The “staff picks” shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many bookselling alums in our ranks, we offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature appearing irregularly.Signed, Mata Hari by Yannick Murphy recommended by EdanYannick Murphy’s short story “In a Bear’s Eye,” from the O. Henry Prize Stories 2007, stunned me with its beauty and strangeness, and led me to her new novel, which is just as lovely, and just as strange. Murphy’s Mata Hari tells her life story from a prison cell in Paris as she awaits trial for treason. The book fluidly moves from the Netherlands, to Indonesia, to various cities in Western Europe, switching points of view throughout, the language begging to be read aloud it’s so musical, so dream-like. This novel is erotic (oh lord, some parts left me breathless), sad, and fascinating. Check out Bat Segundo’s interview with Yannick Murphy for more.+ Coming Through Slaughter (Vintage) by Michael Ondaatje recommended by AndrewAfter cornet player Buddy Bolden suffered a mental breakdown during a parade through the streets of New Orleans about a hundred years ago and had to be put away, rumors began to swirl about his life. Michael Ondaatje’s first novel, from 1976, is a jazz riff on all the possibilities of Buddy Bolden. A work of fiction, the narrative line running through it involves his friend Webb’s search for Buddy after his sudden disappearance a few years before the breakdown, through the resurfacing, and then his final silencing on that fateful day at the parade.That’s the thread. But this short novel unfolds, or rather, explodes, like a scrapbook filled with bits and pieces of Buddy’s life. Interviews with his former lovers, with his friends and band-mates, with the denizens of the underbelly of New Orleans circa 1907. A poem here, a list of songs there, these fragments seem so haphazard, and yet these contextual glimpses all hang together, swirling around Buddy. And when the music ends, they leave you with a rich story of a jazzman who swung to his own rhythms.+ Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau recommended by GarthTexaco, by the Antillean writer Patrick Chamoiseau, won France’s Goncourt Prize in 1992. It has pretty much everything I look for in a novel: a sweeping plot, a great heroine, a rich setting (geographic and historical), an ingenious structure, and – especially – an exploration of the possibilities of language. In a resourceful translation by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov, Chamoiseau’s fusion of French and Creole seems positively Joycean. Recommended for fans of Faulkner, Morrison, and 100 Years of Solitude.+ My War Gone By, I Miss it So by Anthony LoydRecommended by TimothyWar is not only hell, it’s also addictive, at least for British war correspondent Anthony Loyd, who for severals years covered the conflict in Bosnia for The Times. In this honest and poetic personal account – no index of names and places – the young reporter breaks some of the traditional rules of journalism by taking sides in the multi-ethnic war and revealing how the high he gets from life on the battlefield is matched only by the high provided by heroin during the occasional trip back to London. “War and smack: I always hope for some kind of epiphany in each to lead me out but it never happens,” he writes. In the war zone, Loyd befriends civilians whose resilience is almost unfathomable. He also introduces us to modern-day mercenaries – not the highly organized and well-funded security details found in Iraq, but gritty thrill seekers from across Europe. These are fighters who don’t necessarily believe in a cause, unless that cause is war itself. The book is by no means a primer on the events that unfolded in Bosnia; it simply tells how in war some people get by and others die.+ Hellfire by Nick Tosches recommended by Patrick”The God of the Protestants delivered them under full sail to the shore of the debtors’ colony, fierce Welshmen seeking new life in a new land.” So begins the first chapter of the finest book ever written about rock and roll, Nick Tosches’ brilliant biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, Hellfire. Not a fan of Jerry Lee Lewis? Hate rock and roll? Couldn’t possibly care less? Doesn’t matter. Tosches’ style – mock-biblical, profane, and wild – will amaze you:Old rhythms merged with new, and the ancient raw power of the country blues begat a fierce new creature in sharkskin britches, a creature delivered by the men, old and young, who wrought their wicked music, night after dark night, at Haney’s Big House and a hundred other places like it in the colored parts of a hundred other Deep South towns. The creature was to grow to great majesty, then be devoured by another, paler, new creature.+ Water Music by T.C. Boyle recommended by MaxI’ve read nearly all of Boyle’s books, but his first (and the first I read by him) remains my favorite. Boyle is now well-known for his mock histories that refigure the lives of prominent eccentrics. But if those books are sometimes held back by the inscrutability of their protagonists, Water Music sings on the back of Mungo Park, an 18th Century Scottish explorer who ventured deep into the heart of Africa, and Ned Rise, a thief from the gutters of London who meets him there. It’s part Dickens, part comic book, and, as one reviewer once put it, “delightfully shameless.”+ The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem recommended by EmreEmbedding Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill, racial dynamics and the explosive 1970s at the heart of its narrative, The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem delves into the white world of Dylan Ebdus in the black heart of a changing neighborhood. It is the story of a motherless white kid estranged from his father and “yoked” by his schoolmates. It is also the story of Dylan’s brilliant journey from solitude to friend of burned-out-soul-singer’s-son Mingus Rude, to neighborhood punk, to Camden College drug dealer, to San Francisco-based music reporter. The trip is outward bound, but the reader is given the benefit of also traveling through Dylan’s heart and mind – be it through a delicious sampling of the era’s music, fashion and city life, or through exploits with Mingus and a ring that gives them superpowers. Lethem paints a brilliant cultural portrait of the U.S. by presenting Dylan’s isolation, desire to fit in – somewhere, anywhere – and transformation to readers. And, for music junkies, there is the added bonus of identifying endless trivia.+ Conversation: A History of a Declining Art by Stephen Miller recommended by EmilyStephen Miller’s Conversation: A History of a Declining Art is a smart yet approachable account of an art that most of us take for granted: the lively and friendly exchange of ideas among equals on topics lofty and commonplace, otherwise known as conversation. While Miller’s book is indeed a history – including different manifestations of conversation in the ancient world (the Spartans, for example, were known for their compressed, economical use of words and thus the word “laconic,” Miller tells us, comes from Laconia, the region surrounding and controlled by Sparta) – it focuses mainly on what Miller considers the heyday of conversation, eighteenth-century England, an age in which conversation was considered an art worthy of study and about which manuals and essays were written. Miller’s book – which he describes as an “essay – an informal attempt to clarify a subject, one that includes personal anecdotes” – is a nostalgic one, which views our own culture as averse to genuine intellectual and emotional exchange undertaken in a spirit of goodwill. We are either, he shows, too aggressive or too timid to converse about the opinions we seem to declare so boldly on t-shirts and bumper-stickers, and thereby we deny ourselves what the likes of Adam Smith, James Boswell, Jonathan Swift, and Samuel Johnson considered one of life’s greatest pleasures, as well as a means of sharpening one’s intellect, polishing verbal expression, alleviating melancholy, and acquiring new knowledge. “Society and conversation” Miller quotes Adam Smith, “are the most powerful remedies for restoring the mind to its tranquility, if, at any time, it has unfortunately lost it.” A timely, thoughtful book and one not to miss.+ The Art of Fiction by John Gardner recommended by BenOnce upon a time, in a land far, far away, a friend told me that anyone who is serious about writing needs to read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I’ve since read the book a half dozen times and feel confident in amending the statement: “Anyone who is serious about reading needs to read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction.”Although Gardner is best known for Grendel, his retelling of the Beowulf legend from the monster’s point of view, The Art of Fiction, finds him at his most engaging. This is no mere how-to book. In simple, captivating prose, Gardner lays out his theory of writing, stopping along the way to add anecdotes about his own experiences as a novelist and commentary on works he admires. In the process, he thoroughly examines the structure of the modern novel, from plot to word choice. The first read changed the way I viewed both writing and reading, and I’ve come away from every encounter with new insight.If you only read one book about writing, this is the one.
Bookdwarf, who is neither a book nor a dwarf, is the Head Buyer for the independent Harvard Book Store and an inveterate hoarder of galleys and first editions. Her reading interests run across all genres and styles, but her favorites include Haruki Murakami, George Eliot, and Alexander Dumas.I feel like I’ve said “This is the best book I’ve read this year” a lot in 2007. What a great year for books. There are a few new ones as well as a few older ones on my list. First, I’ll get George Eliot’s Middlemarch out of the way. It’s simply one of the best books I’ve ever read. I expect to read this again in a few years and still feel the same, it’s that good. It’s the kind of book where you’re not certain you can make it past the first 100 pages, but what a treat if you do!I loved Danielle Trussoni’s Falling Through the Earth, listed as one of the Top Ten Books of 2006 by the New York Times. A spare memoir about her father’s experiences as a tunnel rat in Vietnam. She seemed to have gotten post traumatic stress syndrome from the war as well.Shalom Auslander wrote another brilliant memoir, Foreskin’s Lament. Dark, scathing, and funny, he writes about his Orthodox Jewish upbringing with a passion I usually reserve for politics.With regard to new fiction, I loved many books this year, but two standouts were Yannick Murphy’s Signed, Mata Hari and Benjamin Percy’s Refresh, Refresh. These might be two of the best books you haven’t read yet.More from A Year in Reading 2007
Yannick Murphy’s latest novel is Signed, Mata Hari, published this November by Little, Brown & Co. She is also the author of Here They Come, The Sea of Trees, Stories in Another Language, the forthcoming In a Bear’s Eye, and Ahwoooooooo! a children’s book. More information about Yannick Murphy’s writing can be found at www.yannickmurphy.comMy mind isn’t screaming after the first sentence, that’s when I know a book is going to be a good one. If the first sentence isn’t predictable and I wish I had written it myself, that’s also how I know. Then, if I feel scared, it’s a sure sign the book is a good one. I’m scared to keep reading because all of the sentences are good and I know I’m going to have to start writing better if I even want to come close to being as great as that writer is. And, really, I’m always in a fight against laziness and I don’t want to have to work so hard at being a great writer and so then I become mad at the writer because they’ve ruined the perfectly comfortable zombie state I was in, and now this, now beautiful sentences that engage me and overwhelm me and challenge me. Finally, if I’m reading and I can’t help but keep reading because the sentences keep pushing me headlong into their rhythms and glottal stops and playfulness so that I’m so far into the book that I then say, “Oh, my god, what’s going to happen next?” then I also know it’s a good book. After that I forget all about the mechanics of individual sentences because they become part of the entire deep and complicated event of the story. That is what happened when I read the novel The Road by Cormac McCarthy, I stopped analyzing and criticizing and I gave in and it was delicious and I became wholly entertained. It’s what always happens when I read his work.More from A Year in Reading 2007
This time of year there is a media stampede for lists. They are seemingly suddenly everywhere, sprouting like an odd breed of December weed. In a competition to write the first draft of our cultural history, all of our “bests” are assigned, duly praised once more, and then archived as the slate is cleared for another year. That fresh feeling you get on January 1, that is the false notion that you no longer have to think about all those things that happened a year ago, that you can start building your new lists for the new year.But books, unlike most forms of media, are consumed in a different way. The tyranny of the new does not hold as much sway with these oldest of old media. New books are not forced upon us quite so strenuously as are new music and new movies. The reading choices available to us are almost too broad to fathom. And so we pick here and there from the shelves, reading a book from centuries ago and then one that came out ten years ago. The “10 Best Books of 2007” seems so small next to that.But with so many millions of books to choose from, where can we go to find what to read?If somebody hasn’t already coined this phrase, I’ll go ahead and take credit for it: A lucky reader is one surrounded by many other readers. And what better way to end a long year than to sit (virtually) with a few dozen trusted fellow readers to hear about the very best book (or books) they read all year, regardless of publication date.And so we at The Millions are very pleased to bring you our 2007 Year in Reading, in which we offer just that. For the month of December, enjoy hearing about what a number of notable readers read (and loved) this year. We hope you’ve all had a great Year in Reading and that 2008 will offer more of the same.The 2007 Year in Reading contributors are listed below. As we post their contributions, their names will turn into links, so you can bookmark this page to follow the series from here, or you can just load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day. Stay tuned because additional names may be added to the list below.Languagehat of LanguagehatSarah Weinman of Confessions of an Idiosyncratic MindJoshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the EndBen Ehrenreich, author of The SuitorsLydia Millet, author of Oh Pure and Radiant HeartArthur Phillips, author of Prague and The EgyptologistPorochista Khakpour author of Sons and Other Flammable ObjectsHamilton Leithauser, lead singer of The WalkmenMatthew Sharpe, author of JamestownAmanda Eyre Ward, author of Forgive Me and How to be LostLauren Groff, author of The Monsters of TempletonJoshua Henkin, author of MatrimonyBuzz Poole, managing editor at Mark Batty PublisherBen Dolnick, author of ZoologyElizabeth Crane, author of When the Messenger Is Hot and All This Heavenly GloryMeghan O’Rourke, author of Halflife, literary editor SlateAndrew Saikali of The MillionsEdan Lepucki of The MillionsDavid Gutowski of largehearted boyMark Sarvas of The Elegant Variation, author of Harry, RevisedCarolyn Kellogg of Pinky’s PaperhausPeter Ho Davies, author of The Welsh GirlZachary Lazar, author of SwayMatt Ruff, author of Bad MonkeysAlex Rose, author of The Musical IllusionistJames Hynes, author of The Lecturer’s Tale and Kings of Infinite SpaceMartha Southgate, author of Third Girl From The LeftJunot Díaz, author of The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoRudolph Delson, author of Maynard and JennicaRosecrans Baldwin, founding editor of The Morning NewsBonny Wolf author of Talking With My Mouth Full and NPR correspondentBret Anthony Johnston, author of Corpus ChristiJoshilyn Jackson, author of Gods in Alabama and Between, GeorgiaElif Batuman, n+1 and New Yorker contributorRichard Lange, author of Dead BoysSara Ivry, editor at NextbookScott Esposito of Conversational ReadingEd Champion of Return of the ReluctantDavid Leavitt, author of The Indian ClerkRoy Kesey, author of All OverLiz Moore, author of The Words of Every SongYannick Murphy, author of Signed, Mata Hari and Here They ComeSam Sacks, editor at Open LettersTed Heller, author of Slab RatBookdwarf of BookdwarfJess Row, author of The Train to Lo WuMarshall N. Klimasewiski, author of The Cottagers and TyrantsBrian Morton author of Breakable YouEli Gottlieb, author of Now You See HimDan Kois, editor of Vulture, New York magazine’s arts and culture blog.Robert Englund, actorGarth Risk Hallberg, A Field Guide to the North American Family: An Illustrated Novella, contributor to The Millions