Barbara’s Picks, Jan. 2014, Pt. 4: Elisabeth de Waal, Alan Lightman, Gary Shteyngart, & More


de Waal, Elisabeth. The Exiles Return. Picador. Jan. 2014. 336p. ISBN 9781250045782. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781250045799. LITERARY/HISTORICAL FICTION
Like Irène Némirovsky and Hans Keilson, de Waal bore witness to the tragedy of World War II; as her grandson recounts in his best-selling The Hare with Amber Eyes, their Jewish banking family’s possessions were appropriated by the Germans when they marched into Austria. Elisabeth de Waal emigrated in the 1930s and settled in England; this posthumously discovered work, written in English and one of five unpublished novels she penned, relates the experiences of several exiles returning to a shattered Vienna after the war. Among them are a Jewish research scientist disenchanted with America and a troubled teenage girl. Expect poignancy and an indelible sense of the time.

Laing, Olivia. The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking. Picador. Jan. 2014. 352p. ISBN 9781250039569. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781250039583. LITERATURE
Aside from being geniuses, what do F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver have in common? They all drank big, and drinking appears as a significant motif in their work. Former deputy books editor of the Observer, Laing grew up in a family afflicted with alcoholism and decided to sort out its burdens by studying the lives and works of these writers, even traveling from Cheever’s New York to Williams’s New Orleans to Hemingway’s Key West so that she could place the authors’ experience in true perspective. Perennially astonishing authors framed by a perennially popular theme.

Lesser, Wendy. Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books. Farrar. Jan. 2014. 240p. ISBN 9780374289201. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780374709815. LITERATURE
Since Lesser is founder and editor of the Threepenny Review, hearing what she has to say about literature—and especially her life in literature—should be bracing and informative. In essays like “Novelty” and “Grandeur and Intimacy,” she considers not just literary fiction and poetry but mysteries, science fiction, and memoir, pointing out that “Reading can result in boredom or transcendence, rage or enthusiasm, depression or hilarity, empathy or contempt, depending on who you are and what the book is and how your life is shaping up at the moment you encounter it.” With a reading guide, naturally.

Lightman, Alan. The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew. Pantheon. Jan. 2014. 176p. ISBN 9780307908582. $24; ebk. ISBN 9780307908599. SCIENCE
Lightman is that rare and wonderful creature: a theoretical physicist who has taught at Harvard and MIT and also written six novels, including the international best seller Einstein’s Dreams. Here he considers the very human questions raised by recent scientific discoveries, aiming to move beyond the standard science vs. religion vs. humanist tug-of-war to display our continuing quest for understanding. Chapters of this book have appeared in venues like Harper’s (“The Gargantuan Universe” as a cover story), and “The Accidental Universe” was chosen for Best American Essays 2012. So demand among smart readers should be high.

Miles, Barry. Call Me Burroughs: A Life. Twelve: Hachette. Jan. 2014. ISBN 9781455511952. $28; ebk. ISBN 9781455511945. lib. ebk. ISBN 9781455551750. BIOGRAPHY/LITERATURE
Beat expert Miles—he’s written books like Ginsberg: A Biography and The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso in Paris, 1957–1963 and coedited the revised edition of William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch—arrives with a big Burroughs bio just in time for the centennial of the author’s birth. Relying on interviews with folks like Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, and Burroughs himself, plus exclusive access to Burroughs’s archives, Miles aims to capture the protean genius who wrote, drew, photographed, acted, and made recordings on his way to becoming one of the hottest figures on the Sixties counterculture scene. Great expectations; with an author tour to New York, Boston, Lawrence (KS), Kansas City (MO), Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

Payton, Brian. The Wind Is Not a River. Ecco: HarperCollins. Jan. 2014. 320p. ISBN 9780062279972. $26.99. LITERARY THRILLER
You may be surprised to read here that Japan invades Alaska’s Aleutian Island during World War II, and that’s not just a construct of Payton’s imagination. Payton uses this little-known fact as he weaves a tale about journalist John Easley, who is trying to overcome grief about his brother’s death in Europe by heading north to investigate the invasion. He joins a bombing run for closer observation, but the plane is shot down, and he must struggle to survive hunger and cold while trying to avoid capture. His wife, meanwhile, finds herself rising to the occasion as she determines to find her husband and bring him home. Aside from the fine writing (Payton’s Shadow of the Bear was an NPR Pearl’s Pick), what recommends this book is Ecco’s recent track record with the likes of Ben Fountain, Amy Tan, Andrew Sean Greer, and Bill Cheng. And the 100,000-copy first printing bespeaks confidence.

Shteyngart, Gary. Little Failure: A Memoir. Random. Jan. 2014. 368p. ISBN 9780679643753. $27; ebk. ISBN:9780812995336. MEMOIR
Author of celebrated novels like Super Sad True Love Story, Shteyngart actually produced his first literary work, Lenin and His Magical Goose, at age five; his grandmother gave him one slice of cheese per page. In this funny memoir, he recalls his early years in the crumbling Soviet Union, then at age seven coming to America—land of the enemy—following a deal between Presidents Carter and Brezhnev guaranteeing Soviet Jews safe passage to this country in exchange for U.S. grain. The hapless Shteyngart didn’t fit in and surely wasn’t going to be a lawyer, as his parents wanted; hence his mother’s more or less affectionate nickname for him, Failurchka—that is, Little Failure. She was surely wrong. Much loved in-house and a surefire hit.


Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.