A Reader's Guide to Gore Vidal, 1925-2012

With the news of Gore Vidal's death at 86, our editors' guide to essential reading from the novelist, essayist and provocateur.

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Highlights from the Man Booker Longlist

The Longlist for the 2012 Man Booker Prize was announced on July 25; among the selections was Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, also chosen as a Discover Great New Writers Fall 2012 selection. In an exclusive interview with Miwa Messer, Joyce discusses writing about the things she believes in, ordinary people, and the search for something bigger in life.

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The Fish That Ate the Whale

If you're a fan of pulp fiction, of ashcan gutter naturalism, of absurdist caper novels, of rags-to-riches sagas, then pick up Rich Cohen's The Fish That Ate the Whale. This history-embedded, anecdote-rich biography of Sam Zemurray, the bigger-than-life figure behind United Fruit Company at its height of power, is a balls-to-the-wall, panoramic, rocket ride through an acid bath, featuring unbelievable-but-true tales of power-grabbing, ambition, folly, passion, commerce, politics, artistry, and savagery: daydream and nightmare together.

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"You Do It for the Sake of Doing It"

Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, and Alan Heathcock, author of Volt, discuss provocative and "political" writing, the desire for accuracy, and the compulsion to tell stories in an exclusive conversation.

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The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 2009

Readers who encountered the first and second books in this acclaimed series -- The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volumes 1 & 2, which originally appeared  in serial pamphlet form over the years 1999 to 2003 -- had little reason to suspect that they were enjoying anything more ramified and extensive than a steampunk-style, alternate-history-influenced, literary pastiche. 

 

But Moore surprised everyone with the appearance in 2007 of The Black Dossier, which delivered supporting documents and secret history in Pynchonian spades, fencing in vast tracts of additional literary territory, and catapulting the action to the year 1958. Now the series suddenly and unexpectedly possessed a wider remit than simple steampunk shennanigans. And so arrived The League of Extraordinary Gentleman: Century 1910 and Century 1969. Now the most recent installment, Century 2009, catches up with the present and points the series towards a blazing future all unborn.

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God Particle Reading

What do you make of the "God Particle?" News of the physics breakthrough sent us to the shelf, where books by Ian Sample, Leon Lederman, and others shed welcome light on this scientific milestone.

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Redshirts

John Scalzi's droll and even touching new novel, Redshirts, is a space opera which, at first, seems wryly and cynically to posit that a low-level grunt's life aboard a Big Government starship might resemble a Couplandesque cube-farm in space, except with killer ice sharks and carnivorous rock worms when the crew is on-planet. But their throwaway lives are not totally at the mercy of mere bureaucratic incompetence and disdain. No, more sinister cosmic forces are conspiring against Scalzi's crew, in the form of "The Narrative." And these added dimensions open out Scalzi's story into something much more earnest and significant than simple parody.

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Coming-of-Age Novels and Discover Great New Writers

Karen Thompson Walker’s astonishing debut, The Age of Miracles, is a perfect example of what the Discover Great New Writers program looks for in a comin-of-age novel, and a review in The New York Times reiterates our selection committee's enthusiastic response to the voice of the book's narrator, 11-year-old Julia.

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Immortality

To say that Stephen Cave's metaphysically provocative new book, Immortality, is an extended gloss on the famous Woody Allen joke -- "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work...I want to achieve it through not dying." -- is both accurate and trivializing. Allen (actually quoted for a different quip in chapter 8) gets full props for succinctly and memorably encapsulating two paths to immortality, those that Cave dubs "Legacy" and "Staying Alive." But the comedian utterly neglects to reference the other two strategies of "Resurrection" and "Soul." Cave, however, considers every possible angle of humanity's eternal anti-death quest in his highly readable treatise. His impeccable, insightful, invigorating chain of reasoning about death and its role as the driving force behind nearly every cultural institution and action in human history leaves no tombstone unturned.

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Ride a Cockhorse

During the last decade or so of his life, Raymond Kennedy would occasionally and ceremoniously roll out of Brooklyn in his Lincoln Town Car and travel to western Massachusetts where I would see him now and again. He was drawn there by the countryside and the hill-andvalley towns of his youth, the region that provides the setting for all but one of his eight novels, including Ride a Cockhorse, his comic masterpiece.

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"Stories Are Far More Important Than Possessions": A Conversation with Edmund de Waal

Edmund de Waal, author of The Hare with Amber Eyes, a Fall 2010 Discover Great New Writers selection, discusses connecting with readers, Proust, and the "odd correspondence between inheriting a story and inheriting an object."

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"He's someone who will sacrifice every shred of his own dignity in an attempt to preserve it."

Maggie Shipstead, the author of Seating Arrangments, our newest B&N Recommends selection, discusses class-conscious WASPs, literary influences from Cheever to Perotta, and exploding whales.

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The Barefoot Bandit

When Bob Rivers's Cessna was stolen and crashed in a rare instance of airplane piracy, the Seattle radio personality had the same thought as local authorities: drug runners had used, abused, and discarded the plane; case closed. To their astonishment, they later learned that the culprit in the 2008 heist was actually seventeen-year-old Colton Harris-Moore, a poor, neglected, troubled kid who'd had no formal flight training. This was the first time Colt had flown a plane, and yet it wouldn't be the last. He was in the midst of a years-long crime spree -- boosting cars, boats, identities, airplanes, and lots of food.

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Stars and Tennis Shoes: Ray Bradbury, 1920-2012

Certainly the highest posthumous praise that can be conferred upon any writer is the assertion that his or her writing permanently altered the literary landscape for the better, opening new textual doors and engaging new readers. That the author's oeuvre was essential and irreplaceable and transformative. In short, that the work mattered, was unique and influential, was accepted and enjoyed, and will be preserved for future generations yet unborn.

 

Ray Bradbury, who died at the age of 91 on June 6, 2012, has unquestionably earned this accolade.

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The Weird

The phrase "ocean of the stream of stories," traditionally applied to a vast cycle of Indian legends, now has a new rightful claimant in the form of Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's enormous new world-spanning, time-delving, mind-warping anthology of fantastika, The Weird, replenished as it is with flows from many lands and many eras. Assembled with passion, scholarship, and a clear vision, this Neptune-deep, Poseidon-rich volume establishes a non-exclusionary canon for "strange and dark stories," a crepuscular territory dear to the heart of any lover of tales that are deranged, odd, surreal, deracinating, spooky, creepy and -- well, just plain weird.

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Naomi Benaron Picks Four Favorites

Naomi Benaron, author of the Spring 2012 Discover Great New Writers selection Running the Rift, selects four great reads, including a collection of poetry that evokes the lost world of provincial Portugal.

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Railsea

Do you recall the tagline from the very first Superman movie? "You'll believe a man can fly!" Well, I'm tempted to craft such a hyperbolic assertion for China Miéville's off-the-wall yet utterly convincing new "all-ages" novel, Railsea. Something along these lines: "You'll believe a mole can terrify!" Or perhaps "You'll believe in the majesty of mole hunts!" But of course such silly quips impute a kind of Monty Python-style vibe to the book, and nothing could be further from the truth. This coming-of-age questing tale is completely engrossing, not parodic, and, in its own genius-skewed way, totally naturalistic.

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Leonard Cohen Live

"Rock and roll," says Robert Christgau,  "has produced a surprising bounty of old men with something to say. Leonard Cohen fits this paradigm, with two significant differences. The first is that he's rock and roll only by association. He's really a Gallic chansonnier, in it for the lyrics rather than the liberating musical intensity even Dylan has made a vocation. The second is that he was always old -- older than Elvis and also more sophisticated, the kind of artist you'd look up to at 24 only to find yourself surprisingly, alarmingly entering his age group four decades later."

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Death Sentences

The science-fictional motif of lethal, infectious information -- bad memes -- is a fascinating one, with an extended history. One of the earliest instances is Robert W. Chambers's The King in Yellow from 1895. Chambers's conceit is a malevolent play: read beyond Act II, and you go mad. And of course, Chambers certainly influenced Lovecraft and his sanity-destroying Necronomicon. Now, thanks to the good offices of Minnesota Press, aided by the excellent translating prowess of Thomas Lamarre and Kazuko Y. Behrens, English-language readers get to fill in a missing link in this fascinating lineage, with Kawamata Chiaki's Death Sentences, a fine novel from 1984 that extends the riff to the realm of surrealist poetry.

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Sendak in the Library

A few years ago, Maurice Sendak gave a talk at the Harvard Library where I worked. Having recently assisted on the editorial periphery of one of his projects -- a klezmer version of Peter and the Wolf he undertook with my brother-in-law's band -- I was tapped to squire him through the Printing & Graphic Arts department to view a selection of books illustrated by a hero of his, the nineteenth-century artist Randolph Caldecott.

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"Begin with a Question.": A Conversation with Shehan Karunatilaka

Sir Lankan sportswriter W.G. Kaunsena is dying; his doctor has told him that he must quit drinking, but books and booze have kept W. G. alive -- albeit alienated from his wife and son (though he loves them both), and slightly deluded about work and the world around him. Madcap, yet trenchant – with emotional echoes of Joseph O'Neill's Netherland and Frederick Exley's  A Fan’s Notes -- Summer 2012 Discover pick The Legend of Pradeep Mathew is as much about family, country, and identity as it is about cricket.

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Artists' Postcards

Sometimes magnificent visual art takes root in the humblest of soils. Advertisements painted on old barns, tattoos, fruit crate labels, hot rod embellishments -- all these media and many other non-galleried forms have hosted and fostered esthetic delights that satisfy any rigorous definition of art. In Jeremy Cooper's expansive, eye-popping new history of the humble postcard in the hands of artists, we see that this small pasteboard canvas has played its own large role in the history of twentieth-century art.

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An Edgar for Michael Dirda

Congratulations to Michael Dirda! His On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling has won this year's Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Critical or Biographical Work. The Pulitzer Prize winning critic and author, whose "Library Without Walls" column appears monthly in the BNR, has penned a fascinating and unique book that weaves together Arthur Conan Doyle's life and work -- which included, in addition to the Sherlock Holmes stories, wonderful works of historical fiction and adventure -- with a memoir of Dirda's own boyhood, a peek into the world of the "Baker Street Irregulars," and a meditation on the power of fiction.

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The Sincerest Form of Parody

When a wild, irreverent, and brash publication named Mad debuted in August 1952, it did so as a standard-issue comic book, employing the traditional format which today has come to be retronymically called a "floppy" or "pamphlet." With issue 24, Mad retooled, becoming an actual magazine, and not long thereafter birthed a legion of imitators. This second-stage horde of competitors -- Sick, Crazy, Trash, Cracked, among others -- constitute a well-known phenomenon, and sample work from their pages, as well as actual issues, have been generally available for discussion among afficionados.

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Notes from L.A.

Miwa Messer writes from L.A. "After the 2012 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, one of my favorite events of the year -- it's marvelous to see so many readers of all ages and authors together on the campus of USC."

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A Conversation with Rajesh Parameswaran

In an exclusive Q&A, Rajesh Parameswaran, the author of the Summer 2012 Discover Great New Writers selection I Am an Executioner, talks about the ideas, books, and writers who influenced his dazzling, often outrageous stories about appearances, power, and love.

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Stephen Greenblatt's Swerve and Other 2012 Pulitzer Winners

Today the 2012 winners of the Pulitzer Prizes -- an award keenly anticipated in the journalistic world, but only slightly less so among writers and publishers of books -- were announced. On the literary side, winners included Stephen Greeblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern in General Nonfiction, Manning Marable's Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention in History -- not, as might have been expected, in Biography. That honor went to John Lewis Gaddis's George F. Kennan: A Life, which also recently won the National Book Critics' Circle award for Biography. Tracy K. Smith's collection Life on Mars took the Pulitzer for Poetry.

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The Sugar Frosted Nutsack

The inimitably demented and lapidarily hilarious Mark Leyner returns in fine fettle with a rollicking new meta-fictional novel, his first paraliterary excursion in fourteen years. The affect of the book? Drunken sagaciousness, manic sobriety, crazy wisdom, hieratic gossip. Perhaps if you smooshed together Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics, Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine, Will Self's Walking to Hollywood, Thorne Smith's The Night Life of the Gods, and Michael Moorcock's An Alien Heat, you might decant something similar -- but only after creating a hell of a mess for an inferior brew. So why not just go straight to Leyner?

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Available Dark

It's a shame, in a way, that Graham Greene brilliantly and decisively utilized the title A Burnt-Out Case for his 1960 novel about a hapless, wounded antihero whom passion and art have abandoned. The title would have been so perfect for an installment of Elizabeth Hand's ongoing saga of Cassandra "Cass" Neary, burnt-out, middle-aged ex-punk photographer, who, in this second installment, after her debut in Generation Loss, finds herself again far from her comfortably sleazy New York digs and involved in shady doings in Helsinki and Reykjavik. After her previous scary outing in cold, provincial, and brutal Maine, you'd think she'd know enough to steer clear of northern climes. But that's Cass: all guts and no instinct for self-preservation at all.

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A Conversation with Cheryl Strayed

The work of the late poet Adrienne Rich was an important part of Cheryl Strayed's trek along the Pacific Coast Trail, chronicled in her riveting new memoir, Wild. When Discover Great New Writers asked the author to talk about her book and her journey, she told us, "I've always loved books. But the books I took with me on my PCT hike were even more important because they were often my only companions. Some  I chose because I'd always heard I should read them -- books like Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and Nabokov's Lolita fall in to that category -- others I chose because I'd already read and loved them, such as Adrienne Rich's The Dream of Common Language, which is something of a sacred text in Wild."

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July 29: On this day in 1878 Don Marquis was born.

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Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Paradise and Elsewhere

Canadian short story marvel Kathy Page emerges as the Alice Munro of the supernatural from these heartfelt tales of shapeshifting swimmers, mild-mannered cannibals, and personality-shifting viruses transmitted through kisses.

Pastoral

When a persuasive pastor arrives in a sleepy farm town, his sage influence has otherworldly results (talking sheep, a mayor who walks on water). But can he pull off the miracle of finding kindly local Liz Denny the love of her life?  Small wonder looms large in this charmer from Andre Alexis.

The Hundred-Year House

When a poetry scholar goes digging through the decrepit estate of his wife's family to uncover a bygone arts colony's strange mysteries, he awakens a tenacious monster: his mother-in-law. A wickedly funny take on aging aristocracies from author Rebecca Makkai (The Borrower).