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.
Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity by Sam Miller
St. Martin's, July 20, 2010
And I'm so glad I did. Delhi is an engrossing book, by turns romantic and down-to-earth. It takes the form of a travelogue: Miller sets out to walk through Delhi in a spiral, slowly moving out from the city's center at Connaught Place, and recording his impressions and encounters along the way. Miller is an appealing travel guide; a white Englishman married to an Indian woman from Mumbai, he's lived in India long enough to take the country's eccentricities in stride, but he's still enough of an outsider that he makes the reader feel they are discovering the city along with him. Delhi is a fascinating city with a long history and a rapidly approaching future, and Miller's many asides, footnotes and "intermissions" are as enlightening (and entertaining) as the journey itself.
Hidden away behind the construction site . . . is Agarsen's Baoli, central Delhi's oldest building. Six thousand years old, and built by the uncle of the Hindu god, Lord Krishna, according to its watchman. A mere seven hundred years old, according to historians. Agarsen was probably a thirteenth-century chieftain and a baoli is a rectangular step-well. Through a padlocked gate opened by a taciturn, bidi-smoking watchman, I climb up onto a large plinth from where one hundred stone steps lead down to the bottom of the well.
Although this is only my second visit, it is a view I have seen many times before, thanks to a Delhi photographer called Raghu Rai, with a Cartier-Bresson-like instinct for the decisive moment. In a photograph taken in 1976, a young boy is caught at the moment of launching himself from a wall into the waters of the baoli, a dive of at least twelve feet. Above loom some of the newly constructed high-rises of Tolstoy Marg and Barakhamba Road, but beneath is the ancient step-well. I ask the watchman if he has seen the photograph, and he stuns me by saying that he, Bagh Singh, grizzled and grey-haired, was that diving boy. He sends a young girl off to get a copy of the picture he has cut from a magazine and gets me to photograph him holding it. In the thirty years in which Bagh Singh has aged so rapidly, the water level at Agarsen's Baoli has fallen by twenty feet. A shortage of water is one of the biggest problems facing Delhi today.
Tinkers by Paul Harding
Bellevue Literary Press, January 1, 2009
Since then, review outlets have written about the inevitability of quality fiction sinking under the radar. (Tinkers was reviewed favorably in The New Yorker and Publisher's Weekly. Many other publications—including BookPage—looked it over.) And there has been some backlash, or at least raised eyebrows, at the surprise expressed after Harding's win. When the New York Times ran a piece about Tinkers' unlikely rise to fame, Jennifer Weiner retorted on Twitter: "Indie booksellers, book bloggers congratulating themselves for getting TINKERS sales all the way to...7,000" and "Then again, I also never thought Times would fail to review debut by guy w/Iowa degree. Doesn't that come free w/diploma?"
After all the write-ups and raves about Tinkers, I decided to see why the Pulitzer Prize committee called the novel "a powerful celebration of life in which a New England father and son, through suffering and joy, transcend their imprisoning lives and offer new ways of perceiving the world and mortality."
I read Tinkers in one sitting, and though my expectations were incredibly (unreachably) high, I found the book to be deeply moving and beautifully written. It caused me to reflect on the small interactions that add up to a life, and the legacy we'll all leave behind. Tinkers is about an old man, a clock repairer, on bed rest at the end of his life. Most of the action takes place in his memory as he thinks about his father, a tinker. There are no quotation marks in the book, and the sparse dialogue feels like a smooth extension of the old man's thoughts.
The following passage (after the jump) takes place toward the beginning of the book, when the man (George Washington Crosby) decides to record his own oral history:
He began formally: My name is George Washington Crosby. I was born in West Cove, Maine, in the year 1915. I moved to Enon, Massachusetts, in 1936. And so on. After these statistics, he found that he could think only of doggerel and slightly obscene anecdotes to tell, mostly having to do with foolish stunts undertaken after drinking too much whiskey during a fishing trip and often enough centered around running into a warden with a creel full of trout and no fishing license, or a pistol that a doctor had brought into the woods: If that pistol is nine millimeters, I’ll kiss your bare, frozen ass right out there on the ice; the lyrics to a song called Come Around, Mother, It’s Better When You’re Awake. And so forth. But after a handful of such stories, he began to talk about his father and his mother, his brother, Joe, and his sisters, about taking night courses to finish school and about becoming a father. He talked about blue snow and barrels of apples and splitting frozen wood so brittle that it rang when you split it. He talked about what it is like to be a grandparent for the first time and to think about what it is you will leave behind when you die. By the time the tape ran out an hour and a half later (after he had flipped it over once, almost without being conscious of doing so), and the RECORD button sprang up with a buzz, he was openly weeping and lamenting the loss of this world of light and hope. So deeply moved, he pulled the cassette from the machine, flipped it back over to the beginning, fitted it back into its snug carriage of capstans and guiding pins, and pressed PLAY, thinking that he might preserve such a mood of pure, clean sorrow by listening back to his narrative. He imagined that his memoirs might now sound like those of an admirable stranger, a person he did not know but whom he immediately recognized and loved dearly. Instead, the voice he heard sounded nasally and pinched and, worse, not very well educated, as if he were a bumpkin who had been called, perhaps even in mockery, to testify about holy things, as if not the testimony but the fumbling through it were the reason for his presence in front of some dire, heavenly senate. He listened to six seconds of the tape before he ejected it and threw it into the fire burning in the woodstove.
By now you probably know that Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil was published yesterday. This is Martel’s first novel since Life of Pi, which won the Man Booker Prize and sold more than two million copies. (Click hear to read an interview with Martel about his new novel.)
If you’ve been following review outlets, you’ll also know that critics are divided over the novel. (I reviewed it for BookPage, and I liked it.) In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani uses adjectives like “misconceived,” “offensive” and “perverse” to describe the novel. In USA Today, Deirdre Donahue suggests that the book is “a masterpiece about the Holocaust.” In the blog world, Ti at Book Chatter calls Beatrice and Virgil “brilliant.” Rebecca at The Book Lady’s Blog says it’s “one of the most disappointing” books of the year.
My conclusion? Depending on taste, you'll either love this book or hate it, and you just need to read it to find out. It's a short read at only 200 pages, and I can guarantee one thing: Beatrice and Virgil will at least leave you thinking.
It is difficult to summarize the novel's plot in just a couple sentences, but basically the story follows Henry (whose life parallels Martel's), a novelist, who comes to have a weird friendship with a taxidermist who's writing a play. The play stars Beatrice and Virgil, a donkey and a howler monkey, and Henry comes to see their story as an allegory for the Holocaust.
The passage I've chosen to excerpt is from my favorite scene in the book, in which Virgil describes a pear to Beatrice, who has never eaten or seen one before.
By the way: What are you reading today?
Virgil: If you could magnify it a hundred times, do you know what it would sound like, the sound of fingertips running over the skin of a dry pear?
V: It would sound like the diamond of a record player entering a groove. That same dancing crackle, like the burning of the driest, lightest kindling.
B: A pear is surely the finest fruit in the world!
V: It is, it is! That’s the skin of a pear for you.
B: Can one eat it?
V: Of course. We’re not talking here of the waxy, thuggish skin of an orange. The skin of a pear is soft and yielding when ripe.
B: And what does a pear taste like?
V: Wait. You must smell it first. A ripe pear breathes a fragrance that is watery and subtle, its power lying in the lightness of its impression upon the olfactory sense. Can you imagine the smell of nutmeg or cinnamon?
B: I can.
V: The smell of a ripe pear has the same effect on the mind as these aromatic spices. The mind is arrested, spellbound, and a thousand and one memories and associations are thrown up as the mind burrows deep to understand the allure of this beguiling smell—which it never comes to understand, by the way.
B: But how does it taste? I can’t wait any longer.
V: A ripe pear overflows with sweet juiciness.
B: Oh, that sounds good.
V: Slice a pear and you will find that its flesh is incandescent white. It glows with inner light. Those who carry a knife and a pear are never afraid of the dark.
B: I must have one.
V: The texture of a pear, its consistency, is yet another difficult matter to put into words. Some pears are a little crunchy.
B: Like an apple?
V: No, not at all like an apple! An apple resists being eaten. An apple is not eaten, it is conquered. The crunchiness of a pear is far more appealing. It is giving and fragile. To eat a pear is akin to. . . kissing.
Day for Night by Frederick Reiken
Reagan Arthur Books, April 26, 2010
It is often said that successful novels need at least two out of three things: good writing, good characters or a good story. That may be true. But in the best novels, like Frederick Reiken's Day for Night, you get all three.
Just a handful of pages later, we leave Beverly to fly to Utah with Tim and the lead singer in his band, Dee. A few pages after that, we're reading a deposition from a federal agent who's been tracking a suspected terrorist for the last 20 years. All of these threads, and more, come together in surprising, compelling ways. Poetic and moving, Day for Night is a novel to remember.
This excerpt is from the second section, told from Tim's perspective.
We have a song, which Dee wrote—she's written all of our songs—called "Close You Are," and unlike "Down in the Sea of Me," it isn't cryptic and it isn't about Dee's history of childhood trauma. What it's about is the idea that we're much closer than we think to the random people we see on any given day, that everyone in this world carves out a little groove and that although you may think your world is large you rarely venture far outside that groove. That there are other people in these grooves with you, that grooving, at least in this song, means to be dancing with the people in your groove. The chorus of the song—Close you are, grooving!—might sound dumb just to say (especially since people hear it as "groovy" and not "grooving"), but it sounds good when you hear Dee sing it. She jumps around a lot when she sings this song and it's fun to watch her. It's like she's two different people singing, one who sings Close you are and another who chimes in grooving! She seems so happy and clear, unlike in "Down in the Sea of Me." When she sings that song, you get scared because it's like she's turned into this big black hole and you're sucked right in. Her face turns mean and you would think a person with a face like that could kill you. A face like that you will keep on seeing in your mind and you'll feel relief when you drive home and know that face is just a memory. The problem is that when you're far enough away you'll want to see it again, this face that is cruel and luscious and arousing. You think you really might be willing to go down into that sea.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
Random House, June 29, 2010
Count me among the obsessed. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is an amazing historical novel that has it all—mystery, romance, adventure, betrayal and scenes with so much intensity, complexity and historical detail that you'll wonder if Mitchell was reincarnated from an earlier life.
The novel opens in 1799 in Japan, where the Dutch East Indies Company has a trading post at Nagasaki. The young Dutch clerk de Zoet arrives at the post with high hopes of making his fortune and impressing the family of his beloved fiancee, Anna. But soon after his arrival he is drawn to Aibagawa, a Japanese woman whose beauty shines through the disfiguring burns on her face. As he settles down to sleep one hot summer night with his servant Hanzaburo nearby, Jacob can't keep his mind off the alluring and mysterious Aibagawa:
Night insects trill, tick, bore, ring; drill, prick, saw, sting.
Hanzaburo snores in the cubby-hole outside Jacob's door.
Jacob lies awake clad in a sheet, under a tent of netting.
Ai, mouth opens; ba, lips meet; ga, tongue's root; wa, lips.
Involuntarily he re-enacts today's scene over and over.
He cringes at the boorish figure he cut, and vainly edits the script.
He opens the fan she left in Warehouse Doorn. He fans himself.
The paper is white. The handle and struts are made of paulownia wood.
A watchman smacks his wooden clappers to mark the Japanese hour.
The yeasty moon is caged in his half-Japanese half-Dutch window . . . Glass panes melt the moonlight; paper panes filter it, to chalk dust.
Day break must be near. 1796's ledgers are waiting in Warehouse Doorn.
It is dear Anna whom I love, Jacob recites, and I whom Anna loves.
Beneath his glaze of swat he sweats. His bed linen is sodden.
Miss Aibagawa is untouchable, he thinks, as a woman in a picture . . .
All you Mitchell fans: we know you can't wait for this one. But how about the rest of our readers? Does anyone plan to join me as a first-time Mitchell reader and dive into The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet?