Maggie Shipstead's second novel, Astonish Me, is our Top Pick in fiction for April. Our reviewer describes it as "a request, a demand, a dare, all wrapped up in two little words, heavy with promise. And like the prima ballerina at the heart of the novel itself, Shipstead delivers a glorious story that does exactly what it says it will." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Shipstead has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This had been on my to-read list forever, and when Adichie won the NBCC Award for fiction, I finally remembered to go out and buy it. What a truly spectacular book. Everything about it is alive and essential and harmonious: the flawless prose, the fully-realized characters, the looping shape of the narrative, the vividly textured settings. Although Adichie's story speaks to big, thorny issues like race and class and immigration (not to mention love), her characters all feel like complete, complex people, not props for an argument, and the novel has a gentle archness and lightness of tone that makes its remarkable depth and insight seem effortless.
I was at a book festival with Arthur Phillips this winter but shamefully hadn't read his books, so I decided to start with his first, Prague, a novel that came out in 2002 and revolves around a group of ex-pats living in Budapest, not Prague, in the early 1990s. (The cheeky fake-out of the title alone is reason enough to love this book.) It's full of wit and casual brilliance and a pleasantly convoluted nostalgia-that-is-also-a-deep-suspicion-of-nostalgia and characters who, like real people, are capable of holding all sorts of endlessly shifting, often contradictory convictions and delusions. On a technical level, the omniscient voice, which I think is incredibly difficult to sustain, is used masterfully and acrobatically throughout to deliver all kinds of structural surprises and to convey a sense of overarching vision.
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
By Adelle Waldman
Waldman's debut novel is so sharply observed it's a little frightening. I've read it twice, and both times I felt the continuous sense of recognition that the best fiction inspires, where you keep thinking, "Yes, that's exactly how it is!" The consciousness of the protagonist, Nate, is rendered with an intricate completeness that I found immensely satisfying, but I was also fascinated and moved by the novel's many insights about fickleness of desire and its resistance to intellectual governance. There's a formidably critical mind behind this book, but I'd hesitate to call the novel satirical: Waldman forgoes comic exaggeration in favor of precise, measured, unflinching truthfulness tempered by compassion, even tenderness.
What do you think, readers? Will you be adding Astonish Me—or any of Shipstead's recommended books—to your TBR list?
(Author photo by Michelle Legro)
As part of our Best Books of 2013 coverage, our editors weigh in on some of their personal favorites from the list.
There are many novels that chronicle the immigrant experience in America—but few take it a step further to explore what it might be like to return home. Adichie does just that in a wise, warm and funny novel that also features a memorable love story.
You've seen the bottom 25 of our Top 50 Books of 2013—now it's time to reveal the top 25—and our #1. Drumroll please . . .
6. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
7. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
8. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
9. The Love Song of Jonny Valentine by Teddy Wayne
10. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
21. Blue Plate Special by Kate Christensen
22. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
23. Night Film by Marisha Pessl
24. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid
25. NOS4A2 by Joe Hill
Was it the intimidating triple name? The comparisons to serious authors like Achebe? The preconception that books about Africa were likely to be on the grim side? Whatever the reason, despite the literary buzz surrounding Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I had somehow placed her in the category of authors I might admire, but probably wouldn't love. At least, until I cracked open her latest, Americanah, a completely enjoyable novel that's full of heart as well as ideas and features a realistic, relatable modern heroine: Nigerian-born Ifemelu. Given its trenchant observations on race and immigration, you might call Americanah the American White Teeth, although Adichie's novel (her third) demonstrates more maturity and less exuberance than Zadie Smith's notable debut.
As Americanah opens, Ifemelu has decided to return to Nigeria after being educated in the United Sates, and finds herself remembering the boy she left behind: her first love, Obinze. Ifemelu has spent much of her time in America writing a popular blog on race, Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (those formerly known as Negros) by a Non-American Black, so her observational powers are finely honed. Here, she contemplates her fellow train passengers:
So here she was, on a day filled with the opulence of summer, about to braid her hair for the journey home. Sticky heat sat on her skin. There were people thrice her size on the Trenton platform, and she looked admiringly at one of them, a woman in a very short skirt. She thought nothing of slender legs shown off in miniskirts—it was safe and easy, after all, to display legs of which the world approved—but the fat woman's act was about the quiet conviction that one shared only with oneself, a sense of rightness that others failed to see. Her decision to move back was similar; whenever she felt besieged by doubts, she would think of herself as standing valiantly alone, as almost heroic, so as to squash her uncertainty.
There's much more to love: Adichie's depictions of modern Lagos, her portrait of life as an undocumented immigrant, her exploration of why someone who lived in a country that wasn't facing starvation or genocide, but simply a lack of opportunity, might be willing to risk all for a chance in the West—I could go on, but I'll stop there and just tell you to pick this one up already. What are you reading this week?
RELATED IN BOOKPAGE: Our review of Americanah.
Ask and you shall receive! In one of our recent weekly contests, we asked what you would like to see more of on The Book Case. Many of you chimed in expressing curiosity about what your favorite authors are reading. We wanted to know, too, so we decided to ask them!
Welcome to our brand-new feature: What they're reading, where authors will be sharing their thoughts on three books that they've enjoyed reading. To celebrate the launch, we'll be posting a set of recommendations from a different author on each of the next five days.
First up is Tara Conklin, author of The House Girl. Since her book came in at #1 on the list of Your top 20 books of 2013 (so far!), we figured you'd probably be interested in hearing her recommendations. Here they are, in her own words:
Half of a Yellow Sun
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Someone in my book group suggested Half of a Yellow Sun shortly after it was first released in 2006. I hadn’t read Adichie before and knew very little about the history of Nigeria. From the very first pages of this novel, I was hooked. Part of the book’s appeal was the opportunity to learn something new about a particular place and time in history—the Nigeria-Biafra War that wracked Nigeria in the late 1960s. But alongside the history, Adichie presents compelling, wonderfully flawed characters and indelible, heartbreaking images, some of which have stayed with me even now, some six years later. This is one of those novels that you sink into, immersing yourself in a world that is shockingly different and yet filled with characters and choices that are achingly familiar.
The Ballad of the Sad Café
By Carson McCullers
I first picked up this novella in high school after seeing McCullers’ play, A Member of the Wedding, performed at a local summer theater down the street from where I grew up in Massachusetts. After reading The Ballad of the Sad Café, I became just a little bit obsessed with Carson McCullers and inhaled everything else she had written. The story revolves around a love triangle between three unforgettable characters and offers an examination of what it is to love and be loved. Sad Café often appears as part of a story collection, which gives you a chance to sample more of McCullers’ special brand of atmosphere, moral complexity and weirdness. She does Southern gothic better than pretty much anyone else, and The Ballad of the Sad Café is arguably her finest.
By Meg Wolitzer
As a longtime fan of Meg Wolitzer, I didn’t hesitate to pick up her new novel, The Interestings, when it came out last month. There’s been a lot of buzz and advance praise for the book, which sometimes seems only to set me up for disappointment, but The Interestings enthralled me from page one. This is a sprawling, ambitious, thought-provoking story of friendship, identity and talent as they change and endure over time. As a writer, I’m often overly self-conscious as I read—I focus too much on how the author is putting together the story or constructing the voice, and I forget to enjoy myself. But I got lost in this one. My writer brain turned off completely, and the characters took me along for the ride, which is just about the highest compliment I can pay to any book.
When pulling together our early 2013 forecast, one thing stood out: This year heralds the arrival of plenty of long-awaited releases. Below are several novels that readers have been anticipating for quite some time—here's hoping they were worth the wait!
Benediction by Kent Haruf (Knopf). It has been 8 years since Colorado writer Kent Haruf published a novel, but we’re happy to hear that the author of Plainsong and Eventide will be back in 2013. Haruf is an expert at depicting small-town life, and this sounds like a powerful tale of faith and community. (March)
The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout (Random House). Yes, her collection of linked stories, Olive Kitteridge, was published just three years ago, but Strout fans have been waiting for a new novel since 2006. Here she returns to rural Maine, which the Burgess brothers have left for a life in Brooklyn. But they're drawn back into hometown life after their nephew's thoughtless prank becomes a scandal. Random House says the book is Strout's "richest, deepest novel to date." (read more) (April)
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Knopf). The first novel in seven years from this brilliant young writer follows two teenagers who fall in love in Nigeria, are separated for years and reunite in their home country to find that it—and they—may have changed forever. (read more) (May)
The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (Knopf). It has been seven years since Messud’s last novel—the acclaimed The Emperor’s Children—but being married to a literary critic probably doesn’t speed up the writing process. She returns with the story of a quiet teacher with dreams of becoming an artist. When she is drawn into a glamorous crowd through the family of one of her students, what appears to be her big break is instead an opening for something more sinister. (May)
Night Film by Marisha Pessl (Random House). Marisha Pessl's debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, was one of the most-hyped novels of 2006. Pessl's writing, her $500K+ publishing deal and her fetching author photo combined to create a perfect storm of publicity around the book, which garnered mixed reviews, but all-around high marks for ambition. In 2008, she sold her second novel to a new editor, Kate Medina, and a new publisher, Random House, and it's finally been scheduled for release on August 20. (read more)
Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan (Harper). It's been eight long years since Tan published Saving Fish from Drowning. Her next full-length novel is about three generations of Chinese and Chinese-American women whose lives are linked by a painting, and is set in San Francisco and Shanghai over the course of some 50 years. (read more) (October)
Untitled by Diane Setterfield (Emily Bestler Books). OK, this one's a novella and not a novel, but since Setterfield fans have been waiting since 2006 for more from the British author after her debut, The Thirteenth Tale, rocketed up bestseller lists, we felt it deserved inclusion. (read more) (Fall 2013)
Middle C by William H. Gass (Knopf). It has been 17 years since Gass, an influential writer and critic whose work has won just about every award out there, published a novel. This book goes from 1938 Austria to modern-day Ohio in its exploration of evil, sin and blame. (March)
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf). It's been a long time since 2003's The Namesake! Set in the 1960s and ’70s, The Lowland is a tale of two Calcutta-born brothers, Subhash and Udayan. Inseparable as children, they find themselves torn apart by the turbulent times when the idealistic Udayan makes a decision that will affect the family for generations to come. (read more) (September)
Untitled Bridget Jones novel by Helen Fielding (Knopf). Fielding published her most recent novel in 2003, but it's been 14 years since we last heard from her iconic heroine, Bridget Jones. This fall, Fielding is bringing Bridget back for a modern-day adventure, which we assume will involve facing middle age with the same comic insight that she brought to being a "singleton." Fielding says of the project, "If people laugh as much reading it as I am while writing it then we'll all be very happy." (November)
All That Is by James Salter (Knopf). Pretty sure Salter wins the "most long-awaited" award: His last novel, Solo Faces, was published more than 30 years ago, and it’s been seven years since he published his last work of fiction, the short story collection Last Night. This novel is billed as “a sweeping, seductive love story set in post-World War II America that tells of one man’s great passions and regrets over the course of his lifetime.” (April)
Which of these releases have YOU been waiting for? Tell us in the comments!
We're gearing up to recap the best books of 2012, but first, here's a look forward at a few of the fiction releases we're excited about in the first half of 2013. (Note: this post may be periodically updated as new releases are announced.)
Tenth of December by George Saunders (Random House). This ever idiosyncratic writer hasn't published a work of fiction since 2006, so this collection of short stories is highly anticipated. We're expecting plenty of acerbic—and absurdist—commentary on modern life.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis (Knopf). A literary debut that's drawing praise from the likes of Marilynn Robinson, this book explores the black experience during the Great Migration and the decades that follow through the lives of a couple and their 12 children.
The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier (Dutton). The acclaimed historical writer's first book to be set in America chronicles the journey of a runaway slave in the 1850s.
White Dog Fell From the Sky by Eleanor Morse (Viking). Despite the Salvage the Bones rip-off cover art, this novel about Africa in the days of apartheid feels fresh and engaging. A South African refugee who escapes to Botswana and takes a job as a gardener (despite being a former medical student), and forms a bond with the white woman who hires him.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell (Knopf). Russell's imagination always astounds, and her second collection of short stories is full of the sort of hard-edged whimsey that marked her debut collection.
The Love Song of Jonny Valentine by Teddy Wayne (Free Press). Wayne's debut, Kapitoil, won the 2011 Whiting Writers' Award. In his second novel, Wayne satirizes the fame machine. Told in the memorable voice of Jonny, an 11-year-old pop star, this coming-of-age tale is part Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, part A Mother's Gift, and includes one of the most complicated portrayals of the mother-son relationship since Room. (read more)
See Now Then by Jamaica Kincaid (FSG). Delayed from last fall, Kincaid's new novel about a fading marriage is said to be inspired heavily by her own life.
Schroder by Amity Gage (Twelve). This intriguing new novel promises to take on the issue of identity—the one we are born with, and the ones we make for ourselves—through the story of a German immigrant.
The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman (Bloomsbury). This quirky novel set during the final days of the Weimar Republic was on the longlist for this year's Man Booker Prize.
Harvest by Jim Crace (Nan A. Talese). An English village awakes to the troubling sight of twin columns of smoke—sounds like another unsettling tale from the author of Being Dead.
Benediction by Kent Haruf (Knopf). Haruf is a champion when it comes to chronicling the lives of everyday people with dignity and kindness. Here, he serves up a powerful tale of faith and community. (read more)
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid (Riverhead). Buzz is that this could be a breakout novel for Hamid, whose first two books garnered critical acclaim and prize nominations for their insight into relationships between East and West.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (Viking). If you found a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the shore, containing an old diary, would it change your life? The answer in Ozeki's tale is emphatically YES. There's much weirdness and wonder in store in this new novel from the author of My Year of Meats.
Middle C by William H. Gass (Knopf). It has been 17 years since Gass, an influential writer and critic whose work has won just about every award out there, published a novel. This book goes from 1938 Austria to modern-day Ohio in its exploration of evil, sin and blame.
Equilateral by Ken Kalfus (Bloomsbury). Kalfus' previous novel, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, was a 2006 National Book Award finalist. Here the Philadelphia writer goes to Egypt at the turn of the 20th century, where two British scientists are attempting to communicate with Mars—but can barely interact with each other, much less the women in their lives.
Maya's Notebook by Isabel Allende (Harper). This novel about a troubled American teen is something of a departure for the best-selling Chilean novelist—it's set in modern times and involves drugs, assassins and the FBI.
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer (Riverhead). Wolitzer is a favorite here at BookPage, and we can't wait for her latest—a tale of six friends who meet as teenagers at summer camp and whose relationship is challenged by their different backgrounds, successes and failures.
All That Is by James Salter (Knopf). In a season filled with long-awaited novels, this just might be the juggernaut—Salter's last novel, Solo Faces, was published more than 30 years ago, and it's been seven years since he published his last work of fiction, the short story collection Last Night. This novel is billed as "a sweeping, seductive love story set in post-World War II America that tells of one man's great passions and regrets over the course of his lifetime."
The Mothers by Jennifer Gilmore (Scribner). Though her two previous novels have been historical, here Gilmore (a former publicity director at Harcourt) takes on the very contemporary subject of infertility and adoption in a story drawn in part from personal experience.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (Regan Arthur). A woman named Ursula Todd is born in 1910, only to die—and then be born again, and again, in the years leading up to World War II. Atkinson is excellent at weaving together seemingly disparate plotlines—as displayed in the Jackson Brodie series—so I can't wait to see what she does with the many lives of Ursula Todd.
The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (Knopf). It has been seven years since Messud's last novel—the acclaimed The Emperor's Children—but being married to a literary critic probably doesn't speed up the writing process. She returns with the story of a quiet teacher with dreams of becoming an artist. When she is drawn into a glamorous crowd through the family of one of her students, what appears to be her big break is instead an opening for something more sinister.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Knopf). The first novel in seven years from this brilliant young writer follows two teenagers who fall in love in Nigeria, are separated for years and reunite in their home country to find that it—and they—may have changed forever. (read more)
Montero Caine by Sidney Poitier (Spiegel & Grau). Proving it's never too late to start a new career, award-winning actor Poitier, now in his 80s, is publishing a first novel that blends mystery, science fiction and more. We are intrigued.
And the Mountains Echo by Khaled Hosseini (Riverhead). It's been nearly 10 years since Hosseini's dark horse debut hit, The Kite Runner, was published. He returns with (in his own words), "a multi-generational-family story as well, this time revolving around brothers and sisters, and the ways in which they love, wound, betray, honor, and sacrifice for each other." (read more)
Which 2013 releases are YOU most looking forward to?
Fans of world literature, mark May 14 on your calendar: brilliant young writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie will be publishing her fourth book, Americanah (Knopf).
The title comes from the word Nigerians use for those who have left the country for the US and become "Americanized"—a borderline insult. Adichie's heroine Ifemelu is surprised to find the term applied to her when she returns home after 15 years in the US. Especially since she's always felt ambivalent about America: the country not only separated her from her teenaged love, Obinze, who had his visa denied, it also made her truly conscious of race for the first time. But upon her return, she and Obinze are reunited and must see how their very different expatriate pasts affect both their relationship and their lives in a newly independent Nigeria.
Will you look for it?
Related in BookPage: our review of The Thing Around Your Neck, Adichie's story collection.
Several of you requested a Top 10 list of short story collections back when I asked what "best" lists you want to see.
So, here are 10 collections BookPage strongly recommends, ordered alphabetically. Read 'em from beginning to end, or read them in bite-sized pieces. That's what I love about story collections. They're perfect when you don't have time to read a whole book, or you want the satisfaction of a beginning, middle and end in a short period of time.
In Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, Danielle Evans takes as her subject people in transition: adolescents, children split between divorced parents, college graduates drifting between partners and jobs. Moral ambiguity is explored beautifully in the best of these stories as well as the deeply felt moments of choice and regret. (Keep reading this review.)
In Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, Yiyun Li explores the big themes—individuality, honor, family ties and love—and sets them against a richly detailed tapestry of Chinese life. Though each story takes place in modern-day China, they are formally rigorous and crafted with an elegance that harkens back to stylists like Chekhov and William Trevor. (Keep reading this review.)
Kelly Link's second short story collection is aptly titled Magic for Beginners, for the short fiction she presents here is truly magical, with masterfully crafted stories that are as dark as they are delightful. (Keep reading this review.)
David Bezmozgis' Natasha: and Other Stories, seven stories about growing up a poor Russian Jewish immigrant in Toronto, are so Russian in tone they should be read with a glass of tea at hand and a cube of sugar between one's teeth. Yet they are so Western in theme that even if you've never set foot outside your hometown, they'll make your heart ache. (Keep reading this review.)
Hailed as Alice Munro's best collection yet, Runaway is the 12th book from an author who has perfected the short story form. In these eight selections, each of which takes place in her native Canada, Munro examines the nuances of human relationships, exploring the complexities of marriage, the difficulties of parenting and the responsibilities inherent in friendship. (Keep reading this review.)
Karen Russell's startlingly original collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, features graceful and seductive prose that transports the reader into surreal and yet utterly plausible realms. (Keep reading this review.)
The stories in Swim Back to Me, Ann Packer’s collection, are powerful. They focus on situations that make us uncomfortable to varying degrees—from the disorienting feeling of misjudging a co-worker, to the adolescent recognition of being ditched by a friend, to the excruciating pain of losing a child. (Keep reading this review.)
From the opening tale of Nam Le's The Boat, it's hard not to be giddy: Wait, was that a brilliantly self-conscious and humorous slice of the writing life, which doubled as a poignant story about fathers and sons and family tragedies? Yes. Yes, it was. Things only get better from there. (Keep reading this review.)
Most of the 12 stories in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's The Thing Around Your Neck focus on men and women who travel between Africa and the United States. Nigeria is the place where most of Adichie’s characters live, leave and long to return, while the U.S. is a place of promise, new beginnings and ultimate disappointments. (Keep reading this review.)
Jhumpa Lahiri has carved out a distinctive literary niche, and her tales of Indians encountering contemporary American life have resonated with a wide swath of readers. Her story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, only burnishes that estimable reputation. (Keep reading this review.)
What collections are we missing from this list? Why do you love short stories?