Sunday, July 15, 2012

Katia Lief

Born in France to American parents, Katia Lief moved to the United States as a baby and was raised in Massachusetts and New York. She teaches fiction writing as a part-time faculty member at the New School in Manhattan and lives in Brooklyn.

Lief's Karin Schaeffer novels include You Are Next, Next Time You See Me, and the recently released Vanishing Girls.

A few weeks ago I asked her what she was reading.  Her reply:
I recently read three wonderful novels that play with history and time. The writing and subjects of each of the novels are quite distinct, but equally compelling. I recommend them all.

The School of Night by Louis Bayard deftly shifts between Elizabethan England and present day Washington D.C., connecting characters separated by centuries with a literary sleight-of-hand that brings you deeply into both worlds.

Sixteenth century alchemist and scholar Thomas Harriot meets secretly with four other prominent thinkers to talk about things like God, alchemy, politics and the black arts, discussions considered threatening to both church and state. Inspired by these meetings, Harriot carries out a series of middle-of-the-night experiments with the woman he loves, a brilliant repressed scientist who is also his servant.

Cut to modern Washington D.C., where Elizabethan scholars and collectors vie to recover a missing letter written by Harriot and believed to contain secrets including the key to alchemy and a clue to a lost treasure. The letter will also establish as fact the reputed intellectual partnership dubbed by Shakespeare the School of Night because of the furtiveness of these risque meetings, which took place late at night. The novel opens with the funeral of the scholar who possesses the letter, which is now missing. In short order, a wealthy collector hires a disgraced historian to find it among his late friend's possessions, and as the hunt intensifies, people start dying.

Surprises abound in this beautifully wrought tapestry of history, love and vengeance. I won't give away the ending, but the secrets in the letter are not what you'll expect.


Another historical time-shifting novel that I absolutely loved was Time and Again by Jack Finney. Published in 1970, Finney writes about a then-modern New York City that now looks quaint, with its big cars and rotary telephones nowhere near being considered vintage.

Illustrator Si Morley is convinced to participate in a secret U.S. government experiment in time travel. Through an elusive portal in an apartment in the grand old Dakota, Simon finds himself entering an 1880s New York where cars and telephones don't exist. His quest is to get some information about a consequential letter that resulted in a suicide. He rents a room in a boarding house and gets too involved with its inhabitants, and the deepening mystery that led to the letter, to return easily to his old life. He also falls in love. Needless to say, this complicates things with the girlfriend waiting for him in modern-day Manhattan.

Finney's writing has an openness and generosity you rarely encounter in tightly plotted fiction, yet the novel is dense with a perfect weave of story and character that makes for the kind of book you don't want to end.


Betty Smith's 1943 novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn reads like a memoir of life in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the first two decades of the twentieth century. The story follows the daily life of teenager Francie Nolan between the ages of eleven and seventeen. There isn't much of a plot, but the gentle compassion with which Smith chronicles of the lives of the impoverished Nolans, and brings a distant world back to life, was enough to keep me deeply engaged. Francie's mother's strength and determination carry the family through a string of difficulties as her father's alcoholism grows worse. Yet every hardship endured by the Nolans is described in the context of Francie's great love for her family. This is a sweet novel that made me feel as if I were floating back in time to a New York City that still resonates in the worn cobblestones of its oldest streets when you slow down enough to really look at them. You can hear the horses' hooves clopping along in Williamsburg a hundred years ago, and there's not a hipster in sight.
Visit Katia Lief's website.

The Page 69 Test: Vanishing Girls.

--Marshal Zeringue