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Author Archive: "Jill Owens"

Annihilation (Southern Reach #1)

Annihilation is haunting and dreamlike, eerily menacing and appealingly open to interpretation. Immersion in VanderMeer's intriguing and beautifully drawn dystopian world will keep you up at night.

Richard Powers: The Interview

If everyone got to talk to Richard Powers for 45 minutes, humanity might go ahead and evolve to its next level. Unfailingly kind and generous, passionate and fiercely intelligent, Powers is as remarkable to speak with as he is a writer. The San Francisco Chronicle has said that Powers "may be America's most ambitious novelist," and The Echo Maker, for which we last interviewed him, won the National Book Award.

Orfeo, his latest novel, centers on Peter Els — a composer who, because of his experiments in microbiology in his retirement, finds himself on the run from the authorities; in so doing, he revisits the people, music, and memories that have shaped his life and his composition. Powers returns to some familiar subjects — notably music, genetics, and the surveillance state — with lyrical and beautiful prose, a moving and relatable story, and an eloquent and fascinating look back at the music of the 20th century. We are incredibly proud to present Orfeo as our choice for Indiespensable Vol. 45.

Jill Owens: You've written about music in many of your books, but in some ways this one feels the most focused on it as ...

Life after Life

Life after Life is not a traditional novel, with its stops and starts, its looping repetitions; Kate Atkinson builds a fully realized world by accruing a constellation of possibilities. It is a fantastically ambitious book, seeking to capture the complexity and momentousness of life itself, which succeeds on every level, and it is one of the best books I've read in years.

Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

I come across many, many cookbooks and more often than not take them home to try them out. This cookbook has quickly become one of my favorites. Every recipe — really, every one! — that I've tried so far has been excellent — not just good or successful, but above and beyond what I expected. There's no shortage of material, either; this cookbook is huge, is sturdy, and will last a lifetime. Most recipes are very easy, and I love Madison's clarity (at the beginning she tells you what size carrot, onion, or garlic she assumes). The introduction is thorough and relevant for cooks at any level, bringing cooking back to its essence: experimentation, fresh ingredients, and pleasure. And, as Madison states on the cover, you don't have to be a vegetarian to enjoy these recipes; you could add meat to many, and the book is worth keeping for its extensive section on vegetables and side dishes alone. If I had a kitchen fire, this is the cookbook I'd rescue.

Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity

Andrew Solomon's gorgeous prose is always a pleasure, and this book, 10 years in the making, is his masterpiece. With empathy and grace, Far from the Tree explores the lives of people who are significantly different from their parents and often the rest of society. A fascinating read that will make you more human.

The Circle

In Dave Eggers's latest page-turning novel, Mae Holland is ecstatic to get a job at the Circle — an Internet company that's like Google, Facebook, and Apple combined and on steroids. Thrilling and sinister, The Circle explores issues of connectivity, privacy, and democracy that our world is hurtling toward.

Donna Tartt: The Interview

Donna Tartt has a lot of devoted fans among the Powell's staff; I think I got more requests for advance copies of The Goldfinch than any other upcoming book. And for those lucky enough to get one, the reviews were unanimous: we loved it, and it was well worth the wait. The Goldfinch is a masterful novel. An epic coming-of-age story written in brilliant, illuminated prose, and a mesmerizing portrait of friendships and unconventional families, Tartt's third novel has been rightly called Dickensian for its sweeping themes, colorful characters, and extraordinary attention to detail. Stephen King raved, "The Goldfinch is a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade, a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind....Donna Tartt has delivered an extraordinary work of fiction." We absolutely agree, which is why we chose it as Volume 43 of Indiespensable.

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Jill Owens: How did you choose the painting, Fabritius's The Goldfinch? What about that particular image resonated with you, and what's your history with the painting?

Donna Tartt: Actually, I did consider a couple of other paintings, briefly, though I always knew it was the one. I first saw it as a copy at Christie's Amsterdam — I loved the painting the instant I saw it, and the more I found out about it, the more enthralled I became. The Goldfinch is a tiny painting — not much bigger than a child's school notebook — and a greatly beloved and unique little work; in all the Golden Age of Dutch art, there's nothing quite like it, and it also has a fascinating history that plays into the plot of the novel. The painter who made it, Carel Fabritius — who was the pupil of Rembrandt and the teacher of Vermeer, and who was greatly celebrated in his own day — died very young in a tragic accident, the explosion of a gunpowder factory in Delft that destroyed most of the town. This little painting is one of Fabritius's very few works that survive.

Mark Slouka: The Interview

Mark Slouka is a marvelous essayist, short story writer, and novelist and a frequent Harper's magazine contributor; he's written about everything from Chang and Eng to cyberspace and the nature of reality to why exactly George Bush needed all that brush clearing. His latest novel, Brewster, takes him closer to home; it's a dark and spare coming-of-age story, a portrait of a small New York town in the late '60s, and a moving depiction of an intense and loving friendship. The book follows Jon Mosher, a 16-year-old with a difficult family life who befriends an outsider named Ray, a rebellious fighter with an abusive ex-cop father. When Ray falls in love with a new girl in town, Karen, the dreams — and the fates — of all three friends hinge on getting out of Brewster.

Jennifer Egan raves, "The dark undertow of Slouka's prose makes Brewster instantly mesmerizing, a novel that whirls the reader into small-town, late 1960s America with mastery, originality, and heart." And Colum McCann writes, "Reading Brewster is like entering the very heart of a Bruce Springsteen song — all grace, all depth, all sinew. Slouka — one of the great unsung ...

Matt Bell: The Interview

Matt Bell's debut novel is set, as its title suggests, in a remote area next to a lake in a forest. The cast of characters includes a giant bear, a foundling, a fingerling, a woman who can sing whole worlds into being, and her husband, who wants nothing more than to lead a quiet life and — most importantly — raise a family. Things don't work out as planned, though, as pregnancy after pregnancy ends in tragedy. As the story unfolds, and the couple's dreams of a simple life unravel, the sheer force of Bell's prose and the mythic, underworldly power of his characters' fates grip the reader by the throat.

Jess Walter (National Book Award finalist and author of Beautiful Ruins) tried to capture the experience: "This is a fiercely original book...that sent me scurrying for adjectives, for precedents, for cover." That about sums it up. In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods is as difficult to describe as a dream. This onslaught of primordial imagination will confound, confront, and absolutely amaze you. We loved it so much, we chose it for Volume 40 of Indiespensable.

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Jill Owens: What was the genesis of In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods? I will note, I love that title, but it might be the hardest title to remember ever.

Matt Bell: It's a lot of title! [Laughter]

I'm not necessarily an idea person. I don't start off with an idea ahead of time. It's weird, the way these things work. I had just finished my last book, and I was trying to find the next thing. I was writing a lot of starts every day, trying to get some traction.

The first thing I wrote was a passage that's not in the book, of the husband watching the wife singing. He's seeing these things that she could potentially one day create with her voice, which isn't something that happens in the book anymore. But that was the initial seed of it.

Claire Messud: The Interview

Claire Messud's new novel, The Woman Upstairs, is fiercely intelligent and urgently intimate, written with precision, humor, and an incredible command of language. Nora Eldridge, an elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is living a life of quiet desperation after her mother's death when she meets the Shahids — Sirena, a successful and enchanting Italian artist; Skandar, a brilliant professor of the ethics of history; and their charming son, Reza, a child in Nora's class. Nora falls in love with them all, in varying ways, and these relationships bring her ecstasy, artistic freedom, and, eventually, shattering pain and fury.

In a starred review, Kirkus called The Woman Upstairs "an astonishing feat of creative imagination: at once self-lacerating and self-pitying, containing enough truth to induce squirms....Brilliant and terrifying," and in another starred review, Booklist raved, "Messud’s scorching social anatomy, red-hot psychology, galvanizing story, and incandescent language make for an all-circuits-firing novel about enthrallment, ambition, envy, and betrayal. A tour de force." The Woman Upstairs may be the renowned author's finest work yet.

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Jill Owens: What was the genesis of The Woman Upstairs?

Claire Messud: There were several, I think. If you'll bear with me, I can tell you a few.

One impetus was a feeling as a reader that I had all my life read and greatly appreciated the ranting voices of misfit, dissatisfied, or antihero men, but I didn't know of any female equivalents. So part of me wanted to write in the voice of a woman whose voice had not been heard.

Another aspect for me was the whole question of the interior life. I think that's something that is absolutely universal. In Chekhov's "The Lady with the Little Dog," the protagonist — who's had many affairs but who has for the first time fallen in love with his mistress — reflects on the fact that what is most important to him, only he knows. It's completely secret, and nobody around him is aware of the things that matter to him most. Then he has the apprehension that this is true for everybody, so that all around him, he doesn't actually know what's most important to all the people he thinks he knows.

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