This fall, Jesmyn Ward followed up her 2011 National Book Award-winning novel Salvage the Bones with Men We Reaped, a poignant memoir in which she reflects upon the untimely deaths of five men in her life over the course of five years. Our reviewer calls the book—which came in at #4 in our list of the Best Books of 2013—"searingly honest and brutal." (Read our full review here.) We were curious about the books Ward has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites. She graciously agreed, sharing four recommendations, in fact:
SON OF A GUN By Justin St. Germain
Justin St. Germain’s memoir Son of a Gun has stuck with me like few other books this year. He and I have both written about our losses, to understand them better, and so others will, too. Although the circumstances are quite different, we bonded over these shared experiences. Justin tragically lost his mother to murder, in 2001, just after the World Trade Centers came down. She was shot by Justin’s step-father, his mother’s fifth husband. I remember that time clearly: a whole nation suffering from grief. I had recently lost my brother, so spent those days doubly reeling, as did Justin. We both began our books as Stegner Fellows and spent time talking about how to approach these challenging topics. Son of a Gun is not a who-done-it, and it’s more than simply a memoir of loss, although that would be enough. Justin looks at the wider context of guns and violence in the United States, particularly in the West, where he’s from. And he examines the terrible plight of women who are victims of domestic violence. In his careful telling, Justin helps us all understand not only his mother but the culture of violence that leads to stories like these.
THRALL: POEMS By Natasha Trethewey
I am a new mother and I teach, so poetry, which I’ve always loved, has real appeal for pleasure reading. Natasha Trethewey’s Thrall is among my recent favorites. Natasha was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, not far from where I grew up, and she and I have tread some similar terrain in our work, too, about race and history, complicated family, the South, but she does it with so much elegance! Her use of imagery, the precision and grace of her language, the overall craft of her work. She is rightly our Poet Laureate.
As part of our Best Books of 2013 coverage, our editors weigh in on some of their personal favorites from the list.
On April 9, 1959, the world was introduced to the Mercury Seven—instantly turning America’s first astronauts into mega-celebrities. Along for the ride were their wives, swept up in a whirlwind of swanky parties, LIFE magazine photo shoots, even tea with Jackie Kennedy. Lily Koppel turns the spotlight on these women, interviewing more than 30 of them to craft a fascinating and touching account of the good, the bad and the ugly of their extraordinary lives.
Remember the days when "snail mail" was just, well, plain ol' mail? Simon Garfield's new book, To the Letter, is a timely ode to the art of letter writing, which is quickly on its way out of practice, thanks to the advent of all things digital. As Garfield explains it, “It is a book about what we have lost by replacing letters with email—the post, the envelope, a pen, a slower, cerebral whirring, the use of the whole of our hands and not just the tips of our fingers.”
Bookworms and lovers of the written word will especially enjoy Garfield's exploration of letters by authors such as Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Lewis Carroll and Virginia Woolf. The book also includes photographs of especially quirky or historically important letters—and yes, even the love letter gets some attention.
Watch the trailer below and get inspired to dig out your stationery:
Do any of you keep up with letter writing? Interested in reading To the Letter?
Do you find yourself compulsively re-watching Rushmore, The Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Life Aquatic? Is your go-to Halloween costume a member of the Tenenbaums? If so, The Wes Anderson Collection is definitely a book for you.
Written by Dallas film critic Matt Zoller Seitz, who has been following Anderson's work since his film debut in 1993 with the 12-minute short Bottle Rocket, this book is brimming with candid conversations between Seitz and Anderson, details on his creative process, charming original artwork by Max Dalton and stills from each of his films. Seitz calls this book “a tour of an artist’s mind, with the artist as guide and amiable companion.”
Check out the fantastically made book trailer (in the visual style of Mr. Anderson, naturally) from Abrams:
We know there are plenty of Wes Anderson fans out there! Does this look like a worthy Christmas gift for anyone on your list?
Chances are, you're still on the hunt for the perfect gift for more than one person on your list this year. Let us help you out! The BookPage 2013 Holiday Catalog is filled with more than 150 books that are sure to delight readers of all ages and interests.
Whether you're looking for the latest blockbuster mysteries, award-winning fiction, the hottest YA novels, colorful picture books, scrumptious cookbooks, awesome audio books or utterly intriguing nonfiction, we've got you covered. The hardest part just may end up being having to narrow down all of the choices!
But we won't delay you any further—go ahead and dive right in!
Award-winning author Richard Holmes is well known for his biographies of Romantic poets, as well as his 2009 bestseller, The Age of Wonder. In his latest book, Falling Upwards, Holmes turns his attention to the fascinating history of ballooning, documenting more than two centuries of experiments and explorations in aeronautics, anchored with a dash of autobiography. Our reviewer declares: "Erudite and chatty, this is a book for everyone who has ever dreamed of flying." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Holmes has been reading lately, so we asked him to recommend three recent favorites, which he graciously agreed to share:
For nearly 40 years I have written biographies of Romantic poets, but in the last decade I have become fascinated by biographies of Romantic scientists. It turns out that they are an equally wild bunch of characters! In fact there are many similarities between them—the idea of the brilliant “creative moment” is common to both groups, and so is a certain kind of inner solitude and daring. I am always on the lookout for unusual imaginative ways of exploring this endlessly intriguing (and relevant) subject. So here are three of my current favorites, each using quite different approaches to the Life Scientific: autobiography, fiction, poetry.
HOW A CHILD BECOMES A SCIENTIST
Edited by John Brockman
I keep diving back into this collection of 27 quirky autobiographical essays, each about 10 pages long, in which distinguished modern scientists do something very unusual for them: They look back at their own childhoods and try to define what first set them ticking. They include Richard Dawkins reading Doctor Doolittle books in South Africa; the cosmologist Paul C.W. Davies seeing the star Sirius glimmering through winter trees; and Mary Bateson learning genetic circuit patterns while putting up Christmas tree lights. Other notable memories come from Freeman Dyson, Lynn Margulis and Steven Pinker—who characteristically doubts the psychological authenticity of the whole project. Uneven in writing quality, but endlessly intriguing and often disarmingly funny.
By Andrea Barrett
I first discovered Andrea Barrett through her haunting novel of 19th century polar exploration, The Voyage of the Narwhal. But then I found she also wrote short stories about scientists, which seemed even more intense and thought-provoking. Barrett has the gift of making science history feel extraordinarily fresh, moody, sexy and strange. Here, you will meet old Carl Linnaeus and his “English Pupil” in wintry Sweden; young Alfred Russell Wallace going mad in the steaming Amazon; or the idealistic Victorian doctor Lauchlin Grant (who is pure fiction among several authentic historical characters) struggling on a remote Canadian quarantine island with a public cholera epidemic (emigrants from the Irish famine) and private heartbreak. Absolutely gripping. I now see that this won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1996, and I’m not surprised. I also hear Barrett has a new collection, Archangel, just out this fall. I can’t wait.
DARWIN: A LIFE IN POEMS
By Ruth Padel
Having clambered through several huge scholarly biographies of Charles Darwin during his recent bicentenary, I was delighted and astonished to come across this wonderful, short, quicksilver book. It is nothing less than an intimate look at the life of the great naturalist in 160 pages—but written entirely as a sequence of poems. Brilliantly inspired by Darwin’s own letters, often in Darwin’s own imagined voice, its emotional center is Darwin’s stoic marriage, shaken by the divisive problem of his wife Emma’s religious beliefs, and torn by the terrible death of their 10-year-old daughter Annie. There is plenty here to give both Evolutionist and Creationist something to think about, and from a new perspective. It turns out that distinguished poet Ruth Padel is not only a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the Zoological Society (London), but also Darwin’s great-great-granddaughter. Well, that’s Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics for you.
Get ready to add to your TBR stack! The LibraryReads December list is out and features 10 books coming out next month that have librarians across the country buzzing and eager to share with their patrons.
Topping the list is romance maven Sarah MacLean's latest addition to her best-selling Rules for Scoundrels series, No Good Duke Goes Unpunished (coming 11/26). Check out our interview with MacLean in which she dishes about her affinity for historic romances and the giant, juicy secret that's revealed in the book. (Don't worry—no spoilers.)
Whether you're craving a well-crafted mystery or a compelling memoir—or just about anything else—the LibraryReads December list offers an eclectic mix of options. Is there one you're especially looking forward to reading?
Dear Mrs. Kennedy: The World Shares Its Grief
By Jay Mulvaney and Paul De Angelis
St. Martin's Griffin • $13.99 • ISBN 9781250041739
Paperback edition published November 2013
In late November 1963, a young boy who lived across the street in our suburban Nashville neighborhood wrote a letter to Jacqueline Kennedy, sending his childlike condolences after the assassination of her husband. Many weeks later, the older kids in the neighborhood were surprised (and more than a little envious) to hear that little Timmy had received a card in the mail from the widowed first lady:
My young neighbor was one of 900,000 correspondents who received the response cards, a massive effort that required a staff of some 3,000 volunteers. Since Congress had granted Mrs. Kennedy lifetime franking privileges after the assassination, the envelopes in which the cards were mailed did not have stamps, but instead displayed a facsimile of her signature.
Jacqueline Kennedy's determination to respond to all those who wrote is one of many remarkable stories in Dear Mrs. Kennedy: The World Shares Its Grief, a collection of condolence letters from the archives of the Kennedy Library. Compiled and put into context by authors Jay Mulvaney and Paul De Angelis, this quietly touching book is available in a new paperback edition to mark the 50th anniversary of JFK's death.
Those who wrote to Mrs. Kennedy included world leaders (Winston Churchill), political supporters and opponents (Strom Thurmond, Richard Nixon), Hollywood stars and grief-stricken everyday citizens, including one teenage girl from Connecticut:
Jones Tree Farm
Dear Mrs. Kennedy,
Over on the next hill about a mile away there is a monstrous Norway Spruce planted on the day of Mr. Lincoln's death. It is the one remaining tree of twelve that a man planted there a hundred years ago.
On that black day last November I asked my father for two blue spruce to plant in memory of your wonderful husband. Dad gave them to me and I planted them and they lived through their first winter and are growing fine. They are only about a foot tall now but I certainly hope they will grow forever. . . .
How you had and have the courage to face life and the world is beyond me. I believe you are braver than any war hero and its too bad all people couldn't have your virtues.
I know I'll never forget your courage on that day last November. . . . Even 50 years from now when I'm 64, I know I'll remember as clearly as I do this minute the shock, the grief, and how I cried my eyes out, and prayed for you and he.
Very sincerely yours,
Do you recall the tragic events of 1963? Or is it distant history for you? Are you interested in the flood of JFK retrospectives?
Diane Setterfield's debut, The Thirteenth Tale, was a smashing success with both critics and readers when it was published in 2006. It may have been seven long years since then, but it looks like her follow-up, Bellman & Black, was well worth the wait. Our reviewer describes the book as, "a slow-burning, creepily realistic tale, woven together with practical but often magically transformative prose," and concludes with: "Quite simply, Setterfield has done it again." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Setterfield has been reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites, which she graciously agreed to share:
By Andrew Miller
My love of France and my fascination with graveyards are what drew me to this book—and the fact that my sister, whose opinion I value above all others, was raving about it. It turned out to be my read of the year. The material is dark, the characters vividly alive and the history as fresh and present as my own life. But what really enamored me was the prose: so delicious I wanted to lick the pages.
By Mark Cocker
This book was meant to be research for me, but it quickly turned into one of those reads you remember for decades. Mark Cocker writes like a poet, and we're used to novels that sound poetic, but this is not a novel. When nonfiction is crafted as beautifully as this, it reaches a whole new level. Rooks and crows reveal their magic and their mystery, and Cocker knows how to share his fascination in a way that transforms our sense of our own humanity.
GIVING UP THE GHOST
By Hilary Mantel
Everyone is reading Hilary Mantel's Cromwell series, and so they should: it's magnificent. But don't let that prevent you from looking elsewhere in her work. There is no one like Mantel for understanding the many ways in which human beings can be haunted, and her memoir is packed with ghostly moments, where the border between what is and what is not becomes transparent thanks to the precision and thoughtfulness of her prose. It is genius, and she makes it look like simplicity itself.
Raise your hand if you occasionally find yourself more enthralled by the lives—in particular, the love lives—of writers than by their actual works. (A couple of authors who come to mind are Lord Byron and Anaïs Nin.) If your hand is aloft, as mine is, then you'll surely be as thrilled as I am about the just-published Writers Between the Covers by Shannon McKenna Schmidt and Joni Rendon.
The subtitle pretty much says it all: The Scandalous Romantic Lives of Legendary Literary Casanovas, Coquettes, and Cads—and yes, Byron and Nin are among them, along with the likes of Flaubert (Casanova), de Beauvoir (coquette), Mailer (cad) and many others. It's a fun and delectably juicy read.
Below, Schmidt and Rendon share what first inspired them to take a peek under the covers, dishing up six titillating tidbits they discovered along the way.
Classic writers had more than just their ink-stained manuscripts to keep them company. As sex symbols, soul mates and the celebrities of their day, they were enmeshed in love triangles, whirlwind romances, dysfunctional marriages, clandestine courtships and more.
We first became intrigued by the subject of writers’ deliciously complicated romantic lives while researching our previous book, Novel Destinations, which features literary landmarks. Visiting the homes and haunts where famed writers lived, loved and found inspiration, we repeatedly found ourselves sidetracked by the “love” aspect.
Where was the hidden door Victor Hugo used as an escape route for his mistress? Was it true Charles Dickens had a thing for his sister-in-law? Who was Edith Wharton’s secret trans-Atlantic lover? How closely did F. Scott Fitzgerald’s plot lines resemble his stormy, fast-living life with Zelda?
Looking for answers to tantalizing questions like these led to Writers Between the Covers. What we discovered is that when it comes to literary love lives, what happened off the page was often a lot spicier than what was written on it:
• Edie Parker’s wedding gift to Jack Kerouac was bail money. The pair swapped vows while he was under arrest and handcuffed to a detective, who treated the newlyweds to a steak dinner before returning the groom to the slammer until his release could be arranged. Not surprisingly, Kerouac and Parker’s marriage didn’t last long.
• Agatha Christie was the lead character in her own whodunit. The crime novelist made international headlines when she disappeared for 11 days after her husband admitted to an affair. Her cheating spouse was pilloried by the press and suspected of doing away with her, but she eventually resurfaced—after sparking the largest manhunt for a missing person ever in England.
• Nosy tourists rented telescopes to spy on some infamous poets. They trained their instruments on a villa overlooking Lake Geneva, where Percy and Mary Shelley sought refuge after fleeing England in the wake of a scandal. Popular poet Percy had dumped his pregnant wife to run off with 16-year-old Mary, whom he later married. Adding fuel to the gossipers’ fire, the couple was joined at the villa by Lord Byron, a bard with a notorious reputation of his own.
• Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe should have heeded their critics. “Egghead Weds Hourglass” screamed one newspaper headline when the opposites-attract pair wed in 1956, while negative predictions and snap judgments were doled out by pundits like Truman Capote, who quipped the marriage could be called “Death of a Playwright.” Marilyn’s camp also discouraged the nuptials, concerned that her all-American image would be tarnished by the playwright’s “unpatriotic” leftist politics. The naysayers were right: less than five years later, wedded bliss came to a bitter end in a Mexican divorce court.
• W.B. Yeats’ wife used the occult to spice up their sex life. On their honeymoon, Georgie Yeats was devastated to learn that her spouse was still in love with someone else, but she salvaged the marriage by pretending to fall into a trance. As though guided by a spirit, she sent her husband reassuring messages that he had done the right thing in marrying her. The technique worked so well that Georgie used it to her advantage for years, even sending Yeats messages from the spirit world on how to satisfy her in bed.
• Trailblazing feminist Simone de Beauvoir once thought about becoming a nun. The French philosopher and novelist reconsidered after a crisis of faith, instead scandalizing society in the 1930s by vowing to live her life with the same freedoms as a man. Her controversial actions included an open relationship with fellow academic Jean-Paul Sartre and penning the groundbreaking work The Second Sex.