Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Best I've Read in 2009

This morning I decided to browse the New York Times's "100 Notable Books of 2009" list. Then I took a look at the top-10 2009 gift-giving lists from three NYT book reviewers: Michiko Kakutani Janet Maslin, and Dwight Garner. As I perused, I quickly noticed that I haven't read a single one of the books on these lists. And I'm guessing I'm not the only one. 

So, I've decided to make my own top-1o list, not of books necessarily published in 2009 but of books I've read in 2009, to give you all some fantastic recommendations. These are in no particular order (and thanks to for the descriptions!):

HATE LIST by Jennifer Brown (Little, Brown Books for Young
 Readers, 9/09) - Five months ago, Valerie Leftman's boyfriend, Nick, opened fire on their school cafeteria. Shot trying to stop him, Valerie inadvertently saved the life of a classmate, but was implicated in the shootings because of the list she helped create. [...] Now, after a summer of seclusion, Val is forced to confront her guilt as she returns to school to complete her senior year. Haunted by the memory of the boyfriend she still loves and navigating rocky relationships with her family, former friends and the girl whose life she saved, Val must come to grips with the tragedy that took place and her role in it, in order to make amends and move on with her life.

IF I STAY by Gayle Foreman (Dutton Books, 4/09) - In a single moment, "everything" changes. Seventeen-year-old Mia has no memory of the accident; she can only recall riding along the snow-wet Oregon road with her family. Then, in a blink, she fi nds herself watching as her own damaged body is taken from the wreck...

A sophisticated, layered, and heartachingly beautiful story about the power of family and friends, the choices we all makeaand the ultimate choice Mia commands.

THE GLASS CASTLE by Jeannette Walls (Scribner, tp edition 1/06) - Walls chronicles her upbringing at the hands of eccentric, nomadic parents--Rose Mary, her frustrated-artist mother, and Rex, her brilliant, alcoholic father. As Rose Mary and Rex, motivated by whims and paranoia, uprooted their kids time and again, the youngsters (Walls, her brother and two sisters) were left largely to their own devices. [...] Walls describes in fascinating detail what it was to be a child in this family, from the embarrassing to the horrific. [...]

GIRLS IN TRUCKS by Katie Crouch (Little, Brown, tp edition 4/08) - In this tender debut, a less-than-perfect debutante decamps South Carolina for a life in New York City. There, she tries to make sense of city sophistication and to understand the strange and rarefied world she's left behind. 

THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE by Audrey Niffenegger (Harvest Books, tp edition 7/04) - A dazzling novel in the most untraditional fashion, this is the remarkable story of Henry DeTamble, a dashing, adventuresome librarian who travels involuntarily through time, and Clare Abshire, an artist whose life takes a natural sequential course. [...] An enchanting debut and a spellbinding tale of fate and belief in the bonds of love[...]

THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (Dial Press, TP edition 5/09) - January 1946: writer Juliet Ashton receives a letter from a stranger, a founding member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. And so begins a remarkable tale of the island of Guernsey during the German occupation, and of a society as extraordinary as its name.

ALL WE EVER WANTED WAS EVERYTHING by Janelle Brown (Speiegel and Grau, tp edition 5/09) - On the day Paul Miller's pharmaceutical company goes public, he informs his wife, Janice, that their marriage is over and that the new fortune is his alone. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the Miller's older daughter, Margaret, has been dumped by her hot actor boyfriend and is failing at her job, kind of spectacularly. Sliding toward bankruptcy, Margaret bails and heads for home, where her confused and lonesome teenage sister, Lizzie, is struggling with problems of her own [...]. From behind the walls of their Georgian colonial bunker, the Miller women wage battle with divorce lawyers, debt collectors, drug-dealing pool boys, evangelical neighbors, and country club ladies-and in the process all illusions and artifice fall away, forcing them to reckon with something far scarier and more consequential: their true selves.

INTERPRETER OF MALADIES by Jhumpa Lahiri (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 5/00) - Navigating between the Indian traditions they've inherited and the baffling new world, the characters in Jhumpa Lahiri's elegant, touching stories seek love beyond the barriers of culture and generations. [...] Lahiri writes with deft cultural insight reminiscent of Anita Desai and a nuanced depth that recalls Mavis Gallant. She is an important and powerful new voice.
OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout (Random House, tp edition 9/08) - At times stern, at other times patient, at times perceptive, at other times in sad denial, Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher, deplores the changes in her little town of Crosby, Maine, and in the world at large, but she doesn't always recognize the changes in those around her [...]. As the townspeople grapple with their problems, mild and dire, Olive is brought to a deeper understanding of herself and her life-sometimes painfully, but always with ruthless honesty. Olive Kitteridge offers profound insights into the human condition-its conflicts, its tragedies and joys, and the endurance it requires.

LIFE OF PI by Yann Martel (Mariner Books, 5/03) - This brilliant novel combines the delight of Kipling's "Just So Stories" with the metaphysical adventure of "Jonah and the Whale, " as Pi, the son of a zookeeper, is marooned aboard a lifeboat with four wild animals. His knowledge and cunning allow him to coexist for 227 days with Richard Parker, a 450-pound Bengal tiger.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Amazing Book Video

Check out this cool book trailer for Going West by Maurice Gee. It was filmed and created by the New Zealand Book Council and is eerie, clever, and striking. Though it might be slighting overstimulating at times, it's pretty amazing:

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Book Review: Fables, Volumes 1 and 2

After all these years, I've finally done it...I've read a graphic novel. Two, in fact! And I expect to read more.

My dear friend T.S. lent me the first two volumes of Fables by Bill Willingham--"Legends in Exile" and "Animal Farm"--as my first introduction to the genre. I've always had trouble with comics--I follow around in the wrong order and get myself all mixed up. But I read these volumes quickly and with voracity. With only one little blip of confusion (and it was because of me, not the novel!).

This series is genius, I must say. How can a graphic novel that takes all the fairytale characters and creatures, puts them in an underground city below NYC called Fabletown, and not be awesome? The storylines are unique and riveting, the characters funny and distinct, and the art intense.

I definitely recommend this series to anyone looking to try out a graphic novel. I enjoyed it more than I expected to. It was smart and funny and I was honestly very surprised by hits complexity. I guess I have always had kind of a skewed view of graphic novels, as I think most non-graphic novel readers do. I always thought of them as very simple, just like a comic strip lacking character development or real plot. But they aren't that way at all. It was refreshing, an interesting new way to read that got me interacting with the work in a very different way than purely text on a page.

I also had no idea that so many people were involved in creating each graphic novel. Someone creates it, someone pencils it, someone shades it, someone colors it, someone letters it, etc. etc. I always thought of it as having a writer and an illustrator and that's it. But it's an impressively collaborative effort, and one with pretty striking results.

Anyway, I am now beginning to ramble because I have yet to snag the third volume from T.S. and am itching for more!

The Last Word: An entertaining, clever, and multi-dimensional graphic novel series that's well worth a read.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

It's Almost a "New Moon"

Just a few days before the film adaptation of New Moon comes out in theatres, posted a fun little list about the "Twilight" films--"Twilight: Ten Things You Never Knew":

1. Over 5,000 actors auditioned for the role of Edward Cullen, which went to Robert Pattinson.

2. The actors need to remain pale, so their contracts reportedly include a "stay out of the sun" clause for the duration of the shoot.

3. The first Twilight film, directed by Catherine Hardwicke, took over $70 million worldwide and was the top debut ever for a film directed by a woman.

4. Two of the songs in the first film, Never Think and Let Me Sign, were recorded by Robert Pattinson.

5. The author, Stephenie Meyer, says that the idea for the book came to her in a dream.

6. Stephenie Meyer made a cameo in the first film, as a woman who orders a vegetarian sandwich in the diner.

7. The location of Forks, Washington was decided upon when Meyer googled the
parts of the US which have the most rain.

8. The name Edward Cullen is a mix of Stephenie Meyer's love of classic heroes of English literature, such as Edward Rochester and Edward Ferrars, and a common English surname found on seventeenth century tombstones.

9. There are five completed books in the Twilight saga – Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, The Host, and Breaking Dawn.

10. A sixth book – Midnight Sun – was leaked incomplete onto the internet. The book is still unfinished – Meyer says it is on hold indefinitely.

While a couple of them I did in fact know, and #9 here isn't actually accurate (The Host is not part of the series--it's an adult novel), I thought it would be a nice way
to start off a Tuesday morning.

I'm honestly looking forward to the release of "New Moon" and am planning to see it with a couple friends. While the first Twilight flick was certainly not quality--bad acting, poor pacing, some ridiculous special effects--I still enjoyed it anyway. The books are the same way: they aren't technically good but they're entertaining and enoyable nonetheless.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Gopnik Just Cooking Up Trouble

Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker obviously has too much time on his hands.

In his Nov. 23 article (don't ask me how it's posted already!) "What's the Recipe? Our Hunger for Cookbooks," he spends a grueling 4,500+ words overanalyzing and trashing cookbooks:

Handed-down wisdom and worked-up information remain the double piers of a cook’s life. The recipe book always contains two things: news of how something is made, and assurance that there’s a way to make it, with the implicit belief that if I know how it is done I can show you how to do it. The premise of the recipe book is that these two things are naturally balanced; the secret of the recipe book is that they’re not. The space between learning the facts about how something is done and learning how to do it always turns out to be large, at times immense. What kids make depends on what moms know: skills, implicit knowledge, inherited craft, buried assumptions, finger know-how that no recipe can sum up. The recipe is a blueprint but also a red herring, a way to do something and a false summing up of a living process that can be handed on only by experience, a knack posing as a knowledge. We say “What’s the recipe?” when we mean “How do you do it?” And though we want the answer to be “Like this!” the honest answer is “Be me!” “What’s the recipe?” you ask the weary pro chef, and he gives you a weary-pro-chef look, since the recipe is the totality of the activity, the real work. The recipe is to spend your life cooking.

Read more HERE

I think someone needs to get over the fact that he can't cook. There's nothing wrong with using a cookbook, for goodness sake. Cookbooks are a step-by-step guide to cooking--it's how we learn! Sure, there are a million different recipes for the same meal but that's the beauty of it all--you can always mix and match recipes, add your own flavors, and substitute things you don't like, to create something new. But you need a foundation recipe in order to do that.

I honestly don't understand why Mr. Gopnik is so up-in-arms about here. He's just wasting his energy.

Let the people cook already!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Book Review: Interpreter of Maladies

I've never reviewed a short story collection before, and quite frankly, I'm not sure how. Do I review individual stories or the collection as a whole? Who knows. But however I end up reviewing it--I still haven't a clue--it doesn't change the fact that Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri is a gorgeous literary gem.

I read one of her stories, "Sexy," in my "Women in Literature and Film" class in college. I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed it, even after spending two weeks dissecting it in class (I, of course, have blocked out all the lectures though and so can't share what we discussed). So, I went straight out and bought a copy of her first short story collection, with its Pulitzer Prize Winning sticker on the front, and proceeded to let it gather dust on my shelf.

I'm not sure why it took me so long to get to it--short stories are fantastic! They're humble and bite-sized, just right for someone on the go and who is constantly reading some lengthier piece, whether for work or for pleasure, and needs something more digestible. Plus, I write short stories. I like short stories. Why do I not read them more? I think I will start making them a staple in my literary life.

Especially after reading Interpreter of Maladies. Lahiri's language in this collection is lyrical, but not too much so; it still feels casual somehow, realistic, despite its brilliance. Her characters are interesting and unique, with quirks and fears and flaws. I can always empathize with them, even when they are my polar opposite. Lahiri pulls out the very basic human elements in her characters to connect us all, through time and culture.

The culture of her stories is another thing I love about her writing. Always the multi-culturalist, she shares a variety of viewpoints with her readers, focusing mainly on American and Indian cultures. Richly drawn and deeply described, she introduced me again and again to new ideas and traditions. I do, however, wish she'd branch out further to explore some different cultures, as the constant presence of Indian, American, and Indian-American cultures can sometimes feel a little stale when reading more than one story at a time.

My favorite thing about Lahiri's work, though, is the bittersweet tone her stories have. They never quite end happily but never end in disaster either. There's always something uplifting though in the emotional destruction she often represents. That's my favorite kind of story. It's the kind I like to write too because it's just, well, real.

Last Word: A beautiful and bittersweet collection of stories, with characters and themes that span the globe. Read them all, though my personal favorite is the first story in the collection, "A Temporary Matter."

A Book Too Funny Not to Share

I thought I'd seen enough from Sarah Palin in the book world lately, but apparently, I was wrong. Now, there's...wait for it....wait for it...the Sarah Palin COLORING BOOK!!!

According to the Washington Post, Going Rouge--Palin's "much anticipated" memoir--will be on-sale November 17, with some nice little spoof coloring books that share the same name:
Love her or hate her, people are drawn to Sarah Palin. Now, a new book wants you to color her.

One year after the race for the White House, publishers have released several books about the GOP vice presidential candidate. The most anticipated is her own memoir, "Going Rogue: An American Life," which lands on store shelves on Nov. 17 and is tops in pre-orders on Amazon and Barnes & Noble's websites.

Will there be parodies? You betcha.

In fact, the two spoof books share the same title. "Going Rouge: Sarah Palin - An American Nightmare" features essays by writers for The Nation, a liberal magazine. The other is "Going Rouge -- The Sarah Palin Rogue Coloring and Activity Book" by husband and wife team Julie Sigwart and Michael Stinson.

Read more HERE