Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, November 1, 2011
From My Shelf
The Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Fortune
Sometimes a movie with a shaky premise makes for a bad film but a good conversation starter.
Such is the case with Anonymous, the new Roland Emmerich film that opened this past weekend. Anonymous posits that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, was the actual author of the works attributed to William Shakespeare. The evidence is scant, but apparently it's the kind of conspiracy theory story that Hollywood often likes. (The movie also takes down Elizabeth I, portraying her in a way that makes a mockery of her appellation, the Virgin Queen.)
The idea that Shakespeare didn't write the many plays and other works attributed to him is a recurring one. Besides the Earl of Oxford, Christopher Marlowe and Francis Bacon have been nominated as the true authors, among others. Even such fine minds as Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain and Henry James have doubted Shakespeare did what Shakespeare did. It's almost as if people can't accept that one mind could create so many masterworks of literature, especially someone who wasn't, as Hamlet said, "to the manner born."
The movie has been met with withering criticism from Shakespeare scholars. James S. Shapiro, a professor of English at Columbia University, earlier this year wrote a book on the subject, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, published by Simon & Schuster. (Or did he write it?) In a piece in the New York Times last month, he decried the movie as dishonoring the Bard. Reviews of the movie have been excoriating.
So rather than seeing the film, we recommend revisiting the work that has caused the "controversy," whether in written form or performed on stage or even on the silver screen. In a month, Coriolanus, directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes, is coming out, and there's the classic Shakespeare in Love, starring Ralph's younger brother Joseph Fiennes as young Will. What a treasure Will is.
Scrap-Wood Bookshelf; DIY Bookends
Humberto and Fernando Campana crafted a bookshelf from reclaimed pieces of scrap wood. "Chaotic and cluttered, yet unexpectedly harmonious, the bookshelf is the perfect addition to the modern home, which is embellished with surprising accents of bold color and quirky forms," Inhabitat noted.
Noting that a "person with such a huge collection of books AND crafty supplies certainly needs to be making her own," parenting website Babble.com offered "21 simple ideas for DIY bookends."
Further Reading: Great Cities
Tackling the history of a major city is nothing new for famed art critic Robert Hughes (The Shock of the New; The Fatal Shore)--in 1992 he published Barcelona, a tribute to the great Catalan capital and its remarkable architecture.
This week Knopf releases Hughes's Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History. The book begins with the Australian author's first impressions of the Italian metropolis, formed in 1959 when he was an undergraduate, a perspective that is not only charming in and of itself, but allows readers to "see" Rome as it is in modern times before diving back--way back--into its past.
Hughes looks at cities from different perspectives, including the personal and the critical. It happens that Knopf has also recently published another great city's "biography," and along with that, we're suggesting two different sorts of looks at urban centers.
Jerusalem: The Biography by British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore isn't simply about what has happened in the storied Holy Land center--it's about the people through history who have been affected by the city (even Barack Obama). In this author's hands, Jerusalem is not simply a geographical nexus, but a living character.
The Great Cities in History by John Julius Norwich is a reference book, and oh, what a reference book it is! Its goal is to demonstrate why a particular city was most important during a particular time, and while that certainly is useful for students, general readers may well find themselves inspired by the ideas and connections.
Preserving the World's Great Cities by Anthony Tung. Former New York City Landmarks Preservation Commissioner Tung traveled around the world in an effort to discover what works in terms of preservation and what doesn't, exploring our architectural and cultural heritage as it is embodied in buildings and urban spaces. How did preservation efforts begin? (The answer might surprise you.) How do environmental issues affect preservation? This book's importance overrides its slightly dry tone. --Bethanne Patrick
The Writer's Life
Authors Have Hobbies, Too
Ayn Rand collected stamps. "Surprising hobbies of famous authors" were featured by Flavorwire, which expressed surprise upon learning that "Emily Dickinson was a passionate baker, and it got us to thinking.... With so many cultural icons and celebrities, we tend to pigeonhole them like characters, fitting them into the roles they are most famous for instead of thinking of them as fully realized human beings--but famous authors have weird hobbies just like the rest of us, a few of which even make us think twice about that literary figure we thought we knew so well."
Bad Outcomes; Graphic Novels; Best Villains; African Memoirs
In presenting a list of "some of the worst outcomes of young love in literature," Flavorwire offered a warning "to all you teenage lovers out there: make sure your beloved is not a kidnapper, a psychopath, your brother or a hundred-year-old vampire before you wear his letterman jacket. Or go for it. Up to you."
Rachel Cooke chose "10 graphic novels that transcend the comic book medium" for the Guardian.
The latest entry in NPR's Three Books series--"Devil in the Details: 3 Artful Tales of Murder"--featured selections by Bruce Machart, author of Men in the Making. He suggested that the answer to why we are compelled to read tales of violence and murder "lies in the fact that all artful stories humanize us as surely as they humanize their characters. They allow us to transcend crime-scene voyeurism and courtroom media hype, to bear witness to those who survive, after the book is slid back onto the shelf."
"The 10 best villains in literature" were chosen for Flavorwire by Kim Newman, author of Professor Moriarty: Hound of the D’Ubervilles. "To be a great villain, it’s not enough just to be thoroughly evil--you have to be entertaining with it," Newman observed. "A certain panache helps, especially for villains who fall into the category of arch-nemesis and have to prove themselves almost the equal of a flamboyantly brilliant hero."
Alexandra Fuller, author most recently of Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, chose her top 10 African memoirs for the Guardian. "The memoirs that have come out of Africa are sometimes startlingly beautiful, often urgent, and essentially life-affirming, but they are all performances of courage and honesty," she wrote. "Far from the tell-all confessionals more usual in western memoirs, the African memoir lays bare the bones of what it is to be a child, survivor, or perpetrator of oppression and conflict."
Tolkien Pictures The Hobbit
To mark the 75th anniversary of The Hobbit's publication next year, an extensive collection of original illustrations and paintings by J.R.R. Tolkien are being published this week in the U.K. The Guardian reported that when HarperCollins began preparing for the novel's upcoming anniversary, "the publisher discovered Tolkien had actually created more than 100 illustrations, which lay buried in his archive at the Bodleian Library in Oxford and were only recently digitized."
"That was a surprise. I thought there might be 40-50 in total," said publisher David Brawn. "But there are 110 Hobbit pictures, about two dozen of which haven't been published before.... It includes his conceptual sketches for the cover design, a couple of early versions of the maps and pages where he's experimenting with the runic forms, as well as a couple of manuscript pages."
The Maid: A Novel of Joan of Arc
by Kimberly Cutter
Before she became Joan of Arc, she was simply Jehanne--a poor, neglected, often abused girl from a nowhere village in a forgotten region of France--until the voices came, and with them the certainty that she was God's chosen vessel to triumph over the English and turn the tide of war.
Debut novelist Cutter spends little time debating whether the voices were true or a hallucination; instead, she shows Jehanne's single-minded determination to convince the brokers of power that they could defeat the English (which they eventually did, though not for another 30 years). Jehanne comes off as a bit of a fanatic--but then, wasn't she?--whose obsession allows her to sidestep some unpleasant questions, such as whether her voices' orders to kill go against God's message of peace and goodwill. Not necessarily pretty, she still manages to attract many of the men she fights with or argues against, and some of the book's most humanizing moments come when she grieves for the husband, children and stable family life she will never know.
Readers may wish for a map to keep track of the progression of battles, but the author--and Jehanne--sweep us along on the rising tide of victories against the English, punctuated by a few devastating defeats. For lovers of historical drama, this story has all the right ingredients: bloody fighting, brave death on the battlefield, unrequited love, unsavory court politics and a heroine whose story compels us, even though we know how it ends. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams
Discover: A sweeping, fast-paced novel about Jehanne d'Arc, which takes readers through her childhood and her brief but unforgettable career as a warrior.
by Larry Closs
Jack Kerouac's On the Road shook up literary and cultural America when it was published in 1957. For the sweet, yearning characters of Larry Closs's debut novel, the Beat Generation's aura still shakes, stirs and inspires their world in 1995.
Harry Charity no sooner meets Jay Bishop, a new co-worker at Element magazine, than he discovers their mutual obsession with On the Road and the Beats. Intense lunchtime discussions climax in a visit to the New York Public Library restoration department to worship at the shrine of Kerouac's original scroll manuscript of his masterwork, and Harry and Jay's friendship slips toward a fraught bromance. Jay has a girlfriend who senses her exclusive territory is being invaded; Harry is scarred from two previous relationships that couldn't go where he wanted. Yet neither takes the easy way out by backing off the deep emotional connection they feel.
Questions of loving versus being in love play out as Harry tries to break free of his past disastrous behavior patterns. As he reminds Jay's girlfriend, Kerouac took "Beat" from the biblical Beatitudes to signify "to be in love with life." Closs captures Harry's struggle to accept the tension/balance between the ideal he wishes he could realize and real life beautifully, most movingly in his meetings with Allen Ginsberg--even when the idol unapologetically displays feet of clay, he can provide wisdom and direction. Charity, Harry finally learns, may be the spirit of giving but the depth of the impulse lies in knowing what the recipient can accept. --John McFarland, author
Discover: An endearing debut novel about aspects of love and connection set against the continuing legacy of the Beat Generation.
by Trevor Cole
What might happen if the Coen brothers were allowed to direct an episode of Desperate Housewives? Trevor Cole's Practical Jean is delightedly macabre literary approximation. Though the subject is murder, it's blackly hilarious without ever descending into depravity. If one can call a book about a woman who decides to kill all of her friends a joy, that's what Cole has accomplished.
Sculptor Jean Vale Horemarsh has just ended three months of caring for her (now deceased) cancer-ridden mother, witnessing everything from her mother's bitterness and brittle bones to bedpans. After arriving home to find that her dolt of a husband couldn't be bothered to clean out the moldy food in the fridge and has downed all of her favorite wine, Jean has a moment of clarity. She vows that her four dearest girlfriends will never have to suffer the indignity of getting old and diseased. Her plan? To kill them while they're still in their middle-aged prime.
Though Jean's theory is altruistically sound, her methods of implementation are utterly insane. You can't help but respect her commitment, even as the body count rises. Like Dr. Kevorkian with a shopping cart, Jean views her desire to end her friends' "suffering" as a noble act of friendship--one she comically denies to her cheating husband and his mistress, deeming them unworthy. Cole's killer novel will change your perceptions on death and friendship, entertaining you to the bitter end. --Natalie Papailiou, author of blog MILF: Mother I'd Like to Friend
Discover: A twisted tale about a woman's unique strategy to save her friends from the indignities of old age.
Mystery & Thriller
I Am Half-Sick of Shadows
by Alan Bradley
Flavia de Luce is coming for the holidays! For readers who fell in love with the 11-year-old British sleuth in one or all of Alan Bradley's first three novels featuring the clever chemist, I Am Half-Sick of Shadows is a welcome arrival indeed. As for newcomers, well, after a few pages you'll be under the spell of Flavia's precocious narration, too.
The clues begin with the brightly hued cover, featuring a skeleton wearing a Santa hat, with text and art snow-capped on a red background. Flavia, her father, Colonel de Luce, her two antagonistic sisters and the loyal staff are welcoming a film cast and crew to Buckshaw days before Christmas in hopes the rental fee will help save the decaying family manse. The drama mounts even before a blizzard traps the de Luces with the prima donna leading lady, a truly motley crew and colorful townspeople eager to get a peek at the celebrities. (And Flavia had thought her plot to capture St. Nick would be the highlight of her Christmas!) Of course, a crime occurs, Flavia exercises her sleuthing skills despite Inspector Hewitt's warnings--even as he scribbles her observations in his notebook--and after a suspenseful Christmas Eve icy rooftop climax, justice is served along with steaming tea. It all makes for another charming novel from Bradley which, along with its predecessors, is a perfect holiday gift for readers 12-ish and up. --Cheryl Krocker McKeon, bookseller
Discover: Alan Bradley's preteen sleuth Flavia de Luce takes on the legend of St. Nick plus a murder in blizzard-blanketed Buckshaw.
Science Fiction & Fantasy
The Kingdom of Gods
by N.K. Jemisin
N.K. Jemisin's first novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, introduced readers to a world where gods and their creations interact freely. This is much-trodden ground in genre fiction, but Jemisin managed to bring an inspired voice to the subject, imbuing questions of relationship, identity, mortality, humanity, cruelty, jealousy, love and power with an unexpected poignancy. The second novel in the series, The Broken Kingdoms, reconfirmed her talent for compelling love stories, fabulously relatable heroines and convincing world-building.
The eagerly anticipated conclusion to the Inheritance Trilogy, The Kingdom of Gods, is in some ways a departure from its predecessors. The first two novels were narrated by mortal women, but here Sieh, the god of childhood, takes center stage with a differentiated voice and a new cast of mortals. Yet his story weaves in all the relevant characters and storylines introduced over the course of the three books, bringing everything together for a rewarding and satisfying conclusion. The Kingdom of Gods once again proves Jemisin's skill and consistency as a storyteller, but what sets her apart from the crowd is her ability to imagine and describe the mysteries of the universe in language that is at once elegant and profane, and thus, true. --Katherine Montgomery, book nerd
Discover: A world filled with vibrantly painted gods, godlings, demons and the even more fascinatingly complex humans who love them.
Biography & Memoir
by Joan Didion
Didion's last book, The Year of Magical Thinking, was a poignant memoir of her nearly 40-year marriage to John Gregory Dunne, who suffered a fatal heart attack at the dinner table in 2003, while their only daughter, Quintana Roo, was in a New York City ICU. Blue Nights is a meditation on the death of her daughter at age 39 in 2005 as well as on illness, aging and the wisdom or folly of having children at all.
Quintana was adopted on the day she was born, coming home to a house that would not have had a layette or a bassinet were it not for friends; Didion was at a loss as to how to anticipate a child's needs.
Quintana was eventually diagnosed with "borderline personality disorder"; in view of that, it is interesting that Didion makes no mention of her own breakdown in 1968, when Quintana was two. She documented it in The White Album, but it doesn't enter here. She accuses herself, excuses herself and constantly comes back to a variation on the same theme: Did I get it right? Was it something I did? Didn't do? Are Didion's neurotic/neurasthenic tendencies a narcissistic show or is her beautiful prose truly indicative of a great sadness? The only fair conclusion is: some of each.
When she moves away from self-examination, there is more of Didion at her still-impressive writerly self. She writes with more enthusiasm about '50s parties, smoking, drinking and celebrities. A life of cosseted privilege not spared two horrendous deaths makes us, ultimately, sympathize with her. ---Valerie Ryan, Cannon Beach Book Company, Ore.
Discover: Joan Didion recounts her experience of motherhood, her daughter's place in her life and the aching loss she feels at losing her child.
Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me: A Memoir... of Sorts
by Ian Morgan Cron
The Barnes & Noble "Discover Great New Writers" program doesn't often select books with an overtly religious tone, but then religion is only one aspect of Ian Morgan Cron's memoir about a child facing the sins of his father. Growing up in the 1950s and '60s, Cron thought his father was a movie producer, but at the age of 16 discovered the truth: his father worked for the CIA. But Dad's career was thwarted by alcoholism--a trait Cron would later battle himself before rediscovering the God he loved as a child but felt betrayed by as an adult. (Cron is now an Episcopal priest and author of the novel Chasing Francis.)
The writing in Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me is beautiful, even during the heart-wrenching scenes of a father's booze-fueled behavior as seen through the eyes of a child. It's even more painful to watch Cron behave the same way years later as he seeks to fill the emptiness left by his abandonment of God. Though ultimately focused on Cron's Christian redemption and salvation, the memoir does not try to convert non-believers. Instead, it delves deeply into the hills and valleys of fatherhood and what it means to have children to love and cherish, even when parents are never perfect. --Sara Dobie, blogger at Wordpress
Discover: A heart-wrenching memoir with religious undertones about the secret life of an abusive, alcoholic father and how that life shaped the salvation of his son.
Civilization: The West and the Rest
by Niall Ferguson
Ever wondered how a group of bickering nation-states in Western Europe rose to dominate the world? Niall Ferguson has a surprisingly modern answer for you: there's an app for that. Six, to be precise. In his 11th book, Ferguson (Empire, Colossus, High Financier) explains how six "killer apps" have enabled the West to dominate "the Rest" for 500 years--and how the Rest may be catching up after finally "downloading" them.
Ferguson gives readers a sweeping yet surprisingly detailed refresher course on the rise of the West, weighing the contributions of each "killer app": competition; science; the rule of law (and property rights); modern medicine; the culture of consumption; and the Protestant work ethic. He explores the contrasting leadership styles of Western countries, comparing the effects of British and French colonialism in Africa, wondering what would have happened if the Spanish had landed at Plymouth Rock and the British had dominated the Incas and Aztecs. His arguments cast a wide net, touching on topics from isolationism in the Ming dynasty to the present worldwide popularity of McDonald's and blue jeans.
Readers may argue with Ferguson's assertion that the West is past its peak, or take issue with his amoral analytic approach to colonialism, labor issues and recent economic policies. But this cogent, often witty book provides a wealth of information to discuss and will certainly achieve its main aim: sparking conversation. How many parents and teachers--and historians--wish there was an app for that? --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams
Discover: A thorough examination of six keys to the West's rise and domination, which may hold the seeds of its imminent destruction.
Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War
by Tony Horwitz
John Brown's raid on the armory at Harper's Ferry on October 17, 1859, is often cited as a catalyst for the Civil War that began two years later. Brown himself is usually portrayed as an abolitionist zealot who, alone among anti-slavery proponents, buttressed his rhetoric with lethal force. In Midnight Rising, Tony Horowitz (Confederates in the Attic) confirms these broad strokes of history's brush while raising questions about the raid.
Brown's commitment to abolition was absolute and longstanding; he masterminded many of the attacks on "Border Ruffians" who had massed in Kansas to sway the legislature to create the next slave state. Afterward, Brown kept in close contact with wealthy Northern abolitionists, raising money to buy arms and meticulously preparing for every contingency that might arise during the raid. In spite of this, it failed spectacularly. Why didn't Brown detain the train running through Harper Valley that night, or use the knife-tipped spears he'd commissioned to arm newly freed slaves who would join him? Why did he delay the critical steps he'd planned and so lose all the advantages of surprise? Horowitz's engaging analysis infuses John Brown with a surprising naïveté, perhaps even a confused loss of focus, that spurs a fall from master tactician to clumsy blunderer evocative of Greek tragedy. Midnight Rising adds an unexpected layer of complexity to this smoldering period in American history. --Judith Hawkins-Tillirson, proprietress, Wyrdhoard books, and blogger at Still Working for Books
Discover: Arresting, hitherto neglected aspects of one of antebellum America's most shocking acts of violence.
Essays & Criticism
The Least Cricket of Evening
by Robert Vivian
Robert Vivian is a poet of small places, writing from his home town in the dead center of Michigan with its small Big Boy restaurant and "tough-minded teenagers wearing their baseball caps hip-hop sideways, shoulder-dipping down the sidewalk." His second collection of Midwest-centered essays, The Least Cricket of Evening (a companion to 2002's Cold Snap as Yearning), contains short lyrical prose poem observations and meditations on the world around him: a college shortstop's suicide; a fresh road kill; a neighbor's house fire; his mom washing dishes; the local Chippewa casino filled with sad, cigarette-smoking old people amidst the "hypnotic drone of the slot machines, which sing of slow attrition and seepage and the occasional ding-ding-ding of quarter jackpots."
Vivian's vision isn't confined to the Midwest; he also reflects on harsh realities confronted in travels to Eastern Europe--places like Auschwitz, Krakow, Prague and Turkey, where people's "rubble worn and tea-stained" teeth remind him of the West's good fortune, where "you must be prepared for long talks with God that are strictly one way." Yet his heart and sensitivities remain in "the middle of Michigan, the slice of America with worker's comp on its mind." With a poet's eye and ear, Vivian elevates the everyday to the universal in a contemplative voice like "the least cricket of evening under the porch of a clapboard house, chirping out its one note of everlasting wisdom." --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kans.
Discover: The lyrical essays of a Midwest poet who finds the profound in the ordinary.
Children's & Young Adult
How to Save a Life
by Sara Zarr
Sara Zarr (Once Was Lost) has been giving readers smart contemporary YA tales since her first book, National Book Award finalist Story of a Girl, and her latest novel is everything that both fans and newcomers could want. When Jill's mother starts thinking about adopting a baby, Jill figures it's just the grief talking. Both of them feel stunned by the unexpected loss of Jill's dad in a car accident, and neither of them quite knows how to help the other deal with it. But then Jill discovers that not only is her mom serious about adopting, she's bringing the teenage mother, Mandy, to live with them for the remaining weeks leading up to her delivery. Is Mandy who and what she says she is? Jill barely knows herself any more, and her world just got more complicated.
It would be so easy for Mandy and Jill to be flat or clichéd. Mandy is a pretty girl, seemingly vapid, with an awful home life--but she's also got a core of steel and a refreshing willingness to take people at face value. Jill is a hardened (and hardening) goth/punk, pushing everyone away as she struggles with loss--but she's also smart and wry, and cares more about the people around her than is maybe good for her. Zarr has a way of crafting characters that both put you on edge and become immediately familiar, and it stands her in good stead in this new novel. --Jenn Northington, events manager at WORD bookstore
Discover: Two teenage girls struggling with loss, opposites thrown together by circumstance, who must redefine themselves and their notions of family.
Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade
by Melissa Sweet , illus. by Melissa Sweet
Have you ever thought about how balloons came to dominate the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade? From this day forward you won't be able to look at them without thinking of Tony Sarg.
Melissa Sweet introduces Sarg as a born problem-solver, whose solutions brim with wit and an overarching sense of play. He once said he "became a marionette man when he was only six years old," rigging up an elaborate pulley system so he could complete his morning chore--feeding the chickens--while remaining comfortably in his bed. Sweet proved with her Caldecott Honor illustrations for A River of Words that she could pack a lot of information into the illustrations of a picture-book biography. Here she goes a step further, incorporating into her collages the materials that Sarg would have used in the creation of his puppets—fabrics, cord, paper and pencils. The author-artist uses spare prose as one might poetry.
Sweet traces Sarg's rise from London, where he made puppets from wood, cloth and strings, to his performance with the Tony Sarg Marionettes on Broadway in New York City, to the Macy's team commissioning a "puppet parade" for their holiday windows--and for whom he would eventually invent the now-famous balloons.
Children will be pleased to meet and also take to heart this unsung hero, whose motto--"I have never done a stroke of work in my life"--models the importance of imaginative play in creative problem-solving. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness
Discover: Tony Sarg, the man behind the Macy's parade, whose playful imagination led to creative problem solving.