Saturday, December 24, 2011

Day 24: Quirky is Good

Well, it's finally Day 24 in our 24 Days of Books. It's been another fun ride for me; I hope you've enjoyed it too.

Today's the last day of shopping before Christmas, so I thought I'd talk about a few thinking-out-of-the-box gift ideas. Sure, anyone can give the latest big biography, or the currently hot novel or kids book as a gift this year. But how about something unexpected, something out-of-the ordinary, something to perhaps take the breath away?

It seems that LEGO(tm)  is everywhere we look these days: LEGO (tm) Harry Potter, LEGO (tm) Star Wars, and so on. Everyone seems to want back in on the LEGO (tm) craze. Heck, they were hot when I was a kid, and that was more than just a few years ago.

LEGO (tm) is an abbreviation of the two Danish words leg godt,  meaning "play well." The LEGO (tm) Group was founded in 1932 by Ole Kirk Kristiansen. The Company has passed from father to son and is now owned by Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, a grandchild of the founder.

And now here's the perfect gift for the LEGO-lover in your life: The Cult of Lego, by John Baichtal and Joe Meno. The authors take readers on a story-packed adventure through the history of LEGO (tm), from its humble beginnings in a small Danish village to its ascent to the summit of the toy world. The book is filled with pictures of spectacular LEGO creations, such as a life-size Stegosaurus and a detailed microscale version of Yankee Stadium.

For the casual LEGO fan or the hardcore builder, The Cult of LEGO makes a fabulous gift.  

Everyone's gaga over Lady Gaga. Here's the perfect gift for the Gaga-fan in your life: Lady Gaga, by Lady Gaga and Terry Richardson. To create this coffee-table photo book, photographer Terry Richardson followed Lady Gaga during one year of her life, from Lollapalooza through the final show of her Monster Ball tour. During the year he followed Gaga, Richardson took over 100,000 images and attended more than 30 Monster Ball dates around the world.

Billboard named Lady Gaga both the 2010 Artist of the Year and the top-selling artist of 2010, ranking her as the 73rd Artist of the 2000s decade. She was named Forbes' Most Powerful Woman in the World 2011 and was included in Time's annual "The 2010 Time 100" list of the most influential people in the world.

And now, for a little entertainment and fun, here is a video of On the Rocks, the all-male a acappella vocal group from the University of Oregon, singing their version of Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance."

In Missed Connections, artist Sophie Blackall creates art in Chinese ink and watercolor to illustrate "missed connections" ads. A "missed connection" classified (usually posted on a website) is an attempt however far-fetched, by one stranger to reach another on the strength of a remembered glance, smile, or blue hat. The anonymous messages are hopeful and hopeless, funny and sad. This charming book offers a collection of illustrated love stories. Blackall is also the illustrator of the very popular Ivy and Bean series for young girls.

Here's a taste of the stories this new book tells:

Friday, December 23, 2011

Day 23: The Joy of Bleak

Welcome to Day 23 in our 24 Days of Books. Today we're in a bleak mood. Not really, but work with us. The emergence of “Scandinavian Noir” as a genre has been fueled largely by Stieg Larsson novels over the past few years. His Millennium Trilogy featuring Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander and the Swedish movie adaptations of them are hugely popular – and the forthcoming American adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo promises to continue our national mini-obsession with all things Stieg. Or perhaps we should say all things Lisbeth. Because really, isn’t she one of the most interesting characters in contemporary fiction? 

Sadly, Stieg Larson’s planned ten-book series stopped at three with his death in 2004. (Well, there may be a fourth book lurking in the wings, but that’s the topic for another blog). But as most mystery fans know, there’s much, much more to this dark genre than one author. Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallender novels are superb (and you can watch the BBC adaptations starring Kenneth Branagh – amazing). Many of Hakan Nesser’s novels feature Van Veeteren, a detective and antique book dealer (how can we resist that?). Danish crime writer Peter Hoeg’s first American success was Smilla’s Sense of Snow in 1992, and he has continued to write compelling stories. And we were so happy when Random House reissued the Martin Beck mystery series by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. These ten novels (beginning with Roseanna), first published between 1965 and 1975, predate the edgier books being written today (they also predate cell phones, personal computers, modern forensic technology, etc.) but are keenly observed commentaries on contemporary Scandinavian society that hold up some forty years later.

There are dozens of Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Dutch, and Icelandic authors worth considering if you enjoy a brooding, flawed hero and a menacing, elusive villain. One of the very best (some say THE best) of these is Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo, whose Harry Hole novels have caught the eye of readers everywhere. To date, there are eight novels in this series (only six available in English), including the most recent one, The Leopard, which just hit our store on December 13th.

Inspector Harry Hole is a loose cannon in the Oslo Police Department. A heavy smoker and alcoholic, he is difficult in many ways but manages to keep his job because he is a brilliant detective who specializes in serial murders (and there are lots of serial murders in Norway). The Harry Hole series begins with the book The Redbreast. The newest book, The Leopard, begins with the discovery of two murder victims, both young women who drowned in their own blood. The media grabs the story and runs with it. Is there a serial killer at work? Inspector Hole soon discovers that he is dealing with a psychopath for whom “insanity is a vital retreat."

Jo Nesbo’s thrillers are literary (that is, well written) as well as suspenseful. Is there a Nesbo fan on your shopping list? If so, you’re in luck! Surprisingly, given the bleakness of his thrillers, Nesbo also writes books for middle school readers, a series that begins with the book Doctor Proctor's Fart Powder, followed by Bubble in the Bathtub (And in January, Who Cut the Cheese?). All full of middle-school fartiness fun.

Here’s a short video that features the author talking about his latest novel, The Leopard. (The cover shown in the video is from the UK publication, not the US.):    

Thursday, December 22, 2011

What I've Been Reading Lately, Part II: Nonfiction

As happy as I've been with my fiction reading choices of late, I've been equally satisfied with what I've been reading on the nonfiction side. Here are the last few I've read, plus a look ahead at some to come.

The most recent nonfiction book I read was Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard. I've been eagerly awaiting a new book from this writer, and I was not disappointed. Millard's first book was The River of Doubt, about what had to have been history's most poorly planned trip -- a harrowing journey by Teddy Roosevelt and his son Kermit down an uncharted tributary of the Amazon after he lost the presidential election in 1912.

Her new book tells the story of James A. Garfield, our twentieth president and the last of "the log cabin presidents," who -- to the surprise of many -- was elected in 1881. Just a few months after his election, a deranged office-seeker shot him in the back. The book focuses on the drama of what hap­pened subsequently, as a team of physicians administered shockingly archaic treatments, to disastrous effect. Even Alexander Graham Bell got in the game, as he attempted to invent an instrument that could locate a bullet in a body.

Janet Maslin of The New York Times named it one of the top ten books of 2011, calling it a staggering tale of "lunacy... and medical malfeasance. " Another reviewer described it as "first-rate history, political intrigue, and a true-crime story all rolled into one."

The nonfiction book I read before that was Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness, by Alexandra Fuller. In Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight (she definitely wins the award for best titles and covers), Fuller wrote about growing up in then-Rhodesia-now-Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Zambia. Her newest book revisits that same time period, but this time through the perspective of her parents, Nicola and Tim, and she interviews her them about their personal history.

Fuller was born in England in 1969. In 1972 she moved with her family to a farm in Rhodesia. After that country’s civil war in 1981, the Fullers moved first to Malawi, then to Zambia. Currently she lives in Wyoming (the setting for her nonfiction book The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, also a wonderfully moving book). I loved Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight -- but I loved Cocktail Hour even more! I highly recommend them both; read in any order.

The nonfiction book before that was the latest from the marvelous storyteller Erik Larson, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin. The book tells the story of William Dodd, a mild-mannered professor from Chicago, who became America's ambassador to Germany in 1933, when Hitler came to power. Dodd moved to Berlin with his wife, son, and recently divorced daughter, willing to give Hitler the benefit of the doubt. Violence, censorship, and over-the-top behavior soon opened their eyes to the true threat Hitler posed, and Dodd tried to sound the alarm back home. Both Dodd and his daughter were avid journal-keepers and letter-writers, giving Larson a trove of eyewitness accounts to draw on.

One last nonfiction book I read that I'll mention just briefly: The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, by Kim Barker. Barker, one of the Middle East's longest serving correspondents, captures the absurdities and tragedies of life in a war zone in a voice that is candid, self-deprecating, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times recently named it one of her picks for 2011. Interestingly, Barker has a Portland connection, with family living in the area.

What's next on my nonfiction reading list?? Hmmm, I'll have to see what my mood is like after the holidays. Some of the options on the table are Van Gogh: The LifeA World on Fire, Steve Jobs, and 1491. Given the frenetic pace of the past few weeks, I might have to find something a little lighter to dip into first.

The nonfiction book I am most looking forward to being published in 2012 is unquestionably Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by local writer Cheryl Strayed. I've already started reading an advanced copy of this book, and I can tell you that it's the real deal. Given how frenetic and stressed my life has been of late, and my herky-jerky opportunities for reading, I decided to put the book away until after the holidays so I can return to it at a time when I can truly savor every word. Have you ever done that? Tucked away a jewel of a book to read, and on those more-challenging days with long dark nights you flash upon the gem that awaits you and it makes you smile? That's how I feel about reading Cheryl's book. I'm also happy to share with you that you will be able to purchase signed and/or personalized copies of Cheryl's book through our website when the book publishes in March.

Day 22: So Much Fascinating History to Explore

Welcome to Day 22 in our 24 Days of Books. For some people, the ideal holiday gift is a big chewy novel in which to get totally lost. For others, however, the ultimate giddy-inducing event is unwrapping a giant meaty book of history to dive into. An ideal candidate for the history lover in your life this year is A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War, by Amanda Foreman -- just named one of the top five nonfiction books of 2011 by The New York Times.

Twelve years in the making and coming in at about three pounds and just under a thousand pages, A World on Fire is a sprawling drama of British engagement with the American Civil War, a bloody, four-year battle that tore apart the nation and resulted in the deaths of more than 600,000 soldiers. But Foreman calls attention to the tens of thousands of Britons who served as soldiers, doctors, nurses, reporters, and more. Foreman builds her narrative, which she describes as “a biography of the many relationships that together formed the British-American experience during the Civil War,” around a huge cast of politicians, diplomats, soldiers and civilians in Great Britain, the United States and the Confederacy.

When the war first broke out, both the North and the South expected England to be on its side. Slavery had long since been abolished in the British Empire -- in fact, the British edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin had sold an astonishing million copies, three times its American sales. But Southern politicians threatened that if London did not recognize the sovereignty of the Confederate States, the cotton trade would be cut off, potentially driving England to economic collapse and revolution. And many in England thought the South had the moral advantage in the battle. Of the tens of thousands of Brits who joined up in the war in some capacity, some fought for the North and others for the South. Just as with American families, individual British families were sometimes divided in their loyalties.

English sympathy for the South lingered up until Lee surrendered at Appomattox in April 1865. Then, within days, came news that Lincoln had been assassinated. All at once, “newspapers that had routinely criticized the president during his lifetime,” Foreman writes, “rushed to praise him.”

Foreman's narrative concentrates on the four chief diplomatists: the Britons Lord John Russell and Lord Lyons and the Americans William Seward and Charles Adams. But it covers almost 200 individual characters -- the listing of the cast of characters in the book goes on for almost fifteen pages -- including Henry Morton Stanley (later of the "Livingston, I presume" fame), Elizabeth Blackwell (the British-born doctor who was the first woman to get a medical degree in the US), Rose O'Neal Greenhow (a Washington society leader and Confederate spy), and even the author Charles Dickens (who expressed his disenchantment with the US after his visit in 1842, writing that if American democracy was simply a vehicle for majority rule, then "I infinitely prefer a liberal monarchy."). The author excels at deft biographical portraits -- librarian and reviewer Nancy Pearl said she made lists of people she wanted to learn even more about as she was reading this book.

Despite the large cast of characters and the depth of detail (and accompanying research), the book is accessible to non-historians. According to the Christian Science Monitor: "Once again, Foreman displays her exceptional gift for storytelling and for making history both fascinating and relevant." Other reviewers called the book "a shimmering tapestry," "a real-life Gone with the Wind," "riveting," "a completely fresh persective," and "an achievement as enjoyable as it is impressive."

Foreman was born in London to an English mother and American father, brought up in Los Angeles, and educated in England. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University in New York. She received her doctorate in Eighteenth-Century British History from Oxford University in 1998. She has dual citizenship and maintains homes in New York City and London, writing regularly for newspapers and magazines in both countries. She and her husband have five young children.

Her previous book, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, was nominated for several awards and won the Whitbread Prize for Best Biography in 1999. It has inspired a television documentary, a radio play starring Dame Judi Dench, and a movie titled The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes. She is the daughter of Carl Foreman, the Oscar-winning screen writer of many film classics including, The Bridge on the River Kwai, High Noon, and The Guns of Navarone.

Other good bets for the history lover on your gift list this year include Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt; Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942, by Ian W. Toll; Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard; In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, by Erik Larson; Lions of the West, by Robert Morgan; Jerusalem: The Biography, by Simon Sebag Monteflore; Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History, by Robert Hughes; and Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, by Richard White -- and that's just a handful of the many great history tomes from which to choose. Of course we can't forget my personal favorite narrative nonfiction of the past year: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson, a book I have written about so much already I'm sure you're all tired of hearing me going on and on about it -- which doesn't negate that you should read it!!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

What I've Been Reading Lately, Part I: Fiction

The last three novels I've read have all been big winners in my book, but they couldn't be more different. I thought I'd take a few minutes to share them with you.

The most recent novel I read was We the Animals, by Justin Torres. I didn't expect to like this slim debut novel but for some reason it kept tugging at me whenever I walked past it, so I finally decided to give it a go. And it kept me. It is fierce and concentrated and feral and heartbreaking, a child's view of family's struggles and relationships, presented in brilliant language. The New York Times called it "a strobe light of a story," while Vanity Fair called it "a gorgeous, howling coming-of-age novel that will devour your heart," and author Pam Houston called it a "musical tornado of a novel." It is definitely a wow. I look forward to more from this author.

Just before that I read another slim novel that had just won this year's Booker Prize for Fiction: The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes. This intense, suspenseful novel follows a middle-aged man as he contends with a past he has never much thought about until he is presented with a mysterious legacy that obliges him to reconsider a variety of things he thought he’d understood all along, and to revise his estimation of his own nature and place in the world. Who are you? How can you be sure? What if you’re not who you think you are? What if you never were? The review on NPR called it “an elegantly composed, quietly devastating tale about memory, aging, time and remorse." I thought it was spectacular.

The one before that was another debut novel, The Night Circus, a novel unlike any I'd ever read before. The author, Erin Morgenstern, is a visual artist, and in her writing she created worlds that I could see just as if I were standing inside of them. Generally I'm not big on books that involve the circus or magic. And this involves both. Sort of. And yet I found it both delightful and breathtaking. It involves a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors and who meet in Le Cirque des Reves, a Victorian nocturnal black-and-white circus. Here are some of the accolades reviewers have bestowed upon this novel and its author: "playful and intensely imaginative," "quietly, enchantingly perfect," "an extraordinary storyteller," "a beguiling, gripping read," "A literary Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride." I definitely recommend giving this one a go.

I'm also "reading" two audiobooks right now that I'm enjoying very much: one I'm listening to on my iPod when I walk and the other I'm listening to in my car when I drive. Sadly for the former -- and for my ability to fit into my clothing -- lately I've been spending more time with the latter book. I blame the weather and the lack of daylight.

The walking book is Pulitzer-Prize winner A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, an inventive investigation of growing up and growing old in the digital age. It took me a while to get going on this one, because it bounces around a bit in time and in point-of-view, so it takes a while to get a handle on all of the characters and their relationships. But now I'm really enjoying it.

The driving book is The Stranger's Child, by Alan Hollinghurst, a sweeping, multi-generational novel that opens in England in 1913. “At once classically literary and delightfully, subversively modern." This book is so entertaining that I find myself manufacturing reasons to drive my car -- something I don't do that often, since I can easily walk just about everywhere I need to go -- just so I can continue to listen to this delightful book.

Novels that I'm considering treating myself to when the holiday rush moves past and I can focus again include The Art of Fielding, 11/22/63, Wish You Were Here, Matterhorn, Pearlmann's Silence (by the author of Night Train to Lisbon) and The Corrections (yes, I admit, I've haven't read it yet, but I enjoyed Freedom).  The novels I'm most looking forward to being published in 2012 are Truth Like the Sun, the newest from Jim Lynch (The Highest Tide, Border Songs), which is due out in April (just in time for the store's 20th anniversary celebration!), and Dora: A Head Case, a novel (due to be published summer 2012) by Lidia Yuknavitch, author of the stunning memoir The Chronology of Water.

Ah yes, so many books, so little time. Tomorrow I'll talk about recent, current, and forthcoming nonfiction reads.

Day 21: A Painter and a Writer

Welcome to Day 21 in our 24 Days of Books. As always at this time of year, major biographies are all the rage. This year is no exception. Of course one of the biggest biographies of the season is Steve Jobs, by the eminent biographer Walter Isaacson. But when I think of holiday biographies I tend to think of historical biographies.

One of the major historical biographies this year is Charles Dickens: A Life, by Claire Tomalin. This new biography, published by Penguin Press, gives full measure to Dickens's heroic stature -- his huge virtues both as a writer and as a human being -- while observing his failings in both respects with an unblinking eye. Dickens's own grim upbringing, including his father's time in a debtor's prison, helped him to develop his remarkable eye for all that was absurd, tragic, and redemptive in London life.

Tomalin crafts a story worthy of Dickens's own pen, a comedy that turns to tragedy as the very qualities that made him great -- his indomitable energy, boldness, imagination, and showmanship -- finally destroyed him. With a focus on the man and his life, rather than his writings, the man who emerges in this book is one of extraordinary contradictions, whose vices and virtues were intertwined as surely as his life and his art.

Another significant historical biography this season is Van Gogh: The Life, by Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith and published by Random House. Working with the full cooperation of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Naifeh and Smith have accessed a wealth of previously untapped materials, drawing liberally from the artist’s famously eloquent letters and wading through hundreds of unpublished family correspondence. This detailed biography provides a tour through both the life and the work of the Dutch painter, beginning with his parents' family tree, and postulates a new theory about Van Gogh's death at the age of 37.

According to The New York Times, "What Mr. Naifeh and Mr. Smith capture so powerfully is Van Gogh’s extraordinary will to learn, to persevere against the odds, to keep painting when early teachers disparaged his work, when a natural facility seemed to elude him, when his canvases failed to sell. There was a similar tenacity in his heartbreaking efforts to fill the emotional void in his life: ostracized by his bourgeois family, which regarded him as an unstable rebel; stymied in his efforts to pursue his religious impulses and become a preacher; rejected or manipulated by the women he longed for; shunned and mocked by neighbors as crazy; undermined by a competitive Paul Gauguin, with whom he had hoped to forge an artistic fraternity."

Recently CBS's 60 Minutes aired a segment focusing on Van Gogh and the new theory around his death and interviewing Naifeh and Smith.

A few of the other major biographies this season from the literary world include Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller, by Oregon Book Award winner and OSU professor Tracy Daugherty; Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961, by Paul Hendrickson; and
And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, by Charles J. Shields.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Day 20: Stephen King Rewrites History

Welcome to Day 20 in our 24 Days of Books. So much good fiction has been published this year that it’s hard to pick just one or even five favorites, and I won’t try to do that here. I tend to agree with Neil Gaiman, who said "Picking five favorite books is like picking the five body parts you'd most like not to lose." Besides, who has the time to read every single one? There are novelists who write faster than I can read (I’m lookin’ at you, Joyce Carol Oates). I’m exhausted just looking at the array of choices on our “new fiction” table.

And now I will risk my literary street cred by asking everyone to take an unbiased look at Stephen King. We’ll just yadda yadda our way through the arguments – pro and con – concerning this author and his books, and jump right into his latest novel, 11/22/63, which currently sits on top of the bestseller lists, and for good reason.

This reimagining of the events surrounding President John F. Kennedy’s assassination is an engrossing read. Stephen King is, in the opinion of many, the author who has “absorbed the social, political, and popular culture of his generation more imaginatively and thoroughly than any other writer” and as such is supremely equipped to tackle this subject. In almost 850 pages, he gives us an incredible (yet totally believable) journey back in time and the possibility of altering world history.

The protagonist of King’s story is Jake Epping, a thirty-five-year-old English teacher who is given an extraordinary opportunity by his friend Al, who reveals to Jake that the storeroom in his diner is a portal to the past, a particular day in 1958. Al invites Jake to take over the mission of time traveling back to 1958 and preventing one of this generation’s most famous and devastating crimes.

And so begins Jake’s new life as George Amberson, in a world of Ike and JFK and big American cars and Elvis. His travels lead him from Derry, Maine to Dallas, Texas, where he is the one man who knows what will happen and is rushing headlong into the past in order to change the future.

Stephen King is one of the most entertaining writers working today. This book captures the baby boomer’s generational zeitgeist like no other has. If you are looking for a big, fat page-turner that will completely absorb you for a large chunk of time, look no further.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Day 19: YA novels - including one by a Portlander!

Welcome to Day 19 in our 24 Days of Books. Local writer/illustrator and husband/wife team Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis have been getting much (well-deserved) attention for the first book in their new middle-reader trilogy, Wildwood. Another Portland author, who writes books for young adults, is also receiving major accolades for her work.

Laini Taylor, who was a finalist for last year's National Book Award for Young Readers for her book LipsTouch, Three Times, has a new book out that The New York Times recently named one of the top five Young Adult books of 2011: Daughter of Smoke and Bone, a romantic adventure fantasy set in Prague. The first book in a planned trilogy, Daughter of Smoke and Bone centers on a young blue-haired girl named Karou who encounters unusual creatures and dangerous angels as she travels the world to carry out mysterious errands. Karou gradually becomes aware that she is part of ancient struggle between devils and angels and finds herself in a forbidden romance with a warrior angel.

The New York Times describes the book as "a breath-catching romantic fantasy about destiny, hope and the search for one’s true self that doesn’t let readers down. Taylor has taken elements of mythology, religion and her own imagination and pasted them into a believably fantastical collage."

“My goal is always to write stories that readers will want to climb inside of and live in, and which – I hope – will allow them to just lose themselves in the page,” said Taylor, who has clearly succeeded in her goal. In an attempt to find the next Twilight hit, the movie rights to the book have already been acquired by Universal in a hotly contested battle.

Taylor lives in Portland with her husband, the illustrator Jim Di Bartolo (he did the illustrations for her previous book) and their daughter. At the end of this blog post is a video of Taylor talking about her new book. But first, a couple of other YA books to consider this holiday season:

Why We Broke Up, by Daniel Handler (who has also written as Lemony Snicket) and illustrated by the wonderful Maira Kalman tells the story of the break-up of high schoolers Min Green and Ed Slaterton, through a letter and the detritus of their relationship.

One of the hottest YA books of the season is the fourth and final installment in the Inheritance cycle by Christopher Paolini. Inheritance concludes the compelling story that began with Eragon (written when the author was only fifteen years old!) -- if you're lucky, you might get one of our few remaining signed copies!

Also one of the top five YA novels cited by the NYT, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater tells the fantastical story of racing killer water horses in coming-of-age story about a young girl named Puck.

Whip-smart and wickedly funny author Libba Bray provides social commentary galore in Beauty Queens, about a plane full of Miss Teen Dream beauty contestants that crashes on an apparently deserted island.

We've got all kinds of YA books for your holiday shopping, including a boxed set of The Hunger Games trilogy -- just tells us about the person you're shopping for and we'll try to match you up with just the right gifts.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Day 18: Annie Leibovitz Does It Again

Welcome to Day 18 in our 24 Days of Books. Although the publication of any collection of Annie Leibovitz’s photographs is an occasion to be celebrated, I must admit that I was lukewarm when I was told about this new one, called Pilgrimage. For starters, the book was to be full of photographs with no people in them. What? That’s what we know and love Ms. Leibovitz for: her penetrating portraits of people both famous and obscure. So now she’s doing landscape photography or something?

And now I will admit how wrong I was. Landscape photography? Hardly.

Pilgrimage is a look at rooms, historical artifacts, and incidental objects as well as wide, open spaces. The things she has photographed are significant to the artist. There are the houses of Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Louisa May Alcott. And within these houses, rooms full of paintings, mementos, and other signs of domestic life:  Ms. Woolf’s writing desk. Ms. Dickinson’s only surviving dress. A bird specimen collected by Mr. Darwin on the voyage of the Beagle. Dr. Freud’s carpet-covered sofa. A silver serving dish from Mrs. Roosevelt’s family.

The landscapes are varied and carry great meaning for Ms. Leibovitz. “From the beginning, when I was watching my children stand mesmerized over Niagara Falls, it was an exercise in renewal," she says.  “It taught me to see again.”  So we look through her eyes at Yosemite Valley, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty earthwork on the shore of the Great Salt Lake, The Isle of Wight, Thomas Jefferson’s garden at Monticello, the site of Henry Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond, the river where Ms. Woolf drowned.

This is perhaps her most revealing book. By sharing with the reader places and objects that are important to her (some of these are famous, but many are not), she has created an intensely personal and idiosyncratic narrative that includes so much more than can be talked about in this one little blog. Pete Seeger’s cabin and workshop. Lincoln’s handwritten address at Gettysburg, and the gloves and hat he wore the night of his death. Old props from Martha Graham’s studio. Georgia O’Keeffe’s collection of rocks and bones. A concert gown worn by Marian Anderson. So much.

The text that Ms. Leibovitz wrote to accompany these photographs is elegant and informative. The book also features an introduction by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Despite my original apprehension, I do not hesitate to recommend it.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Day 17: Chanukah is Almost Here!

Welcome to Day 17 in our 24 Days of Books. Today we're getting ready for Chanukah (or Hanukkah, depending on how you choose to spell it), which begins next week. In honor of the Festival of Lights, today we're spotlighting the beautiful pop-up book from pop-up master Robert Sabuda, Chanukah Lights, published by Candlewick Press.

With text by Michael J. Rosen, the book follows the Festival of Lights through place and time — from Herod’s temple to a shtetl in Russia; from a refugee ship bound for the New World to an Israeli kibbutz. Robert Sabuda’s striking pop-ups depict each night’s menorah in a different scene, using imagery such as desert tents, pushcart lanterns, olive trees, and a final panorama of skyscrapers.

Michael J. Rosen has written and edited some ninety books for children and adults, including the critically acclaimed The Cuckoo's Haiku and Other Birding Poems. His books have won many awards, among them the National Jewish Book Award, the inaugural Once Upon a World Children's Book Award from the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance, and three Ohioana Book Awards.

Robert Sabuda is the creator of many best-selling pop-up books, including The Twelve Days of Christmas, Winter's Tale, Peter Pan, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Beauty and the Beast. He is also the co-creator of the Encyclopedia Prehistorica and Encyclopedia Mythologica series. Since the time he first learned to hold a crayon, he knew he wanted to be an artist: "My bedroom was a constant whirlwind of pencil shavings, drippy paint brushes and mounds of paper scraps. My mother's pleas of 'when are you going to clean up this mess?!' went unanswered." And aren't we happy he kept at it, as he has given us so many gorgeously detailed pop-up books to enjoy.

[Another fabulous new pop-up book in the store is the M.C. Escher Pop-Ups, published by Thames and Hudson.]

As you prepare for Chanukah, remember that Broadway Books has candles, dreidels (large and small), gelt, and a terrific selection of Chanukah books from which to choose.

Here is a short video giving you a taste of the beautiful pop-up book that Robert Sabuda has created, based on Michael Rosen's reverent poem.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Day 16: Arguing with Christopher Hitchens

It's Day 16 in our 24 Days of Books, and we're in mourning. It was with great sadness that we learned this morning of the death of Christopher Hitchens. The news was not unexpected, as he had been dying quite publicly for the past eighteen months. Nevertheless. One of the finest essayists of his generation, a formidable contrarian, first-class raconteur and sharp-tongued wit, he leaves behind a mountain of published work that has provoked, infuriated, delighted,  criticized, explained, amused and entertained us for years. We will miss him. 

Hitchens’ most recent book, published in September, was recently named one of the Ten Best Books of 2011 by the New York Times. Fittingly, the title is Arguably. It’s a collection of dozens of elegant essays written for various publications. In these pieces, Hitchens brilliantly engages the reader in a wide range of political and cultural issues. 

Whether you agree (as we often do) or disagree (as we often do) with Mr. Hitchens, his opinions are always very well thought out and vividly expressed. Always eager to display his partisanship and never shrinking from a fight, he often dismayed even his biggest fans as they watched him change sides or refuse to adhere to a particular dogma.  

He was one of a kind. As Ian McEwan said, “If Hitchens didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be able to invent him.”

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Day 15: Channeling Georgia O'Keeffe

Welcome to Day 15 in our 24 Days of Books. Today we're talking about Portland's one-woman cottage industry: Karen Karbo, who writes smart, funny, original material. Her adult novels, Trespassers Welcome Here, The Diamond Lane, and Motherhood Made a Man Out of Me, have been named New York Times Notable Books of the Year. Her three witty young adult mysteries, featuring the unforgettable Minerva Clark, are great reads for teens, preteens, and those who love them. Her 2004 memoir about the time she spent with her father in his last year, The Stuff of Life, was also a NYT Notable Book and won the Oregon Book Award. In addition, she has written short stories, essays, articles, and reviews that have appeared in dozens of magazines and online. 

It’s hard to pick our favorite Karen Karbo books, but today we’re tending to favor what Karen calls her “Kick-Ass Women Trilogy.” The first book in this series, How To Hepburn: Lessons on Living from Kate the Great, showed readers how to break all the rules and lead a fabulous life. The second book, The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World’s Most Elegant Woman, delivered inspiration and wisdom from the life of the world’s greatest fashion icon.  

And now the last book in the trilogy has finally hit the shelves. How Georgia Became O’Keeffe: Lessons on the Art of Living is a fresh and revealing look at an artist who continues to be a model and inspiration for new generations of women. The ten chapters are ten verbs: defy, grow, adopt, muddle, embrace, bare, rebel, drive, break, and prize. Each chapter gives examples from O’Keeffe’s life that illustrate the verb.This beautiful little book is handsomely illustrated with nine reproductions of O’Keefe’s paintings and a photograph of her taken by her husband, Alfred Steiglitz. It’s a lovely gift for almost any female, ages 12 to 120. Clearly we're not the only ones who think so, as her book has been flying off our table the past few weeks.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Day 14: The Meaning of Food and Preparing it Fearlessly

Welcome to Day 14 of our 24 Days of Books. I don't know about you, but I'm getting hungry! Here are a couple of terrific books for the foodies in your life:

The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food by Adam Gopnik. With his usual charm and depth of knowledge, Gopnik takes us on a beguiling journey in search of the meaning of food in our lives as he charts America’s recent and rapid evolution from commendably aware eaters to manic, compulsive gastronomes. It is a journey that begins in eighteenth-century France—the birthplace of our modern tastes (and, by no coincidence, of the restaurant)—and carries us to the kitchens of the White House, the molecular meccas of Barcelona, and beyond.

 What goes on the table has never mattered to us as much as what goes on around the table—the scene of families, friends, and lovers, coming together or breaking apart; conversation across the simplest or grandest board. While Gopnik's book is packed with information, it's lightened by the many personal anecdotes and reflections.

Julia Keller of the Chicago Tribune says of the author, "Gopnik would surely be the world’s greatest dinner guest; he can make any subject fascinating, and always backs up his curiosity with unhurried research and an acute eye for the telling detail." Based on my reading of his previous books, I would certainly concur on the dinner guest comment! And Ina Garten (of Barefoot Contessa cookbooks fame) says, "“Adam Gopnik brilliantly weaves together the history, philosophy, and culture of food with his deep passion for cooking and the shared pleasures of the table. Anyone who roasts a chicken at home or eats chocolate mousse in a restaurant will be forever changed by this book. I loved it."

Gopnik has been writing for The New Yorker since 1986. During his tenure at the magazine, he has written fiction and humor pieces, book reviews, profiles, reporting pieces, and more than a hundred stories for The Talk of the Town and Comment.In 1995, Gopnik moved to Paris and began writing the Paris Journal column for the magazine. My favorite book of his is Through the Children's Gate: A Home in New York, which talks about life in New York and about raising two children there (and about his daughter Olivia's imaginary playmate Charlie Ravioli, who is usually too busy to take her calls).

While I will certainly read Gopnik's book because I'm such a big fan of his writing, today's second book is one that is crying out to be read by me, because I definitely need to learn what it has to offer. The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks by Kathleen Flinn offers exactly what the subtitle promises. After graduating from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, Flinn returned with no idea what to do next until one day at a supermarket she watched a woman loading her cart with ultraprocessed foods. Flinn's "chefternal" instinct kicked in: she persuaded the stranger to reload with fresh foods, offering her simple recipes for healthy, easy meals.

Inspired by this chance encounter, Flinn gathered a group of volunteers who felt intimidated by cooking. She investigated the items in their pantries, catalogued the contents of their refrigerators and freezers, inquired about what they bought and threw away, and sampled what they routinely prepared. Armed with this background knowledge, Flinn enlisted the aid of top culinary professionals to offer classes on fundamentals of cooking, from chopping and braising to preparing vinaigrette. In each class she taught her students how to choose and cook food that's delicious, healthier for them, and better for the planet.

Her students varied in age and circumstances, yet all of them found a common missing ingredient in their lives: confidence in the kitchen and confidence in themselves.

Here is what some of the reviewers had to say about The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: "Flinn guides you patiently in the kitchen like the mom you always wish you'd had to learn to cook from." "This title provides encouragement where the others offer direction. A mash-up of inspiration and reference, it will appeal to readers who enjoy a story with their instruction." "If you are going to read one book to change your diet and your life, The Kitchen Counter Cooking School is it." Wow. Sign me up!

Flinn has been a writer for more than twenty years, with her work appearing in dozens of publications around the world. Her first book, The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry, which recounted her experience earning a diplome de cuisine at the venerable Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, was a finalist in the Washington State Book Awards. She and her husband divide their time between Seattle and Florida.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Day 13: We're Soaring with Poetry...and Birds

Welcome to Day 13 in our 24 Days of Books. Today we're soaring with poetry -- specifically with the new gorgeous book The Conference of the Birds, illustrated by Peter Sis and published by The Penguin Press. This lavishly illustrated new book brings to life the classic twelfth-century Persian epic poem written by Farid Ud-Din Attar that tells the story of a flight of birds in search of the true king, Simorgh:  "Birds! Look at the troubles happening in our world! Anarchy -- discontent -- upheaval! Desperate fights over territory, water, and food! Posioned air! Unhappiness! I fear we are lost. We must do something! I've seen the world. I know many secrets. Listen to me: I know of a king who has all the answers. We must go and find him."

The perilous journey to the mountain of Kaf, where Simorgh lives, takes the birds past seven planets, across seven seas, and through seven valleys: quest, love, understanding, detachment, unity, amazement, and death. Many birds decline to tackle the perilous journey. The birds that persist and survive the journey learn that Simorgh the king is, in fact, each of them and all of them.The Conference of the Birds is an inspirational parable about the painful but beautiful human journey toward understanding.

Peter Sis was born in Brno, in the former Czechoslovakia. He is an internationally acclaimed illustrator, author, and filmmaker who sought asylum in America after being sent to Los Angeles to produce a film on the 1984 Winter Olympics. He is the author of more than twenty books and is a seven-time winner of The New York Times Book Review Best Illustrated Book of the Year. In 2003, Sis was named a MacArthur Fellow.

Heller McAlpin, in his review of the book on NPR, described it thusly: "Often evocative of Asian scrolls, the book is filled with mazes, circular patterns, geometric peaks, and enigmatic, dreamlike landscapes, all tinted in the rich browns, greens, blues, and reds of earth, air, water and fire." He says the exquisitely illustrated book on its thick textured paper readily makes the case of what print books can do that e-books can't do. True that! This book is a visual and tactile feast, filled with hidden meanings -- and it works on many levels, so it will appeal to people of all ages.

While we're on the subject of poetry, I can't resist telling you about the wonderful new poetry anthology edited by Rita Dove (and also published by Penguin): The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry. The book makes a conscious and noble attempt to be inclusive -- across race, gender, ethnicity, old favorites and lesser-known poets. But compiling anthologies is a thankless job, even for a former US poet laureate. I loved the comment on the Poetry Foundation's website:

"Does anyone have a phone number for the producers of the World's Toughest Job? Because we’d like to petition that they add “poetry anthologist” to their roster of underwater welders, rodeo clowns, ultimate fighters, and pyrotechnicians. Okay, it’s true that you won’t lose any limbs compiling the “best” verse of the last 100 years, but the occupational hazards are nevertheless intense." In other words, people are already tossing darts at Dove for her inclusions/exclusions. Nevertheless, as one review commented, "these satiny pages hold bushels of treats to savor."

As Dove notes in her introduction, even though it "doesn't seem right to weigh poems like cabbage or fish," some poems and poets were eliminated because of budgetary issues, as permissions fees range from "modest to outrageous and don't necessarily correlate to literary significance and artistic influence." In the end, however, Dove believes she has remained true to the quest she set out on, presenting "my panorama of twentieth-century American poetry -- viewed not with a scholar's dissecting eye but from the perspective of a contemporary poet who, although not exactly born into her country's mainstream, nevertheless took possession of mainstream society's intellectual shapes and artistic aesthetics to make them her own."

Monday, December 12, 2011

Day 12: Historical Atlas of Washington and Oregon

Welcome to Day 12 in our 24 Days of Books. Today we're spotlighting a book both gorgeous and fascinating: Historical Atlas of Washington and Oregon by Derek Hayes, published by the University of California Press. This beautiful book is illustrated with more than five hundred colorful images and original maps, creating a visually rich history of the states of Oregon and Washington.

Through the images, maps, and lively text, we follow the coming of the railroads and the rapid establishment of the coastal ports, northwest cities and roads, the fur and lumber industries, and the large farms. We witness the westward expansion, and the conflicts that arose between settlers and Native Americans. Through this book we also witness the twentieth-century development of the war industries, the establishment of the aviation industry, and the celebratory 1962 Seattle World's Fair (I was there, doing The Twist).

The author is a renowned historian with a passion for old maps and what they can reveal about the past. He was trained as a geographer at the University of Hull in England and at the University of British Columbia, and he worked for a time as a planner with the Vancouver (BC) City Planning Department. Last year during the holidays we sold several copies of Historical Atlas of the North American Railroad, also by Mr. Hayes. His newest book seems to be in even greater demand -- in fact, we're having a hard time keeping this book in stock, so don't wait til the last minute. It would make a great gift for someone who loves history, or maps, or art, or the Pacific Northwest -- or all of the above.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Day 11: You're Just My Type. Really

Welcome to Day 11 in our 24 Days of Books. Today I have to make an admission: I'm a font snob. There. I've said it. I have to come clean and admit that there are some books that I have been unable to read because I can't stand the typeface used to print the book. And while I don't think I've ever purchased a book solely because of the font, it's definitely true that the reading experience of many has been made that much more pleasurable because of the font (and I have been known to drool appreciatively over the handsomest of them).

If you are interested in fonts or know someone who is -- the history of specific fonts and the lives of typographers -- then Just My Type: A Book about Fonts by Simon Garfield is just the book for you. Where do fonts come from? Why do we need so many? Why do certain typefaces reign supreme? Is Comic Sans Serif really funny?  Rather than overwhelm readers with technicalities, the author uses anecdotes to tell how something we take for granted has shaped and shaded our perceptions ever since humans first started carving messages on hard surfaces.

Garfield credits Steve Jobs for the array of fonts so easily available to us, noting that Jobs' early fascination with calligraphy and letter forms later translated into the long pull-down font menus available on computers everywhere. This is a must-have book for the design conscious. "Well researched," "delightful," "deliciously clever," "charming," "entertaining," and "downright fun" are just some of the words reviewers have used to describe this book, recently published by Gotham Books/Penguin. Janet Maslin of the New York Times says, "This is a smart, funny, accessible book that does for typography what Lynne Truss's best-selling Eats, Shoots & Leaves did for punctuation: made it noticeable for people who had no idea they were interested in such things."

Reading this book will change the way you perceive the written word forever and will assure you that, contrary to reports of its premature death, print is very much alive. In fact, in an age of ebooks, the physical appeal of print books takes on even greater importance. And did I mention that the book is in our Holiday Book Guide?

This video gives you a taste of the myriad fonts Garfield talks about in his fascinating book.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Day 10: We Live in a World of Magical Trees

Welcome to Day 10 in our 24 Days of Books, and welcome to the magical world of trees. In the Irvington neighborhood we are blessed with a multitude of magnificent trees. In the fall I often find myself tripping over uneven sidewalks (usually the result of roots spreading from those same magnificent trees) because my eyes are looking up, taking in the beauty of the trees in their most flamingly glorious time of year. And I marvel at the spectacular root structures of many of the trees -- some of which seem large enough to live in!

But how carefully do we really look at these trees -- at their exquisite details, and not just their overall shape and effect? Our shelves, like those of most bookstores and libraries, are groaning with books that give you all kinds of advice for birdwatching, the little details that differentiate different types and genders of birds. But where are similar such books for trees?

Now, local publisher Timber Press has provided just such a book, and it is a doozy. Seeing Trees: Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday Trees, written by Nancy Ross Hugo with photography by Robert Llewellyn, celebrates seldom-seen but easily observable tree traits and invites you to watch trees with the same care and sensitivity that birdwatchers use to watch birds. I think this will end up being one of the hot holiday gift books of 2011.

Focusing on widely grown trees, this captivating book describes the rewards of careful and regular tree viewing, outlines strategies for improving your observations, and describes some of the most visually interesting tree structures, including leaves, flowers, buds, leaf scars, twigs, and bark. In-depth profiles of ten familiar species — including such beloved trees as white oak, southern magnolia, white pine, and tulip poplar — show you how to recognize and understand many of their most compelling (but usually overlooked) physical features.

Hugo's delightful text and Llewellyn's breathtaking photographs deliver a steady stream of small astonishments that not only underscore the fascinating physiology of trees but will bring you into a closer, more intimate relationship with these miracles of nature.

Nancy Ross Hugo has been writing, lecturing, and teaching about trees, native plants, and floral design for over 30 years. She was the garden columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the education manager of the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, supervising adult and children's education. She and her husband live in Howardsville, Virginia, where they manage the outdoor education and retreat center Flower Camp. Nancy loves exploring the creative process, particularly in the form of nature journaling, which, she says "helps me keep my thoughts in order, my dates straight, and my eyes open to all things wild and wonderful!"

Robert Llewellyn has been photographing trees and landscapes for almost forty years. His photographs have been featured in major art exhibits, and more than thirty books featuring his photography are in print. He had always seen trees as important aesthetic forms in landscape photography. But when he worked with Hugo on an earlier book, Remarkable Trees of Virginia, he saw them differently. “First, they were living things, they are born, they die. And second, they live in communities.” In Seeing Trees, he has discovered that minute detail reveals something else, an unexpected and alien beauty.

This video tells you more about the book and especially about the digital camera technology Llewellyn used to capture incredibly sharp detail  to create the amazing photographs in the book. They are truly stunning.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Day 9: The World of Catherine the Great

Welcome to Day 9 in our 24 Days of Books. Last year Cleopatra: A Life reigned as the hot biography during the holidays. This year a new biography of another powerful woman leader is catching the wave: Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Robert K. Massie and published by Random House.

Massie, who was born in Kentucky and studied American history at Yale and European history at Oxford, won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography Peter the Great: His Life and World. He also wrote Nicholas and Alexandra and The Romanovs: The Final Chapter, along with other books -- spending almost a half a century studying czarist Russia. He served as president of the Authors Guild from 1987 to 1991.

Catherine the Great was born as Sophia Augusta Fredericka on April 21, 1729,  a minor German princess, to her sixteen-year-old mother Johanna. From these humble beginnings she rose to become one of the most remarkable, powerful, and captivating women in history, corresponding with major historical and literary figures of her time -- Voltaire, Frederick the Great, Maria Antoinette, Gregory Potemkin (her lover and possible husband), and even the American naval hero John Paul Jones.

At the age of 15, the young German princess was swept from obscurity to marry the heir to the Russian throne, and Sophia -- renamed Catherine -- eventually went on to rule Russia for more than thirty years. She was intelligent. charming, fiercely determined, and a voracious reader. One of her boldest moves was the attempt to abolish serfdom—the Russian brand of slavery, but she was unsuccessful. She was able to amass a remarkable art collection, help to bring about advancements in medicine and science, and win important military victories during her reign.

History offers few stories richer than that of Catherine the Great, and as the New York Times says in its review of the book, Massie has always been "a biographer with the instincts of a novelist." Massie brings to his biographies historical accuracy, depth of understanding, felicity of style, mastery of detail (and lots of it), the ability to shatter myth, and a rare genius for finding and expressing the human dram in extraordinary lives.

Massie first became interested in the Romanov family when his oldest son, Robert Massie Jr., was diagnosed with hemophilia. As he and his wife struggled to manage their son's illness, they reviewed case studies of history's most famous hemophiliac, Tsarevich Alexis. Massie became convinced that Alexis’ disease, and the resulting need for secrecy and dependence on Rasputin, was a larger contributing factor to the dynasty’s downfall than it had been considered previously. This research led to Massie's first major book, Nicholas and Alexandra, published in 1967.

Here is a link to Diana Rehm of WAMU interviewing Robert Massie.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Children's Picture Books to Drool Over

I am a nut for children's picture books. So many of them are so clever, or funny, or gorgeous -- or all of the above -- that I find them hard to resist. Here are a few of my current favorite picture books -- although it's awfully hard to narrow it down to these few.  Come explore the whole section if you can!

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen, which tells the story of a bear who has lost his hat, is described by the New York Times as "a charmingly wicked little book." Recently on NPR's Weekend Edition the story was read by Daniel Pinkwater and Scott Simon. Cute!

Winner of the 2010 Caldecott Medal for The Lion and the Mouse, Jerry Pinkney's newest -- and stunningly gorgeous -- book is Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. In this breathtaking rendition of our most enduring lullaby, Pinkney lights a path for sleepy readers on their way to a land where dreams are as real as you want them to be.

Oliver Jeffers makes art and tells stories, and he does both beautifully. In his newest picture book, Stuck, Floyd attempts to get his kite unstuck from a tree, with laugh-out-loud results. I also loved his book The Heart and the Bottle.

Loren Long continues the adventures of heroic little Otis the tractor in his newest book Otis and the Tornado. This book (like its predecessor) is marvelously illustrated. Long also illustrated President Obama's picture book Of Thee I Sing. [And don't forget that you can buy a "plush Otis" to go along with the book!]

McSweeney's launched a children's book imprint this year, and one of their first books is Symphony City by Amy Martin, who recently moved to Portland. Martin uses color and short staccato phrases to capture a world of sound using only visual cues. And the book's dust jacket unfolds into a giant double-sided poster!

You really have to see Press Here, by Herve Tullet, to understand just how wonderful it truly is. But here are some reviewers' comments to pique your interest: "This book is 100% magic." "Compared to the squawking sounds and flashing lights of many toys, Tullet's simplicity is a breath of fresh air." "Every once and a while a book comes along exemplifying such a rare simultaneous brilliance and simplicity that you cannot believe the world of words ever functioned before its conception." I'm also rather fond of another of Tullet's books, The Book with a Hole,  although it is a challenge to shelve!

With the aura of an established classic, the first volume in William Joyce’s long-anticipated series “The Guardians of Childhood,” The Man in the Moon offers a dazzling, breathtaking landscape. Readers will be happy to know that many books and films will follow. Brian Selznick (The Invention of Hugo Cabret) says, "William Joyce, to put it simply, is a genius."
Bumble-Ardy, the first book Maurice Sendak has written and illustrated in thirty years, is about a mischievous pig who throws a party for himself, with wild results. Sendak has won a pot-load of awards for his children's books, including the Caldecott Medal for Where the Wild Things Are. Sendak wrote Bumble-Ardy while his friend and partner was dying. I dare you to listen to this interview with Terry Gross without tearing up.

Last but not least (make me stop!) is an adorable board book based on last year's sensational picture book: It's a Little Book, by Lane Smith. It's a Little Book (versus It's a Book) has altered the final line in the book, for those of you who were wondering. As delightful and charming as the original as it reveals the virtues of books, but for a younger level of reader who might opt to chew on books literally, not figuratively.

Lots lots more, but I'm sure you're ready to stop reading this blog and start looking at books!

Day 8: Dipping into My Guilty Pleasures

Welcome to Day 8 of our 24 Days of Books. Today we're going to indulge in a little guilty pleasure. Oscar Wilde famously said, “I can resist everything but temptation.”  He also said, in the same breath, “the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.” These words were never truer than in December. Each of us has at least one personal guilty pleasure when it comes to books, and I have several. For this one last month of the calendar year, I yield to my temptation to read books about the performing arts.

I’m not talking highbrow academic treatises on obscure composers here. Nor am I fond of cheesy fan bios. My tastes run to memoirs by and biographies of performers and others associated with the performing arts (writers especially). Here are five of my favorite new ones, with a heavy slant to the worlds of theatre and performance:

My Song: A Memoir by Harry Belafonte leads the reader through the life of a most extraordinary performer and social activist whose public and private selves are imbued with a personal integrity that serves as a beacon for all who follow in his footsteps. Throughout his life, he has been at the very heart of the civil rights movement, beginning with his poverty-ridden childhood in Harlem and Jamaica, through his years in the U.S. Navy during World War II, to his close friendship with Martin Luther King and beyond. Indeed, this book can be read as a history of that era, but it is much more. It is a very personal look at the major players in the movement and the world in which Belafonte has long moved.  He has befriended many beloved and important figures in both entertainment and politics – Paul Robeson, Eleanor Roosevelt, the Kennedys, Sidney Poitier, Nelson Mandela, Tony Bennett,  and more. He writes about all with exceptional candor, pulling no punches and turning his loving but critical eye on our country’s cultural past.

Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein by Julie Salamon is the first biography of one of the major playwrights of the baby boomer generation. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the first woman playwright to win a Tony Award, Wendy Wasserstein was a Broadway luminary. In this deeply moving portrait, the author reveals Ms. Wasserstein’s most enigmatic character: herself. She was, by turns and also simultaneously: a daughter of the 1950s, an artist who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, a powerful woman in 1980s New York, and a single mother at the turn of the century. Her very life spoke to the tensions and contradictions of an era of great change. Her loving family was difficult, her critically acclaimed work was her passion, and her legions of friends (many of them gay men, which partly explains the title) were steadfast. Sadly, she died too young, leaving behind a six-year-old daughter. This is the story of a famously private person (who kept both her pregnancy and her illness secret as long as she could, and never revealed the name of the person who fathered her child) who was most comfortable working in a very public forum.

Then Again by Diane Keaton is an unlikely twist on the celebrity memoir, and just what one would expect from an artist who is known for following her own path. This book tells the story of Diane’s mother, Dorothy Hall, a beautiful, intensely complicated, restless and creative woman who struggled to find an outlet for her talents as she raised a large family. Mrs. Hall kept journals, 85 of them -- literally thousands of pages of diary entries, collages, newspaper clippings and private notes about her marriage, her children, and herself. Her daughter draws on these journals to talk about the influence her mother had in her own life, and the bond that connected them. It was a bond that defined both their lives and one that Ms. Keaton obviously treasures and continues to emulate with her own children. This is an intimate look into the life of one of our most charming and accomplished actresses.

Drama: An Actor’s Education by John Lithgow is a look at the backstage life of a journeyman actor (and I mean that in the way that Mr. Lithgow would approve of, surely). Full of insider stories about his collaborations (professional and personal) with renowned performers and directors (including Mike Nichols, Bob Fosse, Liv Ullmann, and Meryl Streep), this book is largely a tribute to his most important influence: his father, Arthur Lithgow, who was an actor, director, producer, and great lover of Shakespeare. It’s the story of a boy who was smitten with the theatre at a very early age and has lived his life telling stories on and off the stage. The theatre worlds of New York and London come alive through these stories. His ruminations on the nature of theatre, film acting, and storytelling cut to the heart of why actors perform, and why we watch them do it. His memory is clear, his wit is sharp, and his candor is moving. A delicious treat.

My favorite performing arts book from last year was Stephen Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat, which was a compendium of lyrics from and stories about the musicals he wrote from the beginning of his career in 1954 through 1981. And now, the second and final volume of this quasi-memoir has just been published. It’s called Look, I Made a Hat, and it covers his career from 1981 through 2011. These things happen to be true: if you have the first book, you have only the first half of the story and so of course must get the second book; if you know the song and/or the show from which both titles are taken, you are a true Sondheim fan/nerd like me and must have both books; if you’re at all interested in the history and development of one of America’s few indigenous art forms you must read these books.  These are some of the shows that Stephen Sondheim wrote (lyrics, or music and lyrics): West Side Story, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd (my personal fave), Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George, and Gypsy. There is simply nobody who can match him in the history of American musical theatre. These books include all of the lyrics to all of his shows, plus hundreds of personal anecdotes, advice on songwriting, discussions of theatre history, photos and illustrations. Whew.

Also, fresh out of the box and lurking on our shelves, you can find memoirs and/or biographies of film critics Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert, actors Steve McQueen, Spencer Tracy, James GarnerRobert Redford, Jane Fonda, Cary Grant, and Rob Lowe, rockers and reality-TV stars Ozzy Osbourne and Steven Tyler, television funny people Tina Fey, Ellen Degeneres, Darrell Hammond and Jane Lynch, monologuist Spalding Gray, singer Frank Sinatra, and transgendered dancing star Chaz Bono. Surely you can find your own guilty pleasure in this mixed assemblage.