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Fiction that tells the truth: Civil rights, the Middle East, and the Rosenberg case

Fiction is the best way I know to understand the world. Oh, I read the morning paper and follow online alternative media, and watch the evening news. But my deepest delving into the big issues, the messy complicated and critical issues, is through imaginative works of fiction. Of course the facts, the details of time and place and person are often changed (re-imagined) to serve the story. But if the novel works, it takes the reader across otherwise insurmountable borders of time and nation, of race and ethnicity and gender and age, to experience – “first hand” – the thorny and challenging issues facing our world.

Three recent novels took me to new/old places, and illuminated segments of the world – both historical and contemporary. MOURNER’S BENCH, by Sanderia Faye, took me to 1960’s small-town Arkansas through the eyes of eight-year-old Sarah Jones. Judith Frank’s ALL I LOVE AND KNOW is set in contemporary Northampton, MA and in Jerusalem, as a family responds to the terrorist bomb that kills two of its members. THE HOURS COUNT, Jillian Cantor novel’s about Ethel Rosenberg, brought me home, to my own family. Each of these novels successfully bring to life an important moment in history. Each offers an experience that readers might not otherwise access.

I was thrilled to hear that MOURNER’S BENCH was being published. I met the author Sanderia Faye, about ten years ago in a Contemporary Novel writing workshop led by Dennis Lehane. It was an enormously productive week for me, but the thing I remember most was Sanderia’s chapter from this novel. Her young protagonist Sarah is so beautifully brought to life; we feel the Arkansas summer heat, the struggles within her family, her religious yearnings. As the civil rights movement and school integration come to her town, Sarah guides us through an emotional landscape of change and growth. This debut novel is assured and confidant and the window it offers into our shared history is unique. Read this book.

I’m just finishing my second reading of Judith Frank’s ALL I LOVE AND KNOW, in preparation for leading a book group discussion. Some novels fade a bit with rereading, but not this one. Daniel and Matt, a gay Northampton couple, travel to Jerusalem to bury Daniel’s twin brother and his wife, killed by a terrorist bomb, and to take custody of their two young children. Frank is masterful at balancing the personal stories of her characters with the explosive political and social issues that propel the plot. Her use of an omniscient point of view works beautifully to integrate Middle East politics with parenting, sexual politics with generational negotiations. Plus, it’s a really, really good read.

Finally, I want to talk about THE HOURS COUNT, by Jillian Cantor. I heard about this book from a friend and contacted the author, requesting an advance copy. I did so with mixed emotions, because – as I’ve written about previously – I haven’t loved most of the fiction based on my family’s story. (I’m married to Robert Meeropol, younger son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.) Cantor’s story is told by Millie, a fictional character who lives in Knickerbocker Village and becomes close friends with Ethel. A mix of fact and fiction is always tricky and some of Cantor’s choices don’t make sense to me. Why name one of her characters Jake Gold, when Harry Gold was a “real” participant? Why name Millie’s son David, to be confused with the “real” David Greenglass? Why rewrite how the bomb sketch was used?

That said, I found the novel emotionally compelling. The relationship between Millie and Ethel was complex and tender. The depictions of the parenting challenges shared by the two women was well done and felt true. On a personal level, I have spent decades wondering who Ethel Rosenberg really was – reading her letters, examining photos of her, listening to stories from those who knew her. I’ve spent years writing about her as a way to try to know this woman who gave birth to my husband. Reading Jillian Cantor’s novel, I was surprised at how close I felt to this novelist’s fictionalization of my mother-in-law, whose 100th birthday, by the way, is September 28 . Thank you, Jillian, for that gift.  Read More 
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My favorite political novels

Last month at an event in Boston, I saw a friend and our conversation, as so often happens, centered on books. What good books we’ve read recently, and old favorites. Since we also share a passion for political activism, it’s no surprise that we quickly focused in on political fiction.
“I keep a list of my favorites, I told her.”
“Send it to me?” she asked.
“I’ll put it up on my blog,” I said. “Then people can add their own favorites.”

I’m defining political fiction as work that illuminates injustice by dramatizing conflicts of class, race, gender and the environment. A literature that, rather than the common practice of using the political landscape as background for a dramatic story, is actually in opposition to the status quo. Literature that just might encourage the reader to look more critically at our own neighborhood, our own world, and work to make it better.

Here are my favorites. Some are old; some are new. What are yours?

Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcon
In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam
The Air We Breathe by Andrea Barrett
The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir
Running the Rift, Naomi Benaron
Kindred by Octavia Butler
Civil Wars by Rosellen Brown
Little Bee by Chris Cleeve
Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow
The Ministry of Special Cases, Nathan Englander
The Guest of Honor by Nadine Gordimer
First Papers by Laura Hobson
Solar Storms by Linda Hogan
The Bone People by Keri Hulme
Like Trees, Walking, Ravi Howard
Small Wars by Sadie Jones
Mudbound by Hillary Jordan
Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
The Given Day by Dennis Lehane
The Four Gated City by Doris Lessing
The Chosen Place; The Timeless People by Paule Marshall
White Dog Fell from the Sky, Eleanor Morse
A Stranger in the Kingdom by Howard Frank Mosher
The Last Town on Earth, Thomas Mullen
Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien
Strange as this Weather has Been, Ann Pancake
Caucasia by Danzy Senna
Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
Ties in Blood by Gillian Slovo
The Submission, Amy Waldman
Martyrs Crossing by Amy Wilentz

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Favorite reads of 2013: the ecstasy and the agony

It’s such pleasure every year at this time to look back over all the books I’ve read in the past twelve months and try to select my favorites. It’s a pleasure to remember how these books transported me far away, how they challenged my usual-thoughts and opinions, how they taught me things and prompted me to learn other things. Of course, it’s agony to choose, and next week I might do it differently. But these are some of the books that touched me most deeply in 2013.

A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA by Anthony Marra. This was the easiest book to put on my list; I think it’s the best book I’ve read in a long time. In fact, I read it twice this year (although I admit to skimming a very few scenes that I couldn’t revisit). Set in civil war Chechnya, it is brilliant and brutal and dark and frightening and gorgeous. It offers a close-up view of the worst and best in ourselves and I believed every word.

WHITE DOG FELL FROM THE SKY by Eleanor Morse. I often say that I most admire books that are set at the crossroads of political turmoil and character’s lives. Like Anthony Marra’s book, that’s exactly what Eleanor Morse does here. This novel is set in Botswana and South Africa during apartheid. It is powerful, beautifully written, and it’s one of the 2013 books that has stayed with me all year.

I’m a big fan of Wally Lamb’s previous novels so I eagerly anticipated the publication of WE ARE WATER. I wasn’t disappointed. This is a portrait of a family, a marriage, of children scarred by early events and traumas. It’s also a story about people breaking free of historical grief and secrets and finding joy. Like so much of Lamb’s work, it explores race and class and violence, as well as the redemptive powers of creative work. I was particularly interested in the structure of the book, in the masterful way the author reveals details of story, and back-story, from multiple points of view, in a nonlinear manner, so that the reader has the opportunity to play a major part in putting together the puzzle pieces.

I also had the feeling of solving a puzzle while reading Simon Van Booy’s THE ILLUSION OF SEPARATENESS. This World War II-era novel is told in flashbacks, in hints and bits and pieces, in seemingly unrelated vignettes relayed by a group of strangers. As the connections reveal themselves and the story evolves, the characters are no longer as alone. And neither is the reader. I really loved this book.

KIND OF KIN by Rilla Askew tells the story of an Oklahama man whose barn is used to shelter undocumented migrant workers. When Brown is sent to prison, his young grandson tries to set things right. Told through multiple points of view holding conflicting opinions about the events, Askew shows us a community at the explosive intersection of politics and loyalty.

Ruth Ozeki’s A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING is constructed around a dual narrative. There’s Nao, a bullied 16-year-old girl in Tokyo who writes a diary about her ruined father and beloved great grandmother who is a Buddhist nun. And there’s Ruth, the novelist who finds Nao’s diary in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, debris from the tsunami. The result is both a gripping story and a thought-provoking exploration of time, story-telling, and the wonderfully complicated connections between writer and reader.

In her second novel, THE COMFORT OF LIES, Randy Susan Meyers explores a tangled web of family yearnings, lies and regrets: Tia has an affair and gives up her baby. Caroline reluctantly adopts to please her husband. Juliette discovers that her husband had an affair that resulted in a baby. The author has exquisite skill at getting inside her characters most shameful places, revealing the truth and consequences of human actions, errors, and the possibility of reconciliation.

I dearly love novels with social justice themes, but somehow I missed LAYLA, a debut novel by Céline Keating, when it was published a few years ago. Layla is a young woman who does not share her mother’s lifelong political activism. But as her mother dies, Layla promises to follow her instructions to travel across the country, visiting the mother’s old friends and comrades from her activist past. The carrot is powerful: information about her long-missing, supposedly-dead father. Layla’s journey moved me enormously. I believed in her confusion, her growing awareness, her anger and loved her courage in facing what seemed like impossible contradictions between right and wrong.

This year, two nonfiction books made my favorites list. Bill Ayers’ PUBLIC ENEMY begins during the 2008 election debate when Barack Obama was asked about “a gentleman named William Ayers,” and replied that Ayers was “a guy who lives in my neighborhood.” The story that follows, from death threats to cancelled speaking gigs and beyond, moves from the Vietnam War and Weatherman and life underground to parenting young children under siege. Ayers, a respected educator, author, and university professor, is at his most eloquent when he talks about children and learning, both in the classroom and the particular challenges in his own family. This memoir sizzles with energy.

In her amazing book IN THE BODY OF THE WORLD, Eve Ensler writes about her body and her illness; she also writes about the rape and torture of women in the Congo. Somehow, she connects these two stories in unflinching prose that opens individual suffering into something much bigger, something that challenges and joins each of us. This book is astonishing and courageous and important.

There are so many other books I loved this year – AT NIGHT WE WALK IN CIRCLES by Daniel Alarcón, SPIDER IN A TREE by Susan Stinson, THE LOWLAND by Jhumpa Lahiri, ALL THIS TALK OF LOVE by Christopher Castellani – but I’m going to stop now. Really.

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Recent reads on the faultlines of politics and people

Sometimes I feel like a divided woman, caring fiercely about both social justice activism and literature. On first glance, it might seem easily reconciled: write fiction about injustices and resistance, right? Only – of course – it’s not at all that simple. Sometimes the brain cells, the synapses and dendrites and neurons (all that anatomy I studied years ago and have mostly forgotten) that make connections necessary for activism seem not only very different from those that create good fiction, but also in direct contradiction.

And then, just when I despair that I can’t get it right, I read books that are so good, such exquisite combinations of bearing witness to the world and fine literary work, that I’m inspired to keep working. Three recent books made me feel this way.  Read More 
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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?
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Can fiction change the world? Should it even try?

I know. I know. This topic is likely to make you roll your eyes, unless you’re one of the 8.9% of writers who are – like me – obsessed with it. Another 35% believe that art is for art’s sake alone: spectacular sunsets, striking metaphors, startling insights about the human condition, but don’t step too close to the line. Over that line lurk propaganda, didacticism, partisanship, the literary equivalents of activist judges. The other 56.1% don’t care and have already clicked away. (Disclosure: these statistics are made-up.)

Seriously though, you can’t live in my family without believing in the power of literature to effect change. My father-in-law Abel Meeropol (a.k.a. Lewis Allan) wrote the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit,” often quoted as the most important protest song of the 20th century.  Read More 
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