Tag Archives: Random House

Shani Boianjiu’s “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid”

Shani Boianjiu's "The People of Forever Are Not Afraid"It begins, it seems, at 23. You turn over to the back cover of the book you’re reading and find that the author is your age, or not much older. Sure, the world has its S.E. Hintons and similarly young literary prodigies, but at 23 we’re the adults who are steadily getting older than young Hollywood and creeping up towards writers who have had the time to gain buckets of talent. Sure enough, midway through Shani Boianjiu’s powerful debut novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, I noticed in her bio that she was born in 1987, just two years before me. It is a hulking book, full of the full lives of three girls – Yael, Avishag, and Lea – as they complete their mandatory military service in Israel. Everything about it is full, their histories and their relationships and their voices. This book contains everything from the traditions of magic realism to war stories, as realized as the three lives within it.

But something else begins at 23, too. Now that the writers behind the strongest forces of literature are a part of my own generation, there is an added pressure to connect, to get it on a level that other readers might not. Yael, Avishag, and Lea are, after all, like young women anywhere: their time spent in the military is dotted with the same conversations that peppered by college years, and they braid one another’s hair and gossip about boys as if there weren’t missiles falling outside their base. There is an alienation and embarrassment in not accessing what they go through, because there’s no Palestine to my Israel, as it were; I have no ceaseless, unsubstantiated enemy, no patriotic duties to my country. And so on some level, seeing the three girls emerge from their years of lost innocence is like seeing what my life could have been through purely geographical coincidences.

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Ben Masters’s “Noughties”

Ben Masters's "Noughties"There’s nothing remarkable about Oxford student Eliot Lamb. And that’s good. We’re not dealing with anyone remarkable here, nor do we really want to; Ben Masters has written a book that shows us our post-college, pre-settled selves, whether we studied literary criticism or criticized the very idea of it. And while I didn’t personally have any of the dramatic experiences that bring Noughties to its climax, that university drama is simply a means to show us the ways in which our time at uni can help us grow, or not change us much at all – but especially how we prefer to think of ourselves significantly altered either way. Masters has, in this eccentric novel, expertly captured the desperation of assigning meaning to this Finality of Adolescence, as Eliot Lamb and his crew (Scott, Jack, Sanjay, Megan, Abi, and Ella) squirm at the thought of legitimate, unsheltered adulthood. The final evening they spend together at Oxford encapsulates the obligation to enjoy themselves far more than actually doing so, and the echoes of “let’s just have a good night, yeah?” are the book’s never-answered refrain.

Another unanswered refrain: the torrent of ignored phone calls and text messages Eliot keeps receiving from his ex-girlfriend Lucy, who can only have bad news if her contact is this insistent.

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Our October Review Previewganza

As of today, September 29, we have reviewed forty-eight titles in 2012—not bad, right? This week we will publish titles 49 and 50. And yet, there’s more! So much more, really, to come as autumn turns to winter. October will be something of a catching-up period, for us, as we review some September titles sitting in our review queue. But there will be some October titles covered as well. Here’s a not-at-all exhaustive list of what we’ve got to come.  Continue reading

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Jay Caspian Kang’s “The Dead Do Not Improve”

Squatting somewhere in this big old Internet of ours is something that John Warnerof The  Funny Man fame—once wrote or said or was quoted as saying about writing. I’m obviously paraphrasing here, but it was a philosophical thing about how he writes or how people should write. Basically, write about what you like and know, don’t be afraid of your writing overflowing with those things, as that’s what you know best, what will keep you interested or invested, etc. I’m sure I’m leaving some of the depth out of it—Googling write what you like John Warner is turning up like less than nothing—but I think I’ve captured the gist.

And I think that gist’s especially relevant to Jay Caspian Kang’s The Dead Do Not Improve, a sprawling, funny, enthralling, maddening, sloppy, universally readable mess of a debut novel that should and likely will be talked about a lot for the rest of 2012. Kang seems to follow Warner’s advice as far as content goes. The Dead Do Not Improve is stuffed with (what I have confirmed to be via his own biography and sportswriting and what I just assume to be) Kang’s general interests, which include hip-hop, film, advanced baseball statistics, Korean identity, hardcore pornography, and though I’m probably missing a few I’ll just wrap it up with the Internet as a broad thing. More than the plot or prose, Kang’s interests are what drive The Dead Do Not Improve, so whether or not you like the novel—and I do, albeit with some reservations—seems totally contingent on your interest in or knowledge of these things.

Our protagonist and sometime narrator Phillip Kim is an MFA-holding, unpublished, and generally unsavory young man in a half-gentrified area of San Francisco. When his neighbor Dolores—who Kim calls “baby molester” for reasons far less ghastly than you’d imagine but far too unimportant to really get into here—is killed by stray bullets, his world is shaken, and he soon finds himself caught in a struggle between Internet puritans and hardcore pornographers. Continue reading

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Kristen Iversen’s “Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats”

Kristen Iversen's "Full Body Burden"What do we love so much about that photograph of the V-J Day kiss in Times Square? Though it’s a celebratory moment of two people, which couldn’t possibly compare to the scale of what that day meant, we slap it on our walls and silk-screen it onto T-shirts. That sailor and that woman in white feel, in essence, like two characters we get to own in our personal knowledge of what happened. It is in fact because the significance of that day is boiled down to two distinct figures that we’re able to relate to it in this way. There’s a very particular reason why we connect to such primary sources. What are all the facts in the world without a narrative to string them together? How could we begin to empathize without a story?

These questions are inextricably linked to the experience of reading Kristen Iversen’s Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats. This book is not an exposé, technically speaking, since Iversen draws from publicly accessible trial documents in her research on the history of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons production facility just outside the Denver area (and all unthinkably corrupt management of nuclear waste therein). But her interviews with the civilians, scientists, protestors, and lawyers involved, as well as interweaving her own personal narrative of a life beside the mysterious Rocky Flats, do for Full Body Burden what we need them to do: we need this book, in essence, to be a story, not just a compilation of 50 years of governmental cover-up and appalling disregard for the public health. People were dying—brain tumors the size of softballs, sixth-grade boys with eerily frequent incidents of testicular cancers, entire generations of malformed Colorado livestock—and until readers have a sense of the timeline, of the cast of characters, and of the sheer governmental negligence involved, we cannot know this chapter in our own country’s very recent history for what it really was. Iversen fully provides, in what must have been a difficult book not only to write, but to face.

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Karen Thompson Walker’s “The Age of Miracles”

In Karen Thompson Walker’s much-talked-about debut, The Age of Miracles, civilization is rocked by the news of a slowing in the earth’s rotation—”the slowing,” as it’s referred to in the novel—that extends the length of day beyond twenty-four hours, wreaking havoc on the environment, commerce, and day-to-day human interaction. Suitably, it’s the latter that our narrator Julia, a twelve-year-old girl from Southern California, focuses on: the disintegration of her family, losing friends, and finding a boyfriend.

One need not squint to see why Random House handed Walker, a graduate of the Columbia University MFA program, a million dollars for her debut. The formula is HOT! HOT! HOT! right now: a dystopian tale framed around a twelve-year-old girl’s coming of age story. And going by the moments that focus exclusively on Julia’s development and middle-school issues, it’s clear that Walker’s a talented writer with a skill for crafting sharp, witty dialogue and insightful conflict. Take the titular scene, for instance. Continue reading

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Five Debuts to Watch

In a way, 2011 was the year of the debut: Chad Harbach, Karen Russell, Teju Cole, and Téa Obreht enchanted with first-time efforts. Though 2012 hasn’t offered any debuts on the literary level of Open City, or any with the blistering industry-wide hype to match The Art of Fielding, the second-half of this year will feature many notable debuts that you’ll be hearing a lot about—some of which we’re lucky enough to review.

Here are five to watch.

Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles (Random House, June 26)
The year’s representative from the Earth-Shattering Hype category might be this debut from Walker, a former editor at Simon & Schuster. The Age of Miracles has a bold premise: the earth has, inexplicably, started to slow. And all the while the eleven-year-old Julia must find a way to cope while being a person with those other problems—you know, the ones that don’t have an effect on the earth’s rotation, like losing friends or watching her family disintegrate. Early reviews have been stunningly positive, with Publisher’s Weekly calling it a “triumph of vision, language, and terrifying momentum.” Continue reading

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Ben Marcus’ “The Flame Alphabet”

Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet is an ambitious book. And it’s pretty okay. It’s got some things going for it and some things going against it. It says a lot while being economical—it checks in at a little under 300 pages—but also gets tripped up by the author’s rhetorical meandering. It is thrilling at times, but too often plods along like a Molina brother. It is a novel with a premise so rich—and an author so talented, so hailed—that a literary flourish seems inevitable, but ultimately fails to live up to its own lofty conceit.

It’s not often that a good book can still disappoint.

In The Flame Alphabet, a couple (Sam and Claire) is affected by an epidemic caused by, well, toxic language. (It gets complicated.) Those affected get sicker and sicker and sicker, their faces shrinking, bodies drying; a spot under the tongue hardens, eliminating the possibility of speech. Getting the sickness is simple: any intake of language, be it from a conversation or the newspaper or the radio, will make the subject irretrievably ill.  Continue reading

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Last to the Party, and Loving It

As I mentioned on last week’s #fridayreads, I’ve begun, at the behest and be-gifting of a friend, to read Alan Bradley’s first installment of the Flavia de Luce series, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Flavia is a character I wish I’d known about growing up: with her glasses, pigtails, braces, and moderate sibling rivalry, she’s most of what I myself was at age eleven, minus several pounds and exhibiting several added points of badassery. The dialogue takes on an alternating Queen’s English and rustic cockney vernacular that makes it hard not to enjoy even the most wretched villains of the story, and its book trailer is charming to a fault, using no more than Bradley’s opening paragraphs to illustrate why it’s imperative you pick up a copy.

Then again, I’m probably telling you what you all already know.

Because as it happens, I am the last person I know to read this book.  I suppose I’m not quite as behind on this trend as I am on the Hunger Games or the George R.R. Martin books, but pretty darn close to it. (Side note: have any of you ever seen Martin’s official website? I admit I thought I had stumbled onto a Game of Thrones fanfiction site at first. Given Martin’s fame, the design is both perplexing and endearing – note how the icons twirl when you hover over them.)

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Stefan Merrill Block’s “The Storm at the Door”

Family dramas, like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina* or We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oats, always intrigue me. I like the psychological aspect, the development of character, which culminates in how do these people interact? What is the relationship between each person thrown into this family unit? How do individuals form themselves out of these groups? And how does two people meeting over fifty years ago, what are now your grandparents, affect you, today? These are the questions that Stefan Merrill Block considered in his novel The Storm at the Door

It seems he is just as obsessed with these questions of family, and he chooses an easy-to-research subject: his own family saga. Not easy-to-research in the sense that there is a ton of information out there on the Merrill family (he focuses on his mother’s side, the “interesting” one), but easy in the sense that he has probably been thinking about these questions his whole life. Definition of self depends upon where you comes from and Block has attempted to define himself knowing his uncanny resemblance to his grandfather Frederick, the crazy one who spent some time in a mental hospital. Block examines how this time affected his grandmother, Katherine, and his mother, Susie, who was only thirteen at the time.

Of course, this brief description does not do justice to the complicated personae featured in this story, where everyone seems just a little bit crazy and deserving of a trip to the psych ward. The doctor in charge of the illustrious Mayflower Home (real-life McLean Hospital) seems especially deserving of some solitary confinement at times. All this to draw attention to the fuzzy lines between what is crazy and what is not, though we try our hardest to define it concretely. Block is an expert at the minute details, getting every word just right and delving deep into the psychological and emotional portraits of each character. He attempts to explain why each character might act in the way that they do, although at the end of the day we are left with just people, who are always unknowable to a certain extent, whether they are your grandparents, the stranger on the bus, or even yourself. In this case, the deep probing comes out of the author’s own obvious curiosity about his grandparents, and ultimately what their story means for his own story.  Continue reading

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