Emma Straub's first novel (and second book of 2012) paints vivid, highly convincing portraits of two different worlds: a family-run regional summer theater in the small Wisconsin town where the title character grows up, and the seemingly glamorous environs of 20th-century Hollywood, to which she flees at her first opportunity. Straub embues both worlds with such distinctive, finely observed features, it's easy to see why Laura Lamont might think she could forget these are two parts of the same world. But Straub's theme transcends Laura's world: It's not just those born in the theater who eventually must sort their identities from their inventions.
Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett '86
Biographies of real-life figures like Thomas Edison used to get dime store novel treatment in the heyday of that form. Guinan and Bennett have flipped the equation and taken a pulp fiction character, the adventure-loving inventor Frank Reade, and given him a real life. They remix all sorts of appropriated and imagined bits of fact and fiction into a mechanically-minded fantasy world familiar to fans of their first book, Boilerplate. Call it dubstep steampunk.
Geoffrey C. Ward '62
Alfred A. Knopf, 2012
Geoffrey C. Ward has written more than a dozen highly regarded books (sometimes with director Ken Burns, on whose films Ward has often collaborated) on subjects ranging from baseball to jazz, from the Civil War to WWII. In his latest, he finds his story awfully close to home, awfully. Ferdinand Ward was a Wall Street swindler who bilked former president Ulysses S. Grant (and many others), out of millions of dollars and continued his ne'er-do-well ways even after serving time for it. He was also the author's great-grandfather.
Matt Dojny '93
Dzanc Books, 2012
The narrator of this stranger-in-a-stranger-land story finds himself in a place where a wink can mean anything from "You're fired" to "I want to kiss you," and what gets lost in translation — and in transition — propels this novel. Inspired by Dojny's post-Oberlin trip to Thailand, the book is presented as letters home from the fictional Puchai and includes quirky small drawings along the way (à la Breakfast of Champions).
Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy '80
Simon & Schuster, 2012
Presidents and former presidents are a bit like the Beatles: They have a lot in common with each other, and not a lot in common with the rest of us. Duffy and his coauthor, both editors at Time magazine, share their fascination with this exclusivity, and with the fact that there's a pretty good chance the person best qualified to give advice about the job might be the one you took it from.