How exciting to go back to a normal Tuesday release schedule! One of the nonfiction books we've heard a lot of buzz about is Gary Shteyngart's Little Failure (Random House), his first memoir. Born Igor (I've met several Russians named Gary over the years and I never made the name connection) in Leningrad, he changed his name because he had enough problems without being referred to as Frankenstein's assistant. The title of the book is one of his mother's nicknames for him, when he didn't get good enough grades at Stuyversant to get into an Ivy League School. Now of course we know that Malcolm Gladwell would suggest that it's better to outshine everyone else at a second rate school, but who knew that then? Michiko Kakutani raves about the book in the daily New York Times review, with Andy Borowitz (visited Boswell once for an event with his wife) similarly enthusing in the Sunday Book Review from Andy Borowitz. But it's probably still a vague disappointment; Shteyngart didn't get his usual front-page placement.
The front page of the Book Review went to Chang-rae Lee, with a review from Andrew Sean Greer (both came to Boswell for their last books) for On Such a Full Sea (Riverhead) who proclaimed the new book is "a wonderful addition not only to Chang-rae Lee’s body of work." It seems almost mandatory for a great novelist to tackle speculative fiction. In this work, the country has been further stratified with labor camps dotting the country, mostly populated from rural China. The protagonist is a fish diver from B-Mor (Baltimore) who leaves the compound in search of her disappeared. I love the way great novelists can tackle similar themes in their books while radically shifting the packaging. John Freeman in the Boston Globe agrees, writing "with this strange and magically grim book, Chang-rae Lee has allowed us to leave the familiar behind, all so we can see it more clearly." There was a rumor this jacket was 3D, but I don't see it.
Shteyngart moved from fiction to memoir, but Ishmael Beah's is a jump in the opposite direction with his first novel, The Radiance of Tomorrow (FSG), a parable (per the publisher) about postwar life in Sierra Leone, focusing on two teachers, Bockerie and Benjamin. Ron Charles in The Washington Post calls the story "a muted, emotionally nimble story of return and rebuilding" noting that its "sympathetic exploration of the villagers’ lives is always subtle and engaging." And Matthew Gilbert in the Boston Globe revels in the "prose style, so organic, so rich with metaphors of sky, wind, and night" adding "enormous power to Beah's already potent piece of fiction."
From immigrant stories from Russia and China to an immigrant's African story, we then fly to Alaska for Brian Payton's The Wind is Not a River (Ecco), a historical novel about a husband and wife separated by (per the publisher) the only World War II battle to take place on American soil (Alaska), but why isn't Pearl Harbor (Hawaii) considered a battle? I'll work this out with historians. With all these big names having books out and filling the limited amount of newspaper review sections, Payton's are more likely to trickle out. The trade reviews were good, such as Publisher's Weekly, calling this novel "a richly detailed, vividly resonant chronicle of war’s effect on ordinary people’s lives." Just to keep the international flavor going, I don't know if Payton is Canadian but he is based in Vancouver.
The Wind is Not a River is also an Indie Next pick for January 2014. Here's the quote from Chris Wilcox of City Lights Books of Sylva, North Carolina: "“A grand tale of devotion and adventure set in a forgotten theater of World War II, Payton’s new novel is convincingly told. Along with journalist John Easley, the stranded protagonist, readers feel the Arctic wind screaming across Japanese occupied Atta in the remote Aleutian Islands and are swept along by the parallel narrative of Helen, John’s wife, as she sets off from her native Seattle in a bold, imaginative effort to locate her missing husband. Compelling!”
Another recommendation from the Indie Next List is from France. The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles, by Katherine Pancol (Penguin), translated by William Rodarmor and Helen Dickinson, has a great rec from Sally Van Wert of MacDonald Bookshop of Estes Park, Colorado: "“Treat yourself to this delightful French tale — with a bit of bawdiness — of family, friendship, and quirky misdirection. Readers are transported from high society Paris to medieval academia to a Kenyan crocodile farm. It is easy to see why Pancol is a bestselling author whose books have been translated into 30 languages!” Publishers Weekly calls this a Cinderella story, but "nevermind the toads; the stars are aligned in Joséphine’s favor, and
readers will stay with her until the glass slipper is firmly back on her
foot." And here's an interview with Pancol in Kirkus Reviews. Pancol is coming to the USA--here's a link to a ticketed event in New York at the Skyroom.