Book of the Week: Mislaid – Nell Zink

Just one book to review this week, so get ready, I’m going long. Mislaid is a subversive, ultimately feel-good satire about big issues. The last book I read with this combination of bite and charm was Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which went on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

 Zink grew up in rural Virginia and that experience seems to inform the sensibility of this hilarious look at marriage, race, class and gender in America. It’s a slight book that’s hard to sum up. The plot concerns a young lesbian who becomes pregnant by a flamboyant gay poet from a wealthy Southern family then runs away with their daughter after 10 years of marriage. While outrageous enough to engage, it’s merely the coat hanger for page after page of observations like this:

In exchange for leaving, she would have more options than she’d ever had before. Before, her options had been things like hot dog or hamburger, shouted through the screen while she stood in the kitchen cutting string beans. Now, behind the tone of concern, he was giving her real options: Find somebody to take you in, or spend an indeterminate amount of time behind bars enjoying tranquilizers and electroshocks.”

So many of Zink’s sentences and observations are like that: they turn on a dime, go down easy but with a dark twist that sneaks up on you. Ultimately, though, this is not a dark story. It’s about a family both fractured and ultimately reunited in an ending as full of fakes and feints as a Shakespearean comedy.

Jonathan Franzen is a champion of Zink and has commented that she is “writer of extraordinary talent and range. Her work insistently raises the possibility that the world is larger and stranger than the world you think you know.” In many ways she covers the same territory that Franzen himself does–issues of family and identity in modern America—albeit with a style distinctly her own.

Zink’s first book, The Wallcreeper, received the rare starred, boxed review from PW (as does this one) and was named a PW Best Book of 2014. The New York Times called it “a very funny, very strange work of unhinged brilliance.”

The literary world seems to be laying out the welcome mat for this new voice. The New Yorker will run a profile of Zink in the 5/11/15 issue, she’ll be on NPR’s Weekend Edition that weekend, Harper’s is running a first serial and Mislaid is already slated for review in the New York Times Book Review, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune Minneapolis Star Tribune and Cosmopolitan. No surprise that this will also be an Indie Next Pick. The book tour kicks off at Community Bookstore in Brooklyn with a conversation between Zink and Jeffery Eugenides.

 In Zink’s second novel, a gay man and a gay woman meet at Virginia’s Stillwater College in the 1960s, marry and have children, and eventually separate—it’s a deceptively slim epic of family life that rivals a Greek tragedy in drama and wisdom….The novel deftly handles race, sexuality, and coming of age. Zink’s insight is beautifully braided into understated prose that never lets the tension subside; the narrator’s third-person voice is wry, and the dialogue is snappy…. [I]t all points to Zink’s masterly subtlety and depth.”
– Publishers Weekly, starred boxed review

 “Zink’s capacity for inventions is immense… [Mislaid] zips along with a giddy, lunatic momentum. Its perverse wackiness is irresistible; unlike just about everything engineered to make you laugh out loud, Zink’s novel actually does, over and over again….”
– Bookforum

“A startlingly original novel about the dissolution of an eccentric American family.”
Harper’s Bazaar

 “I gotta be straight with you: I have not felt this loud about a book in a long time. For this bookseller it’s a wonderful sign when a novel makes me feel good and bad – about myself, about this country, about sex, about race, about human nature. It’s a wonderful sign when I want to whip a book across the room when I am done with it, because I am angry that the author is so comedically astute and so freaking, brilliantly exuberant in the way she crafts a portrait of a family beyond dysfunctional. So far beyond dysfunction has this family fallen, in fact, that they somehow meander themselves around to becoming the very opposite. In her follow up to The Wallcreeper, Nell Zink paints a portrait of two sexually-confused lovers who should never have come together, let alone created two equally misguided children, against the backdrop of revolutionary 1960s and 70s America. Combine this inauspicious beginning with the fact that the young mother kidnaps her ‘white’ daughter and convinces an entirely new community to raise her as a ‘black’ child, and you just know that this farce is bound for certain disaster. You won’t be disappointed!”
– Katie Capaldi, Between the Covers, Harbor Springs, MI

 “Completely original and hysterically funny, Mislaid is a smart, humorous novel that really has to be read to be believed. Essentially, a fling between two misfits leads to a wildly dysfunctional Southern family saga. Zink never underestimates her readers, and the result is a fantastic comic novel that will make you think while you laugh. Mislaid reads like a cross between Where’d You Go, Bernadette and The Art of Fielding. Very highly recommended!
– Carol Schneck Varner, Schuler Books & Music, Okemos, MI

 “When a lesbian and a gay man marry and conceive two children, the family is doomed to begin with. Yet, when they split, everyone seems better off, despite the radicalism of their relative positions in ‘polite society’. How the children cope with their changes (one even ‘becoming’ an African American!), leads up to a near-slapstick finale of mistaken identities of Shakespearean proportions! It’s a hoot, but it also has much to say about America, and it says it through humor and beautiful writing.”
–  Bill Carl, The Booksellers on Fountain Square, Cincinnati, OH

Mislaid (9780062364777) by Nell Zink. $26.99 hardcover. 5/19/15 on sale.

 

Video: Otter in Space – Sam Garton

I’m totally in love with this little guy. If you are not yet a fan, check out these Otter videos.

Otter in Space (9780062247766) by Sam Garton. $16.99 hardcover. 5/5/15 on sale.

 

I Am Otter (9780062247759) by Sam Garton. $16.99 hardcover. Available.

Audio News

I don’t discuss audio a lot with the Indies but most of us do a lot of book listening so I thought you might be interested in these two recent announcements:

APA Audio Book of the Year

This award is for the title whose “quality, innovation, marketing and sales, has had the most significant impact on the industry.” I guess with a cast like Amy Poehler, Carol Burnett, Seth Meyers, Mike Schur, Eileen Poehler, William Poehler, Patrick Stewart and Kathleen Turner, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Yes Please (9780062350886) by Amy Poehler. $34.99 CD won the audio book of the year.

Among the five finalists was also The Graveyard Book: Full Cast Production (9780062364463) by Neil Gaiman. $27.99 CD. This full-cast production narrated by Derek Jacobi also won the Distinguished Achievement in Production for “a production that represents the best the format has to offer in listening excellence.”

HarperAudio Podcast

If you’re a podcast fan and want an insider’s look at publishing back stories, subscribe to HarperAudio Presents on iTunes, a weekly conversation with authors and editors.

You can hear Maira Kalman talk about her Proust book club and learn where Richard Ford stores his writing notebooks as well as sample clips from the historic Caedmon recordings of major authors like Robert Frost reading their own works.

Another good resource offered by the William Morrow team is their Book Club Girl podcast, which presents interviews with authors and book clubs from around the world.

Book of the Week: Church of Marvels- Leslie Parry

A bookseller acquaintance wrote me saying that this debut reminded him of Kevin Baker’s Dreamland, a wonderful historical novel about turn-of-the-century New York which had entirely fallen off my mental map. It’s a great reference in that both books have the same three-dimensional, “you are there” vividness I remember being electrified by the first time I read Ragtime.

Church of Marvels follows the fates of four people in 1899 New York–from a Coney Island side show to a lunatic asylum, from tenement alleys to middle class parlor rooms. Emma Donohue’s summary of this magically atmospheric books captures it best: “This quite literally marvelous novel takes you on a hallucinatory ride through old New York, until the four threads of its protagonists’ lives tangle and tighten like a noose. Irresistible.”

It arrives as both an Indie Next and Indies Introduce pick with strong advance reviews.

“Like the late-19th-century circus attraction of its title, Parry’s impressive debut is startling, full of wonders, and built around the bizarre; furthermore, it has compassion for human difference at its heart….Parry vividly brings her characters to life and captures the underbelly of 1895 New York—a place of baby sellers, opium dens, and brothels where what is painful and what is profitable merge. Her novel satisfies as a complex historical fiction, a compelling mystery, and an insightful exploration of such themes as otherness and outsider identity.”
Publishers Weekly

Parry’s creative debut…bursts with extraordinary, Dickensian-style details of 1895 New York. Amid the city’s grimy waterfronts, opium dens, and other lowlife regions, four impoverished misfits pursue separate missions….Their stories twine together in ways that feel surprising when first encountered but were actually carefully planted from the start. Emphasizing the plight of women, orphans, and society’s nonconforming outcasts, the setting is superbly showcased, with its medley of sights and smells both wretched and wondrous.”
   — Booklist

“In Parry’s colorful debut novel, seedy corners of late 19th-century New York come alive… Parry’s writing is smooth and descriptive, and she imbues these misfit characters and shabby, sometimes horrifying settings with energy and depth. Beautifully written, Parry’s imaginative novel is most successful when exploring the limitations and complexities of gender and sexuality during its historical period.”
   — Kirkus Reviews

“An exhilarating period piece set in 1895 New York brings together a distinctly disparate group of characters in a story that is exciting, enthralling and uplifting.  As the lives of four definite outcasts of society come together the reader gets a beautiful portrayal of the time and era when the underbelly of society was both hidden and ignored.  But the true essence of the novel is its soaring assertion of the individuality of people who will not be bound by that society’s strictures.
–Bill Cusumano, Square Books, Oxford, MS

Church of Marvels (9780062367556) by Leslie Parry. $26.99 hardcover. 5/5/15 on sale.

New Fiction: The Subprimes – Karl Taro Greenfeld

It’s not often that you see a novel blurbed by both William Gibson and Bill McKibbon. Then add Walter Isaacson and Ben Fountain–and even the most jaded publishing vet has to wonder what’s this book is about.

The Subprimes is a piercing political satire—a dystopic near-future Grapes of Wrath setup where middle class folks who default on their homes lose their credit worthiness, and thus the ability to find work. They travel in caravans looking for cities that might take them in, trying to regain a toe-hold on what’s left of the American Dream.

But Greenfeld cuts with a satiric broad sword in this one and there will be few who don’t recognize the America he’s talking about.

After the first few pages [of the Subprimes] I was hooked. It’s the witty specificity that reels you in. Instead of Armistead Maupin’s Marin County residents with their labeled lifestyle of superior consumption, we have corporate sponsorship and privatization of every aspect of American life (the ‘Subway Fresh Take Paul Revere Middle School’). You imagine a landscape that looks like a cross between strip mines, abandoned subdivisions, and NFL-broadcast-inspired billboards. I will never be able to see a certain televangelist without remembering this description of the fictional Pastor Roger:  ‘looking like a cross between Andrew Jackson and one of the Jonas Brothers.’ There is some part of this satire that will resonate with every reader, from parents whose school children bring home binders of rules and legal releases, frustrated healthcare system users, commuters navigating between EZ Pass tollbooths and potholes, and environmentalists given some small hope by the urban farming movement. You will mark passages to read out loud to family members. It’s that good.”
— Carla Bayha, Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, MI

“Greenfeld employs the ethos of the Occupy movement in imagining how the worst tendencies of conservative power and economic greed might wreak havoc on a nation…. Greenfeld has a tendency to lean toward parody in his satiric style, but here he employs enough authenticity to terrify, enough black humor to disarm the story’s inherent pessimism, and a surprising admiration for faith in its myriad forms.”
Kirkus Reviews

Set in a meticulously, terrifyingly imagined all-too-near future, The Subprimes is a potent cocktail of North American myth, equal parts John Steinbeck and Margaret Atwood, with a dash of benzene.”
— William Gibson

“Greenfeld has produced a fascinating novel about life in the age of economic uncertainty. It’s a colorful tale of characters living on the edge combined with sharp social insights.”
— Walter Isaacson

The Subprimes holds up a funhouse-mirror version of ourselves and our era, when wealth and free-market fundamentalism threaten to flatten the great mass of humanity for the benefit of a few. Karl Taro Greenfeld has written a masterful, viciously funny satire of our times, one that we ignore at our peril.”
— Ben Fountain

“A little Occupy, a little Ed Abbey, and a good deal of hope for solidarity in a screwed-up world — The Subprimes is a superhero story for the rest of us.”
— Bill McKibben

The Subprimes (9780062132420) by Karl Taro Greenfeld. $25.99 hardcover. 5/5/15 on sale.

New Trade Paper Original Fiction: The Brink – Austin Bunn

Heads up, fans of Kevin Wilson and Wells Tower–Here’s a debut story collection out of the George Saunders school of “slap you awake” imaginative fiction. The scenarios are wide-ranging, grounded in the everyday about almost immediately veering into the fantastical and absurd as a way of revealing our humanity in a fresh light. They are dark, wildly inventive, with a wide range of voices and startling perspectives.

Bunn’s stories have been published in The Atlantic, The Pushcart Prize and Best American Fantasy. He is probably best known as the screenwriter of Kill Your Darlings, a film about the young Allen Ginsberg and starring Daniel Radcliffe.

 “Bunn’s debut story collection mixes genres and styles in 10 ambitious, impressive tales. Among the strongest are “Getting There & Away”—a near perfect story that involves a honeymoon, a lost ring, an explosion, and the Bali nightlife—and “Ledge,” concerning a ship in the late 15th century that discovers the literal end of the Earth and a passageway between the living and the dead…. This is a compelling collection, and several of the stories are breathtaking.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

The isolated, often sexually charged characters in Bunn’s shimmering debut collection seek to shed the detritus of their insufferable existence for a fresh beginning, only to find the struggle to attain a new life even more challenging. Humorous and affirming… Each of Bunn’s 10 stories is permeated by a comic sense of the inevitable hope in a future even his characters know is unlikely.”
 — Booklist

“In this wide-ranging collection, characters must cope with changing, hazardous landscapes and wrestle with fundamental truths about themselves. The stories in Bunn’s collection are a disparate bunch, ranging from realistic period pieces to studies of intimacy and sexuality to fundamentally altered takes on history….Some of this collection’s most impressive moments come when delving into emotionally messy terrain. The protagonists of ‘Everything, All at Once’ and ‘Curious Father’ deal with the implosions of their marriages in very different ways: in the case of the former, via investigating her mother’s romantic history; in the case of the latter, via a late-in-life reckoning with his sexuality. Bunn’s compelling stories are at their best when navigating chaotic landscapes, whether emotional or literal.
Kirkus Reviews

The Brink: Stories (9780062362612) by Austin Bunn. $14.99 trade paperback original. 4/28/15 on sale.

Short Takes: Rock with Wings – Anne Hillerman & When to Rob a Bank – Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

I’m sure it’s back to the bestseller lists for Anne Hillerman. This is her accomplished second installment in this updated continuation of her father’s beloved Leaphorn and Chee series

“In her worthy sequel to 2013’s Spider Woman’s Daughter, Hillerman continues the exploits of the beloved Navajo cops of MWA Grand Master Tony Hillerman (1925–2008). Officer Bernadette Manuelito, Sgt. Jim Chee’s wife, makes a routine traffic stop of a speeding car on a New Mexico road that morphs into a mystery when the nervous driver tries to bribe her—but the only suspicious cargo he has are two boxes of dirt….Hillerman uses the southwestern setting as effectively as her late father did while skillfully combining Native American lore with present-day social issues.”
Publishers Weekly

Rock with Wings (9780062270511) by Anne Hillerman. $27.99 hardcover. 5/5/15 one day laydown.

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This is a really fun collection that’s perfect for longtime fans of Freakonomics as well as a great introduction to for those unfamiliar with this social sciences juggernaut. It’s a collection of columns from the authors’ long-running blog and makes for fast, fizzy reading. (And probably a perfect Father’s Day present.) It’s another one I expect to see on the bestseller list right out of the gate.

“As coauthors Levitt and Dubner explain at the start of this delightful collection, a decade ago, concurrent with the publication of their book Freakonomics, they decided to start a blog with the same name….For the site’s anniversary, they’ve finally bowed to reader demands to turn it into a book. The result is this energetic, charming assortment of posts, thematically arranged, on topics as varied as terrorism, restoration of the draft, getting rid of the penny, car-seat safety, obesity, and the U.S. crackdown on Internet poker, steroid use in the Tour de France, the D.C. gun ban, and ‘No Gas Day.’”
Publishers Weekly

When to Rob a Bank…And 131 More Warped Suggestions and Well-Intended Rants (9780062385321) by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.  $25.99 hardcover. 5/5/15 on sale.