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Book Recommendations: Psychological Thriller/Dramas

A reader from Texas writes:

Dear Fran,

Thanks for writing three unforgettable books. I hope you will keep on writing. And now I would like to have your suggestions for other books in the same category as yours.

Well. Hmmmm. I thank you for joining the small but select contingent of people on the planet who have read the complete works of Fran Dorf, to date. I’m adding “to date” since you hope that I will keep on writing. Another fiction? I’m not sure. I’ve been working on a memoir and essays (one of which I’m going to present at an academic conference in October), and of course I have my blog. The blog is fun, and I’ve had quite a few visitors, more than I expected, to be honest, but it certainly hasn’t taken the world by storm. I heartily thank everyone who’s come to visit, and hope you will come back and recommend it to your friends.

I started three or four novels after Saving Elijah, and even finished one, but it didn’t sell to a publisher and the others just didn’t pan out. The business has changed so much. And maybe I have too, after the experience of losing my son and then writing and publishing Saving Elijah. In any case, there just doesn’t seem to be much room for writers who used to be called “the midlist,” that is, those who sell modestly but are given the chance to keep publishing, even if they don’t achieve bestseller status. The whole business– publishers, editors, big store retail–is geared toward bestsellers. Whereas publishers used to understand that a writer grows with each effort and nurtured you along, nowadays it’s all about the bottom line, and if you don’t hit it out of the park right away, you are going to have a tough slog. The publishing world is full of people like me who’ve published three novels and now can’t seem to find a place. And it doesn’t seem to have all that much to do with reviews, as my books were very well reviewed. The truth is, Saving Elijah may well be my last fiction. My longtime editor writes constantly to encourage me to do what I do and write fiction again. She’s very persuasive and persistent, so you never know.

But other writers have produced and will continue to produce wonderful novels and somehow these get published, and so now on to the recommendations. I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea of recommending books that would be in the same “category” as mine, as I don’t think my books fit neatly into a category, particularly Saving Elijah, which is part family drama, part ghost story and part thriller. Oh, perhaps they’re all broadly in the psychological suspense category, but I think all good books are psychological, and all good books are also suspenseful. With psychological and suspense as the two criteria, anything might fit, from Toni Morrison to James Patterson. I won’t be recommending James Patterson (He hardly needs me; he has millions of fans), and the truth is I only rarely read the classic psychological thrillers any more, and so I admit this is an eclectic mix indeed, but nevertheless I offer some of my favorites. This is completely subjective of course, but to a greater or lesser degree all of these books have literary merit, authentic human drama, some degree of psychological sophistication, plots with compelling narrative drive in which plot is no more or less important than the characterizations, and characters with interesting and believable interior lives whose actions are convincing. All have a protagonist who is, either from inside demons or outside forces, in some degree of psychological danger. Some may be obscure, but all are in my opinion worth it. So aside from my own three books which I list first in a shameless act of self-promotion (hey, every other writer self-promotes, I figure it’s about time I did it too), here are my recommendations in no particular order:

A Reasonable Madness by Fran Dorf. Entertainment Weekly called it “satisfying” and United Press International called it a “wonderfully believable psychological thriller.”

Flight by Fran Dorf. A Booklist starred review said, “Fran Dorf pilots this ambitious book with infallible accuracy…an emotional landscape, two decades of decaying counterculture, artfully distilled and disassembled. Ethan skit is the quintessance of the ex-con loner.” Pub Weekly called it “riviting, tantalizing, shocking.”

Saving Elijah by Fran Dorf. Part ghost story, part family drama, part thriller, Saving Elijah is my baby, my “testament to maternal grief,” as the reviewer at Amazon.com called it.  The Wall Street Journal called it “ambitious, imaginative, and beautifully done.”  See more reviews above and on the novels page. I especially recommend the book to the bereaved, because for all its supernatural trappings and its wise-talking, spectral literary devise the book is more than anything an extended metaphor for the psychological process of grief.

Affinity by Sarah Waters: This period novel takes place in the nineteenth century, and is one of the best ghost stories I have ever had the pleasure of reading. I also loved Fingersmith, by the same author, another period piece.

Asylum by Patrick McGrath: This writer, who apparently grew up as the son of an Asylum superintendent, writes hypnotically and knowingly about mental illness, obsession, and betrayal. Don’t pay any attention to the mediocre film of Asylum with Natasha Richardson; this is the real thing. An unforgettable narrator. Brilliant, deeply psychological, riveting. I also loved McGrath’s Tales of Manhattan Then and Now: a collection of three extraordinary novellas.

Privileged Conversation by Evan Hunter: This is an oldie but a goodie. It’s Ed McBain writing as Evan Hunter. Sexy and psychologically sound. About a middle aged psychologist who becomes involved with and obsessed by a beautiful young dancer. As the story progresses, the man gradually begins to see this troubled young girl as person rather than object, which implicates him as exploiter rather than lover. A fascinating book.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. This is a broadly plotted, ornately written book by a Spaniard about a young man obsessed with a book called “The Shadow of the Wind” and its mysterious author. Daniel Sempere, the son of a widowed bookstore owner, is 10 when he discovers a novel, The Shadow of the Wind, by Julián Carax. The novel is rare, the author obscure, and rumors tell of a horribly disfigured man who has been burning every copy he can find of Carax’s novels, and the search for the book takes Daniel on a journey that is full of thrilling twists and turns. Gothic. Scary, erotic, touching and tragic.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell: A haunting and absorbing novel about a young woman who receives a phonecall about her great aunt Esme, whom she never knew existed, who is being released from Cauldstone Hospital-where she has been locked away for more than sixty one years. Beautifully written, told by a terribly believable if naive narrator, a pleasure, with an end that will shock and surprise you, until you realize how perfectly right it is.

My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due: This one is less believable than the others, of course, since it concerns the “immortals” who live forever, but it’s still thrilling and psychologically sound and keeps you going.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield A psychological thriller about the lives we invent for ourselves.

Dr. Neruda’s Cure for Evil by Rafael Yglesias. This a a large, long book, but well worth the read for the psychologically sophisticated reader, especially those interested in psychoanalysis. Pub Weekly calls it an “ambitious therapeutic morality tale that explores the banality of evil.” This one can’t really be classified; it’s a psychological thriller, a morality tale, a drama, an expose, and a novel of ideas all rolled into one.

More later. Gotta go now.

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More on Grief in the Media

Emily Stone, a good friend of the Bruisedmuse, directed me to an interesting New Yorker piece by David Sedaris, called “Journey into Night: Business Class Emotions.” The Sedaris essay tells of a night flight to Paris, during which a flight attendant asks David if she can move another passenger to sit beside him. The attendant explains that the man has lost his mother, and his crying is disturbing the other passengers. Sedaris says it would be all right to move him, and so the attendant brings the obviously bereaved man to sit beside Sedaris. Now I like the very popular Sedaris, who is often funny and thoughtful, and I even like the piece, particularly when I put on my literary hat.

When I put on my logic hat, I can’t help but wonder why the attendant believes the crying passenger will be any less disturbing to the passengers near Sedaris than to those sitting near his previous seat, but this is a minor point.

Ah, but when I put on my grief hat, I feel compelled to make a major point. I object. I need to point out that while it was lovely of Sedaris to allow the bereaved man to sit beside him, it was less than lovely to fail to offer even a single kind word to the man. And I find it somewhat bizarre that Sedaris admits this, almost smugly, in the New Yorker, and thus ends the piece with the following words:

I felt that I should say something, but what? And how? Perhaps it would be better, less embarrassing for him, if I were to pretend that he wasn’t crying—to ignore him, basically. And so I did.

Embarrassing? Is this a male worry or what? It certainly shows how little people, even popular writers, understand grief, and how little tolerance they have for it. Grief is often an uncontrollable flood. It’s not embarrassing; it’s human. The human thing would have been to understand.

I realize that this sort of ending probably satisfies a certain literary sensibility common to The New Yorker, and I’m certainly not one of those people who has drunk the Koolaid of thinking there might have been anything Sedaris could have said that would have helped ease this stranger’s pain. But still, he might have said something! “I’m sorry” would have been fine.  And THEN he could have ignored the bereaved man.

I also want to point out that Emily Stone, a wonderful writer, good friend, and highly thoughtful person, writes a great blog called ChocolateinContext. This blog goes down creamy, smooth, dark, and rich–perfect for chocolate lovers. I’m firmly in the vanilla camp myself, but I still love ChocolateinContext. I do have a certain compassion, in the Buddhist sense, for chocolate lovers. I feel their pain.

Nuns and Digressions

I just love Gail Collins. I wish I could have coffee with her every morning. In fact, I do. A few times a week. She’s always good for a laugh or six. Today’s Collins column in the Times was a ten laugh howler. I especially loved the paragraph where she said this:

“You may have heard, by the way, that residents of Saint Mary’s Convent in South Bend, all in their 80s and 90s, showed up to vote Tuesday and were turned away because of Indiana’s strict new voter ID laws. The laws are supposed to keep people from voting under assumed names, and while nobody seems able to demonstrate that ever really happens, they are demonstrably good at protecting the public from a 98-year-old ballot-wielding nun.

But we digress.”

Ah, but digression seems to be lifeblood of this brave new blog world I’ve entered. Linking is the ultimate digression on our digressions. Or, perhaps more accurately, links invite readers to constantly digress.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

There is, however, a lot wrong with certain wiry spinners trying to distract us from what should matter by CREATING false issues like voter IDs and flag pins on lapels, and getting their panties in an uproar over them. Patriotism matters but it has nothing to do with flag pins. I’ll take your Voter ID and raise you a Poll Tax.