Among the books I read in the last school year that I’d recommend are some that everyone has recommended and some books only a few people have read. What these books have in common, I suppose, is that they depict ordinary people living through extraordinary circumstances and in doing so suggest again that nobody is, in fact, ordinary.
All Aunt Hagar’s Children, Edward P. Jones. Jones’ third book and the third I’ve read; it might well be his best. The structure of his stories and handling of point-of-view combine 21st and 19th-century sensibilities, by which I mean the stories are thoroughly modern in how they depict interconnected lives, but have the epic feel of 19th-century literature in which the author knows everything about every character. It’s as big a short story collection as you’ll find, and each of the 14 stories is its own world. The book is a triumph of imagination. It takes the realism of his first book
of stories and combines it with the strange magic of his novel, The Known World. The result is dynamic and heart breaking. No wonder it was a finalist for the Pen Faulkner Award.
What Kills What Kills Us, Kurt S. Olsson. Read Kurt S. Olsson’s poems, and you’ll learn that Cain, who was firstborn, taught his parents everything, from how to raise a child to “the sound a soul makes leaking from a body.” You’ll learn as does Diogenes, as he is mauled by dogs, that at death even language is superfluous. And you’ll discover that even a name as revered as John Donne can belong to a first-grade bully
who smoked until his pupils drowned green
and chugged stupidity until his heart traded seats with his knees.
Olsson’s poems are as engaged with storytelling as with verse. Before he was a poet, he hoped to write fiction, and that old tug turns his poetry toward narrative and characters. He is drawn to classical subjects such as the death of Orpheus and Ham’s plea to his father Noah to stop his foolish construction of an ark. But Olsson also studies his grandfather “who loved the Packers” and the aforementioned bully with a poet’s name. In every case, Olsson’s poems are tight, his verbs powerful, his images clear.
Who By Fire, Diana Spechler. This is a novel of ideas. The characters talk and think about important things: what is the nature of learning, and what is the nature of devotion; how do we balance duty to family against duty to God; why does grief turn us against the people who love us; how is it that we cloak selfishness with altruism and meanness with love, what do we do with lingering guilt? The characters in Who By Fire think about these things. They debate them, argue about them. These are not small questions this book explores.
But unlike some books of ideas, this one is a fast, fun read. The plot is alluring, the voices of the characters engaging, the situations often comic. Reading it, you might forget that while Ash is trying to sneak a sexy young woman out of his room in his Yeshiva, the two are arguing about God and feminism. You might forget that as Bits is seducing a man she doesn’t love, he is lecturing her about the nature of friendship and betrayal. Such a balance is hard to pull off: to write a novel in which charactes discuss complicated questions in complicated ways, even while the writer propels said characters through an exciting, action-packed life that has you, the reader, turning pages. Spechler pulls it off. (Full disclosure: I had the good fortune of sitting on Spechler's thesis committee at the University of Montana)
Others: Bluestown, by Geoffrey Becker, a funny, sad portrait of rock’n’roll dreams that never get farther than the opening chords (full disclosure: I teach with Geoff at Towson U.); Flood Stage and Rising, by Jane Varley, a memoir about loving rivers even when they turn on you; The Tender Bar, by J.R. Moehringer, in which we learn it doesn’t take a village to raise a boy, it takes a good neighborhood tavern.