Friday, December 24, 2010

Day 24: Time to Go Home

It's the final day of our 2010 version of 24 Days of Books -- Christmas eve!! It's been rocking and rolling, hopping and popping in the store this past week; we're having more fun than is probably legal in several states -- come join us! I've got cookies coming out of the oven as we speak.

 Four our 24th book, I get to talk about the book that moved me the most this year: Let's Take the Long Way Home, by Gail Caldwell. This is a beautifully written story by a Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist about the friendship between two women: both writers, both recovering alcoholics, and both devoted to their dogs, written by the one who had to carry on after her friend died way too young from lung cancer.

"It's an old, old story," writes Caldwell. "I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that, too." Caroline Knapp, her friend, was probably best known for her books Drinking: A Love Story and Pack of Two, about people's relationships with her dogs. The Merry Recluse is a collection of columns she wrote for the Boston Phoenix, published posthumously. [One column I recall from the book was about the annoyance of shopping for clothes in catalogs, and how much more convenient it would be if the UPS driver would wait on the front porch while she tried on her new clothes and just took away what didn't work for her, saving her another trip to ship them back.]

Caldwell's book is gorgeous and moving and heartbreaking without being treacly. You will laugh, you will cry. But mostly you will be moved, deeply, by the fiercely honest portrayal of friendship and loss. Here's my favorite line (among many) from the book: "Finding Caroline was like placing a personal ad for an imaginary friend, then having her show up at your door funnier and better than you had conceived."

If you are a dog lover, then you truly MUST read this book. But I'm a cat person myself, and I still adored this book. When you finish with this one, you should try Caldwell's first book, A Strong West Wind (a memoir) and Caroline's books. They're all terrific.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Day 23: On the High Seas


Welcome to Day 23 in our 24 Days of Books! Christmas is two days away, and we're feeling oceanic. Let's start by talking about Simon Winchester's new book, Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories. As you can tell from the subtitle, the book covers much ground (ok, water, actually) and offers many exciting tales from the S-shaped body of water that covers 33 million square miles.

Winchester calls the book a "biography" of the ocean, borrowing an organizational device from Shakespeare's As You Like It in which Shakespeare presents the seven ages of man. Winchester tells the story of the Atlantic ocean from its geologic origins to today's struggles with pollution and overfishing, delving into early explorers such as the Vikings and Christopher Columbus and modern-day events such as oil spills, and even looks toward the likely future of the ocean.

Winchester is the author of several very popular books, including The Professor and the Madman and his most recent, The Man Who Loved China. Once again, his writing and storytelling in his latest book is top-notch, earning my highest praise of "unputdownable." Just start out reading the introduction and you'll know what I mean. (And the end papers are terrific!)

Here's what The Oregonian had to say about the book.

As long as we're talking about the ocean, I must give a shout-out to one of my favorite books of the year, The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean, by Susan Casey, a beautiful piece of narrative nonfiction. Here's a little bit I wrote about the book earlier in the year.

One last book, sticking with the oceanic theme, is by Geoffrey Wolff: The Hard Way Around: The Passages of Joshua Slocum. Slocum grew up in coastal Nova Scotia under the thumb of a strict father. At the age of 16, he escaped to the sea. In 1895 he set sail -- by himself -- in the small sloop "Spray." More than three years and forty-six thousand miles later, he became the first man to circumnavigate the globe solo, a feat that would not be replicated for another quarter century. His account of that voyage, Sailing Alone Around the World, soon made Slocum famous. A decade later, he set off alone once more and was lost at sea. Wolff intentionally kept this biography on the shorter side (240 pages, versus the massive tomes of many of the other biographies out now) because he wants to encourage people to read Slocum's original narrative in conjunction with this bio. Here's the NYT's take on the book, with a review by a fabulous writer in his own right, Nathaniel Philbrick.

I've always been particularly fascinated by and, frankly, a bit in love with, our planet's oceans. These are all three great reads for anyone in a similar boat (ha ha).

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Day 22: The Last Boy

It's Day 22 in our 24 Days of Books, and our minds are mostly on football (especially a certain upcoming bowl game) and a little bit on basketball (for instance, the University of Connecticut women's basketball team, which just set a record for longest win streak -- they haven't lost since April 6, 2008, or the Trail Blazers, who keep finding ways to win despite injuries to half the team. I have three friends who in the past week have had, respectively knee surgery, ankle surgery, and hip surgery; perhaps they could be named honorary Blazers!). But today we're going to talk baseball -- and not my poor hapless Seattle Mariners, who can't seem to climb out of their seasons-long slump (talk about your bad case of S.A.D.) -- specifically, Mickey Mantle, the childhood hero of thousands of young girls and boys (and, let's just admit it, lots of grown-up ones as well), as we present The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood, by Jane Leavy.

Mickey Mantle, who died of cancer in 1995 at age 63, was a baseball legend. He played in twelve World Series in his first fourteen seasons and still holds World Series records for home runs, RBIs, runs, walks, extra-base hits, and total bases. In her new biography of "The Mick," Jane Leavy tackles the legend and the man. "So how do you write about a man you want to love the way you did as a child but whose actions were often unlovable? How do you reclaim a human being from caricature without allowing him to be fully human?"  Drawing on more than five hundred interviews with friends and family, teammates and opponents, and weaving in a weekend she spent interviewing Mantle for the Washington Post in 1983 (during which he wasn't on his best behavior), Leavy has produced the definitive biography of the man and the athlete, written from the mixed perspective of fan, journalist, and personal acquaintance.

Mantle led the New York Yankees to seven world championships and was voted the American League's Most Valuable Player three times. "'His aura had an aura,' said his teammate Eli Grba." Beset with injuries and an unbelievable level of expectations, his not-unfamiliar mode of "coping" was with the aid the alcohol and sexual profligacy.

Leavy, who spent much of her childhood in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, is an award-winning former sportswriter and feature writer for the Washington Post and the author of the New York Times bestseller Sandy Koufax

Reviewers have this to say about her book: "Leavy comes as close as perhaps anyone ever has to answering 'What makes Mantle Mantle?'” "A masterpiece of sports biography." "She's hit a long home run." (you knew that cliche was coming, right?) Here's a review that Steve Duin wrote in the Oregonian about the book.

It's definitely the season of the Big Boy Biography. If sports isn't your bag, we've got biographies of George Washington, T.E. Lawrence (as in of Arabia), Teddy Roosevelt, Bob Dylan, Ken Kesey, Grant Wood, and Jim Thorpe (ok, we're back to sports again), among others, and the biography of Raymond Carver by Carol Sklenica just came out in paperback. Any would make a wonderful gift.

More Honors for Rebecca Skloot

I don't think there's a scientific or literary organization around that hasn't paid homage to Rebecca Skloot and her wonderful and amazing book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. And now The Washington Post has named Rebecca one of the Five Surprising Leaders of 2010. Way to go, Rebecca!

Here's an interview with Rebecca by Tasha Cotter for The Rumpus. And yeah yeah she was born in Illinois, but she grew up right here in Portland.

If you're still shopping for the perfect gift for the reader in your life, you can't go wrong with this engrossing book.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Day 21: D'oh! What a Great Gift!

It's Day 21 in our 24 Days of Books, and we'd just like to say "D'oh"! This year marks the 20th anniversary of The Simpsons, the landmark TV show invented by Portland native Matt Groening. (He attended Ainsworth Elementary School, Lincoln High School, and The Evergreen State College.)  We've got -- dare I say -- the perfect gift for the Simpsons fan in your life: Simpson's World: The Ultimate Episode Guide to Seasons 1-20.

This 1200-page compendium opens with an introduction to each of the main characters, followed by a two-page (at least) spread for every single episode since the series began, including screen shots and favorite quotes and quips. The book concludes with an Episode Index and eleven separate indices covering such topics as "Celebrity Guest Stars."

The critically praised series has won 24 Emmy Awards, having been nominated 63 times. It is watched in more than 60 countries, in 20 different languages, averaging more than 60 million viewers per week worldwide. Originally brought to life in 1987 for The Tracey Ullman Show, "The Simpsons" was Groening's introduction into the animation world. Previously, he was best known for his "Life in Hell" cartoon strip, an irreverent portrayal of broken life that debuted in 1977. He drew the characters' names for "The Simpsons" from his own family members (with the exception of Bart which was chosen -- at least this is what I've heard -- because it is an anagram of the word brat).


The book is a full-color cloth book enclosed in a slipcase box. For a mere $150, you can lock up the ideal gift for the Simpsons fan in your life, and you will be forever adored.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Day 20: Another Terrific Photo Book from National Geographic

It's Day 20 in our 24 Days of Books (tick tock....), and we're moving on! The annual journeys of wild species who travel in large groups during certain times of the year to find food, to avoid inclement weather, to procreate, or simply to return to their beginnings has been studied by scientists for hundreds of years, and photographed for decades. In a world of changing global conditions on land and in the sea, these annual journeys become astonishing tales of strength and the sheer will to survive.


The National Geographic Society is the entity we always look to for the best explanations and photographs of naturally occurring phenomena. The society's newest book, Great Migrations, is a wonder to behold. The photographic story of migrations around the globe, from butterflies to zooplankton to salmon to nomadic army ants to elephants to whales to fruit bats to walruses and more, this book also contains a penetrating text by K.M. Kostyal . Casting light on a toping of increasing relevance for our times, this book delivers the latest findings convering the impact of habitat loss, overexploitation, and climate change on animal migration – as well as new discoveries in wildlife science that help us understand a world in constant motion.

This gloriously photographed and insightfully written look at animal migration is a companion volume to the National Geographic Channel’s show. What a beautiful - and surprisingly affordable at $35 – gift!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Day 19: Let's Eat!


Today is Day 19 in our 24 Days of Books, and we're just a little bit hungry and thirsty! (Must have been reading about all those fabulous cookbooks yesterday.) Here are a handful of books that would make great gifts for people in your life who want to partake of the multitude of edible goodies Portland has to offer.

First, there's the new 2011 edition of the Portland Happy Hour Guidebook, which -- as the title implies -- provides a guide to many of the great happy hours in the Portland area -- drink specials and food specials, along with important-to-know information. This pocket-size book is a perfect stocking stuffer.

Second is the new edition (2nd) of Breakfast in Bridgetown: The Definitive Guide to Portland's Favorite Meal, by Paul Gerald. I love this guide -- partly because breakfast is my favorite meal to eat out, but also because Paul is so thorough in his research. For each establishment, he not only tells you the usual basics -- describing the menu, hours, location, and payment options -- but also some intriguing extras, such as what kind of coffee they serve (LOVE this feature!), whether or not they have WiFi, and what wait times tend to be. Those of us lucky enough to live in northeast Portland are blessed with a plethora of delicious breakfast options.

Finally, there is the new book about the hot-hot-hot food cart craze in Portland, Cartopia, by Kelly Rodgers and Kelley Roy. We just talked about this new book last month, so I'll just link to the posting here.

You can always pair any of these books with the recently published Food Lover's Guide to Portland, by Liz Crain, last year's Fearless Critic Portland Restaurant Guide, or the newest edition of Best Places Portland, to provide a little broader overview of what the Portland food community has to offer. The Food Lover's Guide to Portland offers the ultimate guide to Portland producers and purveyors -- the folks who create, produce, bake, distill, gather, and sell the things that make good eating and drinking possible.

We've got lots of great NW guidebooks -- hiking, eating, history, and more -- in the store; just ask us for suggestions!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Day 18: Roberta's Favorite Cookbooks

It's Day 18 in our 24 Days of Books, and we're hungry! This is the season for big, beautiful new cookbooks, and we have an excellent selection on our cookbook wall. Picking just one to call “my favorite” is not an easy task this year, but I’m going to have to go with Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table. Ms. Greenspan, long a foodie’s favorite for her baking books, lives part of each year in Paris and this gorgeous book is her love letter to everything French. It does for a new generation what Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking did for its time.

This book includes superb renditions of the classics (onion soup, chocolate mousse, roast chicken). It also has a host of completely unexpected, often radically simple, new recipes. A lamb tangine with dried apricots and inspired by the Moroccan cuisine that is a part of French tradition. A cheesy crème brûlée. Cauliflower-bacon gratin. Gorgonzola-apple quiche. And don’t get me started on the desserts! They are just what you’d expect from a master baker. And here’s the really wonderful thing about this book: The recipes are easy. They don’t contain twenty steps. They’re not simplistic, but they’re simple. This book is full of French comfort food: earthy yet elegant, great for entertaining or for quiet family dinners, inventive but also somehow charmingly familiar.

If it hasn’t occurred to you yet that you NEED this book, consider: it’s loaded with lively stories, beautiful photographs, memories, and insider tips on French culinary customs. If you love food, you will love this book even if you never try a single recipe. You can just read it for fun.

These new books made my short list this year:

The Sunset Cookbook contains more than 1,000 fresh, flavorful recipes culled from the magazine. It’s the first time they’ve done a book like this, and it’s spectacular.

The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a new Century is edited by the Times food columnist Amanda Hesser. Hard to believe that a 900-page cookbook doesn’t have room for illustrations, but there are so many recipes in here that there just wasn’t room. It’s a good book for the novice as well as the more accomplished cook. Every recipe was once published in the NY Times, some as long as 150 years ago.

Heart of the Artichoke is by David Tanis, whose day job is head chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. This follow-up volume to his hugely popular A Platter of Figs contains more scrumptious food that is always fresh and in season. Tanis spends half the year in Paris, so his style is truly international as well as being intensely local.

One Big Table: A Portrait of American Cooking is editor Molly O’Neill’s love letter to regional American cuisine. 600 recipes from the nation’s best home cooks, farmers, fishermen, pit-masters and chefs are included here, along with wonderful contemporary and historical photos, memories, etc. I would buy this book for the endpapers alone. And again, this one is a good read as well as a good cookbook.

Ina (the Barefoot Contessa) Garten is in the habit of publishing one fabulous cookbook a year, and I am in the habit of buying them. We won’t break with tradition this year, because Barefoot Contessa: How Easy Is That? Is a worthy successor to all the books that have come before. Ms. Garten ‘s books prove that you don’t need special equipment or exotic ingredients to make great food. From roasted figs with caramel sauce to mustard chicken salad to tomatoes with pesto, she brings it all home.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Day 17: The Emperor of All Maladies


It's Day 17 in our 24 Days of Books. Only one week til Christmas Eve -- egad! The book for Day 17 is The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee. Sadly, cancer has been with us for a long time -- the oldest surviving description of cancer is written on a papyrus from about 1600 BC -- and it continues to bring pain, sadness, and a lot of questions. It will kill about 600,000 Americans by the end of this year, and more than seven million people around the planet. Mukherjee, a physician, researcher, and award-winning science writer, examines cancer with a cellular biologist's precision, a historian's perspective, and a biographer's passion.

Mukherjee calls his book a biography because he is attempting to enter "the mind" of this illness, to understand its personality and demystify its behavior. The story of cancer is a story of human ingenuity, resilience, and perseverance, but also of hubris, paternalism, and misperception. Mukherjee recounts centuries of discoveries, setbacks, victories, and deaths, told through the eyes of his predecessors and peers,

One of the constants in oncology, says the author, is the "queasy pivoting between defeatism and hope." One of the hopeful aspects he talks about concerns the work of Dr. Brian J. Druker, an oncologist at Oregon Health and Sciences University and a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator. Last year Druker was one of three winners of the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, often called the “American Nobel Prize,” for the development of "molecularly targeted treatments for chronic myeloid leukemia, converting a fatal cancer into a manageable chronic condition.” Another aspect of the disease Mukherjee covers is the infrequency of communication between the doctors treating people with cancer and the researchers studying it in the lab. “The two conversations seemed to be occurring in sealed and separate universes.”

Here's an astonishing fact: Back in 1953, the average adult American smoked 3,500 cigarettes a year, or about 10 a day. Almost half of all Americans smoked. Yet, as one epidemiologist wrote, “asking about a connection between tobacco and cancer was like asking about an association between sitting and cancer.”

The New York Times review of Mukherjee's book called it "an epic story that he seems compelled to tell, the way a passionate young priest might attempt a biography of Satan." Last Sunday the NYT named The Emperor of All Maladies one of the Top Five Nonfiction Books of 2010 (along with Apollo's Angels, Cleopatra, Finishing the Hat, and the Warmth of Other Suns).

Mukherjee is an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University and a staff cancer physician at Columbia University Medical Center. A Rhodes scholar, he graduated from Stanford University, University of Oxford, Harvard Medical School. He has published articles in Nature, The New England Journal of Medicine, The New York Times, and The New Republic. He lives in New York with his wife and daughters.

Here is a short video clip of the author discussing the book and a couple of the major players in his story about cancer research. 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Day 16: Soaring High Above Portland

Welcome to Day 16 in our 24 Days of Books. Today we're soaring high over our beautiful city with the gorgeous new book Above Portland. The book offers the stunning aerial photography of  Bruce Forster and is edited by Chet Orloff, who was the executive director of the Oregon Historical Society from 1991 to 2001 and currently teaches urban studies and history at Portland State University and the UO School of Architecture. Bruce Forster is one of the leading photographers inthe Pacific Northwest, with more than 40 years of experience.

As the editor of the book, Orloff invited five local experts to pen essays on topics that reflect our city's personality: Brian Libby on The Portland Way, Rob Bennett on Sustainability, Mike Houck on Green Portland, Paddy Tillett on Transportation, and Donald Stastny on Urban Planning.

"... We were immediately intent upon looking at our city with more than just photographs," Orloff says. "We envisioned a book that would not only show readers what Portland is, but describe why it is what it is."

This is a gorgeous book, organized by sections of the city (with some bonus shots, like Cascade Head on the coast), with a perspective we don't often get to see: Portland from the air. Some of my favorite shots, off the top of my head: Ladd's Addition, Union Station, the University of Portland, the Chinese Garden, and the Portland Memorial Mausoleum Mural overlooking Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge -- and that's just a taste! The book also includes some historical aerial photographs. What a wonderful gift this would make! Best of all, Bruce and Chet signed all of the copies in our store. There was a short article about the book in last week's Oregonian (and rumor has it there might be a longer article to come).

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Day 15: The Autobiography of Mark Twain

It's Day 15 in our 24 Days of Books, and we're talking about a new book from an author who died one hundred years ago. Really. I mean I've heard of posthumous publications and all, but this might be a record. The book is The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume One, by, you guessed it, Mark Twain, who died on April 21, 1910, and he is in fact buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, New York. Twain, born Samuel Longhorne Clemens (for a while he wrote under the name Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass), left strict instructions that his autobiography not be published until one hundred years after his death, so that he wouldn't hurt anyone's feelings and so that he could speak his mind frankly (didn't he always do that?).


After many many false starts trying to write his autobiography, Twain finally hit upon two techniques that worked for him. First, rather than write chronologically, he recommended "starting at no particular point in your life and write about whatever interests you and stop when it no longer interests you." Second, he figured out that he needed an audience, so he abandoned his attempts to use a dictation machine and instead hired scribes who would listen to him as he dictated.

So, in essence, this work is an oral biography. Frequently he used items in the newspapers as jumping off points for his dictations, so the book reflects much of what was going on in the world at the time. This stupendous door-stopper of a book (the first volume alone is more than 700 pages!) includes more than 200 pages of explanatory notes intended to "clarify and supplement" the writings by identifying people, places, and incidents and by explaining topical references and literary allusions.

This book is funny, interesting, thought-provoking, and, frankly, timeless. This book is one of the hottest of the holiday season and the volumes fly off our shelves about as fast as they arrive. We just got a handful more in the store today, but I'm sure they won't last long.

Twain published more than thirty books in his lifetime. One of them, Huckleberry Finn, was ranked as the fifth most frequently challenged book in the United States by the American Library Association.

The book just published is the first in a series of three volumes to be published by the University of California Press -- subsequent volumes are due to appear in about five years. Robert Hirst is the Director and General Editor of The Mark Twain Project. Volume One is edited by Harriet Elinor Smith and the other editors of the Mark Twain Project.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Last Year's Cool Pick Now a Card Deck!

Last year my holiday Pick o' the Year was the book The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe,  by Theodore Gray. I described it essentially as fascinating science meets gorgous coffee table art book -- beautiful photographs of every entry in the periodic table, along with photographs of things that are made up of those elements, all on black background that makes the photographs really pop.

This year the publisher has produced The Photographic Card Deck of the Elements, which provides an over-sized card for each of the 118 elements in the periodic table. Each card includes a photograph on one side and scientific data (atomic weight, boiling point, percentage found in humans, etc) and other interesting information on the other side.

For example, did you know that research of the element tellurium is hindered by the fact that if you absorb even tiny amounts, you smell of garlic for months? Iridium is extremely hard to melt, which makes it useful in high-temperature situations, such as spark plug electrodes. Tiny amounts of the element Tantalum are used in the capacitors in all high-tech devices, such as cell phones and laptop computers.

Call me crazy, but I just have this notion that in the right sort of creative hands (clearly not mine), these could be turned into very cool art projects, for instance, cocktail coasters providing endless cocktail party conversation. And certainly they'd be perfect for anyone studying the periodic table. And, of course, we still have the original book I was so excited about last year -- and it's still very cool. [For a reminder of my hot holiday pick for this year, click here.]

Day 14: Celebrating Award Winners

It's Day 14 in our 24 Days of Books. Today we're celebrating award winners, and in particular the recently announced winners of the National Book Awards for Nonfiction and Fiction: Patti Smith for her memoir Just Kids and Jaimy Gordon for her novel Lord of Misrule. (You can watch the entire award ceremony at the National Book Foundation's website.) You can read about the finalists for the National Book Award on our blog.

Patti Smith's memoir offers a glimpse of her remarkable relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the epochal days of New York City and the Chelsea Hotel in the late sixties and seventies, in which a chance encounter in Brooklyn led two young people on a path of art and devotion. Joan Didion called the book "so honest and pure as to count as true rapture."

Patti Smith is a writer, performer, and visual artist. She gained recognition in the 1970s for her revolutionary merging of poetry and rock. Her seminal album Horses, bearing Robert Mapplethorpe’s renowned photograph, has been hailed as one of the top 100 albums of all time. She has recorded twelve albums. In 2005, the French Ministry of Culture awarded Smith the prestigious title of Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres, the highest honor awarded to an artist by the French Republic. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.

I'm particularly drawn to the fact that Smith is a life-long booklover who worked at Scribner's bookstore in New York in her younger days. "I was completely smitten by the book. I longed to read them all, and the things I read of produced new yearnings." I'm also drawn to people who use the word smitten. It's true.

Equal parts Nathanael West, Damon Runyon, and Eudora Welty, Lord of Misrule follows five characters through a year and four horse races at Indian Mound Downs, downriver from Wheeling, West Virginia. Kirkus Reviews called the book "a novel of luck, pluck, farce and above all horse racing." Adding, "Exceptional writing and idiosyncratic characters make this an engaging read."

Jaimy Gordon is the author of three previous novels, Shamp of the City-Solo, She Drove Without Stopping, and most lately Bogeywoman, which was on the Los Angeles Times' list of Best Fiction of 2000. Born in Baltimore, she now lives in Kalamazoo, and teaches at Western Michigan University and in the Prague Summer Program for Writers.

Other award winners that would make great gifts include this year's Booker Award winner, The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson; the Pulitzer winner for fiction, Tinkers, by Paul Harding; The winner of the Orange Prize for fiction, The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver; and the book that has hit just about every Top Whatever List of 2010, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.

Kirkus Reviews Top Books of the Year

I love reading all of the "best books" listings that come out this time of year. Kirkus Reviews recently posted its end-of-year list. Here's the fiction top 25 list. Lots of Broadway Book favorites included in this list, such as The Lonely Polygamist, Sunset Park, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest. Plus several I'm hoping to read soon, including A Visit from the Goon Squad and Skippy Dies.

The nonfiction top 25 list also includes several BB bestsellers: The Warmth of Other Suns, Last Call, Hitch-22, Cleopatra, Just Kids (which I'm reading right now), and of course our HUGE favorite, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Portland-raised Rebecca Skloot. A couple of others I'm hoping to get to on this list are Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier and Mentor by Tom Grimes.

The Kirkus end-of-year list includes a bunch of other fun categories: best debut fiction, best zombie/vampire (will it ever end???), "pleasant surprises," and "tailor-made for the big screen," among them.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Day 13: Amy Sedaris Gets Crafty


It's Day 13 in our 24 Days of Books, and we're in the mood to laugh. Three years ago, comedienne and humorist Amy Sedaris thrilled, amused and horrified millions of people with her guidebook to entertaining called I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence. One of those books you really had to see to believe, it struck just the right in-your-face note on every page, giving hundreds of I-can’t-believe-she-said-that tips about food preparation, alcoholic beverages, party favors and other do-it-yourself projects. What she does with pantyhose you don’t want to know.

Ms. Sedaris’ new book is similar in format and laugh-out-loud funniness. In Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People, our resourceful author discusses the new crafting movement and what you can do about it in your very own craft room – you do have a craft room, don’t you? Doesn’t everybody?

Here is just a taste of what’s in this book: Doll wigs as doorknobs. Hair lamps. Donut squirrel feeders. Worm bins. Painted rocks. Crab Claw roach clips. Clothespin crucifixes. Sandwich bag condoms. Tinfoil bracelets. Hotdogs on a rake. Photographs of everything. What this woman does with coffee filters and a yard of gingham, you don’t want to know.

So what we’re saying here is that if you are as strange as we are, we think Simple Times will appeal to you. And also to your strangest friends.

By the way, what did Mr. and Mrs. Sedaris feed those children? Amy’s brother David Sedaris, a world-class humorist in his own right, has another new book this year. Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is a collection of essays about modern life, but using animals as subjects. What if rodents dated? What if dogs had marital problems? What if cats went to AA? In jail?

We have both of these books just waiting to be laughed at. Treat yourself (or someone you strangely like) to a good time.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Day 12: Two First Couples, Two Generations

Day 12 in our 24 Days of Books looks at two books about two presidential marriages in two different eras: First Family: Abigail & John Adams by Joseph J. Ellis and Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage by Hazel Rowley.

Both marriages played out in the spotlight, with the burden of challenges both personal and political. Both marriages featured intelligent, opinionated first ladies who each served as a true partner to the president, although the earlier in a less public way.

Joseph Ellis is the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Founding Brothers and American Sphinx. His newest book is part biography, part political history, and part love story. The book tells the full story of their relationship in the context of America's creation as a people and as a nation, bringing human scale to the telling of great events.

John and Abigal met in 1759, when John was 24 and Abigail not quite 15. They soon began a passionate correspondence that resulted in their marriage five years later -- but the correspondence continued. During their marriage, they were separated nearly as much as they were together, which led to voluminous correspondence -- some 1200+ letters.Despite her lack of formal education, Abigail was a true partner in John's life, with reading habits and a level of opinion and intellectual engagement that would have been "downright scandalous" if she had been raised in Virginia, rather than in Massachusetts.

In this day of emailing and texting -- instant communication across countless miles -- it's hard to imagine a relationship that plays out in large part through printed correspondence that could take weeks or even months to reach its destination.

Almost 150 years later came another political marriage of intellectual equals: that of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt.

Hazel Rowley's book tells the story of the Roosevelt marriage, and in particular its "evolution from a conventional Victorian family into the bold and radical partnership that made Eleanor and Franklin go down in history as one of the most inspiring couples of all time." According to Rowley, their marriage was not a "gracious facade" while each went about their own lives but rather a supportive and daring partnership consciously created in pursuit of their own ambitions and needs.

Eleanor and Franklin were married in 1905, and Franklin took office in 1933, at the height of the depression and six weeks after Hitler became Chancellor in Germany. The book chronicles the Roosevelt marriage from its beginning through 1962, the year Eleanor died (Franklin died in 1945) and clearly shows just how magnetic both Franklin and Eleanor were as personalities. Eleanor was certainly more of a politcal player in her own right than Abigail Adams was, yet they both played strong roles as first wives.

In an article in last Saturday's Oregonian, Jeff Baker wrote of his interview (via email) with Rowley.

Rowley, who currently lives in New York City, was born in London and educated in England and Australia. She has written three previous biographies: Christina Stead: A Biography, Richard Wright: The Life and Times, and Tete-a-Tete: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. She wrote her PhD thesis on Simone de Beauvoir and Existentialism and interviewed Beauvoir in her Montparnasse apartment in 1976.

 How did she come to write about these people, and now about Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt? Rowley addresses the question on her website: "Some people wonder what my books have in common. An Australian woman, an African-American man, the most notorious French couple in the twentieth century, and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt? For those who have read all four, the thread is clear. They were courageous people, who all, in some way, felt 'outsiders' in society. Above all, they were passionate people who cared about the world and felt angry about its injustices. It is no coincidence that they were born around the turn of the century, within a few years of each other. They came of age at a time of revolutionary change and hope. They were all progressives. And then the Cold War descended on them, like a thick fog. I see parallels with my own lifetime. I came of age in the late 60s and 70s, a time of revolutionary change and hope. And then came the fog."

"My books are all, in their different ways, voyages of discovery. I write books to learn, to stretch my horizons. These voyages of mine are full of risk and passion. But each time they leave me inspired and enriched. And I hope to do the same for my readers."

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Day 11: The Kids are Alright!


We don't want to leave younger readers out of the 24 Days of Books experience, so today, Day 11, we'll talk about some treats for the younger set, starting with a book that just tickles me: Flip-O-Saurus, by Sara Ball. This oversize, cut-page board book invites young readers to mix and match the heads, bodies, and tails of ten dinosaurs to create their own imaginary creatures, such as the Tryannononytops or the Trisaurex. Loads of fun.

We've talked about several wonderful picture books recently; they would all make great gifts. Check those blog posts out here and here. Another favorite with younger readers is the Five Little Monkeys series, by Eileen Christelow. Now we have a set of five little monkey finger puppets to go along with any of those books!

Little girls (say, 5 to 8), seem to go crazy over pink, and especially over the Pinkalicious books by Victoria Kann. How about a boxed "Perfectly Pink Collection," with three books, dozens of stickers, a color-it-yourself poster, and three double-sided crayons for one of the youngsters in your world?

In the middle reader age group (roughly 8 to 12), it's an embarrassment of riches! The latest installment of the wildly popular Wimpy Kid series is out (Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Ugly Truth), and Rick Riordan just seems to keep putting out wonderfully entertaining mythology-based series, with the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, the newly launched second Camp Half Blood series, The Heroes of Olympus, and the Egyptian-mythology-based series The Kane Chronicles. I also think his 39 Clues series is just terrific. (Personally, I ignore all the cards and on-line stuff; the books hold together just fine by themselves.)

We've got all sorts of books to recommend for this age group, for girls or boys, eager readers or less passionate ones -- just ask us!


Something new this year I'm pretty excited about is Potato Chip Science, by A. Kurzweil & Son, which comes packaged in, you might have guessed, what looks to be a bag of potato chips! The package includes a 96-page book that instructs the reader on 29 incredible experiments (exploring physics, biology, chemistry, and earth science) as well as a variety of accompanying supplies, such as a potato propulsion pipe, a spud-powered clock, and googly eyes -- gotta have googly eyes to do science!

We've got board books and picture books and chapter books, short books and long books -- and even a few tall books! We have dictionaries and atlases designed for kids, books about horses and space and sports and dinosaurs and animals, and, well, the world! We even have a kid's version of Bill Bryson's terrific book A Short History of Nearly Everything. Oh, and did I mention all things Star Wars??

We've got pop-up books to amuse and amaze all ages -- Peter Pan, Harry Potter, The Little Prince, The Wizard of Oz, The Little Prince, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar, about shoes and dinosaurs and superheroes and animals and planets and the alphabet and more!

We've got the classics and our favorites -- from this year and past years. We'd love to be your personal shoppers as you search for just the right gifts for the kids in your life. We're here for you!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Day 10:The Queen of the Nile Returns

Welcome to Day 10 in our 24 Days of Books. Today is all about stripping away the "kudzu of history," the myth that swarms in the absence of fact. Cleopatra is one of the most famous -- and one of the least truly known -- women of all time. She ruled Egypt for twenty-two years, dying at age 39, a generation before the birth of Christ. Now, award-winning biographer Stacy Schiff has written a book --Cleopatra: A Life -- that attempts to restore context to our understanding of the famous leader and to strip away some of the myths that have surrounded her. As the author says, it's "not for the first time a genuinely powerful woman has been transmuted into a shamelessly seductive one."

Most of Cleopatra's earliest biographers were Roman, male, and writing more than a century or more after her death. They tended to find it more comfortable to focus on her supposed sexual prowess than on her intellectual gifts. Cleopatra was actually Macedonian Greek ("which makes Cleopatra approximately as Egyptian as Elizabeth Taylor"). She spoke nine languages. She was a commanding woman versed in politics, diplomacy, and governance. And "even at a time when women rulers were no rarity she stood out, the sole female of the ancient world to rule alone and to play a role in Western affairs." "At the height of her powers she controlled virtually the entire eastern Mediterranean coast, the last great kingdom of any Egyptian ruler."

Schiff was educated at Williams College and worked as an editor for Simon & Schuster until 1990. She left S&S to write a biography of Antoine de Saint-Exupery -- a book that became a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize. She next wrote Vera, a biography of Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Her next book, A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, won the George Washington Book Prize. Clearly this woman knows a thing or two about writing biographies.

Ron Chernow, who knows a thing or two about writing biographies himself (his most recent is Washington: A Life) says about Schiff's new book: "Even if forced at gunpoint, Stacy Schiff would be incapable of writing a dull page or a lame sentence. Here she trains her satirical eye and sterling erudition on Cleopatra, rescuing her from the many shopworn myths that have encrusted her story from Plutarch to Shakespeare to Joseph L. Mankiewicz."

This book quickly ran out of stock. We've just received a new supply, but it's bound to disappear quickly.

Kathryn Harrison reviewed Schiff's new book for The New York Times. Below is a brief video of the author reading a passage from the book.

Cleopatra and Mark Twain at Broadway Books Together!

 Well, not in person, of course, but in the form of Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff and The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol 1, by the man himself. I'm ecstatic to report that we now have copies of both of these books back in the store in lovely tall stacks, just a-waiting your arrival! These are two of the hottest-ticket items this holiday season and are bound to disappear again very soon, so don't drag your heels. The reviews on both are through the roof. More on that to come in the 24 Days of Books.......

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Lights on Broadway All Month Long

Don't forget that Lights on Broadway, the annual holiday celebration in the northeast Broadway neighborhood, is a month-long affair this year. Check out the website for events, sales, tastings, and other special happenings. This is a great chance to knock out your shopping, support locally owned businesses, and have some fun! On Saturday the Grant High School Royal Blues Carolers will be strolling the streets, spreading holiday cheer. Our Holiday Catalog with its "Choose Your Own Discount" is full of great gift ideas, and the one-time-use coupon is good all month long! So join us for the Lights on Broadway celebration!

Zoobies!

This year our holiday catalog, which appeared in the Oregonian (come on in if you didn’t get one – we have extras and there’s a “choose your own discount” option in it) featured our favorite new snuggly/cozy/fuzzy things: ZOOBIES! These storybook gifts for little ones are the perfect thing for a child’s naptime or quiet moment. Zoobies are three things in one: a plush animal, a soft pillow, and a warm blanket. The plush animals are all characters from children’s storybooks. We have three different ones: Ian Falconer’s Olivia (every little girl’s favorite bossy pig), Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, and Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Zipped inside each of the animals is an attached blanket that is super for spreading out on the floor (you can use the animal as a pillow) or taking to bed, or just carrying around. The Olivia and Peter Rabbit Zoobies are $34 each, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar Zoobie is $45 because it includes a copy of the board book. Storytime will be much more fun with Zoobies! We have just a few of these cuddly critters left, so call us quickly if you want one.




Day 9: Ping Pong Rules the World

Remember when I said at the beginning of the 24 Days of Books that sometimes we'd talk about under-the-radar books? Well, Day 9 is definitely an under-the-radar book: Everything You Know is Pong: How Mighty Table Tennis Shapes Our World, by Roger Bennet and Eli Horowitz.  This illustrated unabashed love letter to all things ping pong includes essays from Nick Hornby, Jonathan Safran Foer, Will Shorts, and Davy Rothbart. As the authors describe the book "We are two passionate collectors of ping pong ephemera who have quietly scoured eBay, flea markets, and yard sales to amass a museum-sized collection of ping pong artifacts. This book uses them to tell the important stories only ping pong can tell: tales of geopolitics, demographic shifts, and velour headbands."

From the introduction: "Ping pong's unvanquished strength lies, paradoxically, in its shabby exterior....Neglected by the corporate hunger for the New New New Thing, ping pong has been allowed to flourish in dark corners and distant alleys around the world, nurturing a wealth of lore, legends, and die-hard fans. It is the magma lurking beneath the Earth's crust, piping hot and eternally bubbling."

The book is chock-a-block full of wonderful old ads, book covers, and fabulous photographs (some a bit on the racy side), including one of performers in Buffalo Bill Cody's traveling show playing ping pong some time around 1890, and a shot of Bill and Hillary playing a game on the 1992 presidential campaign trail.

Recently a group of New York literati types gathered to play ping pong, promote the new book, and raise funds for 826NYC, a nonprofit literary organization, as reported in the New York Times.

This book is loads of fun and is THE perfect gift for the ping pong fanatic in your life (because you know they already have their own paddles).

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Good News for Fans of Shantaram!

We've sold many copies over the years of the book Shantaram, a debut novel by Gregory David Roberts, and we often get asked when Roberts will be writing a new book. I'm happy to report that we now have a response beyond a shrug of the shoulders. His follow-up novel, Mountain Shadow, is scheduled to be published in 2012. The book picks up the story of Shantaram protagonist Lin, following him through "further dramatic adventures in Bombay and beyond."

Shantaram has sold more than two million copies worldwide. Supposedly a feature film based on the book is in the works, but you know how the movie biz goes. (Rumor had it at one time that Johnny Depp was likely to star, but that rumor has come and gone.). The novel is narrated by Lin, who escapes from a maximum security prison in Australia and flees to Bombay -- much as the author himself did, although the author has stated that the incidents in the book are largely fictional. According to the author, the title of the book is designed to reflect the theme of the novel, which is the exile experience. Accompanied by his guide and faithful friend, Prabaker, Lin enters Bombay's hidden society of beggars and gangsters, prostitutes and holy men, soldiers and actors, and Indians and exiles from other countries. As a hunted man without a home, family, or identity, Lin searches for love and meaning while running a clinic in one of the city's poorest slums, and serving his apprenticeship in the dark arts of the Bombay mafia.

Pat Conroy called the book "A novel of the first order, a work of extraordinary art, a thing of exceptional beauty." [Yowzer!] He added, "If someone asked me what that book was about, I would have to say everything, everything in the world. Gregory David Roberts does for Bombay what Lawrence Durrell did for Alexandria, what Melville did for the South Seas, and what Thoreau did for Walden Pond." The Seattle Times called Shantaram "a true epic. It is a huge, messy, over-the-top, irresistible, shaggy-dog story." Hmmm, I guess that explains the 2+ million copies!

Day 8: Unbroken, A Dual Story of Resilience

Welcome to Day 8 in our 24 Days of Books! In 2001, Laura Hillenbrand wrote the smash hit, Seabiscuit: An American Legend. Now, almost a decade later, she has another potential smash hit on her hands with another book about redemption and a stunningly fast runner. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, tells the story of Louis Zamperini, a cunning and incorrigible delinquent who as a teen developed a talent for running (often to avoid getting caught) that took him to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Sadly, WWII interrupted his running career. He became an airman, but in May 1943 his B24 bomber jet crashed into the Pacific Ocean. He spent almost seven weeks in a fragile raft, drifting thousands of miles in the middle of the ocean with two (and then one) other survivors, surrounded by sharks and enemy aircraft. Zamperini survived that ordeal, only to be captured by the Japanese and spend two years suffering assaults, humiliation, and physical abuse in a Japanese concentration camp.

Hillenbrand learned about Zamperini while researching her book on Seabiscuit [his coach often said that the only runner who could beat him was Seabiscuit]. In writing her new book, Hillenbrand interviewed Zamperini, now 93, more than 75 times. She read his diaries, letters, and unpublished memoirs; interviewed his friends and family, former Airmen and Japanese veterans, and former Olympians; and pored through forgotten papers in archives. Zamperini wondered why all of their conversations took place over the phone. It was only after reading an article about her that he learned that she suffers from severe debilitating chronic fatigue syndrome.

After the stunning success of Seabiscuit, Hillenbrand suffered a relapse of the syndrome that has ruled her life for more than two decades, since she was 19 years old. From 2007 through the summer of 2009, she never left her house; for some of those months, she never left her room. Despite that burden she has managed to write yet another thoroughly researched, gripping, cinematic true story about triumph and resilience. When Zamperini learned of her condition he sent her one of his Purple Hearts, saying she deserved it more than him.

Unbroken is sure to be one of the biggest sellers this holiday season. Her first book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and led to a smash motion picture; Unbroken is likely headed down a similar path. It's a great read -- a real page-turner -- regardless of the backstory of the author, but that story does make her accomplishment all the more impressive.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Top Reads from O Magazine

Well, would you look at this? I'm blogging about Oprah Winfrey twice in one week! What's up with that?? Thought you might be interested in learning about the favorite reads of the year from O: The Oprah Magazine -- some pretty darned good books on this list, five fiction and five nonfiction:

FICTION
  • Freedom, Jonathan Franzen (no big surprise there)
  • Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart
  • Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, Helen Simonson (just out in paperback this week!)
  • Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, Danielle Evans (short stories)
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
NONFICTION
  • The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, Siddhartha Mukherjee
  • Hellhound on His Trail, Hampton Sides
  • The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson
  • Let's Take the Long Way Home, Gail Caldwell
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot
We've written about several of these books in previous blog posts. (By the way, did you know you can search for titles/authors we've blogged about in the past using the search box on the right-hand side of the page?) The magazine lists several other books the staff thinks would make great gifts, including Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand; Life, by Keith Richards; Frank: The Voice, by James Kaplan; 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective; and Dogs, by Tim Flach. I'd have to say I would agree with these as well!

While I'm on the topic of Oprah, she just announced her latest book club reading selection, and it's a two-fer: A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, two novels by Charles Dickens. The two novels are available together in a delightful newly published paperback version.

Having said all that, I think I'm Oprah'd out for the time being. [But did anyone catch yesterday's show with Jonathan Franzen? Sadly, I was at work and missed it.]


Day 7: A Look Back at the Good Old Days

If you are of a certain age (that is, if you grew up in the '40s and '50s), we have a book that will make you smile in remembrance of a lost time.  Portland author and illustrator Dennis Adler has produced a nostalgic look back at an innocent era, called Wax Lips & White Bucks: Looking Back at What We Did.  The book is general enough to appeal to you wherever you grew up, but it’s especially fun if you grew up in Oregon.  It just takes a few words to evoke memories:  Curb feelers.  Burma-Shave Signs.  Watching the radio.  Pneumatic Tubes in department stores.  Grocery delivery boy.  Orange crate hot rods.  The crying room in movie theaters.  Party lines.  Pedal Pushers.  I Like Ike.  I could go on, but you get the idea.  Hundreds of memories are within these pages, illustrated in color by one of Portland’s most well-known artists.  Don’t you know someone who would love to have this book?

It's a Chocolate Chip Cookie Kind of Day

Somebody baked chocolate chip cookies last night. They're waiting for you on our front counter -- Yum! Get a little free shopping energy!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Check Out this Great New Word Game!

Looking for the perfect stocking stuffer? We just got a COOL new letter dice game in from the people who brought us Bananagrams!  This new game is called ZIP-IT.  To play this two-person game, players divide twenty-four cubes between them.  Each cube has a letter on each side. Each player makes a grid of words (using any of the letters on the six sides of their cubes). The first one to use all her cubes wins the round.  My favorite part: you keep score by moving a zipper on the pouch that holds the game.  No pencil/paper needed.  Just like Bananagrams, ZIP-IT is amazingly simple and appropriate for use by anyone who can spell just a little bit, so it's a great game for an adult to play with a younger person, or for two children to play together (or two adults).  And it's just the right size to tuck in a backpack or purse.  Or to stuff a stocking! And only $15.00!

Day 6: The Gift of Poetry

We love giving and receiving poetry, and three of our favorite poets have new books this year. So Day 6 in our 24 Days of Books is a three-fer.  Penelope Scambly Schott, winner of the 2008 Oregon Book Award for poetry, has a marvelous new collection called Crow Mercies. These fierce, honest poems will sear themselves into your brain and stay there for a very long time (in a GOOD way).  Paulann Petersen, our current Poet Laureate, has a beautiful, hypnotic, blazingly sensual new book called Voluptuary.  I’m always amazed at Paulann’s work, and let me just say that the woman has a special thing going on with bees (again, in a GOOD way).  Our third pick is Mary Oliver’s most recent collection of poems and prose poems, Swan.  Ms. Oliver’s affinity for the natural world shines through all her work, and this book is no exception.  And we must say it here: R.I.P Percy, Ms. Oliver’s beloved feline companion.  What poetry do you love?  And who can you share it with?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Day 5: The Most Talked-About Novel of the Year

For Day 5 of our 24 Days of Books we're going to talk about the year's most-talked-about novel, Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. Love him or hate him -- or any emotion in between -- discussion of Franzen and his book have been all over the media since the book was published in August -- including a shot of Franzen on the cover of Time Magazine, the first novelist to be featured on the cover since Stephen King ten years ago. We picked today to talk about Franzen's book because tomorrow he will appear on the Oprah Show, which is significant for reasons that I'll cover in a bit. Freedom is Franzen's first novel since The Corrections, which won the National Book Award in 2001 (it was also nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, a PEN/Faulkner Award, and the National Critics Circle Award, among others).

The awards have been less forthcoming for his newest novel, but it has still received great acclaim. The New York Times Book Review, which just picked Freedom as one of the Top Ten Books of 2010, called the novel "a masterly portrait of a nuclear family in turmoil, with an intricately ordered narrative and a majestic sweep that seems to gather up every fresh datum of our shared millennial life."

The novel, about Walter and Patty Berglund of St Paul, Minnesota, their kids, their marriage, their successes and failures, is one "long, juicy, scathing, funny and poignant indictment of contemporary American life."

I did not read The Corrections when it came out, despite the rave reviews. Who knows why. But I decided to read Freedom early, before all the shouting started. And I loved it. So much so that I bought and now intend to read (after the holiday craziness subsides) The Corrections. Freedom is a big beefy juicy novel that I found completely engrossing, even if the characters weren't always completely likable or the plot lines always convincing. I still found myself missing the characters when I was done reading the book.

So, to get back to the Oprah story I alluded to at the beginning of this post: In 2001, when The Corrections was all the rage, Oprah Winfrey picked it for her book club and invited Franzen to appear on her show. The author expressed -- in print and in interviews -- that he wasn't completely taken with the idea, and his invitation was rescinded. Fast forward to 2010, and, as Oprah's talk show winds down its run, she gave him another shot, choosing Freedom for her book club and once again inviting Franzen to appear on the show. This time he unhesitatingly accepted the offer, and tomorrow we'll see how their get-together came off. I'm guessing it won't be another ambush shellacking, as when author James Frey and editor Nan Talese appeared on Oprah's show -- at least let's hope not!

For the lover of contemporary fiction in your life, Freedom would be a good bet.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Day 4: An All-Bryson Day

It's no secret that I'm a big fan of Bill Bryson's books. Today I'm going to cheat a little bit and mention three different books for Day 4 of Broadway Books' 24 Days of Books. But it's all Bryson, so I don't think it's cheating too much. And any one -- or all of them! -- would make great holiday gifts.
The first book I'll talk about is At Home: A Short History of Private Life. This book is Bryson along the lines of A Short History of Nearly Everything and Mother Tongue, rather than the Bryson of the often-hysterical-always-amusing memoirs like A Walk in the Woods, The Lost Continent, and The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.

In his newest book, Bryson walks from room to room in his family Victorian parsonage in England and uses each as a launching pad to talk about, well, just about anything that interests him: hygiene, fashion, cuisine, architecture, drinking, nutrition, the Eiffel Tower, the telephone, insect bites, furniture, plumbing -- you get my drift. Bryson is known for his inquisitiveness and his fondness for research. In fact, he was recently spotted in our very own Central Library doing just that! This book is a perfect showcase for his work, written in his customarily engaging and entertaining prose style.

When you're finished reading this book you'll know that Thomas Jefferson was responsible for introducing the french fry to the American palate (damn him, I say!), and that Benjamin Franklin was partial to taking "air baths," in which he would bask naked in front of an open upstairs window. "This can't have got him any cleaner, but it seems to have done him no harm and it must have at least given the neighbors something to talk about." And you will have a greater understanding of the complex geometry and engineering involved in building a functional staircase.

Bryson is also responsible for another recently published book, Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery, and the Genius of the Royal Society, which he edited. In honor of the Royal Society's 350th anniversary -- having been established on "a damp weeknight" in London in 1660 as a "Colledge for Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning" -- Bryson solicited essays from a collective of science writers on what we know today and what we're still looking for.

The book opens with an introduction by Bryson, followed by an essay by novelist Margaret Atwood on the mad scientists of literature and film. And then the book gets a bit more serious, including James Gleick tracing the birth of modern science, Richard Dawkins writing on the world-changing legacy of Darwin and evolutionary science, Neal Stephenson writing on the strange feud between Newton and Leibniz, Richard Holmes writing on man's first success at flight, Henry Petroski writing on engineering, and Martin Rees (president of the Royal Society from December 2005 to December 2010) looking forward to the future of science in the twenty-first century and beyond. In all, the book offers twenty-two essays. It's lusciously produced, with creamy pages and lots of photographs and illustrations.

Finally, the third in my Bryson picks for the holidays is the special illustrated edition of A Short History of Nearly Everything. Originally published (sans illustrations) in 2003, and in a hardcover illustrated edition in 2005, the illustrated version has just been published in paperback. The book covers physics, astronomy,biology, chemistry, geology -- pretty much everything, like the title says. Only now it comes with full-color artwork and photos -- both contemporary and historical. The Seattle Times said this about Bryson's book: "A highly readable mix of historical anecdotes, gee-whiz facts, adept summarization, and gleeful recounts of the eccentricities of great scientists. It moves so fast that it's science on a toboggan."

Anyone with an inquisitive nature and a fondness for facts presented with wit and eloquence would likely be thrilled to get one of these books.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Day 3: A Doonesbury Retrospective

On October 26, 1970, college jock B.D. met his inept and geeky roommate, Mike. Fourteen thousand strips later, the world of Doonesbury has grown into an intricately woven web of relationships -- more than 40 major characters spanning three generations. And now, Garry Trudeau -- who started the comic strip (then called Bull Tales) while an undergraduate student at Yale -- looks back at 40 years of Doonesbury in a new collection, 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective. In his opening essay, Trudeau tells us what the book is not: It is not about the defining events of the last four decades. Rather, it is about "how it felt to live through those years -- a loosely organized chronicle of modern times, as crowdsourced by what was once called 'the Doonesbury gang.'"

This is not your standard voluminous compilation of every strip ever published. The volume's 1800 carefully selected and beautifully displayed strips represent a mere 13% of the total originally published and are organized around eighteen major characters -- a mere sliver of the total cast -- starting with Michael Doonesbury and ending with Elias, a Vietnam vet and amputee. Trudeau begins each chapter with an essay introducing the character and how he or she fits into the cast. The book's literal centerpiece is a four-page foldout that maps in annotated detail the mind-boggling matrix of relationships of the unusually large (for a comic strip) cast. As Trudeau himself says in his introductory essay, " Most humor strips do just fine with a half-dozen or so players. Calvin and Hobbes had only two essential characters, and one of them was imaginary."

New characters arrive, but the original characters remain essential. "A reader recently noted that Alex has become the new center of gravity in the strip, that Doonesbury's auspices have passed from Mike to his daughter. What a concept. Alex was only born in 1988, but now, from her shaky perch as an insecure undergraduate, she rules. The strip's original animating idea -- that it's inherently interesting to watch a generation come of age -- repeats itself."

Talking about people and issues through a comic strip enables a different kind of storytelling than one can do in novels or even in essays. As Trudeau said in an interview with Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner, "What's wonderful about a comic strip is the stories unfurl in such a tiny, incremental way that you can keep a story alive for weeks," he says. "If I were writing a piece for a newspaper or magazine, it would be a one-off — people might read it that day and then move on. So I can insinuate some of these issues under the skin of the body politic in a way that is not possible for people working in other media."

Many comic strips engage in political commentary, but most of them are one-offs. Trudeau is able to make points over long story arcs, and to return to topics again and again, pointing out absurdities from multiple perspectives and revisiting them through the generations. We have lived with his cast of characters -- three generations of them -- through four decades of wars, political scandals, elections, AIDS, economic challenges -- Oregon even had its own moment in the Doonesbury sun when the state was lampooned in the comic strip for shutting schools down early because of a lack of funding.

This isn't the least expensive holiday gift suggestion we'll talk about in the 24 Days of Books -- in fact, at $100, it's probably the most expensive -- but it is beautifully produced (with a mixture of black & white and color strips) and thoughtfully organized and comes packaged inside a beautiful slip cover. This would make a most delicious gift for someone special in your life.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

NYT Picks Top Ten of 2010

Yesterday The New York Times presented its choices for the top ten books of 2010, five fiction, five nonfiction (the article will appear in the print edition of the NYT on December 12th). I can't imagine winnowing a whole year down to ten books, and I'm sure the process involved heated discussions and perhaps even a fisticuff or two. And now that the newspaper has presented its list, what surely will follow will be billions (ok, maybe dozens) of comments along the lines of "how could you possibly have picked/omitted that book?" Personally, I agree with some of the choices, disagree with a couple, and -- mostly -- find myself with an increasingly large stack of want-to-reads. Here's the list; what do you think?

FICTION
  • Freedom, Jonathan Franzen
  • The New Yorker Stories, Ann Beattie
  • Room, Emma Donoghue
  • Selected Stories, William Trevor
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
NONFICTION
  • Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet, Jennifer Homans
  • Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff
  • The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, Siddhartha Mukherjee
  • Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes, Stephen Sondheim
  • The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson
One last note about this list: several of these books were already becoming increasingly hard to get; now that they've hit the NYT top ten list they are likely to become even more scarce, so if you're thinking about one or more for a holiday gift, call or come see us soon!

Happy Hanukkah!

Did Hanukkah sneak up on you this year?  Did you hurry to get the candles out last night and realize you were a few short?  Are you in need of some last-minute gelt or dreidels or cards or books or giftwrap or even a yarmulke or two?  We've got 'em.  However you spell it, Chanukah is one of our favorite holidays, and we can be your one-stop shopping spot.  Remember: we giftwrap for free (pretty gold paper, beautiful blue ribbon) and can suggest books/puzzles/games for the whole family!

Day Two: The Warmth of Other Suns

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson, is a beautiful piece of narrative nonfiction that tells the story of a mass relocation that, over time, would come to dwarf the California Gold Rush of the 1850s with its one hundred thousand participants and the Dust Bowl migration of some three hundred thousand people in the 1930s.

Wilkerson uses the stories of three individuals -- Ida Mae Brandon Gladney in 1937, George Swanson Starling in 1945, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster in 1953, who left Chicasaw County Mississippi, Wildwood, Florida, and Monroe, Louisiana, respectively -- to chronicle the great untold story of the migration of black citizens from the South to northern and western cities in search of a better life. This pilgramage began during WWI and did not end until the 1970s and would set in motion changes throughout the country that would take nearly a lifetime to play out -- impacting music, cuisine, religion, culture, city structures, and more.

During the Great Migration, the author's parents journeyed from Georgia and from southern Virginia to Washington, DC, where Wilkerson was born and reared. She is the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism and the first African American to win for individual reporting. She is currently Professor of Journalism and Director of Narrative Nonfiction at Boston University.

The people in this movement left the South because "they were all stuck in a caste system as hard and unyielding as the red Georgia clay."

"The would cross into alien lands with fast new ways of speaking and carrying oneself and with hard-to-figure rules and laws....The places they went were big, frightening, and already crowded -- New York, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and smaller, equally foreign cities -- Syracuse, Oakland, Milwaukee, Newark, Gary."

These migrants did not "cross the turnstile of customs at Ellis Island. They were already citizens. But where they came from, they were not treated as such." When the Great Migration began, 10% of black Americans lived outside of the South; by the 1970s, almost half did.

This is a gorgeously written story of a fascinating and little-told story in American history, and it's selling like hotcakes. And I'm not alone in thinking this is a great book: Janet Maslin of the New York Times picked it as one of her top ten books of 2010. If you're thinking about giving this as a gift this year you probably don't want to wait too long to come get a copy, or two -- I'm thinking you might want one for yourself as well!

Here is a video clip (8 minutes) of the author being interviewed on PBS.