Morales (English/Glendale Community Coll.) debuts with a compellingly rendered collection of essays, the winner of the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize.
The concluding and climactic title piece—about the author giving birth to her daughter at the same time and hospital as a 14-year-old single mother, one of so many that this young teacher has come to know—was already selected for inclusion in Best American Essays, and the coming-of-age stories preceding it combine unflinching honesty with all-embracing compassion. Morales describes growing up in Los Angeles in a dysfunctional Mexican-American family with parents who were raised poor but began living beyond their means. One of her father’s manic shopping binges provided her with a bowling ball, and the bowling alley gave her an identity separate from the one she had at home and at school. As she matured, her parents’ marriage crumbled, leaving her ambivalent over the prospect of a divorce that likely took too long to arrive. Meanwhile, her father continued to beat her mother and cheat on her, resulting in fights that led to police visits, making the family the spectacle of their otherwise white neighborhood: “They would gather with crossed arms, squinting beyond the sun’s glare toward our front door, acting as if they were 100 percent entitled to stare…[like] it was no different than staring at elephants in the zoo. My mother said that they thought we were a bunch of dumb, dirty, low-class Mexicans.” Yet most of the essays aren’t as dark as this one nor as focused on the author’s ethnicity. Her memories of women’s liberation and its influence on schoolgirls, her experience with flashers and other perverts, and her later life as a mother and teacher all help forge a distinctive voice and perspective, an understanding that “writing connects us to people with whom we’d otherwise have no connection…and thus we develop empathy.”
Essays that are as thematically ambitious as they are deeply personal.
In his debut biography, journalist and New Yorker arts editor Schulman traces Meryl Streep’s evolution as an actor from her childhood in suburban New Jersey to her breakthrough role in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979). The first talent anyone recognized in Streep was her beautiful voice, acknowledged when she sang in a school concert at the age of 12. “It was the first time,” writes the author, “she felt the intoxication of applause.” Her parents sent her for singing lessons, but after seeing Beverly Sills in an opera, she realized that she was not good enough for the Met. Instead, she performed in high school musicals and, at Vassar, stunned a professor with her talent for drama. He cast her in a spate of plays, even choosing some because they offered Streep good roles. In 1972, when she auditioned for the competitive Yale School of Drama, she won easy admission. Classmates included Sigourney Weaver, Christopher Durang, and Wendy Wasserstein, who called the place “The Yale School of Trauma.” The school’s “special brand of crazy,” writes Schulman, was created by its director, Robert Brustein. Despite the demoralizing atmosphere, Streep thrived. “Slowly but surely,” writes the author, “the students began to realize that Meryl Streep could outdo them in almost everything.” Drawing on theater memoirs, conversations with Streep’s colleagues and friends, and heaps of interviews that Streep has given over the years, Schulman has fashioned a lively narrative of the actor’s theater and movie work after she left Yale. The influential Joe Papp discovered her and cast her in productions in Shakespeare in the Park, Lincoln Center, and his own Public Theater. As her reputation grew, she was lured to movies, including The Deer Hunter, Kramer vs. Kramer (for which she won an Oscar), and Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Schulman’s sensitive handling of Streep’s personal life rounds out the portrait of a superbly talented woman.
Smith’s latest novel (Bright and Distant Shores, 2011, etc.) is a rich and detailed story that connects a 17th-century Dutch painting to its 20th-century American owner and the lonely but fervent art student who makes the life-changing decision to forge it.
Marty de Groot, a Manhattan lawyer plagued by infertility and the stuffiness that comes from centuries of familial wealth, has one special thing to his name: a collection of 17th-century Dutch paintings, including rare pieces by female artists of the era. At the Edge of the Wood is the only work attributed to Sarah de Vos, and it’s hung above the marital bed in Marty’s Park Avenue triplex for generations. Until one fall day in 1957 it’s plucked off his wall and replaced by a meticulously executed forgery. Behind this deception is not a mastermind but an Australian graduate student named Ellie Shipley, who was approached by a secretive art dealer to replicate the painting. Ellie lives and thinks like a member of the Dutch golden age, boiling rabbit pelts in her claustrophobic Brooklyn apartment for glue, pulling apart antique canvases to understand their bones, and building them up again layer by layer. This is a woman who sees herself in de Vos and would do anything to merge their legacies together. In showing how this is a monumental occasion in Ellie's life, a truly intimate experience for her, Smith turns forgery into art, replication into longing, deceit into an act of love: Ellie works in “topography, the impasto, the furrows where sable hairs were dragged into tiny painted crests to catch the light. Or the stray line of charcoal or chalk, glimpsed beneath a glaze that’s three hundred years old.” The narrative stretches from a period of grief in de Vos’ life that compelled her to paint At the Edge of the Wood, to 1950s New York to the year 2000 at a museum in Sydney where original and forgery meet—in turn reconnecting Ellie with Marty. “Here comes Marty de Groot, the wrecking ball of the past”: just one example of the suspense Smith manages to carry throughout his narrative, suspense bound up in brilliant layers of paint and the people who dedicate their lives to appreciating its value.
This is a beautiful, patient, and timeless book, one that builds upon centuries and shows how the smallest choices—like the chosen mix for yellow paint—can be the definitive markings of an entire life.
Prentiss’ sweeping debut follows three intertwining lives through the swirling energy, burning excitement, and crushing disappointment of New York City’s rapidly shifting art world at the dawn of the 1980s.
It’s Dec. 31, 1979, and James Bennett, a synesthetic rising star of art criticism, and his also-brilliant pregnant wife are toasting the new decade at the kind of swanky art-scene party they prefer to avoid. Also at the party: painter Raul Engales, a charismatic Argentinian expatriate who's done his best to erase his past life and is now poised, though he doesn’t know it yet, to become the darling of the art world. And: in a bar downtown later that night, Raul catches the (gorgeous) eye of 21-year-old Lucy Marie Olliason, recently transplanted from Ketchum, Idaho, in love with the city, and ready to fall in love with the artists in it. Their stories crash into each other like dominoes—the critic, the artist, and the muse—their separate futures and personal tragedies inextricably linked. The particulars of their connections, romantic and artistic, are too big and too poetic to be entirely plausible, but then, this is not a slice-of-life novel: this is a portrait of an era, an intoxicating Manhattan fairy tale. Prentiss’ characters—rich, nuanced, satisfyingly complicated—are informed not only by their emotional lives, but also by their intellectual and artistic ones; their relationships to art are as lively and essential as their relationships to each other. But while the novel is elegantly infused with an ambient sense of impending loss—this is New York on the cusp of drastic gentrification—it miraculously manages to dodge the trap of easy nostalgia, thanks in large part to Prentiss’ wry humor.
As affecting as it is absorbing. A thrilling debut.
The 1970s, that most unjustly derided of decades, is evoked with intimate detail in this coming-of-age story set in an American West that is expansive with possibility yet constrained in imagination.
It's July, 1974. While President Richard Nixon is a month away from resigning in disgrace, 15-year-old Loretta dreams of a life beyond the limits imposed by her rigidly pious Mormon family in the dusty Arizona hinterlands. But just when she’s poised to break away with her secret “Gentile” boyfriend, Bradshaw, Loretta’s transgressions are found out, and her parents, believing her “soul [to be] in peril,” force her to marry Dean Harder, a fundamentalist and polygamist with an already plentiful family. Later that same auspicious summer, Dean’s teenage nephew Jason sneaks away from church with his Mormon grandpa to join the rabble watching Evel Knievel’s attempt to vault the Snake River Canyon in a rocket-powered “skycycle.” The jump fails, but Knievel’s audacity makes a resounding impression on Jason, whose path intersects with Loretta’s a year later in Idaho. Sensing in each other the same yearning to leap out of their respective cul-de-sacs of quiet desperation, they, along with Jason’s best friend, Boyd, a comparably restive if more outgoing Native American teen, set off in a LeBaron sedan for Nevada and points south for release from their lives—and, though Loretta doesn’t tell her fellow travelers, for Dean’s secret stash of gold. Vestal, who established a reputation for depicting this physical and psychic terrain in his short-story collection, Godforsaken Idaho (2013), intersperses these incidents with funny, persuasively rendered monologues by Evel Knievel himself, speaking throughout as the wounded, embittered, and caustically eternal voice of anyone whose yearning to defy his or her own fate is thwarted as much by his or her own hubris as by fate itself. Vestal also leaves you with the funny feeling that this may not be the last we see of these thrill-seeking kids—or their would-be spoilsports.
This debut novel captures the flailings and flights of hapless dreamers with prose that throbs like the strings of an electric bass playing its sad heart out in a near-desolate landscape.
In her eighth novel, a coming-of-age story set in rural Pennsylvania, Quindlen (Still Life with Bread Crumbs, 2014, etc.) focuses on a young woman buffeted by upheavals in her personal life and a threat to the farmland her family has owned for generations.
Mimi Miller is 11 when we meet her, a farm girl who sells corn by the side of the road and, at night, eavesdrops on her parents’ conversations by way of a heating vent. Her mother is a nurse, strong-willed and unsentimental, her father a genial man who farms and fixes things. Mimi has two older brothers, the stalwart Edward and the wastrel Tommy, as well as an agoraphobic aunt who lives in another house on the Millers’ property. Government officials are lobbying the Millers and their neighbors to relocate so their flood-prone area can be turned into a reservoir. Meanwhile, the charming but feckless Tommy enlists in the Marines, then goes seriously astray when he returns home. Mimi, by contrast, excels at schoolwork—science in particular—and finds an ardent, if not entirely appropriate, suitor. Quindlen, a Pulitzer Prize–winning essayist and former reporter, writes with great empathy, making you care deeply about her characters. Her language is simple but true: “Sometimes there are things that you’ve rehearsed so many times, thought about so often, that when they happen it’s like they already happened a long long time ago,” Mimi says of her father’s passing. Perhaps there is a bit too much summing up in the book’s final chapter, but it still manages to be quite stirring, in an Our Town sort of way.
There are familiar elements in this story—the troubled brother, the eccentric aunt, a discovery that hints at a forbidden relationship—but they are synthesized in a fresh way in this keenly observed, quietly powerful novel.
A TV and radio host acknowledges her need to be liked and tells how she’s worked hard to overcome this.
Comedian and journalist Salie wittily lays bare the highs and lows of her life (so far) and explains how much of what she’s done has been because she’s “an approval junkie.” When she told people the title of this book, some immediately understood what she was trying to do, while others looked at her askance. “At which point,” she writes, “I put down the cake I was frosting for them while simultaneously breastfeeding my daughter and doing squats and explained that I’m not ashamed about wanting approval. It kept my high school GPA very high. It’s kept my BMI somewhat low. It’s kept me on my toes when I wasn’t already wearing heels to elongate my legs.” Salie tells readers about falling in and out of love with her “wasband,” the struggles she’s had over the years with her weight, losing her virginity and telling her mother about it the next day, receiving hand job instructions from her gay brother, and a host of other intimate details about her personal life. The author talks about her mother’s illness and death, her difficulty in conceiving children as an older woman and the fertility treatments she endured, her various jobs on TV and radio, and falling in love with her new husband. Salie uses humor throughout her short essays, particularly in the beginning. As the book progresses, the moments she discusses are more tender than humorous, allowing readers a closer perspective on the author’s life. Salie’s children also make appearances in short narratives about miscarriages, the desire for a girl, and breast-feeding and breast pumps. She concludes with a sweet letter to her daughter, in which she urges her to “care a lot about winning your own approval—enough to stretch, appreciate, and occasionally embarrass yourself.”
Funny, touching essays on being a multifaceted woman with unique dreams, desires, and needs.
An examination of the controversial realm of American gun culture through the perspective of gun manufacturers, with an emphasis on the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.
Historian Haag (Marriage Confidential: The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses, and Rebel Couples, 2011, etc.) deliberately eschews detailed discussions about the Second Amendment, the rights of gun owners, the advocates of gun control, and other cornerstones of our current heated political debate. Instead, in each chapter, the author emphasizes that the United States became awash with handguns and rifles and other permutations of weaponry in large part because manufacturers saw potential markets for their products and then sold to those markets aggressively and effectively. Haag explores numerous manufacturers and their personnel, building her narrative mostly around 19th-century “rifle king” Oliver Winchester and his “less visible, more historically numinous daughter-in-law,” Sarah Winchester. Oliver represents the bottom line–oriented businessman who thought little about the moral implications of selling a product meant to kill, while Sarah represents the second-generation tycoon haunted by those same moral implications. As Haag mixes a straight-ahead business saga with a soap-operatic tale of misfortune in spite of wealth, the opposing strands are not always well-integrated within the overall text. However, those threads are usually interesting, and the research is extensive. In an epilogue, Haag briefly addresses current gun politics, suggesting that imposing corporate accountability on gun manufacturers seems more productive than endlessly debating the rights of gun owners and what gun control partisans have a right to impose on those individual owners. It is important to recognize, she writes, “that gun violence and mass shootings are not really technocratic problems, to be most effectively solved through the correspondingly technocratic remedies of legislative campaigns that often fail, and that, in any event, tackle small facets of the problem.”
A refreshingly unusual approach by an author admirably transparent about why she wrote the book and why she chose to avoid more traditional approaches.
A lyrical, and lyric-filled, portrait of a family in love and sorrow.
This whimsical, bittersweet debut novel recalls the work of filmmaker Wes Anderson, both in subject (a complicated, tightknit family full of smart, worried people) and in style (full of quirky, impossible-to-ignore formal choices). Reilly’s central pair of sensitive, bohemian New Yorkers are aspiring actress Mathilde Spicer and record-store owner Claudio Simone, who meet in 1988 at a vodka-soaked party given by an NYU undergraduate. Also introduced in the opening section of the book are Mathilde’s gay younger brother and Claudio’s mentally ill sister—each of whom remains within the cocoon of family the couple spins as they move through adulthood. In the second, much longer, portion of the book, which follows the family to the year 2016 and beyond, the focus is on the couple’s daughters, three Salinger-esque siblings: supersmart Natasha, poetic Lucy, and Carly, adopted from China. The reader is given access to each of their Hearts as their tragedy slowly unfolds, as do the borderline-twee affectations of the prose. The word Heart is capitalized every time it's used, even in the middle of a word, like sweetHeart. The word god is lowercased, even if it’s the first word in the sentence. A car is said to be “hindering” in front of a building; a woman with many children gets their names “whisked up,” someone’s hair color is “blanched” blond. Several of Lucy’s poems are included, as is a pseudo-index (with lots of page references for the entries for Heart and god, but none for “doctors apologizing”). From its title to its chapter names to the characters' interior monologues, the book is drenched in song lyrics, predominantly Beatles, but extending all the way to Badfinger. At one point, to answer the question “What can you do?,” Claudio considers lyrics by Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, Bob Seger, Sam and Dave, Bob Dylan, and the Monkees, all in one paragraph.
Occasional eye-rolls aside, there is something iridescent about this novel.