When You Are Engulfed in Flames
By David Sedaris, Out in the US, Little, Brown
Quirky essays drawn from the author’s past with his eccentric family (his sister is comedian-actor Amy Sedaris), his years in New York and his life in France.
Backstory: Sedaris’ audience is too big for bookstores; he can sell out concert venues (he got a Grammy nomination for David Sedaris: Live at Carnegie Hall). He’s sold more than four million copies of his books. Publisher Little, Brown plans an almost Grisham-sized first printing of 650,000 copies.
What grabbed us: In the wake of James Frey and other scandals, the memoirist genre is under siege. Although Sedaris, 51, claims he keeps a daily diary, one has to wonder at his detailed recollection of conversations, people, events and clothes from his distant youth (Sedaris declined to comment for this article). Nonetheless, the author’s many fans will no doubt flock to his newest offering.
One Minute to Midnight
By Michael Dobbs, Out in the US, Knopf
A minute-by-minute account of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when the US and USSR were close to nuclear war over Soviet missile installations in Cuba. The book features new data about the movement of Soviet forces based on declassified government documents and interviews with surviving Russian participants.
Backstory: Dobbs wanted to write about the missile crisis while there were still survivors to interview. He says the threat of disaster didn’t come from the decisions of Kennedy or Khrushchev, but from unpredictable events while “the military machine cranked along”.
What grabbed us: Dobbs argues that while many academics have studied the crisis, the “human story has been lost”. He details some little-known tales within the larger drama, such as the errant flight of Charles Maultsby’s B-52 reconnaissance plane, which drifted into Soviet airspace hundreds of miles from his planned route over the North Pole.
The Monster of Florence
By Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi, Out in the US on 10 June, Grand Central Publishing
The story of one of Italy’s most notorious serial killers, who has eluded capture for decades. One of the co-authors, Italian journalist Mario Spezi, was jailed when Italian authorities accused him of being the Monster of Florence (he was later released and the prosecutors involved were censured).
Backstory: Best-selling thriller author Douglas Preston, when living in Florence in 2000, learnt about the murderer who attacked lovers in their cars and had killed 14 people. It was, he says, “the most horrific story I’ve ever come across in my life”. Preston teamed up with Spezi, who had covered the case, to solve the crime.
What grabbed us: In separate chapters, each author tells us of his involvement in the investigation. The authors detail the history of the case and offer up their theories about who the killer could be, and why the case matters. “Many countries have a serial killer who defines his culture by a process of negation, by exposing its black underbelly. England had Jack the Ripper. Italy had Monster of Florence.”
By Rick Perlstein, Out in the US,Scribner
The book charts the path from John F. Kennedy’s death to Richard Nixon’s 1972 landslide election victory. Against the backdrop of race riots, war protests and assassinations, it shows how middle-class Americans and liberal intellectuals came to see each other as un-American.
Backstory: “I am obsessed with the 1960s,” says Perlstein, who spent about six years writing and researching the book. One surprise: “The astonishing numbers of right-wing vigilante violence that somehow didn’t make it into standard accounts of the 1960s.”
What grabbed us: There is a lot about the 1960s that isn’t known. “It surprised me how much strangeness there is in the recent past,” Perlstein says, noting Max Rafferty, California’s superintendent of police, had banned the teaching of evolution.
By Benjamin Nugent,Out in the US, Scribner
Nerds, inside-out. This essay-cum- memoir examines what a nerd is, from the high-school debate team to computer techies and Dungeons and Dragons experts. The author also writes of his own life as a nerd.
Backstory: Nugent says, nerdily, that nerds have suffered “a history of oppression based on arbitrary categorization”, and that he wanted to define the variety of nerd subcultures. One conclusion: “Nerdiness offers respite from the chaos of home life.”
What grabbed us: Nerds make for an entertaining treatise, and Nugent is serious about them. The book is not jokey. For instance, he compares nerdiness to Asperger’s syndrome, a condition that includes poor social skills.
By David Maraniss, Out in the US on 1 July, Simon & Schuster
The Olympics in Rome was during the height of the Cold War, and on the cusp of the civil rights movement, when black American athletes such as Rafer Johnson, Wilma Rudolph and Cassius Clay won gold medals. This was the infancy of the televised games, too, leading to today’s extravagant coverage.
Backstory: Maraniss says the Rome Olympics featured a “great setting, wonderful characters and so much of the modern world coming into view”. He interviewed many Russian athletes for the book.
What grabbed us: Maraniss writes that “the forces of change were profound and palpable in the Eternal City. In sports, culture, and politics—interwoven in so many ways—one could see an old order dying and a new one being born. With all its promise and trouble, the world, as we see it today, was coming into view.
The Garden of Last Days
By Andre Dubus III, Out in the US, WW Norton
A fact-based novel in which a terrorist behind the 11 September attacks goes to Florida strip clubs, grappling with his mission and American temptations. It’s told from the point of view of the terrorist—and the strippers.
Backstory: The author’s novel House of Sand and Fog was an Oprah (Winfrey) pick and became a movie. Booksellers think this could be big, too. “You’ll care about these people even as you’re horrified about what they’re going through,” says Mike Bernard, owner of Rakestraw Books, Danville, California.
What grabbed us: The author’s sympathy for all his characters is compelling. “I don’t know if I believe in villains,” Dubus says, “I believe in villainous behaviour.” He spent five years on the book, including research on the terrorists, Islam and Saudi Arabia. The book examines as much the mindset of the terrorists as the hardscrabble lives of exotic dancers.
City of Thieves
By David Benioff, Out in the US, Viking
An off-beat coming-of-age tale between a teen and a cocky young soldier. The unlikely pair witness the horrors of war in Leningrad in 1942 when, during a time of suffering and starvation, they are sent by a colonel to find eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake.
Backstory: The author adapted his novel The 25th Hour for a movie version by Spike Lee. The new novel took a while to come together. “After screenwriting for so many years, you lose muscles you need for novel writing,” Benioff says. The novel has been sold in 22 countries. He has no plans to adapt it into a film.
What grabbed us: The book captures the deprivation that often accompanies wartime; it also deftly portrays the deep emotional bonds that are forged in the worst of times. “You have never been so hungry; you have never been so cold. In June of 1941, before the Germans came, we thought we were poor. But June seemed like paradise by Winter,” Benioff writes.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, Out in the US on 29 July, Dial Press
An epistolary novel about a writer who befriends a group of folks on Guernsey in the Channel Islands after World War II, and learns about the book club they once formed to protect their members during Nazi occupation.
Backstory: Author Mary Ann Shaffer was so fascinated by Guernsey she wanted to write about its role in World War II in her first—and last—book. Shaffer died in February, after the book was sold. Her niece Annie Barrows, a children’s book author, took over revisions for the book, which booksellers are embracing.
What grabbed us: A novel in letters may seem old-fashioned in the age of instant messaging, but the book’s warmth makes the narrative feel fresh and immediate. The late Shaffer was taken by first-hand accounts of the occupation, her niece says, and felt letters would convey a sense of being there.
Berlin Book Two: City of Smoke
By Jason Lutes, Out in the US on 19 August, Drawn and Quarterly
A cartoon epic for adults about Berlin between the two world wars. The second volume of a planned trilogy takes place following 1929’s deadly May Day demonstration, as pressure builds among communists, nationalists, Jews and gentiles. Meanwhile, the city’s sordid, hedonistic nightlife booms.
Backstory: In the trilogy, Lutes examines the “basic human impulses towards the desire for power”, he says. He was influenced by Alfred Doblin’s 1929 novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz, for its “collage of city life”. The previous volume has been translated into several languages, including German and Finnish.
What grabbed us: The interweaving stories of a journalist, a prostitute, a black clarinetist, soldiers, politicians and bureaucrats and others as they interact during the waning Weimar Republic give a human dimension to a seismic era. Lute’s unsentimental black-and-white drawings are so understated that when violence erupts it has a jolt.
WORLD / CONTEMPORARY
My Sister, My Love
By Joyce Carol Oates, Out in the US on 24 June, Ecco
A novel in the form of the first person narrative of 19-year-old Skyler Rampike, the brother of six-year-old ice-skating champion Bliss Rampike, who was murdered 10 years earlier.
Backstory: The book was inspired by the infamous JonBenet Ramsey case. Oates says she wanted to explore life from inside a family that had become notorious, about “living in that tabloid hell”.
What grabbed us: The author’s uncanny ability to inhabit her character while within a satirical universe. There are witty footnotes, a la Vladamir Nabokov in Pale Fire. Sample: “Repetitive Compulsion Syndrome. A self-explanatory condition only just recently recognized by the American Association of Mental Health Practitioners”.
By Zeo Ferraris,Out in the US on 20 June, Houghton Miffin
In Saudi Arabia, the brother of a missing 16-year-old girl hires a Palestinian desert guide to help find her. The guide must manoeuvre Islamic and Saudi laws about women’s roles to find the truth.
Backstory: Ferraris lived in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War with her then-husband, a Saudi-Palestinian Bedouin, and grew fascinated with men’s struggles there to find wives in a closed society. The story’s Muslim investigator will appear in two more books, she says.
What grabbed us: The insights into a cloistered world of Saudi women, as well as the plight of men who have freedom of movement but are still bound by religious strictures. It’s a fascinating tale that also gives a sympathetic view of a culture that many Americans know little about.
By Ma Jian,Out in the US, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
A Tiananmen Square protestor lies in a coma after being shot, reliving his past while confined to his bed. Waking after a decade, he finds that the new China is unrecognizable.
Backstory: Ma Jian can travel to China, but can’t be published there under his own name. He now lives in London with his partner Flora Drew, who translates his books, which include The Noodle Maker.
What grabbed us: Ma’s skill at combining allegory, history and poetry. The coma victim’s thoughts were inspired by an ancient Chinese poem, Classic of the Mountains and Seas.
By Dirk Wittenborn, Out in the US on 31 July, Viking
A look at Americans’ quest for happiness through the story of a self-centred Yale philosophy professor who finds a drug that alters people’s moods. The book follows the rise of psychopharmacology and the travails of the professor’s smart, unhappy family from the 1950s through the 1990s.
Backstory: Dirk Wittenborn based part of the novel on his father, a Yale professor. The book, however, is more violent than Wittenborn’s real life. The author also wrote the screenplay to a movie, The Lucky Ones, with Tim Robbins, which will be out in the US this fall.
What grabbed us: The author manages to keep the plot moving over the book’s 400-plus pages, with eccentric, John Irving-like characters. And the book’s first line is a winner: “I was born because a man came to kill my father.”
By Janet Evanovich, Out in the US on 17 June, Martin’s Press
In Trenton, New Jersey, bounty hunter Stephanie Plum is assigned to protect an ageing out-of-control singer, babysit a high-school friend’s slacker gamer son — and try to solve a murder in her cop boyfriend’s home.
Backstory: Janet Evanovich’s comic caper crime novels have sold 25 million copies since the first (One For the Money) in 1994. This one has a first printing of two million copies. Her author appearances are huge: On 17 June, she’s scheduled in a 4,000-seater theatre at the MGM Grand at Foxwoods, in Ledyard, Connecticut.
What grabbed us: The assorted characters are all breezily amusing, from the plus-size Lula, an ex-hooker who’s Stephanie Plum’s sidekick, to her tart-tongued grandmother.
Say You’re One of Them
By Uwem Akpan, Out in the US on 9 June, Little, Brown
This debut collection features five harrowing stories about the perilous lives of children in various African countries, covering subjects such as inter-tribal warfare in Rwanda and the Gabon child prostitution trade.
Backstory: The Nigerian-born author, a Jesuit priest who lives and teaches in Zimbabwe, felt compelled to write about children at risk. Father Akpan’s native language is Annang, but he studied in English, honing his skills with an MFA at the University of Michigan. He got a book deal after one of his stories appeared in The New Yorker.
What grabbed us: The stories, such as My Parents’ Bedroom about tribal massacres in Rwanda, can be brutal, but aren’t melodramatic. The children who narrate describe events in a matter-of-fact tome that is free of self-pity. “I felt this was the way to give dignity to their voices,” Father Akpan says.
One More Year
By Sana Krasikov,Out in the US on 15 August, Spiegel and Grau
The stories in this debut collection trace the lives of Russian immigrants in the US as they try to make careers here—or enough money to relocate back to Russia to make it there.
Backstory: Sana Krasikov was born in Ukraine and came with her family to the US when she was 8. While on a Fulbright Fellowship in Moscow, researching a novel, she finished this collection, which Spiegel and Grau bought. Two of the stories have run in TheNew Yorker.
What grabbed us: The stories focus more on character and setting than on plot. “I have a more novelistic approach, and a less episodic approach to writing short stories,” says Krasikov.
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