Tuesday, May 6, 2014

New and Noteworthy Books from Michael Cunningham, Ruth Reichl, Peter Heller, Sebastian Barry and First-Timer Laline Paull

The piles of books I need to read are huge. The piles I want to read are even taller. But sometimes, as I'm writing up these Tuesday lists, I have a temptation to drop everything and impulsively jump into something completely different. That's the way I feel about Michael Cunningham's The Snow Queen  (FSG), a contemporary novel of two New York brothers searching for transcendence in different ways.  Charles McNulty in the Los Angeles Times has a sort of criticism that made me want to read the book more, so I quote it here: "This is an odd work, engaging in parts and shot through with stunning lyricism, yet testing in the problematic personalities it brings together. The resolution Cunningham bestows is not unlike that otherworldly light in Central Park — subject to interpretation and dependent to an unusual degree on a character's capacity to hold on to hope." I'm intrigued!

If you want oddly beautiful, I guess you need not look further than Laline Paull's first novel, The Bees (Ecco), which in the spirit of Watership Down, is about a hive. The protagonist is a sanitation worker, Flora 717, the lowest caste in the hive. I return to the Los Angeles Times, where David Ulin clarifies the situation: "The decision to start with the emergence of her protagonist is a smart one, because Flora has to decipher the landscape, as do we. With her as proxy, we learn the makeup of the beehive, its caste system — the Sage, or priestesses, are at the top, and factions such as Thistle (guards), Teasel (nursemaids) and Foragers (hunter/gatherers) all fill highly regimented roles." Publishers Weekly called it dystopia meets the Discovery Channel. Reviewers will probably review this book just for all the fun they can have--the book should have a lot of buzz.

Peter Heller moves in a different direction with The Painter (Knopf), a novel about an artist trying to outrun his past. Hannah's read some of it and has been very enthusiastic. This interview with Heller in Publishers Weekly gives you a handle on what Heller was trying to do. Kirkus Reviews liked The Painter quite a bit, and gave it a starred review: "Heller's writing is sure-footed and rip-roaring, star-bright and laced with dark yearning, coalescing in an ever-escalating, ravishing, grandly engrossing and satisfying tale of righteousness and revenge, artistic fervor and moral ambiguity." I like that the art director kept the feel of The Dog Star on a very different kind of book.

We had a great time with Peter Heller for his last book, which allows me to transition to Sebastian Barry, another author at the top of his game who came to Boswell for his last novel. This time he's back with a World War II novel called The Temporary Gentleman, about an Irishman commisioned temporary to the British army. He tells his tale from 1957 Ghana, a life of extraordinary events, but the one thing he can't let go of his tempestuous, heartbreaking (I'm quoting the publisher on these fine adjectives) marriage. Claire Kilroy raves about the book in the (UK) Guardian: "It takes a writer of the stature and delicacy of Barry to recognise that you could dedicate your entire working life to the endeavour and still expect the resultant novel to be hopelessly partisan and partial. Yet in the act of sifting through versions, of setting down words, you might excavate some facet of the human heart that casts light on what it means to be alive. It is Barry's steadfast devotion to this process that makes him an artist of the highest order."

One author we've not yet hosted at Boswell is Ruth Reichl, though we did back at Schwartz. I was reminded that Reichl was once the feted guest at the Friends of the Milwaukee Public Library Literary Lunch, which once again is this Thursday, this time with Shauna Singh Baldwin. But I am distracted! Reichl's first novel is about the New York food world. Delicious! is the novel and also the Gourmet-like magazine that Billie Breslin is hired to work at, which like Gourmet, abruptly shuts down, with Breslin kept on to run the customer inquiry line...and then she finds a secret room in the mansion-like headquarters. Kim Ode at the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune notes that "Reichl manages to make these “side dishes” essential to her story in a way that turns a romance mystery into a satisfying repast."

Delicious! is also the Pennie Pick at Costco, and I know it seems funny that I am mentioning it here, as Costco sells things for way less than we can, but you know I like retail. I'm fascinated by how the Pennie's Pick is announced, and  thought this selection was interesting, as Pennie rarely does hardcovers or first novels out of the box, and she often waits until the book gathers some momentum. You get so little time on the Costco floor to make an impact; if they pick a book too early and the buzz isn't yet deafening, it might mean a whole mess of books going back to the publisher. Let's hope Reichl is in fact a household-enough name with their customers. I'm sure there's a periodic urge to make a book work, and there's a lot of competition for the honor. Did the Indies really get The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry onto the NYT bestseller list or will Barnes and Noble or Amazon or Target take credit a year from now? Everybody's fighting for bragging rights, I guess.

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