The Year in Books
Books seem to defy market trends. They go down in price when they're at their apex of popularity and go even lower when they've dropped off the charts.
I've spent a lot of time thinking about the physical and market realities of books since I moved my household and had to pack up the evidence of three decades of bibliophilia. I still have the first book I ever owned, a small hardcover biography of Queen Elizabeth I. My dad bought it for me at the Irish Festival when I was 4.
My old landlord estimated that I had 3,000 books in my apartment. He was low-balling. Many of my friends volunteered to help, but most of them did so because they imagined I'd be using books as thank-you gifts. About the same number of friends avoided me, claiming back trouble.
In the end, moving my books was good for my soul, if not my friends' backs. It took more than 70 boxes to hold the books I wanted in my new house, and that was after numerous efforts to pare down. I made some hard choices--as much as I liked my Robert Parker paperbacks, I had to admit to myself that I would never reread a Spenser mystery. I also discovered that I need my own card catalog--I had four copies of Plato's Republic, two copies of Paul Bowles' Sheltering Sky, and seven hardcover dictionaries.
Packing all of my books and then unpacking some of them has made me think about the way we use books as objects. In filling the bookcases on the first floor of my new house, I used only hardcovers, and only recent ones. I didn't make a conscious decision about it, but those volumes looked better, had more presence. I filled the second-floor bookcases with my "guilty books"--the important unread classics from my undergraduate years, the mystery novels with the caterer/sleuth whose recipes I want to try, the occasional self-help book I would deny owning.
I'm not alone in making these sorts of distinctions. I have a friend who allowed his interior designer to buy the books now on his living-room shelves. From a distance, the hardbacks look impressive, all leather spines and gold lettering. Up close, though, any guest can see that they're Reader's Digest Condensed Volumes. Another friend recently saw some books at an estate sale. It was a collection of classic literature being sold in a single lot as a decorative item. Someone--clearly not the books' original owner--believed their looks and presence to be their only value.
Then there's the much-ballyhooed incident between Jonathan Franzen and Oprah Winfrey. She wanted to feature his novel on her TV show, and he worried that the association, which included a redesigned book jacket to highlight Winfrey's approval, would lower the artistic value of his work.
I'd like to think that I'm above that kind of petty thinking--it's the words inside that matter, right? But as I look back over the year in books, I see myself checking my copy of Franzen's The Corrections to make sure there's no oprah's book club sticker on the front. That would clash with the intellectual décor of my new living room.
City Paper books writers Frank Diller, Mahinder Kingra, Lily Thayer, Rupert Wondolowski, and myself each contributed a list of our favorite books this year for a brokered poll. Read on for the collective results; you can also peruse the the individual lists. (Eileen Murphy)
The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) Franzen's comments and halfhearted retractions for allegedly maligning overrated book clubs, chain-store monopolies, and even Lithuania threatened to overshadow his work. But there's a reason that Franzen won the 2001 National Book Award rather than a congeniality prize. The Corrections is a wonderfully whacked-out family drama that deserves its success and transcends the surrounding hype. It's OK that Franzen is a lousy spokesperson for his books--this novel speaks for itself. (Frank Diller)
Carter Beats the Devil, by Glen David Gold (Hyperion) Carter Beats the Devil is an exciting, evocative novel inspired by the life of 1920s-era magician Charles Carter. First-time novelist Gold conjures up a marvelously vaudevillian vision of the Roaring '20s--elaborate magic shows, lavish bordellos, Rube Goldberg inventions, South Seas pirates, and Secret Service agents both sinister and inept desperately trying to connect Carter to the mysterious death of President Warren G. Harding. Although re-creating an era of exuberant showmanship, Gold's prose is refreshingly free of showiness. It is instead lively, humorous, and suspenseful, the work of an enthusiastic and engaging storyteller. (Mahinder Kingra)
The Last Summer of Reason, by Tahar Djaout (Ruminator) Timely and deeply moving, The Last Summer of Reason is a transcendent meditation on freedom and fundamentalism by an Algerian writer who was himself a victim. (This book was found among Djaout's papers after his 1993 murder by vigilantes who claimed that his pen was poisoning Islamic minds.) Bookstores are likely to display The Last Summer of Reason alongside lurid books on terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, and Osama bin Laden, but this eerily beautiful and insightful novel will endure long after those works have been consigned to the $3.99 table. (Lily Thayer)
Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, by Oliver Sacks (Knopf) Amid the ruins of post-World War II London, Oliver Sacks fell in love with the wonders of the natural world. His family--particularly his Uncle Dave, a light-bulb manufacturer nicknamed "Uncle Tungsten"--encouraged the boy's interests in math and chemistry. Sacks, now an acclaimed author and practicing neurobiologist, reproduces his childhood discoveries with a sense of joy and wonder. In the process, his beautiful memoir transforms the scientific method into an artistic achievement. (FD)
London Bridges, by Jane Stevenson (Houghton Mifflin) This engaging and thoroughly satisfying novel, set in contemporary London, offers a wonderfully benign vision of multicultural urban life. The plot, recalling Charles Dickens and P.G. Wodehouse in equal measure, brings together a diverse group of friends and acquaintances to solve a murder, stop an unscrupulous lawyer from stealing a lost religious treasure, save an endangered historic neighborhood, and find love and companionship. With a compelling cast of characters and an affectionate portrait of London both past and present, this is perfect reading for a rainy Sunday afternoon. (MK)
The History of the Wife, by Marilyn Yalom (HarperCollins) In her fifth book, feminist scholar Marilyn Yalom chronicles the evolving role of married women from biblical times to the present and shows that the seemingly monumental changes of the past half-century pale in comparison to wives' progress and reversals of the past 2,000 years. Yalom writes in plain language and supports her assertions with fascinating details of the lives and marriages of both famous and unknown women throughout history. (Eileen Murphy)
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, by Alice Munro (Knopf) Alice Munro is the best writer working today, and these nine short stories, all of which deal with Munro's signature themes of compromise and revelation, are some of her finest yet. Subtly disarming, Munro's work gets us as close as we'll ever be to understanding our own humanity and, in the next breath, reveals just how far away we are from ever really getting it. (LT)
Given Ground, by Ann Pancake (University Press of New England) A fair number of writers can spend years honing their craft in their lonely garrets or under the watchful gaze of a Cabernet-oiled mentor in a writing program and eventually come out with a tale or two that will hold a goodly amount of readers' attention. But only a few will be able to hit the pay dirt of creating works that prove timeless and unravel some of the sticky onion of human consciousnesss. With Given Ground, Ann Pancake's collection of Appalachian stories, she proves herself not just able, but perhaps called. Pantheistic, occasionally disturbing, and often beautiful, her stories even feel as eerie and enchanting as the works of the Brothers Grimm. (Rupert Wondolowski)
My Name Is Red, by Orhan Pamuk (Knopf) This densely textured, intellectually dazzling historical novel set in 16th-century Istanbul and narrated by a vast cast of characters revolves around the art of the illuminated manuscript. The murder of one of the sultan's leading illustrators sets into motion an elaborate plot involving secretive love affairs, religious fundamentalism, political intrigue, greed, and jealousy. Pamuk writes in a style that deftly blends the surreal, the philosophical, and the suspenseful, rediscovering lost worlds and imagining new ones with equal devotion and success. (MK)
The Devil's Larder, by Jim Crace (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) The author of Being Dead returns with a collection of 24 fictional vignettes on food and our relationship to it. In the hands of a lesser writer, the conceit would be trite, but Crace manages to reinvent the theme with each story by calling upon natural history, magical realism, and plain-old human emotion. (EM)
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