Monday, November 29, 2010

Liz's Ten Best of the Year (and so much better than Gianna's....)

Okay, to know me is to know how competitive I am, and it matters to me that almost 100 people clicked on Gianna’s Top 10 list. I know that people like Gianna…it’s just that I’m counting on you all to like me more. Don’t let me down, Liz Fans.

Here they are, my favorite books of the year from the side of the company I sell. Certainly there are books on Gianna’s side that I loved (Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, for example), but she stuck to her side, I’ll stick to mine. If we were on The Brady Bunch, we’d stick a stripe of masking tape down the middle of our bedroom. Without further ado:

1. The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer. My favorite book of 2010 happened to be a book I read almost a full year ago, yet it still lingers in my mind and few stories have measured up to this epic. The novel tells the story of a family of Hungarian brothers during the 30’s and 40’s; it’s a love story, a war story, a Holocaust story, a family saga, a thriller, and a page turner. If there’s any justice at all in the world, this is the book that every book club in the country will be reading when the paperback releases in January. In 1937, Andras Levi travels to Paris to study architecture, where he meets and eventually falls in love with a Hungarian expatriate dancer. As World War II approaches, though, the couple must return to Hungary to renew their visas, a process complicated by the Nazi invasion of their country. Jews trapped in a Nazi-occupied country, Andras is reunited with his older brother, a medical student studying in Italy, and his younger brother, an actor who had opted to remain in Budapest, is shipped out to the Russian front. The story becomes one of survival and the strength of family as they fight to stay together. There are a ton of World War II books out there, but this one stands apart. The writing is impeccable and at so many points in her sweeping story Orringer could have taken a misstep, but the novel stays on track at every turn. If you like architecture, European history, love stories, adventure tales, family dramas, it’s all here. I simply love this book.

2. To the End of the Land by David Grossman. This pilgrimage story of three friends struggling to deal with the horrors of war should appear on every best of the year list. Grossman’s haunting novel chronicles the history of Israel and the personal costs of the continuing conflicts in that young nation through the intimate and immediate story of Ora, a mother panicked that her younger son will die at his military checkpoint, and the trip she takes walking across the country with an old family friend traumatized by the war in 1967. The novel is made all the more incredible because David Grossman’s own son died in the Israeli army as Grossman was finishing a draft of this book.

This cat is not a tiger.
3. The Tiger by John Vaillant. Two topics about which I’m obsessed—cats and Russia. How could I not love a book that involves both? This masterful account of an actual man-eating tiger hunting down villagers in the outer reaches of the already remote Siberia, and how the largest land predators struggle for survival in the face of increasing threats is a must read. Vaillant skillfully describes the conditions that surrounded this one incident of big cat/human relations (nothing like envisioning the remains of your hunting buddy fitting into a duffle bag) as well as the greater tribulations involved in surviving in Russia, both humans and tigers.

Jennifer Egan signs books
 at Texas Book Festival.
4. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. I’ve already written on this little blog of ours that I believe that this book at least should have been nominated for the National Book Award, and the more that I think about it, the more it strikes me as truly brilliant. Linked stories loosely centering on a record executive, what distinguishes Goon Squad is the quality of Egan’s prose and her truly inventive experimentation with form without resorting to clever trickery or losing emotional resonance. There’s an argument to be made that Jennifer Egan is one of the ten best American writers working right now.

5. The Killer of Little Shepherds by Douglas Starr. Fans of Erik Larsson and Devil in the White City take note—Douglas Starr’s newest book is every bit as good. Around the same time that H. Holmes was terrorizing the Chicago Fair, a serial killing vagrant named Joseph Vacher was wandering across France and leaving a trail of blood behind. A forensics expert named Alexandre Lacassagne worked diligently to link together the series of far-ranging murders (this in the days when police departments in neighboring towns, let alone across 1,000 miles of territory, didn’t share information) and in the process revolutionized the science of police detection. The Killer of Little Shepherds is a blend of history, true crime, and CSI thriller, and a terrific page turner. As an aside, an Italian rival of Lacassagne promoted the practice of phrenology (skull-measuring) as a means of determining criminal predilection, and based on my not-so-extensive knowledge of the practice I’m going to covertly measure Gianna’s head at our office holiday party; that woman is hiding something sinister.

6. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender. The quirkiest novel I read this year is also one of the best. An adult fairy tale of sorts, this coming of age novel pushes the boundaries for family dysfunction and the angst and turmoil associated with being different. On her birthday, nine year-old Rose Edelstein discovers that she can taste the emotions of the people who prepare the food she eats, from her mother’s sadness to her outcast brother’s rage. Her brother, too, develops his own special gift. The empathy of children and the isolation of adolescence have never been told quite like this magical, haunting story.

7. How to Live by Sarah Bakewell. Already named to several best lists in Bakewell’s native United Kingdom, this philosophical meandering into the life and works of Montaigne takes a novel and accessible approach to the man who invented the concept of the essay. By asking the simple question “How to live?” and then answering it in a variety of ways pulling from Montaigne’s life and writing, Bakewell portrays a human, personable, flawed, funny, honest man who was at peace with the contradictions in his life. Four hundred years after he lived, Montaigne is made fresh, vibrant, and relevant to modern life in this enlightening book.

8. The Wave by Susan Casey. Waves are arguably the most destructive force on the planet, swallowing huge tanker ships and washing over oil rigs when the monsters really get to rolling. Half of Susan Casey’s book is a scientific exploration of the destructive power of monster waves, and the other half is a love letter to the thrilling world of big wave surfing and the (crazy?) surfers attempting to cruise upon the tops of 100 foot water walls. The Wave is fine adventure writing.

Anne Hathaway
and Jim Sturgess
9. One Day by David Nicholls. Rarely do I find myself so caught up in a story that centers around, well, love. Oh, and I dislike books that have gimmicky hooks in their storytelling because the gimmick often replaces the character development or emotional impact of a work. I really probably should have hated One Day. It’s a novel about Dexter and Emma, who go on one date in college, become friends, fall in love with others, and then fall in love with each other. It’s a novel with a gimmick—each chapter tells the couple’s story on one day, July 15th, over 20 years. It works, though. It’s not silly or forced, and the characters are compelling. I was rooting for them even as they made mistakes, and the whole time I was reading One Day, I kept thinking, “they have to make a movie out of this book.” Well, they are, and it’s starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess (he's dreamy).

10. Hellhound on His Trail by Hampton Sides. I already knew the outcome, I already knew many of the details of the plot, so I was shocked at how suspenseful this history of the Muther Luther King Jr. assassination turned out to be. James Earl Ray, King’s killer, is a fascinating, horrifying figure, and the details of his crime and flight from the FBI read like the best thrillers. Oh, and there were a lot of things I DIDN’T already know. Did you know that James Earl Ray was an escaped convict at the time of the assassination? Or that he tried to break into the pornographic film business in Mexico and LA? This is riveting reading of great historical significance as well as a high action true crime story of the first order. Good stuff.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Gianna's Top Ten of Oh-Ten

I love lists, I do. I love them….reading them. I hate writing lists. I think making a best of lists is the hardest thing that Liz makes me do, she is the cruelest person I know. Anyway here it is: My Top 10 Random House Books of 2010 (just to be clear, this list is derived from the books I have sold this year, so no you won’t see Aimee Bender).  [The top picks from my side, including Aimee Bender, will appear in the near future--liz.]

The awesome and sassy Gail Caldwell

Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell. This goes on top because it truly has meant the most to me and I already know that it will forever be a book that I recommend. The writing is flawless, just absolutely stunning. A beautiful memoir about Caldwell’s friendship with fellow writer Caroline Knapp (Drinking: A Love Story)--you won’t be able to read the first line of this memoir and walk away. “It’s an old old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that too.” I know, right? I asked Gail about that first line while we were walking to the signing tent at the Texas Book Festival. She stopped in her tracks and smiled – she said that she actually wrote that sentence years ago and put it away. I expect that maybe the book came to her in that way – in pieces as she was meditating on her loss. Grief can be that way, piece by piece. You should know that the page ends with the sentence, “Grief is what tells you who you are alone.” Sentence after sentence takes your breath away, it is that good. This book of course is many things to many people, but for me it is pure love story.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. This book makes the list because … well because this single book has changed the world a bit. How? The head of the Office of Human Research at NIH asked for an early copy of HeLa in order to reevaluate NIH policies on human research. Also the U.S. Department of Defense has changed their requirements for funding research on cell cultures to protect the identity of cell donors. After the release of the book three of the four tissue rights cases Rebecca writes about in the afterword were settled; all in favor of the patient. These cases had been pending for years. Finally, the Henrietta Lacks Foundation set up by Rebecca just awarded its first scholarships to descendants of Henrietta Lacks. Rebecca Skloot spent over a decade researching, writing and gaining the trust and support of the Lacks family (no small task and understandably so), a decade of believing that Henrietta Lacks deserved acknowledgement for her amazing gift to science. What would you spend an entire decade of your life doing? I want to end this by saying very clearly that I am not a science person, never have been. In fact when I was in my 8th grade science lab I accidentally dropped a thermometer on the floor (I am old so we are talking glass and mercury). And my teacher who had a pretty good grasp on my science ability screamed from across the room, “Don’t eat it!” Now, let me say I had no intention of eating it because you know, its glass AND mercury. Anyway needless to say I am a bit surprised at the passion I have for this book and this story and of course my respect for Rebecca Skloot is just immense.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. There are novels that are good, and you finish and life is great and all that. Then there are novels, sweeping novels that transplant you to another time and place. It’s rare because it’s a task for a true master. Enter David Mitchell. I hate calling this historical fiction but that is exactly what it is, but of the highest caliber. Mitchell in his most assessable work brings you to a small Dutch outpost in a mostly isolated Japan at the turn of the century. Mitchell is spot on all through this novel…wait, I almost called it a romantic novel…but you know what ….if it’s David Mitchell its okay to say that…and it’s true.

Welcome To Utopia by Karen Valby. Every single time I talk about this book I get a bit emotional. I just have such affection for the people of Utopia who Karen writes about with such care and skill. It is hard to talk about just one family in this book but Kathy Wiekamp is, for me, the hero. Kathy watched 3 of her 4 boys join the military and ship off to war. One son is killed and when his body returns home, every soul of Utopia lined the street to welcome home their boy. Kathy mourns her son and it is palpable. She creates a shrine of sorts in her home and of course continues to grieve but she has other boys in the military and one at home; she too must soldier on. When I think about the war now, when I think about the human cost, or of bravery, or even of the history of the Texan woman, my thoughts go back to Kathy Wiekamp who has forever changed me.

This Time Together by Carol Burnett. If you don’t like Carol Burnett you and I have nothing to talk about. And not to sound like an old person but…they just don’t make them like her anymore. These are little snippets from her life, some pretty poignant, most just hilarious. My favorites are stories about her grandmother, a total nut.

The Things That Keep Us Here by Carla Buckley. This novel gets my vote for just plain fun. But not weeeeeeeeeeeeeee fun…sort of creepy fun. But not creepy creepy fun….you know pandemic fun. Which would be totally fun if Buckley didn’t sort of convince you that it was actually going to happen….soon…which you know…not fun at all. Isn’t the bird flu back in the news? See?

Isabel Wilkerson at Tx Book Fest...
not expecting a picture, obviously.
 The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. This is the full history of the decades-long migration of African Americans from southern states to northern and western cities in search of a better life. The migration totaled over six million people but Wilkerson manages to write about this exodus in prose that is incredibly intimate – focusing on a few families with an excellent eye for detail.

The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald. Henry House is born into a world as a 1940s practice baby – a real baby that a college uses for its home economic courses. Crazy right? What if I told you that some schools actually did use real babies until they were adopted after their first birthday? Even crazier, I know, but true. Henry learns very quickly to please several different women at once…which of course makes him unable to commit to just one woman as he grows up….He doesn’t really do it on purpose; he hates it in fact. Grunwald has written a truly original sweeping novel (it spans several decades) of a man on a quest to love just one woman and to reconcile his relationships with the woman who raised him.

Blind Descent by James M. Tabor. I love a good non-fiction adventure story. Problem is they are far and few between. I am a huge fan of Into Thin Air and I can definitively say that this book is for those fans – but instead of going up…Tabor takes the reader in the other direction…way way in the other direction. It is tempting to see caving as a mere hobby but the fact is these men and women who risk life and limb to descend into the unknown are explorers and more often than not, scientists. How dangerous is caving? Well I counted over 50 ways to die in a cave(like a zillion ways to fall to your death in a cave by the way), let me just highlight a few of my “favorites:” Acetylene explosion (or camp stove explosion would stink too), tunnel collapse, unplanned detachment from rebelay (uh…you fall), strangulation in vertical gear (horrible), animals eat the rope (sucks!), asphyxiation by methane or carbon dioxide, stuck in crevice (no thanks James Franco), panicked buddy (also known as an ex-friend), drowning, electrocution, poisonous snakes and insects ( no thanks!) and of course just plain old panic (this is what would get me..actually someone [Liz] would just throw my panicking ass over the edge). Anyway….hobbie? No, don’t think so.

If I Loved You I Would Tell You This by Robin Black. This is the best collection of stories that I read this year. Not a light read--the stories are about death, betrayal, dying, or illness. My favorite story is called “The Guide;” a blind daughter prepares to leave her parents and go to college, your heart breaks a little bit for her father who has made his life’s purpose to be his daughter’s eyes. The title story is about neighbors in the midst of what seems to be a trivial argument over a fence and the property line – but the reality of it is quite different. I highly recommend this for Munro, Gaitskill, and even Strout fans.