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Leigh Newman (186 posts)
Every Monday, we'll be letting you know about new releases the editors at O and Oprah.com couldn't stop reading. This week, we're in love with the blockbuster novel:
By John Irving
Imagine a small town in rural America where Grandpa is a cross-dresser, the town female librarian isn't female, and the 15-year-old hero, Billy Abbott, is adamantly bisexual. Sounds a lot like...most real-life small towns, except that in John Irving's fictional version, everyone ends up admitting their various preferences (at last), and all of them perform regularly at an impossibly pastoral village theater that shuns crowd-pleasing musicals in favor of Shakespeare productions. What transforms the story from a predictable novel about private secrets into the story of a young man understanding his identity in the context of his family and past is Irving himself. Warmth, love, humor and the unexpected are displayed by just about every character, even as they move on to larger, more urban pastures. The tone of the latter chapters deepens and darkness as Billy grows up and the age of AIDS-related dying begins, but the scenes astonish, full of the kind of compassion and wisdom that made A Prayer for Owen Meany such a life-changing experience. "We are formed by what we desire," announces Billy Abbot at the beginning of the book. But we are also formed by what we make and what we lose—including, sometimes, those we love.
New Thrillers That Do More Than Chill
Mysteries for the Thinking Reader
Every Monday, we'll be letting you know about new releases the editors at O and Oprah.com couldn't stop reading. This week, we're in love with the intricate, sensitive historical novel:
By Jo Baker
What is the legacy of four generations of loss? For Americans without a direct link to the current conflicts overseas or who get their war news from TV and Twitter, the question can seem like a distant concept. Oddly enough, however, this tightly crafted English novel, tracing a family from World War I to Iraq, brings it to life. Jo Baker's story begins with William, a young factory worker, on the eve of the Battle of Gallipoli, and then skips forward in time to his now-adult son, Billy, who serves on D-Day. The action, though, focuses less on the battlefield and more on the parallel lives of their two families—the everyday hunger (when the men go missing, so does the paycheck), the undiscussed loneliness and extramarital affairs, the overwhelming desire of wives for something both as mundane and luxurious as a tube of red lipstick. In the '50s, Billy's son, Will, grows up in the peacetime and succeeds as an academic at Oxford, only to fail as a husband due to his penchant for coeds. "You know what your problem is, boy?" says his now elderly father. "You never had a war to go to." Out of context, this may sound like a callous comment, but considering the layered perspectives throughout the narrative, which include everyone from mothers-in-law talking to the ghosts of their dead husbands to an 8-year-old boy aching for the love of his father, but unable to get it, it reflects what has been handed down in this family—grief and silence and private forbearing, as long-past violence stains every present-day interaction. Hope arrives at the end of the novel with Billie—a daughter named after the preceding William, Billy and Will—an artist who is unable to keep her little half brother from volunteering in Iraq. While in Malta (the last place her great-grandfather was seen alive, though she doesn't know it), looking at a painting of the beheading of Saint John the Baptist, she says about the dying man on the canvas (and perhaps about the difficult, defining moments in all our lives): "You can't switch it off. You can't walk away. You have to look."Read More
Thrillers to make you think, love, dream and scream
Every Monday, we'll be letting you know about new releases the editors at O and Oprah.com couldn't stop reading. This week, we've been moved by the Chinese memoir:
The Little Red Guard
By Wenguang Huang
Memoirs are tricky to write, mostly because life just isn't that tidy. Events don't happen in the most compelling order, and people don't realize what they're supposed to in time to save the plot. In The Little Red Guard, however, Wenguang Huang manages to tell such a riveting, well-crafted story that it could be a novel were it not for the subtitle clarifying that erroneous assumption. Huang begins with his grandmother (by family memoir, he really means family; you get to know everyone, not just the narrator). She's afraid of being cremated and insists that her son, Huang's father, bury her the traditional way, complete with plot and coffin. Unfortunately, she lives in 1970s China, and the law dictates that everyone in town must be cremated to save land for the new apartment buildings needed for the new families to work in the new factories. Thus begins a struggle—at times comic and at times heartbreaking—which pits an elderly individual and the people who love her against an entire society. Some of the details of life in China at this period ring familiar (one example: the kids singing catchy tunes like "Down with Confucius, Oppose Old Rituals"), but the book roams backward and forward in time so adroitly that there are plenty of fresh and unforgettable revelations (for example, the description of the 1950s when, lacking a currency, the government paid people in sacks of flour). For anyone who has felt that they've given a bit too much of their comfort to their family, this book presents a new question: Did you spend more than a decade sleeping next to Grandma's coffin? Now that's an act that demonstrates not just respect—or gratitude or the crucial understanding that this will all make a great story much, much later—but also love.
Life rules from our favorite heroines
Please don't say this in your book club...please
Every Monday, we'll be letting you know about new releases the editors at O and Oprah.com couldn't stop reading. This week, we're floored by the engrossing new examination of our nation:
by Eric Rutkow
It's always interesting to examine the large and familiar through the lens of the small and unexpected. This is what made Mark Kurlansky's Cod so exciting: It revisited the history of the world through the harvesting of these large, white-fleshed fish. In American Canopy, first-time author Eric Rutkow views the discovery, survival and rise of the United States as a function of its trees—trees used to build royal masts for royal English ships, trees used to build turn-of-the-last-century rails across America, trees that did not catch fire during World War II, despite Japanese air balloons sent to do just that. In each case, trees are the resource that defines the economy, politics, culture and even national identity.
His argument is interesting, of course (who doesn't love trees?). But it's Rutkow's eye for storytelling that keeps even those who don't normally read histories zipping through the pages. The book begins with a heartbreaking account of one of the world's oldest trees, a bristlecone pine that lived almost 5,000 years, "an organism already wizen when Columbus reached Hispaniola, middle-aged when Caesar ruled Rome, and starting life when the Sumerians created mankind's first written language," which was chopped down in 1964 because a grad student couldn't figure out how to examine its rings. Plenty of other tree lore is debunked and detailed: Washington's love, not of cherry trees, but of dogwoods and sassafras on his Mount Vernon estate; Johnny Appleseed's (nay, John Chapman's) cultivation of orchards for alcoholic ciders, not apples; Benjamin Franklin's efforts to save trees with the invention a super-efficient woodstove that no one used, preferring the huge (read: 4 by 8 feet) stone hearths of the day which "lost about 90 percent of the heat out the chimney"; FDR's failed attempt to transform the Great Plains into a forest. But equally fascinating and certainly more moving are the words of lesser-known folk like the 16th-century Englishman Richard Hakluyt, who saw the potential of such a resource, even if he was never able to make it across the ocean to see "the sweet woodes ... and divers other kindes of goodly trees" of the soon-to-be colonized New World.
One very funny writer faces down her anxiety—in a cemetery
Novels that take you far, far, far away
Which is why this profile on Twisted Sifter of 35 modern secret passageways that you can build in our own home so perplexed me. Who doesn't love the idea of nook and niches, of creeping through a cobwebbed tunnel into the hidden wing of the English manor house?
The problem is most of the passages here look built for the incomprehensibly rich, complete with built-in vaults and wine cellars. (What in the heck people feel the need to hide so extravagantly: pit bulls, grenades, a doomsday supply of antibiotics?) It's enough to make anybody say,"Hey! Secret passages are not going to happen at my house! No way! Not even if we had the space and the faux-rock wall!"
But now you're a person who doesn't like secret passages, a sad state of affairs, because that probably lumps you with people who don't like antique globes or fairy tales or invisible pirate friends for lonely children.
At least, this is where I found myself. Until I realized that all the magic had vanished—poof—not because of seeing these high-falutin' passages, but what because of what my imagination stored inside them, what I think of as my "read all about it" imagination that feeds off news headlines and creepy true crime novels.
But I have another imagination, we all do, one that could fill that mahogany-lined secret passage with hundreds of live orange trees or bags of feathers or cans of cheese spray....or nothing at all, leaving a place to sit and daydream. The imagination itself is secret passage, if you think about it, either to the best or worst parts of ourselves. And that's where we have to focus our attention, on that gateway between ourselves and the world that has no steel reinforcements or unbreakable codes—or limits.
Think yourself free
Every Monday, we'll be letting you know about new releases the editors at O and Oprah.com couldn't stop reading. This week, we're floored by the subtle, moving story collection:
This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You
by Jon McGregor
When you're reading a book of short stories, it's pretty common to dog-ear the corner of the story (or two or three) that really wins you over, that really makes you stop and say, "Ouch!" or "Wow!" or "Dear god, it really is all about forgiveness, isn't it?" This week, of the 29 stories in Jon McGregor's collection, I dog-eared 26. Let's add that I was not in the mood for short stories. I was in the mood to sit down with a nice thick novel for a few weeks and make friends. Further, the stories took place in rural, isolated eastern England. It is April and, in my world, still slightly chilly. I would have liked to read about someplace hot and lazy, a land of never-ending guacamole. And yet...each tale in this slim, elegant book does something most of us wish would happen to us in real life: It stops us in a humdrum moment and reveals how that small, unnoticed sliver of time can illuminate an entire life.
Some examples: A long-married man decides to tell his wife about a hit-and-run accident that happened on their first date. A widow realizes an old flame has come to visit not to woo her but to ask for money (and something even more offensive). Plenty of other authors can pinpoint these moments too. But McGregor has a casual yet audacious way of dropping you in at exactly the right pause, as if you were falling into water without the sound of a splash, then carried briskly along. When a father comes to see his son's school play, the action begins: "They told him he wasn't allowed on the school premises. They didn't even use the word 'allowed' to start off with, they just said they thought it would be better if he didn't come in." We readers don't know who "they" are, but we quickly find out—and we also quickly find out why he should not go inside (the reason is painful, so please prepare yourself).
Some of the stories are as straightforward as ones you might tell yourself; others explore the unexpected, like the one where a page is narrated by the husband, and the opposite is narrated by the wife, who is trying to write a poem. However, the great triumph here is that nothing confuses or distracts or even seems out of the ordinary. Booker-nominated McGregor proceeds with such clarity and such confidence in our daily lives. No houses burn down, and no vampires seduce the local teenage beauty. The magic here is in the field or sea or window, starting with the first two-page masterpiece in which a husband listens to his wife exclaiming about the colors of fall, colors they have discussed over and over during a lifetime together—and he feels for her hand and holds it, saying, "But tell me again."
The April O magazine book list!
Novels that will get you outside
Every Monday, we'll be letting you know about new releases the editors at O and Oprah.com couldn't stop reading. This week, we're obsessed with the gripping, beautiful novel:
The Land of Decoration
by Grace McCleen
"I know about faith," says 10-year-old Judith McPherson. "The world in my room is made out of it. Out of faith I stitched the clouds. Out of faith I cut the moon and stars." The world she speaks of is a diorama of the universe (including miniature planets, oceans, factories, rabbits and dragons) that she's built in her room out of orange peels, soda caps, twigs, pipe cleaners and other odds and bits. She calls this world the Land of Decoration after a passage in Ezekiel, and it's there that she plays the imaginary games that all children play: making snow fall, sailing hot-air balloons over the rooftops. But Judith isn't like other children. Her mother is dead, and she and her father belong to a strict religious sect that believes the Armageddon is just around the corner. School, naturally, is an endless loop of teasing, spitballs and other emotional torments until one particularly committed bully focuses on her—turning this book into a much larger, very adult story about violence and fear. In many ways, it's suspense—is Judith going to get hurt?—that keeps you tearing though the pages (be prepared for the complete and total devastation of your social life; once you pick up this novel, you will not be able to do anything until you finish). However, even if you were not afraid for her, you would want to spend the rest of your life listening to her speak. The differences that make her a pariah at school are the differences that make her a delight on the page. This isn't a child like the other children in books—say, the unbelievably smart ones who can lecture on astronomy and rare stamps. This is a regular old child—a loving, confused, tenderhearted little person, who is trying, like all of us, to make some sense of out of this life. Her mistakes along the way will sometimes make you laugh or wince—for example, when she believes God is talking to her—but they will also makes you gasp with delight because, as she says, "Faith is like imagination. It sees something where there is nothing, it takes a leap, and suddenly you are flying."
The one experience every reader needs to have
The star of The Hunger Games talks books
Every Monday, we'll be letting you know about new releases the editors at O and Oprah.com couldn't stop reading. This week, we've been knocked to our knees by the delightful illustrated essay collection:
The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds With Common Birds
by Julie Zickefoose
"For as long as I can remember," writes Julie Zickfoose, "I've been fascinated by birds. Some of my earliest memories are of...being dazzled by their colors and sounds." Interestingly enough, you don't have to care all that much about birds to get sucked into her dreamy illustrated stories of bluebirds and phoebes, titmice and ospreys. In delicate, subtle strokes of the pen and brush, she reveals a lifetime of backyard friendships—moments spent observing a bluebird couple or listening to the calls of scarlet tanagers. Along the way, she not only endows each bird with human-like personality traits, enough so to bond you with her feathered companions, but also offers up some thoughtful commentary on our human inner lives, such as what she says while attempting to rescue a family of swallows from a rat snake, "I've never much liked catching large snakes over my head while standing on a ladder. Maybe there's a word for that little cluster of phobias. Stepnophidiophobia works; I just coined it. If what one is frightened of is truly, ridiculously scary, is it fair to call one's fear a phobia?" Zickefoose has spent a lifetime observing this particular corner of the domestic-wild world, and she did not escape these experience without gaining both wisdom and humor—about mates, about our obligation to help others or set them free, about loss and about thankfulness. "What does a bird know about gratitude?" she asks, speaking of sick white-throated sparrow she nursed back to health. "I can only say he followed me singing and, in singing, touched an inarticulate place in my heart."
Mysteries for the thinking reader
Poetry for the hard, dark days.
Every Monday, we'll be letting you know about new releases the editors at O and Oprah.com couldn't stop reading. This week, we've been knocked to our knees by the dazzling inventive novel:
By Heidi Julavits
"This is not just a story about how you can become sick by knowing people. This is a story about how other people can become sick by knowing you," says Julie Severn, the young narrator of Heidi Julavits's new novel—one in which paranormal powers are taken as (somewhat) normal. The action starts at birthday party for Julia Severn's colllege teacher, a powerful, successful psychic named Madame Ackermann who attacks Julie with a wolf-like ball of energy that leaves her with crippling headaches, insomnia and a variety of other ills that cause her to drop out of school. But when she seeks refuge in a gorgeously imagined nursing home for victims of paranormal attacks and women recovering from plastic surgery (a brilliant parallel by Julavits—both types of patients have holes in their souls), Juile begins to wonder just who is attacking whom. A parade of mysterious characters enter and exit, including an aging paparazzi photographer, a disfigured cosmetic heiress and a ruthless, possibly deranged video artist. The many characters can, at times, bog down the story. All is saved, however by the magnetic power of the author's voice (Can words have charisma? Hers do). It keeps you spellbound, moving across the globe and time, at last weaving the final strands of the plot into an unexpected, insightful finale—one that owes much to regular old life in the present tense. This a fantasical world, yes, but one that's so relevant and moving because it has a point for us all. Psychics in The Vanishers don't predict the future; they regress into the past and often misunderstand what they see. Why? Because that's where the damage lies, and also the answers, providing that the psychic in question uses one other power—self-awareness.
The one memoir O mag editors can't put down!
Longing for adventure? Read one.
Every Monday, we'll be letting you know about new releases the editors at O and Oprah.com couldn't stop reading. This week, we've been riveted by the subtle, compelling novel:
by Peter Cameron
In the standard domestic drama, a poor lonely girl comes to work for a rich lonely man, and the two fall in love, a la Jane Eyre. The thought-provoking Coral Glynn begins in just this way. It's right after World War, and Coral comes to nurse the dying mother of Major Clement Hart—an Englishman whose leg and confidence have been badly damaged on the battlefield. The Major quickly falls in love with Coral, and the two decide to get married, until a gruesome murder in the neighboring woods sends Coral fleeing back to London. For a few pages, it seems as if this book may turn into a Gothic thriller: how will the two reunite and who exactly is the killer? But Peter Cameron is so much more of skilled and subtle writer than this. Underneath his page-turning plot is a careful, complex examination of loss—and the human ability to fully experience love after too much loss. Coral has suffered all kinds of quiet, devastating violence in her own life—the unspoken kind that's either ignored or simply expected when it comes to working-class woman, post-war or not. It's her emotional life that becomes the real mystery of the novel. Coral can't engage with others, even as they become entranced, if not bewitched, by her. She tries to connect, of course, and at strange, unexpected times, longs for more, such as when she enters a florist shop and is overwhelmed by the beauty of the flowers, feeling "in some way that ll the life and warmth of the cold, drab town, of her life, had collected in this room—that she was in the hot golden center of the world." Here is the pleasure of the novel—albeit a painful one. In bringing Coral to life, Cameron knows what not to say, how to leave the kind of tiny, white space that lets us readers imagine the huge, colorful, overwhelming world of even the most broken human heart.
What not to say in book club this month
18 new reads for spring.