Small Pleasures: A Novel

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Wednesday New Release Day: Starring Ball, Orlean, and More


Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Bethany Ball, Susan Orlean, and more—that are publishing this week.
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The Pessimists by Bethany Ball

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Pessimists: “An expensive private school in an affluent Connecticut suburb becomes the focal point for three families in Ball’s appealing if predictable sophomore effort (after What to Do About the Solomons). City expats Gunter and Rachel meet fellow Petra School parents Tripp and Virginia at a New Year’s Eve party thrown at their house, where doomsday prepper Tripp stockpiles guns in the basement. Tripp’s best friend, Richard, is there with his wife, Margot, but he’s pursuing Virginia, a novelist with no shortage of fawning male fans who appreciate her looks as much as her work. There’s also a trickster principal named Agnes, a secret cancer, an accidental near-murder, and an extramarital affair almost happens, and while the threads occasionally captivate, no single plot line prevails, and the many asides fizzle out with almost no consequence. Unfortunately, the narrative’s emotional flatness (as well as that of the characters) makes this feel somewhat schematic, and the plot is too intricate for its own good. Despite some moments of charm, this feels like it’s missing a sense of purpose.”

When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky by Margaret Verble

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky: “In this richly imagined historical from Pulitzer finalist Verble (for Maud’s Line), a young Cherokee woman performs as a horse-diver at an amusement park in Nashville, Tenn. It’s 1926, and automobiles and movies are starting to make electric streetcars and live-entertainment venues obsolete, but Two Feathers’s novelty act is still a big draw at Glendale Park, built at the end of a trolley line. One day, as Two Feathers and her horse are performing, a giant sinkhole opens up and swallows them. Two’s beloved mare, Ocher, dies in the fall, and Two’s leg is broken. With her act no longer possible and her future uncertain, Two recuperates in her dormitory. Her friends rally to her side, notably Hank Crawford, the descendant of enslaved people and a plantation owner. But owning land and having light skin don’t guarantee protection from the deadly dangers of Jim Crow, and Verble shows how Crawford takes various matters into his own hands rather than go to the racist police. Visions of the departed haunt many of these characters, and the dead have an impact on the present. When a hippo dies and a beloved bear cub is found dead, Two discerns how and why they were killed, and, later, after a man is found scalped, prejudice leads some to suspect Two of the murder. Verble beautifully weaves period details with the cast’s histories, and enthralls with the supernatural elements, which are made as real for the reader as they are for the characters. This lands perfectly.”

MacArthur Park by Judith Freeman

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about MacArthur Park: “Freeman returns to characters from her first novel, The Chinchilla Farm (1991), for a story of two women whose lives range well beyond the origins of their small Utah town. In 1984, Verna Fields’s husband leaves her, prompting her to travel to Los Angeles and move in temporarily with her old friend Jolene Carver, now a renowned feminist performance artist who left their town and their faith after being disillusioned by her parents’ infidelity. Shortly after Verna’s arrival, Jolene divorces her husband, Vincent, and ends up in Europe, where her artistic reputation continues to blossom. Three years later, Verna marries Vincent, an eccentric, self-absorbed musician and composer who introduces her to the arts, and she eventually publishes a collection of short stories and a book about Raymond Chandler. After a 30-year absence, Jolene, diminished in health, reappears in L.A. and asks Verna to drive her to their hometown for one last visit. During their trip, jealousies, secrets and passions are revealed, underscoring their opposing views on life: Verna prefers a cocoon of complacency with married life, while Jolene feels the radical feminist views she adopted in the 1970s still apply. Despite some tedious pedantic dialogue, Freeman manages to convey the bonds and challenges of the women’s friendship. The author’s fans will appreciate this layered story.”

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Small Pleasures: “In Chambers’s affecting latest (after the YA mystery Burning Secrets), the year is 1957 and Jean Swinney is a single Englishwoman approaching 40 who cares for her demanding mother and lives for the small pleasures in life—like pottering in her vegetable patch or loosening her girdle at the end of the day. Jean works as features editor for the North Kent Echo. Her new assignment is to interview Gretchen Tilbury, who claims to have delivered a child through virgin birth. Wanting to keep an open mind, Jean meets with the no-nonsense Gretchen, who was confined to an all-female nursing home, St. Cecilia’s, with rheumatoid arthritis at the time of conception. Jean also meets Gretchen’s charming 10-year-old daughter, Margaret, and her dedicated husband, Howard. Jean arranges for Gretchen and Margaret to undergo medical tests at Charing Cross Hospital to prove if parthenogenesis actually took place. As the months pass, Jean becomes more and more enmeshed in the lives of the Tilbury family even as her friendship with Howard threatens to turn into something more. Chambers does an excellent job of recreating the austere texture of post-WWII England. In Jean, the author creates a character who strives admirably to escape her cloistered existence. Chambers plays fair with Gretchen’s mystery, tenderly illuminating the hidden yearnings of small lives.”

We Imagined It Was Rain by Andrew Siegrist

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about We Imagined It Was Rain: “In his debut collection of loosely connected stories set mostly in Tennessee, some of which draw on local folklore, Siegrist shows a remarkable ability to evoke the missing pieces in his characters’ lives. As the title suggests, water, in all its variations, is central to these tales of lost love, memory, and transformation. In the haunting ‘Heirloom,’ Cole, who has lost his son and moved to a cabin in the woods, meets Tia, a young woman who tells him about a coffin full of water buried in the hills. At the end of the story, she lures him into the dark forest where he can smell the ‘heavy scent of salt from a buried sea.’ Rae, a young woman in ‘Beneath Dark Water,’ lives in fear of her physically abusive boyfriend, Darcy, a heavy drinker. In ‘Shouting Down the Preacher,’ a man has lost his wife and his calling to infidelity, and blames himself when his former church floods. Even in the midst of the author’s piercing look into the human heart, however, there is humor, albeit dark. ‘Elephants’ and ‘How to Hang a Circus Elephant’ are connected stories about Mary, a rogue elephant who has to be shot, hanged, and buried. Her tusks, rumored to be visible aboveground, give the town an odd notoriety. With their universal themes, Siegrist’s folkloric stories have plenty of appeal.”

On Animals by Susan Orlean

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about On Animals: “New Yorker staff writer Orlean (The Library Book) delivers an entertaining and informative look at various animals in this clever collection of essays. According to Orlean, her ‘animalish’ personality has driven her to track down critters her whole life, as well as stories of humans as animalish as she. In ‘Lady and the Tigers,’ she profiles a tiger owner in Jackson, N.J., while ‘Little Wing’ sees her documenting a teenager’s relationship to her carrier pigeons in Boston. The essays are well researched and showcase a keen journalistic eye, as in ‘Lion Whisperer,’ which covers Kevin Richardson’s frolicsome relationship with lions, and ‘The Rabbit Outbreak,’ which details the spread of a disease in rabbits across the globe. Orlean’s prose dazzles when she uses human metaphors to describe the natural world, conjuring up hilariously vivid images: Biff, a show dog, has ‘the earnest and slightly careworn expression of a smalltown mayor’; Keiko the whale, who starred in Free Willy, is ‘a middle-aged piebald virgin living as good a life as captivity could offer’; and carrier pigeons are ‘muttering to themselves like old men in a bingo hall.’ While not all the essays land (some leave something to be desired in Orlean’s examination of the human-animal relationship), they’re nonetheless packed with spirit. Animal lovers will find much to savor.”

Also on shelves this week: The Nutmeg’s Curse by Amitav Ghosh.

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