Author Penelope Lively describes her latest book, Dancing Fish And Ammonites, as “not quite a memoir,” but rather “the view from old age,” a subject she says she can report on with some authority — Monday is the British writer’s 81st birthday.
After her husband’s death, she was forced to sift through all of their belongings. The one thing she couldn’t bear to let go of was her collection of books. In the interview, she tells us why:
"They chart my life. I don’t want to sound ponderous, but they chart my intellectual life. They chart everything that I’ve been interested in and thought about for the whole of my reading life. So if they went I would, in a sense, lose a sense of identity. They identify me. … Most of them I shall never read again, but you never know what you may want to go back to. And it does constantly happen to me that there’s something that I suddenly think, "Oh, I’ve got that book, let me just look that up." I do it every day."
"In the opening paragraph of Moby-Dick, Ishmael tells us he takes to sea whenever he feels the onset of “a damp, drizzly November in [his] soul.” I know how he feels. Whenever the frigid funk of February settles in, I, too, yearn to get outta town. This year I have, thanks to two exquisite vehicles of escape fiction. Rachel Pastan’s Alena and Katherine Pancol’s The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles are both smart entertainments perfect for curling up with on a winter’s night. Admittedly, they both fall into that much-disputed category of “women’s fiction,” but I urge male readers not to feel automatically excluded, much as we women readers have learned to gamely step aboard into boy’s-only clubs like that of, say, The Pequod.”
Maureen Corrigan reviews Alena and The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles, “ escape fantasies about shy book wormy types triumphing over glossy power divas. ”
First, a word about this list: it’s honestly just a fluke that my best books rundown for 2013 is so gender biased. I didn’t deliberately set out this year to read so many terrific books by women.
Lets start with Alice McDermott. Without ever hamming up the humility, Alice McDermott’s latest novel, Someone, tells the life story of an ordinary woman named Marie who comes of age in mid-twentieth century Brooklyn and works for a time in a funeral parlor. McDermott reveals to readers what’s distinct about people like Marie who don’t have the ego or eloquence to make a case for themselves as being anything special.
Unlike McDermott’s submissive Marie, the main character of The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud’s latest novel, is like a dormant volcano getting ready to blow. Nora Eldridge is a single elementary school teacher in her thirties who’s grimly disciplined herself to settling for less. When a glamorous family enters her life and reignites her artistic and erotic energies, Nora, like Jane Eyre, gets in touch with her anger and her hunger. Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland is another stark novel that charts the fate of two brothers in Calcutta in the 1960s, one a political activist; the other a stick-in-the-mud academic. The Lowland is an ambitious story about the rashness of youth as well as the hesitation and regret that can make a long life not worth living.
Ambition is what makes Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch my novel of the year: jumbo-sized, coincidence-laced, it’s Dickensian in its cast of characters and range of emotions. In fact, there’s a lot of David Copperfield in the main character, Theo Decker, who’s thirteen when the sudden death of his mother propels him on a cross-country odyssey that includes a season in hell in Las Vegas and brushes with the Russian mob. Always yearning for his lost mother; Theo is like the goldfinch in the 17th century Dutch painting that gives this extraordinary novel its name: an alert yellow bird “chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle.”
My debut novel of the year is Adelle Waldman’s brilliant comedy of manners and ideas, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. Waldman thoroughly inhabits the head of a sensitive cad named Nate Piven, a writer living in Brooklyn. There are many throwaway moments of hilarity here, such as when Nate endures his weekly telephone chat with his father, who asks him the question every aspiring writer is asked nowadays: “Have you given any thought to self publishing?”
A boy-girl pair ties for my for best short story collection nod: Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove contains some genuine creepers, like “Proving Up,” a tale of the American Frontier that reads like a collaboration between Willa Cather and Emily Dickinson. The standout in George Saunders’ collection, The Tenth of December, is “The Semplica Girl Diaries”—a story whose power could singlehandedly change immigration policy.
In biography, the winner for me this year was Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages about Jane Franklin, Ben’s little sister. To excavate the remains of Jane’s hidden story, Lepore augments her own training as a historian with literary criticism, sociology, archeology and even some of the techniques of fiction.
Patricia Volk’s boisterous memoir, Shocked, also breaks traditional genre rules. Shocked explores the two titanic women who impressed their ideas of beauty and femaleness on Volk: her mother, Audrey, a famous beauty, and the designer Elsa Schiaparelli. In her writing and in her memoir’s gorgeous illustrations, Volk has embraced something of Schiaparelli’s surrealist approach to art. Roger Rosenblatt’s evocative memoir, The Boy Detective, also challenges easy categorization. His book combines a walking tour around vanished Manhattan, with a meditation, not only on the classic mystery fiction he loves, but also on those larger metaphysical mysteries that defy even the shrewdest detective’s reasoning.
Speaking, at last, of mysteries, my best mystery of the year turns out to be yet another stunner from Scandinavia. The Dinosaur Feather is a debut novel by a Dane named S. J. Gazan, which takes us deep into the insular world of scientists investigating dinosaur evolution. I could be wrong (but I don’t think I am) when I say that Gazan disposes of a murder victim here by an infernal means that no other mystery writer — not even the resourceful Dame Agatha — ever concocted. And, yes, in case you’re wondering, S. J. Gazan is a woman. Everybody knows the female of the species is deadlier than the male.
Happy Reading to one and all.
The list is available here with audio and links to the reviews
Linda Ronstadt joins Fresh Air to talk about her memoir Simple Dreams. In her interview she tells Terry Gross about why she never enjoyed the drug scene of rock n’ roll:
I’m a person who is too sensitive for drugs. I’d smoke pot and I’d be hopelessly confused and hungry and sort of paranoid and want to hide under the bed. I just felt like I couldn’t cope. If I tried to do it on stage, I couldn’t remember the words, and I thought, ‘Well, who needs this?’ And cocaine just made me real jittery and made me really nervous and talk really fast, and I talk fast enough already. And also, what I’m really truly addicted to is reading. I love to read, and reading was my hedge against boredom on the road, because you’re always just flying on a plane or riding on a train or riding on a bus, and it’s just endless hours of boring travel, and I always had a book. I was never bored, because I could always find out something really interesting. If I tried drugs, I couldn’t remember the sentence I had just read. It just wasn’t a thing that worked for me.
photo via listal
The 2013 National Book Award Nominees have been announced. Fresh Air’s book critic Maureen Corrigan reviewed 4 of the nominees:
Among the fiction nominees are Jhumpa Lahiri for The Lowland and George Saunders for The Tenth of December as well as Alice McDermott for her book Someone. In nonfiction, Jill Lepore is nominated for The Book of Ages.
Terry Gross interviewed Lawrence Wright, author of Going Clear, about the world of Scientology and the life of its leader.
So last night was a big night for Girls. The show and its writer and star, Lena Dunham, picked up a couple Golden Globes and the second season premiered on HBO. But even if you’re one of those people who “doesn’t watch tv” …
But while Dunham’s lady-centered wry comedy may be singular in today’s television line-up, the world of literature is home to a multitude of books with the same appeal as Girls, books that feature a certain kind of female protagonist (usually one coming of age) or a certain kind of female narrator (pointed, self-deprecating, and ultimately wise). These are books that — like Girls – explore what it is like to be young and hungry — hungry for love and hungry for sex, but most of all, hungry for recognition and hungry for adulthood. Ultimately, the girls in these books, like the girls of Girls, are hungry to become the women they will one day be.
I just finished Buddha in the Attic (for book club) and Open City (for reading on benches) and Are You My Mother? (the Alison Bechdel version, not the PD Eastman one..)
What are you reading?
Anyone need some fresh suggestions? Let’s make a list.
February Book Picks: ‘Shooting Kabul’ And ‘The Hundred Dresses’
This month, NPR’s Backseat Book Club will read two books that explore what it’s like to try to create a new home while still missing the one you’ve left behind. Join us as we read Shooting Kabul by N.H. Senzai and The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes.
Join in with NPR’s book club (and the newest NPR Tumblr page!)
Web, print, magazines, newspapers. What’s the best thing you read this year? Let’s make a list for our friends traveling this weekend to enjoy.
A good novel doesn’t just transcend the boundaries of its target market — it knows nothing about target markets. … Many of these crossover “teen” novels are satisfying to adult readers because they tap into ageless themes, namely the sense that each of us longs to know who we really are in a strange, confusing and sometimes otherworldly world. As it turns out, the search for self is a lifelong one.
Here are five titles for summer reading that will appeal to readers across age groups.