Fabulous Fiction Firsts #212

What makes a reader "perfect"?

The answer might lie somewhere in Perfect Reader*, the "sparkling, shrewd, and at times hilarious" debut by Maggie Pouncey.

Twentysomething Flora Dempsey is stunned to find herself named literary executor of her late father - a critic, an eminent scholar and college president in a small New England town. Beside the house, the family dog, Flora finds she has also inherited a manuscript of her father's erotic poems inspired by a girlfriend Flora didn't know he had, a girlfriend who wants to see them published!

In a year of grieving, Flora revisits her childhood memories of her parents' divorce, losing a best friend following a terrible accident while debating whether to publish her father's manuscript.

"Pouncey has skillfully created a portrait of small-town academia, where the relationships between reader and text are just as elusive and complex as the relationships between father and daughter, husband and wife, or between two lovers".

* = starred review

A River Runs Through It

A River Runs Through It

Having loved the movie, A River Runs Through It, when the book recently crossed my path I decided to give it a try. In the forward, it is praised to the skies by Annie Proulx and I can see why. It is a perfectly beautiful, evocative, autobiograhical tribute to the three things that Norman Maclean loved: being raised in Montana near the Big Blackfoot river, fly fishing, and his brother, Paul, the one who raised fly fishing to an art, and who lived wild and free and died young.

Now I am not that interested in fly fishing. Nevertheless, the descriptions of Norman and Paul wading through the shadowy pools of the Big Blackfoot, luring the trout with imitations of various flies, are so lyrical and beautiful that I could see and feel and hear the river and their total artistry in fishing it.

Ultimately, the novella is about trying to love the people who are in our lives but we who we don’t completely understand. “It is those we live with and love and should know, who elude us”, says Norman at the end. “Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them… I am haunted by waters.” Maclean wrote the book when he was 72 years old, looking back on his memories of the brother and the river he loved.

Your Tudor Tutor

Today would be the 501st anniversary for King Henry VIII and his first wife, Catharine of Aragon. I'm not sure what the correct present is for that specific anniversary, but I don't know that I'd be accepting whatever it would be from Henry.

King Henry VIII has fascinated many people, though, regrettably, mostly because of his six marriages (two of which ended in divorce, and two more in beheading). However, it may interest you that these are not his only...accomplishments.

Some notable books on the Tudor king which do not focus on his matrimonial issues include The Last Divine Office: Henry VIII And The Dissolution Of The Monasteries and Henry VIII: The King And His Court.

However, if you'd like to go the more traditional route, you'll have plenty of choices: The Wives of Henry VIII, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII among them.

Of course, there are also historical fiction books that contain the infamous king. While they are not necessarily as accurate as the non-fiction, they are just as entertaining, if not more so. The oldest of these would be Shakespeare's play, given the regal name Henry VIII. Among the more recent, there is the "autobiography" by Margaret George, as well as the well-known The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory. Though, my personal favorite is not a book at all, but the Showtime television series The Tudors.

You may even want to take a look at his children. Each one showed off one bit of his overbearing personality. And I can guarantee one of them is probably just as interesting as he was.

Writers to Watch : 20 Under 40

It has been more than a decade since the magazine The New Yorker has published a “20 Under 40” list. The last one, in 1999, included some future literary stars who were then relatively unknown, like Jhumpa Lahiri, Nathan Englander, and Junot Díaz. (Relatively established authors like Michael Chabon, Jeffrey Eugenides, and David Foster Wallace were also on the earlier list.)

This year's list is gender-balanced : naming 10 men and 10 women. They are Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 32; Chris Adrian, 39; Daniel Alarcón, 33; David Bezmozgis, 37; Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, 38; Joshua Ferris, 35; Jonathan Safran Foer, 33; Nell Freudenberger, 35; Rivka Galchen, 34; Nicole Krauss, 35; Yiyun Li, 37; Dinaw Mengestu, 31; Philipp Meyer, 36; C. E. Morgan, 33; Téa Obreht, 24; Z Z Packer, 37; Karen Russel, 28; Salvatore Scibona, 35; Gary Shteyngart, 37; and Wells Tower, 37.

The new list has its own distinctions. A significant number of the writers hail from outside the United States or have parents who do. All but two (Ms. Obreht and Ms. Russell) are in their 30s.

The process began in January, when editors in the fiction department started brainstorming. By e-mail they asked literary agents, publishers and other writers to suggest potential candidates.

The editors eventually whittled the possibilities down to a shortlist of roughly 40 eligible writers. A few prominent fiction writers, including Colson Whitehead and Dave Eggers, were slightly too old to make the cut. 20under4020under40

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #211

Perhaps this is one of the hardest blogs for me to write. I finished the book some weeks ago and have been thinking about it. I worried that whatever I write here is not going to do the book justice. My expectations were naturally high for Julie Orringer's debut novel The Invisible Bridge, coming 7 years after her prizewinning collection of short stories How to Breathe Underwater, and it did not disappoint.

This stunning and richly detailed WWII saga is not (as a lot of early readers feared) just another Holocaust novel. It opens with 22 year-old Andras Levi, a Hungarian Jew, a highly prized scholarship to study architecture in Paris and an unlikely love affair with the much older Klara, amidst the growing tide of anti-Semitism which eventually forces their return to Hungary. Throughout the hardships and injustices, Andras's love for Klara acts as a beacon. "Orringer's triumphant novel is as much a lucid reminder of a time not so far away as it is a luminous story about the redemptive power of love."

Cinematic in its settings, moving without being sentimental, "Orringer writes without anachronism, and convincingly." Don't just take my word for it, read the New York Times review.

Julie Orringer grew up in New Orleans and Ann Arbor. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Cornell University, and was a Stegner Fellow and Marsh McCall Lecturer in the Creative Writing Program at Stanford University and the Helen Herzog Zell Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Michigan. Visit Julie's website.

**= Starred reviews

Myths and Myths Retold

Legends and myths have always fascinated me. I've been looking into them since I was little, and I am no less interested in them now. So, I figure, why not spread the joy?

Greek and Roman mythology are quite similar. In fact, some might say that the Romans essentially copied their earlier counterparts. Both cultures' stories are extremely telling; they include tales ranging from the long-loved IIiad, Odyssey, and Aeneid, to the more modern tellings of Rick Riordan's demi-god Percy Jackson, or the Odyssey parallels of James Joyce's Ulysses and the Cohen Brother's cinematic O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Egyptian mythology is quite different from the former two, though, oddly enough, Riordan also came out with a book based off of it.

Celtic mythology gives us stories like The Táin (Táin Bó Cúailnge), which has been interpreted in many ways, including in the music of The Decemberists.

Nordic mythology gives us the days of the week. Today, as we all know, is Frigga's Day. One of the Scaldic poets, Snorri Sturluson, might be of particular interest here. Though, if you're looking for something more contemporary, The Sea of Trolls series includes some really cool Vikings.

Perhaps the single book that most closely relates to this blog and its forms of mythology is Neil Gaiman's American Gods. Library Journal describes it as "the vast and bloody landscape of myths and legends where the gods of yore and the neoteric gods of now conflict in modern-day America."

Princesses, Dragons, and Wizards… Oh My!

Princess Cimorene refuses to be a proper princess. She prefers fencing to embroidery, Latin and magic lessons to dancing lessons. And she certainly doesn’t want to marry the stuffy prince her parents have picked for her. So she runs away. To live with the dragons. Where she meets other captive princesses, a stone prince, a friendly and practical witch (with 9 cats), and some nasty wizards with nefarious schemes. Find out how she saves the day and gets an unconventional “happily ever after” in Dealing with Dragons, the first book in Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles.

Teen Stuff: Project Sweet Life by Brent Hartinger

Make the money, fake the job. That's the plan for fifteen year old Dave and his two best friends, whose fathers all demand that they get summer jobs for the first time in their lives in the novel, Project Sweet Life, by Brent Hartinger. But this cohort of friends has a better idea: trick their families into believing they'll be lifeguards and fast food workers while scheming up means of legally pocketing the money they said they'd earn in their day jobs.

The hijinks begin with garage sales and jelly bean counting contests, but eventually they escalate into averting attempted robberies, discovering lost underground tunnels, and diving for sunken treasure. This fast paced story is nominated for the 2010 Thumbs Up! Book Award, and would be great for those looking to get a head start on books for the AADL's upcoming Summer Reading Game.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #210: Fresh Asian-American Voices

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok is an inspiring debut , drawn from personal experience about a young immigrant from Hong Kong, who is caught between the pressure to succeed in America, duty to her family, and her own personal desires.

An exceptional student and yet shy and proud, Kimberly Chang and her mother are tricked into back-breaking factory work and living in squalor. In simple, searing, richly detailed prose, Kwok captures the anguish of the struggle, the universal immigrant lament of not fitting in, misunderstanding and cultural disconnect that is wrenching and hilarious at times. Girl is a moving tale of hardship and triumph, heartbreak and love. A good book group choice with reading group guide. Don't miss the author's interesting bio..

Sonya Chung's exquisite debut Long for This World** is a multi-layered story of two brothers, distanced by time and differences. When American surgeon Han Hyun-ku unexpectedly arrives at his younger brother's home in a remote island in South Korean, he leaves behind a floundering marriage and a troubled son. His daughter, Jane, a renowned photojournalist searches for him and they are quickly absorbed into the Korean Han's household where surface tranquility masks dark and volatile undercurrents.

"Moving between landscapes and a variety of perspectives, Chung's ambitious debut explores the intricacies and aggravations of family, culture, and identity." With reading group guide as well.

Sonya Chung is a recipient of a Pushcart Prize nomination, the Charles Johnson Fiction Award, and the Bronx Council on the Arts Writers’ Fellowship & Residency. In fall 2010, Sonya will join the full-time faculty of the Creative Writing Program at Columbia University.

Readalikes: Typical American by Gish Jen for the Asian-American immigrant experience; and The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak for the secrets families keep; and how one "can't go home again".

** = Starred reviews

May Books to Film, Already in Theaters

Iron Man 2 is based on Marvel’s Iron Man comic series. In this sequel, billionaire industrialist Tony Stark, now a famous high-tech superhero comes up against the U.S. military’s demands to control the most powerful weapon on earth -- the Iron Man suit, while being hunted by a vengeful Russian criminal with some lethal technology of his own. Meanwhile, he could no longer count on his beautiful new assistant or best friend, Rhodey who are hatching their own strange, mysterious agendas.

Letters to Juliet is adapted from Lise Friedman's Letters to Juliet: celebrating Shakespeare’s greatest heroine, the magical city of Verona, and the power of love - an enchanting love story of encountering new sparks and rekindling old flames. (The scenery isn't bad either).

When Sophie, a young American, travels to Verona, Italy -- the romantic city where Romeo first met Juliet -- she meets a group of volunteers who respond to letters written to Juliet seeking romantic advice. Sophie finds and answers a letter that has been lost for 50 years, and is stunned when its author Claire arrives in Italy with her handsome but overprotective grandson to find the man she left decades before. Fascinated by Claire's quest, Sophie joins them on an adventure through the beautiful hills of Tuscany searching for Claire's long lost Lorenzo.

Over the years, there have been various big screen and television interpretations of the legend of Robin Hood – from the recent TV series; Mel Brooks’ farcical Robin Hood Men in Tights; to Errol Flynn’s 1938 iconic The Adventures of Robin Hood. Now see Russell Crowe as a beefy Robin Hood .

Instead, fantasy and alternative history fan might opt to try Hood : The Legend Begins Anew by Stephen R. Lawhead. In this first of the King Raven Trilogy, Hood tells the story of an alternative Robin Hood. Steeped in Celtic mythology and the political intrigue of medieval Britain, the familiar tale takes on new life, fresh meaning, and an unexpected setting – “ …(a) highly imaginative, earthy adventure that has little to do with Errol Flynn but is just as rousing”.

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