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?
The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann
Ecco • $25.99 • ISBN 9780061995347
Published October 23, 2012
If you love historical fiction with settings that are out of the common way, read on. Karen Engelmann's entertaining debut is set in 18th-century Sweden, a country at the height of its political and military power—although King Gustave III, like all monarchs of the time, is keeping a close eye on revolution-era France.
Up-and-coming young merchant Emil Larsson finds himself entangled in his country's fate after a stop at the local gaming establishment. The proprietress, Mrs. Sparrow, has had a vision that predicts his involvement in a pivotal event involving the monarch, and asks to deal his "Octavo," a divination card game she has invented. The basics are explained by Emil early in the book, as he recalls his first visit to Mrs. Sparrow's exclusive establishment:
Mrs. Sparrow held her breath and traced one line on my palm with a long slender finger. Her hands were cool and soft, and they seemed to float above and at the same time cradle mine. All I could think at the moment was that she would excel as a pickpocket, but she was not about folderol—I checked my pockets later—and her gaze was warm and calm. "Mr. Larsson, you were born to the cards, and it is here in my rooms you will play them to your best advantage. I think we have many games ahead." The warmth of that triumph traveled top to toe, and I remember lifting her hands to my lips to seal our connection with a kiss.
That night of cards began two years of exceeding good fortune at the tables, and in time led me to the Octavo—a form of divination unique to Mrs. Sparrow. It required a spread of eight cards from an old and mysterious deck distinct from any I had seen before. Unlike the vague meanderings of the market square gypsies, her exacting method was inspired by her visions and revealed eight people that would bring about the event her vision conveyed, an event that would shepherd a transformation, a rebirth for the seeker. Of course, rebirth implies a death, but that was never mentioned when the cards were laid.
What are you reading this week?
Related in BookPage: check out our review of The Stockholm Octavo and a Q&A with Karen Engelmann.
San Miguel by T.C. Boyle
Viking • $27.95 • ISBN 9780670026241
On sale September 25, 2012
San Miguel is something entirely new for people who, like me, read T.C. Boyle like the world's about to end (get it?). As Boyle told me during an interview at the Nashville Public Library, this is a historical novel entirely without comedy or irony. It's not, as he says, a "wise-guy" novel. Boyle also told me that he and his publisher think this one is something special, and they certainly aren't wrong.
San Miguel returns to the setting first introduced in When the Killing's Done: the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara. Boyle's newest is based on the lives of real families who inhabited San Miguel in the 1880s and the 1930s, and more specifically, the three women who were brought there by their men.
In 1888, Marantha and her family move to San Miguel in search of sunny Californian weather to help with her consumption. She spends six months at the sheep ranch, trying to restore her health and stave off the creeping boredom that comes with total isolation. Two years later, her adopted daughter Edith will do anything within her power to escape the remote island and her controlling stepfather. The novel then jumps to 1930, when newlyweds Elise and Herbie start their lives together, far away from the Depression and the rest of the world. They call themselves the King and Queen of San Miguel, and they consider themselves truly lucky—until WWII threatens to break their world apart.
As in so many of Boyle's novels, humans appear powerless before the elements, such as in this scene from Marantha's early days on the island:
Now, as she lay there in the dark, the thing in her chest quiet for once, she was afraid. The wind kept beating, keening, unholy, implacable, and it was as if it were aimed at her and her alone. As if it had come for her. Come to blow her away across the waters and force her down beneath the waves, down and down and down to the other place, darkness eternal. The roof heaved, the house rocked and groaned beneath the joists. Everything seemed to compress, as if waiting to blow like the cork from a bottle. She wanted to waken Will, wanted to cling to him and feed off the low consoling murmur of his voice, but she didn't because she knew he needed his rest—now more than ever—and there was nothing he could have done in any case, nothing anyone could do except God, and God had deserted her. Will was right there beside her, and she'd never felt more alone. She couldn't sleep. She'd never sleep again. And though she needed to get up and relieve herself she was afraid to move, as if even the slightest perturbation would upset the balance and bring the whole ramshackle structure crashing down around her.
Is this one you've been looking forward to?
In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner
Simon & Schuster • $25 • ISBN 9781451657708
On sale August 7, 2012
Vaddey Ratner's debut novel caught my attention when I read this effusive recommendation from author Chris Cleave: "In the Shadow of the Banyan is one of the most extraordinary acts of storytelling I have ever encountered." Turns out the story, which details a family's experience during the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s, actually lives up to that high praise.
The main character and narrator is Raami, a tough little girl who is separated from her family and forced to perform hard physical labor—an experience that mirrors the real life of the author, who was five when the Khmer Rouge came to power. It is difficult to read about Raami's hardships, and sometimes it seems like she will never emerge from her life's hell. What makes the story so remarkable, however, is how Ratner constantly juxtaposes horror with small moments of beauty. Even her characters are aware of this tension, and it really is satisfying to read about the resilience of human beings.
Here are a couple examples:
"Do you know why I told you stories, Raami?" he [her father] asked. We'd left the others, their panic and fears, and hid ourselves in the solitude of the meditation pavilion.
I shook my head. I knew nothing, understood nothing.
"When I thought you couldn't walk, I wanted to make sure you could fly." His voice was calm, soothing, as if it were just another evening, another conversation. "I told you stories to give you wings, Raami, so that you would never be trapped by anything—your name, your title, the limits of your body, this world's suffering." He glanced up at the face of the wooden Buddha in its corner of the room and, as if conceding to some argument they'd had earlier, murmured, "Yes, it's true everywhere you look there is suffering—an old man has disappeared, a baby died and his coffin is a desk, we live in the classrooms haunted by ghosts, this sacred ground is stained with the blood of murdered monks." He swallowed, then cupping my face in his hands, continued, "My greatest desire, Raami, is to see you live. If I must suffer so that you can live, then I will gladly give up my life for you, just as I once gave up everything to see you walk."
Joy and sorrow often travel the same road and sometimes whether by grace or misfortune they meet and become each other's companion.
The Last Nude by Ellis Avery
Riverhead • $25.95 • ISBN 9781594488139
Published January 5, 2012
I was drawn to Ellis Avery's The Last Nude because a) how could you not be drawn to that bold jacket? b) I had just finished An Object of Beauty and was on a novels-about-art kick and c) there's a big honkin' blurb from Emma Donoghue, one of my favorite authors, on the cover.
The story is about the real-life Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka, and the relationship she strikes up with her muse, Rafaela, the woman depicted on the jacket in the painting Beautiful Rafaela. By the way, this painting sold at Sotheby's in November. The winning price? $8.4 million. I'm embedding a video from Sotheby's below the excerpt, where you can see the Vice President of Impressionist & Modern Art talking about the piece.
But back to the book (which can be yours for only $25.95). I'm enjoying the story because the setting is wonderful (Paris in the 1920s) and the relationship between artist and muse is believable and intriguing. As Megan Fishmann writes in a review in the January issue of BookPage, "Avery weaves historical fact with electrically charged narrative . . . Filled with fabulous literary anecdotes and characters that seem to leap off the page, The Last Nude is a novel perfect for lovers of the 1920s, of Paris or simply of love stories."
Here's a scene from the first day that Rafaela models for Tamara. Tamara has made her wear a plain dress while she poses. After looking at the other portraits in Tamara's apartment, Rafaela wishes she could look more glamorous.
As the minutes passed, I realized I no longer felt uneasy. I felt jealous. Why did I get the ugly dress, the ugly painting? And why didn't Tamara paint my face? The painting next to the mannish woman showed a nude—sleek, modern, Olympian—with her arm across her face. Was this Tamara's kink? She didn't paint faces? No, I saw plenty of faces in the room, some, to be honest, not as nice as mine. It was as if, by putting me in the ugly dress, she had made herself blind to me. Beautiful, she'd said. Did she really think so? I wanted to take off my dress and lie down on that velvet couch for her: I wanted her to see me in the grand way she saw the others.
What are you reading today? Are you interested in reading The Last Nude?
Here's the video:
A Good American by Alex George
Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam • $25.95 • ISBN 9780399157592
on sale February 7, 2012
This time of year is always about looking back—what were my favorite books of the year? It's fun to catalog and rank a year's worth of reading, but it's also refreshing to look forward: What books of 2012 are going to be truly special? One such book is Alex George's A Good American. George is an English lawyer who lives in Missouri, and A Good American is his first novel to be published in the United States.
Like the author, the main characters of A Good American are immigrants—Jette and Frederick Meisenheimer, two Germans who board a ship to New Orleans (by chance; they meant to go to New York) in 1904, and end up settling in Beatrice, Missouri.
George follows the Meisenheimer family for a century, during wars, deaths, births, broken hearts and young love, Prohibition, successes, failures. One of the joys of this story is George's ability to evoke the power of music from the era, ranging from Barbershop quartets to the sweet sounds of the cornet and piano.
This was the rare book that made me laugh and cry, pause to listen to songs on YouTube—then seriously consider taking a reading break down at Nashville's Gerst Haus restaurant (I refrained, but I'm still craving German and Cajun food).
The novel comes out on February 7. Here's a little preview, after Jette first hears the music of an old acquaintance:
As Jette listened to the languorous unfurling of melody, she remembered her brief time in New Orleans. Lomax had been the first friendly face they met in America. Without him they might never have made it to Missouri. She wondered what path her life might have followed if the man on the stage had not appeared when he did. The thought occurred to her that, like the improvised melodies that Lomax was spinning from the bell of his horn, every life was a galaxy of permutations and possibilities from which a single thread would be picked out and followed, for better or for worse. When the music ended, Jette made a choice of her own that sent our family careening down an unlikely path that only now has acquired the reassuring gloss of inevitability. By such delicate threads do all our existences hang.
What do you think? Will you look for A Good American in February? (By the way, the novel has been compared to Major Pettigrew's Last Stand and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society—and I wouldn't disagree!) What are you reading today?
I'm feeling a teeny bit guilty for blogging so much about 2012 releases lately. But Ron Rash is a real in-house favorite here at BookPage, so when we heard that he was publishing a new book with Ecco in April, we had to spread the news.
The Cove, Ecco's lead title for spring, "captures the wondrous beauty of nature and love and the darkness of superstition and fear in this atmospheric and exquisitely rendered novel set in Appalachia during World War I." (Another for my WWI list!) The catalog also promises that it is "as mesmerizing as the brilliant Serena," which is saying something—if you like memorable heroines, 2008's Serena is a novel that is not to be missed. As reviewer Kristy Kiernan put it in BookPage, Serena "has all the markings of a career-making novel, and should firmly establish poet and novelist Rash as a literary star."