For many writers, especially the authors of memoirs, it can be hard to predict where and how readers will make the strongest connection to their stories. For Richard Blanco, whose The Prince of los Cocuyos is one of our favorite memoirs of 2014, the part of his book that seems to be attracting the most attention is especially surprising: It involves a can of Easy Cheese.
Growing up in Miami in a family of Cuban immigrants, little Ricky Blanco accompanied his cantankerous abuela (grandmother) to Winn-Dixie, a rare incursion onto the turf of los americanos. Blanco yearned to fit in with his American schoolmates, so he asked his abuela to buy a can of that uniquely American food, Easy Cheese. ("What? Queso en una lata? she questioned, unable to fathom the idea of cheese in a can. But I could tell from the tone of her voice that she was intrigued.") We won't spoil the story by telling you what happened next, but it's clear that the anecdote is making an impression on readers.
Blanco, the inaugural poet at President Obama's second inauguration in 2012, recently began a tour to promote The Prince of los Cocuyos. During one of his first stops, at Brookline Brooksmith in Massachusetts, a reader presented him with a very special gift—you guessed it: a can of Easy Cheese.
Will the gifts become a trend? No Easy Cheese was evident during Blanco's weekend appearance at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, but we have a feeling that Blanco might end up with a lifetime supply of canned cheese before his book tour is over.
To learn more about Blanco and his tender and keenly observed coming-of-age memoir, check out our Q&A with the author.
Sunday, August 24 will mark the 200th anniversary of the night British troops set fire to the White House, the only time other than 9/11 when the U.S. capital city sustained a direct attack. First Lady Dolley Madison had fled the building just hours before the redcoats arrived, famously exclaiming "Save that painting!" and ordering that a precious Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington be removed from the wall and carted off to safety, along with the red velvet curtains from the White House drawing room.
British journalist Peter Snow gives a stirring account of that fateful night, as well as the days before and after, in When Britain Burned the White House: The 1814 Invasion of Washington. The book was published in the U.K. last year to glowing reviews and was released this week in the U.S. by Thomas Dunne Books.
Snow keeps the action moving and adds immediacy by citing the letters, diaries and other accounts of those who witnessed (or participated in) the attack. As the British advanced, Americans on horseback sounded the alarm to the fearful residents of Washington, D.C. "Fly, fly! The ruffians are at hand. If you cannot get away yourselves, for God's sake send off your wives and daughters, for the ruffians are at hand." Under the command of Admiral George Cockburn and Major General Robert Ross, British invaders set fire not only to the White House, but to the U.S. Capitol building as well. "Never shall I forget my tortured feelings," one resident recalled, "when I beheld that noble edifice wrapt in flames, which . . . filled all the saddened night with a dismal gloom."
If you've always been a bit hazy about what led to the War of 1812 (and why it was still going on two years later), Snow's excellent account of these crucial events in U.S. history will sharpen your understanding—and make you surprised and grateful that the U.S. today counts Britain among its staunchest allies.
The book currently near the top of Amazon's Movers and Shakers list is one you may not have heard about — and we hadn't either, until today.
The surprise title is The Most Dangerous Animal of All, which had been kept under wraps by publisher HarperCollins until today's release date. Author Gary L. Stewart, writing with co-author Susan Mustafa, asserts that a search for his biological father led to a disturbing conclusion: Stewart's father was the notorious Zodiac Killer, who murdered at least seven people in an unsolved crime spree in Northern California in the 1960s and 1970s. The killer's murderous rampage inspired the 2007 David Fincher film Zodiac, as well as several documentaries. While many suspects have been mentioned, no conclusive proof of the killer's identity has ever emerged.
A HarperCollins spokesperson told New York magazine that the book had been vetted by company lawyers who concluded it was "legally sound." The company says Stewart, who was adopted and now lives in Baton Rouge, began his search for his father at the age of 39 after his birth mother contacted him for the first time.
Expect much controversy in the coming weeks as experts on the mysterious case debate the merits of Stewart's evidence.
It's April 1st, book lovers, and the beginning of a month devoted to celebrating one of our favorite places on the planet: libraries! First off, April is School Library Month, and then there's National Library Week (April 13 through 19), National Library Workers Day (on April 15) and National Bookmobile Day (on April 16). Phew—that's a lot of celebrating!
All of this library love got us thinking about our favorite books about libraries and librarians, and so we decided to put together a list of them. Featuring cats, bookmobiles, archivists, time travelers, even Dracula—these 15 books will inspire a renewed appreciation for a place that is, in the words of Jamie Ford in his novel The Songs of Willow Frost, "like a candy store where everything is free."
Henry is a 28-year-old librarian who has a genetic disorder that causes him to travel through time involuntarily. Stacking books on the shelves in the library's inner sanctum, he'll suddenly vanish, leaving behind a pile of clothes, only to materialize in some unknown past or future moment, naked and nauseated. Often he travels to a certain Michigan meadow and visits a little girl, Clare, who sneaks him food and clothes. (Read more)
The Ice Queen is the tale of a librarian in a small town whose wishes come true, but not always for the best. When the unnamed narrator is 8 years old and her brother, Ned, 12, their mother leaves the children alone one night, ostensibly to celebrate her birthday with friends. The narrator wishes her mother would disappear—and she dies that night, her car crashing on an icy road. Years later, Ned becomes a meteorologist and moves from New Jersey to Florida, while his sister goes to library school, still feeling the guilt and self-loathing brought on by her wish the night her mother died. (Read more)
This Book Is Overdue!
By Marilyn Johnson
As Marilyn Johnson postulates in the gloriously geeky This Book Is Overdue!, librarians are no longer ladies in cardigans hovering over the card catalog. The new librarians are bloggers, information junkies and protectors of freedom and privacy in the Patriot Act era. Says Johnson, “The most visible change to librarianship in the past generation is maybe the simplest: Librarians have left the building.” (Read more)
The Historian follows a motherless young girl's quest to learn the truth about her father's secret past and his search through Cold War-era Eastern Europe for the murderous fiend that has cost him so much—Dracula. The two journeys (which include stops at several libraries) eventually become one as the story traces the monster's footsteps from the hallowed halls of Oxford to the mist-shrouded mountains of Transylvania and finally to a medieval monastery that yields a shocking truth. (Read more)
By Martha Cooley
At its surface, The Archivist is the tale of its narrator, Matt Lane, a 60-ish librarian at a private university near New York. Matt has been entrusted with the care of certain personal correspondence between the poet T.S. Eliot and his friend Emily Hale, letters that are supposed to remain sealed until the year 2020. But the archivist's attempt to preserve the privacy of those letters is a metaphor for larger concerns. (Read more)
The Geographer's Library
By Jon Fasman
Reading The Geographer's Library is like stepping into a sepia-toned daguerreotype: The past here holds all the clues. The novel's narrator is Paul Tomm, a young, sometimes painfully naive cub reporter coasting along at a weekly newspaper in a sleepy New England town. When a professor at his alma mater dies in mysterious circumstances, the reporter's research for a routine obituary leads him into an unimaginably poisonous labyrinth. (Read more)
By Rebecca Makkai
What do you get when you pair a children’s librarian—whose father may be connected to the Russian mafia—with a curious 10-year-old boy whose dubious sexuality has caused his evangelical parents to enroll him in an anti-gay class and strictly monitor his library material? What sounds like the setup to a joke of questionable humor transforms into a charming debut novel in Rebecca Makkai’s hands. (Read more)
On a cold winter night in a small town in Iowa, the director of the Spencer Public Library, Vicki Myron, was shocked to discover a tiny, weeks-old orange ball of fluff deposited in the returned book slot. For the next 19 years, the sweet and magical cat known as Dewey Readmore Books lived in the library, touching countless lives, offering hope and pride to a struggling community, and gaining worldwide adoration along the way. (Read more)
A thriller about a librarian? Have no fear, best-selling author Brad Meltzer soon gets you hooked. After a somewhat slow start, The Inner Circle quickly becomes a fast, fun thriller. Once the twists start coming, Meltzer proves his prowess with the Washington, D.C., political thriller, and soon it’s impossible to resist the lure of the next page. Meltzer cleverly disguises who’s telling the truth, making readers question if there’s anyone they can trust. (Read more)
Bartholomew Neil is a uniquely likable protagonist who at nearly 40 has lived with his mother his entire life. After her death, Bartholomew sets a few life goals, like having a beer in a bar with an age-appropriate friend and pursuing Girlbrarian, the lovely but withdrawn woman who shelves books at his local library. “Her long brown hair . . . covers her face like a waterfall can cover the entrance to a mysterious cave,” Bartholomew writes. (Read more)
Imagine a man who can bend a horseshoe with his hands, whose outsized literary interests include everything from Jonathan Franzen to Stephen King and who towers above most of us at six feet seven inches. He sounds like a comic book hero, but the most heroic thing about him is this: He chooses to spend his days working in a public library, even though he suffers from a syndrome that compels him to act out, often audibly. Tourette’s, which Josh Hanagarne has referred to for years as Misty (for Miss T), is a formidable foe and constant companion. (Read more)
This literary mystery begins in a marvelous place called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a repository for literary works no longer remembered by anyone. A 10-year-old boy named Daniel is taken there by his bookseller father to assuage the lingering pain of his mother's death. The old caretaker tells Daniel to choose one book from the labyrinthian stacks, take it away and make sure it never disappears. (Read more)
The Camel Bookmobile
By Masha Hamilton
Masha Hamilton's compelling third novel, The Camel Bookmobile, leaves no room for doubt: Books are essential. Cookbooks, novels, parenting books—they all matter to Fiona "Fi" Sweeney, a librarian from Brooklyn searching for fulfillment atop a book-laden camel in the arid and dangerous bush of Kenya. Tiny, far-flung villages populated by nomadic tribes, largely forgotten and neglected by the greater population of a more modern Africa, welcome the bookmobile and Fi with a combination of curiosity and wary distrust of Westerners' belief that the rest of the world needs guidance. (Read more)
Running the Books
By Avi Steinberg
Avi Steinberg was meant for greater things. If not a doctor or lawyer (per his family’s expectations), his time in yeshiva should at least have turned out a decent rabbi. But no; he left yeshiva for Harvard, then stalled out as a freelance obituary writer for the Boston Globe. In search of a new direction, and the security of a job with benefits, Steinberg answered an ad on Craigslist and began life anew as a librarian in a Boston prison. Running the Books chronicles Steinberg’s years on the job, introducing a cast of inmates with whom his involvement went beyond mere book recommendations. (Read more)
Library: An Unquiet History
By Matthew Battles
Our Well Read columnist writes: "If you are a regular reader of BookPage (or even an occasional one), chances are you are also someone who has spent a fair amount of time in a library. Like me, you probably remember the monumental day when you got your first library card and, since reaching that milestone of childhood, have spent perhaps a little too much time roaming the stacks. Until I read Matthew Battles' engaging book, Library: An Unquiet History, though, I had not given much thought to the colorful past of those buildings-full-of-books that so many of us love." (Read more)
What do you think, fellow library lovers? Help us expand the list by adding your recommendations below!
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.