Tuesday, January 27, 2009

NBCC finalists announced

I've been out of pocket for almost two weeks, so I was delighted to learn that the National Book Critics' Circle announced their list of finalists for the best books published in 2008. You can read more on the NBCC's blog. All of the fiction finalists are on my TBR list, as are Rick Bass and Andrew Pham.

Fiction Finalists
Roberto BolaƱo, 2666 (Farrar, Straus)
Marilynne Robinson, Home (Farrar, Straus)
Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project (Riverhead)
M. Glenn Taylor, The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart (West Virginia University Press)
Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kittredge (Random)

Poetry Finalists
August Kleinzahler, Sleeping It Off in Rapid City (Farrar, Strauss)
Juan Felipe Herrera, Half the World in Light (University of Arizona Press)
Devin Johnston, Sources (Turtle Point Press)
Pierre Martory (trans. John Ashbery), The Landscapist (Sheep Meadow Press)
Brenda Shaughnessy, Human Dark with Sugar (Copper Canyon Press)

Criticism Finalists
Richard Brody, Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life Of Jean-Luc Godard (Metropolitan)
Vivian Gornick, The Men in My Life (Boston Review/MIT)
Joel L. Kraemer, Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds (Doubleday)
Reginald Shepherd, Orpheus in the Bronx: Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry (University of Michigan Press)
Seth Lerer, Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History: Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter (University of Chicago Press)

Biography Finalists
Paula J. Giddings, Ida, A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching (Amistad)
Steve Coll, The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in an American Century (Penguin Press)
Patrick French, The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul (Knopf)
Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (Norton)
Brenda Wineapple, White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Knopf)

Autobiography Finalists
Rick Bass, Why I Came West (Houghton Mifflin)
Helene Cooper, The House on Sugar Beach (Simon and Schuster)
Honor Moore, The Bishop’s Daughter (Norton)
Andrew X. Pham, The Eaves of Heaven (Harmony Books)
Ariel Sabar, My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq (Algonquin)

Nonfiction Finalists
Dexter Filkins, The Forever War (Knopf)
Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the Civil War (Knopf)
Jane Mayer, The Dark Side (Doubleday)
Allan Lichtman, White Protestant Nation (Atlantic)
George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: US Foreign Relations Since 1776 (Oxford University Press)

Balakian Finalists
Michael Antman
Kathryn Harrison
Laila Lalami
Todd Shy

Friday, January 16, 2009

my favorite books of 2008: the nonfiction edition

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Haruki Murakami)
Quite frankly, I’m not really sure why I picked up this book. I’m not a runner. I’ve never read a Murakami novel, although he’s been on my radar for a long time. I found the Raymond Carver reference sly and pickupable. Ultimately, the size and scope of this meditation on art and sport was very appealing. Admittedly, whenever I dipped into Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, at each mention of running, I inserting “cycling,” which worked really well. I also enjoyed reading about how he became a novelist and about his habits and practices as a writer. This is a slim volume that you think you're going to breeze through until you find yourself copying down the clever bits and mulling them before you start reading again and suddenly it takes three weeks to read a 5 x 7-trim size with wide margins. I hope that reading my first Murakami novel will be a treat equal to reading What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

Gumbo Tales (Sara Roahen)
Roahen’s “memoir” is framed in the foodstuffs that are particular to New Orleans, with chapters addressing gumbo (of course), red beans and rice, oysters, and chicory coffee, but also sno-balls (a shaved ice and syrup treat), King cakes (the disturbingly sweet Mardi Gras pastry), sazeracs (the rye whiskey and bitters–based cocktail), and pho (NOLA has a burgeoning Vietnamese population). Gumbo Tales is enjoyable on many levels. Roahen’s writing is rich and vivid, and through it, her character is fully expressed. Every time I dip into her prose, I’m instantly transported to New Orleans, wishing I had a steaming pile of crawfish on the table in front of me. In addition to all the food business, this book is such a fitting homage to all that New Orleanians lost to Hurricane Katrina. At the same time, New Orleans is given props for its resilience—I don’t think any natural disaster or act of God could take away that city’s sass!

Shakespeare Wrote for Money (Nick Hornby)
When my friend Caryl e-mailed me the announcement for Nick Hornby’s third—and last—collection of his Believer columns, I scoured the local bookstores immediately. Even though Amazon said the book was in stock, implying that their warehouses had received inventory and were able to ship, however, none of my local indies had received their initial order. It’s so unfair. Nonetheless, the book arrived a few days later, and I loved it all the same.

Hornby never disappoints—not even in September 2006 when he was obsessed with the World Cup and didn’t read any books. So much of this collection was laugh-out-loud funny, and I’d find myself reading passages to John, like this one from Hornby’s February ’08 column, which struck a pitch-perfect chord with us.
I turned back to Spufford’s book [the memoir, The Child That Books Built] because my five-year-old is on the verge of reading…Writing hasn’t softened for him: three-letter words are as insoluble as granite, and he can no more look through writing than he can look through his bedroom wall. The good news is that he’s almost frenetically motivated; the bad news is that he is so eager to learn because he has got it into his head that he will be given a Nintendo DS machine when he can read and write, which he argues that he can do now to his own satisfaction—he can write his own name, and read the words Mum, Dad, Spider, Man, and at least eight others. As far as he is concerned, literacy is something that he can dispense with altogether in a couple of months, when the Nintendo turns up. It will have served its purpose.
I'm pretty sure we've had this conversation with each of our kidlets. And, no lie, every page has a gem like this, which makes me profoundly sad that there will be no more Hornby in The Believer. I love the format of Hornby’s columns. Each month he makes a list of the books he purchased, as well as a list of the books he read, which he then reviews in an “easily digestible, utterly hysterical” fashion.

Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper (Fuchsia Dunlop)
Like Gumbo Tales, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper is one of those enviable books that was born from the author's eats and travels and writings about eating and traveling. I acknowledge that this subgenre of memoir/personal essay is burgeoning and the bookshelves are somewhat glutted. But, make an exception for Fuchsia Dunlop. She has the added benefit of wicked smarts, with an advanced degree in economics, combined with a not too cloyingly clever sense of humor. Her memoir of eating in China is delectable.

The Guardian called this book a “cultural immersion,” which is apt, as her memoir entails much more than food. Beginning in the early 1990s, Dunlop lived in China, off and on, for over a decade. As a student—and as a professional writer—she has traveled to remote corners of the country, engaging every person she could in conversation. That rich experience certainly imbues her writing with great depth. Between descriptions of food and meals, Dunlop dazzles with history, geography, modernization, growth, and more. With the exception of the requisite SARS chapter, almost every page made me want to eat Sichuan food in Sichuan province, but until then I'll settle for the Tea House or Little Szechuan.

Monday, January 12, 2009

my favorite books of 2008: the fiction edition

In no particular order, my favorite novels of 2008:

What Is the What (Dave Eggers)
This book came to my attention long before I picked it up, and when I finally read it, I breathed a sigh of relief, for the payoff was worth the anticipation. I will also admit that I bought this book for the jacket. McSweeney’s is doing some really neat things with cover design, using unconventional trim sizes, eye-catching graphics, and awesome fonts. And the paper over boards—I love the paper over boards. What Is the What read like a memoir, following the story of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the Lost Boys of the Sudan, now in the U.S. As Valentino endeavors to make the most of the opportunities afforded him here, he experiences a number of situations that raise the question: is he better off here in the U.S. than in his civil-war-torn country, where his village was burned and his family killed? Heavy, I know, but leavened by humor and just impeccably written. I never read Eggers’ staggering genius memoir but I think What Is the What might be Eggers’ staggering genius.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (Winifred Watson)
First published in 1938, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is currently in print from Persephone Books, the super-cool British publisher that specializes in reviving lost twentieth-century classics, mostly written by women. Guinevere Pettigrew is sent by an employment agency to the wrong house. Instead of the governess job she was expecting, Miss Pettigrew finds herself thrust into a new role as social secretary to a nightclub singer, Miss LaFosse. And hijinks ensue. I loved Watson’s wit, humor, and carefree storytelling. Lighthearted line drawings make a charming package, immediately drawing the reader into the period (1930s) and spirit of the novel. I also saw—and loved—the movie for its' own merits, such as the pitch-perfect performances of Amy Adams and Frances McDormand.

Then We Came to the End (Joshua Ferris)
I was thrilled when Suzanne chose Then We Came to the End as a book group selection because it was on My List. This first novel had come to my attention before it hit store shelves: Reagan Arthur, a friend from SMP days, is the editor, and I’d read anything she publishes. Early reviews were strong, word of mouth helped build my interest, and then the book was nominated for a National Book Award—all signs pointed to Yes. But this darkly funny novel set during the dot-com bust—about the last days of an ad agency and the attendant layoffs—hit too close to home. At that very moment in time, the magazine group where I worked as an editor was for sale, my future uncertain. Before long, we had a new owner, who let everyone go. However, had I started the book immediately instead of letting it feed into the big dread-pit that had taken the place of my stomach, I might have had a few more hearty chuckles during that dark period. Also, I might have played more office pranks. Okay, I probably wouldn’t have played pranks. After all, I stayed on the sinking ship because the odds were somewhat in my favor. Back on topic, Ferris is a comedic genius, and I loved Then We Came to the End. If you’ve ever worked in an office, you’ll recognize the characters. The situations, however, are appropriately outlandish. I can’t wait to see how Ferris follows up.

Casino Royale (Ian Fleming)
Casino Royale is the first book in Ian Fleming’s spy series starring James Bond. Sure, the novel has all the elements we’ve come to expect in a Bond movie—action, girls, bad guys with evil henchmen, exotic locales. But, if you’ve only seen the movies, you might not know that Bond has a rich interior life and is a little dark, which I found pleasantly surprising. While in the hospital, healing from torture at the hands of bad guy Le Chiffre (in the same brutal fashion as the 2006 movie w/Daniel Craig), Bond has a crisis of conscience and doubts whether he can continue as a “00,” licensed to kill. Bond recovers and recommits himself to fighting evil. Ian Fleming has a casual and suave literary style. I can only imagine what it was like for a reader in 1953—with no predisposition to any movie-screen Bond—to have met this character.

Atmospheric Disturbances (Rivka Galchen)
A glowing New York Times book review piqued my attention for Atmospheric Disturbances, a first novel by the remarkably talented and young Rivka Galchen, and then I got a thumbs-up from a friend who was enjoying it. Like Ethan Canin, Galchen has an MFA and an MD and is utterly gorgeous, though the comparisons to Canin end there. Galchen has churned out a complex novel that hinges on a 51-year-old psychiatrist, Leo, who believes that his much-younger Argentinean wife has been replaced by a doppelganger. Leo’s search for his original wife comprises much of the ambitious plot. (You really need to read the Times review where Liesl Schillinger does a better job summarizing the plot and making comparisons than I could ever hope to.) If it hasn't become abundantly clear yet, I'll come right out and say it: I’m a huge sucker for first novels. Atmospheric Disturbances had very few disappointing moments.

Honorable Mentions:
~ The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Brian Selznick)
As my friend Caryl said about The Invention of Hugo Cabret, “It’s a must read.” The novel's intricate story of an orphaned boy—who lives in a Paris train station, surviving on his wits and building a mechanical man—is illustrated with Selznick’s amazing pencil sketches. Paris is truly seen in a new light. Intended for middle readers; recommended for all ages.

~ discovery: Donna Leon
I kicked off 2008 by reading Donna Leon's Suffer the Little Children, the sixteenth book in the Commissario Brunetti series. Leon writes a compelling police procedural, with an outstanding protagonist and a supporting cast of characters. Brunetti adores his wife and family, eats fine food, reads history tomes, and endures tourists. The setting is Venice, and Leon's descriptions will encourage you to bump Italy to the top of your travel list. I followed up Suffer the Little Children (in January, it was the series' most recent title, as well as a Conversation with Books selection) with the first two books in the series, Death at La Fenice and Death in a Strange Country, and I recently finished Dressed for Death.

~ discovery: Alexander McCall Smith
Often I dream about reading an entire series, "in one sitting," figuratively speaking. Imagine my luck, then, when Caryl offered me her Isabel Dalhousie books by Alexander McCall Smith. Seeing as I have a weakness for character-driven fiction, as well as stories with a strong sense of place, I found Isabel and her Edinburgh utterly irresistible. This series is categorized as mystery, though there's not much mystery—certainly no murders—rather situations to which Isabel is drawn so that she may "help." Other recurring characters include Isabel's niece, Cat, as well as Jamie, a young musician who becomes a love interest (I don't think that's a spoiler as you can see this coming from the first book). Isabel is the editor of the Journal of Applied Ethics, spending her days thinking about philosophical dilemmas and deciding which papers to publish in the magazine. A charmed life, I know. By the time I finished reading the fifth consecutive book, I had grown a little weary of Isabel and some of her choices. But given some distance, I will certainly be back for number six, whenever it is published.