Acclaimed author and well-regarded funny person Gary Shteyngart (Super Sad True Love Story) releases his much- anticipated memoir, Little Failure today.
Born in Leningrad, USSR, in 1972, Shteyngart takes readers along for the long haul: from his family’s immigration to Queens, New York, and through his often alienating, awkward adolescence, family dysfunction, fears, disappointments and first forays into the world of writing.
Although there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, Shteyngart's aim is always honesty, and his delivery is unflinching. Our reviewer, Alden Mudge, said, “Few writers have written about the soul-scorching experiences of their lives with such wit and ferocity as Shteyngart does in Little Failure.”
This is an excellent book to start off your 2014 with, and this trailer, in typical Shteyngart fashion, is amazing. There's a reason The New Yorker has named Shteyngart as "the leading book-trailer auteur of our time."
With appearances by Rashida Jones, James Franco and fellow author Jonathan Franzen, this is a book trailer home run.
What do you think, readers? Favorite moments? Favorite cameos? Will you read Little Failure?
A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee
Random House • $26 • ISBN 9780812993219
Published March 12, 2013
Like The Privileges, this novel tells the story of a wealthy couple. But here the couple find themselves in the midst of a major disaster: The husband, Ben, has a total breakdown, eventually getting himself a DWI and an accusation of sexual harassment from a summer associate at his law firm. Helen, the main character and Ben's wife, divorces her husband and must figure out a way to support herself and her daughter. Turns out she has a knack for PR. Specifically, she intuitively knows how to make powerful men (think, politicians embroiled in sex scandals) apologize. The story is a clever critique of our culture—both amusing and timely. Though A Thousand Pardons lacks the grace of The Privileges, I thought it was an entertaining read, and I enjoyed watching Helen's reinvention.
Here's an excerpt from an early scene, in which Helen must reason with a New York councilman whose violent actions have been caught on a surveillance camera. Helen's the first one speaking, then the councilman.
"You will admit to everything. You will apologize to this young woman, by name, for your violent behavior. You will not use any phrases like 'moment of weakness' or 'regrettable incident.' You will apologize to your wife, and to your children, and to your parents if they are still alive . . . Basically, you will get up in front of the cameras and make an offering of yourself."
Some of the redness drained from his face as she spoke; she could feel, as she'd felt before, the power her words gave her over him. "You really think that's the play?" he said.
"That is the only play. To ask forgiveness. If you hold back in any way, the story lives. Let me ask you this: presumably you are a man with ambitions. What do you want to happen now? What is the outcome that will put those ambitions back on the track that your own mistakes threw them off of?"
He tipped back noiselessly in his chair. "I want to stay in office," he said. "I want to be reelected. This was a stupid thing for me to have done, but it does not define me. It was a one-time thing, and I want to get away from it."
"You will never get away from it," Helen said. "But you can incorporate it into the narrative. You have to be sincere. You have to be completely abject, and not attempt to defend yourself or your behavior in any way, and not attempt to defend yourself or your behavior in any way. No 'I was drunk,' no 'she hit me first.' You have to take, and answer, every question. You have to hold your temper when people try to get you lose it. Do you think you can do that?"
Tenth of December by George Saunders
Random House • $26 • ISBN 9780812993806
Pubbed January 8, 2013
The year has just begun, and right out of the starting gate, the New York Times is calling George Saunders' new collection of short stories "the best book you'll read this year." Saunders is often considered a "writer's writer," but it's possible that Tenth of December may do for Saunders what This Is How You Lose Her did for Junot Díaz—excite a brand new audience and bring him brand new recognition as one of the most brilliant writers of our age.
I started to get excited about the collection back in December when I picked up a copy of The Best American Short Stories 2012, which features titular story "Tenth of December," published in The New Yorker. Editor Tom Perrotta enjoyed the "poignant and very funny" story for the "vague kinship" he felt for the character Wallace, the young, lonely schoolboy who encounters a dying man on a frozen lake.
And then I got even more excited when I started giggling over the style sheet used in-house by the book's editors and production team (how else will you know how to edit "thrashfest"?).
Read on for an excerpt from "Tenth of December."
The pale boy with unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs and cub-like mannerisms hulked to the mudroom closet and requisitioned Dad's white coat. Then requisitioned the boots he'd spray-painted white. Painting the pellet gun white had been a no. That was a gift from Aunt Chloe. Every time she came over he had to haul it out so she could make a big stink about the woodgrain.
Today's assignation: walk to the pond, ascertain beaver dam. Likely he would be detained. By that species that lived among the old rock wall. They were small but, upon emerging, assumed certain proportions. And gave chase. This was just their methodology. His aplomb threw them loops. He knew that. And reveled it. He would turn, level the pellet gun, intone: Are you aware of the usage of this human implement?
They were Netherworlders. Or Nethers. They had a strange bond with him. Sometimes for whole days he would just nurse their wounds. Occasionally, for a joke, he would shoot one in the butt as it fled. Who henceforth would limp for the rest of its days. Which could be as long as an additional nine million years.
Safe inside the rock wall, the shot one would go, Guys, look at my butt.
As a group, all would look at Gzeemon's butt, exchanging sullen glances of: Gzeemon shall indeed be limping for the next nine million years, poor bloke.
Because yes: Nethers tended to talk like that guy in Mary Poppins.
What are you reading today?
Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well by Sam Sifton
Random House • $18 • ISBN 9781400069910
Published October 23, 2012
Tomorrow we'll start the two-week countdown until Thanksgiving. Raise your hand if you're starting to stress over cooking a turkey and making gravy!
Sam Sifton, the former restaurant critic of the New York Times—and the guy who used to answer the newspaper's Thanksgiving help line—is here to help. In a thin tome that honors the holiday and provides helpful, straight-forward advice, Sifton confidently guides readers through the production that is Thanksgiving: prep, cooking, table-setting, cleanup.
Yes, the book includes recipes for Thanksgiving classics like turkey, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce. There are also recipes for delicious dishes that might revamp your holiday table: creamed Brussels sprouts, grilled turkey, roasted cauliflower with anchovy breadcrumbs, Indian pudding and much, much more. Though the recipes look delicious and appear very easy to follow, it is the essays about what Thanksgiving should be that had me laughing and nodding my head. (Do not—I repeat do not!—serve appetizers on Thanksgiving.) Here's an excerpt from the book's introduction.
But be forewarned. Thanksgiving is not a book for everyone. It is not for those in search of the new Thanksgiving craze, the latest recipe for turkey in a bag, the next big trend in holiday entertaining. There will be no recipes here for ham or lamb, roast beef or swordfish. Thanksgiving is a holiday that anchors itself in tradition. Which means: You will make a turkey. Turkey is why you are here.
Thanksgiving is likewise not a book for those interested in cutting corners. Shortcuts are anathema to Thanksgiving, which is a holiday that celebrates not just our bounty but also our slow, careful preparation of it. There is no room in Thanksgiving for the false wisdom of compromise—for ways to celebrate the holiday without cooking, or by cranking open cans of gravy to pour over a store-roasted turkey reheated in the microwave. Thanksgiving is no place for irony. We are simply going to cook.
Put plainly, we are going to cook Thanksgiving correctly.
And what exactly does that mean? It means there is going to be a turkey, and side dishes and dressing to go with it, and plenty of gravy as well. There is going to be a proper dinner table even if it turns out to be a slab of plywood over some milk crates, covered by a sheet. There are going to be proper place settings for each person and glasses for water and wine. There are going to be candles. There will be dessert.
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
Random House • $26 • ISBN 9780812992977
on sale June 26, 2012
The story is about Julia, a sixth-grader who lives in suburban California. She's preoccupied with fitting in at school, buying her first bra, talking to her crush—and something that has global consequences. Julia wakes up one morning, and the earth has started to rotate at a slower pace. At first, it's just a few minutes added on to every day, but before long, days and nights are twice as long as they used to be. Crops can't grow and gravity is messed up. People are getting sick from sunburns, and electricity isn't consistent. World leaders insist on keeping to a 24-hour schedule, but some "real timers" try to stay awake during sunlight and sleep when it's dark, keeping up with circadian rhythms.
This is a tender and beautiful coming-of-age story with a chilling sci-fi twist—except "the slowing" feels hauntingly plausible. Aimee Bender calls the novel "at once a love letter to the world as we know it and an elegy," and I completely agree. Here's an excerpt that describes some of the consequences of "the slowing."
Five thousand years of art and superstition would suggest that it's the darkness that haunts us most, that the night is when the human mind is most apt to be disturbed. But dozens of experiments conducted in the aftermath of the slowing revealed that it was not the darkness that tampered most with our moods. It was the light.
As the days stretched further, we faced a new phenomenon: Certain clock days began and ended before the sun ever rose—or else began and ended before the sun ever set.
Scientists had long been aware of the negative effects of prolonged daylight on human brain chemistry. Rates of suicide, for example, had always been highest above the Arctic Circle, where self-inflicted gunshot wounds surged every summer, the continuous daylight driving some people mad.
As our days neared forty-eight hours, those of us living in the lower latitudes began to suffer similarly from the relentlessness of light.
Studies soon documented an increase in impulsiveness during the long daylight periods. It had something to do with serotonin; we were all a little crazed. Online gambling increased steadily throughout every stretch of daylight, and there is some evidence that major stock trades were made more often on light days than on dark ones. Rates of murder and other violent crimes also spiked while the sun was in our hemisphere—we discovered very quickly the dangers of the white nights.
We took more risks. Desires were less checked. Temptation was harder to resist. Some of us made decisions we might not otherwise have made.
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie
Random House • $35 • ISBN 9780679456728
To be published November 8, 2011
The fact that I've been anticipating this book for months is no secret to Book Case readers. Having finished it over Labor Day weekend in preparation for interviewing Massie for our November issue, I'm happy to report that this was a book worth waiting for. Eight years in the making, backed up by Massie's decades of research on the Russian family, Catherine the Great is an expertly crafted page-turner of a life story.
One of the things that makes Massie's biographies so wonderful to read is the way he is able to empathize with his subjects, and try to understand their motivations, without lionizing them. While it's clear he likes and respects Catherine and her accomplishments, he doesn't try to hide her flaws.
Since I know that what many people are curious about when it comes to Catherine the Great is her love life, here's a passage where Massie examines her relationships with a succession of younger "favorites" over the last 20 or so years of her life.
What was Catherine seeking in these ornamental young men? She has suggested that it was love. "I couldn't live for a day without love," she had written in her Memoirs. Love has many forms, however, and she did not mean sexual love alone, but also companionship, warmth, support, intelligence, and, if possible, humor. . . . Desire for love and sex played little part in attracting her lovers to her; they were motivated by ambition, desire for prestige, wealth and, in some cases, power. Catherine knew this. She asked them for things other than simple sexual congress. She wanted an indication of pleasure in her company, a desire to understand her point of view, a willingness to be instructed by her intelligence and experience, an appreciation of her sense of humor, and an ability to make her laugh. The physical side of her relationships offered only brief distraction. When Catherine dismissed lovers, it was not because they lacked virility but because they bored her. One need not be an empress to find it impossible to talk in the morning to a person with whom one has spent the night.
What are you reading this week?
The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield
Random House • $25 • ISBN 9780385344081
On sale July 12, 2011
At BookPage, we get a lot of requests for must-read debut novels and Southern fiction. Ever since the publication of Room by Emma Donoghue in September of last year, we also hear cries for books with memorable child protagonists.
Now I have a new answer for people longing for fiction in those categories—and the book satisfies all three criteria: Jenny Wingfield's The Homecoming of Samuel Lake.
I was initially drawn to this novel because of the setting; it takes place in a small town in south Arkansas. If you read this blog with any regularity or have talked to me for more than five minutes, you know that there are few places in this world I love more than my home state.
When the book opens, the Moses family is gathering for a family reunion. Willadee Moses (daughter of the Moses matriarch and patriarch) and her three kids have come for the fun, but Willadee's husband (Samuel Lake) is absent—he's a preacher and had an annual meeting to attend.
Something horrible happens at the reunion, though, and Samuel comes back—in part to be there for Willadee and the kids, and in part because he's been forced to leave his parish in Louisiana. On account of these circumstances, the Lake family takes up residence on the Moses farm.
This is really a story about family, and you will fall in love with the characters. Best of all may be 11-year-old Swan Lake (ha), the daughter of Samuel and Willadee. Shrewd and spunky, at different times she reminds me of Scout Finch, Ramona Quimby and Harriet Welsch. The book is told from multiple points of view, including Swan's. Here's a scene from early in the novel, when Swan plays hooky from a funeral with her Uncle Toy:
"Guess you don't like funerals, either."
"Never been to one." Swan was lying, of course. Preachers' kids attended more funerals than any other kids in the world. Toy had to know that.
"Well—" Toy left the word hanging in the air for a while, like that said it all. He shaved down a little knob that jutted out on one side of the stick. Finally, he said, "You ain't missed much."
Swan had been afraid he might say something adult like "Does your mama know you're here?" Since he didn't, she considered the two of them immediately bonded. Swan yeared to get close to somebody. Really close. Soul deep. She wanted the kind of friendship where two people know each other inside out and stick up for each other, no matter what. So far, she'd never had that, and she was convinced the reason was because her father was a minister.
What are you reading today?
Blood, Bones and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton
Random House • $26 • ISBN 9781400068722
March 1, 2011
How's this for a recommendation:
"Magnificent. Simply the best memoir by a chef ever. Ever. Gabrielle Hamilton packs more heart, soul and pure power into one beautifully crafted page than I've accomplished in my entire writing career. Blood, Bones, and Butter is the work of an uncompromising chef and a prodigiously talented writer. I am choked with envy." The writer of this blurb? None other than Anthony Bourdain, author of Kitchen Confidential, A Cook's Tour and Medium Raw.
Unless you're familiar with New York restaurants, you may not have ever heard of Gabrielle Hamilton. She is the chef of Prune in Manhattan's East Village, and she has also written a chef's column in the New York Times. Blood, Bones and Butter tells the story of her upbringing (father was a set designer; mother was French) and path to opening a successful restaurant.
Though the memoir gives a behind-the-scenes view of the restaurant industry (some dirt included), the real treat is Hamilton's evocotive writing. Here's a sample from an opening scene, when the author and her siblings sleep outdoors the night before her family's lamb roast:
I quietly thrilled to be packed into my sleeping bag right up next to them. I felt cocooned by the thick crescendoing song of the crickets, that voluptuous blanket of summer night humidity, the smell of wood smoke, the heavy dew of the tall grass around us, the necessary and anchoring voices, giggles, farts, and squeals of disgust of my older siblings. This whole perfect night when everyone is still, pretty much, intact and wholesome, is where I sometimes want the party to stop.
In the morning the sun will come up and the rest of life will resume--where it will become cliche to admire the beauty of the stars, facile to feel transported by the smell of wood smoke, childish to admit to loving your siblings, and weak to be made secure by the idea of your parents still married up in the house--and we will awaken and kick out of our sleeping bags and find in the pit a huge bed of glowing coals, perfect for the slow roasting of the lambs.
Sound like something you'd like to read more of?
What are you reading today?