Finding the Literary Limelight | The Reader’s Shelf

Fame in this industry can happen in many ways. Debuts can act as lightning strikes, making authors instantly celebrated. Often the already notable become writers on the side, carrying their star power onto the page. And sometimes, well-known ­authors are applauded for successfully trying something new.  

J.D. Vance’s first book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (Harper. 2016. ISBN 9780062300546. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062300560), became the touchstone of the 2016 election. This look at his white, working-class life was a sensation, enabling venture capitalist Vance to add big-ticket media positions to his already impressive résumé. Born into what he calls Hillbilly Royalty, he offers an intimate look at a family full of chaos, drugs, and broken homes held together by his grandmother. Her stable base and steel spine allowed him to escape his circumstances and gave him the wherewithal to do so. Descriptive, direct, and compelling, Vance’s work ventures beyond his own story and calls into account the attitude, behavior, and choices of his community.

The Virgin Suicides (Picador. 2009. ISBN 9780312428815. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781429960441), Jeffrey Eugenides’s 1993 debut, originally made waves and launched his critically acclaimed career. The seductive and creepy novel follows the five Lisbon sisters—Bonnie, Mary, Therese, Lux, and Cecilia—who all kill themselves over the course of a year. A group of teenage boys are witnesses to the deaths. They act as a shared voice, recounting as adults and looking back on the events and their obsessions with the girls. Collected mementos, such as a photo, cosmetics, and a hairbrush, are used as markers in the story. Full of odd and mysterious details, the narrative is both claustrophobic, given the family dynamics, and expansive in its time sweep and vividness. Eugenides’s newest book, Fresh Complaint (Farrar), is coming out this month.

In Born To Run (S. & S. Sept. 2017. ISBN 9781501141522. pap. $19.99; ebk. ISBN 9781501141539), music legend Bruce Springsteen presents his life in a lyrical and raw tale that moves from childhood to present day. A series of short chapters flow one into the next; highlights include Spring­steen’s poetic explorations of his work, his early years opening for bands he has now outlasted, his foray into being a family man, and his long struggle with depression. Insightful and full of anecdotes, this auto­biography spools out in a compelling mix of hardscrabble and high celebrity, from his days in Freehold, NJ, to a night watching his wife sing at a dinner hosted by Frank Sinatra.

Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks turns his talents to the literary in Uncommon Type: Some Stories (Knopf. Oct. 2017. ISBN 9781101946152. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101946169). The inviting vignettes are about characters (various and deftly conjured), tone (from funny to melancholy to charming), and life (the relationships among friends, war buddies, and blood). The laugh-out-loud opener, “Three Exhausting Weeks,” could be turned into a sitcom—as pointed out by one of the characters—and follows the romantic collision of a high-octane woman and a loafer of a guy. Writing what he knows, Hanks offers a different story paralleling Christmas in a prosperous and peaceful time with the terror of the holiday during war. The closing tale circles back to the beginning, with repeat characters going bowling. Relaxed and informal, the collection unfolds with beguiling ease.

Marking a change in genres, Bill ­McKibben, known for his works on environmentalism, takes a shot at fiction with Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance (Blue Rider. Nov. 2017. ISBN 9780735219861. $22; ebk. ISBN 9780735219878). It is a hilarious and progressive caper about a small band of Vermonters who launch a movement to secede from the United States. Their quest launches with a poorly thought through piece of resistance: flooding a new ­Wal-Mart with excrement. After the FBI labels them as terrorists, the group shifts gears, issuing podcasts to promote a statewide town meeting day where neighbors can listen to one another, think about issues together, and make wise decisions. The quick and sharply observant novel takes on climate change, self-serving politicians, and political power itself.

Nonfiction author and National Book Award winner James McBride turns to short stories in Five-Carat Soul (Riverhead. Sept. 2017. ISBN 9780735216693. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780735216716), which is divided into several distinct sections. He begins with an antique toys dealer who improbably discovers that a poor minister is in possession of the rarest and most expensive toy on Earth. In a portion devoted to the members of the Five-Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band, one tale tells of a media-­hungry preacher and a shop owner who shoots a robber, while another explores the consequences of stealing from the father of one of the boys. The rest of the pieces are as fascinating, immediate, and thrumming, showcasing McBride’s masterly skill for rhythmic and vibrant prose, vivid characterization, and deep ­storytelling.

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ’s online feature Wyatt’s World and is the author of The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers’ advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader’s Shelf should contact her directly at


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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt is LJ's reader's advisory columnist. She writes The Reader's Shelf, RA Crossroads, Book Pulse, and Wyatt's World columns. She is currently revising The Readers' Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction, 3d ed. (ALA Editions, 2018). Contact her at

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