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.


Caryl said...

Cool picks! I've been meaning to read something by Haruki Murakami for awhile now. And the two foodie/memoir/travel books sound like ones I'd enjoy. Loved the Hornby -- it was the first book I finished in 2009, I think. Do you think he'd just send us emails about what he's reading if we asked? If we asked very nicely? I will miss him.

jennifer said...

An e-mail from Hornby about what he's reading would be AWESOME. It won't be long before I do a mass re-read of all three collections. I need more of his brand of humor!