Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem
Doubleday • $27.95 • ISBN 9780385534932
published September 10, 2013
I've always loved Jonathan Lethem's books for their energy, the feeling that the author is having a really good time slamming the reader with wit and satire. Lethem's newest novel, Dissident Gardens, is a brilliant ride through American Communism and radical American politics from the '30s to present day.
The entire story—and, so it seems, the entire modern history of American politics—revolves around one woman, Rose Zimmer, the "Red Queen" of Sunnyside, Queens. Ousted from the American Communist Party in 1955 for sleeping with a black cop, Rose lords her superior sense of self and her infallible Communist convictions over everyone. Everyone includes her daughter, Miriam, equally passionate but desperate to escape her mother's grasp; Rose's nephew; Rose's black lover's son, Cicero; Miriam's son, Sergius; and several others.
Read my review of Dissident Gardens, and then read on for an excerpt, when Sergius (Rose's grandson) and Cicero (Rose's lover's son) talk about Rose while floating in the sea:
"I hate her," blurted Cicero's smoldering charcoal of a head.
"She's dead." Sergius spoke as if he thought Cicero had led them this distance to sea for fear Rose would overhear them on the shore, and he wanted to reassure Cicero this was impossible.
"You were with her to the end."
With her? The word, however seemingly neutral, suggested a certain agency. Cicero'd known people who'd been with Rose Zimmer, notably his own father, a choice Cicero might never forgive. Cicero himself was under Rose and endured Rose. With Rose in the sense that the earth was with its weather.
And that was when Cicero heard himself begin to rant.
"It isn't just me, Sergius. All Sunnyside hated Rose. No one could confront her in the smallest regard except your mother. But your mother's confrontations died in Rose's silences, they died before the receiver was back in its cradle. Meeting her as a defenseless child, my tongue was bitten to pieces before I understood it was for speaking. I had to get away to learn to open my mouth, yet if she was in front of me now I'd probably fail to speak truth to power. For don't kid yourself, Rose was all about power. The power of resentment, of guilt, of unwritten injunctions against everything, against life itself. Rose was into death, Sergius! That's what she dug about Lincoln, though she'd never admit it. He emancipated our black asses and died! Rose championed freedom only with a side-order of death. In Rose's heart she was a tundra wolf, a Darwin creature, surviving on treachery and scraps. Every room contained enemies, every home was half spies, or more than half. If you mentioned a name she'd never heard, she'd rattle out like a Gatlingun: 'Who?' Meaning, if they were valuable to know, why weren't they already part of her operation? If they weren't, why trust them? Why even mention them? She wanted to free the world, but she enslaved any motherf__er she got in her clutches. Now go back to Philly and write yourself a song cycle about that."
The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
Doubleday • $26.95 • ISBN 9780385536776
On sale August 13, 2013
Hanya Yanagihara's The People in the Trees is one of our August issue's best debut novels of the year, perfect for fans of Donna Tartt, Ann Patchett and Barbara Kingsolver. Our reviewer was practically beside herself with praise, saying, "Novels like these are reminders not only of why we read, but also of just how vital and downright magical storytelling can be."
But if I'm totally honest, I picked this one up because I wanted to read about people eating magical turtles.
And there are definitely people eating turtles here, but fortunately for me, all the other stuff is true, too. Norton Perina, a scientist who has recently fallen from grace, recounts in these fictional memoirs an extraordinary journey into a remote Micronesian island where the meat of a turtle called the opa'ivu'eke may hold the key to eternal youth—but it comes with a terrible price.
The vivid and grotesque descriptions of setting, the engrossing science and the incredible imagination of this story are all enough to earn this book a spot among the best debuts of the year. What makes it one of the best books of the year, period, is its maturity in characterization. To take a man who has lost everything, who has been cast out from society and who may incite disgust in the reader, and allow him to represent himself in his own words defines Yanagihara as a uniquely talented storyteller. It takes compassion to be without judgment.
Check out our Q&A with Yanagihara and read her guest post about the true story behind her debut novel. Then enjoy this excerpt from The People in the Trees:
Looking back on it now, of course, I realize how extraordinary those first few days were, before I became immune to the awes of the jungle and even grew to despise them. One day—it must have been our third or fourth—I was trudging uphill as usual, looking around me, listening to the conversations of birds and animals and insects, feeling the floor beneath me gently buckling and heaving with unseen layers of worms and beetles as I placed my feet upon them; it could feel like treading on the wet innards of a large dozing beast. And then there was for a moment Uva at my side—he normally walked far ahead of me, in a pack with Fa'a and Tu, darting forward and back to assure Tallent that all was safe—holding his hand out before him, signaling me to stop. Then, quickly and gracefully, he sprang toward a nearby tree, indistinguishable from all others, thick and dark and branchless, and scrabbled up it quickly, turning his wide feet inward to cup its thorny bark. When he was about ten feet or so up, he looked down at me and held out his hand again, palm down—wait. I nodded. And then he continued to climb, vanishing into the canopy of the forest.
When he came down, he was slower, and clutching something in his hand. He leapt down the last five feet or so and came over to me, uncurling his fingers. In his palm was something trembling and silky and the bright, delicious pale gold of apples; in the gloom of the jungle it looked like light itself. Uva nudged the thing with a finger and it turned over, and I could see it was a monkey of some sort, though no monkey I had ever seen before; it was only a few inches larger than one of the mice I had once been tasked with killing, and its face was a wrinkled black heart, its features pinched together but its eyes large and as blankly blue as a blind kitten's. It had tiny, perfectly formed hands, one of which was gripping its tail, which it had wrapped around itself and which was flamboyantly furred, its hair hanging like a fringe.
"Vuaka," said Uva, pointing at the creature.
"Vuaka," I repeated, and reached out to touch it. Under its fur I could feel its heart beating, so fast it was almost a purr.
"Vuaka," said Uva again, and then made as if to eat it, solemnly patting his stomach.
The People in the Trees is one of my favorite debuts of the year, but First Fiction Month has highlighted plenty of other great debuts!
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?
Though I'm firmly in the camp who believes that Hilary Mantel deserves all of the praise and prizes that a grateful readership can bestow on her, I was delighted to see another one of my favorite books from 2012—and a definite underdog—nab the "Prize Formerly Known as Orange" for 2013 (next year, the prize will be sponsored by Bailey's Irish Cream).
Yes, the Women's Prize for Fiction 2013 winner was none other than A.M. Homes, author of May We Be Forgiven, a picaresque, darkly funny tale of one man's journey to acceptance.
The chair of the judges, actress Miranda Richardson, did a good job of summing up the book's appeal: "It is a book where we all found ourselves laughing out loud on trains or wherever we were reading," she told the crowd at London's festival hall, where the £30,000 prize was awarded. "You're laughing in kind of fear or horror as much as anything else. It's relentless, but great."
This year's shortlist was incredibly strong, and included, along with Homes and Mantel, Kate Atkinson, Zadie Smith, Barbara Kingsolver and Maria Semple.
Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt
St. Martin's • $25.99 • ISBN 9781250020833
On sale August 20
When a book is likened to A Confederacy of Dunces—one of the most brilliant, hilarious books ever written, in my opinion—I inevitably experience an initial spark of excitement, which is promptly dampened by a fog of pessimism. It was with this ambivalence that I recently cracked open Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt.
Jerene is the polished matriarch of the Johnston family in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her husband, Duke, is a descendant of an infamous Confederate general; her brother, Gaston, is a successful crack novelist bitter at not being among the literary elite; her sister, Dillard, is practically a recluse. And then there are Jerene's four children. Jerilyn is the focus of the beginning of the novel. It's 2003, and she's a freshman at Chapel Hill, hell-bent on breaking out from her studious, reserved high school persona and joining—against her mother's wishes—the wildest sorority on campus with the very retro intention of finding a husband before graduating.
All of this is leading up to a scandal of some sort that I can't wait to get to. In the meantime, I've been disrupting the silence in a couple of coffeeshops with my snickering. The humor is wicked, sharp and subversive—which is just the way I like it.
Here's an excerpt offering insight into Jerilyn's aching desire to get accepted into Sigma Kappa Nu, which her roommate aptly describes as all about "drugs, booze, and boys!"
[Jerilyn] would turn the page on decorum-blighted Jerilyn Johnston. She knew that the PG-13 summer-movie sorority stereotype of the wild, hot girls, barely contained in clothes for all the suds and water that came their way, and the male-model-hot fraternity stud, beer in one hand, cell phone in the other, hooking up with the girls like a harem—she knew all that was a cartoon image of sorority life, but it was precisely the movie stereotype she was curious about; she now wanted to immerse herself in this too shallow pool. And if a frat brother was a cad, two-timing her with another sister, if there was face-slapping and tears and throwing herself into his frat brother roommate's arms . . . wasn't that all Life? Excitement, drama, action? For once, someone should say, That Jerilyn Johnston! Back at Carolina, she was a wild one! And everyone knows these frat boys eventually knuckle under, pass the bar, say yes to being in their dad's law firm, partner in eight years. God, it was all going according to plan!
What do you think, readers? Will you be reading Lookaway, Lookaway? What are you reading this week?
Was it the intimidating triple name? The comparisons to serious authors like Achebe? The preconception that books about Africa were likely to be on the grim side? Whatever the reason, despite the literary buzz surrounding Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I had somehow placed her in the category of authors I might admire, but probably wouldn't love. At least, until I cracked open her latest, Americanah, a completely enjoyable novel that's full of heart as well as ideas and features a realistic, relatable modern heroine: Nigerian-born Ifemelu. Given its trenchant observations on race and immigration, you might call Americanah the American White Teeth, although Adichie's novel (her third) demonstrates more maturity and less exuberance than Zadie Smith's notable debut.
As Americanah opens, Ifemelu has decided to return to Nigeria after being educated in the United Sates, and finds herself remembering the boy she left behind: her first love, Obinze. Ifemelu has spent much of her time in America writing a popular blog on race, Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (those formerly known as Negros) by a Non-American Black, so her observational powers are finely honed. Here, she contemplates her fellow train passengers:
So here she was, on a day filled with the opulence of summer, about to braid her hair for the journey home. Sticky heat sat on her skin. There were people thrice her size on the Trenton platform, and she looked admiringly at one of them, a woman in a very short skirt. She thought nothing of slender legs shown off in miniskirts—it was safe and easy, after all, to display legs of which the world approved—but the fat woman's act was about the quiet conviction that one shared only with oneself, a sense of rightness that others failed to see. Her decision to move back was similar; whenever she felt besieged by doubts, she would think of herself as standing valiantly alone, as almost heroic, so as to squash her uncertainty.
There's much more to love: Adichie's depictions of modern Lagos, her portrait of life as an undocumented immigrant, her exploration of why someone who lived in a country that wasn't facing starvation or genocide, but simply a lack of opportunity, might be willing to risk all for a chance in the West—I could go on, but I'll stop there and just tell you to pick this one up already. What are you reading this week?
RELATED IN BOOKPAGE: Our review of Americanah.
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
Riverhead • $27.95 • ISBN 9781594488399
Published April 9
Meet the Interestings: Jules Jacobson (aspiring comedic actress), Ash Wolf (aspiring playwright and director), Cathy Kiplinger (aspiring ballet dancer), Goodman Wolf (aspiring architect), Ethan Figman (aspiring animator) and Jonah Bay (aspiring guitarist). When we are introduced to this tight-knit group, they're teens attending a prestigious arts camp called Spirit-in-the-Woods, and it's the summer of 1974.
The Interestings follows these six friends from adolescence through middle age. Some find great success in their art, while others don't. From this dynamic pops some of the most vivid, unique and well-rounded characters I've ever read. This absorbing study of how friendships evolve over time—and are impacted by art, success, jealousy and money—is a true page-turner, nearly impossible to put down.
Here's an excerpt—the first couple of paragraphs of the book—to lure you in. And, if you do find yourself interested in The Interestings, then be sure to check out Meg Wolitzer's Behind the Book essay about what inspired her to write the book.
On a warm night in early July of that long-evaporated year, the Interestings gathered for the very first time. They were only fifteen, sixteen, and they began to call themselves the name with tentative irony. Julie Jacobson, an outsider and possibly even a freak, had been invited in for obscure reasons, and now she sat in a corner on the upswept floor and attempted to position herself so she would appear unobtrusive yet not pathetic, which was a difficult balance. The teepee, designed ingeniously though built cheaply, was airless on nights like this one, when there was no wind to push in through the screens. Julie Jacobson longed to unfold a leg or do the side-to-side motion with her jaw that sometimes set off a gratifying series of tiny percussive sounds inside her skull. But if she called attention to herself in any way now, someone might start to wonder why she was here; and really, she knew, she had no reason to be here at all. It had been miraculous when Ash Wolf had nodded to her earlier in the night at the row of sinks and asked if she wanted to come join her and some of the others later. Some of the others. Even that word was thrilling. . . .
That night, though, long before the shock and the sadness and the permanence, as they sat in Boys' Teepee 3, their clothes bakery sweet from the very last washer-dryer loads at home, Ash Wolf said, "Every summer we sit here like this. We should call ourselves something."
"Why?" said Goodman, her older brother. "So the world can know just how unbelievably interesting we are?"
"We could be called the Unbelievably Interesting Ones," said Ethan Figman. "How's that?"
"The Interestings," said Ash. "That works."
So it was decided.
What about you, readers? Which book is impossible for you to put down this week?
Though they may have been a bit overshadowed in the U.S. by yesterday's Pulitzer announcement, this week has also brought two important literary news items from the UK.
First, the shortlist for the prize formerly known as the Orange Prize and now known simply as the Women's Prize for Fiction. It's an incredible list—Hilary Mantel seems to be up against her toughest competition yet. Will she sweep all three of the U.K.'s major awards?
Speaking of Zadie Smith, she also figures in the second item of literary news from the U.K: She's one of the 2013 "20 under 40" list from Granta magazine. Created every 10 years, the list honors the most promising 20 British writers under the age of 40. It's Smith's second time on the list, which for the first time contains a majority of female authors—12/20. It's also the most international list yet.
Click on the author's name to see their author page on BookPage.com.
The Son by Philipp Meyer
Ecco • $27.99 • ISBN 9780062120397
On sale May 28, 2013
Philipp Meyer made his fiction debut with a bang: His very first novel, American Rust, was one of the most talked-about literary releases of 2009, earning him a place on The New Yorker‘s Best 20 Writers Under 40 list. In 2011, he sold his second novel to Ecco in a hotly contested auction—and now, that book is about to hit shelves.
Though the Texas setting could hardly be further from the Pennsylvania mining milieu of American Rust, in The Son Meyer continues his exploration of the costs of survival and the weight of tragedy, while portraying a vivid slice of American history.
Told through the stories of three generations of the McCullough family—Eli, who survived and even thrived as a Comanche captive in the 1850s and went on to become a Texas Ranger; Pete, his son, who raised cattle and entered the oil rush of the 1910s; and Jeanne, Eli's granddaughter, who took her place in a man's world and solidified the family's fortunes by investing in pipelines in the 1940s and '50s—The Son is full of compelling characters, vivid imagery and murky morals. Whether it is possible to survive, much less succeed, on the Texas frontier without that last item is one of Meyer's themes. Can violence bring men together as much as pull them apart? Is there something unifying in a cycle of destruction? Here, Eli muses on the Western mentality:
With the exception of Nuukaru and Escuté, I had no doubts about my loyalties. Which were in the following order: to any other Ranger, and then to myself. Toshaway had been right: you had to love others more than you loved your own body, otherwise you would be destroyed, whether from the inside or out, it didn't matter. You could butcher and pillage but as long as you did it to protect people you loved, it never mattered. You did not see any Comanches with the long stare—there was nothing they did that was not to protect their friends, or their families, or their band. The war sickness was a disease of the white man, who fought in armies far from his home, for men he didn't know, and there is a myth about the West, that it was founded and ruled by loners, while the truth is just the opposite; the loner is a mental weakling, and was seen as such, and treated with suspicion.
What are you reading this week?
Z by Therese Anne Fowler
St. Martin’s • $25.99 • ISBN 9781250028655
Published March 26, 2013
Why are we so obsessed with the writers of the '20s and '30s? Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby, Paula McLain's The Paris Wife, Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris—it seems we can't get enough of our darling drunk writers of the Jazz Age.
This is just one of the few things I chatted about with Therese Anne Fowler, author of the upcoming Zelda Fitzgerald novel, Z, for an interview for the April issue of BookPage. Fowler, who started working on Z before our Jazz Age resurgence, called it "radio waves in the zeitgeist."
If you're looking for dishy tales of crazy Zelda and drunken Scott, this isn't your book. You get some of that, certainly, but Fowler, through meticulous research, has crafted a Zelda you might not expect: She's complex, confused, ambitious, impulsive—and naive. You'll have to wait till April to hear more!
To tide you over, here's an excerpt from a contentious moment between Scott and Zelda in the early 1920s:
Scott walked in just as I was hanging up the phone.
I said, "Griffith had his secretary phone to say you just don't have what it takes for the job. Looks like you're out of luck."
He stripped off his gloves nonchalantly, then his coat, then let all of it drop to the floor behind him. His hat remained on his head. "You should choose your pronouns more carefully," he said. His voice was loose. "We are out of lucky. We're ruined, in fact."
"What are you saying? You're drunk."
"I'm drunk, and we're broke. Aren't pronouns fun?" Then he pulled his pockets inside out for effect. "I can't even buy us lunch."
"Go to the bank, then."
"No, I mean we have no money at all. Not in my pockets, not in my wallet, not in the bank. In fact, I had to borrow to pay for your coat."
"Borrow from who?"
"The Bank of Scribner, in this case, although sometimes I use the Bank of Ober."
I was confused. "Max and Harold lend you money?""Against royalties, or future earnings—it's all money I'm going to get eventually; just, eventually doesn't always arrive as quickly as I need it to."
I went to the closet, pulled the coat from its hanger, and shoved it at him. "Send it back!"
"Don't be ridiculous." He plopped down on the sofa. "You look fantastic in this coat. In fact, I think you should take off everything you're wearing and then put the coat on." His eyelids were drooping as he said this, and then they closed.
I watched him for a moment, thinking he'd fallen asleep. Then, without opening his eyes he said, "Don't hate me. I'm sorry. It's all for you."
Scott went on the wagon and finished his novel, The Beautiful and Damned, a story of a young society couple so indolent and overindulgent that they ruin themselves. His self-discipline impressed me, so much so that I was pregnant by February.
Are you looking forward to Z?