Wednesday, December 21, 2011

my best of 2011--non-fiction

So the truth is that I read way, way less non-fiction than I do fiction. So I've chosen my top five (with one honorable mention) instead of top ten. And I don't tend to read traditional history or biography or anything like that. I'm mostly a memoir kind of girl. So keep that in mind.

A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres
You know that phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid?” Reading Julia Scheeres’ book about the Jonestown Massacre made me realize that one thing many of the residents of Jonestown were not doing in their final hours and minutes was “drinking the Kool-Aid.” So many of them were stuck in Jonestown—physically trapped, blackmailed, and deceived from the very beginning. They were overworked, undernourished, and totally cut off from the world. They weren’t the Jim Jones zombies that history has told us they were.

Scheeres’ account is fascinating and simply heartbreaking. Read her memoir Jesus Land too. You’ll understand why she wrote A Thousand Lives.

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness
by Alexandra Fuller

This is a fantastic follow-up to the story Fuller told in Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight. If Dogs was the story she had to get off her chest, then Cocktail Hour is the story her heart taught her to tell after many years wrestling. She seems to have really wanted to understand what the African experience was for her parents, and she lets them explain it in their own, inimitable style (her mom is hilarious!). She has come to a clearer understanding of what it all meant for them—living through wars, losing children, constantly moving, battling manic depression, all while desperately loving Africa and not feeling at home anywhere else in the world.

Expect more of the voice (so funny & stylish, yet cuts to the bone) you came to love in Dogs, plus the understanding that comes with age and acceptance.

Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson
This is one powerful memoir. Donna Johnson spent her childhood, the sixties and seventies, traveling across the country with her mother and siblings and an evangelist named David Terrell. Her time with the big tent revival varied from the fervor of fellowship and larger than life miracles to hard-scrabble poverty, abandonment, and bitter disappointment.

If you have any experience with evangelicals, good or bad, you’ll understand the push and pull of this memoir. Johnson absolutely nails the desire to believe in something as great and mystical as the power to heal and the truly devastating way that belief can so easily break when hypocrisy and human weakness edge in.

This Life Is In Your Hands by Melissa Coleman
This is a lovely memoir about growing up on a homestead on the coast of Maine in the 70s, just at the beginning of the back to the land movement, out of which grew our modern day concept of organic, self-sustaining farming. Coleman's father is Eliot Coleman, considered by many to be the father of organic gardening. Melissa's early childhood was spent in carefree innocence, running wild with her younger sister Heidi. The magic is broken, however, when Heidi accidentally drowns. This tragedy, coupled with the difficulties of living off the grid, drives her parents apart.

This is not a whiny sob story kind of memoir. I can't emphasize that enough. Melissa writes with empathy and surprising strength about parents who so often chose the cause or their own feelings over her and her siblings. On top of that, this is meticulously researched and a truly fascinating portrait of the times. Stayed with me.

Your Voice In My Head by Emma Forrest
This is a simply heartbreaking memoir about the journey from sickness to health; a story about how that journey isn't always a straight line. Emma Forrest is a young woman, a writer, in NYC dealing with mental illness (cutting, depression, etc.) when she meets the man who will change her life: not a boyfriend or lover, but Dr. R, a gentle but firm therapist who helps her get a grip on life. When he dies suddenly, she most understandably goes off the rails. Her boyfriend throughout the book, who she calls Gypsy Husband, is actually the actor Colin Farrell. Trust me, after you read this book you’ll never look at him the same way again.

In beautiful, incisive writing, Forrest cuts to the core of what it means to want to get better so badly and yet need help to do so. This book could help a lot of women on their journey to wellness.

Honorable Mention:

Blue Nights by Joan Didion
I adored The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion's last book about the death of her husband, in the way that you can love a terribly sad book, and I was eager to read Blue Nights when I heard about it. But it was difficult to love this new book, about the devastating death of her daughter Quintanna. Her writing has the same freshness and emotional depth it has always had. But, and I never say this, part of me thinks I'm too young to fully appreciate Blue Nights. She's so aware of death and aging and how some things go and are gone forever. I think I'm just too young to go there. I think I'll just keep re-reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem to get my Didion fix from now on.

my best of 2011--fiction

For the first time, I've gone back through my reading journal to officially determine my favorite books of the year. As seems to be happening more and more every year, this was the year of the many-hyped novels. I read a lot of them (most before they were hyped...that's the beauty of getting review copies and reading the books before everyone else!) and many of them were truly wonderful (The Night Circus, The Art of Fielding, The Marriage Plot). A few I wasn't crazy about (State of Wonder, The Paris Wife). I think the truth is that a lot of the people who are doing the hyping have good taste--they know what they're talking about! At the same time, so, so many wonderful books are published each year to no fanfare at all. Luckily for me, my job brings these books to my attention.

I wrote up all of my favorites but two (The Art of Fielding and The Marriage Plot), mostly because someone else on staff wrote them up for the store, but also because they've both gotten such amazing reviews. Read those!

#1 most favorite novel of the year is...

Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Cambell
I can’t wait for you to meet Margo. She is the beautiful, striking-looking tomboy of 15 who is the heart of this story. She is twisting up like a weed from childhood to adulthood, curious about her power over men while also longing for her mother who abandoned her. After several deeply traumatic events, Margo is left alone, on the river she loves in rural Michigan. In her grandfather's teak wood boat, she takes off upriver in search of her mother, in search of somewhere to belong. Realizing that she can't survive alone, she uses the men she meets for protection and companionship. Though she has the gun skills and guts of her hero, Annie Oakley, Margo is still a little girl in the end, needing a home and a love that won't ask questions and won't leave her.

I knew from the first page that Campbell's writing was exquisite, her cadence melodic and language deliberate. It only took a few more pages for me to be totally hooked.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Morgenstern has created a compelling, complete world with The Night Circus. From the lovely, intricate graphics inside to the interspersed circus attraction descriptions, reading this book was like parting the curtains of a tent at the circus
and entering. Every detail of the clothing, food, and attractions are perfectly described and the love story between the magicians is simply mythic. The plot is unspooled from two points in the story decades apart and as the dates get closer together, the feeling that something explosive is going to happen is truly palpable. Cinematic, unique, memorable.

This book is great for anyone who needs a little wonder in their life or for those who know that true love is always magical. And it lives up to the hype.

Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson
If you want to get all nestled into a good story with great characters you’ll actually care about, this debut novel is a great choice. Jude and Teddy are

The writing is wonderful and moving. Henderson writes about her characters like she really believes in them; her confidence in them, the way each character is a person and an idea, is quite Irving-esque. best friends living in a VT city (feels like Burlington) in the 1980s. They are teenagers doing the normal things teenagers do, playing in their band, doing drugs, and scrounging for money to buy drugs. Relatively speaking, they are two innocent kids. Until one night, when Teddy overdoses and dies. Jude is sent to live in the East Village with his father and the story just explodes from there. This is about music and New York and growing up and is just wonderfully done.

The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright
If you’re one of those people who loves a novel for its characters, for the beautiful, evocative writing, and despite the fact that “not much happens,” then I think you’ll love The Forgotten Waltz. Enright is one of our most talented wordsmiths; her books are absolutely to be cherished and savored. Logophiles rejoice: you’ll never find a cliché in a book by Anne Enright. This story, about a woman’s affair with a married man, has been done before and has been done poorly, but Enright handles it carefully--Gina, Sean, and their spouses are all real people, with real struggles. No one is romanticized or vilified. Anne Enright writes the real thing.

Blueprints for Building Better Girls by Elissa Schappell
This is an awesome collection of connected short stories by Vanity Fair columnist (she writes the Hot Type column!) and Tin House magazine co-founder Elisa Schappell. Most likely, if you are a girl you will get these stories. Were you unsure of who you were in high school? Did you date the wrong person? Did you go to college? Did you maybe make a few mistakes? Are all your friends having babies? Do you have a weird relationship with your mom? The writing is lovely and sharp and clever and sad and beautiful. Give short stories a shot. They are difficult to write, so if they got published, you know they’re good. That’s my logic anyway.

Lightning People by Christopher Bollen
This book reminded me that small publishers today are making great books and their books deserve a second look. Lightning People tells the intertwined story of four transplanted New Yorkers, part of the lost and wandering Generation Y—Joseph, a superstitious sometimes actor whose handsome good looks get him his acting gigs, Delphine, his Greek girlfriend who hates her job as a zoo assistant so much she persuades Joseph to marry her for a green card, and siblings Madi and Raj Singh, second generation Indian immigrants struggling with their Indian identity (and much more, of course).

This is one of those novels where the characters’ paths cross drastically and passionately, like struck lightning. You know it’s bound to happen, since it often does in novels like this, but it’s still both magnificent & dreadful, managing to feel both surprising & fated. Fresh language, precise details, and realistic feelings (so much angst!) make this a great novel from a new talent.

There But For The by Ali Smith
This book is simply delightful. Here's the premise: at a dinner party, a man the host doesn't know very well (he's the plus-one of one of the guests) leaves the table, goes upstairs, and locks himself in the host's guest bedroom and refuses to leave. He stays there for months (don't worry, it has an en suite bathroom). Each section is told from a different character, all loosely connected to Miles, the man in the bedroom.

Ali Smith uses clever, delightful wordplay throughout (especially to do with the words "there," "but," "for," and "the"), but her greatest gift is the tenderness that she brings to what could otherwise be a silly tale. A jewel of a book; I loved every page.

The Family Fang
I just loved this novel about the dysfunctional family Fang. Camille & Caleb Fang are performance artists who conscript their children Annie & Buster (or Child A and Child B as they are known by the Fangs’ many admirers in the performance art community) at very young ages to take part in their pieces. Being forced to basically trick strangers over and over seems to take its toll on Child A and Child B. Annie grows up to be a nearly famous actress, and Buster a nearly failed novelist. This story is about the seemingly irrevocably damage family can do and how sometimes they’re the only ones who can make a person whole again. Just a note: this book isn’t as quirky as the cover makes it seem. It’s just good.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Thursday, December 15, 2011

What if the movie studios (like big publishers) were driven out of business and all we had was people's YouTube clips of them jumping off their roof or giving makeup tutorials? I'm sorry, but I'm not going to the movies to watch YouTube clips, just like I'm not paying for self-published crap on Amazon, which may be our only option someday if Amazon has it's way and puts the publishers out of business by becoming a publisher itself.

So many of these self-published books are just not good enough. So many of them (and I would know, remember, I work in a bookstore; I see them everyday) are not edited or formatted properly, to say nothing of the rotten cover art and cheap, flimsy paper and binding.

Maybe the way a book looks isn't important to you, but I think it's important to a lot of people. I, like a good portion of people, am not interested in ebooks because I am a collector of the object of a book. My home library is a comfort and pleasure to me. I love being surrounded by books. And I love when they are beautiful objects, with satiny jackets, deckled edges, and a comforting heft in the hand. And the fact is, I have yet to see a book made by CreateSpace or iUniverse or whatever that meets these standards. They just look like junk.

But I do think it's great that so many people are getting to tell their stories, and I do believe that there are masterpieces that are being self-published today (just as masterpieces are found in the slush pile), but I don't want to live in a world where we have millions of happy, self-published authors and NO GOOD BOOKS.

If you read that leaked memo from publisher Hachette a few weeks ago, then you know all the work that publishers do to bring quality books to market. I'll summarize it here:

1. Publisher acts as CURATOR, finding the talent and nurturing them as they work. This includes wading through all the crap that is now being churned out with CreateSpace and finding the work that is actually good. It also includes editing by a professional editor, not someone's neighbor or husband or friend. People who have edited bestselling, award-winning writing--these are the people who continue to do the work of editing new material. They are good at it.

2. Publishers have the MONEY to fund the writer's work. Part of the reason that the books they publish are good is because their writers have time and money to write full-time.

3. Publishers have the network to DISTRIBUTE. They have sales reps who have actually read the books who then sell them to bookstores, online and off, independent and chain.

4. Publishers MARKET and PROTECT the work they helped build. They have a vested interest in the intellectual property because putting out books is all they do. They don't also sell TVs and Elmo dolls and Hunter boots and diapers. They just do books. And those books have to be good.

Amazon's efforts at taking down independent bookstores are just the tip of the iceberg. They want to take down the publishers too. And when they do that, when they are the only company making and selling books, and they are also making and selling gadgets and who knows what else, you have to know that the quality of the books won't be a paramount concern. And my guess is the price won't be so great then either.