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.
A new issue of Scott’s excellent “Quarterly Conversation” is out. It contains a list of the “Books Since 1990,” and I can vouch for Scott when he writes that he conceived the idea for the list well before the New York Times put out its similar list. In the introduction, Scott writes that he is making no claims that these books are the “best,” which is so often the silly, attention-grabbing hook of such lists. Scott polled several literary types, and when he asked me to participate, he asked for the “best” books, but I think the point Scott is making is that throwing together a bunch of individuals’ “best books” lists isn’t how one determines which books are “The Best.” Instead we learn which books are part of the shared consciousness of a group of readers, which I think is interesting as well. It’s a tough line to toe, but I appreciate Scott’s effort not to announce that the books in his list are “The Best.”Which isn’t to say that I agree entirely with the books named on his list, which I think in some cases skews obscure or difficult for the sake of obscurity and difficulty. At the same time, I do appreciate knowing which books people think it is important to highlight, and am glad of the opportunity to be newly introduced to such books.As one of the contributors, I thought I might present my selections for the list in case anyone is curious. A few initial caveats in addition to the points below. I fully admit that my picks are mainstream, but I tend to believe – with very rare and notable exceptions – that quality work tends to be recognized and rewarded in the marketplace and thus becomes by some measure “popular,” and second I have not read all the books I nominated (though I’d like to), but drew from conversations with fellow readers and from my perception of which books are most important to the serious readers I know. Third, it’s very, very likely that as I read more from the contemporary era, this list will change (and it is important when looking at such lists to remember that they are fluid). And finally, I readily recognize that my selections exhibit a woeful lack of diversity; however, this is not to say that I only read books by white men, it’s just to say that white men happened to write eight of the ten books that I selected for this exercise. On to my selections along with the number of votes each book got:2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones (I’m shocked that I’m the only person who nominated this book. Of all the books that I’ve read from this era, I think this one is hands down the best and will go on to be a classic.) (1)2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (I believe the hype. I think this book is an important chronicle of contemporary American life.) (2)1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo (5)2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2)2002, Atonement by Ian McEwan (One of my favorite books ever.) (4)1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham (1)2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson (2)2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (Proof that an entertaining read can and should be quality fiction.) (1)1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth (3)1995, The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle (Of the three books by Boyle that stand out from the rest, Tortilla Curtain is the only one written after 1990. The other two books are World’s End and Water Music.) (1)
Katie writes in with this question:When I was in Rome I read I, Claudius [by Robert Graves] and loved it. Now I’m looking for other historical fiction, of any period or nationality, that does a comparable job of bringing a time and place to life and maintaining some literary credibility. Any suggestions?According to Wikipedia, not the definitive source in this realm but a decent enough place to start, a work of historical fiction can be defined as one in which “the story is set among historical events, or more generally, in which the time of the action predates the lifetime of the author.” This is a bit broad for my taste, but I think it’s a good place to start. Going by this definition, a lot of books that we think of first as fiction could also qualify as historical fiction. Some of my favorite books by contemporary authors fall into this category. T.C. Boyle’s Water Music is about a Scottish explorer in Africa in the late 18th century, and Edward P. Jones’ book The Known World is about black slave owners in Virginia in the 1840s. Another example of a book like these is Charles Frazier’s Civil War novel, Cold Mountain.But these books aren’t really historical fiction in the same way that I, Claudius is historical fiction. Traditionally, in historical fiction, the history is like another character in the novel, and the action is more likely to be ripped from the history books, as it were, placing the reader in a novelized version of true historical events. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell about Atlanta during the Civil War is a famous example. Another is James Clavell’s Shogun about the 16th century exploration of Asia. Of the few historical novels I’ve read, my favorite would have to be Leon Uris’ Trinity, a powerful epic about the Irish struggle for independence at the turn of the 20th century.There is also historical fiction that hews closely to a particular niche, like the Aubrey/Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian and C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series, both of which take place during the time when tall-masted ships ruled the high seas. The there’s Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children series, which is prehistoric, historical fiction. I know, crazy.I’m sure there are plenty of folks out there who have historical fiction to recommend, so please share in the comments, and thanks, Katie, for your question.Update: Jenny exposes my unfamiliarity with historical fiction by suggesting many, many fantastic-sounding books in the comments. Check it out, and leave some more suggestions if you’ve get them.
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?
So, they announced the nominees for the National Book Award yesterday. Interesting choices. Here they are with some comments:Drop City by T. C. Boyle: I read this one about a year ago. The book is definitely better than some of the, in my opinion, duds he has produced of late, but it does not come close to surpassing his three best books: The Tortilla Curtain, World’s End, and one of my all-time favorites, Water Music.The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard: I haven’t read this one, but I have a copy. If you would like to read it and write a little review for this website, I will send the book to you at my expense. Any takers?The Known World by Edward P. Jones: I have not read this one but I hear it’s quite good. It was extremely well-reviewed.A Ship Made of Paper by Scott Spencer: This one came out a while back and was also well reviewed, although I only ever seemed to hear Scott Spencer fans talking about it.Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins: this one slipped under my radar because this is the first I’ve heard of it. I know, not very helpful.My pick to win: The Known World by Edward P. JonesAnd the nominees for non-fiction are…. (drum roll):Gulag by Anne Applebaum: I read this book and was completely floored by it. Applebaum was able to get to the heart of a multi-generational tragedy that affected literally tens of millions of people yet is curiously underrepresented in history books. Bravo to her for braving the horrors and writing an unflinching book.The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home by George Howe Colt: this one was very well reviewed, and, though the subject matter is rather quaint and sentimental, it is pretty clever to follow the history of a house across many generations. Apparently, Colt does a good job of it.Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin by John D’Emilio: This one pretty much slipped under my radar as well. Rustin is the man responsible for organizing the historical Civil Rights March on Washington.Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos Eire: This one came out a while ago to not a whole lot of fanfare. It is pretty highly regarded, and is a must read for folks who are interested in Cuba.The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson: This one was a huge seller. The book provides a healthy dose of historical true crime excitement as it traces the steps of a serial killer who terrorized the Chicago Worlds Fair at the turn of the century. Would love to read this one.My pick: I hope Applebaum wins, but I think the award will go to Colt.For all the details and author bios as well as the nominees in the childrens and poetry categories go to the National Book Award website.