Fun Reads for Friday: Bookstore Wisdom, NBCC Nominees, and Historical Guides to Local ‘Linnen-Lifters’ and ‘She-Friends’

25 Things I Learned from Opening a Bookstore (open Salon)

A former lawyer turned used bookstore owner shares some nuggets of wisdom. Some of my favorites:

1.  People are getting rid of bookshelves.  Treat the money you budgeted for shelving as found money.  Go to garage sales and cruise the curbs.

2.  While you’re drafting that business plan, cut your projected profits in half.  People are getting rid of bookshelves.

23.  Everyone has a little Nancy Drew in them.  Stock up on the mysteries.

Dubravka Ugresic’s Karaoke Culture is nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Awards

From Open Letter’s (the publisher’s) press release:

…we’re proud to announced that one of our titles—Karaoke Cultureby Dubravka Ugresic—is one of the five finalists in the “Criticism” category.

Since this is the first major American book award that Open Letter has a finalist in, we’re absolutely ecstatic. And it’s especially fitting that this is happening to Dubravka, since her last collection, Nobody’s Home, was the first book that Open Letter ever published.

I reviewed Karaoke Culture for The L last year–it’s a great collection, and I’d be delighted for it to win an award from NBCC this year. My previous post, with a link to the review is here. You can also read one of the collection’s more talked-about essays, “Assault on the Mini-Bar” on The Paris Review website here. (This actually wasn’t one of my favorites in the collection–but it’s gotten some really positive responses.)

I’m also pleased to see David Bellos’ Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything on the list of nominees for criticism, along with Ugresic. I’ve been meaning to read that book since it came out, and this gave me a little added encouragement. It’s fascinating so far.

Guidebooks to Babylon (Tony Perrottet for The New York Times)

Mr. Perrottet, author of The Sinner’s Grand Tour: A Journey Through the Historical Underbelly of Europe, takes a delightful look at the “guides to local harlots” that were produced for the benefit of gentlemen traveling from Paris, France to Kansas City, Missouri. His unnecessary first-line dig at librarians notwithstanding (after all, I know plenty of librarians who would be delighted with the premise of his research), here are some of the article’s more hilarious highlights:

To the uninitiated, these clandestine directories make the most dubious of all literary subgenres. They were created, of course, to provide practical information for gentlemen travelers venturing through a city’s demimonde, and so have titles that range from mildly risqué (“The Pretty Women of Paris,” “Directory to the Seraglios”) to unashamedly coarse (“A Catalogue of Jilts, Cracks and Prostitutes, Nightwalkers, Whores, She-Friends, Kind Women and Others of the Linnen-Lifting Tribe”).

The genre took a leap forward in the carnal free-for-all of 18th-century London with “Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies,” a best-­selling annual published each Christmas season from 1757 to 1795 under the name of the era’s most notorious pimp, Jack Harris. Each edition offered Zagat-style reviews of London belles, including their figures, tastes, complexions and personal hygiene (and a pre-modern-dentistry obsession with the condition of their teeth).

When it comes to American guides, the available examples are far less colorful…An exception to the rule is “The Little Black Book,” produced in the 1890s in the “Paris of the Plains” — Kansas City, Mo. In between generic ads (Emma Williams, “Abundance of Beauty,” and Julia Lewis, “Fit for the Gods”) are pages of rhyming verse, poems that spell out naughty words and tales of lusty nuns.

Mister Blue

My latest review is of Mister Blue by Québécois author Jacques Poulin. I discovered Poulin last year when I read his Translation is a Love Affair, a slender, whimsical, shaggy-dog sort of novel which, in its sweetly roundabout way, manages to convey quite a lot about human connections and the importance of reaching out to other people–strangers–to find those connections.

Although he is much lauded in Canada and France, Poulin is not (as far as I can tell) well known outside of either country (and honestly, the one Quebecer I asked about  Poulin’s work had never heard of him, either), so I’ll direct your attention to his bio in The Canadian Encyclopedia. According to the entry, he “is among the most widely read Québécois novelists of his generation and the most respected by critics”; additionally, his novel Spring Tides (also available in an English translation published by Archipelago Books), is said to be “one of the most profound Québécois novels.”

Poulin’s most recent novel to be translated into English, Mister Blue, didn’t appeal to me quite as much as Translation is a Love Affair, but it was still a very affecting, empathetic, and quirky story and emphasized many of the the themes that were raised in TiaLA. It also opens with one of the best poems I have read in a really long time, by Jean Tardieu (from The Hidden River):

CONVERSATION
(amiably, standing in the doorway)

How are things on earth?

-Fine, fine, very fine.

Are the little dogs flourishing?

-Oh my goodness, yes, indeed they are.

What about the clouds?

-Drifting.

And the volcanoes?

-Simmering.

And the rivers?

-Floating.

Time?

-Unwinding.

And your soul?

-Sick

the springtime was too green
my soul ate too much salad.

My full review is below, or you can read it on Three Percent here.

***

The fictional world of Québécois novelist Jacques Poulin can, poetically speaking, be likened to a snow globe: a minutely-detailed landscape peppered with characters who appear to be frozen in one lovely, continuous moment. Mister Blue, recently published in a new English translation, captures this timelessness in a fluid and deceptively simple story about the complex bonds that can develop between completely unlike people, if only they are allowed to.

Brooklyn’s Archipelago Books has previously released two Poulin novels—Spring Tides and Translation is a Love Affair—both of which share some basic fundamentals with Mister Blue. Each of these slender novels feature reclusive literary types (authors and translators), their beloved cats (all with names worthy of T.S. Eliot’s Practical Cats: Matousalem, Mr. Blue, Charade, Vitamin), and enigmatic strangers who quickly insinuate themselves into the lives and imaginations of the aforementioned writers. But although Poulin frequently returns to the same themes, the same hyper-specific scenarios and characters in his work, each of his novels retain a freshness and idiosyncratic sweetness that reward readers with small revelations and happy coincidences.

Mister Blue opens on Jim, “the slowest writer in Quebec,” a former Hemingway scholar turned full-time novelist who now summers in his dilapidated childhood home, a ramshackle cottage in a quiet, uninhabited bay on the Ile d’Orleans. Jim’s daily writing follows a quiet routine with little to punctuate it other than semi-regular tennis matches with his brother, feeding and tending to his cats and the scrappy strays that invite themselves into his home, and solitary walks on the beach in front of his home. It is on just such a walk that Jim discovers footprints in the sand leading to a cave where someone has been camping. Finding a copy of The Arabian Nights in the cave with the name “Marie K.” written on the flyleaf, Jim becomes instantly besotted with this mysterious unseen stranger, whom he nicknames Marika.

Here, as in Translation is a Love Affair, real life quickly begins to intermingle with fiction and vice-versa. For Poulin’s characters, life itself is a process of composition, improvised and redrafted as unforeseen events take place. As Jim struggles to write a love story, he becomes convinced that his authorial problems can all be chalked up to the fact that he has ignored Hemingway’s rule: “a writer must stick to the subject he knows best.” He surmises that his story has stalled because “I was trying to write a love story without being in love myself.” Ergo, he whimsically decides, he must “take a closer interest in that person named Marika.”

But matters of the heart, much like matters of fiction, are not so easily constructed. Instead of meeting Marika, he meets a woman named Bungalow, a former housewife who left her “gilded cage” to run a shelter for young women in Old Quebec, and La Petite, who lives at the shelter but increasingly becomes a regular visitor at Jim’s cottage. The arrival of these two women takes both Jim’s fictional and real life love stories off course: the mysterious Marika continues to elude him, and obstinately, his fictional characters become friends instead of lovers, despite his frequent attempts to revise their relationship. The romantic story that he set out to write (and to live) gives way, ever so slowly, to a gentler, more protective, tender kind of love—that between himself and the curious, lovable, but often volatile La Petite—the love between a parent and child.

In simple, clean prose (musically rendered in Sheila Fischman’s translation) Poulin delivers his bittersweet tale with a restraint that belies true joy, the dogged optimism that complete strangers from totally different backgrounds and circumstances can find in each other real empathy and kindness. That such connections are right there in front of us, if only we trouble to look for them.

“What matters are the emotional ties that connect people and form a vast, invisible web without which the world would crumble,” Jim realizes. “Everything else to which people devote the greater part of their time, looking very serious as they do so, is of only minor importance.”

Call Me Princess

Review originally published on Reviewing the Evidence, here.

Although Nordic crime fiction has gained an incredible prominence on the world stage, Denmark has never been at the forefront of this movement. Among countless others in the field, Sweden has its Henning Mankell, Stig Larsson, and Sjöwall & Wahlöö; Norway its Jo Nesbø and Helene Tursten; Finland its Matti Yrjänä Joensuu; and Iceland its Arnaldur Indridason and Yrsa Sigurdadottir, but contemporary crime authors from Denmark have yet to gain renown as part of this current wave. One could speculate, however, that Danish authors are having their moment now: 2011 has seen the publication of English translations of The Boy in the Suitcase by writing team Lene Kaaerbøl and Agnete Friis, The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen, and Call Me Princess by Denmark’s “crime queen” Sara Blaedel.

Call Me Princess finds its tough, sailor-swearing, workaholic police detective Louise Rick tracking down a brutal serial rapist who targets women he meets through online dating websites. Having gained his victim’s trust after weeks of email correspondence, the rapist sets up what appear to be a perfectly chivalrous date. After a long, fancy dinner, the perpetrator returns to the woman’s apartment, where he then subjects her to mental and physical abuse. When Call Me Princess opens, one of this man’s victims has reported the crime. Just a few weeks later, the perpetrator murders his second victim, making it even more pressing that Louise and her colleagues make an arrest.

The story itself clips along at a reasonable speed, interspersing scenes of the ongoing investigation and its myriad dead-ends with short interludes in Louise’s daily life—her close friendship with ambitious crime beat reporter Camilla Lind (who ever so conveniently has started dating someone she met online) and Louise’s failing relationship with her live-in boyfriend Peter. The dialog sounds a bit tinny and the characters are by-and-large rather flat, but as Barbara Fister remarks in her review of the novel on this site, in its efficient-but-shallow approach, reading Call Me Princess is much “like watching an episode of a fairly entertaining television mystery.”

Unfortunately, there are two significant problems that loom over the story. For one, the plot is pervaded with head-smacking coincidences and the kind of farcical investigative ploys that anyone who has watched a few episodes of Law and Order will recognize as completely unworkable. For instance, police detectives don’t take civilian crime victims to help stake-out their attackers mere weeks after a crime has taken place. The most obvious reason is that this sort of situation would be dangerous for both the police officers and the victim. Moreover, this kind of set-up is completely devoid of empathy towards a person who has just endured a serious trauma.

This latter point brings us to the other, more disheartening problem about Call Me Princess. This is a novel written by a female author, about a female police officer who is investigating a string of heinous crimes against women. Given this, one might expect a substantial level of empathy throughout the book. But while Blaedel does attempt to make the reader feel for the victims—for instance, by relating both of the rape episodes from the women’s perspectives—her detective Rick is one of the more emotionally tone-deaf agents of the law that I’ve read in quite a long time.

Louise gestures towards compassion when dealing with rape victims—stiffly noting in one instance that the woman has “been through a terrifying experience”—but is unaccountably upset when the victim involved can’t render a full description of her rapist or articulate a full account of events just hours after she’s been attacked. There’s an explanation for this: we’re told that Louise avoids “…empathizing too much with other people’s sorrows and emotions,” in order to keep her work separate from her personal life. This makes sense, certainly. But Louise’s struggle to be understanding towards others bleeds into her personal life as well: into her relationship with her boyfriend, and also with her best friend Camilla. Struggling to be compassionate seems to be a major part of Louise’s character development in this series, so perhaps this weakness is meant to align her with the typical police detectives that abound in the genre: married to their work, solitary, unyielding in their morals and motivations. But more often than not, it just makes Louise Rick a difficult detective to root for.

Fun Reads for Friday: Dancing Books, Nancy Pearl’s Wishlist, New Libraries, and Library Phantoms

Happy Friday!

Stop-Motion Bookstore Dance-a-Thon

This stop-motion video, “The Joy of Books,” is making its way around the internet. The (unnamed?) couple who made the video staged this after-hours book dance-a-thon in Toronto’s Type bookstore, which gives me yet another reason to go back to Toronto.

Nancy Pearl Gets Her Own Book Line

The inimitable Nancy Pearl, librarian for the masses, is partnering with Amazon to kick off her own line of reissued books: Book Lust Rediscoveries. The line, which will release six of Pearl’s “favorite, presently out-of-print books” every year, has already announced its first two titles: A Gay and Melancholy Sound by Merle Miller and After Life by Rhian Ellis. (The latter sounds particularly good to me.) Nancy has blogged about her “Reissues Wish List” before now–maybe we can guess what some of her future titles will be from this 2009 list. This is another example of Amazon using its new publishing power for good–I’m really looking forward to these (re)releases.

Canada Water Library — Review” (Rowan Moore, Guardian Architecture section, December 3, 2011)

Like libraries? Apparently, the Southwark neighborhood of London is the place for you. Not only have the    good people of Southwark decided to maintain all twelve of their existing libraries (it would be interesting to know what the size of the population that uses these libraries is), they upped the ante and decided to build a brand new one in the heart of a former shipping district, called Canada Water, within the old Surrey Commercial Docks area. “Ever since the 1980s, the intention has been to regenerate [the area], both to bring business and create something like a town centre.”

The article has a lot to say about this flagging process of regeneration and some of the features around the new Canada Water library, as well as about the building itself. Some highlights:

The best form for a reading room is wide and horizontal, but there was not enough space for this at ground level, squeezed between the tube exit and the waterside. So the reading room is at the top, with the building widening as it ascends to make space for it, with the added benefit that the most important part of the building is placed high up – if not in the clouds, at least sufficiently far from the ground to feel removed and a little dreamy, as a library should.

Raised, it makes occasion for the spiral staircase, which in turn makes the business of going somewhere for a book into a little event or ceremony, rather than a sideways drift such as you might make into a supermarket.

From a practical question – how to put a library on a site too small for it – comes the pleasure of the architecture. Within the ample volume of the reading room, zigzagging shelves create more intimate places in a way almost reminiscent of the great Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.

But while it doesn’t, apparently, “achieve Scandinavian levels of craftsmanship,” says Moore, “…the important thing about the Canada Water library is that a new public place has been created, where the architecture contributes to and expands the experience of using it.”

The Library Phantom Returns!” (Robert Krulwich, NPR, November 30, 2011)

In September 2011, I posted about an anonymous book-loving book artist who was leaving incredibly intricate, beautiful sculpture tributes in libraries and literary organizations all over Scotland. After a bit of a hiatus, the artist left three more amazing creations in the Scottish Poetry Museum, the National Museum of Scotland, and the Robert Louis Stevenson Room at the Writer’s Museum. These will apparently be the last of the mystery sculptures (there have been ten in all). Said the artist (in a short, third-person statement): “It’s important that a story is not too long………does not become tedious……….”You need to know when to end a story,” she thought.”

The statement also indicates that the artist is not a professional–“this was the first time she had dissected books and used them simply because they seemed fitting.” Which makes these creations all the more fabulous. (I also just love her sense of humor–the T-Rex bursting out of The Lost World.) She called these sculptures “a tiny gesture.”

2011: My Year in Books

Welcome back, dear readers, and happy 2012! After taking a bit of a hiatus over the winter holidays, I’m back and looking forward to a new year filled with new books. But before we start afresh, I’d like to take a look back at the books that made up my 2011. Maybe this is an indulgent exercise, but we all have ways of reflecting at the new year, don’t we? And, as an avid reader, what could be more telling indicator of myself and the sort of year I’ve had, than my book list?

This was an atypical year for me, reading wise, on several counts. For one, I read more books this year than I probably ever have–72 total, or 6 books a month. (To be clear, I’m including some graphic novels, novellas, and YA fiction in my count–not just 400+ page works of canonical literature. But still.) This was also a very English year for me, both in terms of the language many of the books I read were written in, and in terms of nationality. I also read several series and/or several books written by the same author. During the first part of the year I was interning at a public library in Manhattan and programming a artist panel and comic art competition for teens, so with the advice of a well-versed friend, started dipping my toe into the immense pond of Graphic Novels. Regardless of the motivations, all of these are fairly unusual reading selections for me, given my typical predilections.

So, here goes: my 2011, chronologically (oldest to most recent), in books:

  1. The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them: Elif Batuman
    • The first book I read in 2011 and by far one of the best, most illuminating, and funniest books I read all year. As a creative writer (essayist, novelist) who moonlighted as an academic in a Comparative Literature Ph.D. program at Berkeley for seven years, Batuman manages to lampoon academia while still making an earnest, credible case for the value of studying something that you love (such as Russian literature) in depth for nearly a decade, even if it means flying in the face of practicality. Also, being a Turkish-American who grew up speaking Turkish (she was born in New Jersey, to Turkish immigrants), she both understands and articulates the many reasons that studying something just because it is part of your direct heritage or ancestry is completely irrelevant. I loved this book. I will probably re-read it in 2012.
  2. Sleepover Sleuths (Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew #1): Carolyn Keene

    • Knowing that I love mysteries–and was once a devoted Nancy Drew fan–my nine year old sister gave me this first installment in yet another Nancy Drew spin off series. Here, Nancy solves mysteries as a kid–her first case is to find a lost, American Girl sort of doll that disappeared at a sleep over.
  3. Real Murders: Charlaine Harris

    • A reissue of the first installment in Harris’ Aurora Teagarden series, which caught my eye because the main character is a public librarian. One of the worst books I read all year, hands down. (Link above to review.)
  4. Fables (Deluxe Edition, Book 1): Bill Willingham

    • My first successful foray into graphic fiction was with this series, in which all of the world’s most well-known fairy tale creatures, characters, and legends have been driven out of their homeland by some nameless evil power and forced to live undercover in New York City.
  5. Talking About Detective Fiction: P.D. James

    • I was thrilled to read James’ nonfiction exploration of the mystery/detective genre, even if it was–as she freely admitted–almost completely biased toward a particular (Golden) era of British writing. She can be harsh with her opinions, but always in context. And it gave me a lot of classic British mystery authors to write down for future reading.
  6. Fables (Deluxe Edition, Book 2): Bill Willingham
  7. Dark Entries: Ian Rankin

    • Another graphic novel, recommended by the same friend who recommended Fables. I was interested particularly because I’ve been meaning to read some of Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels set in Edinburgh. The horror/occult plot here was really thin, though, and didn’t work for me.
  8. Strictly Murder! A Writer’s Guide to Criminal Homicide: Martin Roth
    • Strictly terrible. Picked up while shelving–thought it might have some good procedural sort of tips for a mystery novel I was kicking around some ideas for. Hilarious mini chapter on female murderers which float “Hormonal changes/premenstrual syndrome or post-partum depression” as some of the most common reasons that women commit murders.
  9. The Monsters of Templeton: Lauren Groff

    • A contemporary American novel set in a fictionalized version of Cooperstown, New York. I was looking for something with a magical realist/East Coast MFA vibe and this fit the bill nicely.
  10. Fair Play: Tove Jansson, Trans. Thomas Teal

    • Another brilliant novel by Jansson, reissued by the New York Review of Books. My favorite Jansson book thus far, hands down, and another of the best I read last year. (Link to review.)
  11. Fables: March of the Wooden Soldiers (Vol. 4): Bill Willingham
  12. Fables: The Mean Seasons (Vol. 5): Bill Willingham
  13. Fables: Homelands (Vol. 6): Bill Willingham
  14. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains: Nicholas Carr

    • Reading selection for the New York Librarians Book Club
  15. Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico: Javier Marias, Trans. Esther Allen

    • I wish I had written about this when I read it, because I don’t remember enough about it now. But it was a wonderful, breathless, and frantic novella and I do remember that much of the plot line is dependent on an unassuming interpreter getting himself into all sorts of chaos because of the way he interprets a conversation between two parties. The sort of scene I would have gotten at least a ten page paper out of in college.
  16. The Girl in the Green Raincoat: Laura Lippman

    • Serialized mystery with a great sense of place (Baltimore), character, and more Rear Window references than you can shake a stick at. Really fun. (Link to review.)
  17. Frozen Assets: Quentin Bates

    • Bates (British) tackles a mystery set in rural Iceland, starring a Fargo-esque female detective. Another good one for armchair travel. (Link to review.)
  18. The Adults: Alison Espach

    • This book–written by a young Brooklyn author who lives in my neighborhood–has a truly fantastic beginning. All downhill from there.
  19. The Last Kingdom: Bernard Cornwell

    • My mother of all people recommended this to me. Epic mayhem and manly honor in the viking age. An Englishman is kidnapped and adopted by Danes and then spends the next several decades of his life battling both for and against them (sometimes with King Alfred the Great). Great on the historical details/rituals/context; was unfortunately not in an epic enough mood for this at the time I read it.
  20. Love in a Cold Climate: Nancy Mitford

    • I am so sorry it took me so long to find Nancy Mitford. Wit and eccentricity and gossip: the lives and loves and missteps of the British upperclass, as observed by someone near to, but outside of, the whole mess.
  21. Plain Kate: Erin Bow

    • YA novel, gifted to me by a dear friend. Eerie, medieval alterna-verse, in which cats can talk and young women really do have an awful time of it.
  22. Translation is a Love Affair: Jacques Poulin, Trans. Sheila Fischman

    • A lovely, multi-layered story by a little known (or at least, little known here) Quebecois author which says more about human relationships in its thin volume than many more showy books do in double the page count.
  23. Baltimore Blues: Laura Lippman

    • I so enjoyed The Girl in the Green Raincoat that I decided to go back and begin at the beginning. This is the first in Lippman’s Tess Monaghan series. Baltimore is still one of the main characters, and it was good, if a little uneven.
  24. Stitches: David Small

    • Graphic novel memoir–not for the faint of heart–about a man’s childhood struggle with cancer and troubles at home with his withholding/domineering parents.
  25. Bone: Out from Boneville (vol. 1): Jeff Smith

    • A classic of the graphic novel genre–addicting, and hard to put your finger on. A mix of fantasy, adventure, satire, and really classic storytelling. Great art–very clean and simple, but gets a lot across in each panel.
  26. SideScrollers: Matthew Loux

    • Loux was one of the panelists at my comic event at the public library I interned for. This graphic novel of his was widely acclaimed and very successful when it was released. Sort of a Scott Pilgrim meets Clerks vibe.
  27. Northanger Abbey: Jane Austen

    • Having finally accepted the fact that I do actually like reading Austen (it took me awhile to get there), I started working on reading some of her lesser-read works. Very much enjoyed this one. Could be retitled Frenemies in Regency England and be successfully repackaged as a chick-lit novel, I think.
  28. Beasts of Burden: Evan Dorkin

    • Graphic novel: animals solve mysteries about animals.
  29. Jane Eyre: Charlotte Brontë

    • My first time reading the novel, admittedly after I saw the movie. What a character! What writing! I was reading this while on vacation with some friends and it was all I could do not to ignore them the whole time and stay stashed away in a back bedroom reading this. I spent the entire time wishing that I had read this when I was in high school. It would have meant a lot to me then–probably something a lot different than it did when I read it this time.
  30. Apartment Gardening: Plants, Projects, and Recipes for Growing Food in Your Urban Home: Amy Pennington

    • This book corresponded quite neatly with the dawn of my urban-prairie wife phase. I joined a community garden, got doubly serious about my canning endeavors, and started sewing–all in one season. And although Pennington isn’t so much talking about gardening in an apartment on the East Coast (she’s actually got a whole deck to work with in the Pacific Northwest), I got a lot out of this anecdotal, DIY book.
  31. Happy Birthday, Turk! : Jakob Arjouni, Trans. Anselm Hollo

    • I reviewed four of Arjouni’s newly reissued crime novels set in Germany and starring a German detective of Turkish descent, Kemal Kanyankaya. This installment (the first) is pretty great–some of the others belabor (important) issues of racism, immigrant rights, and cultural assimilation to the point of farce. (Review of series and the Melville International Crime imprint via link above.)
  32. Bone: The Great Cow Race (Vol. 2): Jeff Smith
  33. The Imperfectionists: Tom Rachman

    • Sometimes you find some great surprises on your own bookshelf. (I wrote a fairly extensive, though informal, review of this book which I posted on the blog. Review via the link above.)
  34. Bone: Eyes of the Storm (Vol. 3): Jeff Smith
  35. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake: Aimee
    • I found this book while I was shelving at my library internship and picked it up because I liked the cover. It gave me a serious craving for lemon cake (this was around my birthday, it bears noting) and was a wonderful spontaneous, unexpected find. Very much out of my usual aesthetic.
  36. The Brutal Telling: Louise Penny

    • Another ‘novel of place,’ this one set in a small snowy village in Quebec. I actually read this book (the 5th in Penny’s Inspector Gamche series) because I really wanted to read the following book, Bury Your Dead. I had it on good advice that Bury Your Dead absolutely depended on plot points in the prior novel, which intrigued me. It’s not often that a plot line will carry across two (crime) novels. I ended up liking this one a lot better than its successor, even though there are some red herrings at the end that are a bit unnecessary. But great characterization and tone, and it definitely made me want to visit Quebec (again).
  37. Under the Bright Lights (The Bayou Trilogy 1): Daniel Woodrell

    • I had been very interested to read one of Woodrell’s “country noir” novels, after seeing and enjoying the movie adaptation of Winter’s Bone. His “Bayou Trilogy” set in St. Bruno, Louisiana starring police detective Rene Shade have some qualities to recommend them–he’s got a great ear for dialog, for one–but overall, these didn’t totally light my fire. (Review of all three in the series via link.)
  38. Muscle for the Wing (The Bayou Trilogy #2): Daniel Woodrell
  39. The Ones You Do (The Bayou Trilogy #3): Daniel Woodrell
  40. Bury Your Dead: Louise Penny
  41. One Man, One Murder: Jakob Arjouni, Trans. Anselm Hollo
  42. Uglies: Scott Westerfeld

    • I had had this YA title on my shelf for some time and, loving Westerfeld’s “Midnighters” series and his one-off novel Peeps, was expecting to love the post-apocalyptic world of Uglies. It really didn’t work for me, but I’m certainly not giving up on Westerfeld for future reads.
  43. The Unfinished Clue: Georgette Heyer

    • Thus began my foray into the plentiful oeuvre of Georgette Heyer. I went to a talk hosted by the Jane Austen society of New York at which an academic discussed the parallels between Austen’s work and many of Heyer’s regency romances. Heyer was a dedicated Austenite, a prolific researcher who stressed incredible historical accuracy in her work, and the author of 50+ novels (both romance and crime novels) which were incredibly successful in their time. (She wrote from roughly the 1930s to the 1960s.) I was going to write a piece on Heyer that didn’t end up coming to fruition, but I did have a very fruitful run reading four of her novels last year.
  44. Tender at the Bone: Ruth Reichel

    • A very spontaneous read that definitely changed my previously disparaging opinion of food-themed memoirs. Reichel is a wonderful prose writer and her reflections on food are just as interesting as the life she’s led.
  45. The Year of Secret Assignments: Jaclyn Moriarty

    • A spontaneous YA read (I found it on a book list somewhere). I think it will suffice to quote the Goodreads blurb I wrote at the time, which read: “A million times fun. With the pranks, and the cleverness, and the epistolary format, and the wonderful friendship shared by the three female protagonists, I am sold, sold, sold.”
  46. More Beer: Jakob Arjouni, Trans. Anselm Hollo
  47. Borkmann’s Point: Håkan Nesser, Trans. Laurie Thompson

    • Inspired by a summer screening series at the Scandinavia House of the Swedish TV show based on Nesser’s Van Veeteren series. Neither version–the book or the TV adaptation–worked for me, and I wrote about both here (link above).
  48. The Best of Everything: Rona Jaffe

    • A working-girls-in-the-late-50s novel cited by Mad Men and apparently quite scandalous at the time for its portrayal of women’s sex lives, abortions, etc. Jaffe takes a sympathetic insider’s view of the typing pool and the romantic misadventures of her young female protagonists, but I couldn’t help feeling that not only did it go on too long, but I was somewhat disappointed to find that the dream closest to each young woman’s heart (even those who become successful in the publishing world) seems to be to find a man and settle down. Still, many of the characters really have stuck with me, and it’s a great ensemble portrait of an era that seems entirely of the past, and yet really wasn’t that long ago.
  49. Ruined: Paula Morris

    • A post-Katrina gothic YA most memorable to me for the fact that the ghostly character on the front cover (white, blondish) is, quite pointedly, a black girl in the novel. Arg. You’d think we were past such whitewashing (see here for an incident in 2009 which got a lot of coverage), but we’re not.
  50. Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?: Johan Harstad, Trans. Deborah Dawkin

    • I wish I had written about this when I read it, because I loved it. It’s a great book–quirky, meandering, emotional (but not in a gimmicky way) and makes brilliant use of its Faroe Island setting and, more importantly, many, many Cardigans songs. About a young, aimless Norwegian man who allows himself to be carried along by a series of unusual events (many of which he can’t remember at the outset) until he’s making tourist-baiting souvenirs at a sort of permanent half-way house for people with mental and emotional issues on the Faroe Islands. There is an emotionally redemptive Thor Heyerdahl-esque boat journey to the Caribbean, too. It’s really great.
  51. Aiding and Abetting: Muriel Spark

    • I was considering a trip to Scotland and so decided that I should give Dame Spark a try. This book (and Spark’s prose style/narrative approach/and perhaps her social positions as well) is not without its issues, but overall, I loved it. The momentum reading this one took me to one of her others: Loitering with Intent. This book also features one of my new favorite quotes: “She wasn’t a person to whom things happen. She did all the happenings.” (Informal review of book linked above.)
  52. The Little Book of Icelanders: Alda Sigmundsdóttir
    • Could also be called “fun facts about Icelanders!” And it is. By one of my favorite Icelandic bloggers. (Linked review above.)
  53. Egil’s Saga: Trans. Bernard Scudder

    • I have a deluxe Penguin edition of The Sagas of Icelanders that I’ve been trying to make myself read for probably two or three years. It’s not that I’m not interested–it’s honestly that the book is really rather huge and difficult to take on the subway (no e-version as of yet, I don’t think). Nevertheless, I took my first real trip to Iceland this year and couldn’t go without reading at least one saga.
  54. Snobs: Julian Fellowes

    • What can I say? Fellowes hooked me with Gosford Park and Downton Abbey and so I went in search of his first novel. It’s much harder to care about the marital troubles of a young woman who marries for money and is stifled by life in the country when the book is set in the 1990s and said female character refused to go to college. However, I liked the POV–the narrator is a friend of the main characters and observes on all from the sidelines.
  55. The Headhunters: Jo Nesbø, Trans. Don Bartlett

    • I was really sold on the back story of this novel–that Nesbø was donating all proceeds (from the book, all its translations, and also its movie adaptation) to a charity he set up to fund world literacy projects–but the book is simply not for me. Nesbø is hit and miss for me, but this book made me really miss Harry Hole.
  56. Wonderstruck: Brian Selznick

    • A simultaneous feat of illustration and narrative. Recommended by my mother and little sister. (Informal review linked above.)
  57. Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way: Molly Birnbaum

    • Since I had done well with one food memoir last year, I thought I’d try Birnbaum’s–not the least because I too love to cook and have a very limited sense of smell. But this was way too self-pitying for me, particularly because Birnbaum had access to amazing people (which she seemed pretty ungrateful for) and after all her whining, got almost all of her sense of smell back. Didn’t finish this whole book, but rather, aggressively skimmed for quotes that would frustrate me.
  58. The Masqueraders: Georgette Heyer

    • One day, I’ll write a long piece about this book and its amazing gender subversion, ironical inner logic regarding manners and propriety, and the myriad delights of a swashbuckling masquerade. This book is (if you go for such things) pure enjoyment, well wrought.
  59. Karaoke Culture: Dubravka Ugrešić

    • Reading this book is, I’ll quote myself–forgive me, “like sitting with a highly caffeinated intellectual over tea.” My first exposure to Ugrešić, but not my last.
  60. Night Watch: Sergei Lukyanenko, Trans. Andrew Bromfield

    • Some thematic reading around Halloween.
  61. Mr. Fox: Helen Oyeyemi
    • Another rewarding challenge to my usual literary sensibilities.
  62. The Greenhouse: Auður A. Ólafsdóttir, Trans. Brian FitzGibbon

    • Another one of the best books I read all year. Also the first of ten Icelandic translations into English being published by Amazon’s new imprint, AmazonCrossing, in the coming year.
  63. The Vegan Slow Cooker: 150 Recipes for Intensely Flavorful, Fuss-Free Fare Everyone (Vegan or Not!) Will Devour: Kathy Hester

    • One of my best cookbook purchases of all time, and (although I’m not a vegan) it’s become a really integral reference for me. Hester actually makes use of fake meat in her recipes, which adds some nice variety; the collection has a broad range of unique recipes (not just the regular stews and soups, but baked goods in a crock pot?! + lots of Indian-inspired dishes); all the recipes are broken down into what needs to be done the night before and what’s done day of; and lastly, there is just an abundance of practical tips. I haven’t tried a recipe yet that I didn’t like.
  64. Cotillion: Georgette Heyer

    • Another Heyer. For fun, I started inter-library loaning these (rather difficult to track down in local branches) through the NYU library. Never failed to give me a kick to pick up a pink, Harlequin paperback with a very official inter-library loan sticker from an academic library.
  65. Loitering with Intent: Muriel Spark
  66. These Old Shades: Georgette Heyer

    • I convinced a friend of mine who is a real devotee of romance novels to read this one with me. My least favorite of the Heyer books I’ve read thus far. Very little romance, and way too much inter-generational paternalizing for my taste.
  67. The Invention of Hugo Cabret: Brian Selznick

    • Not as good as Wonderstruck, but worth it for the automaton and the film lesson.
  68. Call Me Princess: Sara Blaedel, Trans. Erick J. Macki and Tara F. Chance (no cover credit)

    • Blaedel is supposed to be “Danish Queen of Crime,” but this was just awful. Took me three starts and I only finished because I was months late on a review I’d promised.
  69. Tales of the City: Armistad Maupin

    • Serialized in a San Francisco paper originally, reading these stories is much like watching a TV show (it was adapted later). Bubbly and just salacious enough with a fun ensemble cast.
  70. Mister Blue: Jacques Poulin, Trans. Sheila Fischman

    • Not as good as Translation is a Love Affair, but in keeping with the same tones and themes.
  71. A Study in Scarlet: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

    • A return to an unread classic, which I dipped into while sitting on an afghan on the couch over Christmas. Kind of a strange little tale, but very funny in places, and ideal for the moment in which I read it.
  72. Innocent Blood: P.D. James

    • I stalled out on James’ A Taste for Death while visiting my family in Arizona over the winter holidays and so picked up this title from a local used bookstore chain instead. It has much of what makes James’ work so enjoyable: complex plotting and deeply realized characters. Also, a lot of the sort of twisted relational scenarios that pepper her stories. But it wasn’t really a mystery–at least in the way the cover sold it–and it didn’t really work for me. So I turned my attention to a mixed bag of short stories (Capote’s “A Christmas Memory,” most notably) to close my year.

And that’s it! 2011, chronologically, in books.