Category: underappreciated books
I found Lore Segal’s strikingly unique debut novel Her First American through the process of judging a book by its cover: the hardcover and early paperback editions were decorated with a detail from a Reginald Marsh painting of passengers in a New York City El Car. Attracted as I am to all things New York (and a fan of Marsh), I picked up the book at a library, and immediately fell head-first into the vividly disoriented and disorienting worldview of its young Viennese heroine, the WWII refugee Ilka Weissnix:
Ilka had been three months in this country when she went West and discovered her first American sitting on a stool in a bar in the desert, across from the railroad. He was a big man. He bought her a whiskey and asked her what in the name of the blessed Jehoshaphat she was doing in Cowtown, Nevada.
“Nevada?” Ilka had said. “I have believed I am being in Utah, isn’t it?”
The man Ilka meets at that railway café is Carter Bayoux, a middle-aged black intellectual with ties to the brand-new United Nations. At that first encounter, she has no frame of reference for Carter–she doesn’t understand that he’s black, let alone what that means in America. Once back in New York, where much of the novel’s action takes place, we watch through Ilka’s point of view as, via her burgeoning affair with Carter, she learns from scratch about what it is to be a displaced Jew, a real New Yorker, a woman in love with a fascinating, depressive and self-destructive man, and a member of a loose-knit circle of African-American and Jewish activists in the 1950s civil rights movement whose assumptions of comradeship are constantly undermined by implicit racism, anti-Semitism, suspicion and resentment.
All of which makes this book sound like a chore, when in fact it’s full of frequently hilarious conversations and set-pieces (the whole section at the summer cottage peopled by a seething variety of inter-racial couples is indescribably rich and strange and feels absolutely true to life) as it unfolds a tender love story of unpredictable complexity.
I’ve never found characters in fiction anything like Carter, Ilka, and their circle in Her First American. Ilka’s alien point of view on post-war America alternates with that of Carter, down-trodden and all-too-familiar with the daily grinding oppression that sends him to the bottle. As Ilka becomes an American, and rises into a better position in life, Carter inexorably sinks. Through Ilka and Carter, Segal juxtaposes the combined struggles of two dispossessed minorities, even as she unflinchingly and mournfully illustrates their ultimate inability to really communicate with one another.
NancyKay Shapiro is a writer in New York City. Her novel, What Love Means To You People, was published by Thomas Dunne in March 2006.
I wholeheartedly recommend Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, also known as The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, published in 1722 and widely considered to be one of the first English-language novels (Defoe himself, some say, being the father of the novel form). When I first came to the book, I was halfway through drafting my own first novel, Mary After All – the story of a Jersey City woman who comes of age during the turbulent 1970s and discovers her own route to independence along the way – and it certainly made quite an impression on me: both as a reader and as a writer. So many things seemed more possible – not the least of which was the idea that you could, as a man, convincingly tell a story from a woman’s perspective, and in that woman’s voice. (Worth noting is the fact that Defoe wrote Moll Flanders under a pseudonym so that his readers would believe it was the actual journal of a bawdy, adventurous woman in the eighteenth century.) There was also, in those pages, validation of the concept that by creating a full-blown, closely-examined character who is chock full of flaws and fully revealing of them… who is driven by decisions, sometimes awful but always explained, that make sense at the time – in Moll’s case she is, by turns, a good wife, a hooker, a pickpocket, a convict and a “reformed” bad mother of sorts – you could make the reader like your heroine even more. I surely did! I also shared in her joys and sorrows and successes more completely, I think, because none of her many “warts” were hidden. My own narrator, Mary, leads a rather quotidian existence compared to Moll – although she does have a stint as a bookie and kicks the woman who slept with her husband down the stairs. But in Moll Flanders there was the refreshing concept, clear in its early pages, that fairly ordinary details – personal finances, daily routines and decisions – could be fascinating – not just interesting — if the conveyance was intimate and accurate enough. And in that intimacy grew drama. Drama that could build and be felt by the reader with each move and plot twist, no matter how large or small, because you were there *with* her. And nearly four hundred years after the initial publication of Moll Flanders… you still are.
Bill Gordon‘s work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Mississippi Review, New York Press, Christopher Street, and Downtown. He received an MFA from Columbia University. He grew up in Jersey City and now lives in New York. Mary After All is his first novel.
Leora Skolkin-Smith’s Edges was featured this year at the Virginia Festival of the Book, but it doesn’t seem to be noticed much. I hope more people will read it. Written in lyrical and arresting language, it bridges a rift between the “political” and the universal, telling a story about mothers and daughters and a young woman’s sexual awakening. The geography and tensions of Israel and Palestine before the Cold War are especially glowing in this book. Leora Skolkin-Smith is very gifted at expressing complex, nuanced moments with rare precision. I highly recommend this unusual and brief novel.”
Jamie Callan’s fiction has appeared in Best American Erotica 2002, The Missouri Review, Story Buzz Magazine, American Letters and Commentary, OntheBus, The Baffler, and Turnstile. Callan teaches fiction at Yale University, NYU, and Wesleyan University. She is also a Master Teaching Artist with the Connecticut Commission on the Arts.
A Good Place for the Night by Savyon Liebrecht, Persea Books. I found this Israeli author’s short story collection at the Independent and Small Press Book Fair back in November. The first story, “America”, had me hooked after the second page. The collection is made up of seven short stories, each taking place in a different locality (America, Germany, Hiroshima, a kibbutz, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and a post-apocalyptic world.) The book blurb says that the collection focuses on “place, on men and women physically or emotionally distant from home.” I would go further and say that place is, in these stories, often an imagined construct (most obviously in “America”). The collection also seems, to me, to be about the precarious lies we tell ourselves to make our lives bearable, and what happens when these lies fall apart. To summarize: “America” is told from the point of view of a little girl whose mother runs off with another man and his daughter to America, and her and her father’s attempts to cope with this betrayal. “The Kibbutz” is about an orphaned child of a mistreated and mildly handicapped couple, and his eventual discovery of the truth behind their deaths. “Germany” focuses on an Israeli reporter in Munich who is covering the trial of a former Nazi commander responsible for his father’s death. “Hiroshima”, one of my favorites in the collection, is about an Israeli woman’s nine years’ stay in Japan and the terrible forces that drive her to leave. And “A Good Place for the Night”, the title story, is about a post-apocalyptic world, an inn where several survivors take refuge. I would highly recommend this book.”
Michelle Lin writes for New York Brain Terrain, a cultural events blog for NYC.
If you’d like to recommend an underappreciated book for this series, please send mail to llalami at yahoo dot com.