by Campbell Geeslin
A page-high photo of a stack of books and 30 capsule reviews helped The New York Times salute the end of the year. The three daily reviewers each named their 10 favorite books of 2015.
Michiko Kakutani’s top pick was Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child. That novel has had attention in this blog and every place else. Dwight Garner’s list was alphabetical and started with Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. That book was described as a “jubilant satirical novel.” Janet Maslin most admired Don Winslow’s The Cartel. She thought it had “sweep, intimacy and searing power.”
CROSS RETURNS: Hostage taking is very much in the news these days. The prolific James Patterson published a seasonal novel, Merry Christmas, Alex Cross, without sharing a byline. The Times said that this instant bestseller tells about how the fictional Detective Cross “is called away from his family on Christmas Eve—to try save another family in a rapidly deteriorating hostage situation.”
Cross has a good record of thriving in detective novels. He will probably do it again. Patterson has a lot invested in him.
CASA: The word “house” must be a key to Sandra Cisneros. Her The House on Mango Street (1984) was an enormous success. That house was in Chicago. Her new book is titled A House of My Own. This house is in Mexico. Both are autobiographical memoirs.
LIKES IT LONELY: Simon Winchester’s new book is Pacific. In an interview in the Sunday’s Times Book Review, he was asked, “What genres do you especially enjoy reading?
Winchester said, “I’m unashamedly drawn to tales of the remote, the lonely and the hard—like Willa Cather on Nebraska or Ivan Doig on Montana. The Icelandic Nobelist Halldór Laxness with his Independent People, still is, for me, the supreme example. But I also like railway murder stories and timetable mysteries, especially hose involving Inspector French and his Dublin-born creator, Freeman Wills Crofts.”
THE BIG ONE: Oprah Winfrey’s memoir, The Life You Want, will be out in January. The Times predicted that it will be the biggest book of 2017. It “will combine personal stories with inspirational advice for readers,” Alexandra Alter wrote.
HOT TRIO: Rainbow Rowell has three young-adult novels on the bestseller list: most recently published is Carry On. The other two are Eleanor and Park about two high school misfits, and Fangirl about a girl obsessed with fan fiction.
Rowell was asked if Rainbow was her real name, on her birth certificate, and she said, “Yep.”
HELP: “A record number of struggling authors applied for emergency financial assistance in 2015,” the Guardian’s Richard Lea wrote, “with applicants more than doubling between 2010 and 2015.”
The UK's Society of Authors hands out some 100,000 pounds in grants to authors in need of help annually, but the increased need is worrisome, says the Society's chief executive Nicola Solomon. “There are more applicants and very worthy applicants. These are people who might be called ‘proper writers,’ who have made a living out of writing for their whole career. They’re not people who once wrote a poem.”
GONE GRAPHIC: She has written adult fiction and nonfiction, poetry, and children’s books. Now, Canadian author Margaret Atwood has written a graphic novel, Angel Catbird—the first installment of a trilogy featuring a “superhero that derives his power from two animals,” according to the Times.
Atwood explained: “Due to some spilled genetic Super-Splicer, our hero got tangled up with both a cat and an owl, hence his fur and feathers, and his identity problems.”
The illustrations, by Johnnie Christmas, show a hero equipped with gigantic wings, a tail and short pants that look as if they are made of wire fencing. Each volume of the trilogy will be in full color and cost $10.99.
FAT SELLS: There is no dieting these days in the book trade. “The average book is now 25 percent bigger than 15 years ago,” according to The Guardian. A study of 2,500 books revealed that the average length has gone from 320 pages in 1999 to 400 pages in 2014.
These days, the real struggle is publishing an “average”-sized book. “The most difficult area now appears to be in middle,” said literary agent Clare Alexander. “Mid-list, mid-career, middle-sized—in fact anything that middling.”
NO PAPER: Wally Lamb’s sixth novel, I’ll Take You There, will be published next year “exclusively as a digital app by Metabook, a new e-book publishing company,” wrote Alexandra Alter. Metabook was founded last year and specializes in multimedia, interactive storytelling.
The book will not be available in bookstores or from e-book retailers like Amazon or Barnes & Noble. It can be bought only from the iTunes app store, and it will work only on Apple devices.
HISTORICAL: “I write historical fiction,” wrote Geraldine Brooks in an Author’s Note essay in Sunday’s Book Review. “Some consider this an outré craft. If literary fiction is Brooklyn, the historical novel is Queens.
“It’s a ‘gimcrack genre’ to the critic James Wood, ‘a byword for middlebrow wasteland’ to Leo Robson of The Nation. Condemned to ‘a fatal cheapness,’ according to Henry James, who held that any attempt to write about a period more than 50 years removed from one’s own was ‘worthless, and should not even be attempted’ since retrieval of ‘little facts’ about the past can never recapture the consciousness of individuals who lived in more distant eras.”
Brooks isn’t buying that. Her latest book is about King David, who lived 3,000 years ago.
FAVORITES: President Barack Obama’s favorite book of the year is Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. The novel tells about a marriage from the viewpoint of both wife and husband.
The first lady’s favorite novel this year is The Light of the World: A Memoir by Elizabeth Alexander. The poet describes her life and the grief after the death of her husband of 15 years. Alexander composed and read a poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” at Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
ACRONYM: SPQR is the title of Mary Beard’s new history of ancient Rome. It’s short for “Senatus Populusque Romanus”—the Senate and people of Rome. In his column in Sunday’s Book Review, Gregory Cowles wrote, “as the Concise Oxford English Dictionary notes, some merchants have also adopted the acronym as a wry motto meaning ‘small profits and quick returns.’”
Beard, a Professor of Classics at Cambridge, has a reputation as a scholar with a gift for making history enjoyable to non-scholars. In an interview with Salon, she was asked if she wished more academics took her approach. “It’s a great privilege to work, and be paid, studying the Romans,” she said. “And to some extent, because the academy is still relatively protected, and people can speak without losing their jobs, there is an obligation to speak – not to rant, not to shout.”
But, she said: “I hope there is still a role for people who spent their lives in the library looking at three lines of Aeschylus, or Homer, or whatever. . . . Not every academic has to be like me.”
THE BEST: Sixteen writers were asked by the Times, “What’s the best book, new or old, you read this year?”
Zoe Heller replied: “I read a ton of books about the Sicilian mafia this year. One of the most interesting and by far the most elegantly written was Alexander Stille’s Excellent Cadavers, about the mafia assassination of the Sicilian magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borselino, in 1992. It kept me up at night and it made me cry: my kind of book.”
Benjamin Moser responded with: “How do artists succeed and why do they fail? In Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints,” Joan Acocella answers these questions in 30 critical portraits of people I both knew and—more often—only thought I knew, creating a panorama of modern art through its most outstanding personalities: people who didn’t give up.”
Happy holidays everyone! Along Publishers Row will resume in the new year.