Harper Lee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of To Kill a Mockingbird, has died at the age of 89 in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. Born on April 28, 1926, Lee was educated in Alabama and at one time thought about becoming a lawyer, but moved to New York in 1949 to pursue her dream of becoming a writer.
It took nine years, but finally Lee’s manuscript was accepted and the book was published on July 11, 1960. Set in a small Southern town, Lee’s masterpiece tackles racial injustice and was met with critical acclaim and commercial success. The film adaptation starring Mary Badham as Scout and Gregory Peck as Atticus was equally sensational and only added to Harper Lee’s literary fame and expectations for her next novel. For decades, though, it appeared that Lee would never publish another book. That all changed in 2015 when a manuscript was mysteriously uncovered and Go Set a Watchman, the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, was the book of last summer.
Harper Lee suffered a stroke in 2007, recovered and resumed life in her beloved hometown which served as the model for the small town in To Kill a Mockingbird. In fact, when asked by a radio interviewer about her small corner of the world, Lee said, “I would simply like to put down all I know about this because I believe that there is something universal in this little world, something decent to be said for it and something to lament in its passing.” She continued, “In other words, all I want to be is the Jane Austen of South Alabama.”
If you’re a fan of the whimsical highbrow movies of filmmaker Wes Anderson, you’ll love The Portable Veblen, the new novel by Elizabeth McKenzie. It’s a compelling modern-day love story set in Palo Alto, California, with an appealing quirky cast of characters, including a persistent and possibly symbolic squirrel.
Paul and Veblen are engaged, but will the marriage ever happen? They come from such different worlds. Named after the economist Thorstein Veblen, who coined the term “conspicuous consumption,” Veblen does administrative work at a hospital. In her free time she dabbles in translating documents from Norwegian and studies the teachings of her namesake’s work. How can she possibly be comfortable wearing the ostentatious diamond engagement ring Paul was so proud to give her?
She lives modestly in a rented bungalow she lovingly restored from a dilapidated condition. Veblen is quite fond of the squirrel who has taken up residence in the attic, a point of contention between herself and her beloved, who has a goal of eliminating the rodent. Veblen sees the squirrel as a new friend who wants to tell her something. Paul embraces her many personality quirks, finding her endearing. But it seems as if he doesn’t really know her (it’s been a whirlwind courtship) and meeting her domineering, hypochondriac mother and enabling stepfather might be the thing that tears them apart.
Raised on a commune by hippie parents, Paul revels in his new money and status as a neurosurgeon. He wants to distance himself from his odd upbringing, especially his mentally disabled brother Justin, who gets all of the family’s attention. He’s most excited by the device he’s pioneering, the Pneumatic Turbo Skull Punch, intended to help treat head trauma on the battlefield. But Paul has fallen in with the ruthless head of a major medical and pharmaceutical company that has its own plans for Paul’s invention.
The Portable Veblen is a storybook for adults. The over-the-top characters are all memorable, and author McKenzie sets up scenes that reveal as much about Paul and Veblen’s individual pasts as they hint about their future together. So much literature these days weighs the reader down with heavy plot lines and depressing circumstances, and although The Portable Veblen trades in dysfunctional families and relationships, it soars as a comic satire. This a book I looked forward to picking up and falling into, and now I’m sorry to leave Paul and Veblen behind.
In the small Kentucky town where the miner’s son grew up to be a miner and the bootlegger’s son grew up to be a bootlegger, no one was surprised when the writer’s son grew up to be a writer in Chris Offutt’s new memoir My Father, the Pornographer.
Imagine that your father dies and you, as the eldest son, are tasked with the responsibility of cleaning out his office. Now imagine discovering that your father, who passed himself off as a science fiction writer, also wrote hundreds of pornographic novels. After clearing out decades’ worth of garbage and searching the vents for hidden treasure that turns out to be nothing more than his father’s last practical joke, Offutt quickly realizes that his father’s writing career wasn’t merely supplemented by pornography — it was the bulk of it. In an attempt to understand his deceased father’s perverse obsessions, he packs and transports nearly two tons of his father’s work from his childhood home to his current residence in Mississippi.
But more than just a story of Andrew Offutt’s career as a pornographer, this is also the tale of Chris Offutt’s childhood and a meditation on his contentious relationship with his father. As Offutt acts as archeologist, reconstructing his father’s career and life, he realizes just how much they have in common. Offutt is struck by his father’s unique writing method: He kept a catalog of descriptions filed under various (frequently vulgar) categories and when writing a novel he plugged the passages in where needed. When the younger Offutt considered joining the military, he prepared for basic training by filling a notebook with amusing anecdotes pilfered from Reader’s Digest’s “Humor in Uniform,” divided into specific categories, that he could pass off as his own experiences in letters he wrote to his family back home. Although he himself is not a purveyor of pornography, Offutt is dismayed at the similarities he finds. He isn’t sure what he hopes to learn from immersing himself in his father’s “private and unfiltered fantasies,” but the deeper he digs, the harder it is to walk away.
For another memoir about the father/son relationship, check out Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.
From its curious inception as an emulation of American postwar Ivy League attire to its evolution into countless worldwide labels, Japanese menswear has pioneered the world’s most popular looks of leisure. W. David Marx’s Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style is a fantastic look at the history of men’s fashion in Japan.
According to Marx, the concept of fashion was never prevalent in male life in Japan before World War II. Caring about one’s appearance was viewed as effeminate; instead, men dressed in functional, traditional raiment. After the bombs fell and the war ended, many people were forced to make their own clothes out of leftover military surplus like parachutes and fatigues. It wasn’t until the imminent arrival of the 1964 Olympics that men began to ponder their looks and shirked survivor chic.
Marx traces the origins of some of Japan’s earliest men’s fashions back to a couple of standout individuals who would all live on to create, control and influence the country’s leisure fashion industry throughout the second half of the 20th century. It began with the “ivy” look, Japan’s best attempt at manufacturing clothing reflective of what students at northeast American colleges were wearing. In the late 1960s, Ivy relaxed into the “heavy duty” look, which brought denim jeans to Japan and elevated American outfitter companies like L.L. Bean to cult status. Fueled by a bubble in the economy, fashion hotspot Harajuku popped up overnight and exploded into Japan’s most frenetic fashion district, housing imports and original brands men couldn’t buy quickly enough.
Over time, Japan’s fashion endeavors evolved from emulation into innovation, leading to greater exports and global brand presences. The story is incredibly interesting, and Marx’s research and presentation are as impeccable as his style. Readers who enjoy microhistories or are into lifestyle reading will find Ametora to be irresistible.
Adrenaline and boredom are a risky combination in Matt Marinovich’s twisty new thriller The Winter Girl. Set in the windswept, wintry landscape of the Hamptons, a young couple with a troubled marriage faces the consequences of a disturbing obsession that leads to a horrific discovery. As with most dark psychological tales, ugly family secrets are difficult to keep buried. Are people ever who you think they are?
Relocated Brooklynites Elise and Scott have come to stay at the beach house of Elise’s dying father, Victor. While Elise heads to the hospital every day, Scott wanders around taking photographs and soon becomes preoccupied with the vacant house next door. It appears to have its lights on a timer, but why? Eventually Scott can’t help himself and breaks in. He later convinces his wife to join him in what starts out as an innocent prank that adds a spark to their tiresome marriage. What happens next leads to a series of poor decisions and wrenching revelations that sends the couple on a scathing downward spiral.
Marinovich, who has worked as an editor for several magazines, admitted once in an interview that “writing dark is a thrill for me.” The Winter Girl is his second novel. Readers will no doubt find plenty to react to in the moral deficits of the author’s characters. Told through Scott’s voice, this fast-paced slender story of just over 200 pages will be hard to put down because you will be wanting more. Fans of Gone Girl type thrillers or Herman Koch’s The Dinner will nonetheless enjoy this peek into the dark side of the human psyche.
Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air is a publishing phenomenon. Released mid-January, it debuted at number one on The New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list, where it remains. This poetic memoir of life and impending death has the feel of an important book, one that will be read and talked about for years to come. It shines a light on what it means to be human.
Kalanithi was about to complete his residency in neurosurgery at Stanford, when he began experiencing crippling back pain and weight loss. Initial X-rays looked fine, but the possibility of cancer was always in his mind. He chalked up his symptoms to long, grueling days in the operating room and his aging 36-year-old body. He admitted that while he was an authoritative surgeon, he was a meek patient.
Weeks later, when fierce chest pains began, he was forced to confront what he knew all along. A CT scan and subsequent tests revealed stage IV lung cancer. When Breath Becomes Air is a beautiful examination of a life cut short, a memoir rich in introspection and unsparing in emotion. When his health problems began, Kalanithi was under a tremendous amount of stress. The completion of his residency was all-consuming. His wife Lucy, an internist herself, had some doubts about their marriage and was planning some “alone time.” His diagnosis proved a game-changer.
Not only did his wife stay, but the couple decided to accelerate their plans to have a baby, continuing the circle of life. Kalanithi shared his most intimate hopes and fears with readers, as he witnessed his daughter’s birth from his own fragile, uncertain state of health.
He underwent various treatments, soldiering forward not knowing how much time he had remaining. He continued to work on the manuscript that became this book, all the while buoyed by faith and his large family. When he died in March 2015, Lucy completed the book, adding an epilogue of her own to fill in her husband’s last weeks. This section is both wrenching and cathartic for anyone who has sat with a loved one during their final hours. Kalanathi’s dying wish was to leave behind a legacy in print. A true polymath, Kalanithi held both a BA and MA in English literature; he was also a student of philosophy. All of this informs his writing. When Breath Becomes Air ensures he will live on, remembered not only for his story, but for his eloquent words.
Do you love a can’t-put-down thriller filled with lies, secrets and schemes galore? Yes? Then get your hands on a copy of Nicholas Searle’s The Good Liar. Clever, engrossing and shocking is this tale of an octogenarian lifelong liar working on his last con. A page-turner that will haunt your thoughts long after you read the last word.
We meet Roy as he is preparing to embark on his last con. His mark is Betty, a sweet, trusting widow with a sizeable nest egg. They meet via online dating, arranged by Roy and the con is set in motion. Gain her trust. Move in with her. Have her “invest” with him in a phony high-yielding venture, leaving him with her investment. Easy, right? After all, Roy has been doing this his entire life. But what made Roy a good liar? Working backwards from adulthood to childhood, Searle brilliantly doles out details of Roy’s life, continually building suspense. You will devour each page, wanting to know Roy’s innermost secrets. But you will also need to know if Roy gets his mark. And what happens to Betty? The twists will shock and awe you!
Fans of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley and James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice will enjoy Searle’s debut offering. The Good Liar also makes for an exceptional book club selection. Multidimensional characters, surprising twists and a good versus evil theme will definitely spark lively discussions. In fact, I was desperate to discuss this book with someone. So grab two copies of The Good Liar today, one for you and one for a friend, and get ready to be entertained and shocked! No lie!
If you like your homicides with a side of vegan cupcakes and old school mix tapes, Libby Cudmore’s The Big Rewind is just the book for you. Set in a perfectly realized Brooklyn neighborhood populated by artists, musicians and other assorted hipsters, this debut novel offers an eclectic mix of mystery, love, social commentary and angst.
While attempting to deliver mail to her neighbor KitKat, Jett finds her dead on the kitchen floor, beaten to death with her own rolling pin. When KitKat’s innocent boyfriend Bronco is arrested for the crime, Jett vows to find the true killer. She believes the answer to the killer’s identity is contained within a mix tape that had been sent to KitKat anonymously — it sounds an awful lot like a breakup letter, from someone who was NOT Bronco. While immersing herself in KitKat’s love life, nostalgia takes hold and Jett begins reconnecting with ex-boyfriends who had loved her, deceived her and left her.
If Jett continues to follow the trail, will she find KitKat’s killer? And will she find her own romance worthy of mix tape exaltation?
Readers who enjoy this music-laden murder mystery may also like Simmone Howell’s Girl Defective. For a similar romantic plotline without the bloodshed, try Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. If you’re interested in a real life romance that ends in tragedy, check out Rob Sheffield’s memoir Love Is a Mix Tape.
Some books take a little while to get going, but that’s not the case with the Ruth Wariner’s memoir The Sound of Gravel. It’s hard to stop reading after the first stunning sentence: “I am my mother’s fourth child and my father’s thirty-ninth.” Wariner grew up in what was supposed to be a utopian Mormon colony, founded by her grandfather. The rural farming community Colonia LeBaron was established in Mexico as a haven for those who believed in Joseph Smith’s original teachings — including polygamy.
Wariner never knew her father, once the prophet of the community. He was murdered by a member of a rival church — headed by his own brother — when she was just three months old. Her mother Kathy’s remarriage as the second wife to a colony member three years later defined her chaotic, hard-scrabble childhood. Short-tempered and selfish, Lane showed little fatherly attention to his stepchildren and children, eventually becoming predatory. He was a poor provider despite his strong work ethic, housing Kathy and her children in a rodent-infested, two-bedroom house with one unfinished bathroom, an outhouse for the meanwhile, and no electricity.
Wariner’s unique coming-of-age story is marked by poverty as much as it is by belonging to a religious cult. While Lane worked on their farm, it was up to Kathy to travel with the kids by bus to pick up government assistance checks over the border in El Paso like other colony wives as part of a complex, necessary scam.
Complicating life was a “difficult” older sister who was prone to fits of violence, a developmentally delayed older brother and a constant stream of new half-siblings to help take care of. Although her mother was loving and devoted, she always chose her husband over her children when it came time to take sides, defending Lane time and again for repeated abuses.
The Sound of Gravel is as engrossing as it is horrific. Wariner’s honest, revealing prose transports the reader to a world few would choose to visit, let alone live in. Wariner’s grit and rejection of a god that would will such horrible things gave her the strength to leave the community at the age of 15. Readers who enjoyed Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle or Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club will want to pick up The Sound of Gravel.