Good Books from Other Houses: The Republic of Imagination – Azar Nafisi

One of the special treats of working in publishing is that sometimes a colleague from another house will send you an advance copy of one their books. Opening that unexpected package is always a little like Christmas. And this morning the present is a true gift. Penguin sent me the incomparable Azar Nafisi’s new book The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books

If the intro includes insights like this, I can hardly wait for the rest:

“Stories are not mere flights of fantasy or instruments of political power and control. They link us to our past, provide us with critical insight into the present and enable us to envision our lives not just as they are but as they should be or might become. Imaginative knowledge is not something you have today and discard tomorrow. It is a way of perceiving the world and relating to it. Primo Levi once said, ‘I write in order to rejoin the community of mankind.'”

New Nonfiction: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy – Karen Abbot

When Sin in the Second City was published in 2007, USA Today called Abbott a pioneer of “sizzle history”. That was enough to make me pick up the manuscript of her latest book, which brings to life the lives of four women who defied convention to play significant roles in the Civil War. The history is well drawn and well researched, the writing is energetic, suspenseful and cinematic. Yep… there’s sizzle here.

By looking at the roles women and civilians in the war, we get an interesting glimpse of the social history of the period as well. PW did an interview with Abbott and her response to the question “What surprised you the most in your research?” points to that:

I had no idea that women disguised themselves as men and enlisted in the army. What I found really fascinating was how they got away with it. It was not only that all the soldiers went to bed fully dressed, so it wasn’t odd that the woman wasn’t stripping down to her linens, but it was that fact that no one knew what a woman would look like wearing pants. They were just so used to seeing women in crinolines and bonnets and these big flowing dresses that the idea that a woman would actually put pants on was so unfathomable that they just had no idea—and that’s how they got away with it.”

The book arrives with a starred advance review and strong endorsements from some major popular historians.

In this gripping book, Abbott tells the moving and fascinating story of four women who played unconventional roles during the Civil War….Meticulously researched and fluidly written, this book draws the reader in and doesn’t let go until the four heroines draw their final breaths. Abbott provides an alternate view of this tumultuous time in history by featuring previously untold stories of the impact women and civilians had on the war effort, and she brings these individuals fully to life, with their passion for their causes, personal flaws… and heartbreak…. In the end, Abbott tells a remarkable story of passion, strength, and resilience.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“With this book, Karen Abbott declares herself the John le Carré of Civil War espionage–with the added benefit that the saga she tells is all true and beautifully researched.”
— Erik Larson

“Karen Abbott’s powerful narrative is first rate American history about a fascinating, little-known chapter of the Civil War, as well as a compulsive, thrilling saga of espionage. Brilliant storytelling, highly accessible, and impossible to put down.”
— Gilbert King, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Devil in the Grove

“Abbott…[reveals] in such vivid detail the extraordinary lives of women who involved themselves so dangerously in the Civil War. This is that rare work of history that reads like a novel — and a really good one at that — and in which the truth is more thrilling than fiction. ”
— Michael Korda

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War (9780062092892) by Karen Abbott. $27.99 hardcover. 9/2/14 on sale.

Short Take: Daring: My Passages – Gail Sheehy

Sheehy is, of course, well-remembered for the 1976 mega-bestseller Passages which the Library of Congress lists as one of the ten most influential books of our time. A book like that can steal the thunder from the rest of a career (even one that includes 15 books) so this memoir is welcome reminder of Sheehy’s formidable place in journalism.

Her career flowered during the first wave of feminism and with the arrival of New Journalism. Her first major series went inside the world of prostitution in NYC with Sheehy going on the streets with the women. She went on to profile a number of 20th century leaders, including Hillary Clinton, Presidents George H. W. and George W. Bush, Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev. Her memoir also recounts the personal risks, costs and rewards of “daring” in a man’s world.

You know media will be great for the woman Booklist called “an icon of American journalism.”

[Sheehy] set the standard for biographical character studies that became the bedrock of what is now known as the new journalism. But it was her surprise 1983 bestseller, Passages, that put Sheehy on the map. A deeply reflective and exhaustively researched critical analysis of the commonalities both genders experience at different stages in life…. Approaching 80, Sheehy now looks back on her personal passages from dutiful daughter to renegade writer, from single parent to liberated woman, to wife of publishing icon Clay Felker and mother of an adopted Cambodian refugee. Ardent, approachable, forthright, and empathetic, Sheehy’s memoir of a life lived in the center of her time’s most defining moments beside its most influential characters is a riveting account of one woman’s exhilarating trajectory, a page-turning, powerhouse testament to resilience, perseverance, and hope.”
Booklist (starred review)

Daring: My Passages (9780062291691) by Gail Sheehy. $29.99 hardcover. 9/2/14 on sale.

Short Take: Slow Dancing with a Stranger – Meryl Comer

There are any number of good “dementia memoirs’ at this point. Slow Dancing with a Stranger is a sometimes poignant often startling addition to the collection. What sets it apart is its ambition to engage readers in a vitally necessary policy discussion over what is likely to become a crippling public health crisis in the U.S.

Coverage in the NYT’s “Science” section and hour on the Diane Rehm on 8/25/14 could make this book pop in the Indie market. I think it’s worth having out on display.

[A] unvarnished account of her experience as her husband’s caretaker after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Comer has become an advocate for the need for early diagnosis and treatment for Alzheimer’s, which is ‘pushing past cancer and HIV/AIDS’ as ‘the most critical public health problem of our times.’ A poignant love story with a powerful message.”
   — Kirkus Reviews

“This is not about the better moments of a loved one’s final years–there are no better moments here. Author Comer’s Alzheimer’s afflicted husband Harvey is often violent and verbally abusive, as well as incontinent and paranoid…. Harvey is belatedly diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, by doctors who seem anxious to shield one of their own from the finality of that sentence. And at enormous financial and personal cost to Comer, her husband defies all of those doctors’ predictions by outliving his prognosis by at least a decade….The reluctance of doctors to diagnose, the cost and selectivity of institutional care (if it can even be found for those patients who physically lash out at others), and the toll on families is overwhelming. I hope that this book finds the wide audience it deserves, including the ever smaller number who have not yet had to care for a family member or friend with Alzheimer’s.
— Carla Bayha, Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, MI

Slow Dancing with a Stranger: Lost and Found in the Age of Alzheimer’s (9780062130822) by Meryl Comer. $26.99 hardcover. 9/2/14 on sale.

Wow… NYT Review of All That is Solid Melts into Air

What writer would not die happy to receive the review the NYT gave Darragh McKeon’s All That is Solid Melts into Air? (Written by Anthony Marra no less!) Review excerpts below capture the horror, beauty, poignancy of this novel about the lives of ordinary people who survived the Chernobyl disaster.

Complete review here.

“[F]irefighters who have never heard of radioactivity arrive to Chernobyl in shirt sleeves. They begin to vomit, but without ‘panicked crowds to confirm their private fears’ they push misgivings aside….

“The flight from the towns and countryside surrounding Chernobyl is the most harrowing description of displacement I’ve read since the Dunkirk evacuation in Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Pages of the strange, surreal and horrific pass with the authenticity of raw news footage. Only one box of iodine pills is available for a city of 60,000, and so the elderly pass around contaminated milk, believing it will fortify them against radiation….

“[I]t’s moments like these that make “All That Is Solid Melts Into Air” such a startling achievement. Even as McKeon cuts a wide swath, his scenes, characters and story lines build as the gradual accumulation of the particular…

“By investing objects and settings with a history of individual triumphs and disappointments, he wrings surprising emotional depth from the mundane. And by proving that stories too intimate to ever make their way into the history books are nonetheless worth telling, the novel makes a powerful argument that no one is unremarkable….

“McKeon’s characters may already have receded into history, but by imprinting their triumphs and tragedies onto the imagination with such visceral empathy, he has given them a deserving afterlife in this powerful novel.”

All That Is Solid Melts into Air (9780062246875) by Darragh McKeon. $14.99 trade paper original. 4/29/14 on sale.

Book of the Week: The Bully of Order – Brian Hart

Harper has done a nice job in recent years publishing lyrical historical novels that show us the ways in which the American frontier shaped us at least as much as we’d planned to shape it. Whether that frontier is the Northwest, the Southwest or the Plains, what these novels share in common are stories driven by the brutality of frontier life and writing that gives vivid immediacy to the past.  The result is that we come away feeling both the difficulty and the worthiness of life.

Books like The Son, The Kept and the weirdly comical Sister Brothers come immediately to mind. But this landscape isn’t the province of male writers alone; two other favorites are Gil Adamson’s 2008 The Outlander (not to be confused with the current Starz TV series) and Amanda Coplin’s much loved bestseller, The Orchardist. Most recently Smith Henderson, author of my current favorite read, The Fourth of July Creek, said if he were bookseller for a day the novel he’d put into people’s hands is The Bully of Order.

Several of these authors have wholeheartedly endorsed Brian Hart’s The Bully of Order. Those comments are listed below along with a starred Kirkus review and bookseller praise. To get you going, here’s the plot in broad strokes: It’s the story of a lawless turn-of-the-century Pacific Northwest logging town and Ellestrom family, whose patriarchs are criminally flawed and lawless brothers who leave their sons a legacy of violence, passion and the desire for redemption.

The story is gorgeously told and I agree with the editor that is a portrait of “the struggle between civilization and lawless chaos, between the best and the worst elements of human nature, as a new social order is born. In this it reflects what is happening in a rapidly changing nation, still young itself.”

And that may be why so many of these stories of particular people, in particular American places and a particular American time feel Shakespearian in scope. They limn the stories of our ancestors and how we became the country we are today.

What draws us into The Bully of Order is the cadence of the writing which is dense but shapely, and anchored by poetic flourishes that ultimately lend the prose its profundity, weight, and grace. And then there are the metaphors, the whole system of figurative language and imagery that, alongside the mesmerizing style, work not so much to stamp the imagination as to stain it. This is a severely atmospheric novel; it haunts not only because of its subject matter–a violent community of laborers on the coast of Washington State at the turn of the last century–but by its means. Hart is a conjurer, and he has conjured a singular, searing world. When you step into this novel you submit to its dream, which is terrifying. You read to the end because you trust the storyteller, you believe in his large gift that leaves you stunned and breathless. A wonderful, unique portrait of a particular landscape I was familiar with but now see anew.”
— Amanda Coplin

“After a relatively quiet debut, Brian Hart has come back with a stunning second novel–a work would qualify as a lifetime achievement for most writers. You do not have to read very far to see that Brian Hart has vaulted squarely into the first rank of American novelists.”
— Philipp Meyer

“Brian Hart’s THE BULLY OF ORDER does what only the best works of fiction can do: it brilliantly imagines those parts of life that history all too often fails to record. This is a thoroughly engrossing story told in mesmerizing prose. I highly recommend it.”
— Kevin Powers

From the great rain-drenched woods of America’s northwest, Hart offers a Hobbesian saga–men and women against nature, and themselves, in struggles solitary and poor, nasty and brutish…Hart’s sense of place-terrain, weather, frontier people-is brilliant…There are dazzling characterizations …In short, declarative sentences building into a dense, deep and illuminating narrative, Hart writes of greed and ambition and of fathers and sons who have ‘gone beyond forgiveness and entered a foreign and evil land.’ Think the brutal realities of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian set among the primeval forests of the Pacific Northwest frontier.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“This is a stunning tale of blood and violence set in a logging town in the Pacific Northwest. It’s like an enormous choir singing songs of treachery and mayhem with beautiful, thunderous voices. I was smacked sideways from the first paragraph.  Perfect for fans of Cormac McCarthy.”
— Karen Tallant, The Booksellers At Laurelwood

The Bully of Order (9780062297747) by Brian Hart. $25.99 hardcover. 9/2/14 on sale.

New Fiction: The Drop – Dennis Lehane

I’m sure some of you Lehane fans will be saying, “What, a new Lehane? Where’d that come from?” The answer is that it came from a short story called “Animal Rescue,” which first appeared in the anthology Boston Noir. From there it became a screenplay and the screenplay evolved into a small, tight novel that revolves around a working class Boston community and a puppy rescued from a trash can. Definitely classic Lehane — PW calls it a “gritty gem.”

I’ll let this video from the film starring Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini in this last role, give you a sense of just how satisfying this is going to be for Lehane’s legion of fans.


“Boston bartender Bob Saginowski pulls a beaten pup from a winter trash can, a small good deed with large consequences. The rescue leads Bob to Nadia Dunn, who helps him take care of the dog, and also to crazy Eric Deeds, who claims the dog is his…[while Bob]contends with money issues and pride and the Chechens, who now own his bar and use it as a money drop. A parade of weary, quirky characters—thieves, thugs, and hard guys—will resonate with Lehane fans. Amid his struggles, Bob establishes a tenuous relationship with Nadia, and finally takes a stand in this stark and moving short novel.”
Publishers Weekly

“A terrific little novella by Dennis Lehane about a sad-sack bartender, an abused dog, a lost and lonely young woman with a past, and some of the nastiest gangsters in modern thriller. Written with a bullet-quick pace and snappy Elmore Leonard-esque dialogue, this one really moves–it reads so swiftly, your fingers will burn the pages.  Oh, and did I mention the terrific twist ending?  I really loved it.”
— Bill Carl, The Booksellers at Laurelwood, Cincinnati, OH

The Drop (9780062365446) by Dennis Lehane. $14.99 trade paper. 9/2/14 on sale. [Also in hardcover: (9780062365576) $24.99]