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.The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester recommended by AndrewThe subtitle says it all: “A tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary”. In this engaging slice of history (with a narrower focus than his later The Meaning of Everything), Winchester zooms in on the intersecting lives of two men: Professor James Murray, who oversaw the committee which collected the submitted definitions, and Dr. W. C. Minor, formerly a respected American doctor and medic in the Civil War, who then transplanted to England, and at the time of his 10,000-plus contributions to the dictionary was a psychotic murderer and inmate at a mental institution.The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary recommended by NoahIt sounds ridiculous, but I never travel without my O.S.P.D. Published by Merriam Webster, Inc. for Hasbro, it is the game of Scrabble’s one and only arbiter, from AA to ZYZZYVA (a tropical weevil and a damned hard word to make, given the fact that there is just one Z tile.) My Third Edition, with gold embossed lettering on a stately green hardcover, never sits on the shelf for very long since I became addicted to the Scrabulous application on Facebook. I may be a bit old for social networking, but opening a Scrabulous game with someone faraway by playing ZODIACS for 106 points? Priceless. And as long as I’m using my O.S.P.D., and not online references, it’s not cheating – at least that’s what I tell myself. Scrabulous may carry a price for its creators, who have been sued by Hasbro. If only life came with an O.S.P.D., such disputes would be so much easier to settle.The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron recommended by TimothyIn 1933, British author Robert Byron, a distant relative of Lord Byron, embarked on an 11-month journey with a friend across the Middle East, eventually ending up in India. Along the way he kept a journal – full of caustic wit and genuine discovery – later published as The Road to Oxiana. The book offers an historical look at the people and places of the Orient through the eyes of a privileged and opinionated traveler who makes his way by boat, bus and stolen horse. The journal can be enjoyed either in its entirety or by reading accounts of select cities, such as Beirut, Damascus, Tehran, Kabul and many others in between. The entries, each noting the date and city elevation, range from descriptions about the joys of bargaining to verbatim accounts of memorable conversations concerning local customs. To be sure, Byron occasionally makes sweeping generalizations about the ethnic groups he encounters. While in Baghdad he writes: “The hotel is run by Assyrians, pathetic, pugnacious little people with affectionate ways.” More favorable opinions are formed when Byron gets to know people beyond monetary transactions.At its best, travel writing offers a healthy balance of observation and attitude. And if you’re lucky, the author will not shy from the self-revelation inherent when encountering new cultures. Byron accomplishes both. In his final entry, upon returning home, Byron expresses the timeless sentiment of a world traveler: “I began to feel dazed, dazed at the prospect of coming to a stop, at the impending collision between eleven months’ momentum and the immobility of a beloved home.”The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas recommended by EmreI am easily impressionable. And sometimes my tendencies are highly ephemeral. Yet, for some obscure reason, I have a constant longing for that of the old, which – absolutely – can no longer be had. That is why I venture to recommend The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas to you fellow readers. Granted, it is a classic so oft cast in movie renditions and referred to in modern language that you – just as with the author’s Three Musketeers – might think you know all its details, but Dumas’s Count is still likely to entrap you in the mysterious ways he moves. Born into the lower classes and securing for himself the promise of a decent lower middle-class status, Edmond Dantes, the protagonist, is cast off society’s script as it unfolds with Napoleon’s return to the throne and immediate downfall. But Dantes lives on in the depths of a dark prison cell, and once free, plots a magnificent return, beautifully articulated by his vengeance. If you thought anyone vengeful, peek into the Count of Monte Cristo’s schemes and you will quickly change your mind, not to mention that you will appreciate them for their brilliance and ability to make you fly through upwards of 1,200 pages. Hefty as it might be, and outdated as honor might seem in our age, The Count shines a romantic light on the magnificent Parisian society of the early- to mid-1800s, providing the modern reader with a gripping story, colorful characters and a reflection on times and thoughts that may seem far away but are very much a part of our lives today. See also: Max on The Count.Setting Free the Bears by John Irving recommended by MaxIt was John Irving who introduced me to contemporary fiction. As a young teenager, his novels were the first I digested with an adult mind. Though it pains me to note that his later novels have been sub-par at best, the novels of his most fertile period – Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Hotel New Hampshire and of course The World According to Garp – are nearly unparalleled. But often given short shrift is the book that started it all: Setting Free the Bears. Where some of Irving’s novels can sometimes suffer from baroque plotting, Bears is refreshingly direct and light-hearted. Written when Irving was just 25, he submitted the book’s initial draft as his Masters thesis at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (where Kurt Vonnegut was a professor). The book offers a pair of free-spirited protagonists on a motorcycle adventure through Austria and a plan to liberate the animals in Vienna’s zoo. As is so often the case with Irving, things go awry. Though regarded as one of Irving’s lesser works, Bears is good fun that lays the groundwork for the books that made him famous.The Epicure’s Lament by Kate Christensen recommended by PatrickPeppered with references to MFK Fisher, this beautiful, readable novel could be described as the seminal work of foodie fiction (although such an appellation would belittle it). Hugo Whittier has removed himself to his ancestral home on the Hudson River, where he’s dying from a disease that could be cured if only he’d stop smoking. Hugo is the quintessential antihero, a sardonic, narcissistic curmudgeon grown prematurely old. He struggles to stay out of the affairs of his brother, who is stumbling headlong into divorce, and his estranged wife, who has appeared suddenly seeking reconciliation. Hugo is perfectly rendered, in all his self-centered glory. As a bonus, the book contains a ripping recipe for Shrimp Newburg.
Now that all the 2004 best of lists are behind us, I thought folks might be interested in what we have to look forward to. I have no doubt that in 2005 we will be introduced to many new literary faces, but there are also a number of well-known authors whose books will hit shelves this year: Murakami, McEwan, Foer, and more. So, I’ve compiled a list of books that you may find yourself reading this year. The list goes through July; some of the release dates are rough estimates, and a few of the dates will probably change. Also, I’m sure there are books I’ve missed, so please leave a comment with any other books you might be looking forward to this year.There’s a passel of intriguing books coming out in January. Hitting stores any day now is William Boyd’s latest collection of stories, Fascination. This one has been out in the UK for a couple of months, and the Gaurdian described Boyd’s stories this way: “They would seem a little too perfect if they weren’t also suffused with an understanding of love, desire and emotional incompetence.” You can read an excerpt here. Next week sees the arrival of Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland. The New York Times isn’t impressed, calling it “a high-art twist on chick lit,” but the Boston Globe says the book “remains as thoughtful and melancholy as the Beatles song its title evokes.” You can read an excerpt here (pdf). Then, on or around January 18th, comes a book that many readers have been looking forward to: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. This one’s been out for a while in the UK, too. Kafka is not a departure from Murakami’s surreal oeuvre. The book follows the parallel paths of 15-year-old runaway named Kafka and Nakata, an elderly bumpkin who can communicate with cats. According to initial reviews, the book doesn’t seem likely to be considered his finest work, but it should please Murakami fans. I encourage you to take a look at the Kafka page at the Complete Review for all the review coverage, and if you would like to read the first five chapters of the book, go here, click on the contest link, fill out your info, and use the password “kafka.”February: In 1990 Charles Johnson won a National Book Award for his book Middle Passage. Since then he has written a novel and a collection of short stories, and on February 8, a new collection, Dr. King’s Refrigerator, will be released. A Publishers Weekly review says that some of the stories are too didactic, but “Johnson’s longer, more carefully fleshed out stories are most effective.”March: Francine Prose’s A Changed Man, which will be out March 1, looks very intriguing. An early review by Publishers Weekly describes this story of a young neo-Nazi who walks into a human rights organization office wanting to change his ways as “a good-natured satire of liberal pieties, the radical right and the fund-raising world.” It will be interesting to see if this book proves to be, as HarperCollins declares, “Prose’s most accomplished yet.” Given the astonishing success of Ian McEwan’s Atonement in 2002, his follow-up effort, a novel called Saturday, may be the most anticipated work of fiction in 2005. A recent piece in the New Yorker which was taken from the new novel shows promise. The central character of the novel, Harry Perowne, is a confident but unconventional neurosurgeon whose altercation with a thug following a car accident is the catalyst that sets the plot inexorably in motion. You can read the excerpt here. Look for the book on March 22. After writing a book as massive as Rising Up and Rising Down (that’s 3352 pages, by the way), you’d think William T. Vollmann would take a break. Apparently not. On March 24, Viking will release Vollmann’s latest collection of short stories, Europe Central, which take place in Russia and Germany during World War II. The breadth of Vollmann’s work is truly astounding.April: Buoyed by the success of his Boston Red Sox book (co-written by fellow fan Stephen King), Stewart O’Nan is probably hoping that some of those baseball fans will become fans of his fiction. His new novel, The Good Wife, comes out on April 1. O’Nan also considered calling this novel Upstate, a reference to the incarcerated husband of the book’s protagonist. Everything I read about Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, makes me more and more curious. Among young, bright writers who have emerged in the last couple of years, Foer is probably the youngest and may be the brightest as well. His first novel, Everything Is Illuminated included narration in broken English, and his short story “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease” did things with typography that I haven’t seen done in fiction before. The new book – set to arrive on April 4 – will continue with this sort of experimentation, including the use of photography to illustrate the novel. There’s an interesting interview available at this website where Foer goes into detail about the new book (You have to click on the Foer link and then on Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to get to it, but it’s worth the trouble). After a five year hiatus, Kazuo Ishiguro has a new book coming out on April 5. The new book, called Never Let Me Go, is about an English boarding school with a troubled, but until now forgotten, past. You can read an excerpt here.May: All the dedicated (some might say rabid) Chuck Palahniuk fans out there will be pleased to hear that he has a new book coming out this year (his official fan site is known as “The Cult,” by the way). Haunted is a novel in 23 stories. Each story centers on a visitor to a writers’ retreat where things, inexorably, go awry. I say it sounds like an update on the classic summer camp horror flick, but Doubleday describes it as “The Real World meets Alive.” Look for it May 17.June: Paul Theroux’s latest work of fiction is about “the ultimate one-book wonder.” For such a prolific writer, with a new novel or travelogue out nearly every year it seems, I wonder if creating this character was a struggle for Theroux, if he was able to get into the mind of a man with writer’s block, something I suspect Theroux is not often afflicted with. The book is called Blinding Light. It will be released on June 1. Apparently Jonathan Safran Foer isn’t the only literary stylist coming out with an illustrated novel in 2005. Umbarto Eco’s new novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana will be of the illustrated variety as well. According to the Harcourt publicity, the memories “racing before the eyes [of the book’s amnesiac protagonist] take the form of a graphic novel.” No word on who supplied the artwork — or if it was Eco himself, but the book has been out in Europe since last year so I suppose someone knows the answer. Here are some thoughts on the book from a blogger who read the German translation. The book comes out on June 3. George Singleton’s forthcoming novel — titled Novel — is the only debut novel on this list, but Singleton is already well-known by readers who enjoy his comic stories and Southern charm. You can read one of his short stories here. The new book, which is set to come out on June 6, is about a snake handler from the town of Gruel, South Carolina.July: John Irving isn’t quite the superstar novelist he once was. Irving’s novels — The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Hotel New Hampshire — were my introduction to contemporary literary fiction, and he was my first real “favorite author.” But the middling quality of his recent novels, each one more mediocre than the last, ill-timed remarks about who should or should not pay taxes, and his dalliances with Hollywood have lost him some of his fans. Still, he keeps writing novels, and maybe this next one, Until I Find You (about a son’s search through the tattoo underworld for his ink-addicted father), will be a return to form. The book comes out on July 12.And if these aren’t enough for you check out preview articles from The Herald, The Age (reg. req.), the Boston Globe, and the Guardian. Happy reading in 2k5.
Last night myself and my friend Edan were the facilitators for the first installment of a new book club at the book store where I work. It was the first time either of us had ever been in a book club, and I think we both had a good time. Last night we discussed The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. After a few minutes of polite discussion, it came out that half the people in attendance strongly disliked the book, which made for some excellent debate. As best as I could tell, the dislike for the book is a part of the backlash against the “virtuoso perfomances” of young writers of late, who, according to certain readers, are over-writing in order to produce a novel that is “big” and masterful. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon and The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen are two examples of this trend that came up during our discussion. I, on the other hand, am relatively lenient in my feelings about this book at least in part because I have always rather enjoyed the over-written modern novel, John Irving (see The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire, The Cider House Rules, and A Prayer for Owen Meany) and T. C. Boyle (see The Tortilla Curtain, World’s End, and Water Music) being among my favorite practitioners. The question now is: what do we read for next month?