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Ten books to read in May

04 May 2015 [14:04] - TODAY.AZ
Margaret Lazarus Dean, Leaving Orbit

In essays covering the half century from JFK’s 1961 challenge to land a man on the moon to the last flight of the shuttle Atlantis in 2011, Dean covers the full sweep of the US space programme. She visits Florida’s Kennedy Space Center in 2010, in its final days as a working spaceport, and takes us through NASA history, with references to earlier chroniclers Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and Oriana Fallaci. Another absorbing, brilliantly conceived winner from Graywolf Press’s Nonfiction Prize competition – prior winners include Leslie Jamison, Kevin Young, Eula Biss and Terese Svoboda. (Credit: Graywolf)

Edward St Aubyn, The Complete Patrick Melrose Novels

Allan Hollinghurst, no slouch himself, called St Aubyn one of the most brilliant English novelists of his generation. He’s been compared to Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, PG Wodehouse and Proust. Fans will welcome this complete volume of St Aubyn’s five Patrick Melrose novels – Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mothers Milk and At Last. They span four decades in an upper class family, a chronicle of Patrick’s life from age five, when his father David, a doctor, who admonishes him to “Observe everything,” begins to torment him. The saga continues through his years of drug and alcohol addiction, his own fatherhood and ultimate recovery. In the days after his mother Eleanor’s funeral, Patrick imagines himself as a little boy, “shattered and mad at heart, but with a ferocious, heroic persona, which had eventually stopped his father’s abuses with a single determined refusal.” Gorgeous writing.

Lauren Acampora, The Wonder Garden

The ingeniously placed opening story in Acampora’s first collection defines her setting – a New York suburb – through the eyes of a recently separated property surveyor who’s been in the business for 20 years and knows every house in town. As he goes over one of the “overhauled ranches so common to Old Cranbury these days, swollen and dressed to resemble a colonial” with a young couple, first-time buyers from Manhattan, he takes glee pointing out “a few red flags”, such as wood-destroying insects. We encounter that young couple again in The Umbrella Bird. Newly relocated, expecting her first child, Madeleine watches with growing horror as the lure of nature in their backyard transforms her husband David from an advertising executive to a healer with a “spirit animal”. A smashing debut, with range, subtlety and bite. Reading Acampora, we’re in Cheever country, with hints of Flannery O’Connor.

Edna O’Brien, The Love Object

A cause for celebration: 500 pages featuring 31 short stories spanning a half century of her work. In his introduction, John Banville compares O’Brien to Henry James, noting, "The most striking aspect of Edna O'Brien's short stories, aside from the consistent mastery with which they are executed, is their diversity." The collection opens with one of her earliest stories, Irish Revel, in which a 17-year-old girl treasures a party invitation only to find herself treated shabbily once she gets there. The Love Object includes most of the stories from her recent Saints and Sinners, winner of the 2011 Frank O’Connor international short story award. When she won that prize judge Thomas McCarthy called her “the Solzhenitsyn of Irish life – the one who kept speaking when everyone else stopped talking about being an Irish woman”. Read The Love Object for proof of O’Brien’s genius. 

Jabari Asim, Only the Strong

Asim’s first novel is set in Gateway City, a Midwestern US community resembling St Louis, undergoing accelerated social and political change in 1970, two years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Asim weaves together the tales of ‘Guts’ Tolliver, once a gangster enforcer or “leg breaker”, who had a change of heart after Dr King was laid to rest and now runs a taxi business; his powerful former boss, a crime lord, who also is trying to go legit; a beloved pediatrician who is having a secret love affair with Goode; and feisty Charlotte, a former foster child the good doctor has taken under her wing. Like Sherwood Anderson, Asim creates a vibrant portrait of a community based on distinctive characters with convincing gifts and flaws. Engrossing storytelling.

James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life

Rebanks, who farms sheep in England’s Lake District, is a full-on Twitter celebrity. He tweets about lambing season and gimmer hoggs (last year’s ewe lambs) and shares his daily observations: “Valley echoing with yows calling to errant lambs. Geese talking and honking.” His first book covers the cycle of the shepherd’s year and honours a “farming way of life with roots deeper than 5,000 years.” He explores his ties to his grandfather and father, his first exposure to Wordsworth in high school and, more importantly, his discovery of WH Hudson’s A Shepherd’s Life. Hudson, who influenced Hemingway, provided Rebanks’ template. “I thought books were always about other people, other places, other lives,” Rebanks writes. “[Hudson’s] book in all its glory, was about us (or at least the old Wiltshire version of us).” The Shepherd’s Life is song of a praise to a lifestyle outside modernity. 

Heidi Pitlor, The Daylight Marriage

The evening before Hannah goes missing seems ordinary at first. The wife and mother feeds her children spaghetti. Her husband Lovell, a climate scientist, arrives home late and finishes the dishes. “He reached for the small of her back, but she was already off,” Pitlor writes. “For years now, she had been quick to leave a room once he entered it.” Later, they fight. The next morning, Hannah is cold toward him. Thirty hours later, Lovell meets with a detective who has found her bracelet on a beach in South Boston. She has disappeared. Pitlor ramps up the suspense in this story of a marriage gone sour and a wife who has vanished by alternating chapters narrated by Lovell and Hannah. A riveting and distinctive first novel.

Patricia Park, Re Jane

Park’s delightful first novel, a reframing of Jane Eyre, begins in 2000 in Flushing, among New York’s Korean-American community. Jane is always aware she is a honhyol, a “mixed blood”, combining characteristics of her mother and her American GI father. When we meet her, she’s just out of college, working as nanny to the adopted Chinese daughter of a Brooklyn couple after a finance job falls through due to the dot-com crash. Soon she’s immersed in a quest to understand her identity. Park’s narrative voice is energetic, witty (the book bristles with one-liners) and thoughtful. Take her experience of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which occurs as she leaves for Seoul: “As I flew west, the day kept trailing behind me. I never experienced September 11; the day was lodged in some space-time vortex…”

Zachary Leader, The Life of Saul Bellow

Leader, the biographer of literary lion Kingsley Amis, draws upon extensive research and more than 150 interviews in this 800-pager, the first of a two-volume Bellow biography. He covers the years from Bellow’s birth to a Russian immigrant family in a Montreal suburb, and his family’s move to Chicago when he was nine, through three of his five marriages and the publication of his National Book Award-winning fifth novel, Herzog, in 1964. By the middle of his career, Bellow had reshaped the American novel, infusing it with a new vernacular. But at what cost to his private life? Leader writes of Bellow’s life and work, with special attention to the autobiographical underpinnings of his fiction: “Bellow’s use of people he knew, his responsibility toward them, the effect his using them had on his character, figure as fictionalized topics throughout his writing,” Leader writes. A fascinating analysis.

David McCullough, The Wright Brothers

Like McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies (Truman and John Adams), his story of the Wright Brothers is crisp, thorough and surprising. He opens with the inspiration for Wilbur and Orville Wright’s obsession with flying – a toy helicopter from France brought home to the US by their father, Bishop Milton Wright. “It was little more than a stick with twin propellers and twisted rubber bands,” McCullough writes. In first grade, Orville, the younger, gentler brother was trying to replicate it. In 1899, they built their first man-carrying biplane, which they tested at Kitty Hawk in the Outer Banks of North Carolina in 1900. Wilbur was 33, Orville 29. In 1903, back at Kitty Hawk, they succeeded in four flights, the longest at 57 seconds. It was, McCullough writes, “one of the turning points of history.” His account of the brothers’ pioneering aeronautic work is exhilarating.

/By BBC/


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