Tuesday, April 14, 2009
I produced two segments about books this week for These Days, which means it was a banner week. Lucia Silva and Tiffany Fox recommended some good fiction, along with a book of essays about America and Margaret Atwood's prescient book on debt. Here's what they recommended, listed in no particular order.
EVERYTHING RAVAGED, EVERTHING BURNED, By Wells Tower
This collection of short stories released in late March has critics fawning. Lucia, manager of The Book Works in Del Mar, says she's absolutely in love with this one. The nine stories all feature older men, defeated and bruised by life.This excerpt from the story titled "Wild America", was featured in the NY Times review and is so beautifully written, I had to include it here:
At the sight of her father, the fear went out of Jacey, and cold mortification took its place. There he stood, not yet 40, bald as an apple, and beaming out an uncomprehending fat-boy's smile. His face, swollen with a recent sunburn, glowed against the green dark of the rosebushes at his back. He wore the cheap rubber sandals Jacey hated, and a black T-shirt airbrushed with the heads of howling wolves, whose smaller twin lay at the bottom of Jacey's closet with the price tag still attached. Exhausted gray socks collapsed around his thick ankles, which rose to the familiar legs Jacey herself was afflicted with, bowed and trunk-like things a lifetime of exercise would never much improve. Her humiliation was sudden and solid and without thought or reason. But the wordless, exposed sensation overwhelming her was that her father wasn't quite a person, not really, but a private part of her, a curse of pinkness and squatness and cureless vulnerability that was Jacey's right alone to keep hidden from the world.
Yeah, I know. Tower is that good.
A series of essays, 50 in all, each devoted to a different state, written by a different author. The editors were inspired by Roosevelt's Federal Writers Project, which put out a series of state guides as part of the WPA. Hundreds of writers participated in those, inlcuding Zora Neale Hurston, Saul Bellow, and John Cheever. This anthology includes contributors like Dave Eggers, Joshua Ferris, Jonathan Franzen and TV personality Anthoy Bourdain. California native William T. Vollman wrote the essay about our golden state.
CUTTING FOR STONE, BY Abraham Verghese
This debut novel from physician-turned-writer Verghese takes us from India to Ethiopia to New York City as it follows the lives of two physician twin brothers born out of wedlock to a beautiful nun and a British surgeon. The boys' mother dies in childbirth and they are abandoned by their father. The older twin, Marion, is our narrator and he goes on a quest to find his lost father. The book spans six decades and includes lots of graphic depictions of medical procedures, but apparently it's still really good.
SEX SLEEP EAT DRINK DREAM, BY Jennifer Ackerman
When is the best time to work out? Or go to the dentist? What about having a vodka tonic? Science writer Jennifer Ackerman answers these questions from the perspective of biology and the human body. For example, the best time to go to the dentist is actually the afternoon, when the pain threshold in teeth is the highest. Ackerman's book spends 24 hours in the life span of a typical human body, and the structure helps organize the gobs of info she relays about our bodies. It's so easy to focus on what's happening around us in this fast-paced, media-saturated world. Ackerman's book redirects your focus into the dramatic landscape of our inner bodies, which is a universal but far less mediated world.
MUDBOUND, BY Hillary Jordan
This novel set in the Mississippi Delta after WWII won the Bellwether Prize, an award established by Barbara Kingsolver and given to a debut work of exemplary fiction committed to social responsibility. Mudbound is a story about family, racism and well-kept secrets. Set on a desolate farm, the novel explores the relationship between two families: the owners of the land, and the sharecroppers who live and work on it.
MILES FROM NOWHERE, BY Nami Mun
Another debut novel on our list, this one tells a horrifying tale of a teenage runaway who succumbs to drug addiction and prostitution while living on the streets of New York City. The author also lived as a runaway at one time, but is quick to deny the similarities with her protagonist. I understand it's a dreary read but compelling all the same.
THE PIANO TEACHER, BY Janice Y.K. Lee
This book shares a title with another novel and the amazing and sexually graphic French film on which it was based. This book is set in Hong Kong and gives us two tumultuous love affairs (are there any other kind?) to follow through war and colonial high society. The book has received good reviews, which must please Lee, a former editor for Elle magazine.
THE STORY OF A MARRIAGE, BY Andrew Sean Greer
Set in 1953 San Francisco, this short novel explores the marriage of Pearlie and Holland Cook, as told by narrator Pearlie. We hear of her devotion to Holland, her love for her polio-stricken child, and what happens when a handsome stranger lands on her doorstep claiming to be a friend of her husband's. The plot is full of twists and surprising revealations, all the while attending to the prosaic qualities of married life. From the author of The Confessions of Max Tivioli.
PAYBACK: DEBT AND THE SHADOW SIDE OF WEALTH, BY Margaret Atwood
Celebrated novelist Margaret Atwood devotes her considerable brain power to understanding debt and our historical relationship with it. She explores how debt is portrayed in the literary canon and the philosophical tradition. I think it's safe to say this is a big picture analysis of debt in our culture. Atwood wrote the book before the current economic crisis took hold. Basically, she was up there in Canada, typing away about debt in Wuthering Heights, while credit default swaps were mercilessly traded down here. Way to predict the future, I say, which is why I thought the above image of her seemed so appropriate. She looks like a psychic. Or a kooky, southern writer. But she's neither. She's one of our greatest living writers, so we should all consider reading this relevant treatise.