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Leigh Newman (186 posts)
Each week, we'll be letting you know about the new releases the editors of O and Oprah.com couldn't stop reading. This week, we're obsessing over the romantic new novel:
By Alex Capus
When "a small grey figure wearing a bright red foulard" disrupts the funeral for respected Parisian civil servant Léon Le Gall—father of three, grandfather of 12, great-grandfather of four—at the venerable Notre Dame Cathedral, a family secret unravels. Seventy-four years prior, in the spring of 1918, while cycling to his new job in the village of Deauville, Léon had spontaneously raced a gap-toothed girl on a rusty, squeaky bike. Despite her damaged equipment, the girl in question, a certain young Louise Janvier, soundly beat him. Thus began a bewitchment—and an unrequited, lifelong love story. A near-fatal explosion during World War I separated the two, and years passed until they found one another again, only to be separated by World War II, not to mention spouses, children and assorted other complications, including one with a delicate box of tartes aux fraises. Interestingly enough, it's not the anxiety of how these two will ever be reunited—you somehow just know they will—but the eccentric charm of the novel itself that keeps you tearing through the pages. Capus' light, playful touch makes everything feel as if touched by an invisible French-speaking Mary Poppins, whether he's poking fun at a busybody landlord eating calf liver with onion or spinning up a description of Louise's polka-dot blouse. What results is a winsome bonbon of a novel in which "The End" feels like an unexpected and unfairly realistic awakening.
Each week, we'll be letting you know about the new releases the editors of O and Oprah.com couldn't stop reading. This week, we're obsessing over the short-story collection:
The News from Spain
By Joan Wickersham
A woman who's been married for 26 years—and whose husband has just had an affair—connects with an old friend on the eve of his wedding to a woman he doesn't love. The middle-aged owner of a bookstore tries to balance two deep and demanding attachments: a feverish reconnection with her elderly, ailing mother and a wild romance with a male customer. In each of these seven piercing stories, author Joan Wickersham reveals uncanny and complex parallels that occur when very different people love each other under very similar circumstances. What ostensibly links the tales is that somewhere along the line, the characters receive news from Spain. That news can be metaphorical (one twosome receives theirs via the wind rushing through a seashell on a beach) or realistic (a young bride is informed of her husband's death in Madrid). Furthermore, the stories all feature the same title, "The News from Spain," because each one is—in subtle, structural ways—a retelling of the previous tale. This tight organization displays a virtuosic control by the author, but the more compelling triumph is Wickersham's emotional cannonball into every single one of her characters. The masterpiece of the collection comes on page 79, when she explores the relationship between a paralyzed ex-ballerina and her gay caretaker, Malcolm. Malcolm's boyfriend is working in Europe, and so is the ex-ballerina's husband. Neither Malcolm nor his charge is sure whether his or her respective partner still wishes to be with him or her. The doubts and tenderness they share with each other as they stay at home, monitoring the mail without ever openly discussing their private feelings, are excruciating—in the best ways, ones that only the finest fiction can create, because you, the reader, feel as much or more than anyone on the page, be it the private, searing heartache or the over-the-top, sloppy happiness that so often happens in real-life love.
Write your own life story
17 unforgettable books to read this month
Each week, we'll be letting you know about the new releases the editors of O and Oprah.com couldn't stop reading. This week, we're enthralled by the newly rediscovered memoir:
Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler
By Trudi Kanter
Who doesn't love buried treasure, especially when it's of the literary variety? Part love story and part intimate history of the Nazis' 1938 arrival in Vienna, Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler was originally released—and promptly forgotten—in 1984. Wandering through a bookshop a few years ago, a British editor discovered the out-of-print memoir and decided to republish it. What makes the book so instantly mesmerizing is Trudi Kanter herself, who fashioned sentences just the way she fashioned hats as a milliner in late 1930s Vienna—each a dazzling, delicate object of delight. When Hitler overruns Austria, there is plenty of tension to draw the story forward: Jews are forced to wash the sidewalks with acid, her husband, Walter, is hunted by the SS, and Kanter must find visas that will allow them to escape to England. But what distinguishes this particular tale is the lavish portrait of Vienna just before the war, back when people went to cafés for "elevenses, delicate snacks and pastries with cream," and Sunday afternoon dates took place in forested gardens under chestnut trees. Her yearning for this vanished life creates the kind of dark, dreamy melody that causes you to fall for this lost Vienna too. And yet, Kanter is aware of what this era was built on. "The poor were getting poorer; the rich, richer," she announces in retrospect. In 1935, "hats became smaller and smaller" until "a feather and a sequin was a hat." In 1938, that age of decadence ends with the arrival of the Nazis. Kanter escapes the atrocities in her hometown but not its devastating losses—including her own young, dazzled way of looking at the world from that time when, as she describes, "Kisses fly in all directions. I try to catch them in my green butterfly net."
October's absolutely, positively must-read books
Surprise your book club...with a stranger
Each week, we'll be letting you know about the new releases the editors of O and Oprah.com couldn't stop reading. This week, we're enthralled by the page-turning novel:
It's Fine by Me
By Per Petterson
Novels about teenager angst can sometimes sound, well...teenage. Not so in the case of It's Fine by Me by Norwegian writer Per Petterson, who previously wrote the haunting, spare Out Stealing Horses. In this newly translated novel (courtesy of Don Bartlett), he follows the struggles of Audun Sletten, a 13-year-old boy who supports his mother by delivering newspapers. Having recently moved to town, this family of two remains slightly lost. Audun makes one friend (a classmate), as does his mother (a lover). But the majority of their time is spent reflecting on the violence that Audun's father created in their old home, at one point shooting a pistol at the ceiling while 2-year-old Audun crawled around on the floor screaming. Like so many who grow up with chaos, Audun tries to make up all kinds of elaborate, even slightly comic rules to prevent the same thing from happening again. "You must never drink alone," he says, "never drink on Sundays, never drink before seven o'clock and if you do, it has to be on a Saturday. If you're hungover, you go for a walk in the forest, and you must never drink the hair of the dog. Do that, and you are an alcoholic ... you are finished. Then you spend the rest of your days walking through the valley of the shadow of death. ... They give you a wide berth in the street, scurry behind the canned food when you're in the shop to buy beer. ... And then you die."
But his efforts to move on become all the more difficult when his father shows up—awakening not only memories but also new, acutely understandable fears. The tangle of this boy's mind—and the direct, graceful way it's portrayed—creates a tale that's far more adult than adolescent, one that asks the age-old question about how to deal with the past: Stay and pretend it's not happening, or run and pretend you don't care? Or...find some other way (please).
The best literary reads of the fall
Short stories for every reader
Each week, we'll be letting you know about the new releases the editors of O and Oprah.com couldn't stop reading. This Monday, we can't get enough of the gorgeously written debut novel:
By Amanda Coplin
When a lonely orchard tender shelters two young girls on the run from a cruel, vindictive pursuer, you'd expect some kind of romance to ensue. But in Amanda Coplin's lavish novel set in turn-of-the-last-century Washington State, another kind of love takes precedence—the kind that turns strangers into fellow saviors. After his mother's death and his sister's disappearance, William Talmadge has spent his whole adult life cultivating apples, pears and apricots in the remote wilderness. The two girls—Della and Jane—have left behind a childhood of unspeakable sexual abuse. Both are pregnant and wary of any human connection, preferring to sleep outside in the meadows and only coming up to the cabin porch to eat the meals Talmadge leaves for them. But when their abuser finally shows up, the two girls make a violent decision—one that alters all of their lives for decades. The exquisitely described landscapes in this tale astonish (expect "cold-embittered forests," "bright meadows thick with wildflowers" and "the dark maw of canyons") but so do the emotional lives of its characters, such as when Della tries to understand why she rides wild, untrainable horses that regularly threaten to kill her. "What she wanted was the despair," writes Coplin. "Or something else, something that lived with the despair. But the moment she found it, she failed to find what it was she wanted so badly. So she would ride again." Feeling anything just to feel something, helping somebody else with their past because you're helpless about your own, these are the kinds of complex, double-edged insights that make this book a wise and great American novel.
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Jeffrey Eugenides (The Marriage Plot): How to find your writing muse
Each week, we'll be letting you know about the new releases the editors of O and Oprah.com couldn't stop reading. This Monday, we can't get enough of the quiet, moving novel:
By Michael Kimball
The death of a parent is always complex, but it's even more so when a parent has been tough to forgive while living. In this tender, gorgeous novel, Michael Kimball explores how we try to understand even the most difficult family members. The book begins when 38-year-old Daniel goes home to clean out his deceased father's apartment. Big Ray has passed at home in his chair from an as-yet-undetermined illness related to his obesity. Through illuminating flashbacks, we learn about Big Ray's history and marriage (and later divorce) to Daniel's mother, as well as Daniel's childhood. What makes this book so moving isn't raw, graphic violence (physical abuse is described), but the nuanced and honest portrait of Daniel's feelings about his father—his attempts to relate to Big Ray by playing poker, his compassion and disgust for the challenges of his father's size, even his need to know what TV program his father was watching when he died.
Why this rings so true is the conflict in it all. This is how human relationships often play out, especially when it comes to family. We love even those we shouldn't. We love them even as we dislike them to the point of revulsion. "For most of my life, I have been afraid of my father," Daniel says. "I was afraid to be a person without a father, but I also felt relieved he was dead. Everything about my father was complicated like that."
Super reads for this September
Fast fictional mood boosters
The end of summer—not unlike the arrival of a 40th birthday—always makes me think of time. June, July and August seem to move on their own emotional clock, one that has a few different speeds: slow when it comes to hot afternoons, quick when it comes to a week of vacation, lightning-fast when it comes to considering the season as a whole in those last few final days of its fruition.
A friend of mine named Sam once described the three months right after the birth of his daughter as both "fast and slow at the same time." I knew what he meant: everything stops for a newborn and everything blurs by. This is why time is so fascinating. Its progress is so brazenly dependent on how we experience it. It can suspend and race. It can sludge by and whisk by and vanish completely—concurrently. Which is why I so liked seeing this video I found on The Laughing Squid.
Note how the clip only lasts just over a minute. But it seems as if it lasts for much, much longer. Three whole fat balloons bounce by after all, over and over. If I were the kind of person who uploaded videos onto her phone, I would keep this one close by, for all those dark horrible moments when I realize that my son's birthday was nine—not two—months ago or that my mother sold our old house 20—not five years—ago, at which point I scream to myself "Wait! Stop! It's all going so fast!"
Because, as odd as it may sound, the water balloon may be the only rival to the human brain, when it comes to slowing down time. Be each rubber ball manipulated by cameras (as in: here) or tossed towards our heads (as in: the park), these wonderfully lumbersome, cumbersome objects make us realize just how long 60 seconds can last. All for the price of 5 cent a (sorry) a pop.
Martha Beck manages time
Ways to love your life before the end of summer
Each week, we'll be letting you know about new releases the editors of O and Oprah.com couldn't stop reading. This Monday, we're swooning over:
The Dog Stars
By Peter Heller
There have been some beautifully written and truly upsetting end-of-the-world books recently—The Age of Miracles and Zone One come to mind—but Peter Heller's The Dog Stars has put a fresh twist on the genre. In this quiet, meditative novel, Hig, the main character, has lost his wife and everyone in his family due to a flu epidemic that has killed most of the population of the United States. He now lives with his dog and a survivalist neighbor on an abandoned airstrip that's regularly attacked by roving bands of very scary, violent scavengers. Despite the grimness of his life, Hig manages to see the beauty in his surroundings, and it's his voice that keeps you entranced, with vivid details like "the smell of running water, of cold stone, of fir and spruce, like the sachets my mother used to keep in the sock drawer."
There is still one loss that Hig has to bear, and the grief over this sends him flying in his single-prop plane into the wilderness without enough gas to return. Brilliantly, this isn't the end of the story, because it's the people he meets when he least expects to who change everything, proving a truth we know from our everyday nonfictional lives: Even when it seems like all the humans in the world are only out for themselves, there are always those few who prove you absolutely wrong—in the most surprising of ways.
Beach reads for the last two weeks of summer
The best books for kids
Words are so wonderful. We use them all day long, and everybody knows what they mean. What always surprises me, though, is when you really try to sit down and describe what a word is, it's incredibly difficult. For example: cat. We all know what at cat is. But how to explain it? A short furry animal that—uh—will scratch the freckles off your face if you attempt give it the pill prescribed by the vet?
This is why the dictionary is such a glorious invention—its ability to precisely explain the complexities of our seemingly simple language. And as of yesterday, one of our favorite phrases, "Aha Moment," has made it into Merriam-Webster's Collegiate version, where it's described not just as a noun but as "a moment of sudden realization, inspiration, insight, recognition, or comprehension."
USA Today spoke with the Merriam-Webster's associate editor, Korry Stamper and found out that "aha moment" was first introduced into the lexicon almost 75 years ago and was cited in a 1939 psychology textbook. But we know who brought it into our lives:
Now when are they going to put bing-bing-bing-bing in the dictionary?
See Rihanna on Oprah's Next Chapter this Sunday
Nora Ephron's Aha Moment
The Aha Moment Hall of Fame
Each week, we'll be letting you know about new releases the editors of O and Oprah.com couldn't stop reading. This Monday, we've gone back to the days of yore (and oars) with...
Silver: Return to Treasure Island
By Andrew Motion
What would Jane Eyre look like 40 years after falling for Mr. Rochester? What kind of life would they have together? It's just this kind of question that celebrated poet Andrew Motion asks about another English classic, Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. To answer it, he's written the deft, wildly imaginative Silver: Return to Treasure Island, a story set 40 years after young Jim Hawkins has returned to England with his bounty. Devastated by the loss of his wife, he drinks himself into a stupor while halfheartedly running a small inn. Not surprisingly, his only son—also named Jim—runs away to sea with his father's old map. Accompanying him is Natty, the clever yet mysterious daughter of Long John Silver, the notorious star of Stevenson's original novel. A series of high-seas adventures ensue that include everything from booby-trapped jungles to abused captives to missing precious metals. What's so fun—and gripping—about this sequel is that, first of all, you don't have to have read Treasure Island (key details are studded throughout) and, second of all, Motion shares that wickedly delightful sense of story and language of his predecessor. Every chapter crackles with energy and action. Lies, betrayals, romance, humor—expect them all. But Motion also uses this reflection on the fictional past to comment on social issues like slavery and environmentalism, which Stevenson could not. What results is a page-turner that thoughtfully questions its own world—and makes you long for a sequel to the sequel.
Check out another 19th-century adventure, The Good Thief
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