Tag Archives: Contemporary Fiction

Life After Life, After Life After Life

Neither U.S. nor UK copyright law protects titles of books. This means  that someday I can call my memoirs In the Pleasure Groove: Love, Death and Duran Duran without fear of legal reprisal (though I’d gladly entertain a hand-delivered cease and desist request). On a more practical note for you, the Eleventh Stack reader, however, it means that every now and again you’ll run into multiple books with the same title, which can prove a wee bit confusing when it’s time to make a catalog reservation.

Dear John: call me, maybe?

Dear John: call me, maybe?

Exhibit A: two novels called Life After Life, released just six days apart. What could have been a marketing nightmare turned out to be a boon for both novelists and their publishers, as the coincidence has piqued interest in both books. That means longer library waiting lists, though, so here’s a quick-and-dirty overview of each novel, to help you decide which one you’d like better, or if you’d be happy to  read both.

Jill McCorkle

mccorkleThe residents, staff, and visitors of Pine Haven Retirement Center are the focus of Jill McCorkle’s novel about the sweet memories and painful regrets that can rise to the surface as life winds down. A hospice volunteer dutifully records her charges’ dying moments, to teach herself about living well. Another staff member does her best to care for the residents while pondering how own difficult history and uncertain future. A once-powerful man fakes dementia to avoid meaningful conversations with his combative son. As the narrative point of view shifts from character to character, the reader sees how each person affects, and is affected by, the rest of the community, and how much power a single kindness–or cruelty–can have. Although the subject matter is unavoidably heavy–we all have to die sometime–it is also laced with what I can only describe as “realistic hope,” the notion that one person’s voice can be heard, that a single life is precious. On the whole, McCorkle’s given us an honest look at what it means to live well and die well, one that will resonate with anyone who’s ever pondered her/his own mortality or otherwise dealt with hospice/end-of-life issues.

Reserve this if: you enjoyed The Secret Life of Bees or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (originally published as These Foolish Things); you like fiction set in the American South (think Sarah Addison Allen, but with more realism and less magic); you’re looking for fiction that strikes a balance somewhere between “literary” and “beach-read”; you don’t mind the uncomfortable looks people give you when they ask what the book is about and you say “death.”

Kate Atkinson

If anything that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, what happens to you when things kill you over and over? This far-fetched atkinsonrhetorical question is no joke for Ursula Todd, who dies–sometimes quite horribly–and is reborn again and again, always into the same family. Atkinson–whose Jackson Brodie mysteries already have quite a following–will earn plenty of new fans with this speculative twist on the historical novel, which focuses heavily on England’s participation in WWII. Atkinson’s ambitious premise is that the life of one person can mirror the life of a nation, and as Ursula rises, falls, and rises again, so does England. The tone is decidedly British, which includes not only the loving descriptions of everyday objects Anglophiles adore in their fiction, but also the pluck and dry wit that embody the national sense of humor.

Reserve this if: you enjoyed Code Name Verity or Downtown Abbey; your television set is perpetually tuned to BBC America; you’ve ever spent far too much time contemplating the Hitler Murder Paradox.

See why you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover? If both of these titles were in your hands right now, which one would you check out first, and why?

Leigh Anne


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Intro to Fiction

I read this line from a review author Jonathan Franzen wrote recently, and while he’s prodding for a reaction, it works:

…haven’t we all secretly sort of come to an agreement, in the last year or two or three, that novels belonged to the age of newspapers and are going the way of newspapers, only faster? As an old English professor friend of mine likes to say, novels are a curious moral case, in that we feel guilty about not reading more of them but also guilty about doing something as frivolous as reading them; and wouldn’t we all be better off with one less thing in the world to feel guilty about?

from “Rereading ‘The Man Who Loved Children'”

As an avid defender of contemporary fiction, it’s heartbreaking for me to admit that this rings so true.  But the form is not dead:  there is too much to be said and too much changing in the world to not allow room for fiction to grow with it.  I am now, and always will be, a reader of fiction.  This post is about why.

I was not always so obsessed, making my way through works that have been heaped with praise and those relatively unknown to search for something beautiful to be said. But it’s been worth it, and it started with Jonathan Safran Foer. Until I read Everything Is Illuminated, I was happily working through classics, comics, and anything but modern fiction. I was interested, but but I knew nothing out there was for me. Illuminated changed it all, and for that I am grateful. I think I have copied about half the book in my journal, and I’ll still go back and read a passage and want to start the book all over again.

Shortly after that reading experience, I was finally introduced to David Foster Wallace. Evidently my blooming interest in contemporary fiction was limited to writers with three names. However, I wasn’t ready for Infinite Jest (nor, after attempting to read it three times since, do I think I ever will be), but I was graced with Wallace’s magnificent novel, The Broom of the System. This book showcases Wallace’s genius but never loses its focus — in other words, it’s like a short story within Jest.

By then I was totally hooked.  I read Shantaram (another three-named dude!), House of Leaves, and The Savage Detectives all in succession. The only problem with reading three amazing books in a row is that you are officially spoiled forever. No subsequent books will be this well-written, this fresh, or — as an added bonus — by relatively new authors.

In hindsight, I got lucky with the books that influenced me and encouraged me that not all contemporary writing was lost. It may not be so easy for others. But if you are ever in need of a pickup, check out one of these titles from your local library, and try to keep from writing every sentence in your journal.

— Tony

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Waxing gibbous

I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but a couple of years ago I took book clubs for granted. I led a weekly spirituality book club with a group of friends, and monthly book clubs with adults and teens at the library where I worked. In each situation I was reading things that we had chosen as a group, so I was always being challenged to read things outside of my comfort zone. But in my heart of hearts, I had thoughts like, “Woe is me! If only I had more time to read the things I want to read!”

I didn’t know how good I had it.

I haven’t been in a book club for a couple of years. I didn’t realize until recently what a huge book club-shaped-hole there was in my life until a recent discussion with a colleague.  We were discussing the merits of White Teeth by Zadie Smith.  Our conversation reminded me how reading, normally a solitary activity, can become relational, communal, and much more profound than it could ever be with my limited, gibbous perspective.  His observations made me see depth and shades of meaning in the story that I’d previously been blind to. It made me appreciate the book much, much more.

This meeting made me resolved to join a book club again. Luckily, this library has a variety: Horror, Mystery, Dish! A Foodie Book Club, Pathfinders: A Book Club for Our Spiritual Journeys, Books in the Afternoon, which discusses contemporary fiction, and even No One Belongs in this Book Group More than You: A Cult Fiction Book Club.

Please, don’t be gibbous, like me: Don’t take book clubs for granted.



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