One question I've been asked at nearly every event I've participated in for Read This! is: "What is one book you've read since publication that you would add to the list?"
So I asked the contributors for one thing they've read recently and really enjoyed. Per usual with this fun cast of characters, we got some great responses.
Flora by Gail Godwin (Bloomsbury, May 2013, 26.00)
The narrator of Gail Godwin's brilliant new novel is a older woman looking back upon her life
as a ten year-old in the summer of 1945. Helen's mother died when she was three and Helen
lives with her father and her wise, dear grandmother, Nonie. Her father is called "to the other
side of the mountain" to work at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, on something called the Manhattan
Project, and when Nonie suddenly dies, her father summons Helen's mother's 22 year-old
sister, Flora, to take care of the girl for the summer. Helen has cynical tendencies and is very
precocious, while Flora, occasionally stunned by the girl's sharpness, is cheerful and dutiful.
A polio quarantine forces the two into a rather unwanted constant companionship, and when
Finn, the appealing but mysteriously discharged veteran, appears as their grocery delivery man,
a rivalry is exacerbated. Gail Godwin's masterful plot tension (not to be spoiled here) and her
power to create characters with remarkable depth, as well as her gift for prose, elevate the whole
into entirely successful literature and reading of high pleasure. If you think there is no one
today who can write with the skill of a Peter Taylor or, for that matter, George Eliot, read Flora.(Richard Howorth, Square Books)
The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman
Follows the insane exploits of Egon Loeser in the 1930s, from Berlin, where he falls for a girl named Adele Hitler (no relation,) to Paris and Los Angeles, where he pursues Adele and also manages to get himself involved in the craziest of capers. On top of being uber-smart and hilarious, the ending will make you take your eyeballs out, rinse them off, and put them back in, just to be sure you read the last few pages correctly. You did. MIND=BLOWN. (Liberty Hardy, RiverRun)
John Le Carre's A Delicate Truth (Viking, May) reminds us why we're fond of him in the first place. It's genre writing but with the literature thrown in, as he tells a story of a counter-terrorist operation gone badly wrong not with through the pop-pop pyrotechnics of a Tom Clancy but with an economy of style and understatement, with crackling wit and a strong sense of morality and characters fully drawn. Proof that good writing doesn't have to be inaccessible. (Matt Lage, Iowa Book)
A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA
by Anthony Marra
(Hogarth, hd., $26)
May 7, 2013
Every few years there comes along a debut novel that just steals my heart because the work is so transcendent and such an unexpected joy to read. I'm thinking of Tea Obreht with The Tiger's Wife or Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated for example. Well, now it's Anthony Marra with his remarkable A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Set in contemporary Chechnya against a back drop of war and insurgency, it is a testament to Marra's skill that the novel is heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting. It even made me want to read up on Chechen history and that's something that I never thought I would say. Do yourself a favor and check out this splendid new writer of whom Ann Patchett says, "If this is where Anthony Marra begins his career, I can't imagine how far he will go." (Cody Morrison, Square Books)
LIFE AFTER LIFE
by Jill McCorkle
(Algonquin, hd. $24.95)
Is there some sort of energy used by novelists that when not used builds up and when finally sent out in a book is like a dam breaking with torrents of emotion and story so powerful that the reader is helplessly swept away? After reading Jill McCorkle's first novel in 17 years, one has to wonder. Set in a retirement home where some have come to die, but there is so much life to live as well. Joanna, who has had her own troubles in life, now volunteers for hospice care, gently guiding those who are leaving this life. Sadie, a retired school teacher and the boddi satva of the home, is compassionate to all as she wields her scissors and glue to create photos of residents in places all over the world. Rachel Silverman, a lawyer, who, while knowing no one in town, has come to live there from her home in Massachusets. C.J., rebellious, pierced and tattooed, but trying to be the best mother to her young son that she can. Stanley, faking dementia to encourage his son to move on, and Abby, a young girl seeking the positive reinforcement she can't get from her mother, all make their place here. A novel to remind one that everyone has a story. (Lyn Roberts, Square Books)
Dust to Dust by Benjamin Busch. Here's what I said about the hardcover, and I stand by this strong recommendation a year later: In this completely original memoir, Busch meditates on materials such as water, soil, blood, stone, and wood, telling his life story from childhood curiosity to wartime high alert with breathtakingly detailed observations. There is very little of the usual memories of relationships, but instead this is a journey into the mind of a boy and man who sees differently, and has the words to beautifully describe his experiences and thoughts. This is a profound book, with lasting impact that I want to press this into the hands of everyone I know.(Carla Jimenez, Inkwood Books )
Wise Men, by Stuart Nadler
Oh, so you like Great American Novels, huh? But you think that none have been published in a few decades? You poor soul! You're wrong! Stuart Nadler's debut novel has it all: love, money, race, airplanes, baseball, beach houses. It's a book to read now or in fifty years. Delicious and satisfying.(Emma Straub)
Most of my reading attention lately was focused on Hugh Howey's Wool. It's a book that, like the 50 Shades series, started as a self-published phenomenon but ended up at a major publishing house. Unlike EL James' books, Wool is really freakin' good. (Hey, I can say this. I subjected myself to 50 Shades of Grey. Sacrifice!) Set in a future US where the environment is toxic and mankind has retreaded to underground silos, the world of Wool is brilliantly realized. There's a satisfying undercurrent of menace from the very first page, as is the wont of all good dystopias. And it's got a kick-ass female protagonist! The ending is a bit too tidy, and I have a few quibbles with Howey's writing in the early chapters, but neither issue is big enough to stop me from recommending the book. In fact, it's probably my favorite dystopian novel since Justin Cronin's The Passage.
(Josh Christie. Sherman's Books)
Benediction, Kent Haruf, , Knopf, $25.95
Without ever slipping into sentimentality Kent Haruf has laid bare the hearts of a dying man, Dad Lewis, a sort of Everyman, and the family and friends of his present life, along with the memories and ghosts from his past. A more painfully “human” character than Dad Lewis is hard to imagine—someone whose refusal to bend results in tragedy for more than one person; someone chary of open emotion; someone who, paradoxically, is capable of the deepest kind of love. The rest of the cast consists of his wife of many years; the daughter who has come home to help care for him; an estranged son who visits him in memory and in dying dreams; assorted neighbors, children and adult alike; the Pastor and his family—all with troubles of their own. For all its rural grace, the high plains town of Holt, Colorado, is no Eden. Bigotry and violence are as much a reality there as they are everywhere. But there is also a wealth of caring that seems to be part of Holt’s rural character—or more accurately, part of the character of humanity as Haruf sees it, sees us. He seems to see in each of us the capability for hope as well as pain, the capacity for redemption as well as sin. Kent Haruf has crafted a tale that is as riveting, as shot with joy, anger, fear, love, regret, as life itself—and one that, in its compassionate and profoundly honest view of humanity, really does feel like a kind of benediction. – Betsy Burton, The King’s English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, Utah
In the spirit of Richard Yates’ novel Revolutionary Road, Caroline Leavitt peels back the neat façade of suburban life in the 1950s to uncover the ways in which the demands of conformity leave a trail of loneliness and pain for those who lie outside its bounds. Ava Lark, the divorced Jewish mother of twelve-year-old Lewis, struggles against the judgment of neighbors as she and her son befriend the only other fatherless children around, Jimmy and Rose. Jimmy’s sudden, unexplained disappearance taps into every parent’s worst nightmare. Blending taut suspense with deeply moving portrayals of fierce parental love, childhood friendships and first crushes, Leavitt has created a novel with haunting characters and much to say about how we move through tragedy. (Libby Cowles, Maria's)
The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy (Harper Collins, June 2013, $24.99, 9780062112248)
The incandescent prose of this slender novel transfixed me until my heart shattered. Each character I met—with such deep longing in their souls and generosity of their spirits—seemed to be painstakingly carved from the granite of profound emotional truths, and I quite literally collapsed under the weight of it all. Moving backwards and forwards in time, we follow a starburst of people, from France to Los Angeles, whose smallest gestures have grand, echoing reverberations over the course of 66 years. I was (and continue to be) rendered utterly speechless for the magnificence of it.
There's a lot of stuff I've read and loved since our little red book came out, but this one crippled me.(Stacie M. Williams, Boswell Books)
“Folks in a small town from ex-prisoner to preacher, outcast boys to the very old, try to get by facing what seem to them to be the imperfections of their character while pursuing their longing for connection to community—community of others and community with themselves. Rhodes masterfully paints their many layered complexity in language so vivid and kind, it nearly renders the reader breathless. This is a damn fine novel—one of the best kinds—where ordinary people living ordinary lives are drawn by the deft & lyrical touch of the author in such an achingly rich way, one quietly marvels. When you read a novel like this where you dearly wish to move in with the characters, they have already moved in with you.”
—Sheryl Cotleur, Copperfield's Books, Sebastopol, CA
"The Map and The Territory - Michel Houellebecq, long the literary bad-boy of France, has decided to move on from the prostitutes and sex dungeons that made his earlier work so infamous (if just). Consider it the literary equivalent of Woody Allen going on to make Annie Hall. Also, like Allen, Houellebecq excels at the darkly comic. His style here can best be described as "depressive lucidity," or highlighting the impoverishment of everyday life. Or even to put it more bluntly; '"fuck it. Let's go get drunk."
Houellebecq's language is his power. He wields his mighty axe both for comic aggression: there is a vicious and delightful take-down of Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, or for beauty: the description of an art installation of photos of Michelin Maps is gorgeous. Even a side-plot involving the man character's father is deeply affecting and powerful.
This is an amazing novel: lucid and enlightening, comic and terrifying. Stefan loved." (Stefan Moorehead, Unabridged Bookstore)