PEN World Voices Stand-Up Critics #3: Jane Ciabattari

By Jane Ciabattari

Between now and May 1, 2011, the PEN World Voices Festival presents a team of National Book Critics Circle Stand-Up Critics. These influential and celebrated American critics will appear before every Festival event with the intention to enhance Festival audience already-extensive list of must-reads. These six tireless servants of literature will rotate throughout the week to suggest individual lists of thirty meticulously tested titles. The Stand-up Critics will present  1) a contemporary novel 2) a translated book 3) a classic 4) a small/indie press title and 5) a surprise! For more information, see the PEN World Voices Festival website, See #4 here tomorrow.

Recommendations from Jane Ciabattari:

Contemporary novelA Mercy, by Toni Morrison (Knopf). This brief and intense novel is set in 1690, 150 years before Morrison's celebrated Civil War-era novel Beloved. During this is little-known period of American history, indentured servants from Europe, African-born slaves, and native peoples, worked together as the serving class to a small group of landed gentry along the Atlantic Coast. Despite a violent and heart-wrenching final scene, A Mercy creates an eerie aura of a more optimistic alternative future.

Translation: Without Blood, by Alessandro Baricco, translated by Ann Goldstein (Knopf). Set in an unnamed country at the tail end of a civil war, Without Bloodis an exquisitely crafted fable for our times, a novel that addresses the questions behind the daily news: When is a war over? How can a soldier return to normal life? How many years, how many generations will it take to forgive

Classic: Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). This astonishing first novel, set in the American West in the 1950s, describes two tragedies that shape the narrator's life within the first twenty-five pages. Her grandfather dies in a spectacular derailment on a bridge crossing a glacial lake, the train sliding into the water “like a weasel sliding off a rock.” And her mother drives off a cliff to her death in the same lake. These losses flicker in the background of a haunting narrative filled with eccentric characters, with water, and with the dark pull of memory.

Small/indie press: How to Escape from a Leper’s Colony, by Tiphanie Yanique (Graywolf). This bold short story collection, set mostly in the Caribbean, keeps up a narrative pace so intriguing you’ll wait eagerly for the next unfolding of the tale. One story begins with the parable of a man who makes tiny decorative bridges. He is convinced by his family to build a real bridge “stretching from Guyana—the place in the world most south—to Miami, the place in the world most north.” On the day it opens, the bridge falls apart. There are more surprises in store in this distinctive debut collection.

Surprise! Heart like Water: Surviving Katrina and Life in its Disaster Zone, by Joshua Clark (Free Press). This fierce and heartbroken memoir reads like a novel. The story begins in the French Quarter of New Orleans, where Clark and his girlfriend hunker down to weather Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, and evolves into a lyrical and damning witnessing of a city and a populace ravaged and abandoned.