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Writers Institute Holiday Book List 2013
Are you searching for a book for that hard-to-please person on your holiday gift list? To help you narrow down your choices here are a few recommendations of recent books by a number of writers who visited the Writers Institute in 2013. The list represents different genres and subject matter that should appeal to a wide range of tastes and interests. And while you are looking for that special gift for someone else, you just may find something for yourself.

Tenth of DecemberTenth of December: Stories by George Saunders — A four-time winner of the National MagazineAward for fiction,Saunders is widely regarded as one of the most original writers of short fiction of his generation. Hisnewest collection, Tenth of December: Stories (2013), presents an assortment of characters faced with painful moral quandaries and existential dilemmas. The protagonists include, among others, a shy boy who witnesses an attempted abduction; a combat veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder; a terminal cancer patient who prepares to commit suicide; and a man deranged by a series of pharmaceutical experiments. Referring to the new collection, Joel Lovell, deputy editor of the New York Times magazine, published an eight-page January 2012 profile entitled, “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year.”

The Obituary WriterThe Obituary Writer by Ann Hood — Two women cope with heartbreak and loss during two different periods in American history: at the beginning of JFK’s presidential administration, and in the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake. Part literary mystery and part love story, The Obituary Writer examines expectations of marriage and love, the roles of wives and mother, and the emotions of grief, regret, and hope. Novelist Andre Dubus III said, “The Obituary Writer is an unflinching exploration of loss and the love that somehow remains, one that both wounds and heals. This is a deeply engaging and moving book.”

All That IsAll That Is by James Salter — James Salter is regarded as one of the finest living fiction writers by fellow writers and critics. His latest novel, All That Is (2013), is the story of a naval officer who returns from the battles of World War II to make a life as a book editor in bohemian New York. Romantic and haunting, the novel explores a life unfolding in a world on the brink of change. In advance praise, Tim O’Brien described the book as the “best novel I’ve read in years. Salter’s vivid, lucid prose does exquisite justice to his subject—the relentless struggle to make good on our own humanity. Once again he has delivered to us a novel of the highest artistry.”

The Sandcastle GirlsThe Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian — A New York Times bestseller, The Sandcastle Girls (2012), is an epic tale of the Armenian Genocide that mines Bohjalian’s own Armenian heritage (his grandparents survived the tragedy). Set at the turn of the 20th century, the novel tells the tale of Elizabeth Endicott, a young American social worker from a wealthy family, who— shortly after her graduation from Mt. Holyoke— volunteers with a Boston-based charity to work among Armenian refugees in Aleppo, Syria. There she meets and falls in love with Armen, an Armenian engineer who has already lost his wife and infant daughter. The novel also follows the story of Laura Petrosian, Elizabeth’s granddaughter, a novelist living in Bronxville, New York, as she discovers buried family secrets nearly a century later. Nathalie Gorman of Oprah.com called The Sandcastle Girls, “A searing, tautly woven tale of war and the legacy it leaves behind. . . . A nuanced, sophisticated portrayal of what it means not only to endure, but to insist on hope.”

Dissident GardensDissident Gardens by Jonathan LethemDissident Gardens is the story of three generations of American radicals living in Sunnyside, Queens, and Greenwich Village, as they take part in the home-grown Communism of the 1930s up through the Occupy Wall Street movement of more recent days. The Kirkus reviewer said, “A dysfunctional family embodies a dysfunctional epoch, as the novelist continues his ambitious journey through decades, generations, and the boroughs of New York... The setup of this novel is so frequently funny that it reads like homage to classic Philip Roth.”

T.C. Boyle Stories IIT. C. Boyle Stories II by T. C. Boyle — T. C. Boyle, born and raised in Peekskill, NY, and educated at SUNY Potsdam has been called “one of the most inventive and verbally exuberant writers of his generation” (New York Times). Though better-known for his 14 bestselling novels, T. C. Boyle is also a widely admired and wildly prolific practitioner of the short story form. This collection, T. C. Boyle Stories II (October 2013), is a 915-page sequel to the nearly 700-page T. C. Boyle Stories (1998), winner of the PEN/Malamud Award for Short Fiction. In advance praise of the second collection, Booklist said in a starred review, “Can every story by one author be a masterpiece? Boyle’s brilliant book submits itself as evidence for that possibility.”

The Pomegranate Lady and Her SonsThe Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons by Goli Taraghi — Goli Taraghi is an acclaimed Iranian fiction writer whose work— though frequently censored, and occasionally banned by Iran’s Ministry of Islamic Orientation—has achieved bestseller status in her native country. Though not well-known to U.S. readers, Taraghi’s work is widely read in Europe, and she has been honored as a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in France, where she has lived for most of the last several decades. Taraghi’s newest work in English translation is The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons: Selected Stories (October 2013). The stories draw on her childhood experiences in Tehran during the reign of the Shah, her exile in Paris, and her subsequent visits to Tehran after the revolution, capturing universal experiences of love, loss, alienation, and belonging. The Booklist reviewer said, “Clean sentences and unembellished plots provide the framework for rich, layered, and haunting worlds…. The thread through each engaging tale is the quest for dignity, particularly as it relates to comfort and home, and the unavoidable awkwardness of exile.”

The Twelve Tribes of HattieThe Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana MathisThe Twelve Tribes of Hattie is a widely praised first novel about the struggles of one unforgettable family, set against the backdrop of the African American “Great Migration” from the rural South to the urban North. A New York Times bestseller, the book was also the second selection for Oprah Winfrey’s newly-revived “Book Club 2.0.” Oprah said, “The opening pages of Ayana’s debut took my breath away. I can’t remember when I read anything that moved me in quite this way, besides the work of Toni Morrison.” Writing in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani (who named Hattie one of her “10 Favorite Books of 2012”) said, “Ms. Mathis has a gift for imbuing her characters’ stories with an epic dimension that recalls Toni Morrison’s writing … but her elastic voice is thoroughly her own — both lyrical and unsparing, meditative and visceral, and capable of giving the reader nearly complete access to her characters’ minds and hearts.”

20522052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years by Jorgen Randers — Jorgen Randers is an environmental scientist and a founding figure in the fields of “sustainability studies.” His book 2052 offers a fresh perspective on humanity’s immediate future — or possible futures — with particular emphasis on the impact of global warming, pollution, water scarcity, food shortages, and the collapse of the fossil fuel economy. The book was written as a 40-year update to the global bestseller, The Limits to Growth, coauthored by Randers in 1972. UN Special Envoy on Climate Change Gro Harlem Brundtland called the book, “thoughtful and thought provoking… inspiring and challenging, for all who really care about our common future.”

HerHer by Christa ParravaniHer by acclaimed photographer and Schenectady and Guilderland native, Christa Parravani, is a memoir about the life and early death of the author’s identical twin, Cara, and her own struggle to carry on after the tragedy. Beautifully written, mesmerizingly rich and true, Christa Parravani’s account of being left one half of a whole and of her desperate struggle for survival is informative, heart-wrenching, and unforgettable. Publishers Weekly called the book, “a finely wrought achievement of grace, emotional honesty, and self-possession.” Novelist Jayne Anne Phillips said, “Christa Parravani’s lyrical, no-nonsense Her ranks with the best American memoirs of the decade… an uncompromising love poem to the joys and dangers of shared identity, and an unforgettable treatise on addiction, trauma, survival, and triumph.”

Facing the WaveFacing the Wave by Gretel Ehrlich — A student of Japanese poetry for much of her life, Gretel Ehrlich felt compelled to return to Japan in the aftermath of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and the subsequent meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Facing the Wave is an account of her visit to bear witness and record the stories of survivors. In a Booklist review, Donna Seamon said, “Ehrlich’s invaluable chronicle subtly raises questions about coastal disasters, global warming, and nuclear power, as the beauty and precision of her prose and her profound and knowledgeable insights into nature’s might and matters spiritual and cultural evoke a deep state of awe and sympathy.”

The Measure of ManhattanThe Measure of Manhattan by Marguerite Holloway — Marguerite Holloway, science journalist, uncovers the forgotten 19th century genius who developed Manhattan’s street-grid, in this biography, The Measure of Manhattan: The Tumultuous Career and Surprising Legacy of John Randel, Jr., Cartographer, Surveyor, Inventor (2013). Born and raised in Albany, renowned for his brilliance, Randel was a significant pioneer of the art and science of surveying, as well as an engineer who created surveying devices, and sounded the Hudson River from Albany to New York City in order to make maps and aid navigation. One of the many delights of Holloway’s book is that it also reveals, for modern readers, the original landscape of Manhattan in its natural state before it was “tamed” by Randel’s grid. Simon Winchester, bestselling author of The Map That Changed the World, said, “This intelligent and entirely riveting account of the brave young man who squared and sculpted Manhattan… is every bit as groundbreaking a success as was his own work, two centuries before. Marguerite Holloway has uncovered in the life of John Randel Jr., a quite marvelous tale, and has told it just magnificently.” 

Devil in the GroveDevil in the Grove by Gilbert King — Gilbert King, Niskayuna native, received the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction for Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America (2012), a meticulously researched, elegantly written account of the future Supreme Court Justice’s role in defending four black men falsely accused of raping a white woman in Florida in 1949. In writing the book, King obtained access to two heretofore unpublished and unpublicized sources of information:  the confidential files of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the unedited files of the FBI. The Salon reviewer said, “King recreates an important yet overlooked moment in American history with a chilling, atmospheric narrative that reads more like a Southern Gothic novel than a work of history.” The book was also named a “Best Book of 2012” by the Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, and Library Journal.

One SummerOne Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson — Bill Bryson is one of the best-loved nonfiction writers in the English-speaking world. His laugh-out-loud funny and astonishingly scholarly books on travel, history, science, culture, and the English language have earned him a large following of readers on both sides of the Atlantic. Bryson’s new book, One Summer: America, 1927 tells the story of a pivotal time in America’s national “coming of age,” when media spectacles became the country’s obsession. The book features a large cast of colorful characters including celebrity “flyboy” Charles Lindbergh, homerun king Babe Ruth, husband-killer Ruth Snyder, flagpole sitter Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly, gangster Al Capone, jazz singer Al Jolson, do-nothing president Calvin Coolidge, and Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum. In a starred review, Booklist called it, “Glorious,” and said, “Bryson offers delicious detail and breathtaking suspense about events whose outcomes are already known.”

Rez LifeRez Life by David Treuer — David Treuer is a prize-winning Native American author, critic, and academic. His highly-praised nonfiction work, Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation Life, combines memoir, history, investigative journalism, storytelling, and public policy analysis, toprovide an insider’s view of modern Native American community experience. The Boston Globe called it a “blistering, illuminating, ultimately hopeful book.” Kirkus called it, “A movingly plainspoken account of reservation life…,” and said, “Alternating between personal recollections of unforgettable ‘rez’ personalities—e.g., tribal police officers, rice-gatherers and fishermen—and sharp-eyed historical analyses of events in Native American history, the author sheds light on aspects of Indian culture closed to most non-Natives.” 

FILMS (available on DVD)
Russian ArkRUSSIAN ARK (Russia, 2002, 99 minutes, color, in Russian with English subtitles, directed by Aleksandr Sokurov) — Widely acclaimed as both a technical masterpiece and a captivating spectacle, this tour of three hundred years of Russian history represents, in its entirety, the single longest continuous shot in the annals of cinema. Featuring two thousand actors and three live orchestras, the film follows an invisible narrator and a group of dead souls as they cavort through thirty-three rooms of the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg. Writing in the Village Voice, J. Hoberman called it, “Sublime…. blithely anachronistic and slyly achronological…. [a] dazzling dance to the music of time.”

No One Knows About Persian CatsNO ONE KNOWS ABOUT PERSIAN CATS (Iran, 2009, 106 minutes, color, in Persian with English subtitles, Directed by Bahman Ghobadi) — This quasi-documentary offers a glimpse into Iran’s forbidden underground music scene. Recently imprisoned Iranian musicians attempt to put together a band and secure travel documents to play some concerts in Europe, all the while trying to avoid police detection for their illegal activity. The film won the Cannes Film Festival Un Certain Regard Jury Prize and the Miami Film Festival Audience Award. Ty Burr of the Boston Globe called it, “a tiny, wonderful movie about Iranian rock ’n’ rollers…. the director treats us to a fast, vibrant montage of Iranian faces and street scenes — as if to say, look, this is who we really are…. [The] message is exquisitely simple: Hear us. Please: Hear us.”  
NOTE:  Members of the Yellow Dogs band that was featured in this film moved to Brooklyn after the film’s release. Tragically, two of the band’s members were recently killed in a murder/suicide.

Exterminating AngelEXTERMINATING ANGEL (Mexico, 1962, 95 minutes, b/w, in Spanish with English subtitles, directed by Luis Buñuel) — The guests at a lavish dinner party find that they are psychologically unable to leave the host’s mansion in this surrealistic masterpiece by director Luis Buñuel. As the days pass, the “trapped” guests become increasingly belligerent and bizarre in their behaviors, ultimately reverting to various forms of savagery. Nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, the film received the FIPRESCI international critics’ prize.

The Place Beyond the PinesTHE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (United States, 2012, 140 minutes, color, directed by Derek Cianfrance) — Ben Coccio, filmmaker, screenwriter, and Niskayuna native, and Derek Cianfrance, award-winning film director, collaborated on this emotional and powerful drama that was filmed in Schenectady. THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES is the story of Luke, a travelling motorcycle stuntman (Ryan Gosling) who resettles in Schenectady after discovering that he is the father of a child with his former hometown girlfriend (Eva Mendes). To support his son, Luke turns to robbing banks, which pits him against an ambitious rookie cop, Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper). The consequences of their eventual confrontation will reach into the next generation. Writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, Richard Roeper said, “An outstanding supporting cast and an immensely talented creative team [have] put together a film that touches greatness.... not a single element is timid or safe.” The film was shot on location in Schenectady at, among other locales, the Schenectady Police Department, Schenectady City Hall, First National Bank of Scotia, Trustco Bank, Ellis Hospital, the Route 7 Diner, Schenectady High School, and the Altamont Fair.

For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at https://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.