Some Less Well-Known Fiction Authors Who Wrote Some Mighty Fine Fiction

 

In order to qualify for this list, an author must be one I haven’t heard much about recently and who had at least two works of fiction I found amazing.

 

Maria Thomas – United States writer Maria Thomas went to Ethiopia as a young woman volunteering for the Peace Corps in 1971 and remained in Africa for fifteen years.  She captured the beauty and harshness and mystery of Africa in her fiction.  She was killed at age 47 along with her husband in a plane crash in 1989 while inspecting an Ethiopian refugee camp.  Two works by Maria Thomas that I can strongly recommend are the story collection ‘Come to Africa and Save Your Marriage’ and the novel ‘Antonia Saw the Oryx First’.

 

 

Elizabeth Taylor – The English writer Elizabeth Taylor had to be the most underrated writer in the world, although the world may finally be catching up with her since two of her novels have been made into movies during the last twelve years (‘Angel and ‘Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont’).   It must be difficult building your own career when there is someone much more famous with the same name. I still have problems googling the author Elizabeth Taylor. She wrote twelve novels, and I have read them all.  She also wrote four short story collections, and I have read them all.  The stories are excellent, but I will highlight two of her novels,  ‘In a Summer Season’ and ‘The Soul of Kindness’.  Perhaps another reason Elizabeth Taylor is under-appreciated was because she made it all seem so easy.

 

Alberto Moravia – For Italian fiction, Alberto Moravia was the Elena Ferrante of his time at least in my estimation.  Everything he wrote is well worth reading, but two that I particularly liked are ‘The Fancy Dress Party’ which got him into trouble with Mussolini and ‘Contempt’ which is a short novel that highlights Moravia’s psychological intensity.  I have read nearly a dozen works and hope to read more.

 

 

 

Michel Tournier – The French writer Michel Tournier reworked classic stories in an odd and magical fashion.  In ‘Friday’ he took on the Robinson Crusoe story.  In ‘The Four Wise Men’ he retells the story of the biblical wise men.  Another favorite of mine is ‘The Ogre’.  Here is another fiction writer whose every work is well worth reading, but what makes him particularly valuable is his strange originality.  However his work is also easy to follow.  Tournier died in 2016.

 

 

Angela Huth – Here is another English fiction writer whom I discovered that the world still has not caught on to yet although many have appreciated the televised series ‘The Land Girls’.  I discovered Huth through her excellent short stories, but I will recommend here two of her novels I have read, ‘Easy Silence’ and ‘Invitation to the Married Life’ as well as ‘Land Girls’.  She can make her characters quite empathetic even while exposing their flaws.

 

 

 

Jorge Amado – It is easy to overlook Brazilian writer Jorge Amado among all the other fine South American writers, but I can’t think of any writer I enjoyed reading more than Amado.  He made the colorful life and people in Brazil come alive for me in his novels.  Two of his novels I will recommend here are ‘Gabriela, Clove, and Cinnamon’ and ‘Home is the Sailor’, but all of his work is quite reliable.

“I am like my characters – sometimes even the female ones.” – Jorge Amado

 

Perhaps I will have another list of less known favorite writers later.

 

‘The Book of Joan’ by Lidia Yuknavitch – Even Worse Than a Dystopia

 

‘The Book of Joan’ by Lidia Yuknavitch   (2017) – 267 pages

 

To call ‘The Book of Joan’ a dystopia is an understatement. Here is a dystopia to end all dystopias.

The question arises.  Why do we need to read a fictional dystopia when we’ve got the real Donald Trump?  Perhaps we just want to find a society, a world, that is even worse off than our own.

The dictionary definition for a dystopia is:

Dystopia – an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one.

In ‘The Book of Joan’, Earth has suffered a devastating geocatastrophe, and the elite have deserted earth for a space station, CIEL, above the Earth.  Now they are intent on destroying whatever life remains on earth.  Joan, a modern-day Joan of Arc, and her sidekick Leone are heroically fighting the elite in order to preserve the little life on earth that remains.

“My god, what kind of brutal abomination dismisses the suffering of the majority of the world’s population as worth sustaining a tiny number of pin-headed elites?“

There are other hints that here we are in the Age of Trump.

“We are what happens when the seemingly unthinkable celebrity rises to power.  Our existence makes my eyes hurt. People are forever thinking that the unthinkable can’t happen.”

In the novel scarification is the new art.  People tell their stories by burning the skin on their bodies.  Their sex organs have become useless and dysfunctional.

“Men are among the loneliest creatures.  They lose their mothers and cannot carry children, and have nothing to comfort themselves with but their vestigial cockular appendages.  This is perhaps the reason they move ever warward when they are not moving fuckward.  Now that the penis is defunct, a curling up little insect, well, who can blame them for their behaviors?” 

‘The Book of Joan’ is a gruesome fever dream of a novel.  It maintains a constant fierce pitch of desolation. There are no quiet or calm or happy interludes.  It is all devastating upheaval after disastrous disturbance. To me the novel lacks a baseline of normalcy to contrast with all the strange events that occur. The prose is inflamed, chaotic, hectic, and overwrought.    Peaceful quiet lulls in the furious action would have made the bad times seem even more horrendous, more effective.

Maybe younger readers don’t need peaceful respites.  After all we are living in the Trump Era of total chaos.

 

Grade :   B-

 

‘The Dinner Party’ by Joshua Ferris – Some Awful Guys

 

‘The Dinner Party’, stories by Joshua Ferris (2017) – 246 pages

What ideally happens when I read a short story collection is that when I complete a story I am looking forward to reading the next story even when I am not reading.  That is exactly what happened to me while reading ‘The Dinner Party’.

In the first story, ‘The Dinner Party’, a guy who thinks he is so witty and sharp and clever gets his severe come-uppance so that by the end of the story both the guy and the reader is left speechless.  It took me a couple times reading this first story to tune in to Ferris’s often raucous style, but after I did I ate these stories up.

These stories are modern, mostly urban, and high energy to the point they are almost manic.  It is good to see such a talented writer tackle what it means to be alive today. Ferris not only gets the speech of these modern guys and gals down, he also gets their thought patterns, their ways of approaching things.

In the final acknowledgements, Ferris has a special word to say about the men in his stories:

“Finally a special thanks to two women, my agent, Julie Barer, and my wife, Eliza Kennedy, who never make the mistake of confusing the author for his (awful, male) characters, who in turn embolden the author to make these characters more male and awful still.” 

Yes, the men in these stories are often pretty awful.  My favorite story here is probably ‘More Abandon (or Whatever Happened to Joe Pope?)’ which is about a guy who stays late at his office after everybody else has left.  He starts visiting his fellow workers’ offices to see how they are decorated.  One woman’s office is decorated in a cute pig motif, and another woman has her office decorated as a memorial to her dead daughter.  The guy gets the brilliant idea of switching the decorations in the two offices.  He realizes he will get fired the next morning, but he can’t help himself.

Besides the comedy, and there is a lot of comedy here, these stories can get poignant and emotional.   I found the following lines from the story ‘The Breeze’ about the essential differences within a married couple both insightful and moving.

“There was an essential difference between them – what he might have called her restlessness, what she might have called his complacency – which had not surfaced before they were married, or if it had, only as a hint of things to come, hidden again as soon as it peeked out.  When they argued now, as a married couple, it was often over this essential difference.” 

Frequently in a story collection an author will put their best foot forward in the first story, and then the stories get gradually or suddenly weaker.  In ‘The Dinner Party’ the stories are all first rate with no drop off whatsoever.

 

Grade :    A

 

‘House of Names’ by Colm Toibin – How is the World Treating You, Clytemnestra?

 

‘House of Names’ by Colm Toibin   (2017) – 275 pages

When you are reviewing a novel based on the ancient Greek myths and legends, I suppose you needn’t worry about writing spoilers since the Greeks wrote the spoilers almost 2500 years ago.  In the case of ‘House of Names’  the shape of the narrative was taken from those three ancient Greek master playwrights  Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.  It is a novel about that famous Spartan family from the house of Atreus consisting of warrior king Agamemnon, his wife queen Clytemnestra, and their three children Iphigenia, Electra, and Orestes.

The first thing I do when I read a novel based on Greek myth is to consult Wikipedia in order to refresh myself on the original story.  For ‘House of Names’, I will relate the early part of the story which many of you will be familiar with anyway, but will not tell of any later events which constitute the last two-thirds of the novel.

Agamemnon would like to take his warriors along with his fleet of boats from Sparta to Troy to help his brother Menelaus capture back his unfaithful wife Helen who has run off to Troy with Paris.  However the fleet is stuck in Aulis due to an absence of wind.  A priest tells Agamemnon that the winds would be favorable if only he would sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to the gods.  Agamemnon tricks his wife Clytemnestra to bring Iphigenia to Aulis by saying that he has arranged for the daughter to marry Achilles there.   Iphigenia is instead murdered, Clytemnestra is enraged, but the winds do change and Agamemnon is off to Troy with his fleet.  After ten years the Spartans led by Agamemnon are victorious in the Trojan War, and  Agamemnon returns home with his new young Trojan mistress Cassandra in tow.   By this time the enraged Clytemnestra has remarried to this slimy shady guy Aegisthus and they rule Sparta together.

I have always been impressed with this Greek story of which Clytemnestra is at the center.  What makes it so powerful for me is that it is not just a story with Evil solely on one side and Good on the other side.  The character of Clytemnestra is morally ambiguous and deep, not at all clear-cut.  We feel her righteous anger when she is tricked into bringing her daughter Iphigenia to Aulis to be sacrificed.  We are totally on her side at that point.  However when in her rage she takes up with new hubby Aegisthus and together they rule Sparta, we are less impressed with her.  Later she becomes outright villainous.

The Anger of Achilles by Jacques-Louis David, 1819

Even today in most of the stories written, the cards are still stacked with Good entirely on one side and Evil on the other.  But we know from our own experience that things are usually more unclear and confused.  The ancient Greek playwrights, especially Aeschylus, realized this pervasive inconclusiveness, and they gave the myths a depth that is missing from so many stories.  It was not until Shakespeare that someone later achieved the depth of these ancient Greek playwrights.

This is the background of the story.  However most of ‘House of Names’ is instead taken up with the story of the other two children, Electra and Orestes, after all these events have occurred.

It would be difficult for a writer to mess up this exciting plot.  I did think that Toibin’s own later story of Orestes in the wilderness dragged a little in comparison.  As always Toibin’s prose is smooth and serviceable and does not draw attention to itself which can at times be persuasive but can also be sleep inducing.

I did feel that Toibin, in telling the later story of Orestes, casts him as entirely heroic which is too simplistic compared to the stories of the ancient Greek playwrights.  The Greek playwrights would have emphasized that the sacrificial murder of his sister would also have had a deleterious effect on Orestes.   Actions have consequences.

The last three novels Colm Toibin has written have been ‘Brooklyn’, ‘The Testament of Mary’, and now ‘House of Names’.  It is difficult to imagine two novels as different as ‘Brooklyn’ and ‘House of Names’.

Overall ‘House of Names’ is a meaningful retelling of these ancient Greek myths.

 

Grade:   B+   

 

‘Ties’ by Domenico Starnone – Feelings

 

‘Ties’ by Domenico Starnone   (2014)  – 150 pages            Translated by Jhumpa Lahiri

Last fall it was revealed that novelist Domenico Starnone is married to the woman who writes under the pen name Elena Ferrante.  Now his own novel ‘Ties’ has been translated into English and published.

The subject of the novel is quite similar to Ferrante’s ‘Days of Abandonment’ which I have also read and which also takes place in Naples.  (I have read a considerable amount of Ferrante’s work, but this is my first novel by Domenico Starnone.)  Both novels are about a husband who abandons his wife and two kids to go live with a 19 year old girl for a couple of years.

Book I of ‘Ties’ quotes the angry bitter letters the wife writes to her wandering husband.

“Let’s talk about it.  You can’t leave me in the lurch.  I need to know about this Lidia.  Does she have her own place? Do you sleep there?  Does she have what you were looking for, what I no longer have, or never did?  You snuck off, clearly avoiding speaking to me at all costs.  Where are you?”

These letters seemed to me to be quite standard fare for the letters written during a bitter separation, and I would have appreciated more originality. The whole first 37 pages are transcripts of these furious letters, so the reader gets no sense of place, no sense of Naples, at all.  But even in the scenes that follow which are not quoting letters, the reader gets no sense of Naples.  The story could have happened just about anywhere, because there is nothing grounding it to Naples.  It is entirely about the feelings of these people.  This is far different from the writings of Elena Ferrante which have a strong sense of place, and I mark it as a shortcoming of ‘Ties’.

After Book I, Book II is about an elderly couple whose home is broken into and ransacked.  I read twenty pages into this Book before I could figure out that this is the same husband and wife now reunited from Book I but occurring many years later.  The only hint was that the children’s names are the same.  I felt this was another flaw that we weren’t given more indication that this was the same couple.  So for twenty pages we are pretty much bereft of any point to the story.  Later we get immersed again in the marital problems of this straying but returning husband and his angry wife and their two children, but it is again all feelings without any definite ties to the real world.

Book III is about the couple’s kids who are portrayed as young wasters which I felt was somewhat unfair to them

I would call ‘Ties’ a psychological novel.  I do like psychological novels, but the ones I like most are those that are well grounded in a definite time and place.  Otherwise all the conversational back and forth about feelings sounds all too much like babble.

 

Grade :   C+

 

‘My Darling Detective’ by Howard Norman – A Light Noir

 

‘My Darling Detective’ by Howard Norman  (2017) – 243 pages

 

‘My Darling Detective’ is a cozy playful noir detective story.

“So in this book, I simply tried to create an atmosphere with some menace and some humor in equal measure.” – Howard Norman

This is a fun little novel that pays homage both to classic noir and to lending libraries.

It takes place in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  Martha, the girlfriend of Jake Rigolet, is a detective for the Halifax Regional Police until her pregnancy forces her to quit.  On the police force, Martha has two partners who play “bad cop and worse cop”. Once a week after Jake and Martha eat their dinners, they relax in bed to listen to their favorite show, Detective Levy Detects.

“In tonight’s episode,” the announcer said, “Detective Frederik Levy and the love of his life and partner in sleuthing, Leah Diamond, have been called in to investigate the murder of Fanwell Birch, who worked the newspaper stand in the lobby of the Hotel Devonshire.”

The love life of Jake and Nora shadows that of these radio detectives.

Jake’s mother Nora has worked at the Halifax Free Library for many years and in fact gave birth to Jake right inside the library.  Now Nora is in a rest home where Martha originally came to interrogate her but now comes for friendly visits.

I won’t go into the details of the detective case which is at the center of ‘My Darling Detective’ other than to say it involves Jake’s father and provides many twists and turns and scary moments along the way.  All is written in a delicious tongue-in-cheek style.  It definitely has the feel of an old-time detective fiction.

Although the novel takes place in the 1970s, the mystery at the heart of the novel dates back to 1945. There is a subplot involving a famous World War II photograph by Robert Capa, ‘Death on a Leipzig Balcony’.  In the opening scene of the novel Nora Rigolet walks up the aisle of a hotel dining room where that photograph is being auctioned and flings an open jar of black ink at it. Luckily the photograph is protected by glass so no harm is done. By the end, we discover why Nora reacts so intensely toward this photograph.

‘My Darling Detective’ is light playful fun, perfect for listening to rather than reading.  Bronson Pinchot, former star of ‘Perfect Strangers’, does a nice job of reading it aloud capturing that hard-boiled but humorous noir mood.

 

Grade :  B 

 

‘Anything is Possible’ by Elizabeth Strout – “But this was life! And it was messy!”

 

‘Anything is Possible’ by Elizabeth Strout   (2017)  –   254 pages

‘Anything is Possible’ is a collection of linked stories about some of the people who live in a small town in Illinois and its surrounding rural area.  The structure is similar to Strout’s previous work ‘Olive Kitteridge’, although that work took place in New England.

By now Elizabeth Strout may be considered a master of the linked story structure. In each story we hear about incidental characters through the gossip and hearsay that is going around town.  Some of these side persons that are talked about get their own story later on.

The behavior of some of the well-to-do people as well as that of some of the dirt-poor people in this town is despicable.  A man sets his neighbor’s barn on fire because the neighbor had caught him masturbating outside.  A male patron of the arts secretly films, assaults, and nearly rapes a female artist houseguest.  Strout doesn’t shy away from the terrible things that neighbors are doing under the seemingly tranquil surface of the town.  This makes for some offbeat interactions as nearly everyone here has at least a fleeting acquaintance with their neighbors’ life stories.  And in a small town, a person’s life story lives on forever, even after death.

I suppose that is why many people including perhaps myself consider life in a small town awfully stifling.  Everyone knows and judges everyone else, and the gossip flies around.  It is difficult to break free of your family’s past, your own past, without leaving.  In ‘Everything is Possible’, Lucy Barton comes from the weirdest poorest family in town, and in Elizabeth Strout’s stories that means awfully bizarre.  However somehow she has managed to escape, lives in New York, and has now improbably become a best-selling author.  One of the stories depicts her return to town to visit her brother and sister who are still stuck in the town.  Of course the anonymity of a big city neighborhood can also have its disadvantages.  I suspect that even small towns aren’t as tightly-knit as they used to be or as they are made out to be in these stories.

Strout starts each story without any preliminary introduction or explanation.  We usually are thrown right in the middle of a conversation.  Part of the pleasure of each story for the reader is figuring out what the exact details of the situation are.  Usually the circumstances in the stories wind up being strange and messy, but that is the way life is.

 

Grade:   A- 

 

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