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On Sunday: Alain Mabanckou, Jonathan Franzen and lumber as history

April 27, 2012 |  1:00 pm

Alain-mabanckou
UCLA professor Alain Mabanckou
is one of the more prominent writers to have emerged from the French-speaking world.  A native of the Republic of the Congo, he’s been awarded a prestigious prize in French letters, the Prix Renaudot -- his work, writes our Reed Johnson, “blends humor and oozes terror in quick, steady drips” and has been compared to the satires of Jean Genet. Now his novels are finally being translated into English, and this will give English readers, explains Johnson, “a chance to savor the mordant comedy and biting social commentary of books like 'Broken Glass' and 'Memoirs of a Porcupine.' ”  Mabanckou, who is reading and discussing his work at the Hammer on Tuesday night with novelist Mona Simpson, talked to Johnson about the art of translation and the lost art of storytelling in a fast-paced digital age. His fascinating story leads our Sunday book coverage this week.

Novelist Jonathan Franzen is also an essayist, and his new book “Farther Away” is his third collection, featuring pieces and speeches from the last five years. Our book critic, David L. Ulin, considers the collection and its title piece, which recounts Franzen’s visit to the South Pacific island of Masafuera and uses this as a jumping-off point for a wide discussion of Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe and how Franzen coped with the suicide of his good friend and literary rival David Foster Wallace. It sounds unwieldy and yet, as Ulin notes, it has something interesting to say not only about Wallace but about Franzen himself.

In “American Canopy: Trees, Forests and the Making of a Nation,” our reviewer Emily Green writes that  this “quirky” book is “not primarily about trees.” It is, however, about the importance of wood and how “North America’s virgin forest gave rise to a new nation.”  The author, Eric Rutkow, credits pulp with “no less than democratizing reading, transforming food storage, and revolutionizing personal hygiene,” Green writes.  She points out that although this is a “very good book,” the author would have served the project well by spending a bit more time in the forest with the trees.

More after the jump

 “Against Wind and Tide,” the latest  and last collection of letters and journals from Anne Morrow Lindbergh, her sixth volume, takes the reader from 1947 to 1986. Much of the work reflects, as her daughter and editor Reeve Lindbergh notes in the introduction, Lindbergh’s lifelong struggle to reconcile conflicting impulses for connection and autonomy. “It is only in solitude that I ever find my own core," she wrote to her husband, the great aviator Charles Lindbergh, in 1951. “Only through one’s own core can one be really related to others….”  Our reviewer Wendy Smith writes that, “While the five previous volumes, edited by Anne in the 1970s, delved deeply into periods of a few years, this one covers four decades of growth and change.” The finished work reflects a great body of work, one that she feared she would never produce.

“Never Fall Down,” the YA title Susan Carpenter reviews this week, is definitely “Not Just for Kids,” as her column is called. It is a novel based on the life of Arn Chorn Pond, who survived the notorious "killing fields" of Cambodia during the barbaric administration of the Khmer Rouge, when millions of the country’s population were killed.  A book both brutal and brutally honest, “Never Fall Down” offers a searing portrait of survival that, as Carpenter writes, “is as likely to inspire tears as it is to stick with readers for a lifetime."

If you’re looking for more, check out deputy book editor Nick Owchar’s monthly online column “The Siren’s Call,” which features a conversation with Jamie James, the author of “Rimbaud in Java,” which explores what may have happened to the French poet during a little-known six-month period of his life. Liesl Bradner details the family tragedies and challenges facing a young 19th century naturalist in "America's Other Audubon."

And our bestsellers list this week includes Carole King’s memoir “A Natural Woman,” which checks in at No. 10 on the nonfiction list. Evelyn McDonnell reviewed it during the week, and Julia Klein looked at Scott Martelle’s fascinating look at the motor city, “Detroit: A Biography.”

As always, thanks for reading,

--Jon Thurber, book editor

 Photo: Alain Mabanckou, a Congo native and UCLA professor.  Credit: Arkasha Stevenson/Los Angeles Times

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