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Recent reads and her perfect reader

It’s been a busy month since I last posted a blog – a month that included several writing-related events, major revisions to my “finished” manuscript, attending Book Expo America, and welcoming a new grandbaby to our family. These happenings have interfered with my ability to work on my brand-new manuscript, but they haven’t interrupted my reading. Or trying to think critically about the books I read.

Because the nasty truth about being an unrepentant writer/reader is that you can never just read a book again. I mean just for fun. At least, I can’t. Every book I pick up is irresistibly subjected to the questions I ask myself: Is that opening paragraph both provocative and true to the pact I’m making with the reader? Does the narrative arc take me on a compelling journey? Is the voice one I’m willing to stay with for 300 pages or so?

I almost hesitate to write this because our reading tastes are so individual, our literary loves so subjective. But for me, the most important question that I ask a book is this: What difference will this make, to me or to the world? And that is, increasingly over time, the litmus test I use to evaluate every book I read.

In her debut novel, ALIF THE UNSEEN, essayist and comic book author G. Willow Wilson conjures up a tale about a young Arab-Indian computer hacker living in an unidentified Gulf emirate. Trying to win back his former lover, driven by the Arab spring excitement, and pursued by the head of state security who is his girlfriend’s new fiancé, Alif discovers a secret and magical book with enormous metaphysical power. Although I felt this novel could have benefited from editing for length and prose style, the enormity and the importance of what the author takes on – political revolt in the Middle East, cyberspace, djinns and Islamic mythology – more than made up for its faults. (ALIF THE UNSEEN is published this month by Grove Press).

I had a somewhat different but parallel reaction to Vaddey Ratner’s debut novel IN THE SHADOW OF THE BANYON, coming in August from Simon & Schuster. Seven-year-old Raami narrates the story of her family’s experience under the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. It is a powerful story, an important story, of a culture under siege, of atrocities and survival. Knowing that the author lived the experience is chilling. Still, I wished Ratner had chosen a different point of view because I often felt limited by her first person narration. I kept wondering what nuance other narrators could add to the story, a low-level Khmer Rouge functionary, for example, or an elderly woman watching her world torn apart. But that would be my approach to writing this story, not Ratners, and hers is very much worth the read.

I also read THE COLLECTIVE, by Don Lee, coming in July from Norton. Don Lee can really write. His prose is clever and smart (occasionally a bit too clever and smart for my taste.) The story of three Asian American college friends, artists and writers, and their struggles to negotiate racism and the unwelcoming world of art and publishing is well plotted and executed, and it explores questions I care about. But somehow I never really connected with the characters or their story. It has gotten some terrific reviews though, so maybe you will.

PICTURE THIS by Jacqueline Sheehan is just out as a paperback original from William Morrow, bringing back Rocky Pelligrino and her Peak’s Island community first met in Sheehan’s bestseller, LOST AND FOUND. The author’s fascination with using psychology to develop strong and complicated characters is back too, and this is a page-turner of a story. Rocky is contacted by Natalie, just out of foster care and convinced she’s the unacknowledged daughter of Rocky’s late husband, Bob. Or is she? Sheehan’s fourth novel is both an exciting read and a profound exploration of the damage done to childhood, the nature of evil, and the difficulty of knowing what is true.

I want to say just a word or two about Dennis Lehane’s new novel, LIVE BY NIGHT (coming in October from William Morrow). This is another edgy and sharp novel from Lehane, set at the dark edges of business as usual in the unsettled decades after THE GIVEN DAY. Joe Coughlin, who likes to call himself an outlaw rather than a gangster, is like good bread: a tough crust hides his soft inner yearnings that are constantly tested by his choices. This is crisp writing with moments of surprising tenderness, and Lehane’s usual close but never intrusive attention to class and race. Dennis Lehane can really tell a good story.

Do you know the concept of “the perfect reader?” That each author has potential readers out there who are poised to devour and love and totally “get” the author’s work. It’s an idea that sustains me through some of the rough parts (and there are many) of writing a novel.

I might just be the perfect reader for Edith Chevat’s newly published novel THE BOOK OF ESTHER. Chevat writes about the ideas, the questions I have pondered through decades of political activism, through a lifetime of reading about activism here and around the world, through twelve years of trying seriously to create fiction that asks these questions. Esther has been a lifelong lefty political activist. After her divorce, as she tries to adjust to her son’s transformation from secular Jew to orthodox, Esther obtains her FBI records through the Freedom of Information Act. Using these highly redacted documents and short historical vignettes about heroic progressive women to punctuate her story, Esther tells us about her political work, her marriage and motherhood with honesty and self-reflection. She asks herself, and those heroic women (from Ruth First to Ethel Rosenberg to Hannah Senesh) the novel’s central questions about activism and sacrifice: How do you measure a life? Would you do it again? Was it worth it? I LOVED reading this book.
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