The best books where characters don’t mingle much, talk funny, and bristle at the past

Who am I?

I have written all my life. This includes freelance writing as well as reporter jobs at small, weekly newspapers in the DC/VA area. I have also taught writing (creative and technical writing) to students as diverse as jail inmates, residents of homeless shelters, military officers at the Pentagon, CIA employees, and firefighters at Ronald Reagan National Airport. Both of my published novels are works of historical fiction set in my native Iceland: Seal Woman and Sigga of Reykjavik. These novels cover the time 1908 to 1955, a period when Iceland was a little-known island. I have always been drawn to novels about isolated, cold-weather places where unusual characters and mannerisms flourish. 

I wrote...

Seal Woman

By Solveig Eggerz,

Book cover of Seal Woman

What is my book about?

Set in rural Iceland in the 1940s and 50s, the novel is informed by the selkie legend. Charlotte, one of the German women who migrated to Iceland after WWII seeks work on an Icelandic farm at the invitation of the Icelandic Agricultural Association. A combination of historical and psychological fiction, the story is driven forward by several questions—Will Charlotte survive the past that haunts her? will she find her “misplaced,” half-Jewish daughter? will she remain faithful to the family she has established with an Icelandic farmer?

Charlotte faces the challenge of getting rooted in the everyday life of the farm. She must live in the here and now. For her and her farm family, it is a matter of survival.

The books I picked & why

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A Gesture Life

By Chang-Rae Lee,

Book cover of A Gesture Life

Why this book?

Hata, a Korean, adopted by a Japanese couple, serves the Japanese Army as a medic in World War II. His job is to care for enslaved Koreans who serve as “comfort women” to Japanese soldiers. His experiences are the material of nightmares. Years later he leads a deceptively quiet life in a small town in New Jersey with his Korean adoptive daughter. It is deceptively quiet because his unresolved war experiences, presented in flashbacks, haunt him. I admired the abrupt manner in which Chang-Rae Lee interrupted Hata’s uneventful life with horrific memories.

The author’s method felt like the triggering of those who have suffered trauma and continue to relive events as PTSD. This approach of interweaving past with present inspired my depiction of a young German woman living a quiet life on a primitive Icelandic farm, milking the cows and raking the hay, while being repeatedly interrupted by memories of the Holocaust and of the loved ones she lost during World War II.

The Shipping News

By Annie Proulx,

Book cover of The Shipping News

Why this book?

The story of an awkward, rather unsuccessful man moving with his family to a remote fishing village in New Foundland attracted me because of the harsh climate, the challenging and remote landscape, and its bizarre events. The title of Proulx’s book The Shipping News, resonated with me in a deep way because I recalled listening in Reykjavik to the actual shipping news, announcing the location of every Icelandic boat and ship, as it was read out as part of the noon radio news each day. Beyond this, I was fascinated by Proulx’s use of language. Her freedom in using sentence fragments, in omitting subjects or verbs, and her habit of sprinkling unexplained Newfoundland terms throughout the text liberated my own writing. The author’s approach to language was especially meaningful to me as I struggled to create characters who were experiencing life in the Icelandic language, yet I was presenting their story in English. In facing that challenge I needed the freedom from ordinary language. In Proulx’s novel I learned that this was possible.

The Bird Artist

By Howard Norman,

Book cover of The Bird Artist

Why this book?

The author presents a setting so stark, so isolated, so deprived of diverse demographic and cultural experiences that the reader experiences the characters as not so much shaped by the setting but as emerging from it. Communications among the residents of the tiny fishing village off the Newfoundland coast, Witless Bay, are spare and quirky and often misunderstood. An aggressive young female character, Margaret, elbows her way through it, and a passive male artist, Fabian, drifts into actions he regrets, yet the two fulfill one another. In paragraph one, Fabian confesses to murder, but this story is about psychological survival not murder. It asks the question, how do eccentric characters, pushed together and doomed to struggle for existence in a remote, weather-beaten setting, near a turbulent ocean, survive? The role of coffee in their survival rings true as Howard Norman’s protagonist states, “I had drunk coffee since I was five years old. There were the long winters, you see, and coffee was what you came in to out of the cold.”

Gap Creek: The Story of a Marriage

By Robert Morgan,

Book cover of Gap Creek: The Story of a Marriage

Why this book?

This depiction of a life of poverty in southern Appalachia around 1900 would be too sad to warrant its reading, were it not for its strong and sensitive narrator, Julie Harmon. The author describes the mundane details of butchering a hog or washing of a dead man’s feet within the context of the marriage of Hank and Julie, poor, uneducated, and perhaps mismatched young people who face one adversity after another. The details of ordinary life blossom into unexpected meaning in the interpretation of a sensitive narrator who not only cherishes details, but who is also exquisitely aware of her own feelings. She speaks in the straightforward language of an uneducated person rather than in the flowery prose of a voice attuned to expressing itself. Yet her presentation takes on the poetry of a clever woman gifted with a unique interiority.

Through Julie, the author renders nuanced feelings in a vivid manner that brings the experience to life. Lovemaking with her husband Hank on a broken-down bed is not clinical but profoundly sensual. “All the colors started running through my head in the dark. Purples and greens and yellows and blacks...Yellow is salty as butter and popcorn. Yellow was swelled up and buttery. And there was a golden brown that was saltiest of all.” Julie is not only an astute observer of the details of her tough life, but she also shows a capacity to be constantly surprised by her own changing feelings. With a strong, female protagonist at its center, this story shows what it is like to live in a different time under very difficult circumstances. 

The Dutch House

By Ann Patchett,

Book cover of The Dutch House

Why this book?

Thanks to the intensity of the brother/sister relationship, the author overcomes the non-chronological style of this novel. I was intrigued by the dominance of character development as well as by the fairy tale themes—such as that of the wicked stepmother and the Hansel and Gretel-like dependence of the siblings on one another. Written in the style of a memoir told by Danny, the brother, this novel has the authenticity of a story told from inside the protagonist’s brain. Flashbacks to painful childhood memories occur in the higgeldy-piggeldy manner of memories that pop up suddenly. 

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