I have picked up a lot of good books at Barnes and Noble on their “Discover Great New Writers” shelf, which I don’t think I would have found otherwise, and was curious to learn more about how they picked these books. The program, which began in 1990, aims “to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace.” They vet the books at two levels. Publishers suggest new titles, which a group of “Barnes & Noble bookseller volunteers” go through four times a year and pull out a group to feature each season. (Here is a link to the fall 2013 list.) Then once a year they engage a handful of published writers to vet the larger list and select one fiction and one non-fiction “Discover Award” winner for the year.
They also have a blog, with posts written by Miwa Messer, the director of the program, where she writes about and interviews writers featured on their shelves. I’ve been curious about a book she wrote about earlier this month, Caleb Crain’s Necessary Errors: A Novel, which is about expats living in Prague in the 90s.
I think this is a valuable program and reflects the importance of booksellers in the marketplace, especially those who curate the content for us!
The Night Gwen Stacy Died
By Sarah Bruni
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Mariner Books, 2013
Bruni’s captivating voice guided me though this book, which is a unique combination of Midwestern gothic and comic book surrealism.
Sheila Gower is a 17-year old high school girl, with a job at a Sinclair gas station and a dream to leave Coralville, Iowa (her hometown) and move to France. She lives an ordinary life that gets turned upside down by a taxi driver, Peter Parker, who is a regular at the Sinclair station. I don’t want to give away too much of this plot, but on a whim, Sheila and Peter set off on a Bonnie and Clyde (without the violence) type of Midwestern adventure.
This is a unique and quasi-surreal book that reminded me of a cross between a David Lynch and a Godard film, with a Midwestern setting. Comic book readers will know that Peter Parker is Spider-Man’s real name, and Gwen Stacy is Peter Parker’s first love. After meeting Peter Parker, Sheila takes on Gwen’s identity and through her Bruni explores a teenage girl’s first love and her desire to have more in her life than high school, a gas station job, and parents who wash and dry dishes together. The book also looks at how we can take on, and slip between, identities when we are in love, sometimes losing track of who we are. As I turned the pages, I had no idea where Bruni was going with her story (and how she was going to end her book), but I was intrigued by her themes and drawn in by her beautiful prose. I also felt like she ended it on just the right note, though some readers might wish for a bit more drama.
Bruni, originally from Chicago, now lives in Brooklyn. I discovered this book when I heard Bruni read this summer at the Franklin Park reading series. EW interviewed her about the book and her life in their Shelf Life blog.
I bought this book at an independent bookstore.
Fall is book prize time and The Center for Fiction announced the short list for their Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize last week. A wide range of eight books made it to this list; I will write about two.
Anthony Marra’s, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, has been getting a lot of press and looks like an intriguing look at war. Set it Chechnya in 2004, it tells the story of a young girl whose father is abducted by Russian forces.
Another book on their list, which I had not heard about before, is Motherlunge by Kirstin Scott. A voice-driven novel about motherhood and family, Motherlunge won the AWP Prize for the Novel.
Meanwhile, the National Book Foundation announced their 5 under 35 honorees for 2013. All five choices were women this year, which is nice to see. All of the writers also just published (or are about to publish) debut books. Two of the authors whose novels came out in the U.S. in 2013 are: NoViolet Bulawayo’s, We Need New Names (which is also on the Booker shortlist) and Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist.
And finally, for you foodies out there, Ruth Reichl will be publishing her first novel with Random House next year.
Good Kings Bad Kings
By Susan Nussbaum
Algonquin Books, 2013
Never before have I read a book in which people with disabilities were portrayed with such multi-dimensional identities as in Good Kings Bad Kings.
Told in seven alternating voices, this debut novel explores life in a Chicago-based nursing facility for disabled teens and young adults called the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center (ILLC). The book opens with Yessina Lopez, a spunky teenager who dreams of life outside the ILLC. Joanne Madsen is the data entry clerk and the only disabled person who works in the facility. Ricky Hernandez is an ILLC driver who also deals with kids who act up and forms a relationship with Joanne. Michelle Volkmann is a recruiter, who seeks out kids to bring into the home, and feels bad about her job. Teddy Dobbs is a resident known for always wearing a suit. Together these voices, and two more, create an intimate portrait of life in this home.
This book is not very story driven, but there is a lot of drama in the pages. Kids are put in the institution, kids are removed from classrooms, kids are left alone in hot showers that they cannot get out of. The setting, and many of the stories are bleak, but I enjoyed spending time with this unique cast of characters and felt like each chapter read like a journal entry—shedding light on each character’s life view. Nussbaum also takes on a range of difficult issues – disability, gender discrimination, rape, sexual politics/identity, poverty and racism. And although the book becomes political, clearly advocating against for-profit nursing homes like the ILLC, it is a rare book in which disabled people are the center of a story and are portrayed as people with needs, feelings and desires that have nothing to do with their disabilities.
Nussbaum, a playwright, won the 2012 PEN/Bellwether Prize, which promotes fiction that addresses issues of social justice, for this book. There have been a lot of interesting reviews of this book and interviews with her published this summer.
I apologize for the blog silence. I was traveling for work and then my family moved, and all this activity took me away from my computer and my reviews for the past few weeks. But I am inching back and will be posting my next review shortly.
May you all enjoy the beautiful end of summer reading days.