The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
Doubleday • $26.95 • ISBN 9780385536776
On sale August 13, 2013
Hanya Yanagihara's The People in the Trees is one of our August issue's best debut novels of the year, perfect for fans of Donna Tartt, Ann Patchett and Barbara Kingsolver. Our reviewer was practically beside herself with praise, saying, "Novels like these are reminders not only of why we read, but also of just how vital and downright magical storytelling can be."
But if I'm totally honest, I picked this one up because I wanted to read about people eating magical turtles.
And there are definitely people eating turtles here, but fortunately for me, all the other stuff is true, too. Norton Perina, a scientist who has recently fallen from grace, recounts in these fictional memoirs an extraordinary journey into a remote Micronesian island where the meat of a turtle called the opa'ivu'eke may hold the key to eternal youth—but it comes with a terrible price.
The vivid and grotesque descriptions of setting, the engrossing science and the incredible imagination of this story are all enough to earn this book a spot among the best debuts of the year. What makes it one of the best books of the year, period, is its maturity in characterization. To take a man who has lost everything, who has been cast out from society and who may incite disgust in the reader, and allow him to represent himself in his own words defines Yanagihara as a uniquely talented storyteller. It takes compassion to be without judgment.
Check out our Q&A with Yanagihara and read her guest post about the true story behind her debut novel. Then enjoy this excerpt from The People in the Trees:
Looking back on it now, of course, I realize how extraordinary those first few days were, before I became immune to the awes of the jungle and even grew to despise them. One day—it must have been our third or fourth—I was trudging uphill as usual, looking around me, listening to the conversations of birds and animals and insects, feeling the floor beneath me gently buckling and heaving with unseen layers of worms and beetles as I placed my feet upon them; it could feel like treading on the wet innards of a large dozing beast. And then there was for a moment Uva at my side—he normally walked far ahead of me, in a pack with Fa'a and Tu, darting forward and back to assure Tallent that all was safe—holding his hand out before him, signaling me to stop. Then, quickly and gracefully, he sprang toward a nearby tree, indistinguishable from all others, thick and dark and branchless, and scrabbled up it quickly, turning his wide feet inward to cup its thorny bark. When he was about ten feet or so up, he looked down at me and held out his hand again, palm down—wait. I nodded. And then he continued to climb, vanishing into the canopy of the forest.
When he came down, he was slower, and clutching something in his hand. He leapt down the last five feet or so and came over to me, uncurling his fingers. In his palm was something trembling and silky and the bright, delicious pale gold of apples; in the gloom of the jungle it looked like light itself. Uva nudged the thing with a finger and it turned over, and I could see it was a monkey of some sort, though no monkey I had ever seen before; it was only a few inches larger than one of the mice I had once been tasked with killing, and its face was a wrinkled black heart, its features pinched together but its eyes large and as blankly blue as a blind kitten's. It had tiny, perfectly formed hands, one of which was gripping its tail, which it had wrapped around itself and which was flamboyantly furred, its hair hanging like a fringe.
"Vuaka," said Uva, pointing at the creature.
"Vuaka," I repeated, and reached out to touch it. Under its fur I could feel its heart beating, so fast it was almost a purr.
"Vuaka," said Uva again, and then made as if to eat it, solemnly patting his stomach.
The People in the Trees is one of my favorite debuts of the year, but First Fiction Month has highlighted plenty of other great debuts!
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
by Adelle Waldman
Holt • $25 • ISBN 9780805097450
on sale July 16
As a veteran of the rough-and-tumble, often-perplexing NYC dating scene, I was immensely curious to crack open The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., the debut novel by Adelle Waldman. A peek into the mind—the motivations, the rationalizations, the insecurities—of a 30-something writer living in Brooklyn? Yes, please!
Nathaniel ("Nate") Piven is on the cusp of literary stardom. A freelance writer who has his pick of magazine assignments, he has just sold his first book to a major publisher for a six-figure advance. He also has his pick of the ladies. The book jacket promises "a plunge into the psyche of a modern man—who thinks himself as beyond superficial judgment, yet constantly struggles with his own status anxiety; who is drawn to women, yet has a habit of letting them down." Complexly layered characters like Nate are few and far between—he elicits sympathy one moment, supreme frustration the next, which just makes him all the more believable. Waldman's keen, effortless prose adds to the difficulty of putting the book down once you've started.
Here's a brief excerpt from early on in the book. Nate's at a dinner party being thrown by his ex-girlfriend/now-friend, Elisa:
While he ate his chicken cacciatore—which, as it happened, was quite good—Nate studied Elisa's heart-shaped face: those big, limpid eyes and dramatic cheekbones, the pretty, bow-shaped lips and profusion of white teeth. Each time Nate saw her, Elisa's beauty struck him anew, as if in the interval the memory of what she actually looked like had been distorted by the tortured emotions she elicited since they'd broken up: in his mind, she took on the dimensions of an abject creature. What a shock when she opened the door, bursting with vibrant, almost aggressive good health. The power of her beauty, Nate had once decided, came from its ability to constantly reconfigure itself. When he thought he'd accounted for it, filed it away as a dead fact—pretty girl—she turned her head or bit her lip, and like a children's toy you shake to reset, her prettiness changed shape, its coordinates altered: now it flashed from the elegant contours of her sloping brow and flaring cheekbone, now from her shyly smiling lips. "Elisa the Beautiful," Nate had said without thinking when she hugged him at the door. She'd beamed, breezily overlooking his lateness.
Yet only a short while later, he'd acclimated. Hannah had complimented her apartment. "I hate it," Elisa responded. "It's small, and it's laid out poorly. The fixtures are incredibly cheap." Then a quick smile: "Thank you, though."
The familiar hint of whine in Elisa's voice brought back to Nate an equally familiar cocktail of guilt and pity and dread. Also sheer annoyance—that spoiled, ill-tempered quality about her. Her prettiness became an irritant, a Calypso-like lure to entrap him again.
Will you be reading The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.? What are you reading this week?
In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods
by Matt Bell
Soho • $25 • ISBN 9781616952532
published June 18, 2013
Yes, the title of this debut novel is a bit meandering, but it actually fits the vibe of author Matt Bell's story perfectly. The narrator of this entrancing fable lives with his wife "in the house upon the dirt between the lake and the woods." After getting married, they left the city, choosing a rural, secluded life in which he is a fisherman and trapper, while she tends to their home, which they hope to fill with children. Thick with fantastical allegories—the narrator navigates an enormous maze of corridors and rooms underneath their little cabin, and his wife sings things, like furniture and a moon, into existence—the book embraces the timeless and universal—and very real, primal—themes of love, grief, longing and jealousy. I can't decide which is more impressive: Bell's boundless imagination or the spare-yet-lyrical, simply lovely way that he has woven words together to express it. Prepare to be mesmerized.
Here, the novel's opening:
Before our first encounter with the bear I had already finished building the house, or nearly so.
In the hasty days that followed, I feared we moved in too fast and too early, the house's furnishings still incomplete, the doors not all right-hinged—and in response to my worries my wife said that was no trouble, that she could quickly finish what I had mostly made.
Beneath the unscrolling story of new sun and stars and then-lonely moon, she began to sing some new possessions into the interior of our house, and between the lake and the woods I heard her songs become stronger than ever before. I returned to the woods to cut more lumber, so that I too might add to our household, might craft for her a crib and a bassinet, a table for changing diapers, all the other furnishings she desired. We labored together, and soon our task seemed complete, our house readied for what dreams we shared—the dream I had given her, of family, of husband and wife, father and mother, child and child—and when the earliest signs of my wife's first pregnancy came they were attended with joy and celebration.
Good Kings Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum
Algonquin • $23.95 • ISBN 9781616202637
published May 28, 2013
Stories told from alternating perspectives catch me every time, and Good Kings Bad Kings is no exception. Susan Nussbaum has created a powerful debut novel, the winner of this year's Barbara Kingsolver's PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Nussbaum's story gives readers a look into the lives of institutionalized juveniles with disabilities, including Yessenia Lopez, who just wants to be living free again, and Teddy, who dresses in a suit and tie every day. The voices of these children and others are joined by those of caring employees working at the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center, like Joanne, the data-entry clerk. Throughout the pages, friendship, love and trust are explored as these characters forge relationships that will give them the strength they need to fight back against their mistreatment.
Nussbaum's novel is a challenging look at institutions and what being disabled really means. Humor and authentic voices pair together to make this novel one that will leave you thinking about the choices you make every day. Here's an excerpt from Joanne's point-of-view:
My duties are mostly typing. There must have been dozens of far more appropriate applicants. People who type with all ten fingers, for example. But for the first—and I feel pretty certain only—time I think I got a job because of my disability. It's well known in crip circles that the best place for a crip to get a job is a place that's swarming with other crips. So I applied, emphasizing my computer skills, which are pretty good, and how important it is for disabled youth to see disabled adults in the workplace. Places like this love the idea of role models. There was no haggling over the miserable pay either, as money is no object for me. No salary could possibly be too low. The place could pay me in rat turds and I'd happily put them in my wallet. What I needed more than money was human interaction.
What are you reading this week?
Indiscretion by Charles Dubow
Morrow • $25.99 • ISBN 9780062201058
On sale February 5, 2013
And what a page-turner it is. The plot follows the life of a seemingly perfect woman who is married to a National Book Award-winning author. They spend their summers in a lovely cottage in East Hampton; life is good. Early in the novel, they take a young woman, Claire, under their wings, and she comes to adore Harry and Maddy. Claire's very sad when the summer is over, but that winter she comes back into their lives with a vengeance, and nothing is ever the same . . .
The editor's letter compares Indiscretion to The Great Gatsby. Though the storytelling here doesn't have the elegance of Fitzgerald's classic (what does?), the plot does follow the same sort of tortured upper-class characters who experience a tragic fall from grace. If you like reading about glamorous lifestyles and the split-second choices that can upend a person's life, then this book is for you.
In the novel, the narrator is Maddy's best friend, Walter, an observer of the summer's activities and all that comes after. Here's an early scene:
Labor Day. The summer's last hurrah. Already night is falling earlier. Autumn is waiting on the doorstep. People bring sweaters when they go out in the evening.
Claire is driving with me. She has been out every weekend. She is now one of the gang, part of a nucleus that never changes even when minor characters drift in and out at restaurants, cocktail parties, lazy afternoons at the Winslows' or at the beach, nights playing charades, sailing in my little sailboat, Johnny's ninth birthday, skinny-dipping in the ocean, or sitting under the stars listening to Verdi. We are all tan. [...]
I am deposing her. Where she was born, where she lived, where she went to college, what she studied, why she does what she does, who she is. My right hand itches for a yellow legal pad to scratch it all down, but I will remember it well enough.
She is a willing witness, her tongue loosened by gin. And I am on my best behavior, not aggressive, but solicitous, empathetic. She tells me about her father, her French mother, her younger brother, who lives in California, where he works for a software company. But I also know witnesses have their own motivations. They will lie, or twist facts, if they have to. They can be resentful or closed, releasing only the most meager information. Others want me to like them thinking that will color my interpretation of the law.
And it is clear that Claire wants me to like her. Not romantically, alas. No, she is too easy around me for that. Instead, she treats me the way one would treat a prospective employer.
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
Little, Brown • $25.99 • on sale September 7, 2011
You may have heard of Chad Harbach a little more than a year ago, when several news outlets ran sensational headlines like "Unemployed Harvard Man Auctions Baseball Novel for $650,000." Although I enjoy sports stories, and Harbach's presumed reference to Ted Williams' The Science of Hitting made me smile, I was a bit skeptical of a debut novel that clocked in at 500+ pages and had received so much hype. (In his editor's letter, Michael Pietsch called it one of the most "moving and accomplished" novels he's read in his career.)
Luckily, the praise was deserved.
The story takes place at a small liberal arts college near Lake Michigan, where Henry Skrimshander, a boy from a modest background, has been recruited to play shortstop for a flailing team. He was recruited after team captain Mike Schwartz saw him play during an American Legion game and recognized untamed genius. Sure enough, by Henry's junior year he is a major league prospect, and Mike has become his mentor.
Don't worry if you aren't a sports fan. Though baseball certainly provides a rich background for this story (whose heart isn't tugged by the highs and lows of an underdog team?), the real drama surrounds Henry and Mike's friendship; the delicate relationship between the college president and Henry's roommate; and Henry's fall from grace after a throw goes wrong. The story kept me up until 2 a.m. on a work night and made its way onto our "25 most anticipated books for fall" list. It's a good-old-fashioned story about growing up, disappointment and passion—and will surely be one of the most memorable books I read in 2011.
Here's a scene that takes place after Henry's errant throw, which causes a personal crisis:
He'd never been able to talk to anyone, not really. Words were a problem, the problem. Words were tainted somehow—or no, he was tainted somehow, damaged, incomplete, because he didn't know how to use words to say anything better than 'Hi' or 'I'm hungry' or 'I'm not.'
Everything that had ever happened was trapped inside of him. Every feeling he'd ever felt. Only on the field had he ever been able to express himself. Off the field there was no other way than with words, unless you were some kind of artist or musician or mime. Which he wasn't. It wasn't that he wanted to die. That wasn't it. That wasn't what not eating was about. It wasn't about perfection either.
What would he say to her, if he was going to speak truly? He didn't know. Talking was like throwing a baseball. You couldn't plan it out beforehand. You just had to let go and see what happened. You had to throw out words without knowing whether anyone would catch them—you had to throw out words you knew no one would catch. You had to send your words out where they weren't yours anymore. It felt better to talk with a ball in your hand, it felt better to let the ball do the talking. But the world, the non-baseball world, the world of love and sex and jobs and friends was made of words.
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?
The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht
Random House • $25 • March 8, 2011
We've been talking about Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife for months—since June, in fact, when Obreht was announced as the youngest person on The New Yorker's "20 under 40" list. Since then, you've been able to read an interview with Obreht in our March issue, and go behind that interview in a guest post from BookPage contributor Alden Mudge. You've even learned that part of The Tiger's Wife was composed in Starbucks. (Oh yeah, and learned that certain BookPage staffers feel a fair bit of Obreht envy.)
So. What more could I possibly write about The Tiger's Wife, which is on sale this week? Much of this novel is about secrets, but here's a pleasant truth that I'm happy to share with readers of The Book Case. When I started reading this novel, I expected a slow beginning, or to feel some sort of disappointment. So much hype! How could a book stack up? (For the record, I felt this way about Room. And quickly changed my mind.) But the truth I want to share is that I was very quickly drawn into The Tiger's Wife, because Obreht immediately plants the seed of a mystery:
Why did a grandfather travel to a strange place while he was very sick—without telling his wife or beloved granddaughter—then die? (And as a doctor, he surely knew he might not survive the journey.)
Soon after you're hooked by this scenario, you'll find an intriguing magic-laced paragraph:
Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger's wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life—of my grandfather's days in the army; his great love for my grandmother; the years he spent as a surgeon and a tyrant of the University. One, which I learned after his death, is the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other, which he told to me, is of how he became a child again.
What are you reading today?
The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard
Ecco • $22.99 • 9780061996054
The story begins when 16-year-old Nora Lindell goes missing on Halloween, and a group of suburban boys spend their lives speculating on what happened. The narrative jumps from one possibility to the next, and though the plot does not have a traditional beginning, middle and end, Pittard's writing will nonetheless keep you hooked, and she is skilled at evoking the mood surrounding a tragedy.
The Fates Will Find Their Way is told in a first-person plural voice, a collective viewpoint that I most strongly associate with Joshua Ferris' Then We Came to the End, although in this case The Virgin Suicides is a more apt comparison. (I will admit that I only saw the movie.) In Ferris' novel, though, it felt like the "we" in each scene was always connected with a specific character, and in Pittard's book it's much more of a hovering voice.
Here's an excerpt from an early scene:
As our curfew drew nearer, the stories became more lurid, more adult, more sinister, and somehow more believable. Sarah Jeffreys—who'd abandoned the girls that night in favor of our company, perhaps for the protection of boys and would-be men, though perhaps merely to avoid the clingy sadness of the girls, their willowy voices, their insistence that It could have been me!—said she drove Nora Lindell to the abortion clinic in Forest Hollow the day before Halloween, which seemed to lend credence to Trey Stephens' claim that he'd had sex with her the month before. Sarah had been sworn to secrecy, which is why she said she would never tell Nora's father. She—Nora—had taken the pregnancy test at school, while Sarah waited one stall over. Sarah said someone had left the window open in the girls' bathroom in the gymnasium and that Nora had complained that it was too cold to pee. Details like this we found convincing. A detail we didn't find convincing was that we'd never seen Sarah and Nora together before. We pointed this out. "Anyway," said Sara. "Three hours after I dropped Nora off, I picked her up. She was standing right where I'd left her. We drove back to town together."
What are you reading today?
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson
Random House • $15 • Paperback published in November 2010 (hardcover published in March 2010)
This week's Monday Contest is all about book clubs, so I thought it only appropriate to highlight an excerpt from a novel that will surely become a popular reading group pick in 2011.
When Linda White reviewed Major Pettigrew's Last Stand (in hardcover) back in February 2010, she praised its success in exploring "the rift not only between generations, but between cultures." (She also wrote that you'll laugh, you'll cry and you'll feel like you're on vacation in the English countryside. What more can you ask of book than that?!)
Now, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is out in paperback, and you can find a Reader's Guide on the Random House website. I have been dying to read the novel ever since BEA, when a couple of BookPage elves (with sticky fingers) snagged me a signed copy.
Here's an excerpt from this romantic comedy of manners that will leave Austen fans delighted—and eager to learn when debut novelist Helen Simonson is releasing book two:
"It's Jasmina now, is it?" said Roger as the Major poured tea and handed round the cups. "I can't believe my own father has a lady friend—at his age." He shook his head as if this were the final nail in the coffin of his shattered life.
"I refuse to be referred to by a term so oily with double entendre," said Jasmina as she hung her coat on one of the pegs by the back door and came to sit at the table. She was very composed as she smiled at Roger, though the Major noted a slight compression of the jaw and chin. "I prefer 'lover,'" she said.