Paul's Picks: August 2008

What are you selling? What’s everybody asking for these days? Who’s hot? That’s what they ask me these days at the bookstore. I’ll tell you one thing we don’t have to work very hard to sell is the new collection of hysterical David Sedaris essays, When You Are Engulfed in Flames. His many fans, who never miss a book, seem to be on email lists which inform them the minute a new book hits the street. They just come in and buy their books, sometimes so quietly we hardly know they’ve gone.

What else? Workshop teacher, Ethan Canin’s long-awaited new novel, America, America, his largest and most ambitious yet, is flying off the shelves. It’s a politically themed novel going back to 1972, and in this election year it should continue to be hot. Another new novel that is making literary noise is David Wroblewski’s first novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.

This gorgeously written, nearly 800-page book is set in rural Wisconsin among a family of dog-breeders who have their own breed. The most interesting character is a young boy who cannot speak but has a preternatural ability to communicate with dogs. The plot is Hamlet: the son, the dead father, the uncle—but it never feels like you’re reading a Renaissance English play. You need to slow down and let Wroblewski’s prose guide you. This is also not a “dog book” a la Marley and Me, full of “man’s best friend” clichés. I believe this novel will be read for a long time and will be enjoyed by dog lover and curmudgeon alike.

Vietnamese American Workshop graduate, Nam Le, has a collection of stories, The Boat, that has received extraordinary reviews from reviewers disinclined to go over the top in their appreciation of new fiction. These remarkable stories are set all over the world; one in the Pacific Ocean, another in an Iowa City workshop class. He is reluctant to exploit his ethnic background, and is unlikely to be pigeonholed as “one of our new Asian American writers.”

Remember the great Fatwa? Salman Rushdie held prisoner by the global radical wing of Islam for his disrespect of Allah? Rushdie has remained one of the world’s greatest fabulists and has published several extraordinary novels and is still very much alive. His new book, The Enchantress of Florence, is a thrillingly written Sheherazadish novel set in the Renaissance in Florence and the mythical Mughal Empire. “In the day’s last light the glowing lake below the palace-city looked like a sea of molten gold.” How can you pass up a first sentence like that? The Enchantress of Florence is for those who like Umberto Eco and Roberto Bolano and who love the magic of the finest prose in the world.

Jim Krusoe is an absolute lunatic whose second novel, Girl Factory, is one of those hysterical slacker novels that have been popping up these last few years. Main character Jonathan, working at 39 in a strip mall yogurt joint, discovers that his mysterious, possibly dangerous boss has discovered the technology necessary to turn frozen yogurt into live women. It’s a marvelously funny satire on sexual warfare and the male objectification of the human female. It’s a paperback that will bounce you out of your bed with laughter.

And this fall watch for Toni Morrison’s new novel, Mercy, due in November, and Marilynne Robinson’s Home, a novel set once again in the town of Gilead, Iowa. I’ve read the Robinson, and it’s a masterpiece.