Keir Graff and editors from Booklist's adult and youth departments write candidly about books, book reviewing, and the publishing industry
Friday, October 18, 2013 9:51 am Minority Report: Ward’s Tender Portrait Defies Stereotypes Posted by: Vanessa Bush
Part of what makes Men We Reapedby Jesmyn Ward so moving, beyond the awful personal loss of five people close to her in four years, is the haunting notion that the small town closeness she describes is what was lost when so many black families left the South during the Great Migration. What the “migrants” gained was a freedom to pursue dreams that gave birth to incredible American talent, including Toni Morrison and Miles Davis. But what was lost was a sense of closeness that is presented so tenderly by Ward, winner of the National Book Award for her novel Salvage the Bones.
So many generations after the Great Migration, it’s apparent that whatever those who stayed behind may have missed in terms of opportunities, they have not missed out on the urban miseries of the drug trade and the “war on drugs” that has ravaged so many inner cities. Writing about the small Mississippi town of DeLisle and her own family, Ward lends an intimacy to the devastation, but what she writes about is much broader—the scourge of drugs and despair across the US, in large cities and small towns, in families from a range of incomes, but unfortunately mostly tied to race and poverty. Ward writes with a tenderness that doesn’t sentimentalize or make excuses, but offers real portraits of people who are often stereotyped.
In her recent interview with NPR’s Terry Gross on Fresh Air, Ward’s soft voice is as poignant as her writing. A natural storyteller, she explores the trite notion that we aren’t promised tomorrow and laments the loss of a brother, keeper of the family stories, and worries about losing the past. When I read her book and listened to her interview, I thought about the irony that the root culture and incredible closeness of the rural southern town is no protection from the kind of despair generally associated with northern inner cities. Despite education and obvious talent, she’d had her own bouts of recklessness and depression, including suicide attempts that lead her to tattoo her brother’s name on her wrists as memorial and preventative.
In contrast to “the warmth of other suns” that drove so many from the South, described so wonderfully by Isabel Wilkerson in her book of the same title, there was a warmth left behind in the closeness of the southern small towns that unfortunately hasn’t shielded them from the plagues of drugs and poverty.
Thursday, October 17, 2013 11:51 am Book Trailer Thursday: Actors Anonymous Posted by: Courtney Jones
While a certain beloved Book Trailer Thursday curator is off getting hitched, I’ve gladly stepped in to provide this important public service announcement: As of Tuesday, October 15th, the actor James Franco unleashed another book onto the world. Donna Seaman penned some gracious words about Actors Anonymous in the Sept. 1 issue of Booklist:
“The ringleader is James Franco, or the Actor, a notorious deflowerer of virgins and a metaconstruct that allows author Franco to gleefully, bawdily, and scathingly dissect the cult of celebrity and the paradoxes of acting, blur the line between autobiography and fiction, and dispense genuinely resonant artistic advice.”
Here’s the trailer:
“I used to care about how I looked. Now I don’t care as much. Maybe it’s because I’m so handsome.” #stopFranco
Wednesday, October 16, 2013 2:17 pm National Book Awards Finalists Posted by: Briana Shemroske
Who will win the National Book Award this year? The National Book Foundation has recently narrowed down the titles from their mid-September ”longlists” to make way for five finalists from each category (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and children’s literature)! A winner from each category will be decided by judges and announced on November 20th. The awards, first established in 1936, celebrate literary excellence in America. Past winners include William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Elizabeth Bishop.
Monday, October 14, 2013 4:50 pm Remembering Oscar Hijuelos Posted by: Bill Ott
Reading the news that Oscar Hijuelos has died at the far too young age of 62 has left me feeling saddened and deeply melancholic, two emotions that were always at the core of his books, from his first novel, Our House in the Last World (1983) through his breakthrough work, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989) and on to both what I believe is his masterpiece, A Simple Habana Melody (from When the World Was Good),and his last published book, the memoir Thoughts without Cigarettes(2011). Mambo Kings and its equally moving sequel, Beautiful Maria of My Soul(2010) are both tales of grand passion found, lost, and mourned, but Habana Melody raises the melancholy bar still further. The story of Cuban composer Israel Levis is an agonizing mix of joy and sadness, creativity and repression. Torn between Old World propriety and sensual craving, Levis is too timid either to pursue young singer Rita Valledares, whom he loves passionately, or to act on his attraction to men. The pull and push between the joy and freedom he feels in his creative life and the sadness and lack of fulfillment that torment his personal life reverberate in his music. As in Mambo Kings, Hijuelos uses music to accentuate his characters’ moments of triumph, to mourn their losses, and to evoke their longing for a time “when the world was good.” That longing has never been put into words more eloquently than in Hijuelos’ work.
It’s probably no surprise that a writer obsessed with feelings of melancholy and their expression in music would also be fascinated with cities. Whether he is describing Levis enjoying drinks and cigars with his fellow musicians in the Campana Bar in Habana, or detailing how the immigrant Castillo brothers learn to navigate the streets of New York in Mambo Kings, or, especially, how, in Thoughts without Cigarettes, the young Oscar, a sickly child who spent much of his childhood in bed, discovers in those same Manhattan streets both escape and liberation, Hijuelos writes about the urban landscape with the same passion he hears in music. And the same melancholy, as characters watch their beloved cities change. In a Hijuelos novel, we experience setting not as background but as an extension of a character’s soul, a force inextricably entangled with every kind of sensual pleasure. And, yes, finally, there is the sex. Nobody writes sex scenes like Hijuelos—graphic and poetic at once, a symphony of lush language, both sweaty and transcendent.
A new Hijuelos galley turning up on a Booklist mail truck was always a very special pleasure for me, and I’ll miss it deeply.
Friday, October 11, 2013 1:00 pm Title Trends: Pretty Word, Ugly Word Posted by: Daniel Kraus
Oh, internationally beloved and best-selling Beautiful Creatures series, what have ye wrought? Imitation is, of course, the most lucrative form of flattery, and marketing managers across this great land perked up their ears at the simple yet brilliant title construction. Pretty Word + Ugly Word drills directly into the teenager’s desire to be desired (see: well, too many books to mention), while also isolating the teenager’s anxiety that they are different and unlovable (see: well, too many books to mention).
Naturally, the books falling under this trend are totally different from one another between the two covers. Just like the gown-in-the-breeze jacket trend, titles are largely a marketing tool—perhaps the most effective one the book will ever have. Now let’s see some hideous gorgeous (see what I did there?) examples!
Friday, October 11, 2013 9:02 am Alice, Finally Posted by: Brad Hooper
A friend of mine called me at 6:48 yesterday morning, knowing full well I would be up. “Have you heard the news?”
My extreme fondness for the British Royal Family, a fact about me that everyone who knows me knows, prompted me to brace myself that something had happened to the Queen. “What news?”
“About the Nobel.”
Now I caught what he was referring to, even though I hadn’t heard the news. “It’s Alice Munro? Oh, it’s about time.”
My friend knew not only that I would be up that early in the morning but also that I would be thrilled at the choice of Alice Munro to be this year’s Nobel laureate in literature.
Knowing me brings the knowledge that Munro is my favorite contemporary fiction writer, that my adoration for her was “set in stone,” as it were, in my 2008 book The Fiction of Alice Munro (Praeger). With Munro, we talk only about “fiction,” disregarding the annoying separation of the short story from the novel, a division that falls down meaningless in the face of the strength and resonance of her fiction. With her Nobel win, the “step-sister” status of the short story persistent in the views of readers and critics has exploded and can now settle into a more accurate and natural understanding that there is just “fiction,” period. At once elegant and free from ornament, her prose eases its way into the soul of a character and—this is why readers return to her again and again—simultaneously into the heart of ourselves. With no fuss, she shows how humans comport themselves in love and in pain, in loss and in gain, and she does this with empathy, precision, and a fondness for our quirks. The Nobel committee has made tremendous sense with this year’s winner. They’ve selected someone who is avidly read.
Thursday, October 10, 2013 1:00 pm Alice Munro Wins Nobel Prize in Literature Posted by: Sarah Hunter
Alice Munro, “master of the contemporary short story,” was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature this morning. The Nobel Prize committee didn’t have much more than that to say, choosing instead to let her tremendous body of work do the heavy lifting. Here’s a selection of some Booklist favorites, including her latest, Dear Life, which Munro has reportedly said will be her last. Let’s hope it’s not so!
“Munro’s latest collection brings to mind the expression, ‘What is old is new again.’ As curiously trite and hardly complimentary as that statement may sound, it is offered as unreserved praise for the continued wonderment provided by arguably the best short story writer in English today. ”
“Munro is remarkable for the ease and completeness with which she brings the world of a character into the frame, and her characteristic and greatly effective looping through time–not just connecting present and past but also indicating the future–is haunting. ”
“To read Munro’s stories is to enter dense woods at the height of summer, so rich are they in spiky detail, shifting patterns of light and shadow, rustlings of unseen beings, and fecund smells, but the path is easily found, and it leads to wondrous sights and surprising disclosures.“
Thursday, October 10, 2013 9:19 am Book Trailer Thursday: All Our Yesterdays Posted by: Annie Bostrom
Cristin Terrell’s YA debut All Our Yesterdays asks the question, “If you could go back and kill someone before he or she grew up to do terrible things, would you? What if that person was someone you cared for?” Rough questions, rough book trailer:
Monday, October 7, 2013 12:27 pm Lift-alikes: Books That Work Your Biceps Posted by: Sarah Hunter
Sure, e-books are convenient, you can fit hundreds on a device that fits in your pocket, and no one will catch you reading 50 Shades of Grey on the train. But there’s one place where print books will never, ever be beaten: their ability to Pump. You. Up.
Booklist regularly gets some heavyweights in the mail, and few trips back and forth between book truck and circ counter with these babies are sure to leave you feeling toned and fit. And maybe a little sweaty. Bonus points for lifting them to the top shelf (my triceps ache just thinking about it).
Life-size birds, life-size hernia.
Birds of America: The Bien Chromolithographic Edition. By John James Audubon and Joel Oppenheimer. 2013. 256p. illus. Norton, $350 (978-0-393-08865-6).
This beautiful monster is 15 pounds of offset reprints of John James Audubon’s iconic illustrations of American birds in a handsome cloth-bound slipcase (accounting for at least 1 of those pounds). Before beginning your workout, make sure you peruse the more than 100 plates. You’ll want to sit down, of course, because of the spellbinding beauty and the cumbersome 15”x23” trim size.
This one’s a bit of a cheater because it comprises six separate volumes, but with everything you need to know about the science of cooking—even a whole chapter on water—Myhrvold and his colleagues are certainly justified in publishing such a hefty text. Boxed together at 52 pounds in a clear slipcase, it’s the heaviest of the bunch, so novice shelvers should practice with individual volumes before attempting to lug the entire set to the stacks.
We couldn’t quite squeeze this one into the latest spotlight.
The Photography of Modernist Cuisine. By Nathan Myrhvold. 2013. 312p. illus. The Cooking Lab, $120 (9780982761021).
What this title lacks in actual weight (at 13 pounds, it’s in the featherweight class of this roundup), it makes up for in scale—packed with beautiful full-color close ups of everything from lychee nuts to beef brisket, this in-depth look at the photography of Myrhvold’s six-volume doorstop has the dimensions to match. At 14”x18”, it’s approximately the size of two sheet cakes (which, incidentally, you totally deserve after several reshelvings of this book).
Wolverine: The Adamantium Collection. By Chris Claremont, Warren Ellis, and others. 2013. 720p. illus. Marvel, $200 (9780785167891).
A hero as epic as Wolverine deserves more than merely an omnibus edition, and he gets it in this aptly named 19 ½ pound collected volume of classic and contemporary Wolverine tales reprinted in full color and on glossy (read: heavy) paper. With this bench-pressable volume in your collection, you’ll have superhero strength before you can say “Snikt!”
Thursday, October 3, 2013 10:42 am Book Trailer Thursday: The Heavens Rise Posted by: Annie Bostrom
Even in October, books can be good for more than just covering one’s eyes during the scariest moments of the #31horrorfilms31days challenge. Example: Christopher Rice’s The Heavens Rise. Judging by the Booklist review, this one might be better off read, and something a little less, “creepy, chilling, and almost impossible to put down,” used as an eye mask.