The Widower's Tale by Julia Glass
Pantheon • $25.95 • September 7, 2010
One of my favorite early scenes from The Widower's Tale, Glass's newest novel, is one such moment. In it, 70-year-old Percy Darling, who has been widowed for many years, journeys to The Great Outdoorsman to purchase a bathing suit--a preschool is opening in the barn in his backyard, and he can no longer swim in his pond in the nude. A sales clerk is helping him make his decision. Read the scene below, then tell us: What are you reading today? Will you look for The Widower's Tale?
“Hmm,” she said. “The pink pineapples would be a daring choice. You would turn heads in that one. . . . The hula girls are actually more conventional.”
I noticed that the pink pineapples (depicted on an aqua background) were indeed quite gaudy but ornamented a suit with a longer cut. Perhaps it would seem irrational to make the demure choice after having swum buck naked for so long, yet such was my preference. “Daring it shall be,” I concluded.
“You won’t regret it.” My handmaiden held out her hand, and I extended mine to shake it. But she was merely reaching for the hangers.
“Silly me,” I said when our hands collided awkwardly. “I thought I was to receive your congratulations. I will have you know that this is the first swimsuit I have purchased since I was in college.”
“Well then, I’m glad you’re headed back to the water,” she said.
I was about to explain my situation to her when I stopped myself. I laughed and shook my head.
“What’s so amusing?” she said.
“I’m having one of those—what youngsters so blithely call ‘a senior moment.’ I thank you for your cordial assistance.”
“A genuine pleasure,” she said, and she seemed to mean it.
At the cash register, I counted out exact change and told her I didn’t need a bag. I also remarked that I had not noticed her working there before.
“I started last month,” she said, “and I’m just part-time.”
“Well, I hope to solicit your sartorial discretion in the future.”
“What a charming thing to say.”
“Likewise,” I told her. “There is a dearth of compliments in the world these days.”
Room by Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown • $24.99 • September 13, 2010
As a longtime fan of Emma Donoghue, I was eager to read Room the moment I heard about it. I took a copy home over the weekend, but didn't have a chance to pick it up until Sunday night. My plan was to read "just a few pages" before bed. An hour and a half later I had to force myself to put it down. Not since The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time have I been so compelled by a child narrator: just-turned-five Jack's account of his life as a captive in an 11 x 11-foot room with his mother is especially powerful because for him, it is not a nightmare. Thanks to his imaginative and loving mother, he is as close to normal as a child raised without other contact can be.
"Can they come here sometime for real?"
"I wish they could," she says. "I pray for it so hard, every night."
"I don't hear you."
"Just in my head," says Ma.
I didn't know she prays things in her head where I can't hear.
"They're wishing it too," she says, "but they don't know where I am."
"You're in Room with me."
"But they don't know where it is, and they don't know about you at all."
That's weird. "They could look on Dora's Map, and when they come I could pop out at them for a surprise."
Ma nearly laughs but not quite. "Room's not on any map."
"We could tell them on a telephone, Bob the Builder has one."
"But we don't."
"We could ask for one for Sundaytreat." I remember. "If Old Nick stops being mad."
"Jack. He'd never give us a phone, or a window." Ma takes my thumbs and squeezes them. "We're like people in a book, and he won't let anybody else read it."
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
FSG, $28, August 31, 2010
At this point about I'm about a quarter into Freedom, but I couldn't wait to share an excerpt with you. That same crackling dialogue that I loved in The Corrections is back; the same absurd family situations that make you think, "These people are insane." (And then, "These people remind me of my family.")
The novel starts with an essay called "Good Neighbors," the very same that The New Yorker ran in 2009. This introduces us to the seemingly perfect (but soon to become unhinged) world of Patty and Walter Berglund, a couple in Ramsey Hill, Minnesota. After their lives seem to collapse—their son's moved into a Republican family's house next door—the narrative turns to Patty's teen and college years, through her marriage to Walter. (You can read the first chapter of that section in The New Yorker, too.) Then, it comes back to 2004—and that's where I am now.
The excerpt is from the "Good Neighbors" section.
In the earliest years, when you could still drive a Volvo 240 without feeling self-conscious, the collective task in Ramsey Hill was to relearn certain life skills that your own parents had fled to the suburbs specifically to unlearn, like how to interest the local cops in actually doing their job, and how to protect a bike from a highly motivated thief, and when to bother rousting a drunk from your lawn furniture, and how to encourage feral cats to shit in somebody else’s children’s sandbox, and how to determine whether a public school sucked too much to bother trying to fix it. There were also more contemporary questions, like: What about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother? And was it true that you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts O.K. politically? Was bulgur really necessary? Where to recycle batteries? How to respond when a poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighborhood? Was it true that the glaze of old Fiestaware contained dangerous amounts of lead? How elaborate did a kitchen water filter actually need to be? Did your 240 sometimes not go into overdrive when you pushed the overdrive button? Was it better to offer panhandlers food or nothing? Was it possible to raise unprecedentedly confident, happy, brilliant kids while working full time? Could coffee beans be ground the night before you used them, or did this have to be done in the morning? Had anybody in the history of St. Paul ever had a positive experience with a roofer? What about a good Volvo mechanic? Did your 240 have that problem with the sticky parking-brake cable? And that enigmatically labelled dashboard switch that made such a satisfying Swedish click but seemed not to be connected to anything: what was that?
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Crown, $26, February 2, 2010
All the HeLa cells ever grown would weigh about 50 million metric tons, and HeLa cells are still used in labs around the world. They have helped develop drugs for treating numerous diseases, from influenza to Parkinson's. While this research was taking place—and pharmaceutical companies were making millions of dollars—Henrietta's family could not afford health insurance.
Skloot spent 10 years of her life working on this book, and over that time period she became close with the Lacks family, especially Deborah Lacks, Henrietta's daughter and the heart of the book. The excerpted passage describes the moment Deborah agreed to cooperate with Skloot.
A few days later, ten months after our first conversation, Deborah called me. When I answered the phone, she yelled, "Fine, I'll talk to you!" She didn't say who she was and didn't need to. "If I'm gonna do this, you got to promise me some things," she said. "First, if my mother is so famous in science history, you got to tell everybody to get her name right. She ain't no Helen Lane. And second, everybody always say Henrietta Lacks had four children. That ain't right, she had five children. My sister died and there's no leavin her out of the book. I know you gotta tell all the Lacks story and there'll be good and bad in that cause of my brothers. You gonna learn all that, I don't care. The thing I care about is, you gotta find out what happened to my mother and my sister, cause I need to know."
She took a deep breath, then laughed.
"Get ready, girl," she said. "You got no idea what you gettin yourself into."
What are you reading today?
Learning to Lose by David Trueba
Other Press, $16.95, June 22, 2010
With the World Cup kicking off this weekend, it seems like the right time to read a novel from an international talent. David Trueba's latest work, Learning to Lose, even features a young Brazilian soccer player, whose romance with a 16-going-on-30 girl in Madrid is just one of the many threads that make up this multidimensional tapestry of a novel. The two meet in an unconventional manner:
Sylvia, alone on the street, walks quickly to release her rage. Mai's happiness is a betrayal, her tiredness a personal affront. She steps down into the street to avoid any unpleasant encounters on the sidewalk. . . . The ground is dry and the streetlights barely reverberate on the asphalt. the laces on one of her black-rubber-soled boots have come untied, but Sylvia doesn't want to stop to retie it. She takes aggressive strides, as if kicking the air. She is oblivious to the fact that, crossing the street she now walks along, she will be hit by an oncoming car. And that while she is feeling the pain of just having turned sixteen, she will soon be feeling a different pain, in some ways a more accessible one: that of her right leg breaking in three places.
What are you reading this week?
by Adam Ross
Knopf, June 22, 2010
The story is about video game programmer David and his obese wife, Alice, who is highly allergic to peanuts. Though David loves his wife, he often contemplates her death in the day-to-day routine of their marriage, and when she dies on account of her food allergy, David is the primary suspect. Throughout the book, Ross makes reference to Hitchcock films; Escher's Möbius strips; and Sam Sheppard of the highly public murder trial. I'll stop there in my summary, except to say that Mr. Peanut might just keep you up at night. Wrote Stephen King, in what has to be one of Knopf's favorite quotes of the year: "And it induced nightmares, at least in this reader. No mean feat."
Edited by the legendary Gary Fisketjon (who has worked with Raymond Carver, Cormac McCarthy, Donna Tartt and many others), Mr. Peanut is part marital drama and part police procedural, and as the opening paragraph demonstrates, it will hook you from page one. We'll be running a review of the novel and a Q&A with Ross in the July edition of BookPage, but based on the excerpt below, will you pick up Mr. Peanut?
When David Pepin first dreamed of killing his wife, he didn’t kill her himself. He dreamed convenient acts of God. At a picnic on the beach, a storm front moved in. David and Alice collected their chairs, blankets, and booze, and when the lightning flashed, David imagined his wife lit up, her skeleton distinctly visible as in a children’s cartoon, Alice then collapsing into a smoking pile of ash. He watched her walk quickly across the sand, the tallest object in the wide-open space. She even stopped to observe the piling clouds. “Some storm,” she said. He tempted fate by hubris. In his mind he declared: I, David Pepin, am wiser and more knowing than God, and I, David Pepin, know that God shall not, at this very moment, on this very beach, Jones Beach, strike my wife down. God did not. David knew more.
A Gate at the Stairs
by Lorrie Moore
Knopf, September 2009
So, I've been looking forward to reading A Gate at the Stairs since its fall publication, when it was described in BookPage as "solidly and delightfully Lorrie Moore territory; there’s the isolated, intelligent female narrator who both hides and survives through her humor and nonchalance; the Midwestern landscape that stretches with ennui and possibility; the pithy wordplay that is as haunting as it is lighthearted." The story is about Tassie, a 20-year-old girl who takes a job as a babysitter during winter vacation. Sarah, the woman who hires her, takes an immediate liking to Tassie and—oddly—asks her to "be there with us for everything, from the very first day." The excerpted passage is from Tassie's first outing with Sarah, who is adopting. They go to meet the birth mother (Amber) and adoption agency counselor (Letitia).
If you've never read Lorrie Moore before, or A Gate at the Stairs is on your TBR list, I encourage you to check out this novel—either now or in September, when the paperback comes out. Moore has a knack for describing bizarre situations that still feel instantly recognizable, and she's hilarious, to boot.
Things moved with swiftness and awkwardness both, like something simultaneously strong and broken. We hung up coats; we ordered; we ate; we made chitchat about the food and the snow. "Oh, there's my probation officer," Amber said, giggling; her face brightened, as if she had a little crush on him. "I think he sees us. He's sitting right over there by the window." We looked up to see the probation officer, his blue jacket still on, his bottomless Diet Coke stacked with ice. A going-to-seed hunk in a windbreaker: the world seemed full of them. We all just stared to buy ourselves time, I suppose, and to avoid the actual question of Amber's crimes.
Letitia began to speak to Sarah, on Amber's behalf. "Amber is happy to meet Tassie as well as you, Sarah." Here Amber looked across at me and rolled her eyes, as if we were two girls out with our embarrassing mothers. I had been noticing Amber's face, which was as lovely as advertised but sassy, with a strange electricity animating it, and with the missing teeth she seemed like a slightly educated hillbilly or an infant freak. her hair was a gingery blond, shoulder length, as straight and course as a horse's tail. "Amber is wondering, of course, about your religious plans for the baby. She is very interested in having the baby baptized Catholic, aren't you, Amber?"
"Oh, yeah," said Amber. "That's the whole point of this." She pulled out the front of her bulging stretchy sweater and let it snap back.
"And of course, she would hope you would have the child confirmed as well, when the time came."
"We could do that. We could definitely do that," Sarah said agreeably.
"Were you raised Catholic?" asked Amber.
"Uh, well, no, but my cousins were," said Sarah, as if this solved everything.
Crazy Love: A Memoir by Leslie Morgan Steiner
St. Martin’s, March 30, 2010
Crazy Love is the story of Leslie’s love-gone-wrong with boyfriend—and then husband—Conor. At first Leslie and Conor seemed like the perfect couple—totally in love and excited to begin their lives together—but slowly Conor begins to abuse Leslie, subtly and verbally at first, brutally and physically later. Gradually and methodically, he isolates her from friends and family, leaving Leslie terrified that she might never escape from the man she loves.
It’s not an easy book to read, but I think it’s an important one. And even though the subject matter is violent and difficult, Steiner’s writing is fluid and lovely.
Here’s an excerpt from the middle of the book, days before Leslie and Conor’s wedding, and just a few hours after Conor pushed Leslie up against a wall, choked her and then threw her to the floor over a simple misunderstanding.
I pretended I didn’t hear the Volkswagen pull in around 6:00pm. He came into my office holding the car keys, head down. I could smell fear on him, panic that I was going to vilify him for what he’d done or announce I’d canceled the wedding.
The dread on Conor’s face offered a spider’s thread of hope. If he were afraid, he’d never attack me again, right? I could leave anytime. And anyway, he’d just grabbed my throat. He couldn’t have hit me. We were getting married.
Three days later, when my family and our wedding guests started arriving, the ten small reddish brown bruises around my neck were so faint no one noticed them.
Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things
by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee
Houghton Mifflin, April 20, 2010
Debra's obsessions with preservation and perfection have become her identity. She is "the keeper of magazines." If she were to stop colecting or to get rid of them, her sense of self would be lost. When I asked her about this, she said, "To stop would make all those years a waste of my life. It would make my existence invalid." At the same time she realized the cost. "This has ruined me, " she said. "I'm smart and creative, and I could have been happy. But I'm not anything. I have done nothing. I'm collecting life without living it."
Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann
May 25, 2010, Spiegel & Grau
Seven years later, the novel has been revised and republished with Random House imprint Spiegel & Grau. At 640 pages, it is a brick of a book, and my advice for you is to read with a pencil in hand, because you will want to remember sections of Hamann's rich prose as she chronicles the life of Eveline Auerbach through high school and college. Evie falls into a passionate, painful and even obsessive kind of love with Harrison Rourke, her high school's visiting drama coach. The excerpted scene takes place right after Evie has agreed to spend the summer with Rourke in Montauk:
It was there that I met myself, there that I discovered my soul’s invention, the feminine genius of me. I often thought about life beyond the summer, acknowledging that an end was imminent, that I needed to prepare. The world sloped against our door like a barren belly—I could feel it. Had I been sentenced to death, I could not have interpreted time with a fiercer consciousness—every twilight seemed to be the last, every rain the final rain, every kiss the conclusive aroma of a rose, gliding just once past your lips.
If he loved me, love wrought no change in him. He did not speak of such things, and neither did I, because words and promises are false, resolving nothing. I was an American girl; I possessed what our culture valued most—independence and blind courage. From the beginning he had been attracted to the savagery in me that matched the savagery in him, and yet, what bound us was the prospect of that soundness unraveled. I began to unlearn things I’d been taught. Often I was afraid, but my fear was a natural fear, a living fear, a fear of the unknown. I would not have exchanged it for a wasteland of security. It kept me vigilant through the night.