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Showing posts from December, 2008

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

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Shop Indie Bookstores 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 rest

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

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Shop Indie Bookstores 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 illumi

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

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Shop Indie Bookstores 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 p

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

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Shop Indie Bookstores 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

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

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Shop Indie Bookstores 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 America

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

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Shop Indie Bookstores 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 s

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

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Shop Indie Bookstores 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

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

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Shop Indie Bookstores 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

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

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Shop Indie Bookstores 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 t

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

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Shop Indie Bookstores Shop Indie Bookstores Shop Indie Bookstores Shop Indie Bookstores 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 subspac

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

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Shop Indie Bookstores 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 e

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

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Shop Indie Bookstores 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.

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

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Shop Indie Bookstores 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!

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

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Shop Indie Bookstores 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.

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

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Shop Indie Bookstores 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

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

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Shop Indie Bookstores 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 whil

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

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Shop Indie Bookstores 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

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

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Shop Indie Bookstores 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.

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

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Shop Indie Bookstores 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,

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

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Shop Indie Bookstores 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 batter

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

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Shop Indie Bookstores 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.

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

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Shop Indie Bookstores 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

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

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Shop Indie Bookstores 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 i

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

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Shop Indie Bookstores 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 rea