Happy President's Day! Has the holiday (whether observed with a day off of work or not) influenced your reading choices?
If you're looking for a presidential read, we have some suggestions. His Excellency, by Joseph J. Ellis, just might be the definitive look at George Washington, as BookPage contributor Alden Mudge said in an interview with Ellis about the book. For kids, What Presidents Are Made Of by Hanoch Piven is pure fun. And last year, in honor of Lincoln's 200th birthday, BookPage published a great roundup of Lincoln books that should be out in paperback right about now, including Ronald C. White's A. Lincoln, as well as a feature on Lincoln books for the younger set.
But the Lincoln story that stands out in my mind isn't actually about the president at all--it's a fictionalized account of the life of his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, that was published in 2006. As I said in my review of Janis Cooke Newman's Mary, it's a sympathetic account that paints Mary as "a deeply passionate, intelligent woman in a time when these qualities in women were discouraged and feared."
Do you have a favorite book with a presidential link?
A new release from Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley is always a big deal, and Private Life, her first novel since 2007's Ten Days in the Hills, is no exception. The book, which will be published by Knopf on May 4, is a departure from Smiley's previous work—it's historical, a sweeping saga that spans the life of an American woman, from the 1880s to World War II.
Margaret Mayfield marries late, but she also marries up: Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early is an influential person in their small Missouri town, one who is a military officer and a brilliant scientist/astronomer. Though Margaret realizes soon after their marriage that Andrew is more interested in his work than his wife, they stay together—until the start of World War II reveals a dark side to her husband's scientific work.
Will you be reading?
For Outlander fans, this week brought good news and bad news. First, the good news: Last week, Diana Gabaldon sold the 8th book in the saga to her current publisher Delacorte. Bad news: The new book won't be published until 2013. But then, Gabaldon fans are used to waiting four years for a new installment. 600 pages weren't written in a day, after all. In an interview last fall, Gabaldon gave BookPage a peek into her writing process:
“I don’t write with an outline. In fact, I don’t write in a straight line. I write when I can see things happening. What I need on any given day to start writing is what I call a kernel. A line of dialogue, an emotional ambience, anything I can sense very concretely. I write very painstakingly in these little disconnected bits. But as I write these disconnected pieces, and I continue doing research and of course thinking about the book all the time, they begin to stick together. They develop little connections." (read the rest of the interview)
Author photo © Jennifer Watkins
One of the first big releases of January 2010 is Elizabeth Kostova's follow-up to her hit debut, The Historian, a literary vampire story that topped bestseller lists in the summer of 2005. Her new novel, The Swan Thieves, is a tale of love, obsession and art that, like The Historian, goes backward and forward in time to unravel a mystery. We asked Kostova a few questions about the book as a teaser for fans--and a preview of our full-length BookPage interview coming in January.
What elements in The Swan Thieves will most appeal to fans of The Historian?
I think readers who enjoyed The Historian will probably enjoy the mix of historical and contemporary settings in The Swan Thieves, as well as the travel to France and through time.
Impressionist art is frequently referenced in books (yours!) and films (Amelie), and probably adorns 8 out of 10 dorm room walls. What is it about these artists that continues to speak to people today?
I think we still look at and love the Impressionists because they capture something about nature that is both vivid and idealized. As we watch the destruction of natural beauty in our world, we probably value these images in a new and piercing way. I think it's also important to note that many people are understandably sick of Impressionist art from sheer over-exposure to it, and because in reproduction it radiates a certain prettiness. Looking closely at an original Impressionist masterwork is still a radical experience, and very different from looking at a notecard or tote bag.
The mystery of The Swan Thieves revolves around a 19th-century female artist, and the sacrifices women in particular must make to pursue art. Is there a real-life artist who inspired this character?
Beatrice de Clerval is not based on a single real artist, but in developing her I was inspired by the life of Berthe Morisot, one of the six original exhibiting Impressionists, a dedicated and very gifted painter who also protected the conventions of her social and family life.
Who is your favorite character in the new novel, and why?
I think I'm fondest of Andrew Marlow, because he changes the most over the course of the book. I feel very close to him in his struggles to figure out who he is, and I like the way he evolves from vanity to love--rather as Professor Rossi does in The Historian.
How was writing this book different from writing The Historian?
In writing The Swan Thieves, I had to move away from using the models of Victorian literature and into something more exactly fitting my story in terms of language and structure. I also wrote it in large swathes, as different episodes became vivid for me, and then rearranged these in the editing, rather than writing straight through from beginning to end as I did with The Historian. I learned a tremendous amount from writing The Swan Thieves and it is a deeply felt book, for me.
We’ve seen fictionalized Emily Dickinson; members of the Tudor court; and more Jane Austen spin-offs than I can count (Austenland, The Jane Austen Book Club and Jane Austen Ruined My Life, for starters -- not to mention Mr. Darcy’s Daughters, Darcy’s Passions, and Darcy & Elizabeth: Nights and Days at Pemberley). I’m intrigued by a new historical novel about a character I haven’t thought about since 10th grade English class: Hester Prynne.
You may remember that at the end of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Dimmesdale had died and Hester and her daughter, Pearl, had left Boston. Many years later, Hester returns alone and Pearl (presumably) lives happily ever after as a wealthy lady (on account of her inheritance from Chillingworth). . . until now.
In Hester, by Paula Reed, the title character moves to England and falls in with Oliver Cromwell. Hester is “entangled in a web of political intrigue, espionage, and forbidden love” as she is forced to help Cromwell in his scheming – or risk a death sentence.
The novel will come out on February 16, 2010, although you can read an excerpt now on Reed’s website.
Which classic literary hero or heroine would you like to see in a contemporary novel? (Or do you think spin-offs ruin the original?)
In looking over the lineup of 2010 fiction, we have noticed an abundance of historical novels. Which ones will you be reading? What is your favorite time period to read about?
I loved Girl With a Pearl Earring, so I can’t wait for Tracy Chevalier’s January release, Remarkable Creatures. In the novel, 19th century fossil hunter Mary Anning discovers her gift to “find what on one can see.” She is barred from the British academic community, however, and falls in love with “an impossible man.” Watch an interview with Tracy Chevalier:
A few years ago BookPage reviewed a “magnificent” biography of Emily Dickinson that provided “a comprehensive portrait of the poet's life and art.” In February, you can read a fictionalized version of the Dickinson’s life, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn. Dickinson biographer Brenda Wineapple writes that Charyn imagines the poet full “of mischievousness, brilliance, desire, and wit (all which she possessed) and then boldly sets her amidst a throng of historical, fictional, and surprising characters just as hard to forget as she is.”
Historical fiction buffs will also want to look out for Karen Harper’s The Queen’s Governess, a Tudor drama told from the perspective of Elizabeth I’s governess; Ellen Horan’s 31 Bond Street, about a 19th-century murder scandal in New York City (the book will be “difficult for any reader to put down,” according to Ron Rash); and Lynn Cullen’s The Creation of Eve, about Renaissance female painter Sofonisba Anguissola.
Devil's Dream by Madison Smartt Bell
November 2009, Pantheon
Bell's novel about the Civil War experiences of General Nathan Bedford Forrest brings one of history's most gifted—and controversial—wartime leaders to life. Look for a Q&A with Madison Smartt Bell on BookPage.com later this month.
At dusk they gathered around a campfire Ginral Jerry had built in the lee of a snowbank, which did something, though not exactly enough, to cut the bitter rising wind. Forrest sat on a tripod camp stool, his long arms wrapped around his knees, reflected firelight flickering from the deep hollow of his eyes. Though he was in his shirtsleeves he didn't seem to feel the cold. Is he even human? Henri thought.
The Frankfurt Book Fair took place last week, and it's always a source for major publishing news. One of the early news items has to do with author Ken Follett, whose historical novels and thrillers have been huge hits worldwide.
In a feature in BookPage about his last novel, World Without End, Follett said he wanted to "write another book that gets this kind of enthusiastic reception." We're pretty sure rights being sold in six countries, and a worldwide one-day laydown, counts as enthusiasm!
Fall of Giants will go on sale September 28, 2010, just in time for a planned miniseries based on Pillars of the Earth. (Penguin/Dutton got the U.S. rights.) It is the first of three books planned for the "New Century Trilogy," which will cover most of the 20th century. Fall of Giants follows five families through World War I and the Russian revolution, setting the stage for the next novel, which will cover World War II.
This post about the past weekend's Southern Festival of Books goes back to the very first night, when BookPage reserved a table at the Authors in the Round dinner. We got to the cocktail party a little late but there was plenty of time to catch a glimpse of authors like Kathryn Stockett, Robert Hicks, Jill McCorkle, Michael Sims and even John Carter Cash, who was wearing a dapper seersucker suit.
Our dinner companion was Madison Smartt Bell, who we're pretty sure was happy with his seat between two lovely ladies.
Conversation ranged from his early years in Nashville, to the Bell witch, to the merits of Goucher College, where he is a professor of English. And of course we talked about his forthcoming novel, Devil's Dream, which brings one of the Civil War's most complicated generals, Nathan Bedford Forrest, to life. Bell told us his college-aged daughter helped him finalize the book's structure, which jumps backward and forward through time with each chapter. Watch for more details in a website interview in November.
If you could have dinner with an author, who would it be?
a riveting portrait of Thomas Cromwell, chief advisor to King Henry VIII and a significant political figure in Tudor England. Mantel’s crystalline style, piercing eye and interest in, shall we say, the darker side of human nature, together with a real respect for historical accuracy, make this novel an engrossing, enveloping read.
If you're in the mood for a laugh, or interested in the other finalists (most of which have yet to be published here, alas), don't miss Jim Crace's Digested Read of all six books.
p.s. see more on our News item.