Friday, September 16, 2016

Julia Keller

Julia Keller was born and raised in West Virginia, and now lives in Chicago and Ohio. In her career as a journalist, she won the Pulitzer Prize for a three-part series she wrote for the Chicago Tribune about a small town in Illinois rocked by a deadly tornado.

Her new novel, Sorrow Road, is the fifth book in the Bell Elkins Series.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Keller's reply:
A book is like a blind date. It’s a crazy dare, a dizzy risk, a desperate plunge, the longest of long shots, a hopeful bet on love even when you know better.

Not all books are that way, of course. Sometimes they arrive via a friend’s recommendation or a line in a professor’s syllabus, or in response to a rapturous review by some trusted source.

But the books we pick up seemingly by happenstance, the books that call to us because of a certain color in the cover art or poetic sound to the title, the books that we read on sheer speculation, the books about which we know nothing, the books created by authors of whom we’ve never heard—these are the little miracles that make life magical.

I happen to be reading two such books right now. I found them on a recent book tour of my own. My habit is to buy a book in each bookstore at which I speak. I try not to go for books I’ve read about; I can get those later. The closed-eye fetch is all about literary serendipity. It is about trusting the universe to guide me toward exactly what I need to be reading right now.

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra and The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall: These exquisite novels—Marra’s is classified as linked stories, and technically it is, but it feels like a novel—have made me wonder how I lived before I knew they existed. If that’s not love, then I don’t know what is.

In The Wolf Border, a woman named Rachel returns to her native England to supervise a project to introduce wolves back into the landscape. Hall’s writing is crisp and sharp, with descriptions of weather that are specific and breathtaking and often harrowing. Yet it is the relentless forward momentum of the plot—so compelling that the word “unputdownable” for once is a true assessment and not just the last refuge of a lazy blurb writer—that distinguishes this superb, original work. Rachel is a loner, but her independence feels more like a shield than a choice; she’s Spock without the pointy ears. Events force her to consider connection—and with connections come consequences.

Marra’s book is a revelation. I was initially drawn to the cover, a woozy blend of mauve and melon and yellow and white and rose and sea-foam green, organized around a pair of hands holding a large wooden frame. A subsequent leafing-through of the pages persuaded me that its depths were irresistible, too. Set in various eras of twentieth-century Russia, the book is organized—just like the cover portrait—around a painting. The writing is straightforward, with occasional sparks of poetry. Yearning, regret, love, guilt—name your emotion, and Marra’s words nail it.

I’m now engaged with—which I suppose is the literary version of being engaged to—these splendid books. I took a chance. It paid off magnificently. And so maybe there should be an online dating service matching not person to person, but person to book. You put in what you’re looking for. An algorithm fetches the answer: Here. Read this. You kids enjoy yourselves.
Learn more about the book and author at Julia Keller's website.

Writers Read: Julia Keller (September 2012).

Writers Read: Julia Keller (September 2013).

Writers Read: Julia Keller (September 2014).

Writers Read: Julia Keller (September 2015).

--Marshal Zeringue