Books Acquired, 5.17.2012—Or, Here’s What’s New from Picador This June

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Nice little batch from the good folks at Picador, including Bill Loehfelm’s thriller The Devil She Knows, Mohamed ElBarardei’s The Age of Deception, an analysis of nuclear politics, and Michael Cunningham’s Land’s End, which I assume is a novelization of the clothing catalog.

Also in the batch: Denis Johnson’s novella Train Dreams, which I read in one sitting this Sunday. It’s a perfect novella, its pathos balanced with humor, its realism tempered in something of the mythic spirit of the American frontier. Full review forthcoming.

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Miroslav Penkov’s collection East of the West looks pretty cool.

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Here’s a description from his website:

A grandson tries to buy the corpse of Lenin on eBay for his Communist grandfather. A failed wunderkind steals a golden cross from an Orthodox church. A boy meets his cousin (the love of his life) once every five years in the river that divides their village into east and west. These are Miroslav Penkov’s strange, unexpectedly moving visions of his home country, Bulgaria, and they are the stories that make up his charming, deeply felt debut collection.

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Donald Antrim’s debut Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World has also been reissued with a new intro by Jeffrey Eugenides. Here’s an excerpt of the novel:

It was Friday, the day of the big theriomorphism workshop Rotary luncheon out at the Holiday Inn. My wife, Meredith, and I and a crowd of red-faced Rotarians and their well-dressed wives (Rotary Anns) sat around hotel banquet tables and listened to a visiting anthropology professor at the junior college say, “Pick an animal, any animal, fish, fowl, beast. Concentrate on aspects of the animal. Is it big? Small? Cute? Does it eat other animals? What color fur? If the animal is a bird, what color are its feathers? What song does it sing?”

“This is stupid,” I whispered to Meredith.

“It’s your fault we’re here, Pete. Why don’t you give it a chance?”

The anthropologist said, “Why don’t we all think about it for a minute? Okay, everybody got one?”

“Yes,” “No,” “Wait,” people said. Meredith whispered, “What’s yours?”

“I don’t know, what’s yours?”

“Coelacanth.”

“The prehistoric fish?”

“I need a volunteer,” declared the professor. Meredith raised her hand, and the man at the podium said, “Yes, back there. Tell us your name and the name of the animal you’ve chosen to become today.”

“Meredith Robinson. Coelacanth. It’s a kind of fish that scientists believed extinct until one was caught off the coast of Africa.”

“Excellent. Come forward. Sit here. Would someone please dim the lights?” I watched Rotary guys watch my wife. Bill Nixon, Tom Thompson, Abraham de Leon, Dick Morton, Terry Heinemann, Robert Isaac—all the usuals, plus others. Jerry and his wife, Rita, sat up front. The professor soothingly said, “Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and tell us about the coelacanth. Everybody else, let’s all breathe deeply too, and be thinking about our own animals. Go ahead, Meredith.”

“Well, it’s four feet long, deep slate blue, with bony, protruding fins and big jaws with scary teeth. It goes back seventy million years. It moves slowly, it dwells in dark water.” The professor nodded. Audience members inched forward in their seats. Meredith said, “At night it swims upside down with its head pointed to the sea bottom, bobbing along.”

“A feeding technique?”

“Maybe.”

“How’s the water?” I could see Meredith’s head settle forward as she softly answered, “Cold.”

“Feel the cold. Breathe that cold. Inhale that water. What do you feel?”

“Colors.”

“Colors?”

“Blue, black, indigo.”

Book Acquired, 8.25.11

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In the mail today: Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall, in trade paperback from the good folks at Picador. From novelist Jeanette Winterson’s review of the hardback edition, printed last year in the NYT

Cunningham has taken on the classic plot of the uninvited or unexpected stranger or guest whose arrival brings chaos, self-knowledge, tragedy, the ruin of one kind of life that may or may not lead to something better. It’s a story we know from variants as classic as Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” to Mark Twain’s “Mysterious Stranger” to contemporary versions like “The Accidental” by Ali Smith. Cunningham is drawn to simple, potent plots (think of the triptych in “The Hours”), saving his energy for the hearts and minds, the groins and guts, of his characters. Yet he makes you turn the pages. He tells a story here, but not too much of a story. You aren’t deadened by detail; you’re eager to know what happens next.

Cunningham writes so well, and with such an economy of language, that he can call up the poet’s exact match. His dialogue is deft and fast. The pace of the writing is skilled — stretched or contracted at just the right time. And if some of the interventions on art are too long — well, too long for whom? For what? Good novels are novels that provoke us to argue with the writer, not just novels that make us feel magically, mysteriously at home.A novel in which everything is perfect is a waxwork. A novel that is alive is never perfect.

James Franco and Michael Cunningham on Writing and MFA Programs

James Franco and Michael Cunningham on YA Fiction (and What You Should Never Ask a Writer)