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.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #246

Keigo Higashino won Japan's Naoki Prize for Best Novel with The Devotion of Suspect X* * *, a stunning thriller about miscarried human devotion.

This is the first major English publication of Japan's best-loved and bestselling crime novelist, translated from the Japanese by Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander.

Young Yasuko is caught red-handed over the dead body of her abusive ex-husband, luckily by her neighbor, a middle-aged high school mathematics teacher named Shigami who quickly offers to help, not only to dispose of the body but to construct an elaborate alibi for her.

When Detective Kusanagi draws the case, he suspects Yasuko though he is unable to find any obvious holes in her alibi. So Kusanagi enlists the help of Dr. Manabu Yukawa, a brilliant physicist, who also happens to be a former classmates of Ishigami. What ensues is a high level battle of wits, as Ishigami tries to protect Yasuko by outmaneuvering and outthinking Yukawa, who faces his most clever and determined opponent yet.

Readers of atmospheric and psychological thriller should also like David Peace's WWII-era Tokyo Year Zero (2007), a darkly lyrical and original crime novel featuring Detective Minami of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police. Or noir mysteries by Natsuo Kirino, at the fringe of contemporary Tokyo society.

Readers interested in character-driven mysteries set in Asia should try James Church's Inspector O series, set in a politically-charged modern Korea.

* * * = Starred Reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #244

Winner of the 2008 Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award, Hannah Pittard's debut novel The Fates Will Find Their Way * begins with the mysterious disappearance of 16-year old Nora Lindell from the unnamed mid-Atlantic town, all the more eerie as it was Halloween.

Told from the first-person plural point of view of the boys who still long for her and the sister she left behind, the mystery grows kaleidoscopically as years go by, fueled by rumors, divergent suspicions, and tantalizing what-ifs.

Capturing teenage lust, friendship, reverence, and regret, Hannah Pittard's beautifully crafted novel tracks the the boys as they "sleepwalk into an adulthood of jobs, marriages, families, homes, and daughters of their own, all the while pining for a girl–and a life–that no longer exists, except in the imagination."

This suspenseful and melancholy take on what it is like for those left behind will appeal to those who liked Please Don't Come Back from the Moon by Dean Bakopoulos, and What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn, long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, the Orange Prize, and "The Guardian" First Book Award.

The author will be reading and signing at Nicola's Books, Wednesday, March 9 @ 7 pm. (Details). Don't be late for the party.

* = Starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts # 237

Readers familiar with "Ava Wrestles the Alligators", the opening story in Karen Russell's St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006) will be pleased to find Ava front and center in Swamplandia!* * *, - her "spectacularly crafted" first novel due to hit the market next week.

Swamplandia! is a shabby tourist attraction deep in the Florida Everglades, owned by the Bigtree clan of alligator wrestlers. When Hilola, their star performer, dies, Swamplandia! and all its quirky inhabitants are unmoored.

Some take off for parts unknown, one falls in love with an ancient ghost. To set things right, 13 year-old Ava embarks on an odyssey to the Underworld that is at once spellbinding and terrifying.

"Ravishing, elegiac, funny, and brilliantly inquisitive, Russell's archetypal swamp saga tells a mystical yet rooted tale of three innocents who come of age through trials of water, fire, and air."

"Quirky, outlandish fiction", a phantasmagorical tale of teens left on their own. "To say it's offbeat is to seriously underestimate its weirdness." ~Kirkus Reviews

Selected as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists, and the New Yorker's 20 under 40, Karen Russell is an irrepressible new voice in contemporary fiction. You don't want to miss this.

* * * = Starred reviews

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