Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Five Books You Might Not Have Expected on This Week's New and Noteworthy List: New Books from Lydia Millet, Will Self, Jenny Erpenbeck, Peter Stamm, and Lalita Tademy.

So there's this Caribbean island resort and this couple meet a marine biologist who says he's spotting mermaids off the coast. So begins Mermaids in Paradise, the newest novel from Lydia Millet, following her adult novel Magnificence and her kids' book Pills and Starships. Needless to say, that doesn't bode well for the mermaids. Kirkus gave the book a starred review: "Millet means to criticize a rapacious culture that wants to simplify and categorize everything, from the resort profiteers to churchy types who see the mermaids as symbols of godlessness. The ending underscores the consequences of such blinkered mindsets without losing its essential comedy. An admirable example of a funny novel with a serious message that works swimmingly. Dive in."

Another writer whose work has been well regarded for years but is hardly a household name is Will Self, whose new novel Shark (Grove Press) can be described as Pynchonesque; the Publishers Weekly anonymous reviewer described it as "a maddening, uncompromising, serious, self-indulgent, and beautiful work." It follows his novel Umbrella, taking place during the first week in May the week of the Kent State riots, when Nixon ordered troops into Cambodia, and a psychiatrist goes on an LSD trip with his patients, only to realize afterwards that several of them were witnesses to extreme carnage in World War II. Stuart Kelly writes in the (UK) Guardian: "Shark confirms that Self is the most daring and delightful novelist of his generation, a writer whose formidable intellect is mercilessly targeted on the limits of the cerebral as a means of understanding." It will take a while to see traditional American consumer reviews, but there are plenty of British ones. Ludovic Hunter-Tilney in The Financial Times found the book maddening at times, but in the end said reading the book was an intoxicating experience.

One doesn't see too many new release hardcovers from New Directions in a year, so when they decide to publish in this format, as they have for Jenny Erpenbeck's The End of Days, it's a big deal. Translated by Susan Bernofsky, The End of Days is another variation of the time-twisting novels popular at the moment, most notably in Kate Atkinson's Life after Life. A baby is born in a small European town, but what if she had lived? Unlike in Atkinson's work, our protagonist's life goes in five very different directions, instead of being a theme with variations. Erpenbeck won the Hans Fallada prize, which has been given out in Germany since 1981, but it's different now because we are much more familiar with the namesake author. I'm not going to pretend you know the other winners, but Günter Grass won in 1996 and Bernhard Schlink got the prize in 1998. Publishers Weekly's starred review notes the novel "elegantly frames our human instinct to reimagine endings and tragedies as barely remembered moments over the course of a lifetime."

I ponder whether this week's Boswell and Books new and noteworthy roundup is the only one in America where 40% of the books are translations from German. But it's true, as this week also sees the release of Peter Stamm's All Days are Night (Other Press), translated by Michael Hoffman and originally called Nacht Ist der Tag and yes, he's actually Swiss but it's the German-speaking part of Switzerland and did I mention that Stamm was shortlist for the Man Booker International Prize for Seven Years? It's the story of a journalist in a terrible crash, whose husband died and who herself is horribly disfigured, only there's this artist, see, and there might be a second chance for a life. Publishers Weekly writes: "This brief volume speaks eloquently about recovery and reinvention" while while Von Adam Soboczynski in Die Zeit proclaims: "Peter Stamm ist ohne Zweifel ein Meister darin, ohne auch nur den Anflug von Pathos die Prosa der Verhältnisse (Hegel) einzufangen, das allzu Gewöhnliche, Alltägliche und Mittelmäßige" which according to the translation program, appears to be quite positive.

From Lalita Tademy, whose previous novels were Cane River and Red River, the waterway flows to Citizens Creek (Atria), a historical novel. Cow Tom is an African American slave sold to a Creek Indian chief, but his gift for languages (see? There is a connection) becomes an asset to the tribe. His family is moved to the territory which later became Oklahoma, where the story continues. Booklist gave Citizens Creek a starred review, praising it as a "riveting" and "historically accurate family saga." And on the Indie Next List, Nancy Simpson-Brice of Oskaloosa, Iowa's Book Vault notes that "Readers will become immersed in this story of a gritty, determined woman who fights for dignity, respect, and identity during the formative years of our country. This novel is unique, bold, and eye-opening."

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