10 Summer Paperback Picks

In the spring, I posted a list of 10 of my favorite recent books just published (or about to be published) in paperback. It’s now official summer reading season, and dozens of new paperbacks are piled high on bookstore tables. Some of these (Station Eleven) were critically and commercially successful in hardcover; some (The Blessings) didn’t get as much attention as they deserved in hardcover; and some (The Red Notebook) are brand new books, never published in hardcover.

More and more books are being published as paperback originals. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal (“The Stigma of Paperback Originals”), American publishers view the “straight to paperback” format as “an increasingly attractive option—perhaps the only option—for young authors with no track record, midcareer authors with a challenging track record and international authors being published for the first time in the U.S.” The Journal points out the paperback original is “the industry standard ‘ In Europe, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand.”

Frances Coady, formerly publisher of Picador, the paperback imprint of Macmillan, is quoted in the article as saying: “You have to ask yourself questions like, ‘Is it better to sell 5,000 or 8,000 copies in hardcover and try to reinvent the book in paperback?’—which, unless there’s some extraordinary piece of luck, is really hard to do—or ‘Is it better to sell 50,000 in a paperback original?'”

As a reader, I vote for the paperback option — especially now that paperbacks are so high-quality. Some even have fancy French flaps. Gone are the days when you cracked open a paperback only to have loose pages flutter out. And booksellers have a much easier time convincing customers to take a chance on a new author with a paperback than with a hardcover. Here are 10 books to take a chance on this summer:

9780804172448Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (hardcover 9/14; paperback 6/15)
WHAT WAS LOST IN THE COLLAPSE: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty. Twilight in the altered world, a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a parking lot in the mysteriously named town of St. Deborah by the Water, Lake Michigan shining a half mile away.

I’m surprised this book was released in paperback only nine months after it came out in hardcover. One of five finalists for the National Book Award in fiction, the post-apocalyptic novel has been a bestseller for months. Despite the acclaim, I would never have picked up this book if it hadn’t been a selection for my book group. I couldn’t imagine getting through, much less enjoying, a dystopian novel. But I truly loved every page and recommend it without reservations to anyone who reads literary fiction. I was captivated by the first chapter, which takes place during a performance of King Lear. In a New York Times interview, the author said,

I wanted to write a love letter to the modern world, and a way to write about all these things we take for granted was to write about their absence. People would want what was best about the world, and it’s subjective, but to me, that would include the plays of Shakespeare.

women-kings-260x388-1Where Women Are Kings by Christie Watson (paperback original 4/15)
They said that the wizard was something Mama had dreamed, and because she was sick in the head. But how could Mama’s dream get inside Elijah’s head? And now they told him that Mama hurt him badly. Every time he closed his eyes, he remembered and he wanted to scratch out the memory but he couldn’t. It waited there for him like a wolf under a tree.

Seven-year-old Elijah, the son of an abusive and mentally unstable Nigerian immigrant, finds refuge with Nikki and Obi in a stable home. But Elijah comes to believe he is possessed by a wizard. This heartbreaking, beautifully written story explores  foster care, childhood trauma, interracial adoption, mental illness, religious ideology, and the complex nature of parental love.

9780345807335Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher (hardcover 8/14; paperback 6/23/15)
. . . Remembering Ms. Newcombe now  — though my file drawer contains thousands of lives for which I often find myself feeling accountable — I realize I am well disposed in her favor; in fact, I thoroughly urge you to offer her a job. Why? Because as a student of literature and creative writing, Ms. Newcombe honed crucial traits that will be of use to you: imagination, patience, resourcefulness, and empathy. The reading and writing of fiction both requires and instills empathy– the insertion of oneself into the life of another.

Professor Jason Fitger’s personal life and writing career are falling apart, and he tells the story through a series of very funny letters of recommendation. “Clever” doesn’t begin to describe this novel, which is much more than a satire of academia. If you enjoyed Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, you’ll love Dear Committee Members.

9781594633881The Vacationers by Emma Straub (hardcover 5/14; paperback 6/15)
A good swimming pool could do that—make the rest of the world seem impossibly insignificant, as far away as the surface of the moon.

When a New York family spends a summer vacation in a rented house in Mallorca, things are a little too close for comfort. From the New York Times: “For those unable to jet off to a Spanish island this summer, reading The Vacationers may be the next-best thing. Straub’s gorgeously written novel follows the Post family — a food writer named Franny; her patrician husband, Jim; and their children, 28-year old Bobby and 18-year-old Sylvia — to Mallorca . . . When I turned the last page, I felt as I often do when a vacation is over: grateful for the trip and mourning its end.” I felt the same way! I’ve heard that The Rocks by Peter Nichols, just published a couple of weeks ago, is another wonderful book set in Mallorca — I can’t wait to read it.

44e1505bebb7632d9a662b978df7fc9aThe Blessings by Elise Juska (hardcover 5/14; paperback 5/15)
She thought about how it was something they would all remember forever. How this was family: to own such moments together. To experience them in all their raw shock and sadness, then get the food from the refrigerator, unwrap the crackers and fill the glasses, keep the gears turning, the grand existing beside the routine, the ordinary.

This lovely novel follows several generations of a close Irish-American family from Philadelphia, in a “deceptively simple tale that examines the foibles, disappointments and passions that tie family members together” (Publishers Weekly). The book reminded me a bit of Olive Kitteridge, since it’s a collection of linked stories. Like the PW reviewer, I felt lucky to have spent some time in the Blessings’ presence.

UnknownWe Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (hardcover 8/14; paperback 6/15)
You are not in this life to count up victories and defeats. You are in it to love and be loved.

Both an epic novel of the 20th century in America and an intimate story of a marriage and family, We Are Not Ourselves amazed me with its sympathy for its complex and flawed characters. As I was reading it, I was reminded of Alice McDermott. The New York Times reviewer remarked on the connection between the two authors: “Mr. Thomas’s narrow scope (despite a highly eventful story) and bull’s-eye instincts into his Irish characters’ fear, courage and bluster bring to mind the much more compressed style of Alice McDermott. (According to this book’s acknowledgments, she has been one of his teachers. If he wasn’t an A student then, he is now.)” Daniel Goldin, owner of Boswell Book Company put it more succinctly; he notes that McDermott’s novels are “on the slim side” and calls Matthew Thomas “Alice McDermott on steroids”.

9781908313867The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain (paperback original 3/15)
He drank some more wine, feeling he was about to commit a forbidden act. A transgression. For a man should never go through a woman’s handbag — even the most remote tribe would adhere to that ancestral rule. Husbands in loincloths definitely did not have the right to go and look for a poisoned arrow or a root to eat in their wives’ rawhide bags.

I hate to use the word “charming”, but this little jewel of a novel really is charming — and it’s not sappy. Parisian bookseller Laurent Letellier finds a woman’s handbag on the street, containing plenty of personal items — including a red notebook — but no clues to the owner’s identity. This has been one of our store’s staff and customer favorites for months — it’s the kind of book people buy in multiples to give as gifts.

9780062365590Us by David Nicholls (hardcover 10/14; paperback due 6/30/15)
. . .  And, like many men of my generation, I enjoy military history, my “Fascism-on-the-march books”, as Connie calls them. I’m not sure why we should be drawn to this material. Perhaps it’s because we like to imagine ourselves in the cataclysmic situations that our fathers and grandfathers faced, to imagine how we’d behave when tested, whether we would show our true colours and what they would be. Follow or lead, resist or collaborate?

Has Douglas and Connie’s long marriage, as she claims, run its course? A summer “grand tour” of Europe with their sullen teenage son, Albie, brings matters to a head. If a book could be described as a romantic comedy, that would be the appropriate term for this smart and delightful novel. The characters, especially Albie, will drive you crazy — just like real people.

A1Ugvdz5AnL._SL1500_The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, with introduction by David Nicholls (paperback original published in the U.S. 6/15)
A good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life, and as such it must surely be a necessary commodity.

I’m thrilled that this brilliant novel is being introduced to a new generation of American readers.  It’s about a widow who decides to open a bookshop in an isolated English village, encountering resistance from her neighbors. David Nicholls, who worked as a bookseller at Waterstones in London for several years, writes in introduction to the new edition of The Bookshop:

With typical self-deprecation, Fitzgerald called The Bookshop a “short novel with a sad ending”, which is true I suppose, but takes no account of Fitzgerald’s wit and playfulness . . . Fitzgerald’s great gift, often remarked upon, was the precision and economy of her prose . . .

It’s worth noting that Fitzgerald was a late bloomer. The New Yorker points out that The Bookshop, “published when Fitzgerald was sixty-one, announced her arrival on the literary scene.”

9780143127444The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai (hardcover 7/14; paperback 5/15)
But here at Laurelfield, there was something more in the mornings, a buzzing sensation about the whole house, as if it weren’t the servants keeping it running but some other energy. As if the house had roots and leaves and was busy photosynthesizing and sending sap up and down, and the people running through were as insignificant as burrowing beetles.

Once an artists’ colony, now a luxurious private home, the “hundred-year house” has a profound effect on its residents and visitors. Using an innovative narrative structure — the book begins at the dawn of the 21st century and travels back in time to 1900 — Rebecca Makkai draws us in to a world filled with artists, poets, academics, heirs and heiresses . . . and perhaps a ghost. I was enthralled from the first page. Makkai has a new book coming out this summer — a short story collection called Music for Wartime.

It just occurred to me that all the books on this list are fiction. There are plenty of great nonfiction books coming out this summer as well, and I’ll be highlighting those soon. Which paperbacks are you planning on picking up this summer?

10 Favorite Books of 2014 — I Couldn’t Resist Making a List

cvr9781476746586_9781476746586_lgThis is the time of year when every publication, print or online, feels obligated to publish a “Best Books” of the year list. Every year, hundreds of thousands of books are published in the United States, so it seems like an impossible task for anyone to pick 10 of the “best” books. The New York Times publishes a list of 100 notable books, and then a couple of weeks later, announces the 10 best. (I thought it was amusing that the Times initially gave All the Light We Cannot See, my favorite novel this year, a mediocre review back in May when it came out, but now has the book listed as one of its 10 Best).

These year-end lists seem to make more sense with movies. I don’t know how many movies are released each year, but I would guess that a critic could manage to see most of them. Even if a critic read a book a day, he or she would still have read a tiny fraction of the books published by major publishers each year. It’s disheartening to think about how many brilliant books are published each year that fail to receive critical acclaim or even much readership.

Authors seem to get grumpy about these lists. Ayelet Waldman, an author who is famous for airing her opinions on social media (her thoughts on the Kardashians: they are “vile scumbag pigs”), was disappointed that the New York Times didn’t include her well-reviewed novel, Love and Treasure, in its list of notable books. So she tweeted: “It’s just so f***ing demoralizing. You pour your heart into your work, you get awesome reviews, and then someone decides it’s not “notable.” I mean. Why do I bother? I could write a f***ing journal.” Charming . . .

Booksellers aren’t always crazy about ranking their favorite books. In a blog post titled Trying to Come Up With My Year’s Favorites, Daniel Goldin (Boswell and Company in Milwaukee) flatly states, “I hate making these sorts of lists.” Every year, the store publishes a year-end “Boswell Best” list, and Daniel says, “Every year, I am one of the last people to come up with my books, which sort of drives people crazy, but what can they do, as I always look very, very busy, and heck, I own the place.” Parnassus Books in Nashville (owned by author Ann Patchett) sidestepped the problem by asking 18 well-known authors what books they will be giving for the holidays this year (Writers to the Rescue: Your Favorite Authors Share Their Gift Lists.) I love that Héctor Tobar and Hampton Sides each recommend one another’s books, without knowing the other was being asked for a book recommendation.

Still, the urge to create a list of favorite books can be irresistible. For what it’s worth, here’s a list of the books I loved the most this year. What do they all have in common? To quote Maureen Corrigan of NPR, “All of the disparate books on my list contain characters, scenes or voices that linger long past the last page of their stories.”  I kept it to 10 (five nonfiction, five fiction) — unlike Corrigan, who included a dozen books on her list (Sometimes You Can’t Pick Just 10). Candidates for my list were books originally published in 2014, which eliminated some great books from 2013 (or earlier) that I read this year.

NONFICTION

9780385535373In the KIngdom of Ice by Hampton Sides
Like all the best narrative nonfiction books, In the Kingdom of Ice is much more than an enthralling account of a historical event. Sides paints a detailed picture of post-Civil War society, when many young men who missed the opportunity to fight in the war were looking for opportunities to become heroes. His engaging, and often very funny, portrayal of newspaper titan James Gordon Bennett, Jr. (backer of the voyage), shows us the increasing role of the press. He covers Native American culture in the Arctic . . . the state of scientific and geographic knowledge in the Victorian era . . . and most of all, the enormous human capacity for courage and endurance.

Deep Down Dark by Héctor Tobar
Ann Patchett’s favorite book of the year was just selected as the first book for NPR’s Morning Editions Book Club. In an NPR interview, Patchett says, “It’s a riveting story. It was riveting when we were watching it on the news, it’s riveting in the book . . .  Even though we already know they’re safe, there’s an enormous amount of suspense and tension.” The book also stands out, Patchett says, because of Tobar’s beautiful and thoughtful writing. “He’s taking on all of the big issues of life,” she says. “What is life worth? What is the value of one human life? What is faith? Who do we become in our darkest hour?”

9780062284068A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention by Matt Richtel
A groundbreaking legal case and the latest scientific research on the brain and attention combine in this compulsively readable, multi-layered story about a devastating accident affecting several families and the perils of multitasking in today’s digital world. There are no villains in Pulitzer-Prize winning author Richtel’s moving account of a young man’s journey from what the New York Times describes as a “thoughtless, inadvertent killer to denier of his own culpability to one of the nation’s most powerful spokesmen on the dangers of texting while behind the wheel.” The book isn’t preachy by any means, but the message it delivers about distracted driving is lifesaving.

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs
Robert Peace, a 2002 graduate of Yale and a product of inner-city Newark, was murdered at age 30 in a drug-related shooting. Hobbs, who was Peace’s roommate in college and who remained a close friend after graduation, has written one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a long time. Why did Peace, a brilliant young man with a promising career in scientific research, succumb to the drug trade? Hobbs thoroughly and thoughtfully examines Peace’s life in all its complexity and contradictions, with the help of Peace’s family, friends, colleagues, and teachers.cover

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown
I’m not sure if this is a self-help or a business book — at Lake Forest Book Store, we shelve it in the business section. Either way, these are categories I rarely explore.  Essentialism really resonated with me; in fact, as soon as I finished it I ordered multiple copies for gifts. McKeown’s book shows us how to shape a life that is filled with meaningful activity. The book doesn’t advocate that we abandon our electronic devices, and it doesn’t provide tips for time management or organization.  It’s a philosophical guide to setting priorities in life.

FICTION

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
It didn’t win the National Book Award, but can we hope for the Pulitzer? This is the only book I’ve ever jumped the gun on and reviewed on the blog before it was published, which I don’t think I’m supposed to do. It’s such an extraordinary book, I just couldn’t wait.

9781410468895The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
A widowed bookseller has lost his zest for life — but his life changes when two things happen: he finds a baby on his doorstep and he falls in love with his sales rep. This wonderful book is a love letter to the book business, and to reading. I loved this book so much that as soon as I finished it I reread it. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before! It lives in a stack on my nightstand along with a few other very special books.

The Headmaster’s Wife by Thomas Christopher Greene
The Headmaster’s Wife is a page-turner with very surprising plot twists, but much more than that —  it’s a beautifully written exploration of marriage, friendship, grief, and mental illness. What do we owe to those we love? What actions are unforgivable? What is the breaking point from which a person can’t recover? Greene said the questions he asked himself when writing the book were, “What happens if you don’t hold it together? What happens if life just completely falls apart?”

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
I think this debut novel, the story of more than 50 years in the life of Eileen Tumulty Leary and her family, is a masterpiece. I read the book months ago, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. As I was reading it, I was reminded of Alice McDermott. The New York Times reviewer remarked on the connection between the two authors: “Mr. Thomas’s narrow scope (despite a highly eventful story) and bull’s-eye instincts into his Irish characters’ fear, courage and bluster bring to mind the much more compressed style of Alice McDermott. (According to this book’s acknowledgments, she has been one of his teachers. If he wasn’t an A student then, he is now.)”9780804137744

I Shall Be Near to You by Erin Lindsay McCabe
A headstrong young woman disguises herself as a man, enlists in the Union Army, and follows her new husband into battle in this beautiful story of love and war. Based on letters written by Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, this is historical fiction at its best. My husband (a Civil War buff) enjoyed I Shall Be Near to You as much as I did, and his usual taste in Civil War books runs to long, detailed biographies of Civil War generals.

What books are in your top 10?

 

 

 

10 Books to Read This Fall

I can’t believe it’s already the last day of September. It’s been a glorious month here in Chicago, and I’m savoring every minute of the warmth and sunshine. For what it’s worth, the Farmers’ Almanac is predicting another frigid and snowy winter in the Midwest. All the more reason to have a pile of good books waiting to be read! Here are 10 books either just published or due to be published this fall to add to your list.

9780062306814The Miniaturist (Jessie Burton)
In 17th century Amsterdam, a young woman marries a wealthy businessman, who gives her a replica of their canal house — opening the door to many strange happenings. The book was inspired by an actual cabinet house owned by Petronella Oortman — which I was lucky enough to see recently in the Rijksmuseum.  The Guardian says it is “a fabulously gripping read” that will “appeal to fans of Girl With a Pearl Earring and The Goldfinch“, which think describes it perfectly. (Although I dislike the word “read” used as a noun . . .)9780062336019

Gutenberg’s Apprentice (Alix Christie)
Author Christie, a letterpress printer, contends that Gutenberg’s success was due to his gifted young apprentice, Peter Schoeffer. According to the New York Times, “Christie spotlights intriguing parallels between 15th-century Europe and the digital media of the 21st-century world.” As a lover of the printed page, I can’t wait to read this one.

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace (Jeff Hobbs)
Robert Peace escaped the slums of Newark, New Jersey to attend Yale University — where he was author Hobbs’s roommate. He died at age 30, the victim of a gang-related drug assassination. The book has been receiving a lot of acclaim; the Los Angeles Times says: “In the end, The Short Tragic Life of Robert Peace is a book that is as much about class as it is race. Peace traveled across America’s widening social divide, and Hobbs’s book is an honest, insightful and empathetic account of his sometimes painful, always strange journey.” (Two other excellent books on this topic are The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore and A Hope in the Unseen by Ron Suskind.)

9780062284068A Deadly Wandering (Matt Richtel)
A groundbreaking legal case and the latest scientific research on the brain and attention combine in this compulsively readable page-turner about a devastating accident affecting several families and the perils of multitasking in today’s digital world. There are no villains in Pulitzer-Prize winning author Richtel’s moving story of heartbreak and healing. I can’t recommend this book strongly enough.

What the Lady Wants (Renee Rosen)
Rosen’s first historical novel, Dollface, is an entertaining and enlightening excursion back to Prohibition-era Chicago.  I’m anxious to read her next book, set in the Gilded Age, about department store tycoon Marshall Field and his love affair with Delia Canton. There will be opportunities in Chicago to meet Renee Rosen, hear her read from the book, and ask questions; details to come.  (Due November 4)

9780307700315Some Luck (Jane Smiley)
Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize for A Thousand Acres, a modern-day retelling of King Lear.  She returns to Iowa farm country with her new novel about 33 years in the lives of Walter and Rosanna Langdon and their five very different children. Each chapter covers a single year, beginning in 1920 soon after Walter’s return from World War I. The book is the first installment in a trilogy about the Langdons, and about the transformation of American culture and society in the 20th and 21st centuries. According to Publishers Weekly, “Smiley conjures a world—time, place, people—and an engaging story that makes readers eager to know what happens next.”

A Sudden Light (Garth Stein)
The Art of Racing in the Rain is one of my favorite books, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting Stein’s new novel. This one is not narrated by a dog — instead, by a 14-year-old boy, Trevor Riddell. Trevor’s bankrupt, recently separated father brings him and his sister Serena to their grandfather’s mansion in order to move the old man to a nursing home and sell the property for much-needed cash. However, Trevor discovers that there may be a ghost in the house, and secrets in his family’s history, that will prevent his father from carrying out his plan. I’m in the middle of the book now, and loving it . . . and that is surprising, because I hate ghosts.

we-are-not-ourselves-9781476756660_lgWe Are Not Ourselves (Matthew Thomas)
I think this debut novel, the story of more than 50 years in the life of Eileen Tumulty Leary and her family, is a masterpiece. I read the book months ago, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. As I was reading it, I was reminded of Alice McDermott. The New York Times reviewer remarked on the connection between the two authors: “Mr. Thomas’s narrow scope (despite a highly eventful story) and bull’s-eye instincts into his Irish characters’ fear, courage and bluster bring to mind the much more compressed style of Alice McDermott. (According to this book’s acknowledgments, she has been one of his teachers. If he wasn’t an A student then, he is now.)”

Five Days Left (Julie Lawson Timmer)
If you’re in the mood for a good cry, this is the book for you. Two people have five days left with the people they love most. I can’t really tell you more than that, except that if you read it on public transportation, make sure you have some Kleenex handy. It will definitely get your book club talking, although if you are the one who recommends it, you may be accused of suggesting “depressing” reading material.

Nora Webster (Colm Tóibín)9781439138335
I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Irish author Tóibín, especially Brooklyn and The Master, and have been hearing wonderful things about his new novel. Set in his hometown in Wexford County, Nora Webster is the story of a widow raising four children in Ireland during the 1960s and early 1970s.  The Chicago Tribune says: “There is no flash and dazzle in Tóibín’s writing, just unobtrusive control, profound intelligence and peerless empathy that is almost shocking in its penetration.” I’m looking forward to hearing Tóibín speak at the Chicago Humanities Festival on November 9. (Due October 7)

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