Over a period of a couple of months earlier this year, I received a series of ingriguing postcards in the mail. They were ostensibly sent from Pine Haven Retirement Center, a care home somewhere in the Carolinas. The cards were part of a promotional campaign for Jill McCorkle's latest novel, "Life After Life," which came out at the end of March.
McCorkle is a fine, fine Southern writer, and one whose work I've admired for years. So here's her new book: A novel by a highly regarded writer, bolstered by a quirky and imaginative marketing campaign, released just before the onslaught of the Big April Books. What could go wrong?
And then, the very next week, enter British writer Kate Atkinson. And her new book: "Life After Life."
Atkinson is a great writer as well, both populist and literary, creator of the popular Jackson Brodie mysteries. Her "Life After Life" ended up on several "best-of-the-year" lists and was short-listed for the Costa Novel Award. (It also won the Guardian's "Not the Booker Prize" award, which goes to what readers believe to be the best book of the year.)
So sorry, McCorkle! I worry that every time "Life After Life" showed up on a best-of list, she felt that little spray of hope that it was hers.
Twins like these happen fairly often in the world of publishing--books whose titles, or topics (there were two major biographies of silent film star Gloria Swanson published this year--two!), or jackets are so similar that there is room for confusion.
It is not yet 2014, but already I'm on Twins Watch. In today's mail, Lucie Whitehouse's "Before We Met," which looks so similar to Rachel Joyce's "Perfect" (she's the author of "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry") that there's bound to be confusion. Take a look:
Really, what are the odds?
It's a hard truth: there just isn't room in the newspaper for every book that deserves mention. We try, we really do, but we can't fit them all in. News gets in the way. And the funnies! And the TV grid. And apparently we must devote some column inches to sports.
So every so often, I like to highlight a few worthy books here on the blog, and this time of year I keep my eye out for gorgeous books that might be suitable for giving (to others, or to yourself). Here are three.
"Paul Chesley: A Photographic Voyage," by Paul Chesley (Goff Books, $60) celebrates 40 years of photography by Minnesota native Paul Chesley (he was born in Red Wing)--many of those years spent shooting for National Geographic. This big, coffee-table-sized book collects more than 300 color images--many a full page, or bigger--from exotic locales. These are not action shots of war, or images from busy urban life, but mostly are photos that look as though they could have been shot any time in the last 100 years: young monks in Cambodia, dancers in Thailand, horsemen riding past a mountain, native American women herding sheep in Arizona, bicyclists in Hanoi, mountains in the snow. So beautiful.
This series of annotated, illustrated classics from Harvard Press has become a lovely annual tradition. Over the years, the press has published annotated editions of "The Wind in the Willows," "Alice in Wonderland," "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (both annotated and uncensored!), and many others. Each one has been carefully and beautifully edited.The editors know what we like, though, and they have done more Jane Austen than they have anyone else; "Sense and Sensibility: An Annotated Edition" is the press' fifth Austen book and is a worthy addition. It's gorgeous to look at, with moire endpapers, illustrations from various editions of the book (as well as photographs of objects of the time, and paintings of contemporary well-known people), and, of course, the intelligent and abundant annotations, by scholar Patricia Meyer Spacks of the University of Virginia. I particularly like one of the opening images--Jane Austen painted in 1802 by her sister, Cassandra. Jane is wearing a blue bonnet and is lifting her skirt above her ankles, perhaps to keep from getting muddy as she crosses a field. "The painting," notes Spacks, "evokes personality without rendering any facial feature of its subject."
The Folio Society treats books as works of art. In this case, the editors have taken the original 1872 edition of George MacDonald's fairy tale and commissioned illustrations by Romanian artist Madalina Andronic--only seven illustrations, but each a full page and steeped in colors, shapes and patterns that invoke the mysteries of Eastern Europe folklore: forests and bearded men and tulips and dreams.
MacDonald's story is about young Princess Irene and a miner boy, Curdie, who becomes her friend. Together, they must thwart the goblins that live underground, and who are plotting to kidnap Irene and take over the country. It's a rich, vibrant, mysterious tale, one of three notable books written by the Scottish author (and all mainstays of my childhood). The introduction is by Maria Tatar, Harvard professor and expert on folklore and fairytales. A perfect gift for a middle-grade or older child who loves to escape into a different world through books.
While you were out shopping on Saturday, doing your bit for small businesses and indie bookstores, the President was following your lead. He and his daughters popped into their local indie, Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., and hauled a pile of 21 books up to the counter.
Lots of worthy books in that stack, some of which were recommended by staff--everything from the classic "Harold and the Purple Crayon" to the much-admired "The Lowland," by Jhumpa Lahiri.
Also in the pile: "Flora & Ulysses," by Minneapolis writer Kate DiCamillo, which was on the long-list for the National Book Award, and "Heart of a Samurai," by Duluth writer Margi Preus, a Newbery Honor Book a couple of years back.
And, of course, "Wild," by McGregor native and UM grad Cheryl Strayed, which might make him officially the last person in the country to read that best-selling memoir.
Here's the full list, courtesy of the Washington Post, which credits the Christian Science Monitor, which credits the White House:
“Half Brother” by Kenneth Oppel
“Heart of a Samurai” by Margi Preus
“Flora and Ulysses” by Kate DiCamillo
“Jinx” by Sage Blackwood
“Lulu and the Brontosaurus” by Judith Viorst and Lane Smith
“Ottoline and the Yellow Cat” by Chris Riddell
“Moonday” by Adam Rex
“Journey” by Aaron Becker
“The Lowland” by Jhumpa Lahiri
“Red Sparrow” by Jason Matthews
“Harold and the Purple Crayon” by Crockett Johnson
“A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” by Anthony Marra
“The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance” by David Epstein
“Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football” by Nicholas Dawidoff
“Ballad of the Sad Cafe: And Other Stories” by Carson McCullers
“My Antonia” by Willa Cather
“Ragtime” By E.L. Doctorow
“The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini
“Buddha in the Attic” by Julie Otsuka
“All That Is” by James Salter
“Wild: From Lost to Found On the Pacific Crest Trail” by Cheryl Strayed
When you’re out shopping for books the Saturday after Thanksgiving (as of course you will be), do not be surprised if some of your favorite writers are manning the cash registers or tidying up displays. Walk up to them. Ask for a recommendation. That’s why they’re there.
Saturday, Nov. 30, is not just "Small Business Saturday," but it's also “indies first” day — a day when writers show support for independent bookstores by helping out for a few hours. Writer Sherman Alexie came up with the plan, which has been embraced by hundreds of authors across the country. ("Hello, hello, you gorgeous book nerds," his open letter begins.)
Lists are still being firmed up, but here’s what we know so far (and you can check the map to find out what's going on in your favorite store):
Chapter 2 Books in Hudson, Wis., Michael Norman and Stephanie Bodeen;
Red Balloon, Saint Paul: Debra Frasier, Nancy Carlson, Kurtis Scalleta, David LaRochelle, Brian Farrey, Lauren Stringer, John Coy
Addendum Books, Saint Paul (in a corner of SubText Bookstore): Dawn Klehr, William Alexander, Nancy Carlson, Catherine Clark, John Coy, Brian Farrey, Kevin Kling, Christopher Lincoln ("Billy Bones"), Mary Losure, Carrie Mesrobian, Chris Monroe, Laura Purdie Salas, Kurtis Scaletta, Pat Schmatz, Lauren Stringer, Stephanie Watson, Jacqueline West
Micawber's, Saint Paul: Peter Geye and Nicole Helget
Birchbark Books, Mpls: Heid Erdrich
Common Good Books, Saint Paul: Mary Losure and Sarah Stonich
Magers & Quinn, Mpls: Andy Sturdevant
SubText, Saint Paul: Sarah Stonich.
Valley Booksellers, Stillwater: Julie Kramer, Erin Hart, Colleen Baldrica, Stephanie Landsem, Charlie Quimby
Monkey See, Monkey Read in Northfield. Benjamin Percy
The Bookstore at Fitger's in Duluth: Erin Soderberg.
Graywolf Press publisher Fiona McCrae and executive editor Jeff Shotts were in the audience last night when poet Mary Szybist won the National Book Award for her Graywolf book, "Incarnadine," a collection of poems about the Annunciation.
Szybist thanked Graywolf, among others, in her brief, fervent acceptance speech, praising the press for handling her book with such care.
This is the first National Book Award won by a Graywolf author, though there have been finalists (Carl Phillips, Salvatore Scibona and Deborah Baker). Graywolf writers have won, in recent years, most major literary prizes, including the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the Kingsley Tufts Award, and the National Book Critics Circle award.
" ‘Incarnadine’ is a marvel of a book, about the many ways we encounter the world and the world encounters us,” Shotts, who edited "Incarnadine," said in an interview when the book was short-listed.
Other winners last night include "The Thing About Luck," by Cynthia Kadohata, for Young People's Literature; "The Unwinding," by George Packer, for Nonfiction; and "The Good Lord Bird," by James McBride, for fiction.
You can read five poems from "Incarnadine" on the Graywolf website here.
Twin Cities poet Matt Rasmussen was a finalist for "Black Aperture," his collection of poems about his brother's suicide. The book also won the Walt Whitman Award. Last night's ceremony was broadcast live on C-Span 2 and you can watch it on the National Book Foundation website here.
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