Mary & O'Neil by Justin Cronin
Dial • $21.95 • ISBN 9780385333580
Originally published in 2001
This interconnected collection of short stories was Justin Cronin's first book, and while it is a far cry from the action-packed world he created with The Passage, Cronin's writing still demands attention. The linked stories, each of which take place at pivotal moments in the lives of the titular main characters, are powerful and sensitive. Take this passage from the opening story, when O'Neil's parents Arthur and Miriam visit him at college and meet his new girlfriend.
She [Miriam] watches O'Neil head back into the crowd; she realizes that for the first time all evening, she is alone. And yet she does not feel alone. The wonderful music, the spinning lights, all O'Neil's friends there (for more have arrived; he seems to know everyone); she has the uncanny sense of stepping into his life, and all the promise it contains. . . . She knows that O'Neil has left her, that his life has begun, but the thought does not grieve her. It is as if time has thrown off its moorings, revealing all—that she, Miriam, has disappeared.
What are you reading this week?
Blood, Bones and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton
Random House • $26 • ISBN 9781400068722
March 1, 2011
How's this for a recommendation:
"Magnificent. Simply the best memoir by a chef ever. Ever. Gabrielle Hamilton packs more heart, soul and pure power into one beautifully crafted page than I've accomplished in my entire writing career. Blood, Bones, and Butter is the work of an uncompromising chef and a prodigiously talented writer. I am choked with envy." The writer of this blurb? None other than Anthony Bourdain, author of Kitchen Confidential, A Cook's Tour and Medium Raw.
Unless you're familiar with New York restaurants, you may not have ever heard of Gabrielle Hamilton. She is the chef of Prune in Manhattan's East Village, and she has also written a chef's column in the New York Times. Blood, Bones and Butter tells the story of her upbringing (father was a set designer; mother was French) and path to opening a successful restaurant.
Though the memoir gives a behind-the-scenes view of the restaurant industry (some dirt included), the real treat is Hamilton's evocotive writing. Here's a sample from an opening scene, when the author and her siblings sleep outdoors the night before her family's lamb roast:
I quietly thrilled to be packed into my sleeping bag right up next to them. I felt cocooned by the thick crescendoing song of the crickets, that voluptuous blanket of summer night humidity, the smell of wood smoke, the heavy dew of the tall grass around us, the necessary and anchoring voices, giggles, farts, and squeals of disgust of my older siblings. This whole perfect night when everyone is still, pretty much, intact and wholesome, is where I sometimes want the party to stop.
In the morning the sun will come up and the rest of life will resume--where it will become cliche to admire the beauty of the stars, facile to feel transported by the smell of wood smoke, childish to admit to loving your siblings, and weak to be made secure by the idea of your parents still married up in the house--and we will awaken and kick out of our sleeping bags and find in the pit a huge bed of glowing coals, perfect for the slow roasting of the lambs.
Sound like something you'd like to read more of?
What are you reading today?
The History of History by Ida Hattemer-Higgins
Knopf • $24.95 • ISBN 9780307272775
21 January 2011
Whether such an ambitious premise can be sustained through the course of the book remains to be seen, but Hattemer-Higgins sets a fairy tale tone in the novel's evocative opening.
The oceans rose and the clouds washed over the sky; the tide of humanity came revolving in love and betrayal, in skyscrapers and ruins, through walls breached and children conjured, and soon it was the year 2002. On an early morning in September of that year, in a forest outside Berlin, a young woman woke from a short sleep not knowing where she was. Several months of her life had gone missing from her mind, and she was as fresh as a child.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
Scholastic • $34.99 • Originally published July 21, 2007
It feels like yesterday that I was waiting in line at a bookstore in New York City—at midnight—about to explode with excitement over the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. (It seems like I can track my childhood in terms of where I was when I bought the Harry Potter books. Like, the time when I had one overnighted to rural Tennessee so I could read it at summer camp. Or the time I made my parents pull over to a Books-a-Million in Hattiesburg, MS, so I could read the latest Harry Potter en route to Florida on a family vacation.)
If you don't know what Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is about, then you probably have no interest in the series at all, because there's no way you could read earlier books and not make it to #7, in which Harry continues on his quest to find the final horcruxes and destroy Lord Voldemort once and for all.
I'm always shocked when I meet people who didn't read Harry Potter when it was coming out (especially people who are now in their '20s or '30s—wasn't everybody you knew reading it?). The Harry Potter series is fantastic. Even if you have never liked fantasy or children's/YA books, I'd encourage any person of any age to start the series. Forget about reading them because they're popular, or because the movie is coming out this week (woo-hoo!). Read them because J.K. Rowling's world building and character development is so detailed and alive that these stories will truly stick with you forever.
Here's a short excerpt from Deathly Hallows:
I had proven, as a very young man, that power was my weakness and my temptation. It is a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who, like you, have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.
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.