In his debut novel, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth, Christopher Scotton follows teenager Kevin Gillooly as he spends the summer in a small, impoverished Appalachia mining town. Our reviewer writes, "This affecting coming-of-age story faithfully portrays environmental concerns alongside rich family histories." (Read the review here.)
We asked Scotton to tell us about three books he's been reading lately, and he graciously agreed to share.
The only time I have for pleasure reading these days is about five minutes in the evening before bed. Novels can take months to unspool for me in that limited time of quiet, so I’ve turned to short story collections for my night reading. Short stories allow me to wade in and out quickly but still take some meaning and satisfaction from the best of them. Here are three that seem to have attached themselves to a permanent place on my bedside.
Sure, it’s a great “on ramp” to reading and understanding Joyce—a not-too-taxing wend around middle class, turn-of-the-century Dublin—providing a necessary set-up for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man then Ulysses (read in that order if you can). But in my mind, Dubliners stands on its own as one of the best short story collections in the English language, primarily on the shoulders of “The Dead,” the final piece in the work.
“The Dead” is perhaps the most perfect short story I’ve ever read—flawlessly constructed, subtly rendered to devastating effect. When asked by young writers for advice on how to develop compelling characters, I send them sprinting to “The Dead” and to Joyce’s delicate unwrapping of Gabriel Conroy.
While others in the collection don’t achieve the rare air of “The Dead,” “The Sisters,” “Araby” and “Eveline” will certainly leave you breathless.
Goodness . . . where to begin with this one. Unlike The Dubliners, which is a bit top heavy with the outsized magnificence of “The Dead,” every story in Flannery O’Connor’s collection Everything That Rises Must Converge is note-perfect, stunningly original and just flat-out great.
While the stories are dark Southern Gothic, the characters are so acutely drawn that they transcend setting. We all have encountered the self-absorbed idiot intellectual Julian of the title story—perhaps we even were him for a while when the ink was still wet on our Masters. How many smug, self-righteous Mrs. May’s, gored by a bull in “Greenleaf,” have populated our neighborhoods? Then there’s the moral outrage of Thomas in “The Comforts of Home” combusting with the smoldering sexuality of Star Drake.
Although O’Connor’s novels were, for me, clumsy affairs, when reading her short stories you’ll know you’re in the deft hands of a virtuoso. These stories will amuse, astound and stun you sleepless.
If Joyce invented the short story, Saunders reinvented it with Tenth of December. Strike that—He didn’t just reinvent it, he blew it up, shook it down and reassembled the smithereens into something so completely unique and compelling and dazzling I was nearly left in thrombosis. Okay, not an actual thrombosis but maybe a state of joyful apoplexy.
Seriously, people, is there a better, more topical, more heart-rending story in this cannon of ours than the “Semplica Girl Diaries”? I don’t think so . . . except maybe “Tenth of December” or “Victory Lap.”
So much has been written about the genius of George Saunders that I don’t need to add to the blather—just read the damn thing. Or read it again if you already have. It’s the shit.
Thanks, Christopher! See a personal favorite or anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Lee Kriel)
The National Book Critics Circle has chosen the finalists for their annual awards, which will be announced on March 12 in New York City (if you're local, you can watch for yourself—the ceremony is open to the public). Check out the fiction and nonfiction finalists below, and visit their site for the full list.
Paula Hawkins has something to smile about. Her novel, The Girl on the Train, will top this week's New York Times bestseller list. That's quite a feat for any author, let alone an unknown: This is the first time that a debut novel* has made the #1 spot in its first week on sale since Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian was published in 2005. According to the publishers, Riverhead, more than 300,000 copies are in print, and the book is being sold at unconventional retail outlets, including Urban Outfitters.
We weren't surprised to hear that the unexpected twists and turns of The Girl on the Train got readers buzzing—they definitely had our editors intrigued. In her BookPage interview, Hawkins talked about the difficulty of surprising readers with twists that still manage to function as an "ah-ha" moment.
“It’s all about feeding tiny pieces of information, but hopefully keeping them slightly ambivalent. You have to have different people see different things in different ways, and hold back particular pieces of information,” she explains.
Hawkins is hard at work on another book, although it is quite likely that touring for The Girl on the Train will be keeping her busy for the next several weeks—she'll be appearing at Nashville's own Parnassus Books on February 8.
Have you picked up The Girl on the Train yet?
*Hawkins has published other novels under a pseudonym—we're betting they are on the way to the printers as we speak.
Looking for a hearty, soul-warming staple to get you through the final weeks of winter? Then try this Italian-inspired recipe for Hunter's Chicken Stew from our January Top Pick in Cookbooks, The Pollan Family Table.
Hunter’s Chicken Stew with Tomatoes and Mushrooms
FROM THE MARKET
FROM THE PANTRY
Our hunter's stew is an Italian take on the classic Polish dish, with chicken as a stand-in for pork. The tender morsels of chicken are smothered in a luscious gravy, making this a dish that the family loves.
1 whole chicken (3½ to 4 pounds), giblets and backbone removed, cut into 8 serving pieces
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large Spanish onion, thinly sliced
8 cremini or baby bella mushroom caps, thickly sliced
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup dry white wine
¾ cup low-sodium chicken broth
One 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes with juice
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh sage leaves
1 bay leaf
Set a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 375ºF.
Season the chicken liberally with salt and pepper.
In a Dutch oven or a large ovenproof pot, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add 4 of the chicken pieces, skin side down. Cook undisturbed until the skin is golden, about 7 minutes. Flip the chicken pieces and cook until brown, about 4 minutes more. Transfer to a platter and repeat with the remaining pieces of chicken. Set aside.
Wipe the Dutch oven clean with paper towels and add the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil. Heat over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the onion, mushrooms and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender and fragrant, about 8 minutes.
Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until the flour is thoroughly mixed with the onion and mushrooms, about 2 minutes. Raise the heat to high and stir in the wine, scraping up any brown bits at the bottom of the pan. Add the chicken broth, tomatoes and their juice, thyme, sage, the bay leaf, 1 ½ teaspoons of salt and ⅛ teaspoon of pepper. Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the browned chicken and any accumulated juices, submerging the pieces into the liquid. Cover and place the pot in the oven.
Bake until the chicken is tender, about 30 minutes. Take off the lid and bake for an additional 10 minutes.
Remove the pot from the oven and, using tongs, transfer the chicken to a platter. Return the pot to the burner, turn the heat to high, and cook until the sauce is thickened, about 4 minutes. Remove the bay leaf. Spoon the mushrooms and sauce over the chicken and serve.
Get your library cards ready! Librarians around the country voted, and LibraryReads has put together a list of the upcoming February titles that librarians are most excited about putting on their shelves.
Topping the list is the incomparable Anne Tyler's family saga, A Spool of Blue Thread. Other books included on the list are M.O. Walsh's heartbreaking and suspenseful My Sunshine Away and Ariana Franklin's latest historical novel, The Siege Winter. Check out the full LibraryReads list here!
Thomas Pierce's debut short story collection, Hall of Small Mammals, is sometimes strange, sometimes fantastical and manages to perfectly balance between tragic and hilarious. Within this collection, a mother is saddled with a cloned baby mammoth by her selfish son; two siblings are trapped in a pantry and very confused; and a father and son blunder through a cliqueish, vaguely cult-like community of campers. Ultimately this collection shines a light on the pain and beauty that can be found within all close relationships. If you enjoy George Saunders, Karen Russell or J. Robert Lennon, you might want to pick up this book.
Here's an excerpt from the title short story, "Hall of Small Mammals":
“I think the pace is picking up,” the woman behind me said, and when I looked up, I saw that she was right. We were really moving now. I could see the entrance ot the Hall of Small Mammals, its brown double doors open wide to receive us. But where was Val? I scanned the crowds. Had I been wrong to let a twelve-year-old go off on his own at a public zoo? I was beginning to suspect that I’d made a poor decision. My experience with children was and is fairly limited. I have two grown nieces that I rarely see in person, though my fridge is plastered with their childhood photos and printed emails. My older brother, the girls’ father, once said that being a parent is the most important thing he’s ever done with his life. I’ve never had the nerve to ask him what that says about my life.
What are you reading today?
Once upon a time, BookPage sent me a copy of The Kingdom of Little Wounds (originally marketed for ages 14 and up) to read and review for the October 2013 issue. After I read it, I got out my drum and cried, "But it's not YA!" Associate Editor Cat Acree and I emailed back and forth about this issue for a whole day, and we ended up with enough talking points to write a (very, very short) dissertation. Or, as she suggested, to stick it on the blog (here).
And with that, Locker Combinations was born.
If you haven't been reading this series from its beginning, you probably aren't familiar with why we named it Locker Combinations. Here's why:
Locker Combinations is a way to "see inside" YA (young adult) literature. By opening a locker, sometimes you find meaningful objects, like photos and mementos. Sometimes you find useful objects, like pens and pencils; informative objects, like your history textbook; or secret objects, like that note your friend slipped between the grates. Sometimes you find gruesome objects, like those gym clothes you've been meaning to take home and wash. And sometimes you find a mirror, where you can see an image of yourself.
With only a few more days before the launch of BookPage's new teen e-newsletter, Yay! YA (you can sign up for it here), I was asked to share with readers what exactly is so great about YA lit—and why it resonates with me!
The new year is a time to think about transformations. But year-round, YA lit focuses on the space between being one thing and being another, with characters sometimes choosing one option unequivocally and other times finding a way to embrace both. Teens think about these issues . . . but adults do, too.
Normally when I talk with students about transformations in YA lit, we talk about teenage shapeshifters: werewolves, selkies, dragons, etc. But to me this year's best example of transformation in YA lit is less metaphorical: Girls Like Us by Gail Giles. Over the course of this short, accessible book, developmentally disabled high school graduates Biddy and Quincy and their recently widowed landlady Elizabeth gradually transform from characters weighed down by their pasts—and by the labels society has assigned them—into people who can build friendships and careers and find happiness despite obstacles.
Veteran YA author Andrew Smith is no stranger to metaphor: The dark horrorscapes that mirror real world terrors in The Marbury Lens (and its companion novel Passenger) established him as a master of the form. Last year, though, Smith took metaphor to yet another level with Grasshopper Jungle, telling two stories, one about teenage boys and the other about giant hungry mutant praying mantises with only one thing on their minds. But are they really two stories, or is one a running metaphor for the other?
You don't have to be a teenager to appreciate the power of metaphor. Adult fiction deals with metaphor too, of course—especially in genres like fantasy, science fiction and horror—but YA's metaphors tend to be more immediate and closer to the surface. Like Smith's oversized insects, this makes them impossible to ignore.
YA lit is often dismissed as more simplistic than adult fiction, but books like E. Lockhart's We Were Liars refute that notion.
Some stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, in that order. Sometimes only one story is being told at a time, and sometimes readers can trust a story's narrator to tell the truth. None of these are the case in Lockhart's postmodern, boundary-pushing YA novel. Narrator Cady's tale of summer friendship and romance on a privileged family's private island is constantly interrupted by flashbacks, bits and pieces of fairy tales and hints that a mysterious accident may be linked to sinister secrets that Cady's bouts of amnesia won't let her access. Lockhart's highly literary, experimental style challenges teen readers to create their own understandings out of disjointed, sometimes complimentary and sometimes contradictory narrative threads.
Lockhart's novel is only one of innumerable YA books that demonstrate that YA can be just as complex, nuanced and multilayered as literature written for adults.
How much power do teens—especially teenage girls—have over their lives and the lives of others around them? Conversion by Katherine Howe explores this question through two parallel stories, one taking place at the time of the Salem witchcraft trials and the other set in a modern Massachusettes high school. In 1692 Salem, teen Ann Putnam Jr. finds herself at the heart of the town's witchcraft hysteria, while in the present day an unexplained neurological illness is creating panic at all-female St. Joan's Academy. Are the sick girls—and the supposed witches' victims—being controlled by outside forces, or have they been the ones in control all along?
Determining, negotiating and reworking questions of social power are definitely not the exclusive purview of teens. Adult power dynamics can be so complicated, and can have such high stakes, that reading about teens who change the world is a good way to put things in perspective.
In some ways, the issue of identity is central to all of YA lit. Consider Noggin by John Corey Whaley: Sixteen-year-old Travis, dying of leukemia, has agreed to an experimental, last-chance treatment. His head has been attached to another teenager's formerly-dead body. In part because the body he inhabits isn't his original one—and in part because five years have elapsed since his head was frozen and then thawed—Travis quickly finds that a lot of rethinking is in store. Although the premise sounds silly, Travis' identity struggle (and his highly punnish sense of humor) will resonate with any teen who's ever wondered who they really are.
And who doesn't sometimes feel like they're walking around in a body that's completely different than what's in their head?
Reading YA lit, especially recent books that accent some of the most interesting ideas that YA tackles, is a great way to get through the winter doldrums. And if your 2015 New Year's resolution is to read more YA (and why shouldn't it be?), don't forget to subscribe to Yay! YA to learn about the latest reviews, author interviews and web exclusives on BookPage.com. Happy reading!
Locker Combinations is a Book Case feature by BookPage contributor and young adult (YA) literature expert Jill Ratzan. Using a variety of literary, cultural and educational perspectives, Jill guest blogs about the latest in YA lit and the general direction, trends and changes of the field. Read more BookPage reviews, interviews and posts by Jill here.
Most Saturdays end up being readathon days, but this Saturday, you can read for a good cause. By hosting National Readathon Day on January 24, Penguin Random House, GoodReads, Mashable and the National Book Foundation hope to raise funds to support the National Book Foundation's literacy programs. In America, 40% of adults are at or below basic reading proficiency, and 14% are illiterate.
How can you help promote literacy this Saturday? Host a reading party, or encourage your local library to host one, and invite your friends to donate to the cause! The Readathon will go from 12:00-4:00 P.M., which is the perfect amount of time to really dig into a book you've been meaning to start for a while. So get out there and read for a good cause!
Get excited: 2015 is going to be a terrific year for readers. For those of you who love to count down the days to the release of that book you can't wait to get your hands on, we've compiled a list of 15 books that we think will be among the most beloved—and most talked-about—releases of the year.
It's been way too long since Link released a story collection, but the wait is almost over—Get in Trouble will be published in just a couple of weeks. This collection of stories finds ordinary people getting mixed up with superheroes, fairies and far-future playboys. (Our reviewer compares her writing to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer.") In other words, get ready for deliciously creepy, completely magical fun. read more>>
The Japanese-born and English-bred author of Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day—who never writes the same book twice—returns in March with his first novel in 10 long years. It's a fable-like story set in a vaguely medieval world that is actually the near future—sounds complicated, but we have faith that this much-lauded writer will pull off something magical.
Among current writers of narrative nonfiction, none can top Larson’s skill for weaving parallel story lines into a gripping account of a historical event. The sinking of the luxury liner the Lusitania on May 1, 1915, by a German U-boat seems tailor-made for the Larson treatment, with a cast of characters ranging from Winston Churchill and Woodrow Wilson to the ship’s many notable passengers.
Condé Nast Travel editor and novelist Yanagihara returns with a second novel, following her breakthrough 2013 debut, The People in the Trees. A powerful story of friendship, loyalty and the difficulty of overcoming your past, A Little Life may be the best book you read this year—and it will almost certainly be the most heartbreaking. Fans of Lionel Shriver or Ian McEwan, meet your new favorite writer. read more>>
The Water for Elephants author returns to historical fiction in her fifth novel, which is set in 1942. In the height of World War II, a spoiled Philadelphia socialite sets out with her husband and their best friend to find the Loch Ness Monster. Once there, she discovers some hard truths about life and the people she loves. read more>>
The author of the mega-bestseller Born to Run returns with another fascinating story sure to make runners want to lace up their shoes and hit the road—and sure to give armchair travelers another setting to dream about. This time, McDougall's story begins on the island of Crete, where a daring band of WWII Resistance fighters pulled off the astonishing feat of kidnapping a heavily guarded Nazi general.
Could a book about forgoing marriage possibly deliver the same kind of jolt as Bolick’s 2011 Atlantic cover story on the subject? Why, yes — yes it could. Based on what we’ve seen, her unapologetic (and wonderfully readable) look at living life on her own terms as a single woman will spur a whole new round of debate about the personal and social consequences of plummeting marriage rates.
No one writes about the complicated history of the black experience in America with more clarity and authority than Morrison, and she has the prizes to show for it: She's won a Pulitzer and a National Book Award, not to mention the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her 11th novel centers on the relationship between a light-skinned black woman and her dark-skinned daughter, whose different skin tones create a divide between them. read more>>
The latest work of popular history from reader favorite and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner McCullough sounds irresistible: Two bicycle mechanics who grew up in a house without plumbing or electricity (but plenty of books) manage to create one of the greatest inventions in human history—the first flying machine. Assisting the brave and ingenious Wright brothers was their sister Katharine, whose contributions have been heretofore mostly overlooked.
Kate Atkinson's stellar Life After Life was one of the best books of 2013. So the news that the Scottish author is returning with a companion story is most welcome. She's exploring the life of Teddy, Ursula's flyboy younger brother—both his adventures in the RAF and the life he returns to after those wartime experiences, which contains even greater challenges. read more>>
Accomplished storyteller Kent Haruf died last December, but readers can look forward to one more trip to Holt, Colorado, this summer. Haruf continues to chronicle the lives of extraordinary, ordinary people in his new work, which finds a widow and widower forging an unlikely friendship. read more>>
The author of Summer Sisters and YA classics like Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret will release a new novel for adults in June. It's based on the true story of three unexplained airplane crashes that took place in her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey, in the early 1950s. It's a storyline that reads as all too timely after the Malaysian Air disaster last spring. read more>>
Paula McLain's second novel, The Paris Wife, chronicled the life of Hemingway's first wife, Hadley Richardson—and was one of the standouts amid the wave of stories about the wives of famous men that followed on the heels of Nancy Horan's 2007 bestseller, Loving Frank. McLain returns this year with the story of a woman who had no trouble standing on her own two feet: 1920s aviator Beryl Markham. read more>>
The author who inspires more schauedenfreud than perhaps any other returns in September with a family drama that spans decades and continents as it follows Purity Tyler's quest to find her father. read more>>
Judging from the response to her Ted talks on creativity, there’s a huge audience awaiting Gilbert’s in-depth look at how inspiration and imagination can combine to unleash the “strange jewels” within us all. The author of Eat, Pray, Love will offer advice on how we can conquer our fears and lead a creative life—whether we’re authors, artists or accountants. read more>>