Maggie Shipstead's second novel, Astonish Me, is our Top Pick in fiction for April. Our reviewer describes it as "a request, a demand, a dare, all wrapped up in two little words, heavy with promise. And like the prima ballerina at the heart of the novel itself, Shipstead delivers a glorious story that does exactly what it says it will." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Shipstead has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This had been on my to-read list forever, and when Adichie won the NBCC Award for fiction, I finally remembered to go out and buy it. What a truly spectacular book. Everything about it is alive and essential and harmonious: the flawless prose, the fully-realized characters, the looping shape of the narrative, the vividly textured settings. Although Adichie's story speaks to big, thorny issues like race and class and immigration (not to mention love), her characters all feel like complete, complex people, not props for an argument, and the novel has a gentle archness and lightness of tone that makes its remarkable depth and insight seem effortless.
I was at a book festival with Arthur Phillips this winter but shamefully hadn't read his books, so I decided to start with his first, Prague, a novel that came out in 2002 and revolves around a group of ex-pats living in Budapest, not Prague, in the early 1990s. (The cheeky fake-out of the title alone is reason enough to love this book.) It's full of wit and casual brilliance and a pleasantly convoluted nostalgia-that-is-also-a-deep-suspicion-of-nostalgia and characters who, like real people, are capable of holding all sorts of endlessly shifting, often contradictory convictions and delusions. On a technical level, the omniscient voice, which I think is incredibly difficult to sustain, is used masterfully and acrobatically throughout to deliver all kinds of structural surprises and to convey a sense of overarching vision.
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
By Adelle Waldman
Waldman's debut novel is so sharply observed it's a little frightening. I've read it twice, and both times I felt the continuous sense of recognition that the best fiction inspires, where you keep thinking, "Yes, that's exactly how it is!" The consciousness of the protagonist, Nate, is rendered with an intricate completeness that I found immensely satisfying, but I was also fascinated and moved by the novel's many insights about fickleness of desire and its resistance to intellectual governance. There's a formidably critical mind behind this book, but I'd hesitate to call the novel satirical: Waldman forgoes comic exaggeration in favor of precise, measured, unflinching truthfulness tempered by compassion, even tenderness.
What do you think, readers? Will you be adding Astonish Me—or any of Shipstead's recommended books—to your TBR list?
(Author photo by Michelle Legro)
As part of our Best Books of 2013 coverage, our editors weigh in on some of their personal favorites from the list.
The brilliance of Adelle Waldman’s debut novel is subtle, not flashy. You might think that a voyeuristic peek into the mind of a 30-something male writer as he navigates the Brooklyn literary and dating scenes would be salacious or titillating, as the “affairs” of the title suggests. Not so. Waldman’s nonjudgmental, unsentimental narrative allows readers to determine for themselves whether Nate is sincere (if oblivious at times) or a fickle cad—or a mixture of both.
The Love Song of Jonny Valentine comes in at an impressive #9 on our list of the Best Books of 2013. Teddy Wayne's hilarious and heartbreaking second novel follows Jonny, an 11-year-old pop sensation (think Bieber fever), as he tours across the country. Our reviewer calls the book an "original, poignant and captivating coming-of-age story." (Check out our full review and our interview with Wayne about the book.)
We were curious about the books Wayne has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked him to recommend three recent favorites, which he graciously agreed to share:
THE LOVE AFFAIRS OF NATHANIEL P.
By Adelle Waldman
No, I didn’t just choose this because the title is a clear allusion to The Love Song of Jonny Valentine (joking). Rather, it’s an incisively observed portrait of the deterioration of a short-term relationship, and secondarily of the status-obsessed literary scene of Brooklyn. Waldman’s prose is comic without going for punch lines and graceful without straining for lyricism—the book goes down so easily, yet ends up saying so much about how we choose whom we mate with.
By Amity Gaige
I was on a panel with Amity at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, since both our novels have loose correspondences with public figures. Hers is inspired by Christian Gerhartsreiter, a German man who claimed his name was Clark Rockefeller, married an American woman, had a child and divorced, then abducted his daughter. Gaige’s fictional Erik Schroder, meanwhile, assumes the name Eric Kennedy and goes through a similar arc. The novel is a sort of nonsexual Lolita as the antiheroic Schroder/Kennedy narrates his road trip with his daughter in Gaige’s pearlescent prose. It’s a moving, profoundly intelligent story.
I was also on a panel with Jennifer at the Texas Book Festival, and the topic was the same as the one with Amity: Cartwheel is (tenuously) based on the Amanda Knox trial. Set in Argentina, American Lily Hayes has been accused of murdering her junior-year-abroad roommate. DuBois has fashioned the rare page-turner that combines deep insight and stellar writing, switching perspectives deftly among the various characters. Cartwheel is whip-smart, with not a wasted sentence, and utterly plausible—you can imagine being any of the people in it, from the prickly Lily, to her pained father, to the lawyer charging her, to her wealthy, desultory, orphaned boyfriend.
Check out all of our Best Books of 2013 coverage right here!
• What do a piano, a ladder and a boat have in common? They've all been converted to bookshelves.
• John Grisham and Broadway may seem like an odd pairing, but it's happening.
• Dare to be different. The Millions compiled an interesting survey of some of literature's most untraditional marriage proposals.
• How many books have you read on Buzzfeed's 32 Books Guaranteed to Make You Laugh Out Loud?
• I love my job, but Cherry Williams just may have one of the best book jobs ever. Check out this interview with her over on Ploughshares.
• Adelle Waldman—author of one of my favorite books of the year—wrote this thought-provoking article over on Page-Turner about the tendency of writers to use female beauty without adequate consideration.
• Who knew David Bowie was such a bibliophile?
Adelle Waldman's critically lauded debut novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., has sparked countless heated discussions of the titular character's, well, character. The book offers readers rare—and almost startlingly voyeuristic—insight into the mind of 30-something Brooklynite Nate as he adjusts from being a struggling freelance writer to having a six-figure book deal and as he fickly—and somewhat obliviously—navigates the urban dating scene. (For insight into the insight, check out our interview with Waldman about the book.)
We were curious about which books Waldman has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her. Here are her recommendations:
I recently reread Middlemarch—this time, on audiobook, read by Juliet Stevenson, who is a terrific narrator. It was, I think, the fourth time I’d read the book, and it’s a book absolutely worthy of multiple readings, especially for people who haven’t read it since college. Even if you loved it then, I guarantee you will see more in it if you read it again as an adult. For me, on this rereading, I noticed so many observations about people and social life that I wonder if I’d missed them before because I was too caught up in the story—what would happen next—or just because I was too young to realize just how smart they were.
It’s fitting that I just mentioned Middlemarch because Hershon’s novel, about two men who meet at Harvard in the 1960s and their wives and children, reads in some ways like a sweeping, character-based 19th-century novel. Hershon’s vivid characters jump off the page, and she renders their setting, and social and historical context, with great and pithy intelligence. But the novel is also a classic love story—a love triangle—that is both satisfying and unsentimental. It’s the kind of engrossing book you want to get wholly absorbed in over a vacation or long weekend.
This novel blew me away. Teddy Wayne did something remarkable—he wrote an entire book from the perspective of an 11-year-old, who happens to be a pop star—and still produced a book that is bracingly smart and funny, and yet never reads as if an adult wrote it because Jonny’s voice feels so authentic. Through Jonny, who has absorbed the values of the shallow, success-obsessed world he lives in, Wayne manages to critique not merely celebrity culture but all of us. We can’t help but be amused by some of Jonny’s most cynical observations, about, for example, how you want not only girls but pretty girls to come to concerts because the pretty ones will be brought by boyfriends (two tickets sold rather than one) and the boyfriends will buy them T-shirts to ingratiate themselves (more “merch” sold). Yet this isn’t a satirical book. Jonny is very tenderly drawn, and the novel is also a gripping, warm-hearted story about a confused young boy who is trying to find connection.
And be sure to check out our continued First Fiction Month coverage throughout August.
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
by Adelle Waldman
Holt • $25 • ISBN 9780805097450
on sale July 16
As a veteran of the rough-and-tumble, often-perplexing NYC dating scene, I was immensely curious to crack open The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., the debut novel by Adelle Waldman. A peek into the mind—the motivations, the rationalizations, the insecurities—of a 30-something writer living in Brooklyn? Yes, please!
Nathaniel ("Nate") Piven is on the cusp of literary stardom. A freelance writer who has his pick of magazine assignments, he has just sold his first book to a major publisher for a six-figure advance. He also has his pick of the ladies. The book jacket promises "a plunge into the psyche of a modern man—who thinks himself as beyond superficial judgment, yet constantly struggles with his own status anxiety; who is drawn to women, yet has a habit of letting them down." Complexly layered characters like Nate are few and far between—he elicits sympathy one moment, supreme frustration the next, which just makes him all the more believable. Waldman's keen, effortless prose adds to the difficulty of putting the book down once you've started.
Here's a brief excerpt from early on in the book. Nate's at a dinner party being thrown by his ex-girlfriend/now-friend, Elisa:
While he ate his chicken cacciatore—which, as it happened, was quite good—Nate studied Elisa's heart-shaped face: those big, limpid eyes and dramatic cheekbones, the pretty, bow-shaped lips and profusion of white teeth. Each time Nate saw her, Elisa's beauty struck him anew, as if in the interval the memory of what she actually looked like had been distorted by the tortured emotions she elicited since they'd broken up: in his mind, she took on the dimensions of an abject creature. What a shock when she opened the door, bursting with vibrant, almost aggressive good health. The power of her beauty, Nate had once decided, came from its ability to constantly reconfigure itself. When he thought he'd accounted for it, filed it away as a dead fact—pretty girl—she turned her head or bit her lip, and like a children's toy you shake to reset, her prettiness changed shape, its coordinates altered: now it flashed from the elegant contours of her sloping brow and flaring cheekbone, now from her shyly smiling lips. "Elisa the Beautiful," Nate had said without thinking when she hugged him at the door. She'd beamed, breezily overlooking his lateness.
Yet only a short while later, he'd acclimated. Hannah had complimented her apartment. "I hate it," Elisa responded. "It's small, and it's laid out poorly. The fixtures are incredibly cheap." Then a quick smile: "Thank you, though."
The familiar hint of whine in Elisa's voice brought back to Nate an equally familiar cocktail of guilt and pity and dread. Also sheer annoyance—that spoiled, ill-tempered quality about her. Her prettiness became an irritant, a Calypso-like lure to entrap him again.
Will you be reading The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.? What are you reading this week?