Sailing to Alluvium by John Pritchard
NewSouth Books • $27.95 • ISBN 9781588382696
Published November 2013
Southern novelist John Pritchard returns this month with the third installment in his Delta-set Junior Ray Saga, following 2008's Yazoo Blues. This time out, Junior Ray Loveblood (with his sidekick Voyd Mudd) is tracking an unlikely group of murderers: The Aunty Belles, a secret-but-deadly organization of otherwise prim and proper Southern ladies.
Pritchard's distinctive vernacular writing style is on full display in Sailing to Alluvium, and Junior Ray and Voyd haven't reined in their gleeful vulgarity. Check out this excerpt for a taste:
I wouldna never thought for a minute nothin like what I'm about to pass on to you could ever have happened. On the other hand, I am not surprised by none of it. And when people ast me when all this I'mo tell you about went on . . . I just say it's all more like up-around now than it was, but it was before the time I talked my first book. In other words I had not yet become a R-thur.
Called Again: A Story of Love and Triumph by Jennifer Pharr Davis
Beaufort Books • $24.95 • ISBN 9780825306938
published June 10, 2013
As a fan of Becoming Odyssa, her memoir of first hiking the AT after college, I was thrilled when I learned that Davis had written a new book, Called Again: A Story of Love and Triumph, about her recent record-breaking experience. Certain to entertain readers—fellow hikers or not—this is a story of perseverance and grit, love, dedication and sacrifice. It’s not so much about being the fastest AT hiker ever, as about taking on a challenge, consistently doing your best and allowing yourself to rely on other people to help you along the way.
Readers feeling unsure of themselves or frustrated by societal pressures regarding what they should look like, act like and/or focus on would benefit from reading Davis’ story, which offers plenty of inspiration for becoming a better "me."
Here are Davis’ thoughts after Anne Riddle Lundblad, an accomplished ultra-runner, tells Jen she’s a role model:
"I mean, how does hiking the Appalachian Trail in a short amount of time positively impact anyone? But Anne made me realize that being a role model isn’t about inspiring other people to be like you; it is about helping them to be the fullest version of themselves. The main legacy of this endeavor would not be to encourage others to set a record on the Appalachian Trail, but to encourage them to be the best form of their truest selves. And it just so happened that my best form was a hiker."
"No one seemed interested in what I'd learned or what the most valuable part of the experience had been. Instead, everyone wanted to talk about how I averaged 46.93 miles per day. . . . Why didn't anyone ask about the notions of living in the present or choosing something purposeful and fulfilling over something fun and easy? Or the idea that persistence and consistency can be more valuable than speed or strength? . . . Why did no one realize that the most miraculous part of the summer was not the record, but how well my husband had loved me?!"
If you’ve read Wild, the best-selling memoir by Cheryl Strayed, you know it is about much more than just hiking. Such is Davis’ story, too. The white blaze and rolling mountains on the cover will pull you in, and by the time you reach the end of the trail atop Springer Mountain, you’ll be wondering how you, too, can find your best self.
Next week, I'll be hiking in the Tetons with my husband, and, having read Called Again, I know that I'll be a "better me" while I'm there. What book(s) have inspired you to become a better version of yourself?
Brilliance by Marcus Sakey
Thomas & Mercer • $14.95 • ISBN 9781611099690
published July 16, 2013
Marcus Sakey's new supernatural thriller, Brilliance, lives up to its name. From the very start, this first novel in a projected series is full of action and intrigue. Since the 198os, about 1% of American children are born "brilliant" with a special gift—they're also known as abnorms. Some of these aborms can be a problem, and it is Nick Cooper's job as a government agent to catch the bad ones—as his own abnormal gift is to hunt his own kind. Can Cooper stop all of the bad abnorms from hurting people, and how does he tell the good guys from the bad?
In the opening chapter, Cooper has spent the day tracking an abnorm and finally catches up with her in a hotel bar in San Antonio, Texas:
Cooper took a sip of coffee. It was burned and watery. "You hear there was another bombing? Philadelphia this time. I was listening to the radio on the way in. Talk radio, some redneck. He said a war was coming. Told us to open our eyes."
"Who's us?" The woman spoke to her hands.
"Around here, I'm pretty sure 'us' means Texans, and 'them' means the other seven billion on the planet."
"Sure. Because there aren't any brilliants in Texas."
Cooper shrugged, took another sip of his coffee. "Fewer than some other places. The same percentage are born here, but they tend to move to more liberal areas with larger population density. Greater tolerance, and more chance to be with their own kind. There are gifted in Texas, but you'll find more per capita in Los Angeles or New York." He paused. "Or Boston."
Alex Vasquez's fingers went white around her bottle of Bud. She'd been slouching before, the lousy posture of a programmer who spent whole days plugged in, but now she straightened. For a long moment she stared straight ahead. "You're not a cop."
Through some twisted ups and downs, the fast-paced Brilliance has all of the best with manipulation, revolution and social commentary in a world disturbingly close to our own. In an interview, author Marcus Sakey said that he hates for his plots to be revealed, so I will stop there and simply say be ready to stay up all night with this one.
Will you be reading Brilliance? What are you reading during Private Eye July?
Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt
St. Martin's • $25.99 • ISBN 9781250020833
On sale August 20
When a book is likened to A Confederacy of Dunces—one of the most brilliant, hilarious books ever written, in my opinion—I inevitably experience an initial spark of excitement, which is promptly dampened by a fog of pessimism. It was with this ambivalence that I recently cracked open Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt.
Jerene is the polished matriarch of the Johnston family in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her husband, Duke, is a descendant of an infamous Confederate general; her brother, Gaston, is a successful crack novelist bitter at not being among the literary elite; her sister, Dillard, is practically a recluse. And then there are Jerene's four children. Jerilyn is the focus of the beginning of the novel. It's 2003, and she's a freshman at Chapel Hill, hell-bent on breaking out from her studious, reserved high school persona and joining—against her mother's wishes—the wildest sorority on campus with the very retro intention of finding a husband before graduating.
All of this is leading up to a scandal of some sort that I can't wait to get to. In the meantime, I've been disrupting the silence in a couple of coffeeshops with my snickering. The humor is wicked, sharp and subversive—which is just the way I like it.
Here's an excerpt offering insight into Jerilyn's aching desire to get accepted into Sigma Kappa Nu, which her roommate aptly describes as all about "drugs, booze, and boys!"
[Jerilyn] would turn the page on decorum-blighted Jerilyn Johnston. She knew that the PG-13 summer-movie sorority stereotype of the wild, hot girls, barely contained in clothes for all the suds and water that came their way, and the male-model-hot fraternity stud, beer in one hand, cell phone in the other, hooking up with the girls like a harem—she knew all that was a cartoon image of sorority life, but it was precisely the movie stereotype she was curious about; she now wanted to immerse herself in this too shallow pool. And if a frat brother was a cad, two-timing her with another sister, if there was face-slapping and tears and throwing herself into his frat brother roommate's arms . . . wasn't that all Life? Excitement, drama, action? For once, someone should say, That Jerilyn Johnston! Back at Carolina, she was a wild one! And everyone knows these frat boys eventually knuckle under, pass the bar, say yes to being in their dad's law firm, partner in eight years. God, it was all going according to plan!
What do you think, readers? Will you be reading Lookaway, Lookaway? What are you reading this week?
Was it the intimidating triple name? The comparisons to serious authors like Achebe? The preconception that books about Africa were likely to be on the grim side? Whatever the reason, despite the literary buzz surrounding Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I had somehow placed her in the category of authors I might admire, but probably wouldn't love. At least, until I cracked open her latest, Americanah, a completely enjoyable novel that's full of heart as well as ideas and features a realistic, relatable modern heroine: Nigerian-born Ifemelu. Given its trenchant observations on race and immigration, you might call Americanah the American White Teeth, although Adichie's novel (her third) demonstrates more maturity and less exuberance than Zadie Smith's notable debut.
As Americanah opens, Ifemelu has decided to return to Nigeria after being educated in the United Sates, and finds herself remembering the boy she left behind: her first love, Obinze. Ifemelu has spent much of her time in America writing a popular blog on race, Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (those formerly known as Negros) by a Non-American Black, so her observational powers are finely honed. Here, she contemplates her fellow train passengers:
So here she was, on a day filled with the opulence of summer, about to braid her hair for the journey home. Sticky heat sat on her skin. There were people thrice her size on the Trenton platform, and she looked admiringly at one of them, a woman in a very short skirt. She thought nothing of slender legs shown off in miniskirts—it was safe and easy, after all, to display legs of which the world approved—but the fat woman's act was about the quiet conviction that one shared only with oneself, a sense of rightness that others failed to see. Her decision to move back was similar; whenever she felt besieged by doubts, she would think of herself as standing valiantly alone, as almost heroic, so as to squash her uncertainty.
There's much more to love: Adichie's depictions of modern Lagos, her portrait of life as an undocumented immigrant, her exploration of why someone who lived in a country that wasn't facing starvation or genocide, but simply a lack of opportunity, might be willing to risk all for a chance in the West—I could go on, but I'll stop there and just tell you to pick this one up already. What are you reading this week?
RELATED IN BOOKPAGE: Our review of Americanah.
The Shelter Cycle by Peter Rock
HMH • $23 • ISBN 9780547859088
Published April 2, 2013
One of my favorite books of 2009 was Peter Rock's My Abandonment, a quiet, haunting and thoughtful narrative that contemplates what makes a parent—and a family. In his sixth book, The Shelter Cycle, Rock considers what happens when you're raised thinking you won't live to grow up. What is it like to become an adult in a world you thought would never exist?
Francine was raised in a cult that believed that a Soviet missile attack would destroy the world in the 1980s. After the deadline came and went, the group disbanded, parting Francine from her best friend, Coville. Francine went to college, got married and is now pregnant with her first child. But when Coville shows up, she has to face her past and decide what it means for her future.
Rock excels at portraying characters who are out of place in the modern world. Coville, who still hangs on to the remnants of his childhood belief system, doesn't really try to fit in, but Francine does. She struggles to explain herself to her husband, even as she is doubts he will be able to understand her past.
"I've been thinking," she said. "Of how much fun we had back then. Playing around. Talking to Maya. Just being out in the canyons and everything." She rolled over, almost trapping his hands beneath her body, her face close to his, her belly firm against him. "Sometimes it's hard to figure out how I got from there to here."
"But you did," he said. "Here you are."
"Yes, I did," she said. "And I am here." She turned over, away from him once more; she was silent for a moment, and then she spoke again. . . .
"We were used to being surrounded by people who all believed the same, who were preparing for the same things, you know? So when we moved away, we lost all that. It was hard to know what to do."
"And you lost your folks, too."
"That's what I'm saying." Francine shifted, straightening her legs. "Knowing we're going to have the baby makes me think about them, my parents. It makes me remember everything, how it was."
What are you reading this week?
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?
The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma
Viking • $26.95 • ISBN 9780670026005
Published March 21, 2013
In vignette-style chapters, our unnamed narrator wrestles with the misery of writing and his strange relationships to both his friends and to fiction. He never gains any sort of depth, and neither do his supporting players. He does makes small transformations, but his trajectory moves from one unfortunately typical personality to the next—first naive, then intolerably pretentious, etc. It toys with some Fitzgeraldian themes (rich people) with characters that feel a little Fear and Loathing or Withnail and I—but its postmodern stab doesn't really land.
What this book does have going for it are some interesting ruminations on the scope and purpose of storytelling, as well as the role of the storyteller. Ultimately, in the Leopard world, storytelling is just a series of lies and plagiarism:
I'd been pondering my chosen vocation—to write fiction and to slant the truth—to tell lies, for a living. But I wasn't good enough at it. No one believed me. And then my mind wandered back to little Deshawn, sitting at his desk avoiding the roaches, filling in those little Scantron bubbles with his yellow number-two pencil. He'd said that taking tests was like evolution in action—only instead of the brightest and most capable students suriving, it seemed that victory fell to those who could scam the test, learn the rhythms of the answers, the tenor of trick questions, take educated guesses, and budget their time. The teachers had stopped teaching science and English and started teaching them how to pass the test. Was it gaming the system? Or was it an evolutionary necessity?
The real novelists make you believe, as you read, that their stories are real. You hold your breath as Raskolnikov approaches his neighbor with a raised ax. You weep when no one comes to Gatsby's funeral. And when you realize you are being so well fooled, you love the author all the more for it. Up in front of my students each day as Professor Timothy Wallace, I discovered the thrill of getting away with the manufacturing of reality. I had a way not only to pay the bills, but to become a better purveyor of make-believe. I had put myself into an evolutionary situation wherein my failure to deceive would result in disaster. Wherein I'd be forced to risk everything. Where I'd be rewarded for my successes at dishonesty. And the reward was that I barely though of my old life anymore.
The writing is vivid, and the characters, while flat, don't bore. For readers who like to consider the construction of fiction, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards could make a good fit as a study of what does and does not work.
What are you reading today?
Falling to Earth by Kate Southwood
Europa Editions • $16 • ISBN 9781609450915
on sale March 2013
The debut novel from Kate Southwood is set in the 1920s Midwest, and opens just as a devastating tornado strikes a small town. As the residents of Marah, Illinois, sort through the wreckage, it becomes clear that only one family has escaped the storm's wrath. But the resulting hostility and anger focused on Paul Graves and his wife and children by their suffering neighbors may have even fiercer consequences.
Southwood's prose is vibrant and clear, and Falling to Earth's thrilling opening immediately draws in the reader with its brutal depiction of the power of nature.
Running the length of his own mutilated street, Paul tries to look straight ahead at what he's running toward. He can't make any sense of the nightmare vision, but neither can he look away. The cloud has been capricious: the houses on one side of the street have been knocked into piles of sticks, the bricks blown out of the sidewalks and trees snatched out of the ground like hanks of hair. On the other side, the houses are still standing, some shoved over sideways or twisted. Their roofs are mostly gone and the first fires have been touched off by the snapped electrical lines and cookstoves lying in the wreckage. A few of the people he passes walk naked, crazed, calling out names. An arm rests in the crotch of a tree. Paul tries again to shut out the grotesques, running toward home, running through the searing of his lungs, desperately afraid of arriving.
What are you reading this week?
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Viking • $27.95 • ISBN 9780670026630
On sale March 12, 2013
Magical, playful, inventive and compelling, Ruth Ozeki's third novel arrived like a breath of fresh air on my desk. A Tale for the Time Being entwines the stories of a Japanese teenager, Nao, and a middle-aged Japanese-Canadian author named Ruth. Nao, who is 16 and something of a loner, is writing down the story of her 104-year-old grandmother in a diary—a diary that Ruth discovers when it washes up, preserved in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, on the shore of the Canadian island she lives on with her husband Oliver. They wonder: Is it flotsam or jetsam? (Precision is important to Ruth.) Detritus from the 2011 tsunami, or a message in a bottle? From the first page of the diary, Ruth is captivated by Nao's voice, and determined to uncover her fate.
Ozeki uses this intriguing premise to explore the reader-writer relationship and the interconnectedness of human life. But this is a novel to be enjoyed as much for its graceful writing and vivid characters as its provocative ideas. Here, Ruth opens the diary for the first time:
Print is predictable and impersonal, conveying information in a mechanical transaction with the human eye.
Handwriting, by contrast, resists the eye, reveals its meaning slowly, and is as intimate as skin.
Ruth stared at the page. The purple words were mostly in English with some Japanese characters scattered here and there, but her eye wasn't really taking in their meaning so much as a felt sense, murky and emotional, of the writer's presence. The fingers that had gripped the purple gel ink pen must have belonged to a girl, a teenager. Her handwriting, these loopy purple marks impressed onto the page, retained her moods and anxieties, and the moment Ruth laid eyes on the page, she knew without a doubt that the girl's fingertips were pink and moist, and that she had bitten her nails down to the quick.
What are you reading this week?