Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Benjamin Dreyer, Juliet Lapidos, Ben Winters and more—that are publishing this week.
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Dreyer’s English by Benjamin DreyerHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Dreyer’s English: “Dreyer, copy chief at Random House, presents a splendid book that is part manual, part memoir, and chockfull of suggestions for tightening and clarifying prose. These begin with his first challenge to writers: ‘Go a week without writing ‘very,’ ‘rather,’ ‘really,’ ‘quite,’ and ‘in fact.’ ’ (‘Feel free to go the rest of your life without another ‘actually,’ ’ he says.) Dreyer goes on to write with authority and humor about commonly confused or misspelled words, punctuation rules, and ‘trimmables,’ or redundant phrases (the most memorable he ever encountered was, “He implied without quite saying”; Dreyer was so ‘delighted’ he ‘scarcely had the heart’ to eliminate it from the manuscript). But Dreyer’s most effective material comprises his recollections of working with authors, including Richard Russo, who after noticing a maxim posted in Dreyer’s office from the New Yorker’s Wolcott Gibbs—’Try to preserve an author’s style if he is an author and has a style’—later called him to ask, ‘Would you say I am an author? Do I have a style?’ This work is that rare writing handbook that writers might actually want to read straight through, rather than simply consult.”
Talent by Juliet LapidosHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Talent: “In her snappy debut, Lapidos questions cultural obsessions with productivity and maximized potential that date back to Jesus’s parable of the talents. A graduate student at Collegiate University (a thinly veiled Yale) and on the cusp of thirty, Anna struggles to complete her languishing dissertation on artistic inspiration, already looking ahead to ‘the life of a professor emerita” before her career has even begun. A chance encounter with Helen Langley at the grocery store puts her in ‘physical proximity to genetic proximity to fame’: Helen is the niece of Frederick Langley, a deceased author of some renown who stopped writing after a promising early career. Helen is involved in a legal battle with Collegiate over its possession of Langley’s unpublished notebooks, which the idling graduate student hopes to mine for material to kick-start her dissertation. The novel proceeds briskly as Anna delves into Frederick’s papers to explain his premature retirement and as the impoverished Helen angles to secure the valuable manuscripts. Anna’s voice is sharp and humorous, capturing the jaded graduate student’s mix of posturing, snark, and self-loathing, but Frederick isn’t as enigmatic as he’s intended to be, and his scheming niece Helen is insufficiently drawn, which weakens the pull of the literary mystery. However, the novel is redeemed by its intelligent musings on the responsibilities of literary culture: what do talented authors owe their readers and themselves?”
Golden State by Ben WintersHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Golden State: “This disappointing postapocalyptic thriller from Edgar winner Winters (Underground Airlines) boasts an irresistible setup: in the near future, California is a sovereign state governed by absolute truth, and telling a lie can result in jail time or worse. Laszlo Ratesic, a veteran police officer whose innate ability to know when someone is lying helps him piece together unsolved crimes, investigates the death of a construction worker who fell off of a roof during a job. The seemingly accidental fatality is filled with anomalies, which leads Ratesic and the young female officer he’s mentoring to uncover a grand-scale conspiracy with staggering implications. While the story, in which every second of the populace’s lives is meticulously recorded, is tonally comparable to Orwell’s 1984, the thematic impact simply isn’t there. Some of the societal elements seem contrived, such as how every citizen must archive every single life event in a journal, and the reveal at the end is too nebulous to be completely effective. Winters’s exploration into the nature of truth will grip many readers, but this ambitious novel misses the mark.”
The Weight of a Piano by Chris CanderHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Weight of a Piano: “In her elegiac and evocative novel, Cander (Whisper Hollow) explores the legacy of loss, the intersections of art and music, and what happens when physical objects assume outsized symbolism. As a young girl in the Soviet Union in 1962, Katya admires her neighbor’s Blüthner piano; when he leaves it to her after his death, Katya pursues her musical passions and becomes obsessed with maintaining possession of the piano, even when given the opportunity to flee as a dissident. In California in 2012, Clara is a 26-year-old auto mechanic. Her boyfriend has just ended their relationship and demanded that she move out—along with the Blüthner that is her only remaining link to her dead parents. When a piano-moving accident leaves Clara with a broken hand and unable to work, she impulsively puts the piano for sale on Craigslist—and the response she receives sends her deep into the barren beauty of Death Valley and into a new relationship that may shed light on her family history, and on the cursed history of that piano. Reminiscent of Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes, Cander’s novel delves into the often unexplainable genesis of artistic inspiration and examines how family legacy—the physical objects people inherit, the genetic traits people carry on, and the generational lore people internalize—can both ignite imagination and limit its scope. Cander brilliantly and convincingly expresses music and visual art in her writing, capturing both within a near-alien but surprisingly stunning landscape.”
99 Nights in Logar by Jamil Jan KochaiHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about 99 Nights in Logar: “Kochai’s debut is an imaginative, enthralling, and lyrical exploration of coming home—and coming-of-age—set amid the political tensions of modern Afghanistan. Twelve-year-old Marwand returns to his family’s village of Logar in 2005—and on the very first day, has the tip of his index finger bitten off by the compound’s fearsome guard dog, Budabash. Marwand, with his cousin, two ‘little uncles’” and younger brother, then vow ‘jihad against Budabash’—as soon as they can find the runaway hound. The seemingly Huck Finn–like tale, however, slowly evolves into a mesmerizing collection of stories, first narrated by Marwand (who recounts the vicious beating he gave an old mutt when the family first settled in Afghanistan in 1999) and set against the backdrop of a war-torn region. Through nightly conversations in the family compound, Marwand discovers that talk ‘always seemed to circle back to war.’ His 99-day-long search for the devil dog Budabash is filled with the stories of events both real and imagined: a family wedding, a mysterious illness that takes down the household, and finally the dreamlike clash between Marwand and Budabash. Kochai is a masterful storyteller, and will leave readers eager for the next tale.”
The Eulogist by Terry GambleHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Eulogist: “Gamble’s third novel (after Good Family) concerns the lives of the Givens siblings, Irish immigrants who start over in 1819 Cincinnati. Olivia, the book’s strong-willed narrator, takes a shine to like-minded doctor Silas Orpheus, who admires her distaste for religion and allows her to surreptitiously dissect corpses with him. Olivia’s older brother, James, a successful candle maker who married rich, is initially reluctant to give his blessing for their marriage, as Silas’s disreputable brother, Eugene, sends a slave, Tilly, in lieu of a proper dowry. Olivia and Tilly become friendly, and Tilly helps her set up her own business doing hair. Olivia’s ambivalence toward slavery dissipates when Silas dies and she meets Eugene’s family on their Kentucky property. When Olivia enlists the help of her younger brother, Erasmus, now a Methodist preacher living on a river encampment, to help lead one of the slaves to freedom, Eugene retaliates by demanding that Tilly be returned. Since Ohio is a free state, an ill-fated trial ensues. Olivia and her family are thereafter pulled into the movement to smuggle slaves to freedom. Gamble adeptly chronicles Olivia’s transformation from a free-thinking but unaffected young woman into a determined widow who wants to indirectly avenge Tilly. This is a standout depiction of family dynamics, and will appeal to fans of fiction set in pre–Civil War America.”
Also on shelves: Hear Our Defeats by Laurent Gaudé and Castle on the River Vistula by Michelle Tea (which you can read an excerpt of here).
Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Hours was one of the biggest hits of the last ten years, so it’s fair to say that his follow-up Specimen Days is being anticipated by many readers. Like The Hours, Specimen Days is composed of three interrelated stories. The title of the novel is borrowed from Walt Whitman’s autobiography, and much as Virginia Woolf was the inspiration for The Hours, Whitman provides raw material for Specimen Days. The book gets a gushing review in the New York Observer: Specimen Days is “an extraordinary book, as ambitious as it is generous; and the depth of its kindness, or grace, is to convey that it is we ourselves, the multitude, who are extraordinary, or might be.”Another anticipated follow up is Dai Sijie’s Mr. Muo’s Traveling Couch, which comes on the heels of Sijie’s popular novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Traveling Couch (no relation to the Traveling Pants as far as I know) is about a French-trained psychoanalyst who returns to his native China where his sweetheart is a political prisoner. You can read an excerpt of the book here.Terry Gamble has new book out, Good Family, her second novel after her 2003 debut, Water Dancers. Good Family starts like this: “In the years before our grandmother died, when my sister and I wore matching dresses, and the grown-ups, unburdened by conscience, drank gin and smoked; those years before planes made a mockery of distance, and physics a mockery of time; in the years before I knew what it was like to be regarded with hard, needy want, when my family still had its goodness, and I my innocence; in those years before Negroes were blacks, and soldiers went AWOL, and women were given their constrained, abridged liberties, we traveled to Michigan by train.”Kaui Hart Hemmings is the author of a debut collection of stories, House of Thieves, that sounds very interesting. Hemmings is Hawaiian, and PW says “a dusty, dreamy Hawaii rife with sexual frustration, loneliness and adolescent heartbreak is the setting for the nine stories of Hemmings’s bold debut collection.” Her story “The Minor Wars” appeared in the 2004 Best Nonrequired Reading, and here you can read an excerpt of the title story which appeared in Zoetrope: All Story.