Just in time for winter I have a delicious list of books that will make you happy to curl up on the couch and read the afternoon away.
First up is Sana Krasikov’s The Patriots, a big fat juicy old-fashioned novel that runs from the 1930s right up to the present day and follows three generations of one family in America and Russia. The central character, is a feisty, idealistic young American woman, enthralled by the promise of the Soviet Union … what happens to her there and how it affects subsequent generations of her family is nothing less than the history of the Soviet Union, including the fate of Americans in Russia and of Russians who return to their homeland after becoming “Americanized.”
This is the very best kind of historical fiction. The vivid characters and their passions and ideals don’t get lost in the historical detail … in fact it is through their eyes we learn about the years of building the Soviet Union and the disillusion that follows. Also about how Americans in Russia were abandoned by their country.
The gripping narrative seamlessly encompasses and illuminates conflicting ideologies, Communism, anti-Semitism, patriotism, even the parent–child relationship. Krasikov’s main characters are both courageous and flawed, they fall in love and make compromises … that is to say, they’re human. Nothing is too big or too small for her perceptive eye. Astonishing for a first novel.
I have no doubt this novel will be compared to the kind of historical epics by Herman Wouk and James Michener that used to dominate the bestseller lists. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of the Russian greats (Tolstoy et al.) were invoked as well.
Considering the present occupant of the White House and his desire to chip away at free speech, throw his opponents in jail, even to quote Russian propaganda, this book is sadly timely and a important reminder of what it’s like to be trapped under a totalitarian regime.
Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass is of a different order entirely, an intimate memoir of her marriage. It’s a courageous book, an unflinching look at the joys and sorrows, the opportunities and disappointments inherent in any union. She explores how, as people grow and change, they manage to live together with promises kept and promises broken.
The language is gorgeous:
But I can no longer say to M. that we’re just beginning…. That solid yet light thing—our journey—is no longer new. He identified my mother’s body. We took turns holding our seizing child. We have watched his mother disappear in plain sight. We have raised Jacob together. We know each other is a way that young couple couldn’t have imagined. Our shared vocabulary our own language—will die with us. We are the treasure itself: fathoms deep, in the world we have made again and again.
The best word I can use to describe this open and vulnerable novel is grace.
I don’t know how to explain the charm and magic of Marisa Silver’s Little Nothing so I’ll give it to you straight. It’s the story of a malformed baby born in a primitive Eastern European village—“her head is too large for her torso, her arms and legs too short. She looks like a rag doll sewn together from cast-off parts”—who turns into a wolf, and the boy and then man who both loves her and hunts her.
Mesmerizing and seductive, Little Nothing is a dark, gorgeous fairytale/allegory/fable that ultimately is about the transformative, redemptive power of love. I can promise you it’s like nothing you’ve read before.
I went off short stories quite some time ago, finding them unsatisfying, preferring to bury myself in the length and complexity and what I felt to be the deeper power of the novel. Well, I’m back in the fold. Maybe it’s something to do with my waning attention span. Or maybe Meg Wolitzer, editor of The Best American Short Stories 2017, just really knows how to pick ’em.
Among the gems in this collection are authors who were new to me (Chad Anderson, who opens the book with his stunning, dreamy “Maidencane”; Kevin Canty, Leopoldine Core, Kyle McCarthy) and ones whose work I’ve known and admired (Emma Cline, Patricia Engel, Lauren Groff, Amy Hempl, and Jess Walter—he had me at the line early in his story “Famous Actor”: “I disliked him from the moment I decided to sleep with him”).
Wolitzer quotes Joseph Conrad in her introduction, who wrote about how art, when it succeeds, can offer “that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.” Well said indeed.