Twelve days before Hurricane Katrina lands in Bois Savage, Mississippi, we meet 14-year-old Esch Batiste, a most unlikely heroine. Living in dire poverty with three brothers and her oft-drunken father, her attention is divided between a hidden pregnancy and a new litter of pit bull puppies. Winner of the National Book Award, Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward is an evocative story of an already-embattled family faced with incomprehensible forces of nature. Narrator Cherise Boothe fascinates as the heartbreaking Esch, a girl used by boys since she was twelve but who dreams of being the strong women of mythic tales. Under Boothe’s skill, what might otherwise be a difficult story to hear is transformed into a lyrical narrative with universal resonance.
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In Cold War-era Britain, compulsive reader Serena Frome is unexpectedly recruited by MI5. Her big chance comes with the launch of Operation Sweet Tooth, one designed to fight Communist propaganda by secretly supporting writers with the right ideals. Serena’s beauty and interest in books puts her in an ideal position to befriend rising author Tom Haley. From the first paragraph of Ian McEwan’s latest, we already know that the mission doesn’t end well, but it’s easy to be distracted by the earnest narration of actress Juliet Stevenson. Through her voice, Serena feels her way through perception, deception, and manipulation. Exposure is imminent, but who, by whom, and how? Just wait for the final reveal, one that will especially gratify fans of Atonement.
“Water, water, everywhere; Nor any drop to drink.” This line from Coleridge’s memorable poem may have been an all-too-prescient glimpse into the havoc we have since wreaked on our natural resources. Nick Hayes certainly thinks so, and he has crafted a visually stunning work in The Rime of the Modern Mariner. Exquisite woodcut-inspired illustrations translate the story into a mesmerizing tale of environmental disaster, but one that is anchored by the actions (or inaction) of two primary characters: a sailor with a fantastic tale to tell and a jaded businessman cornered on the day his divorce becomes final. The text itself is spare, just a few words per page, effectively allowing the rhythm and rhyme to carry the reader along the waves of story. Savor both the poignant beauty and the timely message.
It is a gifted writer who can compose sentences that remind you of haunting melodies. Kazuo Ishiguro is one such author, and his collection Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall boasts charms that will soothe the savage breast. Set in different cities worldwide, each story is shared from the perspective of a single musician, all struggling to balance the idealism of music’s promise with the colder realities of making one’s way in the world. A sense of humor lightens many of the characters’ exploits, especially in the title story, in which an aging jazz musician undergoes plastic surgery to improve his image. Narrators Mark Bramhall, Simon Vance, Kirby Heyborne, and Lincoln Hoppe each take their turns at the podium to orchestrate Ishiguro’s symphony in words.
One of the most evocative images in The Book of Jonas is that of an orphaned baby gazelle being cared for by a lioness that has lost her cub. This unusual and dangerous relationship comes to symbolize that of two characters thrown together after a horrific bombing: teenaged Younis, who lived in the targeted village, and Christopher, a U.S. soldier who later vanishes. What ultimately becomes of these young men is pieced together through the efforts of Rose, Christopher’s mother, and the therapist who urges Younis to speak openly. Award-winning narrator Simon Vance adds dramatic weight to Stephen Dau’s powerful debut, giving empathetic voice to different perspectives as the story entwines past and present revelations.
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door –
Only this and nothing more.”
The opening to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” is one of the most recognizable, atmospheric starts to a poem ever. Vincent Price is one of the most legendary horror actors ever. Put them together and a macabre beauty is made.
Congratulations to Hilary Mantel for making award history with her win of the 2012 Man Booker Prize, a prestigious literary honor that often has significant impact on popular reading. Bring Up the Bodies, the second installment in a planned Tudor trilogy, explores the fate of Anne Boleyn. The first book, Wolf Hall, won the Prize in 2009 and became an international bestseller. According to the selection committee, “her resuscitation of Thomas Cromwell – and with him the historical novel – is one of the great achievements of modern literature.” With this honor, Mantel becomes the first writer to win for a direct sequel, one of only three writers to win more than once, the first woman to win twice, the first British author to win twice, and the first to win again in so short a time.
The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2012 has been awarded to writer Mo Yan, “who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary.” One of his most recent novels, Big Breasts & Wide Hips, uses the story of a rural gynecologist to explore the ramifications of China’s single-child policy. Red Sorghum: A Novel of China, often credited as Yan’s best known book in the West, follows three generations of a family set during a turbulent time in the country’s history. The first Chinese author to be named as a Nobel laureate was lauded by the committee as one who has “created a world reminiscent in its complexity of those in the writings of William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez, at the same time finding a departure point in old Chinese literature and in oral tradition.”
The PEN American Center, the U.S. branch of the world’s oldest international literary and human rights organization, has chosen the winners of the 2012 PEN Literary Awards. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie won the Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography, and you can see the story brought to life by favorite book dramatist Barbara Rinella at MPPL on October 1.
Click here for category information and a complete list of winners. Highlights include
Robert W. Bingham Prize: Zazen by Vanessa Veselka
Achievement in American Fiction: E.L. Doctorow
Award for the Art of the Essay: Arguably by Christopher Hitchens
Literary Science Writing Award: The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick
Award for Literary Sports Writing: Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game by Dan Barry
Illustrated Children’s Book: Never Forgotten by Patricia C. McKissack
If you like the movie 300, about 300 Spartans fending off overwhelming hordes of the Persian army at the strait of Thermopylae, then you’ll probably enjoy the similarly-themed novel Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield. But your ancient historical fiction reading spree doesn’t have to stop there…
Click here for more novels set in or tied to ancient Greece.