Tuesday, October 7, 2014

New Releases from Marilynne Robison, Jane Smiley, Colm Tóibín, Atul Gawande, and Walter Isaacson.

Last night we were just talking about novel cycles that look at events from multiple perspectives. There's Robertson Davies Deptford Trilogy, and Jane Gardam's Old Filth trilogy, which we coincidentally discussed at book club last night. Now there's Marilynne Robinson's Lila (FSG), which I assume we'll be calling the Gilead Trilogy (or maybe quartet!). This is also the year for learning books we thought were not connected (David Mitchell's work) is, and Lila which follows the wife of Reverend Ames, the protagonist of Gilead. Ron Charles in The Washington Post wrote: "These three exquisite books constitute a trilogy on spiritual redemption unlike anything else in American literature. (Our Puritan forefathers wrote and worried plenty about salvation, but they had no use for novels.) In a way that few novelists have attempted and at which fewer have succeeded, Robinson writes about Christian ministers and faith and even theology, and yet her books demand no orthodoxy except a willingness to think deeply about the inscrutable problem of being."

Gilead won the National Book Circle Award while Home was awarded the Orange (now the Baileys Women's) Prize. What honors will they bestow on her newest? One can only imagine.

It is definitely a day for Iowa, as just like Robinson, Jane Smiley's newest, the first in a planned trilogy, is set in Iowa, this time following a farming family in the early twentieth century. Each chapter in Some Luck is set during a month in 1920, chronicling Rosanna and Water Langdon and their five children.

In both her NPR profile and this recent story by Charles McGrath in The New York Times, Smiley made mention of her desire to tackle writing in just about every conceivable genre. Here's the tally: "She has so far published an epic (The Greenlanders), a detective story (Duplicate Keys), a tragedy (A Thousand Acres), probably her most famous book, which retells the King Lear story and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992), a comedy (Moo) and a romance (The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton), not to mention a racetrack novel (Horse Heaven) and one that recycles Boccaccio’s Decameron (Ten Days in the Hills). Her new book is the first volume of a trilogy — one of the few forms left for her to tackle — and in characteristic, workmanlike fashion, she has already completed the two other volumes, which will probably follow in the spring and next fall." I'm still waiting for her fantasy novel.

Beth Kephart in The Chicago Tribune has a few more details in her review. 100 chapters over three books, all published about six months apart. She calls the concept "audaciously delicious" and notes that "each characters steals our heart." And Kevin Nance in USA Today observes: "The odd and perhaps miraculous thing about this almost ridiculously grandiose undertaking is how intimate it feels and, page by page, how little it announces itself as a masterpiece in the making."

And of course both books were featured on Sunday's Journal Sentinel book page. 

Another novel that has had breathless anticipation is Nora Webster, the new work from Colm Tóibín. Set in the 1970s, the story follows an Irish widow and her four children, who, as the publisher says, is "navigating grief and fear, struggling for hope." Robert McCrum writes in The (UK) Guardian: "Nora Webster is an Irish love story and a love letter to Irish readers from one of Ireland’s contemporary masters. But it skilfully transcends its source material in a way that will probably recommend it to a much wider audience." Here's Tóibïn (pronounced TOE-bean, now I finally know) interviewed by Brenda Cronin in The Wall Street Journal. He notes that "Nora Webster isn't autobiographical, but rather a combination of fiction and 'other things that are absolutely down to the smallest detail what happened.'"

I've decided to break the sometimes artificial wall between fiction and nonfiction this week. After all, many nonfiction titles turn out to have things that are not quite true, and many novels have details taken from real life. But mostly I wanted to mention Atul Gawande's Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (Metropolitan), which has already gotten a few pre-release holds. The author of The Checklist has written almost a response to Katy Butler's Knocking on Heaven's Door, as it looks at how medicine can do a good job with end-of-life issues. Abigail Zuger in The New York Times Book Review writes that "this book is an acknowledgment that serenity and well-being actually cannot be dished up cafeteria-style — and that sometimes the only sure way to gain control is first to relinquish it, whether to a bad disease, a dying patient or the constraints of a finite life span."

And finally there is Walter Isaacson's The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (Simon and Schuster). One assumes this grew out of Isaacson's research on his Steve Jobs book--I can only imagine Isaacson saying "There's just too much good stuff here!" It's the story of the history of the computer and the internet, told through the "the fascinating personalities that created our current digital revolution, such as Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, John von Neumann, J.C.R. Licklider, Doug Engelbart, Robert Noyce, Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, Tim Berners-Lee, and Larry Page." Who knew that one of the innovators was Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron's daughter, who pioneered computer programming in the 1840s. John Homans in Bloomberg Business Week writes: " Isaacson’s nose is pressed to the glass of this drama—a necessary journalistic role—and, sharing their joy, he captures the primal satisfaction of solving problems together and changing the world."

By October, so many books are screaming for your attention, don't they?

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