BEA is all about building buzz for books. Publisher booths are festooned with posters heralding the big fall releases from authors like Mitch Albom, James Patterson and Diana Gabaldon. But being at BEA also allows for readers to make smaller, but equally significant, discoveries. Our advertising manager Angie Bowman has just such a story:
The memoir Unremarried Widow was literally shoved into my hands while I was walking the show. I almost left it in the booth because I don't read much nonfiction, but the back cover letter from the editor compared the story to The Time Traveler's Wife. That's my all-time favorite book, so that was all the description I needed to convince me to stick with it. I read it on the plane ride back from BEA and I bawled my eyes out almost the entire flight. I could hardly speak I was crying so hard. A girl sitting near me on the plane asked me what I was reading because obviously it must be really good! Unremarried Widow was a heart-wrenching memoir. Artis Henderson is a master storyteller and writer. If you are looking for reading suggestions, Bowman highly recommends.
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.
Carry the One by Carol Anshaw
Scribner • $25 • ISBN 9781451636888
Published March 6, 2012
I was first hooked by the premise of Carry the One, but I'm naming it one of my favorite reads of 2012 (so far) thanks to Carol Anshaw's gorgeous writing. Here's the story: Carmen, Alice and Nick are siblings. Carmen—a feminist activist with a strong conscience—is the responsible one. Alice, a painter and a lesbian, is romantic. Nick, a genius astronomer, struggles with drug use. The action begins at Carmen's wedding to Matt, which takes place in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere—where Alice falls for Matt's sister, Maude, behind the scenes, and Nick and his girlfriend, Olivia, get high.
After the party, Olivia drives everyone home in the middle of the night—and in her hazy state she hits and kills a young girl who was walking by the side of the road. This tragedy links Carmen, Alice, Maude, Olivia and Nick for years to come, and Anshaw follows each of their stories for the next 25 years. They experience fame and addiction and jail time, marriage and divorce, love and death. All the while, they carry the memory of the young girl who died—and their guilt for her death.
Alice creates a series of paintings based on the girl's life. Here's an excerpt about her process:
Alone, Alice sat at the kitchen table while her coffee went cold, then finally went into the studio and sanded a gessoed canvas to begin a fresh portrait of Casey Redman. This would be the fifth. The early ones came to Alice set in places of Casey's childhood—inside a snow fort in a field by the toboggan hill, on a raft in what was clearly Sullivan Lake. Like that. As these were also places familiar to Alice from her time at the co-op, she was remembering as much as imagining. But the next one—Casey awkwardly slow-dancing with a boy at a party—came to Alice already articulated, though she had no familiarity with the specific setting, what seemed to be a paneled family room. [. . . . ]
Alice was beginning to see the terms of these paintings. She would wait for them to arrive and then paint them, like clicking a shutter, making snapshots out of oil and canvas. This was the central point of her art now, to record the girl's unlived life. Also, these would be her best paintings. She knew this already. She could see a whole world of paintings ahead of her that she wanted to make, and she would make them, but none would be as good as the Casey Redman paintings. She wasn't sure if this was a gift, or a sentence.
This Burns My Heart by Samuel Park
Simon & Schuster • $25 • ISBN 9781439199619
Published July 2011 • paperback available March 2012
Samuel Park's moving debut features a strong, memorable heroine torn between love and duty, tradition and freedom, in the changing Korea of the 1960s and 1970s. Soo-Ja meets Yul and immediately feels a connection to him—a confusing development, since she'd just decided to marry another man. Unwilling to go back on her promise and disgrace her family, Soo-Ja rejects Yul to marry Min, a decision she will revisit and regret for the next 20 years. The two see each other only periodically, and usually by chance, but their fraught encounters are tense with the passion of unrequited love, as in the excerpt below.
"I thought I'd forget you with time, and I haven't. When I was younger, I thought there was only room for one person at a time in your heart. And each time you met someone new, you evicted the one who was there before. But now I realize that there are multiple rooms, and your old love doesn't leave. It sits there, waiting."
It occurred to Soo-Ja that if she gave him permission, he'd kiss her right then and there. But she realized that all along, what she really wanted wasn't to have him in the present—how could she, married woman that she was, married man that he was—but to rewrite the past, have him go back in time and create a version that allowed them to kiss. To be able to kiss him did not seem to take much—a step forward, the angling of her face. But, in fact, it required rearranging the molecules of every interaction they'd ever had, from the very first day that they met.
"Forget me, Yul. As long as you're here, you're just a guest."
What are you reading this week?