Category: Fiction (Page 2 of 46)

Author Q & A with Nathan Englander

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (October 1).

Brooklyn resident and Long Island native Nathan Englander packs love, violence, allegory, and political intrigue into his second novel, Dinner at the Center of the Earth (Knopf), as he presents readers with a plot-driven literary tale that examines the current state of of the peace process-or lack thereof–between the Israelis and Palestinians.

A thought-provoking read to say the least, the book reveals Englander’s own take on the ongoing political battle–and it’s a personal one. Growing up Jewish in New York, his angst over the lack of progress between the two camps led to his own five-year retreat to Israel, which he spent examining first-hand the seeming futility of any effort to bring the two sides together.

Nathan Englander

Nathan Englander

His previous works include What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize); and the novel The Ministry of Special Cases. His short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies.

Englander is Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at New York University and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter.

In the ackowledgements at the end of your book, you thanked the city of Zomba, Malowi, where some of the writing process of Dinner at the Center of the Earth took place. Please explain why that was important to you.

Zomba played a part in the rewriting of this book. I lived there last year with my family, and I found that composing in a place so radically different from the one in which I live helped me to see my own life–my reality–with fresh eyes, which, I deeply believe, helped me to do the same inside the book’s world, where I was spending most of my time.

In what ways did your four–or what it five?–years living in Jerusalem before the intifada in 2000 prepare you to write Dinner at the Center of the Earth?

It was five years. And a year of college long before that, and some stretches here and there in between. That time was less what prepared me to write the book, and more what drove me to do it. I’ve really wanted to tell this story for near 20 years.

But, I hear the question (why?), and I have an answer. And that is, when I was living in Israel, I came to understand that solving the conflict between Israel and Palestine wasn’t just about bridging the gap between two peoples who hold two different positions of some argument. A real solution would mean bridging the space between two different worlds. That is, I was a Jewish person living in Jerusalem, and my Palestinian neighbors in the exact same place were living in al-Quds. We’re dealing with multiple realities, not differing opinions.

I read that you wanted to write a book that “weaved time and threads.” Describe how the complexity of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and its seemingly unsolvable issues, prompted you to bring that approach to life through this book.

Central to that conflict, and central to my heartbreak over the failure of the peace process, are the endless cycles of violence, the buildup, the warring, the truces and quiet times–which both sides then use to build up and ready themselves for when the fighting starts all over again. I really wanted to write a novel whose structure captured that spiral, and reflected those rhythms.

This seems to be a book that would be good to read over again in order to understand the timeline and grasp its full meaning. Was that your intention?

dinner at the centerIt’s nice of you to ask. And, I promise you, I’m truly thankful for the people who invest in reading this novel once–that’s already a gift for a writer, and I ask no more. I can tell you that I worked hard to build a book you could just sit down and read, a linear novel that also happens to wrestle with age-old conflict and has many different plot lines, all running concurrently.

I think of your question in terms of a certain kind of reader–of which, in asking, I assume you are one–and I think, if this book has a certain life, and some nice graduate student somewhere wants to take it apart with a screwdriver and see how it ticks, I hope he or she will find something in the mechanics of it. I sure spent a lot of my time trying to make the thriller-historical-love-story-allegorical elements all jibe.

I loved what you did with the dream sequences of the General, whom we assume to be Ariel Sharon. Were there actual events for his life that led you to imagine these dream events? The endless falling with his radio operator after the explosion was especially intriguing.

Am I allowed to say that I love your questions? I love your questions! For one, it was imperative to me that my character, the General, be read as the General, not Ariel Sharon. As for parallels to Israeli-Palestinians history, I drew off many events for the reality the general is living in his mind. But you’re asking about the radio operator and the flying. This novel, unlike my last, is set in places I’ve lived, and addresses parts of history that are woven into my own memory, and central to my education, and have shaped my worldview.

What I’m trying to stress is that I bought a lot of books to study, but ended up doing very little research, and never opened most. I’d read a paragraph, and my mind would start spinning, and I’d start typing. Anyway, a doctor friend I’d called to ask about comas and minimally conscious state either shared this fact with me, or it appeared in the first couple of paragraphs of some scientific paper somewhere that I clicked on, but I fell in love with the idea that people who come out of comas often remember that they had dreams of flying. It just changed me, as soon as I learned that.

Were prisoner Z and the guard based on actual people, or were they fictional characters to move the plot and tell the story?

The guard popped into my head in the same way that Ruthi did–which is, out of nowhere. Speaking of consciousness, I literally have no awareness of how they suddenly came to be.

Prisoner Z is a character I can trace through my imagination. I was in Israel on a book tour, and on the last day, I picked up the morning paper and there was this story of an Israeli prisoner called, only, X. He was found dead in his cell. The extremely complicating factor was that he was a secret prisoner so, prior to his death, he had not existed. And prior to there being a cell with a ceiling from which to hang himself, there was no cell at all. That is, it was only with his death that he’d lived, only with his hanging that there was a cell to hang himself from.

When I read that X was a Mossad spy who’d become a traitor, I began thinking of all the reasons that spies become traitors: blackmail, failures of character, hunger for power, etc., etc. And I thought, what about a spy who becomes a traitor through empathy? Someone who flips because of his feelings for the other side. And that’s how, in that moment, a character is born. How, for me, an X becomes a Z.

Prisoner Z states in one his letters to the General that the only way for Israel to end the conflict was to lose and cede ground to the Palestinians. Is this an actual idea shared by some in Israel?

I’m sure, if folks think it, they don’t use the term “losing,” and it’s not about a notion of surrender. A novel delivers a pressurized form of reality–a world as real as the one we’re in, that manifests in a heightened way. Even as far off as it seems today, I bet there are plenty of people who still believe that pulling out of enough territory for there to be viable states, side by side, is the best way to achieve peace.

Tell me about the title of the book. Did it come to you as the story unfolded, or did you have it from the start?

Firstly, I’d like to note that the titles of my books are always extraordinarily long. And maybe I should pick shorter ones, since I’m so shy when folks ask me what the names of my books are called. I think, in every case, I’ve found the title of the book inside the story itself.

Do you have plans in the works yet that you can share about your next writing project?

Sure. Yes. I think the early part of one’s writing life is extra stressful because you haven’t yet fallen permanently behind. Once you’re drowning in projects you’re dying to pursue, what-comes-next is always right there.

So, as much as Dinner at the Center of the Earth is a book that took me far from the imagined worlds where I started, the next novel swings me back to where I began. I wanted to return to that space, where I explore the boundary between sacred and profane, religious and secular. Also, I’ve got another play in the works, and a non-fiction book, and some other things cooking.

Be Hair Now: ‘Norma’ by Sofi Oksanen

normaYou might think that having magic hair that’s attuned to your emotions would be a blessing, but the titular character in Norma (by Finnish-Estonian writer Sofi Oksanen) would disagree. Norma is an ordinary woman whose hair corkscrews and kinks when she feels strong emotions, such as danger or guilt. It also happens to grow about a meter a day, causing Norma to have to constantly cut it off so that no one notices. The only person that knows Norma’s secret is her mother, Anita.

As it happens, Norma opens up on the day of Anita’s funeral. Anita has committed suicide by throwing herself in front of train, or so we’re led to believe. The first inkling Norma has that something is off is when her hair starts to corkscrew when meeting a stranger at the funeral.

While it is Norma’s name who’s on the cover, I think it’s safe to say that this book actually has three main characters. Norma, obviously, is the focus of book, but alternating chapters are in a woman named Marion’s point of view. Marion is the daughter of Anita’s best friend. Marion works for her father in the seedy underworld of the hair extension business. The third main character is Anita herself. Through video diaries that Anita has left for Norma to find, Norma finds out the history of why her hair is the way it is.

There are lots of little kinks and turns in that lead you down paths you hadn’t fathomed would happen. The sub-chapters are short so it feels as if you’re flying through; I read the first half of the book in a span of about two and a half hours. Normally, I don’t like alternating points of view, but I think it’s masterfully done in Norma. I’m invested in both Norma and Marion, so I didn’t feel impatient while reading through one or the other. On the surface this may seem like a book about hair, but it’s so much more. It’s an artful look into what would happen if your best asset was also your worst, if your blessing was also your curse.

Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough: ‘Resurrection of Joan Ashby’

A couple of months ago the store got advanced copies of The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, this new novel from Flatiron Books that was touted to be a HUGE debut. Upon first seeing the book, I decided it certainly appeared to be huge in size, but whether or not it was a great debut was yet to be seen. I will be the first to tell you that I tend to steer away from physically large books, because I think they will take a lifetime to read (even though they never actually do). So, my first thought was that I would never actually read this book.

But then Kelly, our manager, said that she had started the book, and it was absolutely amazing. This was a large vote in the positive, because Kelly is a tough critic, guys, and if she says something is amazing I am quick to take notice. I lugged this tome home and vowed to start that night. To say the next week and a half of my life was just me trying to plot out when I could get back to reading this book is an accurate assessment. I became devoted to Joan Ashby and the story of her life, and I have yet to stop talking about this book. So let’s get down to me actually telling you about this story:

Joan Ashby became a wildly successful and award-winning author as a young woman. This could be attributed to the fact that she has been dedicated to her craft all of her life. An article in Literature magazine (Fall Issue)) at the start of the book prints something from her journal that she wrote when she was just 13 years old. It is a list of commitments to herself and requirements to becoming a great author. The list goes like this:

1) Do not waste time
2) Ignore Eleanor when she tells me I need friends [she is referring to her mother]
3) Read great literature every day
4) Write every day
5) Rewrite every day
6) Avoid crushes and love
7) Do not entertain any offer of marriage
8) Never ever have children

9) Never allow anyone to get in my way

As you can see, Joan was a very intense and dedicated little girl. She knew what she wanted, come hell or high water! But of course love will find a way, won’t it? And it certainly does for Joan when she meets Martin. Joan is upfront with Martin from the very start when she tells him that her writing will always come first and children are completely off the table. No exceptions. Clear enough, right?

Haha, wrong again

Before long, Joan will end up unexpectedly pregnant. When Martin is visibly delighted by this development, Joan can’t help but feel betrayed by his quickness to break their vow. So a child is born…and then another child. All during this time, Joan is trying to complete her highly anticipated first novel. Being a wife and a mother comes with many demands, as many of you women out there know. Just reading a book in its entirety is a struggle, much less actually writing one. All through this telling of Joan’s life, snippets of her own incredible short story are sprinkled throughout the book. It is easy to see how she became such an acclaimed short story writer so early in her career.

I don’t want to give too much about the story away, but I will tell you that she does complete her novel and there is a betrayal of Shakespearean proportions. I was reading this book on a plane and when the big event occurred, the woman sitting beside me must surely have been worried about my mental stability. I was breathing heavily and grinding my teeth. I feel sure I made her very uncomfortable, but oh well!

I truly cannot say enough about how much I loved this book. I found Joan incredibly relatable, aside from her obvious genius. She is a woman who says the thing you are not supposed to say about motherhood and being a wife: it is not enough for her. She is not completely fulfilled by the triumphs of her family; she needs something of her own. Of course she loves her family, but she has creative goals and needs. Being creative also, I relate to this. I loved Joan Ashby and I found myself cheering for her this entire book. I literally could have read this forever and been completely satisfied.

Signed first editions of The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas are still available.

Lovers Defying Doubt in ‘White Fur’ by Jardine Libaire

white furWhite Fur by Jardine Libaire is a gritty, uncommon love story set in New York in the 80s between two very uncommon people.

Elise Perez is a girl from a broken home, a bad situation, a girl from the wrong side of town, whatever you want to say….she didn’t grow up easy. Her life has been filled with taking care of siblings when no one else was around to feed them, working dead end jobs just to pay the rent, and dropping out of high school to get away from it all. She’s made some bad decisions, cleaned herself up, fallen back down, but ultimately knows what she wants out of life.

Jamey Hyde is a junior at Yale, who grew up in a privileged family. He’s the heir to a family fortune, drives a fancy car, and has all intentions to graduate and follow in his father’s footsteps as an investment banker. Although it seems like it, he doesn’t have the “perfect” life everyone thinks.

The two come from very different worlds, yet you immediately feel the raw, desperate love between them when they meet one another. They’ve both been let down by so many others throughout their lives that when they’re together there’s a connection that’s hard to break. But, oh…others definitely try to break it. Jamey’s family desperately want things to end, while Elise has no family to really turn to. Relationships are ruined, bridges are burned, and love is pushed to its limits…several times.

I couldn’t stop reading about each character that Libaire introduced. Every time she established a new detail of Jamey or Elise, I could see it so clearly in my mind. She’s a great writer, and the attention that she shows with her characters and their personal relationships really shines through.

Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums” Still Relevant

dharma bums 1962Jack Kerouac is synonymous with The Beat Generation which included Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Gary Synder, Herbet Edwin Huncke, and others. This generation of storytellers and poets explored the post-World War II culture, questioning America’s mainstream values, spirituality, religion, sexuality, and drug culture.

In a “Playboy” article Jack Kerouac explained the meaning of Beat:

“When I first saw the hipsters creeping around Times Square in 1944 I didn’t like them either. One of them, Huncke, came up to me and said, ‘Man, I’m beat.’ I knew right away what he meant somehow. Anyway those hipsters, whose music was bop, they looked like criminals but they kept talking about the same things I liked, long outlines of personal experience and vision, night-long confessions full of hope that had become illicit and repressed by War, stirrings, rumblings of a new soul (that same old human soul). And so Huncke appeared to us and said ‘I’m beat’ with radiant light shining out of his despairing eyes . . .”

dharma bumsIn 1958 for “Pageant” magazine Kerouac would define Beat further as one who is in “a state of beatitude . . . trying to love all of life, trying to be utterly sincere with everyone, practising endurance, kindness, cultivating a joy of heart” despite our mainstream world of consuming and meaningless distraction.

Kerouac was a writer, but more than anything he was a storyteller. His works were not exactly fiction but tales of life on the road. He recorded the Beat generation and gave their stories to the hippie generation, showing them an alternative to suburban life. In “The Dharma Bums,” Kerouac described something different for Americans “all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume, I saw a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier . . .”

Jack Kerouac by Tom PalumboJack Kerouac became an icon frozen in the early 1950s helped by his withdrawal from the public eye and his early death at the age of 47 in 1969. After his death, Allen Ginsberg promoted his work to a new generation. Generations since have redefined his work for their place and time. Kerouac is still relevant today not because he or his writing was flawless but for the simple reasons that he was a keen observer of human interaction—he was nicknamed “Memory babe” as a child, his work encourages an alertness to and questioning of the world around him, his writing showed people being brutally honest with each other—people who were comfortable “letting it all hang out,” and he was a writer who was real—“a writer who has been there” as Allen Ginsberg described in Kerouac’s obituary.

Kerouac’s loose, spontaneous writing style inspired writers like Vladimir Nabokov, Henry Miller, Tom Wolfe and Michael Herr’s record of the Vietnam war “Dispatches.” Even though his fast style revealed good and bad writing, Kerouac is a reminder that serious writing can be about anything in any style of writing.

dharma bums FESince a resurgence of interest in his work in the seventies, all of Jack Kerouac’s books have remained in print. First editions of his books are scarce and valuable among collectors. “The Dharma Bums,” largely considered to be his most accessible work, will sell for upwards of a $1000. His literary and personal archive were secured at the New York Public Library in 2001, and in 2007 Penguin published the original 120-foot scroll of “On the Road,” energizing Kerouac’s work for the next generation.

Written by Lisa Newman. Original to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (August 20)

Read, Lead, and Succeed: ‘The Talented Ribkins’ by Ladee Hubbard

talented ribkinsThe Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard is an amazing book to read, and yet the meaning can be evasive until the main character, Johnny Ribkins, can be fully understood. Johnny is a 72 year-old member of an extraordinary African-American family: the Ribkins, descendants of the Rib King™ (“said to have invented the best barbecue sauce recipe in the entire southeast”).  Each member has an extraordinary talent, or power, whose value can be initially dubious, and, in isolation, maybe useless. Johnny can make maps of places he has never been nor seen, his brother Franklin can climb anything (even flat walls), his cousin Bertrand can spit fire, and his niece Eloise can catch anything that is thrown at her.

Initially, during the Civil Rights movement, Johnny organized his family (and some similarly-gifted friends) to form the Justice Committee, dedicated to helping Civil Rights heroes through their Freedom of Movement Movement, allowing them to move safely about the country. But when the Justice Committee falls apart due to interpersonal conflict, money issues, and Johnny’s escalating paranoia and flights of fancy, Johnny feels lost. Later, after he discovers the existence of his half-brother Franklin, and his wall-climbing capability, he turns to a life of crime as thieves-for-hire.

His partnership with Franklin eventually sours, too, leaving him freelancing his maps for slick gangster Melvin Meeks, from whom Johnny has been embezzling money for years. Now, Johnny has one week to pay off his $100,000 debt to Meeks. His plan is to raid his squirrel-holes from his past all up and down Florida, having burying money like a paranoid pirate, in places that are almost designed to bring back memories. It should be a relatively easy job, what with the amount of money he has stashed away. But he keeps running into people who need a hand-up, and ends up paying for two mortgages. Also, he finds the nature of his mission radically altered: his discovers, for the first time, his deceased brother Franklin’s 13 year-old daughter, Eloise (of catching ability). Soon, he finds her escorting her all over Florida, introducing her to her people, the talented Ribkins, and what it means to live life when you’re just a little bit…different.

The name of this novel and its themes are inspired by W.E.B. DuBois’s concept of the Talented Tenth. Basically, DuBois argued that a well-educated aristocracy of African-Americans would, if educated and equipped, rise up and lead the race of their race into prosperity and success. While this idea might sound elitist, context is critical. He was countering Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta compromise“: that the races could be separate as the fingers, but work together as one hand economically. While Washington accomplished much and was interested in black advancement, his ideas appealed to pragmatic white supremacists, who wanted to keep black people not only humble but subservient. DuBois’s arguments were for black dignity, and full personhood, although not every black person would benefit initially.

The Ribkins are literally talented, standing in (in many ways) for the Talented Tenth. Eloise is talented and smart, but young and the product of a single-parent home. Can the examples of the elder Ribkins be emulated? Should they be? Do all the Ribkins(and Flash and the Hammer, the friends from the Justice Committee) use their talents the same way, and for the same purpose? This is important background information for a novel that is neither parable nor allegory, but definitely infused with important ideas.

But this isn’t a book with just ideas, it is filled with artistry and craft. The setting and history is immersive, and the characters are unique and memorable. Johnny himself is a cipher whose nature seems to shift through the paradigm of whatever old acquaintance he is interacting with. He is an interesting foil for Eloise, who is in the youthful process of discovering herself and her potential. The journey they make is an odd odyssey, filled with hosts with their own complicated motivations. Personally, one of my very parts is the “pie scene,” filled with some of the most delicious dramatic tension I have ever read.

Ultimately, though, you can’t fully appreciate the book until you finish it, when the story comes back home to Leigh Acres, when you find out what Johnny really is (and, for that matter, the true nature of Eloise is capable of). It is then that you see the way forward, and you will understand what DuBois says later when looking back at his Talented Tenth idea:

My own panacea of earlier days was flight of class from mass through the development of a TalentedTenth; but the power of this aristocracy of talent was to lie in its knowledge and character and not in its wealth.

Ladee Hubbard will serve as a panelist on the “First Fiction: The Discovery of the Debut” discussion at the Mississippi Book Festival on Saturday, August 19 at 4 p.m. at the State Capitol in Room 113.

ms book fest

Friendship in a Foreign Land: ‘The Confusion of Languages’ by Siobhan Fallon

Maybe if you only understand half of what a person says, you can more readily read the sincerity of their gestures. Maybe language is much less important than I think it is, and therefore much less frightening.

When Margaret Brickshaw and her husband arrive in Jordan, Cassie Hugo thinks she might have finally found a friend. But the two have little in common besides being military wives who have followed their husbands to the Middle East. Cassie is a play-it-safe rule-follower, while Margaret prefers to ignore the cultural norms and explore on her own. When a fender bender sends Margaret to the police station one afternoon, Cassie is left to watch her baby boy. Hours pass without any word from Margaret, and, desperate to figure out what’s wrong, Cassie finds her diary and begins piecing together the person she thought she knew.

confussion of languagesThe Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon (author of  the short story collection You Know When the Men Are Gone) is a novel that absolutely surprised me. This tale of friendship in a foreign land hooked me from page one. Fallon’s writing and amazing sense of voice make each character come alive. The story alternates between Cassie’s narration in the present and Margaret’s diary entries. Each woman is so well-developed and their relationship feels extremely realistic.

Both outcasts in their own way, Cassie and Margaret band together out of survival. However, the women’s friendship is anything but pretty. Cassie resents Margaret’s life—her dutiful husband, the baby she can’t have—and Margaret isn’t fond of Cassie’s paranoid nature. But both have marriages that are straining under the weight of infertility or distrust. Fallon’s portrayal of a military marriage is eye-opening and raw.
One of the best parts of this book is the setting. I thoroughly enjoyed the rich details about Jordan, which made me feel like I was there. Fallon actually lived as a military wife in Jordan, so the descriptions of the people, places, and food feel real. It was fascinating to learn about the Jordanian culture and what is considered acceptable and inappropriate in that society. I think Fallon did a great job of interpreting the experience of an American living in such a different place and trying to fit in.

It was also interesting to learn about what was happening in Jordan and the Middle East in 2011, when the novel takes place. Events that would seem insignificant to Americans are immediate dangers to the characters. The political situation is as much a character in the novel because it often affects the decisions of the protagonists. Cassie and Margaret, opposite in attitude, represent the tension between wanting to enjoy life in a different country and battling the fear of foreign dangers.

Overall, this is a beautiful, well-written story about how kindness, friendship, and otherness translate between cultures. You’ll fall in love with these two women and will want to keep turning the page to see where their story goes.

And the Stars Look Very Different Today: Jaroslav Kalfar’s ‘Spaceman of Bohemia’

I’m not much of a sci-fi guy. Enjoying certain popular films like Interstellar or works like The Martian has never been outside my personal realm of possibility, but am I going to go out and search for the most brilliant and obscure work of sci-fi literature? Probably not. That being said, it might have found me. spaceman of bohemiaJaroslav Kalfar’s Spaceman of Bohemia is a novel that fits just as comfortably on the shelf next to Kafka as it does in the realm of sci-fi and space adventure. This is a novel that perfectly captures the feelings of loneliness and anxiety that can only come through accepting ambition while subsequently affirming the need to ground personal identity outside oneself, whether it be in love or in history. However, in order to feel out how Kalfar’s work stands out among the rest, it helps to understand the world of the author.

Sitting at the edge of Eastern Europe, Prague is the capital city of the Czech Republic and is traditionally considered to be the center of Bohemia. The Prague of the protagonist, Jakub Prochazka begins in 1948 when the Communist Party took power and all other parties became officially deceased.

My name is Jakub Prochazka. This is a common name. My parents wanted a good life for me, a life of good comradeship with my country and my neighbors, a life of service to the world united in socialism.

Jakub’s father is an informant for the Communist regime with a secret affinity for Elvis Presley and a deep love for his family. At an early age, Jakub admires his father for his dedication to the ethos of his nation, but with the fall of the Iron Curtain the success of the Velvet Revolution in Prague, and the mysterious death of his parents, Jakub is launched into a void of personal identity that can only be captured in the grand metaphor of space travel. In an attempt to distinguish itself as an autonomous nation, the Czech Republic chooses Jakub to embark on a potentially dangerous space mission to investigate a mysterious, purple space cloud that no national superpower is willing to risk its citizens to understand. Jakub leaves his comfortable life with his wife Lenka and a prestigious position as a professor of astrophysics to claim fame and purpose for himself and his nation. As days, weeks, then months pass in his voyage, Jakub realizes the gravity (no pun intended) of the voyage itself, and the strain that it would put on his relationships back home. Then he meets a giant space spider.

hanus the spider

To those of you that are completely freaked out by this image, I will say that I was, too. However, I will also say that after finishing the novel I LOVE Hanus the spider. As Jakub struggles with space madness he (and the reader) attempt to deal with the meaning of Hanus’ presence. I don’t want to give away too much but I will say that Hanus is at once at the center of Jakub’s peril and his guide through it.

While this novel takes on weighty themes and attempts at complex insights, it also reads seamlessly. Jaroslav’s voice through Jakub’s first person narration is at once hilarious and impactful. This Czech astronaut’s story, if nothing else, proves that you don’t need to go to space to venture into the balance between madness and sanity that we all experience in everyday life.

Ellen’s Bodacious Beach Reads 2017

So I shall be going to the beach next week, and next week can’t come soon enough. Now, being of the pale skin variety (i.e. I look like I’ve been dead for two weeks because I’m so pale), I tend not to actually sit on the actual beach all that much. I just want to sit on the balcony, smell the ocean, smoke many packs of cigarettes, and read…A LOT OF BOOKS. So, for several weeks, I have been thinking about which books I would be taking to the beach to read. This has been difficult for me, because I have several hundreds of books on my TBR (to be read) list. I have finally narrowed down the list. Hallelujah!!! So let’s do this!

made for loveThe first book on my list is the new novel from Alissa Nutting, Made for Love. People: this book’s cover is of the air-brushed persuasion. If that is not enough to get your engines started, let me break this novel’s story down for you: Hazel has just left her tech billionaire husband, who has also his sights set on world domination. Things have been weird in their marriage for years, but the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back is when Byron wants to insert a chip in his and Hazel’s brain in order to achieve the first mind meld in history. pinky ru ponderingHer only option is to seek refuge in her father’s home that is in a retirement trailer park. Did I mention that her widower father has just purchased a brand new lifelike sex doll named Diane? Hazel’s father’s hope is that in his last years he will die doing something that he loves; obviously, that thing is having sex with Diane. “Hazel began to look at the five-foot four-inch silicone princess a little differently now: Penthouse pet from waist up, Dr. Kevorkian from the waste down.” If this little bit I’ve just shared does not convince you to buy this book, then we do not share the same sick sense of humor…and that is totally your choice. Albeit the wrong one, but I digress.

goodbye vitaminNumber two is Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong. Ruth, freshly disengaged from her fiance, is summoned home to help care for her father Howard, a once prominent history professor has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and has bouts of lucidity. When Ruth arrives home, she finds the situation much more serious than she had anticipated. When the university does finally sack Howard, Ruth and a handsome ex-student of Howard’s go a little too far in the name of justice. Over the course of a year, the comedy in Ruth’s situation becomes apparent and it gently transforms her grief. Honestly, I am eager to read anything about a thirty-something woman who is not exactly where she would like to be in her life. Perhaps I relate. HAHAHAHA.

watch me disappearWatch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown is coming in hot at number three on the list. This novel is about Billie Flanagan, who went missing a year earlier in Desolation Wilderness (which does not sound like an optimal location to go on a solo hike, but that is what she does). Her body is never found, but a shattered cell phone is recovered. Billie left behind a husband and a teenage daughter. Both of the survivors in this story deal with the loss of Billie in equally unhealthy ways. However, things get seemingly extra unhealthy when Olive, the daughter, starts having visions of Billie…alive. Jonathan, Billie’s husband, is very concerned for Olive’s emotional stability when this all begins, but as he uncovers secrets from Billie’s past, he wonders if he ever knew her at all. So, of course Olive and Jonathan unite in a quest to figure out the truth about Billie’s past and her disappearance. The tagline to this book is “Who you want people to be makes you blind to who they really are.” (cue ominous mood music)

white furNumber four is White Fur by Jardine Libaire. The title of this novel is taken from the white rabbit fur coat the female protagonist always wears. Another great novel tagline is coming your way: “A stunning, star-crossed love story set against the glitz and grit of 1980s New York City.” COUNT. ME. IN. I mean, this novel has absolutely all the things I care about: star-crossed lovers? YES. 1980s New York City? OH YOU KNOW IT! And a female protagonist who is from the wrong side of the tracks and falls in love with a WASP? I’M STARTING TO GET SHORT OF BREATH! HELP ME! So, I have already read the first few pages and it opens in a seedy motel room with Elise, our girl, sitting on the bed with a rifle pointed at Jamie, her guy. All I can think of is, how did it get to this point? My book club is actually reading this book for July and I have already heard wonderful things from some of the members.

meddling kidsLast but not least is number five on the list, Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero. Essentially, this book is about the Mystery Inc. gang all grown up, and it ain’t pretty, people. In this novel, the gang is known as “The Blyton Summer Detective Club.” Blyton Hills is a small mining town in Oregon’s Zoinx River Valley. In 1977, the gang solved their last mystery and unmasked the elusive Sleepy Lake monster. So the story itself starts in 1990 after all of the former detectives have grown up and apart. Everyone is haunted by the disturbing memories of their final night on the case. To give you a sense of how everyone’s lives have turned out up to this point, I’ll explain everyone’s current sitch. Andy, who was the intrepid tomboy, is now wanted in two states and is tired of running from her demons. Kerri is the once kid genius who is drinking away her life in New York City with a Weimaraner named Tim who is a descendant of the original canine in the gang. Then there is Nate, who is a horror-loving nerd that is currently residing in an asylum in Arkham, Massachusetts. Nate has not lost contact with Peter, the gang leader, who was a star jock-turned-actor. This would be totally normal…if Peter were not dead, which he has been for years. So everyone is going to get the gang back together and face their fears about what happened all those years ago! I mean honestly I might start my beach trip off with this book because it sounds like too much damn fun.

So that’s what I’ll be doing for a week. I hope everyone’s week next week is as fun as mine!

‘The Great Gatsby’ dust cover has created its own story

In celebration of the release of John Grisham’s Camino Island, whose plot revolves around stolen F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts, Lisa has been tracing Fitzgerald’s career through his novels. You can read her examinations of This Side of Paradise here and The Beautiful and Damned here.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York, NY: Scribner’s, First Edition, April 10, 1925.

gatsby firstThe cover art for The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Scribner) is one of the most enduring covers in book publishing history. It also said to be the most expensive piece of paper in book collecting.

Before the publication of The Great Gatsby in 1925, Scribner’s had published two novels by Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Beautiful and Damned (1922). Both of the dust jackets for these novels displayed rather straight-forward scenes from the novels, a man and a woman in courtship. Color is downplayed with the use of three muted shades of orange, gray, and black.

The art of the Gatsby jacket by Cuban artist Francis Cugat is remarkable for its symbolic nature, its use of color, and its fine details. Two feminine eyes float over a nocturnal Coney Island carnival scene. Two nudes are subtly reclining in the irises. A brush of glare, or perhaps a tear, in the midnight blue sky as well as the explosive light emanating from the carnival scene below suggest tragedy.

While Fitzgerald was in the middle of writing The Great Gatsby in the summer of 1924, he was shown a draft of the jacket. His reaction is famously documented in a letter to Maxwell Perkins: “For Christ’s sake, don’t give anyone that dust jacket you’re saving for me. I’ve written it into the book.”This influence of a dust jacket on the writing of a book is one of the only recorded instances. Cugat never produced another dust jacket, but his art is still beautifully reproduced on the paperback copies that many high school students purchase for required school reading.

The Great Gatsby as a first edition (18,000 copies in the first printing) is not one of the rarest books, but the survival of the dust jacket is key. The jacket, made too tall for the book, easily chipped, which only encouraged the owner to toss the jacket into the waste bin before long. The dust jacket of The Great Gatsby is one of the most outstanding examples of increased value in a first edition. Without the jacket, a first edition may sell for under $10,000. With the jacket, the price can be upwards of $100,000.

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