Many good books are being released in September, several by notable authors. Jesmyn Ward is publishing her second novel since winning the National Book Award for Salvage the Bones. Celeste Ng also is publishing her highly anticipated second novel that’s set in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Alice McDermott is also on the publishing roster this month, and the novel is one of her best. Below are quick previews of these and other books not to be missed.

Sing Unburied Sing by WardSing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Jesmyn Ward’s second novel tells the story of a road trip taken by a drug-addicted black woman, her kids and a friend on their way to the Mississippi State Penitentiary to pick up the children’s father. The kids live with their grandparents in the Mississippi Gulf Coast region, with the mother drifting in and out of their lives. Ghosts from this African-American family’s past figure into the narrative. The publisher writes: “Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family.” While both Kirkus Reviews and Publisher’s Weekly  give the book a star, for those who loved Salvage the Bones, the Washington Post says it “lacks the singular hypnotic power” of her first novel “only because its ambition is broader, its style more complex and, one might say, more mature.” Available September 5.

The Vietnam War by Burns_WardThe Vietnam War: An Intimate History by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns
This richly illustrated, comprehensive analysis of the Vietnam War is a print companion to the PBS 10-part, 18-hour documentary airing September 17. The popular PBS film-maker Ken Burns directed the film with co-director Lynn Novick. For the book, Burns and writer-historian Geoffrey Ward talked to war veterans from both sides. The publisher writes: “Rather than taking sides, the book seeks to understand why the war happened the way it did, and to clarify its complicated legacy.” The book’s 640 pages include more than 500 photos and several maps. (It’s also a bit pricey at $60.) Available September 5. Watch the documentary trailer.

Katalin Street by SzaboKatalin Street by Magda Szabo
This novel is published by New York Review Books Classics, which says its books are “discoveries, the kind of books that people typically run into outside of the classroom and then remember for life.” I have remembered Magda Szabo’s novel The Door in that very way, and so look forward to this next novel about three families living next door to one another on the eponymous Katalin Street in Budapest. But then their lives are destroyed by the 1944 German occupation. NYRB Classics writes: “Katalin Street…is a poignant, somber, at times harrowing book, but beautifully conceived and truly unforgettable.” Kirkus Reviews and Publisher’s Weekly cast their stars on this novel. Available September 12.

Little Fires Everywhere by NgLittle Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
In Celeste Ng’s second novel, artistic Mia Warren and her 15-year-old daughter become tenants in a rental property owned by the Richardsons, who live in the tree-lined suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio. The unconventional mother and daughter become closely involved in the perfect lives of their wealthy landlords. The publisher writes: “Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity, and the ferocious pull of motherhood – and the danger of believing that following the rules can avert disaster.” The novel is receiving the attention-getting “un-put-downable” description by some, while Kirkus Reviews (“Outre and disturbingly engaging”) and Publisher’s Weekly  (“an impressive accomplishment”) also rave. Ng’s first novel, Everything I Never Told You, was a New York Times bestseller. Available September 12.

The Ninth Hour by McDermottThe Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott
The Ninth Hour, McDermott’s seventh novel, takes place in Brooklyn in the early 20th century when milkmen delivered fresh milk to households and nuns “moved through the streets of the city in their black and white, doing good where it was needed, imposing good where they found it lacking.” The story centers on the widowed Annie and daughter Sally, who spend their days at the convent of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, where Annie works as a laundress. Sally grows up under the protective eyes of the convent’s inhabitants and finds herself struggling with whether or not she is worthy to take vows. The nuns fill the pages with captivating stories. Kirkus Reviews and Publisher’s Weekly give stars. Available September 19.

Shopping Brooklyn bookstores

December 6, 2011

Oh that every city had indie bookstores like those in Brooklyn. I visited five in the New York City borough this past weekend and was reminded what we miss out here in the other-land that sells books via food markets, big-box “I can sell you everything” stores and, of course, Barnes & Noble. The browsing was extraordinary, tables covered not with the typical and predictable, rather the unusual and hard to find in novels, art books, travel memoirs, classics and literary non-fiction. Here I found shelves devoted to the New York Review Book Classics Series and Melville House Art of the Novella Series. I found signed books in paperback and hard-cover, including The Day Before Happiness by Italian author Erri de Luca at Book Court in Cobble Hill.  A very nice store with a wide space for author readings. This independent has been around since 1981.

The Community Bookstore in the Park Slope area of Brooklyn is a small, comfortable shop filled with literary discoveries. A cat snoozed beside a bookcase and a lizard chirped in the back of the store. This is the kind of shop we all think about when imagining an independent bookstore, crowded with books but easily navigated and smartly organized, cozy in lighting and exuding a sensory feel of profound riches. One shelf provided the personal recommendations of authors who reside in Brooklyn, including Paul Auster, Mary Morris and Jonathan Safran Foer. 

I came away with one of those Melville House novellas, Henry James’ The Lesson of the Master, and also Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, which recently won the National Book Award for fiction — a choice copy because it’s a first edition without the NBA award sticker. Also, Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, which somewhere in my reading this year someone said must be read, and also The Conference of the Birds by Peter Sis.

Greenlight Books is nearby in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, a bright modern space offering a plethora of signed books, many of them paperbacks stacked among the unsigned, the signature within signified by a sticker. Here I purchased a signed copy of my all-time favorite Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem and also a debut novel by Justin Torres, We the Animals, which I’ve been meaning to read since it came out this year. A glance at their literature shelf, and there I saw not only Hans Fallada’s popular Everyman Dies Alone, but also his lesser-known books.  It’s just that which is so lacking in literary mega-store retail and depriving us of possibility and exposure — the lesser-known books kept in stock to be discovered.

Most impressive for its distinctive selections is Spoonbill & Sugartown Booksellers (“I’ve been to Sugartown, I shook the sugar down”*) in the  Williamsburg area of Brooklyn. I couldn’t figure out its focus at first, seeing eclectic art, philosophy and design books among recently released novels on its large center table in the small space. The bookseller told me “it’s not a literary bookstore,” and then added the owners don’t like it when she says that, but it’s true. 

There’s something very different about Spoonbill & Sugartown, as if the selections come from someone’s vision for the store, which has been around since 1999. The store’s website says, “We also hand pick thousands of good books every month for our voracious clientele.” The bookseller told me the owners are descended from a former gallery owner in New York City and that the bookstore opened with books from his personal library. I wish I could’ve spent more time asking questions about the store’s history, but it was time to move on. I came away with a copy of Rudolph Wurlitzer’s Hard Travel to Sacred Places.

Also in the Williamsburg area, selling used books and specializing in literary fiction, both classic and contemporary, is bookthugnation. I didn’t spend much time here, but I came away with a vintage paperback, Aldous Huxley’s After the Fireworks and Other Stories. It was originally published as Brief Candles by Harper & Bros. and likely one of those paperback editions bestowed with a passionate,romantic illustration to sell more copies.

Across the street, not a bookshop but the Brooklyn Art Library where the Sketchbook Project is underway, a collaborative series of art books created by 5,000 artists. Anyone can participate. The Brooklyn Art Library sells vintage notebooks, art supplies and stationary inspired by the past.

If you go to Brooklyn, here’s where you’ll find the bookstores:

  • BookCourt 163 Court Street, Cobble Hill
  • Community Bookstore 143 7th Avenue, Park Slope
  • Greenlight Bookstore 686 Fulton Street, Fort Greene
  • Spoonbill & Sugartown Booksellers 218 Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg
  • Bookthugnation 100 N. 3rd Street, Williamsburg

*Quoted on the Spoonbill & Sugartown bookmark, this line is from a Bob Dylan song, Tryin’ to Get to Heaven.

The title of this post was changed 12.13.11. It formerly was “I’ve been to Sugartown.”

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