After his much-acclaimed biographies of John Cheever and Richard Yates, Blake Bailey reflects on his own family's difficult story in The Splendid Things We Planned, which our reviewer calls "an unforgettable look at a family doing its best in the most trying of circumstances, those where no good outcome exists." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Bailey has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked him to recommend some recent favorites, which he graciously agreed to share.
MS. HEMPEL CHRONICLES
By Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum
I was a school teacher for several years, and if someone were to ask me what was the least likely book I'd ever want to read, my answer would be (in effect) a collection of thematically linked stories about a quirky but lovable seventh-grade teacher. Unless, that is, such a book were written by a genius, as in this case. Ms. Hempel is, I think, one of the most enduring creations in American literature: tolerant, obliging to a fault, a little feckless, gifted in her own right but overwhelmed by the sheer endearing quiddity of each and every one of her students. It's not a book about teaching, really, so much as a study in human endurance, and yet I think it's the best thing ever written about teaching: the joys, sorrows and downright horrors of giving up the best years of one's life so that other (potentially less deserving) souls may thrive.
THE PATRICK MELROSE NOVELS
by Edward St Aubyn
There are five Patrick Melrose novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother's Milk and At Last. How I wish there were 50; how I wish I could depend on reading them for the rest of my life—the way I read Wodehouse's novels, say, whenever (blessedly) I don't have anything else to read. And indeed there's something of Wodehouse in St Aubyn, I think, if Wodehouse were inclined to write about sociopathic child-molesting fathers, heroin addicts, a whole gruesome family blighted by narcissism of every sort. But of course Wodehouse would never write about such people, so I'm all the more grateful for St Aubyn, who proves that one can be funny without losing a whit of gravitas where gravitas counts. Along with his humor and almost peerless elegance of style, St Aubyn is an Olympian judge of character: He puts us into the heads of monsters, and manages to make them comprehensible and even—almost—sympathetic. Proust is something like that, though not nearly as funny.
What do you think, readers? Will you be checking out The Splendid Things We Planned or any of Bailey's recommended books? By the way, see which other author recommended the Patrick Melrose novels.
(Author photo © Mary Brinkmeyer)
• What's the most downloaded ebook in your state?
• Anne Rice isn't letting the vampire phenomenon go down without a fight. She's bringing back her infamous "Brat Prince" (her words!) Lestat in a new Vampire Chronicles book. Prince Lestat will hit stores on October 28 of this year, just in time for Halloween.
• The longlist of finalists in contention for the 2014 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction have been revealed. Among them are Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie for Americanah, Eleanor Catton for The Luminaries and Donna Tartt for The Goldfinch. Look for the shortlist of six books to be announced on April 7, the winner revealed in June. Which book will you be rooting for?
A psychologist, surveyor, biologist and anthropologist go into the woods . . . well, not the woods, exactly. The premise of Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation—the first in his Southern Reach trilogy, all due out this year—is oh-so-intriguing. The aforementioned quartet make up the 12th expedition into a place called Area X, the site of a former environmental disaster that's oddly teeming with lushness and wildlife. The fates of the members of the first 11 expeditions—murder, suicide, cancer—will send a shiver up your spine, and the mounting sense of foreboding in the first couple of chapters is outweighed only (though greatly) by an overwhelming curiosity to find out how this expeditions unfolds . . . or unravels. The imprint chosen for Annihilation—FSG Originals—couldn't be more perfect for this intense, unpredictable, clever thriller. Here's an excerpt from the beginning of the book:
There were four of us: a biologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a psychologist. I was the biologist. All of us were women this time, chosen as part of the complex set of variables that governed sending the expeditions. The psychologist, who was older than the rest of us, served as the expedition's leader. She had put us all under hypnosis to cross the border, to make sure we remained calm. It took five days of hard hiking after crossing the border to reach the coast.
Our mission was simple: to continue the government's investigation into the mysteries of Area X, slowly working our way out from base camp.
The expedition could last days, months, or even years, depending on various stimuli and conditions. We had supplies with us for four months, and another two years' worth of supplies had already been stored at the base camp. We had also been assured that it was safe to live off the land if necessary. All of our food stuffs were smoked or canned or in packets. Our most outlandish equipment consisted of a measuring device that had been issued to each of us, which hung from a strap on our belts: a small rectangle of black metal with a glass-covered hole in the middle. If the hole glowed red, we had thirty minutes to remove ourselves to "a safe place." We were not told what the device measured or why we should be afraid should it glow red. After the first few hours, I had grown so used to it that I hadn't looked at it again. We had been forbidden watches and compasses.
What do you think? Will you be checking out Annihilation? What are you reading this week?
Anne Fortier follows up her New York Times best-selling debut, Juliet, with another novel rooted in one of history's most notorious tales. Our reviewer describes The Lost Sisterhood as "a gorgeous journey from England to North Africa to Greece, thrilling readers with beautiful settings, courageous women and breathtaking adventure." (Read our full review here.)
We were curious about the books Fortier has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
By Sally O'Reilly
I just finished this, and I’m jumping at this opportunity to recommend it to book lovers far and wide. It tells the story of Aemilia, a young lady at the court of Elizabeth I, who becomes the obsession of an up-and-coming playwright . . . yes, you’ve guessed it! Was Aemilia really Shakespeare’s famous “dark lady”? O’Reilly’s fabulous novel makes a very compelling case.
The book won’t be on the shelves until June, but then now you know there is something to look forward to this summer. Dark Aemilia is a must-read for all lovers of Shakespeare and old England, and while it is written from the perspective of a woman, I am confident men will enjoy it, too. I am usually careful with my books, but this one quickly became a victim of dog ears and pencil-marks, because O’Reilly touches on so many crucial historical moments and writes with such intelligent elegance.
The Greek Myths
By Robert Graves
Hardly a month goes by where I don’t reread a chapter or two in Robert Graves’ classic, The Greek Myths. It is one of those masterpieces that have long since won a permanent place on my what-to-bring-to-a-desert-island list. There are many renditions of the ancient myths out there, but to me, Graves' still rules supreme. Not only does he have an encyclopedic knowledge of the ancient world and its legends, but he is also able to re-tell the myths as if he were an ancient storyteller, and we the gaping audience sitting around his campfire. “Some say—” is his favorite opening, and indeed, he makes us believe the mythological heroes and heroines are still at large around us in the darkness . . .
In addition to the collected works of Shakespeare, I find the Greek myths make a fantastic graduation present, or simply a birthday gift for ambitious young readers.
Ronia, the Robber's Daughter
By Astrid Lindgren
I am just about to begin reading Astrid Lindgren’s wonderful Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter to my little girl. I can’t wait! This was one of my favorite books growing up, and now, decades later, I feel as if Ronia’s magical forest was as real as my own childhood memories. It is one of those rare books that make you eager to go out and find adventure in nature—a much-needed quality in today’s world, I think.
Born in 1907, Sweden’s Astrid Lindgren was such an inspired, paradigm-shifting author, and a real pioneer when it came to creating strong, adventurous female characters. My mother used to read The Children of Noisy Village to me, over and over; each individual chapter has its own plot and makes for a perfectly happy and wholesome goodnight story for boys and girls alike. Illustrations are sparse, but since the writing is so engaging and straight-forward, these are fantastic starter-books for transitioning away from picture books.
What do you think, readers? Will you be adding The Lost Sisterhood—or any of Fortier's recommended books—to your TBR list? By the way, The Lost Sisterhood is one of four books we're giving away in this week's Women's History Month contest.
(Author photo by Grant Simeon)
• The five finalists for the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction were announced this week. Which one do you think should take home the prize?
• PWxyz compiled a list of 12 books that end in mid-sentence. Are there others that should've made the list?
• And while we're on the subject of breaking the rules, the folks at Qwiklit put together a list of 10 authors who ignored the basic rules of punctuation.
• Earlier this week, a Tweet from Rebecca Skloot prompted the New York Times to issue a way-overdue correction to a 161-year-old error.
• If you're not list-ed out yet, here's another one from Flavorwire that features 10 compelling unnamed protagonists in literature, which includes, of course, the narrator of du Maurier's classic.
• In last week's links, we shared BuzzFeed's "who's your classic author soul mate" quiz. But before you run off with him, you may want to take this new quiz that will tell you which Jane Austen hero is the One for you.
Author Tony Earley's 2000 debut novel, Jim the Boy, was a national bestseller, but he is also known for his short stories, which serve up satisfying slices of life. On August 26, he'll release his third short story collection—and his first in 20 years—Mr. Tall (Little, Brown).
The seven tales—one of which is novella length—have varied Southern settings, from the Outer Banks to contemporary Nashville (Earley is an English professor at Vanderbilt University).
From the publisher:
Earley indelibly maps previously undiscovered territories of the human heart in these melancholy, comic, and occasionally strange stories. Along the way he leads us on a journey from contemporary Nashville to a fantastical land of talking dogs and flying trees, teaching us at every step that, even in the most familiar locales, the ordinary is never just that.
Will you read it?
Saint Monkey by Jacinda Townsend
Norton • $24.95 • ISBN 9780393080049
On sale February 24
Jacinda Townsend's debut novel, Saint Monkey, follows best friends Audrey Martin and Caroline Wallace through their most formative years in the segregated Appalachian culture of Eastern Kentucky. Family tragedy and a deep well of grief initially tie the two girls together, and both dream of life beyond their tiny, oppressive town. Audrey is picked up by a talent scout for her gifts in jazz piano and joins the house band at Harlem's Apollo theatre at the age of 17, but Caroline finds it much harder to sever her ties to Mt. Sterling, and a bitter divide is cut between them as they struggle for a place in the world.
Read an excerpt from the first chapter below:
Since my daddy died, Grandpap has begun to see me as a dry leaf in freefall, a wasted petal about to be crunched under a man's foot. He wants me to forget all the boys of Montgomery County and take studies in typing, to let go the idea of marrying a town sweetheart and become, instead, a woman of the city in a store-bought dress and nylons, with my own bedboard and bankbook. I'm supposed to fly and dream about all that, sitting here in this swing. He painted it white, whiter even than the side of this house, whose thin coat is peeling to expose the aged black wood underneath. He painted the wood slats of this swing so white that when you stare at them for a time, they seem blue. Swing high, and the porch ceiling creaks where he riveted the screws: the grown people who walk by warn me. "Hey gal, it ain't a playground swing," they say. For them, for their limitations, I stop pumping my legs, and the creaking stops. But when they've faded down the walk, I fly high again.
What are you reading this week?
Today readers learned that John Darnielle, the man behind the indie group The Mountain Goats, will become the author of more than some memorable songs: FSG announced that they will publish his first novel on September 30.
The Wolf in the White Van is the story of video game artist Sean Phillips, whose RPG "Trace Italian" has captured the imaginations of people worldwide. But when two fans find their obsession has real-world consequences, Sean must deal with the reality of his fictional creation.
Darnielle joins such indie greats as Josh Ritter, John Wesley Harding and Willy Vlautin in making the transition from song to page. On his tumblr, Darnielle wrote that "I'm currently writing a novel for the same house that publishes Frank Bidart, which I totally cannot even believe, I mean honestly."
And his editor and publisher Sean MacDonald, is even more effusive, saying of the novel "the greatest and perhaps most unexpected satisfaction is the quality that encompasses all these things, that this is simply a magnificent novel, weird and dark and wonderful, adventurous and spellbinding in the way of any great piece of literary art."
Here's the full publisher description:
Isolated by a disfiguring injury since the age of seventeen, Sean Phillips crafts imaginary worlds for strangers to play in. From his small apartment in southern California, he orchestrates fantastic adventures where possibilities, both dark and bright, open in the boundaries between the real and the imagined. As the creator of “Trace Italian”—a text-based, role-playing game played through the mail—Sean guides players from around the world through his intricately imagined terrain, which they navigate and explore, turn by turn, seeking sanctuary in a ravaged, savage future America.
Lance and Carrie are high school students from Florida, and are explorers of the Trace. But when they take their play into the real world, disaster strikes, and Sean is called on to account for it. In the process, he is pulled back through time, tracing back toward the moment of his own self-inflicted departure from the world in which most people live.
Book jacket designed by Rodrigo Corral
Author and practicing anesthesiologist Carol Cassella's new medical mystery, Gemini, is hitting shelves today.
An unidentified Jane Doe winds up in a Seattle hospital as the presumed victim of a nasty hit and run in rural Washington. Soon, she slips into a coma on the operating table, and Dr. Charlotte Reese battles to keep her alive while police race to track and identify the driver at fault. Cassella's characters grapple with medicine and morality—is life and family about more than just DNA? Is Charlotte's patient still in her broken, failing body somehwere, or is her conciousness truly lost? Who will make decisions on the unknown patient's behalf in lieu of any known family?
Learn more as Cassella lays out the details in this trailer from Simon and Schuster below:
What do you think, readers? Will you pick up a copy of Gemini?
House of Glass by Sophie Littlefield
MIRA • $14.95 • ISBN 9780778314783
Published on February 25, 2014
Jen Glass lives with her husband and two children in a beautiful home in a suburb of Minneapolis. From the outside, the family couldn't look better. But on the inside, things are falling apart: Jen and her husband, Ted, are barely speaking; their teen daughter is sullen and distant and their young son has developmental delays. Just when Jen thinks things can't get any worse, they do. One night, two men break into the Glass home, but the routine robbery becomes something much worse when the family is held hostage in their own basement. Jen and Ted must overcome their differences in order to make sure their family survives the days to come.
Jen put her hand on the brass knob. Later, she would remember this detail, the warmth of the old brass to her touch, the way she had to tug to clear the slight jam.
Standing in the hallway was her beautiful daughter, her face exquisitely frozen, her lips parted and her long-lashed eyes wide with terror.
On her left, a man Jen had never seen before held Teddy in his arms, her little boy flailing ineffectively against his grip.
On her right, a man who looked unnervingly like Orlando Bloom pressed a gun to Livvy's head.
What are you reading this week?