Category Archives: The Book World

Vacation Reading Report

Back from ten days in Costa Rica, I’ve got a lot of books to tell everyone about. Everything we read was good, some stood out of course, but we were lucky with choices. I’ll try and post on them all as the week progresses.

Jacob’s Folly by Rebecca Miller: Taking Kakfa’s bug love to heart, Miller’s main character 18th century Jew Jacob Cerf wakes up to find himself a fly in 20th century America. Suspend your disbelief for a moment and imagine the fly also has the ability to commune with humans and influence behaviors. He sees into the hearts of Leslie Senzatamore, a harried husband, father, and caretaker of many, and Masha, a daughter with great acting abilities in a Hasidic like community. Both Leslie and Masha struggle with the strains of familial obligations versus the longing for a different life. Meanwhile, Jacob reminiscences on his past and what brought him to insect-hood. It’s a sensuous book, with an albeit odd, but interesting narrator.

 

 

Westerns and Loving Them

I’ve said it before that I love Westerns, which is why I grabbed a review copy of The Son by Philipp Meyer of the shelf as soon as I read the description. Meyer, author of American Rust, was named one of The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40, and has received comparisons to Cormac McCarthy, John Steinbeck, and William Faulkner.

In his new novel, he tells the story of an ambitious family of Texas settlers. It begins with thirteen-year-old Eli McCullough, the first male child born in the Republic of Texas, who loses his family and homestead in a brutal Comanche attack. Taken captive, he adapts to the Comanche lifestyle, learning the ways and language, and becomes the adopted son of the chief. However, disease, starvation, and the onslaught of white settlers leave him alone. Unable to fit into white or native culture, he must forge his own path. Intertwined with Eli’s life are the stories of his son Peter and his great-granddaughter J.A., a woman who must succeed in a man’s world during the oil boom years in Texas.

In the beginning, I found Eli’s story to be the strongest, looking forward to returning to it when I hit intervening chapters about the rest of the family. As the novel moved on though, the other story lines gained strength, illustrating the ambition and drive that perpetuates the family as a whole. Their wealth and power bring unhappiness and bitterness for subsequent generations. Whatever Texas once meant to Eli, it’s lost as oil replaces cattle as the center of the economy, finagling, and politicking. Meyer doesn’t spare the reader the harshness of the frontier or of the oil-boom years.

Though this engrossing novel will receive comparisons to Lonesome Dove or Blood Meridian, Meyer’s work can stand on its own two feet, earning the right to stand alongside these American classics.

Groundhog Day

In Life After Life, Kate Atkinson asks: what if you could live again and again, until you got it right?

In the year 1910, Ursula Todd arrives on a snow filled night and dies before she open her mouth. On that same night, she’s born and wails. The story goes back to the beginning time and time again. Small details change, Ursula dies again and again, but the story goes back to start each time. Atkinson makes wit and charm out of a concept that could seem gimmicky in lesser hands.

Though readers had gotten to love to her detective Jackson Brody for the last four books, this is a return to the more diverse style of her earlier inventive novels like Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Emotionally Weird. Never underestimate Atkinson’s keen eye for snappy dialogue or her ability to stun with simple profundity.

What’s in a Name?

The plot of Ghostman might seem familiar in a few places, but Roger Hobbs’ main character elevates this debut. He’s a lone fixer who goes by dozens of aliases and keeps almost no ties to anyone. One exception is a former associate who calls in a debt and summons him to sort out a casino robbery gone wrong in Atlantic City. It’s a gigantic mess, and as soon as he lands in Jersey, the FBI is on his tail. With only 48 hours to make it right, he knows he can trust no one.

It’s the details that make this book. I love the way Delton transforms his identity again and again, and the author’s feel for criminal strategy and slang make it a convincing thriller.

According to the back of the ARC, the movie rights have already been sold. I’ve been having lots of fun imagining the casting for it.

Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang

You’re going to hear a lot about this book in 2013. This is the Gabrielle Hamilton of the new year, the Bourdain of the tween years we’re entering. For those of you not in the know, Eddie Huang, born in the US of Tawainese parents, created the legendary Baohaus in New York, blogs at Fresh Off the Boat about b-ball, music, and everything else, stars in a video series on Vice magazine’s site, and now is about to launch his very own memoir next month.

Huang does not glamorize his beginnings. His parents seem alternately crazy and clever, constantly harping on him to do better with some smacks around the ears. Growing up in Orlando, he falls in love with hip hop and works in his dad’s restaurant. He riffs on Southern food, old school hip hop and what’s its like to be an Asian American in America today. After law school and stints selling sneakers, he goes back to his original love–food. Opening Baohaus in the Lower East Side brings together all of the things he’s learned and written about in the memoir.

His brash style might offend some, but this memoir reads so well! I love his oppositional views. They make sense to me. Read his blog too–it’s often brilliant.

I See a Red Moon Rising…

Sorry, couldn’t resist making the joke! I’m not sure why but I’ve ended up reading all of Benjamin Percy’s books on planes. I realized this as my flight took off from Boston as I read a scene of a werewolf devouring most of the passengers on a plane at the beginning of Red Moon, his forthcoming book.

Dear reader, a piece of advice. Don’t read horrific scenes about planes while on one.

I managed to ignore my fears and read most of this book on the way down to Atlanta last week. I’ve been an admirer of his writing since his first story collection Refresh, Refresh came out in 2007. I really enjoyed this book both the characters and the sort of Orwellian geopolitical plot Percy dreamed up. It’s a scary novel about lycanthropes where the terror comes not from the monsters but from the life-like situation created.

Don’t miss this fine novel when it comes out next May from Grand Central!

Memoirs–Who Needs Them?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. There are too many memoirs being written and published these days. So many people, generally too young, find the need to write a book about their lives. They seem to think I should care about how they were mistreated/made fun of/solved crimes or suffered at the hands of crazy family/drugs/mean girls. Most of them I can live without–and so can you dear reader.

Sometimes I’m wrong though. Some memoirs can be so extremely well-written that it would be a crime not to write it. Domenica Ruta’s memoir With or Without You is one of those. Ruta grew up in a Danvers, Massachusetts in a trash-filled house with her drug-dealing mother. The extremes of her flamboyant mother’s behavior almost strain credulity, but Ruta writes about it in a believable, almost funny tone. I found myself reading many portions out loud to whomever I could find to listen.

Having never fit into the neighborhood, Ruta spends time in her room with her books. As she got older, she found her living situation more and more untenable, even ignoring the time she was molested by a family friend. She lost herself in alcohol and drugs–oddly the thing that made her mother think she was normal. She gets into college and moves away and you think, okay, here is her story of pulling herself up by the bootstraps and now is when she finally gets it together and finds herself.

But no. Ruta’s story goes on to describe a descent into alcohol and drug abuse that rivals Caroline Knapp’s haunting Drinking: A Love Story. Her spiral down wrenches the heart and the spiral back up is equally as gripping. Hers is not a tale of hitting rock bottom and quitting. It’s about the slow climb back to normalcy–if normalcy is living with your dad with no job.

Domenica Ruta’s humor might have saved herself. It certainly makes this book, which could be some weepy woe is me tale, into a wry, unflinching self-portrait. You won’t be able to stop reading once you start. So set aside some time and dive into the book.

The Complexities of Cheerleaders

If you read only one dark, creepy cheerleader novel this year, make it Dare Me by Megan Abbot. Besides sharing a first name, well, that’s actually the only thing the author and I have in common. Based on this novel, she’s a pretty twisted character. Abbot offers an entirely new entry in the age-old Coming of Age genre.

Three characters dominate this book: Coach French, the new cheerleading coach who unravels the pecking order; Beth, the team captain and leader of the mean girls through the force of her personality; Addy, Beth’s lieutenant and narrator of the story. This is not a squad that celebrates team spirit. They work hard, with a competitive aggro edge. The new coach whips the team into shape, bringing them ideas of national competitions and scouts. The best parts are the rough dialogues, either in person or in texts, even the coach: “Everybody give the chicken a warm welcome,” Coach says giving a gentle shove to the latest recruit, a JV cheerleader getting her shot at the show.”

There’s plot intrigue involving a suicide or possible murder, but that only heightens the already existing drama between the players. These girls might be teens, but they’ve developed a world weary existence, waiting for the day they’re no longer trapped in the world of teen hell, aka high school. Cheerleading might provide a distraction, but doesn’t it doesn’t feed their empty souls.

A Cookbook Not to Miss

David Tanis wrote in the New York Times the other day about a cookbook I wanted to highlight myself, Japanese Farm Food by Nancy Singleton Hachisu. I can hear the head shakes now–“Japanese farm food? What’s next?” It’s such a lovely book both as an object and as a cookbook. Nancy imbues the entire thing with her warm personality.  She packs so much information in this book but don’t be scared. She’s exacting about her ingredients and techniques but nothing is too difficult here.

Gone to the Forest by Katie Kitamura

Katie Kitamura’s spare novel Gone to the Forest begins in an unnamed country on the brink of civil war. The details on the setting and time period might be vague but it sets the tone for the main characters who seem lost in a fog of colonialism. Life for the white settlers has become more unstable. Tom and his father live on a large family estate, and run it as a fishing resort for other rich whites. Lacking his domineering father’s charisma and initiative, Tom seems an unlikely fit to one day inherit the estate.

His father arranges everything, including Tom’s engagement to the neighbor’s visiting niece, Carine. That engagement doesn’t stop his father from bedding her, nor does it stop Carine from becoming the victim of a horrible group assault at a dinner party. The family, the farm, and the country all seem to unravel at the same time, and Tom is ill-equipped to navigate through increasing confusion and violence.

The spare prose highlights the fragility of the country and the characters themselves. It’s a story that lingers in one’s memory like a sort of deja vu, but the details aren’t the point: It’s the feelings the novel evokes that are worth remembering.