This week, Vonnegut's first and last books, the best American essays of 2012, and the novel that's going to put Rochester on the map. Plus: a striking, strange book about wooden floors.
The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks (Orbit) - This rich, sweeping panorama of heroism and folly celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Culture, Banks’s far-future semi-utopian society. The Gzilt, a civilization affiliated with the Culture, is only days away from leaving this reality for the Sublime, a condition of intense, hyper-real wonderfulness, when some of the Culture’s self-aware spaceships catch hints that the Gzilt’s decision to enter the Sublime may be based on a hoax. The action tumbles along at a dizzying pace, bouncing among a fascinating array of characters and locales. It’s easy to see why Banks’s fertile, cheerfully nihilistic imagination and vivid prose have made the Culture space operas bestsellers and award favorites. Check out a Q&A with Banks.
The Best American Essays 2012 edited by David Brooks, series editor Robert Atwan (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Mariner)– Highlights of this year’s anthology include Lauren Slater’s “Killing My Body to Save My Mind,” a brave and disquieting discussion about the extreme side-effects of various psychopharmaceuticals on her body. The volume’s range of styles include the sharp and coolly intellectual (Alan Lightman’s “The Accidental Universe”) and the acutely personal (David J. Lawless’s “My Father/My Husband.” From Wesley Yang’s fascinating exploration of racial identity, “Paper Tigers,” to Francine Prose’s critical reminiscence of her experience during the emergence of second wave feminism in the 1970s, “Other Women,” there is not a dud in the bunch.
The Hive by Charles Burns (Pantheon) – In this second volume of a trilogy begun in X’ed Out, Burns’s stark work operates on its own nightmare logic and as a result, flesh-crawling events spew forth in the most mundane of settings. Romance comics, misshapen mutants, reptile men, a nightmare of disembowelment that yields a fetal pig, photographic obsessions and more stake out their territory--the result will stick with readers long after being absorbed. Take a look inside The Hive.
The Big Exit by David Carnoy (Overlook) - Carnoy follows his 2010 debut, Knife Music, with a thriller set in California’s Silicon Valley that has it all: a convoluted but convincing plot, a likable protagonist facing terrible odds, and a meaty supporting cast working for and against him. This exceptionally satisfying murder puzzle should whet readers’ appetites for more.
The Fourteenth Day: JFK and the Aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis by David G. Coleman (Norton) - Coleman uses a neglected source as the basis for an unusual perspective on the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the narrative beginning after Nikita Khrushchev agreed to remove nuclear missiles from Cuba. Director of the Miller Center’s Presidential Recordings Program, Coleman uses secret White House tapes, authorized by President Kennedy, to show that the crisis didn’t end there. A closely kept secret, the tapes offer “unguarded, unrehearsed” testimony to the complex problems that remained as the missiles of October ostensibly stood down.
Short Night of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) - Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times journalist Egan (The Worst Hard Time) turns his attention to one of Seattle’s most remarkable—yet all but forgotten—residents. In the late 19th century, Edward Curtis was the era’s reigning portrait photographer, so well respected that President Theodore Roosevelt chose him to photograph his daughter’s wedding. Yet in 1900, at the height of his fame, Curtis gave it up to pursue what would become his life’s work—“a plan to photograph all the intact Native American tribes left in North America” before their ways of life disappeared. This idea received the backing of J.P. Morgan and culminated in a critically acclaimed 20-volume set, The North American Indian, which took Curtis 30 years to complete and left him divorced and destitute. With a reporter’s eye for detail, Egan delivers a gracefully written biography and adventure story.
This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen (Candlewick) -Like Klassen's very funny and much-praised I Want My Hat Back, this story involves a hat theft; this time, Klassen ups the ante by having the thief narrate. It's a small gray fish who has stolen a tiny bowler hat from a much larger fish ("It was too small for him anyway," the little fish sniffs. "It fits me just right"). Klassen excels at using pictures to tell the parts of the story his unreliable narrators omit or evade.
The Story of America: Essays on Origins by Jill Lepore (Princeton University Press) - “I wanted to try to explain how history works, and how it’s different from politics,” states Harvard history professor Lepore (The Mansion of Happiness), introducing her collection of essays, almost all previously published in the New Yorker. History involves making an argument by telling a story “accountable to evidence,” which she marshals ably in discussing personalities real and fictional, from Benjamin Franklin to Charlie Chan. Her argument that Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” was an abolitionist “call to arms,” subsequently “juvenilized” for schoolrooms, is as pointed as a legal brief. Varying her tone—brisk when detailing changes in how Americans cast their votes, poignant when recounting Edgar Allan Poe’s career—Lepore also provides drollery. Nixon’s attempt to give a concise and, he hoped, memorable inaugural address “led him to say things briefly but didn’t save him from saying them badly.” Even the footnotes contain buried treasures; history buffs and general readers alike will savor this collection.
Jepp, Who Defied the Stars by Katherine Marsh (Hyperion) - In the final years of the 16th century, a 15-year-old dwarf named Jepp struggles to understand himself and his place in the world; he’s caught between the pull of the past, the promise of the future, and the forces of fate and free will. The first of the book’s three sections finds a battered and beaten Jepp being transported ignobly in a cage to an unknown destination; along the way, he recalls the events that led him there, from his humble upbringing in an inn to becoming a court dwarf in Brussels. This is an epic search for love, family, respect, and a destiny of one’s own making.
Maverick Jetpants in the City of Quality by Bill Peters (Black Balloon) - After graduating from high school on the eve of the millennium, childhood pals Nate and Necro lead a small band of friends through angst-ridden late-night crawls in decaying Rochester, N.Y., where Peters grew up. This proves to be a particularly dangerous occupation, as someone is blowing up local buildings in what is being called in some papers a "race-war amalgamation." The group's routine is cut short when, while exploring a derelict building, an explosion injures one of their own. Soon, a pattern emerges in the blazes, and someone in the group is implicated, threatening to blow the tight group of friends apart. By turns funny and moving, this debut richly captures life in a decaying American city.
Illuminations by Mary Sharratt (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) - This gripping story, like Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, is primarily about relationships forced under pressure. Sharratt offers up an imaginative retelling of the fascinating life of the 12th-century nun Hildegard von Bingen. As the 10th child, Hildegard is given to the church as a tithe at age eight, whereupon she becomes a handmaiden to the devout and troubled Jutta von Sponheim. Entombed in an anchorage in what is now Germany as brides of Christ under Benedictine rule, Hildegard and Jutta endure their monastic imprisonment for 30 years, during which time Hildegard experiences divine visions. When her anchoress finally dies, Hildegard is granted “free passage in the abbey,” but her newfound liberty is accompanied by intensified visions and a desire to make those revelations manifest, an impulse roundly quelled by zealous monks. Read 5 Writing Tips from Sharratt.
The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published by David Skinner (Harper) - Humanities editor Skinner, who is on the usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary, offers a highly entertaining and intelligent re-creation of events surrounding the 1961 publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary by G. & C. Merriam. The dictionary, assembled at a cost of $3.5 million, included a press release from Merriam’s president Gordon J. Gallan, which said the work contained “an avalanche of bewildering new verbal concepts.” The new dictionary embraced informal English in 450,000 total entries, including 100,000 new words, including clunk (from Mickey Spillane), cool (from jazz), and snafu (from WWII). This is a rich and absorbing exploration of the changing standards in American language and culture.
We Are What We Pretend to Be by Kurt Vonnegut (Perseus/Vanguard) - Bookending Vonnegut’s career, the two semi-autobiographical stories contained in this unpolished posthumous collection are in print for the first time here. “Basic Training” is the author’s earnest first novella, written a few years before Player Piano and never published. In it, an orphaned, wet-behind-the-ears city kid is dispatched to a farm to live with a trio of opinionated female cousins under the watchful eye and iron fist of his uncle, whom he calls “the General.” The other work, “If God Were Alive Today,” unfinished upon the author’s death in 2007, raises Vonnegut’s signature existential critique of America’s warped values and corrupt political climate to a fevered pitch via the uncensored standup routine of his twice-institutionalized protagonist, comedian Gil Berman.
Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles (Amazon Publishing/New Harvest) - This darkly humorous novel from U.K. journalist Wiles involves a nameless protagonist whose eight days of house-sitting turn out to be a lot more hassle than he bargained for. A freelance copywriter in London does his old university friend, Oskar, now a classical musician, a big favor by staying in his “nice flat” located in an unspecified and dour Slavic city. Oskar is a “borderline obsessive-compulsive” who leaves very specific instructions on a number of notes posted throughout the flat, including not only the care of cats Shossy and Stravvy, but, of greater importance, that of the expensive French oak floors. A strikingly original debut.