It’s the dawn of a brand new year and the onslaught of imminent high-profile book releases is massive. Let’s just dive right in.
Chang-rae Lee has returned with his first novel since 2010’s The Surrendered, a sweeping tale on about community and politics called On Such A Full Sea, and according to Noah Cruickshank, it doesn’t disappoint. Novelist Gary Shteyngart has written a memoir, Little Failure, and if the book trailer is any indication, it’s appropriately bananas. (The trailer features Rashida Jones and James Franco saying things like “celebrate the erotic journey.” Click the link.) Sue Monk Kidd’s newest, The Invention Of Wings, is sure to ride the wave of Oprah Book Club endorsement right onto bestseller lists. Ishmael Beah has followed up his explosive 2008 memoir, A Long Way Gone, with a debut novel, Radiance Of Tomorrow. Laurie Halse Anderson, of Speak and Wintergirls fame, addresses PTSD with The Impossible Knife Of Memory. Historical fiction master E.L. Doctorow returns with a novel set in the present day and with a mysterious protagonist, Andrew’s Brain. Joyce Carol Oates’ Carthage (her 43rd novel released under her own name) is scheduled for January 14, cementing the notion that she is, indeed, a robot. Rachel Joyce follows up her excellent The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry with a time-bending novel titled Perfect. On the promising-debut front comes Rachel Cantor’s A Highly Unlikely Scenario. National Book Award winner and former MacArthur Fellow Richard Powers has a new novel with an ambiguous title, Orfeo. Armistead Maupin has written a ninth Tales Of The City novel, The Days Of Anna Madrigal. The second novel of Ransom Riggs’ series and follow-up to Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, Hollow City, looks to be just as mesmerizing has his first outing. Valerie Martin’s new novel, The Ghost Of The Mary Celeste, looks to tell the tale of that mysterious vessel’s disappearance and discovery. Finally, on the non-fiction side: A new exhaustive biography of William S. Burroughs, Call Me Burroughs by Barry Miles, is on the way; POZ magazine founder Sean Strub is set to release a memoir titled Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, And Survival; and Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot (of the Sound Opinions podcast) has written I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, The Staple Singers And The March Up Freedom’s Highway, an authorized biography of Mavis Staples that examines her role in pop music and race relations. If there was nothing in that list to spark an interest, give up: You are not a reader.
I’m still trying to finish a mountain of great books from 2013, which is exactly how everyone wants to start a new year—incredibly behind, doomed to never catch up. The two I’ll highlight here are Carol Rifka Blunt’s debut novel, Tell The Wolves I’m Home, and short-fiction anthology titled Mothership: Tales From Afrofuturism And Beyond. Be forewarned: The former is a heartbreaker. While it does feature a 14-year-old protagonist named June on the cusp of a major development, this isn’t your standard Bildungsroman novel. It’s no spoiler to reveal that June’s uncle Finn, an artist and the person to whom she is closest in the world, dies. It’s clear from the opening paragraph that Finn will die. What’s fascinating is what June discovers about Finn and the relationships she forms following his death, how Finn in death is just as (if not more) instrumental in her life as he was while alive. The latter book is proving to be a fitting companion piece to Ytasha L. Womack’s Afrofuturism and features tales from such writers as Victor LaValle, Junot Díaz, Minister Faust, and Vandana Singh, among others. The collection was edited by Bill Campbell, Edward Austin Hall, and John Jennings, and I hope it is only the first of many. Another late 2013 release I’ve been dipping into periodically is McSweeney’s Quarterly #45: Hitchcock And Bradbury Fistfight In Heaven. This collection features classic stories from Ray Bradbury, Roald Dahl, Josephine W. Johnson, and Franz Kafka alongside new stories from China Miéville, Brian Evenson, and E. Lily Yu. Also, that Shteyngart memoir sounds like it might be worth a lazy winter afternoon.
As just about all the greats will tell you, one of the surefire ways to become a better writer is to read more. So I’ve made it a resolution for 2014 to bury my nose in a few more books—and not just the usual film-criticism collections I tear through in my spare time. My first conquest of the year: Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman’s 1996 novelization of his own BBC Two miniseries from the same year. Sandman is probably the greatest comic book I’ve ever read, so it’s strange that it took me so long to dip into Gaiman’s other work. I’m glad I finally did, though, because Neverwhere was a terrific read—the type of fantasy novel that warmly, enthusiastically invites you into its world, even when said world is as frequently unforgiving as this one. (I’m still not quite over what happens to poor Anesthesia.) “Novelization” can be a four-letter word, even to those who grew up reading Steven Spielberg tie-in tomes, but Gaiman treats the task as occasion to expand upon his engaging mythology and to deepen our understanding of London Below’s various players. His prose is simple but eloquent, his humor barbed. Fans seem to prefer American Gods, whose spine I might crack next, but it’s hard to imagine Gaiman concocting a fleeter, more irresistible adventure. I look forward to being proven wrong.
For once, I feel caught up on my reading list, which means I still have five books scattered in and on nightstands and at the foot of my bed waiting for attention. They, however, will have to wait, because of a recent discovery made at the Unabridged Bookstore. While shopping for a baby-shower gift (The Ghastly Dandies Do The Classics by Ben Gibson made the cut.), I checked for a copy of one of my favorite novels—Plainsong by Kent Haruf—and to my delight, found it and its sequel, Eventide. How I was unaware of its existence until that moment is beyond me, but it was a no-brainer purchase. Set in the small, rural town of Holt, Colorado, the characters are the same people I observed for years in my own small, northwestern Wisconsin town—fragile, yet resilient, hardworking and full of history. After years of growing up together, they’re well known to all around, though they’re often still strangers to themselves. Haruf does an exquisite job sharing their self-discovery with the reader through alternating protagonists, as the chapters are named for the character on which they focus. Weaving in and out of the lives of a pregnant high-school girl, a lonely teacher, a pair of boys abandoned by their mother, and a couple of crusty bachelor farmers, he poignantly allows the reader to experience each character authentically, without rushed plot mechanics. In the same way, I’m trying not to rush through reading it as I will be spending Valentine’s Day at Ensemble Theater seeing an adaptation of Plainsong and I want the setting and characters of Holt to be fresh in my mind.