Saturday, October 31, 2015

Knopf 100--Day 13

45. The Senator’s Wife is a really clever novel with some smart plot twists along the way. It’s the story of the wife of a powerful and philandering senator. His cheating is an open secret in Washington, but the final straw for the wife comes when he sleeps with a friend of their daughters. They separate but don’t divorce. She is unable to move on from him and they eventually begin to have an affair of their own. They carry on like this until a plot twist puts the wife in the position of authority, which changes both of their lives.

46. We’ve written and fawned over Going Clear a few times already; it made my best of list last year. Even if you’ve seen the HBO documentary that is based on the book, make time in your schedule to read it. While it’s easy to write off followers of Scientology as people who have been duped by a really odd religion, what Larry Wright gets so write in this book is not only the detailed history of Hubbard and Scientology, but the complete fraud the religion really is. Leah Remini, who left Scientology last yea,r has a memoir that's just out, and oh, how the shit will hit the fan.

47. Germaine Greer took a bit of heat after her memoir Daddy, We Hardly Knew You was published. Critics would of course use this memoir as the reason she became such a pain in the ass feminist...daddy issues. She attempts to unearth the man she never really knew, a father who was distant, cold, and well…not all that interesting. While reading, you can’t help but hope she and her father find something to bond over, are able to repair the past and make amends, but that’s a fool's game because Greer gives it all away on the first page when she makes it pretty clear, the father she pines for would simply never be.

48. What do you get when you introduce a strange dude with a porn addiction to a housewife stuck in horrible marriage? That’s right, you get a dark, funny, really smart, completely original, novel by one of the best writers working today, A.L. Kennedy. Original Bliss was the first book I read by Kennedy and to be honest, it was a bit tough to get into; at that time I hadn’t read anything like it. This is, in the end, a really sweet love story about two lonely people living on the fringes of society.  

Friday, October 30, 2015

Knopf 100 -- Day 12

41. Michael Kerr's Dispatches is widely considered to be the best work published on Vietnam (Liz wrote about this book earlier in the month). I went backwards, having started with Tim O'Brien's If I Die in a Combat Zone Box Me Up and Ship Me Home and The Things They Carried, then A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo, and then of course Neil Sheehan's stunning book, A Bright Shining Lie. By the time I read Dispatches I was pretty convinced I had read the best of what I should have read, but Dispatches is on another level. I do like how I came to it, maybe all out of order it worked for me. Knopf has continued publish important books on war, interesting what changes and what doesn't. The Forever War by Dexter Filkins and Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran are both reminiscent of what Dispatches was able to convey, the insanity of it all. Imperial Life really blew me away, I highly recommend it if you haven't taken a look, it's a bit different from other books in the genre, but incredibly enlightening.

42. I am going to cheat a little bit on the next two books because I couldn't decide which of Mark
Salzman's books to write about. When in a bind over choosing, choose both (that's how I wound up in a bigamist lifestyle but that's a story for another day). Lying Awake is one of my favorite novels; it just lends itself to endless conversation and thought. The plot hinges on a monastery nun, Sister John, who after some years of doubt over her path is given a gift of spiritual visions. These visions allow Sister John to produce volumes of verse, which become quite popular and help finance the monastery.  After the visions, Sister John suffers cluster headaches and often passes out. Finally forced to seek medical treatment, it is revealed that she has been suffering from epileptic seizures, caused by a brain lesion which doctors feel can be treated successfully. Of course with the treatment the visions will end, and this is the choice Sister John is left with. This book is nearly perfect. Or maybe it is perfectly perfect. I love it and find myself talking about it often even after fifteen years.

43. Mark Salzman's next book would be different, but then maybe not really. While trying to finish his follow up novel after Lying Awake, Salzman needed to research high risk youth and he wanted to get a realistic feel for young men in trouble. His good friend happened to teach a writing class at a detention center for boys at risk, so Mark went along and ended up being so moved that he also volunteered to teach a writing class. Mark met all the characters you would expect--the trouble makers, the young men who may never be able to turn their lives around, and  the boys who are so likable but also so troubled. What is so moving is the care and passion these young men bring to their writing. It's gut wrenching, funny, hopeful, and of course although written a decade ago, brings us to recent political discussions about long overdue prison reform.

44. Because this post is sort of dark and possibly a bit of a downer (no, really), I want to include a bit of color, a bit of humor, so let's talk about Nora Ephron's neck. Her slim little collection of essays sort of turned the world on its head. I Feel Bad About My Neck solidified Ephron as one of America's smartest and best humorists. After Ephron's death Knopf published a fantastic volume, The Most of Nora Ephron, that not only includes classic essays, but the screenplay for When Harry Met Sally, everyone's favorite Ephron film  (personally, I favor Silkwood, come on Cher and's the best). Also included are some pieces that Ephron wrote when she was starting out as a reporter, possibly the best part of this book because they are difficult if not impossible to find elsewhere. Should we all meet in my backyard and watch a double feature of You've Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle? [The legal director of this blog recommends NEVER accepting an invitation to Gianna's house.]

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Knopf 100-- Day 11

37. Truth is, I could talk about Rick Bragg’s books forever. I am a complete and total fool for his writing; he takes my breath away.  This is the sentence that did me in, just a few pages into his first book, All Over But the Shoutin’:

“Anyone could tell it, anyone who had a momma who went eighteen years without a new dress so that her sons could have school clothes, who picked cotton in other people's fields and ironed other people's clothes and cleaned the mess in other people's houses, so that her children didn't have to live on welfare alone, so that one of them could climb up her backbone and escape the poverty and hopelessness that ringed them, free and clean.”

It’s hard to imagine a follow up memoir more beautiful, emotional, or more personal than his first, but then Bragg wrote a ridiculously gorgeous book about his maternal grandfather, Charlie Bundrum, who held together his family bit by bit with any work he could get. Charlie could not read so he asked his wife, Ava, to read the paper to him every day so he would not be ignorant.

''A man like Charlie Bundrum doesn't leave much else, not title or property, not even letters in the attic. There's just stories, all told second- and third-hand, as long as somebody remembers. The thing to do, if you can, is write them down on new paper.''

38. I read The Postman Always Rings Twice when I was probably fifteen or sixteen years old. It was not only my introduction to noir and crime novels, but light S&M. While I don't read crime novels that much anymore....just kidding, I still love love crime novels! What I love about this book is that the pace is both deliberate but manages a thriller tempo keeping you turning the pages. I guess the same can be said about S&M, you'd have to ask Liz. This may be the one novel that has a film adaptation (or in this case a handful of adaptations) that I haven't seen. I also haven't seen the stage adaptation starring Val Kilmer.  Life is unfair, I guess.

39. Self Help by Lorrie Moore was probably one of the first books I read as an official adult (thanks Glenwood, Illinois, Public Library, sorry about the overdue fines I never paid). Published when I was a mature eighteen year old (no), I read this while slacking off at the animal hospital where I worked after school. I think this was my introduction into smart funny literary books, It also made me a lifelong fan of Lorrie Moore (and I am pretty sure she feels the same way about me).  So Liz and I don't get in a big fight, I will leave it to her to write about Moore's masterpiece, Birds of America. You're welcome, Liz.

40. My favorite book of 2003 and certainly on my list of best collections of stories that I've ever read, How to Breath Underwater by Julie Orringer succeeds on every level for me. The stories are smart, unusual in theme (certainly a decade ago), modern, dark, and beautifully written. The introductory story, "Pilgrims" will floor you, and if you are female you most certainly will identify, at least in part to  "Note to Sixth Grade Self." I love this collection and have a feeling Orringer will make the Knopf 100 blog again with her novel, The Invisible Bridge which both Liz and I loved.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Knopf 100--Day 10

Nobel, anyone? Knopf is the home for a ton of Nobel Prize winning authors, and here are four books from this illustrious group.

33. The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing, originally published in 1988. Check this out. It's the film clip of when Doris Lessing found out she won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

"Oh Christ!" The Fifth Child probably isn't her most famous book, but it's one I loved. It's no secret that I like creepy, gothic reads that dismantle families, though. The premise is that a happy couple have brought four children into the world and created an ideal familial life in '60's Britain. Then they have Ben, baby #5, and their world unravels. Ben's not a cute baby or kid. He eats everything and he's abnormally strong. He's not the child they wanted or expected. The other kids are scared of him and his parents are appalled. What happens when you can't love your child, even when the child is an innocent? Good stuff.

34. Beloved by Toni Morrison, originally published in 1987. This is the second Toni Morrison novel we've included on our list, but so what? TM is terrific. You know what's fun? Walking up to strangers and croak-whispering "Beeeeloooooovveddd" like it was uttered in the movie. I love doing that. Anyway, Beloved, considered Morrison's best work, is the story of Sethe, a former slave living in Ohio who can't escape her memories of the atrocities of her past or the unnamed daughter she lost, whose tombstone simply reads "beloved." This novel twists up your insides, a sign of narrative genius.

35. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro, originally published in 2001. Alice Munro is the greatest living short story writer, and I could have picked any of her books to feature in this spot. I chose Hateship in part because it's received attention from Hollywood with several film adaptations. Remember that devastating and beautiful movie called Away From Her, about a man whose Alzheimer's impacted wife develops a romance in her assisted living facility because she no longer remembers she's married, and he must deal with the loss and her found happiness with another man? The movie starred Julie Christie and she was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal. That movie was based on one of the stories in this collection. Munro writes about relationships and the human drama of daily living. She's one of my two pretend-Canadian-grandmas.

36. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, originally published in 1988. The godfather of magical realism, it's an honor to say that I work for the publisher of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I haven't read all of his books, but I am a fan of Love in the Time of Cholera, among others. The story here is that a couple declare their love when they're young, but she ultimately decides to marry a doctor. He, on the other hand, goes the other direction and has affairs. LOTS of affairs. Over six hundred affairs. Dude keeps busy. After fifty years, though, the doctor finally dies and our oversexed hero finally has his opportunity to spread a venereal disease declare his undying love once more.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Knopf 100--Day 9

I'm watching the World Series and the Fox Sports coverage and commentators have me thinking about the pros and cons of sports broadcasting-related suicidal fantasies, so I'm distracting myself by
updating le blog. Hey look, we're almost a third of the way through our 100 title tribute for Knopf's 100th Anniversary.

29. Arthur & George by Julian Barnes, originally published in 2006. First, I think Julian Barnes is one of the best living novelists out there. The snooty literary people love him because he's a wordsmith and plays with form. Everyone can read him too, though, as he doesn't get so lost in the craft of writing to neglect things like plot. For example: Arthur & George. Barnes's historical fiction takes Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes and a gentleman obsessed with 19th Century mysticism (seances and the like), is the Arthur of the title. George is an immigrant outsider with poor people skills who's been an outsider his whole life, so when some animals turn up mutilated, instead of blaming space aliens like we do in these modern times, the villagers blamed George. Arthur hears about George's plight and decides that he can play Sherlock Holmes and solve the case himself. The characters are addictive and flawed.

30. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, originally published in 2011. If you're one of the dozen fans of this blog, you know that Gianna and I LOOOOOOOVE Karen Russell. Remember when we interviewed her? Let's all revisit that post, as it's arguably the pinnacle achievement of our bloggish efforts (slightly above a recent keyword search of "how to text flirt with a girl" that somehow led to this literary hub of intellectual geniuses). Swamplandia! was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and one of my favorite books. It's a quirky novel about a family running a tourist theme park attraction in swampy Florida, but the park has fallen on hard times since the mother and alligator wrestler died. Ava, the youngest of three kids, is the focal point of the novel as her family unravels and the weirdness of the swamp closes in. I think of this novel as the collapse of the American Dream and it's one of the few books I've reread.

31. Hitler's Willing Executioners by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, originally published in 1996. I...still don't know how I feel about this book and it's been two decades. To characterize it as controversial would be accurate, but Knopf hasn't shied away from controversy. Goldhagen's book is about how ordinary Germans were able to aid the Nazi agenda of Jewish extermination. He argued that medieval religious prejudices became secular and cultural prejudices that he termed "eliminationist antisemitism." Basically, the whole country had an ingrained antisemitism that Hitler and the Nazis were able to tap into to push their political ambitions and led to the Holocaust. The book became a bestseller when it was published and is one of those works that historians have argued with ever since.

32. I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son by Kent Russell, originally published in 2015. Since I mentioned Karen Russell, we should also mention her brother and his essay collection that is one of the more delightful books I've read this year. These Russells are such excellent oddities. Kent Russell's book is a series of essays exploring manhood and how to define "manhood" when he isn't following in his father's and grandfather's military service. Kent chronicles a series of tough guy-esque encounters, from a Juggalo convention, to visiting the guy who lives on the island where Captain Bligh was abandoned after the mutiny on The Bounty, to spending a weekend with a guy who in inoculating himself to snake venom has decided to be bitten by five poisonous snakes in one weekend. It's freaky. Kent Russell is a talented writer and I'm eager to read what he writes long as it doesn't involve snakes. I don't like the snakes. I had nightmares.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Knopf 100--Day 8

Every now and then a book sings to me. I like a lot of books, but a few rise into a different category, the books that make me happy that I get to work with books everyday. Here are a few of the books that mean the most to me.

25. The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine, originally published in 2008. Part retelling of The Arabian Nights, part history of Lebanon, part family story, all twisting and turning into a narrative that spins into stories within stories within stories. Pigeon wars in the skies of Beirut, hellish imps and the hand of Fatima, and a son returning home to see his dying father--these are just a few of the things I love about The Hakawati. "Hakawati" means "storyteller," the term for the Scheherazade-type entertainers in the tea houses of Lebanon, spinning yarns each afternoon that end with cliffhangers that keep people coming back every day for more. The Hakawati is particularly significant for me because I read it (and then sold it) in the year I started working for Random House and became a focal point of how I could find my place in this job.

26. Wild by Cheryl Strayed, originally published in 2012. Cheryl Strayed's memoir of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail hit several nerves for me. I have always liked memoirs about strong women. I'm a huge national parks fan and particularly love the Sierra Nevada mountains. Strayed's memoir is about struggling with the devastating loss of her mother to cancer and the downward spiral that death created. I read Wild before it was published (like most books, we read them in advance), while on a plane in April, 2011, on my way to Yosemite National Park. At the time my mother was dying from terminal cancer. While my relationship with my mother differed from Strayed's, my mother was an English teacher and did foster my love of books. This book became a marker for that period of my life.

27. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter, originally published in 1963. I didn't expect to be a History major in college. I expected to be an English major and successfully channel my love of books and lack of career aspirations into....little. I expected to die young, but well-read. There was an American History professor at my university, though, that was the finest teacher I've encountered. She inspired me and challenged me and scared me and called bullshit when I was being an asshole, and because her classes were so great, I ended up with a double major. One of the works she introduced to me was Hofstadter's classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (she introduced me to a lot of great books, but they aren't all on the Knopf list). Hofstadter looked at the rise of "practical" American life and with it the dying of philosophy, looking at the effects in culture, education, politics, and business. For his efforts, this book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1964. I think about this book quite a bit, particularly when watching election cycles play out. The smartest person doesn't win an election most of the time; it's the guy who is "relatable." Didn't Americans want to have a beer with George W. Bush, folksy former playboy? Didn't Rick Perry run an "oops" campaign? Yeah.

28. The Trial by Franz Kafka, originally published in 1937. Okay, so as much as I loved the history classes I took in college, that's how much I hated the foreign language requirement. I could passably translate on paper the German I slogged through for four semesters, but the speaking part still gives me nightmares. Sprechen Sie Deutsch? NEIN. (I don't even know anymore if that's proper German grammar.) Anyway, in the third and fourth semesters we began reading texts that were pulled from actual German books. The one I remember most vividly was a section of The Trial by Franz Kafka. There was this guy at this door and he couldn't go through the door or wouldn't? Try making sense of this story when you aren't even sure you know the words. I went back and read the English translation of the novel to figure out what the hell was happening. Kafka's work is one of those classics you should read in order to understand the futility of bureaucracy and also so you sound intelligent in parties...not that I attend parties.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Knopf 100--Day 7

Hollywood owes a ton to Knopf publishing. Even though the press is mostly thought of in terms of numbers of Nobel laureates and prestige, Alfred and the subsequent editors loved the dark and stormy nights. Since it's rained for two straight days in Austin, indulging in the noir seems appropriate today. (Note on the list: I've added numbers to Gianna's picks from yesterday, so we're now up to #21.)

21. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, originally published in 1931. No Knopf? No Hammett. No Humphrey Bogart (possibly a stretch). Dashiell Hammett was a house author for Knopf, so I just plucked one of his novels off the list. A bird statue with a fortune, a dead partner, cops, dames, and the wise cracking Sam Spade made The Maltese Falcon a huge hit. If you've seen the movie, read the book. It's exactly what you'd want it to be.

22. Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway, originally published in 2012. It hasn't made it to the silver screen yet, but I would love to see a film adaptation of Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway. Harkaway happens to be John LeCarre's son, and his second novel is a crazy send-up to spy thrillers and the Cold War era. An octogenarian granny super spy, the mob, a crazy serial killer with Buddhist ninja minions, and a hapless clock maker at the center of a global conspiracy are racing to locate the clockwork doomsday machine. Some are racing to trigger it, some are racing to keep it from destroying the world. At points Angelmaker is hilarious and so over the top, but it's too much fun to quit reading.

23. My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme, originally published in 2006. If you saw Julie & Julia, you quickly realized that Julie Powell was a self-consumed whiner and Julia Child is the mother of all culinary bad asses. The Julia Child parts of that film were based on My Life in France. Julia Child--tall woman, OSS spy, no nonsense destroyer of snooty sexist French chefs, and queen of the French/American kitchen--is larger than life, and one should read her stories of France directly from the star of the show.

24. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, originally published in 2008. As a faithful adaptation of the book, I recommend the Swedish film, but the US version with Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig (mmm...Daniel Craig) is none too shabby either. Larsson's thriller was titled Men Who Hate Women in Sweden and that title fits. Lisbeth Salander, the protagonist of Dragon Tattoo and its sequels, has been abused, raped, robbed, called insane, and abandoned by family and caretakers, but she's also the epitome of tough revenge-seekers. If you're lucky, she'll just hack your computer, steal your fortune, and provide evidence of your criminal activity to the authorities. Piss her off and expect much, much worse treatment. I love Lisbeth Salander for her anger and for being both damaged and fearless. She's one of the most compelling characters I've ever read.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Knopf 100 Day 6

Just when you thought the only excellent thing to come out of Florida was the snake that ate an alligator video; these four authors were introduced to me in while I lived in that big ole lug of a state.

17. I stumbled upon Edwidge Danticat’s  first collection of stories, Krik? Krak! in 1995; I met her after she was done with her panel and signing at the Miami Book Fair and asked her if she wanted to go see Joyce Carol Oates. She’s not dumb so we walked over to see JCO and then Edwidge ditched me. Forever. Haven’t seen her since. I believe two things to be true to this day; one, she never would have found the JCO panel without me, and Danticat gets better with each book. She truly does. Last year's Claire of the Sea of Light just blew me away, and the The Dew Breaker and Brother I’m Dying are simply two of the best books you’ll ever read. If you’re a Junot Diaz fan and have not discovered Edwidge, you’ll love her.
18. Not to be dramatic, but Mona Simpson once saved my life. Too dramatic? Well, Anywhere but Here certainly made me realize that I wanted to work with books. It was given to me by my best friend Lulu (I actually ‘borrowed’ and never returned it). At that time, it was the book I had most identified with, and it made me feel, well, not so alone. I will always have a soft spot in my heart for that fantastic book, but she has written so many good books after it, Off Keck Road being my favorite.

19. A friend took me to hear Pico Iyer read at Books & Books (where I was twice not hired) and it spoiled me for any other travel writer. Falling off the Map: Some Lonely Places of The World was probably the first travel writing book I’d ever read, and it’s still one of my favorites. Pico explores some of the most isolated places on the planet including North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba; some are isolated due to politics others due to geography (Iceland, Bhutan). I also highly recommend The Lady and the Monk and Sun After Dark. Iyer has written about one million books and essays so it’s hard to keep up.

20. This isn’t going to look good because this will be the second time in this post where I mention basically stealing a book. Let me say this though, I was very poor when I lived in Florida. And this was pre-library Florida, so books were very difficult to come by (look it up if you don’t believe me!). Anyway, I once again borrowed a book. This time it was from a party I wasn’t exactly invited to, now that I think about it. On the other hand and in my defense…I was never invited to parties. Maybe because of the book stealing. Anyway the book in this particular thievery was The Remains of the Day by the great Kazuo Ishiguro. Oh my god how I loved that book, and still love that book. I did return the book to the rightful owner who was a woman twice my age, had zero patience for me, and said she didn’t remember “lending me a book or inviting me to her party.” Guess she had a pretty bad memory.