Sunday, December 31, 2006

a year of reading (2006)

1. Don’t Get Too Comfortable (David Rakoff)
David Rakoff, a frequent contributor to PRI’s This American Life, offers a collection of snarky, sharp essays about consumer behavior. Equal parts gut-busting funny and uncomfortably mean-spirited, Rakoff nonetheless lambastes those who revel in greed and excess.

2. The World to Come (Dara Horn)
The novel opens with the theft of a Chagall painting from a Jewish museum during a singles mixer (based on actual events) and alternates storylines with 1920s Soviet Russia. Often mired by heavy-handed imagery (to wit, characters that float or fly, as in a Chagall painting) and repetitive vocabulary and phrases, The World to Come ultimately possesses the potent combination of folklore, romance, history, and mystery. I read this for book group.

3. The City of Falling Angels (John Berendt)
Berendt examines a crime that is as much about the city (this time Venice)—its people and places—as the crime itself, although less successfully than he did in his super-mega bestseller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. In CoFA, Berendt's jumping-off point is the Fenice opera fire and the resulting investigation. Luscious descriptions of Venice and a depiction of the wacky cast of characters who inhabit the city are nestled into the crime story.

4. Love and Other Impossible Pursuits (Ayelet Waldman)
I devoured this novel in three sittings, which is something I almost never do since I am an excruciatingly slow reader. Funny, sophisticated, and compelling, the story follows hapless Emilia Greenleaf as she navigates the minefield of losing a child and learning to love a stepson. New York City plays a supporting role.

5. Toast (Nigel Slater)
A host of foodstuffs and meals trigger memories of childhood, resulting in powerfully delicious vignettes from cook, cookbook author, and columnist Nigel Slater.

6. The Penderwicks (Jeanne Birdsell)
Humorous situations and wonderfully drawn characters drive this children’s book, which I read for the Storknotes book group. I think the subtitle sums it up best: “A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits and a Very Interesting Boy.”

7. The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton)
Far from being just a keen observer, Wharton proves that she is an accomplished novelist with artfully drawn and developed characters, as well as an appropriate amount of tension, in this biting story of 1870s New York society.

8. The Last Templar (Raymond Khoury)
While far from perfect (cheesy romance and implausibly dramatic climax), The Last Templar is a satisfactorily even-paced Gnostic thriller, which one would expect from a screenwriter. It also has one of the most unexpectedly gruesome opening scenes I have ever read.

9. Confessions of a Shopaholic (Sophie Kinsella)
This chick-lit novel was a delightful page-turner—the perfect airplane book for an April vacation in Costa Rica. Utterly predictable with a highly likeable lead character and a London setting, this book provided a great antidote to heavier fare (Arthur and George, which I was reading at the time and which has since been abandoned).

10. The Pythagorean Solution (Joseph Badal)
Hands down, this was the worst book I read this year. Greece setting and hidden treasure was the draw, promising a Davinci Code-esque book, instead it was haltingly paced with horribly stereotyped characters. Read on the beach in Montezuma, Costa Rica.

11. The Calcutta Chromosome (Amitav Ghosh)
One of the best books I read this year—a smart, complex story about malaria and medical discovery, with a conspiracy and a touch of the supernatural. Strongly recommended for those who like William Gibson or Richard Preston. Read on the beach in Montezuma, Costa Rica.

12. The Thai Amulet (Lyn Hamilton)
So far, this has been my favorite book in the archaeology mysteries series (#7) featuring antiques dealer/amateur sleuth Lara McClintock. In The Thai Amulet, the exotic setting (contemporary Bangkok), the parallel historic storyline (16th century Ayutthaya), and the mystery (full of treachery and betrayal) all work harmoniously. Read on the beach in Montezuma, Costa Rica.

13. What Do You Do All Day (Amy Scheibe)
Amy Scheibe, who is an editor at Counterpoint Press, has written an intelligent and funny novel about being a stay-at-home mom with its attendant adventures (high and low). I breezed my way through this book, alternately laughing and crying as the protagonist (Jennifer Bradley, a former antiquities dealer) discovers the joys and struggles of parenting and confronts the challenges of being a modern mother.

14. Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue (Paul Bowles)
Paul Bowles is an amazing, sensuous writer, as well as a consummately keen observer. And in this collection of essays, his writing immediately transports you to places that are sweaty, dusty, pungent, and vibrant—places like Sri Lanka, Morocco, and Tunisia. First published in 1963, his travel writing is lyrical and timely. I bought my copy at the fabulous NYC independent bookstore McNally Robinson and chose it for book group.

15. Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro)
Ishiguro’s trademark controlled writing is fully present in this novel, which explores an intense relationship between three characters—beginning with their time as children at boarding school until their deaths—which often reminded me of the way Margaret Atwood depicts friendships with rifts and shifts. The backdrop of the novel involves cloning and organ harvest, which smacks right up against the science and ethics topics I love to think about, and it’s an utterly eerie, rib-sticking story.

16. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Muriel Spark)
My friend (and great reader) Caryl and I were inspired to read Dame Muriel Spark after the author’s death earlier this year, starting with her best-known work. Originally published in the fall of 1961 as a short story in the New Yorker, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a striking slim novel that follows an Edinburgh teacher as she molds her “set”—a group of six female students—in her likeness. Wowed by Spark’s concise, witty, stylized writing, Caryl and I vowed to read more from this talented author.

17. The Moai Murders (Lyn Hamilton)
It seems like every time antiques dealer Lara McClintock leaves home, she stumbles across a dead body, even when vacationing on Rapa Nui. Must get old. Vivid descriptions of Easter Island, its history and culture, as well as a well-drawn cast of eccentrics who have gathered for a pseudo-scholarly conference drive the ninth mystery in Hamilton’s archaeology series. Read aloud to John on a So Dak road trip.

18. Leap Days (Katherine Lanpher)
I’ve had a real love-hate relationship with Katherine Lanpher (hate her voice; love the touching piece she wrote memorializing George J.). But she really endeared herself to me in this unvarnished memoir, detailing her midlife move from the Midwest to New York City. I enjoyed reading about the trajectory of her career (from a print journalist to a radio personality—first as the host of a Minnesota Public Radio show, then as the cohost on Al Franken’s Air America program). Local references to people and places abound (she stays with friend Sarah M’s brother whenever she visits St. Paul).

19. Dark Tort (Diane Mott Davidson)
Caterer Goldy Schulz also has the unfortunate habit of tripping over dead bodies as she’s minding her own business, serving up food at functions in Aspen Meadow, Colorado. This is the latest (#13) in Davidson’s culinary mystery series. I found the mystery, while cohesive, lacked the energy of previous books in the series, but the scenes of Goldy doing what she does best—planning menus and cooking food—continue to drive the story.

20. The Girls (Lori Lansens)
I read this novel about conjoined twins for book group, otherwise I’m fairly sure I never would have picked it up. Some of it was downright creepy. While the sensitive, and sometimes beautiful, novel received a lot of review attention—including a glowing assessment from Prairie Lights buyer Paul Ingram—sales never really took off. It should do well in paperback, especially with book groups.

21. The Comforters (Muriel Spark)
The second installment in the Spark study group. This was Spark’s first novel, which she wrote at 39. From the first sentence, you can tell that the author is going to have fun with the novel’s form, writing a nicely multilayered metafiction. Spark also begins exploring themes—such as Catholicism and religious conversion—that she’ll continue throughout her prolific writing life.

22. My Life in France (Julia Child)
What a treat to read an account of Julia’s love affair with France. You can see, hear, and smell Marseilles, where her loving husband Paul was stationed in a government position following WW2. It’s also a treat to read Julia’s own account of writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which was well detailed in Janet Finch’s bio, but here in My Life, the challenges of working with Simca and Louisette seem rendered with less gossip. I can’t wait to read this again.

23. Promise Me (Harlan Coben)
Even though I’ve really missed Myron Bolitar (it has been six years since Coben "retired" him), I’d just like to say, for the record, that Coben should have stuck to the stand-alone thrillers that have earned him New York Times bestselling-author status. Without even getting into the lame-o, convoluted plot, Bolitar came off as a big whining baby, and his sidekicks—Win and Esperanza—barely make an appearance. It certainly wasn’t the worst book I read this year, and I’ll likely read the next in the series—as always, aloud to John.

24. The Reach of a Chef (Michael Ruhlman)
Ruhlman’s third chef book, marked by graceful writing, explores what it means to be a celebrity chef. My favorite section follows Grant Achatz from his time spent in Thomas Keller’s French Laundry kitchen to a field trip in Spain where he had his defining moment at Ferran Adria’s el Bulli. Ruhlman concludes that the reach of a chef is beyond the kitchen. By expanding their restaurants, celebrity chefs give younger chefs who have been working under them an opportunity to run a kitchen.

25. Bye-Bye Black Sheep (Ayelet Waldman)
Two books from Ayelet Waldman in one year will spoil me for next year. In this fifth Mommy Track mystery, Juliet Appelbaum—a former public defender turned stay-at-home mom—solves another crime in LA. I love Waldman’s sharp, feisty heroine and hope a sixth mystery is published in 2007. Please.

26. The Book of Story Beginnings (Kristin Kladstrup)
The office manager at my office loaned me this book, which was written by her stepsister. It’s a children’s chapter book set in a part of Iowa I’ve passed through on RAGBRAI. And, it’s a highly imaginative adventure featuring a magic notebook where story beginnings come true, but the characters don’t know how they’ll end, nor can they control the journey.

27. The Dissident (Nell Freudenberger)
When I read the young author’s much-hyped collection of stories (Lucky Girls) a few years ago, I was suitably impressed—enough so to look forward to any fiction she might write in the future. So, I was thrilled to find a big ol' 400+ page novel this fall. Also, I wasn’t disappointed by it. The story follows a Chinese artist and the members of his incredibly dysfunctional SoCal host family. Not all is as it seems, for anyone. Very nicely done.

28. Memento Mori (Muriel Spark)
Installment three in the Spark study group. This novel about Death features the geriatric set—a group of octogenarian friends who are receiving crank phone calls. At the other end of the line is a voice telling each, “Remember, you must die,” (memento mori). The phone calls unleash a history of deception and tangled relationships as well as lend a spooky feel to the novel, another trim but dense story.

29. The Big Oyster (Mark Kurlansky)
In this satisfying microhistory, Kurlanksy turns his attention to the oyster beds that existed off the shores of Manhattan, ranging from before Europeans arrived until the 1930s when the beds were deemed too polluted. I love what Kurlanksy does best—writing a history imbued with economics, sociology, marine biology, culinary history, and the environment—and I’d like to read more. Thank goodness for Salt and Cod.

30. The Keep (Jennifer Egan)
I didn’t love Egan’s first two highly acclaimed novels, which Picador published when I was at Holtzbrinck and was under direct orders to love. But, Charles Baxter called Egan’s Look at Me underrated, and The Keep received strong advanced review attention, so I picked it up. No regrets here. It’s a yummy Gothic ghost story as well as a metafiction—both of these elements are sure to keep readers on their toes. I nearly started re-reading it immediately—it’s that good—but I don’t re-read (so many books, too little time dictates).

31. The Templar Legacy (Steve Berry) audio
I could get a lot a reading done by listening to audio books. Benefiting from quick plot pacing,The Templar Legacy was an ideal book to “read” in this format. Another Gnostic thriller, but this one delves deeper into Templar history and lore, and has a twist I couldn’t have anticipated even if I had been paying closer attention. Unabridged.

32. Testing Kate (Whitney Gaskell)
Gaskell, an accomplished author of lit lite, gives me a birthday gift each year in the form of a new novel. Isn’t she sweet? This year, she draws upon her experience as a law student, setting her romantic comedy during One-L at Tulane. Written before Katrina, the city of New Orleans plays a supporting role. Coincidentally, this is the third novel (nearly in a row) I have read this fall involving a protagonist whose parents have died in an accident (The Dissident and The Keep also used this device to cleverly keep pesky parents in the background).

33. Housekeeping vs. The Dirt (Nick Hornby)
Another collection of Hornby’s columns from The Believer. The premise of the columns is clever—wish I’d thought of it first. Each month, Hornby lists separately his book purchases and the books he read, then analyzes his choices. The essays are also shamelessly peppered with personal connections (such as Hornby’s brother-in-law, the bestselling author Robert Harris, or his good friend Violet Incredible, aka Sarah Vowell) and strewn with complaints about the Polysyllabic Spree (roughly, The Believer’s editorial staff), which are a delight to read. I will not be able to sit still for a third volume.

34. Stuart Little (E.B. White)
I read this aloud to the little boys on our Thanksgiving trip to Los Angeles. They loved Stuart’s adventures, but neither questioned how it was that the human Little family came to have a mouse child. John and I each remembered loving this story when we were kids, and we commented on E.B. White’s genius. Charlotte’s Web is up next for us, and I believe Trumpet of the Swan, which I have never read, is in our near future.

35. An Alphabetical Life (Wendy Werris)
I’m a sucker for books about books and books about bookstores, but Wendy Werris’s memoir trumps all as it is both of those and a book about book reps, which makes an ideal framework for her memoir—coming of age in the book biz. It’s also a vivid portrait of Southern California in the 1970s and a lovely tribute to her father, who was a comedy writer for Jackie Gleason, among others. Read on Los Angeles vacation.

36. Chicken with Plums (Marjane Satrapi)
In Satrapi’s latest graphic memoir, she relates the story of her great-uncle, a famous Iranian musician. After his tar (a stringed instrument) is broken and he fails to find a replacement, he takes to his bed in despair—deciding he cannot continue living. Flashbacks and flash-forwards dominate the storytelling, which, with Satrapi’s signature style meld tradition with pop culture in a very satisfying way.

37. Frank Lloyd Wright (Ada Louise Huxtable) audio
A concise, but lively, biography—part of the Penguin Lives series—written by the Wall Street Journal’s architecture critic. After checking the book out on a number of occasions this year, yet never getting to read it, I decided I might have better luck to listening to it. Wright’s story proved to be just the inspiration I needed to face the day writing about architecture. Unabridged.

38. Girl in Landscape (Jonathan Lethem)
This fall, Powell’s sent me a review of Girl, which knocked my socks off. So I requested a copy from the library and, despite having other reading obligations, devoured it in a few sittings. Lethem deftly weaves a coming of age set during colonization, which yields a novel rivaling the best science fiction. Protagonist Pella Marsh is one of the most intense and likeable characters I have met this year. Images of the Archbuilders, their planet’s desolate landscape, and household deer will stick with me for some time.

39. How I Learned to Cook (edited by Kimberly Witherspoon and Peter Meehan)
Forty of the world’s greatest chefs write about the events that inspired them to cook. My favorite essays were written by Rick Bayless (who writes about coming of age while pouring over Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which he had to convince his parents to buy for him instead of football equipment, then lives a dream when he’s asked to appear on one of her TV series), Suzanne Goin (who writes about a lousy stage in a Michelin two-star restaurant in France), and David Chang of Momofuko (who writes about his noodle education in Japan).

40. Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White)
Continuing with our E.B. White education, I read this children’s classic to the little boys. White richly depicts a Maine farm, replete with talking animals and a spider, named Charlotte, who saves a pig from slaughter. She does it by weaving messages about Wilbur into her web, thereby creating celebrity and preventing him from becoming bacon and ham. It’s extraordinarily touching the way Charlotte finds and lauds the exceptional in her friend.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Micawbers to close

Earlier this week, the Daily Princetonian reported that Micawber Books—my favorite bookstore in the U.S.—will close in early 2007. I find this news devastating on so many levels. Chiefly, I think about my personal enjoyment and how the store is an important part of our family visits to Princeton. But Micawber is a fine independent business and a top-notch bookstore and should remain in the landscape to serve as blessed relief from the crappy, generic, soulless chainstores of America.

John and I have been visiting Micawber for the past ten years. John's mother lives within walking distance from the store's location in Palmer Square, right across from the main gates of Princeton U. When we first started visiting, the store was small, selling mostly used books with a carefully edited selection of new books at the front of the store. Each row is graced by a sculpture made from found book objects (typewriters, books, pens, paper, printing blocks) and hung on the wall that runs perpendicular to the shelves. One year we noticed a new bookstore in the adjacent retail space and wondered how Micawber would fare only to learn that Micawber had expanded the new books into a much larger space.

We have this lovely little ritual where we ditch the kids (who are happily playing with their cousins or watching movies on the third floor) with Gma and Gpa and walk downtown. After a quick sushi lunch at our favorite no-frills campus sushi place*, we hit Micawber Books—and hit it hard. While we're no strangers to strong independent bookstore—heck, we used to have a few nearby in St. Paul—there is something special about this one. The booksellers' tastes in books match ours. To a T. Since we are bookstore geeks, we even have a ritual for shopping. We each take a side of the long display tables that run the length of the store, sharing our finds, each commenting that we can't wait to hit the other side. The only rule we have is pick up anything that interests you because, unless you make a physical list, you may never see the book again. I try to limit my purchases to one or two books (for me, and a couple for the kids). Maybe we'll pick up a last minute holiday gift for someone, which is always fun.

The store will be open until March so we will make our final visit in a few weeks. I fear that its spirit will have been deflated. By fall '07, Labyrinth Books, which already has locations near Columbia U. and Yale, will open. The staff picks on their website give me optimism. Even though it will never replace Micawber, I'm pleased that Princeton will continue to support an independent bookseller.

Meanwhile, check out St. Paul's Micawbers, which a long-time acquaintance co-owns.

*I don't even know the restaurant's name, but we love it. Essentially, it's take-out though you can grab a stool and a two-top (the coveted six-top is always taken), and all the sushi is prepared fresh by a sushi chef at a sushi bar. The menu is on a big board opposite the sushi counter. You make your own green tea in a styrofoam cup by adding water from a dispenser to a tea bag; likewise with the packet of instant miso soup. Sushi is served on a disposable tray, like the kind you get with grocery story sushi, and matching tiny trays hold soy sauce.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Muriel Spark

When Dame Muriel Spark died earlier this year, I realized that, although Spark has been a long-time member of my TBR list, I’d never read her. My friend Caryl coincidentally expressed an interest to read Spark and thus we launched a small, focused study of her work. For our starting point, we chose The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, arguably her best-known novel and #76 on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the Century. Next came The Comforters, which was her first novel, and we followed it with Memento Mori.

A few biographical notes about Spark: she wrote her first novel at 39 (pas mal), converted to Catholicism in order to “see human nature clearly,” abandoned her son when he was a child and had a strained relationship with him as a result. Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh—a few of my favorite 20th century novelists—thought highly of her writing.

With an economy of language and—as a review in the New York Times aptly described it—a firm voice, Spark deftly created character-rich novels with interesting plots. Ultimately, I’d like to read every novel Spark wrote, as well as her short stories and memoir. I don’t think it matters where you start if you’re reading Spark for the first time (at least it doesn’t seem so to me with only three early novels under my belt). But, I highly recommend that you do read her!

#16, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Originally published in the fall of 1961 as a short story in the New Yorker, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a powerful slim novel that follows an Edinburgh teacher as she molds her “set,” a group of six students, in her likeness. Although I remember loving Maggie Smith’s portrayal of the title character in the movie version, Miss Brodie is hardly likeable; she’s bitter and resentful and dwells ridiculously on her “prime.” She’s also obsessed with fascism. Spark continues her examination of religion in this novel as much of it is seen through the prism of Sandy Stranger, who became a nun. I love the way Spark moves the story easily back and forth through time, often within the same chapter.

#21, The Comforters
In her first novel, Spark wastes no time experimenting with form, offering an accomplished and daring metafiction and drawing some delicious characters. The Comforters features Caroline, Laurence Manders’ girlfriend who has just converted to Catholicism. Early on, Caroline hears typewriter keys and a narrative voice, which is driving the novel. The story also features a ring of smugglers led by Laurence’s granny, as well as a busybody anyone would love to hate (Georgina Hogg). The New York Times (September 1, 1957) review said, “It is both enjoyable and memorable. Trend-watchers are advised to note the name of Muriel Spark. Before very long they may be able to boast that they read her when.”

#28, Memento Mori
This novel about Death features the geriatric set—a group of octagenarian friends who are receiving crank phone calls. At the other end of the line is a voice telling each, “Remember, you must die,” (memento mori). The phone calls unleash a history of deception and tangled relationship. They also lend a spooky feel to the novel, another trim but dense story. One of my favorite characters, Alec Warner, is a researcher who compiles statistics about the aging. Comically, he is forever asking characters to take their temperature and pulse when they’ve had a conversation or a threatening phone call so he can record the data. Mind you, these situations are constantly arising, and at times I was curious about how Warner would keep up with or make sense of his compilations. Spark provides a wholly satisfying final chapter that reveals the characters’ fates.

Up next: Girls of Slender Means

Monday, November 06, 2006

An Alphabetical Life

I am having a blast reading Wendy Werris's blog chronicling the excitement of being an author with a new book. Publishing is in her soul—she's a commissioned sales rep and an author escort. Lucky, lucky girl!

Monday, October 30, 2006

39 for 39

I love making lists, especially reading lists. For years I have kept an impossibly long list of books to read. Reviews, word-of-mouth, a favorite author's body of work, bookstores' new release tables and booksellers' shelf-talkers, all inspire me.

In 2004 and 2005, I wrote lists of authors I wanted to read, which I thought would give me more latitude in my reading, but still allow me to set some goals. And, I managed a few, but I find it's hard to only read off the list—so many books, so little time, you know?

Recently, I have been inspired by a few bloggers and book forum participants who make reading lists—and read off them. As a result, I have decided to make a list for the new year that begins with my birthday. 39 books for 39 years, in no apparent order:

A Small Death in Lisbon, Robert Wilson
recommended by father-in-law, a publicity blip in '06 renewed my interest
Memento Mori, Muriel Spark
part of the Muriel Spark Project
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
I'm only slightly ashamed to admit I'm a 39-year-old P&P virgin
The Big Oyster, Mark Kurlansky
represents the literary side of my love affair with oysters
The Keep, Jennifer Egan
strong early reviews
Look at Me, Jennifer Egan
Charles Baxter recommended it; 2001 National Book Award finalist
Heat, Bill Buford
read excerpt in the New Yorker
Nasty Bits, Tony Bourdain
Bourdain rocks
A Year in the World, Frances Mayes
a travel must-read
Poet of the Appetites, Joan Reardon
big fat biography of M.F.K. Fisher
11. something by M.F.K. Fisher
Consider the Oyster
is a possibility
12. The School at the Chalet, Elinor M. Brent-Dyer
a Chicklit recommendation
13. Daughter's Keeper, Ayelet Waldman
the only Waldman I haven't read
14. a Ripley book by Patricia Highsmith
a classic
15. Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion
a classic
16. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, John le Carre
a classic by a master
17. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
started before Oprah chose it for her book club; would like to finish
18. Stone Diaries, Carol Shields
award-winning Shields
19. The Yiddish Policeman's Union, Michael Chabon
not yet published, but highly anticipated
20. The 5th Business, Robertson Davies
you've got to start somewhere
21. The Whole World Over, Julia Glass
reading for '07 Conversation with Books
22. The Thief Lord, Cornelia Funke
previewing for the children
23. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo
inspired by summer '06 trip to Paris
24. Case Histories, Kate Atkinson
catching up with Atkinson
25. One Good Turn, Kate Atkinson
she's hit her stride
26. Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh
a classic I missed as a child
27. Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon
started on Paris summer vacation, need to finish
28. Specimen Days, Michael Cunningham
three linked stories, Walt Whitman, why not?
29. Time Travellers Wife, Audrey Nieffenneger
it's never too late...
30. Places in Between, Rory Stewart
outstanding front-page NYT book review
31. The Pursuit of Love/Love in a Cold Climate, Nancy Mitford
all self-respecting Chicklit-er seems to read Mitford, and this was the first book I found locally
32. A Complicated Kindness, Miriam Toews
it's slim
33. The Know-It-All, A.J. Jacobs
Chicklit recommendation, token nonfiction
34. White Ghost Girls, Alice Greenway
read strong reviews for this too
35. Jane Austen Book Club, Karen Joy Fowler
Fowler is one of friend Krista's favorite authors
36. My Name Is Red, Orhan Pamuk
2006 Nobel Prize for literature winner
37. Brief History of the Dead, Kevin Brockmeier
honors for the book I've checked out most from the library this year
38. Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen
classic Matthiessen
39. Feeding a Yen, Calvin Trillin
recommended, and short

Making lists is fun, but problematic—where to start and where to end are conundrums. The above list largely represents books that I already own—some having been shelf-sitters longer than others. Some authors have been nagging at me for years (John le Carre, Calvin Trillin, M.F.K. Fisher, Robertson Davies, Peter Matthiessen), while some books have been nagging very persistently for a shorter time (The Brief History of the Dead, The Places in Between). The list also includes a book that has not yet been published (The Yiddish Policeman's Union). And, it does not include any books that I might read for book groups (on- and offline) or that I might pick up while browsing at a bookstore or the library, nor does it include anything in the ongoing Muriel Spark Project.

A few books have even made a reserve list:
Gone-Away Lake, Elizabeth Enright
In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin
Spies, Michael Frayn
The King of Infinite Spaces, James Hynes
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer
Salt, Mark Kurlansky
1968, Mark Kurlansky
something by John McPhee (Oranges)

Number Fifteen

#15, Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
After reading some strong reviews last fall, finding it on the NYT Notable list, and following its progress in The Morning NewsTournament of Books, I bumped Never Let Me Go up my list. This is one of the novels I’ve read this year that will stick with me for a long time. I’m not going to even attempt a plot synopsis; rather I will note a few things that I really dug.

Ishiguro has an amazing controlled style that made me feel very uncomfortable, but it was a page-turning uncomfortable. At any given moment, the reader only knows as much as necessary, but is left questioning all that goes unsaid.

Ishiguro’s characters are so well-drawn. The novel explores an intense relationship between three characters, beginning with their time as children at boarding school until their deaths, which often reminded me of the way Margaret Atwood depicts friendships with rifts and shifts.

The backdrop of the novel involves cloning and organ harvest, which smacks right up against the science and ethics topics I love to think about, and it’s utterly eerie. I know Ishiguro is on record as saying the novel isn’t about cloning, but his treatment of breaking science is timely and forces the reader to think about what is biomedically possible.

Highly recommended if you like your fiction creepy, contained, or post-apocalyptic. (Checked out from the library)

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

More Catching Up

#13, What Do You Do All Day?, by Amy Scheibe
I have a real weak spot for smart, light-hearted fiction, which I’ve started to call “lit lite”. The criteria? Feminine is good; must be meatier than chick lit; must not take itself too seriously. WDYDAD qualified on all counts plus was published by my former employer (St. Martin's Press)—how could I go wrong? Amy Scheibe, who is an editor at Counterpoint Press, has written an intelligent and funny novel about being a stay-at-home mom and its attendant adventures (high and low). The only slightly annoying part was the unlikable, slick husband and the drama that centered around his fidelity while he was on a three-month-long business trip. And, I did resent the occasional instance where our protagonist was portrayed as either paranoid or bumbling. Otherwise, I breezed my way through this book, alternately laughing and crying as the protagonist (Jennifer Bradley, a former antiquities art dealer) discovers the joys and struggles of parenting and confronts the challenges of being a modern mother. (Checked out from the library)

#14, Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue, by Paul Bowles
Way back in January, this was my selection for book group. Since I no longer work for a book publisher, I don’t have access to the latest and greatest books, so I couldn't offer an advanced reading copy. I also didn’t want to choose either a Random House title (almost everyone in our group works for Bertelsman and I think they ought to read outside the box) or a Holtzbrinck title (I hate hitting up my successor for books every time it’s my turn to choose). So, I picked a classic that would be provocative and would have a strong sense of place (Morocco and Sri Lanka, among others). Bowles is so amazing; his essays are lyrical and timely, and he is a consummately keen observer, which is a quality I value highly in a writer. Needless to say, no one in the group bothered to read the book so we never discussed it. The essay on music is worth the price of the book alone. Harper Collins is in the process of reissuing Bowles’s backlist with gorgeous jackets, and they’re all on my list, starting with The Spider’s House. (Purchased at McNally Robinson, a Soho indie and one of the few bright spots in what had been a mostly rancid business trip for MHSP in June 2005).

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

2006 National Book Awards

Around this time tomorrow morning, Lawrence Ferlinghetti will announce the finalists for the National Book Award. For a publishing geek, the anticipation is as strong as a child's suspense on Christmas morning! Stay tuned.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Vacation Reading

Whenever I am planning a trip, the first question my mother asks me is “Do you have your clothes together?” And, what she means by this is have you gone shopping for a new travel wardrobe, especially one that fits the location (e.g., a warmer climate) or an occasion (e.g., Christmas with the in-laws or a work-related conference). Heaven forbid that anyone kept track of what I wore from one sales conference to the next or that anyone cares about what I’m wearing.

Her concern for being properly attired in new clothing even extends to my children. Case in point: as I was planning our summer trip to France, my mother repeatedly told me she thought colorful polo shirts and khaki pants made such sharp travel outfits for little boys. And mind you, she meant polo shirts in matching bright colors, but that’s another issue.

As much as my mother annoys me, I have to admit that I likely came into this world hardwired to need a new wardrobe whenever I take a trip. However, the wardrobe I’m talking about is a book wardrobe. It’s true, I could go to my “closet” and pull out some little number that I own free and clear, that’s been hanging around for the right occasion to be read—after all, this is precisely why I have built a library. But, no, it’s only proper to shop for new books before embarking on any new travel.

First, where to shop? Any bookstore where browsing can be done is a good place to start. A full-service independent bookstore is always best, but when your neighborhood is lacking, a chain will do. If you need a mystery, however, then you better head for a mystery bookstore, pronto.

Now, what book to choose? A lot depends upon what where you’re going, what you’re doing, how you’re getting there, and whether you’re taking any children. For a long car trip, the driver may want you to read aloud. Mysteries, narrative nonfiction (microhistories and travel essays are nice, especially anything by Bill Bryson), and long magazine articles (Outside, New Yorker, Gourmet) work well.

If you’re flying, a lightweight mass market—a thriller or a mystery, say—with strong entertainment value is ideal. You might even need to make a decision about leaving the book in a seat pocket if you finish it on the flight. Some literary novels also make great vacation reading, especially if the setting is your vacation spot (for example, take Shadow of the Wind with you to Barcelona, A Moveable Feast to Paris).

If you are in any danger of finishing your book on the flight, you will need to have a backup book, especially if you’re traveling in a foreign country where any English-language book you find will likely be John Grisham and, if that weren’t bad enough, it will cost three times the list price.

And, remember, you can never take too many books with you.

In April, John and I flew to Costa Rica with a pile of mysteries and thrillers to share, which was a first for us. We alternately lounged on the beach or by a pool and sat at the resort bar or the bar in town (Montezuma) for close to six days. Between that and six flights, I managed to devour four books. Herewith:

#9, Confessions of a Shopaholic, by Sophie Kinsella
Many people on this flight had high-quality fiction (spotted: The Plot Against America, Shadow of the Wind, Middlesex). Even so, I reveled in Shopaholic’s bright pink jacket. This chick-lit novel was a delightful kick-off to vacation reading—a perfect page-turning airplane book. Utterly predictable with a highly likeable lead character and a London setting were good enough for me. Later in San Jose, I found the fourth Shopaholic book on our hotel’s lending-library shelf and managed to read about half of it before I became disgusted with how painfully predictable it was and cast it aside. (Shelf-sitter)

#10, Pythagorean Solution, by Joseph Badal
With comparisons to The Da Vinci Code and a Greece setting, Pythagorean Solution seemed promising. And, despite the promise, it turned out to be laughably bad. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that Badal self-published the novel, then had it picked up by a publisher for wider distribution, and in so doing, an editor asked the author to make certain “improvements,” thereby ruining the book. Everything about it was weak—characters, plot, pacing. Had the gratuitous rape scene happened any sooner in the novel, I never would have finished it. (Purchased at Once Upon a Crime mystery bookstore in Minneapolis specifically for the trip)

#11, The Calcutta Chromosome, by Amitav Ghosh
In a word, amazing. I’ve owned this book since 1998, and I’m not quite sure why I waited so long to read it, but thank goodness I finally got to it. Calcutta Chromosome is smart, with a complex story about malaria and medical discovery. And, there is a conspiracy and a touch of the supernatural. Awesome characters, none of whom I liked very much, were well drawn. Strongly recommended for those who like William Gibson or Richard Preston. (Purchased at Prairie Lights in Iowa City, IA)

#12, The Thai Amulet, by Lyn Hamilton
Last summer on our drive from the Black Hills to St. Paul, I read aloud to John the first book in this archaeological mystery series, The Xibalba Murders. And, even though it wasn’t perfect, I liked the protagonist and the format, and I have wanted to read another one since. The Thai Amulet was quite good. Protagonist Lara McClintock is an antiques dealer who travels to wonderfully exotic locales and, like all good amateur sleuths, stumbles across a body or a situation where she’s forced to become involved in the investigation. The author weaves in a parallel story from some historic period in the area where the book is set. Recommended. (Shelf-sitter, purchased at Once Upon a Crime a year or two ago)

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Catching Up, Part 2

Continuing with a few short reviews of the books I have read this year:

#5, Toast, by Nigel Slater
A host of foodstuffs and meals trigger memories of childhood, resulting in powerful vignettes from cook, cookbook author, and columnist Nigel Slater. His passion for food runs deep and redeems what could have been a devastatingly sad story of, among other things, life with a mother who succumbs to asthma.

Slater’s story is also nicely British-y. I wish I could remember better some of his favorite sweets from my time abroad. What I do remember though are the individual, packaged jelly rolls that I could get at Shepherd’s, my neighborhood grocery store. Each sponge cake was spread with a thin layer of buttercream, which provided a barrier for the thin layer of strawberry jelly that sealed the roll. Far from an elegant bake shop confection, this British equivalent of a Little Debbie snack cake was pure comfort.

Here’s an excerpt from the chapter “Toast 1”:

It is impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you. People’s failings, even major ones such as when they make you wear short trousers to school, fall into insignificance as your teeth break through the rough, toasted crust and sink into the doughy cushion of white bread underneath. Once the warm, salty butter has hit your tongue, you are smitten. Putty in their hands.

#6, The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits and a Very Interesting Boy, by Jeanne Birdsall

Humorous situations and wonderfully drawn characters drive this children’s book, which I read for the Storknotes book group. Four sisters spend the summer in a cottage on the grounds of a posh Berskshire estate, Arundel. While their father is busy doing his very important work, the girls have myriad (tame) adventures, including meeting their neighbor, Jeffrey Tifton, and rescuing a rabbit.

I found the cliffhanger ending for almost every chapter—even though not nearly as dramatic as, oh, say The Da Vinci Code—to be somewhat annoying. With such a delightful book does the reader really need to be coaxed to turn the page and read another chapter?

Nevertheless, the Penderwicks' adventures were engaging. Except for the stereotypically drawn Mrs. Tifton (as evil) and Mr. Penderwick (as the absentminded, Latin quoting professor), I loved the girls, especially Jane (who is sporty and writerly, a divine combination) and the mystery series she was writing and living aloud.

Charming and funny, The Penderwicks is reminiscent of many cozy chapter books from my childhood, including Betsy-Tacy and The All-of-a-Kind Family, and begs a sequel for further adventures.

#7, The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
For nearly twenty years, I have intended to read Edith Wharton, and the anticipation was worth it. I know I’ll envy anyone reading The Age of Innocence for the first time. Brilliant, sharp wit, richly detailed—these are the words that immediately come to mind when I think about Edith Wharton, who astutely examines the strictures of New York society in the 1870s. Far from being just a keen observer, Wharton also proves that she is an accomplished novelist with artfully drawn and developed characters, as well as an appropriate amount of tension. I look forward to reading more from the author, and have added Ethan Frome and A House of Mirth to my vast reading list. #58 on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list.

#8, The Last Templar, by Raymond Khoury
I really enjoyed reading this Da Vinci Code-inspired thriller. In fact, long before The DaVinci Code was a twinkle in Dan Brown’s eye, Foucault’s Pendulum, The Eight, and other literary conspiracy thrillers with art, historical legends, and Gnoticism at their center had already captivated me. Who can say if Khoury would have written a novel like this if his publisher hadn't said "You know what we need? Another Da Vinci Code." Nonetheless, The Last Templar and Steve Berry's Templar’s Legacy were published simultaneously (the latter also happens to currently be in my possession, courtesy of fate and the library) and became easy bestsellers.

Khoury’s grail quest involves an artifact; a legend; an exquisitely beautiful, self-possessed, and very smart heroine (archaeologist) who works with a handsome hero (FBI investigator); and a deliciously evil bad guy (Catholic cardinal). While not perfect (cheesy romance and implausibly dramatic climax), it is a satisfactorily even-paced thriller, which one would expect from a screenwriter, and has one of the most unexpectedly gruesome opening scenes I have ever read.

No need to buy the book, even in mass market, but don’t pass it up if you spot it on your library’s shelves.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

You know you're a bookaholic when...

you choose a new purse not for its stylish good looks (although it is stylish and good looking), nor for how good it makes you look.

You know you’re a bookaholic when you choose a purse for its capacity to hold a book—and not a measly mass market either, but an inch-thick, roughly 6x9 trade paperback.

You vow that if you buy the purse upon which you first laid eyes (a smaller but equally appealing suede handbag), you'd be fine carrying the book in your hand. Your shopping companion scoffs. He knows you almost better than you know yourself.

At the end of the day, there is a perfect bag for you—and your book.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


Earlier this week, a fellow reading-forum member made a query asking for "whodunnit” recommendations. Since I've read an occasional mystery, I thought I'd glance through my list to see what I'd read in the genre recently that I might recommend. Imagine my surprise when—after I counted the mysteries, then tallied all the books I have read this year, followed by some calculations—the results revealed a full quarter of the year’s books have been mysteries. This is a number slightly disproportionate to the titles on my reading list, none of which are mysteries.

Although I don't exclusively read mysteries, it's true, I'm a bit of a junkie. How did this happen?

In another life, I worked for a publisher that is well known for its mystery publishing program. Some of my favorite clients were mystery bookstore owners. Actually, those same buyers were the most eager to place a book in my hands before I left their store. In the seven years that I was in daily contact with mysteries, I bought, traded, and borrowed scores. Yet, I read maybe a total of ten mysteries.

Shamefully, I've often dismissed the genre as being lightweight. But I will be the first to admit that not all mysteries are insubstantial. Many, like Eliot Pattison's series set in Tibet, are meaty and provocative. Those that are fluffy serve a higher purpose as pure entertainment.

So, I'm revisiting the mystery genre (which, for the sake of convenience, will also include thrillers). With thanks to the mystery guys who graciously tutored me: Steve Stilwell (former owner of Once Upon a Crime in Minneapolis), Jeff Hatfield (buyer at Uncle Edgar's in Minneapolis), and Richard Katz (owner of Mystery One in Milwaukee). My other mystery guys are my husband and his father, who has been devouring mysteries in his retirement. He likes them hard-boiled. I can take or leave gritty.

I love mysteries with great characters. They can make up for poorly conceived and poorly executed plots. Further, as with all fiction, I like to be transported, so theme or setting can be nearly as important to me as great characters. Beyond that if a mystery is well edited, and the author shows promise in developing a series, then I'm likely to get sucked into it.

Herewith, a few of my favorite mystery series, in no particular order—some of which I had to go into the wayback machine to retrieve:

Peter Watson
Before The Davinci Code was even a twinkle in Dan Brown’s eye, Peter Watson wrote a couple art thrillers featuring Michael Whiting, a London art gallery owner. Watson deftly blends the Bible and medieval iconography into a fast-paced, but richly detailed mystery. Even when I bought British editions at an upstate NY bookshop ten years ago, these books were nearly impossible to find. But Landscape of Lies has been reissued recently by Felony & Mayhem Press, a publisher that appears to specialize in reprinting overlooked mysteries.

Diane Mott Davidson
This was one of the first food-themed mystery series on the market, featuring caterer Goldy Bear. The setting is wealthy Aspen Park, Colorado, and the cast of characters runs to soap-operatic depths, including Goldy’s evil ex-husband, Dr. John Richard Korman, and her zany best friend, Marla, who was also married at one time to Korman. Davidson really hits her stride when Goldy steps into her kitchen, pulls an espresso, and prepares the food she’s catering. Recipes are included, but I find them to be a very minor part of the story.

Harlan Coben
This mystery series features sports agent, Myron Bolitar. Initially, each humor-loaded book in the series focused on a different sport (basketball, tennis, golf, and others), but Coben admitted at a book signing that he never wanted the series to be about sports and so has dropped this compelling theme. The series also features one of the best cast of characters outside of Seinfeld, including Winfield “Win” Lockwood III (Myron’s psychotic best friend), Esperanza aka Little Pocahontas and Big Cindy (former professional tag-team wrestlers who now work for Myron), and Myron’s mother. Coben took a break from the series for six years, and during that time became a New York Times bestselling author—a well-earned distinction. Promise Me was released this summer, and the first books in the series, which had been mass-market originals, are being reprinted in hardcover. Clearly Doubleday and Coben are committed to maintaining Bolitar. I’m looking forward to reading more!

S.J. Rozan
PIs Bill Smith and Lydia Chin alternate narrating this series. When Smith is the lead sleuth, the stories are set in the seamy underbelly of New Jersey, and when Chin is the lead sleuth, the setting is New York’s Chinatown. I'm partial to the Lydia Chin books, which involve tong politics, as well as feature Lydia's mother who fiercely rivals Myron Bolitar's for Mother of the Year.

Ayelet Waldman
The Mommy Track mysteries are pure pleasure, featuring former lawyer turned amateur sleuth/stay at home mom, Juliet Applebaum. I can easily identify with Juliet, the mother of young children, who has given up a demanding career to stay closer to home. Plus, she’s utterly likeable—smart, witty, bold. Waldman is utterly likeable too. She’s smart, witty, bold, and sometimes controversial; is married to Michael Chabon; is a big reader; and has a great website.

Lyn Hamilton
These archaeological mysteries are a recent find. Protagonist Lara McClintock is an antiques dealer who travels to wonderfully exotic locales for work, and, like all good amateur sleuths, stumbles across a body or situation where she’s inclined to become involved in the investigation. Hamilton weaves in a parallel story from some historic period in the area where the book is set to good effect.

Two others deserve some sort of mention. I’ve only read one or two books in each series, but intend to read more. Eliot Pattison's series begins with The Skull Mantra. It’s a beautiful and smart mystery, set in the twentieth-century Tibet, with a splash of culture, politics, and religion for good measure. Then, Elizabeth Peters’ archaeology mysteries starring Amelia Peabody are pretty addictive, too.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Catching Up

Boy, am I woefully behind on my book blog. Not that I find excuses pleasant to make, but, in the hope of completing 50 books this calendar year, and since we are past the midpoint of 2006, I have seriously occupied myself with reading books. Okay, true confession: I'm just not terribly disciplined for the activity of blogging, especially when I can spend hours reading other blogs.

Since I have plenty of material though, I intend to use it. So, my latest plan involves posting a series of "round-ups" by theme, sort of as an homage to my friend Daniel Goldin's thematic Book List, which I've always though was a good format (he's the senior buyer at Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops in Milwaukee). Also, I have always like Ayelet Waldman's booklog with concise, (usually) compelling impressions of what she's reading so you may see her influence here. Plus, I'm going to do this on company time since I've got no stamina or will power to blog at the end of the work day. Besides, I write for a living (well, technically I'm an editor but I feel like I do more writing than editing), and i have little desire to do more writing in the evening, which is--little known fact--one of many reasons why I don't bring work home.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Can you believe she used to be a lawyer?

#4, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, Ayelet Waldman

And now she's a talented writer.

How can you not be amused by a mystery that begins:
I probably wasn't the first woman who had ever opened the door to the Fed Ex man wearing nothing from the waist up except for a bra. Odds are I was not even the first to do it in a nursing bra. But I am willing to bet that no woman in a nursing bra had ever before greeted our apple-cheeked Fed Ex man with her flaps unsnapped and gaping wide-open. You could see that in his face.

I had thought about being embarrassed, but decided that since I'd been too tired to notice that I wasn't dressed, I was definitely too tired to care. "You have to air-dry them," I explained. "Or they can crack."

"That has to hurt," he said.
That's how Ayelet Waldman begins The Big Nap, one of her Mommy-Track mysteries. Not that I can identify. Okay, I lie. October 1999, Jehovah's Witnesses. That's all you need to know. But,I digress. That first paragraph is spunky and humorous and, at the very moment I read it, a breath of fresh air to the mystery genre.

I could write a lot about my Ayelet Waldman love, which starts with and always comes back to her role in a literary couple (you most likely know that she's married to writer Michael Chabon). But, I'll spare you the hagiography. I just devoured Waldman's hot-off-the-press, stand-alone novel Love and Other Impossible Pursuits. In three sittings, something I rarely, if ever, do since I am an excrutiatingly slow reader.

I'm not even going to attempt a plot synopsis, but I did find Waldman to be at the top of her form in creating a funny, sophisticated, compelling novel, populated by sufficiently complex characters and amusing/heartbreaking situations. It's hard not to empathize with hapless Emilia Greenleaf--who is attempting to navigate her life through the minefield of losing a child and learning to love a stepson--even when you want to smack her alongside the head. And, there's New York City, which is also hard not to love, even when you want to smack it alongside the head. Cabs, snarly traffic, Central Park, doormen, the Flatiron, throngs of people. Should I go on?

One last thing about Waldman: She has a blog where she maintains a book log, consisting mostly of short impressions of books she has recently read. I think she should update more frequently, and I think more readers should keep lists like this online.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

At this rate, I'll never finish 50 books in a year

#3, The City of Falling Angels, John Berendt
What can I say? I'm a sucker for popularly written history, and Berendt's book does not fail to disappoint when it comes to transporting the reader to Venice. As with Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which graced the New York Times bestseller list for a record-setting stupid amount of time, Berendt examines a crime that is as much about the city--its people and places--as the crime itself. In CoFA, Berendt's jumping-off point is the Fenice opera fire and resulting investigation. In between the arson story are luscious descriptions of Venice and an depiction of the wacky cast of characters who inhabit the city.

More than half of the book seriously diverges into melodramas that I couldn't possibly be bothered to care about and that do very little to enhance the narrative thread. Any self-respecting editor would have cut them. A much slimmer volume would have been the result, a book that could have been so much more interesting at half its 400-page length. Okay, I admit I did enjoy the long chapter about Save Venice, a historic preservation group comprised of American social climbers who violently and cattily disagree in public. In this group, I recognized Alexis Gregory, publisher of The Vendome Press (who painfully presented his own titles at sales conference when I was at Holtzbrinck), and gloated over his histrionics. And, the Ezra Pound chapter made me sad.

#2, The World to Come, Dara Horn
Please don't misunderstand me, I think Dara Horn is a remarkably talented writer, and often as I read her sophomore novel, I was carried along as if on a tide. A member of the book group to which I belong, largely made up of professional booksellers and publisher's reps, chose this title. We discussed it last week, and even people who hadn't finished reading the novel were prepared to call Horn a genius. I'm not willing to make that leap, but I would agree that she does some amazing, subtle things with her writing, with the characters and the plot. Possibly the greatest problem I had with Horn is that she has been favorably compared to Nicole Krauss (they're even published by the same house, W.W. Norton). I have read and love Krauss recently enough where I found Horn to be distractingly similar. As I read The World to Come further, Horn's plot became distinct, then enjoyable, followed by utterly, page-turningly compelling.

The novel opens with the theft of a painting from a Jewish museum during a singles mixer (based on actual events) and alternates storylines with 1920s Soviet Russia. Without spoiling any of the plot, I will say that Marc Chagall is the common thread. The characters are pleasantly complex and the plot is satisfyingly sophisticated. A few scenes are so incredibly well written, including one set in Vietnam that is startlingly graphic and another where in one paragraph, Horn paints every nuance in the relationship between three characters. These more than make up for heavy-handed imagery (especially characters that float or fly, as in a Chagall painting) and repetitive vocabulary and phrases. These are things a good copy editor, or line editor, should catch, for they are the detritus of writing that distracts even readers who are only half paying attention.

Ultimately, the potent combination of folklore, romance, history, and mystery was compelling. And, as happened after finishing Nicole Krauss's The History of Love, I need to immediately find Dara Horn's first novel, In the Image. I will happily read whatever she writes next.

#1, Don't Get Too Comfortable, David Rakoff
Quite possibly the best part of David Rakoff's essay collection is the subtitle--The Indignities of Coach Class, the Torments of Low Thread Count, the Never-Ending Quest for Artisinal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems. This book came highly recommended by an acquaintance who was a rep for Rakoff's publishing company, and she wasn't wrong. Rakoff, who is best known for an occasional turn on Public Radio International's This American Life, writes sharp, snarkalicious essays about consumer behavoir that are in equal turns gut-busting funny and uncomfortably mean-spirited (and still funny).

In December I thought this book was "endlessly humorous" on the basis of the first essay, which, at the end of the day, was my favorite. It begins with a bang: "George W. Bush made me want to become a citizen." How can you not laugh at that? Or scoff in disbelief? Rakoff then reveals that he didn't feel safe here as a lawful, permanent resident, even though he's not Muslim and comes from a country that enjoys "cordial relations" with the U.S. In a unique narrative, Rakoff then relates his travails in becoming an American citizen (he was born Canadian). He applies a similarly sardonic wit to other essays, whether partaking in the last ride on the Concorde or covering Fashion Week in Paris.