The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (out now)
This first novel is one of the most buzzed about books among the booksellers I call upon, and for good reason. This is not just another post-apocalyptic novel. It's the story of Hig, a pilot in Colorado, his dog Jasper, and his gun-toting neighbor who lacks social graces. It's the story of a desperate man listening for signs of life over the radio and hoping for more than just the reality he sees out his window. But two things really distinguish The Dog Stars. 1. The writing. Peter Heller's prose is poetic, and there are some truly beautifully written sentences here, even though you could view this book as an adventure story. 2. The nature. Heller has previously written two non-fiction books, and has worked for the likes of National Geographic. The Dog Stars captures the beauty of the woods and mountains and animals in a way that makes you want to go fishing (not that I fish), or hiking through the woods with your pooch (not that Zorro is a dog or is allowed outside). One of my colleagues at Random House described The Dog Stars as "The Road meets A River Runs Through It." That sums it up nicely.
In Between Days by Andrew Porter (out now)
Andrew Porter was foolish enough to answer our generally horrible questions, but in spite of the author's poor judgment, I'm still a crazy fan of his work and this book. Set in Houston (how often can you say that about literary fiction?), Porter's novel is the story of a family imploding. Long married parents have split, the older son--a recent college graduate who wants to be a poet--is working food service and attending reckless parties at night, and the younger daughter, Chloe, has been asked to leave her college under mysterious circumstances. The story gets rolling with Chloe coming home and refusing to discuss why she's no longer welcome at school. Here is a classically told, great novel along the lines of a Raymond Carver or John Cheever, and I'm willing to state it here: one day Andrew Porter will win a Pulitzer or National Book Award.
The third branch of government is a source of constant fascination for me, and as far as I'm concerned, no one writes about the Supreme Court better than Jeffrey Toobin. Toobin would be on the shortlist of authors with whom I'd like to dine. Or kidnap. The Nine chronicled the Supreme Court during the Rehnquist years, and to an extent The Oath picks up where it left off, following the ascent of John Roberts as Chief Justice and the changes that came to the Court when the political slant of the Court turned right. Here, also, is the story of Barack Obama's ascent to the Presidency, and the relationship between Democratic White House led by a pragmatist politician and, to borrow a phrase, the legislation from the bench that has occurred since the balance of power in the Supreme Court fell under Roberts's control. What I like about Toobin is that he treats his readers like intelligent, curious people, and makes complex court cases accessible and fascinating. I consider both The Nine and The Oath required reading. Consider these books your continuing education in American civics, taught by the type of professor whose classes are standing room only. I love this book so much that I wore Yankees attire for a week just to glimpse the early manuscript.
The Phantom by Jo Nesbo (October)
Harry Hole! My favorite detective is back! Yes, I love Nesbo's detective in part because he's named Harry Hole and I like to say "Harry Hole," but I'm sure that Harry Hole doesn't sound so dirty in Nesbo's native Norway. Nesbo's character is a guy to root for, and his mysteries are well-paced police procedurals of the first order. If you read last year's The Snowman, you'll recall that Harry finally was happy, in a committed relationship with a woman and learning to love her son, Oleg. If you read The Snowman, though, you'll know that Frosty drove them apart. In The Phantom, Oleg is back, and in trouble. Fans of Stieg Larsson will love Jo Nesbo, and dive right in. This series doesn't have to be read in order.
This memoir is incredible. Will Schwalbe is a veteran in the publishing biz, the former Editor in Chief at Hyperion. He is possibly the nicest guy in the world. I'm not kidding. This book is the story of Will's mother, an incredible woman who was, among other things, the first female head of admissions at Harvard and a lifelong advocate for education. She made Will into the nicest person in the world, and a wonderful book nerd. And then she is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Will begins to accompany his mother to the endless treatments and doctors' visits, and anyone who's ever faced cancer as either a patient or loved one of a patient knows this experience. The treatment of cancer is a whole hell of a lot of hurry up and wait, and wait, and wait. Instead of watching TV, or bemoaning the situation, or wallowing, Will and his mother form a two person book group and read together. They read books they've always intended to read, and then in the doctors' offices and cancer wards they discuss the books they are reading. Those books become entry points for bigger conversations about life, and the relationship between mother and son, and the fears that we all will face at the end of our lives. Yes, this is a book about death, but it's also a book about love and life. And it's a book for lovers of books, from The Hobbit to Crossing to Safety to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. This memoir is incredible.
Building Stories by Chris Ware (October)
I consider one of my Random House colleagues to be a literary soul mate, so when he calls me and recommends a book, I pay attention. That's exactly what he did with The News from Spain, a collection of short stories that left me moved and spellbound. Who is Joan Wickersham? Why haven't I been reading her work before now? Because I love this book. Every story is titled "The News from Spain," and that phrase links them together and serves as catalyst (though none are, you know, actually set in Spain). These stories explore love as a theme, the need for people to relate to others, and they are straight-forward, beautiful, and moving. The one that sticks in my mind involves a paralyzed woman longing for her husband but in the care of a home health worker. To deal with her loneliness, they together compose stories around the life of her cat, and in the end it is the home health worker who provides her the care she needs emotionally. These stories--definitely something special.
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan (November)
I have semi-regular hallucinations. For real. As a migraine sufferer, I know a headache is coming when I suddenly get this visual aura; my vision blurs into a bright, crystalline world that jiggles back and forth. Imagine standing behind one of those clouded glass shower doors, then having someone shine a giant floodlight through it while you shake back and forth like a metronome. That's sort of what I see. In his new book, Oliver Sacks explores the world of hallucinations, from the insane to the ill, the sensory deprived, the intoxicated, the sleepy, the drugged. Sacks is the legend of brain science who wrote Musicophilia and Awakenings, among his many books, and this one promises to be fascinating.
Dear Life by Alice Munro (November)