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."
Imagine you're sitting in a meeting at work, or at home eating dinner with your family, when suddenly you feel the need to walk. Not to stretch your legs or get some air, but to walk compulsively, uncontrollably and without stopping, for miles and miles until you collapse from exhaustion.
Tim Farnsworth, the main character in The Unnamed, the new novel from Joshua Ferris, is a partner in a high-powered law firm in Manhattan. He is married with a young daughter. And he cannot stop walking. According to Ferris, Tim's condition "is more of a disease than a compulsion."
"It's not really a feeling he has to walk, but really his body overtaking him and forcing him to walk," Ferris tells Melissa Block. Ferris' book delves into the question of whether Tim's condition is psychological or physical. But ultimately, the author says, "it concludes more or less that this is something he's simply not in control of."
He certainly can't control when he is struck by a need to start walking. One of the early episodes comes in the evening, when Tim is taking out the garbage, dressed for bed:
He walked past neighbors' houses, he walked barefoot down Route 22. He walked past the supermarket: empty parking lot and an eerie glow. He walked past the Korean Baptist church and the Saks-anchored mall into the dreams of late-night drivers who took home the image of some addled derelict in a cotton robe menacing the soft shoulder. He looked down at his legs. It was like watching footage of legs walking from the point of view of the walker. That was the helplessness, this was the terror: the brakes are gone, the steering wheel has locked. I am at the mercy of this wayward machine.
Tim seeks out all sorts of medical remedies for his condition, from submitting to tests at the Mayo Clinic to taking bat-wing extract. But nothing can be determined.
"It's unnamed, it's undiagnosable, it's essentially uncurable," Ferris says. "It's recurring and remitting, so he has long stretches of time in which he's not afflicted, and over the course of the book, you see one of these sections and understand one of the ways Tim and, I think, sick people in general, re-embrace life and recognize that which has been taken away from them when their sickness hits."
But the effects of the sickness are brutal. Often, Tim's episodes hit during cold weather, and to keep him from wandering off, never to be found, his wife prepares a survival backpack, complete with a GPS device and energy bars.
"He has no control over where his body is taking him," Ferris says. "And he has no control over where, eventually, his body will release him. And when it releases him, he has no energy to do anything but collapse in exhaustion. So it falls to his wife to take care of him and pick him up wherever he might be."
Dreaming Up The Disease
With any number of terrible real-life diseases to choose from, how did Ferris decide that walking would be Tim's plague?
"I wanted to talk about sickness without any of those pre-existing cures or sources of alleviation," he says. "When we think of cancer, radiation and chemotherapy come to mind. I wanted to strip down this character to the barest essentials and see what happens when sickness can't go away and it can't be answered by all of the medical technology that the country has at its disposal."
And Ferris hopes the unnameable quality of Tim's disease ensures that readers don't bring any preconceptions to the book.
"Ideally, you would look at this as the essence of sickness distilled to its purest form and discover what that really means — what it really means not only to be an individual who suffers from this completely debilitating disease, but also a family who has to struggle the uncertainties of it and all of its demands," Ferris says.
But the disease takes its toll. Tim walks away from his family and professional life, and into elements that prove merciless. He suffers from frostbite. And though he experiences moments of redemption, his life spirals downward. Ferris says he knew the end-point of Tim's grim trajectory from the start.
"I wanted to track the length of a man's life, and I also knew that this was going to be, at a certain point in time, an unremitting disease, so he would be stuck with it for life," Ferris says.
He says he realized early in the writing process that Tim's story probably wasn't "going to end happily." But Ferris hopes that elements of the book "alleviate that relentlessness for the reader. I think some grace notes that are given to each of the characters, that, while maybe not happy in a conventional sense, do bestow some sense of grace upon them."
The place where Tim's long, tiring journey would come to an end actually came to Ferris early in the writing process, he says. But he had to wait for inspiration to strike before he could actually write the book's final pages.
That inspiration arrived on a trip with his father to Home Depot.
"I wrote it on my BlackBerry because I knew exactly what I wanted to say at that point," and, Ferris says, because "I'm always completely useless in Home Depot."
Once he was finished, what was it like to leave the character behind? Ferris says that though the occasional grace notes helped him, watching Tim Farnsworth struggle through the end of the book was difficult. But he says leaving Tim the way he left him "was essential" for both the character and the writer himself.
"Whenever you work on a novel for a number of years, it's difficult to relinquish," Ferris says. "But here, in particular given the circumstances, I think that I felt a particular closeness to him because of his suffering. And I knew that I was done, but I wanted to keep going back and making sure that it was perfect. So it was tough to leave him."
In his darkly comic 2007 debut novel, Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris adopted a first-person-plural narrator ("We didn't know who was stealing things from other people's workstations") to evoke the jargon-rich groupthink of office culture at the dawning of the 21st century. It could have, and perhaps should have, come off as gimmicky and self-conscious, but Ferris showed himself to be entirely in control of his gifts, deploying a series of drastic but deft tonal shifts that kept his extended narrative experiment fresh throughout. Readers of that promising, award-winning work will recall how, for example, Ferris briefly abandoned the corporate "we" to present a slim chapter from the point of view of an office worker dying from breast cancer. That sober and deeply affecting section served to color the novel around it, imbuing Ferris' showy comic gymnastics with an emotional center, a weight it would have otherwise lacked.
So it's both surprising and disappointing that Ferris would follow up such a substantive, complex and tonally variegated accomplishment with The Unnamed, a slimmer and considerably slighter effort. Also surprising: That Ferris' weighty subjects — the disconnect between mind and body, and the distrustful truce that exists between the individual and society — could produce a novel so feathery and abstract.
Tim Farnsworth is a partner at a highly successful Manhattan law firm with a wife and teenage daughter, a house in the suburbs and no money worries to speak of. The reader meets him at the onset of a mysterious condition that has beset him twice before: a sudden and overpowering compulsion to walk incessantly until he collapses from exhaustion. The nature of this illness stymies physician and psychiatrist alike, and Tim's desperate need to find someone to diagnose his condition — and thus clinically justify his physically and psychically punishing travails — provide the novel's early chapters with its recognizable human immediacy. So, too, does Tim's steely but ultimately doomed resolve that his illness will not keep him from defending an important client, or from his loving family.
Here, in the early going, Ferris lays out the stakes. We watch Tim's wife, Jane, lock into a practiced, protective mode at the news that his condition has returned: She prepares a backpack with a first-aid kit and GPS, she rubs his face with Vaseline, she dresses him in wicking socks and waterproof boots. Small, tender moments like this one fully enflesh Ferris' central conceit and make it much more than a high-minded metaphor for the modern condition. But as the novel progresses and Tim's condition takes complete control, Ferris lets what we want to say about alienation and anomie supersede his characters and the way they navigate the world.
Granted, he does it cleverly, as when he neatly captures postmodern alienation from the self with a line or two: "He looked down at his legs. It was like watching footage of legs walking from the point of view of the walker." Or when pithily describing a bout with depression: "She ... needed a new life. She needed to start over with new teeth and fresh underwear."
But like its protagonist, The Unnamed moves resolutely forward with a fixed, trancelike purposelessness. Eventually the novel resolves into a chronicle of losses, big and small — Tim sinks further into an illness that robs him of his job and his family (and more than a few digits, to frostbite.) But Ferris asserts every one of these losses, whether interpersonal or anatomic, using the same blank, affectless tone. The reader's attention isn't directed, events aren't assigned differing psychological weight, so the emotional through-line becomes obscure; a succession of moments and abstract images simply mount up. That's why, by the time we arrive at Ferris' beautifully written but ultimately unearned ending, the experience of reading The Unnamed has already begun to lift off of us, like a vivid but obtuse dream.
Joshua Ferris ('Then We Came to the End') studies the monster within in 'The Unnamed.' Lush language limns a Soviet childhood of privation and paranoia in 'A Mountain of Crumbs.' Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz's 'Freefall' lays blame for the financial failure. And 'Crash Course' tracks the American auto industry "from glory to disaster."
By Joshua Ferris
This is the second novel by Joshua Ferris, who became a literary sensation with his funny, inventive debut novel, Then We Came To The End, a workplace comedy narrated by an unnamed office drone (or drones) who speaks (speak?) in the first person plural. His second novel is more serious and less gimmicky: Tim Farnsworth is a wealthy, accomplished lawyer who lives in a beautiful suburban home with his beautiful wife and troubled teenage daughter. The only thing in his life he can't handle is a recurring compulsion to walk away from it all — literally. When the fit releases him, he finds himself miles away, exhausted and ragged. The novel follows Tim and his family as they struggle to conquer his mysterious disorder and its consequences and then, in a final section that reads like a modern retelling of Job, accept it.
Ferris is moving on from the gaudy cleverness of his first book to a more sophisticated kind of showing off. Here, he's writing about the Affluent New York City milieu — stuff of a thousand New Yorker stories, including some written by him — but he's also engaging in a bit of dark magic. What makes Ferris' work rewarding, though, as before, is not only his affection for his characters but their own affection for their own lives. Tim and Jane love being affluent suburbanites, just as the incorporeal "we" of his first novel loved working at the ad agency. The problem isn't anomie or boredom or angst, but something terrible and external tearing them away. Ferris is most interested in disintegration, and here he makes it harrowingly physical: Tim's compulsion to walk is as threatening as the monster in a Stephen King novel. Readers will look for metaphors, but Ferris is a good-enough writer and portraitist that it's not necessary. Tim's crucible is real and compelling enough without having to figure out what it "means." — Peter Sagal, host, Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!
Hardcover, 320 pages, Reagan Arthur Books, list price: $24.99, publication date: Jan. 18
America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy
By Joseph E. Stiglitz
The global economy has been through a "near-death experience" that has shattered our illusions of prosperity, writes Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. The causes of the fiasco, as he sees them, are reckless lending, opaque corporate accounting and a mortgage sector that was allowed to grow out of control. To Stiglitz, the whole debacle should have challenged much of the free-market dogma that's dominated economic debate for three decades — and forced us to question some of our underlying assumptions about the financial markets. But so far, it's led mainly to half-measures and denial, not to mention a huge financial-sector bailout that helped no one but the banks.
Stiglitz may not always be the most entertaining of writers, but what brings this book to life is his formidable grasp of economic policy and strong sense of conviction about the blunders that have been made, especially with respect to the bank bailouts. Stiglitz sees them as a squandered opportunity at best, and says there's plenty of blame to go around: The Federal Reserve and the Bush administration were late to recognize that a massive financial crisis was brewing and then used the wrong tools to address it, he writes. President Obama chose to "muddle through" by pouring even more money into the same financial institutions that had caused the crisis in the first place. Along the way, he failed to present "an alternative vision of capitalism." Stiglitz makes a pretty convincing case that U.S. officials should have simply forced companies like Citigroup to be restructured, rather than propping them up. What happened was "ersatz capitalism, the privatizing of gains and the socializing of losses." As a result, Stiglitz says, the path to recovery will be slower than it needed to be." — Jim Zarroli, NPR business reporter
Hardcover, 361 pages, W.W. Norton, list price: $27.95, publication date: Jan. 18
A Mountain of Crumbs
By Elena Gorokhova
As a young, rebellious woman growing up in the Soviet Union of the 1960s, Elena Gorokhova developed a crush on the English language that turned into a lifelong passion. Her memoir opens with the narrator wishing that her mother, a Russian doctor, came from Leningrad, a city of "Pushkin, and the tsars, of granite embankments and lace ironwork, of pearly domes buttressing the low sky." Instead, her practical mother came from the "provincial town of Ivanovo ... where chickens lived in the kitchen and a pig squatted under the stairs ... where streets were unpaved ... and where they lick plates." Elena matures in a nation of privation and paranoia, of children's dentistry without Novocain. A Mountain of Crumbs is part coming of age, part political history, part sensual observations of the natural world. And it's a book that details deception and trickery. The title itself comes from a creative act of duplicity by the author's grandmother during the famine of 1920, when families went hungry on a daily basis. There is a gorgeous story about mushroom hunting that has the whiff of a dark fairy tale.
Gorokhova is a lush and beautiful writer. Her tidy, witty descriptions of characters keep the book moving along at a good clip. Here she is describing her mother, who she says "became the mirror image of my motherland: overbearing, protective, difficult to leave. Our house was the seat of the politburo, my mother its permanent chairman." I'd recommend the book because I enjoy memoirs that aren't narcissistic quests about writers trying to find themselves. And the rich political milieu of the former Soviet Union sets this book apart. You really do get the feeling of what it smelled, tasted and felt like to grow up in that particular place and time. And it's exciting to read a love story about a romance with language. That said, I'd wish the author had dug a little bit deeper into how communist ideas and culture affected her writing, politics and relationships. — Ellen Silva, senior editor, All Things Considered
Hardcover, 320 pages, Simon & Schuster, list price: $26, publication date: Jan. 12
The American Automobile Industry's Road from Glory to Disaster
By Paul Ingrassia
Paul Ingrassia has deftly managed to write two books in one: a sweeping history of the automotive industry in America, and an insider's account of the federal bailout that resulted in government ownership of General Motors. Ingrassia is the former Detroit bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal. Between the covers of Crash Course, he tells the tragic story of how petty struggles and shortsighted decision-making brought about the otherwise avoidable collapse of America's once-great auto industry.
For those familiar with the details of Detroit's rise and fall, Ingrassia's book may not provide startling new information. But the scattered moments are often delicious. For example, his account of how a GM executive rubbed ash from a cigarette tray on his forehead moments before entering the CEO's office; it was Ash Wednesday, and the CEO was a faithful Catholic. A few years later, the executive would become a top GM vice president. These vignettes remind the reader who the author is: one of the most experienced and connected beat reporters ever to cover the one-time Big Three. — Guy Raz, weekend host of All Things Considered