The Art Student’s War

I am so thrilled that this week’s New York Time’s Book Review features Brad Leithauser’s The Art Studen’t War, a coming-of-age story set in 1940’s Detroit. This wonderfully poetic novel, the sixth for the Detroit native, is a nostalgic work seen through the eyes of the young, bewitching art student Bianca Paradiso.

In his NYT’s review When Detroit Never Slept, Dean Bakopoulos calls The Art Student’s War “…one of the finest novels about Detroit’s history to come along in years,” and states, “Leithauser is adept at writing about Detroit, and even more adept at writing about it from a young painter’s point of view.”

Regardless of reviews, I can vouch for Mr. Leithauser’s love for the city. When I contacted him for a possible review copy of the book, he did not hesitate and further encouraged by noting that “surely the stories of this amazing and maddening city must be set down…”

Brad Leithauser will be making the following appearances in the Detroit metro area:

-December 7th at Borders in Ann Arbor for a reading and signing at 7:00PM

-December 8th at Borders in Birmingham for a reading and signing at 7:00PM

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Book Trailer Trash

Over the past few months, more and more book trailer links appear as I surf for information on newly released books. Of course I have heard of movie trailers, but what exactly is a book trailer and what purpose could it possibly serve for written material?

At base, a book trailer is a video advertisement used to promote a piece of written work. Circle of Seven Productions created and trademarked the book trailer market back in 2002 in hopes of bringing in new readers and ramping up the publishing industry. Since then it seems that the book trailer has taken on a life of its own, including several different awards honoring its niche. For example, take a look at this year’s winner of Australia’s 2009 Book Video Awards or the finalists for the Kirkus Reviews’09 Book Video Awards as a sampler.

The issue I take with the book trailer is that reading is one of the few remaining arts left open to complete individual interpretation. When you read a book cover, what plays out is based solely on independent imagination; a luxury in our visually force-fed society. As your brain ignites, it conjures up mental images based on personal perception, ultimately deciding whether you will or won’t read a particular work. Once someone projects those images for you, they are hard to shake.

I’m obviously all for promoting literature, but it seems to me that the benefit of the trailer lies within the production/video industry rather than that of the book. Despite my opinion, most of the big houses in the publishing industry appear to be jumping on board. Desperate times call for desperate measures and I suppose any outlet for pushing books is a good one these days. Personally, I can do without them and will continue to rely on solid reviews and literary intuition… all in the comfort of my own mind.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Definition of Book Trailer

Happy Happy Day

Because I haven’t had much time to post this week, I thought I would at least link you to a few random, yet  interesting articles pertaining to Thanksgiving and the Holiday Season…

This Thanksgiving, I am ever so glad that I am NOT Precious Jones, the main character in the novel PUSH by Sapphire. As I approach the end of this I-don’t-even-know-what-to-say story, I will certainly remember how lucky I am…much more on this book to follow next week.

That’s right, forget the pathetic $9.99 book battles and set down your tawdry e-readers. Check out NPR’s piece Big and Beautiful: Best Gift Books of 2009 and breathe a sigh of relief that publishers are still putting out deliciously aesthetic books.

If you’re all about the food, take a look at this ranking of The 11 Best Cookbooks Of 2009.

Tim Whitney, author of Thanksgiving at the Inn breaks through the young-adult vampire/werewolf genre with this clean coming-of-age story about “gratitude and redemption”. Try the Portland Press Herald’s interview Giving Thanks to find out more about Whitney and the book.

Diane Rehm’s Readers’ Review aired a discussion about latest pick The Ghost at the Table. A fitting choice for Thanksgiving, this novel centers on the family gathering and “…explores the ways we project our visions of the perfect holiday on each other.”

The November 23, 2009 copy of The New Yorker is full of flavorful articles in honor of Thanksgiving. Try these improvisations by authors you know:

Rice by Jhumpa Lahiri

Eggs by Anthony Lane

-Post by Megan Shaffer

*Cartoon from The Far Side series by Gary Larson

Mennonites and Potheads?

A few months ago, I read a hilarious essay in the The New York Times titled The Tractor Driver or the Pothead? I flagged it, passed it on to a few friends, and eventually forgot about it. When I found out the new memoir Mennonite in a Little Black Dress had Michigan roots, I immediately pursued a copy and realized upon its arrival that author (and Hope College professor) Rhoda Janzen was the very same author who had penned the aforementioned Pothead essay. Smiling, I knew I was in for an entertaining ride.

If you google reviews of  Mennonite in a Little Black Dress what you will find are words like hilarious, laugh out loud, funny, sparkling…and all of these are spot on. However, Janzen tempers the hilarity with her somber return home to her Mennonite roots in hopes of healing her broken body and spirit.

We all have friends whose lives are so full of rich material we beg them to write a book, and in this case Ms. Janzen does just that. After her husband splits for a man he met on and she suffers a horrid car accident, Janzen heads home to the land of bad food, clothes, and hairdos to try to piece together her damaged life.

The return home for an adult can be a daunting journey, particularly when you have decidedly moved beyond the strict moral codes of your Mennonite faith, yet Janzen finds herself appreciating the very things she once despised as a child. Through her  experienced eyes, she is able to see the beauty in her Mennonite community and take refuge in its straightforward tenets and simplistic approach…while laughing all the way.

Though the rapid wit is a bit frantic at times, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress compensates with deep passages and touching tributes to her wonderfully endearing mother and Janzen’s tight circle of friends. Once you tone down the humor and up the sensitivity controls, you will find an honest account of mistakes made and the largesse of forgiveness. Beneath the laughter of Mennonite lie some heavy-duty philosophical questions as Janzen takes a look at her life and this period of tough transition:

I sometimes ask my college students if they think it’s possible for a thirty-plus adult to experience saltatory ideological change. I tell them that I’m not talking about the kind of gradual mellowing that results from age. Nor do I mean the kind of abrupt character fissure that opens in the wake of trauma or suffering. Rather, I want to know what they think about the possibility of a profound, lasting change that emerges from an act of deliberated, conscious self-determination. I want to know if they think we can change our core assumptions about what we believe. About how we believe.

Though such passages give pause, overall Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is terribly intelligent and damn funny. Added bonus: If you know nothing of the Mennonite community, this is the perfect “Menno 101” crash course that only the talented professor Rhoda Janzen can provide.

-Review by Megan Shaffer

Sunday Lovely Sunday

A Weekly Post By Megan Shaffer

November 22-29, 2009

Of Note

Travelin’ Man: On the Road and Behind the Scenes With Bob Seger is a photo-driven look at the career of Bob Seger. Making appearances throughout Michigan are authors Tom Weschler and Gary Graff. They will be at the Birmingham Borders this coming Friday at 7:00pm. Books are available for purchase at the store.

Of National Interest

– “I think I was drawn to medicine with a strong sense of medicine being a romantic pursuit, a calling. I still really am very much in love with medicine, and I love what I do. And I often think the writing emanates from that stance of being a physician. And I worry that I would become mute if I ever left medicine and tried to write.” This quote from Abraham Verghese is from Story Specialists: Doctors Who Write and not that surprising given his eloquence in Cutting For Stone, his beautiful first novel which was published this year.

-I am interested in Zadie Smith but not so much in reading essays. In her new book Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, Smith reportedly flexes her considerable literary muscle perhaps offering me a new look at the art of the essay. For NPR’s take, try the piece and excerpt Brave, Brainy, Changeable – Zadie Smith Revealed. (loved her book On Beauty but couldn’t do White Teeth)

-Can’t get that publisher to put your book out? Try this article from UTNE Reader to do it on your own: How to Make Your Own Book in 3,000 Simple Steps.

-More coverage of Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book appears in The New York Time’s Book Review today. Check out this essay Mau-Mauing the Flesh Eaters as the book world tackles the vegetarian dilemma.

Local Voice

-Though our National Book Award nominees didn’t take top prize, both authors continue to enhance the literary vibe of Michigan with their talent and continual contributions. For more on Bonnie Jo Campbell and David Small check out this article by the Kalamazoo Gazette Editorial Board.

-I happened across this book by Luke Bergman titled Getting Ghost:  Two Young Lives and the Struggle for the Soul of an American City. That city, of course, is our beloved Detroit and I am quite interested in the book. For more try this article Drugs and the City by Jennifer Guerra for Michigan Radio.

– Book Beat will present National Book Award winning author Gloria Whelan today, Sunday the 22nd from 2-3:30. Whelan has written over forty children’s chapter and picture books since her first title in 1978, according to Book Beat’s site.

-On Friday at 7:00, Borders in Birmingham will present “Travelin’ Man: On the Road and Behind the Scenes with Bob Seger” by Tom Weschler and Gary Graff. This book offers a photo-driven insider’s look at Bob Seger’s career from the beginning.

Bestseller Lists

New York Times

Publishers Weekly

Indie Bestsellers

Await Your Reply

Cover ImageWhen Laura Kasischke took questions after her reading of In a Perfect World a few weeks ago, I asked her what she was currently reading and her response was Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply. I hadn’t heard of either the book or the author but once mentioned, the title seemed to keep popping up.

Await Your Reply is unlike anything I have read before and I’m having a hard time categorizing it. I suppose overall it is a psychological thriller, but it carries a literary depth which provides an eeriness that prevents the reader from settling into the book. You might call it “goth literature”.

Opening with an unsettling middle-of-the-night drive down a deserted northern Michigan road, we are quickly introduced to the character of Ryan Schuyler, the first of three who will provide the legs of the story. Quickly following are the intros to recent high school graduate Lucy Lattimore and the crucial character of Miles Cheshire. It is the action and dialogue of Miles that propels the story as we follow him on his cross-country search for his elusive twin brother Hayden who has been missing for ten years.

Unpredictability is but one of Chaon’s strategies that really worked for me, and as the three characters evolved I had no clue  as to how they would ultimately connect. Though I’m not a huge mystery reader, I can usually piece enough together to make a solid guess. Not so in Await Your Reply. Shrouded in mystique, its dark apocalyptic feel left me uncertain at each and every subtle turn permanently lodging an unnerving flutter in my gut. The visuals really are that strong.

What I want to tell you is that Chaon’s book is just plain creepy and loads of fun, but this is not a superficial piece of work. And while it is certainly entertaining, the deeper hook at its core poses some serious questions of humanity as we consider dehumanization in the age of technological advancement. In the fluid world of identity theft, we are left wondering if people are really who we think they are?

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Let the Great World Spin

The National Book Foundation announced the winners of the prestigious National Book Award at a celebration in New York last night. The winners of the evening include the following:

Young People’s Literature:  Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose

Poetry:  Transcendental Studies:  A Trilogy by Keith Waldrop

Nonfiction:  The First Tycoon:  The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T.J. Stiles

Fiction:  Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Best of 60 years of National Book Award winners:  The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor (decided by vote on the web from over 10,000 responses)

For related articles and details, try these links:

The Huffington Post

Publishers Weekly

The New York Times

Detroit News

And for the lit junkies, coverage of the ceremony will be aired this Saturday at 8:00pm EST and Sunday at 10am EST on Book TV on C-SPAN .

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Cutting for Stone Over Sarah’s Key

There are a few books that I’ve recently finished which are listed below with my brief review attached.  They are all newer titles that currently sit on or very near the latest best seller lists. Friends will often ask me if I have read a particular title, or for the suggestion of a solid personal or book club read. Because it takes a lot of time and thought to do a detailed review of each book, I am posting these “quickies” for your reference and perusal.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

This is such a beautiful book by Verghese. Following his two non-fiction works (My Own Country and The Tennis Partner) Cutting for Stone follows the life of twins Marion Stone and his brother Shiva as their lives wind down different paths amidst the political and domestic unrest in Addis Ababa. Cutting for Stone is an epic journey of the soul and Verghese’s characters attest to the innate longing and necessity of ties to family and homeland.

A current professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine and holding an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop places Verghese in the two perfect professions to translate life into fiction. Though Cutting for Stone is graphic at times, Verghese’s medical knowledge brings clarity and precision to this broad work.

*I loved this book as a personal read. It is quite long and detailed at times but will keep your individual interest as small surprises and secrets constantly reveal. I would not choose this as a book club read only for the simple fact that some will no doubt say it is too long. With a slight potential for sag in the middle, you will have people drop out at the half- way mark.

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

Very rarely do I not finish a book but unfortunately Sarah’s Key will fall into this category. A good story doesn’t always make a good book and this is one of those examples. I had such high hopes for this one and actually bought it to read in France (the setting of the book) but didn’t make it past the first few chapters. Entangling two stories from both current and historical perspectives, I found the modern angle so trite and cliche that I can’t find a reason to recommend Sarah’s Key for any reason other than the exposure to the mass violence of the Velodrome d’hiver Round-up, an actual gut-wrenching event that did in fact take place in Paris in 1942.

* I can’t suggest this book as a personal read. After hearing wonderful things I plugged on but just couldn’t take it anymore. That said, it is rocking the book club world so there is no doubt a mass appeal for this title. It’s merit must lie in the historical event rather than its literary value.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Go Bonnie Jo!

Go Bonnie Jo! Check out this Detroit Free Press article on Kalamazoo resident Bonnie Jo Campbell who is up for the prestigious National Book Award. If Ms. Campbell wins the award on Wednesday for American Salvage, she will also be carrying the prize for Wayne State University Press as the only small-press publication to be named a National Book Award finalist this year. For more information on the National Book Awards and the Michigan connection, please read my post Michigan Represents at National Book Awards.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Michigan Represents at National Book Awards

On Wednesday the National Book Foundation will announce the 2009 winners of the National Book Award at a celebration in New York. According to the site, “The mission of the National Book Foundation and the National Book Awards is to celebrate the best of American literature, to expand its audience, and to enhance the cultural value of good writing in America.”

With an impressive showing, two Michigan authors will be on hand this year to “represent” with Bonnie Jo Campbell’s short story collection American Salvage and graphic artist and novelist David Small’s Stitches. Both were shortlisted for this year’s award. Making the nonfiction list and also pertaining to our fine state is author Greg Grandin’s Fordlandia, the fascinating account of Henry Ford’s attempt of establishing a “rubber kingdom” in Brazil.

In its fourth year, one of the biggie events is the “5 Under 35” which “…is a celebration of emerging talent and the perfect way to kick off National Book Awards Week,” as stated by Harold Augenbraum, the executive director of the foundation.

Stay tuned and best of luck to our Michigan authors as we continue to prove ourselves as a state of fine culture and talent!

-Post by Megan Shaffer