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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WWW Wednesday — Vacation Version

FullSizeRenderIt’s WWW Wednesday, where I (sort of) answer these questions:

What did you just finish reading? What are you currently reading? What do you think you’ll read next?

I’m visiting my mother (and enjoying some beautiful weather) in Hilton Head, South Carolina, so it’s been a treat to be able to read outside. Yesterday, I spent some time on the beach, where it was fun to see real-life “beach reading” — lots of people stretched out on the sand, reading trashy books and magazines. My unscientific survey showed that 90% of the beach readers found their reading material at a local grocery store (mass market paperbacks by Danielle Steel, David Baldacci, James Patterson, Debbie Macomber) or on the shelves of their rental house (The Red Tent, The Black Swan, The Hot Zone,The Shack).

9781594633669MThe other 10% — including my niece — were reading The Girl on the Train. (One of them was reading an ARC, and I was dying to ask her how she came by it, but I thought it was time for me to mind my own business. People were probably already wondering why I kept walking by and craning my neck to see the titles of their books.) My favorite beach reader was a little boy who dug a big hole in the sand (possibly trying to reach China), then climbed in, and curled up with Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief.

the-childrens-crusade-9781476710457_lgNobody seemed interested in what my husband and I were reading, but if they had been, they would have seen that I was engrossed in The Children’s Crusade, by Ann Packer. I’ll be posting a full review of this wonderful book, which focuses on four siblings raised by a loving, attentive father and a neglectful mother. In today’s New York Times review, Katie Kitamura says:

How do we become who we are? There are many ways of approaching this slipperiest of questions, from the experimental rigor of cognitive neuroscience to the teasing excavations of psychoanalysis. It is, of course, natural territory for the novel, and though The Children’s Crusade follows one nuclear family, its scope is broadened by its attempts at an answer . . . After a brief prologue, in which the origin myth of the family is related in some of Packer’s best and most rapturous prose, childhood emerges as the true sacred space of the novel — not because it represents innocence, but because it might contain the key to decoding the adult self.

9780767919418Jeff’s beach book was One Summer: America 1927, by Bill Bryson, which he’s thoroughly enjoying — even though he typically reads serious history books, the kind that have lots of footnotes. He’s been sharing fun facts with me as he goes along — for instance, that the 1920s were “the golden age of reading”. Some reviewers tend to be a little snobby about Bryson. The Washington Post disdainfully compares One Summer to a Danielle Steel novel, a Cracker Barrel pamphlet, and CliffsNotes. Lighten up, Washington Post!  A lot of us may be part of that “mass-circulation audience” who enjoy and “need more accessible, easy-to-read history”.

9781605986883My mother is not a fan of the beach, but she has plenty of comfortable reading spots at home. She’s reading and enjoying The Listener, by Rachel Basch, which I absolutely loved. Unlike so many novels I’ve read recently, every sentence in it is necessary. I feel like I read many novels that are slightly bloated . . . just a little too long, with elements that don’t contribute to the development of the plot or characters. The Listener is about our need to be known. A psychologist, the widowed father of two grown daughters, treats a college student who is confused about his gender identity. He becomes romantically involved with the mother of this student — without knowing she is the mother of his patient. Complications ensue, involving his daughters and their shared past. The resolution is not pat and tidy, but it’s perfect. I thought Tricia Tierney’s comment was apt: “Rachel is one of the smartest writers around with such a finely honed craft delivered with heart. Don’t you find yourself re-reading her sentences?” (Tricia manages events at the Westport, Connecticut Barnes and Noble and blogs at Tricia Tierney’s Blog.)

1000H-9780805095159It’s time for me to pack up and head back to Chicago — currently cloudy and 41 degrees. On the plane, I think I’ll finish reading Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. There’s no better time to contemplate mortality than while flying above the clouds, right? I can also indulge in a favorite travel activity, walking up and down the aisle to see what people are reading. Too bad for me that e-readers have made it much more difficult for me to snoop. I saw very few e-readers at the beach, by the way — must have been the fear of sand and water damage. I’d love to know what you’re reading — on the beach, at home, or anywhere!