Book of the Week: Man V. Nature – Diane Cook

I love this collection. And when I love a story collection, the name of George Saunders usually pops up early in the discussion. Saunders’ stories seem to me distinctly original–at once familiar and deeply weird, violent and deeply compassionate, even funny and horrible—all at once. (Readers who cast their net more broadly will perhaps point to writers like Calvino and Borges in this category, too.) I can only guess but it seems that younger writers like Karen Russell, Ethan Rutherford, Wells Tower, Aimee Bender and Diane Cook must have found some inspiration and liberation in Saunders.

It’s a tricky school to belong to. Imitators of that surreal, fabulist landscape read like the pale imitations they are. The writers who manage to own their own unique space in it are each one of a kind. Not exactly as rare as hen’s teeth–but few and far between.

Cook honed her sensibility by working for seven years as a producer and contributor on This American Life and had several pieces on the show. Of this collection, This American Life host Ira Glass, says, “What I like most about these stories is that many of them are dispatches from the end of the world, and it turns out to be a surprisingly familiar place.”

What are the stories about? I could tell you, but like traveling, the experience doesn’t really make sense till you get there and look around. Editor Terry Karten sums up the neighborhood this way: “Cook explores the anxieties of modern life through the lens of the natural world. Our fears of apocalypse, weather catastrophe, danger, loss, and loneliness are embodied in the experiences of characters we relate to.”

Many booksellers are fans of this collection so it’s no surprise that it’s an Indie Next Pick. The Huffington Post included Man V. Nature in its “Best Books of the Fall” preview; it’s set to be reviewed in the NYTBR, San Francisco Chronicle and Salon; and Harper’s just ran her story “Bounty” in the August 2014 edition.

“Cook’s potent and unnerving stories depict ghastly battles between humans and the brute forces of nature… Adept at a stark spookiness in the vein of Shirley Jackson and William Golding, Cook also summons up a lonely weirdness like that of Aimee Bender and George Saunders…. Cook writes assuredly of archetypal terror and even more insightfully of hunger–for food, friendship, love, and, above all, survival. A canny, refined, and reverberating debut.”
 Booklist

12 mercilessly in-your-face stories…Cook’s sharply honed prose packs an intellectual yet disturbing wallop.”
 Kirkus

“The characters in Cook’s debut story collection inhabit isolated worlds….where unwanted boys take to a deserted forest and live out a Lord of the Flies–style tragedy. There’s also an intense fear of the outside world lurking throughout….. ‘Marrying Up’ finds a woman constantly remarrying after her husbands are murdered by groups of riotous thugs occupying the outdoors. And ‘The Mast Year’ chronicles the life of a young woman who, after a string of good fortune, becomes a talisman for the less privileged that arrive at her front door, hoping her luck will rub off. Quirkiness abounds, with several fairy-tale tropes thrown in for good measure…Some stories jump off the page, others falter, yet all are oddly charming.”
 Publishers Weekly

Cook has a keen eye for dredging up our deepest fears in these surreal stories. From child abduction to global warming her characters face the unthinkable with remarkable aplomb and surprising results. Cook is a true original and it’s impossible to guess just which way her stories will turn, but you can trust that most of the time it will be the right way.”
– Arsen Kashkashian, Boulder Book Store, Boulder, CO

“Unusual.  Dark.  Well-written.  Compelling.  Thought provoking.  Each of Diane Cook’s twelve stories in this collection takes a unique look at a twisted supposition:  What if the ocean continued to rise?  What if the end of the world came while you were at work in a high-rise?  What if too much success meant you had to open your home and support well-wishers for a year? I was entertained by these stories, I was impressed by them.”
  Allen Murphey, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Cincinnati, OH

Man V. Nature: Stories (9780062333100) by Diane Cook. $25.99 hardcover. 10/7/14 on sale.

New Memoir: Not My Father’s Son – Alan Cumming

The charming and multi-talented Mr. Cumming conquers yet another art form in this unconventional and deeply moving memoir. Eschewing the typical linear format of most celebrity memoirs, Cumming moves from his past to his present within chapters, integrating stories from his childhood and his current life as a film, television, and theater actor. The result negotiates a lot of territory. The result is suspenseful, dark and frequently funny.

In this small excerpt, Cumming read from the book about the violence in his family.

 

In a longer summary, he talks about the book at BEA last May.

 

As you might imagine there will be lots of publicity. There will be a piece in the NYT Sunday Styles section in October. People will run a two-page interview with online video; ABC/Nightline and Reuters will do interviews; and the book was also included in USA Today’s Fall Preview.

Equal parts memoir, whodunnit, and manual for living, Not My Father’s Son is a beautifully written, honest look at the forces of blood and bone that make us what we are, and how we make ourselves. I was completely sucked in.”
— Neil Gaiman

“Scottish actor Cumming struggles to reconcile with his troubled past in this moving, if oddly structured, memoir. Alternating between three time periods—’Then,’ ‘Now,’ and a span of several months in 2010—Cumming recounts his life on a rural Scottish estate under the brutal reign of his abusive father….In a parallel narrative, Cumming…is determined to delve into his family history: and find out what happened to his maternal grandfather, Lieutenant Tommy Darling, who served his country in WWII and ended up suspiciously dead several years later in Malaysia, where he was a member of the police force. While the particulars Cumming learns about Darling are striking and memorable, this really is a case where the journey is more important than the destination.”
Publishers Weekly

“I just finished the memoir and have to say, it was remarkable. What an incredible story. I’ve enjoyed Cumming’s acting in a variety of roles so when I saw the galley I snatched it up without a second thought. Even just the first few pages in, I was hooked. His writing made me feel like I was right there experiencing these things with him. He wrote in a way that the reader could feel his pain and sadness and trepidation. Really brilliant. The book had me up until the very end, wondering how it would resolve, what kind of closure would follow. The story is so amazing, it seems like it could be a work of fiction, the fact that it isn’t gives the book real gravity. When the book comes to the store I will eagerly recommend it.”
—Audra Strahl, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington, KY

Not My Father’s Son: A Memoir (9780062225061) by Alan Cumming. $26.99 hardcover. 10/7/14 on sale.

New Nonfiction: The Return of George Washington – Edward Larson

I never cease to be amazed at how historians are able to uncover new slants on lives that have taken many passes under the critical microscope. And yet here’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Edward Larson with a fascinating examination of a largely underplayed chapter of Washington’s life—when he reluctantly came of retirement after the Revolutionary War to lead the Constitutional Convention.  At the time, the States had not yet established a central government and they were deeply suspicious of one after living under the British monarchy. In part to allay those fears and to ratify the Constitution, General Washington agreed to serve as first president of a country that would go on to elect its presidents and not itself slip back into monarchy.

We expect this to be reviewed widely, with NYTBR already on board. In addition there will be an extensive radio and TV campaign that should help position this as a big holiday gift choice for history buffs.

Illuminating. … Profound, even affectionate, scholarship infuses every graceful sentence.”
Kirkus (starred review)

“After eight years of leading the fledgling colonies in their war for independence, George Washington resigned as commander-in-chief in order to return to private life. Yet the difficulties of establishing a new nation drew Washington back, and historian Larson…vividly recounts those events that led to Washington’s election as the first president of the United States….[He] brings to life the founders’ daily struggles to draw up a document that would preserve individual liberty while ensuring the new government’s supreme power and sovereignty….Larson’s compulsively readable history shines new light on a little-discussed period of Washington’s life, illustrating his role as the indispensable American.”
Publishers Weekly

The Return of George Washington, 1783-1789 (9780062248671) by Edward Larson. $29.99 hardcover. 10/7/14 on sale.

Short Take: The Way Inn – Will Wiles

We in publishing love our “comps” and Harper’s marketing department calls this Up in the Air meets Inception. That’s not far off the mark. Wiles is a Brit with a deadly, deadpan sense of humor and The Way Inn is the story of a “convention surrogate”—someone who attends professional meetings in your place so that you don’t have to. It’s a hilarious conceit for anyone who regularly has to attend such things. And that’s just the beginning; Wiles’ take on life in hotels is surreally accurate, narcotizing and sinister. And that surreal tone opens the door to a plot that drops our hero down a rabbit hole worthy of Inception.

“[T]he latest conference [Neil Double is] attending is with Meetex, a conference about…conferences. Trying to drum up some business, Double has a conversation with a Tom Graham, eagerly explaining how conference surrogacy works, but it turns out that Graham is actually Tom Laing, event director of Meetex….[Neil] returns to The Way Inn and finds out his conference pass has been voided, so he can no longer access his room or the bus that ferries conferees to the MetaCentre where the Meetex conference is taking place. Double finds out how quickly he becomes a nonentity when he no longer exists through his laminated pass, and his attempts to unvoid’ his pass become both comic and surreal. Meanwhile, he’s trying to track down a woman named Dee, whose interest lies in photographing the abstract paintings on the walls in various Way Inns because ‘they are an approximation of what a painting might look like, a stand-in for actual art.’ Wiles has a guileful—dare one say wily?—intellect and provides a telling commentary on the emptiness of much of modern culture as Double and Dee find that The Way Inn has the same infinite structure of nightmare as Kafka’s Castle.
Kirkus

The Way Inn is funny, clever and thrilling, its central conceit disturbing enough to demand that you read it outside, if you can.”
The Guardian

The Way Inn (9780062336101) by Will Wiles. $14.99 trade paper original. 9/16/14 on sale.

Short Take: The Prince of los Cocuyos – Richard Blanco

Blanco is the fifth inaugural poet of the United States, following in the footsteps of literary luminaries like Robert Frost and Maya Angelou. He is the youngest poet ever chosen, the first Latino, an immigrant and an openly gay writer. Blanco’s new memoir explores his coming-of-age as the child of Cuban immigrants and his attempts to understand his place in America while coming to terms with his sexual identity and the idea of himself as an artist.

Growing up in the 1970s in a Cuban-American community in Miami, poet Blanco was besieged by his exiled relatives’ nostalgia for the life they had left behind in Cuba in the 1960s; yet he also yearned for an American identity free from the immigrant experience. In seven chapters Blanco moves through the milestones of his adolescence living with his mother, father, older brother, Carlos (“Caco”), and grandparents, specifically his overbearing abuela, who had saved enough money working as a bookie in New York City for the family to move to a new house with a terra-cotta roof and lawn in the Westchester suburb of Miami….Blanco has a natural, unforced style that allows his characters’ vibrancy and humor to shine through.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A warm, emotionally intimate memoir.”
— Kirkus

“Filled with colorful characters, often poignant and sometimes melancholy, Blanco’s episodic memoir is a meditation on belonging, on self-acceptance, and on his family’s almost mystical connection to Cuba.”
— Booklist

The Prince of los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood (9780062313768) by Richard Blanco. $25.99 hardcover. 9/30/14 on sale.

Kids Books: Endgame: The Calling – James Frey

Folks in the kids department have spent a long time getting ready for this juggernaut from James Frey (of I am Number Four fame) and his co-writer is Nils Johnson-Shelton, author of several bestselling children’s series. Inspired in part by the 1987 megahit Masquerade, this inaugural book in a dystopian adventure series incorporates an elaborate puzzle for which Frey has brought on professional cryptographers. The puzzle invites readers into Endgame in a very real way: like Masquerade, there’s actual gold—in this case bullion worth “hundreds of thousands of dollars”– for the reader who solves the puzzle at the heart of Endgame.

Here’s Frey explaining the project:

There’s more about the prize in USA Today’s 9/22/14 “Book Buzz” column: James Frey’s ‘Endgame” has a golden prize.

“A unique dystopian adventure with anchors to the real world… set to become a cultural phenomenon.”
— ALA Booklist

Frey and Johnson-Shelton open an ambitious trilogy, designed to play out over multiple media platforms, including mobile games. Ostensibly, it’s about 12 teenage Players, each representing a different bloodline from which all humanity is descended, who have been called together by the arrival of a meteor that signals Endgame—the point at which they must find three keys that will allow only one line to survive an apocalyptic event. As they outwit and outfight one another, they solve riddles and clues designed to help them succeed in their tasks. In addition, readers who solve the enclosed puzzles can compete to locate a (real-life) hidden treasure of gold coins. The premise is engaging, in a Hunger Games–meets–National Treasure sort of way.”
Publishers Weekly

Endgame: The Calling (9780062332585) by James Frey. $19.99 hardcover. 10/17, 14 one day laydown.

Publicity: Hieroglyph – edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer

anthology of speculative fiction was born out of a challenge Neal Stephenson posed to sci fi writers to ignite the imaginations of younger readers to create a better future just as the writers of the Golden Age of Science Fiction had.

The book was featured in an article in the New York Times Style section on 9/19/14: “Science Fiction Writers Take a Rosier View.”

 [A] group of visionaries have banded together to offer stories that are more utopian, which they hope will contribute to a more positive future…. Mr. Stephenson’s story in the new collection is about an engineer’s effort to build a 20-kilometer-tall skyscraper. Other tales envision an alternative Internet that is free from N.S.A. snooping and corporate tracking, and is powered by thousands of homemade drones. Another story is about a group of hardware hackers and Burning Man devotees who build an autonomous 3-D printing robot that goes to the moon…The stories still offer plenty of drama, death and destruction, but many have a sort of happy ending. Cory Doctorow, a contributor to Hieroglyph, wrote that the stories are not “optimistic or pessimistic about the future. Instead, they are hopeful about it.”

More media to come: NPR’s “On Point”, Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle.

Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future (9780062204691) edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer.  $27.99 hardcover. 9/9/14 on sale.