BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, April 2014
Frances Mayes’ lyrical memoir of growing up Southern was a long time coming. Worried about upsetting her family, she stopped and started Under Magnolia many times over: “Anytime I felt the impulse to start my Southern opus again, I instead headed for a movie or a new Thai restaurant,” she writes. “I’d go jogging or read a novel until the impulse faded.”
Gabrielle Zevin may be one of the few authors alive who thanks her lucky stars she hasn’t had J.K. Rowling’s level of success. If she had, she never would have written The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, the lovely, irresistible story of a down-on-his-luck bookseller.
To marry their daughters off, four social-climbing men in 1790s London hatch a plot: Buy a pianoforte (the au courant instrument of the late 18th century) and have them give a concert that will have noblemen lined up for their hands in marriage.
The ladies are as varied as their fathers are ambitious: emaciated Georgiana; Everina with her unfortunate false teeth; mysterious Alathea; and the Brass sisters, practical Harriet and lumpy Marianne.
In a frank and richly evocative memoir, the author of Under the Tuscan Sun recalls growing up in the Deep South.
Why did you feel now was the right time to write a memoir of your coming-of-age?
Moving from California (where I lived and worked for decades) back to the South reconnected me on many levels with the land I came from originally. Some of the connections were simple and primitive—the fecund and flowery smells, the cheerful sounds of the tree frogs, the grating drama of cicadas, the grand sunsets and the intense humidity.
The women came from all over the nation—even the world—with little or no idea why they were moving to a remote New Mexico town with only a post office box for an address. They were the wives of scientists working at a secret research laboratory to build the first atomic bomb.
The damp practically floats off the pages in Astoria, the sweeping tale of John Jacob Astor’s attempt to settle the remote Pacific Northwest coast in 1810. Astor’s vast wealth enabled him to send two expeditions: one over land and one by ship. His plan was to set up a fur trade, the first on this particularly harsh stretch of the West Coast. Whoever could settle the area would lay claim to a vast area rich with sea otter and beaver fur, salmon and other seafood.
I was skeptical when I found out the author of The Widow’s Guide to Sex and Dating stars on “The Real Housewives of New York.” And when the epigram was a Lady Gaga quote, I thought I was in for a long slog. What a pleasant surprise, then, when the book turned out to be one of the richest, most deeply satisfying stories I’ve read in a long time.
First the woman behind Frank Lloyd Wright and now Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife—author Nancy Horan has carved a niche for herself as a novelist who gives voice to strong, influential yet largely forgotten women.
“Women have been underrepresented in the history books,” Horan says by phone from her home on an island near Seattle. “I’ve chosen to write about two women who were very strong in their own right.”
Author Matthew Quick probably is tired of hearing the word “quirky,” but it really is the singularly best way to describe his storytelling. After his first novel, The Silver Linings Playbook, was adapted into an Oscar-nominated movie starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, Quick delivers a new story featuring Bartholomew Neil, a uniquely likeable protagonist who at nearly 40 has lived with his mother his entire life.
One of the unlikeliest marriages in American history—between a staunch conservative and a diehard liberal—is still going strong after 20 years.