Our humongous second-half preview will keep you busy planning your to-read list for the rest of the year, but there are some intriguing new books out this week too. Bonnie Jo Campbell's novel Once Upon a River is now out, as is Edie Meidav's Lola, California. (Don't miss the remarkable essay Meidav wrote for us recently.) Also new is the latest from Benjamin Black (John Banville's pen name), A Death in Summer, and Flip Flop Fly Ball, a collection of light-hearted and very clever baseball infographics from Craig Robinson (whose work also appears on his blog).
What's better than slash fiction about your favorite authors? Slash sestinas about your favorite authors. At The Toast, Jade Sylvan writes three sestinas pairing Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. "Two friends, writers, men,/in the most flamboyantly seedy café on the Left/Bank. Scott can’t get past the second word: 'Write.'"
Ultra-bestselling author Danielle Steel went off recently about something that’s been bothering her for ages. “I think some people are threatened if one is enterprising or has many/varied interests,” she writes. In particular, “it’s about men who don’t like women getting out there, doing something new or innovative and accomplishing something.”
Hilary Mantel, twice awarded the Booker Prize for her detailed fictional explorations of the court of Henry VIII, recently remarked that “women writers…can’t resist retrospectively empowering” women of the past in historical fiction. She presents us with a false choice: “If we write about the victims of history, are we reinforcing their status by detailing it? Or shall we rework history so victims are the winners?" Historical fiction poses unique challenges and opportunities. Writing a historical novel requires all the same things writing a contemporary novel does—intelligence, dedication, research, and a whiff of heedless optimism—as well as a fine-tuned commitment to not betraying the “historical” elements for those better fit by the label “fiction.” Writing feminist historical fiction adds another layer of complexity. Any historical novel worth its salt has to address society’s expectations of women at the time it’s set. Some authors focus on ordinary women, some on extraordinary ones; both options offer countless possibilities for advancing or contradicting feminist viewpoints. But knowing one’s time period is essential, no matter what. A historical novel in which women play key roles doesn’t resonate unless the author can faithfully and honestly depict ordinary women, and ordinary men, of the time. Reducing the possibilities of historical fiction to two options, as Mantel does, represents a failure of imagination. The good news is that the imaginations of many writers, women and men alike, are up to the task of telling stories set in the past that are both faithful and feminist. Did Amy Stewart have to “retrospectively empower” Constance Kopp to make her a law enforcement pioneer, appointed the first female undersheriff of Bergen County, N.J., in 1915? Not a bit. Kopp’s cases were well-documented in the newspapers of the day, and Stewart has woven her stories into three novels so far: Girl Waits with Gun, Lady Cop Makes Trouble, and the upcoming Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions. Kopp was quoted by a reporter as saying “Some women prefer to stay at home and take care of the house. Let them. There are plenty who like that kind of work enough to do it. Others want something to do that will take them out among people and affairs. A woman should have the right to do any sort of work she wants to, provided she can do it.” Ahead of her time, yes, but still someone who made her way within it. Stewart was a non-fiction writer before she was a novelist, and sticks close to the known facts with her novels, but that’s far from the only approach. On the more fictional end of the spectrum is Kate Quinn’s new novel The Alice Network. Its historical kernel is a real-life World War I spy ring run by and consisting of women, named for its leader, whose code name was Alice Dubois. Quinn interlaces the war story with a second timeline, this one centered on a fictional, pregnant protagonist searching for a lost cousin. Quinn’s book offers an unusually entertaining way to examine how women, both ordinary and extraordinary, are called upon to act in the world during wartime. Naturally, the historical novels it’s easiest to recognize as feminist are those written about women who explicitly fought for women’s rights and women’s issues, like Terrible Virtue, written by Ellen Feldman about reproductive rights pioneer Margaret Sanger. Similarly, novels that center on women adjacent to more famous men—Rodin’s Lover by Heather Webb (artist Camille Claudel) or The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict (physicist Mileva Maric)—argue without stating outright that in a fairer world, these lesser-known female subjects would be as famous and renowned as their better-known partners. Biographies can make these arguments too, but fiction puts us there in the moment, breathing and crying and cheering with these women. Paula McLain, whose biographical historical novels The Paris Wife and Circling the Sun are some of the best-known in the genre, was quoted in Vanity Fair as saying “We love to learn about history, but don’t we love to get close to it?” Returning to Mantel for a moment, she takes issue with “women writers who want to write about women in the past,” implying that male writers are in some other category, possibly exempt from the “persistent difficulty” of wanting to write female characters of action and agency. But it’s hard to think of a book that takes its heroine’s part more wholeheartedly than Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night, which is by turns rip-roaring, tragic, giddy, dramatic, and delightful, but never loses its keen awareness that its extraordinary heroine, soprano Lilliet Berne, operates within the constraints of a man’s world. Her fate is changed at every turn by men’s decisions, men’s gifts, men’s egos, men’s wars. And her journey is all the more riveting because of it. Chee’s heroine was inspired by real-life opera singer Jenny Lind, known as “The Swedish Nightingale”; Lilliet Berne is fictional. But this is what the best historical novels do—blend fact and fiction in a way that sweeps us into the world of the past and informs our experience of the present. The characters above could be considered extraordinary women of their time—historical novels can also focus on ordinary women without, as Mantel suggests, reducing them to “victims.” The very act of centering a novel on a woman’s story, of giving her the same respect and attention men’s stories have traditionally received, can be feminist. The women of the distant past may only appear in sepia-toned photographs today, but when they lived, they lived in full color. Historical fiction and feminism can work hand in hand, and novels may in fact be the best delivery mechanism for certain stories. The question then becomes not whether or how historical fiction can be feminist, but which feminist historical novel you’ll choose to read and recommend next. Image Credit: Pixabay.
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Last year we had fun comparing the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of a sample of the Rooster contenders, so I decided to do it again with this year's batch. There are all sorts of marketing considerations behind these designs, and it's interesting to see how designing for these two similar markets can result in very different looks. The American covers are on the left, and clicking through takes you to a larger image. Your equally inexpert analysis is welcomed in the comments. I love the U.S. version here. The line drawing is exquisite and it draws the reader up to the tightrope walker and into the book. In fact, the design is a wonderful visual representation of McCann's book, which revolves around the story of Philippe Petit's tightrope walk but is not really about it. I don't understand the U.K. design at all. McCann's book is soulful and serious; the U.K. cover says "silly and strange." The American cover wins again here. The cartoonish, half cut-off head draws you in, while the U.K. version feels more like a movie poster. Although, the illusion of movement in the U.K. design is nice and something you don't often see on the cover of a work of literary fiction. This time I prefer the U.K. cover. There's something weirdly sleepy about the U.S. cover. I love the red title script on the U.K. cover. These are both very nice for totally different reasons. The American design is bold, intriguing and eye-catching. The U.K. cover is intricate. This is really a case study in the "exotic," no? I'm not sure I like either of these much at all. The American version doesn't do much for me - a little too coy. I love the U.K. version here. I like the idea that you might paint your book cover on the side of a barn. These are both nice and bold, but for different reasons. The U.K. cover gets the nod, though, for the string, for the wavy, watery stencil, and for those horses; for all of it, really. If you've read this book, you'll know that the American cover is ridiculous. The U.K. cover, meanwhile, is close to perfect. I don't love either of these, but the U.S. cover is better. The U.K. cover looks like a made-for-TV movie, and this book has very little in common with a made-for-TV movie The U.S. cover is muddled and confusing. I love the U.K. cover. There's something intoxicating about all those things hanging off the vines.
Two works of fiction from Irish writers really struck me this year. One was Kevin Barry’s Dark Lies the Island, a boisterous and beautiful collection of stories. Barry is a prose wizard whose stories pulse on the page with all the humor and viciousness of life itself. The other book was Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child, a hypnotic piece of writing that reinvents all those so-called literary reinventions of the crime novel. It makes the familiar strange and the strange even stranger and breaks us free of the usual procedural procedures, clears room for real thought and feeling. As The Millions recently noted, I was a major admirer of John the Posthumous by Jason Schwartz. Claire Messud beat me to the punch in these pages, but I also loved Victoria Redel’s new collection, Make Me Do Things. Portugal’s Jacinto Lucas Pires put in a great performance with The True Actor, a story of artistic confusion and generational despair in austerity-era Lisbon. I’m a few years late on these but Dennis Cooper’s The Marbled Swarm and Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers both floored me, or maybe the Cooper actually walled me (read the book). Jenny Offill’s about-to-be-published Dept. of Speculation is spectacular. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
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