by Emma Donoghue
Irish-born Emma Donoghue's gripping novel Room, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, may feel like it's been ripped from the headlines, but what's news here is what she does with her heart-stopping story of a kidnapped teenager held captive in a hidden, hermetically sealed garden shed for seven years. Narrated by the girl's 5-year-old son, whom she has resourcefully provided with a happy childhood while protecting him from her rapist, Room gives twisted new meaning to the notion of a sheltered childhood. Young Jack's skewed point of view and extreme disorientation in the world outside what he calls Room lead to a fresh look at our culture of glut and fascinating questions about childhood development. More than just a prurient horror story, Donoghue's tour de force probes the intensity and many challenges of motherhood, including the difficult but essential need to carve individual space and identities for both mother and child — rooms of their own.
321 pages, $14.99, Back Bay Books
by Justin Cronin
Justin Cronin's answer to the broody, glitter-skinned, bad-boyfriend Nosferatus of the Twilight books is a truly unsettling creation: A government experiment goes awry, as government experiments in thrillers are so wont to do, unleashing blood-sucking "virals" that strike from the darkness. Over the course of this huge, wildly popular — and wildly creepy — novel, Cronin credibly builds two worlds: the few-years-in-the-future America under siege by terrorist attacks in the book's opening, and a vast post-apocalyptic wasteland in which — yep, you guessed it — a ragtag handful of survivors fight valiantly to stay alive. Cronin fleshes out his narrative with maps, emails and newspaper clippings, many of which include details that seem superfluous in the early going. But by the time this book, the first of a planned trilogy, ends, those elements cohere — and Cronin's virals will likely have found their way into your nightmares.
784 pages, $16, Ballantine
The Lonely Polygamist
by Brady Udall
Novelist Brady Udall, born and raised a Mormon, gives us the American family novel to the nth degree in The Lonely Polygamist, his second novel. The lonely guy of the title, Golden Richards, oversees four wives and 28 children in two big houses in a remote territory of the Virgin River valley in southwest Utah. As the novel opens, his already tentative grasp on the family reins is loosening even more, leaving him vulnerable to temptations outside his marriages and sending some of his wives and children on the path toward confusion and danger — and drawing the reader into a world of wavering belief and problematic polygamy. Though Udall mostly works in a gentle satirical tone, he feels all too deeply for Golden Richards' dilemma — how to enlarge your capacity to love in a world that demands that it be huge every waking (and sleeping) moment. Marriage is a traditionally comic subject, and Udall gives us such comedy multiplied by four or five, along with some dark twists, that unflaggingly hold the reader's attention throughout this long, yet precise and unfailingly rewarding novel.
602 pages, $15.95, W.W. Norton
by Sebastian Junger
Best known for penning The Perfect Storm, Sebastian Junger once more reveals his gift for riveting storytelling in his latest book, War. Readers won't get any closer to the front lines in Afghanistan unless they enlist. It's clear that Junger won the respect and friendship of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, with whom he embedded intermittently over a 15-month deployment. Yet he delivers the story of these men, who've seen more action than the overwhelming majority of American veterans of Afghanistan, without whitewashing their beliefs, actions and harsh reality. However, his ferocious and compelling portrait comes at the sacrifice of a more nuanced look at the tangled politics of this particular war and the Afghans themselves, who are portrayed like monolithic bad guys in a video game. Still, Junger is a master at helping readers understand how soldiers feel and how those emotions affect their fight through the course of a deployment.
320 pages, $15.99, Twelve
Globish: How English Became The World's Language
by Robert McCrum
How did a mongrel tongue born on a small island in the north Atlantic become the globally dominant language now known as English? As Robert McCrum explains in Globish, it's a story that begins back in the first millennium, when the Britons, who first inhabited the isle of Britain, spoke Celtic languages. Their culture was forever altered by the Germanic speech of the Anglo-Saxon raiders around A.D. 500, the Nordic invaders from Scandinavia who followed, and then the Norman invaders of 1066, which made French the language of the court and literature, while English became the language of the common, conquered people. That democratic character, according to McCrum, is partially responsible for English's eventual global domination. And while he acknowledges that "clearly, the British Empire has much to answer for," he also points out that "at the level of language, the way in which it operated was very effective from the point of spreading English."
331 pages, $16.95, W.W. Norton
Charlotte Abbott edits "New in Paperback." A contributing editor for Publishers Weekly, she also leads a weekly chat on books and reading in the digital age every Friday from 4-5 p.m. ET on Twitter. Follow her at @charabbott or check out the #followreader hashtag .
Five of my favorite books published this year are not just great reads — books you put down reluctantly, not a slog among them — but meaty, serious stories that manage to provide a few laughs while raising controversial questions you'll want to discuss with others, whether they've read the book or not. These issues encompass health care and bioethics, the existence of God, race in America, child-rearing, nature versus nurture, our gluttonous society, marriage, love and adultery. In the case of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, probably the most discussed book of 2010, there's the additional question of what makes a book chat-worthy. Herewith, my guide to some of the best literary conversation starters of 2010, guaranteed to give you something to talk about.
By Jonathan Franzen, hardcover, 576 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, list price: $28
If you want to be in on the cultural must-read of the year, Freedom is your ticket. Jonathan Franzen's first novel since his wildly acclaimed National Book Award-winner The Corrections (2001) has been hyped, praised, debated, disdained and anointed by Oprah for real this time, although oddly passed over for a National Book Award nomination. Much of the heated discussion has been about whether it's really any good. Readers who don't love Franzen seem to love to hate him, but the answer is, yes, it's really good.
Like The Corrections, Freedom dissects the vicissitudes of an unhappy, white, middle-American family, zeroing in on a destructive ongoing love triangle to illuminate problems in contemporary American culture. Personal moral lapses reverberate and spill over, until domestic, political, environmental and global issues all become intricately, impressively commingled.
For Franzen's characters, freedom means, in part, the liberty to make mistakes. But is there such a thing as too much freedom for one's own good, Franzen asks? How can we heed the engraved message his heroine notices during a college visit, "Use Well Thy Freedom"?
So Much For That
By Lionel Shriver, hardcover, 448 pages, Harper, list price: $25.99
If you want ripped-from-the-headlines relevance in your fiction, Lionel Shriver's outraged and occasionally outrageous ninth novel, So Much For That, nominated for the National Book Award, takes on our hurting health care system with a story that gives life to the issues. Shriver's hero is about to quit his detested job and retire to a less expensive Third World country when his wife, an artist who works in metal, announces she has deadly mesothelioma and needs his health insurance. He hunkers down and dedicates himself to her care, but soon learns how inadequate their insurance is. At the same time, his father needs to be moved into a nursing home, and his best friend, whose teenage daughter suffers horribly from a rare degenerative disease, succumbs to a vanity procedure that goes wildly awry. Shriver's graphic descriptions of various grotesqueries rival for shock-and-guffaw value the memorable castration scene in John Irving's The World According to Garp.
There's plenty to discuss here, beginning with penetrating questions about the value of a human life and government's role in health care. What is the ultimate merit of prohibitively expensive, misery-inducing procedures that barely prolong life? Is there such a thing as a better way to die?
By Emma Donoghue, hardcover, 336 pages, Little, Brown and Co., list price: $24.99
Irish-born Emma Donoghue's gripping novel Room, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, may feel like it's been ripped from the headlines, but what's news here is what she does with her heart-stopping story of a kidnapped teenager held captive in a hidden, hermetically sealed garden shed for seven years.
Narrated by the girl's 5-year-old son, whom she has resourcefully provided with a happy childhood while protecting him from her rapist, Room gives twisted new meaning to the notion of a sheltered childhood. Young Jack's skewed point of view and extreme disorientation in the world outside what he calls Room lead to a fresh look at our culture of glut and fascinating questions about childhood development.
More than just a prurient horror story, Donoghue's tour de force probes the intensity and many challenges of motherhood, including the difficult but essential need to carve individual space and identities for both mother and child — rooms of their own.
36 Arguments For The Existence Of God
By Rebecca Goldstein, hardcover, 416 pages, Pantheon, list price: $27.95
Rebecca Goldstein and I became friends in the early 1990s, when I interviewed her for an article about contemporary philosophy and we couldn't get off the phone. Happily, I wasn't alone in finding 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction one of the more fun, substantive reads of the year, further grist for the conversational mill. Not just ours, but everyone's. After several darker, less playful books, 36 Arguments recaptures the joyousness (and jokiness) of Goldstein's popular, equally brainy first novel, The Mind-Body Problem.
Her hero, a professor of the psychology of religion, has been dubbed "the atheist with a soul" after the runaway success of his twist on William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience, called The Varieties of Religious Illusion. In lieu of religion, Cass Seltzer worships at the altar of various unworthies, including his first wife, an icy French poet; his risibly pompous academic mentor; and his current girlfriend, a cutthroat economist dubbed "the goddess of game theory." Filled with stunningly clear explanations of seemingly abstruse mathematical concepts and brilliant riffs on the clash between faith and reason, 36 Arguments is an academic satire that deftly mixes heft and hilarity. The 50-page appendix, which cogently spells out 36 arguments (and counterarguments) for the existence of God, is worth the price of the book, and will provide ammunition for endless debates.
The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks
By Rebecca Skloot, hardcover, 384 pages, Crown, list price: $26
Back in 1951, a poor African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in the "colored" ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital. Before she died, scientists harvested tissue from her cervix. Dubbed HeLa cells, these were the first human cells to thrive in culture, spawning an industry that has changed medical research and is worth billions today. These cells have been instrumental in viral and cancer research, as well as in developing the polio vaccine and drugs to treat leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, herpes and Parkinson's disease.
Yet, as science reporter Rebecca Skloot discovered in her intrepid 10-year pursuit of the woman, her family and the ethical issues behind the famous HeLa cells, Henrietta's children continued to live in poverty, unremunerated for their mother's contribution to medical science and unaware of her strange immortality. Approached by scientists to donate their own cell samples for gene research, they were discomfited to learn that parts of their mother had even gone up in space missions to test what would happen to human cells in zero gravity.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a remarkable feat of investigative journalism and a moving work of narrative nonfiction that reads with the vividness and urgency of fiction. It also raises sometimes uncomfortable questions with no clear-cut answers about whether people should be remunerated for their physical, genetic contributions to research and about the role of profit in science.
Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org.
It isn't easy to talk about Room without giving too much away. The captivating novel by Irish writer Emma Donoghue is matter-of-factly narrated by a 5-year-old named Jack. The setting is an 11-by-11-foot room where he lives with his mother — and when the book begins, it is the only world he has ever known.
"What Jack discovers early on — which is a complete shock to him — is that Room is not all there is," Donoghue tells NPR's Melissa Block. "He's spent five years thinking that he's in this world with his mother, and that outside there's outer space with stars and planets zooming around."
Jack thinks that he and his mother are the only two real humans, and Old Nick — the man who visits every couple of nights — is perhaps borderline human. In fact, Old Nick is their captor — he kidnapped Jack's mother when she was 19. All that Jack reads in books and all he sees on TV he thinks is pure fiction. His discovery that they are prisoners shatters his worldview.
'A Tribe Of Two'
The Room itself is a character of its own in the novel — it's capitalized, as is everything it contains — Lamp, Toothpaste, Table. Donoghue says she did not want it to feel as though Jack and his mother were living a "stunted version" of the American lifestyle.
"I wanted to almost think of them as a tribe of two," Donoghue explains. "Room has a perfectly valid existence to Jack as a world. It doesn't seem small to him, because he's never experienced anything bigger. The Bath, the Bed, the Wardrobe, Under the Bed — these are all separate sort of sub-landscapes for him, and every object in the room is his friend."
There are 10 books in the Room, of which five are children's books. Jack loves when his mother reads to him — and makes sense of the world described in the book in this way:
Ma nearly always chooses The Runaway Bunny, because of how the mother bunny catches the baby bunny in the end and says, "Have a carrot." Bunnies are TV, but carrots are real, I like their loudness. My favorite picture is the baby bunny turned into a rock on the mountain and the mother bunny has to climb up up up to find him. Mountains are too big to be real, I saw one in TV that has a woman hanging on it by ropes. Women aren't real like Ma is, and girls and boys not either. Men aren't real except Old Nick, and I'm not actually sure if he's real for real. Maybe half? He brings groceries and Sunday treat and disappears the trash, but he's not human like us. He only happens in the night, like bats. Maybe Door makes them up with a beep beep and the air changes. I think Ma doesn't like to talk about him in case he gets realer.
'In The Position Of Their Captor'
Donoghue says that her own 5-year-old son, Finn, was a great help to her in finding the voice of her young narrator. Though Jack is a "very peculiar version of a 5-year-old," Donoghue wanted his speech to line up with the speech of any 5-year-old boy learning language in the real world.
"I charted my son's language," Donoghue explains. "I followed him around like an anthropologist — writing down his strange grammar. And then I chose just a few of those classic 5-year-old traits to give to his speech. For instance, I love the way 5-year-olds try to make the past tense regular — they all say, 'I eated! I winned!' "
Jack at 5 is unusually verbal because his mother has worked hard to teach him in spite of their extremely deprived circumstances. One game — called "Parrot" — shows how Ma makes creative use of the television as an educational tool.
"Ma has very mixed feelings about television," Donoghue says. "I sort of agonized over whether to allow them television or not. I was often in the position of their captor — working out what they would be allowed to have and what they wouldn't."
Donoghue decided that Ma — like many parents — would allow TV, but would use it carefully, limited to just two shows a day. And she uses it as a linguistic coach for Jack.
"She will let him watch TV," Donoghue says, "and she'll suddenly press mute, and she'll ask him to repeat back the last sentence he's heard ... She wants him to be able to understand and repeat back words by someone who isn't her."
Ma coaches Jack on reading and writing, and even gets him to do yoga exercises — "Preparing him for a world that she prays he will someday get to enter for real," Donoghue says.
'The Cruel Truth Of The World'
As Jack gets older, Ma gradually reveals to him more about the truth of their condition — an experience that will ring familiar for any parent with young kids. Donoghue says most parents find themselves in the position of having to re-explain the Easter Bunny and other untruths to their children as they grow older.
"Before I had kids, I thought you should never lie to a kid," Donoghue says. "But now I've had them, I realize you almost lie to them by definition, because if you're trying to summarize something for your 1-year-old, you put it in very simple terms. You only gradually complicate the explanation as they get older."
Donoghue recalls the time her young son pointed to a horrific picture in a magazine that showed six people hanged by the neck. "What's that?" he asked. "Puppets," she answered.
There are moments as a parent, Donoghue says, when you simply cannot bear to tell your children the "cruel truth of the world" — and Ma is a "concentrated version" of that. She does not want Jack to grow up thinking that he's a prisoner — and yet to keep that information from him is a betrayal. She has lied to him his whole life.
Like many of her characters, Donoghue says Jack lives inside her — and now memories of her own relationship with her children are also woven into the book.
"I tried to take the common or garden experience of parenting," Donoghue explains, "and just by isolating it under a spotlight, I tried to bring out the true, crazy drama of parenting."
The parent-child bond, she says, is "the most unstable, unpredictable kind of love story — and it's asymmetrical in that you will always worry for them, and they won't necessarily worry for you."
Parent-child relationships are often written in "banal and sentimental" ways, she says. "With Room, I was trying to capture the essential drama of parenting."
Room: A Novel Read An Excerpt
By Emma Donoghue
Hardcover, 336 pages
Little, Brown and Co.
List price: $24.99
If you think autumn is just about colorful leaves and chillier weather, then you're probably not in the book industry. Fall is the season when publishers begin to roll out their "big books" — the titles they hope people will still be buying during the all-important holiday season. With many writers vying for attention, it's important to build buzz about a book that can be heard above the fray.
Emma Donoghue's novel Room — which was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker prize — is one example of a book with serious buzz. It was published in the U.K. in early August (it's already on the best-seller lists there) and it will be released in the U.S. on Monday.
When it comes to selling books, Heather Fain, marketing director for the publisher Little, Brown and Co., said there is one surefire weapon — and it's not brand new or high-tech.
"In a lot ways, the greatest marketing tool we have in publishing — and probably will never change — is word of mouth," Fain said.
That's not to say any publishing house expects the word to spread all by itself. Someone has to get the buzz started — and that's usually the person who reads the book first. In the case of Room, that was Little Brown executive editor Judy Clain.
"I read it almost in one sitting. I was completely overwhelmed by it," Clain said. "When I got to the end of it, I was more worried that people wouldn't love it as much as I did because I knew that it was a difficult book."
Room tells the story of a woman — being held captive by a man who kidnapped and raped her — and her son, who is the child of her captor. The child narrates the story, which begins in the only world he has ever known — a backyard shed that is their prison. Clain was convinced that Little Brown should buy the book, but first she had to pitch it to her colleagues at an editorial meeting.
"A lot of people in the room were skeptical," she said. "Then, what started to happen — which I think has pretty much never happened to me before — is that one by one, everybody who read the book, people started to come by absolutely sort of evangelical about the book."
Getting everyone within the company talking about the book is the first step in building the buzz. The next step is spreading that excitement to the outside world. So to market Room, Little Brown knew the best way to overcome any discomfort with the concept was to get people to read the whole book. Fain, the marketing director, said the publisher sent out some 6,000 advance copies of the novel — for some smaller novels, that's the number of books that get printed to go out into the marketplace total.
"We really, really have tried to make sure that every bookseller, librarian, blogger, reviewer — anyone who might possibly be interested in this book and interested in talking about it, has a copy already," Fain said.
The next step was BookExpo, the annual industry convention, when booksellers from all over the country converge on New York, and publishers compete to win their attention. They woo booksellers with parties and events where authors turn out to mix and mingle. Sara Nelson, book editor at Oprah's O magazine, said winning over booksellers is crucial.
"Even though they may be a tiny bookstore and they may only buy 10 copies of the book they've just heard discussed lovingly by the publisher — they talk to each other about it, and they get a galley and they lend the galley out and so on," Nelson said. "That's sort of where it starts."
At an event hosted by Little Brown, Room's author, Emma Donoghue, spoke to a small crowd of booksellers and members of the media. Elaine Petrocelli of Book Passage, a San Francisco-based book store, had already read her advance copy of the novel — and said she had initial reservations.
"At first when I heard it was from the point of view of a 5-year-old boy, I thought, 'Uh, I don't know,' " Petrocelli said. "But Emma Donoghue is so brilliant at the way she gets into the voice of this child and takes us into the room."
A lot of people at the convention were talking about the book, Petrocelli said. "People are curious about it ... I think it's going to sell very well."
Book stores are one way to sell books — and book clubs are another. Esther Bushell of Literary Matters leads book clubs and organizes author events near her home base of Greenwich, Conn. She said she was impressed by Donoghue's charismatic personality.
"I was just entranced," Bushell said. "I was very engaged by her as a speaker, and that's part of it. I've had events and the authors were just terrible speakers. So, there's no sale there. There's no interest there. People really need to connect with an author."
Still basking in the glow of Donoghue's charm, Bushell said confidently that she would organize an event featuring the author. But just a few days ago, she said it was a hard sell because of the subject matter.
O book editor Sara Nelson attended the same event at BookExpo and was also impressed by Donoghue. Nelson can't possibly read all of the novels sent her way — but she finished Room and reviewed it favorably in her magazine. Still, Nelson said, no matter what a publisher does to build the buzz, there's never a guarantee that the book will take off with the public or with reviewers.
"It's a tricky thing for publishers, too," she said, "because I think you can sell too hard. And I think a lot times, books that get sold very hard or get a lot of press beforehand, there's a backlash waiting to happen."
There are plenty of stories of books that got hyped and went nowhere. At this point, editor Judy Clain said, everyone at Little Brown is just holding their breath.
"Everyone's nervous," she said. "I mean, not nervous so much as just hoping. ... We can only say 'so far so good,' and that along the way we've had the right signs. I would be surprised if it just doesn't work at all."
Fain said that as the publicists wait for the book's official U.S. release Monday, it's a little like that half-hour before the party you are hosting gets under way.
"You've done everything you can," Fain said. "You've sent out the invitations, the food looks beautiful on the table, and then you're like, 'I hope people come to my party.' So, now we're just hoping the readers come to our party."
It won't be long before they know just how many guests will accept the invitation.