Thursday, December 29, 2011

Coming Soon to a Bookstore Near You: 2012

As we're wrapping up 2011, it's not too early to take a look at the books we're excited about that are scheduled to go on sale in 2012.  After all, if the Mayans figured out the end times deadline slightly better than that nutty Christian radio guy last year, we're going to need some good reading to entertain us during the hellfire (and we're not talking about the Left Behind series).  Here's a sneak peak at the books calling to us in the upcoming year.

(A note on format--in this case, we're using "Random House" to denote books published by Random House the company, and not necessarily Random House the publisher, so a book from Doubleday, for example, would be listed as Random House.)


Stay Awake: Stories by Dan Chaon
Random House
Feb 2012

I have actually just started these and think they are tremendous. Chaon quickly became one of my favorite writers after the publication of his collection entitled Among the Missing. [Liz: Agree--I love this guy and can't wait to dig into these stories.]

The Technologists by Matthew Pearl
Random House
Feb 2012

From the critically acclaimed author of The Dante Club, The Last Dickens, and The Poe Shadow comes what may be his best historical novel yet. Take a look at the trailer.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo
Random House
Feb 2012

Boo is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and MacArthur Genius recipient. Beautiful Forevers chronicles the lives of families striving for a better life in Mumbai.

Welcome to Utopia by Karen Valby
University of Texas Press
March 2012

The paperback will include a reader’s guide and a new afterword by the author. This was one of my favorite books of 2010 when I was with Random House and I am incredibly proud to have it in paper with University of Texas Press.

Enchantments by Katherine Harrison 
Random House
March 2012

Harrison is an incredibly talented writer; can not tell you how excited I am to read this.

The Expats by Chris Pavone
Random House
March 2012

This thriller is already generating tons of buzz – great quotes from John Grisham and Christopher Reich. I am
hearing this is impossible to put down.

Deep Zone by James Tabor
Random House
April 2012

A suspense novel from the author of one of my favorite nonfiction books, called Blind Descent, about cave diving, which was absolutely incredible. This book looks great.

Killer on the Road Violence and the American Interstate by Ginger Strand
UT Press
April 2012

Did we become more violent as we became more mobile? [I certainly did.] This is technically historical/cultural history but it reads like excellent true crime. It’s the story of American highways and highway killers. Sold!

Last Launch by Dan Winters
UT Press
May 2012

Dan Winters was one of only a handful of photographers to be invited to photograph the last launches of Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis. This book is gorgeous, filled with intimate images the general public has never really had an opportunity to see.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Random House
June 2012

Oh man oh man how I am looking forward to this book. From the author of the insanely good Sharp Objects and Dark Places, Flynn totally gets me.


The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
Random House
Jan 2012

I can't shut up about how much I love this book.  It's not only one of the best novels of the year, it's one of the best novels I'VE EVER READ.  Luckily for us, it goes on sale in just a couple of weeks, on 1/10/12.  Here's the trailer.

Mr. G by Alan Lightman
Random House
Jan 2012

Mr. G is God, and this is a creation story unlike any you'll ever read, from the author of Einstein's Dreams. 

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank: Stories by Nathan Englander
Random House
Feb 2012

Nathan Englander is at his absolute best when he's writing short stories, such as his debut collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.  This new collection has garnered advance praise from Michael Chabon, Geraldine Brooks, Tea Obreht, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, and well, a whole bunch of others.  Read their blurbs here.

Watergate by Thomas Mallon
Random House
Feb 2012

This historical fiction account of the Watergate scandal is outstanding!  Told from the perspectives of seven people involved, from both Pat and Richard Nixon to lesser known participants like Fred LaRue and Nixon's secretary, the book brings to life the circus and tragedy of the scandal.  It's a 20th Century Paradise Lost.

Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru
Random House 
Mar 2012

An autistic child goes missing in Joshua Tree National Park.  Also, a religious cult awaits the end times/aliens.  Coyote legends.  UFOs. The American West.  They're all blended together in a terrific novel by the great Hari Kunzru.

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway
Random House
Mar 2012

This novel from the author of The Gone-Away World is bad ass.  Monk ninjas, a doomsday machine, a World War II spy, the mob, a serial killer--Angelmaker is a Mr. Toad's Wild Ride of a novel (in the best of ways).

Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Random House
Mar 2012

Easily the most talked about book among booksellers that's coming in the next few months.  Strayed decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, alone, when she was in her 20's.  She was...under-prepared. What follows is the anti-Eat, Pray, Love, a memoir of discovery for the rest of us.

The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger
Random House
May 2012

Nell Freudenberger is a great writer, the kind who starts writing and you're immediately sucked into the story. Her newest novel involves a Bangladeshi woman who marries an American she meets online.

Top of the Rock by Warren Littlefield
Random House
May 2012
TV fans rejoice!  Littlefield was the head of NBC programming during the golden era of Must See TV, and here are the behind the scenes stories of shows like Cheers, Seinfeld, Friends, and ER.
Trapeze by Simon Mawer
Other Press
May 2012

I was a huge fan of Mawer's Man Booker Prize finalist novel, The Glass Room.  When I heard he had a new novel, I was giddy, and for good reason.  This new novel is wonderful--the story of a British woman spy dropped into occupied France during World War II.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Generally Horrible Questions: Taylor Stevens

In honor of the release of her new novel, The Innocent, we decided to subject author Taylor Stevens to some unwarranted torture and ask her some questions.  Taylor broke onto The New York Times bestseller list with her first novel, The Informationist, which unleashed protagonist Vanessa Michael Munroe on the world.  A huge fan of Robert Ludlum, Taylor set about creating a book series in the vein of Ludlum's Jason Bourne, but with a bad ass woman at the center.  Other things to know--Taylor grew up in a religious cult, has lived all over the world, and therefore has limited formal education and pop culture references.  She lives in Texas now, and will be touring to some of our favorite bookstores soon.

Generally Horrible Questions: Taylor Stevens

1. What are your three desert island books (and no, the Twilight books don’t count as just one so choose carefully)?
How to Survive on a Deserted Island, Boatbuilding for Beginners, and Pencil, Paper and Stars: The Handbook of Traditional and Emergency Navigation. I’m practical like that.

2. What is your all time favorite book?
Picking favorites is just way too much commitment.  [Hmmm...okay, there, Vanessa Michael Munroe.]

3. What is the worst job you’ve ever had?
Seriously? I was born and raised in a cult, spent my formative years as child labor and out begging on the street and you ask me what the worst job I ever had was? Oh. You mean paying job? Well, in that case, it would be handling customer service for a start-up company whose management felt that in spite of horrendous problems within the shipping department, faulty software, and procedures and “upgrades” that changed every three weeks, that the person at my desk (namely, me) was the cause of the negative customer response. I quit. Then they fired me. Then they shorted me on my last paycheck which also bounced two times before the bank tellers took pity, looked over the company account and told me that if I, wink wink, came in the day after tomorrow before nine, they should be able to get that check counter cashed for me. No, I’m not bitter. (Yes I am.) [So you never worked at Starbucks?]

4. What book can’t you shut up about?
Whatever the next book inside my head is… the one that I’m trying to figure out how to write.

5. What book changed your life?
Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Ultimatum. That’s what I was reading when the flash of aha struck and I decided to write fiction. Were there no Jason Bourne, there would be no Michael Munroe.

It’s a character codependent kind of thing.

6. What was the first thing you did when you found out you would be published?
Burst into tears and started laughing all at the same time. I was at work when my agent called me with the news, and although I probably shouldn’t have, since I couldn’t tell my boss what I really thought of the company management, I told her the size of my advance instead. Good therapy.

7. Favorite book to movie? Liz and I like to reenact The Color Purple. I’m Celie, Liz is Nettie.
I have read so few books and watched so few movies that this question is like a pop-quiz for a subject I never studied. [Not a problem.  We can act out the whole movie.  You'll love it.  Liz is Miss Sophia, Gianna is Harpo.] 

8. What was your back-up plan?
People have back-up plans?

9. Gianna or Liz?
I read your blog. I know how this game is played. The answer is always Liz. But now that I’ve fulfilled my obligation: I heart Gianna. [Liz.  Final answer.]

10. Where do you write?
Sometimes my bed. Sometimes a couch. Sometimes my desk. Kind of depends on the day and how many hours I’m in front of the computer.

11. What’s your cure for writer’s block?
Boy do I wish I had one. I feel like I experience writer’s block every single day. The only remedy I know is to show up at my desk like it’s a job, to sit at my computer and write something, anything: bits and pieces. Threads. Concepts. Until gradually there’s some material there to work with. And then I’m not allowed to do anything else until I’ve finished the words I need for the day. I go to bed, and wake up the next morning, and do that all over again. It’s a good excuse for why my house is a mess most of the time.

12. Do your kids “get” what you do? Are they amply impressed?
They do get it, but I have to admit their “amply” waxes and wanes in direct correlation to whether that day (sometimes hour) is one in which I’m

Iguazu Falls
the “worst mom in the entire world” or “the best.”

13. Robert E Lee, Robert Redford, Robert Ludlum, Robert Louis Stevenson or Julia Roberts?
I don’t understand how this is even a question. [You're right.  It's so obviously Robert E. Lee.  Gianna loves that beard too.]

14. What is the coolest thing you’ve ever done or seen?
I saw Iguazu (the waterfalls) not so long ago. That, if not the coolest thing I’ve ever seen, ranks pretty high up there. [Wait until you see Liz and Gianna's The Color Purple.  You'll never forget it.]

15. What is the total body count in The Informationist and The Innocent? 

It’s. Um. Er. I think. Um. Honestly, I have no idea. But people die. [Yes they do....]

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Innocent by Taylor Stevens

The latest thriller from author Taylor Stevens goes on sale today.  The Innocent is the follow-up to Taylor's lauded 2011 debut, The Informationist, which introduced readers to bad ass protagonist Vanessa Michael Munroe.  Gianna offers this review of the new book:

She's baaaaack...and baby she has got some demons to work out. Munroe is living on very little sleep, with her mix of brutal nightmares and her penchant for sleeping with knives next to her bed. It's actually safer that way. Funny thing, Liz also sleeps with knives next to her bed in order to protect herself from an overly "affectionate" cat named Zorro. Book coming soon. [It's important that Zorro be very, very important.]

In Taylor Stevens' excellent follow-up to The New York Times bestselling The Informationist, Vanessa Michael Munroe has agreed to help her best friend retrieve his daughter from the religious cult he once escaped. Much of The Innocent draws from first-hand knowledge of cult life; it has been well documented that Stevens spent her childhood and young adult life in a religious cult, escaping with her children not too long ago. That fact alone takes The Innocent to another level, and the intimacy in which Taylor is able to write can not be overlooked.

Vanessa (I like to call her Michael) is kicking oh so much ass in this novel, just as much as in the first book of this series, but The Innocent offers more introspection and a bit more heart.

Everything a thriller should be - an excellent post holiday read.  

Best of 2011: The Complete Lists

Now that our countdown has concluded, here are the full lists.  Thanks to everyone for following us and for tolerating our bookish adventures this year.  Don't forget that we're also on Facebook (search "Liz and Gianna's Adventures in Book Land" and like us) and Twitter (@AdvinBookLand).

Gianna's Top 30 Books of 2011:

1.  The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht
2.  Blue Nights by Joan Didion
3.  Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
4.  Bright's Passage by Josh Ritter
5.  The Storm at the Door by Stefan Merrill Block
6.  Vaclav & Lena by Haley Tanner
7.  Blood, Bones, & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton
8.  The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
9.  The Informationist by Taylor Stevens
10. Timeless Mexico by Hugo Brehme and Susan Toomey Frost
11. Chinaberry Sidewalks by Rodney Crowell
12. The Journals of Spalding Gray by Spalding Gray
13. Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie
14. Open City by Teju Cole
15. Hard Ground by Michael O'Brien and Tom Waits
16. The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock
17. The End of Country by Seamus McGraw
18. Lime Creek by Joe Henry
19. Trillin on Texas by Calvin Trillin
20. Red on Red by Edward Conlon
21. In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
22. My Lucky Life by Dick Van Dyke
23. Austin Chronicle Music Anthology edited by Austin Powell and Doug Freeman
24. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
25. Awkward Family Pet Photos by Mike Bender and Doug Chernack
26. Close Your Eyes by Amanda Eyre Ward
27. The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin
28. Don't Make Me Go to Town by Rhonda Lashley Lopez
29. The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
30. West of 98 edited by Lynn Stegner and Russell Rowland

And the far superior Liz's Top 30 Books of 2011:

1.  Galore by Michael Crummey
2.  Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
3.  The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
4.  The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock
5.  Habibi by Craig Thompson
6.  The Upright Piano Player by David Abbott
7.  The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht
8.  Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
9.  Chinaberry Sidewalks by Rodney Crowell
10. The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
11. Blue Nights by Joan Didion
12. Van Gogh by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith
13. Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch
14. Zone One by Colson Whitehead
15. The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje
16. The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst
17. Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie
18. Moondogs by Alexander Yates
19. Daughters of the Revolution by Carolyn Cooke
20. Snowdrops by A.D. Miller
21. Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard
22. Into the Silence by Wade Davis
23. Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close
24. Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin
25. Vaclav & Lena by Haley Tanner
26. Your Voice in My Head by Emma Forrest
27. The Gap Year by Sarah Bird
28. Hemingway's Boat by Paul Hendrickson
29. The Snowman by Jo Nesbo
30. Jerusalem by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Best of 2011 Countdown: #1

We've arrived at our #1 books of 2011!  Pop the bubbly and raise a glass (of Diet Coke, of course, as it sure as hell tastes better than champagne).


The Tiger's Wife
Tea Obreht
Random House

Okay, so you’re not surprised. You had to be a little surprised that a first novel is at the top of my list (or at least surprised that so many first novels were in the list to begin with). 

Tea Obreht
I’ve talked about this book so much that I almost thought it was a 2010 book. I know I’ve said this before but I rarely read a book more than once, and certainly don’t read a book more than once in the span of just a few months. But that is exactly what I did with The Tiger’s Wife. I don’t know if I did it because I wanted to check myself; I had been going on and on about this book to anyone who would listen and maybe wanted to verify it before I looked like a complete idiot. Yeah, turns out I missed so much of this magical, layered, rich, beautiful book the first time around that a second reading just made me talk about it even more. Annoying right? [Incredibly.] In short, this novel is about a young doctor trying to navigate her way after the death of her beloved grandfather who was once a well respected doctor himself. It is filled with amazing stories, fables, and history. This is a novel that you will never forget; it will live on your shelf forever (and I am sorry but this is a book you must have in physical form, some books are just too good for e-readers only…and I will die on that hill).

Tea Obreht is an extraordinary writer, a genius.

This was one of the last books I sold when I was with Random House, and I just can’t help but think how incredibly lucky I was to have that opportunity.


Michael Crummey
Other Press

For those people not in the book industry or unfamiliar with the various alignments of publishing houses, allow me a moment of explanation.  In my capacity as a district sales manager for Random House Inc, I sell both publishing groups owned by Random House--Knopf, Doubleday, Vintage/Anchor, etc--and I also sell books from independent presses that contract with Random House for distribution services.  Other Press is one of those smaller presses, one that specializes in literary fiction and nonfiction.  The press publishes books that challenge readers as well as entertain and educate, and the team working for Other Press regularly manages to find surprising, wonderful books from around the world.  My top pick for 2011 is one of those books.

Michael Crummey
Sometimes as a reader you just have to let go of the reins and go where the story takes you.  In the case of Galore, that place is Paradise Deep, a remote fishing village in Newfoundland so removed from the rest of the country that the only Bible in town is half a book that was found inside a fish that was obviously hungry for the Word.  Galore starts with a beached whale, and as the citizens of Paradise Deep begin to break down the beast, they find a man, naked and bleached, inside of the belly.  While they stand around making fun of the size of the man's genitalia (and you know that's what Gianna and I would be doing), the man moves.  He is alive, he smells like rotten fish, and he has no back story.  The people name him Judah--after a debate about whether Jonah or Judas was the biblical whale bait and a compromise--and he becomes a constant in this story of multiple generations and diverse characters.  I compare Galore to other favorite books--the storytelling magic of The Hakawati, the folklorish charm of Maritime Canada in The Shipping News.  The wonderful cast of characters reminds me of the town people in the Dutch movie Antonia's Line, one of my favorite movies ever.  

While Galore was published in the United States in 2011, it was an earlier release in Canada. There it won the Commonwealth Writer's Prize for Best Book, the Canadian Authors Association Literary Award, and was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction.  It's full of mythology and sea yarns and terrific characters.  It's a book that I would love to see illustrated because Michael Crummey creates so many amazing images that have lingered in my mind all year. Oh, and you know I love my Canadian fiction.  Galore is my favorite book of the year.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Best of 2011 Countdown: #2

Silver medalists!  We're so close to #1 that Gianna might pee herself in anticipation.  Too much information?


Blue Nights
Joan Didion

After a devastating personal loss earlier this year, I had little intention of reading Blue Nights. I knew that this book would be the last thing I needed. But after a particularly bad night thinking of the friend I lost--and then thinking as I so often do, about her mother--I opened the first pages where I read, “When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.” This would be the first of many sentences that took my breath away.

I am a slow reader; this book, which is under 200 pages, took me nearly a week to read. It was too much for me at times. In fact I set it down at least twice not intending to pick it up again. Yet each day I would go back to it, needing it, maybe on some level knowing that like The Year of Magical Thinking, this would be a book I would need and think about often.

Raw, direct and powerful, Blue Nights reads like Didion is dreaming. She is offering us slices of the most important parts of her life; a real gift considering she claims writing is no longer easy for her. I do hope it has offered her some sense of solace though, as I know it has, on some level given me some.

Simply the best non fiction book I have read this year, from any publisher. 


Karen Russell

There were two novels published in 2011 that I couldn't shut up about--Swamplandia! and my pick for #1 (all shall be revealed tomorrow).  When Gianna and I started this countdown a month ago, I made a spreadsheet of my favorite books, ranked in order, and in the past 30 days I've changed the book in the #1 spot at least eight different times.  I am therefore considering Swamplandia! as #1-A in my mind.  I think Karen Russell's novel is one of the finest I've ever read.

Gianna wrote about Swamplandia! yesterday, and this book represents the closest that our Top 30 lists came to duplicated book and rank.  This is a book that spoke to me in the way that The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao did a few years ago...and that book won the Pulitzer.  It's the story of an American family, and perhaps representative of the times in which we live, the dissolution of that family.  It's a coming-of-age story, a loss of innocence story, a survival story.  And it's set on a tourist trap alligator wrestling park.

When the alligator-wrestling matriarch of the Bigtree clan dies, her 12 year-old daughter Ava attempts to pick up the slack and wrestle the reptiles.  What's excited about watching a voluptuous adult wrestle gators is disturbing when swapped with a kid, and the park--and Bigtree family is sent reeling financially and emotionally.  Ava's father disappears, her older brother Kiwi runs off to work for the rival theme park on the highway, and her sister starts dating a ghost for lack of actual suitors in the swamps of the Everglades.  Ava then goes on her own odyssey with the Birdman.  This is a book full of quirky characters and scenes, but don't be fooled--this is a serious literary novel that is often heartbreaking.  

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Best of 2011 Countdown: #3

Bronze Medals!  It's like Belgium at the Winter Olympics!  (I actually have no idea how Belgium performs in the Olympics.  They could be horrible.  I just like the idea of Belgium.)


Karen Russell

I have a deep love and appreciation for the Florida Everglades. In fact I lived in Pembroke Pines, Florida, for quite a while…and sadly that huge town was once part of the Everglades. When they were building it up one would see alligators chugging along the backyards of new homes. I hope they took a contractor or two with them on their travels. The Everglades are a rich, mysterious, beautiful place. The locals that live nearest the heart of Everglades National Park (also known as Shark Valley, no...there are no sharks but plenty of gators) can be, in the nicest terms…characters. I think Susan Orlean did a great job of writing about the people that live in and around Everglade City in The Orchid Thief.  Anyway, the Everglades is a truly special and amazing place and if you’re going to write about such a place, man you better nail it.
Yeah, Russell nails it in Swamplandia! So many great things have been said about this novel (yes, another first novel on our list – though Russell did write an outstanding book of stories called St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves – based on Liz’s life), that I will only say a few things. One, you aren’t going to find a more original plot. You will not find a group of characters like these who not only are strange but completely human and lovable. [Gianna is strange and lovable but possibly not human, I'm strange and human but not exactly lovable.] The book revolves around the Sawtooth family who own a struggling alligator wrestling farm, and if you don’t come out the other end of this book adoring this family, you have a heart of stone. You won't find a smarter, wittier book this year. You just won’t. Okay, I will leave it at that, but you haven’t heard the last about this book.

The Sense of an Ending
Julian Barnes

I think this is the third or fourth time I've written about The Sense of an Ending on our little blog. What more is there to say?  Is it a surprise that the Man Booker Prize-winning novel is my #3 pick of 2011?  Probably not.  This book is pretty much perfect.  Short, tightly plotted, great characters, and a holy shit ending that smacks the reader upside the head.  It's a book that begs for discussion.  It's a literary novel that will appeal to book groups.  Did I mention that it's really, really, really good?

The Sense of an Ending is part Dead Poets Society, part A Separate Peace, part The Graduate.  It's a story about friendship and love and the secrets kept.  It's a story about betrayals and the over-intellectualizing of emotions and human relations.  Four friends, particularly Adrian and Tony, bond while in prep school.  Adrian, the genius of the bunch, goes to the elite university, while Tony goes to the respectable college.  There Tony meets a girl, one who is more cultured, more worldly, and in his mind, too cool for him.  He also meets her family.  Tony and his girlfriend visit Adrian at school.  Months later, after Tony and the girl break up, she begins dating Adrian.  Flash to the present: Tony is notified that he's inherited Adrian's journal after his friend's death.  What the journal reveals about Adrian remains a mystery though; the ex girlfriend from 20 years earlier won't relinquish it.  The plot twists keep moving a philosophical novel, and here is Julian Barnes at his absolute best.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Best of 2011 Countdown: #4

You know what's insane about working for a publisher?  I already have a few contenders for the #1 book of 2012.  It's exciting, but I never know what the actual month is since I'm almost always reading books that go on sale six (or more) months later.  Before we get ahead of ourselves, though, here are our #4 picks for 2011.


Bright's Passage
Josh Ritter
The Dial Press/Random House

Well some reviews are so perfect, so professional, and so artistic, that you can’t expand on it. I offer to you my original post about my #4 book on our list, Bright’s Passage by Josh Ritter. If you are familiar at all with Ritter's music you won't be at all surprised at how wonderful this book is. If you aren't familiar with Josh Ritter the musician you are really missing out; he is widely considered to be one of our best songwriters at work today. My original post:

Josh Ritter
I love this fucking book. (And let that be a quote on any jacket – it's called "class"). I read this book in a fury of passion. I would not put it down; everything else could wait. The story of Henry Bright (and what can only be described as his journey) is so vivid, beautiful, funny, and passionate…ahhh, I sound crazy already. Anyway, it will stay with you long after the novel ends. It is as haunting, as it is luminous (and Liz…. I never say that about a book do I? In fact when someone calls a book luminous I run, but don’t run because I never use that word!) [We make fun of people who use the word 'luminous' to describe books.  Does it glow in the dark?  Doubtful.  This is a very good book though.] This small book has so much going for it: set during the First World War, a battle between good and evil, it's only $22, and of course it's a love story. It’s a first novel to be sure, but my God what a wonderful novel.

Rainn Wilson, Mary Louise Parker,  and Glen Hansard (among others) reading from Bright's Passage:


The Devil All the Time
Donald Ray Pollock

Gianna's already included The Devil All the Time, but obviously she should have ranked it much higher.  I guarantee that this is the absolute best novel ever written by a former paper mill worker.  It's Chuck Palahniuk without the goofy Chuck shtick, it's Flannery O'Connor on steroids, it's a cousin of Dan Chaon's Await Your Reply and Philipp Meyers' American Rust.  It the Pulitzer Prize committee had the huevos to choose a book that is populated with rapists, killers, religious zealots and LOTS of darkness, The Devil All the Time could absolutely win.

Donald Ray Pollock
The story revolves around a father and son coping with the dying mother in their little nuclear grouping.  The father convinces the son that if they pray long enough, faithfully enough, crazily enough (complete with the sacrifices and ritual abuses), his mother will survive.  The world, of course, doesn't work that way.  This is a book of broken dreams and pain, and one of survival.  It's a beautiful book; it's also the most violent fiction I've ever read.  The Devil All the Time isn't for the faint of heart, but I can't sing its' praises enough.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Best of 2011 Countdown: #5

TOP FIVE.  That's basically a guarantee that these books aren't crap, right?


The Storm at the Door
Stefan Merrill Block
Random House

Inspired by Block’s own grandparents (The Story of Forgetting was inspired by his family as well), this novel is in turns inspiring and heartbreaking.
In short, The Storm at the Door is about love, art, and madness. [ Gianna's feelings for Liz.]  It is also about learning when to let go, and when to hang on. [When Moses was in Egypt land, let this Lizzie go.] It is the story of Katharine and Frederick. Katherine is completely taken by Frederick; he is talented, he is passionate. He thinks he will be a great writer. Yet their lives turn ordinary, and while Frederick’s drinking increases, so does his erratic behavior and inability to support his family.

He is diagnosed with manic depression (which he may or may not actually have) and placed in a hospital known for its famous patients (the hospital is based on McLean, where Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, John Nash, Susanna Kaysen, David Foster Wallace among others were all patients at one time or another – Lowell figures prominently in this book).
Stefan Merrill Block

My original blog about this book is here but I do want to mention again that The Storm at the Door is somehow better than The Story of Forgetting, which I never would have imagined I would say since I am so attached to that novel. But The Storm at the Door is more realized--a bigger, stronger, more mature book. I compared it a year ago to one of my favorite books, Revolutionary Road, and almost a year later I still feel it is good enough to be compared to Yates.

If you like Karen Russell, Kate Christensen, Chad Harbach and of course Richard Yates you must read Stefan Merrill Block.

I am not going to make a huge deal about this book. I am not going to make a fool of myself like I did with The Story of Forgetting. I mean, I really think people thought I lost my mind I talked about that book so much (by the way I totally lost my mind because of that book). Okay. Story of Forgetting was very good. It was excellent. This book is better. It’s more mature and the writing is better. It’s heartbreaking, in fact. Like Stefan’s first book this novel is based in part on his family (his grandparents' marriage), which makes it all the more interesting. Think Revolutionary Road. Yes, it is that good.


Craig Thompson

I appreciate graphic novels as a format that resonates with some readers.  I normally am not one of them.  My favorite books tend to be ones that I can lose myself within, beautiful writing that lingers with me for days and weeks afterward.  I'm a word person; I actually have a tendency to dream in prose rather than with voices and people (a sure sign that I'm mentally...not well, but you knew that, right?).  I like art, and I like the idea of graphic novels, but I always feel like I can read one in a couple of hours and be finished with it; they normally don't linger with me.  There are, however, certain graphic novels that shift my thinking and open my mind to the possibilities of this medium.  Persepolis was one.  Asterios Polyp was another.  And now there's Habibi, which may be the most accomplished literary graphic novel ever created.

Craig Thompson spent almost a decade creating Habibi, a book that draws from Arabian Nights and the Koran.  It is a story that's timeless and also current, a love story and a family story and a survival story.  A mystical story.  A story of language and beauty.  A story of hardship and sacrifice.

The artwork and script in Habibi is exquisite, and the author actually taught himself Arabic in order to create the book.  It's the story of Dodola, a girl sold into a marriage to a much older man, and Zam, a baby found in a basket in the rushes.  Dodola escapes from her husband when he dies, and the teenager finds Zam and rescues him. The two orphans find refuge in an abandoned boat in the middle of the desert.  Though both must sacrifice greatly for their survival, their love for each other doesn't falter.  The book transcends time to link the harems and adventures of ancient Arabia to the oil-funded urban sprawl of the contemporary Middle East.  "Habibi," by the way, means "my beloved," and that's sort of the way I feel about this wonderful book.  I implore you to find a copy and spend time with it.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Best of 2011 Countdown: #6

If these books were in the Miss America Pageant, they'd have to wear swimsuits.


Vaclav & Lena
Haley Tanner
Random House

This is a book that also appears on Liz’s list and I wrote about it this summer (that blog piece is below) but I did want to add a couple of things that I left out of that original post. First, it’s hard to find a really good love story these days. [Other than the love Gianna feels for Liz....] And by really good love story, I mean well written, well developed, and original. Second, Tanner captures you on the very first pages and is writing well beyond her young age. Third…look at that cover, you won't even have to wrap it when you give it to your girlfriend, father, wife, brother, mother, lover, literate dog…it's gorgeous.   
Haley Tanner

I don’t want to over-sell this but, if you miss reading this novel… well, you will end up ruining your life.
Vaclav & Lena  is an amazing love story about two young Russian immigrants living in Brooklyn--Vaclav dreams of becoming a famous magician and Lena will be his lovely assistant--and then she is taken away, suddenly and without warning. The story is filled with an almost fairy tale quality, the writing is so pitch perfect (and by pitch perfect please just pick the book up and read the first few pages of the grade school Vaclav and Lena going through their magic routine…the Russian accents are wonderful). It really is a magical, amazing book.


The Upright Piano Player
David Abbott
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday

To quote one of my coworkers, the one who first turned me on to The Upright Piano Player, "this is a novel of quiet desperation."  It's one of those little books that don't take up space on a shelf but dominate your mind for many days after finishing.  This isn't a loud book.  It is a beautiful one.

David Abbott
The author, David Abbott, actually owns the painting that appears on the cover, and one can imagine him staring at it for long hours and then composing this story for the man in the painting.  This is the story of Henry Cage, a man who seemingly has a successful life--a nice home, nice career, money.  His life, though, is peppered with the "what might have beens," and as he slides into retirement he learns that his ex-wife is critically ill.  And then Henry is randomly attacked at a New Year's/Millennium street party.  The attacker haunts him as do his past decisions as this novel wraps tighter and tighter.

The Upright Piano Player gets my vote for best-but-least-heralded novel of the year.  It's incredible, gorgeous, special, poignant.