Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James
Right now, the most popular non-Hunger Games book series in the country is Fifty Shades of Grey, a trilogy of explicit erotic novels that features lots of dominance and submission. The series started humbly self-published and was recently acquired for seven figures by Random House, which thinks it has the potential to become the next The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. And if sales sustain themselves, they could be right.
First, some overall observations about the book:
- This thing is long. On my Kindle, it's about as many locations long as 1Q84, which is nearly 1,000 pages in print.
- There is A LOT of fucking. I didn't count, but there are probably just short of a dozen sex scenes in Fifty Shades. (According to a friend who frequents these sorts of books, the average romance novel has three or four sex scenes.)
- It's actually pretty compelling.
Ana Steele, a recent college grad and reluctant virgin, falls for Christian Grey, a wealthy businessman with a penchant for BDSM. Much of their courting involves discussing a contract that would make Ana Christian's submissive. Surprisingly, they have a lot of believable chemistry for being unbelievable characters otherwise.
Sure, this isn't Pulitzer Prize-winning material, but Fifty Shades is fascinating if for no other reason than that it's having a cultural moment. The book started as Twilight fan fiction, but whereas Stephenie Meyer takes herself very seriously, EL James shows the kind of self-awareness that keeps her prose light and witty, even in the face of spanking. Reading Fifty Shades, you'll often find yourself laughing, and at other times, maybe turned on. But perhaps most impressively, you won't feel the least bit guilty for indulging yourself. (Available April 3 in print; out now in digital formats.)
TLDR: This book will make you suspect everyone on the subway with a Kindle is secretly aroused.
A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash
There's been a recent resurgence of Southern Gothic literature, led by the likes of Donald Ray Pollock (The Devil All the Time) and Daniel Woodrell (Winter's Bone, The Outlaw Album). And though these novels are technically set in Ohio and Arkansas, respectively, the grotesque landscape is reminiscent of Flannery O'Connor's South — Podunk towns populated by good Christians, bad Christians, morally challenged lawmen, eccentric freaks, and some sort of evil seeping in from the fringes.
If all that sounds up your alley, I'd recommend Wiley Cash's A Land More Kind Than Home, which, despite the awful title and cover, is a simple but patient novel that rewards readers with a thrilling ending. In North Carolina, evil takes the form of a man named Pastor Chambliss, a selfish cult leader who attempts to cure a mute boy by smothering him. (The idea is that he'll yell out before he dies; he doesn't.) Cash carefully unwraps the story from three different perspectives, including the boy's brother Jesse, who witnesses the murder.
Cash is a softer voice than Pollock or Woodrell. And while there's certainly a fair bit of violence in A Land More Kind Than Home, it's far tamer than the grit and gore found in Cash's contemporaries. And the book is better for it. Home is perhaps the strongest case that Southern Gothic lit isn't just about spilt blood and guts, but fully realized settings and characters deeply felt. (Available April 17.)
TLDR: What if No Country for Old Men had a title worse than No Country for Old Men?
Paris, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down by Rosecrans Baldwin
In contrast to the Wiley Cash book, Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down is the perfect title for Rosecrans Baldwin’s travel narrative. It’s conflicted, thoughtful, and probably most appealing to anyone who might get the LCD Soundsystem reference.
Paris, I Love You is composed of loose vignettes, related largely to Baldwin’s position as a copywriter at an ad agency, a job I’m not sure how he landed considering he had no experience in advertising and certainly a less-than-ideal understanding of French. But Baldwin’s lack of preparation is what makes the book so much fun. His expectations of days filled with long walks along the Seine are quickly squashed by the reality of his all-consuming work, writing copy for pamphlets on breastfeeding.
Baldwin isn't interested in painting a romantic or critical picture of Parisian culture. In fact, it's less about the French and more focused on his idiosyncratic coworkers, who are often saying inappropriate things (“Don't come at me. I will fuck you!”) when they’re not busy doing inappropriate things (one coworker jokes to Baldwin, “Julie say you are one sexy motherfucker ... maybe she will sleep with you this evening,” while Julie is standing right there). Baldwin is the perfect travel companion — the sort of person who isn’t interested in searching for great meaning in every landmark or cultural quirk, but one who simply understands that travel is something experienced rather than explained. (Available April 24.)
TLDR: Maybe there’s no word in French for “sexual harassment” in the workplace.
Also Notable in Fiction:
Grave Mercy by R.L. LaFevers
Almost Never by Daniel Sada
The Secret of Evil by Roberto Bolaño
Notable in Nonfiction:
Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation by Tom Bissell (Grantland's own!)
Farther Away: Essays by Jonathan Franzen