The Children's Book, by A.S. Byatt
Knopf, October 2009
Like Nesbit, Olive Wellwood belongs to the Fabian Society, a group that advocated for democratic socialism and social reforms, and the novel concerns itself with progressive social and artistic movements as well as fairy tales and folklore. It's a complex book, with many threads brought together by Byatt's typically gorgeous and atmospheric prose. I'm only on page 112, but I can't wait to dig deeper into this book and experience the scope of Byatt's story, which eventually encompasses the period leading up to World War I and the end of England's Edwardian era.
In the section below, the Wellwoods and some of their friends are watching a German marionette show:
An illusion is a complicated thing, and an audience is a complicated creature. Both need to be brought from flyaway parts to a smooth, composite whole. The world inside the box, a world made of silk, satin, china mouldings, wires, hinges, painted backcloths, moving lights and musical notes, must come alive with its own laws of movement, its own rules of story. And the watchers, wide-eyed and greedy, distracted and supercilious, preoccupied, uncomfortable, tense, must become one, as a shoal of fishes with huge eyes and flickering fins becomes one, wheeling this way and that in response to messages of hunger, fear or delight. August's flute was heard, and some were ready to listen and some were not. The curtains opened on a child's bedroom. He sat against his pillows. His nurse, in comfortable grey, bustled about him, and her shadow loomed over him on the white wall.
She told the small Nathanael about the Sandman. "He steals the eyes of naughty little children," she said, comfortably, "and feeds them to his own children, who live in a nest on the moon, and open their beaks like owlets."
There was a heavy tap-tap of slow feet ascending the stairs. The backcloth showed the shadow of the turning of the banister, and the rising head and shoulders of the shadow of the old man, hook-nosed, hump-backed, claw-handed, stump, stump, his coat-skirts swinging.
The puppet-child pulled the blankets over his head, and the stage darkened.
Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans
Riverhead • $25.95 • September 23, 2010
I was first drawn to Danielle Evans' debut book—short story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self—because of the title, which is taken from "The Bridge Poem" by Donna Kate Rushin. I can't think of a single title from 2010 that has made me more interested to keep reading. (And I'm not the only one. Last week, I took my copy of the book with me on vacation, and the friend I was visiting promptly took it away from me so she could read the stories before I returned to Nashville.)
The characters in Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self are African-American or mixed race. As Lauren Bufferd writes in her BookPage review, they are "people in transition":
adolescents, children split between divorced parents, college graduates drifting between partners and jobs. Erica in “Virgins” is a prototype for several of the other young women who appear in these pages—independent but longing for connection, educated but not savvy enough to avoid the hurts of love and life.
Here's an excerpt from "Virgins," the story that's had the most acclaim. (It was originally published in the Paris Review and then The Best American Stories 2008.)
Inside at Michael and Ron's house, they put me on the downstairs couch and gave me a blanket. When Ron said good night and went into his bedroom in the basement, I thought maybe I'd only imagined the look he gave me earlier. I unlaced my shoes and took down my hair and curled up in the blanket, trying not to think about Jasmine and what kind of mess I'd left her in. I thought of her laughing, thought of the look on her face when she had closed her eyes and let that man kiss her, and for a second I hated her and then a second later I couldn't remember anything I'd ever hated more than leaving her. I was sitting there in the dark when Ron came back and put an arm around me.
Game Control by Lionel Shriver
HarperPerennial • $13.95 • July 3, 2007 (originally published 1994)
Getting through Lionel Shriver's backlist is taking more time than it normally does when I discover an author I like (I picked up Kevin, my first Shriver, in February of 2007). Her earlier books are hard to come by in the real world (two are completely out of print), and I've resisted ordering them online—partly because I want to save/savor them, and partly because I tend to stumble on them in bookstores at just the right time to read them.
Such was the case with Game Control, which I came across just after finishing Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. The two books, though written 16 years apart, have common threads in the theme of population control and the fevered fanaticism of the characters who believe in it. Franzen's Walter Berglund wants to stop people from having children—Shriver's Calvin Piper takes things a step further, proposing that culling the human population is the only way to save the planet. We meet him through American do-gooder Eleanor Merritt, who despite herself ends up charmed by the misanthropic Englishman (if not entirely converted to his cause). Can the human race be saved without sacrificing what makes us human?
Like all Shriver's novels, the book poses more questions than answers, but it's not all about issues. Game Control is engrossing and darkly funny, as you can see in the excerpt below, in which Eleanor recalls her first meeting with Calvin 16 years earlier:
Halfway through dinner at the luxury hotel, [Eleanor] had been overcome by nausea. . . . She was gripped by anxiety that she had no personality at all, and concluded that if she had failed to concoct it by twenty-one, it was now time to make one up.
"I can't eat this," she announced, fists on the cloth. "I'm sorry. The idea of our sitting here paying hundreds of shillings for shellfish while people right outside the door starve—it makes me sick."
Calvin nimbly kept eating. "If you truly have ambitions to work in the Third World, young lady, you'll have to develop a less delicate stomach."
"How can you!" she exclaimed, exasperated as he started on another prawn. "After we've spent all day forecasting worldwide famine by the year 2000!"
"That's just the kind of talk that whets my appetite."
"Well, it kills mine."
"If you feel so strongly about it," he suggested, "go feed them your dinner."
Eleanor had picked up her plate and left the restaurant. One of the waiters came running after her, since she'd marched off with their china. Eleanor looked left and right and had to walk a couple of blocks to find a beggar, and was promptly confronted with the logistical problem of delivering her food aid and returning the plate. So she stood dumbly by the cripple with elephantiasis, whose eyes were either uncomprehending or insulted. He rattled his tin, where she could hardly muck shrimp, now could she? It struck her, as the saffron sauce dripped from the gilt-edged porcelain, that just because you could not walk did not mean you had no standards of behaviour, which parading about Nairobi with a half-eaten hotel entrée after dark clearly did not meet.
What are you reading this week?
Jane by April Lindner
Poppy • $17.99 • ISBN 9780316084208
On sale October 11, 2010
After 19-year-old Jane's parents die in a car accident, our heroine is forced to drop out of Sarah Lawrence and find a job through a nanny service. Because she's more into classical music than rock and never reads the tabloids, Jane is placed in the home of Nico Rathburn (it's better to avoid the fans)--a rocker with a bad boy image and a young daughter. I won't say more and spoil the ending . . . although if you've read Jane Eyre, I think you know where it's going. Still, it's a lot of fun to anticipate familiar scenes and watch them play out in a modern setting, and it doesn't hurt that Jane and Nico have awfully good chemistry.
Since Halloween is just around the corner, here's a creepy scene that Brontë fans will surely be able to place:
Once again, the house was silent, and I felt myeslf drifting back to sleep. I had just started dreaming when another sound startled me awake. This time it was a laugh--low, suppressed, and deep--that seemed to be coming through the keyhole of my bedroom door. I bolted upright. The room was pitch-dark; the only light would have come in between the slats of the window blinds, but tonight there was no moon. I sat perfectly still, waiting for my eyes to adjust. Had I dreamed that laugh? Had my sleeping mind taken a distant sound--a loon's cry, maybe?--and distored it?
"Is somebody there?" I whispered, and heard a floorboard creak just outside my door. Then I noticed something that made my heart pound even faster--a faint aroma of sulfur. I switched on the light, crept to the door, and yanked it open. On the carpet, at the top of the stairs, I saw a match smoldering. The air was thick with smoke, but the blue billows seemed to be coming from Mr. Rathburn's wing, on the opposite side of the house.
Also, do you have a favorite retelling of a classic?
Eighteen Acres by Nicolle Wallace
Atria • $25 • ISBN 9781439194829
On sale October 19, 2010
I have a soft spot for novels that have to do with the personal side of politics—think American Wife or Fly Away Home—so I was intrigued when Nicolle Wallace's Eighteen Acres arrived in our office. Wallace is a political commentator who is most famous for her jobs as White House communications director under George W. Bush and advisor for the McCain/Palin campaign. (And as most of us know, that advising did not always go smoothly.)
Eighteen Acres tells the story of the first female president, Charlotte Kramer; Melanie Kingston, White House chief of staff; and Dale Smith, a White House correspondent. When the novel starts, the economy has tanked, Charlotte's numbers have dropped and it's Melanie's 37th birthday:
Every room in the White House brought back a memory of a time when she had felt fortunate to be there. These days, she usually found herself standing in these rooms, asking—sometimes begging—the walls to talk to her. Sometimes the history that she and Charlotte were making struck her as embarrassingly overdue—many other countries had been ruled by women. And at other times, it was exhilarating to think that a new generation of women would grow up knowing the glass ceiling had been shattered once and for all. But the vast majority of the time, Melanie's life was exhausting, her assignments unseemly and the rewards nonexistent.
Eighteen Acres is a fun, quick read about the dirty side of life in the White House. Look for a full review in the November issue of BookPage. Will you check out this novel?
What are you reading today?
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
William Morrow • $24.99 • ISBN 9780060594664
On sale October 5, 2010
Edgar Award-winning author and Ole Miss creative writing professor Tom Franklin has been compared to Faulkner, Harper Lee and Flannery O'Connor, and it seems like everywhere I turn, booksellers, bloggers and reviewers are recommending his newest novel. So I picked up Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (named for the Mississippi spelling rhyme, "M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter . . .") with great anticipation—not least of all because Franklin is paying BookPage a visit on Friday while he's in town for the Southern Festival of Books. (Look for an interview on our YouTube channel next week.)
The story takes place in a run-down town in rural Mississippi, where a couple of men cross paths again after a brief childhood friendship 20 years in the past. One, Silas Jones, is a black cop. The other, Larry Ott, is white and a creepy loner who loves horror novels. He's also suspected of playing a part in the disappearance of a young woman.
I won't give away more details other than to say that this is a book about secrets, regret, friendship, decay. Franklin's writing is often described as "atmospheric," and that style is absolutely displayed in Crooked Letter. BookPage has praised Franklin's "mastery of evocative language" and "taut and beautiful" prose, and I think you'll find that's the case in this excerpt. (If only I could excerpt more! I think you'll just have to read the book yourself.)
Though Larry's shop was on the outskirts of Fulsom, he lived near the community of Amos, just within Silas's jurisdiction. People from larger towns always thought Chabot was small, but it was a metropolis compared to Amos, Mississippi, which used to have a store but even that was closed now. A few paved roads and a lot of dirt ones, a land of sewer ditches and gullies stripped of their timber and houses and single-wides speckled back in the clear-cut like moles revealed by a haircut. The train from Meridian used to stop there, but now it just rattled and clanged on past. Amos's population had fallen in the last dozen years, and most people remaining were black folks who lived along Dump Road. Silas's mother had lived there, too, for a while, in the trailer the bank had repossessed. These days the population had declined to eighty-six.
He thought of M&M. Eighty-five.
The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly
Pamela Dorman • $26.95 • ISBN 9780670022403
On sale January 10, 2011
In this excerpt, Karen has just met and agreed to tutor the captivating Biba, sister to Rex, and they've gone to seal the deal in the university bar. Kelly sets the scene while maintaining suspense, never letting the reader forget that the book is moving toward a dark revelation:
"Can you buy a bottle of red, darling? A Merlot if they've got it," she said, and I wondered how someone whose voice and bag suggested an expensive education and a credit card could be too poor to afford student bar prices. "It's so much cheaper than by the glass, and we won't have to keep going to the bar." Red wine had always given me headaches, but I ordered it then, and because Biba and Rex drank little else, I trained myself to like it that summer. I have never had a sip of it since, though. For me, the bouquet of rich red wine is now indivisible from another smell, metallic and warm and meaty all at once, one that summons up a slideshow of frozen images in my mind like a series of photographs in a police incident room.
Carry the Rock: Race, Football, and the Soul of an American City
by Jay Jennings
Rodale • $25.99 • September 14, 2010
Much like Friday Night Lights, Carry the Rock is about a specific football season—in this case, the 2007 season. In Little Rock, this season was significant because the year marked the 50th anniversary of the Central High Crisis.
Carry the Rock juxtaposes the football season with Little Rock's (sometimes ugly) history, touching on how much—or little—things have changed since the school was forced to integrate. The numbers of black and white students may look good today (close to 50-50 when I was a student), but is there real community? As reviewer Pete Croatto notes in the October issue of BookPage, "[Jennings] shows that a sweeping social change does not guarantee acceptance—that many courageous, selfless acts must still be performed year after year, and there are no assurances that those acts will be acknowledged."
Although Carry the Rock will likely find its largest audience within Central Arkansas, anyone interested in the history of Civil Rights, the politics of an urban public school or the inner-workings of an underfunded football team will enjoy this book.
To give you a taste, here's a short excerpt that describes a problem with the 2007 players:
Through most of the season, the 2007 Tigers had frustrated all the coaches' attempts to foster passion and unity in them. Some years it came pretty easily, and the players did most of the work for the coaches. The championship teams of 2003 and 2004 were like that; the players, black and white, had hung out together, spent time at each other's houses, formed deep and lasting friendships. "Any really good team is made up of guys who are friends," Hall of Fame basketball coach Bob Knight once said, "guys who want to help each other and play together." Nancy Rousseau, the principal of Central, remembered the school's atmosphere around those teams as "electric, absolute magic." The excitement during that time, her second and third years as principal, "permeated everything." Those teams had bonded, this one had not.
By the way, for all you readers who'll be at SIBA this weekend, Jennings is speaking on Friday at 11 a.m. (Carry the Rock is a 2010 Fall Okra Pick.)
What are you reading today?
Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl
by Donald Sturrock
Simon & Schuster • $30.00 • September 14, 2010
I admit that after Trisha blogged about Storyteller, the authorized biography of Roald Dahl, I expected the book to be rather ho-hum. How dishy can an authorized biography really be?
But then a line in an Independent article about the dark private lives of children's authors caught my eye: "The creator of Willy Wonka, the Twits and Fantastic Mr Fox was often less than fantastic as a human being. He was an anti-Semite, a chronically unfaithful husband and a raging bully to business associates, teachers and friends." This can apparently be gleaned from Sturrock's book. So, I've picked it up and am enjoying the biography. (I'll confess that I haven't gotten to the parts that reveal the unappealing parts of his personality, although I have flipped to the center photo spreads to look at pictures of Dahl with his first wife, the movie star Patricia Neal. )
If Dahl's memoirs Boy and Going Solo left you eager for information, or you want to know about the man behind Matilda and The BFG--Storyteller is definitely worth a read. A teaser:
The Edwardian children's writer Edith Nesbit thought that the most important quality in a good children's writer was an ability to vividly recall their own childhood. Being able to relate to children as an adult, she believed, was largely unimportant. Roald Dahl could do both. His seductive voice, the subversive twinkle in his eye, and his sense of the comic and curious gave him an ability to mesmerize almost every child who crossed his path--yet he could also remember and reimagine his own childhood with astonishing sharpness. The detail might sometimes be unreliable, but what never failed him was an ability instinctively to recreate and understand the child's point of view. It was something of which he was very proud. He knew he could do it and that a great many others could not. Sitting in his high-backed faded green armchair by the fire at Gipsy House, a glass of whiskey in one hand, he once talked to me about it with considerable pride. "It's really quite easy," he would say. "I go down to my little hut, where it's tight and dark and warm, and within minutes I can go back to being six or seven or eight again." Or, as his alter ego, Willy Wonka, put it in an early draft of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: "In my factory I make things to please children. I don't care about adults."
Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillan
NAL Trade • $15.00 • First published in 1992
Waiting to Exhale is about Savannah, Bernadine, Robin and Gloria—four successful black women living in Phoenix and looking for love. When it was published in 1992, it was a huge hit. Terry McMillan's website explains the significance of the novel's reception:
Waiting to Exhale took the publishing world by storm. No one predicted the droves of women and black people who would line the streets hoping to hear Terry read and sign their books. Nobody in main stream publishing got the memo that these were demographics who not only read books, but paid good money too.
Here's an excerpt from Waiting to Exhale—which I would recommend if you haven't already read it: it's funny, lively and a page-turner.
Times have damn sure changed.
And I can't lie. Now I worry. I worry about if and when I'll ever find the right man, if I'll ever be able to exhale. The more I try not to think about it, the more I think about it. This morning, I was drinking a cup of coffee, when it occurred to me that my life is half over. Never in a million years would I have ever believed that I would be thirty-six years old and still childless and single. But here I am.
It's also interesting to read an interview with McMillan about her 2005 novel The Interruption of Everything, in which she reflects on Waiting to Exhale more than a decade after it came out:
"Waiting to Exhale alone, that was 13 years ago! I mean, my goodness, I was in my 30s and the concerns I had then . . . I mean, those women make me sick! They seem like such whiners, except for one," she says. "But the thing was, at that time, there were so many women that I knew, myself included, who looked up and realized, gee whiz, what happened to those husbands we were supposed to be getting? Not only husbands, we didn't even have dates! Back then, it was kind of important because we were in it, but then it kind of came and went. But they don't let you forget! My goodness!"