An Underappreciated and Unrelenting Novel From An American Master

There are countless reasons to turn to the work of Cormac McCarthy, not the least of which are the astonishing beauty and originality of his prose, his synthesis of an entire civilization’s myths about itself, and his unerring insights into human psychology. One doesn’t typically turn to McCarthy, however, for the milk of human kindness. McCarthy’s outlook is as remorseless as the natural world, where survival of the fittest is the only rule that applies. There are exceptions, of course: The Road; parts of Suttree and All the Pretty Horses. And then there is Child of God, a disturbing novel with a fierce ambition. McCarthy does something nearly impossible in this book: he generates sympathy for and identification with—at least for a while, anyway—serial killer Lester Ballard.

McCarthy takes advantage of the reader’s tendency to identify with a book’s main character. The only way a sympathetic response is even possible is that we know Lester before he is a killer, and we see the role his accidental discovery of a pair of dead bodies plays in what eventually becomes a killing spree. The story is told retrospectively, after all the depravity has taken place, through the interwoven memories of a handful of townspeople around whom Ballard grew up. They see him as deeply disturbed, a man-child, nearly incapacitated by his mental deficiencies, his thoughts opaque and unknowable in the extreme, profoundly sociopathic and eventually psychopathic, but they never see him as anything but one of their own gone wrong. The memories of him they recall in attempting to come to grips with his monstrosity cast him as a repository of their shared and flawed history. Through their eyes, the reader begins to identify with him. It is as if their attention, good or bad, is enough to humanize him.

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Celebrate Summer With Off the Shelf!

The weekend is approaching, the sun is shining, and Off the Shelf is heading to the beach. We are excited to set up our umbrellas, dig our toes in the sand, and while away the hours with our favorite beach reads. Each of our staff members has selected a favorite beach read, and one lucky reader will win a beach bag stuffed full of books to keep you reading throughout the summer!
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A Hilarious, Fresh, and Unconventional Romantic Comedy

“I may have found a solution to the Wife Problem.” These are brilliant geneticist Don Tillman’s first words to the reader. The “Wife Problem” is not a euphemism for a genetics study or even a personal problem with his wife. No, Don’s “Problem” is that he doesn’t have a wife. Most people would just say “I’m single,” but Don Tillman is not most people.

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A Ferocious and Passionate Defense of Women’s Fiction

Every time I read Unless, I fall into it. Knowing that descriptions like, “It is late afternoon, early October, the sky darkening, and the lights in the old Orangetown Library already on. The smell of waxed floors is particularly sharp at this hour; it must be the heating system that triggers it,” await me, I open it, sigh, and sink into it like a stone into water.

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A Stunning Novel that Captures the Quiet Anguish of the Everyday

Like those of my colleagues and friends in the publishing business, my to-read list lengthens at a daunting pace. There are heaps of books in my office, on my mantel, and on my bedside table, all taunting reminders that I will never conquer the ever-expanding canon of contemporary “must reads.” The towering stacks of reading material that surround me drive me to read ever more voraciously, devouring one book only to immediately toss it aside for the next.

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A Classic Travel Memoir that Explores Interwar Europe

I was a little hesitant to write about A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor. The first in a densely written travel trilogy, this memoir includes long asides about Central European architecture, Greek philosophers, Proust, and the differences in wine glasses in different regions of Germany. I don’t care about wine or architecture. I care about Proust . . . but not enough to read him. What I’m saying is, don’t be afraid of this book because you don’t feel classy enough. You are classy! You are reading a literary blog!

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A Profound and Compelling Study of a Fading, Aristocratic Britain

When I first read Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, I was barely fifty pages in before I was tempted to hurl the book out the window. The narrator—Stevens, a British butler pathologically devoted to maintaining the dignity and restraint required of his position—was so repressed, so buttoned-up, he was making me crazy. I had never encountered a more emotionally distant first-person narrator. Here he is on his favorite topic: “If one looks at the matter objectively, one has to concede my father lacked various attributes one may normally expect in a great butler.”

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An Intimate and Riveting Saga of Poverty and Urban Life

There’s an age-old saying (and Bruce Springsteen lyric) that you can’t start a fire without a spark. This is often true in literature—sometimes all it takes to create a great story is to find something that inspires you to write it. Though most might think of this saying in the context of novels, I think it’s even more true in the case of nonfiction. In a world dominated by the twenty-four-hour news cycle, how do you write about something happening in the world that people will continue to care about?

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A Witty Satire of Presidents and Insider Politics

A new president is in the White House and the American capital vibrates with the promise of a renewed government, fresh ideas, and bold initiatives. These include declaring the president’s home state of Idaho a nuclear-free zone, launching the National Metrification Initiative to convert America to the metric system, and announcing a visionary proposal to normalize relations with Cuba. While this last example infuriates the nation’s Republicans, it is hailed in Havana as “an example of the wisdom of America’s new leadership.”

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