Bill Bryson

11 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: November 2016

Every month, the Writer’s Bone crew reviews or previews books we've read or want to read. This series may or may not also serve as a confessional for guilty pleasures and hipster novels only the brave would attempt. Feel free to share your own suggestions in the comments section or tweet us @WritersBone.

Christodora by Tim Murphy

Daniel Ford: I was completely enthralled by Tim Murphy’s heartbreaking novel Christodora. The novel features deep, well thought out, damaged characters that were hard to let go once the story ended. Much like Rachel Harper’s This Side of Providence, Christodora is an emotional ride that never suffers from syrupy sentimentality because of Murphy’s straightforward prose and sharp dialogue.

Nonlinear storytelling has been a literary trend of late, and can be tough to pull off. However, Murphy makes it look effortless, bouncing from character to character across multiple decades without ever losing narrative steam. The Christodora, the building in the East Village that the Traum family inhabits, is just as much a character as Milly, Jared and their adopted son Mateo, and really anchors the narrative while it sways in and out of each decade. Murphy never delves into cliché and captures the city I fell in love with more than many of the other New York-centric novels that have come out in recent years.

Murphy’s unblinking exploration of the AIDs epidemic also gave me a refresher on the early AIDs fight, as well as explaining issues that those with HIV and AIDs still battle with today. He paints a real human face on the epidemic and, for me at least, kicked away some of the complacency I felt toward recent medical breakthroughs.

This book is well worth the tears and anxiety it is sure to induce.

The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived: A True Story of My Family by Tom Shroder

DF: Tom Shroder’s insightful, personal investigation into his Pulitzer Prize-winning grandfather MacKinlay Kantor is the perfect tonic for despairing authors and journalists.

Kantor, who won said Pulitzer for his novel Andersonville in 1956, is endlessly fascinating. His childhood and early adulthood were marred by a rapscallion father, he suffered through poverty and bad breaks to become a respected author, made friends with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and John D. MacDonald, won the Medal of Freedom for his reporting during World War II, and published more than 30 novels.

Kantor’s rise to fame (and subsequent fall) was entertaining and wonderfully researched, but I was most struck by the personal elements in Shroder’s narrative. His relationship with his grandfather, Kantor’s relationship with his degenerate father, the remarkable women that kept this family together over the years, and Kantor’s dogged pursuit of the written word had me completely spellbound. And as an amateur historian myself, I also loved Shroder going into detail about his research process at the Library of Congress and everywhere else he found bits and pieces of Kantor’s story.

Shroder also absolutely nails what it’s like suffering through writing highs and lows. His journey as a writer eerily mirrors Kantor’s at times, and in some ways serves as a time capsule for journalists who came of age at the end of the 20th century. However, despite the obvious technological and format changes writing and journalism have undergone in the 2000s, the writing path still has similar perils, and Shroder offers plenty of useful tips and humorous anecdotes for those crazy enough to still want to pursue these maddening fields. The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived filled my creative tank and gave me the inspiration I needed to flood the world with more words.  

Before we move on, I’ll leave you with this poignant quote from Kantor that Shroder unearthed:

“I wish that all writers might have as good of friends as I have owned and still own. Writing is desperately lonely business. It is scarcely worth living for in itself. But friends help to keep you going.”  

The Thunder Beneath Us by Nicole Blades

Lindsey Wojcik: Thunder certainly rumbles throughout author Nicole Blades's second novel. In a flashback prologue, main character Best Lightburn literally experiences thunder beneath her feet as she walks across an icy lake in Montreal with her two brothers one Christmas Eve. When the ice cracks and all three fall in, Best's survival instincts kick in and she climbs out of the lake as the only one alive.

When we meet Best in present day New York City, a decade after the accident, she's a magazine writer with an arsenal of descriptive adjectives for vagina. With the opener, "Coochie. Vajayjay. Box. Beaver. Taco. Vadge. Bajingo. Lady Garden. Call it whatever you want; the goddamn thing just killed my career," readers are immediately drawn into The Thunder Beneath Us.

Present-day Best seems to have it all—she’s a rising star in the New York City magazine world, she’s dating a hunky actor, and has fabulous socialite friends. However, in New York City, this type of luck doesn’t last long in fiction without some sort of drama or angst rising up from the depths. In Best’s case, she is internally struggling with the guilt of surviving the horrible accident in her youth. Naturally, this plays a major role as her life begins to unravel. Best gets in her own way throughout the course of the novel and struggles to find a way to forgive herself, so she can heal and ultimately find happiness.

Blade crafts a distinctive voice for Best and the supporting cast of characters, and when the thunder settles, readers will find that compassion for the human condition that Blades hoped to achieve with The Thunder Beneath Us.

Be sure to read my full interview with Blades, and then go out and read the book!

The Nix by Nathan Hill

Gary Almeter: A big part of what makes protagonist Samuel Andresen-Anderson likeable, in addition to his redundant surname, is his love for the Choose Your Own Adventure books. I couldn't help but recall the wonder with which each of those books—each decision, each new world, each potential destiny—filled me as a kid. 

Author Nathan Hill fills The Nix with that same wonder. The book meanders and careens through 1968 Chicago Riots, the oppressive tranquility of rural Iowa, the chaos of 2011’s Occupy Wall Street, wealthy suburbs filled with unsupervised ‘80s kids, modern day academia, and ancient Norway. Hill has a keen awareness of the idiosyncrasies that make each event unique, and why they have made Mr. Andresen-Anderson distinctly disconnected. 

The book follows Samuel as he endeavors to reconnect with his mother—accused of pelting an uber-conservative Wyoming politician with rocks—who abandoned him decades ago. He struggles to connect with his students, his grandparents, and his “friends” who play "World of Elfscape," an online fantasy game. 

Along the way, Hill skewers modern popular music and politics, as well as a ton of other things that deserve to be satirized. It can often feel like a bit much, but the consummation and/or dissolution of the connections in Samuel's life really propel this timely narrative.

At Home by Bill Bryson

DF: I have been a huge fan of Bill Bryson’s ever since my cousin’s husband lent me I’m a Stranger Here Myself and A Walk in the Woods (which was recently made into a film starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte). However, after slogging through A Short History of Nearly Everything, I took a break from the travel writer, more content to re-read A Walk in the Woods once a year rather than dabble in his newer material.

Following my trip to London earlier this year, I picked up Notes From A Small Island and caught the Bryson bug again! I quickly ordered some of the books I missed during my asinine hiatus, and hunkered down with At Home: A Short History of Private Life.

Bryson investigates every room in his house—a former Church of England rectory located in “a village of tranquil anonymity in Norfolk”—and quickly gets lost in a wonderful swirl of delectable forgotten history and entrancing trivia. The prose features Bryson’s trademark cheekiness, and never groans under the weight of all the fascinating (yet incredibly arcane) tales the author uncovers.

I can’t tell you how many conversations I had with family and friends while reading this book that started with “Did you know…” Like, did you know that the French were once known for “pissing in chimnies” and defecating in staircases, or that the invention of hydraulic cement made the Erie Canal possible, or that fires killed as many as six thousand people a year in America during the 1870s?

Listen, if that doesn’t send you running to your local bookstore, then I don’t know what will. At Home doesn’t belong in the attic (where Bryson begins and ends his homebound journey), it belongs in your hands.

The Murdery Delicious Blood Stone Secret by Peter Sherwood

DF: First our haunted Halloween collection and now “Books That Should Be On Your Radar?” What’s next for Peter Sherwood, a Pulitzer?!

Like Sean Tuohy mentioned during his intro to last week’s “Friday Morning Coffee,” Sherwood’s finale to the Murdery Delicious is much like the author himself: “very witty and very smart.” We find Reynald and Willoughby Chalmers, “a little older, perhaps wiser, and undoubtedly more terrified,” and trying to survive the perils of the Blood Stone Manor with their wives and children. The Murdery Delicious Blood Stone Secret is chock-full of Sherwood’s theatric dialogue and whimsical prose.

I always feel better about literature and writing whenever I finish a Sherwood yarn (not to mention hungrier!), and this novel was no exception. It’s been a real joy tracking Sherwood’s progress as a writer, and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next. While I hope that this isn’t the last time we see with the Chalmers brothers, if it is, then it is more than a fitting (and ghostly!) conclusion to their adventures.

DF: I read the Best American Short Stories collection every year, but I typically don’t include it in “Books That Should Be On Your Radar” because I end up liking individual stories more than the overall compilation. The 2016 edition is a strong collection, however, and clearly (and positively) influenced by author Junot Díaz’s personality and style. Like any anthology, there are hits and misses, but Díaz made some inspired choices that led to a more eclectic, cohesive, and diverse reading experience. I found something that tickled my literary brain in just about every story, even the ones that didn’t quite work for me. There are also some absolute powerhouses that I expect to return to for inspiration, including Louise Erdrich’s “ The Flower,” Lauren Groff’s “For the God of Love, for the Love of God,” Meron Hadero’s “The Suitcase,” Smith Henderson’s “Treasure State,” Ben Marcus’s “Cold Little Bird,” Karen Russell’s “The Prospectors,” and Sharon Solwitz’s “Gifted.”

Collections like the Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories (next up on my reading list) are invaluable tools for aspiring writers who to gravitate to the short story form. These volumes also include contributor notes, which allow the authors to share their motivations and writing processes. In Best American Short Stories 2016, John Edger Wideman’s note includes a real gem: “A story desires and sets out to see what is there—and sometimes finds a bridge—with a history, names, walkers, jumpers, memories, etc.—so starts across.” Amen!

Author’s Corner

Starting with famous author Tony McMillan, “Books That Should Be On Your Radar” will now feature recommendations from our favorite authors. Or in Tony’s case, authors we tolerate. Enjoy!

Tony McMillian: I loved Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. My favorite ongoing comic book right now is Head Lopper by Boston boy done good Andrew MacLean. Also, Skullcrack City by Jeremy Robert Johnson was damn fine, and transcends Bizarro the way Van Halen transcends butt-rock. Quote me.

Oh, and Notes from the Shadowed City by Jeffrey Alan Love is a fully illustrated book that's as lyrical in its prose as it is in its artwork.

Be sure to listen to the audio version of "Books That Should Be On Your Radar!"

Have Book Will Travel: 10 Reads To Bring On Your Next Trip

Grand Central Terminal, New York City

Grand Central Terminal, New York City

By Daniel Ford and Sean Tuohy

What’s the best way to combat crying kids, PDA Olympians, and Starkist sweethearts when you’re on the move?

Read something.

Here are 10 books we recommend for your traveling needs.

The Shadow Of The Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Sean Tuohy: I was given this book just before I started backpacking through Europe after high school. The book details a boy's coming of age in post-civil war Spain while investigating a long-forgotten book with deadly secrets. The characters jump off the page in this well-written and heartfelt story, but the true star is the city of Barcelona. Zafon paints the city so vividly that you feel as if you are walking the stone streets and running a hand along the bullet marked city walls. I started reading this book when I was sitting on the cold marble floor of the Barcelona train station one summer afternoon. By the time we reached Rome two days later I was nearly done. This book will insert a sense of adventure in you while traveling. Side note, I was nose deep in this book when I was involved in an indecent moment in Vatican City.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Daniel Ford: As a kid, I used to bring multiple books with me on car trips just in case I finished one. I always needed a backup. Who wants to be in a car headed toward grocery shopping without a book? Not this guy. I used to travel a lot in college with St. Johns’ baseball team and tore through a ton of books on long bus trips. I read several hundred pages of David McCullough’sTruman on the road to Charleston, S.C. and devoured Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code in one shot from New York City to Morgantown, W.V. I enjoy reading magazines, I like the ease of the Kindle, but nothing beats a flesh-and-book in my hands while heading to the next adventure (or more likely to the bookstore to buy more books). Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods not only is a travel memoir, but also a great travel companion. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read this on the road or on the train. You can enjoy walking the Appalachian Trail by sitting on your keister. Doesn’t get much better than that.

The Watchmen by Alan Moore

ST: This is one of the most celebrated comic books of all time and that is for good reason. I had heard about Moore's epic but never picked it up until I went to Canada with a group of friends. My friend Jorge handed me the yellow covered comic and ordered "read this" before walking away. For the next week I had my nose stuck between the pages of a masterpiece. This is a comic book that can even be read by non- comic book fans. The artwork is done in a classic style that will never age, along with fresh, evergreen dialogue. If you need a break from your travels and want to try something new, I recommend this.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

DF: I recommend reading this following a tour of Theodore Roosevelt’s birthplace on 28 East 20th Street in New York City. My older brother and I sprinted from a bar several blocks away just to make the final tour of the afternoon. It was also 100 degrees out. We were dripping sweat, but it was totally worth it to see where the nation’s 26th President started out.

This books tracks Roosevelt’s rise to fame and offers more thrills and adventures than you might think for being a biography on a former President. From the moment a sickly “Teedie” is told by his father, “You have the mind, but you do not have the body,” you root for Roosevelt to overcome his shortcomings and take his rightful place in history. His early travels as a youngster should also inspire you to take flight and experience all the world has to offer.

The Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen

ST: I have never been a fan of poetry besides Langston Hughes, but my friend Danny gave me this collection of poems as a birthday gift. It sat on my shelf collecting dust sadly for a year or so before I picked it up randomly as I was in the process of moving to Boston. One overcast morning, I picked the book up and randomly opened to a poem and a few hours later I had eaten the book up and started rereading it. This is a great intro book in to modern poetry for non-poetry fans. Cohan's witty and original views on life give you a different view on the world when you put the book down.

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer by James L. Swanson

DF: This is the perfect book for a long train ride. It won’t take you long to finish and it’s a tightly wound thriller where the stakes for the “characters” and nation have never been higher. The story follows the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. What more do you need in a thriller? Swanson also gives you the impression that Booth was really close to missing and that Lincoln would have kicked his ass because Lincoln would have been between his wife and danger and was still jacked from being a rail-splitter back home. You should read this on a trip to Washington D.C. that ends with a visit to Ford’s Theatre.

Salem's Lot by Stephen King

ST: At 14 years old, I found the world of Stephan King and never truly left. From that moment on, I kept one foot solidly in the land of darkness, magic, and wonder. Reading Salem's Lot— King's second published book is a modern take on a vampire story—you’ll find yourself watching a good author find his footing in the publishing world. It’s not as strong as some of his later work, but still well-crafted and filled with classic King characters we have all come to love. The tale about a small New England town that is invaded by the vampires will also keep you awake while on your travels.

The Boxcar Children: Snowbound Mystery and Houseboat Mysteryby Gertrude Chandler Warner

DF: I couldn’t decide on which one of these The Boxcar Children mysteries to include, so I’m throwing them both in. I used to read both the car religiously. There was hardly a morning spent at the breakfast table without a book from The Boxcar Children collection, in fact. I loved reading about the adventures this cool group of kids had without the help of grown-ups. Both mysteries are far more sophisticated and darker than the teen crap being shoved down society’s throat today.

The Boxcar Children started out living alone in an abandoned boxcar, became self-sufficient, and were eventually taken in by an old man who trusted and respected them enough to experience the world on their own. He would be thrown in jail in 2014. These books made me want to adventure on my own as well, which eventually led me leaving home for New York City where I didn’t know a soul. I knew I’d be okay because my friends Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny were always able to come back home after their adventures and regal their grandfather with tales of their shenanigans.

Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

ST: Not a fan of sci-fi? You will be after reading this breath taking sci -fi novel about the human condation to discover more by icon Arthur C Clark. The books tells the story of a massive alien space ship as it passes Earth and the crew of humans sent to investigate. Not very long but filled with classic sci-fi and tension building moments this space travel book will take you to new places.

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

DF: The Road by Cormac McCarthy is a great read, but let’s face it, not exactly uplifting literature. Ben H. Winters’ vision of apocalypse is different. Not that it’s not bleak, because it is, but it allows you to sort through your thoughts on how people might actually react if an asteroid was about to collide with Earth. The book features a semi-boiled police detective Hank Palace who continues to do his job…because, well, that’s what he does. People disappear, laws become flexible, murder becomes easy, but Palace keeps up the good fight because that’s what he’s always done. The world has six months from when the book starts (this is the first in a trilogy) and while it’s a major plot point, the author doesn’t beat you over the head with it. The world has in large part accepted its fate and gone crazy accordingly. I remember reading this book late at night on the subway and bus headed toward Queens—and many times I was the only one on either. If you’re alone in the world and want to feel what it’s like if you were really the only person in the world, follow Hank Palace around for a little bit. There are worse things you could do. Like talk to people.