Okay, full disclosure here: I never would have picked up this book if the author himself hadn’t bought it for me. But when you work at a bookstore, strange things sometimes happen to you, and on this particular day, the strange thing that happened to me was that Richard Kramer, author of These Things Happen (and also creator of My So-called Life, oddly enough), came into the store and decided that the best way to make sure that we sold lots of copies of his book was to buy one for the bookseller behind the Information Desk.
Luckily for him, I was just about to go on break and wasn’t reading anything at the time, so despite being a bit weirded out by the whole thing, I took my new acquisition along with me and ten pages in, I was hooked. I guess Richard Kramer knew what he was doing.
These Things Happen is the exact prototype of an ensemble novel as I think of the concept. As that title would have you believe, things do happen in this book (as things are wont to do), but, really, it’s just about a tenth grader named Wesley, his best friend Theo, his father Kenny, his mother Lola, Kenny’s partner George, and Lola’s husband Ben. And it’s their distinct perspectives that drive the story, a swirling harmony of voices that combine to form something sweet and sad and funny and wonderfully, remarkably genuine.
Friend number two! Meet Melissa Faulner, Assistant Editor at Dutton Children’s Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers. Melissa started in publishing at Penguin in 2010 after working in higher ed administration. After abandoning Penguin for a stint at Abrams, she returned to her publishing stomping grounds in 2013 and has been happily ensconced at Dutton ever since. John Green follows her on Twitter, and so can you. Here’s Melissa:
These days, if you happen to spend more than five minutes talking to me, you’ll probably be subjected to one of three topics: the drawbacks/benefits of shortening in all-butter pie crust recipes (hint: 50/50 ratio); “Oh my gosh, how are you not listening to Serial?”; and finally, a recommendation to read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. That said, I’ll admit that despite its status as a National Book Award finalist, and all the buzz it received throughout the fall, it wasn’t until I read a relatively recent New Yorker article, reviving the ages old debate about the role and definition of genre fiction, that I became fully aware of (and slightly obsessed with) it.
Because—and here’s the thing that really grabbed me—Station Eleven isn’t just a book about the post-apocalyptic landscape of the world, it’s about how that apocalypse actually happened. Switching seamlessly between past, present, and future narratives, it’s the stories of the people who live and die when a deadly strain of flu virus efficiently wipes out most of the world’s population within a matter of weeks. As someone who works in children’s books, and so has read an excessive amount of dystopian fiction, this proved an intensely fascinating premise: to actually see how the world ended.
Station Eleven is filled with moments of stark realness and sentiment, while depicting the best and worst aspects of our own humanity. But mostly, it’s a love letter to the persistence and indefatigable spirit of art and storytelling, which not only survives the collapse of civilization, but continues to make life worth living. As the New Yorker explains, “Unlike Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which asked what would remain after the collapse of culture, Station Eleven asks how culture gets put together again.” Because, to pull an oft-used quote from the book (and Star Trek: Voyager), survival is insufficient.
[I made an executive decision on Melissa’s behalf to link to Posman Books, because I know the fact that they’re closing their Grand Central location basically ruins her life. But their website, while lovely, is basically useless. So those links go to Indiebound.—Dana]
Here we go! First up is Liz Sher, children’s book buyer at Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, MA. Liz started her bookselling career in 2009 at Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., where she discovered some of her favorite people: me (hi, I’m Dana), Mal Peet, and Julie Orringer. She is one of the most passionate readers I know, and the look on her face while watching certain authors read from their books is the world’s purest example of bliss. Take it away, Liz!
Ah, December reading round-ups! I look forward to these every year. And I’m grateful that Dana and Serena narrowed their field to books published in 2014. Otherwise the task of choosing just one book would have been (even more) impossible. So I won’t be talking about Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie mysteries; or Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land; or Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah, which I read for the second time; or Dorothea Grossman’s slim little poetry collection The Fun of Speaking English, which I carried around in my backpack for a month like a fizzy stash of nips. (Read them anyway.)
As for 2014 books that I read in 2014, Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members brought me the purest joy. It’s a novel told in increasingly deranged letters of recommendation, as written by a beleaguered English professor at a small Midwestern university. It’s funnier, sadder, more serious, and more soulful than you expect it to be. It’s a paean to and a plea for the literary life. It offers one of the simplest, loveliest explanations for reading books at all: a great book “will speak to something within us – some previously unarticulated thought or reflection that, once recognized, we will never want to be without again.”
Where should you buy this gem? Let’s honor the book’s Midwest college setting and head over to Iowa City’s Prairie Lights.
Remainder is a super weird book. And it’s not a book that immediately came to mind when we started talking about houses. But then I was staring at my bookshelf, feeling like I knew, just knew, that at some point I had read a book about the perfect house, a house where everything was just so, where everything was choreographed down to the moment… and then I remembered Remainder.
The nameless main character in Tom McCarthy’s novel has just won himself an enormous settlement—8 and a half million pounds—after some unidentified object fell out of the sky and onto his head. And when the book opens, this guy has no idea what to do with all that money. But then he finds himself at a party in a friend’s apartment, and he looks up at the wall, and he sees a large crack down the side. And he’s overcome with intense déjà vu and a web of connected sense memories: the smell of liver cooking, the sound of a piano. He realizes that this moment is familiar—that, in fact, it is the most familiar and Real moment of his life.
So the man pours his giant sum of cash into recreating that moment so that he can live it on an infinite loop. He builds an apartment building just so. He hires a woman to live in the downstairs apartment and cook liver. He hires a man to play the piano upstairs. He creates a house that lives up to the ideal in his mind—and then realizes that it isn’t enough, and things spin out of control.
Like I said, this is a super weird book. It’s explicitly philosophical, and sometimes that makes it feel distant and abstract. (I mean, the protagonist doesn’t have a name. Come on.) But the way it deals with the idea of creating a home and feeling connected to the world through a sense of place is fascinating and trippy, in a good way.
“Hello, this is Paul Chowder, and I’m going to tell you everything I know.”
—The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker
That’s pretty good, right? But it gets even better if you’ll allow me two more sentences: “Well, not everything I know, because a lot of what I know, you know. But everything I know about poetry.”
I like that first sentence, and the two that follow it, because they perfectly capture the distinctive voice of this lovely little book. That distinctive voice belongs to Paul Chowder (well, it technically belongs to Nicholson Baker, but you know what I mean)—sometimes poet, would-be anthologist, and charmingly melancholy narrator.
Paul is having a tough time right now. He’s broke, his career is seriously flagging, his girlfriend has moved out, and he’s supposed to be writing the introduction to a new anthology of rhyming poetry but he just can’t quite seem to get going. So, instead, he writes about inchworms and canoes and mowing the lawn. He writes about his ex and his neighbors and his dog. And, throughout it all, he does write about poetry, just like he promised. It’s just not exactly the kind of writing about poetry that could introduce an anthology.
You’ve probably guessed this already, but not a lot happens in this book. Paul lives his quiet life, fights his quiet battles, feels sorry for himself, thinks about how little he deserves to feel sorry for himself. It’s pretty low-key. But, trust me, Paul’s musings on poetry (not to mention everything else that pops into his mind) will be all you’ll want to read for as long as it takes you to finish The Anthologist. Maybe longer. Once you’ve had a taste of his voice in all its charm and wit and wisdom, anyone else’s takes some serious getting used to.