The Love Song of Jonny Valentine comes in at an impressive #9 on our list of the Best Books of 2013. Teddy Wayne's hilarious and heartbreaking second novel follows Jonny, an 11-year-old pop sensation (think Bieber fever), as he tours across the country. Our reviewer calls the book an "original, poignant and captivating coming-of-age story." (Check out our full review and our interview with Wayne about the book.)
We were curious about the books Wayne has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked him to recommend three recent favorites, which he graciously agreed to share:
THE LOVE AFFAIRS OF NATHANIEL P.
By Adelle Waldman
No, I didn’t just choose this because the title is a clear allusion to The Love Song of Jonny Valentine (joking). Rather, it’s an incisively observed portrait of the deterioration of a short-term relationship, and secondarily of the status-obsessed literary scene of Brooklyn. Waldman’s prose is comic without going for punch lines and graceful without straining for lyricism—the book goes down so easily, yet ends up saying so much about how we choose whom we mate with.
By Amity Gaige
I was on a panel with Amity at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, since both our novels have loose correspondences with public figures. Hers is inspired by Christian Gerhartsreiter, a German man who claimed his name was Clark Rockefeller, married an American woman, had a child and divorced, then abducted his daughter. Gaige’s fictional Erik Schroder, meanwhile, assumes the name Eric Kennedy and goes through a similar arc. The novel is a sort of nonsexual Lolita as the antiheroic Schroder/Kennedy narrates his road trip with his daughter in Gaige’s pearlescent prose. It’s a moving, profoundly intelligent story.
I was also on a panel with Jennifer at the Texas Book Festival, and the topic was the same as the one with Amity: Cartwheel is (tenuously) based on the Amanda Knox trial. Set in Argentina, American Lily Hayes has been accused of murdering her junior-year-abroad roommate. DuBois has fashioned the rare page-turner that combines deep insight and stellar writing, switching perspectives deftly among the various characters. Cartwheel is whip-smart, with not a wasted sentence, and utterly plausible—you can imagine being any of the people in it, from the prickly Lily, to her pained father, to the lawyer charging her, to her wealthy, desultory, orphaned boyfriend.
Check out all of our Best Books of 2013 coverage right here!
Last year, Jennifer duBois' debut novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, was met with widespread acclaim—and she's just won a 2013 Whiting Writers Award. Her sophomore effort, Cartwheel—"loosely inspired" by the Amanda Knox case—tells the story of an American student in Buenos Aires who's arrested for murdering her roommate. One of the most compelling aspects of the book is that Lily's innocence (or guilt) is open to interpretation. (Read our interview with duBois about Cartwheel.)
We were curious about the books duBois has been reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites:
RABID: A CULTURAL HISTORY OF THE WORLD'S MOST DIABOLICAL VIRUS
By Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy
Rabid maps the history of rabies—from its earliest depictions (and most dubious treatments), to its source as inspiration for the monsters of mythology and literature, to its modern defanging by the rabies vaccine. Part pop science, part cultural anthropology and part ghost story, Rabid is eminently readable and surprisingly funny—I read it like a person possessed.
By J.M. Coetzee
The "disgrace" in J.M. Coetzee’s Booker Prize-winning novel begins with the professional ruin of South African academic David Lurie, and grows far more harrowing from there. The prose throughout is elegant and restrained, and haunted at its edges by all that David does not see—but the book quickly teaches you that it is not afraid of ugliness, and that its gaze is keener than its characters’.
By Tom Grimes
This memoir draws a tender portrait of the late Frank Conroy, the award-winning author of Stop-Time and former director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, tracing his role in the author’s life—from formidable stranger to teacher to mentor to, finally, friend. Mentor offers a candid investigation of talent, and the mixed blessings that come with it.
What do you think, readers? Will you be checking out Cartwheel or any of duBois' recommended books?
Today’s Debut of the Day pick is Jennifer duBois' A Partial History of Lost Causes—one of our favorite books of 2012 and a personal favorite of mine. Set mainly in St. Petersburg, Russia, the story follows the converging lives of two very different characters who are trying to face their own personal lost causes with courage.
In a novel that conjures the Russian literary tradition, duBois weaves an intricate web of relationships among characters forced to confront difficult existential choices. Irina, with her “inability to invest in lost causes,” struggles with the private suffering brought on by the knowledge that her life will be truncated by disease, while Aleksander fights against what seems an equally inevitable public destiny.
Read the full review from our April 2012 issue here.
It's a bit unusual for a literary debut to be followed by a sophomore novel the very next year. But in a world where attention spans are short, publishers seem reluctant to trust that their audience will remember even a standout debut a couple of years hence.
Or at least, that's one of the things that could be implied by the appearance of these two second novels from authors who made acclaimed debuts in early 2012. Both are following up on their success this fall, with books that are quite different from their previous work.
First up is Patrick Flanery, whose first novel, Absolution, was our Fiction Top Pick in April 2012. Set in South Africa, the book was a beautifully crafted, complicated moral tale of memory, guilt and the impossibility of truth that our reviewer called "literary fiction of the finest kind."
Flanery's second novel, Fallen Land, which will be published by Riverhead Books on August 15, is equally suspenseful and layered, but has a completely different setting: America, after the economic collapse. The financial fallout costs Paul Krovik his life as he knows it. Forced to sell his house, Paul moves into an adjoining bunker—unbeknownst to the family who buy the foreclosed home. Their destinies converge in a remarkable and shocking way as Flanery plumbs the depths of the failed American Dream.
Then there's Jennifer duBois, whose sophisticated first novel, The Partial History of Lost Causes, was published in March 2012. By combining the stories of two very different main characters, each facing their own personal lost cause, duBois was able to explore complicated questions about hope and the human spirit. Why do we continue even in the face of impossible odds? (read an excerpt here)
In October, Random House will release duBois' second book, Cartwheel. Like Fallen Land, it's a big departure from her debut. Loosely based on the story of Amanda Knox, Cartwheel is a psychological thriller. Entitled, intelligent, charming and a bit careless, American exchange student Lily Hayes plans to spend her semester abroad soaking up the culture and nightlife of Buenos Aires and perfecting her Mexican-restaurant Spanish. She shares an apartment and a host family with Katy Kellers. From her perfect hair to her "platonic ideal" teeth, contained, driven and regimented Katy seems to be the opposite of Lily in every way. Five weeks after her arrival in Argentina, Katy is murdered, and Lily is the prime suspect. In chapters that alternate between before and after the murder, and are seen through the eyes of Lily, her parents and the prosecutor who takes on her case, readers discover the history of the roommates and must decide whether Lily is guilty.
Did you catch these authors' debuts? Which follow-up sounds most interesting?
A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer DuBois
Dial • $26 • ISBN 9781400069774
on sale March 20, 2012
A blurb from Gary Shteyngart and back cover copy that started with the words "In St. Petersburg, Russia . . ." were enough to make me dive into this debut novel pretty much the moment the ARC hit my desk. A strong story and complex characters ensured I'd take it home with me so I could read the whole thing.
Irina is just 30 years old, but she's lived most of her life with the shadow of Huntington's Disease—the degenerative disorder that killed her brilliant father—hanging over her. While searching through her father's things, she comes across a letter her father once wrote to the Russian world chess champion Aleksandr Bezetov asking the same question: What do you do when you know you're playing a losing match?
Bezetov never answered, but Irina decides to spend the remaining year or so of her good health trying to get a response from him herself. There she finds that he is facing his own lost cause: running for president against Vladimir Putin.
One of the remarkable things about this debut is the way DuBois—who is still in her twenties—is able to voice the thoughts of a woman her age facing terminal illness. At her father's funeral with her boyfriend, Irina thinks
It's true that we are all mortal, but maybe it's also true that some of us are more mortal than others. The cemetery was almost lovely—full of the mild green of new buds and grass shyly beginning to assert itself, the cool wind blowing the trees' shadows across the graves in a way that was a little beautiful and a little unnerving. And Jonathan regarded everything—the coffin, the grave, the green Astroturf lad out to conceal the exposed dirt—with the expression of a spectator.
I look back now, and I tell myself that in this, as in all things, there are advantages. So we don't marry, have children, grow old together. This is what we miss. We also don't stop sleeping together, divorce, come to see each other as strangers, look back in bewildered grief to those early days and try to unravel how it all went so wrong. Those days—that last spring in Boston—were the only days. There is something to be grateful for in this, I think.
What are you reading this week?