Remains of the Year: More Books to Look Forward to in 2014

If you’ve been wondering what to do with the remainder of 2014, here’s your answer, faithfully delivered by The Millions. Their latest “Most Anticipated” list features 84 books you’ll be seeing on shelves in the next few months. Some—such as Edan Lepucki’s California, Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House, and Tiphanie Yanique’s Land of Love and Drowning—have already been released since the list came out a few weeks ago. Others—including Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories, Christos Tsiolkas’s Barracuda, Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl, and Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings—will have to wait in your online pre-order cart for a little while longer. Click below for the full reader’s forecast.

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Beach Books for a Great Escape

In the days leading up to a beach trip, instead of getting out suitcases, doing last-minute laundry, and crossing items off my packing list, I spend my time daydreaming about what I’ll read once I hit the sand. This summer is no different. Here are 12 beach-worthy books that have me in the vacation state of mind. The best part is, you don’t have to head to the ocean to take advantage of great beach reads. The nature of a beach book is that it takes you on an escape—whether you end up lounging by the sea, sitting in your backyard, or just hiding out in your bedroom for an afternoon.

The QuickThe Quick, by Lauren Owen (Buy it here.)

Nothing beats the summer heat like an atmospheric novel set in shadowy Victorian London. The less you know about this brand-new debut novel, the better. It’s for readers who love books by . . . well, I shouldn’t say. And it’s for fans of the series . . . I can’t reveal that either. Just read it and keep its secrets to yourself.


The Interestings
The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer (Buy it here.)

Gather your graham crackers and marshmallows; this nostalgic novel about summer camp will have you reliving childhood memories. As you follow these friends from adolescence to adulthood, you’ll empathize with a few of the lessons they learn about responsibility and relationships.


Mr Mercedes
Mr. Mercedes,
Stephen King (Buy it here.)

In book after book, Stephen King gives us perfect beach reads, taking us far from the world we call home. This latest—his first in the detective genre—centers around an unsolved hit-and-run and the battle between a retired cop and an evil killer.


Me before You
Me before You,
Jojo Moyes (Buy it here.)

Wear your swimsuit and pack some tissues, because you might be a wet mess before it’s all over. This is a tear-jerker, though not sappy for sap’s sake. As the two main characters let go of their preconceptions and plans, they may inspire you to, too. Follow it up with One Plus One, coming July 1.


Lost Girls
Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery,
by Robert Kolker (Buy it here.)

Who says beach reads have to be light and fluffy with a happy ending? Dig into something darker with this nonfiction title about the still-unsolved murder of five female escorts on Long Island. It’s for fans of CSI and Law and Order, or anyone craving the human story behind a real-life mystery.


All Fall Down
All Fall Down, by Jennifer Weiner (Buy it here.)

This novel takes readers on an enlightening trip into the territory of drug addiction, and in a place where it’s still surprising yet increasingly common: middle-class suburbia and motherhood.


Grown-up Kind of Pretty
A Grown-up Kind of Pretty,
by Joshilyn Jackson (Buy it here.)

Joshilyn Jackson is known for her sassy southern storytelling, and this tale of three generations of women divided (yet bound) by a backyard secret combines humor and heartfelt emotion. (If you’ll be near Huntsville, AL, this September 25, there’s another reason to read this book, since Jackson is speaking at the library’s annual Vive le Livre; get event details here.)


We Were Liars
We Were Liars,
by E. Lockhart (Buy it here.)

This recent release has the YA world talking, but try not to listen. The novel’s secrets, lies, and dark truths make for a thrilling read if you don’t know much beforehand. One summer, something goes horribly wrong during a family’s annual sojourn on Cape Cod; this narrative is a teen’s attempt to figure it out.


Jennifer, Gwyneth & Me
Jennifer, Gwyneth & Me: The Pursuit of Happiness, One Celebrity at a Time,

by Rachel Bertsche (Buy it here.)

Just saying the name “Gwyneth” conjures up the complicated emotions we regular people feel toward celebrities: fascination and admiration mixed with envy and resentment. Trying to capture the star qualities of her fave celebs, Bertsche’s experiment turns into a quest for perfection and contentment.


Hundred-Year House
The Hundred-Year House,
by Rebecca Makkai (Buy it here.)

You’ll have to wait until July 10 for this gothic novel, which opens with a ghost story and then takes off with family drama, mad characters, and a murder mystery.


Devil in the Grove
Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of America, by Gilbert King (Buy it here.)

A 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner, this paperback recounts events that seem fictional but are all too true. When Thurgood Marshall rode into Florida to represent four black men accused of raping a white woman, he had to fight the “Florida Terror,” which meant taking on the orange industry, law enforcement, and the KKK.


Hyperbole and a Half
Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened,
by Allie Brosh (Buy it here.)

If you miss picture books, this essay collection is for you. Peppered with the author’s quirky drawings, it proves that cartoons can deal with serious subjects and make you laugh at the same time.

Did The Goldfinch Deserve the Pulitzer? An Answer in the Novel’s Own Words

Goldfinch question markGet a group of readers together, and it won’t take long for the question to arise: “Have you read The Goldfinch?” And then the follow-up: “Did you like it?” If you’re hip to the hype—the book-world buzz long before the novel’s October 2013 release, a perpetual spot on bestseller lists ever since, a movie deal with big-name producers, and, finally, the coveted Pulitzer Prize for fiction—then you expect to like The Goldfinch. You want to like The Goldfinch. But not everyone does.

An article in the Washington Post called it “The Disappointing Novel That Just Won a Pulitzer Prize.” The headline to Newsweek’s review complained that “Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch Neither Sings nor Flies.” And a writeup in the Guardian declared it an “overlong and tediously Potteresque adventure.” In my own conversations with reader friends, I’ve found similar reactions. Some rated it okay, others said they flat-out didn’t like it, and a few put it down before finishing.

As someone who edits books for a living, I’ll be the first to say that this 800-page behemoth could have benefitted from an editor more willing to wield a red pen. The novel is looooong, it tends to ramble, and some of the characters’ extended musings seem somewhat pointless. Its drifting, grifting main character, Theo Decker, is downright unlikable at times. And we’re never sure what he’s going to make of himself, even after the novel comes to a close.

However, I would argue that there’s meaning behind the clutter, if we mine for it. There’s a point to the length, the rambling plot, and the seeming pointlessness, if we are willing to put up with it. And there’s a philosophical payoff at the end if we just wait.

The Goldfinch is about a journey—a meandering, oftentimes aimless journey. It’s about Theo’s search for many things, from parental figures to love to personal significance. His is an arduous quest with a goal that usually remains out of reach. Though his journey never reaches an ultimate destination, the final 50 pages of the novel do bring him, if not happiness, at least some understanding. And, sometimes, in this inexplicable world, that’s about all we can ask for.

All along, Tartt makes us feel adrift, but she doesn’t ultimately let us drown (you caught the deluge of water metaphors, right?). Despite keeping a few tricks up her sleeve for 700 pages (you also noticed the intertwining themes of magic, gambling, and chance?), she finally shows her hand at the end. If you don’t give up, the conclusion of The Goldfinch packs a hefty philosophical punch, helping Theo make sense of his life and helping the reader make sense of all the pages that have come before. Below, in the novel’s own words, are some of the big ideas Donna Tartt plays with in The Goldfinch. You don’t have to understand all these ideas about art, language, fate, morality, and mortality to savor the novel. But you do have to savor these ideas to understand how it won the Pulitzer Prize.

(The focus below is more on the big ideas and less on specifics, but there could be a few spoilers along the way; so read at your own risk.)

 

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The Goldfinch isn’t just a novel; it’s a real-life painting that was almost lost to posterity when its painter, Fabritius, died in an explosion that destroyed most of Delft. In the fictional world of the novel, Theo rescues the painting yet again, after the bombing of the New York Museum of Art. Just before that bomb goes off, Theo’s mother tells him, “People die, sure, . . . . But it’s so heartbreaking and unnecessary how we lose things. . . . I guess that anything we manage to save from history is a miracle.” From then on, the novel focuses on the process of searching, saving, and preserving. Hobie, an antique furniture preservationist by trade, is the one who saves Theo’s life and teaches him the art of preservation. Like the miniature set of figurines in his kitchen, Hobie is Noah, “the great conservator, the great caretaker.” Though Theo is continually threatened by water all around—from the pouring rain on the day of his mother’s death to the drowning of his friend Andy and his father—Hobie takes Theo aboard and teaches him the value of loving and saving the most beautiful things in life.

 

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This is from Hobie, here explaining himself to Theo and, in turn, explaining Theo to Theo. As a curator and preservationist, Hobie can best explain Theo’s attachment to art for art’s sake. Beautiful objects inspire in us something spiritual, something beyond rational thought. And, in this mortal world, art is a way of establishing something immortal. By preserving something beautiful, we might just capture the eternal, even if for a fleeting moment, during our brief stay on earth. With this theme, Tartt calls to mind one of the most famous Romantic poems of all time, John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The urn shows a scene of a lover pursuing his beloved—like Theo pursuing Pippa, his “morphine lollipop”—but never catching her. It’s a chase scene that’s set in stone forever, a permanent representation of our futile pursuit for permanence. We humans can’t help but keep up the chase.

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Fair youth, beneath the trees, though canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!” 
 
 
 
 
 

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In the painting that gives the novel its name, a tiny goldfinch is chained to its perch by links so delicate they’re almost invisible. Theo feels a kinship with that bird, realizing by the end, “We can’t escape who we are.” Like Fabritius’s bird, we can’t escape the chains that bind us. Each of us is bound to the person we were born to be, and all the flaws and weaknesses that come along with it. So what if the self we’re given isn’t so good? Not to mention the parents and circumstances we inherited? By the end, Theo realizes that living an imperfect life—and doing it with passion—is still preferable to merely existing.

 

quote 4

Perhaps being bad isn’t always so bad, explains Boris. This is just a small portion of Boris’s final diatribe to Theo, a Russian-inflected speech that invokes Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot and, like that novel, turns the good-versus-bad dichotomy upside down. Theo proves himself to be a Dostoyevskian-type idiot much earlier in the novel (Tartt even dubs him that in a chapter title) when the grand wool is pulled over his eyes, and by a friend no less. Though, in this speech, Boris is clearly casting about for justification, he hits on the murkiness of real life. Bad things happen to good people, and good people end up doing bad things. It’s not a comforting view of morality, but it may be the truest. Theo is neither all good nor all bad. He starts out by doing something wrong—an unknown act which gets him suspended from school and called, with his mother, to a meeting with the principal. And he spends the rest of the novel wondering whether his own wrongdoing caused his mother’s death. Did it? Of course not. Fate is cruel sometimes, even to people trying to do the best they can. And our only response to the cruelty of fate is . . . to try to do the best we can.

 

 

quote 5

When Boris offers this justification to Theo for their thieving past, Theo doesn’t buy the idea right away. But it applies to so much more than stolen art. Things go missing time and again in this novel, not just paintings, but also friends, money, love. The plot revolves around the ultimate loss: a child losing his mother. And, with the exception of a few paintings, most of the losses never get recovered. Yet, in loss lies the possibility of redemption. During his final conversation with Theo, Boris does a brilliant job of mixing his Bible parables in a way that makes a lot of sense. He suggests that Theo’s story is the lost sheep, the widow’s mite, the prodigal son, the unjust steward, and the parable of the talents all rolled into one. Theo plays the part of the unjust steward who is both dishonest and faithful to his master, Hobie, and then turns into the prodigal child that Hobie welcomes back with open arms. Led by Boris, his stolen painting is a risky investment that could go south but ultimately brings a big return, when other lost paintings are recovered. But, most of all, Theo’s story is that of the lost sheep—the one that finds redemption even after wandering far afield. Theo also learns to value the lost things in his life, since he has to lose his mother to find relationships with so many others, from his father to Boris, Hobie, Pippa, and the Barbours. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but Theo comes to discover the truth of what his gambling father always told him: “to quote another paradoxical gem of my dad’s: sometimes you have to lose to win.”

 

 

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This quote from the novel’s very last page brings us back to the theme of saving and rescuing. But this time, we aren’t saving art; it’s saving us. Donna Tartt is pilfering from George Steiner here, and I love her for it. George who, you ask? In his book After Babel (1975), literary critic and thinker George Steiner wrote, “We speak, we dream ourselves free of the organic trap.” Language—and, by extension, art—represents our attempt to rise above the human condition and avoid, escape, and forestall death. Though death is all around us, an ever-present reminder of our status as mere mortals, we do have the power to, in Theo’s words, “sing ourselves out of despair.” Tartt is drawing not just on Steiner but also on Modernists like T. S. Eliot and philosophers like Nietzsche. Poetry was Eliot’s medium of choice: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” he proclaimed in The Wasteland. Nietzsche, despite having a bad rep as a nihilist, gave the power to the people; the whole concept of his “will to power” is that we rise up and make something out of nothing. Nietzsche’s declaration “We have art in order not to die from the truth” becomes the epigraph to the final section of Tartt’s novel. And it becomes the mantra that will help Theo survive beyond the conclusion of his narrative. Theo may not be a model hero with a happy ending to his quest, but he figures out a way to survive in a world that seems against him at every turn. Art is a lifeline for Theo and for all of us who have read his story.

Why I’m Mature Enough for YA Fiction

front view of blank book  on white backgroundI’m over the age of 40. There, I said it. I’m okay with being middle-aged; I really am. At this stage of my life, there are all kinds of things I get to do that I didn’t at the ripe old age of 20 or 30. For instance, now I get to wear two kinds of glasses at the same time—one for reading a restaurant menu, and the other for seeing people across the table. My social circle is ever widening to include all kinds of doctor and medical practitioner friends; sometimes I see several of them in a single week. These days, I can watch the Billboard Music Awards and rest comfortably in the fact that, with the exception of the Michael Jackson hologram, I’m older than every performer that takes the stage. And, now that I’m 40-something, I also get to enjoy young adult books.

Sure, I could have read and enjoyed YA books before I hit this age milestone. But I didn’t. Except for a YA classic here and there, from the time I was 18 until very recently I didn’t once open the covers of a book that claimed to be for teens, preteens, or young adults. I’m sure there were valid reasons for this, though I never thought them through. Mainly, I was too busy acting like a grown-up. And acting like a grown-up meant reading grown-up books.

Once I hit 40, though, I could finally let my guard down. There’s no doubt—despite occasional wishes to the contrary—that I am officially a grown-up. And, armed with that sense of security, I can savor a few of the younger things in life. Nowadays, I read YA books regularly. I prefer variety in my reading, so I enjoy alternating a more mature, introspective novel like Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending with a page-turning thriller from the Twilight series. YA fiction also keeps me in tune with pop culture. Just look at the movie theater marquees these days; they’re covered up with YA novels turned films, from The Fault in Our Stars to Divergent. But, mostly, I like the way books for young people make me feel young, too. When I’m reading about a teen character’s social anxiety or emotional angst or romantic trials, I feel as if I were right back there myself, walking the halls of high school. Doesn’t it seem like just yesterday to you, too? On a deeper level, YA fiction is dealing with perhaps the toughest stage of personhood. It’s a time when we undergo the most major transition, trying to navigate our way from the comforts of childhood to the challenges of being an adult. And that makes for intriguing reading.

Knowing myself, I couldn’t have truly enjoyed young adult literature as an adult until now. I needed to be a little more mature to be able to admit I’m not so mature after all.

For those of you who are already YA fans, and for those willing to give it another try, take a look at some of my recent favorites from this ever-popular genre. Also feel free to visit my 2013 post sharing a Flowchart for YA Lit Readers.

 

 

18052934-1I came across this title on an Internet list of new authors that deserve a try, and I’m glad I did. It put me in mind of that 1988 movie Heathers (I told you I was over 40!), because it so ingeniously combines comedy with murder and mayhem. It’s not a completely believable tale, because it’s not supposed to be. It made me laugh out loud several times, and I couldn’t help but imagine certain scenes on the big screen.

 

 

15818107This was my book club’s selection last month, and it was a smooth, thought-provoking read about a teenage girl who finds a kindred spirit in a woman decades her elder. I don’t think Kline’s novel is officially classified as YA fiction, but I’d put it there because I think teenagers would identify and sympathize with the orphan heroine and her search for herself.

 

 

 

18131This will be a blast from the past for many of you, as it was for me. When I saw it on my son’s required list for seventh grade, I decided it was time for a reread. And it turned out to be so much better from an adult perspective. The spiritual battle between good and evil is one we fight almost every day, though not in the same literal, physical way. I found myself seeing things through the eyes of the book’s parents, as well as its main character, Meg.

 

 

12875258Again, this may or may not be on the YA shelf at the bookstore, but it certainly straddles the fence between fiction for teens and adults. The 14-year-old girl at its center is learning about grief for the first time, after losing an uncle that she not only loved but shared her true self with. His death sends her on a quest to understand more about his mysterious illness and the male friend he left behind. This is a moving, emotional coming-of-age story—and one that grown-ups will find realistic and touching.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

19063You might have seen the movie by now, if you haven’t already read the book. The Book Thief, a novel that’s been around since 2007, is the sort of character-driven drama that great films are based on. A Holocaust story tailor-made for bookish types, this novel focuses on a foster girl living in Nazi Germany—with a Jewish man hidden in the basement. As she befriends him, she also learns that books and writing can be powerful means of survival.

 

 

9460487I’ve only delved into the first few chapters of this novel, my book club’s latest selection. Whether or not it turns out to be a great novel, the premise is pretty gripping. A collector of vintage photographs, author Ransom Riggs has used some of his most peculiar photo finds to create a strange story about a group of strange children. This novel occupied the number-one spot on the New York Times best-seller list for more than a year. And it already has a sequel, Hollow City, for those that didn’t want the first one to end.

 

[This post is, in part, a response to today's Armchair BEA Conference's topic on the Young Adult genre. It's been a great week virtually hanging out with my fellow book bloggers.]Armchair BEA 3