With novels like Continental Drift and The Sweet Hereafter, Russell Banks has earned his place among the top ranks of contemporary novelists. His new collection of short stories, A Permanent Member of the Family (Ecco, $25.99), explores the lives of men and women confronting crisis and change. A former Marine facing poverty becomes a serial bank robber until his two sons, both in law enforcement, discover the truth. A woman loses her husband after the couple become “snowbirds,” buying a condo in Florida, only to be surprised and confused by the freedom and happiness that follow his death. An artist announces to his friends that he’s won a prestigious grant, but goes away angry and frustrated, questioning whether he merits what’s been cast upon him. All the stories collected here evoke the strangeness and complexity of emotion.
Based on the true story of the last woman to be executed in Iceland, Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites (Little, Brown, $26) is set in the rugged landscape of 19th-century Iceland. With two others, Agnes Magnusdottir is convicted of a brutal murder, but because there is no place to hold her while she awaits execution, she takes residence with the family of a town official. There, she’s ministered to by a young local priest and works alongside the women of the family. The bonds that form are, of course, complicated by the fact that Agnes is condemned to be put to death. This is a story rich in complications, love, and the possibility of redemption. Kent recounts the events in a spare, straightforward style, befitting the setting and situation.
Howard Norman is best known as the author of finely crafted novels like the National Book Award-nominee, The Bird Artist, and What Is Left the Daughter. In I Hate to Leave this Beautiful Place (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26), he turns his novelist’s eye on his own experiences. In evocative and very personal essays, he shows the arc of his life thus far, studded by incidents he describes as “arresting strangeness.” He recounts his days growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, his travels to the Arctic, where he developed an intense appreciation of Inuit life and culture, and the idylls of summers in his family’s 19th-century farmhouse in his beloved Vermont. The last part of the book recalls a tragic event that took place in his home in Washington, D.C. Evident throughout is Norman’s deep sensitivity to nature and the rhythms of life.