Tuesday, November 27, 2007

notable books of 2007

When the New York Times announces their annual notable books list, my list of books TBR increases exponentially. Publishers place almost as much stock in this accolade as they do some awards. Being included on the notable books list can make a title more marketable to bookstores and readers when it’s released in paperback.

Of those books chosen for 2007, I have read only two: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (J.K. Rowling) and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (Michael Chabon). What Is the What (Dave Eggers) is my book group’s January selection, and I look forward to reading it soon.

The following will go on my list, ensuring an immediate detour from the 40 for 40 plan:

Bridge of Sighs (Richard Russo) In his first novel since Empire Falls, Russo writes of a small town in New York riven by class differences and racial hatred.

The Indian Clerk (David Leavitt) Leavitt explores the intricate relationship between the Cambridge mathematician G.H. Hardy and a poor, self-taught genius from Madras, stranded in England during World War I.

Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name (Vendela Vida) A young woman searches for the truth about her parentage amid the snow and ice of Lapland in this bleakly comic yet sad tale of a child’s futile struggle to be loved.

The Maytrees (Annie Dillard) A married couple find their way back to each other under unusual circumstances.

The Ministry of Special Cases (Nathan Englander) A Jewish family is caught up in Argentina’s “Dirty War.”

The Savage Detectives (Roberto Bolano) A craftily autobiographical novel about a band of literary guerrillas.

Then We Came to the End (Joshua Ferris) Layoff notices fly in Ferris’s acidly funny first novel, set in a white-collar office in the wake of the dot-com debacle.

Tree of Smoke (Denis Johnson) The author of Jesus’ Son offers a soulful novel about the travails of a large cast of characters during the Vietnam War.

Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff (Rosemary Mahoney) Mahoney juxtaposes her solo rowing journey with encounters with the Egyptians she met.

Edith Wharton
(Hermione Lee) The meticulous biography shows Wharton’s significance as a designer, decorator, gardener, and traveler, as well as a writer.

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (Tim Weiner) A comprehensive chronicle of the American intelligence agency, from the days of the Iron Curtain to Iraq, by a reporter for the New York Times.

Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography (David Michaelis) Actual “Peanuts” cartoons movingly illustrate this portrait of the strip’s creator, presented here as a profoundly lonely and unhappy man.

Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter (Phoebe Damrosch) A memoir about waiting tables at the acclaimed Manhattan restaurant Per Se.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

two short books

I have recently devoured two short books—one a novella and the other a travel essay.

A few weeks ago, my friend Krista kindly sent me a book care package. One of the books was The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, which I had a week or so before it arrived, put on my reading list. Kismet. The premise of the book involves Queen Elizabeth, who was minding her own business walking her corgis one day, stumbles upon a bookmobile on the grounds of Buckingham Palace. She chats up the librarian, checks out a book, and becomes a reader.

I did a lot of head nodding over bits like this:
To begin with, it's true, she read with trepidation and some unease. The sheer endlessness of books outfaced her and she had no idea how to go on; there was no system to her reading, with one book leading to another, and often she had two or three on the go at the same time.

There are great passages about the queen's distressed staff that can't go about their business because of her new habit, such as when she begins to ask of commoners in receiving lines and heads of state at dinners: What are you reading?

It's a deliciously subversive and humorous book that I look forward to reading again.

In early October, John and I visited Napa Valley. Just outside of Calistoga, we took a hike up Mount St. Helena, following the Monument Trail. When we hit the monument, roughly at this spot pictured above, we learned that Robert Louis Stevenson, yes, the author of Treasure Island, lived in a cabin. He and "his bride" (according to the inscription on the monument, a book on a pedestal that was carved out of red granite) spent their honeymoon here, and during that time, RLS wrote vignettes that would become the travel essay, Silverado Squatters.

It's not unusual for me to read books set in my travel destination—before, during and after my trip. But, it has been a long time since I've read something so site specific about such a random place (actually, it's been twenty years since I read Dracula after visiting Whitby Abbey). From the first sentence, I was transported back to that mountain and to Napa Valley, where wine was already being made. RLS writes about the state of wine:
The inconquerable worm invades the sunny terraces of France, and Bordeaux is no more…Chateau Neuf is dead, and I have never tasted it… A nice point in human history falls to be decided by Californian and Australian wines.
I wonder if Stevenson would be amused to learn that French vineyards recovered from phylloxera by grafting disease-resistant California vines, which allowed French wines to remain dominant until the 1976 when California wines beat Bordeauxs. Or that Australian wines didn't gain respect in this country until the 1990s.

As John and I stood on the site of the abandoned silver miner's cabin, we marveled at the remote location and wondered where the couple got water, as surely the cabin had no plumbing. It certainly was gratifying to find the answer in Silverado Squatters—RLS drilled a hole in the rock to capture run-off.

Here is a serene view of Napa from the trail leading to the monument:

Hard to find in book form, UC-Berkeley graciously offers the entire text online.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

weekend double-header

This past weekend, I had the supreme pleasure of visiting a bookstore and the library so as to gorge myself on books. Honestly, I don’t know if or when I will read all these books, but I have good intentions to read quickly.

On Saturday, John and I took the little boys to Uncle Edgar/Uncle Hugo, a joint mystery and science fiction bookstore on Chicago in Minneapolis. This place has stood the test of time with nary a facelift or tidying up. It’s sort of stunning the number of books this store packs in. In addition to the shelves that line the walls and a host of freestanding bookcases in the middle of the mystery side, piles of books form labyrinth throughout the space. The amazing thing is that buyer Jeff Hatfield knows where every single book in the store is and when they were published and by which publisher, as well as which books are available used. He and owner Don Blyly are easily among the most knowledgeable and passionate booksellers I have ever met.

I picked up the first, self-titled Modesty Blaise mystery by Peter O’Donnell and Bagman, Jay MacLarty’s follow up to The Courier, which I plan to read aloud to handsome husband on our eight-hour drive later this week. John selected a few medieval mysteries, and we found a junior mystery with a strong adventure component for eight-year-old, a budding reader.

On Sunday, John and I took the little boys to the library, where I had a book on hold (Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road, his second book this year—how does he do it?). Even though I’m reading three books at the moment, a trip to the library isn’t complete without checking out a tall pile. It’s good to have choices. I found Suffer the Little Children by Donna Leon (on the Conversation with Books list for January), Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee (a debut novel that received glowing reviews this summer), Not a Girl Detective by Susan Kandel (a fun mystery with an amateur sleuth that riffs on Nancy Drew), and Italian Two Easy by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, a cookbook by the owners of London River Café.

Where to start?

National Book Awards

The winners of the National Book Award were announced earlier this week. Of all the literary awards (Nobel, Booker, Whitbread, Giller Prize, IMPAC, Pulitzer, National Book Critics Circle), the NBA is my favorite, as the nominees most closely match the sort of books I like to read—solidly literary but not esoteric or punishingly difficult or pretentious.
Each year, I try to read at least one of the
nominees from the fiction list, and this year I had already read the Mischa Berlinski, as well as the Sherman Alexie. I’m thrilled about Sherman Alexie winning in the Young Readers category. He really deserves the accolade. Denis Johnson’s book interests me, too.

But, mostly I'm wild about Joan Didion's lifetime achievement award. This year I was blown away by a novel she wrote in 1970—Play It As It Lays—and her more recent memoir about the death of her husband, The Year of Magical Thinking. She's brilliant, and I look forward to reading more.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Book Group: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

I’m the kind of geek who gets super excited when book group rolls around every six weeks or so. My book group is comprised of fun, smart people, each of whom shares a love of reading, books, and food. It really doesn’t get any better than that, does it?

We all met working in the same industry—publishing. we constitute former and current publisher’s reps, book buyers, and booksellers. Talk always turns to which books—aside from that evening’s title—we’re reading. Out of necessity or preference, most of us have multiple books going at once.

Usually, we each take turns hosting in our homes, but occasionally, for variety, we like to meet at restaurants. Food is a pretty important element of our gatherings. Everyone makes and serves great food. One of our members, Amy, resigned her position at the biggest U.S. publisher to launch an upscale catering company. Almost instantly successful and overbooked, she spoils us rotten with her wonderful food, even when it’s not her turn to host the group.

Last night the group met at Grand Café* to discuss Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Many of my friends have been pressing Alexie’s books on me for years, but this is the first one I have read. I loved it, and I’m kicking myself (with apologies to Caryl) for missing him at his recent Talking Volumes event.

This young adult novel chronicles the teenage journey of Arnold Spirit—known to his family and friends as Junior—as he leaves the Spokane Indian Reservation to attend school 22 miles away, in a white, farming community. Arnold, hydrocephalic at birth, is "poorer than dirt poor."
His life is beset by tragedies—many of them the result of alcoholism on the reservation—and the travails of being a teenager, attempting to navigate the world. Arnold's world happens to straddle two cultures.

A teacher, who sees great potential in Arnold, encourages him to attend school off the reservation. When he asks his parents’ permission to attend Rearden High, they say yes without missing a beat. While Arnold's parents support his decision, everyone else views him as a traitor (he's called an "apple," red on the outside, white on the inside). At Rearden, he befriends bookish Gordy, holds hands and attends a dance with Penelope, and plays on the basketball team.

Lest that sound too ideal, the story is peppered with the death and drinking that are a part of Arnold's reservation life. Arnold's self-imposed therapy is drawing cartoons (comic drawing supplied by the talented Ellen Forney), which is where he works out his anger, frustration, and sadness, but also where he can celebrate occasional triumphs.

I was really blown away by the power of Sherman Alexie's masterful writing. The San Francisco Chronicle agrees: "Alexie doesn't break character to educate uninitiated readers about the realities of American Indian life." So does the National Book foundation as this book has been nominated for an award in the young people's literature category.

This is a really moving story—at turns laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreaking—and, ultimately, uplifting because Arnold takes a chance and doesn't look back.

*A few words about the restaurant. Located in south Minneapolis, Grand Café resides in a beautiful, quiet space with whitewashed walls and hardwood floors, yet nothing coming out of the kitchen is understated. Wafer-thin cracker bread virtually melts in your mouth and serves as a pleasant alternative to the bread basket. I’ve eaten here a number of times (its previous carnation—Bakery on Grand—was a favorite for a while) and have always felt that the food had yet to reach its potential. Well, I think it’s getting very close. I’ll be thinking about the artichoke-romesco spread, as well as the butterscotch custard and the chocolate flourless cake with blackberries and crème anglaise, for some time to come.