The “staff picks” shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, these books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many former (and current) booksellers in our ranks, we offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature appearing irregularly.The Moves Make the Man by Bruce Brooks recommended by GarthIt’s been a long time since I read this 1984 coming-of-age novel, but its indelible images – the green glass of Mello Yello bottles, the soggy crackers used to make home-ec mock-apple pie, the railroad lantern by whose light the protagonists play night games of pickup basketball – remain seared into my memory. Author Bruce Brooks, a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, combines descriptive mastery with the kind of compassion that can’t be taught. His story of an unlikely friendship also complicates some of our cherished myths about race and privilege. Though The Moves Make the Man, a Newbery Honor winner, might be slotted into young adult and sportswriting and Southern lit categories, it is no more a niche work than The Bluest Eye, or A Fan’s Notes, or To Kill a Mockingbird, in whose illustrious company it belongs.Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler recommended by AndrewRichler’s final novel, Barney’s Version is a savagely funny piece of satire. It’s also quite moving as it sweeps you through one man’s life. Frank and cantankerous, Barney Panofsky lays bare his failed marriages, his work, and his possible crimes and misdemeanors. Somewhat unreliable as a narrator, Barney’s memories are annotated by his son Michael, who provides clarification and correction to his father’s version of events. Whenever I hear that a film adaptation of a beloved novel is in the works, I usually brace myself for disappointment, but with Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman signed on to play the principal roles, I’m actually looking forward to this one.The Strangers and Brothers series by C. P. Snow recommended by LydiaThis sequence of novels, beginning with A Time of Hope, takes place in England from World War One to the sixties. I haven’t actually finished the series; I’ve only gotten through four out of a possible eleven. I’m a finisher, though, with the exception of Moby Dick on tape, The Alexandria Quartet, and Ulysses (fucking Ulysses, actually), so I am hoping for a completion date sometime before the autumn of my years.I was overjoyed to learn of the existence of these books. I love novel series, and it is my dream to find another Dance to the Music of Time. Or at least a Forsyte Saga. Or at the absolute least, the one with the cave bears. As it happens, C. P. Snow sits somewhere on the spectrum between Powell and Auel. The books are not nearly so delightful as Dance to the Music of Time, but I am nevertheless enjoying them quite a bit. They relate the life of a middle-class man of limited means, who rises to great heights in several professions. It’s a good chronicle of several English epochs and the attitudes found therein. The subject matter is not always riveting, but the books are quite readable. I realize that this doesn’t exactly sound like a ringing endorsement, but most of the books I love have already been ringing-ly endorsed by someone else, and these are a step or two off the beaten path. So this is me, endorsing.The Posthuman Dada Guide by Andrei Codrescu recommended by AnneDada wisdom, divined by Andrei Codrescu and dispersed throughout this guide includes: take a pseudonym (or many); embrace spam email as a form of cut-up poetry; and remember that “the only viable Dada is the banished Dada.” Codrescu posits with wit that as creatures of the digital age, whose lives are beholden to IMs, email, iPhones, Google, and Facebook, we have entered a posthuman era where employing Dada’s nonsense actually makes sense. Beginning with an imagined chess game in 1916 Zurich between Dada founder and poet Tristan Tzara and revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, Codrescu traces Dada from its nascence to show how Tzara and his rabble-rousers usurped and altered the course of twentieth-century thought. Dada resists meaning and revels in absurdity, and Codrescu would be the first to acknowledge this book doesn’t provide a list of how-to’s but rather resembles a nautical map that charts the currents of our times. “It is not advisable, nor was it ever, to lead a Dada life,” Codrescu warns. And for that reason alone, you just might want to try it.The Magnificent Mrs. Tennant by David Waller recommended by EmilyHow delightful to find a learned book that wears its scholarliness lightly: David Waller’s lovely new biography of the Victorian grande dame and salonniere Gertrude Tennant is such a book. Because the magnificent subject of Waller’s book lived from the end of the age of Jane Austen through the First World War, and lived both in France and in England, her biography offers a sort of intimate history of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – its personalities and intellectual and cultural history. The famous and controversial explorer Henry Morton Stanley attended Mrs. Tennant’s salons (the horrors of his expeditions to Africa are thought to have been among Conrad’s models for Heart of Darkness), as did Labor Prime Minister William Gladstone, the famous Victorian painter John Everett Millais, and literary luminaries like Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Gustave Flaubert, Victor Hugo, Henry James, Robert Browning, and Ivan Turgenev.Her acquaintance was a motley of all the aesthetic and intellectual trends of the age: Imperialist explorers, socialists, anarchists, ex-emperors, Romantic and realist novelists, mediums and experts in telepathy all passed through Mrs. Tennant’s drawing room. Her allure as a biographical subject, however, is not limited to her extensive acquaintance: Tennant’s ability to balance her absolute commitments to her husband and children with her gifts for friendship and graciousness and her interest in social and cultural life reveal a more nuanced view of the age, and of the possibilities available to Victorian women. Tennant was a cosmopolitan, a woman of the world, and “an angel in the house” (as the Victorian ideal of wifely and motherly virtue came to be known). Waller trusts Tennant to express herself; he quotes extensively from her diaries and letters. Her voice is earnest, warm, unpretentious, intelligent, loving. You will be glad to have met her. And you will see, through her life, a more refined view of English nineteenth century social and intellectual history.
The four novels (Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, Clea) which make up Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet share the #70 spot on the Modern Library list. For various reasons I lay down on the job and only read one of them, Justine, so I am not at all qualified to talk about the series. But I do have an opinion about the first installment, and on Durrell generally, so I’ll talk about them and, god willing, get through the rest of the quartet in the future.
This first book of the four, Justine, is narrated by an Anglo-Irish fellow who lives on a Greek island and who is writing about the time when he lived in Alexandria and taught English. He seems like he has posh manners and he knows languages so one imagines that although he had no money he had a certain social cachet wherever he went. In Alexandria he had affairs and smoked and pondered heady subjects all the time (think a straight Isherwood with absolutely no sense of humor), and in odd moments managed to scrape together a pittance. Justine is one of the people he has sex with, and she is a (rather too good to be true) femme fatale, who eventually gives up her husband and lover and runs off to a kibbutz. Meanwhile, his other lover Melissa dies of TB and being two-dimensional.
I was wary of this novel. First, for a shortish book, it is long on boring paragraphs about astonishing feelings which the narrator seems to assume are universal. I have seen some other fiction of this period when everyone wanted to talk about sex and psychology and call gay people “inverts” and frankly it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between the first-rate (which Justine evidently is) and the awful. Second, the parts I like I suspect I only like because they appeal to the less edifying aspects of my own nature – basically, the orientalist and dirty-minded ones. (Although, in the case of this novel, “dirty” is in fact the operative word. The sexy bits convey nothing so much as a VD free-for-all taking place in an enormous ash-tray.) Third, for some obscure reason I just dislike Durrell and wanted him to apologize for things, even at moments when I was enjoying the book.
I think part of this dislike is founded in a pointless jealousy. I was a foreign service brat and I have been a lot of places and I used to marginally identify with the annoying Citizen-of-the-World thing Durrell has going on, but there is a duality to the identification. On the one hand, people like him (through no fault of their own) make me feel like a poseur and that I should have lived fifty years earlier in a really disgusting flat and fraternized with people who owned limousines, and I should have known about child prostitution and smoked more cigarettes, and been a man. Instead of being seven and going to school and putting all of my stuffed animals into a wagon. On the other hand, I resent his pretentiousness and his orientalism and his claims on the city of Alexandria and I think, ugh, horrible expat, and roll my eyes. Hypocrite lecteur and all that.
Ultimately, I like for reading to be a pleasurable activity, and reading Justine made me feel too much like I had to put on my Serious caftan. I chose to talk about it here so that I could mention two of the loveliest books I’ve ever read, which were written by Lawrence’s brother Gerald and which are the antidote to all things icky.
They are Gerald’s memoirs of the Durrell family’s sojourn on the Greek island of Corfu from 1935-1939, beginning when Gerald (Gerry) was 10, Lawrence (Larry) 23, brother Leslie 19, sister Margo 18, and their widowed mother “old enough to have four children.” The first book is called My Family and Other Animals, and the second is Birds, Beasts, and Relatives. (I have only just learned that there was a third Corfu book called Garden of the Gods, which is out of print but which I am acquiring second-hand with all possible haste.) The Durrells went to Greece to escape England’s appalling climate, and Gerry, who later became a very well-known and beloved naturalist, writer, and advocate for endangered species, spent his formative years running about in the island looking at bugs, collecting animals, making friends, and being educated after a fashion by friends of his doting family.
Historically, foreign people, especially British ones, have liked to come to Greece and perpetrate arty things in or about it. I think it is because the Greek climate is wonderful, and because Greece has temples and Homeric associations, and because it used to be cheap, and because everyone there was supposed to be virile and mustachioed. Gerald Durrell’s books are delightful because they convey the island’s beauty so well that one feels it viscerally, while remaining free of self-conscious artiness and condescension for their subject. Above all they are full of fun, written by someone who sounds as if he were a kind-hearted person who loved all animals and most people. Gerry calls out the various family members for being absurd, but in a nice way; I believe that they remained close in Gerry’s adulthood, and that it was Larry who eventually encouraged Gerry to write. On page one, Gerry describes his older, literary brother:
It was Larry of course, who started it. The rest of us felt too apathetic to think of anything except our own ills, but Larry was designed by Providence to go through life like a small, blond, firework, exploding ideas in other people’s minds, and then curling up with cat-like unctuousness and refusing to take any blame for the consequences.
The books are full of similar fond tributes. I’m trying to find more rousing ways to say how much I love them, but it’s difficult. They are just happy and heartwarming, is all. I’ll leave you with a characteristic passage (from My Family and Other Animals), which doesn’t include any of Gerry’s numerous wonderful descriptions of the island’s flora and fauna, but which is a good window into the various qualities of the Durrell family. (I know it smacks of the Patriarchy, but it was the thirties, and Margo ends up fine.)
As the summer drew to a close I found myself, to my delight, once more without a tutor. Mother had discovered that, as she so delicately put it, Margo and Peter were becoming ‘too fond of one another.’ As the family was unanimous in its disapproval of Peter as a prospective relation by marriage, something obviously had to be done. Leslie’s only contribution to the problem was to suggest shooting Peter, a plan that was, for some reason, greeted derisively. I thought it was a splendid idea, but I was in the minority. Larry’s suggestion that the happy couple should be sent to live in Athens for a month, in order, as he explained, to get it out of their systems, was quashed by Mother on the grounds of immorality. Eventually Mother dispensed with Peter’s services, he left hurriedly and furtively and we had to cope with a tragic, tearful, and wildly indignant Margo, who, dressed in her most flowing and gloomy clothing for the event, played her part magnificently. Mother soothed and uttered gentle platitudes, Larry gave Margo lectures on free love, and Leslie, for reasons best known to himself, decided to play the part of the outraged brother and kept appearing at intervals, brandishing a revolver and threatening to shoot Peter down like a dog if he set foot in the house again. In the midst of all this Margo, tears trickling effectively down her face, made tragic gestures and told us her life was blighted. Spiro, who loved a good dramatic situation as well as anyone, spent his time weeping in sympathy with Margo, and posting various friends of his along the docks to make sure that Peter did not attempt to get back on the island. We all enjoyed ourselves very much.
So did I.
Liz Moore graduated from Barnard College in 2005. Her first novel, The Words of Every Song, centers on a fictional record company in New York City and the lives of a broad set of characters connected to it. A musician herself, Moore has performed at many of New York’s institutions. She released her first album, Backyards, now available on iTunes and CDBaby, in September. Her websites are www.lizmooremusic.com and www.myspace.com/lizmooremusic.I quit my full-time job and started an MFA program this year, which has given me the opportunity to both read a lot of great stuff and berate myself daily for not being as literate as my classmates.Nevertheless, here are some books I have read and enjoyed this year: Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day; Goodnight Sisters, selected columns by Irish journalist Nell McCafferty; and, because quitting my job has caused me to take up babysitting, quite an assortment of children’s books. My favorite are the Fancy Nancy series and every Barbie book ever written, mainly because some of them include photographs of actual plastic Barbie dolls stiffly pursuing various leisure activities, such as tennis and baking, and I cannot emphasize enough how incredibly weird and awesome this looks.I also re-read Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. These are my desert-island books: I could read them monthly, I think, and still come up with new visions and versions of his beautifully imagined characters and their intertwined lives.More from A Year in Reading 2007