The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Ecco • $14.99 • ISBN 9780062060624
Published March 2012 • Winner of the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction
Confession: Homer doesn't do it for me. Greek mythology was fun, but The Odyssey was the one book in high school that I, an avowed abhorrer of Cliffs Notes, ever faked finishing (sorry, Mrs. Brown!), and I never even bothered giving The Iliad a try. (This decision was later validated in my mind after watching the 2004 film Troy, which I found just OK, despite the eye candy of Brad Pitt, Orlando Bloom and Eric Bana.) So the idea of enjoying a novel based on The Iliad . . . well, it sounded unlikely to say the least.
But readers and reviewers—people whose opinions I respected—kept buzzing about The Song of Achilles. When it won the Orange Prize, putting it in the company of several of my favorite novels, I decided it was time to put my prejudices aside and dive in. And I'm glad I did. Miller's novel has poetic touches, and the world is one that readers of Homer will recognize, but she imagines it in a more personal light: through the lens of the friendship and eventual love story between Patroclus, a disgraced Greek prince, and the warrior Achilles, a demigod with a tragic destiny. Patroclus narrates the novel, and the strong bond between him and Achilles provides an intimate counterpoint to the epic chronicle of the Trojan War.
Patroclus first sees Achilles when they are both children and Achilles has come to run in the games held in Patrocles' father's kingdom.
He is shorter than the others, and still plump with childhood in a way they are not. His hair is long, and tied back with leather; it burns against the dark, bare skin of his back. His face, when he turns, is as serious as a man's.
When the priest strikes the ground, he slips past the thickened bodies of the older boys. He moves easily, his heels flashing pink as licking tongues. He wins.
I stare as my father lifts the garland from my lap and crowns him; the leaves seem almost black against the brightness of his hair. His father, Peleus, comes to claim him, smiling and proud. Peleus' kingdom is smaller than ours, but his wife is rumored to be a goddess, and his people love him. My father watches with envy. His wife is stupid and his son too slow to race in even the youngest group. He turns to me.
"This is what a son should be."
What are you reading this week?
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
Nan Talese • $26.95 • ISBN 9780385536820
On sale November 13, 2012
We've been anticipating Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth for a few months now, so it was a relief to dive in recently and find a delightful adventure tale told by a protagonist readers will identify with right away: Bibliophile and Cambridge grad Serena, who is recruited for the British secret service.
I've written before about enjoying authors' descriptions of reading, and there's an evocative one early on in Sweet Tooth. Says Serena of her days at Cambridge:
I've said I was fast. The Way We Live Now in four afternoons lying on my bed! I could take in a block of text or a whole paragraph in one visual gulp. It was a matter of letting my eyes and thoughts go soft, like wax, to take the impression of the page. To the irritation of those around me, I'd turn a page every few seconds with an impatient snap of the wrist. My needs were simple. I didn't bother much with themes or felicitous phrases and skipped fine descriptions of weather, landscapes and interiors. I wanted characters I could believe in, and I wanted to be made curious about what was to happen to them. Generally, I preferred people to be falling in and out of love, but I didn't mind so much if they tried their hand at something else. It was vulgar to want it, but I liked someone to say 'Marry me' by the end. Novels without female characters were a lifeless desert. Conrad was beyond my consideration, as were most stories by Kipling and Hemingway. Nor was I impressed by reputations. I read anything I saw lying around. Pulp fiction, great literature and anything in between—I gave them all the same rough treatment.
I'm not sure McEwan entirely approves of Serena's approach to reading here, but I can identify with finding books without female characters rather lifeless. What are you reading this week?
Eight Girls Taking Pictures by Whitney Otto
Scribner • $25 • ISBN 9781451682694
On sale November 6, 2012
It has been 10 years since Whitney Otto published her last book, A Collection of Beauties at the Height of Their Popularity. Her perceptive and compelling new novel, Eight Girls Taking Pictures, is one of my favorite fall releases so far. It tells the stories of eight female photographers, all inspired by real-life women, who face the challenges of balancing their passion for their art with their roles as mothers, wives and lovers. Though these vignettes range throughout the first two-thirds of the 20th century, the tension between career and family is, unfortunately, timeless—as is Cymbeline's 1910 insight into her future as a photographer after a conversation with her professor and lover, excerpted here.
[W]hen Julius Weiss made his remark about her work as a hobby, it wasn't anything she hadn't heard before. What was new was hearing it from him.
Julius sighed. "You should understand that I'm not asking you to find the thing in a subject that engages you—rather I am suggesting you see that subject in a whole new way—as a photographer, see it so that everything will interest you." He said, "You can do this, Cymbeline."
Here was the strange thing: She understood absolutely that he believed in her ability, yet his belief had the effect of suddenly making her doubt herself. And something else, too: she had a moment of hard clarity that her life, her woman's life, would be full of choices—ordinary ones a man might not even see as choices but as "life"—that would constantly be canceling each other out.
What are you reading this week?
May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes
Viking • $26.95 • ISBN 9780670025480
on sale October 1, 2012
But unlike DeLillo's work, May We Be Forgiven allows for the possibility of making something real out of the craziness of modern life, even as it acknowledges the difficulty of doing so. In this excerpt, Harry is visiting his brother George, whose life he's virtually taken over after a series of horrific events and acts land George in a mental institution.
"Fuckin' freak show," George says when they're all gone.
"And you're the star," I say.
"How's my dog and kitty?"
"Fine," I say. "It would have been nice to know about the invisible fence, but we figured it out."
"Are you giving Tessie [the dog] the vitamins and the anti-inflammatory?"
"Which ones are hers?"
"In the kitchen cabinet, the big jar."
"I thought they were yours," I say. "I've been taking them daily."
"You're a moron," George declares.
I pull the accordion file out from under my ass. "There are some things I have to ask you. I'll start with the small stuff: How does the outdoor light for the front yard work? Also, I met Hiram P. Moody, he came to the funeral—does he pay all the bills? . . . What's your PIN number? Also, I tried to use the credit card but it was password protected; they asked for your mother's maiden name. I typed in Greenberg, but it didn't work."
"Dandridge," George says.
"Whose name is that?"
"It's Martha Washington's maiden name," he says, like I should know.
"Funny enough, that had never occurred to me; I thought they meant your mother's maiden name, not like the mother of America."
"Sometimes I forget the actual family, but I never forget Martha," George says. "I'm surprised you didn't know, you call yourself a historian."
"Speaking of history, I tried to enter your place of birth as New York, but again I was wrong."
"I use Washington, D.C.," George says. "It's really a question of what I can keep in mind."
Say Nice Things About Detroit by Scott Lasser
Norton • $25.95 • ISBN 9780393082999
On sale July 2, 2012
The title of Scott Lasser's fourth novel got my attention a couple of months back. The book itself had me turning the pages during a delay-filled flight to—where else—Detroit. This is a suspenseful story about homecomings, loss and second chances, as David moves back to Detroit to care for his parents only to discover that his high school girlfriend, Natalie, has been killed in a random shooting with her half brother, Dirk. As the story unfolds, it appears that the shooting may not have been quite as random as it appears, and David could be caught in the crosshairs.
Already optioned for film by Steve Carell, this book will appeal to fans of "The Wire" and The 25th Hour. It's gritty, yes, but not without hope—and humor, as shown in this extract:
"You lack the basic chattel of life—a wife, children, debt. These things give a man purpose."
Maybe, David thought, though he had had all that chattel, and look where it had got him.
His father talked on. "Most men, they get up in the morning, they go off to work, and they know why: They've got a family to feed. It's been that way forever. It drives the world. The animal world, too. You, you get up in the morning and then—why do you go off to work?"
"To make you happy," David said.
"Make me happy?" his father asked.
"Sure, so when someone says to you, 'How's David doing?' you don't have to answer, 'He's home on the couch drinking vodka from the bottle.' "
Inside by Alix Ohlin
Knopf • $24.95 • ISBN 9780307596925
on sale June 5, 2012
In a dark but satisfying second novel, Alix Ohlin connects the stories of three lonely people across decades and continents in a manner that recalls one of my favorite books from 2010, Frederick Reiken's Day for Night. Consistently surprising, often devastating as the protagonists find themselves unable to achieve closeness with others—to share what's on the inside—it's a memorable read.
After all, it isn't every novel that begins with a woman stumbling over a failed suicide on a ski slope:
The air torn from her returned slowly, painfully, to her burning lungs. When she could breathe she said, "Are you all right?"
There was no answer. He was flung across the trail with his head half buried in the snow. Beyond his body the ski marks stopped. She thought he must have had an accident, but then she saw his skis propped neatly against a tree.
She got to her feet and gingerly stepped around until she could see his face. He wasn't wearing a hat. "Excuse me," she said, louder. "Are you okay?" She thought maybe he'd collapsed after a heart attack or stroke. He lay sprawled on his side, knees bent, eyes closed, one arm up above his head. "Monsieur?" she said. "Ça va?"
Kneeling down to check his pulse, she saw the rope around his neck.
What are you reading this week?
The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel
Unbridled Books • $24.95 • ISBN 9781609530792
Published May 1, 2012
What if you were given a photograph of a 10-year-old who might be the daughter you didn't know you had? A girl who had just been evicted from her home, and was being cared for by someone other than her mother. That's the dilemma facing dissatisfied New York journalist Gavin Sasaki, who returns to his hometown in South Florida for a routine assignment and stumbles onto a mystery that's much more personal. When his obsession with the idea of having a child causes him to sabotage his career, Gavin heads back to Florida to find the girl, Chloe, and discover where her mother disappeared more than 10 years ago.
Emily St. John Mandel's third novel has a rich South Florida setting, depicting a small town that has been sucked in to the tangle of suburbs and swamps that surround the state's larger cities. It's also a vivid portrayal of a man reaching for his last chance at redemption.
Aside from the music, the robin's-egg-blue headphones, the spray-painted NOs in the park in Sebastien, the scar and the tattoo and the way her hair fell across her face when she leaned over her homework, what he remembered about Anna was that he'd loved her. He couldn't remember her ever being unkind to him, from the day they met in a corridor outside one of the band rooms, Sasha's pretty little sister, until she threw a paper airplane at him through the still night air.
On long drives through the suburbs he found himself thinking of Anna constantly. He'd let her slip away so easily. He assumed it was too late to make anything right, for Anna or her daughter, but it had occurred to him that the least he could do was find them.
What are you reading this week?
Capital by John Lanchester
Norton • $26.95 • ISBN 9780393082074
on sale June 11, 2012
Novelist John Lanchester has been best known recently for his incisive, clear commentary on the fiscal follies of the last few years, some of which was distilled in the 2010 bestseller I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay (S&S).
Now, in his first novel since 2002, Lanchester explores the real estate bubble and the banking crisis through fiction that is as enrapturing as it is psychologically acute. Capturing a vast swath of Londoners among the residents of the gentrified Pepys Road, Capital portrays an authentic slice of contemporary life on the eve of change in a way that recalls Franzen—with a welcome touch of wry humor.
Banker Roger Yount and his wife Arabella reside in a constantly upgraded and updated home on Pepys Road. The Younts, with their extensive household help, luxury cars and country estate, exemplify the one-percenter—but times are changing.
Luxury meant something that was by definition overpriced, but was so nice, so lovely, in itself that you did not mind, in fact was so lovely that the expensiveness became part of the point, part of the distinction between the people who could not afford a thing and the select few who not only could, but also understood the desirability of paying so much for it. Arabella knew that there were thoughtlessly rich people who could afford everything; she didn't see herself as one of them, but instead as one of an elite who both knew what money meant and could afford the things they wanted. . . . She loved expensive things because she knew what their expensiveness meant. She had a complete understanding of the signifiers.
What are you reading this week?
A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer DuBois
Dial • $26 • ISBN 9781400069774
on sale March 20, 2012
A blurb from Gary Shteyngart and back cover copy that started with the words "In St. Petersburg, Russia . . ." were enough to make me dive into this debut novel pretty much the moment the ARC hit my desk. A strong story and complex characters ensured I'd take it home with me so I could read the whole thing.
Irina is just 30 years old, but she's lived most of her life with the shadow of Huntington's Disease—the degenerative disorder that killed her brilliant father—hanging over her. While searching through her father's things, she comes across a letter her father once wrote to the Russian world chess champion Aleksandr Bezetov asking the same question: What do you do when you know you're playing a losing match?
Bezetov never answered, but Irina decides to spend the remaining year or so of her good health trying to get a response from him herself. There she finds that he is facing his own lost cause: running for president against Vladimir Putin.
One of the remarkable things about this debut is the way DuBois—who is still in her twenties—is able to voice the thoughts of a woman her age facing terminal illness. At her father's funeral with her boyfriend, Irina thinks
It's true that we are all mortal, but maybe it's also true that some of us are more mortal than others. The cemetery was almost lovely—full of the mild green of new buds and grass shyly beginning to assert itself, the cool wind blowing the trees' shadows across the graves in a way that was a little beautiful and a little unnerving. And Jonathan regarded everything—the coffin, the grave, the green Astroturf lad out to conceal the exposed dirt—with the expression of a spectator.
I look back now, and I tell myself that in this, as in all things, there are advantages. So we don't marry, have children, grow old together. This is what we miss. We also don't stop sleeping together, divorce, come to see each other as strangers, look back in bewildered grief to those early days and try to unravel how it all went so wrong. Those days—that last spring in Boston—were the only days. There is something to be grateful for in this, I think.
What are you reading this week?
A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty by Joshilyn Jackson
Grand Central • $24.99
on sale January 25, 2012
The opening paragraphs illustrate everything readers love about Jackson's writing: the lyrical Southern cadence, strong imagery and unique diction that immediately brings her characters to life.
My daughter, Liza, put her heart in a silver box and buried it under the willow tree in our backyard. Or as close to under the tree as she could anyway. The thick web of roots shunted her off to the side, to the place where the willow's long fingers trailed down. They swept back and forth across the troubled earth, helping Liza smooth away the dig marks.
It was foolish. There's no way to hide things underground in Mississippi. Our rich, wet soil turns every winter burial into a spring planting. Over the years Liza's heart, small and cold and broken as it was, grew into a host of secrets that could ruin us all and cost us Mosey, Liza's own little girl. I can't blame Liza, though. She was young and hurt, and she did the best she could.
And after all, I'm the damn fool who dug it up.
You can find reviews of Jackson's previous four novels on BookPage.com.