Katy Simpson Smith's eloquent debut The Story of Land and Sea follows three generations of a family as they struggle, each in their own way, to come to terms with the premature loss of a young woman, Helen. Set in the twilight of the Revolutionary War, those Helen left behind— her father, husband, daughter and former slave—each have their own story of love and grief to wrestle with. Our reviewers writes that the novel is "a striking debut novel that reads like poetry and will linger like mythology." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Smith has enjoyed reading, so we asked her to recommend three favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
I got to hear Trethewey read from her work at the New Orleans Public Library a couple of years ago, and it was so inspiring to see a fellow Mississippian tackling our past with such bravery and beauty. I read a lot of poetry, but rarely does it reflect my own complex corner of the world. Reading is about accessing new lands, unimagined lives—that’s the pleasure it gives us, especially when we find the familiar there—but sometimes it feels good to see your own self clearly in the mirror of the words. Trethewey weaves the past with the present, blacks with whites, and concocts a nuanced version of race and history that reminds us of all the wrongs that still need addressing. The poem recounting the trials of the all-black Louisiana Native Guards during the Civil War is alone worth the price of admission. And Trethewey was the U.S. Poet Laureate, which we’ll be telling our Mississippi kids for generations to come.
This slim book was found at a used bookstore’s going-out-of-business sale (alas), read by my mother, and then passed along to me. It’s a charmingly wry narrative about a small community of people living on barges on the Thames in the 1960s, and if you have any preconceptions about what kinds of people live on barges, Fitzgerald will overturn them. One of her many talents is animating characters with no more than a few keen swipes of description; thus, in under 150 pages, we can know a half-dozen characters intimately. My favorites are the two young sisters, one half-wild and one surprisingly demure, who run from barge to barge across unsteady planks and spend their evenings stopping up leaks; and their cat Stripey, who stalks the boats “in a kind of nautical crawl, with her stomach close to the deck, as though close-furled and ready for dirty weather.” There is as little plot as there are stable dwellings, but the humor alone, both mordant and sweet, makes this a book to cherish.
I seemed to have missed this when it was assigned in high schools across America (though I also missed junior-year English altogether, so maybe that’s where it was lurking), but I finally got around to this masterwork of race and political identity. (I blame the delay on its forbiddingly tiny typeface in my 1952 paperback edition.) While it didn’t hold my love throughout, especially after the narrator left the surreal and provocative South, the first few chapters made me entirely re-imagine what fiction can do, what images a writer can present to a reader, and with what effect. The scene where boys are forced to scrabble for fake coins on an electrified rug! After almost every page, I had to stop and say, “Katy, you need to be a better writer.” This reaction, which is regular, is what makes me adore reading so.
Thank you, Katy! Have you read any of her suggested picks?
(Author photo by Elise Smith)
First Fiction Month may be winding down, but not to worry—there are plenty of new voices to look forward to this fall. Here's a sneak peek at some of our most anticipated debuts for next season.
We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (S&S). Thomas sold his debut for a startling $1 million—not a bad payday for an English teacher. It's the story of an Irish-American family chasing the American dream across three generations that's already being compared to The Corrections. Worthy? We'll find out.
A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Coffee House Press). Published in the Commonwealth last year, this first novel is a challenging stream-of-consciouness narrative, told from the perspective of a young girl, that proved a tough sell: McBride spent most of a decade shopping it around before finding a home with a small press. But its vital, visceral voice—one UK reviewer called the book "an instant classic"—earned it the Bailey's Prize for Women's Fiction for 2014. Will it be equally lauded by American critics?
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (Norton). Set in the rigid society of 17th-century Amsterdam, this jewel box of a debut follows a young wife after her marriage to a wealthy merchant. But when her new husband gives her gives her a miniature replica of their home, strange things start happening . . .
Fives and Twenty-Fives by Michael Pitre (Bloomsbury). Though many novels have come from the Iraq War, Pitre's stands out as one of the first to include the Iraqi perspective as well as that of the occupying forces, demonstrating once again that despite appearances, there are no winners when it comes to conflict.
The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith (Harper). Smith's heart-rending debut takes Revolutionary-era North Carolina as its setting, where three generations of women and the men they love contend with a very imperfect world. Smith excels at depicting not only how characters from this time lived, but how they thought, how they view the world through the lens of religion and myth.
How to Build a Girl by Catlin Moran (Harper). Humorist, feminist and pop culture icon Catlin Moran wades into the waters of fiction with her debut, a semi-autobiographical look at a young girl's coming-of-age in the Midlands in the 1980s.
Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville (Riverhead). Fairy tales and psychoanalysis combine in this darkly compelling, magical debut that follows twin storylines: one about a girl in 1899 Vienna who is certain she is a machine, and the other about another child living 40 years later who clings to the stories of the Grimm brothers to shut out the approach of war.
The Ploughmen by Kim Zupan (Holt). A 77-year-old hired gun awaiting trial strikes up an unlikely friendship with a lawman just starting out in Zupan's haunting Western, set in the author's native Montana.
Crooked River by Valerie Geary (Morrow). Fans of writers like Tana French and Laura McHugh will enjoy Geary's atmospheric first novel, set in the Pacific Northwest. Two young girls find a body in the river, and their father is the prime suspect in the murder. Can they prove his innocence?
If I Knew You Were This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go by Judy Chicurel (Amy Einhorn). Composed of linked short stories, this first novel follows a young woman's coming of age in the 1970s and should please fans of Cowboys Are My Weakness or The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing.
What debuts are you looking forward to this year? Tell us in the comments!
American cuisine is a hard thing to pin down, owing to our status as a cultural and culinary melting pot. But Elena Rosemond-Hoerr and Caroline Bretherton have collected an impressive set of recipes they feel represent it best in The American Cookbook: A Fresh Take on Classic Recipes.
Tales abound about who invented this sandwich, with Arnold Reuben of Reuben's Delicatessen in New York City and Reuben Kulakofsky, a grocer from Omaha, Nebraska, both strong contenders. The first reuben was probably made in the early 20th-century, and by 1956, it had won "best sandwich" in a contest sponsored by the National Restaurant Association.
This sandwich is piled high with classic deli fillings, contrasting sweet, sour and salty flavors.
Prep time: 10 mins
Cook time: 10 mins
For the Russian dressing
1. In a bowl, mix together the mayonnaise, horseradish, ketchup and Worcestershire sauce. Season well.
2. Spread the dressing over each slice of bread. Layer 4 slives of bread with 2 slices of cheese, 3-5 slives of beef, sauerkraut and 2 more slices of cheese. Top with the remaining slices of bread.
3. Melt a pat of butter in a frying pan over medium heat. Fry each sandwich for 1-2 minutes on each side, or until golden brown. Serve your Reuben hot with refrigerator pickles (see p. 248) and kettle-cooked potato chips.
The American Cookbook by Elena Rosemond-Hoerr and Caroline Bretherton © 2014 DK Publishing. Photographs © Stuart West. Read our review of this book.
Today's guest post comes from writer Shelly King, whose first novel, The Moment of Everything, goes on sale next week. It's set in a used bookstore, where former Silicone Valley employee Maggie has found part-time work after the failure of the tech startup she was working for. When Maggie finds a lovers' conversation written in the margins of a used copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover, she embarks on a quest to discover who they were—and what happened to their romance.
In a guest post, King—who moved to California from the South and once worked for a Silicon Valley startup herself—explains the mystery of found objects and shares some of her favorite found objects in literature.
I was 15 the first time I found a letter in a used book. I was in Montana visiting family and had wandered into a used bookstore. There I found Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters. I hadn’t read Hemingway yet, but I knew he was an important writer and that he’d spent a lot of time in Africa. I opened the front flap and saw it was covered in writing. It was the letter from a father to a young boy.
The details are fuzzy, but I remember the father was traveling in Africa. I thought it was nice that he was sending his son a book about another man who had been to Africa. He missed his son. He signed the letter “Papa.” I fell in love with this letter. But I didn’t buy the book. I didn’t have much money, so I left it behind. But that letter stayed with me. I thought of it for days, wishing that I’d bought that book, not for the letters of Hemingway, but for that letter written in the book. I finally told my mother about it, and she took me back to the bookstore. But the book was gone.
About 15 years after I first found that letter from the father in Africa, I was in Seattle at another used bookstore where I saw a copy of Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters. I smiled thinking of that other copy I found years ago in Montana. I opened up the front flap, and there it was—the handwritten letter from a father traveling in Africa to his son. Only this time I was more familiar with Hemingway, whom I now knew was also known as Papa. And this time, I noticed the letter was dated decades before this book was published. When I looked closer, I realized the letter wasn’t written in the book. It was a reproduction of a Hemingway letter that decorated the inside flap.
Even though the letter was not what I thought it was, I’m grateful for my misunderstanding. It started a lifelong search for treasures of the past in old books. Over the years, I’ve found drawings, letters, postcards, ticket stubs, restaurant receipts, photographs, recipes, and inscriptions. The people who owned these books before left a bit of their lives in them. I love not just the story the author intended but also the story of the book itself.
My favorite novels (and one play!) that have someone discovering something in a book:
The fast-paced world of romance publishing is always offering up great new authors to discover. As part of our #FirstFictionMonth coverage, we're spotlighting three new voices who are each debuting in their own way this year.
Jennifer Ryan will be making her print debut with At Wolf Ranch (on sale February 24, 2015), the first in her thrilling romantic suspense series, Montana Men. The novel focuses on Ella Wolf as she flees to her family’s ranch, certain that the man who murdered her sister is now after her. Luckily for Ella, a ruggedly handsome cowboy is bent on protecting her from the killer.
Despite finding eBook success with her best-selling The Hunted and The McBrides series, Ryan is excited to finally have a novel in bookstores, admitting during our discussion at RWA that she's “really more of a print person.” And her path to print publication is the stuff of writers' dreams. While attending a panel discussion during a previous RWA convention, Avon editor Lucia Macro mentioned that she would love to see more romantic suspense novels. Taking the cue, Ryan sent Macro her manuscript, and a short three weeks later, Avon bought her series. It's no surprise, really; Ryan is adept at writing those gripping scenes that leave you flipping pages till the end.
Ryan’s romance-writing career took off with a bit of a happy shock: the discovery that she was pregnant with third child. “I was reading all the time—I read 10 books a week while my kids were growing up!” she says of her time as a stay-at-home mom with her first two children. But when they grew older, she decided it was time to go back to work as a computer programmer. That plan quickly changed when she discovered that she was pregnant again with her daughter. With another baby on the way, she decided that writing romance novels from home just made sense.
So what inspired her to base her series on the cowboys of Big Sky country? “When I was younger, I had a friend in California with a small ranch and horses. I would spend my weekends riding horses with her, and I just thought it was the most wonderful thing in the world," she explains. "I grew up daydreaming about cowboys, because who wouldn’t? I remember thinking, there’s got to be a cowboy our there for me—And I ended up marrying a military man!" Ryan lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and three children, and can usually be found immersed in a world of books.
We chatted with debut author Lillian Marek over email about her first novel, the Victorian romance Lady Elinor’s Wicked Adventures (on sale November 4). This novel answers the call for romance in exotic locales, since its heroine Lady Elinor and a distractingly handsome family friend find love while exploring Italy and the ruins of the ancient Etruscan civilization. Marek writes with humor, historical knowledge and just enough spice to keep things interesting.
Writing historical romance was an easy choice for Marek. “I’ve never wanted to do anything else—you could call it a compulsion. For a number of years, I got my writing fix, so to speak, as a journalist, but it’s much more fun writing fiction,” she says. Her focus on romance was inspired by a friend’s suggestion to pick up Loretta Chase’s romance novel Mr. Impossible. “I absolutely adored it,” she says. “I started devouring romance novels, especially historical ones, and had a glorious time. Then I thought it would be fun to write them, so I did.” As simple as that!
Getting published was a bit more complex than her decision to write, but after winning a few romance-writing contests, Marek felt confident enough to pitch her book to Sourcebooks. Not only did Sourcebooks buy Lady Elinor’s Wicked Adventures, they bought the rest of the proposed series as well. "I was, as you can imagine, ecstatic," she says. Marek lives near Long Island Sound with her husband, where she enjoys taking long walks along the coast. We're excited to see where the next intrepid installment in Marek's Victorian Adventurers series takes us!
Rhonda Helms is venturing into the world of New Adult print with her love- and music-inspired novel, Scratch (on sale September 30). Scratch is a departure from her usual romantic young adult novels, which are “frothy and fun,” she says during our conversation at the hotel Starbucks. New Adult is an up-and-coming genre, marketed towards young women in their early 20s—a grown-up YA reader, if you will. New Adult focuses on characters finding themselves and struggling with choices and consequences, from first jobs to first loves, as they explore life after high school. “It’s got that young adult voice [first person], but with more adult situations. I like the fact that you can write these characters that are a little bit older, and there’s lots of high emotion,” Helms explains. Helms has a knack for writing convincing dialogue between her young characters, perhaps inspired by conversations with her 18-year-old daughter!
In Scratch, college senior Casey attempts to keep memories of an unpleasant past at bay by losing herself in her gigs as a DJ. She tends to keep others at a distance, but when a fellow student takes an interest in her, she wonders if letting him in might be worth the risk. Helms knew music would be a big part of the book, and explains, "Music is really important to me. I was a DJ too for a while—It was awesome!" Scratch even includes a track list which “reflects stuff that would be on Casey’s personal playlist or music that she would play in the club,” Helms says. Here's a sample track from the list.
Along with her interest in music, Helms has always loved romance novels. “I started reading romance when I was a kid,” Helms says. “I would hide in my mom’s bathroom and read her Harlequins!” Growing up with those Harlequins, she knew she wanted to write. However, she says, “The first book I wrote, I had no idea what I was doing. I just sort of vomited out five chapters, and then didn’t know what to do next. . . It took me a year, but after that first book, I learned my process. But that first book was rough!” Seven books later, it looks like she’s gotten the hang of it.
Helms lives in Cleveland with her family, where you may find her enjoying time with her pets, reading or perhaps sampling her favorite cheeses. “A good aged Gouda is divine, and Asiago cheese is exquisite,” she says. Romance with a side of cheese: what more could you want?
Exhilarated by her newfound passion for archeology, Catherine Lemay is left feeling deflated when she's assigned to a dig in the sprawling sagebrush of 1950s Montana. Here, she must ascertain if there is anything significant worth saving in the deep pit of a canyon before plans for a major dam can progress. If she finds nothing of importance, the canyon, considered sacred to the local Crow Native Americans, will be drowned. Accustomed to thrilling, richly rewarding digs in England, Catherine is less than enthused by the endless, seemingly empty landscape before her.
A sliver of gray stone pierced the rubber tread like a spike. She stood there and watched the tire empty and for the first time since the day she watched the English coast recede behind her, felt as though she might break down and cry. She fought the tears until the wave passed.
Unless you love to cook (and even then) the dinner question can be a tough one. Making a special meal or a recipe you’ve been dying to try can be exciting and fun. Putting dinner on the table night after night after night, not so much. Especially if there are busy, stressed parents and picky young eaters in the family. (And aren’t there always?)
Jenny Rosenstrach first reached out to the dinner-challenged among us with her popular blog, Dinner: A Love Story, and followed that with a 2012 book of the same title. Her latest entry is Dinner: The Playbook, on sale today. Though it contains 80 recipes, The Playbook is more than a cookbook; it’s an action plan for doing everything necessary to get an appetizing, healthy meal on the table EVERY NIGHT FOR A MONTH. Yes, you read that right. If the very idea of cooking a well-planned meal every night for a month fills you with terror and dread, this is the book for you.
Rosenstrach suggests many strategies you've probably heard before: Plan all your meals for the week, shop for groceries only once a week (stopping at the store every night after work is a no-no) and don't be afraid to add new recipes to your repertoire. What's different here is that she gives you an action plan for making it all work so your family can settle into an enjoyable new nightly ritual.
Ready to take on the 30-day challenge? Choose your favorites from recipes like Chicken Parm Meatballs and One-Pot Roasted Pork Tenderloin, make your meal plans and get ready to feel dinner-dread slipping away.
Jessie Burton pairs lavish descriptions of life in 17th-century Amsterdam with a clever touch of intrigue in her debut historical novel, The Miniaturist.
Eighteen-year-old Petronella "Nella" Oortman is the shy new bride of an enigmatic and wealthy merchant, Johannes Brandt, but too often she finds herself alone in her new, unfriendly household.
Johannes tries to comfort Nella with the gift of a tiny cabinet house, which is an exact replica of their own. But when Nella employs a miniaturist to furnish it, his cryptic clues lead her to uncover long-hidden secrets about the Brandt family.
Get the in-depth scoop from Burton herself in the video below:
The Miniaturist is out today! Will you be picking up a copy?
Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie inspired countless children to dream of hopping on a wagon train or churning some butter. But as it turns out, frontier life wasn't quite so idyllic for Wilder.
Her memoir, Pioneer Girl, which she wrote in the mid-1920s, will be released in the fall, and it casts her life on the Midwest plains in a bleaker light. Touching upon domestic abuse, an ill-fated love triangle and the overarching reality of living in an isolated territory with few provisions, Pioneer Girl was actually Wilder's first manuscript, and it's definitely for adults. But when no one would publish the gritty autobiography, Wilder transformed it into the children's series we know today.
Published with annotations by South Dakota State Historical Society Press, Pioneer Girl is sure to be an illuminating look into the life of one of America's most beloved children's authors.