Sunday, August 9, 2009

Best of the Backlist 5 - 8

It occurs to me that all the books I've chosen for the "Best of the Backlist" feature so far have been written by women, even though it's a cinch that I've read many more books written by men. Until today's posting I hadn't even noticed the apparent gender bias. Which is the way it should be -- a good book is a good book regardless of the author's sex. And every good book, strong and true, will blow a hole in any overarching theory about the role of gender in creating literary works of lasting value. Not that the speculation is without its entertainment value.

I wish we could jettison the gender typecasting of readers too. Too often in publishers' halls you hear that a certain book is a "boy book" or a "girl book." This may be the case with those genre titles targeted to a specific audience that are shipped as monthly fodder for Wal-Mart's jobber racks, but it is silly when applied to books written with something other in mind than simple entertainment. Especially these days, when it seems most men would rather be doing anything than reading a novel.

In any case, these are all books that I've read and enjoyed tremendously, and would certainly find a place in my ideal bookshop.

Nowhere Else on Earth by Josephine Humphreys. Three years after Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain was published to wide acclaim, Viking published this historical novel of the Civil War, also set in North Carolina. It likely suffered because of the enormous popular success of that earlier book. Too bad. Josephine Humphreys has taken a real life woman -- half-breed Rhoda Strong -- and fashioned a brilliant first-person narrative that can bear comparison to the best of Faulkner or Welty. Yet her hand is so sure, and her prose so limpid, that the novel lives and breathes quite on its own. A love story shedding light on racial identity and community, Nowhere Else On Earth is also a war story that disturbs our fixed ideas about so-called redeeming violence. I've read all four of Humphreys' novels -- her greatest success was the winsome Rich in Love -- amazed at her uncanny ability to stay true to the inner lives of her characters. I keep waiting for a fifth book.

Carried Away by Alice Munro. Chris is a friend of mine who many years ago ran a bookstore in Boston. Back then, his favorite author was Alice Munro. Probably still is. Her collection The Progress of Love had just been published and he exhorted me to read it. I did and became, like so many others, a devoted fan. Carried Away contains seventeen stories, spanning a quarter of a century, including two of the best from The Progress of Love, the equivalent of a greatest hits album. Out of a finely woven prose made to convey all manner of thought and feeling, Munro has created a living world, one that will endure as long as people read English. It's unfortunate that she has gotten so much loud praise -- "our Chekhov" and "one of our greatest living writers" -- because it makes her seem like a monument, and perhaps a bore. Nothing could be further from the truth -- she's simply a supremely gifted writer whose stories have universal appeal.

Fire in the Lake by Frances Fitzgerald. The short shelf of essential books about Viet Nam includes The Best and the Brightest, Dispatches, The Things They Carried, A Bright, Shining Lie, and this engrossing history by Frances Fitzgerald. Unlike the other titles, Fitzgerald's book focuses on how the cultural differences between Viet Nam and the United States, and our willful ignorance of those differences, played such a crucial role in the conduct (and length) of the war. She is terrific on assembling evidence of set attitudes and false assumptions on both sides without ever resorting to cliché. Her prose is clear and her conclusions just. How sad that, years later, a similar cultural ignorance and arrogance has cursed our involvement in the Middle East.

Liar's Club by Mary Karr. I was at Penguin back in 1995 when we published this wildly entertaining book. Mary Karr was an intelligent, dirty-talkin', sexy, sparkling, and keenly self-aware poet who taught at Syracuse. She came to one of our sales conferences and blew the lid off the joint. Here was East Texas with a vengeance, the crap, the stunted lives, the angry love and plain old strangeness, all retold in an unforgettable voice filled with savage humor and sass to spare. One of the few books that can be said to have helped bring a genre into being -- the personal memoir. The fact that so many empty, hackneyed books have been published into that genre in the years following does not diminish Liar's Club one bit. If anything, its rowdy brilliance dazzles even more now, in this age of drab prose.

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