Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Best-loved books of 2008, #24: Favorite book about giving

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Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion by Sara Miles
(bonus: a smitch of Christianity for Christmas Eve)

As she'll tell you from page 1, Sara Miles is not your traditional (American) Christian. Raised by atheists (themselves raised by missionaries, and soured on the whole thing), she had a child as a single mother, came out as a lesbian, found her best mentors in restaurant kitchen work, and was deeply involved in leftist international activism. One day for no explainable reason, she walked into a church in San Francisco, and was blown away by the ritual of Communion. It's pretty strange and powerful stuff if it hits you right: Christ feeding people with his body, people feeding each other, regardless of whether they're handing the holy foodstuff to a lover or friend or enemy or stranger or beggar. "Take this bread," is the command. "Feed my sheep."

With years of experience of the power of eating together from her restaurant work, Miles saw the potential of this gesture, and made it even bigger. She talked the church into letting her turn the sanctuary into a free food kitchen, and kept on feeding the hungry, including the homeless and the violent and the insane and the lost and bewildered, and the liberal but kind of freaked-out church members who took her in and learned from her. She created an incredible community through the literal act of breaking bread together, and her work goes on and grows.

Sara Miles is one of the most honest and original voices on the subjects of faith and activism that I've ever read. Her book is utterly compelling as a memoir of a spiritual life and as an inspiration to translate elation into action, to do the good you know is there to be done with the tools that you have. She seems to me part of a moment in literary and political circles, where there's the potential for a spirit of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King (rather than, sorry Mom, Dr. Dobson), where we can understand that the Kingdom of God is a real/metaphorical place, where there is a lot less of the demand for doctrinal agreement and personal moral perfection and a lot more of the compassion and redemption and transcendence and giving and justice and peace.

Tonight I'll be at the Christmas Eve services at Old First in Brooklyn. I'll be far from my family, because we can't afford to travel this year. My bookstore remains a dream in a dark economy. And I expect I will probably cry (much to the ALP's dismay) at the beauty of it all -- the dark sanctuary full of people longing for mystery, the little lights in the darkness, the sense of something impossibly big and good coming into the world in the body of a Middle Eastern refugee's baby. I'm so grateful for the gifts I've been given this year: for books and community and love and home and good work to do and faith and peace. I'm so grateful for what I've been allowed to give. This next year, I want to learn how to give more.

After this I'm taking a little vacation until after the new year. I wish you and yours a beautiful, wonderful holiday, and a happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Best-loved books of 2008, #23: Favorite Place-Based Anthology

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Brooklyn Was Mine edited by by Valerie Steiker and Chris Knutsen (Riverhead)
(bonus: giving some love to the local!)

If there's anything your Book Nerd loves more than books and indie bookstores, it's my adopted home town of Brooklyn. So of course I snatched up this nonfiction anthology (which, as I mentioned here, benefits the organization Develop Don't Destroy, which opposes what I think is the worst idea in Brooklyn development history.) It could have been hit or miss -- as Colson Whitehead hilariously observed, there's a certain amount of hype around Brooklyn these days, especially as a literary Mecca.

Luckily, the mix of authors here offers views and voices beyond literary hipsterdom. The introduction by Pete Hamill offers several decades' perspective on the "sudden emergence" of Brooklyn, and opines that it will probaby remain itself whatever the condo developers or anti-gentrifiers attempt. Lara Vapnyar has an illuminating piece on the kitsch and apppeal of the neighborhood of Brighton Beach, which is "more Russian than Russia". And Brooklyn's poster boy Jonathan Lethem has an experimental multi-voiced rant on the frustrating and terrible nightmare of Brooklyn (followed by an explanation/apologia that puts it in perspective). Other authors write about the unexpected sense of neighborhood and community here, the experience of growing up here or moving from other parts of the country or the world, the geography, the history,the baseball, the race relations.

It's a fantastic collection, and cemented my love for the place -- not only my own experience of a wonderfully human-scale neighborhood, but the diversity of the place, and the fact that it can't be pinned down in a marketing slogan. The title alludes to the feeling that several of the essays get at: that one gets nostalgic and possessive about Brooklyn almost as soon as one encounters it. It's a bit laughable, sure, all of us staunchly loyal new converts, but Brooklyn is a place that gets a strong hold on people. I'm grateful for these writers for reminding me some of the reasons why.

And as borough president extraordinaire Marty Markowitz loves to remind us, one out of every four Americans has a relative from Brooklyn. So even if you're not from around here, bet you know someone who is who would love to read this book.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Best-loved books of 2008, #22: Favorite grown-up novel about a teenager

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Goldengrove by Francine Prose (Harper)
(Bonus: Features an independent bookstore!)

This is yet another book that I was motivated to read after hearing the author speak. Francine Prose had the misfortune to be scheduled at McNally Jackson on the same evening as one of the three presidential debates, so the crowd was shockingly sparse for a nationally recognized novelist and essayist. But she was extremely gracious about the situation, and delivered an eloquent talk and reading about her book and surrounding issues.

Goldengrove is actually the name of an independent bookstore in the novel -- a sure-fire way to get me to at least pick it up! (It's also a reference to a wonderful poem by Gerard Manly Hopkins, which I actually memorized as a teenager and have returned to with deepening appreciation as an adult.) The store becomes the refuge of the 13-year-old protagonist during the summer after her adored older sister drowns -- it's owned by her parents, who are grieving in their own way, and the shop offers our heroine both social encounters and solitude. She ultimately finds herself in a dreamy Vertigo-style relationship with her sister's grieving boyfriend, and must navigate her own path out of the fog of memory.

Prose responded to a question from the audience about her 1998 Harper's article about sexism in book reviews by acknowledging that gender disparities still exist in the world of literature. For example, this novel about a 13-year-old girl is getting far less critical attention than Prose's previous one about a male holocaust denier. She attributes this in part to the contemporary sense that novels about teenagers are Young Adult literature (which would knock Huckleberry Finn and Catcher In The Rye and A Tree Grows In Brooklyn and Maggie, Girl of the Streets out of the Real Literature realm), and in part to the adage (which booksellers know) that "girls will read books about boys, but boys won't read books about girls."

Whether or how widely this is true, it would be a terrible shame if it kept readers, adult or teen, away from this novel, which is a highly allusive and sophisticated work of ventriloquism, examining the horrors of loss and misplaced identity through the eyes of a character utterly unlike Prose herself. (Though, as she opines, "we've all been a 13-year-old girl at some point in our lives.) My coworkers agree with the books irresistible merit, and I hope many readers will discover the universal appeal of Prose's most recent work.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Best-loved books of 2008, #21: Favorite classic revisited

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The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
(bonus: great Christmas vacation reading!)

Okay, I'm totally cheating on this one: not only was it not published this year, but it wasn't even on my original list of favorites. I realized I miscounted and needed one more to push it up to a full Advent calendar 24. Reading Laura Miller's appreciation of Lewis, and especially his association with Christmas, convinced me that it's not totally out of bounds to declare my love for this many-times-read series, especially at this particular season.

On a visit to my family in California this summer, I joined them at a Ventura movie theater for a viewing of Prince Caspian, since all of us grew up having the Chronicles read to us until we could read them ourselves. The movie was pretty terrible, at least for us purists -- the directors added a nasty power struggle and an unbelievable romance that are entirely absent from Lewis' pre-adolescent adventures -- but on returning to my childhood home afterward I was moved to pick up the barely-hanging-together paperbacks of our old boxed set. I read Caspian and Voyage of the Dawn Treader in quick succession, and with great, great pleasure.

Like Miller (whose Magician's Book I look forward to reading) my relationship with Lewis has changed over the years. Like Tolkien, Lewis's English-white-man-of-the-early-20th-century prejudices become more clear as one grows up and learns of things like post-colonialism, ethnic cleansing, and gender studies. It's unfortunate that the bad guys are vaguely Arabic, that unattractive or fat people tend to be unpleasant or stupid, and that gender roles are pretty narrowly defined.

But that's hardly the point. They are stories doing what stories are supposed to do: entertaining, inspiring, sparking imagination, instilling values (of courage and compassion and loyalty, if not all the more modern virtues). And they defined my childhood, as they did that of many. My love of Michael Chabon and Susanna Clarke and David Mitchell and Neil Gaiman can hardly be separated from those evenings of "one more chapter" about Eustace and the dragon or the Lord Rhoop. And even with a more cosmopolitan reader's eye, those stories hold up and bring the thrills and chuckles as they always have (the humor I'd almost forgotten).

Now is a great time to revisit Narnia, in the quiet lull around Christmas dinner or while waiting for guests to arrive. And even if you don't do the Christmas thing and you share Miller's distaste for Lewis's Christian themes, his skill as a storyteller is consummate, and reading him is a pleasure all the sharper for being able to see him as a human.

(A side note: I noticed that the contemporary HarperCollins edition of Dawn Treader has significant textual differences from the one I first read, particularly in the passage about the horrific Island Where Dreams Come True. No mention is made that I can see of these content changes, and I wonder who made the decision to alter the original. Anyone with inside information, step forth -- I'd be very curious to know.)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Best-loved books of 2008, #20: Favorite Novel of New York

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Netherland by Joseph O'Neill
(bonus: most likely to become a classic)

You probably don't need me to tell you about this book -- it's made every shortlist and Top 10 list it was eligible for. Critics are comparing it to The Great Gatsby -- which it certainly references -- and its sales show that readers think highly of it as well. As my "bonus" indicates, I'm inclined to the camp that thinks this is a book that will be read for years to come.

It's not a perfect book. If you like cricket you probably won't get enough of it, and if you don't care about cricket you'll probably think there's too much, and as a lifetime Brooklynite recently pointed out to me, O'Neill gets some of his geography wrong. And you might feel like you never get to know Chuck, one of the two central characters (though not the narrator). But like Gatsby, Chuck is somewhat inscrutable, and something of an iconic figure of the American dream -- a darker-skinned, poorer one for the 21st century, but no less ambitious or driven by great longing. O'Neill's skill is to draw him through the eyes of a man without noticable drives of any kind, who lives primarily in his mind and in the past, whose observations drift from a New York street in spring to the Netherlands of his childhood. I found myself drifting in my own reveries of New Yorks I have known, my own defining moments, and the wealth of landscape and literature and texture and humanity that makes up our experience.

O'Neill's writing consciousness and memory reminded me a lot of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway -- though when I met O'Neill he admitted he'd never read Woolf. (I gave him a copy of Mrs. Dalloway for research purposes.) Still, I think O'Neill's achievement is both a pleasure and a challenge for the reader, interlaced with themes worth pursuing, and providing a great deal of the pure joys of reading.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Best-loved books of 2008, #19: Favorite Contemporary Poetry Collection

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The Kingdom of Ordinary Time by Marie Howe (W. W. Norton)
(bonus: star power to make you weepy!)

Despite being an English/creative writing major and getting my fair share of poems published in my high school and college literary magazines, I don't write or read poetry much these days. It takes something out of the ordinary to commit to the complex, contemplative pleasures of a poetry collection instead of the narrative through line of fiction. And like most of us, I'm sometimes a little intimidated by the whole thing, and subconsciously avoid revealing my ignorance about the world of poetry by staying out of it.

This may be why when Marie Howe read at McNally Jackson earlier this year, I was stunned by the huge crowd that turned out. We do a lot of poetry readings, but mostly with smaller authors who perform their art for friends, family, and a few die-hards -- but Howe packed the house. And she has a presence like an opera diva in the best sense: gracious, majestic, with a speaking voice to match the immensity and humanity of her poems. So that was something out of the ordinary enough to make me buy a book of poetry, which turned out to be one of the books I've gone back to again and again this year.

Howe used the language and symbolism of the Christian liturgy as an illuminating conceit. "Ordinary time" is basically the part of the church calendar that's not Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, or Pentacost -- just everything else. The title poem sketches the characters from Biblical miracles as they find themselves back in the workaday world, with some weird stories to tell and mundane details to navigate. Elsewhere Howe sees lepers in the supermarket, gets a sermon from a bratty kid on the playground, and writes persona poems as Mary (yeah, the mother of God) contemplating the moonlight in a well. Her point is often the longing for transcendence intertwined with a love for the usual and familiar, in plain but freighted language that does the de-familiarizing trick -- making that which we already know seem new, beautiful, strange -- that the best poetry pulls off. Even if you're not well-versed in the liturgical stuff, it's good poetry that helps you in contemplating the ordinary world, even if sometimes you don't feel you're worthy of it.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Best-loved books of 2008, #18: Favorite graphic novel completed series

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Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan & Pia Guerra (Vertigo, $12.99)
(shown here: Volume 1: Unmanned -- I'll spare you all 10 book covers)
(bonus: great conversation/argument starter!)

Now that the tenth and final book in Vaughan's graphic novel epic has been released in paperback, it's a great time to start with number one. An unknown plague wipes out the male half of humankind, except for escape artist Yorick and his pet monkey, who quickly become hot commodities -- but it's not as fun (for him) as it sounds.

I've been working my way through the journey that is Y this year, and it's as worthwhile as I was told. Vaughan is my favorite writer of mainstream/adventure/hero comics, and he knows how to write snappy dialogue as well as a heck of a road trip story. Yes, he is a man writing a world of women (drawn by excellent female artist Pia Guerra), but he does a fair enough job that it's food for thought, even if you take issue with his vision. Read it for the satisfying action, the clever plot twists, the Shakespearean allusions. Then start conversations about what it would mean for politics (or the justice system, or music, or literature) if the only participants left were women.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Best-loved books of 2008, #17: Favorite novel in verse about werewolves

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Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow (Harper)
(bonus: great literary genre writing!)

Today is the ALP' s birthday! In honor of the occasion, I'm posting the one book that he and I both read this year, which we also both loved. As I noted here:

"My enthusiasm for the book led to a paragraph-long staff pick [the link now busted since we switched names and websites].

The ALP was inspired to write an exploration of experimentation in genre fiction using metaphors from evolutionary theory. I kid you not."

I can't find my original staff pick at the moment, but I encourage you to read the ALP's review if you're interested in a meditation on the place of this book in the surging battle lines of literary and genre fiction.

Or, you could just read Sharp Teeth. You won't find a more engaging, suspenseful, character-driven novel in verse about werewolf tribes in Los Angeles published this year. Seriously, it's a form perfectly suited to its content, and surprisingly accessible both for those who think they don't like poetry (think teenage boys) and those who think they don't like werewolves (think adult women). Barlow read at McNally, slightly stunned by the book's success, but it's well-deserved. Along with Chabon, Lethem, Kelly Link, and others, I salute Toby Barlow as one of the great new writers of "interstitial" fiction, blurring the lines between fantastical entertainments and serious literature. Enjoy!

(And pop over to the ALP's blog and say happy birthday, while you're at it...)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Best-Loved Books of 2008, #16: Favorite non-annoying novel about annoying hipsters

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You Don't Love Me Yet by Jonathan Lethem (Random House)
(bonus: perfect for winter doldrums!)

I pitched this book when it came out in paperback this summer as "the perfect intellectual summer read", but it's also great for a dose of L.A. sunshine in the midst of winter. Sexy, topical, thought-provoking, plot-driven, and light enough to read in a weekend, Lethem's story of aspiring musicians in Los Angeles grapples with the ownership of ideas and the fine line between artistic and pretentious -- but you'll gobble it up for the great party scenes, sexual shenanigans, and sun-soaked hipness.

I wrote about the awesome event we did with Lethem and DJ Spooky (and my fan-girl geekout) here -- I bought the book at the event (which is rare), and had the even rarer experience of having the entire book live up to the brief passage the author read. It does engage with some serious issues of creative copyright and authorship, but through the vehicle of some truly self-absorbed and pretentious characters. It helps that Lethem has admitted that the book was based on his own "posturing" phase as a musician in the early '90s -- the characters have that loved but laughable intensity that can only be applied to oneself and one's friends when you were all young and stupid.

But I'm not gonna lie: it also has some pretty hot bedroom (and car and warehouse) scenes. And you can almost taste the tacos of a very late California city brunch. It's good for thinking a bit about creative commons and all that implies, and also good for little bit of sunshine you've been needing. I'll be listening to my Monster Eyes CD while you're reading...

Monday, December 15, 2008

Best-Loved Books of 2008, #15: Favorite new comics discovery

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The Scott Pilgrim series by Bryan Lee O'Malley (Oni Press):
Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness
Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together

Thank goodness for the panelists at Book Expo who insisted I read him, and the Bakersfield bookstore that had a copy of Volume 1. I am now totally in love with Scott Pilgrim (as is every girl in Toronto, inexplicably). Bryan Lee O'Malley has metabolized manga, video games, and kung fu movies and created a completely unique comic series about the eponymous hapless, happy-go-lucky Canadian hero, who plays in a band, hangs out with his friends, and falls for the mysterious delivery girl Ramona Flowers -- but to date her he'll have to battle her seven evil ex-boyfriends. What ensues includes (but is not limited to) sword fights, navigating love and friendships, travels through subspace, vegan recipes, getting over your romantic past (and your sweetie's romantic past), possibly evil ninjas, and especially growing up, through slackerdom and into a kind of selfhood.

But the series is most lovable because it's full of the kind of twenty-something inside jokes and randomness that you love your own friends for, and the sweetness and surreality seem perfectly complementary. It's the kind of thing that those who have read it quote to each other endlessly -- it had been a long time since I came across that kind of obsessively great pop creation. I read Volumes 1 through 4 TWICE all the way through (the ALP started reading them months after I did so I had to go back and remember all the good parts). I'm giving them for Christmas to my favorite quirky lovable people. I don't know how I'm going to wait for Volume 5 in February...

* see, this is why the numbers didn't come out to 24 on my complete list: I'm counting this series as one. It's like Proust... kinda.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Best-Loved Books of 2008, #14: Favorite novel of family, race, and religion

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Home by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
(Bonus: favorite serious reading)

This novel is big like an empty church, and intimate like the moment you and your sibling look at each other behind your parent's back. It tells the other side of the story of Robinson's luminous novel Gilead, and lays bare the limitations of good-hearted religious men and the inarguable illogic of despair, through a pair of oddball siblings trying so hard to be kind to each other that they break their own hearts. It's also about racism and alcoholism and America, from way inside. Robinson has a deep, compassionate understanding of those who will never be normal, and her beautiful, sad book is also infused with a kind of hope.

I loved Gilead fervently, and found Home a much sadder take on Robinson's themes -- redemption seems like more of a longshot here, when perceived from the perspective of the lonely, odd, and badly behaved, rather than the earnest but conflicted faithful. But it's another illuminating angle on the problems of humanity and faith, and well worth reading -- as I wrote about Robinson's first novel Housekeeping, the rightness of the words makes the tragedy bearable.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Best-Loved Books of 2008, #13: Favorite graphic novel memoir

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Freddie and Me: A Coming-of-Age (Bohemian) Rhapsody by Mike Dawson (Bloomsbury)
(bonus: up-and-coming author/artist)

When Mike Dawson spoke at our store, he opined that, in an era of CGI special effects, superheroes are better on the big screen -- which leaves memoir as the form best suited to comics. Bechdel and Spiegelman prove his point, and Dawson adds a doozy to the ranks of graphic memoir with his dreamy, episodic, gently self-deprecating story of a British kid in America obsessed with the band Queen. It's really a meditation on what we remember from our lives and why. It's also lovely and funny for anyone who was ever a self-dramatizing adolescent (Dawson confessed that much of the dialogue and narration was taken from his own terribly moody teenage diaries), or for anyone who loved a band so much they found it told the narrative of their lives. A great gift for fans of comics, music, or memoir.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Best-Loved Books of 2008, #12: Favorite multigenerational family saga

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The End of the Jews by Adam Mansbach (Spiegel & Grau)
(Bonus: great book design!)

This book made me antisocial, keeping me breathless at home in my pajamas for days. I don’t know if it was the energy of a Jewish kid from the Bronx in the 1930s; the master-class descriptions of hip hop, photography and Harlem jazz; the drama and suspense of 1990s Eastern Europe; the compassionate depiction of an overshadowed female artist as well as her Great Man husband; or the best party scene I’ve ever read (start on page 19). Adam Mansbach is a whirlwind, epic talent, not perfect, but full of a cross-pollinated American energy that is well-nigh irresistible. And the cover Spiegel & Grau decided on is even better than the one on the galley I originally read. Great for those with a taste for the epic, the energetic, the cross cultural, the ambitious, the pure story. Buy it, already!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Best-loved Books of 2008, #11: Favorite collection of a long-running work

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Essential Dykes to Watch Out For by Allison Bechdel (Houghton Mifflin)
(Bonus: mad hipster queer indie cred!)

Before she became a literary hero with her memoir Fun Home, Allison Bechdel spent a couple of decades writing a comic strip. But in the hands of someone so talented, a comic strip became a combination of an astute weekly political column and an endless Victorian novel. I spent weeks obsessed with the fates of the hilarious, smart-mouthed queer women and men of all stripes in the world of The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For -- it's a juicy soap opera, smart social commentary, and insight into the mind of a writer. Worth spending some time with, whatever you're watching out for.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Best-loved Books of 2008, #10: Favorite Science Writing

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Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream: A Day In the Life of Your Body by Jennifer Ackerman (Mariner)
(Bonus: killer at cocktail parties!)

Did you know that you probably have a single neuron in your brain that corresponds to the face of your grandmother, and one for Jennifer Anniston? Did you know that you're slightly taller when you wake up, or that your alcohol tolerance is highest during happy hour? Ackerman's accessible, irresistible book is chock-full of such fun facts to know and tell, as she outlines human biology and psychology over the course of a single day, and the effect that daily circadian rhythms have on almost everything we do. I don't read a lot of informational nonfiction, so it takes something truly special to pull me in -- this one did it so effectively I was peppering my conversation with tidbits of science for weeks. Read it for sure-fire cocktail party chatter, or if you want to know how to get the biggest kick out of your morning coffee.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Best-Loved Books of 2008, #9: Favorite humorous familiar essays:

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I Was Told There'd Be Cake by Sloane Crosley (Riverhead/Penguin)
(Bonus: Cake! Er, I mean another author who's a really decent human being!)

In observation of my birthday, I'm highlighting fellow befuddled but well-meaning white girl Sloane Crosley; I feel she would understand both the bittersweet moment of growing up (I'm 30 today), and my ravenous need for cake. Ms. Crosley, a publicist at Vintage (whom I've had the pleasure of working with as publicist and as author), has inspired a certain amount of backlash for the crime of having it all: a professional career, a writing career, A-listers like Jonathan Lethem in her Rolodex, and she's cute, too. Strangely enough, she seems to have these things because she actually deserves them: she's talented, professional, and a really nice person. And her essays even deserve the Lethem blurb they bear. From the story of locking herself out of two different apartments in the same day while moving, to the explanation for her collection of plastic ponies, to the cookie that ended her first (terrible) job, her stories are both bizarre and familiar to those of us who moved to the big city to grow up. Laugh-out-loud reading that doesn't fail to learn something serious, this is a legit (albeit light) literary effort.

And now I'll out my own little Sloane story: my one and only publication in the Village Voice was in response to an essay she wrote in 2004. Read it to see why I did not add it to my professional clips, nor show it to my mother. The ALP's parents sure got a kick out of it, though. Thanks for humiliation, Sloane. I feel we're both grown up enough to get a good laugh out of it now.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Best-Loved Books of 2008, #8: Favorite Novel in Stories

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The Size of the World by Joan Silber (W. W. Norton)
(Bonus: most under-rated writer in America!)

I'll say it again: Joan Silber is one of our truly great writers, and deserves wider recognition. I fell in love with her work in Ideas of Heaven (which was shortlisted for the National Book Award), and her new work takes the novel-in-short-stories to yet another level. The Size of the World is a masterpiece both epic and intimate, quietly straightforward and ambitiously interconnected. Her characters are heartbreakingly human, and her sentences will floor you. This is a great book to read on a trip, or while contemplating the vastness of it all right at home.

And check out my lengthier rave about the book from earlier this year. This is one of my must-reads: highly recommended for any reader. And as yet another bonus, Joan is a local author and shops at McNally Jackson; it's always a thrill to see one's heroes in the flesh (and shopping indie to boot).

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Best-Loved Books of 2008, #7: Favorite reissued classic

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The 13 Clocks by James Thurber (New York Review of Books)
(Bonus: great for kids, adults, and reading aloud!)

"We all have flaws," the Duke said. "Mine is being wicked." As you'd expect from James Thurber, this odd and original fairy tale is only partly for kids, and adults will find themselves cracking up at the one-liners, rooting for the cheeky Prince, shuddering at the horrifying Todal, and utterly satisfied by the reading experience. This is one for the ages, and I'm so glad NYRB had the wisdom to reissue it so I can gloat over its pleasures again.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Best-Loved Books of 2008, #6: Favorite nonfiction collection by a single author

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Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon (McSweeney's)
(Bonus: Top 5 favorite Book Nerd author AND
Book design of your wildest dreams!)

Some of these essays are mere autobiographical fillips; some are semi-sinister trickster tales that mix truth and lies; some are heady considerations of the successes and failings of contemporary literature. All are written with Chabon’s unparalleled wit and richness of language, and engage his favorite themes of genre fiction and Jewishness. Buy it now, if only to posesses the astonishingly complex and beautiful book design by cartoonist Jordan Crane; once this print run is gone it’ll be a plain old book again, like magic ending after the stroke of midnight.

Also, if you're looking to gift (or for some winter vacation reading of your own), one of my favorite books of last year is a Chabon novel now out in paperback. Gentlemen of the Road is the quintessential boys' adventure tale: mysterious strangers, pitched odds, sword battles, captures, rescues, romance (but not too much), and the fate of an empire. Because it's Chabon, the subtext is also rich and freighted, and the characterization far better than it need be. And the afterword, about home, adventure, and storytelling, is one of my favorite pieces of nonfiction of the past few years -- it makes me think and cry, a killer combination. Buy it for your favorite boy, your favorite adventurer, or your favorite reader -- can't lose.

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Friday, December 05, 2008

Best-Loved Books of 2008, #5: Favorite satire of office life

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Personal Days by Ed Park (Random House)
(Bonus: Terrifyingly timely!)

Joshua Ferris' highly acclaimed novel Then We Came To The End demonstrated that actual literature can happen in cubicle land. The funny and charming Ed Park (co-editor of The Believer) takes it a step further with Personal Days: structural innovation, wordplay, paranoia and misdirection... applied to the realm of random firings, arbitrary protocols, dumb nicknames, and potential romance that define contemporary office life. Kafka, Nabokov, and yes, Dwight Schrute would feel right at home.

While I'm not sure which group will be publishing Personal Days after the Black Wednesday shufle in publishing, the terrors of corporate life were never more apparent, nor more in need of a dose of irreverence. Courage and good cheer to our colleagues on the publishing side -- may you be able to laugh, albeit ruefully, at the vagaries of the Company, and not wait until your laptop battery is dying in a darkened elevator to connect with the people you love.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Best-Loved Books of 2008, #4: Favorite book featuring vampires and teenagers

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Life Sucks
by Jessica Abel (First Second Books)
(Bonus: not Twilight!)

Far be it from me to knock the biggest moneymaker since Harry Potter, but I guess I prefer my vampires a little less beautiful and a little more clever. Why should vampires, if they existed in the modern world, look like Gothic lotharios? Why couldn't they look like, for example, a hapless all-night convenience store clerk in California, hopelessly infatuated with a non-vampire Goth chick, who's swept away in turn by a surfer jerk (who is also a vampire)? "Buffy meets Clerks" is a pretty good description of this book, which is smart and funny enough to satisfy the smart-ass teen (with a heart of gold) in all of us. The clever Jessica Abel and the talented Warren Pleece make this one of my favorite comics of the year, and a go-to recommendation for YA readers and adults alike.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Best-Loved Books of 2008, #3: Favorite enjoyable sad novel

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The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer
(Bonus: super-nice author!)

This novel is the kind of classic tragic romance that immerses you in a beautiful fog, just like the San Francisco of Greer's 1953 story. It's as much about war as about love: about the consequences of opting out, as well as the conflict itself. Like Greer's masterpiece The Confessions of Max Tivoli, it keeps surprising you, with revelations like little explosions along the way. And Greer's power of language and emotional heft are literally second to none. Read this with caution-- you'll emerge as if from a black-and-white movie matinee, blinking in the light.

And here's a little book geek-out story: a few years ago I was working at Three Lives bookstore and writing reviews for Publishers Weekly for a little extra cash. One of the books that showed up at my door was The Confessions of Max Tivoli, and knowing nothing about it I fell utterly in love with the book and gave it a glowing review. Weeks or months later, the San Francisco based Greer walked into the bookstore, and I fangirled out: "You're Andrew Sean Greer! I loved your book! I reviewed it in PW!" To my delight, he responded with equal excitement: "You're that PW reviewer! I loved your review!" Our mutual admiration society established, we chatted occasionally throughout his brief stay in NYC, and when I ran into him (okay, stalked him) at BEA in Los Angeles, he still remembered me. Man, what a sweetie. You should buy his book 'cause he deserves it.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Best-Loved Books of 2008, #2: Favorite post-apocalyptic buddy picture with sociological subtext and Wodehouse-ian humor

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The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway (Knopf)
(Bonus: favorite fun reading)

I am so glad Steve and Jenn insisted I would love this book -- as you may recall, I got a little obsessed. I think the pink-and-green fuzzy cover was a poor choice, and I wish this book had had better marketing. But I suspect these mistakes occurred because no one knows quite what to do with Harkaway's genre-bending opus -- it's hard to say whether it's the next Good Omens or the next For Whom The Bell Tolls. What you need to know is that it's about the end of the world, and the terrible danger of people who allow themselves to become cogs in the machines of governments or companies, and the difficulties of growing up into yourself. It also has pirates, ninjas, explosions, young love, longing, conspiracies, politics, monsters, heroes, and British humor at its finest since P.G. Wodehouse. Normal people (not just me) who read this book are getting obsessed with it. You want to be one of those people.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Best-Loved Books of 2008, #1: Favorite graphic novel mystery/suspense

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Incognegro by Mat Johnson
(Bonus: December is National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give it to Somebody Not Black Month!)

My favorite kind of book is one that both moves and challenges me, taking me on a thrill ride of story and character. Mat Johnon’s new graphic novel rides that dangerous edge between heavy issues and heavy-hitting action, with the story of a black man passing for white in the lynching-plagued 1930s South. It pulls it off in the way only a comic can (and a black and white comic at that), and manages to work gender politics, family dynamics, and some darned funny dialogue into a suspenseful mystery. An important (and enjoyable) moment in the history of literary comics.

And then there's the bonus: African American author Carleen Brice is hoping to use this month of gift giving to start a movement to get some classics and new favorites out of the "African American Literature" section and into the hands of non-black readers. And there's no shortage of great books by black authors to recommend, especially in graphic novels. In addition to Johnson's wonderful Incognegro, I'd encourage you to check out Nat Turner by Kyle Baker, a powerful and sometimes disturbing story of the 1831 slave rebellion with text from Turner's own words. It's not included on my favorites of the year list because I read the miniseries in pieces previous to 2008, but it's definitely worth buying and gifting to your favorite white (or black) reader.

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