Hey there. This is the week of the Virginia Festival of the Book here in Charlottesville. Jane Kulow and her team at the Virginia Center for the Book bring writers and readers together for a five-day "celebration of books, reading, literacy, and literary culture." There are more than 250 programs, most of which are free of charge (but not free of cost—donate if you're able!). On Wednesday, I moderated a standing-room-only panel called "Rich, Raw, Unsettling Fiction." By all accounts, it was gangbusters. One audience member said that she's been attending the festival for years and it was the best panel she'd ever seen. I credit the success of the panel to two things: 1. Jane and her organizers grouped three novelists whose books intersect in such fruitful ways, which gave us much to discuss; and 2. The panelists were so personable and forthcoming; the audience really warmed to them. So, who were these panelists and what did they write?
1. Robert Gipe wrote Trampoline, an illustrated novel narrated by fifteen-year-old Dawn Jewell. When I asked him why he illustrated the novel in the unique way he did, Robert said a) he wanted his students to read it, and b) he was too lazy to write a graphic novel. (I think he was joking about the latter.) Protagonist Dawn Jewell is acerbic, hard-edged, often angry. She is what some people might call "too smart for her own good" in an insular eastern Kentucky mountain town. Anyone who attended the panel can attest to my enthusiasm upon hearing that Robert is working on a sequel to Trampoline, which I learned too late to share with the audience on Wednesday just won the 2015 Weatherford Award for the Best Appalachian Book of the Year (Fiction).
2. In Calf, Andrea Kleine has fictionalized two events that took place in her childhood: the first is John Hinckley Jr.'s attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan; the second is Washington DC socialite Leslie DeVeau's murder of her daughter (a friend of Andrea's) and attempted suicide. Both events took place in 1981. Amazingly, DeVeau and Hinckley were each found not guilty by reason of mental illness and sent to St. Elizabeth's, where they became lovers. Readers may not recognize these similarities; Andrea has used them as fodder in the best way, creating a world in which these dual narratives play out over the course of a year, with the narrative tension mounting as the days pass.
3. Landfall is Ellen Urbani's second book (but first novel). It's a work of historical fiction, in as much as Hurricane Katrina can be considered "historical." (Historic, yes. Historical, I feel old now.) It's a family saga—two families, really, two mother-daughter pairs—told in the aftermath of the storm. The dialogue is resonant with the sounds of the South, specific to the time and place of the characters' origins and needs.
All three of these books are, as the panel title promised, rich, raw, and unsettling. They are page-turners. I encourage you to seek them out.