The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan
FSG • $18 • January 4, 2011
Valentine's Day is less than two weeks away, which means . . . well, I'm not sure what that means. I don't personally feel more romantic than usual during the month of February, although V-Day is always a great excuse to go out for a nice meal.
One thing I do know is that if people are asking me for Valentine's Day-themed books, I am recommending The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan (the author known for teen books like Will Grayson, Will Grayson and Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist).
This book tells the story of a relationship through dictionary entries. It's quirky and—yes—gimmicky, but I think it totally works in conveying the ups and downs (and in-betweens) of modern love. It's also a quick read that you'll want to breeze through in one sitting. Since reading The Lover's Dictionary, I've kept the book out on my coffee table as my lone Valentine's Day decoration and have enjoyed periodically flipping through it and reading random entries. Here are some examples:
breathtaking (adj.), "Those moments when we kiss and surrender for an hour before we say a single word."
fluke (n.), "The date before the one with you had gone so badly—egotist, smoker, bad breath—that I'd vowed to delete my profile the next morning. Except when I went to do it, I realized I only had eight days left in the billing cycle. So I gave it eight days. You emailed me on the sixth."
kefuffle (n.), "From now on, you are only allowed one drink at any of my office parties. One. Preferably a beer."
The Adults by Alison Espach
Touchstone • $25 • ISBN 9781439292859
on sale February 1, 2011
Alison Espach's debut novel has been getting some major attention from writers like Aryn Kyle and Stefan Merrill Block. Early reviews compare the book to Tom Perrotta's Little Children, and Espach's trenchant observations on suburbia, made through the eyes of 14-year-old Emily Vidal, definitely recall Perotta's style.
The novel opens on a garden party, which the Vidals are throwing as scheduled despite announcing to Emily only that morning that they would be divorcing. Emily's biggest interest at the party is Mark Resnick, her neighbor and longtime crush, who shows up with his mother.
Mark was fourteen going on twenty. I knew this better than anyone. I tracked his growth daily. His arms were thicker by the month. His legs became logs instead of sticks. He had cut the sleeves off most of his shirts, started to read books by Tom Wolfe, books his father read, Lonesome Dove, Ulysses. . . .
There were so many amazing new developments.
His hands were opening jars for me weekly. I watched with fascination, or maybe it was frustration, not sure my weakness was good or bad. Either way, I was slowly devoting myself to him, adopting his speech patterns, dropping the g's off all my gerunds, devising ways in which Mark might have to touch me even though every time he brushed against me, I felt my whole body empty, all of the heat leaving my body for his. By August, I was nearly empty inside, and I began to understand what my father meant when he whispered quietly and harshly to my mother in the stairwell when they both thought I was out, "Gloria, I have lost myself in this marriage."
What are you reading this week?
Heartwood by Belva Plain
Delacorte • $26 • February 8, 2011
We were saddened to hear about Belva Plain's death last fall at the age of 95—she had done a lovely "Meet the Author" feature for us back in 2004 and was a favorite author for many BookPage readers. But she left behind a final manuscript—one that was a sequel to her best-selling 1978 first novel, Evergreen. In Heartwood, the children and grandchildren of Evergreen heroine Anna get their own stories, and as the novel opens, Anna's daughter Iris is excited about having her three children home for Thanksgiving. Iris thinks the children she has to worry about are her sons, but her daughter Laura is having problems of her own with her husband, Robby.
"You know how my folks love having the whole family together. And Dad loves Thanksgiving. . . ."
"It's a hyped-up commercial travesty, and you know it."
It was fashionable in their circle to say things like that, but suddenly, Laura realized that she didn't believe it. She pictured her parents on Thanksgiving Day after the meal was set out on the dining room table, and everyone was seated. Mom would be glowing, although there would be something tentative in her eyes, because Mom never could trust her happiness. But there would be no such shadow in Dad's smile. He would look around the table at his handsome children, their spouses and children, and his eyes would shine with the joy of a man who had built a life for himself on the ashes of despair His love of this country that had taken him in was not a hyped-up travesty.
"I don't mean to be corny, but my dad knows in a way that you and I never will what it means to be an American. That's why he loves to celebrate Thanksgiving. It isn't just about the food or the Macy's parade for him. He really does give thanks. You know?" The sullen, closed-off look left Robby's eyes. For a moment he was the Robby she had loved and married—the sensitive boy who knew what she was thinking before she did. "Please come with me," she said.
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson
Random House • $15 • Paperback published in November 2010 (hardcover published in March 2010)
This week's Monday Contest is all about book clubs, so I thought it only appropriate to highlight an excerpt from a novel that will surely become a popular reading group pick in 2011.
When Linda White reviewed Major Pettigrew's Last Stand (in hardcover) back in February 2010, she praised its success in exploring "the rift not only between generations, but between cultures." (She also wrote that you'll laugh, you'll cry and you'll feel like you're on vacation in the English countryside. What more can you ask of book than that?!)
Now, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is out in paperback, and you can find a Reader's Guide on the Random House website. I have been dying to read the novel ever since BEA, when a couple of BookPage elves (with sticky fingers) snagged me a signed copy.
Here's an excerpt from this romantic comedy of manners that will leave Austen fans delighted—and eager to learn when debut novelist Helen Simonson is releasing book two:
"It's Jasmina now, is it?" said Roger as the Major poured tea and handed round the cups. "I can't believe my own father has a lady friend—at his age." He shook his head as if this were the final nail in the coffin of his shattered life.
"I refuse to be referred to by a term so oily with double entendre," said Jasmina as she hung her coat on one of the pegs by the back door and came to sit at the table. She was very composed as she smiled at Roger, though the Major noted a slight compression of the jaw and chin. "I prefer 'lover,'" she said.
Restless Heart by Wynonna Judd
NAL • $25.95 • January 25, 2011
If you want to know what it's really like for a singer trying to climb the ranks in Music City, you'll definitely want to check this one out as Judd is able to draw from her own life.
Here's a scene from when Destiny gets her first break:
"Are you ready, Destiny Hart?" Rex was asking.
Not on your life.
"As ready as I'll ever be," she answered aloud.
"Great name by the way. You even sound like a star."
A cold bead of sweat rolled down her back, but she swallowed her panic and smiled.
Of course it was going to be fine. Her inner strength had never failed her before, right?
Right. Well, except for that unfortunate horseback incident. Of course, she shouldn't have jumped the creek, but it had been part of Cooper's dare. . .
"Destiny, are you sure you're ready?" Rex asked.
The slide show in her head shut off and Destiny nodded. "Yes, sir."
A hush fell over the crowd and Destiny began to sing.
My Reading Life by Pat Conroy
Nan A. Talese • $25 • November 2, 2010
On Christmas Eve, I was thrilled to open this gift from my best friend--a personalized edition of Pat Conroy's My Reading Life! My friend lives in Charleston, SC, and anyone who loves Conroy knows that he lives in South Carolina, too. My friend braved the line at Blue Bicycle Books to buy me this wonderful keepsake. The inscription reads:
To Eliza, For the love of words, books will stay. Merry Christmas. What a great friend you have. Pat Conroy, 2010.
You can read more about Conroy's love letter to books in our December print edition, for which BookPage contributor Alden Mudge interviewed Conroy about the pleasures of reading and collecting books. On the joy of having books in his home, Conroy said, "I love them. I like to handle them. I can look up from my desk and see walls and walls and walls of books. It’s an extraordinary beauty for me.”
Here's a preview of this book, which I've enjoyed cozily reading at home over the holidays:
I take it as an article of faith that the novels I've loved will live inside me forever. Let me call on the spirit of Anna Karenina as she steps out onto the train tracks of Moscow in the last minute of her glorious and implacable life. Let me beckon Madame Bovary to issue me a cursory note of warning whenever I get suicidal or despairing as I live out a life too sad by half. If I close my eyes I can conjure up a hwole country of the dead who will live for all time because writers turned them into living flesh and blood. There is Jay Gatsby floating face downward in his swimming pool or Tom Robinson's bullet-riddled body cut down in his Alabama prison yard in To Kill a Mockingbird.
The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer
Riverhead • $25.95 • April 5, 2011
The action centers on Dory and Robby Lang, well-liked and respected teachers at Eleanor Roosevelt High who have a 15-year-old daughter, Willa. But when a new drama teacher rolls into town with plans to help the high school perform Lysistrata, a cold wind enters the Langs' formerly passionate relationship—and that of others in their small New Jersey town.
This passage appears after Dory and Robby have invited the drama teacher and her son, Eli, to dinner and it is discovered that Eli is a reader—something that the three teachers know is unusual these days.
This was true; reading as a passion was fading away, and everyone knew it. Sometimes, when Dory took the train into the city for the day, she would see novels for sale on street corners, as if their owners were surrendering them in an act of radical house cleaning for the new century. The changes in reading were all bound up not only with technology, but love and sex too, though it was hard to tease it all apart.
You weren't supposed to think life was worse now; it was "different," everyone said. But Dory privately thought it was worse. The intimacy of reading had been traded in for the rapid absorption of information. and the intimacy of love, well, that had been traded in for something far more public and open. What had happened to sexual shyness? she wondered, picturing herself in her parents' house in Brooklyn, knowing nothing, having never seen a naked man, and being shocked to the point of aneurysm when a boy put her hand on his lap at a party. Sexual shyness and lack of information—they were gone. But was that so terrible. The world was different, not worse, her colleagues said to one another. Different, not worse. They said this like a silent mantra as they walked down the hallways of the school, or navigated the wild and lush, brightly lit planet.
The Pioneer Woman:
Black Heels to Tractor Wheels
by Ree Drummond
William Morrow • $25.99 • ISBN 9780061997167
On sale February 1, 2011
It's no secret that I'm a big fan of the Pioneer Woman, aka Ree Drummond. I've enjoyed making her recipes for a couple of years now; I'm fascinated by her city-girl-to-country-girl story; and last year I braved the crowd at her cookbook signing in Nashville. I even went to the gym just so I could watch her recent throwdown with Bobby Flay. (Who knew that not having cable could lead to more exercise? Who knew that watching a cooking demonstration while on the treadmill will make a person drool even more than watching it on the couch?)
And this weekend, I get to meet Pioneer Woman in person. On her family's ranch in Oklahoma. (Cue hyperventilating.)
I'll be taking lots of pictures, shooting video and chatting with PW about her memoir, The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels.
You can already read a lot of the story on ThePioneerWoman.com—the first two-thirds were published originally as a web serial. Part three of the book picks up where the serial leaves off, after PW's wedding. That you can read on February 1.
Check back soon for updates from my trip. And here's an excerpt from the memoir to whet your appetite for some old-school romance now:
Cowboy. I'd never spoken to a cowboy, let alone ever known one personally, let alone ever dated one, and certainly, absolutely, positively never kissed one—until that night on my parents' front porch, a mere couple of weeks before I was set to begin my new life in Chicago. After valiantly rescuing me from falling flat on my face just moments earlier, this cowboy, this western movie character standing in front of me, was at this very moment, with one strong, romantic, mind-numbingly perfect kiss, inserting the category of "Cowboy" into my dating repertoire forever . . .
I don't know how long we stood there in the first embrace of our lives together. But I do know that when that kiss was over, my life as I'd always imagined it was over, too.
I just didn't know it yet.
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?