The Family Fang
By Kevin Wilson
Ecco, Harper Collins, 2011
Annie and Buster Fang, also known as Child A and Child B, are the offspring of Camille and Caleb Fang, award-winning artists who pursue a unique form of public performance art that borders on spectacle. From a young age, Annie and Buster are expected to engage in orchestrated and public art happenings with their parents that are intended to insert “art” into everyday places like malls, restaurants and school plays. Now in their mid- to late-twenties, Annie and Buster, although successful artists in their own right, struggle to function as adults. After a combination of odd events in the first few chapters of the book (involving potato guns in Nebraska [Buster] and topless film scenes [Annie]), both siblings move back into their parents’ home in Tennessee and drama unfolds when their parents go missing.
I found this book to be quirky, funny and totally engrossing. Annie and Buster are multi-dimensional, although slightly over-the-top, characters. The novel alternates between their stories as adults and experiences with their parents in “art” performances as children and young adults. Wilson is particularly deft at creating engaging and fully developed scenes that show the characters in action. Rarely does his narrator intrude. He also takes on meaty topics in this entertaining novel. To me his central guiding questions for the book are: is it possible to be a parent and an artist, and to what extent do children change the art their parents create?
Much of the story is based in Tennessee, the state Wilson calls home. The book got widely reviewed when it came out in 2011. Looks like it might become a film!
Oprah started a new book club, Oprah 2.0, and with her second book choice she is launching the career of Ayana Mathis. Mathis’ The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is a debut novel, out next year, that tells the story of a teenage girl making the Great Migration from Georgia to Philadelphia. Oprah likens the book to Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
As the Best Books Of lists start to come out, Kevin Powers not only won the Guardian First Book Award, but he made it on to the NYT ten best books list for 2012 for his debut Yellow Birds.
Over at the Goodreads Choice Awards, Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, which I reviewed last week, came in in the top ten, as did another book I will review later this month, Carol Rifka Brunt’s Tell the Wolves I’m Home. They are two of a handful of debut books I saw on that list.
Any debut books you particularly liked from this year? Leave a comment with the author name and title.
Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
By Robin Sloan
Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2012
Clay Johnson is a white 20-something web designer who gets laid off from a tech marketing job and unexpectedly finds a position working the graveyard shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore in San Francisco. Clay quickly discovers that Mr. Penumbra’s is no regular bookstore. Although the shop features used books in the front, these books obscure a larger collection in the back that are “borrowed” by a select group of readers. Mr. Penumbra explicitly tells Clay not to read from the special collection, which, of course, he eventually does and leads him on a quest to discover where the books come from and what they mean.
As Clay searches for the meaning behind the bookstore he is joined by Kat Potente, a sharp and attractive woman who works at Google and has impressive coding skills, and his best friend from sixth grade, Neel Shah, a successful dot com entrepreneur. The story unfolds quickly as Kat and Clay use computers to dig behind the façade of Mr. Penumbra’s book collection. Clay is a funny self-aware narrator. Set in 21st Century San Francisco, with many references and visits to Google Headquarters, the book explores our current relationship to books and technology and the extent to which one will replace, or outpace, the other. If you have a low tolerance for Google references, this book is not for you, otherwise is it a well-paced and entertaining read. It’s an adult quest novel written for techies
Sloan, a “media inventor,” who used to work for Twitter, has gotten a lot of press for this book.