Saturday, February 23, 2008

Reader's Journal: Pub Challenge Selections

You might remember that I joined two reading challenges this year, the Short Story Reading challenge and the Pub Challenge 2008. For the Pub Challenge, I'm supposed to read eight (or more) books published in 2008, four of which must be fiction. It seems that several people who joined this challenge are at least halfway through, while I've been waiting for something worthwhile (well, worth my while, as I don't read mysteries or romance, and the majority of releases seem to be in those areas) to be released.

Obviously Chandler Burr's The Perfect Scent is one of my choices, and I am hoping (fingers crossed) to win one through Sniffapalooza's contest, as one of my 2008 goals is to cut spending on books by at least half. If I don't win it, I'll splurge and buy a copy. That will count as one of my non-fiction selections (although I suppose they could all be fiction--easy for me!), but picking out the novels is another thing. Here's what I have so far:

So that's one down, but what else to read? Lucky for me, several terrific writers are releasing (or have released) books this spring, so finally my list is beginning to take shape. Here are come of my choices:

River of Heaven, by Lee Martin (April 15). Lee Martin was a Pulitzer finalist in 2006 for his novel The Bright Forever, which happens to be one of my favorite novels of all time. Martin writes so cleanly and with crystal clear emotion. If you read and loved Kent Haruf's Plainsong, Don Kurtz's South of The Big Four, or Dan Chaon's You Remind Me of Me, then you must read The Bright Forever. The initial reviews for River of Heaven seem to be mixed, but enjoy Martin's writing so much that I'm sure it will be worth the read.

The Soul Thief, by Charles Baxter (available now). I admit, I've only read Charles Baxter's short stories, but he writes so well I'm anxious to read one of his novels. Here's the description from Publisher's Weekly:

" The author of the National Book Award–nominated The Feast of Love, Baxter returns with this ninth book, an assay into the limits of character, fictional and otherwise. The first half of the novel follows the brief arc of Nathaniel Mason's graduate career in 1970s Buffalo, N.Y., which centers on his friendship with the sexy but self-dramatizing Teresa (which she pronounces Teraysa, as if she were French) and her lover Jerome Coolberg, a virtuoso of cast-off ideas. Coolberg, obsessed with Nathaniel, begins taking his shirts and notebooks, and claiming that episodes from Nathaniel's life happened to him. Coolberg drops a hint that something bad will happen to Jamie, Nathaniel's sometime lover; when it actually comes to pass, Nathaniel's world begins to collapse. In the novel's second half, decades after these events have occurred, Coolberg enters Nathaniel's life again for a final, dramatic confrontation. Baxter has a great, registering eye for the real pleasures and attritions of life, but the book gets hung up on metafictional questions of identity (the major one: who is writing this first-person narrative?). The results cheat readers out of identifying with any of the characters, perhaps intentionally. (Feb.) Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved."

Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri (April 1). I read both her story collection Interpreter of Maladies and her novel The Namesake, and I do think Lahiri is a fine, fine writer along the lines of William Trevor and Alice Munro. I admit that I enjoyed her novel a bit more than her story collection, but I am very much looking forward to her second collection. Here's the description from Publisher's Weekly:

"Starred Review. The gulf that separates expatriate Bengali parents from their American-raised children—and that separates the children from India—remains Lahiri's subject for this follow-up to Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake. In this set of eight stories, the results are again stunning. In the title story, Brooklyn-to-Seattle transplant Ruma frets about a presumed obligation to bring her widower father into her home, a stressful decision taken out of her hands by his unexpected independence. The alcoholism of Rahul is described by his elder sister, Sudha; her disappointment and bewilderment pack a particularly powerful punch. And in the loosely linked trio of stories closing the collection, the lives of Hema and Kaushik intersect over the years, first in 1974 when she is six and he is nine; then a few years later when, at 13, she swoons at the now-handsome 16-year-old teen's reappearance; and again in Italy, when she is a 37-year-old academic about to enter an arranged marriage, and he is a 40-year-old photojournalist. An inchoate grief for mothers lost at different stages of life enters many tales and, as the book progresses, takes on enormous resonance. Lahiri's stories of exile, identity, disappointment and maturation evince a spare and subtle mastery that has few contemporary equals. (Apr.) Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved."

Four for the list. Not too bad for the first half of the year! I'm not planning to overshoot the goal of eight books, mainly because I have so many unread books of my own that I would like to read this year, plus I still have all those short story collections to get through. Looks like I'll be quite busy.

*images and descriptions from