Books I'm Excited About

Last year I felt like all of my favorite new releases came out in fall. This year, it seems like a lot of the 2012 releases that I'm most excited about have May publication dates. I still hope fall will bring some noteworthy titles, but it seems that this spring is shaping up to be good for reading new releases!

In One Person by John Irving (May 8th) A compelling novel of desire, secrecy, and sexual identity, In One Person is a story of unfulfilled love—tormented, funny, and affecting—and an impassioned embrace of our sexual differences. Billy, the bisexual narrator and main character of In One Person, tells the tragicomic story (lasting more than half a century) of his life as a “sexual suspect,” a phrase first used by John Irving in 1978 in his landmark novel of “terminal cases,” The World According to Garp. His most political novel since The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving’s In One Person is a poignant tribute to Billy’s friends and lovers—a theatrical cast of characters who defy category and convention. Not least, In One Person is an intimate and unforgettable portrait of the solitariness of a bisexual man who is dedicated to making himself “worthwhile.”

The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger (May 1st) A powerful, funny, richly observed tour de force by one of America’s most acclaimed young writers: a story of love and marriage, secrets and betrayals, that takes us from the backyards of America to the back alleys and villages of Bangladesh. In The Newlyweds, we follow the story of Amina Mazid, who at age twenty-four moves from Bangladesh to Rochester, New York, for love. A hundred years ago, Amina would have been called a mail-order bride. But this is an arranged marriage for the twenty-first century: Amina is wooed by—and woos—George Stillman online. For Amina, George offers a chance for a new life and a different kind of happiness than she might find back home. For George, Amina is a woman who doesn’t play games. But each of them is hiding something: someone from the past they thought they could leave behind. It is only when they put an ocean between them—and Amina returns to Bangladesh—that she and George find out if their secrets will tear them apart, or if they can build a future together.

Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel (May 1st) Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home" was a pop culture and literary phenomenon. Now, a second thrilling tale of filial sleuthery, this time about her mother: voracious reader, music lover, passionate amateur actor. Also a woman, unhappily married to a closeted gay man, whose artistic aspirations simmered under the surface of Bechdel's childhood ... and who stopped touching or kissing her daughter goodnight, forever, when she was seven. Poignantly, hilariously, Bechdel embarks on a quest for answers concerning the mother-daughter gulf. It's a richly layered search that leads readers from the fascinating life and work of iconic twentieth-century psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, to one explosively illuminating Dr. Seuss illustration, to Bechdel's own (serially monogamous) adult love life. And, finally, back to Mother--to a truce, fragile and real-time, that will move and astonish all adult children of gifted mothers.

synopses from goodreads


The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty

Firelight and warmth - that is what her memory gave her. 

I'm still disappointed with the Pulitzer board for not naming a 2012 fiction winner, but instead of complaining too much (well, at least not here) I decided to pick up a past Pulitzer winner that I own but haven't yet read. It was between The Optimist's Daughter (1973)The Shipping News (1994), and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008). Since I had The Optimist's Daughter lined up for the classics challenge as well, I went with that. I can't say I enjoyed it as much as I'd hoped, but you can't win them all.

The Optimist's Daughter follows Laurel McKelva Hand, a young woman who lives in Chicago and travels south to be by the side of her father who is having a routine eye operation. After he dies unexpectedly, Laurel returns to small town Mississippi, where she grew up, to bury her father. (She is named after the Mississippi state flower.) The majority of the short novel explores Laurel's childhood memories and her trips "up home". As certain memories resurface, Laurel comes to a better understanding of her adult self and just how lucky she is to have the cherished memories of a simpler time filled with love and care.  

As a whole, the book is slow moving but eloquently written. It explores the healing abilities of community, the power of memory, and the dignity of moving on.  However, I'm sad to say, I mostly found the novel on the dull side. I'm not one to complain about books in which "nothing ever happens"; I typically tend to really enjoy those kind of books. But this one just didn't do it. It felt too soft and too sweet for my taste. But, I'm not going to write Welty off completely, because the overall ideas behind the book are powerful and her writing is beautiful. Perhaps if I reread it a few years down the road I may enjoy it more. 

With that said, what I did appreciate was the deep sense of place Welty evoked, taking me to the deep south with pecan trees and big old houses with unkempt porches. I also liked that the novel explored the difference between arriving somewhere and simply finding yourself there. There were also a handful of truly lovely passages that detailed certain moments of happiness Laurel experienced as a child. For instance, when it was time to go to bed, Laurel's parents would read aloud to one another from a separate room. Laurel loved the sound of her parents reading and favored their books, so she tried to stay up as long as she could to hear them read:
She was sent to sleep under a velvety cloak of words, richly patterned and stitched with gold, straight out of a fairy tale, while they went reading on into her dreams. 
There are moments of beauty throughout the novel, and as I mentioned above the ideas conveyed are powerful, but my actual reading experience was bland. It wasn't until the very end when it all came together that I began to appreciate the novel. I'm sure I'm in the minority on this one and I really wanted to like it more. I'm not saying it isn't worth the read, because it is. But for me, it was just a little too vanilla. 

Publisher: Vintage, 1972


New Books!

I've been really good lately at not buying too many books. I feel like I put a fairly large dent in my TBR pile in the last few months and since I had a 15% off coupon at Half Price Books, I decided to treat myself.

Ham on Rye, Charles Bukowski: This will be my first Bukowski and word has it, it's one of his best. "From a harrowingly cheerless childhood in Germany through acne-riddled high school years and his adolescent discoveries of alcohol, women, and the Los Angeles Public Library's collection of D. H. Lawrence, "Ham on Rye" offers a crude, brutal, and savagely funny portrait of an outcast's coming-of-age during the desperate days of the Great Depression."

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Karen Kukil: I've had my eye on this one for awhile and I'm so happy to have found it at Half Price Books for $9.98. A steal!

A Reliable Wife, Robert Goolrick: This one was in the super buys section, so I paid $3 for it. I've seen it around but couldn't remember whether or not got favorable reviews. After a quick look on goodreads, it doesn't look like a lot of people liked it, but I'm still willing to give it a shot.

Armageddon in Retrospect, Kurt Vonnegut: A collection of Vonnegut's unpublished writing published posthumously.

Before you Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, Danielle Evans: I'm not going to lie, I bought this collection of short stories purely because the title is freaking awesome. I had to give it a shot.


People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry

"People are afraid of stories like Lucie's, stories about meaningless, brutal, premature death, but most of them cannot own up to their fear. So they take comfort in the certainty of moral judgements, which they brandish like burning branches waved in the night to keep off the wolves."

Farrar, Straus and Giroux is quickly becoming one of my favorite publishers. A chunk of my favorite reads from last year, notably The Submission and The Marriage Plot, were published by FSG. When I signed up for their Work In Progress newsletter, they promised me a review copy of People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman. (Me and the other first 500 people to sign up.) It was my first true crime book I've read and man, was it good. I knew little going into this one and I believe, like most mysteries, that is the best way to go into it, as it heightened my reading experience. I had a hard time putting this one down and I read the first half of the novel in 24 hours. People Who Eat Darkness follows the Lucie Blackman case in which a 21-year-old, thin, blond girl from England moves to Tokyo with a friend, in hopes of to mainge big money, and disappears. The details surround her disappearance suggested she was abducted, but there weren't many details from the start aside from a strange phone call and a mystery man. The author of the book, Richard Llyod Parry, was quite close to this case for its entirety. I didn't feel like there were any holes or questions left unanswered. In fact there were times when I felt there was almost too much detail given, but those instances were few. For over ten years Richard Lloyd Parry followed the case while he earned the trust of Lucie's family and gained countless interviews from those who knew her best.

Lucie was a hostess in Toyko, entertaining men in night clubs for a living. But this role should not be confused with prostitution. A hostess was never expected to preform intercourse with their clients, but rather play toward their fantasies psychologically. One hostess explains:
We were taught three things when we started. How to light our client's cigarettes, how to pour his drinks, and not to put our elbows on the table... Those rules aside, your job was to to fulfill his fantasy. If he wanted you loud, you were loud. If he wanted you intelligent, you were intelligent. If he wanted you horny, you were horny. Sordid? Yes. Degrading? Yes. But one thing it wasn't was the White Salve Trade. The one thing the hostess bars are not about is sex. 
It turns out, this is much more than a true crime book. It's also a lens for what happens behind closed doors in eastern culture, like an anthropological look at the darker, hidden aspects of this culture and their obsession with ritual and role play. For instance the practice of the "water trade" and the long-time tradition of women as a form of entertainment. 

One of the reasons I found this book so interseting is because I learned a lot about the east and how it differs from the west in terms of government, law, and media. Of the handful of times I've traveled abroad, I have never gone further east than Rome, so much of this was new to me. I also felt that I could identify with some of the girls described who traveled to Japan, who had hopes of a more exotic and exciting life. What girl hasn't dreamed of moving to a place that holds such promises? 
Sadly, it all went down hill pretty quickly for Lucie but just as her family and friends didn't know what happened to her right away, neither does the reader. The crime is unfolded chronologically which really makes for a compelling and fast-paced read. Despite the one night of nightmares I had while reading this book, (yeah, it has happened before) I couldn't be happier this book found its way into my hands.   The horrific crimes inflicted on Lucie Blackman were nothing short of pure evil, and this book will ensure her story isn't forgotten anytime soon.  

Chris Cleave called this book "In Cold Blood for our times." Needless to say, I'm really excited to pick that one up, disturbing as it may be.

People Who Eat Darkness will be published May 7th.

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012


Books A-Z

Matthew at A Guy's Moleskin Notebook posted this meme in which you name your favorite book that starts with each letter in the alphabet. I couldn't resist, so here is mine. 

A The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
B Bonjour Tristesse, Françoise Sagan
C Cat's Eye, Margaret Atwood
D The Dairy of  A Young Girl, Anne Frank
E Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer
F Fun Home, Alison Bechdel
G The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
H Haroun and The Sea of Stories, Salmon Rushdie 
I Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri
J Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
K Kindred, Octavia Butler
L Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
M Middlemarch, George Eliot
N Native Son, Richard Wright
O On Beauty, Zadie Smith
P The Painted Veil, W. Somerset Maugham 
R The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid 
S The Submission, Amy Waldman
T The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger
U Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
V A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
W White Noise, Don DeLillo
X Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood
Y The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Z Zeitoun, Dave Eggars 

Full disclosure: I skipped "Q" because the only two titles I could count for this one (All Quiet on the Western Front and Q: A Novel) are books that I truly did not care for. If you've got any "Q" recommendations, I'd like to hear them because yes, I am bothered I couldn't really complete this list. I also cheated a bit for "U" and "X".


How To Read The Air by Dinaw Menestu

“The world around us is alive, he would have said, with our emotions and thoughts, and the space between any two people are charged with them all. He had learned early in his life that before any violent gesture there is a moment when the act is born, not as something that can be seen or felt, but by the change it precipitates in the air.” 

It's been awhile since I picked up a book, sat down, and read 110 pages without getting up, but that's exactly what happened with How To Read the Air. (Okay fine it just happened with my current read, People Who Eat Darkness, but besides that it almost never happens.)  I've had Dinaw Menestu on my radar since he made The New Yorker's top 20 under 40 authors list. I had heard a lot about his first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, but then I found How To Read the Air at Half Price Books and thought I'd start with that one. I was not in the least disappointed, however I should mention the first half of the novel felt stronger than the second half in terms of plot and development. Regardless, I don't think this is one to be missed. 

The novel follows two interwoven story lines: one of Yosef and Mariam, a young immigrant couple from Ethiopia living in the Midwest during the 80's and that of Jonas, their now 30-year-old son living in modern day New York. To understand Jonah, we have to understand his parents and the toxic domestic dynamics with which he grew up. The novel as a whole is on the somber side, as  as we read about Jonas' failing marriage, his parent's dysfunctional and abusive relationship, and the difficult relationship they have with their son. Eventually Jonah embarks on a solo road trip to Tennessee, retracing the path his parents took 30 years earlier, in an attempt to make sense of his history and cultural identity. As the past unfolds to the present, Jonah forces himself to confront issues that he has been ignoring for years. 

This novel offers a lot to digest in terms of themes and parallels. For me it was reminiscent of Jhumpa Lairi's The Namesake, as both examine the immigration experience and the sense of isolation it creates, with a focus on the second generation. In addition, the novel explores the idea of redemption and the ability to rebuild the present despite past histories, and truth verses imagined memories and what we train ourselves to perceive. The novel is beautifully written; the prose is elegant and fluid. It's no wonder Menestu made the New York's list because his writing really is brilliant.  As I mentioned above, the latter half of the novel faltered a bit, but the prose and strong introspective characters made up for it.  When I was at Half Price Books last weekend and found a hardcover copy of The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, I put it in my basket immediately. 

Publisher: Riverhead, 2010


Alias Grace: A Read Along

Zeteticat, Beth and I talked about an Alias Grace read along a few weeks back on twitter and we are making it happen. The novel is one of Atwood's more popular works. It won the Canadian Giller prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize.

A synopsis from Goodreads: In Alias Grace, bestselling author Margaret Atwood has written her most captivating, disturbing, and ultimately satisfying work since The Handmaid's Tale. She takes us back in time and into the life of one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of the nineteenth century. Grace Marks has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murders of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and Nancy Montgomery, his housekeeper and mistress. Some believe Grace is innocent; others think her evil or insane. Now serving a life sentence, Grace claims to have no memory of the murders. Dr. Simon Jordan, an up-and-coming expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness, is engaged by a group of reformers and spiritualists who seek a pardon for Grace. He listens to her story while bringing her closer and closer to the day she cannot remember. What will he find in attempting to unlock her memories? Is Grace a female fiend? A bloodthirsty femme fatale? Or is she the victim of circumstances?

This read along is going to be on the casual side with two scheduled posts. There isn't a certain amount of pages that need to be completed for the first post, but the book should be finished when you post final thoughts.

First post Wednesday, May16th: General and early impressions; themes and motifs that you've noticed so far, etc. No spoilers.

Last post Wednesday, May 30th: Wrap up discussion, overall impressions, etc. Truth vs fiction: likelihood this version is close to the truth. Spoilers are fair game.

It sounds like this is going to be a book that encourages discussion, so I'm really excited to be reading it as a readalong. To sign up head over to Zeteticat's Bookish Habits and leave a comment on her post. If you need another reason to sign up, Ana from Things Mean A Lot said this was her "favorite Atwood to date, which says a lot".

Photo from Zeteticat's Bookish Habits


March Reading

Winter is officially over! March was a great month, filled with fantastic weather, good books, and The Hunger Games movie. I started the month off with a review of Sula (terrific novel) and then read a collection of essays, Sugar in My Bowl, that was all-around uninspiring (skip it). I finally picked up Love in the Time of Cholera and really enjoyed that one. The experience of reading Marquez is tedious, but worth the effort. After that I turned to The Nobodies Album for a fast-paced, literary mystery. It was okay, but it felt like something was missing. The week before the Hunger Games movie came out I was so eager to see it, I picked up Catching Fire to satiate my Hunger Games craving. I was planning on picking it up after I watched the first movie, but I couldn't wait. It was good, but I thought the first one was better. More likely than not I'll read the third novel in the series this month. Then I picked up Mr. Muo's Traveling Couch since I really liked Sejie's his first novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. It was an interesting novel, but I had a hard time connecting with the characters. I also read How To Make Friends and Influence People for a work assignment. I'm sure there are many people who find this book helpful, namely introverts, but I felt like it was repetitive and a bit obvious. Not to mention 70% of it is anecdotes, which gets old. I won't be posting a review on that one. 

Books read in March: 6
Most popular post: I'd Buy These Books Based on Cover Art Alone

I started How To Read The Air near the end of the month and will be finished with it soon. It's the first Dinaw Mengestu I've read and I like him so much I bought his first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, over the weekend at Half Price Books

Even though I reduced the size of my TBR this month, I didn't read one single challenge book in March. I'm going to work on that in April and try to read at least one, maybe two if I get ambitious. There is talk of an Alias Grace readalong with Beth and Zeteticat in the month of May (a Smooth Criminals challenge book). Hopefully we will get a post together soon! 

I'm super excited for a few on the new releases in May (Bechdel and Irving!) and there is one new release in April that I am curious about: Paris I Love You, But You're Bringing Me Down. (Has anyone confirmed that title was taken from LCD Soundsystem?) Anyway, it's released April 24th and follows the American family in Paris. From Amazon: "It is an expedition into the Paris of Sarkozy, smoking bans, and a McDonald’s beneath the Louvre—the story of an American who loves Paris all out of proportion, who loves every beret and baguette cliché, but who finds life there to be very different from what he expected." Sounds promising.

Illustration by Peter Reynolds via Nose in a Book.