Ex Libris: May Books
By Steve Donoghue
There’s always an element of anxious calendar-watching for a reviewer and editor, since newspapers have lead-times and review copies of books tend to appear long before the finished copies – long enough before so that the mind can wander and publication dates can come hurtling up out of nowhere. When new books are your profession, you start to study calendars in different ways.
This is enhanced when a month ends on a Sunday, as April does this time around. All afternoon, I kept mentally returning to the fact that when business starts humming back to life on Monday morning, it’ll be the first of May. The trucks will be running again, the mail will be accumulating on the front porch again, and the “May” shelf of my “work” books will be a suddenly pertinent thing. Which review copies am I still waiting on? Which finished copies do I still lack and which publicists might need a friendly nudging email? And most importantly: how do these books map onto the actual reviews I’ll be writing and filing in May?
All that’s a bit much for a Monday, enhanced by the way the tempo of everything picks up after a sleepy, reading-saturated Sunday.
I felt that this weekend, looking ahead to May’s new releases. My reading for the month will certainly include the serendipity of finding older books that look enticing, but most of it will revolve around new releases. Is there something big and very complex coming down the pike in, say, July? Something I need to give a preliminary read in May if I’m going to do it justice on a second read in July? Is there some new May book that looks likely to become the critical darling of the month, something everybody is writing about? Are there any May review copies that are proving to be particularly difficult to acquire, and if so, why? What does the general shape of the coming month look like?
One of the most important things for me, as both a writer and a reader, is the freshness of it – I dread the idea that some day I could look ahead to that big upcoming month of new releases and feel weariness, or even boredom. Thankfully, when I looked ahead to May, I felt the same kid-on-Christmas-morning excitement I always feel.
Like for instance David Quammen’s new book “The Heartbeat of the Wild: Dispatches from Landscapes Wonder, Peril, and Hope.” Quammen is one of the best writers of natural history working today, and I’ve been reading his books for forty years without a single bad reading experience in the bunch. But even as much as I love all his books, I’ve always had a slight preference for his work in shorter form, collections of essays that concentrate his intelligence and writing skill into a compact space. That’s what this book does, drawing from pieces he’s written for National Geographic over the years, writings that haven’t been collected anywhere else.
Another May release reprinting terrific stuff is a new Penguin Classic edition, “Brave Men” by the great war correspondent Ernie Pyle. That Penguin volume is edited by David Chrisinger, who’s also coming out in May with a new biography of Pyle, “The Soldier’s Truth: Ernie Pyle and the Story of World War II.” Even when Pyle was filing his dispatches from half a dozen theaters of the Second World War, readers and critics and editors were well aware of how special those dispatches were, how well and tellingly they captured the on-the-ground experiences of ordinary working soldiers. It was a source of joy for me to see that Pyle’s work is being inducted into the Penguin line, and even more so to see a knowledgeable critic writing a new biographical assessment of the author himself.
Pyle traveled all over the landscape of WWII, but even he never made a trip like the one chronicled in another May release: “Mighty Bad Land: A Perilous Expedition to Antarctica Reveals Clues to an Eighth Continent” by Bruce Luyendyk. This book tells the story of a small group of geologists and their guides who venture hundreds of miles inland from the main US base on Antarctica. The region they explore is bewilderingly alien: bitterly cold, raked by blizzards, riven with hidden crevasses, as close to trekking on another planet as any human is ever likely to get.
Of course all of these and everything else coming out in May entirely depends on execution; a book can have the most intriguing premise in the world and still stink like rotting meat if it’s done poorly. But what can I say? I’m apparently an eternal optimist when it comes to books (and dogs, of course).