Debuts and Institutions
This Week’s Hot Reads
From a debut novel of the American plains to Beverly Donofrio’s harrowing memoir of grace in the wake of trauma.
Falling To Earth by Kate Southwood
A tornado obliterates a Midwestern town in 1920s Illinois and sets a family on an unavoidable path.
When listing evocative American images, near the top would have to be Mother holding open the cellar door, as the kids scramble down the steps and dark clouds roll toward them across the plains. So opens Falling to Earth, a debut novel from Kate Southwood, which takes as its inciting incident the true-life disaster that befell an entire swath of the Midwest on March 18, 1925. The “tri-state tornado” was the deadliest in U.S. history, and serves here, quite appropriately, as the hand of fate, devastating the entire town of Marah, Illinois, except for the homestead and lumberyard owned by Paul Graves. As the town slowly begins to recover and the people find that they must turn to the only standing lumberyard for materials, their resentment toward the Graves family simmers and threatens to boil over if Paul doesn’t properly nudge his own fate in a safer direction. It's an interesting story, but what's most exciting about Southwood's debut is her prose, which is reminiscent of Willa Cather’s in its ability to condense the large, ineffable melancholy of the plains into razor-sharp images, much like tornados themselves, as one character describes them: "Wide at the top and skinny at the bottom where they touch the ground and stir things up."
This Close: Stories by Jessica Francis Kane
A collection of stories that bind together some of the discomforts of modern life.
There’s a particular kind of class-consciousness that comes along with living in New York City, where the lust for lucre can be felt everywhere and all the castes are mashed together into the same tiny spaces. This sensitivity is just one of the many strains that bind together This Close, the third book and second collection of stories from New York writer Jessica Francis Kane. In “Lucky Boy,” a postgraduate just beginning a successful life in the city finds himself awkwardly assuming the position of role model for the young son of the immigrant woman who does his dry cleaning. In “American Lawn,” an Eastern European refugee, who has hands that are mutilated by torture, borrows a tiny plot of land in a middle-class family’s yard to grow vegetables and serves as stark relief for their silly envy—they are jealous of the just slightly more comfortable life of their neighbors. This is not so much social commentary, though, as it is personal commentary; these stories turn most strongly on internality. The characters are grappling with the tension between how they expected life to be as opposed to how it’s actually turning out. The final and best story, “Local Birds,” could be slipped into James Salter’s collection Dusk without raising much suspicion: both writers share the ability to render an incredible amount of resonance from the merest of human incidents.
Russ & Daughters by Mark Russ Federman
A memoir/cookbook from the longtime owner of a Lower East Side staple in Manhattan.
“You’re either born a great schmoozer or you’re not,” writes Mark Russ Federman, third-generation owner of the Lower East Side institution Russ & Daughters, which has been serving up herring, lox, bagels, and other Jewish delicacies since 1914. That Federman, like many of his family members, was born one of the greats is just one of the reasons that the store has endured through cycles of blight and regeneration in one of NYC’s most historical and colorful neighborhoods. The other, perhaps more salient reason is the quality of the food, which any New Yorker who has made the schlep down to 179 East Houston Street will be able to tell you about. Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House That Herring Built is part memoir and part cookbook, filled both with recipes for things like bagel pudding and stories about how to deal with overzealous line-cutters on the eve on Yom Kippur. And although there is a glut of metaphors for New York, you could do worse than the melting pot within a melting pot that is the counter at Russ & Daughters: Federman writes touchingly about how the neighborhood slowly came to accept and then embrace Latinos slicing their lox.
Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi
An expansive and ambitious debut novel from a promising new voice.
The overarching structure of Taiye Selasi’s debut novel, Ghana Must Go, is a fairly conventional one: a man named Kweku Sai dies of a heart attack at his home outside of Accra. His disparate family, which he had abandoned, must regroup in Ghana from around the world, bringing with them their luggage of old secrets and resentments in an attempt to heal and move forward. It’s the way that Selasi unfurls this relatively traditionally shaped story that makes the book worth reading, revisiting scenes multiple times, darting back and forth through time and across continents, stopping suddenly to delve deep into a character’s past or interior life. There is a stamp of Africa here, to be sure, but it would be as big a mistake to attempt to position this book among “African fiction” (a silly term in any case for such an enormous, variegated place) as it would be to trot out names of other black female writers in comparison. Selasi’s prose, which will perhaps require too much effort for some readers, is a rewarding mix of soulful conjuring and intelligent introspection, and points to a bright future.
Astonished by Beverly Donofrio
New memoir from the writer of Riding in Cars With Boys successfully converts evil into beauty.
At the age of 53, on the very same day that Beverly Donofrio had researched which monastery she should join in order to sort out her complicated relationship with God, a man used a rope ladder to break into her home in Mexico and raped her in her own bed. This unthinkably evil act comes at the very start of Astonished, the third memoir from the writer of Riding in Cars With Boys, but this book is far from an exercise in victimhood. This is the story of a woman who had already seen more than her share of hardship before the rape, on a solo odyssey of the spirit in the wake of not only a traumatic event but also an entire life spent struggling with matters of grace. What’s most compelling, besides Donofrio’s simultaneously warm and tough-as-nails voice, is the openness of her heart toward good old-fashioned faith, and her willingness to accept God into her life, if she could only figure Him out. Of course, it’s the impossibility of it that drives the narrative here, such as the frustration Donofrio feels at the maxim delivered to her by a priest: “God doesn’t cause evil. Ever. But he will use it.” And although such arguments can sometimes offend, the fact that she was able to take such ugliness and transform it into the beauty of this book is a stunning accomplishment.