Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Ludmila Ulitskaya, Helen Phillips, Alexi Zentner, Lila Savage, and more—that are publishing this week.
Jacob’s Ladder by Ludmila Ulitskaya (translated by Polly Gannon)
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Jacob’s Ladder: “Ulitskaya (The Big Green Tent) travels through a century of tangled Russian family history in this lucid saga. Nora Ossietzky, upon the death of her grandmother, discovers a trunk filled with letters and diaries from the 1900s and 1940s that belonged to her grandfather Jacob. As Nora sifts through these writings, readers travel through some of the most turbulent times in Russian and Ukrainian history: the Jewish pogroms, WWI, prerevolutionary times, the horrific Stalin era, and Jacob’s arrests and time in the gulags. Nora unravels these strands of family history while moving through the threads of her own life: her childhood with a remote father, her failed and unconventional marriage, the birth of her son, his later drug addiction, her career and fame in the theatrical world of Moscow, and the birth of her grandchild, Jacob, named after his great-great-grandfather. In the tradition of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Ulitskaya’s complicated work covers a century of Russian history, politics, economics, culture, and music, which can be overwhelming. But there is something mesmerizing about the narrative’s scale, and patterns emerge: the little control humans have over their lives; the impact of political forces on individuals; the certainty of death, somehow softened by the promise of new birth. This is a challenging yet rewarding epic.”
The Need by Helen Phillips
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Need: “Phillips (The Beautiful Bureaucrat) delivers an unforgettable tour de force that melds nonstop suspense, intriguing speculation, and perfectly crafted prose. While excavating a fossil quarry, paleobotanist Molly Nye and her colleagues find plant fossils unconnected to all previously identified species and random objects—a Bible describing God as ‘she,’ a toy soldier with a monkey’s tail, a Coke bottle with a backwards-tilting logo—with odd, seemingly pointless differences from their everyday counterparts. She feels uneasy when news of the Bible draws gawkers to the site, but anxiety is no stranger to Molly; balancing work with her nursing baby and feisty four-year-old, she struggles with ‘apocalyptic exhaustion’ and a constant fear that disaster is about to strike her kids. While her musician husband, David, is performing abroad, real danger arrives in the form of a black-clad intruder, who wears the gold deer mask David gave Molly for her birthday and knows intimate details of Molly’s life. As the stranger’s mask comes literally and figuratively off en route to a startling conclusion to their confrontation, Molly veers between panic, appeasement, and empathy for an ‘other’ whose story is uncannily like her own except in its tragedies. Structured in brief, sharply focused segments that shift back and forth in time, the novel interrogates the nature of the self, the powers and terrors of parenting, and the illusions of chronology. Yet it’s also chock-full of small moments—some scary, some tender, some darkly witty—that ground its cerebral themes in a sharply observed evocation of motherhood. With its crossover appeal to lovers of thriller, science fiction, and literary fiction, this story showcases an extraordinary writer at her electrifying best.”
Stay and Fight by Madeline Ffitch
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Stay and Fight: “Ffitch’s remarkable and gripping debut novel (after story collection Valparaiso, Round the Horn) traces the journeys of a makeshift family in contemporary Appalachian Ohio. After Helen leaves Seattle with her boyfriend to live off the land and acquires 20 acres and a camper to sleep in, she is soon left by herself when he finds the life he imagined for them too daunting. She quickly adapts to fend for herself, learning how to forage and cook roadkill and working to help cut trees with Rudy, a lifelong local who spouts antigovernment paranoia and practical advice in equal measure. Soon, Karen and Lily, a neighboring couple, give birth to a son, Perley, and are no longer welcome at the radical Women’s Land Trust, so Helen offers them a new home with her, hoping they’ll all manage the land together. It becomes apparent, however, that it’s hard to mesh their personalities. As the years go by and Perley decides he wants to go to school and be a part of the world the others so despise, the life this family has built threatens to fully unravel. The story is told in the alternating voices of Helen, Karen, Lily, and Perley, and Ffitch navigates their personalities beautifully, creating complex, brilliantly realized characters. As the stakes rise, for both the family and the preservation of the region, the novel skewers stereotypes and offers only a messy, real depiction of people who fully embody the imperative of the novel’s title. This is a stellar novel.”
Supper Club by Lara Williams
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Supper Club: “Williams’s first novel (after the collection A Selfie As Big As the Ritz) is the engrossing, rollicking tale of Roberta, an overweight British woman in her late 20s with low self-esteem and a penchant for cooking. Roberta’s reticence among her peers makes her university time lonely and depressing. She later finds a mundane job at a fashion website where she meets Stevie, a young artist. The women become inseparable and dream up the idea of an underground supper club in which women indulge in appetites they had previously repressed or extinguished. Each dinner has a different theme (literary heroines, princesses) and different food that Roberta prepares; there are also drugs and the night usually ends with the women eating and drinking so much they throw up. The club becomes increasingly rebellious and locates new spaces for the meals, breaking into a department store and Roberta’s alma mater. As Roberta bonds with her clubmembers, she becomes involved with a former school acquaintance and her commitment to the club changes. Williams’s humorous and candid exploration of a woman on the verge of finding herself makes for an enthralling novel.”
Copperhead by Alexi Zentner
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Copperhead: “Zentner (Touch) wades into thorny racial and class thickets in this steely and often gripping novel. The action unfolds over several days in the rural university town of Cortaca, N.Y., a thinly veiled Ithaca. Jessup is a high school senior who ‘will always have been born into the wrong family,’ blue-collar congregants of the Blessed Church of White America. He stopped attending the white nationalist church after his half-brother and stepfather were convicted in the beating death of two black college students four years earlier. Jessup excels at athletics and academics, and is dating the daughter of his black football coach, when his stepfather’s release stirs up old memories in Cortaca, where ‘history is everything.’ A racially-tinged accident involving a boy from a neighboring town forces Jessup, aware of how bad it will look given his family history, to return to the Church, and its 20-year-old media-savvy spokesman, for help. The short chapters, most no longer than three pages, lend the narrative a propulsive, if occasionally choppy, feel. There’s a tendency to hammer home themes such as the indelible markings of family and class, and in the book’s last third, the taut drama morphs briefly into a conspiratorial thriller that strains credulity. Nonetheless, Zentner’s portrait of a young man’s conflicting desires for disavowal and belonging is rich and nuanced.”
A Prayer for Travelers by Ruchika Tomar
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Prayer for Travelers: “The missing-person mystery at the heart of this riveting coming-of-age novel, Tomar’s debut, gives it a suspenseful edginess. When the reader is first introduced to 19-year-old diner waitress Cale Lambert, she’s nursing a newly acquired shiner and searching for her friend Penny, who uncharacteristically didn’t show up for work that day. That’s in chapter 31—the first chapter in the book. Employing authorial sleight-of-hand, Tomar intentionally scrambles the chronology of the chapters, the better to immerse the reader in the disorder and dysfunction that shape her characters’ lives. Gradually, the thread of Cale’s hardscrabble life teases out: her motherless childhood growing up in her grandfather’s house; her hiring at the diner where Penny works; her efforts to stay outside of Penny’s occasional drug deals with the local ‘tweakers, potheads, and pipe-fiends’; and, finally, the incident that precipitated Penny’s disappearance and Cale’s entanglement with the sheriff who is searching for her. As excellently drawn by Tomar, Cale and Penny are fierce survivors whose determination to escape their dead-end town and its stultifying way of life pulls the reader relentlessly along. Their story makes for a dramatic and vivid tale about people chafing against the desperation of their circumstances.”
Famous People by Justin Kuritzkes
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Famous People: “Kuritzkes’s clever debut is a hilarious probing social commentary written as an unnamed 20-something pop star’s memoir. The protagonist had a regular childhood in Minnesota, where he sang “traditional black music” in church although he’s white. A video of his take on the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ garners millions of views, and he becomes a chart-topping sensation at 12. After becoming famous, his family moves to L.A. where he meets Mandy, another teen pop sensation. The duo are cast as a couple because they have similar small-town backgrounds, and everyone wants to see them together. His manager-father tries to dictate his son’s sound and goes on a show called Content Bucket to talk about him, but after their first album together, the singer changes his sound, which pushes his father away. Aside from Mandy and other musicians, the narrator befriends Bob Winstock, a writer with controversial stances on minorities and gay rights who later marries his mother. Mandy is the centering person in the narrator’s life as they hook up and drift apart multiple times. In an attempt at introspection, the narrator works on a video game of his life, a secret project that seems destined for failure but that the narrator thinks will make players get to know his life and understand him. Kuritzkes flawlessly strikes the right balance between searing and comedic as his narrator searches for the true meaning of being a normal person while being famous. This is an incisive and fresh debut.”
The Saturday Night Ghost Club by Craig Davidson
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Saturday Night Ghost Club: “Davidson’s well-crafted, whimsical coming-of-age tale (after Cataract City) follows a fateful summer in the ’80s. Twelve-year-old Jake Baker navigates between being bullied and exploring mysticism in his Niagara Falls hometown. The sleepy town is stagnant aside from tourists, and impressionable Jake doesn’t have many prospects for the summer aside from visiting the occult shop owned by his Uncle Calvin, who believes in the spirit world. Calvin encourages friendship between his nephew and new residents Billy Yellowbird and his sister, Dove, and invites them to a ghost hunting club. Jake is smitten by Dove, who, at 14, flits in and out of the club, while Jake and Billy raptly follow Calvin and his friend, Lexington, a devotee to Betamax, on weekend exploits. The meetings kick off with Calvin telling the tragic story behind each of the ghostly places they visit before they investigate the areas. Their group visits ‘The Screaming Tunnel,’ a car accident site, the charred remains of a house, and a graveyard. Over the course of the summer, the hidden connection behind the locations reveals itself to Jake. Davidson creates a quirky landscape and colorful characters, resulting in a novel that will entertain readers while providing a nice dose of nostalgia.”
Say Say Say by Lila Savage
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Say Say Say: “Savage’s startling, tender debut follows Ella, a young caregiver hired to help a woman of rapidly diminishing mental capability, and the relationship Ella develops with her and her husband. At the novel’s start, Ella is on the cusp of 30 and living in Minneapolis with her girlfriend, Alix, whom she loves deeply and uncomplicatedly. After dropping out of graduate school, Ella makes a modest living as a caregiver, though she harbors vague artistic inclinations. Her newest client is Jill, who, at 60, is younger than her usual clientele; her mental state has deteriorated ever since she was in a car accident over a decade ago. Unable to hold coherent conversations or wash herself, Jill has been taken care of by her husband, Bryn, a retired carpenter. Initially hired to provide Bryn with a reprieve, Ella finds herself gradually immersed in Bryn and Jill’s lives, and soon her role as Jill’s companion evolves into something more intimate and complex. Over the next year, Jill’s condition worsens and Bryn becomes more visibly strained even as the force of his love for Jill stays steady, and what Ella witnesses between the two of them challenges her ideas of love, spirituality, and empathy. Quietly forceful, Savage’s luminous debut is beautifully written, and will stay with readers long after the final page.”
Bethlehem by Karen Kelly
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Bethlehem: “This propulsive novel from Kelly (Prospice) pulls the reader in with a gripping multigenerational tale of two families led by strong women. In 1962, Joanna Collier and her family move to Bethlehem, Pa., to stay with her mother-in-law, Susannah, as Joanna’s husband takes his place at the helm of the Collier family’s steel business. On her first day in town, Joanna meets Doe Janssen, caretaker for the local graveyard, who warns her about the spirits and secrets living around them, and specifically the mystery surrounding a grave marked “Baby Hayes.” In the small, gossip-filled town, Joanna soon learns there is more to the Collier family and her mother-in-law than she ever realized, including a past no one speaks about, which she discovers after finding the grave of Susannah’s infant sister who died 40 years before. In sections set in 1918, Kelly explores the adolescent relationship between Susannah Parrish and Wyatt Collier, whose father began working for Susannah’s father’s steel mill. As Joanna investigates the history of the Collier family, she begins to connect the mystery of Baby Hayes to long-buried family secrets. Prying into the power and family dynamics of the dynastic American industrialist family, Kelly’s evocative, startling story will appeal to readers who enjoy family sagas.”
One of the more heartening news stories of the past couple of weeks must have been the tale of Hideaki Akaiwa. The 43-year-old Japanese man, upon finding himself separated from his family by the recent tsunami, put on scuba gear and plunged into the waters to find and rescue his wife, his mother, and a bevy of trapped strangers. Part of the appeal of the story, surely, had to do with its demonstration of human ingenuity triumphing over natural forces. But, of course, humans often can’t outwit nature, and eventually death comes for us all.
In Alexi Zentner’s debut novel Touch, as in life, nature is impersonal and brutish, as unpredictable as it is beautiful. Taking place in turn-of-the-century northern Canada in a small frontier logging town, this luminous novel tells the story of a pastor who, in returning home to his dying mother, has to confront the mysteries and ghosts of his childhood, and so of the woods. I first came across Zentner’s work in the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories collection; his fiction has also appeared in the Atlantic, Tin House, Narrative, Orion, Slice, and elsewhere. J. Robert Lennon calls Touch “a sublime haunting,” and Téa Obreht says the novel is “stunning and provocative.”
Zentner and I first met as fellow work-study scholars at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference; more recently, we met to talk about Touch, monsters, the wild, ambition, and the upsides of making his wife cry.
The Millions: Reading your book about the natural perils of life in a frontier town while also reading about the tsunami in Japan felt a little like reading about the fall of Rome anytime in the past ten years or so: the dangers of long ago kept reminding me of present-day disasters. While writing Touch, were you at all influenced by present-day environmental or natural-hazard concerns?
Alexi Zentner: If you keep up with the news, it’s hard not to be influenced by those concerns, but I think the bigger pressures for me were closer to home. I used to rock climb —avidly, though not very well— and do enough outdoor activities that I’m aware of how much of a role both preparation and luck can play in survival. What probably brought the hazards of the natural world more to the forefront, however, was simply having children. It’s amazing how dangerous the world can suddenly look when you’ve got a little kid running around. There are a lot of sharp corners and hard surfaces in life.
TM: Can we talk about the monsters? There’s an array of supernatural monsters and other magical beings in your novel, all of whom lurk in the wild. Just to name a few, there are the qallupilluit: sea witches who smell like rotting meat, the wehtiko: men-cum-cannibals who are always hungry, and the mahaha: creatures who tickle you until you die. What informed your choice to incorporate magic and otherworldly creatures into the natural world of your novel?
AZ: I was interested in how, in North America, we once had a frontier. We had myths and monsters in the United States with Bigfoot, that sort of creature, and in Canada we had Inuit legends that I’ve appropriated. So, I picked and chose. The qallupilluit is a classic Inuit story of witches that call you down to the ice, formerly used as a way to keep children away from unsafe ice. It’s a cautionary tale: the monsters stand in for the ways in which nature can unpredictable. Today, when you go into a natural environment, you’ve got your Gore-Tex jacket and your GPS, but a hundred years ago, the place where Sawgamet is set is an uncharted wilderness.
One of the characters, Jeannot, is the first white man there, so when he hears legends about these myths and monsters, he can’t really say that they’re not true. In the vastness of the woods, it’s not really clear what is or is not in there. In the book, they’re not illusions. And the wehtiko—that’s a cannibal myth. When you live in these harsh climates, cannibalism happens. Again, the myths are a way of enforcing the taboo.
TM: How did you first come across these legends?
AZ: The qallupilluit comes from a children’s book by Robert Munsch. In the children’s book, the story is less scary, of course: it’s a book that I’ve read to my kids. At the back of the book there’s a bit about how a little girl in the village told him the story, so I looked it up, and of course I bastardized it to my own ends, in the same way any person who comes into a culture and tries to take away its myths bastardizes it. This is what I’ve done with Jeannot, and what the characters of the book have done. In the book, the monsters respond to that—they’ve been transformed by the settlers themselves. As the settlers transform the land, they also transform its myths.
TM: What interested you in the first place in the wilderness and the frontier?
AZ: The novel started with a simple image I had of a girl falling through the ice and getting frozen underneath. A town grew around that, then I thought of the father of this girl. Once I started writing him, his actions became preordained because he was the sort of man who would never be able to just watch his daughter die, the sort of man who had to act, and he didn’t have much choice in what he did when his daughter fell through the ice. He’s not a character who could have done anything other than what he did. There’s something about that logging landscape that allows you to distill characters to their essence, because there are so many times when it really is just them, and there’s nothing else to rely on.
TM: And so often, it’s not enough. I was moved by the tenuousness of loss in Touch: when people die, they’re not quite dead, or at least there’s the hope that they’re not entirely dead. Jeannot comes back to the town of Sawgamet to raise the dead—in this case to raise his wife, whom he’d lost a long time ago—and Jeannot tells his grandson Stephen that if he would just believe, he, too, could find all his dead. Is there something specific about Sawgamet and the frontier that creates this tenuousness, or is it specific to Stephen and his family?
AZ: In many ways, the family pays for the sins of the father and the grandfather. Jeannot was the first one to sully the wilderness, so the wilderness strikes back at him: people are trying to claw civilization from the wilderness and the wilderness is trying to claw it back. I think that’s why death doesn’t seem entirely final. In the vastness of the landscape, there’s a sense that there may be things greater than God. If you live in a place where there really are monsters and witches, it seems easy to believe that the flip side could be true. Jeannot was trained to be a priest and left the ministry as a young man, and Stephen, the narrator, is a priest. For them, part and parcel with this belief of monsters comes the possibility of glorious things.
TM: Yes, glorious things. There’s more that’s supernatural in Touch than the monsters. There are also golden caribou, a singing dog, and strange intrusions of the past into the present, and vice versa.
AZ: With what I’m writing, I call it mythical realism instead of magical realism, because magical realism is so heavily identified with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Latin America. I think what I’m doing takes that same sense of magic, but I’m writing in a distinctively North American style, which is not done. I think what people have done is that they’ve taken magical realism and overlaid it on North America. I don’t think that’s the most successful strategy, so I was very interested in how I could do that in a way that was uniquely my own.
TM: I remember that on the first day I met you, at Bread Loaf, we had a late-night conversation in the barn about ambition: we confessed that we want our writing to compete with the greats, and that we want to add something of note to the literature we love. Donald Hall said, “I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems.” Can you say more about that ambition and how that affects your writing, particularly as a debut writer?
AZ: I think I’m more willing to fail. I don’t know whether or not my writing will stand the test of time, but that’s what I want to try and do. I want to try to write the kind of books that people will be reading generations from now, and that will change people’s lives. The kind of books that people read and press upon their friends, saying, You have to read this. But I think that to write that way you have to be willing to take chances in what you are doing, and that means that sometimes you can fail really badly. And I think it also means you have to be serious in your endeavors.
TM: Serious in what sense?
AZ: I don’t mean all you do is think about writing, but there are some sacrifices you make. Also, I think most writers would love to sell a lot of copies and win awards and do well, because people want to be successful. I understand that, but you can’t think about that while you’re writing. If you want to think about that when you’re done for the day, go for it. But while you’re actually writing, you have to do things because you believe they’re right. There have been times in my writing process when I’ve had a chorus of people say to me, “You need to make this change,” and I haven’t, because they were wrong and I was right. There have been other times when I’ve had to handle a chorus who’ve said to me, “This is brilliant, you shouldn’t change it, but I’ve heard one person say, “This isn’t working,” and I know that last voice is right. It’s a balancing act.
TM: In your comments in the PEN/O. Henry collection, you wrote that you knew you could become a writer when you showed the story to your wife and she read it, and started crying. Did you have a lot of doubt before that about whether or not you could write fiction? What about that moment was revelatory for you?
AZ: My poor wife. I was a stay-at-home father at that time and I was trying to write, so we hired a babysitter to come for two hours twice a week. My wife is a school psychologist making a teacher’s salary, so that extra $50 a week was an investment for us. Maybe a month into it, I wrote what ended up becoming the O. Henry story. I showed it to her and I went to do some errands around the house, then I came back 20 minutes later, and she was crying. I think my first response was, What’s wrong? And when she said it was just the story I thought, All right.
Early on, I was very scared about whether or not I was good enough. I’d been a writer for a very long time, but also, not really. The thing is, I had tried, but not very hard. Because if you don’t try very hard, and you fail, you don’t have to feel that badly about it. I think it’s terrifying when you say, “I’m really committed to this,” and you try your hardest and do your absolute best work. Then, if you fail, you don’t have anything to hide behind.
I have been fortunate in that I’ve had enough success with things that when things go poorly for me with my writing I’m able to look at outside successes to help them bolster my internal confidence. It helps that I’m an unnaturally cheery person.
TM: Does your wife continue to read your work?
AZ: Yes, and to this day, if my wife reads something and she cries, that usually means that I did something right. It’s funny—I can’t predict it. My wife is a very good reader, and she’s not a writer, and that’s a hugely helpful thing. She’s a canary in a coal mine, a great test for how well other people will respond to a piece.
When you give a piece to writers, you often get a very difference response from what the public response will be. If you’re a construction worker and you look at a house, you see the trusses and the framing, and the way it’s built; if you go to buy a house you think, oh, look at the kitchen, and there’s a walk-in closet. Similarly, when you’re a writer, you see the bones of a story: why things work and why they don’t, whereas when you’re a reader you think of why you liked it or didn’t like it.
TM: Yes. The reader thinks: I believed, I didn’t believe. I was moved by it, I wasn’t moved by it. I cared, I didn’t.
AZ: As a writer, you lose sight of that. You lose sight of the question, Do I like this book? When I teach, one of the things I say to a student is that the most important question is, Do I want to keep reading this? And if the answer is no, nothing else matters. I’ve read some novels that are stylistically brilliant, but I have no emotion about them. Then I’ve read some books and stories that are really flawed, but that really moved me and stayed with me, and, given a choice, I’d rather be that writer. I’d rather risk being overly sentimental than risk nothing.