By Nick Hornby
You don't buy a Van Morrison CD hoping to hear him do something radically different, and you shouldn't crack the latest Nick Hornby novel, Juliet, Naked, expecting anything more, or less, than another smart, soft-centered tale of hapless manchildren, precocious actual children and sensible women. The new novel, like Hornby's first novel, High Fidelity, explores the complex world of music fanaticism. Duncan, a young British man stuck in a post-collegiate mindset, is obsessed with obscure rock musician Tucker Crowe, who disappeared from the public eye decades ago. When Duncan's girlfriend, Annie, tires of Duncan's antics, she posts a message on his Tucker Crowe website that attracts the attention of the musician himself, opening the door to an unexpected triangle.
416 pages, $15, Riverhead Trade
Homer & Langley
By E.L. Doctorow
E.L. Doctorow altered the literary landscape 35 years ago when he insinuated "real" characters like J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford and Harry Houdini into the fictional setting of Ragtime. He's back in the groove with Homer & Langley, his slyly inventive, uproarious 12th novel, which uses the real-life Collyer brothers as a jumping-off point for a kaleidoscopic trip through 20th-century America. The strange hermit brothers made headlines in 1947 when their bodies were discovered in a Fifth Avenue mansion that was chockablock with more than 100 tons of junk and old newspapers related to a decades-long project to develop an "eternally current dateless newspaper."
224 pages, $15, Random House
Half Broke Horses
A True-Life Novel
By Jeannette Walls
Jeanette Walls' childhood was difficult enough to warrant a bestselling memoir, The Glass Castle, which begins with her homeless mother rummaging through the garbage. What could possibly come next? Half Broke Horses is a novelistic re-creation of the life of Walls' eccentric grandmother, Lily Casey Smith. Smith was a mustang breaker, schoolteacher, bootlegger, rancher and bush pilot in Texas and Arizona who lost everything she had in the Great Depression. The New York Times compared the book favorably to the memoirs of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
288 pages, $15, Scribner
By David Small
Award-winning children's book author and illustrator David Small has written a chilling, unsentimental, beautifully illustrated memoir of his childhood that's strictly for grownups. From the safe remove of adulthood, Stitches reads like a how-not-to guidebook on child-rearing. Consider: Small's father, a radiologist in the 1950s, repeatedly gave the young boy high-dose X-ray treatments for his sinus problems. When Small was 14, he awoke from what he'd been told was a routine operation to find that he could no longer speak: a cancerous vocal cord had been removed, leaving him with a scar stretching from behind his right ear to the top of his chest. This book was a finalist for the National Book Award last year — only the second graphic novel to receive that distinction.
329 pages, $15.95, W. W. Norton & Co.
By Joshua Ferris
Tim Farnsworth, the main character in Joshua Ferris' new novel, The Unnamed, is a partner in a high-powered law firm in Manhattan. He is married with a young daughter. And he cannot stop walking. Tim's condition "is more of a disease than a compulsion," Ferris tells NPR's Melissa Block. "It's not really a feeling he has to walk, but really his body overtaking him and forcing him to walk." However, our reviewer found this exploration of the disconnect between mind and body, and the distrustful truce that exists between the individual and society, a "slimmer and considerably slighter effort" than the "substantive, complex and tonally variegated accomplishment" of Ferris' first novel, And Then We Came to the End.
320 pages, $13.99, Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books
Charlotte Abbott is the editor of "New In Paperback."
In his 12th novel, Homer & Langley, the masterful E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime, Billy Bathgate) uses the real-life Collyer brothers as a jumping-off point for a kaleidoscopic trip through 20th century America. It's a wild ride — with a truly loopy narrator as guide.
The Collyers made headlines in 1947 when their bodies were discovered in a Fifth Avenue mansion chockablock with old newspapers and junk. More than 100 tons of rubbish were removed from their brownstone. The strange hermit brothers intrigued readers with their combination of folie a deux and clutter run amok. The 1954 bestseller My Brother's Keeper was inspired by the two, who had Columbia degrees and social pedigrees but lived in squalor.
Doctorow altered the literary landscape 35 years ago when he insinuated "real" characters like J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford and Harry Houdini into a fictional setting in Ragtime. He is back in the groove with Homer & Langley, manipulating time and waving his postmodern wand to make his fictionalized story of the brothers larger than life (and their lives longer by several decades).
Center stage is narrator Homer Collyer, the blind brother. "I didn't lose my sight all at once. It was like the movies, a slow fade-out," he notes. When the novel opens, he and older brother Langley live with their well-to-do parents. Homer, a self-styled "romantic young pianist with a Franz Liszt haircut," has a knack for erotic exploitation, beginning with dalliances with the young women his parents invite to tea. After his parents die suddenly in the Spanish flu epidemic, and while Langley is serving in World War I, Homer fires the butler and driver and beds the Hungarian maid. Langley, who was gassed at the front, returns a damaged man to find the household topsy-turvy.
Langley immerses himself in a decades-long project, obsessively collecting and hoarding newspapers. Matching categories of news against his own warped template, he hopes to develop an "eternally current dateless newspaper, "the only newspaper anyone would need." (Imagine if he'd had the Web.)
Throughout this new novel, we are diverted by the inimitable Doctorow mix of social history and pop culture from the end of the Victorian Age to the frenetic 1980s. Homer plays the piano for silent movies, befriends a gangster at a 1920s speakeasy, gives "tea dances" for cash during the Depression and stands with Langley at the top of their stoop as crowds celebrate the end of World War II. After a 1960s anti-war rally in Central Park, hippies crash in the mansion, and Homer imagines he and Langley are "prophets of a new age."
So who is Homer talking to in his off-kilter monologue? Doctorow answers that question in the final page of his slyly inventive, uproariously engaging new novel.
Jane Ciabattari's work has appeared in Bookforum, The Guardian online, The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and Columbia Journalism Review, among others. She is president of the National Book Critics Circle and author of the short-story collection Stealing the Fire. Recent short stories are online at KGB Bar Lit, Verbsap, Literary Mama and Lost magazine.
In 1947, police in New York City received an anonymous tip about a dead body in a brownstone on Fifth Avenue. Responding to the call, they found a house so packed with junk that they had to dig through piles of old newspapers and other boxes before they came upon the body of Homer Collyer.
Collyer, a blind, bedridden hermit, had died of malnutrition and heart failure. Weeks later, after excavating more than 100 tons of rubbish, police found Homer's brother, Langley, who had also died in the house after accidentally crushing himself with a booby trap he had set to capture intruders.
The brothers' story of privilege and eccentricity captured the imagination of New Yorkers — including the young E.L. Doctorow. Now the author of other novels full of real-life characters — such as Ragtime and Billy Bathgate — Doctorow re-imagines the lives of the two brothers in Homer & Langley.
"[The Collyer brothers] were always on my mind," Doctorow tells Melissa Block. "Somehow the fact that they had come from a well-to-do family and had more-or-less opted out was the real mystery of them."
The sons of a wealthy physician, the brothers had attended Columbia University before deciding to shut themselves off in the family's mansion on Fifth Avenue. It was there that they gradually retreated from the world and became collectors of everything, including pianos, bowling balls, books and tapestries.
"To me the key thing was not that they were aggregators," says Doctorow. "The really interesting thing was why they had closed the door and the shutters and retreated into this house."
He likens their decision to "emigration," saying: "They were leaving this country and going into the country of their home."
Doctorow says that writing a fictional account of the Collyers' existence required figuring out how to "break into that house" and see what was going on and why. He says that he didn't do much research for his novel; he felt that the brothers required "interpretation, not research."
Doctorow tells his story from Homer's point of view, a character who he describes as "a very compassionate, sensitive fellow."
"The issue for [Homer] is to create meaning out of their lives in this peculiar eccentric decision that they've made," explains Doctorow.
As for the author, he believes that the Collyers represent, in extreme form, our tendency towards archiving and collecting. He says he likes to think of the Collyers as "curators of their life and times, and their house is a kind of museum of American civilization."