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Author Archive: "The Panjandrums"

How We Assembled Indiespensable #50

Renowned Canadian author Miriam Toews is a perennial favorite here at Powell's — so much so that for our landmark 50th volume of Indiespensable, we welcomed the idea of featuring her for a second time — a first in the subscription program's history. All My Puny Sorrows is Toews's most heartbreaking and poignant work to date. The novel centers on the relationship between Elfrieda and Yolandi, two loving and incredibly close adult sisters raised in a small Mennonite community. Elf has battled severe depression all her life, and is determined to commit suicide (as their father did some years before). Yoli wants desperately to keep her sister alive, but also wants to respect her wishes and acknowledge her suffering. A remarkable and very autobiographical novel, the Giller Prize–shortlisted All My Puny Sorrows is impossible to put down and, despite the difficult subject matter, showcases Toews's trademark wit. Yoli, Elf, and their extended family and friends are superb characters who will stay with you long after the book is over, and Toews writes with beauty, grace, and overwhelming love.


How We Assembled Indiespensable #49

David Mitchell is one of the most beloved authors amongst Powell's staff, so when The Bone Clocks was first rumored earlier this year, we began whispering about its release with impatient anticipation. The novel begins in 1984 with Holly Sykes, a British teenager who has decided to run away from home following a terrible fight with her mother. Holly has heard unexplained voices from a young age, and her journey starts a whirlwind of reality-shifting, multifaceted events that echo throughout the lives of a variety of characters — mortal and... slightly otherwise — for the next 60 years. With the sweeping global vision and ability to sum up whole eras of time that he's become known for, along with a fascinating dose of fantasy, The Bone Clocks is David Mitchell's most enthralling and illuminating novel yet.


How We Assembled Indiespensable #48

We've had our eye on Josh Weil ever since his first book, The New Valley, came out in 2009. The collection of three linked novellas won the American Academy of Arts and Letters' Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and earned him a spot on the National Book Foundation's esteemed "5 Under 35" list of upcoming young authors. So we had high expectations when his new novel found its way into our hands. The Great Glass Sea lived up to — and surpassed — those accolades with its inventiveness, originality, and incredible story. Yarik and Dima are twin brothers living in an alternate and dystopian version of Russia. Inseparable as children, their adult lives begin to divide along lines of power, ideology, and fortune. Drawing strong influence from Russian folktales, The Great Glass Sea is a gorgeously written, intricately detailed look at how community, individuality, and love evolve in one imagined future. We are happy to be partnering again with Grove Atlantic, one of the country's premier independent presses, to present this excellent work.

We're also pleased to be working with the good folks at Mighty Leaf Tea, ...


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.


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