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Author Archive: "The Panjandrums"

How We Assembled Indiespensable #47

Since the release of his first story collection in 2002, Anthony Doerr has been hailed as a major literary talent. He's been awarded four O. Henry Prizes, the Rome Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, three Pushcart Prizes, the Story Prize, and a host of other awards and honors. In 2007, Granta even named him one of 21 Best Young American Novelists. Still, despite all the acclaim, one wonders if fans will be quite prepared for his new book. Doerr's fifth book and second novel is a truly magnificent achievement, the kind that anchors a body of work and redefines a career.

All the Light We Cannot See tells the parallel stories of a blind French girl and a young German radio engineer during World War II. Whether he's describing the locks in Paris's National Museum of Natural History, the history of a notorious diamond, or the streets of a medieval French port, Doerr lends an expert's eye to the details of the world he brings to life. But what truly elevates his second novel is how skillfully he uses each of his lyrical, evocative sentences, one after the other, to gradually ...

How We Assembled Indiespensable #46

After publishing five novels, including two international bestsellers, Siri Hustvedt is best known as a writer of fiction. But according to Salley Vickers of the Observer, "She is even more to be admired as an essayist (in this regard I feel that she resembles Virginia Woolf)." Fluent in the concepts and the language of psychology, neuroscience, the visual arts, and many other fields, Hustvedt is a world-class polymath. So it came as no surprise that her new novel is as intellectually provocative as it is emotionally moving. Yet The Blazing World was still a revelation.

Told in a patchwork of journal entries, personal reminiscences, interviews, and transcripts, all compiled after her death, The Blazing World tells from competing perspectives the story of middle-aged artist Harriet (Harry) Burden, who conducts an experiment in which three male artists agree to show her work and claim it as their own. The work is received well, but when Harry steps up to reveal the ruse, things get interesting. And complicated. While the setup sounds like a revealing intellectual exercise, what makes The Blazing World such a triumph is Hustvedt's extraordinary ability to ...

How We Assembled Indiespensable #45

When one of young Richard Powers's college professors told him that literature was the "perfect place for someone who wanted the aerial view," he abandoned his plan to become a scientist and switched his major to English. As Margaret Atwood would one day quip, "Powers is not a painter of miniatures." The aerial view is where he lives. Powers has a deep knowledge of a remarkable array of subjects and at times seems to be incorporating them into one overarching view. He's written about physics, history, photography, computer science, genetics, economics, and many other topics. But the motif Powers has returned to most often throughout his career is music, which takes center stage again in his brilliant new novel based loosely on the myth of Orpheus.

Peter Els, a classical composer who dabbles in microbiology, gets fingered as a bioterrorist and, after a national manhunt is launched, spends the rest of the novel on the lam. He revisits the seminal people and music from his past and contemplates the decisions that shaped his life's work. A gorgeously written, masterfully plotted, deeply moving story of one man's quest to create ...

How We Assembled Indiespensable #44

In his introduction to The Best of McSweeney's, Dave Eggers recounts the time he met an Irish couple with the surname of, coincidentally enough, McSweeney. Even more coincidentally, the man's name was Timothy, but the heart of the story is about his wife. Describing a writer she loved, Maura McSweeney told Eggers that he wrote "like he's seeing the world for the first time."

According to Eggers, that's what he looks for as an editor: "writers who make us feel like they're seeing their world, whatever world that is, with fresh eyes, and allow us to experience it through their words." Over the past 15 years, the journal he founded, Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, has published such authors in droves.

But, for many, it's the magazine itself that takes center stage. Rick Moody recalls receiving a galley of the first issue:

I saw, was astonished to see, was arrested to see, how beautiful the thing was, how idiosyncratically and thoughtfully the thing was designed. I mean, my idea of a literary magazine was that it was primarily a sleep-inducer....Nevertheless, this magazine turned out to be beautiful, and its editor, uh, rather savvy, or even, let’s say, visionary....In due course, I received issue number one. Which as we know now changed the literary magazine for good, if not American publishing entire."

How We Assembled Indiespensable #43

In addition to her novels, Donna Tartt is known for her obsessive fans. As a freshman in college, her writing had already caught the attention of an eminent editor, who introduced himself by saying, "My name's Willie Morris, and I think you're a genius." With the publication of her magnificent debut, The Secret History, Tartt became the focus of something like an international cult. Her second novel, The Little Friend, was one of the most anticipated literary events of the past decade. So it is with particular pleasure that we are featuring The Goldfinch, Tartt's long-awaited third novel, as our selection for Indiespensable Volume 43.

This story about a boy named Theo Decker, who loses his mother in an explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, does so many things well, it's hard to know where to begin. Its sprawling Dickensian plot? Its extraordinary cast of characters? Tartt's sublime sentences? Or complex, compelling, heartbreaking Theo at the center of it all? As Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times put it, The Goldfinch is "a novel that pulls together all [Tartt's] remarkable storytelling talents into a rapturous, symphonic whole and reminds the reader of the immersive, stay-up-all-night pleasures of reading." Tartt's fans old and new will devour it.

How We Assembled Indiespensable #42

We love assembling each Indiespensable package. But this one was special. Not only are we featuring one of our favorite authors, Nobel laureate and two-time Booker Prize winner J. M. Coetzee, but the famously reclusive South African has graciously agreed to sign copies of his new novel for us. We're grateful to Mr. Coetzee and delighted to be able to present each Indiespensable subscriber with a handsomely slipcased — and signed — copy of The Childhood of Jesus.

This complex allegory about a man and a boy who arrive by boat in an unnamed, Spanish-speaking land and set out to find the boy's mother combines the character-driven narrative and gorgeous prose of his early novels with the exhilarating philosophical explorations of his later work. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Joyce Carol Oates marveled, "[The Childhood of Jesus] plunges us at once into a mysterious and dreamlike terrain....A Kafka-inspired parable of the quest for meaning itself." The Childhood of Jesus is a magnificent achievement, one that will remind readers why Coetzee is widely regarded as one of the most important writers at work today.

How We Assembled Indiespensable #41

Mark Slouka has been on our radar ever since God's Fool, his fascinating and beautiful first novel about the lives of 19th century conjoined twins Chang and Eng. When we heard that our dear friends at W. W. Norton were publishing his latest novel, Brewster, we couldn't let the opportunity to work with them pass us by. This heartbreaking coming-of-age story paints a vivid portrait of the claustrophobic working-class town of Brewster, New York, during the late '60s, with the threat of the Vietnam War ever present in the background. Jon Mosher, the story's narrator, sets the tone in the first few pages: "How it felt [in Brewster] was like somebody twice as strong as you had their hand around your throat. You could choke or fight." Brought to life in prose at once spare and visceral, Brewster is about violence and grief, but also love and friendship. It's about the urge to escape, as well as the price of standing your ground.

How We Assembled Indiespensable #40

When we read Matt Bell's debut novel, our first thought was, Wow! Our second thought was, Indiespensable. Books like this are why we created a subscription club in the first place. We wanted a venue to promote those titles we would stake our reputation on but that might need a boost to reach the audience they deserved, hence the focus on independent presses, small print runs, and first-time authors. We'll concede that In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods is not an easy book. It's certainly difficult to describe, though Lauren Groff (Arcadia) came pretty close when she called it "a big, slinking, dangerous fairy tale, the kind with gleaming fangs and blood around the muzzle and a powerful heart you can hear thumping from miles away." But it is well worth the effort. Once you sink your teeth in, we're confident you'll love it as much as we did.

How We Assembled Indiespensable #39

The moment we opened Anthony Marra's brutal, beautiful debut novel about an orphaned Chechnyan girl hiding from the Russians during the country's recent decade of war, we knew that for once our choice would be easy. Maile Meloy perfectly captured our experience: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is "both devastating and transcendent....You'll finish it transformed." One colleague was even more succinct, saying simply, "Gorgeous. Just gorgeous!"

Also included is an advance reader copy of another remarkable debut about a young woman enduring trying circumstances, this time the Scottish juvenile justice system. Written by Jenni Fagan, one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists, The Panopticon was first published in Britain last year, and it earned review after review lavish with enthusiasm. Irvine Welsh said: "The term 'stunning debut novel' doesn't even begin to cover The Panopticon. Each page sparkles with the ebullient and sinister magic of great storytelling....An utterly magnificent achievement." The Panopticon won't be available to American readers until July, so you, Indiespensable subscribers, are among the first to get your hands on this extraordinary novel.

Finally, we've included a limited-edition Klean Kanteen stainless steel pint. It's beautiful, sits comfortably in the hand, and is nearly indestructible. You'll never have to read thirsty again!






How We Assembled Indiespensable #38

From the opening pages of Domenica Ruta's memoir about her chaotic childhood with her flamboyant, contradictory mother, her own eventual descent into addiction, and her painful journey back to health, we knew we had to get this book into as many hands as possible. With or Without You may delve into a good deal of anguish, but it is a joy to read.

Ruta looks back on her tumultuous life through shrewd eyes, fiercely unsentimental and unflinchingly honest. Yet throughout, her voice remains wryly playful:

I didn't have many friends growing up; then I hit puberty and things got even worse. Here begins my angry phase, the self-centered, quietly homicidal years, that special hiccup of time between my first bra and my first joint.

Ruta's real triumph, however, is in portraying her raucous, exasperating family members as sympathetic, if flawed, human beings. This takes imagination, unwavering self-examination, and determined honesty. But more importantly, it takes genuine heart, which is what ultimately elevates With or Without You. As Kathryn Harrison observes, "Difficult childhoods are plentiful, the talent to transform adversity into art in short supply." That talent is evident on every page.

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