Exiles and emigrés haunt the pages of Vanessa Manko's evocative debut novel, which spans decades and continents. The story begins in 1913 Connecticut, where Russian emigré Austin has come to escape the pogroms and turmoil of his native land. After several years of hard work, he can afford to leave his cheap men's lodging house for a real boarding house, where he finds not only a room that only belongs to him, but an American woman he loves. But when the Bolshevik Revolution really takes hold in Russia, Austin finds himself under suspicion and expelled from his new home along with Julia, whom he marries at Ellis Island just before they are sent to Russia. Will he ever find his way back to the country he longs to call home?
The newspapers were calling it the Soviet Ark. The New York Times, January 1920, ran photos. A massive ship, anchored at Ellis Island on a bitter day. They stood on the peir amid the wind and ice. The sky opaque, flurries like chipped ice. The only sounds the murmur of men's conversations, seagulls crying, the moan of the boat on the day's hard air. The anchor cranking like a scream; the massive chain lifted out of the ocean, iron red with rust, calcified with sea salt, seaweed. Just moments before, he'd sat on the long benches of the waiting room, the very room he'd sat in only years prior eager to get beyond the bottled-glass windows whose light he knew was day in America—a country behind glass, the new country's light. . . . Somewhere, a man named Hoover had his name on an index card: Voronkov. Affirmed anarchist. Bail set at $10,000. Deported.
What are you reading this week?
The power of TaraShea Nesbit's first novel, The Wives of Los Alamos, builds slowly and catches the reader by surprise. Told in a chorus of women's voices, the book provides a powerful portrait of life in Los Alamos, New Mexico, during the years of the fateful Manhattan Project. Clothed in secrecy, the project's aim was unknown to even many of the men who worked on it—and their long-suffering wives, torn from homes across the country and brought to this desolate area, knew even less.
As Nesbit writes,
“What did we think our husbands were doing in the lab? We suspected, because the military was involved, that they were building a communication device, a rocket, or a new weapon. We ruled out submarines because we were in the desert—but we closely considered types of code breaking.”
A time capsule in book form, this masterful debut recreates a lost world. Check out our full review here.
One of the most notable debuts of the century so far is Alice Sebold's strikingly inventive The Lovely Bones, the story of a murdered young girl who watches from above as her family attempts to find her killer. For today's Flashback Friday, we're swinging back to 2002 to see what our reviewer—one of the first to pick up this bestseller—had to say about a book that eventually reached millions.
"When you kill off your narrator in the first 10 pages of a novel and tell readers who the killer is you'd better have one compelling story up your sleeve. Alice Sebold does."
Connecticut writer Kristen Harnisch brings a little-known portion of women's history to light in her compelling first novel, The Vintner's Daughter (She Writes Press). Set in 1890s France and America, it follows one woman's relentless quest to become a master winemaker—something that only a handful of real-life women have managed today. In a guest blog post, Harnisch explains the inspiration behind her remarkable heroine.
Sara Thibault is my hero. She fights against a rival to reclaim her family’s Loire Valley vineyard, sails across the Atlantic to bring herself and her sister to safety, and then journeys to Napa, California, determined to follow in her father’s footsteps as a master winemaker. Sara is passionate, principled and self-possessed, and although she leapt from my imagination onto the page, Sara’s spirit was inspired by the women winemaking pioneers of the late 1800s.
Three wine women in particular served as the inspiration for Sara’s character. A Frenchwoman, the Duchesse de Fitz-James, was the first to tout the benefits of replanting French vineyards with American rootstock to combat the devastation wrought in the 1870s by the phylloxera. This pale yellow louse attacked nearly 40% of France’s vineyards, sucking the vines dry of nutrients. The Duchesse’s French neighbors refused to try her idea, but she persisted, citing the recent success she’d had replanting the resistant rootstock in her own vineyard. Although it took years, the French winemakers did eventually replant, saving most of the vineyards that had been affected.
During the 1880s, California women were beginning to trade their kitchen chores for increasingly important roles in their family-owned businesses. The wine men of the region generally ignored their efforts. In 1886, after her husband’s suicide, Josephine Tyschon finished the winery they had planned to build on the 26 acres of land they’d purchased along Route 29 in St. Helena. The Tyschon Winery (now the site of Freemark Abbey) opened with a capacity of 30,000 gallons. By 1891, Tyschon had cultivated 55 acres of zinfandel, reisling and burgundy grapes. However, when the phylloxera struck in 1893, she lost 10 acres to the bug, and soon sold the winery and vineyard to her foreman, Nels Larson.
Josephine Tyschon’s neighbor, Mrs. J.C. Weinberger, also took over the family winery after her husband’s death. Weinberger’s operation was much larger than Tyschon’s, boasting eighty acres of grape bearing vines and a first-class winery with 90,000 gallons of capacity. Mrs. Weinberger won a silver medal at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris for her wine, and was the only woman in California to bring home this coveted award.
What compelled these amazing women to create such fine wines? Every bottle of wine contains nearly three pounds of grapes and the vulnerability of this fruit is striking: over the last century and a half, grapes have fallen victim to pests, rodents, frost, mildew and Prohibition in the United States. Still, with a precise blend of hard labor, science and art, winemakers continue to perfect the wines that fill our glasses.
According to the American Association of Wine Economists, as of 2011, only 12% of winemakers in Sonoma and 12% of winemakers in Napa, were women. In an industry long dominated by men, I raise my glass of Cabernet to these adventurers, and to the wine women of long ago who sparked the inspiration for The Vintner’s Daughter.
Author’s Note: William Heintz’s California’s Napa Valley (Stonewall Associates, 1999), and Sherry Monahan’s California Vines, Wines & Pioneers (American Palate, A Division of the History Press, 2013), were particularly helpful in my research of this topic.
Author photo by Alix Martinez Photography.
There's something ominous circling the three characters in David Shafer's debut novel, but quite frankly, I haven't been giving it much attention. I've been far too caught up in Shafer's unrelenting humor—which is wicked and dark, just how I like it—and his spotless characterization. That being said, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot also fulfills all the requirements of an outstanding technothriller, with pulsing strains of paranoia and those all-seeing technological powers-that-be.
The story centers around 30-somethings Leila, Leo and Mark. Leo and Mark were friends at Harvard, but Leo is now a bit of a loser, while Mark is a phony self-help guide who works for the Committee, a data collection agency that seeks to privatize all information. Leila is a disillusioned nonprofit worker on the other side of the world. The only thing keeping the Committee from its goal is a secret underground Internet called Dear Diary. With jabs at every political angle, a love story and plenty of cool tech, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a pageturner of the highest order.
Read on for an excerpt from Leo's first scene:
There was no one even near Leo when he flew from his bike. His mind cast about for a culprit, for someone to blame other than himself. The bike just ceased its forward motion and he did not. How surprising, how nifty physics was. And as he trebucheted toward a four-inch curb, aware at once that his meeting with it would be physically calamitous, he remembered that he was wearing no helmet, and his surprised turned to fear. A month ago, at a party to which his friend Louis had brought him, Leo had heard (well, overheard) the host claiming that he wasn't afraid of death. That particular claim seemed to Leo to be demonstrably false. So, costumed as Jesus (for this was a Halloween party), Leo had decided to explore the man's reasoning. Not afraid of death, huh? My, that must make you a real psychopath. But he had seen almost immediately that he should not have told the man that he was like a Holocaust denier. "I said like a Holocaust denier. Like," he protested lamely when Louis escorted him out of the party and told him to enjoy the bracing walk home dressed as Jesus.
No, thought Leo, as he landed his right hand, fingertips first, on the cold nubbly of the curb, I am definitely more than a body, but I believe I am less than a soul.
Then, with a fluid agility that hadn't been his in years, Leo tucked his head and vertical body behind the leading edge of his rounded arm. Some latent muscle memory from five months of jujitsu at the McBurney YMA on West Sixty-Third Street from when he was ten? Leo seemed to recall that this YMCA had in fact served the adventurous class of men described in the song. Now, he felt a point beneath his stomach become the axis of his spinning mass, and he knew to use that dragony breath to take the hit when, after about 120 degrees, his trunk met the sidewalk, hard. Next was his hip and ass, which rolled over not just the concrete but also a busted padlock on the scene by chance. Then came his knees and feet, with a thwack. That was followed by his trailing left arm, which lay down gently, and his gloved palm, which landed and sprang back, the way a conguero lands a hand on the taut hide of his drum.
Leo stood up. He was fine. Just fine. Right as rain.
Leo stood up again, this time more carefully. Okay, maybe fine was an overstatement. But ambulatory and intact. A bit exhilarated, actually.
His bike lay twisted in the street behind him, its front tire still clamped in the groove of the new light-rail system tracks they were laying all over town. Only now did he notice the yellow-and-black warming signs that would have made him aware of the hazard his bike had to cross. The graphics depicted pretty much what had just happened: a bicycle with its front wheel caught in the maw of the track, the blockish pictogram rider hurtling over the handlebars. An honest piece of graphic art; a tiny, two-line picture poem, thought Leo, and he started to upbraid himself for his carelessness and lack of attention.
But wait. On one corner—the direction from which he'd come—the warning sign was there, but it was swathed in black plastic, taped up tight.
The thought came like a revelation: This was no accident. They obscured that sign because they want me eliminated.
Some part of him said, No, don't be ridiculous. But then why was only one sign shrouded?
What are you reading today?
Publishers are always on the lookout for the next big thing, which means plenty of choice for fans of new voices. After highlighting four outstanding August debuts in our print issue, it's time to take a look back at the year as a whole. Here are our 12 most notable first novels of the year (so far!).
About the book: A young widow who's always lived in the shadow of her famous husband must take a new tack on life after his unexpected and sudden death. This story of self-discovery is fun, relatable and poignant.
About the author: Radziwill is a star on "The Real Housewives of New York," who honed her writing chops with a best-selling memoir, What Remains, which explores her own widowhood.
Read more: Check out the review from our February issue.
About the book: A family of four leaves their home in Alabama to reach the California coast by the time the Rapture arrives. Teenaged Jess and her older sister, Elise, have plenty of earthly problems to deal with along the way—and they're not as sure as their parents that the end is near.
About the author: Miller, who grew up in Mississippi, is currently the John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence at Ole Miss. She published a short story collection, Big World, in 2009.
About the book: Told in the voices of five very different childhood friends, Butler's debut is a paean to small-town Midwestern life and an exploration of how friendships can change over time. Bonus: One of the characters just might be kinda-sorta based on a famous Wisconsin musician who went to high school with Butler.
About the author: A Wisconsin native, Butler attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop and lived in the Twin Cities before moving back home to Fall Creek with his wife, an attorney, and their two children.
Read more: Check out the interview from our March issue.
About the book: Set in a small town in the Ozarks, McHugh's debut follows a young girl whose friend's disappearance stirs up questions—and secrets—relating to her own missing mother.
About the author: McHugh drew inspiration from her own experience of moving with her family to the Ozarks as a teen—where she first discovered that small-town life didn't necessarily mean an idyllic life—as well as from the real-life disappearance of a Missouri teen.
About the book: The story begins four years after then-11-year-old Justin Campbell was kidnapped—on the day that his father, Eric, receives a phone call saying Justin is coming home. Though they're overjoyed, the Campbells soon discover that putting their family back together might be just as painful as having it ripped apart.
About the author: Johnston is the current Director of Creative Writing at Harvard, and he was one of the National Book Foundation's "5 Under 35" in 2005.
Read more: Check out the review from our May issue.
About the book: Maud is worried about her best friend, Elizabeth, whom she hasn't seen in what feels like ages. But her daughter, and Elizabeth's son, blame Maud's worry on her increasing dementia. It soon becomes clear to the reader that Elizabeth's disappearance is bringing long-buried memories to the surface of Maud's now-cloudy mind, and the reader is completely involved in this double mystery.
About the author: Healey not only writes books—she knows how to bind them, having completed a book-binding degree in London before getting her MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia.
Read more: Check out the review from our June issue.
About the book: A forgotten American life takes center stage in this compelling debut, which tells the story of Laura Bridgman, a deaf, blind and mute woman who was born in the early 1800s. She was the first person to learn to communicate by finger-spell, a language that was later taught to Helen Keller.
About the author: Elkins is a screenwriter, playwright and essayist who has lived in cities around the globe. She has degrees from Duke, Boston University and Florida State.
About the book: This homage to all things Gothic is the rare book that both feels completely grounded in its period setting and completely relevant to our modern times—and puts a creative twist on the somewhat tired vampire trend.
About the author: British author Owen is currently completing her doctorate in English Literature at Durham University.
About the book: After the apocalypse, a young couple finds all the society they need in each other—until Frida realizes she's pregnant. Their search for civilization leads them to a mysterious settlement that may or may not provide the sanctuary they seek.
About the author: A graduate of Oberlin and the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, Lepucki has worked as a staff writer for The Millions.
Read more: Check out the review from our July issue.
About the book: Decades of colorful Caribbean history come to life in this engaging first novel, which follows the fortunes of one family after their arrival in the Virgin Islands and includes a touch of magic.
About the author: Yanique is a native of the Virgin Islands and now lives with her family in Brooklyn. She has received a Fulbright scholarship for her writing.
About the book: Research scientist David Leveraux starts to wonder whether the artificial sweetener he's created in his lab—and unleashed on the world—has a dark side.
About the author: Born in Germany to a Norwegian mother and Texan father, Clark has lived in five states and five countries. He is the author of a short story collection, Vladimir's Mustache, and currently teaches writing at Augsburg College in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Read more: Check out the review from our August issue.
About the book: Alma thinks she has left her small-town past behind her, but when her troubled younger sister is found dead on the side of the road, she is pulled back to Montana to discover the truth—and care for her orphaned young niece.
About the author: Like her main character, La Seur is a lawyer who left her home state of Montana to practice in the big city.
Agree? Disagree? let us know in the comments!
Related in BookPage: Check out our 2013 list of noteworthy debuts.
Fantasy fans, rejoice: There's a new series in town. Bay Area writer Erika Johansen has made an amibtious debut with Queen of the Tearling, the first in a planned series starring a young princess, Kelsea Glynn, who is attempting to regain her rightful throne from a pretender who wants her dead. Our reviewer writes:
In addition to the host of immediate threats, Johansen sets up a few mysteries that will be resolved over the course of her planned series. Most are common fantasy tropes—who is Kelsea’s father? What exactly is the story of the evil queen?—but Johansen’s world also contains a bigger mystery of setting: When and where, exactly, is the present action taking place? While it feels relatively medieval, there are numerous references to a Crossing, and everything Pre-Crossing sounds like the real world (our world). This suggests the kingdoms of Tear and Mortmesne may have more of a science fiction/post-apocalyptic tinge than is immediately apparent.
Today’s Debut of the Day pick is Dear American Airlines, a comic novel from Jonathan Miles that blends humor with heart. Stranded at a New York airport, Bennie Ford pens an increasingly desperate letter to the airline whose change in schedule just might deny him the opportunity to change his life. Miles, a journalist who has studied fiction with Larry Brown, has a second novel, Want Not, coming in November.
This gritty, hilarious, heartbreaking novel illustrates a life gone awry, the regret of years lived without notice and the hope of finally being able to make a change. Readers will root for Bennie to get on his plane and start making up for the lost years when he gets off. A perfect read for summer airport delays, Dear American Airlines just might get readers thinking differently about that idle time.
Read the full review from our June 2008 issue here.
Today’s Debut of the Day pick is Mrs. Kimble, by Jennifer Haigh, a novel that was one of the most buzzed-about releases of 2003—it sold within a month. Tackling the difficult subject of why women think they have to marry with elegant writing and plenty of insight, Haigh's ambitious debut is well worth looking back on (and her later work has fulfilled its promise and then some).
"Ken Kimble is what I call a serial marrier," Haigh says by phone from Boston, where she moved after graduating from the Iowa Writers Workshop last year. "He has these serious character flaws, but he has no problem finding women to marry." Haigh has firm opinions about why such a man can always find a bride. "We're raised as women to value marriage and family," she says, "and to believe that unless we've achieved those things, the rest of our accomplishments don't really count for very much."
Read the full interview from our February 2003 issue here.
Today’s Debut of the Day pick is The Madonnas of Leningrad, by Debra Dean, a historical novel set during the 1941 Siege of Leningrad. For months, the city was cut off from supply routes, driving its residents to desperate measures. One young woman, Marina, takes refuge in the Hermitage, wandering the bare halls while preserving in her memory the artwork that used to hang there. Near the end of her life, her memory failing, this time returns to Marina, and she begins to share her wartime experiences with her own daughter for the first time.
Dean merges past and present in prose that shines like the gilt frames in the Hermitage. The story shifts seamlessly from 1941 to the present, just as Alzheimer's shifts time within Marina's mind. The heart of the story is its flashbacks, when we walk the Spanish Hall with Marina, aching with loss and hunger. As she commits scenes, colors, even brushstrokes to memory, the paintings come alive. Chapters narrated by her daughter Helen show us the present, when Marina slips away at a family gathering. During the search, Helen, herself a mother and an artist, wonders about the memories parents choose to tell their children and the memories they keep secret.
Read the full review from our April 2006 issue here.