Reading roundup: Fall books

I’m absurdly fond of Nick Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” column in The Believer. His reading taste is so wide-ranging that I forgive the lack of transitions between paragraphs; the books aren’t related, so why bother contriving a connection? Better to use the limited word count to talk about more books.

My taste runs a bit more narrowly to literary fiction (though Nick might like Against Football by Steve Almond), and I’ve read enough new fiction in the past couple months to justify a roundup. Without further ado:

hundredyearhouseMy friend and fellow librarian Brita recommended The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai. Brita has impeccable taste and I’d read Makkai’s first novel, The Borrower, not long ago, so it didn’t take too much of a push for me to pick this one up, and I’m so glad I did. The story is set in and around a house called Laurelfield – a private residence or arts colony, depending on the year – and told backward, starting in 1999, skipping back to 1955, then to 1929, then a “prologue” in 1900. This structure lends a puzzle-like feel to the book, as readers must hold details in their heads as the story moves backward, picking up additional pieces and fitting them in. In addition to compelling characters and a plot filled with secrets and twists, Makkai employs a number of familiar elements – a locked attic, an archive, blackmail, a hidden painting, false identities, buried bodies, a haunted house – and weaves them into a delightful, satisfying story that feels entirely unique.

payingguestsThe Paying Guests by Sarah Waters is a long, tense read. It’s set in London after the first World War. Frances has lost her brothers in the war, and her father has died; she and her mother are forced to take in a couple of lodgers (“paying guests”) to make ends meet. Despite class differences, Frances becomes friends, and then more, with one of the lodgers. They plan to run away together, but are interrupted and surprised one night. A moment of violence shatters their plans and puts their future in jeopardy. The Paying Guests is full of period detail and suspense. I enjoyed it, but I’ve been told I really need to read Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet to get the classic Sarah Waters experience.

miniaturist I picked up a galley of The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton at BEA in May, attracted by the editor’s description and the gorgeous cover. Set in Amsterdam in the 1700s, it’s the story of Nella, who comes from the country to marry a wealthy merchant. Prepared to be a wife, she is instead ignored; Johannes buys her an expensive dollhouse, a replica of the real house, and leaves her alone with his sister, Marin, and two servants. “It is not a man she has married,” Nella observes, “but a world.” Obviously something is not quite right, but it is a little while before Nella discovers precisely what. In the meantime, Nella writes to a miniaturist to begin filling the dollhouse with figurines, but the mysterious miniaturist sends more than Nella asked for, and seems to know more about the family than should be possible – even more than Nella knows. Burton brings Amsterdam to life in this slow-burning story, and though the truth about the miniaturist is never fully revealed, I found the story satisfying regardless.

italianwifeAn Italian Wife by Ann Hood was another BEA galley. I hadn’t read Ann Hood before, and I enjoyed The Italian Wife, the story of an Italian immigrant, Josephine, and her large family. The title refers to Josephine, but there are many Italian wives in the book, and most of them, to some extent, follow the same pattern: their husbands and boyfriends call the shots, sex is a chore (or worse), life consists of housework and child care and little else. Though the larger world changes around them, their small Italian-American community stays remarkably the same, and even the ones who leave don’t break free of the entrenched gender roles, until, perhaps, Josephine’s great-granddaughter Aida. Hood writes about selected members of the family, so the book is almost like a collection of linked stories, but it comes back around to Josephine in the end.

everythinginevertoldyouA co-worker had a galley of Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, and then I read an interview with the author in Shelf Awareness. Those two things together convinced me to read the book, and I’m so glad I did. At the outset it reminded me of Hannah Pittard’s The Fates Will Find Their Way, but other than the disappeared-girl aspect, the novels aren’t that similar. Everything I Never Told You is the story of the Chinese-American Lee family: parents James and Marilyn, and children Nath, Lydia, and Hannah. When Lydia disappears, the family is stunned, and the reader is puzzled, but as more is revealed about each character, it begins to make sense. The whole family is under the pressure of racial discrimination – sometimes subtle, sometimes less so – but Lydia is under the additional pressure of her mother’s expectations: that she will fulfill Marilyn’s own thwarted dream of a medical career. This is one of those books that makes you ache for a family in which communication of the important truths seems impossible, despite the love they have for one another.

magicianslandI read The Magicians and The Magician King, books one and two in Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy, back in 2011, and I wasn’t sure if I’d remember them well enough to enjoy The Magician’s Land, but it got such glowing reviews (such as the one from Edan Lepucki in the Sunday Book Review) that I went ahead…and it was fantastic. Quentin Coldwater at thirty is incalculably more fun to spend 400 pages with than Quentin at eighteen: still clever but less egotistical, more sure of his place in the world and less whiny. Having been ejected from Brakebills and Fillory, he embarks on a heist to steal a suitcase with unknown contents; Plum, an ex-Brakebills student and a Chatwin descendant, is in on the heist as well. When it goes awry, the two of them hide out in Plum’s apartment in Manhattan, where Quentin turns his attention to a new spell: a spell to make a land. When that, too, goes awry, but brings back niffin-Alice, Quentin focuses on getting her back into her human form. At this point, Eliot shows up to announce that Fillory is dying, and Quentin returns to see if he can avert the apocalypse.

The Magician’s Land is funny and clever; it’s a victory tour through familiar landmarks, a denouement for all the characters readers got to know in the first two books. Because the characters inhabit the real world as well as the magical one, it’s full of pop culture fantasy and sci-fi references (Harry Potter, Narnia, Doctor Who, etc.). I had mixed feelings about The Magicians, but now I think I’ll go back and re-read it, the better to appreciate The Magician’s Land.

againstfootballLast but not least, some new nonfiction: I first heard of Steve Almond’s book Against Football at BEA, and I knew I had to read the book when he agreed to be the featured speaker at our library’s first book festival this November. I got a galley from the publisher and zipped through it in a day. It turns out that, like being a vegetarian, there are a good number of valid reasons to be against football: social, cultural, economic, and political reasons, any one of which should be enough to turn public opinion against the sport, or at least the sport as it is played, funded, and televised today. Realistically, we probably can’t hope for much except for a few reforms, but at least those will be a step in the right direction. Almond’s writing is passionate and easy to follow, even for someone who isn’t familiar with the details of the game. And if you’re local, you can come see him speak at the Robbins Library on November 1!

That’s it for me for now. Have any of these titles piqued your interest? What else have you been reading lately?

 

 

 

Audiobook recommendations for a friend

At a recent book club meeting, a friend asked the rest of the group for audiobook recommendations. She’d just gotten a new job (yay!) with a much longer commute (yuck), and she was looking for audiobooks to make the commute more enjoyable. I’m afraid many of us audiobook fans fired recommendations at her faster than she could write them down, so I ended up typing mine up for her afterward, and figured I’d share them here as well.

I’ve already mentioned specific books and narrators before, including Rebecca Lowman, Jim Dale, Morven Christie, and Kate Rudd, but here’s a slightly longer list, reflecting another half-year of reading/listening. Young Adult fiction is overrepresented here, because I usually choose shorter books for my relatively short commute.

Talented narrators matched with great books

  • nightcircus_audioThe incomparable Jim Dale reads the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling, as well as The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. All are magical.
  • Rebecca Lowman reads everything by Rainbow Rowell (Eleanor & Park, Fangirl, Landline) and Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. It occurs to me that I am bad at describing voices and can’t properly convey why Rebecca Lowman is so incredible, but trust me on this one.
  • Morven Christie performs upper-class Scottish “Queenie’s” half of Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, and narrates Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, which is set in Iceland.
  • David Tennant – you might know him as the Tenth Doctor, or the star of British miniseries Broadchurch – performs My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher. If Scottish accents (and heartbreakingly good realistic YA fiction) are your thing, don’t miss this one.
  • Alex McKenna reads Every Day by David Levithan. This unique story requires a special narrator: the main character, A, wakes up every day in a different body, and doesn’t identify as one gender or another. McKenna’s grainy voice is perfect.
  • If I Stay and Where She Went, a pair of novels by Gayle Forman, have two different narrators; Kirsten Potter is Mia in the first book, and Dan Bittner is Adam in the latter. The narrators are well suited to the stories.
  • instructionsheatwaveI’m a sucker for British accents (and Scottish ones, obviously), and John R. Lee does a fantastic performance of Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave. This was the first O’Farrell book I read/listened to, and I was a little disappointed that Lee didn’t read her other titles as well. (Anne Flosnik reads The Hand That First Held Mine and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. She does a fine job, and I’m a huge Maggie O’Farrell fan, so I recommend these as well, but Heatwave was exceptional.)
  • As I’ve mentioned before, Kate Rudd reads The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Here is a case where the book is incredible on its own, but the audio version somehow manages to add even more depth, emotion, and humor.
  • I’ve encountered A.S. King almost exclusively in audio, and all of the readers do justice to her brilliant, slightly surreal yet grounded young adult fiction. Lynde Houck reads Please Ignore Vera Dietz, Kirby Heyborne reads Everybody Sees the Ants, Michael Stellman reads Reality Boy, and Devon Sorvari reads Ask the Passengers.

Authors who read their own books

  • sweetheartsYoung adult author Sara Zarr reads several of her own books, including Sweethearts, Story of a Girl, Once Was Lost, and The Lucy Variations. Don’t judge these books by their covers – full of realistic and intense teen problems, they’re far from fluff.
  • Genre-defying Neil Gaiman performs most (all?) of his own books, and his voice is perfectly suited to his stories. Coraline, The Graveyard Book, Neverwhere, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Stardust…
  • Philip Pullman and a full cast read Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass/The Subtle Knife/The Amber Spyglass). I don’t want to say they bring the book to life, because it lives and breathes spectacularly on the page, but they bring the book into the dimension of sound such that each character’s voice is exactly the way I heard it in my head while I was reading.
  • I wasn’t sure if I was going to like Cheryl Strayed’s collected advice columns, but I was utterly hooked after Steve Almond’s introduction. Strayed reads Tiny Beautiful Things: advice on love and life from Dear Sugar, and because many of her stories and anecdotes are personal, it feels like she’s speaking directly to you.
  • Sarah Vowell reads all her own books, including The Wordy Shipmates, Unfamiliar Fishes, Assassination Vacation, and The Partly Cloudy Patriot. Vowell – the voice of Violet Incredible – tends to polarize listeners; some love her voice, some really dislike it. Her audiobooks usually feature cameo performances from other voice actors, including Stephen Colbert and Seth Green.
  • happymarriageThough she doesn’t narrate her novels, Ann Patchett reads her nonfiction, including What Now? (based on her commencement address) and her recent book of essays, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. Ann is the writer to whom I wish I was related, or at least the one I’d most want for a next-door neighbor, and her writing is pure wisdom and humor and craft.
  • Perhaps most popular of all in the author-reads-own-book category, Tina Fey performs Bossypants. I haven’t listened to this myself, but I’ve listened to enough friends rave about it that I feel I can recommend it.

So those are some of my favorites. What audiobooks do you like? Leave suggestions in the comments.

 

On Immunity: An Inoculation, by Eula Biss (Graywolf Press)

onimmunityOn Immunity: An Inoculation was one of the two nonfiction books at this year’s BEA Editors’ Buzz. At just about 200 pages, including the notes and acknowledgements, it is undaunting in length, which I hope will encourage even more people to pick it up.

Disease is defined as “any deviation from or interruption of the normal structure or function of any body part, organ, or system that is manifested by a characteristic set of symptoms and signs and whose etiology, pathology, and prognosis may be known or unknown.” But an obsolete use of the word disease is “lack of ease; trouble,” more like today’s unease. And disease certainly does make people uncomfortable: the idea of it causes mental and emotional discomfort, while its physical effects can range from undetected to uncomfortable to fatal.

Eula Biss wades into this uneasy territory, and finds companions in other writers, historians, philosophers, anthropologists, and doctors. During the writing of On Immunity, Biss – already a published author and essayist – became a mother, and she approaches the topic of immunity and vaccination from a mother’s point of view as well as a “citizen thinker’s” perspective. She acknowledges that all parents’ decisions – to vaccinate or not to vaccinate their children – come from the same desire: to keep their children safe. But it is better to make these decisions from a place of knowledge than from a place of fear, and knowledge is what Biss strives for, and shares, in this book.

Fears of vaccines do not seem easily quieted by an abundance of expert risk-benefit analyses assuring us that the good they do is far greater than the harm.

One of the first steps in the process of deciding whether or not to vaccinate is risk assessment, and yet humans are not as good at this as we would like to think. Biss quotes the historian Michael Willrich, who says, “Perceptions of risk…can be stubbornly resistant to the evidence of experts.” People engage in dangerous activities (e.g. driving, riding in, or walking near cars) every day, but the familiarity we develop with these activities dulls our fear of the associated risks. “The disregard for statistical risk,” Biss writes, “may be at least partly due to an unwillingness to live lives dictated by danger.”

Risk perception may not be about quantifiable risk so much as it is about immeasurable fear….When we encounter information that contradicts our beliefs…we tend to doubt the information, not ourselves.

Safe and dangerous aren’t as binary as we’d like to think, either; as toxicologists say, “the dose makes the poison.” But, Biss notes, “most people prefer to think of substances as either safe or dangerous, regardless of the dose.” I caught myself in this exact thought pattern a single day after I finished reading On Immunity, while I was reading about the ingredients in a multivitamin; it’s difficult to remember, but any substance, even water, can be toxic in large enough doses, and small doses of “dangerous” substances may be harmless.

If vaccination is a choice people make at the individual level (“allowing oneself to remain vulnerable to disease remains a legal privilege today”), it is also a choice individuals are making on behalf of the larger community in which they live. The author’s father Roger Biss, a doctor, explains, “Vaccination works by enlisting a majority in the protection of a minority.” The more people who are vaccinated and carry immunity, the safer everyone is from disease. Achieving a 100% vaccination rate in any given population is unlikely, but by aiming for that rate, we have a better chance of attaining “herd immunity.” Unfortunately, Biss discovers, “We know the threshold [at which herd immunity is lost], in many cases, only after we’ve exceeded it.”

Faced with too much information, or misinformation, some people choose not to vaccinate, threatening the protection that herd immunity confers. Yet refusing to vaccinate “undermines a system…in which both the burdens and the benefits are shared across the entire population.” Or, as the author’s sister notes, “The health of our bodies always depends on choices other people are making.”

Biss includes a wealth of references, both in the text and in the notes; she draws upon such various sources as Susan Sontag, Bram Stoker (Dracula), Rachel Carson (Silent Spring), and Jean-Paul Sartre, among others. While I read On Immunity, however, I was often reminded of a book she didn’t mention: Leah Hager Cohen’s I don’t know: in praise of admitting ignorance and doubt (except when you shouldn’t). In this slim, wise volume, Cohen – also a mother, and also a Hampshire College graduate – explores the question, “How should we make decisions when we can’t know what’s right?”

We have to make the best decision we can, based on the best information we can gather. After a careful examination of research an opinion from many sources, Biss concludes, reasonably, that vaccination is the choice that is best for the individual, and for society at large – of which we are all a part. This works to everyone’s advantage; after all, “No single person…has the genetic material to respond to all diseases, but collectively humans have enough genetic diversity for humankind to survive any disease.”

I received a galley of this book from the publisher at BookExpo America 2014. Quotes in the review above are from the galley, and may differ from the final copy. On Immunity: An Inoculation will be published on September 30, 2014.

 

Reading Roundup: spring, summer, and fall books

Between BEA, Edelweiss, NetGalley, and the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, I’ve gotten a chance to read several books ahead of their official publication dates this year, and they’ve all been excellent. This list is fairly fiction-heavy, but I have a few nonfiction titles coming up as well, so if that’s your thing, stay tuned.

stuckinthemiddleStuck in the Middle with You by Jennifer Finney Boylan (paperback: April 22, 2014)

Sometimes, the simplest, most innocent questions that people ask me can demand that I either lie or else have a conversation that’s much more intimate than I want to have, simply in order to tell the truth.

Boylan is the author of two previous memoirs, She’s Not There (2003) and I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted (2008). Born James Boylan, she had a sex change but remained married to her wife Deedie, parent to their two sons, Zach and Sean. Stuck in the Middle With You gives enough background so that readers who are new to Boylan won’t be lost, but focuses mainly on parenthood and family; memoir material is interspersed with interviews with many other people on the topics of gender, family, and motherhood vs. fatherhood. (I was delighted to encounter Tim Kreider, author of We Learn Nothing, in one of the interviews.) In conversation with Christine McGinn, Boylan seems to conclude that “males and females really are two different beings…but motherhood and fatherhood are social constructs.” She also concludes that her family is more similar to other families than different – and, for what it’s worth, she and Deedie are still together while many couples who got together at the same time are now separated. A great read for anyone who’s part of a family…which is pretty much everyone.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub (May 29, 2014)vacationers

Families were nothing more than hope cast out in a wide net, everyone wanting only the best.

The term “beach read” connotes something frothy and light, indulgent and not necessarily “literary,” but just because a book is set during a family’s summer vacation doesn’t make it a “beach read.” Straub’s The Vacationers certainly isn’t fluff: it’s a two-week-long snapshot of a family (and friends) whose members are all believably flawed: the husband who had an affair and lost his job over it, the wife who isn’t sure she can forgive him, the gay couple in the midst of a nerve-wracking adoption process, the son with hidden financial troubles, the son’s responsible-but-looked-down-on older girlfriend, and finally the youngest daughter, whose goal for the summer is to get laid so she doesn’t arrive at college a virgin. Straub writes about her characters with empathy and wisdom. I didn’t read her previous novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, but I may add it to my list now.

oneplusoneOne Plus One by Jojo Moyes (July 1, 2014)

Sometimes, she told herself, life was a series of obstacles that just had to be negotiated, possibly through sheer act of will….she could survive this. She could survive most things.

Jess and Ed both live in England, but they come from two different worlds: Ed is fantastically rich, thanks to some software he built with his friend Ronan, and Jess is scraping by, cleaning houses – including Ed’s – and bartending. This setup could easily tip over into cliche, but it doesn’t: Moyes creates fully rounded characters who are lovable but flawed, trying to do their best and making mistakes. Jess is trying to protect her ex-husband’s son Nicky from being bullied, and trying to figure out a way to afford for her daughter Tanzie to go to a nicer school where she can do higher-level maths; Tanzie has won a scholarship but Jess still doesn’t have enough to cover the rest, unless Tanzie also wins a competition. In Aberdeen. And Jess can’t really drive – so Ed ends up chauffeuring the three of them, plus Norman the dog. One Plus One is a satisfying romance that addresses issues of socioeconomic status and inequality.

landlineLandline by Rainbow Rowell (July 8, 2014)

“Lately I’ve been thinking that it’s impossible to know.”
“To know what?” she pushed.
“Whether it’s enough. How does anyone ever know whether love is enough? It’s an idiotic question. Like, if you fall in love, if you’re that lucky, who are you to even ask whether it’s enough to make you happy?”
“But it happens all the time,” she said. “Love isn’t always enough.”

If you have already read something by Rainbow Rowell (Attachments, Eleanor & Park, Fangirl), then you’re already waiting to get your hands on Landline, in which Rowell returns from YA to adult fiction. As always, she writes with a wonderful sense of humor as well as wisdom about what it’s like to be a person. Review | Additional quotes

secretplaceThe Secret Place by Tana French (September 2, 2014)

Some people are like that: everything comes out like a lie. Not that they’re brilliant liars, just that they’re useless at telling the truth. You get left with no way to tell what’s the real fake and what’s the fake one.

The Secret Place differs from French’s four previous novels in that the narration is split in two, with one half – from the perspective of Detective Stephen Moran – taking place over the course of one long day, and the other half filling in most of the back story. This is largely effective, though there are many threads to keep track of; readers are never too far ahead of Moran and his partner-for-the-day, Antoinette Conway, and there are plenty of leads that lead to dead ends. The case centers around a murder that occurred on the grounds of a girls’ boarding school; the murder went unsolved for a year, but a new clue has surfaced, brought to Moran’s attention by Holly Mackey, a student at the school. Soon, Moran begins to wonder if Holly was involved. As always, French has crafted a psychologically gripping, beautifully written, hard-to-put-down literary mystery.

stationelevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (September 9, 2014)

The more you remember, the more you’ve lost.

The world as we know it: Arthur Leander has a heart attack onstage while playing King Lear. Audience member Jeevan, a paparazzo-turned-journalist-turned EMT, jumps onstage to help. Child actress Kirsten Raymonde watches as Jeevan tries to save Arthur, but Arthur dies. Later that evening, Jeevan receives a call from a doctor friend, telling him about a fast-moving, lethal flu that has arrived in Toronto. He stocks up on emergency supplies.

Time had been reset by catastrophe.

The world in Year Twenty: Twenty years after the Georgia Flu has killed 99.99% of the world’s population, Kirsten is a member of the Traveling Symphony, a band of Shakespearean actors and musicians always on the move between small settlements. She’s also on the lookout for anyone who might know anything about one of her few possessions, copies of the first two volumes of a graphic novel called Station Eleven. When Symphony members begin to go missing, it seems as though Station Eleven might be leaking from the page into real life.

There have been several notable post-apocalyptic novels for adults recently (The Road, The Age of Miracles, The Dog Stars), but in my opinion this is the best. The author pays attention to the logistics of the collapse, but the characters are of primary importance: the way they deal with the post-flu world, the way they are all connected in a looping way that is almost reminiscent of the best time-travel novels. I only finished reading it a few days ago, but I think it will linger with me.

 

BEA 2014, Part One: When we love a book, we can’t stop talking about it

Thanks to Gene Ambaum and Bill Barnes (perhaps better known as “the Unshelved guys“), I got to go to BookExpo America (BEA) for free this year. I built a schedule in advance with the BEA show planner, and ended up following the schedule pretty closely.

BEA14WedThe keynote on Wednesday afternoon, “The Future of Bricks and Mortar Retailers,” was focused on booksellers, but much of it could apply to libraries as well. Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, noted that there was a “real resurgence in indie bookselling,” and that “localism” was becoming a powerful movement (“Small Business Saturday” being one example). However, it’s still a challenge to convince customers to think of bookstores as places to buy e-books.

Michael Tamblyn, president of Kobo, acknowledged that the virtual browsing experience doesn’t (yet) match the physical, but that booksellers could be strategic about what books they stock in print. Romance novels, for example, sell better in e-book format, so it’s less important to have them on the shelves – just point customers toward the e-bookstore. Cookbooks, gift books, and picture books, however, are much more popular in print.

John Ingram, CEO of Ingram, said of digital and print, “it’s not either/or, it’s either/and.” Many readers buy both print books and e-books; this is supported by research from Library Journal. On the limited (thus far) success of bundling a digital book with the purchase of a print book, Ingram said, “Somewhere in there, there are economics that work for everybody.” Ingram also proposed that “each [bookstore] could be a publisher.”

Joyce Meskis, owner of the Tattered Cover bookstore, had great advice about connecting to the community and attracting customers. Tattered Cover has 500-600 events annually, including storytime, author events, and “Book Happy Hour.” She recommended using media, including public radio and podcasts, to “be part of the story.”

BEA14_tatteredcoverOf course, the keynote wouldn’t have been complete without a dig at the ongoing Amazon/Hachette issue; indie booksellers “make ALL publishers’ books available all the time.”

BEA14buzz

Next was the BEA Editors’ Buzz. Robert Sindelar from Third Place Books in Seattle moderated a panel of seven editors, each of whom raved about one book from their list. Sindelar said he initially had a negative reaction to the word “buzz,” but said it connotes activity; “When we really love a book we can’t stop talking about it.” The best editors and salespeople, he said, are “cool, have good taste, and know how to talk about books.” All editors on the panel fit this description, and after the event there was a mob around the tables of galleys that resembled hyenas feasting on a carcass. (Note to the organizers: Spread the galleys out. Use more than two tables for a room of a few hundred people. Have an exit plan. Have signs. Encourage people to form lines. Etc.) Though the print galleys disappeared in a flash, e-galleys should be available through Edelweiss. Here are the titles and authors:

  • Jenny Jackson from Knopf called Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel “a requiem for the world as we know it.” This “plausible and terrifying” book, which she compared to Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, is about art and fame, and has already garnered positive word-of-mouth buzz.
  • Marysue Rucci from S&S described Matthew Thomas‘ ten-years-in-the-making We Are Not Ourselves as an “epic” of three generations of an Irish family in New York, a novel that describes “the great unwinding of the middle class” and “resilience in the face of disappointment.”
  • Lee Boudreaux from Ecco mentioned a slew of comp titles for The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton, including Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, The Song of Achilles, Slammerkin, and The Signature of All Things. Suspense builds in this “dollhouse mystery” set in 1700s Amsterdam.
  • Jeff Shotts from Graywolf Press was aware of the irony of his last name when introducing On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss. This slim work of nonfiction addresses parents’ impulse to protect themselves and their children, as well as issues of race, class, and government, and the “far-reaching ramifications” of the “implications of vaccination.”
  • Amy Einhorn touted My Sunshine Away by M.O. Wilson from her eponymous imprint. Like The Help, My Sunshine Away is set in the South, and the story is inseparable from the setting. A debut novel and a literary mystery, My Sunshine Away is about adolescence, family, memory, and forgiveness.
  • Josh Kendall from Little, Brown admitted that author Laird Hunt was “not the new guy,” but that Neverhome was going to be his breakout novel. Hunt discovered a trove of letters in a family barn in Indiana, and those letters inspired this tale of a woman who goes to war in place of her husband.
  • Colin Harrison from Scribner closed the session with The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League But Did Not Survive by Jeff Hobbs, Peace’s roommate for two years at Yale. This is a true tale of poverty, race, education, drugs, murder, discrimination, and fate.

And that was just the first day. Stay tuned for more.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Some novels take place over the course of a day; some cover several decades. How much story is an author able to fit into 350 pages or 500 pages or 750 pages? How much they can develop their characters so the reader feels like they are real people? These questions point to the magic and the mystery of writing. A reader might pause on page twelve and wonder, How do I already know so much about these people? How did the author do that? Or the reader might be fifty pages in, thinking, Nothing has happened yet, but I sure do know a lot about nineteenth-century London. Some writers are economical; some are expansive. Either kind of book can be powerful.

storiedlifeajfikryGabrielle Zevin does a lot with a little. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is 272 pages, and it covers about sixteen years. A.J. is a widower and a bookshop owner on Alice Island; he has just told off a new sales rep, Amelia Loman, and is proceeding with his plan to drink himself to death when he discovers two-year-old Maya in his shop, accompanied by a note. Soon afterward, Maya’s mother’s body washes up on the shore, and instead of handing the baby over to social services, A.J. decides to keep her.

A.J. does the paperwork and jumps through the necessary hoops off-screen, as it were, leaving the reader to enjoy Maya’s non-christening christening party in the bookstore. Because of Maya, A.J. becomes involved in the life of the town in a way he never did before; though his wife Nic was an islander, A.J. himself was perceived as an outsider. He emerges from his shell, becoming friends with the remarkably kind and sensible police chief, Lambiase, and forging a relationship with Amelia. (Again, they surmount some practical obstacles – i.e., the inconvenience of her living on an island when her job involves so much travel – off the page.)

“Shelf-talkers” for short stories serve as section dividers. These are addressed not to the reading public, but to Maya; the reason A.J. is writing these becomes clear late in the book. Maya’s history is also revealed: Lambiase discovers it (along with the valuable copy of Tamerlane that went missing from A.J.’s apartment just before Maya’s arrival) not through detective work but when he begins to date A.J.’s ex-sister-in-law, Ismay, after the death of her husband.

The characters in The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry are at once easy to slot into roles, and more complicated than they appear. Books and stories play a powerful role in all of their lives, and there is a good deal of book-related wisdom throughout this novel, delivered with a light touch. “We are what we love,” A.J. finally concludes. Most people who love books (and especially those who have ever dreamed of living in a bookstore) will like this one.

 

Problem Novels or Resilience Literature?

speakLast month there was a snippet in EarlyWord that caught my eye; librarian Nancy Pearl interviewed YA author Laurie Halse Anderson. Anderson’s books, which tackle difficult but real topics such as rape (Speak) and eating disorders (Wintergirls), are occasionally targeted by those who wish to censor them. Pearl asked her about the “problem novel” label that is “often applied to books about teens dealing with real-life situations.” Anderson reframed the issue by calling these books “resilience literature” instead, “because the goal of the books is to help strengthen kids facing difficult situations.” I think that’s a beautiful and apt way to put it.

As my co-worker Rebecca wrote during Banned Books Week last year, “Books are safe spaces to experience new things. New thoughts. New ideas. Different points of view….Books teach us how to empathize with each other, how to stand up for the little guy, and how to recognize the bad guys in our lives….We experience strong emotion alongside our favorite characters – joy, catharsis, loss, excitement. Books are a safe way to learn about life, without all the painful bumps and bruises.”

There is a quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.” Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Words are important, and labels are especially so. Anderson’s renaming “problem novels” to “resilience literature” is not only a more accurate term, it also casts these books, and the discussion surrounding them, into a more positive and constructive light.

Speak: Have you read books that fall into this category? What did you think of them?