe-cleaning skills in “Politics.” In the poignant story “Hush,” dog walker Vivian Lee finds an unlikely friendship with a stubborn client and his Rottweiler named Bill.
Don’t look for coddling or satisfaction in this collection. The inability to fulfill emotional obligations radiates off the pages. Guterson’s direct prose evokes the feelings of isolation and displacement in contemporary life, but still leaves a faint trace of hope.
Joshua Ferris’ third novel To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is the most interesting story in which the narrator and protagonist is a dentist. It’s the chronicle of Dr. Paul C. O’Rourke, who offers oral care at his practice in New York City. Perhaps as a result of excelling in dentistry, Paul’s social life is nonexistent; he is a middle-aged, single atheist with no children, no pets and no contacts in his smartphone. The extent of his online presence is a scattering of posts on various baseball forums. His idea of “getting out” is staying in and watching the Red Sox game while simultaneously recording it on VHS.
Paul is seemingly content with his complacency, until his office manager discovers someone has made an official website for their practice—complete with staff bios and photos—without their consent. Days later, Paul and his staff are befuddled as someone creates multiple social media accounts in Paul’s name and begins proselytizing. This peculiar case of identity theft is more than slander; the culprit possesses intimate knowledge of Paul, and gradually reveals his secrets through a series of anonymous emails. Annoyed by the harassment, Paul responds to the emails in an attempt to discern the thief’s identity and motive.
What he discovers leads him to a series of introspective questions so existential that he begins to wonder who he really is. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour portrays a man who possesses no true self-identity, and insists on blaming the past and lying to himself to cope with his shortcomings. Ferris develops O’Rourke’s personality through an ongoing series of fantastic soliloquies disguised as the ramblings of an emotionally distraught dentist. Paul finds the unsettling truth to be that an identity thief posting on a faux-Facebook actually knows him better than he thinks he knows himself, and as he meanders between the past and present wondering how he has arrived at this point in his life, a beautifully reconciling narrative forms in his wake.
Some books are beautifully written while others tell a fascinating story. And then there is Anthony Doerr’s new novel All the Light We Cannot See, which combines exquisite prose with an engrossing and layered tale of history, science and myth set in Europe during the era of World War II.
In August of 1944, the French coastal city of St. Malo was the location of a battle between the occupying Nazi troops and the Allied forces determined to drive out the Germans. In the city, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a 16-year-old blind girl, is home alone, hiding under her bed when the shelling begins. Across town, German army private Walter Pfennig is stationed with his radio team in the basement of the Hotel of Bees.
Doerr moves his story back and forth within a 10 year time frame. Marie-Laure was living in Paris with her father, the locksmith for the vast complex of the National Museum of Natural History. The pair fled Paris as the Occupation began, possibly carrying with them a priceless diamond steeped in legend from the museum’s collection. As a boy, Werner lived in an orphanage where he repaired a radio discarded as trash. He and his little sister would tune in to French radio broadcasts about science. Gifted with an analytical mind, Werner is drafted by the Nazis, using his skills to hunt down amateur broadcasters for the Resistance. Doerr carefully unfolds each character’s narrative as they gradually converge in St. Malo.
The center of this story might be a peerless gem, as cursed as the Hope diamond, both precious and horrifying. It might be the realization that both good and evil — or caring and callousness — can live within one heart. All the Light We Cannot See is a finely crafted work and deserves its place on The New York Times best sellers list. Readers of World War II literary fiction might also enjoy Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists, a 2012 Man Booker finalist.
We all have friends from yesteryear with whom we pine for the perfect, golden memories of whatever chapter of our lives we consider to be “the good old days.” Rufi Thorpe’s debut novel The Girls from Corona del Mar follows two best friends, Mia and Lorrie Ann, as their journeys take them from their California hometown to the far corners of the world and back again, testing their bond along the way.
Mia is convinced that her friend Lorrie Ann is her counterbalance in the universe. Beautiful, soft-spoken and otherwise perfect in every manner, she can do no wrong in her kindred spirit’s eyes. Lorrie Ann’s only flaw seems to be her terrible luck; despite being an elementally good person, she suffers three distinct, life-altering tragedies that leave her reeling and unsure of her purpose in life. Mia feels powerless, remorseful and guilty, as if her best friend was being punished for her own shortcomings.
As the two grow older, their lives become disparate; Mia marries and moves to Turkey to develop her career while Lorrie Ann is swallowed up by the world. After years of sporadic contact, Mia is shocked when her best friend turns up in Istanbul, battered and in need of help. What transpires after the two are reunited challenges the temper of their time-forged companionship.
The Girls from Corona del Mar is a tragic, beautiful reckoning of the worst catastrophes life can muster, and illustrates just how powerful and enduring friendship can be, despite the fragility of youth. Anyone who has lost a best friend to time or distance will sympathize as Mia and Lorrie Ann’s story progresses. Rufi Thorpe has written a wonderful debut that will be enjoyed by fans of literary fiction or women’s literature.
Up-and-coming novelist Nickolas Butler brings us Shotgun Lovesongs, an all-American tale of male friendship in Little Wing, Wisconsin. Although Hank, Ronny, Lee and Kip grew up together in the small rural town, they have grown into their own complex lives in strikingly different ways.
Hank stayed in the town to have a family and run his father’s farm, where it’s getting harder and harder to make ends meet. Ronny became a battered rodeo star who lost his career to crippling alcoholism. Singer-songwriter Lee took his show on the road and is now a famous yet humble millionaire rock star. Lastly, there’s Kip, the Bluetooth-wearing stock-market trader, who has come home to revitalize the tallest structure in town, the beloved old feed mill. The four friends are drawn together again by Kip’s impending wedding.
Told in alternating perspectives, the novel achieves its tension and ultimate heart from the honest portrayal of conflict and comradery between these soul-searching men. Various masculine takes on marriage, love, loyalty and healing are all examined in this surprisingly rustic landscape. Readers who enjoy character-driven plots and fulfilling endings will find themselves satisfied with and surprised by this debut novel.
Also, keep an eye out for Nickolas Butler’s highly anticipated forthcoming short story collection, The Chainsaw Soiree.
Ephram Jennings has spent his life loving Ruby Bell. He’s loved her since the first time he saw her as a wild red haired child who was “the kind of pretty it hurt to look at.” After his beloved mother is committed to a mental institution and his heavy-handed father’s death, Ephram is raised solely by his devout sister, Celia, whom he calls “Mama.” Ruby grows up in the shadow of ancestors accused of witchcraft, with violence swirling around her until she finally packs up and leaves Liberty Township for New York City.
When Ruby returns, the town takes notice. Ruby’s red lipstick, fine clothes and perfume draw the attention of all the wrong kind. Over a decade later, the lipstick and heels gone, Ruby lives like a ghost, walking through the town in rags and caked in dirt. No one speaks to her, no one sees her. No one except Ephram. Under the filth, Ephram still sees Ruby for who she really is and longs for her fiercely. Having spent the whole of his life under the thumb of his Mama Celia and the discerning eye of the town and church, Ephram lacks the courage to speak his mind. He suffers from crippling headaches and finds himself vulnerable to the manipulation of others. The day comes when Ephram decides enough is enough and sets out to save Ruby Bell from the town and herself. He is unprepared for the reality of who Ruby has become and what she has succumbed to in her isolation.
In Ruby, a novel rife with heartache, tragedy, love and a touch of mystery, author Cynthia Bond weaves a story so thick and heavy it could pass for the southern grits served at the church picnics in Liberty Township. The story of Ephram and Ruby reverberates with the enduring power of love and explores the depths of the soul through Bond’s powerful words. Readers of Toni Morrison will appreciate the carefully crafted prose Bond presents.
Who’s the fairest of them all? Is it Snow, with her fair skin and hazel eyes? Maybe it is Bird, with her cap of dark curls and golden skin. Nigerian-born Helen Oyeyemi’s latest novel, Boy, Snow, Bird, takes classic fairy tale themes of beauty, stepmothers and sibling rivalry and reworks them around a 1950s New England town and a family’s secrets.
Eighteen-year-old Boy Novak lives in New York City with her sadistic father who works as a rat catcher, using blinded rats as bait. To escape her father’s abuse, she buys a train ticket for the far-away stop of Flax Hill, Massachusetts. The fine-boned, flaxen-haired Boy meets and marries Arturo Whitman, local professor-turned-jeweler, widower, and father of Snow. Boy slides right into her role of benevolent stepmother and daughter-in-law until she and Arturo have their own baby, Bird, who is “born with a suntan.” Unbeknownst to Boy, her new husband and his family are African-American passing for white. Bird’s arrival pulls back the curtain on their carefully constructed public lives.
What is fair, either in beauty or in deeds? Arturo’s mother wants to send the darker-skinned Bird away to live with relatives; Boy views stepdaughter Snow as the interloper who needs to go. Oyeyemi uses a conversational writing style and alternates characters’ narration, including letters sent between the sisters, to explore issues of identity relative to race and gender. Boy, Snow, Bird warns us of the danger in allowing our reflection, whether in the mirror or eyes of the beholder, dictate who we are.
British author Laline Paull is setting the book world abuzz with her debut novel, an imaginative and gripping tale which takes place in a beehive. Paull began studying bees after a beekeeper friend died; the fascinating societal structure of the hive inspired her to write The Bees.
Flora 717 is a worker bee living in a hive valuing conformity. Born “obscenely ugly… and excessively large,” Flora is saved from immediate execution because a ruling class priestess wants to use her in an experiment. The hive’s rigid caste system relies on mind control and strict job divisions, which keep the hive operating for the good of the group, but its totalitarian mindset allows no individual freedom. Flora defies the limitations of her Sanitation class: She is able to speak, block other bees from accessing her thoughts and use her abilities to forge a unique role for herself when the survival of the hive is threatened.
In creating the intricate life of this honeybee colony, Paull did everything from attending beekeeper classes to watching nature unfold in her backyard. She blends factual bee behavior, like building honeycomb nurseries or the “dancing” and antennae touching which bees perform to communicate information, with elements of goddess worship, Catholic prayer and the British monarchy in her creation of a detailed parallel world. As in nature, The Bees is sometimes chillingly violent. It is also surprisingly funny, with its swaggering Drone class reminiscent of any Animal House frat bro collective hopped up on testosterone.
The Bees is being compared to the modern classic Watership Down by Richard Adams for its thrilling adventure and social commentary wrapped up in an animal story. This story makes a perfect book club choice or escapist summer read as Flora 717 takes the reader on a wild flight. Is Flora a traitor or a savior? The bees in your garden will never look the same again.
Life could be greener on the Emerald Isle these days, where Ireland's economic recession has wreaked havoc upon the residents of one small rural town. There are no jobs, no pension, no unemployment benefits. The effect is a domino-like collapse of livelihood and sanity for everyone in Irish writer Donal Ryan's insightful, darkly humorous debut, The Spinning Heart.
The title refers to a battered and flaking red metal heart on a front cottage gate belonging to the father of well-known resident, Bobby Mahon. Despite its beaten condition, the heart continues to spin on its hinge. It becomes a metaphor for Bobby and the other 20 blindsided souls, who each get a brief chapter to tell their story. They, too, need restoration after the town's big employer abandons them.
Pokey Burke is the corrupt, now-defunct builder who absconds with more than his workers' money. Soon everyone is pondering their hand-to-mouth existence and the fissures emerging in their community. The common thread is Bobby, Pokey's tough but well-respected former foreman whom everyone knows and generally respects. But even Bobby is not above reproach, as his possible complicity in his father’s death has people wondering.
Ryan’s snapshot into the recess of weary minds speaks to a wry, vulnerable sensitivity, and his writing in the vernacular hits home. The prose oozes with spot-on observations of the time, while his use of idioms smartly adds to the authenticity of the first-person narratives. Long-listed for the Man Booker prize, Ryan isn't the first author to swirl Ireland’s economic woes into a novel. Tana French did it in Broken Harbor, and closer to home, Stewart O'Nan did it with Last Night at the Lobster. Best laid plans are never guaranteed. “The future is a cold mistress,” Bobby’s father said. Tomorrow is like that.