From Arizona to Iceland: A Summer 2012 Reading List

In honor of the summer solstice today, I thought I’d put together a list of books I’m very much looking forward to reading this summer. A few of these are new releases (or soon-to-be releases), a couple are older titles. All of them should be entertaining, which is what you obviously want in a summer book–a blazing sun and 50%+ humidity can make it hard to focus on denser tomes–although not everything on this list is, perhaps, a traditional ‘beach read.’ I seem to have also planned myself an armchair world tour, starting in the U.S. and working my way half way around the world before I’m done.

Any particular book that you, dear readers, are looking forward to dipping into whilst poolside this summer?

The American Southwest

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes

NYRB is bringing out this title by Hughes, a New Mexico-based mystery writer and critic (1904 – 1993), in July. I am not familiar with Hughes’ work (she was the author of 14 noirs and detective novels), but am intrigued by at least two other of her better-known works, the quirkily titled The Cross-Eyed Bear, and In a Lonely Place, which was made into a film with Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. The Expendable Man seems like a good place to start, though, particularly because I’m always on the look-out for books that accurately capture Arizona (my ‘homeland’). And the plot doesn’t sound half bad, either. From the description on the NYRB website:

“It was surprising what old experiences remembered could do to a presumably educated, civilized man.” And Hugh Denismore, a young doctor driving his mother’s Cadillac from Los Angeles to Phoenix, is eminently educated and civilized. He is privileged, would seem to have the world at his feet, even. Then why does the sight of a few redneck teenagers disconcert him? Why is he reluctant to pick up a disheveled girl hitchhiking along the desert highway? And why is he the first person the police suspect when she is found dead in Arizona a few days later?

Switzerland, (East) Germany, Israel

The Canvas by Benjamin Stein (Translated from the German by Brian Zumhagen)

I was delighted to receive a review copy of this title, forthcoming from Open Letter Press in September 2012. The book, which I’ve just started, is a sort of literary “Choose Your Own Adventure” loosely modeled “on the true story of Binjamin Wilkomirski, whose fabricated 1995 Holocaust memoir transfixed the reading public.” The Canvas contains two interconnected narratives which tell the respective tales of Jan Wechsler, a Jewish publisher and writer living in Berlin who receives a mysterious suitcase one Shabbos afternoon, and Amnon Zichroni, an Orthodox student of the Talmud who was born in Israel and is then sent to live with an uncle in Switzerland.

Part of the fun this book promises is the format–the two stories begin opposite and upside down from one another and read toward the center of the book. As it explains on the cover, “There are two main paths and intertwined side-trails running through this novel. Behind each cover is a possible starting point for the action. Where you begin reading is up to you, or to chance.”(For what it’s worth, I started with Jan Weschler’s story and already know that one of his opening chapters–in which he talks about the way books, particularly borrowed ones, are inexorably wrapped up in past memories–will remain with me for a long time. It’s just wonderful so far.)

Norway

It’s Fine by Me by Per Petterson, Translated from the Norwegian by Don Barlett

I believe that this book was already published in English in 2011, but Graywolf Press is bringing out another edition this coming October. It’s Fine by Me finds frequent Petterson stand-in Arvid Jansen (the narrator from the remarkable I Curse the River of Time and also In the Wake) in his youth, befriending Audun, a troubled new kid at his school who shares Arvid’s love of authors like Jack London and Ernest Hemingway. Per Tim Parks in The Guardian:

“…this edgy bildungsroman makes explicit what many will already have suspected: for Petterson, the craft of writing, of carefully reconstructing life’s precariousness in sentences as solid and unassuming as bricks, is itself a way of building shelter. For those who see danger everywhere, literature is a place of refuge.”

I think Arvid Jansen is a marvelous, complicated character, and I think Petterson has done a remarkable thing in carrying him through multiple novels and multiple points of his life. (Also interesting is the fact that (I think) Arvid doesn’t actually narrate It’s Fine by Me–I think Audun does.) I’m definitely looking forward to this one.

England

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor
Another NYRB title, Angel is the story of a dreamy shopgirl in Edwardian England who rises above her circumstances to become a successful author wealthy manor-mistress. I’ll be coming to this book with prior–although perhaps inaccurate–expectations: it was the basis for François Ozon’s opulent, lavishly campy romp of a film, starring Romola Garai and Michael Fassbender. I don’t know how the movie relates to the source novel yet, but on its own, its a rather delightful feat of melodrama, if you’re into that sort of thing, which I certainly am.

Based on what I’ve read about Taylor and Angel–Sam Jordison’s recent post in The Guardian’s Books Blog, “Rediscovering Elizabeth Taylor–the brilliant novelist,” is good for quick context–I won’t be surprised if the novel strikes a more serious, reflective tone, but either way, I’ll definitely be interested in comparing the original and its adaptation.

Iceland

The Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness (Translated from the Icelandic by Magnus Magnusson)

I’m slowly but surely working my way through the cornerstones of Icelandic literature–the Sagas and the novels of Iceland’s only Nobel laureate to date, Halldór Laxness. Thus far, I’ve read The Great Weaver from Kashmir, one of Halldór’s early novels and certainly an interesting introduction to his oeuvre, even if it isn’t one of his ‘larger’ works. I’ve also read (and loved) Under the Glacier, which contains one of my all-time favorite quotes: “Remember, any lie you are told, even deliberately, is often a more significant fact than a truth told in all sincerity.”

I’ve read about half each of Independent People and Iceland’s Bell, and was greatly enjoying both when I got distracted in my reading–not finishing in these instances is not indicative of the books’ quality, for sure. But until I get the beginning of both of these half-read novels out of my head so that I can start them again fresh, I would like to read another one of Halldór’s ‘lighter’ novels. The Fish Can Sing, set in the small settlement of Brekkukot and told through the eyes of the orphan Álfgrímur, who–from what I can tell from pieced-together summaries–spends the book reflecting on his simple upbringing, storytelling, and the larger, (Danish) world outside of Brekkukot . I believe there’s an opera singer involved, too.

This is perhaps a measly pitch for reading the book, but it sounds wonderful to me. There’s a good review by M.A. Orthofer over at The Complete Review, and that site also archives a number of other reviews of the book, too.


Why This Book Should Win the BTBA: Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Three Percent is posting write-ups of each of the 25 books nominated for the long list of this year’s Best Translated Book Award (BTBA). I was pleased to be asked to contribute my own piece for Johan Harstad’s Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? It’s a casual recap/list of awesome things about this great book, but gave me a good excuse to go back and re-read much of the book, which was among my favorites last year. The re-read did nothing but confirm my positive feelings about the book, so I highly recommend that you check it out.

While I was reacquainting myself with Buzz Aldrin, I also ran across some interesting related links that I wanted to call to your attention:

  • Harstad has had three pieces of short fiction published at Words Without Borders, which are all available online, here.
  • The Power of Second,” and interview conducted with Harstad for The Brooklyn Rail, in which the author admits that despite what Buzz Aldrin might suggest, he’s “not a great Cardigans fan,” and also that “the novel as a whole will possibly read nicely to the sound of Beck’s Sea Change and Sigur Ros’s Ágætis Byrjun,” which sound like great pairings to me as well.
  • A 2010 piece in N+1 called Into the Woods: On Norwegian Literature” by Silje Bekeng uses Harstad and his work as an example of young Norwegian writers who “have found ways to use classic themes to reflect on the era they’re writing themselves into.” I remember reading this piece at the time and really enjoying it, but Harstad’s book hadn’t been published in English yet. Having read Buzz Aldrin now, Bekeng’s observations resonate more, but it’s still an interesting article if you haven’t read the book.

My “Why This Book Should Win” piece for Buzz Aldrin is on the Three Percent website, here. The full text is also below.

***

When we meet 29-year-old Mattias, the narrator of Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?, he is happy and satisfied with his life. He loves his girlfriend, Helle, who he has dated for twelve years. He loves his job as a gardener at a local nursery–so much that he often comes in early to just sit in the quiet of the garden alone. Idolizing Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, Mattias only wants to “be a smooth running cog in the world. To do the right thing. Nothing more.” Instead of seeking recognition for his talents (he’s a wonderful singer, for instance) or trying to distinguish himself in an impressive career, Mattias instead hopes to blend into the background, “to vanish into the commotion out there, to be number two, a person who made himself useful instead of trying to stand out, who did the job he was asked to do.”

The simplicity of Mattias’ world is upended in short order, however, when Helle leaves him for another man (someone who “wanted to be seen in the world”), and he loses his job at the now-bankrupt nursery. Depressed and hopeless, he follows his friend’s band to a music festival on the Faroe Islands. The next thing he remembers is waking up face down in the rain, in the middle of a dirt road in the Faroe countryside, with 15,000 kroner in his pocket.

Norwegian author Johan Harstad’s Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? was, without a doubt, one of the best books I read last year. Won over almost immediately by just the title, I picked up the book on a whim and then spent the next few days delightedly underlining each wonderful sentence or clever bit of dialog until I realized that if I didn’t stop, I’d soon have underlined the whole book. As I read it, I talked about the book incessantly, reading bits aloud in bars, and generally recommending it to every third person I met on the street. The book is extremely well written, it’s funny, and it’s affecting without being trite. But as is so often the case with books that I’ve truly loved, it’s hard to go back and objectively critique it. What’s easier–and more fun–is to give you a short list of reasons that Buzz Aldrin is a fantastic book that you should go read now, and a great contender for this year’s BTBA:

1. It’s wonderfully written. Johan Harstad is an incredible prose stylist who pays particular attention to natural details. (All due credit to translator Deborah Dawkin that the language reads so fluidly.) Harstad has a knack for intermixing delightfully odd observations (“Tuesday. The week’s most superfluous day.”) with fantastically long, melodic trains-of-thought which fully immerse you in Mattias’ perspective. The opening paragraph of the book has a great example of this:

“I bend over the tulips, gloves on my feet, small pruning shears between my fingers, it’s extremely early, one April morning in 1999 and it’s beginning to grow warmer, I’ve noticed it recently, a certain something has begun to stir, I noticed it as I got out of the car this morning, in the gray light, as I opened the gates into the nursery, the air had grown softer, more rounded at the edges, I’d even considered changing out of my winter boots and putting my sneakers on.”

2. The Faroe Island Setting: A write-up in Kirkus Reviews embarrassingly referred to Buzz Aldrin as “the long-awaited Great Faroese Novel,” by which they probably meant not to discredit the brilliant (and actually Faroese) novels by William Heinesen, but rather to point out that the Faroe Island setting is as much a character in this book as any of the people. As described by Harstad, the Faroese landscape is not only evocative and otherworldly, it also provides an important counterpoint for Mattias’ isolationist worldview. There are less than 50,000 people living on the Faroe Islands, so it’s impossible to blend into the background as Mattias would like. As he comes to realize, “…for each person that died, there was one less inhabitant, one less person to meet on the road, one less person who spoke the same language.”

3. The Cardigans: Never has a book paid better homage to this Swedish pop band (you know you loved them, too). One of the book’s main characters listens exclusively to albums by The Cardigans because “…everything I need is in this band.” Also, each of the book’s four sections is named after a different Cardigans album. (Funnily enough, Harstad said in an interview that he isn’t really a big fan himself. “I chose the band because I couldn’t figure out who would love such a band.”)

4. The Cultural Collage: Harstad brings together a variety of historical and cultural reference points (beyond The Cardigans)–from Radiohead and Top Gun to the unsolved murder of Swedish prime minister Olaf Palme, the start of Bosnian War, the Chernobyl disaster, and the Challenger space ship explosion–not just to prove his zeitgeisty prowess, but also to create a fully contextual background for his characters and their general sense of unease and displacement. The main action of the book takes place between the mid-eighties and late nineties–not so long ago, and yet, long enough to be able to reflect back now on what a unsettling couple of decades it was.

5. The Epic Thor Heyerdahl-esque Escape: Thor Heyerdahl was a Norwegian adventurer and anthropologist who sailed roughly 8,000 km from Peru to Polynesia on a homemade raft (the Kon-Tiki) in 1947. After a particularly unexpected plot development, Mattias and his companions make a similar voyage from The Faroe Islands to the Caribbean. It’s awesome.

The Best Translated Book Award 2012 Longlist

Today, Three Percent released the longlist for 2012’s Best Translated Book Award (BTBA), and judging from the list, I fell behind in my international reading last year. You can check out the press release with more information about the selection process on the Three Percent blog here, but I’ve pasted the longlist below.

The 2012 BTBA Fiction Longlist (in alphabetical order by author):

Leeches by David Albahari
Translated from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursać
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret B. Carson
(Open Letter)

Demolishing Nisard by Eric Chevillard
Translated from the French by Jordan Stump
(Dalkey Archive Press)

Private Property by Paule Constant
Translated from the French by Margot Miller and France Grenaudier-Klijn
(University of Nebraska Press)

Lightning by Jean Echenoz
Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale
(New Press)

Zone by Mathias Énard
Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell
(Open Letter)

Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? by Johan Harstad
Translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin
(Seven Stories)

Upstaged by Jacques Jouet
Translated from the French by Leland de la Durantaye
(Dalkey Archive Press)

Fiasco by Imre Kertész
Translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson
(Melville House)

Montecore by Jonas Hassen Khemiri
Translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles
(Knopf)

Kornél Esti by Dezső Kosztolányi
Translated from the Hungarian by Bernard Adams
(New Directions)

I Am a Japanese Writer by Dany Laferrière
Translated from the French by David Homel
(Douglas & MacIntyre)

Suicide by Edouard Levé
Translated from the French by Jan Steyn
(Dalkey Archive Press)

New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani
Translated from the Italian by Judith Landry
(Dedalus)

Purgatory by Tomás Eloy Martínez
Translated from the Spanish by Frank Wynne
(Bloomsbury)

Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski
Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston
(Archipelago Books)

Scenes from Village Life by Amos Oz
Translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

The Shadow-Boxing Woman by Inka Parei
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire
(Seagull Books)

Funeral for a Dog by Thomas Pletzinger
Translated from the German by Ross Benjamin
(W.W. Norton)

Scars by Juan José Saer
Translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph
(Open Letter)

Kafka’s Leopards by Moacyr Scliar
Translated from the Portuguese by Thomas O. Beebee
(Texas Tech University Press)

Seven Years by Peter Stamm
Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann
(Other Press)

The Truth about Marie by Jean-Philippe Toussaint
Translated from the French by Matthew B. Smith
(Dalkey Archive Press)

In Red by Magdalena Tulli
Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston
(Archipelago Books)

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean
(New Directions)

I’ve read David Albahari before (I was a big fan of his Words Are Something Else in college), I’ve been meaning to read a different title (Unformed Landscape) of Peter Stamm’s  for a few years, and I am aware of several other authors on the list. But the only one I’ve actually read is Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?, which thankfully, I did really love. (Never has there been a book that has integrated the Cardigans’ Grand Turismo so well). But otherwise, I’ve got nothing on these titles or authors. So it’s time to do some research, eh?

Prior to posting the longlist, Chad Post asked readers of the blog to contribute titles that they were either guessing would be included, or just hoping to see on the list. I actually forgot that Buzz Aldrin was published in the right time frame to qualify (December 1, 2010 – December 31, 2011) so it wasn’t in my short list. Just for kicks, here are some titles–in no particular order–I would have liked to see included (obviously I skew a little more northerly than the judges….):

  • The Greenhouse by Audur Ava Olafsdottir, Translated from the Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon
  • The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson, Translated from the Swedish by Michael Meyer (I haven’t reviewed The Long Ships, so no link above, but Nick Pinkerton had a good one on The L Magazine website here, and Michael Chabon–who wrote the kinda lame, but certainly enthusiastic, introduction–wrote a piece about it for The Paris Review here.)
  • Fair Playby Tove Jansson, Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal (Teal won last year, so this would have been a long shot, but it’s such a good book! My favorite Jansson so far.)
  • Karaoke Culture by Dubraka Ugresic, Translated from the Croatian by David Williams

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.

NBCC Reads: Favorite Comic Novels

For the last four years, the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) has had a regular feature on their blog, Critical Mass, called “NBCC Reads.” For this feature, NBCC members are asked to share their “bookish expertise” on a variety of topics. This spring’s question was “What are your favorite comic novels?” My own answers–along with those of  Bob Grumman, the editor at Runaway Spoon Press, and Chelsey Philpott, the associate editor of book reviews at the School Library Journal, were featured in this week’s post, which you can read here.

I’ll leave the (admittedly brief) explanations for my choices for you to check out on the NBCC blog, but for shorthand, I voted for Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate, and Halldór Laxness’ Under the Glacier.

All of the member answers to the question–some of which are more in-depth–are archived on Critical Mass here.

Booklist’s The Year’s Best Crime Novels

Booklist‘s has just published a list of “The Year’s Best Crime Novels,” (compiled by Booklist publisher/editor Bill Ott) which does, of course, raise a few questions given that it’s only May. But whatever the logic behind this mid-year round-up (maybe it’s their own annual cycle? Some of the books were published in 2010, some in 2011…), it’s an enjoyable list of 20 books–there’s a top ten, and also a list of the ten best debut crime novels. You can check out the full list on their website, but I’ve cherry-picked a few of the ones that sound most interesting to highlight below.

I’ve actually only read one of the titles, but I was glad to see it on the list: Camilla Lackberg’s excellent debut novel, The Ice Princess, which I reviewed for Reviewing the Evidence in June 2010.

But here are some titles that sounded particularly interesting to me, just in time for summer reading!

Bury Your Dead. By Louis Penny. 2010. Minotaur, $24.99 (9780312377045).

Penny’s sixth Armande Gamache novel is her best yet, a true tour de force of storytelling. Juggling three freestanding but subtly intertwined stories, Penny moves seamlessly from present to past as Gamache, the chief inspector of the Sûreté du Quebec, investigates a murder in Quebec City, tries to determine if he jailed the wrong man in an earlier case, and struggles with his memories of a third case that went horribly wrong. Penny hits every note perfectly in what is one of the most elaborately constructed mysteries in years.

Painted Ladies. By Robert B. Parker. 2010. Putnam, $26.95 (9780399156854).

Are we honoring the late Parker’s career here or is this really one of his best books in its own right? Well, both. His penultimate Spenser novel captures all the charm of the landmark series. The iconic Boston PI can still nail a person’s foibles on first meeting, still whip up a gourmet meal in a few minutes, still dispatch the thugs who haunt his office and his home, and still do it all while maintaining a fierce love of Susan Silverman and English poetry. Parker was one of the first to show us that a hard-boiled hero doesn’t have to frown all the time, and we’ve been smiling along with Spenser ever since.

Started Early, Took My Dog. By Kate Atkinson. 2011. Little, Brown/Reagan Arthur, $24.99 (9780316066730).

In the latest entry in Atkinson’s brilliant Jackson Brodie series, the semiretired detective is touring abbeys in northern England, but soon enough he becomes involved in several interrelated cases, one of which concerns a police detective who has rescued a child from a prostitute by paying cash for her. Her odyssey as a new parent, relayed with tenderness and wry wit, must be one of the grandest love affairs in crime fiction. For its singular melding of radiant humor and dark deeds, this is must-reading for fans of literary crime fiction.

Mr. Peanut. By Adam Ross. 2010. Knopf, $25.95 (9780307270702).

Despite the fact that David declares that he has been in love with wife Alice ever since he first spotted her in a film class, he is continually imagining her death via everything from carjackings to “convenient acts of God.” Naturally, when she is found dead at the kitchen table, he is the leading suspect. Ross is interested in all the soul-killing ways men and women try and fail to achieve intimacy, and he explores his age-old theme (marriage as one “long double homicide”) in eloquent prose and with a beguiling noirish sensibility.

A Preliminary PEN World Voices 2011 Schedule

By now, you (New Yorkers, at least) have almost certainly marked your calendar and set aside all of your free time at the end of April for the annual PEN World Voices Festival, that annual literary celebration of writers the world over who get together for a host of small, intimate panels featuring frequently esoteric subject matter (i.e. “Poetry and Yoga“) and often incongruously paired authors (i.e. David Almond and Sofi Oksanen) to almost universally delightful effect. There are a handful of annual events and happenings that I look forward to every year, and World Voices is–to me–up there with Ben & Jerry’s Free Cone Day and the Halloween Parade in Greenwich Village.

There are always more events than anyone (at least anyone with a day job) can attend, and progressively, more events are ticketed which although may be valid (for reasons of keeping attendance down and raising much-needed funds), is a development which I am kind of unhappy with. Never fear, though, there are plenty of free events worth attending. Below is a list of events I think are particularly worth noting and making it out for, especially since many like-themed events (on subjects such as translation) are scheduled on the same days and in the same locations. So go ahead, take a half day from work, and have a literary-minded day.

Also, many of last year’s events were recorded as MP3s and/or streaming video (such as the wonderful conversation that I linked to above) and are available on the World Voices 2010 website. If you want to get a sense of the festival, or catch up on some panels you missed last year, there are a lot of gems there.

The festival runs from April 25 to May 1. Here are some of the (free) events I’m looking forward to most (all descriptions from the PEN website):

Tuesday, March 26:

12 Noon: Lunchtime Literary Conversations: Ludovic Debeurme and Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold

In a not-so distant past, the lunchtime hour was a sacred time for editor and writer alike to exchange ideas. Take a respite from the day’s activities to hear a conversation between French graphic novelist Ludovic Debeurme and Norwegian author Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold. Winner of the Rene Goscinny Prize, Debeurme’s Lucille (forthcoming in May 2011) explores life and fantasies with elegant clean graphics and a profound love of childhood games. Winner of the 2009 Tarjei Vesaas First Book Prize, and Nominated for the 2009 Booksellers’ Prize, Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold’s first novel, The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am, stands out for its humorous earnestness and unusually inventive prose.

Wednesday, April 27

Lunchtime Literary Conversations: Laurence Cossé and Hervé Le Tellier
[Ed. Note: I reviewed Cosse’s newly translated novel A Novel Bookstore when it came out last year. My review is here.]

Take a respite from the day’s activity with the second event of our lunchtime conversations and enjoy a tête-à-tête between two bestselling French authors: Laurence Cossé, the author of The Corner of the Veil, Prime Minister’s Woman, and most recently, The Novel Bookstore; and Hervé Le Tellier, the author of Enough About Love, and the forthcoming The Sextine Chapel. Translation is available.

3:30 PM: Authors and Audiences (feat. Mario Bellatin, author of Beauty Salon)

A writer spends considerable time envisaging his or her readers. But as a manuscript makes its way across the editorial labyrinth—through the hands of editors, agents, publishers and booksellers—the imagined readers become elusive. Editor and author Albert Mobilio leads a fascinating panel discussion exploring the wide gulf between a writer’s desired audience and the readers they ultimately find.

7:00 PM: The Next Decade in Book Culture

The critic’s voice indelibly shapes the works we read. But in an age when readers are rapidly migrating to Twitter book clubs, literary web sites, and Amazon reader reviews, how will the critic continue to lead literary conversations? Join a conversation about the new power of the book review and the emergence of a unique reader experience in the age of the digital revolution.

Friday, April 29

12 Noon: Translating America

The quest for authenticity and idiosyncrasy would seem to place American writers beyond translation. Yet their popularity abroad—equaled only by loathing for our foreign policy—has sometimes dwarfed their readership at home and reshaped the global literary landscape. Here to discuss how this encounter has influenced their writing and their culture are four authors who have translated canonical American works: Huckleberry Finn, The Bell Jar, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Nickel and Dimed.

2:00 PM: The Great Global Book Swap

Imagine you are invited to a great global book swap and have to bring just one beloved book originally written in a foreign tongue: what would it be? Join five eminent writers who have trotted the globe and lived everywhere from Ireland to India, Latvia to Sudan, for a reading and a talk about the works of translation that enriched and changed their lives.

4:00 PM: Catalan Literature’s Modern Tradition

One of the world’s most beautiful romance languages, Catalan, has a rich literary trove, unknown to most of the English-speaking world. A discussion of seminal 20th-century works, such as Llorenc Villalonga’s The Doll’s Room and Josep Pla’s The Gray Notebook, led by renowned Catalan literary historians and translators, will show you a treasure of literature you’ll wish you’d found sooner.

8:45 PM: Best Translated Book Awards (Hosted by Open Letter Press’ Chad Post)

Established writers and translators such as David Grossman and Susan Bernofsky go up against relative newcomers such as Julia Franck and Edward Gauvin in this contest naming the Best Translated Books from 2010. Sponsored by the Three Percent web site, this event will name the winners in both the fiction and poetry categories, with $5,000 cash prizes (underwritten by Amazon.com) going to the winning authors and translators. Hosted by Chad W. Post, and featuring a range of top translators and literary enthusiasts, this program will highlight great works of world literature now available to English readers.

Saturday, April 30

2:00 PM: Best European Fiction

Revel in the spectacular story-telling of the celebrated anthology Best European Fiction. For 2011, editor Aleksandar Hemon and preface writer Colum McCann return to continue their discussion of European literature today, followed by readings and discussions with contributors from Moldova, Norway, and Slovenia.

6:00 PM: New Tendencies in Spanish Language Literatures

As in previous editions of the festival, Instituto Cervantes hosts a panel on the state of affairs in contemporary Spanish-language fiction. A distinguished group of novelists from both sides of the Atlantic will examine the situation of Latin American, Spanish, and Catalan literature, looking into the complex relationships among these rich traditions today. With the participation of Marcelo Figueras (Argentina), Enrique Serna (Mexico), Teresa Solana (Catalonia), and Manuel de Lope (Spain). Moderated by Eduardo Lago, novelist and executive director of the Cervantes Institute.

Sunday, May 1

1:00 PM: Translator Rights and Translator Wrongs

PEN Translation Committee Chair Susan Bernofsky teams up with intellectual property attorney Erach Screwvala to discuss intellectual property issues in literary translations and their implications for both the business and the artistic sides of the translator’s work. They are joined by three prominent translator-authors from Poland, the Czech Republic/Spain and Israel who will report on the status of the ownership of artistic works internationally, and reflect on the culture of translation in their respective countries.