Good Kings Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum
Algonquin • $23.95 • ISBN 9781616202637
published May 28, 2013
Stories told from alternating perspectives catch me every time, and Good Kings Bad Kings is no exception. Susan Nussbaum has created a powerful debut novel, the winner of this year's Barbara Kingsolver's PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Nussbaum's story gives readers a look into the lives of institutionalized juveniles with disabilities, including Yessenia Lopez, who just wants to be living free again, and Teddy, who dresses in a suit and tie every day. The voices of these children and others are joined by those of caring employees working at the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center, like Joanne, the data-entry clerk. Throughout the pages, friendship, love and trust are explored as these characters forge relationships that will give them the strength they need to fight back against their mistreatment.
Nussbaum's novel is a challenging look at institutions and what being disabled really means. Humor and authentic voices pair together to make this novel one that will leave you thinking about the choices you make every day. Here's an excerpt from Joanne's point-of-view:
My duties are mostly typing. There must have been dozens of far more appropriate applicants. People who type with all ten fingers, for example. But for the first—and I feel pretty certain only—time I think I got a job because of my disability. It's well known in crip circles that the best place for a crip to get a job is a place that's swarming with other crips. So I applied, emphasizing my computer skills, which are pretty good, and how important it is for disabled youth to see disabled adults in the workplace. Places like this love the idea of role models. There was no haggling over the miserable pay either, as money is no object for me. No salary could possibly be too low. The place could pay me in rat turds and I'd happily put them in my wallet. What I needed more than money was human interaction.
What are you reading this week?
Beach House No. 9 by Christie Ridgway
HQN • $7.99 • ISBN 9780373777402
Published January 29, 2013
I interviewed Christie for the February issue of BookPage, and you can read that conversation here. It was fascinating to hear how the veteran romance author creates chemistry between her characters, and her description of the real-life Crystal Cove (which inspired her trilogy's setting) made me want to book a flight to California.
Beach House No. 9 is about book doctor Jane, a woman who is hired to work with war journalist Griffin on his memoir. Naturally, things don't go exactly as planned. Griffin can't seem to buckle down and write, and then there's the matter of the two of them falling in love . . .
Here's an early scene, after Jane moves into the guest room at Beach House No. 9 to keep a close eye on Griffin's work. This is early in the novel, but you can already see that she's having an affect on him:
Griffin propped his feet on the rail at Captain Crow's and sipped from the cardboard cup in his hand. The restaurant didn't serve breakfast, but the prep cook made a pot of coffee in the mornings, and this morning Griffin had made friends with the prep book. The guy had left for an emergency onion run, giving Griffin privacy and a place to start the day away from the eagle eye of the little dictator.
He still clung to his one and only plan in regards to Jane: avoid her as much as possible—and completely avoid what she wanted him to do.
After moving in two days before, she'd kept mostly to the guest room she'd selected. Though he'd continued blasting music through his earbuds, her close proximity seemed to punch through the wall of sound. He'd felt her presence, the capable and unwavering energy she exuded, despite the beams and plaster between them. She'd brought into his house a new scent too, a light and feminine fragrance that somehow pierced the Pacific's own salty-green perfume.
At dinner that first night, while he'd manned the barbecue and stayed out of range of the conversation between her, his family and Old Man Monroe as much as possible, he'd still been able to chronicle the effect she had on them. She'd managed to surprise a laugh out of his sister, unearth a set of jacks to amuse his nephews, put a book in the hands of his sulking niece and send their elderly neighbor home with a smile after a short stint holding the sleeping baby.
If he didn't keep up his guard, damn it, he had good reason to fear she'd manage to make him start the memoir.
He wasn't ready.
A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee
Random House • $26 • ISBN 9780812993219
Published March 12, 2013
Like The Privileges, this novel tells the story of a wealthy couple. But here the couple find themselves in the midst of a major disaster: The husband, Ben, has a total breakdown, eventually getting himself a DWI and an accusation of sexual harassment from a summer associate at his law firm. Helen, the main character and Ben's wife, divorces her husband and must figure out a way to support herself and her daughter. Turns out she has a knack for PR. Specifically, she intuitively knows how to make powerful men (think, politicians embroiled in sex scandals) apologize. The story is a clever critique of our culture—both amusing and timely. Though A Thousand Pardons lacks the grace of The Privileges, I thought it was an entertaining read, and I enjoyed watching Helen's reinvention.
Here's an excerpt from an early scene, in which Helen must reason with a New York councilman whose violent actions have been caught on a surveillance camera. Helen's the first one speaking, then the councilman.
"You will admit to everything. You will apologize to this young woman, by name, for your violent behavior. You will not use any phrases like 'moment of weakness' or 'regrettable incident.' You will apologize to your wife, and to your children, and to your parents if they are still alive . . . Basically, you will get up in front of the cameras and make an offering of yourself."
Some of the redness drained from his face as she spoke; she could feel, as she'd felt before, the power her words gave her over him. "You really think that's the play?" he said.
"That is the only play. To ask forgiveness. If you hold back in any way, the story lives. Let me ask you this: presumably you are a man with ambitions. What do you want to happen now? What is the outcome that will put those ambitions back on the track that your own mistakes threw them off of?"
He tipped back noiselessly in his chair. "I want to stay in office," he said. "I want to be reelected. This was a stupid thing for me to have done, but it does not define me. It was a one-time thing, and I want to get away from it."
"You will never get away from it," Helen said. "But you can incorporate it into the narrative. You have to be sincere. You have to be completely abject, and not attempt to defend yourself or your behavior in any way, and not attempt to defend yourself or your behavior in any way. No 'I was drunk,' no 'she hit me first.' You have to take, and answer, every question. You have to hold your temper when people try to get you lose it. Do you think you can do that?"
Criminal Enterprise by Owen Laukkanen
Putnam • $26.95 • ISBN 9780399157905
Published March 21, 2013
I like Laukkanen's books because they start with a scenario that's plausible given our current economy. In The Professionals, a group of under-employed college grads turn to kidnapping to pay the bills. In Criminal Enterprise, a family man is laid off from his high-paying corporate job. He's got a pricey mortgage, a fancy car, kids, a stay-at-home wife. So what's he do to stay afloat? He starts robbing banks, of course (though it doesn't take long for Windermere and Stevens to get on his tail). Here's an early scene:
Tomlin settled into a rhythm. A few days a week doing taxes for senior citizens, a couple contract jobs for friends at big firms. A robbery every few weeks, when the money got low.
Or, more and more, whenever the mood struck him.
It wasn't just about the money anymore. Not even close. It was about the excitement, the power, the quick jolt of electricity he felt when the pretty tellers wilted at the sight of his gun. It was the same thrill he'd once felt when he walked through his office, watching the worker drones stiffen at their cubicles, knowing the room's collective sphincter had tightened the moment he walked through the door. It was power. Control. Robbing banks filled the void while it paid off his mortgage. And nobody had figured him out.
Tomlin found a small office in Lowertown, east of downtown Saint Paul. It was an old, musty low-rise with patchy off white walls and buzzing fluorescent lights, graffiti on the sooty facade. But Tomlin didn't much care for looks. An office would provide cover. An easy way to launder the robbery money.
What are you reading today?
The Chronicles of Downton Abbey: A New Era
by Jessica Fellowes & Matthew Sturgis
St. Martin's • $29.99 • ISBN 9781250027627
On sale November 13, 2012
And then I got hooked.
And now I can't wait until January 6, 2013, when "Downton Abbey," Season 3 premieres on PBS in Nashville.
If you've also got "Downton" fever, I'd recommend you check out our Brit lit roundup in the January issue of BookPage, in which we sing the praises of Habits of the House By Fay Weldon, a comedy of manners that takes place in 1890s England. (Even better: Weldon is the author of the first episode of the original "Upstairs Downstairs.") We also recommend Elizabeth Wilhide’s Ashenden, which traces the history of a grand British home from the 18th century to the present. Read about both of those books here.
Or you could also do what I'm doing: flipping through The Chronicles of Downton Abbey: A New Era, a photo-heavy tribute by Jessica Fellowes (niece of the creator of "Downton Abbey" and a writer in her own right) and Matthew Sturgis. There are chapters on all the major characters, and enough full-color pictures to make you drop everything and go shopping for hats.
Here's a short excerpt from the foreword, written by Julian Fellowes:
Over the last two rather extraordinary years, at the risk of sounding vain, I have often been asked why I thought "Downton Abbey" has been quite such a success. Of course it is hard to be definite about these things. If television were an exact science, there would be nothing made that did not break records. But supposing I were to put my finger on one element, it might be that we have made the decision to treat every character, the members of the family and the members of their staff, equally, in terms of their narrative strength. they all have emotional lives, dreams, ambitions and disappointments, and with all of them we suggest a back story. So this book, which is an invitation to get to know the characters and their backgrounds more fully, will, I hope, build on that and allow the reader to develop his or her relationship with the figures in our landscapes.
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.
Heads in Beds by Jacob Tomsky
Doubleday • $25.95 • ISBN 9780385535632
On sale November 20, 2012
We interviewed Tomsky for the December issue of BookPage. You can read that Q&A here for a preview of what you'll learn in Heads in Beds. I love his answer to the question, "What are the most annoying words a guest can say to a front desk agent?"
Here's an excerpt from the book—and an example of how not to act in the lobby:
There are a thousand ways to complain, a thousand ways to have your problems instantly solved. As far as the most effective tactic, would I suggest screaming at an employee? Obviously, I would not.
Here is what I would suggest: Before approaching any employee, try to pinpoint exactly what the problem is (You were promised one rate and charged another / A bellman was rude to your wife / Someone must've thought you were finished with the pizza box you left on the floor of the bathroom and threw away the last cold slice), and then, if possible, what solution would make you feel satisfied (Having the rate adjusted to reflect the original booking / Being assured that the issue will be investigated and the bellman will be spoken to / A pizza slice on the floor? It's gone. Let it GO). Though most complaints should be delivered to the front desk directly, in person or on the phone, keep in mind that most issues you present will not have been caused by the front desk at all. So briefly outline your problem, offer a solution if you have one, and then ask whom you should speak with to have the problem solved. "Should I speak to a manager about this?" "Should I speak to housekeeping about this?" Those are wonderful and beautiful questions to ask. Most of the time the front desk will be able to solve the problem immediately or at least act as proxy and communicate your unrest to the appropriate department or manager. Want to make sure the agent doesn't nod, say "certainly," and not do a damn thing? Get his or her name. Nothing tightens up an employee's throat like being directly identified. You don't have to threaten him or her either, just a nice casual "Thanks for your help. I'll stop by later to make sure everything has been taken care of. Tommy, right?" Whatever you asked me to do I am DOING it.
Lastly, let's try to keep fiery anger out of the lobby. Almost 100 percent of the time the person you are punching on had nothing whatsoever to do with your situation. It's a hotel; nothing's personal. Here is a nice rule of thumb we can all try to remember: a person of culture should make every effort to hide his frustration from those who've had nothing to do with its origin. Boom.
Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon
Scribner • $37.50 • ISBN 9780743236713
On sale November 13, 2012
I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon is the most fascinating book I have read in 2012—or at least it is so far, and I'm only 120 pages in (out of about 700 pages of text . . . there are also 701 footnotes and an extensive bibliography and index). The book explores "horizontal identities" and how parents, children and the world at large respond to difference. This might sound a little dry, but stick with me.
Vertical identities are identities that are naturally passed from generation to the next. For example: Most Jewish children also have Jewish parents; most parents who speak Greek raise their children to speak Greek, too; most African-American kids have African-American parents. Families can relate to each other based on these shared identities that they've passed through the generations.
People with horizontal identities were born with (or acquired) traits that their parents don't have, so they had to form identities from a peer group. People with horizontal identities might include: deaf people, dwarfs, people with Down syndrome, people with schizophrenia and transgender people.
Solomon is gay (he was born to straight parents) and writes poignantly of his own horizontal identity in the first chapter. Then, in chapters grouped by type of exceptionalism he profiles hundreds of families, provides historical context and shows how many, many ways there are moving through this world. Yes, some of the stories are depressing or sad, but so many are hopeful and beautiful. This book is messy and it will make you think.
From what I've read, each chapter feels like a book in itself. (Besides the horizontal identities I mentioned above, Solomon writes about autistic people, severely disabled people, prodigies, people born of rape and criminals.) Far From the Tree is thoughtful and respectful and encourages readers to make their own conclusions. I am enjoying it very much and can't wait for some extended reading time over Thanksgiving.
It's hard to choose an excerpt for this post, since the real value in the book comes from taking in the many different experiences of the families Solomon talks to. But those stories are long and nuanced and don't lend themselves to a short excerpt. So, here's an excerpt that might make you think a bit about cochlear implants and the experience of children born deaf. (I had always assumed that the implants were a good thing—full stop . . . and had never considered the devices as a threat to Deaf identity and community.)
The question, really, is how we define the relationship between parents and children. A hundred years ago, children were effectively property, and you could do almost anything to them short of killing them. Now, children are empowered. But parents still decide what their children should wear, what they should eat, when they should sleep, and so on. Are decisions about bodily integrity also properly the province of parents? Some opponents of implants have proposed that people make their own choice when they turn eighteen. Even putting aside the neural issues that make this impractical, it is a flawed proposition. At eighteen, you are choosing not simply between being deaf and being hearing, but between the culture you have known and the life you have not. By then, your experience of the world has been defined by being deaf, and to give it up is to reject whom you have become.
Children with implants have experienced social difficulties; if the objective of the implants is to make the children feel good about themselves, the results are mixed. Some become what William Evans of the University of California has called "culturally homeless," neither hearing nor Deaf. The population at large does not like threats to binaries; binaries drive homophobia and racism and xenophobia, the constant impulse to define an us and a them. The wall between hearing and deaf is being broken down by a broad range of technology: hearing aids and implants that create what some activists call the "cyborg mix," bodies that are physically enhanced in some way.
Though some implanted adolescents disconnect them in their teen years, most perceive them as extremely useful. In one study from 2002, two-thirds of parents reported that their children had never refused to use the implant; there is presumably more adolescent resistance to, for example seat belts.
What are you reading today?
Indiscretion by Charles Dubow
Morrow • $25.99 • ISBN 9780062201058
On sale February 5, 2013
And what a page-turner it is. The plot follows the life of a seemingly perfect woman who is married to a National Book Award-winning author. They spend their summers in a lovely cottage in East Hampton; life is good. Early in the novel, they take a young woman, Claire, under their wings, and she comes to adore Harry and Maddy. Claire's very sad when the summer is over, but that winter she comes back into their lives with a vengeance, and nothing is ever the same . . .
The editor's letter compares Indiscretion to The Great Gatsby. Though the storytelling here doesn't have the elegance of Fitzgerald's classic (what does?), the plot does follow the same sort of tortured upper-class characters who experience a tragic fall from grace. If you like reading about glamorous lifestyles and the split-second choices that can upend a person's life, then this book is for you.
In the novel, the narrator is Maddy's best friend, Walter, an observer of the summer's activities and all that comes after. Here's an early scene:
Labor Day. The summer's last hurrah. Already night is falling earlier. Autumn is waiting on the doorstep. People bring sweaters when they go out in the evening.
Claire is driving with me. She has been out every weekend. She is now one of the gang, part of a nucleus that never changes even when minor characters drift in and out at restaurants, cocktail parties, lazy afternoons at the Winslows' or at the beach, nights playing charades, sailing in my little sailboat, Johnny's ninth birthday, skinny-dipping in the ocean, or sitting under the stars listening to Verdi. We are all tan. [...]
I am deposing her. Where she was born, where she lived, where she went to college, what she studied, why she does what she does, who she is. My right hand itches for a yellow legal pad to scratch it all down, but I will remember it well enough.
She is a willing witness, her tongue loosened by gin. And I am on my best behavior, not aggressive, but solicitous, empathetic. She tells me about her father, her French mother, her younger brother, who lives in California, where he works for a software company. But I also know witnesses have their own motivations. They will lie, or twist facts, if they have to. They can be resentful or closed, releasing only the most meager information. Others want me to like them thinking that will color my interpretation of the law.
And it is clear that Claire wants me to like her. Not romantically, alas. No, she is too easy around me for that. Instead, she treats me the way one would treat a prospective employer.
Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
Little, Brown • $25.99 • ISBN 9780316204279
on sale August 14, 2012
Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette may just be the most unique and hilarious book I've read all year. It's a sendup of the culture of Microsoft and Seattle private schools. An epistolary novel that includes emails, faxes, police reports and even a TED talk. A surprisingly poignant story of a family's love.
A former TV writer, Semple partially based the novel on her own experience of moving from Los Angeles to Seattle, she explains in an interview in BookPage. At first, she didn't like the city. (She likes it now.) Neither does her main character Bernadette, an agoraphobic architect who makes the same move, never to design again, after a terrible accident at the beginning of her high-profile career. In Where'd You Go, Bernadette, Bernadette disappears after a disastrous school fundraiser and before a planned family trip to Antarctica. Her resourceful daughter Bee will do anything to figure out where she's gone.
Here's a section in Bernadette's voice. Are you hooked yet? You can start reading more on Tuesday, when the novel goes on sale.
As much as I try not to engage people in the grocery checkout, I couldn't resist one day when I overheard one refer to Seattle as "cosmopolitan." Encouraged, I asked, "Really?" She said, Sure, Seattle is full of people from all over. "Like where?" Her answer, "Alasksa. I have a ton of friends from Alaska." Whoomp, there it is.
Let's play a game. I'll say a word, and you say the first word that pops into your head. Ready?
What you've heard about the rain: it's all true. So you'd think it would become part of the fabric, especially among the lifers. But every time it rains, and you have to interact with someone, here's what they'll say: "Can you believe the weather?" And you want to say, "Actually, I can believe the weather. What I can't believe is that I'm actually having a conversation about the weather." But I don't say that, you see, because that would be instigating a fight, something I try my best to avoid, with mixed results.
Getting into fights with people makes my heart race. Not getting into fights with people makes my heart race. Even sleeping makes my heart race!
What are you reading today?