I have to admit, I am wary of all the "best book" lists that start cropping up this time of year. Publishers Weekly has announced its 101 best books of the year; Good Reads is currently seeking votes from you on best books in multiple genres; and book critics (including me, I must admit, a bit shamefacedly) are busily writing their "What to Read" recommendations for Salon's end-of-the-year What to Read Awards. (Here's mine from last year.)
And yet, these lists fill me with angst. I love to read them, but I'm suspicious. Because who has read everything? Who has even seen everything?
Who has read all the new novels, or all the new memoirs? Nobody, that's who. So how can anyone pronounce anything "the best"?
And who can legitimately say what the best book of the year is when there are so many different kinds of books, so many different purposes for books? Even splitting it up by genre doesn't quite do it--how do you compare Lawrence Wright's "Going Clear" (his history/expose of the Church of Scientology) against, say, Jill Lepore's biography of Benjamin Franklin's sister? Or against Howard Norman's beautiful memoir? They are such different books!
So now that I've talked us all out of these lists, I'm asking you to help me come up with one. All I want is for you to write and tell me the best book you read all year.
This will not be a ranked list. There is no voting. Please do not seize the opportunity to flood my e-mail (as some have) with persuasive (though nearly identical) messages in support of one particular locally published mystery. It will not work! I am too smart.
I'm just looking for a brief note from you telling me the best book you read this year--the title, the author, and why it was so good. It does not have to be a book published this year; it can be any book, though of course new books are always of interest when it comes to gift-buying.
Please send your messages to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and please include your name and city of residence.
We'll run your suggestions and praise on Dec. 1, along with our recommendations for fiction, nonfiction, gift books, regional books, memoir, biography and our second annual "Critic's Choice" awards. Yep, Another list of best books....
How does it go when the tables are turned and the interviewer becomes the interviewee? Judging by Wednesday night's conversation at Magers & Quinn Bookstore in Minneapolis, a little shy, a little sweet, and very interesting.
Book critic, editor and author John Freeman was in town promoting his new book, "How to Read a Novelist," a collection of author interviews he conducted for The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Star Tribune, and elsewhere. (In his interview with Erdrich, he calls her "quiet and self-effacing," words that could have been used to describe Freeman himself last night.)
So during his book tour, novelists have been seizing the opportunity to query him ("It's an obscure form of therapy," Freeman joked)--in Seattle, Nicola Griffith; in Brooklyn, Geoff Dyer; and in Minneapolis, Erdrich, who was respectful and admiring. "This book is absolutely wonderful," she said. "I read some of the pieces over and over."
But she had plenty of questions. For instance: Was there any author Freeman interviewed that he didn't like?
He didn't allow that there was ("I like most people, because I'm from California," he said), but then he went on to talk about John Irving's pugnaciousness and ego, the wrestling ring built right into his house, his hallway of books, "and they're all John Irving books, in various languages."
The evening was a festival of names of authors Freeman has reviewed and interviewed--Irving, Geraldine Brooks, Edmund White, Richard Russo: "I never understood the anger in [Russo's] work. When he does it with humor you almost forget you're swallowing a bitter pill."
Throughout the conversation, Freeman almost reflexively tried to turn the questions back on Erdrich, who was having none of it. Each time, she'd smile a serene Mona Lisa smile and remind Freeman that she wasn't the one being interviewed this time.
In interviewing, "There is this performance anxiety," Freeman said. "And you want to be liked. But as an interviewer, you can't do that." He doesn't see the interviewer and subject as having an adversarial relationship. "As an interviewer, your job is not to try to catch someone with food in their teeth. Your job is to catch them as they really are. In the best interviews, you never see the questions, only the answers. Critics and novelists are often put at odds with each other, but we both use the same tools."
Freeman was not a reader as a child. "Some time at 8, or 7 I stopped reading on my own," he said. But later, when he was reintroduced to literature, "It just cracked my head open," he said. After college and after a few failed jobs in finance, he began reviewing books--first for Publishers Weekly, and then for newspapers and magazines around the country.He became American editor of Granta, a British literary magazine, and then editor, dividing his time between London and New York and expanding the journal's presence around the globe, highlighting writers from Spain, South America, Pakistan and elsewhere.
Though his life is now books he must read--keeping up with what's new, reviewing what's about to come out--are there books he re-reads, Erdrich asked. "Mostly poetry," Freeman said. "Because poetry is meant to be read over and over. Adrienne Rich--I just don't know how she makes those shifts in voice. James Wright--there's a bare-knuckled sadness to his poems."
And what about the dedication, Erdrich asked. "For my father, who asked the right questions." What questions did he ask?
"He just kept asking me from a very early age what I wanted to do with myself," Freeman said. "I took from him that life was extremely serious, at a young age."
Freeman's parents were social workers, "and they looked at weakness not as weakness, but as the human condition, and that's the job of a novelist."
Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises" was dismissed by a critic for the New York Times when it first came out. "His characters are as shallow as the saucers in which they stack their daily emotions," the review, from 1926, said.
The New Yorker had no love for Walker Percy's "The Moviegoer." "Mr. Percy's prose needs oil and a good checkup," someone wrote in that magazine in 1961.
And John Updike's now-classic "Rabbit, Run," was panned in the Chicago Tribune by a critic who called it a "grim little story" that adds up to nothing. "The author fails to convince us that his puppets are interesting."
These, and other mocking, insulting, or just highly critical reviews--amusing given the hindsight of literary history--were collected 25 years ago in a cheeky little book called "Rotten Reviews," compiled by Bill Henderson, editor of the Pushcart Prize series.
Now Henderson sees need to revive his book, with a new introduction explaining that he was inspired by the Internet (even though he doesn't own a computer), where negative and snarky reviews flourish--and are usually anonymous, to boot.
"I realize now that we live in an on-line Wild West," he writes in his new introduction. "All civilty gone. Empathy, balance, decency, knowledge, out the window. Everybody a blogger. Everybody an instant critic."
Henderson believes writers deserve better. "These books had taken the authors years to compose, sometimes a lifetime," he wrote. "And so to have them dismissed so casually, well ... it just wasn't fair."
"Rotten Reviews Redux: A Literary Companion," pubs Nov. 22 by Pushcart Press and sells for $18.95.
A second book that arrived today celebrates books, and book-owning, and book loving, and bookshelves. Several dozen book-lovers--mainly authors, but not entirely--were asked to choose one shelf of books that best represents them and write a brief essay about it.
The design of this book is lovely, with glossy pages and with paintings, rather than photographs, of each contributor's chosen books. Roseann Cash, you'll find, was moved by "The Diary of Anne Frank," "Little House in the Big Woods," and E.B. White's "Here Is New York." What's not to love?
Junot Diaz (you've all heard of him, right?) read voraciously as a child to help improve his own English. "I had come from a family and a place in the Dominican Republic where books were basically medieval--few people had them, and they were very precious," he wrote. "The United States was a country of books."
Francine Prose's shelf contains Chekhov, Chekhov, Chekhov, Chekhov, Chekhov, Chekhov and Chekhov, along with a few others.
What a beautiful way to get to know a writer: to browse his shelves.
"My Ideal Bookshelf," is edited by Thessaly La Force, with art by Jane Mount. It pubs in mid-November and retails for $24.99.
There is something slyly satisfying about being deep in a book and happening upon a literary allusion or a nod to another writer. You stop. You read it again. You feel so darn smart that you got it. And then you look around for someone to share it with.
I spent most of the weekend reading St. Paul author Jim Heynen's new novel, "The Fall of Alice K.," which will be published in the fall by Milkweed Editions. I was cruising along, taking in the story of the Iowa farm girl and her growing romance with a young Hmong man, when Bam! Did that say what I thought it said?
Alice and her boyfriend are planning to go for a drive--away from the small town where everyone knows them, where everyone (except the boyfriend) is Dutch, to a nearby community "where the mailboxes had names like Brekken, Holm, and Rezmerski."
I think when I got to that sentence, I yelled, "Hey!" and then had to go find my husband and read it to him.("You know, Bill Holm, and his wife, Marcy Brekken, and his best friend from grad school, John Calvin Rezmerski.") (He just nodded politely, as any good husband would.)
A few chapters on, there was another, even slyer allusion:
"Mr. Vic also had them read stories by an older guy who grew up around Dutch Center and wrote stories about farm boys. Little tiny stories that were about as long as a sneeze and that some people thought were funny. Mr. Vic said he was the 'Hemingway of farm life.' Ho hum. Alice didn't have much use for this guy's work. Too much animal cruelty. In one of his stories, his farm boys threw live cats from the top of a windmill with homemade parachutes on them."
You probably know who Heynen is really talking about here; the "farm boys" reference is a good hint. If you need to, click on the link to see. And then look around for someone to share it with. Yell, "Hey!" So delicious. Book pubs in September. Watch for it.
Is the scene in "Persuasion" when Capt. Wentworth leaves the love note for Anne Elliot the most romantic love scene ever written? (Oh, to get a letter that says, "You pierce my soul!")
Or maybe the tragic, true story of Abelard and Heloise is the most romantic book ever. The version I read, back in high school, was one I discovered in the stacks of the Duluth Public Library. It was written by George Moore, and the Duluth library had a first edition from 1921--bound in black leather, with yellowed, deckle-edge pages,.
The dialogue was not set off by quotation marks, but flowed through the text in what seemed to me to be a very poetic manner. I devoured that book, weeping a little, wishing, perhaps, just a little, that I, too, could be seduced by my teacher, who would then be castrated, and I would then flee into a nunnery where we would write passionate letters to each other for the rest of our lives.
It seemed, at age 16, to be the perfect relationship.
(And oh, the books you can find in your library!)
And of course there's Catherine and Heathcliff, though they left me colder than they did my friends. And that moment in "These Happy Golden Years" when Laura and Almanzo get engaged, and she offers her cheek to him and says, primly, "You may kiss me." It doesn't take much; it's all about timing and context and, of course, the way the author builds to that moment.
What are your favorites? Your most romantic books, or stories, or scenes? It's Valentine's Day. Let's get those hearts a-pumping.
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