"The Other Language" by Francesa Marciano

“A short story is like a kiss in the dark from a stranger,” Stephen King once wrote. I must admit I wasn’t always a believer in the titillating impact of a short story, but I’m coming around, especially after reading this wonderful collection by Francesca Marciano. “The Other Language” (2014) covers a lot of territory—from an island in Greece to the streets of Paris, around the world to India before coming back to Scotland. Marciano is a native Italian but is truly a citizen of the world, having lived for periods in European capitals, here in New York and New Mexico and in Kenya. She’s naturally nomadic, she tells interviewers. “I like to live out of my comfort zone.”

Marciano gives us richly drawn settings in which to watch her complex characters experience the challenges life has thrown at them. Besides her three earlier novels, she has also done screenwriting and that experience shows in her captivating scenes and easy dialogue. The settings are varied but the stories all involve relationships between men and women, with the focus on a woman. She is not interested in your garden-variety couples but rather she likes to explore interactions between fathers and daughters in the title story or couples who meet coincidently over a lifetime in “Quantum Theory” or a famous rock star and the girl he left behind in “Roman Romance”.

In “Big Island, Small Island” an Italian woman, Stella, visits an old friend she hasn’t seen for fifteen years who’s living on a tiny island off sub-Saharan Africa. With a new religious identity and a child bride, his life is far different than what she had expected from her fun-loving pal.

In “The Presence of Men,” Lara’s renovation of an ancient house in a small village in southern Italy angers the neighbors, but her brother’s appearance with his client, a well-known actor, changes the dynamics of her relationship with the townspeople.

A serious car accident opens “Quantum Theory” and readers cannot be sure how the driver and passenger know one another. Sonia’s car has tumbled down a ravine and rolled over. She and her handsome passenger, a love interest we suspect, escape and walk barefoot through the bush to a hospital hand in hand.

“The Other Language” offers up something refreshing for those who generally stick to novels.  These stories are longer than one might expect, richer and more captivating, making it a surprisingly satisfying reading experience.

"Euphoria" by Lily King

Lily King’s prize-winning novel, “Euphoria”, is an intoxicating read that stayed with me long after finishing it. The gifted writer takes us to a time and place we might know only from National Geographic magazines—Papua New Guinea in the 1930’s. King reports that she’d known little about anthropology before reading about a drama-filled episode in the life of Margaret Mead that caught her attention. While working on that island in 1933, Mead and her second husband, Reo Fortune, met by chance fellow anthropologist, Gregory Bateson, then began a collaboration with him. Shortly thereafter, Bateson became Mead’s third husband. King said in an interview “ with the heat, mosquitos and malarial fevers, it was just a wild mess”. King creates a fictionalized account of that story that is atmospheric, enlightening and steamy in every sense of the word.  

King’s version of Mead is American anthropologist, Nell Stone, who is in New Guinea studying a local tribe with her husband and coworker, Fen. The two have just left their work with a difficult, combative tribe and moved down river to study a more compliant group. The couple encounters Bankson a fellow anthropologist Fen casually knew. Bankson had been living for twenty-five months alone in a hut studying a nearby tribe, and was depressed to the point of attempting suicide. Meeting the couple, he feels revived and yearns to be part of their lives and work.  

Bankson is the narrator of the events that follow that meeting and the drama that arises around the threesome. Describing Nell in a letter to his mother, he says, “She’s American, quite well-known but a sickly, pocket-sized creature.” What he does not mention is that this fragile, injured but glowing woman consumes his thoughts from the minute he sets eyes on her. A love triangle forms quickly, with personal ambitions, professional jealousies and sexual histories juicing it up.  

King weaves her vast knowledge of the work done by these anthropologists in and around the story of their relationship.  I admit to having known little about the day-to-day life of a working anthropologist, but through the delightful diary entries of Nell that King scatters throughout, we hear about such challenges as interviewing people using only gestures, learning languages with 16 genders, routinely brushing scorpions off your leg and sneaking into secret ceremonies. From now on, whenever I hear the name Margaret Mead, I will visualize her seated cross-legged on a dirt floor, in a stifling, moist room with at least one baby in her arms and young children crawling in delight all over her. 

When Bankson asks Nell, soon after meeting her, what is her favorite part of the work they do, she answers, “the moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.” When she turns the question back to him, he says, “A good day for me is when no little boy steals my underwear, pokes it through with sticks, and brings it back stuffed with rats.” The euphoric moments and the grimly-detailed realities are my favorite things in this fascinating book.

"Did You Ever Have a Family" by Bill Clegg

As I headed toward the stacks at the library, “Did You Ever Have a Family” leapt off the New Books shelf right into my hand. Well, not exactly, but as soon as I saw it, I just had to take it home. I had heard the hypnotic title of Bill Clegg’s novel when they announced the longlist for the 2015 Man Booker prize and knew that the book centered on a woman who must deal with the loss of her entire family in a freak accident. I was drawn to it—a potential international award winner exploring one of life’s most unimaginable challenges.

It’s Clegg’s first novel—he’s a big-time New York agent who has written two memoirs—and even with its dispiriting premise, it is a richly written and life-affirming story. The book concerns June Reid, an attractive 50ish woman in Connecticut whose life turned upside down on the eve of her daughter’s wedding to be held at June’s sprawling home, when a horrific explosion kills her daughter Lolly, the girl’s fiancé Will, June’s ex-husband, and her boyfriend, Luke, while she is outside. Numbed with grief, June gets in her car and heads west, ending up in a small town along the Washington coast that resonates with her.

Clegg creates an unusual energy in his story, using a number of people touched by this tragedy, to recount stories that paint pictures for us about June, her family members and, ultimately, the accident. There is Silas, a pot-smoking teen who lives in the town and may know something about how this happened. Rebecca and Kelly, the lesbian couple who own the motel on the Washington coast to which June has escaped. Lydia, the mother of Luke and June’s closest friend, who must endure overheard conversations in town, even those accusing her son of causing it. George, the father that Luke had never known. Cissy, the bi-racial woman who cleans June’s motel room, leaving her a cup of soup each day that is often the grieving woman’s only food.

This chorus of voices is compelling (once you keep track of the names), and I couldn’t put it down. It was hard to imagine how a short novel that covers only a few months after such a tragedy can end is a satisfying way, but I found the ending simply stunning. Clegg shows us that he knew exactly how all the pieces would come together. The story, after all, was not as much about losing a family but more about finding a family as we move along the roads we travel.

"Us" by David Nicholls

I knew I was falling in love from the very first page of David Nicholls’ fourth novel, “Us”. This gifted screenwriter/novelist promises and delivers on a novel full of hilarity, warmth and poignancy. Yet beneath the humor lies a sharp portrayal of the challenges of marriage and parenthood. His prowess in mingling the two was not missed by the Man Booker Prize judges who put “Us” on their 2014 long list.

The stakes are high for our narrator Douglas as the story opens. His wife Connie announces that their twenty-year marriage “has run its course”, and she thinks she wants to leave him. The idea is unthinkable to Douglas, a research scientist and a bit of a fuddy-duddy. He can’t imagine life without his Connie, a free spirit who had been leading a bohemian artist’s life in London before they married and moved to the suburbs. He tells us, “I have loved my wife to a degree that I found impossible to express, and so rarely did”. Douglas begs Connie to go through with their summer plans for a Grand Tour of Europe with their only child, Albie, before the boy leaves for university in fall. Lucky for us, she agrees.

The challenges are great for Douglas to plan a trip so special that Connie changes her mind. His experience on the Continent was almost non-existent. He grew up with a father disdainful of “anything suggesting ‘abroad’—olive oil, the metric system, eating outdoors, yoghurt…” Whereas for years Connie has been rhapsodizing about youthful experiences, “sleeping on the beach in Crete”, attending a “wild party at an abandoned factory in Prague” and hooking up with a Citroen mechanic in Lyon “whose hair smelled like engine oil”.

The finicky scientist has made the arrangements with the hope of a vacation full of the art and street life that Connie loves and enrichment for their son. This creates one comical situation after another. Douglas views their stay in Amsterdam as a chance to show off his trip-planning talent. The boutique hotel he signed them up for resembles a “top-of-the-range bordello” He and Connie are assigned to the honeymoon suite, “Venus in Furs”, with an enormous four-poster bed and black sheets, while Albie is next door in “Delta of Venus”.

Douglas says “married life is not a plateau…there are ravines and great jagged peaks and hidden crevasses that send the both of you scrabbling into darkness”. Throughout the story of the family’s summer Nicholls seamlessly weaves the backstory in bits and pieces as Douglas remembers them—their meeting, their courtship and the twenty years of marriage.

David Nicolls has offered up a trip you will definitely want to take.