In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner
Simon & Schuster • $25 • ISBN 9781451657708
On sale August 7, 2012
Vaddey Ratner's debut novel caught my attention when I read this effusive recommendation from author Chris Cleave: "In the Shadow of the Banyan is one of the most extraordinary acts of storytelling I have ever encountered." Turns out the story, which details a family's experience during the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s, actually lives up to that high praise.
The main character and narrator is Raami, a tough little girl who is separated from her family and forced to perform hard physical labor—an experience that mirrors the real life of the author, who was five when the Khmer Rouge came to power. It is difficult to read about Raami's hardships, and sometimes it seems like she will never emerge from her life's hell. What makes the story so remarkable, however, is how Ratner constantly juxtaposes horror with small moments of beauty. Even her characters are aware of this tension, and it really is satisfying to read about the resilience of human beings.
Here are a couple examples:
"Do you know why I told you stories, Raami?" he [her father] asked. We'd left the others, their panic and fears, and hid ourselves in the solitude of the meditation pavilion.
I shook my head. I knew nothing, understood nothing.
"When I thought you couldn't walk, I wanted to make sure you could fly." His voice was calm, soothing, as if it were just another evening, another conversation. "I told you stories to give you wings, Raami, so that you would never be trapped by anything—your name, your title, the limits of your body, this world's suffering." He glanced up at the face of the wooden Buddha in its corner of the room and, as if conceding to some argument they'd had earlier, murmured, "Yes, it's true everywhere you look there is suffering—an old man has disappeared, a baby died and his coffin is a desk, we live in the classrooms haunted by ghosts, this sacred ground is stained with the blood of murdered monks." He swallowed, then cupping my face in his hands, continued, "My greatest desire, Raami, is to see you live. If I must suffer so that you can live, then I will gladly give up my life for you, just as I once gave up everything to see you walk."
Joy and sorrow often travel the same road and sometimes whether by grace or misfortune they meet and become each other's companion.
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
Random House • $26 • ISBN 9780812992977
on sale June 26, 2012
The story is about Julia, a sixth-grader who lives in suburban California. She's preoccupied with fitting in at school, buying her first bra, talking to her crush—and something that has global consequences. Julia wakes up one morning, and the earth has started to rotate at a slower pace. At first, it's just a few minutes added on to every day, but before long, days and nights are twice as long as they used to be. Crops can't grow and gravity is messed up. People are getting sick from sunburns, and electricity isn't consistent. World leaders insist on keeping to a 24-hour schedule, but some "real timers" try to stay awake during sunlight and sleep when it's dark, keeping up with circadian rhythms.
This is a tender and beautiful coming-of-age story with a chilling sci-fi twist—except "the slowing" feels hauntingly plausible. Aimee Bender calls the novel "at once a love letter to the world as we know it and an elegy," and I completely agree. Here's an excerpt that describes some of the consequences of "the slowing."
Five thousand years of art and superstition would suggest that it's the darkness that haunts us most, that the night is when the human mind is most apt to be disturbed. But dozens of experiments conducted in the aftermath of the slowing revealed that it was not the darkness that tampered most with our moods. It was the light.
As the days stretched further, we faced a new phenomenon: Certain clock days began and ended before the sun ever rose—or else began and ended before the sun ever set.
Scientists had long been aware of the negative effects of prolonged daylight on human brain chemistry. Rates of suicide, for example, had always been highest above the Arctic Circle, where self-inflicted gunshot wounds surged every summer, the continuous daylight driving some people mad.
As our days neared forty-eight hours, those of us living in the lower latitudes began to suffer similarly from the relentlessness of light.
Studies soon documented an increase in impulsiveness during the long daylight periods. It had something to do with serotonin; we were all a little crazed. Online gambling increased steadily throughout every stretch of daylight, and there is some evidence that major stock trades were made more often on light days than on dark ones. Rates of murder and other violent crimes also spiked while the sun was in our hemisphere—we discovered very quickly the dangers of the white nights.
We took more risks. Desires were less checked. Temptation was harder to resist. Some of us made decisions we might not otherwise have made.
The Shoemaker's Wife by Adriana Trigiani
HarperCollins • $26.99 • ISBN 9780061257094
Published April 3, 2012
This is one of those novels that you just want to curl up with. The story unfolds slowly, but it doesn't drag; by the end of the nearly 500 pages, the characters will have touched your heart and become like family.
The story is about Enza Ravanelli, poor but happy and devoted to her family, and Ciro Lazzari, an orphan who is raised by nuns in a convent. They two meet as teenagers in the Italian Alps and sense a strong connection—but they don't have an easy happily ever after. Separately, they end up in the United States, where Ciro becomes a shoemaker, and Enza eventually works as a seamstress for the great Enrico Caruso at the Metropolitan Opera. Along the way, their paths cross again . . .
Here's an excerpt from one of their early meetings in America.
An accordion played in the distance, underscoring peals of laughter and the low drone of scattered conversation from the porches and yards close by. The cool night air had the scent of buttery caramel and cigar smoke. Rolling gray clouds from the last of the fireworks hung over the jagged rooftops of Little Italy as the moon, full and blue, pushed through the haze to illuminate the garden.
"You have a tree!" Enza exclaimed.
"How many trees did we have on the mountain?" Ciro asked. He put his hands in his pockets and stood back from her, observing her delight.
"More," Ciro remembered. "And here, all I have is this one tree, and it's more precious to me than all the forest below Pizzo Camino. Who would have thought that one tree could bring me so much joy? I'm almost ashamed."
"I understand. Any small thing that reminds me of home is a treasure. Sometimes it's small—a bowl of soup that makes me think of my mother—or it's a color. I saw a blue parasol in the crowd this afternoon that reminded me of the lake by the waterwheel in Schilpario. It's the kind of thing that catches you unaware and fills you with a deep longing for everything you once knew. Don't apologize for loving this tree. If I had a tree, I'd feel the same."
Ciro wished he had more time to talk with her.
Crucible of Gold by Naomi Novik
Del Rey • $25 • ISBN 9780345522863
published March 6, 2012
Since the 2006 publication of her first novel in the Temeraire series, His Majesty's Dragon, Naomi Novik's star has risen quickly in the world of science fiction and fantasy. The Temeraire books (named for the dragon whose exploits they follow) have earned praise from such luminaries as Stephen King and director Peter Jackson, who has optioned the series for a possible film adaptation. There's no doubt they would make terrific movies, with their vivid characters (both human and dragon), their exciting battle scenes and their lush and varied historical settings.
During the Napoleonic Wars, Temeraire and his captain, Will Laurence, have traveled across the globe in the service of Britain's Royal Aerial Corps, from England to China to Turkey to the southern tip of Africa to, most recently, Australia (for reasons that I will refrain from revealing, so as not to spoil readers new to the series). Now, in Crucible of Gold, they are being sent to South America to negotiate with the Portuguese royal family in Brazil.
In this excerpt, the dragons Temeraire and Iskierka display their very dragonish love of treasure and fine things:
"I cannot say much for a pavilion without a roof," Iskierka said, with quite unbearable superiority, "and anyway you cannot bring it along, so even if it were finished, it would not be of any use. I do not think anyone can disagree I have used my time better."
Temeraire could disagree, very vehemently, but when Iskierka had chivvied a few of her crew—newly brought on in Madras—into bringing up the sea-chests from below, and throwing open the lids to let the sunlight in upon the heaped golden vessels, and even one small casket of beautifully cut gemstones, he found his arguments did ring a little hollow. It seemed the Allegiance had in her lumbering way still managed to get into flying distance of not one but three lawful prizes, on the way to Madras, and another one on the way back, when Hammond's urgent need of a transport to carry Temeraire to Rio had necessitated her abrupt about-face and return.
"It does not seem very fair," Temeraire said to Laurence, "when one considers how much sea-journeying we have done, without even one French merchantman coming anywhere in reach; and I do not find that Riley expects we should meet others on the way to Brazil, either."
"No, but we may meet a whaler or two, if you like," Laurence said absently. Temeraire was not mollified; whales were perfectly tolerable creatures, very good eating when not excessively large, but no-one could compare them to cartloads of gems and gold; and as for ambergris, he did not care for the scent.
Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick
Algonquin • $24.95 • ISBN 9781565129238
Published June 12, 2012
The novel takes place in 1948 in Brownsburg, Virginia. This is a small town where "no crime has ever been committed" and where people start to talk when a stranger, Charlie Beale, comes to stay. Charlie gets work at the butcher shop, and practically becomes part of the butcher's family—soon acting as a second father to Sam, the butcher's five-year-old son. A drifter who is looking to finally belong in a community, Charlie also buys up land, tries out all the local churches and longs for the love a woman. Unfortunately for Charlie—and for all of the people of Brownsburg—he falls for Sylvan Glass, the wife of the richest guy in town, a man who is also the least popular. For reasons I can't explain here (I don't want any spoilers!), their relationship profoundly affects Sam, and everyone else in Brownsburg. Here's an excerpt that describes Charlie's obsessive love for Sylvan:
He would die for her, just as he lived, now, for Sylvan and Sylvan alone. He would be a better person on her behalf, and he would be patient as Job, saying nothing, applying no pressure, wanting everything and expecting nothing. But it was hard for him, it was hard to pay attention to anything else, to focus on anything that didn't have to do with her.
Everybody in town began to notice the change in him, the distance. What he did with his body began to show in his face. They could sense, dimly at first and then more clearly, that his enthusiasms had become particular, and they knew they had become particular for a particular woman.
What are you reading today? Will you check out Heading Out to Wonderful in June? Are you a fan of A Reliable Wife?
Carry the One by Carol Anshaw
Scribner • $25 • ISBN 9781451636888
Published March 6, 2012
I was first hooked by the premise of Carry the One, but I'm naming it one of my favorite reads of 2012 (so far) thanks to Carol Anshaw's gorgeous writing. Here's the story: Carmen, Alice and Nick are siblings. Carmen—a feminist activist with a strong conscience—is the responsible one. Alice, a painter and a lesbian, is romantic. Nick, a genius astronomer, struggles with drug use. The action begins at Carmen's wedding to Matt, which takes place in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere—where Alice falls for Matt's sister, Maude, behind the scenes, and Nick and his girlfriend, Olivia, get high.
After the party, Olivia drives everyone home in the middle of the night—and in her hazy state she hits and kills a young girl who was walking by the side of the road. This tragedy links Carmen, Alice, Maude, Olivia and Nick for years to come, and Anshaw follows each of their stories for the next 25 years. They experience fame and addiction and jail time, marriage and divorce, love and death. All the while, they carry the memory of the young girl who died—and their guilt for her death.
Alice creates a series of paintings based on the girl's life. Here's an excerpt about her process:
Alone, Alice sat at the kitchen table while her coffee went cold, then finally went into the studio and sanded a gessoed canvas to begin a fresh portrait of Casey Redman. This would be the fifth. The early ones came to Alice set in places of Casey's childhood—inside a snow fort in a field by the toboggan hill, on a raft in what was clearly Sullivan Lake. Like that. As these were also places familiar to Alice from her time at the co-op, she was remembering as much as imagining. But the next one—Casey awkwardly slow-dancing with a boy at a party—came to Alice already articulated, though she had no familiarity with the specific setting, what seemed to be a paneled family room. [. . . . ]
Alice was beginning to see the terms of these paintings. She would wait for them to arrive and then paint them, like clicking a shutter, making snapshots out of oil and canvas. This was the central point of her art now, to record the girl's unlived life. Also, these would be her best paintings. She knew this already. She could see a whole world of paintings ahead of her that she wanted to make, and she would make them, but none would be as good as the Casey Redman paintings. She wasn't sure if this was a gift, or a sentence.
Other People We Married by Emma Straub
Riverhead • $15 • ISBN 9781594486067
On sale February 7, 2012
Emma Straub is a bookseller in Brooklyn and an entertaining Tweeter, and I've had my eye on her story collection ever since a) it was reviewed on The Book Lady's Blog and b) I saw that Lorrie Moore described it as a "revelation" on the book jacket. Other People We Married was originally published by a small, independent press, but in two weeks Riverhead will publish a paperback edition. (Riverhead will also publish Straub's debut novel.)
I haven't finished this collection yet, and I've been skipping around, but so far I love these stories. They're about people in transition, about loss and change and hope. Like in the best short stories, the language is clear and lovely and packed with imagery that will immerse you in a character's world in just a few short pages. The stories are also very funny.
Here's an example. This is from "Puttanesca," in which a couple meet on a blind date arranged by their mutual bereavement therapist. This is the moment they first see each other at Starbucks:
"Stephen?" she said, sure that she would be speaking into thin air, that the quarterback would shake his head and probably laugh when he got outside. Laura wasn't unattractive, she knew, but hers was a subtler kind: unplucked eyebrows and sensible footwear.
He looked startled, like a baby next to a popped balloon just before the tears started to flow. But then the momentary look of panic was gone, so absent, in fact, that Laura was sure she'd imagined it. "Laura?" he said. Stephen was already smiling when he slid into the seat across from her, as easily as if she and everyone else at the Starbucks had somehow wandered into his living room.
"Looks that way," Laura said. Her hair felt even more brown than usual, like mouse fur or dry dirt. "Hi." At least it was long again. After John died, she'd chopped all her hair off, up to her ears. Her mother said she looked like Joan of Arc, who Laura thought probably didn't have a mirror. It had not been a compliment.
What are you reading today? Are you interested in Other People We Married? For even more fantastic short story collections, see this spotlight from the February issue of BookPage on new books from Nathan Englander and Dan Chaon.
The Submission by Amy Waldman
FSG • $26 • ISBN 9780374271565
Published August 16, 2011
(Paperback on sale March 27, 2012)
The premise of the novel is simple: Two years after 9/11, there is an anonymous competition for a memorial design. There are 5,000 entries, and a jury is selected to choose the winner. Their choice, most supported by a woman whose husband died in the attack? A garden that, turns out, was designed by a Muslim architect named Mohammad Khan.
The story is told from multiple narrators: the chair of the jury; the widower on the jury; the architect himself; an undocumented Muslim woman whose husband also died in the attack; a ruthless journalist covering the competition; and the brother of a firefighter who died on 9/11, who is also the leader of an anti-Islam group.
The book is fascinating for its different points of view. You'll confront stereotypes and be forced to consider different perspectives. Ultimately, the big question is: Is it insensitive for a Muslim to design a 9/11 memorial? Is it a gesture toward inclusiveness in the United States (and a powerful symbol for America's freedom of religion)? Does the identity of the architect matter at all?
Here's an excerpt from the book. The jury has just looked up the name associated with the winning design. As you will see, his name immediately triggers some sharp reactions. Paul is the chair of the jury.
The piece of paper containing the winner's name was passed from palm to palm like a fragile folio. There were a few gasps and "hmmms," an "interesting," an "oh my." Then: Jesus f**king Christ! It's a goddamn Muslim!" The paper had reached the governor's man.
Paul sighed. It wasn't Bob Wilner's fault they were in this situation, if indeed they were in a situation, but Paul resented him for forcing them to confront that they were, possibly, in a situation. Until Wilner spoke, no one had voiced what was written, as if to do so would bring the problem, even the person, to life before them.
"Ms. Costello." Paul addressed the minute-taker in an almost musing tone, without meeting her eyes. "That will be expunged, naturally. We'd like to keep the record free of—of profanity." He knew this sounded ridiculous: What New York City body cared about profanity? What minute-taker bothered to transcribe it? "Perhaps you could step out for a few minutes. Go help yourself to some more dessert." [ . . . ]
The door shut. He waited a few seconds before saying, "Let's stay calm here."
"What the f**k are we supposed to do?"
"We know nothing about him, Bob."
"Is he even American?"
"Yes, it says right here under nationality, American."
"That actually makes it harder."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"How did this happen?"
"What are the odds?"
"I can't believe it."
"It's Maya Lin all over again. But worse."
"What are the odds?" the mayor's aide kept repeating. "What are the odds?"
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker
Other Press • $14.95 • ISBN 9781590514634
On sale January 31, 2012
Fortunately, there are a few U.S. publishers who make a habit of buying foreign rights and translating international bestsellers for us Yanks to read. Other Press is one of those publishers, and I just happen to know and adore their Associate Publisher, who has excellent reading taste. (Well, it matches mine so it’s got to be excellent, right?) On a recent visit to the Other Press offices, said Associate Publisher handed me a galley of one of their upcoming titles. He guaranteed that I was going to be enchanted by it. And, yes, once again he was right!
It’s a story about the power of a love that can’t be diminished by time or distance. Set in Burma, a blind boy and a crippled girl forge a bond that can never be broken. Together they learn to use their senses to navigate the human heart and the world itself. But it’s also the tale of an abandoned daughter's quest as she searches for the father she discovers she never really knew. She must come to terms with her father’s past and solve the mystery of his disappearance. Beautifully written, and even a bit magical, the novel draws you in on the very first page. It’s a love story like no other I’ve ever read.
Here’s a taste of what it’s like to master the art of hearing heartbeats…
"Every voice had its distinctive repertoire of expressive forms, and so, too, did every heart. Recognizing strangers by their heartbeat on a second or third meeting posed no difficulty for Tin Win, even though the beating was never absolutely identical. It betrayed much about body and soul and altered with time or according to the situation. Hearts could sound young or decrepit, boring or bored, mysterious or predictable. Yet what was he to think when an individual’s voice and heart were at odds, each telling a different, mutually incompatible story?”
The Last Nude by Ellis Avery
Riverhead • $25.95 • ISBN 9781594488139
Published January 5, 2012
I was drawn to Ellis Avery's The Last Nude because a) how could you not be drawn to that bold jacket? b) I had just finished An Object of Beauty and was on a novels-about-art kick and c) there's a big honkin' blurb from Emma Donoghue, one of my favorite authors, on the cover.
The story is about the real-life Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka, and the relationship she strikes up with her muse, Rafaela, the woman depicted on the jacket in the painting Beautiful Rafaela. By the way, this painting sold at Sotheby's in November. The winning price? $8.4 million. I'm embedding a video from Sotheby's below the excerpt, where you can see the Vice President of Impressionist & Modern Art talking about the piece.
But back to the book (which can be yours for only $25.95). I'm enjoying the story because the setting is wonderful (Paris in the 1920s) and the relationship between artist and muse is believable and intriguing. As Megan Fishmann writes in a review in the January issue of BookPage, "Avery weaves historical fact with electrically charged narrative . . . Filled with fabulous literary anecdotes and characters that seem to leap off the page, The Last Nude is a novel perfect for lovers of the 1920s, of Paris or simply of love stories."
Here's a scene from the first day that Rafaela models for Tamara. Tamara has made her wear a plain dress while she poses. After looking at the other portraits in Tamara's apartment, Rafaela wishes she could look more glamorous.
As the minutes passed, I realized I no longer felt uneasy. I felt jealous. Why did I get the ugly dress, the ugly painting? And why didn't Tamara paint my face? The painting next to the mannish woman showed a nude—sleek, modern, Olympian—with her arm across her face. Was this Tamara's kink? She didn't paint faces? No, I saw plenty of faces in the room, some, to be honest, not as nice as mine. It was as if, by putting me in the ugly dress, she had made herself blind to me. Beautiful, she'd said. Did she really think so? I wanted to take off my dress and lie down on that velvet couch for her: I wanted her to see me in the grand way she saw the others.
What are you reading today? Are you interested in reading The Last Nude?
Here's the video: