Spring Paperback Picks — April 2016

No, I still don’t know when The Girl on the Train will be released in paperback. That’s the #1 query that leads readers to Books on the Table, and as I mentioned in 10 Spring Paperback Picks last April, publishers often delay a paperback release when the hardcover is still selling well. The Girl on the Train (currently #6 on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list) has been on the list for 62 weeks.

All the Light We Cannot See has been on the hardcover list for 98 weeks; curiously, I haven’t noticed much interest in when the paperback will come out. I wonder if this is because readers view All the Light We Cannot See as the kind of book they’re willing to buy and want to own in hardcover, while they see The Girl on the Train as the type of book they  read on the beach and then pass along? In any case, All the Light still has a long way to go before it catches up with some bestselling novels of the past — The Da Vinci Code, The Bridges of Madison County, The Caine Mutiny, Auntie Mame, and Advise and Consent all stayed on the list for more than 100 weeks.

Some of my favorite books from 2015 are arriving in paperback this April. Some did well in hardcover (Erik Larson’s Dead Wake, Sally Mann’s Hold Still, and Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread come to mind) but some are underappreciated gems; maybe now they’ll find the audience they deserve.

Fiction

9780553392333We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (April 5)
I liked Diffenbaugh’s second novel even more than her first, The Language of Flowers. It’s the coming-of-age story of two people: 16-year-old Alex, who’s devastated when his beloved grandparents return to their native Mexico, and his mother, Letty, who must finally learn to be a parent. It’s one of the best contemporary novels about immigration I’ve read, up there with The Book of Unknown Americans. You can read my interview with the author here.

9780425278109My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh (April 5)
During the summer of 1989, the narrator of M.O. Walsh’s debut novel is fourteen years old and in love with his neighbor on Piney Creek Road in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Lindy Simpson. When Lindy becomes the victim of a rape, everything changes. Although My Sunshine Away is suspenseful — sometimes almost unbearably so — it’s really a coming of age story. It’s about an immature, self-centered boy becoming an adult with integrity. As he recounts the pivotal events of his youth, the narrator’s voice is authentic and compelling. At one point, he reflects on the nature of nature of memory:

And it is not until times like these, when there are years between myself and the events, that I feel even close to understanding my memories and how the people I’ve known have affected me. And I am often impressed and overwhelmed by the beautiful ways the heart and mind work without cease to create this feeling of connection.

Although I’ve never been to Baton Rouge, I felt as if I had after reading Walsh’s lyrical descriptions of this singular place. Walsh, who is the director of the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans, clearly heeds every creative writing teacher’s advice: “Show, don’t tell.” He shows us a setting and characters that are as vivid as any I’ve encountered on the page. The novel reminded me in some ways of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones — but without the murder and the accompanying trip to heaven, and with a great deal more wisdom.

the-childrens-crusade-9781476710464_lgThe Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer (April 5)
I savored every page of this beautiful novel, which explores the complicated relationships among four siblings raised by an attentive, loving father and a neglectful mother. NPR’s Maureen Corrigan (whose reviews are almost always spot-on) loved the book, saying Packer’s “splintered narrative style and the richness of her characters and language illuminate the unexpected depths of the commonplace.” Rebecca, one of the siblings, grows up to be a successful psychiatrist, and like all of us, she wonders if her childhood memories are accurate:

I remembered my memory of the moment, because after so long that’s what memory is: the replaying of a filmstrip that’s slightly warped from having gone through the projector so many times. I’ll never know what actually happened and what distortions I added.

y6483Where They Found Her by Kimberly McCreight (April 19)
If you’re in the mood for smart, character-driven psychological suspense, Where They Found Her is the book for you. It’s the kind of book you read in one day, or at least consumer in big chunks. The book opens with an unnamed narrator disposing of a bag of evidence in a dumpster behind a suburban tanning salon. What has happened, and who is telling the story? Readers won’t find out for almost 300 pages, with plenty of detours along the way. It’s revealed in the first couple of chapters that the body of a newborn baby has been found in the woods near the college campus in an upscale New Jersey suburb. Molly Sanderson, wife of a Ridgedale University professor and new to the staff of the local newspaper, investigates the story — which turns out to be much more complicated than she originally anticipated, leading back to unsavory secrets in Ridgedale’s past. For my complete review, click here.

Nonfiction

9780307742223Natural Born Heroes: Mastering the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance by Christopher McDougall (April 5)
MacDougall, author of Born to Run, is a terrific writer and he has a great story to tell in Natural Born Heroes — actually, two stories. He deftly juxtaposes the story of the audacious kidnapping of a Nazi general on the island of Crete with his personal quest to emulate the physical and mental endurance of classical Greek heroes. The subtitle makes the book sound as if it’s a physical fitness manual, which in a way it is. It’s interesting that the subtitle for the hardcover was How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance, emphasizing the historical aspect of the book. The London Independent says:

One of the most daring, madcap episodes of the Second World War was the kidnapping by Patrick Leigh Fermor, dirty trickster supreme, and his band of British eccentrics and Cretan hard men, of the German general Heinrich Kreipe.

Seventy years later, youngsters in inner-city London and the suburbs of Paris were becoming experts in parkour, using the urban landscape as an obstacle course to be negotiated with joyful freedom and intense physical discipline.

Christopher McDougall connects these two points, and many in between, in a heady confection that encompasses, among other subjects, military history, archaeology, Greek mythology, neat ways to kill a man and ideas on health and fitness that might just change your life.

My idea of exercise is a leisurely bike ride or a brisk walk (and preferably on a warm, sunny day), but I found this book absolutely riveting.

9780393352146_300-1Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris (April 4)
I have recommended this book to quite a few people, and I stuck a shelf talker under the hardcover version, which remained in the unsold book for a long time. I’m not sure anyone took my advice, and I want you to know you’re missing out on a really good book. I wrote a mini-review about it last fall, and a reader commented: “I quite enjoyed Between You and Me. I think it didn’t get a ton of love because you have to be a very specific sort of person to want to read about words.” That’s true, but the book is about much more than words. The author, Mary Norris, has been the New Yorker‘s copy editor since 1978, upholding the magazine’s notoriously high standards. Her wicked and witty memoir is sprinkled with grammar advice, as well as plenty of gossipy tidbits. I enjoyed every page, and learned a few things besides.The New Republic review says: “Norris’s very funny, lucid, and lively new book” is “part memoir, part language guide, and part personal account of life at the New Yorker.”

y6482Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, A Virginia Town, A Civil Rights Battle by Kristen Green (April 26)
I really can’t champion this book enough, and I hope it finds a big audience in paperback. Veteran journalist Green chronicles the years when Prince Edward County, Virginia closed its public schools rather than obey the federal mandate to desegregate — and tells the story of her family’s part in this shameful chapter of history. The New York Times review commented that “It is this personal story that makes her mix of memoir and history . . . so absorbing as she returns home to interview family and friends about a past that many would rather leave there.”

Happy spring and happy reading!

 

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Nonfiction November: This Year’s Overlooked Gems

You can tell a more incredible over-the-top story if you use a nonfiction form.
Chuck Palahniuk

There is really no fiction or non-fiction; there is only narrative. One mode of perception has no greater claim on the truth than the other . . .
E.L. Doctorow

November is a busy month, and that’s not just because of Thanksgiving and the beginning of the holiday season. I don’t know how these things work, but the powers that be have determined that November is also National Novel Writing Month, National Peanut Butter Lovers Month, Historic Bridge Awareness Month, Manatee Awareness Month, and International Drum Month — and of course, it’s No Shave November. Thank goodness for that, because who has time to shave while writing a novel and learning about historic bridges?

In the world of book blogging, it’s Nonfiction November.  Dozens of reviewers share their favorite recommendations for nonfiction books. Many of the same best-selling titles pop up again and again, and for good reason — they’re excellent books, well worth reading. Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal should be required reading for anyone who’s mortal, but you don’t need me to tell you about it.

I suspect many readers regard nonfiction as a homework assignment, not riveting reading. Novelist Chris Bohjalian said, “People seem to read so much more nonfiction than fiction, and so it always gives me great pleasure to introduce a friend or family member to a novel I believe they’ll cherish but might not otherwise have thought to pick up and read.” I’ve found the opposite — in my experience, nonfiction is usually a harder sell than fiction.

Over the past year, I’ve read plenty of nonfiction, including a few books that — at least in my little corner of the world — haven’t received the love they deserve. I’ve mentioned these terrific books before, but they’re worth mentioning again.

The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander
Poet Alexander has written a gorgeous chronicle of her family’s grief after her 50-year-old husband died unexpectedly. Every short chapter (most are 2-3 pages) is like a poem, with spare, beautiful feeling and intense feeling. The book is reminiscent of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.
From the Boston Globe review:  ” . . . A poetry lover, and a memoirist of loss myself, I expected to like Alexander’s book. But nothing could have prepared me for the experience of reading The Light of the World. It riveted me, rent me, sent me reeling. It flooded me with ineffable joy.”

9780804140164The Rising: Murder, Heartbreak, and the Power of Resilience in an American Town by Ryan D’Agostino
The devastating true story of Dr. William Petit, who lost his wife and two daughters — and was critically injured himself — in a brutal attack in the family’s Connecticut home. Amazingly, Petit has not only survived but managed to rebuild his life.
From the Publishers Weekly review: “D’Agostino’s tender approach to his subject and story is impressive as he artfully charts Petit’s emotional thawing without resorting to cloying prose or melodrama . . .Though a horrific crime provides the backdrop, this book is a remarkable account of hope, fellowship, and love in the face of tragedy.”

9780062268679Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, A Virginia Town, A Civil Rights Battle by Kristen Green
Veteran journalist Green chronicles the years when Prince Edward County, Virginia closed its public schools rather than obey the federal mandate to desegregate — and tells the story of her family’s part in this shameful chapter of history.
From the New York Times review: “It is this personal story that makes her mix of memoir and history . . . so absorbing as she returns home to interview family and friends about a past that many would rather leave there.”

9780062351494The World’s Largest Man by Harrison Scott Key
A hilarious (and sometimes heartbreaking) memoir about a bookish son’s relationship with his testosterone-fueled father. Although Key is a gifted humorist, The World’s Largest Man is not a nonstop laugh riot. At its heart, it’s a story about love and acceptance. Much of the book is heartbreaking and poignant. Key succeeds in showing us the contradictory aspects of his father’s deeply flawed personality — a personality that turns out to be a greater influence on him than he had ever imagined. Perfect for fans of Pat Conroy.
From the Florida Times-Union review: “The first part of this memoir by Savannah College of Art and Design professor Harrison Scott Key will have you laughing out loud. The remainder may bring you to tears . . . Key laments the lost art of Southern story-telling, one he believes has gone the way of the family farm, but once you read The World’s Largest Man, you’ll realize he may be a tad premature.”

Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris
Much more than a copy editor, Norris is a delightfully wicked and witty writer. She’s been on staff at the New Yorker since 1978, upholding the magazine’s notoriously high standards. Her memoir is sprinkled with grammar advice, as well as plenty of gossipy tidbits. I enjoyed every page, and learned a few things besides.
From the New Republic review: “Norris’s very funny, lucid, and lively new book” is  “part memoir, part language guide, and part personal account of life at the New Yorker.”

Which books this year have you loved that haven’t received their share of attention?