Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Beautiful wonderful reading--My favorite reads of 2008

So, I guess my favorite thing in the world (besides food, music, theater, etc) is reading. I am a voracious reader, primarily because I have insomnia. I also happen to be a book seller. I just love books. I love the smell of them. I love the feel of them. I cannot own too many books.

I like reading just about anything (fiction, nonfiction, etc). Which I'll get into in a later blog. Fellow readers and book lovers out there who read my blog page, I hope I'll hear from you! We are kindred spirits.

So here's a list of my favorite books that I read for 2008:

1 The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters
edited by Charlotte
Mosley (Nonfiction)

The Mitford Sisters (Nancy Mitford; Unity Mitford; Diana Mitford Guinness Mosley; Jessica Mitford; Pamela Mitford; Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire) were literally one degree of separation from every major political and world figure and event of the 20th century. This book is a collection of the correspondence between the sisters and is a brilliant, utterly compelling look at last century.

2 The Uncommon Reader
by Alan Bennett, (Fiction)

This was simply a marvelous book. The novel is about Queen Elizabeth II and her discovery of books and reading. At first she starts out with lightweight stuff but by books end she is reading Proust, Turgenev, Trolloppe.

As she discovers the delights of reading at the age of 70 she begins to lament that she “felt there was a good deal she had missed"...“She had been reading one of the several lives of Sylvia Plath and was actually quite happy to have missed most of that, but reading the memoirs of Lauren Bacall, she could not help feeling that Ms. Bacall had had a much better bite at the carrot and, slightly to her surprise, found herself envying her for it.”

She regrets all the opportunities she’s missed to get to know writers she has met, like T. S. Eliot, Philip Larkin. And she regrets that she’s come to reading so late in life and sets about making up for lost time. Which eventually begins to take a toll on her professional life and all of the palace guard become up in arms.

This is a book lovers book. This is a reader lovers read. This is a royal family devotee's dream. This is a perfect book. I'll quote The New York Times reviewer, MICHIKO KAKUTANI, who summed up the book more eloquently in October 2007 (you can read the review:

"In recounting this story of a ruler who becomes a reader, a monarch who’d rather write than reign, Mr. Bennett has written a captivating fairy tale. It’s a tale that’s as charming as the old Gregory Peck-Audrey Hepburn movie “Roman Holiday,” and as keenly observed as Stephen Frears’s award-winning movie “The Queen” — a tale that showcases its author’s customary élan and keen but humane wit."

3 Mississippi Sissy

Kevin Sessums (Memoirs)

Kevin Sessums has served as executive editor of Interview and as a contributing editor of both Vanity Fair and Allure. This astonishing autobiography was simply mesmerizing. It is the story of a young gay-self-aware boy who grows up in Forrest, Mississippi, and who is orphaned at an early age, following the death of his father in a car accident when Sessums was seven and a year later when his mother dies of cancer. He is raised by his grandparents and is blessed with a remarkably open-minded Southern grandmother who is willing to call him Arlene, in honor of television personality Arlene Francis and allows him to indulge in his fixation with role models, Dusty Springfield and Audrey Hepburn. His sixth-grade teacher allows his book report to be on Jacqueline Susann's best-selling Valley of the Dolls. That is just the beginning of a remarkable life of trials and tribulations of a young boy growing up in the South who is in every way a sissy. As Sessums grows up he becomes a part of the theater and literary community eventually befriending Eudora Welty, among other writers and journalist.

My review of this book on Amazon:
"Astonishing. What can I say. As a gay boy who grew up a sissy in the South, I completely identified with the alienation that Sessums felt. But the ability of this boy/man to transcend the most awful of setbacks early in life is without a doubt one of the more inspiring stories I've ever read. I finished this book over three months ago and I am still haunted and bewitched by this book. The women in this book are full of such strength. The author's mother, grandmother, his maid Matty Mae, his Aunt Lola. A poignant portrayal of author Eudora Welty who along with his mentor Frank Harris, groomed this author to write an autobiography that is absolutely perfect. Run to the bookstore. BUY this book. 100 stars out ten (sorry to digress to such cliche's it's the only way to express sufficiently my enthusiasm for this book). I guffawed and cried my way through this brilliant book."

4 Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine
by Steven
Rinella (Nonfiction)
I was utterly shocked that I relished reading this book so much. Oh, the haute cuisine, was a given that I would enjoy. Rinella is a remarkable writer. The book is full of humor and occasional sadness/melancholy. But it is always compelling. I am not a hunter nor do I really support hunting. After reading this book I will have to rethink my strict liberal perspective about hunting. Although it does graphically discuss killing it was never gratuitous and surprisingly didn't ever upset or repulse me.

The book is also remarkable in the historical perspectives that Rinella brings to both haute cuisine, wild game hunting, and the various locales that he visits. Although the story occurs over a one year period and the author's scavenging is restricted to the US, Rinella weaves in his other global travels. I thoroughly enjoyed Julie & Julia by Julie Powell which was in my top 3 favorite books of 2007. Powells' book had a very similar "mission" (Julie Powell sets out in one-year to cook all of the recipes in Julia Childs' Mastering the Art of French Cooking). Rinella commits himself to spending one-year gathering the ingredients he needs to cook 45-50 recipes from Auguste Escoffier's Le Guide Culinaire for a three-day event.

The interesting thing about Rinella's book is that most of the recipes require main ingredients that you can't buy. The author is a hunter and fisherman who has spent most of his life cooking and eating only food that he has "scavenged" from Mother Nature. But Escoffier's ingredients frequently challenge Rinella's expert gathering skills (as in squab, which is a baby pigeon). I suspect some people will object to this book for political correctness, but I hope they aren't so narrow-minded that they cannot give this book a try. The author is such a talented writer and story-teller and everyone should benefit from this profoundly great book.

5 In Patagonia

by Bruce Chatwin (Travel Memoirs)
This book is really a classic in travel memoirs. Chatwin travels to Patagonia, at the tip of South America, in 1974 to see a region that he becomes captivated with when he goes to interview 93-year-old architect and designer Eileen Gray in her Paris salon and notices a map of Patagaonia that she has painted. He travels the entire region for six months. The book was published in 1977 and is a series of vignettes/essays about characters he met and places that he visited. As I understand it, after the book's publication, there was some question whether conversations that the author has in the book actually happened. If that is the case, then this is still fantastic writing of fiction. He has a very spare style of writing but the characters he portrays are so richly finely drawn. At times I it when I was reading this that he created the genre "magical realism" before there was such a thing. This was such a satisfying read.

6 Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You
Peter Cameron (Fiction)

This was a surprising and fun coming-of-age novel. Here's the Publisher Weekly's review:
"James Sveck, the 18-year-old protagonist of Cameron's (The City of Your Final Destination) first novel for young adults, is a precocious, lonely and confused Manhattanite who believes he would be happier buying a house in Kansas surrounded by a sleeping porch than entering Brown University as planned and being surrounded by his peers. “I don't like people in general and people my age in particular,” he explains, demonstrating his obsessive concern with language, “and people my age are the ones who go to college…. I'm not a sociopath or a freak (although I don't suppose people who are sociopaths or freaks self-identify as such); I just don't enjoy being with people." He claims people “rarely say anything interesting to each other,” but his own observations are fresh and incisive as he reports on his exchanges at home and at work. As the novel opens, in July 2003, James's cynical older sister is having an affair with a married professor of language theory; his mother ditches her third husband on their Las Vegas honeymoon after he steals her credit cards to gamble; his high-powered father asks if he's gay; and James is stuck working at his mother's art gallery, which has mounted an exhibit by an artist with no name, of garbage cans decoupaged with pages torn out of the Bible, Koran and Torah. James's elaborate daily entries interlace with a series of flashbacks to gradually reveal the recent panic attack that has landed him in psychotherapy. Descriptions of these sessions offer not only more fodder for James's sardonic critiques of a self-indulgent society, but also an achingly tender portrait of a devastatingly alienated young man. A single reference yields something of an explanation: James saw, at close range, the planes crash into the Twin Towers. The closest he come to commenting is to turn to a story about a woman whose disappearance after 9/11 went unnoticed for a month: “[It] didn't make me sad. I thought it was beautiful. To die like that… to sink without disturbing the surface of the water.” With its off-balance marriage of the comedic and the deeply painful, its sympathetic embrace of its characters and its hard-won hope, this smart and elegantly written novel merits a wide readership."

7 The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier
Carhart (Nonfiction)

This was the most enchanting book. It is about a writer, Thad Cathcart, who is living in Paris who falls in love with a piano shop where old pianos are restored and sold. In discovering the shop, the writer rediscovers his old abandoned passion for piano playing and begins a quest to discover everything there is to know about pianos. Set in Paris, it is an interesting and charming story of daily Parisian life with eccentric and charming characters. It was also fascinating to learn so many things about the piano. If you love music you'll love this book. But anyone would love this book. It's passion for music and pianos and the city of Paris are wonderful. It is really a compilation of vignettes or essays of different characters or events in the author's quest.

This is a sublime book.

8 When You Are Engulfed In Flames
by David
Sedaris (Nonfiction)

David Sedaris is absolutely perfect. And this book was not a disappointment. As are all of Sedaris's books this is a series of autobiographical essays. This author consistently makes me guffaw with every one of his books and this was no less.

9 Faith for Beginners: A Novel
by Aaron Hamburger

(don't you love the photo of the cute dude floating in the water reading a that is heaven in every sense: cute dude, floating in water, reading a book). Here's another novel that suprised me. The Publisher Weekly review which I concur with is as follows:
"A woman hopes a family trip to Israel will help her reclaim her confused, rebellious son in Hamburger's entertaining, irreverent first novel (after the collection The View from Stalin's Head).

Jeremy's been at NYU for five years, but he's still just a junior, and Helen Michaelson, 58, thinks he might have a much-needed spiritual awakening on the 'Michigan Miracle 2000' tour. But while Jeremy's more interested in cruising Jerusalem's gay parks, Helen herself is primed for revelation, as she finds that her connection to Judaism and her family is more complicated than she'd thought. Hamburger has an exacting eye for mundane detail and suburban conventions, and in Jeremy he's created the classic green-haired, pierced college student ranting about social injustice. But beneath Jeremy's sarcastic, moralizing banter, there's a convincing critique of Americans' way of being in the world. In Israel in 2000, the Michaelsons are like Pixar creations trapped in a movie filmed in Super 8—the Middle East may be fraught with political tension, but their biggest problem is the heat outside their air-conditioned bus. Hamburger goes further than witty satire, though, and when the plot takes a dark turn he demonstrates that he's capable of taking on global issues, even if his characters aren't."

10 (tie) What We Lost
by Dale Peck (Autobiography)

I'm a real fan of Dale Peck. This is his fourth book and it is a memoir. Here's The Independent's book critic, Martin Fletcher's, review of why this is just a phenomenal book:

"Dale Peck has a reputation for cutting literary throats with the ruthlessness of a fox in a chicken-run. He ruffled feathers with his first novel, the middle-finger waving Fucking MartinMartin and John in America - and has gone on to sharpen his teeth as a critic for the New Republic. There he described Rick Moody as "the worst writer of his generation" and continued the turkey-shoot at Faulkner's "incomprehensible ramblings", Nabokov's "sterile inventions", and the "stupid - just plain stupid - tomes of DeLillo".

"I am extremely savage," says Peck the Critic amid the blood and feathers. To which the bruised and battered writer Stanley Crouch replies, "Dale Peck is a troubled queen". Boys, boys!

The eye-gouging and self-absorption of the American urban literary scene is a far cry from the peaceful pastoral nostalgia that makes up much of Peck's "story of my father's childhood", What We Lost. The hatchet jobs here are mostly of axe against wood during fence-post maintenance and other rural activities on a dairy farm in Greenville, upstate New York, in the mid-1950s.

Dale Peck's father grew up in a one-room house in Long Island with seven brothers and sisters, a violent mother: "thick and squat as a tree trunk shorn of its canopy by a bolt of lightning", and an alcoholic father addicted to cough medicine. When Dale senior was 12, his own father, addled with drink and remorse, kidnapped him and deposited him with his uncle Wallace on his farm. Here "the fluid sunlight pulses through the trees like liquid amber" and the severe routine of farm work forges moral strength and purpose in the boy.

He discovers simpler values, an empathy with the land, and the power of silence and reflection that scrub clean the wounds of abuse. Inexplicably, when his mother arrives to reclaim him after a year and a half, he returns to the brutalities of his family life. Then one night, after sitting for hours outside bars waiting to carry his drunken father home, something snaps and he beats his father almost to death in a rage of hatred, shame and loss.

It's a powerful, shocking scene of expiation; but perhaps the most resonant and effective writing comes in the second part of the book. Dale Peck junior, the writer, makes an appearance with his father when they revisit the farm 40 years later. It's narrated from the point of view of a girl who makes them lunch. Peck senior's gentle, flirtatious paternalism and wistful enthusiasm for the simple routines of good country people is hopelessly sentimental. Both Pecks perceive missed opportunities that were never sustainable, and are left with the nebulous sadness of a life denied to them.

In this beautifully crafted memoir, Dale Peck puts the pieces of his father's broken past together. Memory and imagination form a narrative bridge between father and son, and something good and strong and lasting is created from breakdown and violence."

10 (tie) The Distance Between Us: A Novel
by Bart Yates

This is another author who I'm a big fan of. Here's Publisher's Weekly's review:

"In the absorbing latest from Yates (Leave Myself Behind), an Illinois piano teacher whose virtuoso career ended prematurely attempts to reconnect with her family after years of anguish and loss. Quirky, intimidating septuagenarian Hester Parker tells her story in retrospect. Early in her marriage, she derives pleasure from the music of her violinist husband, Arthur Donovan, and her two sons, Jeremy and Paul, both accomplished musicians. But despite an outstanding intellect, daughter Caitlin fails to inherit the family genius and suffers the plight of an outsider. A tragedy proves to have more consequences than meet the eye, and Hester's marriage dissolves, leaving her alone in her imposing Victorian home. Cut to the present, when quiet college student Alex rents her upstairs apartment, the two develop an attachment that helps both come to terms with their plights, yet threatens what Hester holds most dear. Yates's family melodrama brims with quiet intensity

As I look back at all of the choices there seems to be a recurring theme of people in major life transitions, which are at times violent, shocking, emotional, sometimes even provocative. Which is strange because that is exactly where I am at in my own life: a time of major transition. Interesting observation (for me I suppose). I hope this sentence isn't offputing for anyone because each and every one of these books is beautiful and uplifting in their own unique way. But they are complicated stories of complicated characters, sometimes real sometimes not. But all of the books have a classic "Odyssey" theme. Please try!

Happy Reading!
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