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Books (143 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'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 time I talk to her I make some very awkward reference to it; yesterday we were chatting about weekend playdates, and I was saying, "Ugh, my husband is WORKING this weekend, so the kids need stuff to do, and I'm so TIRED," and then I immediately corrected myself, "But jeez, sorry, I shouldn't complain to you of all people!" and launched into a rousing round of I-don't-know-how-you-do-its. She smiled and said, very calmly, very magnanimously, "Oh, everyone has something." [something! A husband in Bahrain is "something!"] "And anyway I don't like when people don't complain -- it takes away my right to complain when I need to." I could have sworn the sunlight formed a halo around her hair.
I maintain that I don't know how these army wives do it, since I am pretty convinced the world has ended when the dishwasher stops working and my husband isn't around to make the call to fix it. But they do, and some of them, like Jessie Knadler, even find the time, energy, and humor to blog about it. Jessie Knadler's great blog, Rurally Screwed, shares stories of how she (a former New York City magazine editor) has been raising her baby daughter alone on a farm in Virginia, while her husband has been deployed in Afghanistan for the past year. This blog is seriously addictive reading -- as is, I'm guessing, her new memoir. Most recently, Knadler has been sharing the story of her husband's homecoming (yay!) and the unexpected new family member he brought with him: Solha, the dog he rescued from Afghanistan. I can't imagine what Knadler has gone through this past year, or how it is to reunite with a husband after a year, but this dog I can wrap my mind around. Because she is crazy. Crazy dogs I get.
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
Happy Friday, everyone! Here are a few things that made our week cheerier:
Quiz time! Can you guess the classic book based on its cover? (Don't scroll too far or you'll see the answers!)
Grown-ups need secret tree houses too, you know.
Remember that time Andy Warhol got a rejection letter from MOMA?
This week in gratuitous cuteness: Toddlers singing Adele.
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
Jerry Seinfeld once said that trying Pop-Tarts for the first time as a kid “blew the back of my head off.” And though I haven’t touched Pop-Tarts for the better part of a decade, suddenly foodie versions of the foil-wrapped breakfast treats are everywhere: At a recent festival, I feasted on San Francisco-based Black Jet Bakery’s flaky, buttery pastry dough enveloping pockets of brown sugar, apricot jam or—brace yourself—jalapeno-cream-cheese, which was as scrumptious as it sounds strange. A good friend served a platter of vanilla-glazed, jam-stuffed toaster pastries from the famous Boston bakery Flour at her birthday party, in lieu of a cake. While shopping for gift ideas for my has-everything-she’ll-ever-need mother, I saw a toaster pastry press at Williams Sonoma.
So when Alana Chernila’s new book, The Homemade Pantry: 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying and Start Making, landed on my desk—with a picture of powdered sugar-dusted toaster pastries on the cover, no less!—I was ready to take the hint.
Where would you be without your library? I had occasion this week to visit the library I grew up visiting, and passing by a particular shelf in the children's section I happened to glimpse the exact set of ancient hardbound Oz books that I devoured as a kid. I had a kind of sensory flashback: the scent of the yellowed paper, the art deco-weirdness of the illustrations. Even the slightly reverential act of kneeling -- they were on the bottom shelf. The excitement of being done with one and moving on to the next (even then, at 9 or 10, I knew there was something great about being able to say, "Oh, The Wizard of Oz? Sure, that one's good, but do you mean to say you haven't read Rinkitink in Oz?"). I discovered so many books at that library, and thus so many (fictional) friends, and it was because I loved reading that I wanted to become a writer.
What about you? Where would you be without your library? This is the question posed by the tiny M.N. Spear Library of Shutesbury, MA as they try to raise money for a new building. Their 900-square-foot library is a center of community life, but lacks space for studying, story times, and is hopelessly outdated -- they don't even have running water. Here is the charming video filmmaker Lindsay Van Dyke made, with the help of local library patrons, which states the case for why this small town needs a new library:
It happens to be, right now, an uncanny nexus of National Library Week AND National School Library Month. I know, I know, we all read books on kindles and write novels via text and memoirs on Twitter, but still, as the video above demonstrates, there is nothing quite like a brick-and-mortar library. Nothing like finding a book by accident, or being drawn to a crackly spine for an unknown reason; nothing like losing oneself in a quiet corner studying or reading. My current library life is, in fact, nothing like this at all, but one of rowdy story times and chewed-up board books -- important, too, in its way. What about you? Where would you be without your library? Post to M.N. Spear Library's Tumblr or in the comments below!
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
And yet...I remain the most gullible, trickable, April's Fools-able person in the world, and why it was with great horror that I read the National Poetry Foundation's announcement that they were cancelling National Poetry Month, which happens every April. (Spoiler alert: it was published on April 1st. You know. April Fool's Day.) "Poetry has a presence in every part of American life?!" I read aloud, disgusted. "Instead, they are going to have 'an annual month of attention to film, topped off with an awards show in Los Angeles, to take place in February each year?!' Are they kidding??"
Well, yes. Yes they were. And once my brain started working gooder again, I couldn't stop laughing at the post. It's really worth the read. And like all great satire, not only does it make us laugh, it makes us think. Why should it seem so absurd, as the post suggests, that there would be reality shows about writers? That major news shows should debate who really wrote Shakespeare's plays? Will it ever be the case that poetry really is as ubiquitiously-loved as film?
I dunno. While the idea of reading poetry can intimidate me, I also know that there's nothing like that feeling of finding the right poem at the right moment, reading a line that makes you feel all sparkly, discovering that some poet you've never met has expressed a feeling you've often had with gorgeous precision. As I once said, "It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserable every day / for lack / of what is found there." Or wait, maybe that was William Carlos Williams.
Unfortunately, this does not mean you can actually step into your favorite fictional world, a la Gumby (I know, I was disappointed at first too). But darn close! Users can check out their book club's next pick (or a favorite book, or one you'd like to read) and find an interactive list of people, places, and things that appear in the book. A fun, new way to think about a book, but also a way to guide your reading -- for example, users can browse all books that mention Zeus, or California, or Coca-Cola. Share it at your book club's next meeting...or keep it to yourself, and make it seem like you just did some really awesomely close reading.
Book Clubs Around the Country
Oprah's Book Club: The Complete List