"The focus of my artistic life," says George Saunders in his latest book, "has been trying to learn to write emotionally moving stories that a reader feels compelled to finish." A few years ago, I had the privilege of attending an Auckland Writers Festival masterclass by this distinguished writer. It was an incredible 90 minutes. Saunders, who has taught creative writing at Syracuse University for more than 20 years, was generous with his insights, conveying wisdoms about the writing process and writer's life in an accessible, inspiring way. You can imagine my excitement when my daughter gifted me A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, a distillation of his Syracuse course, in which seven short stories by great Russian writers are springboards for examining the craft and reflecting on the significance of storytelling. I have just begun this read and am savouring every page.
The powerful TV series It's a Sin proved a timely segue to the memoir All the Young Men. Ruth Coker Burks is visiting a friend in hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1986, when she chances upon three nurses drawing straws, none willing to deliver a patient his meal. His faint cry for help prompts her to venture beyond the red-tarp-covered door, BIOHAZARD sign and food trays left on the floor. There she meets Jimmy, a man shunned by his family and the medical profession, left alone to die of the little-understood and hugely feared "gay disease". As she sits with him in his final hours, so begins a journey that will change her life and that of many HIV-infected young men. A remarkable and moving account of how one solo mother of limited financial means afforded solace, dignity and a final resting place to so many victims of the Aids crisis, becoming their advocate, carer and community educator, while fighting prejudice and hypocrisy at every turn.
"I'd come to California because I wanted to get lost, to find," says Gifty, a young Ghanaian-American PhD student in Yaa Gyasi's new novel, Transcendent Kingdom. Gifty is researching addiction and depression within the confines of a Stanford University neuroscience laboratory. Her thesis topic is personal – she's lost her brother to a drug overdose and her mother is suffering from severe depression. However, the clarity she seeks from her experiments on mice is confounded by a world more complicated than the laboratory. Her religious upbringing, parents' migrant experience and the tragedy of a family reduced to just two, all impact on definitive answers. As Gifty grapples with the enigma of life, trying to reconcile faith and fact, the reader is alongside her, grappling with the big questions too. Thought-provoking, beautifully crafted and deeply engaging.
Fiona Sussman's novel Addressing Greta is shortlisted in the adult fiction category of the New Zealand Booklovers Awards. Winners will be announced on March 18.