By Nancy Pearl, Guest Blogger
Over the next two and a half months, I’ll be highlighting some wonderful older titles for Library Journal‘s readers, including, but not limited to, the books that are part of “Book Lust Rediscoveries,” a collaboration I’m doing with Amazon Publishing that brings back into print a dozen or so of my favorite novels published between 1960 and 2000. You’ll find these posts June 18; July 2, 16, 30; and August 13.
The first book in the “Book Lust Rediscoveries” series was A Gay and Melancholy Sound by Merle Miller. Originally published in 1961, it has ranked in my top ten favorite novels ever since I first read it. It’s one of the best examples of a genre of fiction I call autobiography-as-novel.
Miller tells the story of Joshua Bland, from his early years as a child prodigy in Iowa to his adult life as a successful New York producer. But Joshua is cursed by an inability to love; worse, he’s unable to accept the love that people offer him. It’s a novel that’s both funny and tragic, and although it was written half a century ago, it has enough irony (even snark) and emotional pain to satisfy even the most demanding 21st-century reader.
The second in the series, Rhian Ellis’s After Life, was first published in 2000. It’s a totally mysterious novel, on several different levels, although you’d never find it shelved in the mystery section of a library. First of all, it’s hard to say exactly what sort of book it is‚ is it a psychological mystery; a love story, perhaps with supernatural overtones; a coming-of-age novel; or a mother and daughter tale? It’s all of those, and more.
The glue that holds After Life together is the main character, a young woman named Naomi Ash, who lives in a small town in upstate New York that is home to an assortment of people whose lives and livelihood are closely involved with the spirit world: mediums, palm readers, and the like. (Naomi’s mother hosts a radio show called The Mother Galina Psychic Hour.) And the novel’s first line is amazing: First, I had to get his body into the boat. Who could resist that? I certainly couldn’t, and hope you can’t, too.
If you liked the novel-as-autobiography aspect of A Gay and Melancholy Sound, try these five wonderful novels:
- Pete Dexter’s Spooner (Grand Central, 2009; o.p.): In Spooner, Dexter, who won the National Book Award for his novel Paris Trout in 1988, explores the events, both large and small, and public and private, that make up the arc of Spooner’s life.
- Steve Tesich’s Karoo (Grove Pr., 2004): Tesich is probably best known for his screenplay for the film Breaking Away, which was awarded an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 1979. Karoo is the story of Saul Karoo, a successful Hollywood script doctor and unsuccessful father, whose life changes dramatically when he reconnects with a young woman whose life is intertwined with his own.
- Nuala O’Faolain’s My Dream of You (Riverhead: Penguin Group USA, 2002) : When her best friend dies suddenly, Kathleen de Burca, a London-based travel writer nearing her 50th birthday, begins to find her unrooted life and series of one-night stands close to unbearable. Going home to Ireland for the first time in more than 30 years, she starts researching the life of another woman who lived more than a century before and whose passionate decisions seemingly destroyed any chance for happiness that she might have had.
- Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man (Univ. of Minnesota, 2001): This portrait of 24 hours in the life of George, a middle-aged gay man mourning the death of his partner, gives readers insight into the whole of his life. And you can also suggest the excellent film treatment of it, starring the inestimable Colin Firth.
- Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet: A Novel (Penguin, 2010): In this life story of an entire family nearly undone by grief, boy genius T.S. sets out on a cross-country adventure when he learns that he’s won a prestigious award for his cartography talents.
A different aspect of After Life can be found in each of these recommended novels:
- Anne Tyler’s Searching for Caleb (Ballantine, 1996): Justine, like Naomi Ash, is a fortune-teller; and like Naomi, she’s much more successful unearthing the past and predicting the future for her clients than for herself.
- Shirley Jackson’s The Bird’s Nest (1954, o.p.): Jackson’s best known novels are probably We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House, but I’ve always been uneasily drawn to this multilayered tale of Elizabeth Richmond, a 23-year-old whose mind has fractured into four very different personalities. Just as we wonder who Naomi Ash really is (a murderer, a psychic, a dissembler), so we wonder which of the personalities that surface is really Elizabeth.
- Elizabeth Strout’s Amy and Isabelle (Vintage, 2000): Strout’s novel, like Ellis’s, explores the sometimes loving, sometimes fraught relationship between mother and daughter, which is always complicated by the mother’s past and her own life choices. Strout’s novel, however, contains no mediums, palm-readers, or psychics.
- Ann Patchett’s The Magician’s Assistant (Harcourt, 1998): The secrets at the heart of any life are considered in this story of Sabine, a woman who discovers after the death of her husband, Parsifal (who was a talented magician), that he was also extremely gifted at keeping secrets about his past well hidden.
- Barbara Vine’s A Dark-Adapted Eye (Plume, 1993): If you liked the psychological suspense of After Life, don’t miss this unsettling thriller, Vine’s first, which examines the darkness at the heart of the Hillyard family and what led up to one of its members being found guilty and hanged for murder. It won an Edgar for Best Mystery in 1986.