New Books for Younger Readers by Celia McGee
by Emma Straub
Ages 14 and up, and adults
Catch a family trying to choose a vacation spot that isn’t “Wainscott or Woodstock or somewhere else with wood-shingled houses that looked distressed on purpose,” and you know you’re not in the average income bracket anymore. In her second, much-anticipated novel, the sharp-eyed, funny and compassionate Emma Straub makes great use of these kinds of dilemmas for her story of a well-off, well-intentioned Upper West Side family, that, in serious crisis, and accompanied by close friends also tilting at tribulations, ends up for once in an unfamiliar place. (Albeit Mallorca, where they’ve landed a freebie villa, is as comfortable as a pair of well-worn Tod’s loafer to the international jet-set, rich hippies, and ultra-privileged pleasure-seekers.). On this hot mess, threatening to fester beneath idyllic sunshine, Straub turns the gaze of Sylvia, the Posts’ 17 year-old daughter, fervently counting on college to let her be “a completely different person.” Her parents’ apparently irrevocable breakup, her older brother’s hopelessly squandered life, and the tinder-box efforts of Charles and Lawrence, a gay couple anxious to be “chosen” as adoptive parents, are just several more depressing and only partially understood intrusions into her miserable, irrefutably 21st-century life. An embarrassing occurrence in her life has gone viral.
This being a novel that affectionately satirizes many types of fiction, an impossibly handsome and sexy Spanish tutor materializes to distract Sylvia—and stoke her daydreams of losing her innocence—while her mother contemplates plunging an icepick into her disgraced husband’s eyes, for 1) having an affair with a young intern at the magazine he edits 2) getting fired for his trespass from the prestigious position he has enjoyed for most of his career.
Where bookish Sylvia is concerned, Straub also doesn’t pretend for a minute that the private-school graduate’s passion for Austen and Tolstoy will take a backseat to the fondness for pale-pink workout gear favored by her brother’s unexpectedly level-headed, wrong-side-of the-Mason-Dixon-line girlfriend. This isn’t Straub being snobby—if anything, her dry, soft-hearted humor takes the Posts to task—but it does confirm a growing awareness in the reader that Miss Austen has been hovering cleverly behind this spiky, displaced domestic comedy. Its characters come in pairs, and in pairs they remain, but their pride and prejudices suggest that the combinations they started out in are unlikely to stay the same.
Munro's stories work many magic tricks. Among them: She writes with an acute sense of place (small-town Canada) not often found in contemporary writing and yet transcends location altogether, and she renders ordinary lives in a manner that makes them extraordinarily compelling. For a literary collection to have a first printing of 100,000 speaks volumes.
I don’t know when I started reading John Updike, but it was probably when I was in my teens. I sank into his beautiful prose as though it were a summer-high meadow. I hadn’t known you could write like that. I hadn’t known you could use language so precise and elegant, or speak from a heart so compassionate and generous, or reveal life that was so daily and so unpretentious, so authentic.
2014 Summer Literary Seminars/Center for Fiction prize winner
Four reasons for Edith's body to fidget: the scentless pillow case, the scratchy sheets, the removal of the left breast, the downshift of the morphine. One thing Mort does, downstairs in the den, lodged securely in his olive La-Z-Boy: slide his hand between the cushion and the side. What he finds there: his missing MedicAlert bracelet. Well I'll be a monkey. Two hiding places he had checked: his motorcycle saddlebag, wrapped around the insinkerator blades. Two origin stories about the bracelet: the shrapnel poking at his lung, his mate Johnson pushed it on him right after the mortar split Johnson's leg like a log.
Noreen Tomassi, interviewed by Tracy Young
The Center’s Executive Director talks about our popular bibliotherapy program: Based on a 45-minute personal conversation about your reading tastes, your lifestyle, and the issues you’re facing, you'll get a list of a dozen hand-picked novels to offer insight, solace, and inspiration.
When did you start to think, wow, bibliotherapy could work for people?
In October 2012, a board member suggested we try this, and I began to talk to people about the idea. So many people reacted enthusiastically that I thought it was worth a try and might be especially good to roll out in advance of the holidays with the option of giving it as a gift.
Were you surprised that it caught on so quickly?
Not really. I think people who read a great deal believe that books can have a real impact on their lives and will help them to navigate life more successfully. But people now seem to have endless choices, so they appreciate any recommendations or guidance that can help them sort through the barrage of information that confronts them.
What was your most gratifying session?
I enjoyed every one and think I learn as much as the “clients.” I did particularly enjoy finding appropriate books for a young woman newly embarked on a life of sobriety who also was very interested in Hollywood. Do you know how hard it is to find a good novel about Hollywood that doesn’t have a drunk in it?
Could you perform self-bibliotherapy?
I’m not sure. I could set a reading challenge for myself, focused on a particular issue, I guess, but what makes bibliotherapy work best is the “therapist’s” knowledge of the prescribed books.
What can you tell about a person from their reading habits?
A great deal--how conservative they are or how open to risk and experimentation becomes obvious; how much they read helps you to gauge how introverted or extroverted they are; you can get a sense of how romantic they are or alternately, how down to earth; you can see if they have a philosophical bent or a spiritual one, whether they are left-brain or right-brain types, and so on.
To order a session, click here.
Our summer intern, Delia Graham-Costello, recommends Junot Diaz's This Is How You Lose Her as a must-read for high-schoolers.
"I like this book so much it almost makes me angry. Junot Diaz is another writer who just nails it. He has mastered the art of well-placed humor—a difficult task for even the most seasoned authors. His prose is witty, touching and full of (often misplaced) love. I will admit that this book is in no way PG-13, but its raw language is well placed and well worth it. The language of this book perfectly aligns itself with reality—nothing is sugar coated or assuaged. Additionally, the structure of the book allows you to choose how you read it...."
Check out what our past Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize winners and finalists have been up to:
Shortlisted in 2012 for Seating Arrangements.
Her novel Astonish Me was released in April of 2014.
Jessica Francis Kane
Shortlisted in 2010 for The Report.
Kane's story collection, This Close, came out in 2013.