Fabulous Fiction Firsts #272

I am just going to say it. This might not be for everyone.

Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, the winner of the Sixth Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction and a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award is also hard to define.

Alissa Nutting's fanciful debut collection of 18 short stories are anything but ordinary, and they will shock, intrigue, provoke and delight you. In "Dinner" a young woman wills herself to fall in love with a kettle-mate as she is being boiled and served. In "Porn Star", an adult reality show actress delivers herself as the prize on the moon to the winner of an all-you-can-eat contest (specialty spacesuit required). In "Ice Melter" a lonely artist who makes ice sculptures for gay pool parties has an unfortunate accident with one of her works. These and other stories in the collection are not-so subtle explorations of body politics and the need for intimacy and connection.

"Nutting's outrageous and excruciating writing makes my face split with laughter, often in public. She's glorious choas and utterly original - read her with joy" ~ Lydia Millet. I can't say it any better.

The author was born in rural Michigan. She is a graduate of the University of Florida and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She is also the managing editor of Fairy Tale Review.

Beach Read 2011

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School is out and the longest day of the year is here. The sun is hot and the water is calling. Time to pack the beach bag. Want some suggestions?

Every year, I look forward to the NPR's recommendations of summer books. I especially like the Indie Booksellers Target Summer's Best Reads for an insider's take on what is good that might not hit the bestseller lists.

This year O's (Oprah) Summer Reading Lists go for wide appeal. You are bound to find something to your liking.

These are what the editor's of the New York Times Book Reviews are reading for pleasure this summer. Check out their recommendations in the great big Summer Reading issue.

New Yorker Magazine wades in with their own Beach Reads for (Almost) Everyone.

I also like this year's Summer Beach Reads from Goodhousekeeping. Great current titles.

Just to prove that writers are avid readers, here is Stephen King's month-by-month summer reading list. Boy, is he organized!

Hey, if you are going to spend a lot of time in the car, try Summer’s Best Audio Books recommended by the Washington Post, and Library Journal's Best Audiobooks. Want more? Here is a list of the Top 100 Audio Book Bestsellers.

One last thing..... don't forget to sign up for the Summer Reading Game. Here's how to get started. You can actually earn points and get stuff for having fun. Really. For grown-ups too.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #270

You Know When the Men are Gone * * brings to mind the final line in John Milton's (1608-74) sonnet On His Blindness : "They also serve who only stand and wait"; and is a powerful, unsentimental portrait of America at war on the domestic front.

This debut collection of 8 interconnected stories by Siobhan Fallon relate the experiences of Fort Hood (Texas) military wives who share a poignant vigil during which they raise children while waiting for their husbands to return.

In the audio, a winner of the AudioFile Earphones Award, narrator Cassandra Campbell packs each story with a unique emotional punch, capturing the loneliness, the waiting, the anxiety, boredom and sometimes resentment among the women.

The author lived at Fort Hood while her husband, an Army major, was deployed to Iraq for two tours of duty. She earned her MFA at the New School in New York City. Fallon lives with her family near the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California.

When you leave Fort Hood, the sign above the gate warns, You've Survived the War, Now Survive the Homecoming . For the lingering effect of war on families, I liked Tim Farrington's Lizzie's War (2005).

And let's not forget the young who too, are asked to endure, I highly recommend Laura Harrington's Alice Bliss (2011), a coming-of-age story with wisdom and heart.

* * = Starred Reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #269

A best-selling author abroad who's been awarded France's Chevalier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, American-born Douglas Kennedy is not yet a household word this side of the Atlantic but his first major U.S. release The Moment : a novel * is likely to change that. (Follow in quick succession by The Woman in the Fifth coming out in July, and already adapted into film starring Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott Thomas).

Just divorced travel writer Thomas Nesbitt receives a package at his remote Maine cottage that brings him back to an affair during his days in Berlin working for Radio Liberty. He was drawn to Petra Dussmann, an East Berlin refugee translator whose traumatic history, and the dirty politics of Cold War spy game brought their affair to a devastating close.

Set against the melancholy backdrop of a divided city, it's richly romantic and emotionally engaging, a Cold War novel that is both accessible and compelling. Read The Moment and be moved by Thomas and Petra's connection, the impossibility of their situation and the ethical dilemma that would eventually devastate them both.

"Kennedy's (official website) work harkens back to an earlier era of big novels à la James Michener and Herman Wouk, which is perhaps why—regrettably—he is still more widely read abroad than in his native land." A writer to get to know and a work to be savored.

* = Starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #268

South of Superior by Ellen Airgood. I loved it for the rare "up north" setting, snippets of local history, the pace, the colorful cast of characters, and a lovely excuse to spend an afternoon in the sun with a good story.

Madeline Stone walks away from her job, her home in Chicago, and a well-planned life with a respectable guy, to move to McAllaster, a small town along the coast of Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, just because Gladys Hansen asks, and mind you, none too graciously either. You see, Madeline has unfinished business there and also, she is curious - curious about the unforgiving family and the heartless town that abandoned her, left her in a church basement with strangers when she was very young.

While Madeline is eager for the truth and assignation of blame, she is unprepared for how the community will teach her about life, love, friendship and grace; and how to take charge of one's own happiness.

First-time author Ellen Airgood lives and runs a diner with her husband in Grand Marais, Michigan, the inspiration for the fictional McAllaster. She is quick to point out that she did not get an MFA or study writing in school, the craft of storytelling she learned from waiting tables for 19 years.

South of Superior is a Midwest Booksellers Association Pick for June.

Readalikes (also coming out this month): Susan Mallery's Already Home, and The Definition of Wind by Ellen Block.

2011 Arab American Book Award Winners Announced

ArabAmericanBookAwardLogoArabAmericanBookAwardLogoToday the 2011 Arab American Book Award winners were announced. The awards were established in 2006 by the Arab American National Museum, the Arab American Book Award honors significant literature by and about Arab Americans.

Local poet and University of Michigan professor, Libyan American Khaled Mattawa won in the Poetry section for his book Tocqueville, described as "part personal lyric, part jeremiad, part shooting script, and part troubled homage to the great wry chronicler of American society evoked in the book’s title."

Thérèse Soukar Chehade's first novel, Loom was declared the winner in the Fiction section. The the remiscences and anxieties of the Zaydan family unfolds while awaiting a cousin returning from Lebanon during a Northeastern blizzard.

The Evelyn Shakir Nonfiction Award, named for the recently passed author and scholar Evelyn Shakir, went to Arab Americans in Toledo: Cultural Assimilation and Community Involvement by Dr. Samir Abu-Absi. The contributors to this collection come from all walks of life and write on diverse subjects concerning the life and livelihood of Arab Americans in Toledo, Ohio, from economics, to politics, entertainment, to language.

Prolific children's author Diane Stanley won in the Children/ Young Adult category for her Young Adult book, Saving Sky about seventh-grader Sky who helps a classmate of Middle Eastern descent who is being profiled during a time of war.

In addition to the Winners, there were three Honorable Mention Awards:

Non-Fiction: Barefoot in Baghdad: A Story of Identity by Manal M. Omar, Poetry: This Isa Nice Neighborhood by Farid Matuk & Children/ Young Adult: Time to Pray by Maha Addasi.

Jamey Johnson: Rekindling Country Music

Grammy nominee, Jamey Johnson, is the kind of country singer that skeptical country music fans have been waiting a long time for. Unlike most popular country stars, like Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith, or Brad Paisley, where most of the songs sound like straight-ahead pop tunes with some pedal steel guitar and twangy vocals thrown in, Johnson is all substance over style. He is a songwriter first and wrote hits for other country musicians before recording under his own name.

Cut from the cloth of honkey-tonkers like George Jones and Alan Jackson, Jamey Johnson breathes his Montgomery, Alabama heritage and bourbon-soaked baritone into his narrative songs, though he can write the honest-as-bones Hank Williams style ballad just as well. Which is why he was able to successfully release 2010’s double-disc album, The Guitar Song, with the first disc titled “The Black Album” and the second “The White Album”. Black is laced with the darker themes of rejection and loss, while White highlights the more optimistic moments in life.

The Guitar Song comes two years after Johnson’s superb 2008 record, The Lonesome Song, with the latest album building strongly on the gritty lens and focused musicianship that sets him far above his peers.

National Book Critics Circle Awards Announced

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Winners of the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Awards were recently announced.

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad won for fiction. In nonlinear fashion, each chapter is written from a different character’s point of view, so perhaps it can be viewed as an overlapping set of short stories, rather than chapters. Egan pushes fiction’s boundaries and offers a fresh reading experience. In short, Goon Squad is a story of time, life, relationships, aging, technology, and an evolving rock music scene.

Other notable NBCCA winners include:

General Nonfiction: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson.

Biography: How To Live: Or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell.

Autobiography: Half a Life, by Darin Strauss.

Sound of Music vs. West Side Story

In the early 1960s, Robert Wise directed two of the most popular and beloved musicals ever to dance across the big screen. In 1961, he and choreographer Jerome Robbins dramatized the Bernstein and Sondheim musical, West Side Story. Wise followed this ten-Oscar-winning smash with the historical von Trapp family saga, The Sound of Music, in 1965. These two films tower among the best in the genre some fifty years later, as the late 1960s and beyond trended toward cinema verite styling and a marked dropoff of the sentimentality of these films.

So which is the better Robert Wise directed musical film: West Side Story or Sound of Music?

If you're in the West Side Story camp, you have the timeless Romeo and Juliet tale, elevated by some of the most brilliantly directed and choreographed dance/fight scenes in film history. But if you're in Sound of Music's corner, you have the filmed-on-location, stunning Austrian backdrop, with enormously talented Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer as leads, and songs like My Favorite Things, whose melody shifts like a sea change amidst the song's parade of images. If anybody asks, I'm voting for the latter.

Revisit your favorite or enjoy either movie for the first time by checking the AADL catalog for holdings at your local library.

Two Pulitzer Prize winners expected at Storymakers Dinner May 12

This year's Storymakers Dinner is coming up May 12 at Zingerman's Roadhouse. Special guest will be acclaimed novelist Richard Ford, editor of "Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work," scheduled to come out in April. Ford's Independence Day was the first novel to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. And heads up for another Pulitzer Prize winning author, Jeffrey Eugenides, who also is expected to be at the Storymakers Dinner. The event supports 826 Michigan, a non-profit that helps students improve their writing skills.

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