Meg Wolitzer, author of The Interestings, will publish a new young adult (YA) novel this September! Coming from Dutton Children's Books, Belzhar is inspired by The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
It's the story of 16-year-old Jam Gallahue, who is coping with the death of her boyfriend. She is sent to a boarding school in rural Vermont for "emotionally fragile, highly intelligent" teens, and she is placed in a small, elite English class that is reading Sylvia Plath. During this semester, Jam and her classmates discover a fantastical and strange world called Belzhar.
Wolitzer spoke with NPR about the new book, what it's like to write a YA novel and how Plath inspired her. I found her explanation of the Belzhar world to be especially intriguing:
". . . I guess it can be described as a kind of alternate universe in which the person (or thing) they've lost is returned to them. The fantasy is fairly lightly handled (I hope), and to my thinking somewhat metaphorical. It's about having unmet needs met, about getting rid of the ache of loss. I also employed a very light drift of fantasy in my adult novel The Uncoupling, as well as in a book for middle-grade readers about kids who meet at a Scrabble tournament, called The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman. (I remember comparing the level of fantasy in Duncan Dorfman to the amount of fudge running through one of those ice cream sundae cups we ate as kids: a very light vein, a suggestive and necessary ripple.)"
I can see this one having major crossover appeal for Wolitzer fans of all ages. Who else is excited?
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
Recently, Humanities Tennessee announced the lineup for the Southern Festival of Books, which will take place in Nashville on October 11-13. This "celebration of the written word" is something we at BookPage look forward to all year, and as usual there are some amazing authors attending.
Some highlights from the list so far:
p.s. October will be a big month for booklovers here: Watkins College of Art and Design is having their third annual "Handmade & Bound Nashville" festival October 4-5. It's a celebration of artists’ books, zines, mini-comics and other independent publications that they describe as "part book convention, part literary event and part flea-market art show."
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.
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
Riverhead • $27.95 • ISBN 9781594488399
Published April 9
Meet the Interestings: Jules Jacobson (aspiring comedic actress), Ash Wolf (aspiring playwright and director), Cathy Kiplinger (aspiring ballet dancer), Goodman Wolf (aspiring architect), Ethan Figman (aspiring animator) and Jonah Bay (aspiring guitarist). When we are introduced to this tight-knit group, they're teens attending a prestigious arts camp called Spirit-in-the-Woods, and it's the summer of 1974.
The Interestings follows these six friends from adolescence through middle age. Some find great success in their art, while others don't. From this dynamic pops some of the most vivid, unique and well-rounded characters I've ever read. This absorbing study of how friendships evolve over time—and are impacted by art, success, jealousy and money—is a true page-turner, nearly impossible to put down.
Here's an excerpt—the first couple of paragraphs of the book—to lure you in. And, if you do find yourself interested in The Interestings, then be sure to check out Meg Wolitzer's Behind the Book essay about what inspired her to write the book.
On a warm night in early July of that long-evaporated year, the Interestings gathered for the very first time. They were only fifteen, sixteen, and they began to call themselves the name with tentative irony. Julie Jacobson, an outsider and possibly even a freak, had been invited in for obscure reasons, and now she sat in a corner on the upswept floor and attempted to position herself so she would appear unobtrusive yet not pathetic, which was a difficult balance. The teepee, designed ingeniously though built cheaply, was airless on nights like this one, when there was no wind to push in through the screens. Julie Jacobson longed to unfold a leg or do the side-to-side motion with her jaw that sometimes set off a gratifying series of tiny percussive sounds inside her skull. But if she called attention to herself in any way now, someone might start to wonder why she was here; and really, she knew, she had no reason to be here at all. It had been miraculous when Ash Wolf had nodded to her earlier in the night at the row of sinks and asked if she wanted to come join her and some of the others later. Some of the others. Even that word was thrilling. . . .
That night, though, long before the shock and the sadness and the permanence, as they sat in Boys' Teepee 3, their clothes bakery sweet from the very last washer-dryer loads at home, Ash Wolf said, "Every summer we sit here like this. We should call ourselves something."
"Why?" said Goodman, her older brother. "So the world can know just how unbelievably interesting we are?"
"We could be called the Unbelievably Interesting Ones," said Ethan Figman. "How's that?"
"The Interestings," said Ash. "That works."
So it was decided.
What about you, readers? Which book is impossible for you to put down this week?
There are so many major releases scheduled for April, May and June that choosing just 12 for this list was quite difficult. Make room on your TBR list because here they are:
MOM & ME & MOM
by Maya Angelou (Random House • April 2—that's today, folks!)
After spending most of their childhood with their grandmother in Arkansas, Maya Angelou and her brother—both teens at the time—were sent to California to live with their mother. In the loving memoir Mom & Me & Mom, Angelou reflects upon her complicated relationship with her mother, Vivian Baxter Johnson. The ups and downs and lessons learned while mother and daughter get to know each other are both moving and inspiring. (Read our interview with Angelou about the book here.)
• • • • • • • • •
Meg Wolitzer’s latest novel, The Interestings, introduces six teens who meet during the summer of 1974 at a camp for aspiring artists, musicians and writers, and follows them through four decades, up to the present day, as they endure life's joys and disappointments, successes and failures—within the context of real-life historical events (the AIDS epidemic, 9/11). A thought-provoking page-turner. (Read a Behind the Book essay written by Meg Wolitzer about the book here.)
• • • • • • • • •
David Sedaris published his last collection of essays almost five years ago, so we can't wait to crack open—and crack up while reading—his latest. In Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls—which has to be in the running for one of the oddest titles ever—Sedaris takes readers on a global tour, with essays on an eclectic group of topics that range from the eating habits of the Australian kookaburra to the squat-style toilets in Beijing.
• • • • • • • • •
Horror writer Joe Hill returns with NOS4A2, which is sure to send shivers down countless spines. Villain Charles Talent Manx preys on young children, picking them up in his 1938 Rolls-Royce and taking them to a fantastical place called Christmasland. Victoria (Vic) McQueen has special powers of her own and is the only child to have escaped Manx's clutches—a fact that neither Vic nor Manx have been able to forget. Years later, Vic is forced to confront Manx again in a showdown between good and evil. We're hooked already.
• • • • • • • • •
The Guns at Last Light is the third book in Rick Atkinson's WWII Liberation Trilogy. As in the first two books, Atkinson uses personal letters and diaries from war participants at all levels—from presidents to infantrymen—resulting in a riveting and well-rounded chronicle of the triumphs, horrors, defeats and moments of great humanity that took place during the last couple of years (1944–45) of the war, including D-Day, the liberation of Paris, the Battle of the Bulge and the fall of the Third Reich.
• • • • • • • • •
Robert Langdon is back! Even though the plot details of Dan Brown's Inferno—a surefire blockbuster—have been a closely guarded secret, the publisher has revealed that "Langdon battles a chilling adversary and grapples with an ingenious riddle that pulls him into a landscape of classic art, secret passageways, and futuristic science. Drawing from Dante’s dark epic poem, Langdon races to find answers and decide whom to trust . . . before the world is irrevocably altered." Sounds like another wild ride with the world's favorite symbologist.
• • • • • • • • •
And the Mountains Echoed, the third novel from best-selling author Khaled Hosseini, revolves around families and the relationships within them—between parents and children, brothers and sisters, and even extended family members. Taking place all over the globe—from Paris to Kabul to San Francisco—the book explores how family members love one another and how their decisions affect not just themselves but also the generations that follow.
• • • • • • • • •
Power. Greed. Family. These three themes shape Philipp Meyer’s epic novel The Son, which begins in the newly created Republic of Texas in 1849. Thirteen-year-old Eli McCullough is kidnapped by a marauding band of Comanches and raised by them. After disease, starvation and warfare with Americans take their toll on the tribe, Eli eventually finds himself alone. His ruthless quest to forge an identity for himself and his thirst for success and power shape not only the rest of his life, but also the lives of his son, Pete, and granddaughter, Jeannie. (Read more about The Son on our blog.)
• • • • • • • • •
The Engagements digs deep into the lives of four couples, each at a different stage in their relationship—one married 40 years, one heading for bitter divorce after infidelity, one with two young children and too little income, and another together for 10 years but not married. This rich and layered novel by J. Courtney Sullivan also tells the true-life story of Frances Gerety, a successful Madison Avenue copywriter in the 1940s and '50s who came up with the infamous tagline "A Diamond Is Forever."
• • • • • • • • •
From legendary naturalist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas—now in her 80s—comes A Million Years With You, a memoir of an extraordinary life spent observing and interpreting other cultures and species. With her keen insight and unfailing eloquence, Marshall Thomas will captivate readers—whether she's discussing her days spent with the Ju/wa Bushmen in the Kalahari; her magical childhood and, later, building her own family; being in Uganda just before Idi Amin came to power or her study of various animals.
• • • • • • • • •
Few people these days may realize that back in the early '60s, the young wives of America's first astronauts—the Mercury Seven—were nearly just as famous as their husbands, having tea with Mrs. Kennedy, posing for spreads in Life magazine, and attending countless glamorous galas. They formed The Astronaut Wives Club and became integral parts of each other's lives, many still friends more than 40 years later. The heroes behind the heroes finally get their due in Lily Koppel’s fascinating, behind-the-scenes peek at their lives.
• • • • • • • • •
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is not a children's book, even though the narrator is looking back 40 years, recalling horrifying events that happened when he was only seven years old. Neil Gaiman’s latest is a tale of suicide, dark forces, otherworldly creatures and a child's fight for survival. He turns to three women who live at the end of the lane for help, one of whom claims to remember the Big Bang. Sounds mysterious, imaginative, dark—a story that is sure to be beautifully woven by the brilliant Gaiman.
• • • • • • • • •
What do you think? Which of these books will you be reading? And what other spring books are you most looking forward to?
The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg
Grand Central Publishing • $24.99 • ISBN 9781455507214
On sale now
At the heart of The Middlesteins is Edie, the matriarch of a Jewish family in Chicago. When we meet her, she is a child who has discovered her complete love of eating—a love that just might kill her, as she ages and comes to weigh more than 300 pounds and must undergo various surgeries related to her size. Entwined with Edie's story are various family members—like her two adult children and her daughter-in-law, a woman so obsessed with healthy eating that she'll hardly let her kids use table salt on a bland piece of salmon.
During the holidays—a time so filled with family togetherness—I love a good novel that portrays family dynamics in all their messy glory. Even better if the book makes me laugh and tugs at my heart. The Middlesteins does this and more. It's also quite short (less than 300 pages) and zips along quickly, so it would be perfect for a plane ride home.
Here's a short excerpt from the beginning of the book, when daughter-in-law Rachelle—a woman whose mission in life is to "keep her family happy and healthy"—goes over to Edie's house for an intervention. She's supposed to be talking to Edie about getting healthier, but she dreads this task. Here's what happens when she stops in front of Edie's house.
The front door to the house opened; it was Edie, wrapped in her enormous mink coat and matching hat, an inheritance from her own oversized mother. ("I am morally opposed to fur," Edie had told Rachelle once. "But since it's already here, what am I going to do? Throw it away?" Rachelle had fingered the coat delicately with her fine, manicured hand, and imagined having it taken in—dramatically—someday for herself. "You can't waste mink," agreed Rachelle.) Edie got into her car, and before Rachelle could get out of her own car to stop her, drove off.
Rachelle didn't hesitate. She followed her mother-in-law, past the high school—a digital marquee in front of the school flashing GO TEAM! again and again—until she pulled into a McDonald's parking lot. She made it through the drive-thru swiftly and then pulled out onto the road back to the subdivisions, but instead of heading home she went in the other direction, and Rachelle still followed her—she was morbidly curious at this point—this time into a Burger King, again through the drive-thru window, pausing before she exited back onto the main road in front of a garbage can in the parking lot, into which she tossed her now-empty, crumpled McDonald's bag through her window. A half beat later, she hurled an empty plastic cup. Perfect aim.
About a month ago, we gave you a fiction forecast for early 2013. On that list was one of my very favorite novelists, Meg Wolitzer, whose book The Interestings hits shelves on April 9. When a galley came in on Friday, I snatched it up with my sticky little hands and proceeded to spend most of the weekend turning pages as fast as I could.
For a reader, there is no greater gift than happening on a novel that is completely engrossing—to the point where you're a little distracted until you finish the book, and the characters start to take on lives of their own in your imagination. Wolitzer's novel—which is long and satisfying and packed with vivid and distinct personalities—gave me that experience.
The story starts in 1974, when six teenagers are campers at a co-ed summer camp for the arts called Spirit-in-the-Woods. There, the campers are able to be fully themselves, to develop friendships that will endure for their lives and to showcase the talents (animation, acting, dance) that make them special.
From there, the novel weaves back and forth from the '70s until the present. The campers grow up, find other jobs, hone their crafts. Some realize that the abilities they had displayed at camp are not really enough to make them successful artists in the real world, and others find that their talents make them wildly successful.
Though Wolitzer writs about big themes (in this case: ambition, envy, creativity) that cause you to think hard and evaluate your own life, her major achievement is in building characters. In The Interestings, you'll find characters that make bad decisions and characters that break your heart. They all feel alive on the page.
Wolitzer has said that her idea for this book came from her own experience at summer camp, which she says changed her life. (Exciting aside: In that same interview, Wolitzer said her next YA novel is "a dark YA girl book.")
You'll have to wait until April to get your hands on The Interestings, but I encourage you to put it on your list of must-reads for 2013—and in the meantime, peruse Wolitzer's backlist if you haven't already discovered this marvelous author.
RELATED READING: "The Second Shelf: On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women," by Meg Wolitzer for the New York Times Book Review (March 30, 2012).
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?
Perhaps you can't judge a book by its cover, but don't you just love a great book jacket? One that seems to pop off the shelf? It can make all the difference when browsing through a bookstore, for a book to catch your eye and to have that special touchability. And lucky for us, this was a phenomenal year in jacket design.
We've picked our 25 favorite covers from 2011 (click images for a larger view):
And the full list in alphabetical order:
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz
Bossypants by Tina Fey
Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran
Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan
Fiction Ruined My Family by Jeanne Darst
Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
My New American Life by Francine Prose
Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman
Seven Seasons in Siena by Robert Rodi
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai
The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
The Storm at the Door by Stefan Merrill Block
The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen
The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer
The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson
This Burns My Heart by Samuel Park
Vaclav & Lena by Haley Tannen
We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen
West of Here by Jonathan Evison
For more of our Best of 2011, check out our Top 50 Books of 2011 and our Readers' Choice: 30 Best Books of 2011.
Also, click here to see the best book jackets of 2010.
Or simply browse all of The Book Case's Best of 2011 coverage.
What were your favorite book jackets of 2011?