Skip Navigation
NPR News
'Magic for Beginners' ()

Under the Radar: Books Not to Miss

May 8, 2007 (Morning Edition)

Hear this

This text will be replaced
Launch in player

Share this


It seems to me that there's frequently neither rhyme nor reason to which books garner tons of readers and which are read by only a few, devoted as they may be. Somehow, books in the latter category don't seem to register on the radar of public awareness. This is a shame, because in this large group of books, you'll find some of the most splendid reading (and writing) around.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

About Nancy Pearl

Since the release of the best-selling Book Lust in 2003 and the Librarian Action Figure modeled in her likeness, Seattle's Nancy Pearl has become famous among readers and NPR listeners alike. She is a regular commentator about books on Morning Edition and NPR affiliate stations KUOW in Seattle and KWGS in Tulsa. Her latest book is Book Crush, recommended reading for kids and teens.

'Magic for Beginners'

On the one hand, reading Magic for Beginners, Kelly Link's exquisitely loopy collection of stories, demands a certain suspension of disbelief, not unlike when you read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, or the other magical realists. (As Shakespeare had Hamlet note, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.") You simply have to accept — at least for the length of the story — that there might be zombies around, or that a purse can expand to hold a complete village. On the other hand, Link's writing is so remarkable, her use of language so mind-bogglingly perfect, that you're sucked into the world of the stories before you know it, beguiled by descriptions like this one, of a sofa covered with "an orange-juice-colored corduroy that makes it appear as if the couch has just escaped from a maximum security prison for criminally insane furniture." My favorite is the title story, which reminds me of M.C. Escher's picture The Drawing Hands. It's intricate, wildly imaginative and totally wonderful. Whether or not you think you like fantasy, if you're a fan of inventive plots and good writing (her use of language will fill you with awe), don't miss Kelly Link's collection.

'Truck: A Love Story'

In Truck: A Love Story, Michael Perry — writer, confirmed bachelor, volunteer firefighter and EMT in his small Wisconsin town — writes about his momentous 40th year. It's a time when he restores his 1951 International Harvester pickup truck to working order and falls in love, for real. It's hard for me to think of anyone who wouldn't enjoy this heartfelt and humorous tale, filled as it is with accounts of gardening (Perry's description of reading seed catalogs almost made me get up from the chair where I was reading and rush out to the hardware store to buy a hoe), book tours, deer hunting, recipes, country music, Roland Barthes and wedding planning. Perry's narrative voice — smooth and low-key — invites readers along for what turns out to be a most pleasurable ride.

'The True Account'

Howard Frank Mosher's The True Account: A Novel of the Lewis & Clark & Kinneson Expeditions tells the story of a Vermont ex-soldier named True Teague Kinneson and his nephew, Ticonderoga, who race Lewis and Clark to the Pacific. Ticonderoga narrates their adventures — which include a run-in with Daniel Boone (who believes that True has jilted his red-headed, 6-foot-2-inch daughter, Flame Danielle), a historic baseball game with the Nez Perce Indians, frequent death-defying escapes, and periodic encounters with the more famous pair of explorers (who often need to be rescued by means of True's ingenuity). Ticonderoga's descriptions of his uncle and their adventures across the Louisiana Purchase territory to the west are related with a straight face but will leave the reader with anything but. True — a philosopher, inventor, classicist and Ticonderoga's much-loved teacher — dresses in chain mail, sports an Elizabethan codpiece, and wears a cap festooned with bells to cover the copper plate that protects the top of his head from further injury (he fell while he was celebrating with Ethan Allan after the victory at Fort Ticonderoga during the Revolutionary War). He clashes constantly with the devil (whom he calls the Gentleman from Vermont), and carries his hemp habit across the continent, generously sharing his stash with all and sundry. Don't miss this gem.

'Confessions of a Teen Sleuth'

I can't remember when I've laughed aloud so frequently during the reading of a book as I did with Chelsea Cain's Confessions of a Teen Sleuth. This is a wonderful send-up of the Nancy Drew novels. The parody is framed by the premise that Carolyn Keene (the pseudonym under which the Nancy Drew series was written) was actually Nancy Drew's roommate for a short time at Bryn Mawr, and basically stole Nancy's life from her out of jealousy, retelling all of her detecting adventures through a somewhat skewed lens. Here, the real Nancy Drew redresses the balance in a manuscript that she had sent to writer Chelsea Cain after her death. We learn of Nancy's involvement with Frank Hardy (who, you will hardly need to be told, is the hero, along with his brother Joe, of another series of detective novels for kids). We also learn of her challenging marriage to Ned Nickerson and the birth of her beloved son, and the fate of Nancy's mother (and Nancy's iffy relationship to her father's second wife). The fates of George Fayne and Bess Marvin, Nancy's two best chums, play out as well, and so much more. Cain's love of the Nancy Drew books and her ability to draw out and twist every ridiculous morsel from the originals combine to make for an hour or two of tremendously entertaining reading.

'Kings of Infinite Space'

Maybe the best way to describe Kings of Infinite Space by James Hynes is to imagine Stephen King writing satirical fiction. The life of the main character, Paul Trilby, has never been the same after he drowned his wife's cat, Charlotte, in the couple's bathtub. Charlotte now haunts every move that Paul makes, foiling any opportunity for happiness. Paul finally ends up as a temporary technical writer at TxDoGS, a government office in what seems to be Austin, Texas, where a series of encounters with his weird co-workers (not to mention the unnoticed-by-anyone-else dead body in the next cubicle) forces him to choose between a life of ease at TxDoGS and an honorable but probably unsuccessful future. It's a question worthy of Faust. Without giving away too much of the plot (except to say that it includes human sacrifice and zombies), it's best to just say that the cat, Charlotte, who's bent on revenge, continues to run Paul's life.

'The House on Boulevard St.'

It's probably safe to say that most books of poetry can be considered to exist under the radar. What makes it worse is that there are poets out there, like David Kirby, whose work will delight many readers, if only they will pick up the books and begin reading. Kirby's newest collection, The House on Boulevard St., includes new poems as well as poems selected from his earlier collections. Kirby writes what I call "kitchen-sink poetry." He's not a formalist or a lyricist, or any other "ist" or "ism" by which we label writers. He has a conversational, more or less stream of consciousness approach to his subjects (which are wacky in their own right). The poems, filled with specific details, invite readers into often complicated and convoluted stories, and you can never predict from the opening lines just where the poem is going to end up. They're filled with humor, but they're not light verse. For anyone who feels baffled and/or put off by poetry, Kirby's the man to change your mind. You might want to start with these poems: "The Search for Baby Combover," "The Exorcist of Notre Dame" and "The Elephant of the Sea," which begins:   Because I make the big bucks fooling around
with words, in France sometimes I like to say
"Sylvia Plath" instead of "s'il vous plait,"
as when I open the door for Barbara and say,
"Apres-vous, Sylvia Plath!" But yesterday
the lady in the boulangerie asked me what I wanted,
And I said, "Une baguette, Sylvia Plath! Crap..."

'Our Kind'

Kate Walbert's hauntingly beautiful Our Kind: A Novel in Stories is written in seductively oblique prose. It describes the lives of a group of upper-class women who married in the early 1950s, raised children, divorced in the 1970s, and are now soldiering their way through the illness, regrets, persistent sorrows and indignities of growing old. The group includes the artistic one, the recovering alcoholic, the one whose daughter killed herself, and more. Narrated by these women collectively ("Years ago we were led down the primrose lane, then abandoned somewhere near the carp pond"), the stories of their current lives include an intervention with the local Realtor, trying to save the geese at the Country Club, calling old lovers on the phone — and my favorite, a priceless chapter called "Sick Chicks," which describes a book discussion group that meets in a local hospice (at this meeting, they're talking about Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway).

Read full story transcript

Missing some content? Check the source: NPR
Copyright(c) 2014, NPR
'Our Kind: A Novel in Stories' ()

Excerpt: 'Our Kind'

by Kate Walbert
May 7, 2007

Hear this

Launch in player

Share this


Chapter One: The Intervention

It was one of those utterances that sparkled — the very daring! Could you see us? Canoe shrugged, to be expected. After all, Canoe was our local recovering; it was she who left those pamphlets in the clubhouse next to the men's Nineteenth Hole.

Still, the very daring!

Intervention.

Canoe cracked her knuckles, lit a cigarette. We sat by her swimming pool absentmindedly pulling weeds from around the flagstones. The ice of our iced tea had already melted into water and it was too cold to swim, besides.

"It's obvious," Canoe said, blowing. "He's going to kill himself in less than a month. I don't want that blood on my hands."

Who would?

He was someone we loved. Someone we could not help but love. A colleague of our ex-husbands, a past encounter. We had known Him since before we were we, from our first weeks in this town, early summers. We loved His hair. Golden. The color of that movie actor's hair, the famous one. Sometimes we caught just the gleam of it through the windshield of his BMW as He drove by. Sporty. Waving. Green metallic, leather interior. Some sort of monogram on the wheel. You've seen the license plate? SOLD. A realtor, but never desperate. Yes, He sold our Mimi Klondike's Tudor on Twelve Oaks Lane with full knowledge of her rotting foundation. But desperate? No. Just thirsty.

"Intervention," Barbara repeated. Canoe flexed her toes as if she had invented the word.

This a late summer day, a fallish day. Ricardo, the pool boy, swept maple leaves from the pool water, in this light a dull, sickly yellow. We watched him; we couldn't take our eyes off. Canoe interrupted.

"Actually, I shouldn't be the one explaining. There's someone from the group who's our expert. Pips Phelp, actually."

Pips Phelp? The lawyer? Pips Phelp?

We spoke in whispers. Who knew who lived in trees?

Besides, He might drive up any minute. He often did. You'd hear the crunch of His tires on the gravel, see the flash of blond hair behind the windshield. These times you'd dry your hands on your shirtfront, check your face in the toaster. You wouldn't want to be caught, what? Alone? You let Him in. He'd ask you to. He would stand at your door, behind your screen, wondering if He could. Of course, you'd say, though you looked a mess. If you were unlucky, the dishwasher ran. One of the louder cycles. If you were lucky, all was still — the house in magical order, spotless, clean. He surveyed; this was his job. You never knew, He told you, when He might be needed.

You shivered. Him a handsome man. A man with the habit of standing close, His smell: animal, rooty — your hands after gardening. His straight teeth were white, though He didn't smile that way. His was a better smile, toothless, brief, as if He understood He had caught you with more than a wet shirtfront. You obliged the suspicion. You were always guilty of something.

Still, you showed Him what you had done, were attempting. Recent renovations. Whatnot. A fabric swatch laid on the back of your couch. A roll of discount wallpaper for the powder room, shells of some sort. You'd been trying, you'd explain, to fix the place up. But things had gotten behind; the contractor's attentions divided, et cetera, et cetera.

He nodded, or did not. His was a serious business: assessing value. Worth.

Ricardo, the pool boy, served sandwiches. We had spent a few days per Canoe's instruction, contemplating the responsibility of our action: the absolute commitment, the difficulty, the discipline, the sacrifice. Esther Curran now sat among us. Someone had invited her. She was speaking of how He had shown her a Cape near Grendale Knoll after Walter's death, when she had believed she couldn't bear it — the house, the reminders — and how she, Esther, was no longer a beautiful woman. Here Esther peeled the crust off her sandwich and looked away.

We sat around her in Canoe's wrought-iron; it was too cold to lounge. The weather had suddenly turned, and the reason we sat around the pool at all was beyond us, unless it had something to do with Ricardo. We watched him receding toward the pool house then turned back to Esther.

This was the point, Esther was saying, though we may have lost it.

He had taken her hand. He had stroked it. He had told her of the possibilities. There wasn't much to be done — the demolition of the Florida room, a few shingles rehung, refurbishing the kitchen. Think of it, He had told her.

We watched Esther with looks on our faces. We had never understood her. Rich as Croesus, she drove a Dodge and compared prices at the Safeway. Her husband, Walter, had died years ago, but she still referred to him as if he had run downtown for milk and would be back any minute. She allowed her hair to gray, her nails to go ragged. True, she had always been our eccentric — an artist, she kept chameleons in her living room draperies and would often arrive at parties with paint on her hands — but more than once in recent years, we understood, she had been escorted in the early hours of the morning, found wandering in robe and slippers on the old Route 32, luckily rarely traveled, for she could have been struck down as easily as a stray dog.

Now here she was among us.

"Intervention," she said, "is not a word of which I am particularly fond." Esther cut her crustless sandwich into nine even squares. "Walter and I are of the live-and-let-live philosophy," she continued, "but in certain unavoidable circumstances, such as the one we confront here today, I say, yes. I say, intervene." She picked up a square and we waited, thinking Esther might have more to add, but she simply smiled and popped it whole into her mouth.

"Frankly," Canoe said, this to Pips Phelp, who had convened the meeting and sat at the edge of us in a deck chair, "I don't want to hear about Him wrapped around a telephone pole. I wouldn't be able to live with myself."

Pips Phelp nodded. We knew him from the Club, one of a number of men who zipped by in a cart heading elsewhere, gloved hand guiding the wheel. He seemed to have little to say, too quiet for an interventionist, though Canoe insisted he was skilled in these matters. And we had read in the literature that we needed him: a leader, a discussion initiator.

"Understood," he said.

We agreed to meet the next day in the Safeway parking lot for a run-through. Pips Phelp would play His part. Did we understand fully, Pips had explained, that this would be tantamount to ambush? There would be little time, he said. He will fight you. He will want to flee. He will deny your accusations. You will have to talk quickly. Under absolutely no circumstance can you allow Him to leave the vehicle. (We had decided that this would be the place we'd find Him.) When it is over, one of you will get behind the wheel and drive Him to the Center. You will check Him in. It has been arranged.

Pips Phelp now sat in his Buick, the motor running. We saw him clearly though we pretended not to: This was part of the plan. We pulled in in Viv's Suburban and got out one at a time, no one saying a word. Canoe gave a short whistle and we circled the Buick, feeling the rush of the boarding-school escapade. What were we doing? Was anyone watching?

Pips Phelp pretended not to notice. He was a poor substitute for Him, truth be told. He sat there in a gut-hold against the wheel, his fingers strumming. He smelled of gum, or mints, of pretzels, of efforts to stave off tobacco. We knew him as a weak man. We knew him as a man who could be trusted. His wife, Eleanor, carried the look of the perpetually bored; his children were overachievers. You can only guess at the good-cheer stickers on the bumper of his Buick. He was a hedge trimmer, a leaf raker, a model-boat builder; he was a man who never thought of selling. Every spring along the borders of the driveway to his house — a ranch just past the K&O Cemetery — he planted red and pink impatiens.

"Pips!" This from Canoe, acting surprised, our signal to converge. Pips looked up, turned off the engine. "Canoe!" he said, our signal to open his doors. Canoe had already slid in the passenger side, yanked the keys from the ignition. Our hearts beat too loud, drumlike. We were not used to intervening.

"What is this?" Pips said. "What's everybody doing here?" His talent was not for acting. He sounded like a commercial you might see on late-night television.

"We're here because we love you," Canoe said. "We're here because we care about your life."

We flushed. Who wouldn't? We didn't care for Pips's life. We wanted Him. We wanted His smooth leather shoes, His argyle socks, His blue cashmere double-breasted coat. We wanted His promise of future appreciation.

"What are you talking about?" Pips said, shifting around to look at those of us in the backseat. Some couldn't fit and leaned on the windows. "What's the big idea?"

We laughed; we couldn't help it. "Please, Pips," Viv said to clue him in. "He'd never say 'big idea.'"

Pips gave us a look and turned back toward the windshield. He composed himself, a man of infinite patience, then shifted around again. "What's the meaning of this?" he said.

"The meaning," said Viv, "is concern. You are a sick person. It's not your fault. You can't help yourself. It's genetic. You need help. We're here to help you."

Some of us bit our fingernails.

Pips laughed like Bela Lugosi. "Sick? Me? What do you mean by these unfounded accusations. I've never felt better. I think you're sick. I think you are all suffering from a serious mental health problem."

This was going all wrong. No one sounded like a real person.

"What we're trying to say," said Judy Sawyer, but she didn't know what. Then came a long and awkward pause. Canoe sighed, audibly. "Come on, ladies," she said. "We've gotten off on the wrong foot." Then she opened the passenger side and got out, signaling for us to do the same. We did, as Pips Phelp waited, pretending, once again, that he had just driven up.

Know that we are a close-knit community. We've lived here for years, which is not to say that our ancestors are buried here; simply, this is the place we have all ended up. We were married in 1953. Divorced in 1976. Our grown daughters pity us; our grown sons forget us. We have grandchildren we visit from time to time, but their manners agitate, so we return, nervous, thankful to view them at a distance.

Most of us excel at racquet sports.

It is not in our makeup to intervene. This goes against the grain, is entirely out of our character. We allow for differences, but strive not to show them. Ours are calm waters, smooth sailing. Yes, some among us visit therapists, but, quite frankly, we believe this is a passing phase, like our former passion for fondue, or our semester learning decoupage.

We've seen a lot. We've seen the murder-suicide of the Clifford Jacksons, Tate Kieley jailed for embezzlement, Dorothy Schoenbacher in nothing but a mink coat in August dive from the roof of the Cooke's Inn. We've seen Dick Morehead arrested in the ladies' dressing room at Lord & Taylor, attempting to squeeze into a petite teddy. We've seen Francis Stoney gone mad, Brenda Nelson take to cocaine. We've seen the blackballing of the Stewart Collisters. We've seen more than our share of liars and cheats, thieves. Drunks? We couldn't count.

Still, He's someone we love. And, in truth, we love few.

Early the morning after our practice run, we met again at the Safeway. Canoe brought a thermos of coffee and we stood drinking from our styrofoam cups in the early cold as if at a tailgate. It did seem a game, the weather, football weather, changeable, ominous, geese honking overhead, flying elsewhere. A strong wind set loose shopping carts in random directions, as if they were being pushed by the ghosts of shoppers past. Coupon offers and flyers of various sorts blew about as well. Canoe suggested coffee cake, but we declined. We were, on the whole, nervous. We enjoyed our weekly stocking up at the Safeway; we kept lists. But to linger in its parking lot felt just shy of delinquency and a long way from Canoe's swimming pool and Ricardo's languid strokes. When we finally spotted Pips Phelp's Buick turning in, our spirits had undeniably flagged.

Pips didn't seem to notice. "Ladies," he said, slamming the door, getting out. "Top of the morning!"

Was this man always working from some sort of script?

"Why the long faces?" he said.

"They'll get over it," Canoe said. She dropped her styrofoam cup to the asphalt and crushed it, twisting her flat as if to stub out a cigarette butt. We watched, riveted. You do not need to tell us we were stalling. Canoe got into her Jeep and rolled down the window. "Understand," she told him, "they're not used to unpleasantness."

We have seen a lot, it's true, but know so little. How were we to learn? Years ago we were led down the primrose lane, then abandoned somewhere near the carp pond. Suffice it to say there is little nourishment here and the carp have grown strange cancers. When we look in their pond we see them beneath our own watery faces.

But think of the consequence: His disappearance.

We piled in as instructed. We buckled our safety belts. We turned to Pips Phelp, who stood in salute, and waved. Canoe gunned the Jeep. "Hi-ho, Silver," she said, and we were off, the plan to find Him come hell or high water, to drive to the limits of our town, to cover His turf. We watched Pips Phelp trail us in his Buick, his flaccid pink face in the rearview. We weren't nice. We made fun. We said how ordinary was Pips, how completely known. We said how He could flatten Pips Phelp with one fist.

"Kaboom!" Barbara shouted. And she meant it. "Kaboom! Kaboom!" She raised her fist and punched the air.

"Why the anger?" Mimi Klondike asked, as if intervention were catching.

Barbara shrugged. "Felt like it?" she said.

Esther, we noticed, didn't speak. She wasn't often of late among us, and now she might as well not have been. She sat in the back of the Jeep staring out the window, some kind of smock we wouldn't be caught dead in spread over her legs. She had letters in her pockets to people we had never met; her hair seemed unwashed.

"Esther?" Mimi Klondike said. "Why the long face?" Barbara smirked, but Esther simply turned toward us. She might have been smiling, or this might have been her natural expression. Beyond her, our country — changing maples, stone walls, gravel drives, newly washed automobiles, children, horses, dogs — passed. But we were looking at Esther.

"I was thinking how strange," she finally said. "I was thinking how strange to be alive." Then she turned away. We drove in silence; what else was there to do? Time passed and we thought our thoughts; we thought of Him. How He held a flashlight to our souls, our basements. How He checked for dry rot, carpenter ants, the carcasses of flying insects. In the darkness we saw Him searching, and we yelled down, Do you need a hand?

"Bingo!" Canoe shouted. She slammed the Jeep brake. "Bingo bango!"

We leaned in, looking. "What?" we said. "Him?"

Yes, there: Pinned to Louise Cooper's chemicled lawn, the sign: SOLD REALTORS, freshly hammered into the ground. Beside it his BMW, forest green, buffed as his nails, stood idle in Louise's drive, arriving or leaving impossible to say. Henry Cooper, on early retirement, had recently dropped dead putting the eighteenth green. We knew Louise had thoughts of moving to Captiva. Still, we felt the jealousy of His transferred affections. Louise? we thought. Her?

"Keep calm!" Canoe shouted, veering in. Our hands were in our laps, our feet pushed against the carpeted floor, braking. Mimi and Barbara ducked on impulse. The rest of us sat stock-still. We knew the plan: Pips Phelp would stay behind, at a distance, there if needed, ready to follow in his car to the Center, to do the necessary paperwork to check Him in. The approvals had been given, the gears were in motion.

Canoe parked the Jeep, jerked the emergency brake. This a stroke of luck, really. We might have found Him nowhere. We might have been too late. Now here we were — sitting and listening to the ticking engine, watching the steam rise off the hood. The day seemed warmer, the gray breaking into blue, the sun a sudden glare. It shone off the chrome of His BMW, flashed in our eyes as if a badge He held up for protection. Was He there? Did we see Him?

Canoe got out. She slammed the front door and sauntered over. She strode, Canoe, the toughest among us. We kept quiet. We waited for the signal: two coughs followed by a hand clap. This would mean He was in the vehicle and we should proceed as rehearsed. Mimi, still ducking, rolled down her window so we could hear better, but what we heard was an ordinary day: a dog barking, crickets, a siren at the far edge of town. In it Canoe's boots crunched gravel; Canoe knocked.

It should be said that in recent months He had acquired a new BMW. The latest model. Understand Him as a leaser. In His profession, the importance of the vehicle is not to be underestimated. Every year He trades up. Still, the license plate remains: SOLD. The color, forest green. This one, however, has been slightly altered — the windows blackened, as if a rebuke to our constant attentions.

But He cannot escape us. We know His comings and goings, His ring size. We know at the Stone Barn He orders Manhattan clam chowder, a cup, and a grilled cheese for lunch. We know His difficulty with languages, His general insecurity in all things pertaining to math. We know as a boy He watched the mayor hide the golden Easter egg then blatantly pretended to find it. We know He dreams of killing. We know He scratches himself in ugly places and picks His nose; that His breath is rank in the morning and He scissors black hairs from His ears and plucks His eyebrows.

We know this and more: His bad back, His quenchless thirst. He is our faithless husband, our poor father. He is our bad son, our schemer, our rogue. He is our coward in the conflict, our liar. He has betrayed all He has promised.

Still, we love Him.

"Must be in the house," Canoe shouts back to us. "Come on."

We go. We fan out. Our hearts taut drums. Our feet heavy. Canoe crouches ahead, then rounds the bend, breaking away from the cul-de-sac. We run after her and line up on either side — Barbara at the far end, Mimi, the near. We cross our arms over our chests and wait. Canoe tries the front door. It's open. She pushes through. It is Louise Cooper's house, but it may as well be our own — the powder room off the foyer, Louise's monogrammed hand towels. There's Ivory soap in the shape of shells, dirtied from her gardener's hands. There's a chandelier that's dusty, unused; unpaid bills on the secretary. A needlepoint giraffe, weighted with sand, holds the den door open. Here we'd find Louise's real life: her TV Guides, her tarnished tennis trophies, framed photographs of her children with outdated hairstyles. But we're not going there. We pause, instead, in the empty foyer. What are we listening for? What do we want?

And then we hear Him. He is speaking in a low voice, a whisper. It is a sound we'd recognize anywhere: the sound of Him prospecting. A cold call. Like the slap of waves in our ocean, like a salt cure. He wants something. He is asking. To all of us He has spoken in such a manner, kissed our fingers. He has guided us through our living rooms, His hand on the small of our backs.

"Shhhhh," Canoe says, as if someone has spoken. But no one has said a word. We simply stand at the bottom of Louise Cooper's staircase like bridesmaids waiting to catch the bouquet, but we are not bridesmaids. We are women near the end of our lives. We look up at nothing: the hallway, the bedroom doors.

Still, His voice is everywhere. Which room? Which direction? Canoe climbs. We follow. At the top of the stairs, we pause, waiting. Nothing. No sound at all but something just below the surface quiet. What? Something so familiar: a woman weeping? Our Louise? We walk down the hallway, pushing at doors — there are so many empty bedrooms. This one simply light from the now-blue sky shining through its open windows onto the poplin spread, pulled taut, pillows fluffed as if Louise is expecting guests; the next one, the same. We move quickly. We hurry. We push on doors, we open closets.

We do not find her until the maid's room. She sits on a narrow cot among little artifacts — a wire-cage mannequin, a yellow-painted dresser, a children's mirror. On the floor there is no rug. If we were barefoot we would be splintered, but we are not. We are shoed and zipped, buttoned and covered; this we notice because Louise is not. She is without a stitch of clothing, entirely nude.

She covers herself when we burst in, drawing her legs up and arms around to cinch them. She is a ball of flesh, Louise Cooper, leaking from the eyes. She does not need to ask to know our mission; she points, weakly, in the direction of a narrow staircase — the back way. Esther takes the lead and we hurry, pell-mell, reckless. We sense there is little time and so we tumble down the stairs, our flats nicking the soft wood, our hands slapping cold walls. Released near the back door into the open — the sudden fresh air, the sudden light — we run. We tear. We might spread our arms. Fly.

We head out so fast our flats flapped off some way back, seven pair abandoned like fourteen blackbirds in a jagged line, our soft soles hopscotching gravel, rock, then the grassy stubble in the field behind the Coopers', Esther ripping the just-red stalks from their roots, Barbara and Mimi holding hands, running, Viv and Judy behind, Canoe in the lead. We must find Him, we know. We must intervene. We do not want Him wrapped around a telephone pole. We do not want that blood on our hands. We must save Him, mustn't we? We must save Him, quick.

But first, no. First, we must save ourselves.

Excerpted from Our Kind: A Novel in Stories Copyright 2004 by Kate Walbert

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

About Nancy Pearl

Since the release of the best-selling Book Lust in 2003 and the Librarian Action Figure modeled in her likeness, Seattle's Nancy Pearl has become famous among readers and NPR listeners alike. She is a regular commentator about books on Morning Edition and NPR affiliate stations KUOW in Seattle and KWGS in Tulsa. Her latest book is Book Crush, recommended reading for kids and teens.

'Magic for Beginners'

On the one hand, reading Magic for Beginners, Kelly Link's exquisitely loopy collection of stories, demands a certain suspension of disbelief, not unlike when you read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, or the other magical realists. (As Shakespeare had Hamlet note, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.") You simply have to accept — at least for the length of the story — that there might be zombies around, or that a purse can expand to hold a complete village. On the other hand, Link's writing is so remarkable, her use of language so mind-bogglingly perfect, that you're sucked into the world of the stories before you know it, beguiled by descriptions like this one, of a sofa covered with "an orange-juice-colored corduroy that makes it appear as if the couch has just escaped from a maximum security prison for criminally insane furniture." My favorite is the title story, which reminds me of M.C. Escher's picture The Drawing Hands. It's intricate, wildly imaginative and totally wonderful. Whether or not you think you like fantasy, if you're a fan of inventive plots and good writing (her use of language will fill you with awe), don't miss Kelly Link's collection.

'Truck: A Love Story'

In Truck: A Love Story, Michael Perry — writer, confirmed bachelor, volunteer firefighter and EMT in his small Wisconsin town — writes about his momentous 40th year. It's a time when he restores his 1951 International Harvester pickup truck to working order and falls in love, for real. It's hard for me to think of anyone who wouldn't enjoy this heartfelt and humorous tale, filled as it is with accounts of gardening (Perry's description of reading seed catalogs almost made me get up from the chair where I was reading and rush out to the hardware store to buy a hoe), book tours, deer hunting, recipes, country music, Roland Barthes and wedding planning. Perry's narrative voice — smooth and low-key — invites readers along for what turns out to be a most pleasurable ride.

'The True Account'

Howard Frank Mosher's The True Account: A Novel of the Lewis & Clark & Kinneson Expeditions tells the story of a Vermont ex-soldier named True Teague Kinneson and his nephew, Ticonderoga, who race Lewis and Clark to the Pacific. Ticonderoga narrates their adventures — which include a run-in with Daniel Boone (who believes that True has jilted his red-headed, 6-foot-2-inch daughter, Flame Danielle), a historic baseball game with the Nez Perce Indians, frequent death-defying escapes, and periodic encounters with the more famous pair of explorers (who often need to be rescued by means of True's ingenuity). Ticonderoga's descriptions of his uncle and their adventures across the Louisiana Purchase territory to the west are related with a straight face but will leave the reader with anything but. True — a philosopher, inventor, classicist and Ticonderoga's much-loved teacher — dresses in chain mail, sports an Elizabethan codpiece, and wears a cap festooned with bells to cover the copper plate that protects the top of his head from further injury (he fell while he was celebrating with Ethan Allan after the victory at Fort Ticonderoga during the Revolutionary War). He clashes constantly with the devil (whom he calls the Gentleman from Vermont), and carries his hemp habit across the continent, generously sharing his stash with all and sundry. Don't miss this gem.

'Confessions of a Teen Sleuth'

I can't remember when I've laughed aloud so frequently during the reading of a book as I did with Chelsea Cain's Confessions of a Teen Sleuth. This is a wonderful send-up of the Nancy Drew novels. The parody is framed by the premise that Carolyn Keene (the pseudonym under which the Nancy Drew series was written) was actually Nancy Drew's roommate for a short time at Bryn Mawr, and basically stole Nancy's life from her out of jealousy, retelling all of her detecting adventures through a somewhat skewed lens. Here, the real Nancy Drew redresses the balance in a manuscript that she had sent to writer Chelsea Cain after her death. We learn of Nancy's involvement with Frank Hardy (who, you will hardly need to be told, is the hero, along with his brother Joe, of another series of detective novels for kids). We also learn of her challenging marriage to Ned Nickerson and the birth of her beloved son, and the fate of Nancy's mother (and Nancy's iffy relationship to her father's second wife). The fates of George Fayne and Bess Marvin, Nancy's two best chums, play out as well, and so much more. Cain's love of the Nancy Drew books and her ability to draw out and twist every ridiculous morsel from the originals combine to make for an hour or two of tremendously entertaining reading.

'Kings of Infinite Space'

Maybe the best way to describe Kings of Infinite Space by James Hynes is to imagine Stephen King writing satirical fiction. The life of the main character, Paul Trilby, has never been the same after he drowned his wife's cat, Charlotte, in the couple's bathtub. Charlotte now haunts every move that Paul makes, foiling any opportunity for happiness. Paul finally ends up as a temporary technical writer at TxDoGS, a government office in what seems to be Austin, Texas, where a series of encounters with his weird co-workers (not to mention the unnoticed-by-anyone-else dead body in the next cubicle) forces him to choose between a life of ease at TxDoGS and an honorable but probably unsuccessful future. It's a question worthy of Faust. Without giving away too much of the plot (except to say that it includes human sacrifice and zombies), it's best to just say that the cat, Charlotte, who's bent on revenge, continues to run Paul's life.

'The House on Boulevard St.'

It's probably safe to say that most books of poetry can be considered to exist under the radar. What makes it worse is that there are poets out there, like David Kirby, whose work will delight many readers, if only they will pick up the books and begin reading. Kirby's newest collection, The House on Boulevard St., includes new poems as well as poems selected from his earlier collections. Kirby writes what I call "kitchen-sink poetry." He's not a formalist or a lyricist, or any other "ist" or "ism" by which we label writers. He has a conversational, more or less stream of consciousness approach to his subjects (which are wacky in their own right). The poems, filled with specific details, invite readers into often complicated and convoluted stories, and you can never predict from the opening lines just where the poem is going to end up. They're filled with humor, but they're not light verse. For anyone who feels baffled and/or put off by poetry, Kirby's the man to change your mind. You might want to start with these poems: "The Search for Baby Combover," "The Exorcist of Notre Dame" and "The Elephant of the Sea," which begins:   Because I make the big bucks fooling around
with words, in France sometimes I like to say
"Sylvia Plath" instead of "s'il vous plait,"
as when I open the door for Barbara and say,
"Apres-vous, Sylvia Plath!" But yesterday
the lady in the boulangerie asked me what I wanted,
And I said, "Une baguette, Sylvia Plath! Crap..."

'Our Kind'

Kate Walbert's hauntingly beautiful Our Kind: A Novel in Stories is written in seductively oblique prose. It describes the lives of a group of upper-class women who married in the early 1950s, raised children, divorced in the 1970s, and are now soldiering their way through the illness, regrets, persistent sorrows and indignities of growing old. The group includes the artistic one, the recovering alcoholic, the one whose daughter killed herself, and more. Narrated by these women collectively ("Years ago we were led down the primrose lane, then abandoned somewhere near the carp pond"), the stories of their current lives include an intervention with the local Realtor, trying to save the geese at the Country Club, calling old lovers on the phone — and my favorite, a priceless chapter called "Sick Chicks," which describes a book discussion group that meets in a local hospice (at this meeting, they're talking about Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway).

Missing some content? Check the source: NPR
Copyright(c) 2014, NPR
thumbnail ()

National Book Award Finalist Kate Walbert

Nov 17, 2004 (Morning Edition)

Hear this

This text will be replaced
Launch in player

Share this


Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

About Nancy Pearl

Since the release of the best-selling Book Lust in 2003 and the Librarian Action Figure modeled in her likeness, Seattle's Nancy Pearl has become famous among readers and NPR listeners alike. She is a regular commentator about books on Morning Edition and NPR affiliate stations KUOW in Seattle and KWGS in Tulsa. Her latest book is Book Crush, recommended reading for kids and teens.

'Magic for Beginners'

On the one hand, reading Magic for Beginners, Kelly Link's exquisitely loopy collection of stories, demands a certain suspension of disbelief, not unlike when you read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, or the other magical realists. (As Shakespeare had Hamlet note, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.") You simply have to accept — at least for the length of the story — that there might be zombies around, or that a purse can expand to hold a complete village. On the other hand, Link's writing is so remarkable, her use of language so mind-bogglingly perfect, that you're sucked into the world of the stories before you know it, beguiled by descriptions like this one, of a sofa covered with "an orange-juice-colored corduroy that makes it appear as if the couch has just escaped from a maximum security prison for criminally insane furniture." My favorite is the title story, which reminds me of M.C. Escher's picture The Drawing Hands. It's intricate, wildly imaginative and totally wonderful. Whether or not you think you like fantasy, if you're a fan of inventive plots and good writing (her use of language will fill you with awe), don't miss Kelly Link's collection.

'Truck: A Love Story'

In Truck: A Love Story, Michael Perry — writer, confirmed bachelor, volunteer firefighter and EMT in his small Wisconsin town — writes about his momentous 40th year. It's a time when he restores his 1951 International Harvester pickup truck to working order and falls in love, for real. It's hard for me to think of anyone who wouldn't enjoy this heartfelt and humorous tale, filled as it is with accounts of gardening (Perry's description of reading seed catalogs almost made me get up from the chair where I was reading and rush out to the hardware store to buy a hoe), book tours, deer hunting, recipes, country music, Roland Barthes and wedding planning. Perry's narrative voice — smooth and low-key — invites readers along for what turns out to be a most pleasurable ride.

'The True Account'

Howard Frank Mosher's The True Account: A Novel of the Lewis & Clark & Kinneson Expeditions tells the story of a Vermont ex-soldier named True Teague Kinneson and his nephew, Ticonderoga, who race Lewis and Clark to the Pacific. Ticonderoga narrates their adventures — which include a run-in with Daniel Boone (who believes that True has jilted his red-headed, 6-foot-2-inch daughter, Flame Danielle), a historic baseball game with the Nez Perce Indians, frequent death-defying escapes, and periodic encounters with the more famous pair of explorers (who often need to be rescued by means of True's ingenuity). Ticonderoga's descriptions of his uncle and their adventures across the Louisiana Purchase territory to the west are related with a straight face but will leave the reader with anything but. True — a philosopher, inventor, classicist and Ticonderoga's much-loved teacher — dresses in chain mail, sports an Elizabethan codpiece, and wears a cap festooned with bells to cover the copper plate that protects the top of his head from further injury (he fell while he was celebrating with Ethan Allan after the victory at Fort Ticonderoga during the Revolutionary War). He clashes constantly with the devil (whom he calls the Gentleman from Vermont), and carries his hemp habit across the continent, generously sharing his stash with all and sundry. Don't miss this gem.

'Confessions of a Teen Sleuth'

I can't remember when I've laughed aloud so frequently during the reading of a book as I did with Chelsea Cain's Confessions of a Teen Sleuth. This is a wonderful send-up of the Nancy Drew novels. The parody is framed by the premise that Carolyn Keene (the pseudonym under which the Nancy Drew series was written) was actually Nancy Drew's roommate for a short time at Bryn Mawr, and basically stole Nancy's life from her out of jealousy, retelling all of her detecting adventures through a somewhat skewed lens. Here, the real Nancy Drew redresses the balance in a manuscript that she had sent to writer Chelsea Cain after her death. We learn of Nancy's involvement with Frank Hardy (who, you will hardly need to be told, is the hero, along with his brother Joe, of another series of detective novels for kids). We also learn of her challenging marriage to Ned Nickerson and the birth of her beloved son, and the fate of Nancy's mother (and Nancy's iffy relationship to her father's second wife). The fates of George Fayne and Bess Marvin, Nancy's two best chums, play out as well, and so much more. Cain's love of the Nancy Drew books and her ability to draw out and twist every ridiculous morsel from the originals combine to make for an hour or two of tremendously entertaining reading.

'Kings of Infinite Space'

Maybe the best way to describe Kings of Infinite Space by James Hynes is to imagine Stephen King writing satirical fiction. The life of the main character, Paul Trilby, has never been the same after he drowned his wife's cat, Charlotte, in the couple's bathtub. Charlotte now haunts every move that Paul makes, foiling any opportunity for happiness. Paul finally ends up as a temporary technical writer at TxDoGS, a government office in what seems to be Austin, Texas, where a series of encounters with his weird co-workers (not to mention the unnoticed-by-anyone-else dead body in the next cubicle) forces him to choose between a life of ease at TxDoGS and an honorable but probably unsuccessful future. It's a question worthy of Faust. Without giving away too much of the plot (except to say that it includes human sacrifice and zombies), it's best to just say that the cat, Charlotte, who's bent on revenge, continues to run Paul's life.

'The House on Boulevard St.'

It's probably safe to say that most books of poetry can be considered to exist under the radar. What makes it worse is that there are poets out there, like David Kirby, whose work will delight many readers, if only they will pick up the books and begin reading. Kirby's newest collection, The House on Boulevard St., includes new poems as well as poems selected from his earlier collections. Kirby writes what I call "kitchen-sink poetry." He's not a formalist or a lyricist, or any other "ist" or "ism" by which we label writers. He has a conversational, more or less stream of consciousness approach to his subjects (which are wacky in their own right). The poems, filled with specific details, invite readers into often complicated and convoluted stories, and you can never predict from the opening lines just where the poem is going to end up. They're filled with humor, but they're not light verse. For anyone who feels baffled and/or put off by poetry, Kirby's the man to change your mind. You might want to start with these poems: "The Search for Baby Combover," "The Exorcist of Notre Dame" and "The Elephant of the Sea," which begins:   Because I make the big bucks fooling around
with words, in France sometimes I like to say
"Sylvia Plath" instead of "s'il vous plait,"
as when I open the door for Barbara and say,
"Apres-vous, Sylvia Plath!" But yesterday
the lady in the boulangerie asked me what I wanted,
And I said, "Une baguette, Sylvia Plath! Crap..."

'Our Kind'

Kate Walbert's hauntingly beautiful Our Kind: A Novel in Stories is written in seductively oblique prose. It describes the lives of a group of upper-class women who married in the early 1950s, raised children, divorced in the 1970s, and are now soldiering their way through the illness, regrets, persistent sorrows and indignities of growing old. The group includes the artistic one, the recovering alcoholic, the one whose daughter killed herself, and more. Narrated by these women collectively ("Years ago we were led down the primrose lane, then abandoned somewhere near the carp pond"), the stories of their current lives include an intervention with the local Realtor, trying to save the geese at the Country Club, calling old lovers on the phone — and my favorite, a priceless chapter called "Sick Chicks," which describes a book discussion group that meets in a local hospice (at this meeting, they're talking about Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway).

Missing some content? Check the source: NPR
Copyright(c) 2014, NPR
'Madeleine is Sleeping' by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum ()

National Book Award Finalists

Oct 13, 2004 (All Things Considered)

Hear this

This text will be replaced
Launch in player

Share this


The 20 Finalists for the 2004 National Book Awards were announced today, and for the first time in the Awards' 55-year history, all five of the fiction finalists are women. Among the other finalists are five established poets, two distinguished historians and — in a bit of a surprise — the 9/11 Commission for its final report. The winners in each of the four categories — young people's literature, nonfiction, poetry and fiction —- will be announced on November 17. Greta Cunningham from Minnesota Public Radio reports.

Read excerpts from the five fiction nominees:

Excerpt from 'Madeleine is Sleeping,' by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

hush

HUSH, MOTHER SAYS. Madeleine is sleeping. She is so beautiful when she sleeps, I do not want to wake her.

The small sisters and brothers creep about the bed, their gestures of silence becoming magnified and languorous, fingers floating to pursed lips, tip toes rising and descending as if weightless. Circling about her bed, their frantic activity slows; they are like tiny insects suspended in sap, kicking dreamily before they crystallize into amber. Together they inhale softly and the room fills with one endless exhalation of breath: Shhhhhhhhhhh.

madeleine dreams

A GROTESQUELY FAT WOMAN lives in the farthest corner of the village. Her name is Matilde. When she walks to market, she must gather up her fat just as another woman gathers up her skirts, daintily pinching it between her fingers and hooking it over her wrists. Matilde's fat moves about her gracefully, sighing and rustling with her every gesture. She walks as if enveloped by a dense storm cloud, from which the real, sylph-like Matilde is waiting to emerge, blinding as a sunbeam.

mme. cochon

ON MARKET DAY, children linger in their doorways. They hide tight, bulging fists behind their backs and underneath their aprons. When Matilde sweeps by, trailing her luxurious rolls of fat behind her, the children shower her. They fling bits of lard, the buttery residue scraped from inside a mother's churn, the gristle from Sunday dinner's lamb. The small fistfuls have grown warm and slippery from the children's kneading, and the air is rich with a comforting, slightly rancid smell.

Mme. Cochon, are you hungry? they whisper as she glides by.

Matilde thinks she hears curiosity in their voices. She smiles mildly as she continues on, dodging the dogs that have run out onto the street, snuffling at the scraps. It feels, somehow, like a parade. It feels like a celebration.

surprise

ONCE, AS MATILDE made her way through the falling fat, she was startled by a peculiar but not unpleasant throb, which originated in her left shoulder but soon travelled clockwise to the three other corners of her broad back. She wondered if the children were now hurling soup bones, and made an effort to move more swiftly, but suddenly the joyous barrage slowed to a halt. The children stood absolutely still, lips parted, yellow butter dripping onto their shoes. They stared at her with a curiosity Matilde did not recognize.

Hearing a restless fluttering behind her, she twisted about and glimpsed the frayed edges of an iridescent wing. With great caution, she flexed her meaty shoulder blades and to her delight, the wing flapped gaily in response. Matilde had, indeed, fledged two pairs of flimsy wings, the lower pair, folded sleekly about the base of her spine, serving as auxiliary to the grander ones above.

Excerpt from 'Florida,' by Christine Schutt

MOTHER

She was on her knees and rubbing her back against parts of the house and backing into corners and sliding out from under curtains, rump polishing the floor, and she was saying, "Sit with me, Alice." She was saying, "Talk to me. Be a daughter. Tell me what you've been doing." She spoke uninflectedly, as if thinking of something else—the dishes to do, drawers to line, clotted screens to clean out with a toothpick. Handles missing, silver gone, and a Walter in the next room unwilling to leave!

Bitch, bitch, bitch, the sound the broomsticks made against the floor in Mother's nettled cleaning and talking to herself, asking, "What am I doing? What does it look like I am doing?"

"You are stupid," I overheard Walter say to my mother. "You'd be better off dead."

And Walter was as smart as any professor; he was the first to admit it, saying to my mother, "Why are you so stupid?" Stupid about composers and who was playing. Stupid about motherhood and about how much money she had. Why didn't she know, why didn't she plan ahead? Why was it always up to him to think it out for her? Walter sat in the armchair and sipped at his whiskey and held out a hand no one took.

All day he sipped warm whiskey from a highball glass. He smoked cigarettes; he listened to his records on Mother's stereo—crashing, oppressive, classical sound. If Walter spoke, it was to shout for it, "Louder!" when I was thinking the music was already too loud. Enough, I was thinking, creeping nearer to the stereo myself with other ideas for music. The composer's portrait on the long-playing album cover looked, I thought, like Walter. They shared a melancholy nose and disappointed mouth, old-fashioned eyeglasses, Einstein hair.

I never saw him in the sun or on a sidewalk, never at the porch or beside the car about to open a door for Mother. I never saw Walter laughing. The brown yolks of his eyes had broken and smeared to a dog-wild and wounded gaze. He was not handsome; yet I looked long at the length of him slant in a chair with his drink.

No man Mother knows seems to work. They go away sometimes in the day and come back wrinkled. They come back to us and sit half the night half concealed by the wing chair's wings. They drink and listen to music.

"The Germans," Walter said. "Schubert."

Sometimes I found Walter crying in the chair, and once I found him in the morning on the downstairs couch in a twisted sheet with Mother.

With my father it had been different.

At the restaurant one winter afternoon, months before he died, we made a scene; we dragged the waiter into our story; we were the last to leave. I danced around the heavy black tables and the matching chairs; I spun on the barstools and watched the TV. Mother cried, and she let herself be kissed.

"We're drunk," Mother said. "We are."

"Open wide," my father was saying to her and then to me, "open wider."

One winter afternoon—an entire winter—it was my father who was taking us. Father and Mother and I, we were going to Florida—who knew for how long? I listened in at the breakfast table whenever I heard talk of sunshine. I asked questions about our living there that made them smile. We all smiled a lot at the breakfast table. We ate sectioned fruit capped with bleedy maraschinos—my favorite! The squeezed juice of the grapefruit was grainy with sugar and pulpy, sweet, pink. "Could I have more?" I asked, and my father said sure. In Florida, he said it was good health all the time. No winter coats in Florida, no boots, no chains, no salt, no plows and shovels. In the balmy state of Florida, fruit fell in the meanest yard. Sweets, nuts, saltwater taffies in seashell colors. In the Florida we were headed for the afternoon was swizzled drinks and cherries to eat, stem and all: "Here's to you, here's to me, here's to our new home!" One winter afternoon in our favorite restaurant, there was Florida in our future while I was licking at the foam on the fluted glass, biting the rind and licking sugar, waiting for what was promised: the maraschino cherry, ever-sweet every time.

Excerpt from 'Ideas of Heaven' by Joan Silber, from the story 'My Shape'

I wanted to be an actress. I was too silly and shallow to be any good at acting, but I could keep my composure onstage, which is something. I was given small parts in summer stock, the hooker or the stenographer or the cigarette girl in the nightclub scene. The summer after my first year of college, I worked in the Twin Pines Theatre. I slept with the bullying director, a fierce-browed man in his forties who had sex with a lot of us and didn't give anybody a bigger part for it. Sleeping your way to the top is a bit of a myth, in my experience.

I liked acting, at that age. You got to dwell on feelings, which were all I dwelt on then anyway, and turn them over, play them out. We had long discussions: would a child afraid of her father show the fear in public? would a man who was in love with a woman talk more loudly when she entered the room? Those who'd had real training (I was not one of them) spoke with scorn about actors who "indicated," who tried to display a response without actually feeling it. An audience could always tell. What was new to me here was the idea that insincerity was visible. I understood from this that in real life I was not getting away with as much as I thought.

But otherwise I was a little jerk. I was so hungry for glamour that I put a white streak in my brown hair, I wore short-shorts and wedge heels, I drank banana daiquiris until I threw up. I thought the director was going to find himself attracted to me again and we might have a legendary romance, although I could hardly talk to him. I didn't know anything.

Excerpt from 'The News from Paraguay,' by Lily Tuck

Paris

For him it began with a feather. A bright blue parrot feather that fell out of Ella Lynch's hat while she was horseback riding one afternoon in the Bois de Boulogne. Blond, fair-skinned and Irish, Ella was a good rider — the kind of natural rider who rides with her ass, not her legs — and she was riding astride on a nervous little gray thoroughbred mare. Cantering a few paces behind Ella and her companion, Francisco Solano Lopez was also a good rider — albeit a different sort of rider. He rode from strength, the strength in his arms, the strength in his thighs. Also he liked to ride big horses, horses that measured over sixteen, seventeen hands; at home, he often rode a big sure-footed cantankerous brown mule. Pulling up on the reins and getting off his horse, his heavy silver spurs clanging, Franco — as Francisco Solano Lopez was known — picked the feather up from the ground; it briefly occurred to him that Inocencia, his fat sister, would know what kind of parrot feather it was, for she kept hundreds of parrots in her aviary in Asuncin, but it was Ella and not the feather that had caught Franco's attention.

The year was 1854 and the forty miles of bridle paths and carriage roads were filled with elegant calches, daumonts, phaetons; every afternoon, weather permitting, Empress Eugnie could be seen driving with her equerry. Every afternoon too, Empress Eugnie, in fashion obsessed Paris, could be seen wearing a different dress, a dress of a different color: Crimean green, Sebastopol blue, Bismarck brown.The Bois de Boulogne had recently been transformed from a ruined forest into an elegant English park.

Sent as ambassador-at-large to Europe by his father, twenty-six-year old Franco was dressed in a field marshal's uniform modeled on Napoleon's, only his jacket was green — Paraguayan green. He was short, stocky — not yet grown stout nor had his back teeth begun to trouble him — and his thick eyebrows met in the middle of his forehead like a black stripe but he was not unattractive. He was self-confident, nave, ambitious, energetic, spoilt — never had anything, except once one thing, been denied him — and he was possessed of an immense fortune. Franco put the feather in his pocket and mounted his horse again. He caught up with Ella easily and followed her home.

Excerpt from 'Our Kind: A Novel in Stories,' by Kate Walbert

Chapter One: The Intervention

It was one of those utterances that sparkled — the very daring! Could you see us? Canoe shrugged, to be expected. After all, Canoe was our local recovering; it was she who left those pamphlets in the clubhouse next to the men's Nineteenth Hole.

Still, the very daring!

Intervention.

Canoe cracked her knuckles, lit a cigarette. We sat by her swimming pool absentmindedly pulling weeds from around the flagstones. The ice of our iced tea had already melted into water and it was too cold to swim, besides.

"It's obvious," Canoe said, blowing. "He's going to kill himself in less than a month. I don't want that blood on my hands."

Who would?

He was someone we loved. Someone we could not help but love. A colleague of our ex-husbands, a past encounter. We had known Him since before we were we, from our first weeks in this town, early summers. We loved His hair. Golden. The color of that movie actor's hair, the famous one. Sometimes we caught just the gleam of it through the windshield of his BMW as He drove by. Sporty. Waving. Green metallic, leather interior. Some sort of monogram on the wheel. You've seen the license plate? SOLD. A realtor, but never desperate. Yes, He sold our Mimi Klondike's Tudor on Twelve Oaks Lane with full knowledge of her rotting foundation. But desperate? No. Just thirsty.

"Intervention," Barbara repeated. Canoe flexed her toes as if she had invented the word.

This a late summer day, a fallish day. Ricardo, the pool boy, swept maple leaves from the pool water, in this light a dull, sickly yellow. We watched him; we couldn't take our eyes off. Canoe interrupted.

"Actually, I shouldn't be the one explaining. There's someone from the group who's our expert. Pips Phelp, actually."

Pips Phelp? The lawyer? Pips Phelp?

We spoke in whispers. Who knew who lived in trees?

Besides, He might drive up any minute. He often did. You'd hear the crunch of His tires on the gravel, see the flash of blond hair behind the windshield. These times you'd dry your hands on your shirtfront, check your face in the toaster. You wouldn't want to be caught, what? Alone? You let Him in. He'd ask you to. He would stand at your door, behind your screen, wondering if He could. Of course, you'd say, though you looked a mess. If you were unlucky, the dishwasher ran. One of the louder cycles. If you were lucky, all was still — the house in magical order, spotless, clean. He surveyed; this was his job. You never knew, He told you, when He might be needed.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

About Nancy Pearl

Since the release of the best-selling Book Lust in 2003 and the Librarian Action Figure modeled in her likeness, Seattle's Nancy Pearl has become famous among readers and NPR listeners alike. She is a regular commentator about books on Morning Edition and NPR affiliate stations KUOW in Seattle and KWGS in Tulsa. Her latest book is Book Crush, recommended reading for kids and teens.

'Magic for Beginners'

On the one hand, reading Magic for Beginners, Kelly Link's exquisitely loopy collection of stories, demands a certain suspension of disbelief, not unlike when you read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, or the other magical realists. (As Shakespeare had Hamlet note, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.") You simply have to accept — at least for the length of the story — that there might be zombies around, or that a purse can expand to hold a complete village. On the other hand, Link's writing is so remarkable, her use of language so mind-bogglingly perfect, that you're sucked into the world of the stories before you know it, beguiled by descriptions like this one, of a sofa covered with "an orange-juice-colored corduroy that makes it appear as if the couch has just escaped from a maximum security prison for criminally insane furniture." My favorite is the title story, which reminds me of M.C. Escher's picture The Drawing Hands. It's intricate, wildly imaginative and totally wonderful. Whether or not you think you like fantasy, if you're a fan of inventive plots and good writing (her use of language will fill you with awe), don't miss Kelly Link's collection.

'Truck: A Love Story'

In Truck: A Love Story, Michael Perry — writer, confirmed bachelor, volunteer firefighter and EMT in his small Wisconsin town — writes about his momentous 40th year. It's a time when he restores his 1951 International Harvester pickup truck to working order and falls in love, for real. It's hard for me to think of anyone who wouldn't enjoy this heartfelt and humorous tale, filled as it is with accounts of gardening (Perry's description of reading seed catalogs almost made me get up from the chair where I was reading and rush out to the hardware store to buy a hoe), book tours, deer hunting, recipes, country music, Roland Barthes and wedding planning. Perry's narrative voice — smooth and low-key — invites readers along for what turns out to be a most pleasurable ride.

'The True Account'

Howard Frank Mosher's The True Account: A Novel of the Lewis & Clark & Kinneson Expeditions tells the story of a Vermont ex-soldier named True Teague Kinneson and his nephew, Ticonderoga, who race Lewis and Clark to the Pacific. Ticonderoga narrates their adventures — which include a run-in with Daniel Boone (who believes that True has jilted his red-headed, 6-foot-2-inch daughter, Flame Danielle), a historic baseball game with the Nez Perce Indians, frequent death-defying escapes, and periodic encounters with the more famous pair of explorers (who often need to be rescued by means of True's ingenuity). Ticonderoga's descriptions of his uncle and their adventures across the Louisiana Purchase territory to the west are related with a straight face but will leave the reader with anything but. True — a philosopher, inventor, classicist and Ticonderoga's much-loved teacher — dresses in chain mail, sports an Elizabethan codpiece, and wears a cap festooned with bells to cover the copper plate that protects the top of his head from further injury (he fell while he was celebrating with Ethan Allan after the victory at Fort Ticonderoga during the Revolutionary War). He clashes constantly with the devil (whom he calls the Gentleman from Vermont), and carries his hemp habit across the continent, generously sharing his stash with all and sundry. Don't miss this gem.

'Confessions of a Teen Sleuth'

I can't remember when I've laughed aloud so frequently during the reading of a book as I did with Chelsea Cain's Confessions of a Teen Sleuth. This is a wonderful send-up of the Nancy Drew novels. The parody is framed by the premise that Carolyn Keene (the pseudonym under which the Nancy Drew series was written) was actually Nancy Drew's roommate for a short time at Bryn Mawr, and basically stole Nancy's life from her out of jealousy, retelling all of her detecting adventures through a somewhat skewed lens. Here, the real Nancy Drew redresses the balance in a manuscript that she had sent to writer Chelsea Cain after her death. We learn of Nancy's involvement with Frank Hardy (who, you will hardly need to be told, is the hero, along with his brother Joe, of another series of detective novels for kids). We also learn of her challenging marriage to Ned Nickerson and the birth of her beloved son, and the fate of Nancy's mother (and Nancy's iffy relationship to her father's second wife). The fates of George Fayne and Bess Marvin, Nancy's two best chums, play out as well, and so much more. Cain's love of the Nancy Drew books and her ability to draw out and twist every ridiculous morsel from the originals combine to make for an hour or two of tremendously entertaining reading.

'Kings of Infinite Space'

Maybe the best way to describe Kings of Infinite Space by James Hynes is to imagine Stephen King writing satirical fiction. The life of the main character, Paul Trilby, has never been the same after he drowned his wife's cat, Charlotte, in the couple's bathtub. Charlotte now haunts every move that Paul makes, foiling any opportunity for happiness. Paul finally ends up as a temporary technical writer at TxDoGS, a government office in what seems to be Austin, Texas, where a series of encounters with his weird co-workers (not to mention the unnoticed-by-anyone-else dead body in the next cubicle) forces him to choose between a life of ease at TxDoGS and an honorable but probably unsuccessful future. It's a question worthy of Faust. Without giving away too much of the plot (except to say that it includes human sacrifice and zombies), it's best to just say that the cat, Charlotte, who's bent on revenge, continues to run Paul's life.

'The House on Boulevard St.'

It's probably safe to say that most books of poetry can be considered to exist under the radar. What makes it worse is that there are poets out there, like David Kirby, whose work will delight many readers, if only they will pick up the books and begin reading. Kirby's newest collection, The House on Boulevard St., includes new poems as well as poems selected from his earlier collections. Kirby writes what I call "kitchen-sink poetry." He's not a formalist or a lyricist, or any other "ist" or "ism" by which we label writers. He has a conversational, more or less stream of consciousness approach to his subjects (which are wacky in their own right). The poems, filled with specific details, invite readers into often complicated and convoluted stories, and you can never predict from the opening lines just where the poem is going to end up. They're filled with humor, but they're not light verse. For anyone who feels baffled and/or put off by poetry, Kirby's the man to change your mind. You might want to start with these poems: "The Search for Baby Combover," "The Exorcist of Notre Dame" and "The Elephant of the Sea," which begins:   Because I make the big bucks fooling around
with words, in France sometimes I like to say
"Sylvia Plath" instead of "s'il vous plait,"
as when I open the door for Barbara and say,
"Apres-vous, Sylvia Plath!" But yesterday
the lady in the boulangerie asked me what I wanted,
And I said, "Une baguette, Sylvia Plath! Crap..."

'Our Kind'

Kate Walbert's hauntingly beautiful Our Kind: A Novel in Stories is written in seductively oblique prose. It describes the lives of a group of upper-class women who married in the early 1950s, raised children, divorced in the 1970s, and are now soldiering their way through the illness, regrets, persistent sorrows and indignities of growing old. The group includes the artistic one, the recovering alcoholic, the one whose daughter killed herself, and more. Narrated by these women collectively ("Years ago we were led down the primrose lane, then abandoned somewhere near the carp pond"), the stories of their current lives include an intervention with the local Realtor, trying to save the geese at the Country Club, calling old lovers on the phone — and my favorite, a priceless chapter called "Sick Chicks," which describes a book discussion group that meets in a local hospice (at this meeting, they're talking about Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway).

The Nominees

Fiction Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Madeleine is Sleeping; Christine Schutt, Florida; Joan Silber, Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories; Lily Tuck, The News from Paraguay; and Kate Walbert, Our Kind: A Novel in Stories. Non-Fiction Kevin Boyle, Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age; David Hackett Fischer, Washington's Crossing; Jennifer Gonnerman, Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett; Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare; and The 9/11 Commission, The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States-Authorized Edition. Poetry William Heyen, Shoah Train; Donald Justice, Collected Poems; Carl Phillips, The Rest of Love; Cole Swensen, Goest; and Jean Valentine, Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems, 1965-2003. Young People's Literature Deb Caletti, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart; Pete Hautman, Godless; Laban Carrick Hill, Harlem Stomp!: A Cultural History of the Harlem Renaissance; Shelia P. Moses, The Legend of Buddy Bush; and Julie Anne Peters, Luna: A Novel.

Missing some content? Check the source: NPR
Copyright(c) 2014, NPR

Visitor comments

on:

NCPR is supported by:

This is a Visitor-Supported website.