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The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

Book Review: The Good Lord Bird by James McBride (Riverhead Books; 432 pages; $27.95).

Throughout history and fiction, women have disguised themselves as men; it is quite uncommon, though, for a boy to disguise good-lord-bird1.jpghimself as a girl and continue the charade for decades.  However, that is just what Little Onion does in James McBride’s brilliant and exhilarating novel The Good Lord Bird.  McBride re-imagines the life of John Brown and his followers while simultaneously fashioning a remarkable and amusing character in the form of Little Onion.  Through Little Onion’s eyes, McBride recreates Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, one of the most crucial chapters in American history and one that helped spark the Civil War.

History has shown us just how charismatic Brown could be, but the magnetic Little Onion steals the spotlight from Brown time and again.  Born in Kansas Territory, young Henry Shackleford is a slave when pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions make the state a battleground, hence the term “Bleeding Kansas.”  Brown arrives and gets involved in an argument in a local barber shop.  The ensuing act of violence forces Brown to flee—with Henry in tow.  The kicker is that Brown thinks Henry is a girl named Henrietta.  Henry does not tell Brown the truth about his gender.

“Truth is,” McBride writes, “lying come natural to all Negroes during slave time, for no man or woman in bondage ever prospered stating their true thoughts to the boss.  Much of colored life was an act, and the Negroes that sawed wood and said nothing lived the longest.  So I weren’t going to tell him nothing about me being a boy.”

If that does not make you laugh or at least smile, consider this: Henry is skilled at the art of zinging one-liners and entertains even in the gravest of situations.  When Brown goes off on tangents, Henry admits, “I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, but, being he was a lunatic, I nodded my head yes.”

The young slave “girl” makes a big impression on Brown when “she” eats his good-luck charm—an onion.  From that moment on, Brown calls Henry “Little Onion.”  McBride’s two main characters play well off each other and make for humorous reading.

Little Onion’s masquerade also has a serious side and allows McBride to portray Henry as a trickster.  Henry’s charade is a variation of the traditional African trickster tale.  These stories, which originated in Africa and were part of the oral history of African American slaves, served as thinly-disguised social protest against white masters and featured animals as the main characters instead of real people.  In these parables, small, weak, seemingly powerless animals used their cunning to outwit larger, powerful creatures.  A rabbit might represent the weaker animal while a wolf stood for the larger one as is the case with the Briar Rabbit tales.  Whites saw such stories as fables, nothing more.  For slaves, the tales were altogether different and meaningful.  The allegories symbolically assaulted the powerful, who worked to ensnare slaves but who became themselves ensnared.  Trickster tales sought to upset traditional social roles and served as a vehicle allowing slaves to ridicule whites and get away with it.  By fooling John Brown, Henry sees himself as one-upping the white man.  His ruse works well, and that is a credit to McBride’s ingenuity.

James_McBrideMcBride cleverly juxtaposes drama and history with comedy and humor.  Uproarious laughs pepper Little Onion’s encounters with historical figures.  The funniest of these occurs when he meets Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), reformer, abolitionist, and former slave.  Upon their first meeting, Little Onion says, “Morning, Fred.”  Douglass is livid: “Don’t you know you are not addressing a pork chop, but rather a fairly considerable and incorrigible piece of the American Negro diaspora?”  A few pages later, an inebriated Douglass makes a pass at Henrietta and mistakenly calls her “Harlot” before finally saying “Don’t marry two women at once…Colored or white, it’ll whip you scandalous” (In The Good Lord Bird, Douglass commits bigamy as he is married to Anna Murray-Douglass and Ottilie Assing, a German journalist.  In actuality, Douglass never married Assing, but McBride’s vision makes for interesting reading).

Henry Shackleford may be a figment of McBride’s imagination but as you read this novel you forget that it’s fiction. McBride brings his characters to life like you’ve never seen them before.  A multi-faceted and marvelous story, The Good Lord Bird explores identity, home, place, survival, slave life, and how far a man will go for a cause.  Little Onion’s voice resonates with authenticity and humor.  In re-telling one of the most important events in American history, McBride creates a rousing romp of a story.

Breaking News–The Good Lord Bird has been longlisted for a 2013 National Book Award in fiction.  It’s my pick because I absolutely love it!

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2013 National Book Award in Fiction Longlist

Don’t you just love this time of year?  Awards time!  No, not the Emmys or any of that, but the National Book Awards, of course!

The 2013 National Book Award in Fiction longlist was recently announced.

Here are the novels in contention for America’s top literary prize:

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f_mcbride_good

f_marra_constellation

f_lahiri_lowland

f_kushner_flamethrowers

f_graver_end

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Which of these have you read?  Any surprises??  Any book and author who you believe should have been but was not?

Which do you think will take home the title?  Do you have a favorite among these contenders?

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The Rathbones by Janice Clark

Book Review: The Rathbones by Janice Clark (Doubleday; 384 pages; $26.95)

As summer slowly fades into fall, we sometimes yearn for something more in a novel, a story that invades our hearts and our souls, a rathbones1.jpgtale that leaves us astounded. I always find myself turning to the sea this time of year.  September is also the month in which I first read favorites like Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund and Galore by Michael Crummey, books with premises devoted wholly to the briny depths.  Longing for cooler weather after a long, hot Southern summer may play a huge role in this inclination of mine, but I think it has more to do with the storyteller.

In her riveting and magical debut The Rathbones, Janice Clark stunningly intertwines Greek myth, Gothic elements, Moby Dick, coming of age, and maritime adventure to tell the epic saga of a once proud Connecticut whaling dynasty.  The Rathbones is populated by unforgettable and powerful characters, none of whom dazzle more than Mercy, who, at fifteen years of age, sets off on a quest to find her missing father.  Verity, Mercy’s mother, has spent seven years waiting for her husband, Benadam Gale, lost at sea.  Clark draws parallels to Homer’s Odyssey in which Penelope faithfully awaited the return of her husband Odysseus; however, Mercy knows her mother’s true amorous, treacherous nature.  This unwelcome knowledge spurs Mercy to seek out her father, if she can find him.  Mercy’s quest soon evolves into a voyage of discovery and identity.

Accompanied by her strange and frail uncle Mordecai, Mercy uncovers a dark and murky family history.  Moses, the patriarch of the Rathbones, enjoyed the gift of second sight.  As Clark writes, Moses “knew the beat of the sea, its quick pulse along the shore and the slow swing of the tides.”  If he hunted in the woods or “walked too far away” from the water, “his breath went short and his limbs stiffened, and the sea pulled him back.”  Moses was one with the water and with the whales he could sense swimming beneath the surface.  He lacked only one thing, but it was crucial: a crew.

Moses developed a rather novel way to procure men: he would sire them.  Like Greek gods who captured mortal women, the Rathbone men stole females of child-bearing age to produce sons to man the whale boats.  Instead of “normal” names such as Benjamin, George, or Robert, Moses bestowed upon his sons appellations denoting their future duties like Harpooner, Bow-Oar, and First-Oar.  Moses’s peculiar methods worked, and the family thrived; Moses “reigned for three decades, the undisputed monarch of his maritime realm.”  His senses served Moses well, as he “knew before anyone else when the whales were coming, long before spouts showed on the horizon.”  Clark writes the Rathbone men “lived on land as they did at sea, their native skills honed by ceaseless practice, working as one organism.”  No other whaling family came close.

But it did not last.  Later generations lost the link they shared with both the sea and the whale.  The Rathbones became like stilt birds who lost their ability to fly once their basic needs were met on land.  In chronicling the ups and downs of this mesmerizing family, Clark highlights the rise and fall of the nineteenth-century whaling era.

janice clarkIn The Rathbones, Clark may channel Edgar Allen Poe, Homer, and Herman Melville, but she puts her own unique and indelible spin on this truly remarkable novel.  Clark offsets the Rathbone men and their whales with the Rathbone women, who are equally as formidable—women like the “Golden Wives,” sisters who were sold by their father, and Limpet, who Mercy and Mordecai find living in a cave.  And then there is Verity, deeply flawed, seemingly mad, and keeper of secrets—easily one of Clark’s most complex characters.

The Rathbones is like one of those sea sirens of yore.  Once you begin reading this enchanting story, you’re a goner.  You won’t be able to resist the pull of Clark’s enticingly rich characters or her magnificent setting.  With a novel like this, who’d even want to resist?  Go ahead and jump in.

 

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Q&A with Colin Winnette, Author of Fondly

colinThank you for allowing me to ask you these questions, Colin.  Did you always want to be a writer?

Yes, to an embarrassing degree. Embarrassing mainly because, when I was younger, I had a very strong sense of what being a writer meant: it meant I would grow a beard and wear sweaters and drink coffee (or at the time, water from a mug) and hold my head in my hands a lot. I would sit in front of my mother’s typewriter and “be a writer,” or perform “being a writer.” I was sort of writing stories too then, but I distinctly remember that feeling less important than the overall project of “being a writer.” 

Who are some writers you have always admired?  Have they influenced your writing in any way?

Ben Marcus was an author who really cracked me open when I first read him. His book Notable American Women came into my hands at a very significant time. I was in undergrad, obsessed with Kafka and Chekhov and Carver, who were really my only models for good story writing at the time, and someone handed me this odd book by a living American writer, (which didn’t bode well to my undergraduate self). But the book was one of the strangest, most brutal and affecting things I’d ever read. He made me rethink a lot of my assumptions about stories and what they can do and what I might want to do with them. That book rerouted my trajectory and my taste got a lot weirder and my writing got a lot better.

 

You previously wrote Animal Collection and Revelation.  What was different this time around?  Is a third book easier to write or more difficult?

WinnetteAnimalI was still working on Animal Collection when I started writing Fondly. I actually finished Fondly before AC, though the release dates don’t reflect that. I like to work on multiple projects at once because it allows me to use a lot of different kinds of energy. When I’m getting nowhere with one thing, I can switch modes and give something else a try. That said, both of the pieces in Fondly came very naturally to me. I worked on In One Story, The Two Sisters for much longer, probably because it covers so much ground and takes so many different forms. I wound up cutting a lot from that piece, and rewriting it all several times. Still, the overall process was easy. I had a clear idea of what I was going for, and I had enough confidence when writing this book to say, all I have to do is keep myself interested and something good will come. I used that as the guiding principle; keeping myself interested and curious and energized.

Your new book is titled Fondly and consists of two novellas, “In One Story, The Two Sisters” and “Gainesville.”  What about the novella form appeals to you?

When I set out to work on both of these, I had no idea how long they would be. I imagined Gainesville would be fairly long, but didn’t fondlycoverwant to force it in anyway, so I just wrote and wrote until I’d reached the end. Whether or not it’s a novel or a novella or a collection of short stories, as one reviewer had it, seems based on some hard to determine combination of word count and personal opinion, as well as how the book is printed and marketed. I wouldn’t necessarily categorize these works as novellas, but I suppose it’s the most useful way of describing them. Nothing in particular appeals to me about the novella form, but I love a book that feels like it’s the precise length it needs to be. I suppose one thing I admire about novellas is that, reading a novella by someone else, I’m happy they were brave enough to write a short book. Many authors seem driven by length, because “novels” (60,000 words or more, I’m told) sell better and people take them more seriously. If a book is 1,000+ pages, it becomes the most commonly discussed aspect of the book. Why it’s 1,000+ pages, less so. To me, personally, finding the right length for a story is as important as sentence-level work. The length should be doing just as much work. A short book gives you the room to develop a story but still keep it fairly lean and swift, which seemed important for these two particular works.

How would you describe Fondly?  And how did you come up with the title?

For me, describing Fondly is difficult. Partly because it is two very different projects in one, but mainly because the scope of the work feels larger to me than a synopsis provides for. That’s not to say someone else couldn’t do it. I just don’t have the bird’s eye view other might be able to access. The work is primarily concerned with questions of family, mortality, the how and why of stories, the defects of language, as well as human deficiency, love, mutation, and some kind of messy unity. But that’s sort of like saying this pasta dinner is primarily a matter of flour and water and oil. If that makes sense.

The title came from the cover image. I had a different title, that I wasn’t very happy with. It was very long and wasn’t exactly the right tone. Then Scott Teplin did these incredible spot drawings for the book, as well as its wonderful cover, and I knew I had to change the title to something that would sit on the jacket, next to that image, and interact with it in some profitable way. I thought about it and thought about it and at some point the idea of pulling something from an email occurred to me. I don’t know why or when. It just occurred to me and I started poring through old emails for a word that felt right. It was right there from something my boss/friend Camden Avery wrote to me in one of our early emails. It seemed like the perfect combination of humor and affection and playfulness and, with the cover image, morbidity. It also turns the book into a kind of twisted offering, which I liked. 

Please tell us a little about how you came up with each novella?  What was your inspiration for the stories and for the characters?

It’s hard to say because there’s so much going on in either work, in the book as a whole, and all of it came from different sources, different parts of myself. It was ongoing too, everything I thought or felt or encountered while I was writing these got thrown in somehow, even if I ultimately removed it. The book is really massive, as far as characters and stories go. On some level, I suppose I was excited about exhausting myself, or seeing if that was possible.

In your opinion, Colin, what is good fiction?

Today, this morning, right now, I feel like good fiction leads you from something you know, to something you couldn’t have known otherwise.

Do you have several story ideas in your head at one time?  How do you decide what to pursue, what to shelf it for later, and what to discard?

Yes. Always. I’m a mess.

 

It’s all about what feels right and where my energy is. If it doesn’t feel right or interesting to me, I drop it or change it and move on.

What is the best writing advice you ever received?

I’ve received a lot of incredible advice over the years, but what comes to mind right now is something I read in undergrad. There’s a passage in In Search of Lost Time, in which Proust describes a writer who isn’t particularly bright or gifted or good, but who is wildly successful and respected and widely read. I couldn’t quote it, and I’m probably remembering it wrong, but the gist of what he says seemed to come down to something like, she was just the one who kept writing and, after years of it, she was one of the few people who had stuck with it long enough to produce a body of work, and she thereby became an authority on whatever it was she was writing about. She had just put in the hours and finished what she set out to do, which is actually far more than what many people are capable of. What that passage did for me was allow me to dig a little mental tunnel around my insecurities—the voices in my head insisting that I wasn’t talented, had nothing of any interest to say, and was wasting my time—so that I could get on with the writing part of writing. And, after years of basically purging onto the page, I started getting a sense of what I liked and what I wanted to do. And I started getting better. Or, at least, I started to enjoy what I was making more and more often.

What do you like to do when you are not writing?

I run a lot. I watch movies and movie trailers with my wife. I worry about not writing. I used to hike a lot but now we live in a city, so I go to the store a lot and get coffee a lot and move the car a lot.

colin 2Have you read any books recently that utterly awed you?

I’ve been working on an interview with Zach Schomburg about Daniel Clowes’s books David Boring, Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, and others. They’re amazing. So funny and dark and moving and strange. They’re really starting to sink in and affect the way I’m writing. I would recommend them to anyone and everyone. Plus, the art in them is great and they’re a quick read.

Which upcoming novels are you excited to read this fall?

I just finished an advanced copy of Jesse Ball’s new book Silence Once Begun. It’s phenomenal. It’s so heartbreaking and powerful, and it’s formally bold. It might be my favorite thing he’s done so far.

What do you hope readers take with them after reading Fondly?

I hope they know I never meant no harm, and that I still love them.

What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?

I just finished a draft of a new novel, and I’ve got a few poetry manuscripts I’m kicking around. I had a book set to come out with Mud Luscious Press, but they closed up shop and now that book is out in the wind. I just got back from vacation, and I was working pretty steadily on a few new projects while I was gone. It’s hard to say, at this point, what they’ll turn into, but I’m enjoying working on them so far.

Good luck, Colin, and thanks so much for a wonderful interview!

Follow Colin on Tumblr

Buy the book here!

 

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Think Twice Before Opening Boxes

Book Review: Let the Dark Flower Blossom by Norah Labiner (Coffee House Press, 2013)

Reviewed for Gently Read Literature, Fall 2013 Issue

 

let the dark flower blossomIn Greek mythology, Pandora, the first woman, was given many gifts from the gods. Athena gave her clothing; Aphrodite endowed her with beauty; Hermes bestowed upon her the gift of speech. Zeus was not so benevolent. Seeking revenge after Prometheus stole fire from heaven, Zeus presented a beautiful box (some say jar) to Pandora with one caveat. He instructed her not to open the box for any reason. Compelled by curiosity, Pandora could not resist, and, one by one, she unwittingly unleashed evils all over the world. The story of Pandora illustrates that we have a universal desire to seek and know the truth, no matter the cost. Sometimes, though, on our quest for fact, we discover ugly, unwelcome truths and malevolent, horrible acts.

Twins Sheldon and Eloise Schell have a box of their own in Norah Labiner’s dark, cerebral, and labyrinthine novel Let the Dark Flower Blossom. What secrets are the mysterious pair keeping? What evils lurk inside the box? And what monsters can be found in each of us who call ourselves readers?

Metafiction, or writing about writing, features prominently in Let the Dark Flower Blossom. When the story opens, celebrated novelist Roman Stone, former college friend of the twins, has died. He was murdered in an attempted robbery. When Eloise first met Stone in college, she remarked, “Roman Stone was born to be murdered.” Although Labiner shows Stone’s character only in flashbacks, he figures prominently in the story. Roman ironically “wrote of fate and then fell to it.” Later in the book, Labiner reveals that Stone “was murdered. And he deserved it.” Considering his rocky past with the twins, one cannot help but wonder if they played a role in his death.

Very early on in the novel, the author deftly illustrates Sheldon’s jealousy of Stone, who wrote the bestselling book Babylon Must Fall on Sheldon’s typewriter. Roman “was big and brash and relevant as hell. Even his death was relevant. America’s literary zeitgeist cut down in the heartland? What did it mean? Was it a metaphor? Or a symbol? It was more than an ending; it alluded to godlessness and dark times ahead.” Labiner hints his death might also unravel her characters or at least make their lives messier.

Varied perspectives allow the reader to get into each of Labiner’s bold and unforgettable characters. In addition to the twins serving as narrators, Labiner also chronicles her tale from the points of view of a young woman named Beatrice who lives on an atmospheric island in the middle of Lake Superior and another young woman named Susu who wants us to know there are rules to telling a story. Because of Labiner’s multiple voices, flash fiction is a worthy and effective narrative form in Let the Dark Flower Blossom.   Sometimes the author gives us only one sentence from a character and then changes the point of view to another narrator; in other instances, one raconteur may tell the story for several pages.

Using different storytellers enables Labiner to show the unreliability of memory. For example, the author alludes to a horrible secret the twins are keeping about their childhood—a mystery that involves a fire, a locked box, and death. While Sheldon remembers an incident one way, Eloise recalls something very different. To get to the truth, we must sift through clues and symbolism. If humans have a natural curiosity, like Pandora, then humans also have a biological inclination to lie. Let the Dark Flower Blossom overflows with unreliable narrators, some of whom are downright liars. Employing various plot twists and red herrings throughout her story, Labiner makes an already intriguing and beguiling tale much more so. As the author reveals to me through email, “Novels deceive and seduce; this is an inherently and unabashedly dishonest form. Every novel is lying to you. Every novel wants to get you into bed. Every novel will pull the chair out from under you.”

The narrative occasionally meanders with strange though beautiful streams of consciousness, but this is done purposefully, to throw the reader a curveball, to keep her off-track. Labiner’s work of fiction never bores. Instead, Let the Dark Flower Blossom accomplishes something very few novels do these days—the tale forces the reader to think not only about the book itself but also about writing, reading, and even the nature of being human. “A story is a labyrinth, and all paths lead to the monster,” Labiner writes. “Who is the monster? Is it the storyteller? A good storyteller must be a monster. The best stories tell of the worst of human nature. The worst, our broken laws. Our nightmares realized. To write of such things, an author must commit the act himself; if only on the page.” “What of the readers?” she asks. “In the real world, we read our newspapers. We butter our bread. We read of murder and we are sickened. But in fiction, in the story: we want the dead girl. So—who is the monster?”

Let the Dark Flower Blossom is wholly original and brilliantly imaginative. Labiner says she wanted to “to write a story about the things I love: gardens gone to ruin, dogs and cats, about chocolate and oranges and mythological punishments for unspeakable crimes. It’s an ode to Poe, Hawthorne, Hitchcock, and Hollywood….” In her words, Let the Dark Flower Blossom is “an unrequited love story about an unrepentant writer and an unreliable reader.” She tells me she is currently “working on a novel about Lizzie Borden and little dogs and trains and hatchets and the history of the corset. It’s called I Murdered Philip Roth: A Love Story.” If it’s as powerful a story as this, count me in.

Equal parts satire, tragedy, and comedy, Let the Dark Flower Blossom may be fiction, but Labiner offers us insight into universal themes and emotions—such as jealousy, memory, sibling bonds, celebrity, violence, and morality— in her novel. The author has created a living narrative, one that almost seems to grow, change, and breathe right before our eyes. It is almost as if Labiner’s story has a mind of its own. You’ll never read a book the same way again. And you may think twice before you open any more boxes, especially those that are meant to stay closed.

To see other reviews and essays in Gently Read Literature‘s Fall Issue, please visit this website.

 

 

 

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Great September Reads

Typically, publishers unveil some of the year’s best and biggest books in September.  Cooler weather means weightier, more serious novels.  The same is true for 2013, and I so welcome them!

Here are THE titles to read this month (or at least according to Bookmagnet).

What To Read Now:

affairs of others

From Picador

A MESMERIZING DEBUT NOVEL ABOUT A YOUNG WOMAN, HAUNTED BY LOSS, WHO REDISCOVERS PASSION AND POSSIBILITY WHEN SHE’S DRAWN INTO THE TANGLED LIVES OF HER NEIGHBORS

Five years after her young husband’s death, Celia Cassill has moved from one Brooklyn neighborhood to another, but she has not moved on. The owner of a small apartment building, she has chosen her tenants for their ability to respect one another’s privacy. Celia believes in boundaries, solitude, that she has a right to her ghosts. She is determined to live a life at a remove from the chaos and competition of modern life. Everything changes with the arrival of a new tenant, Hope, a dazzling woman of a certain age on the run from her husband’s recent betrayal. When Hope begins a torrid and noisy affair, and another tenant mysteriously disappears, the carefully constructed walls of Celia’s world are tested and the sanctity of her building is shattered—through violence and sex, in turns tender and dark. Ultimately, Celia and her tenants are forced to abandon their separate spaces for a far more intimate one, leading to a surprising conclusion and the promise of genuine joy. 

Amy Grace Loyd investigates interior spaces of the body and the New York warrens in which her characters live, offering a startling emotional honesty about the traffic between men and women. The Affairs of Others is a story about the irrepressibility of life and desire, no matter the sorrows or obstacles. 

Coming Soon:

September 3 from Little, Brown and Company

The American master’s first novel since Winter’s Bone (2006) tells of a deadly dance hall fire and its impact over several maids versiongenerations.

Alma DeGeer Dunahew, the mother of three young boys, works as the maid for a prominent citizen and his family in West Table, Missouri. Her husband is mostly absent, and, in 1929, her scandalous, beloved younger sister is one of the 42 killed in an explosion at the local dance hall. Who is to blame? Mobsters from St. Louis? The embittered local gypsies? The preacher who railed against the loose morals of the waltzing couples? Or could it have been a colossal accident? Alma thinks she knows the answer-and that its roots lie in a dangerous love affair. Her dogged pursuit of justice makes her an outcast and causes a long-standing rift with her own son. By telling her story to her grandson, she finally gains some solace-and peace for her sister. He is advised to “Tell it. Go on and tell it”-tell the story of his family’s struggles, suspicions, secrets, and triumphs.

 

 

September 3 from Algonquin

explanationThere is nothing inherently threatening about Melissa, a young evangelist hoping to write the definitive paper on intelligent design. But when she implores Andy Waite, a biology professor and a hardcore evolutionist, to direct her independent study, she becomes the catalyst for the collapsing house of cards surrounding him. As he works with Melissa, Andy finds that everything about his world is starting to add up differently. Suddenly there is the possibility of faith. But with it come responsibility and guilt—the very things that Andy has sidestepped for years. 

Professor Waite is nearing the moment when his life might settle down a bit: tenure is in sight, his daughters are starting to grow up, and he’s slowly but surely healing from the sudden loss of his wife. His life is starting to make sense again—until the scientific stance that has defined his life(and his work) is challenged by this charismatic student.

In a bravura performance, Lauren Grodstein dissects the permeable line between faith and doubt to create a fiercely intelligent story about the lies we tell ourselves, the deceptions we sustain with others, and how violated boundaries—between students and teachers, believers and nonbelievers—can have devastating consequences.

 

September 3 from Nan A. Talese

Months after the Waterless Flood pandemic has wiped out most of humanity, Toby and Ren have rescued their friend Amanda from maddaddamthe vicious Painballers. They return to the MaddAddamite cob house, newly fortified against man and giant pigoon alike. Accompanying them are the Crakers, the gentle, quasi-human species engineered by the brilliant but deceased Crake. Their reluctant prophet, Snowman-the-Jimmy, is recovering from a debilitating fever, so it’s left to Toby to preach the Craker theology, with Crake as Creator. She must also deal with cultural misunderstandings, terrible coffee, and her jealousy over her lover, Zeb. 

Zeb has been searching for Adam One, founder of the God’s Gardeners, the pacifist green religion from which Zeb broke years ago to lead the MaddAddamites in active resistance against the destructive CorpSeCorps. But now, under threat of a Painballer attack, the MaddAddamites must fight back with the aid of their newfound allies, some of whom have four trotters. At the center of MaddAddam is the story of Zeb’s dark and twisted past, which contains a lost brother, a hidden murder, a bear, and a bizarre act of revenge. 

Combining adventure, humor, romance, superb storytelling, and an imagination at once dazzlingly inventive and grounded in a recognizable world, MaddAddam is vintage Margaret Atwood—a moving and dramatic conclusion to her internationally celebrated dystopian trilogy.

 

September 10 from Ballantine

songs of willow frostTwelve-year-old William Eng, a Chinese-American boy, has lived at Seattle’s Sacred Heart Orphanage ever since his mother’s listless body was carried away from their small apartment five years ago. On his birthday—or rather, the day the nuns designate as his birthday—William and the other orphans are taken to the historical Moore Theatre, where William glimpses an actress on the silver screen who goes by the name of Willow Frost. Struck by her features, William is convinced that the movie star is his mother, Liu Song.

Determined to find Willow, and prove his mother is still alive, William escapes from Sacred Heart with his friend Charlotte. The pair navigates the streets of Seattle, where they must not only survive, but confront the mysteries of William’s past and his connection to the exotic film star. The story of Willow Frost, however, is far more complicated than the Hollywood fantasy William sees onscreen.

Shifting between the Great Depression and the 1920s, Songs of Willow Frost takes readers on an emotional journey of discovery. Jamie Ford’s sweeping book will resonate with anyone who has ever longed for the comforts of family and a place to call home.

 

September 10 from Simon & Schuster

It had been raining for weeks. Maybe months. He had forgotten the last day that it hadn’t rained, when the storms gave riversway to the pale blue of the Gulf sky, when the birds flew and the clouds were white and sunshine glistened across the drenched land.

Following years of catastrophic hurricanes, the Gulf Coast—stretching from the Florida panhandle to the western Louisiana border—has been brought to its knees. The region is so punished and depleted that the government has drawn a new boundary ninety miles north of the coastline. Life below the Line offers no services, no electricity, and no resources, and those who stay behind live by their own rules.

Cohen is one who stayed. Unable to overcome the crushing loss of his wife and unborn child who were killed during an evacuation, he returned home to Mississippi to bury them on family land. Until now he hasn’t had the strength to leave them behind, even to save himself.

But after his home is ransacked and all of his carefully accumulated supplies stolen, Cohen is finally forced from his shelter. On the road north, he encounters a colony of survivors led by a fanatical, snake-handling preacher named Aggie who has dangerous visions of repopulating the barren region.

Realizing what’s in store for the women Aggie is holding against their will, Cohen is faced with a decision: continue to the Line alone, or try to shepherd the madman’s captives across the unforgiving land with the biggest hurricane yet bearing down—and Cohen harboring a secret that may pose the greatest threat of all.

Eerily prophetic in its depiction of a southern landscape ravaged by extreme weather, Rivers is a masterful tale of survival and redemption in a world where the next devastating storm is never far behind.

 

September 10 from Random House

enonThe next novel by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Tinkers, in which a father’s grief over the loss of his daughter threatens to derail his life.

Powerful, brilliantly written, and deeply moving Paul Harding has, in Enon, written a worthy successor to Tinkers, a debut which John Freeman on NPR called “a masterpiece.” Drawn always to the rich landscape of his character’s inner lives, here, through the first person narrative of Charlie Crosby (grandson to George Crosby of Tinkers), Harding creates a devastating portrait of a father trying desperately to come to terms with family loss.

 

 

 

 

September 10 from Doubleday

A dazzling novel from one of our finest writers—an epic yet intimate family saga about three generations of all-dissident gardensAmerican radicals

At the center of Jonathan Lethem’s superb new novel stand two extraordinary women. Rose Zimmer, the aptly nicknamed Red Queen of Sunnyside, Queens, is an unreconstructed Communist and mercurial tyrant who terrorizes her neighborhood and her family with the ferocity of her personality and the absolutism of her beliefs. Her brilliant and willful daughter, Miriam, is equally passionate in her activism, but flees Rose’s suffocating influence and embraces the Age of Aquarius counterculture of Greenwich Village.

Both women cast spells that entrance or enchain the men in their lives: Rose’s aristocratic German Jewish husband, Albert; her nephew, the feckless chess hustler Lenny Angrush; Cicero Lookins, the brilliant son of her black cop lover; Miriam’s (slightly fraudulent) Irish folksinging husband, Tommy Gogan; their bewildered son, Sergius. These flawed, idealistic people all struggle to follow their own utopian dreams in an America where radicalism is viewed with bemusement, hostility, or indifference.

As the decades pass—from the parlor communism of the ’30s, McCarthyism, the civil rights movement, ragged ’70s communes, the romanticization of the Sandinistas, up to the Occupy movement of the moment—we come to understand through Lethem’s extraordinarily vivid storytelling that the personal may be political, but the political, even more so, is personal.

Brilliantly constructed as it weaves across time and among characters,Dissident Gardens is riotous and haunting, satiric and sympathetic—and a joy to read.

 

September 17 from Soho

a beautiful truthTold simultaneously from the perspective of humans and chimpanzees, set in a Vermont home and a Florida primate research facility, A Beautiful Truth—at times brutal, other times deeply moving—is about the simple truths that transcend species, the meaning of family, the lure of belonging, and the capacity for survival.

A powerful and haunting meditation on human nature told from the dual perspectives of a Vermont family that has adopted a chimp as a surrogate son, and a group of chimpanzees in a Florida research institute.

Looee, a chimp raised by a well-meaning and compassionate human couple who cannot conceive a baby of their own, is forever set apart.  He’s not human, but with his peculiar upbringing he is no longer like other chimps.  One tragic night Looee’s two natures collide and their unique family is forever changed.

At the Girdish Institute in Florida, a group of chimpanzees has been studied for decades.  The work at Girdish has proven that chimps have memories and solve problems, that they can learn language and need friends, and that they build complex cultures. They are political, altruistic, get angry, and forgive. When Looee is moved to the Institute, he is forced to try to find a place in their world.

A Beautiful Truth is an epic and heartfelt story about parenthood, friendship, loneliness, fear and conflict, about the things we hold sacred as humans and how much we have in common with our animal relatives. A novel of great heart and wisdom from a literary master, it exposes the yearnings, cruelty, and resilience of all great apes.

 

September 24 from Little, Brown and Company

A taut, thrilling adventure story about buried treasure, a manhunt, and a woman determined to make a new life for herself in the outcastsold west.

It’s the 19th century on the Gulf Coast, a time of opportunity and lawlessness. After escaping the Texas brothel where she’d been a virtual prisoner, Lucinda Carter heads for Middle Bayou to meet her lover, who has a plan to make them both rich, chasing rumors of a pirate’s buried treasure. 

Meanwhile Nate Cannon, a young Texas policeman with a pure heart and a strong sense of justice, is on the hunt for a ruthless killer named McGill who has claimed the lives of men, women, and even children across the frontier. Who–if anyone–will survive when their paths finally cross? 

As Lucinda and Nate’s stories converge, guns are drawn, debts are paid, and Kathleen Kent delivers an unforgettable portrait of a woman who will stop at nothing to make a new life for herself.

 

 

September 24 from A.A. Knopf

lowlandTwo brothers bound by tragedy; a fiercely brilliant woman haunted by her past; a country torn by revolution: the Pulitzer Prize winner and #1 New York Times best-selling author gives us a powerful new novel-set in both India and America-that explores the price of idealism and a love that can last long past death.

Growing up in Calcutta, born just fifteen months apart, Subhash and Udayan Mitra are inseparable brothers, one often mistaken for the other. But they are also opposites, with gravely different futures ahead of them. It is the 1960s, and Udayan-charismatic and impulsive-finds himself drawn to the Naxalite movement, a rebellion waged to eradicate inequity and poverty: he will give everything, risk all, for what he believes. Subhash, the dutiful son, does not share his brother’s political passion; he leaves home to pursue a life of scientific research in a quiet, coastal corner of America. But when Subhash learns what happened to his brother in the lowland outside their family’s home, he comes back to India, hoping to pick up the pieces of a shattered family, and to heal the wounds Udayan left behind-including those seared in the heart of his brother’s wife.

Suspenseful, sweeping, piercingly intimate, The Lowland expands the range of one of our most dazzling storytellers, seamlessly interweaving the historical and the personal across generations and geographies. This masterly novel of fate and will, exile and return, is a tour de force and an instant classic.

 


September 24 from St. Martin’s Press

When prestigious plantation owner Cornelius Allen gives his daughter Clarissa’s hand in marriage, she takes with her a gift: Sarah—wedding gifther slave and her half-sister.  Raised by an educated mother, Clarissa is not a proper southern belle she appears to be with ambitions of loving who she chooses and Sarah equally hides behind the façade of being a docile house slave as she plots to escape. Both women bring these tumultuous secrets and desires with them to their new home, igniting events that spiral into a tale beyond what you ever imagined possible and it will leave you enraptured until the very end.

Told through alternating viewpoints of Sarah and Theodora Allen, Cornelius’ wife, Marlen Suyapa Bodden’s The Wedding Gift is an intimate portrait that will leave readers breathless.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now that you know my picks for the best books of September, I want to hear from you!  Which titles will you read?  What books are you hoping to read in September?

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Storied Places

Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins (Riverhead Trade; 304 pages; $16).

This Is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila (Hogarth; 240 pages; $16).

The best stories are those suffused with colorful, detailed settings—tales in which place is not only vital but a central component of the narrative.  When a writer gets it right, the setting becomes a character itself.  And that’s when the magic begins.

Two story collections emphasize the significance of place and herald the arrival of two powerful and confident women writers.  In her collection of stories, Battleborn, Top 5 Under 35 National Book Foundation honoree Claire Vaye Watkins swallows the folklore of the American West, chews it up, and then spits it back out as she brilliantly reimagines the region.  Conversely, Kristiana Kahakauwila, Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Western Washington University and a native Hawaiian, captures the essence of Hawaii, its people, and its cultural traditions in her debut story collection This Is Paradise.

battlebornBattleborn consists of ten bold and gritty tales.  Watkins takes us from Gold Rush to ghost town to desert to brothel and weaves such passion and intensity into each story that she leaves us breathless.  Her keen insight and gorgeous, lyrical realism bring to mind literary greats like Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx.  More than any other writer of the American West, Watkins leaves an indelible mark.

Watkins does not shy away from the personal in her collection.  The author confronts the mythology of her own family history, a legacy that includes notorious killer and cult leader Charles Manson, in what is perhaps her best piece entitled “Ghosts, Cowboys.”  Her father, Paul Watkins, was one of Manson’s followers whose main responsibilities included wrangling new girls for Manson.  In exposing her life and the stigma of her father’s past, Watkins bares herself before us, allowing us to witness both the rawness of her past and her faith in readers. It takes guts for an author to write herself into the narrative.  Her candidness makes this collection rare and beautiful.

From the American West we venture to Hawaii, the setting of the six stories in Kahakauwila’s haunting and compelling collection This Is Paradise.   Kahakauwila reveals the conflicting world that is Hawaii—old vs. new, tradition vs. modernity, and “native” Hawaiian vs. tourist.  Hawaii, or at least Kahakauwila’s Hawaii, is a place of opposition, and the author does a splendid job of getting to the heart of both the state and its people.  This Is Paradise is as majestic as Hawaii’s last queen, Lili’uokalani.

In the titular tale, “This Is Paradise,” Kahakauwila uses the first person plural (“we”) to tell the story of a young, carefree American this is paradisetourist who gets a taste of Hawaii’s dark side from the perspective of the women of Waikiki.  Their distinctive voices inject emotion into the story, easily making it one of the strongest in the collection.  Here, Kahakauwila’s dazzling writing is reminiscent of Julie Otsuka’s formidable novella The Buddha in the Attic.  Kahakauwila then explores the almost double life of a woman seeking revenge in the cockfighting ring in “Wanle.”  In “The Old Paniolo Way,” Kahakauwila illumines a son coping with the imminent death of his father and struggling with his own identity.  Deeply flawed characters and achingly real situations give This Is Paradise a universal appeal.

In their short story collections, Claire Vaye Watkins and Kristiana Kahakauwila prove that as much as we shape our world, that place, in turn, influences us.  Watkins was born in Death Valley and raised in the desert of Nevada; Kahakauwila was born in Hawaii and raised in Southern California.  Whether the focus is on the American West or modern Hawaii, these tales have extraordinary power and meaning because of the place in which they are set.

 

 

 

 

 

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Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

Book Review: Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

(Alfred A. Knopf; 256 pages; $25.95).

claireIn Claire of the Sea Light, Edwidge Danticat, author of The Dew Breaker, brings the rich culture of Haiti to life on the page.  Despite the title, the story is less about the main character, Claire Limyè Lanmè (“Claire of the Sea Light”) Faustin, than the people who inhabit the Haitian village of Ville Rose.  Danticat expertly charts how tragedy is an everyday occurrence in the community as mothers die in childbirth, daughters in car accidents, fathers from gunshot wounds, and friends are lost to the sea.  Nozias, Claire’s father, worries over the fate of his daughter if an accident should befall him.  His anxiety has merit, as he and his neighbors live precariously: disaster is part of their everyday lexicon.   Nozias knows this more than most as his wife died while giving birth to Claire.  Danticat does an excellent job of placing the reader in his mindset, urging us to sympathize with a father desperate to make the right choices for his daughter.  When Claire turns ten, Nozias decides to give her to a local woman, who lost her own daughter in a horrific accident, to raise.  Claire gets wind of the plan and flees.  Danticat’s storyline suffers as she explores the lives of villagers and loses her overall focus.  Although the plot periodically meanders, the author’s language is magical and striking.  A “wall of water” rose “from the depths of the ocean, a giant blue-green tongue, trying, it seemed, to lick a pink sky.”  Sometimes when Claire was “lying on her back in the sea, her toes pointed, her hands facing down, her ears half submerged, while she was listening to both the world above and beneath the water, she yearned for the warm salty water to be her mother’s body, the waves her mother’s heartbeat, the sunlight the tunnel that guided her out the day her mother died.” Ultimately, Claire of the Sea Light is a breathtaking but sometimes uneven character-driven novel.

  

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Spotlight on The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

good lord bird

About The Book:

From Riverhead Hardcover

From the bestselling author of The Color of Water and Song Yet Sung comes the story of a young boy born a slave who joins John Brown’s antislavery crusade—and who must pass as a girl to survive.

Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857, when the region is a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an argument between Brown and Henry’s master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town—with Brown, who believes he’s a girl.

Over the ensuing months, Henry—whom Brown nicknames Little Onion—conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually Little Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859—one of the great catalysts for the Civil War.

An absorbing mixture of history and imagination, and told with McBride’s meticulous eye for detail and character, The Good Lord Bird is both a rousing adventure and a moving exploration of identity and survival.

About The Author:

James McBride is an author, musician and screenwriter. His landmark memoir, “The Color of Water,” is considered an American James_McBrideclassic and read in schools and universities across the United States. His debut novel, “Miracle at St. Anna” was translated into a major motion picture directed by American film icon Spike Lee. It was released by Disney/Touchstone in September 2008. James also wrote the script for the film, now available on DVD. His novel, “Song Yet Sung,” was released in paperback in January 2009. His new novel about American revolutionary John Brown will be released in Feb. 2013. His latest work is the August 2013 film “Red Hook Summer” which he co-wrote and co-produced with acclaimed director Spike Lee.

James is the worst dancer in the history of African Americans, bar none, going back to slavetime and beyond. He should be legally barred from dancing at any party he attends. He dances with one finger in the air like a white guy.

He is also a former staff writer for The Boston Globe, People Magazine and The Washington Post. His work has appeared in Essence, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times. His April, 2007 National Geographic story entitled “Hip Hop Planet” is considered a respected treatise on African American music and culture.

James toured as a sideman with jazz legend Jimmy Scott among others. He has also written songs (music and lyrics) for Anita Baker, Grover Washington Jr., Purafe, Gary Burton, and even for the PBS television character “Barney.” He did not write the “I Love You” song for Barney but wishes he did. He received the Stephen Sondheim Award and the Richard Rodgers Foundation Horizon Award for his musical “Bo-Bos” co-written with playwright Ed Shockley. His 2003 “Riffin’ and Pontificatin’ ” Musical Tour was captured in a nationallly televised Comcast documentary. He has been featured on national radio and television in America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

James is a native New Yorker and a graduate of  New York City public schools. He studied composition at The Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio and received his Masters in Journalism from Columbia University in New York at age 22. He holds several honorary doctorates and is currently a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University.

Bookmagnet Says:

I cannot stop thinking about McBride’s newest novel.  Little Onion’s voice resonates with authenticity and humor.  In re-imagining one of the most important events in American history, McBride creates a rousing romp of a story.  I absolutely loved it and plan on reviewing the book next week.

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Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon

Book Review: Snow Hunters by Paul Yoonsnow-hunters1.jpg

(Simon & Schuster; 208 pages; $22)

“That winter, during a rainfall,” Yohan “arrived in Brazil,” Paul Yoon, 5 Under 35 National Book Foundation honoree, writes in his lyrical and arresting debut Snow Hunters.   Yohan, a North Korean war refugee, seeks a new life in Brazil but cannot escape his past, even half a world away, in a port town on the country’s coast.  Yoon’s quiet yet wise protagonist and his measured yet moving language drive this relatively short novel.  Snow Hunters may be 194 pages, but it sure packs an emotional punch.

Yoon opens Snow Hunters with the kind of intense sentiment that comes to exemplify the novel as a whole.    As the cargo ship on which he is a passenger docks in a Brazilian harbor, Yohan helps the crew unload.  A sailor offers him a blue umbrella.  “From the child,” the sailor explains and points “up at the ship” where Yohan sees “a crown of hair and the length of a pale scarf gliding along the sky.”  A boy runs “after her, waving.”  Yohan hears the “delicacy and assuredness” of the girl’s voice, “the way it” rises “like a kite, the foreign cadence of words in another language.”  Her kindness, her laughter, and even the sight of children at play are a balm for Yohan.

When Yohan immigrates to Brazil, he is only 25; his age belies both the horrors and hardships of war he has witnessed.  Seeking to escape his shattered past, Yohan has defected from North Korea.  Yoon eloquently and tenderly intersperses flashbacks into the narrative, memories that take Yohan and readers back to Yohan’s homeland.  Here, Yoon delivers the same vivid and moving descriptions of Yohan’s past as he first illustrated his protagonist’s arrival in Brazil.  For example, American soldiers find Yohan and his friend and fellow soldier Peng, who had been on patrol, among bombed-out wreckage.   “Among the men he and Peng had lived with, walked with, fought and slept beside, they were the only survivors of the bombing.”  This reality is sobering, especially once Yoon reveals that the Americans discovered them only because Yohan’s nose stuck up out of the snow, like a “carrot.”  The title is taken from another, equally poignant, scene in Yohan’s past when he and Peng see a Korean family scavenging in the snow.  Peng remarks that they look like “snow hunters…the way they moved across the snow like acrobats, their bright forms growing smaller in the night….”  Yohan may call a new country home, but the Korean War remains a part of his identity, and he is haunted by the conflict.

tumblr_mg8ng0C9zU1s2baglo1_r1_1280 (1)    Slowly, Yohan becomes part of his adopted country.  New friends alleviate the pain as they each mark Yohan’s life in his or her own way: the Japanese tailor, Kiyoshi, for whom Yohan serves as apprentice; Peixe, the groundskeeper at a local church who suffered from polio as a child and walks with a cane; and the “beggar children” Bia and Santi who flit in and out of Yohan’s life.  These may be minor characters, but they happen to play significant roles in Yohan’s life.

Snow Hunters explores war, memory, identity, home, loss, trauma, forgiveness, and love—universal themes that appeal to all of us regardless of the nation in which we live.  With prose that begs to be savored, Snow Hunters proves Yoon is one of the most talented writers of his generation, and I cannot wait to see what his imagination yields next. Yoon’s passages often read like poetry.  I rarely read a sentence much less a paragraph or two over and over again, but I relished Yoon’s elegiac and commanding language.   His sentimentality makes Snow Hunters both unforgettable and stirring, which is a powerful combination.  Yohan is a simple man, but he is one of the most highly-developed characters I have ever had the pleasure of getting to know.

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