Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Jesmyn Ward was awarded a 2017 “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation in recognition of the writing she has thus far displayed in three previous novels, a memoir, and edited anthologies. In Sing, Unburied Sing, Ward combines elements of myth, ghost story, and history lesson to tell the story of JoJo and his family. JoJo’s family is scattered as the novel opens. His white father is in the Mississippi penitentiary, and his black mother struggles to be present for JoJo and his little sister, so he relies on his mother’s parents for his upbringing. And while Pop teaches his 13-year old grandson on a daily basis, he is burdened in watching his wife struggle with cancer.
When Leonie, JoJo’s mother, decides that she can bring her family closer together by taking her children on a road trip to pick up her husband upon his release from prison, her best-laid plans go awry. Not only does her baby girl get sick, but Leonie has picked up an additional passenger – a ghost – who tells JoJo stories that fill in many of the unspoken silences in his mother’s house. As the car travels across Mississippi, the ghost takes JoJo back to Pop’s boyhood, and reveals a story that exposes brutal truths.
Barren Island by Carol Zoref
Carol Zoref’s novel reveals a history that few Americans – never mind New Yorkers – are aware of. Barren Island was a small island located in Jamaica Bay, off the coast of Brooklyn. Today, while the land is still there, the island has been connected to the mainland via landfill, which was the original function for the island. In the early 20th century, Barren Island served as a landfill for New York City. It was required of workers to break down the products that came to the island, which included not only garbage, but also animals that needed to be rendered. And while the adults worked jobs that most of us would avoid at all costs, the children attended school on an island encased in the miasma of rotting garbage.
But the people who lived there – Jews, Greeks, and African Americans – were people who struggled for social status on the mainland, created a joyous community that bonded over their hardships, supported each other in bad times, and celebrated the good. Carol Zoref centers her story on a single Jewish family and imbues her narrator – the eldest daughter – with a compelling voice that will carry readers along even in this most challenging atmosphere.
A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
Showcasing the daily life of three generations of a black family in New Orleans, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s debut novel is luminous and heartbreaking. It begins in 1944, when Evelyn meets Renard. Renard is the kind of man that her upper-class family does not want her to mess around with, and eventually, her romance with him will lead Evelyn to make decisions that have an effect on those around her.
Years later, readers meet Evelyn’s daughter, Jackie. In a scene that many working mothers will resonate with, readers see the kinds of daycare decisions that Jackie has to make in order to work and take care of her son, T.J. The choices that working mothers are forced into are just some of the ways that Margaret Wilkerson Sexton demonstrates the impact that not having enough money has on families.
A Kind of Freedom is a story for our times, and is deserving of a wide readership.
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
Jennifer Egan has given readers truly incredible books. One of my favorites is Look at Me, her story of a model who tries to create a new life for herself after she is attacked and her face is “destroyed.” So, it is not surprising that Egan has once again focused on the life of a woman who has to reinvent herself – although this time, the outside force that is shaping her is World War II. For fans of Egan’s previous work, plus those who enjoy historical fiction, this is a must-read.
As the novel opens, we meet Anna Kerrigan and her father, who take a trip to the house of a local bigwig, Dexter Styles. Years later, Anna will wonder what became of her father, who disappeared, and how Dexter Styles might figure into her family’s story. Anna takes a job at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, where she ends up doing work that very few men are capable of doing. She becomes the breadwinner for her family, and it is while she has moved into her father’s previous family position that she will once again encounter Styles.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
An engrossing novel in which Min Jin Lee presents the history of 20th century-Korea as experienced by an extended family, Pachinko exposes the fault lines in a traditional family and Korean borders that are not drawn on a map. The story begins at the turn of the 20th century in a boarding house run by an elderly couple. But at the same time that they opt to open their house, strangers in the form of the nation of Japan declare Korea to be its colony.
When the couple’s daughter meets and falls in love with a Japanese businessman, his betrayal leaves her pregnant and on the verge of bringing great shame to her family. Instead, she agrees to an arranged marriage that takes her into Japan. But life for Koreans in Japan is difficult because of the country’s violent xenophobia. A partnership formed out of necessity creates a family of extended ties that prevail during World War II, and carry forward into times of excess in the Pachinko parlors, providing different members of the family with their tickets to a richer life.
Min Jin Lee has created a world that is as complex as a Tolstoy novel in which the fortunes of a family and the country in which they struggle for love and money are tied in exhilarating ways.
The King Is Always Above the People by Daniel Alarcón
Power balance is constantly shifting in this collection by Daniel Alarcon. Readers may be surprised by his characters’ relationships – whether to one another or to the structures that imprison them. “The Ballad of Rocky Rontal” is a sideways variation of a “choose your own adventure” story in which the choices posed to the reader ultimately result in an ethical quandary. “Abraham Lincoln Has Been Shot,” transforms the death of the American president into a story containing elements of magical realism and science fiction.
Perhaps the most surprising of the stories is “The Auroras.” A man who is free of responsibilities lands in a foreign city where he meets a woman who takes him into her bed. But as their relationship continues, he finds that the benefits of being a “kept man” are not as cost-free as he first thought.
Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman
In March of 2011, when the Syrian Civil War commenced, many Americans demanded that the world intervene in order to protect civilians, who were under constant attack from both the troops of President Assad and ISIS, who are battling those in Syria seeking to replace Assad with a democratic government. Elliot Ackerman, a former Marine who is now a journalist based out of Istanbul, has written a novel that illustrates just how brutal the war in Syria continues to be.
Haris Abadi is a naturalized American citizen, having gained citizenship after translating for American troops in Iraq. But after a quiet life in America, he longs to make a difference in the Syrian conflict by joining the democratic forces. As the novel opens, he is in Turkey, attempting to cross the border. But his initial plans fail, and that failure brings him into Amir and Daphne’s world – a Syrian couple who live in exile along the border. Amir is an activist attempting to drum up support for the rebels. Daphne spends her days working in a Turkish hospital as a translator for Arab-speaking Syrian refugees. But as Haris gets to know the couple on a more intimate level, he finds out that they are guarding a painful secret that is destroying their marriage. Haris is given an opportunity to ease the couple’s pain, but the cost to all three of them may be more than any of them are willing to gamble.
Ackerman’s work gives shape and form to anonymous Syrians whose suffering is captured in headlines, but five million of whom have found only temporary shelter in refugee camps.
Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig
In 2017, as the world watches, the extermination of the Rohingya people of Burma continues unabated. In the timely Miss Burma, Charmaine Craig recounts the history of another of Burma’s ethnic minorities – the Karen people – who aided the British and other allied forces during World War II against the Japanese, but who found themselves denied a share of power when Burma was granted its independence from British rule after the war’s conclusion. Readers will recognize the name of Burma’s first president, Aung San. He was the father of disgraced Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose refusal to comment on the genocide has been condemned by Nobel Peace laureates, including Desmond Tutu and Malala. His role in creating a country that wanted to award power to only one of its ethnic groups – the Bamar – echoes in the country’s current crisis.
But in Miss Burma, while the Karen struggle for recognition and civil rights in Burma is the backdrop for this poignant and powerful work, it is the family at the center of the novel who provide readers with a way in to understand the country’s complex politics. When Benny, a Jewish officer serving with the British Customs Service in Burma, first espies the lovely Khin standing on the docks, he is smitten. The couple court and marry, but the Japanese invasion of Burma drives them to seek shelter in the Karen region in eastern Burma. They face a level of hardship during the war that is difficult to imagine as both of them seek to provide their children with food and shelter in a country where allegiances to Japan and Britain shifted depending on which country had the advantage during the war. It means that any trust in neighbors is precarious, and through a series of events in which the couple are separated, the trust between the two of them breaks down. It is their eldest daughter, Louisa, who provides the family with a form of rehabilitation and restoration when she becomes the new country’s beauty pageant winner, assuming the title of Miss Burma.
Miss Burma will remind readers of some of the great stories that populate American literature in which couples endure the strain of war and persevere against all odds.
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
This collection of short stories, another debut work on the list, display terrific range in their subjects and demonstrate Machado’s maturity as a writer. In the longest piece, “Especially Heinous,” Machado takes the phrase from the introduction to TV’s “Law and Order: SVU” to offer alternative but heinous plots involving main characters Olivia Benson and her erstwhile partner, Elliott Stabler. The story’s theme – the ways in which violence against women has become cheap entertainment – is explored in ways that are both comical and disturbing.
Other stories explore the politics of the artists’ colony, women’s sexuality from multiple identities, the lengths to which women will go to control their unruly flesh. In nearly all of the stories, women’s bodies behave in ways that offend, arouse, titillate, and enrage the other men and women who interact with them.
Machado’s stories will provide much for men and women to talk about, especially at a time when many women’s coming forward with their stories of sexual harassment and rape has left many men with little to say in response.
The Leavers by Lisa Ko
In many ways, reading Lisa Ko’s debut novel The Leaversreminded me of historical accounts of the early 20th-century immigrant women who toiled long hours in the garment industry in the Lower East Side. While those earlier women were able to unionize and launch a strike that forced employers to improve abysmal working conditions, for recent Chinese immigrants – many of whom owe tens of thousands of dollars to the loan sharks who financed their journey – that kind of united relief is not available. Ko writes of the sweatshops where Peilan Guo, who becomes “Polly” toils day after day. But what makes Polly’s life meaningful is her son, Deming, who has been born in Manhattan after his mother’s arrival.
A decade later, however, Deming has been adopted by an American couple and become “Daniel,” and Polly lives in China, where she is teaching English. Ko spins a tale that will take readers back to Peilan’s life prior to coming to America, where she grew up the only child of her widowed fisherman father in the provinces. Daniel grows up in the suburbs of Syracuse, New York, the adopted son of college professors who don’t understand why their son cannot stop losing money via internet gambling.
Peilan and Deming, Polly and Daniel, both characters have doubled identities as Chinese, as American, and as persons trying to find an idea of “home.” A brilliant evocation of the immigrant experience and a story of the ways that the bonds between parents and children can mend in all the broken places.
The five finalists for the National Book Award are the works by Lisa Ko, Carmen Maria Machado, Elliot Ackerman, Min Jin Lee, and Jesmyn Ward. The winner will be announced at a gala on November 15. The ceremony will be live-streamed from the NBA site.