to tell us which two books had made the strongest impact on them
over the past 12 months. Their recommendations,
which range from short stories and a crime thriller
to road essays and slam poetry, were, as we expected,
surprising and inviting.
Eat the Document
Dana Spiotta (Scribner, 2006)
The Woman in the Woods
Ann Joslin Williams (Eastern Washington University Press, 2007)
These two books are compelling, insightful, and original from start to finish; they’re beautifully written, thought-provoking page-turners. As a writer and a reader, I was particularly enthralled and inspired by the ways in which Williams and Spiotta structured their books. Neither book is built like a traditional novel. Eat the Document is divided into almost 40 sections, and the sections can be anywhere from 20 pages to a single sentence long. The Woman in the Woods is a collection of 12 linked stories that revolve around one central, terrible accident. In both cases, the structural decisions, original as they are, make perfect and immediate sense, strengthening the stunning storytelling and creating the cumulative, symphonic sensation we expect from novels of the highest order.
I was also deeply moved by the stories themselves. Eat the Document shifts between the 1970s and the late 1990s, offering a fascinating look at how two individuals live on after a political protest goes tragically wrong. Spiotta lets us see not only the immediate aftermath of a horrible mistake, but also how lives are affected for decades, into the next generation. The Woman in the Woods also has a tragedy at its center—a car is washed off a bridge during a flood—and the book shows us how that loss haunts the driver’s wife and children throughout their lives.
We often hear that there are only so many stories in the world. That might be true in a general sense, but not when we get down to specifics. Here are two new and powerful stories, and provocative, inspiring examples of how to tell stories.
Edward Schwarzschild’s most recent novel is The Family Diamond (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2007).
A Spot of Bother
Mark Haddon (Doubleday, 2006)
What happens to George Hall could happen to anyone: A lesion appears on his hip and he believes that he is dying. Sixty-one, quiet, a faithful husband and loving grandfather, George begins to lose his grip, and his family loses it right along with him. His wife has an affair; his gay son dumps his lover; his daughter insists on marrying a man who seems not quite right. A classic comedy of manners, the novel culminates in a madcap wedding scene that is both hilarious and heartbreaking. As in his earlier novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Haddon’s characters are wonderfully complex. The Hall family is refreshing and endearing, each member flawed, funny, and fully human.
The Testament of Gideon Mack
James Robertson (Viking, 2007)
The Devil, a sharp dresser and as sexy as we’ve always imagined, inhabits a cavern outside a small Scottish town. His cave is hidden beneath the Black Jaws, a deep ravine slashed by a wild river. In this odd and powerful novel, Gideon Mack, a Presbyterian minister who does not believe in God, meets the Devil, who saves Gideon’s life, heals his wounds, and steals his boots. The encounter upends Gideon’s atheism. He is profoundly changed; his parishioners think he’s gone mad. Perhaps so: The reader is left to judge the sanity and/or sanctity of this “man that was drowned and that the waters gave back, the mad minister who met with the Devil and lived to tell the tale.”
Hollis Seamon is the author of the mystery novel Flesh (Avocet Press, 2005).
Geraldine Brooks (Penguin, 2006)
This latter-day spinoff of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women follows the riveting—and often gruesome—Civil War experiences of March, the absent father from Alcott’s book. With a main character modeled after both the fictional Reverend March and Alcott’s own father, Bronson Alcott, the book is both war novel and moral tale. March, ever mindful of the rightness of abolitionism and the Union cause, is thrown into circumstances that force him to question his own actions and moral integrity. The book begins with a harrowing battle scene, setting the pace for a breathless, often heartrending series of adventures, as March is plunged deeper into his own sense of responsibility for the lives of others.