Sutton by J.R. Moehringer begins with Willie Sutton being released from jail on Christmas Day, 1969. Moehringer uses a genius plot device of the characters Reporter and Photographer, who, having bartered an exclusive from Willie's lawyer, get the bank robber released into their hands. Together they travel throughout New York City, to revisit scenes of childhood, love, and crime harking back to the '20s and '30s. During the Depression, Willie robbed the banks that were perceived to be hoarding wealth while many Americans were living in cardboard Hoovervilles; and as he himself never killed anyone, and took precautions not to hurt anyone either, he was considered a folk hero. Moehringer also wrote The Tender Bar, one of my favorite memoirs, and co-wrote Andre Agassi's Open; he writes narrative nonfiction tremendously well. Like Jeannette Walls' Half Broke Horses, a biography of her grandmother that she had to novelize for want of accurate source material, I believe Sutton is mostly based on fact, too. Since Moehringer drew from multiple contradictory accounts of Willie's exploits (including autobiographical ones!), Sutton allows the reader to draw their own conclusions about Willie; it would thus lend itself to vibrant book club discussions. Moehringer's writing is so captivating, human, and witty that I considered this book a friend and refuge. I was enthralled to the end.
What Anthony Bourdain is to restaurants, Jacob Tomky is to the hotel business. Funny, gross at times, always entertaining.
Set in a bookshop on an island in Maine, this life-affirming novel is a gem.
A wonderful novel set in medieval France and the world of Talmudic scholars. When you've enjoyed this, there are two more to follow.
Just Kids by Patti Smith is one fine autobiography. It is the telling of her love affair, kinship, soul-friendship, muse/artist relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. The courage that people have to live their dreams blows my mind, and she tells this story so eloquently, so poetically. Picture New York City in the late 60's, and a cast of characters that included Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Andy Warhol, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Some people make things happen, and some wonder what happened: Smith is all of the former, none of the latter. This book is an absolute joy to read, and won the National Book Award. Johnny Depp's is the only review on the back cover. She is just that cool.
Tea Obreht is on the National Book Foundation's list of "5 under 35" young authors to watch. The narrative includes the relationship between a young doctor and her grandfather, also a doctor. About the practice of medicine, he told her, "When men die, they die in fear," he said. "They take everything they need from you, and as a doctor it is your job to give it, to comfort them, to hold their hand. But children die how they have been living-in hope. They don't know what's happening, so they expect nothing, they don't ask you to hold their hand-but you end up needing them to hold yours. With children, you're on your own. Do you understand?" (p. 154) Infused with Eastern European fable and fairytale, I was carried away by this novel.
Englander is incredibly adept at the short story. I particularly resonated with The Reader, about "Author" who drives from bookstore to bookstore, from "sea to shining sea" to read for his one, elderly, committed reader. As a bookseller, the anguish of hosting a no-show signing is exquisite; how much more so for Author? The title story keenly and subtley describes the heinousness of religious hypocrisy: of being observant, yet lacking true compassion. Sister Hills follows two families from 1973 to present, reminding the reader that for freedoms now taken for granted, our predecessors have sacrificed, humbly lived, and died. I highly recommend these stories!
I had heard about Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow for sometime, and I absolutely loved it. Doctorow's style reminds me of a cross between E.B. White and Robertson Davies; plain, beautiful prose and wonderful storytelling. This novel is based on the actual lives of the Collyer brothers, Bluebloods born in the late 1800's in New York City. What began as an elegant and privileged existence in a 5th Avenue Brownstone devolved in a most horrific and captivating way (think Grey Gardens). I recommend Googling them after you've read it for the real history, and pictures.
The subject is chilling, but told from the innocent perspective of a five year old boy. This is one gripping read; I highly recommend it.
This is Winterson's autobiography, about her adoption by an extremely religious and mentally ill mother, and her struggle to make sense of life and survive. She found solace in books and in the creative proces of writing, and part of this memoir is an homage to the literature that was her life raft.
What an incredible novel! So many customers have recommeded this for so many years. Not only is the plot captivating, Mistry's writing style is both humorous and genius. "You know Maneck, the human face has limited space. My mother used to say, if you fill your face with laughing, there will be no room for crying." I loved this observation on aging: "The stick wristed figure looked nothing like the Dina Aunty he had left eight years ago. Eight years in passing were entitled to take their toll; but this-this was more than a toll, this was outright banditry." (p. 594) A Fine Balance is an exquisite depiction of human tragedy, compassion and love.
This is an oldie but goodie! Set in 1666 during the plague, a village quarantines itself to protect the neighboring areas. There is nothing like tragedy to reveal the best and worst in the human nature, which in this novel translates into a fascinating cast of characters.
If you haven't had the chance, do yourself a favor and read East of Eden. Steinbeck is one of my favorite authors of all time, but this novel in particular is a page-turner.
The Mahabharata by Kamala Subramaniam is a concise translation (700 pages) of a sacred text that is otherwise ten times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined. (Thanks, Wikipedia!) It was recommended to me by a devout Hindu friend as accessible, and found it informs my practice of yoga, as several asanas are named for characters in the epic. I love a good story, and these interwoven tales are magical, mystical, elevating.
I loved The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern; it is a fantastic combination of fairy tale and love story. One of the characters pays homage to the power of storytelling as opportunity to connect with other people: "Someone needs to tell those tales. There's magic in that. It's in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that sets up residence in someone's soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words." (p. 381)
Chris Cleave's novel Little Bee is sure not to make the Nigerian Book-of-the-Month Club. It is a seering indictment of the oil related and interethnic genocides of the 1990's, narrated by a young African girl named Little Bee. It has been recommended to me by customers for some time, and is highly readable.
I read an advanced copy of The Apothecary by Maile Meloy in one sitting. It reminded me of Pinkwater's The Neddiad, another grand and magical children's adventure novel set (partially) in Los Angeles in the 1950's. The illustrations are superb, and cinematically enhance the story a la The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Shameless retail plug: The Apothecary would make a wonderful holiday present for ages 9-12.
Born to Run by Christopher McDougall is the kind of narrative non-fiction that makes fact sing. I am not a runner; but this books makes me want to shuck my shoes and run barefoot over hill AND dale for miles and miles. He covers the evolutionary history of ultra-running, and contemporary 100 mile runs through the mountain ranges all over the world (who knew?) McDougall went into the remote and dangerous (drug running) Copper Canyons of Mexico and runs with the Tarahumara, an indigenous tribe with an uncanny ability to log miles ultramarathoners in the US can't do, regardless of age or sex. It reads like The Greatest Game Ever Played by Mark Frost about the history of golf. I don't golf either, but the same rule applies: tell me a story well, toss in some indomitable human spirit in the face of great adversity, and I'm hooked.
When She Woke by Hillary Jordan is such a departure in style and subject from her earlier novel Mudbound (wonderful!) that I would not have recognized her. When She Woke is futuristic covering hot topics such as abortion, church and state, and legislating morality, so would lend itself generously to juicy bookclub discussions. Jordan is a good storyteller and I looked forward to reading it.
I picked up The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes as it won the Booker Prize, and I'd heard good things. It begins in an English school around the friendship of four boys. Barnes crafts the story through the lens of the nature of history, which is revisionist from the perspective of victor and vanquished, on the global scale, yes, but ultimately in our own lives. The Sense of an Ending is one of those exquisite small books whose prose inspires and also unleashes an eerie surprise, as the title implies. I highly recommend it.
If you liked Bossypants, you'll enjoy this! Kalin is an actress on and writer for The Office. Apparently Steve Carrell really is that nice.
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka is exquisite poetic prose drawn from first person accounts of Japanese immigrants to America in the early 1900's. First told from the perspective of picture brides crossing the ocean to unknown husbands, then as migrant farmers, cleaners, maids, ranch hands, prostitutes. As the brides raise families and become entrenched in American culture, Otsuka unleashes the harrowing reality of Japanese internment camps, which were pitched as "protective custody arrest for the duration of the war." (p. 98) The Buddha in the Attic is a National Book Award finalist; a concise, clean gem.
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach...ah, the bliss! Once in awhile a novel comes along that captivates. Why, you ask? A book about baseball, boys, a tiny liberal arts college..who cares? I challenge you to pick it up and try to put it down. This is not just the opinion of a random bookseller; it was chosen by the New York Times and NPR as as one of the top ten books of 2011. Every character is deeply flawed and equally compelling. The Paris Review said that The Art of Fielding is a novel about baseball the way that Moby Dick is a fish story. Several customers have come into the store saying, "Best book of the year."
Anna, the erudite and encyclopedic newsletter editor and functional manager of Diesel Brentwood, asked me for three paragraphs and lots of feelings about this novel. I find quoting a choice passage the best defense against blowing hot air whilst illustrating Harbach's way with words...
"I don't know, Skrim." Schwartz shook his big head sadly. "Remember when it was easy to be a man? Now we're all supposed to look like Captain Abercrombie here. Six pack abs, three percent body fat. All that rap. Me, I hearken back to a simpler time. Schwartz patted his thick, sturdy midriff. A time when a hairy back meant something." "Profound lonliness?" Starblind offered. "Warmth. Survival. Evolutionary advantage. Back then, a man's wife and children would burrow into his back hair and wait out the winter. Nymphs would braid it and praise it in song. God's wrath waxed hot against the hairless tribes. Now that's all forgotten. But I'll tell you one thing: when the next ice age comes, the Schwartzes will be sitting pretty. Real pretty."
Bhagavad Gita: Annotated & Explained by Kendra Crossen Burroughs is one of the best translations, meaning most accessible, that I have ever read. Each set of stanzas has annotations on the opposing page, including quotes from other Vedic texts, sages, and philosophers.
Ken Wilbur is quoted on the cover: "Very best Gita for first-time readers." I agree!
Some Assembly Required is about about Anne Lamott's son becoming a father at 19, a fact she is both alarmed by and thrilled about. What follows is Annie as Granny...and it is superb, as usual. Funny, insightful, honest, I always laugh and learn when I read Lamott's books. She ennumerated the seven immutable laws of the spirit, which I find I need to tuck in my back pocket. They are: "Whoever is present are the right people. Whenever it begins is the right time. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened, and when it's over, it's over." If you thoroughly enjoyed Bird by Bird, Operating Instructions, and Traveling Mercies, buckle up for more wonderful, vintage Anne Lamott.
After her mother died in her early twenties, Strayed got divorced, and hiked from the Mojave Desert to Oregon. Her style is clear and entertaining, explicit and compelling. I felt like I was on the trail with her, or would like to be, in solitude that wilderness indifferently provides. The description of the people and experiences gripped me every step, in a way that only cogent detailed note-taking could in a memoir of this size. And she is funny! There is one bit about a fellow who sees her beside the road and interviews her for Hobo Times, though she repeatedly insists that in spite of her stench, matted hair and lack of abode, she is an expert hiker, not a hobo. That chapter was led with the Robert Pinsky quote,“When I had no roof I made Audacity my roof." One of the founders of PCT, Clinton Churchill Clarke, believed that “time in the wilderness provided a lasting curative and civilizing value.” Strayed's purpose, in my estimation, was to live, deliberately and free; I don't think she was seeking converts to the trail, though she found a fan in Oprah, who picked Wild for her book club.
The Tender Bar is J.R. Moehringer's aptly named memoir about a pub in Manhasset, a town famous for its drinking. A bar can be a sacred place, a refuge, a man cave to convene in, shoot the breeze, raise younger men, gamble, find a gal, celebrate, grieve. To laugh and cry with the sinners whose raw humanity seems to render them saints. Moehringer quotes Shakespeare's Measure for Measure on the topic: "They say the best men are molded out of faults,/And, for the most, become much more the better/For being a little bad." Raised by his mother in the dilapidated home of his grandmother and grandfather, filled with cousins and aunts and an uncle, he lived only 142 steps from this bar called Publicans (unless you're staggering). The Tender Bar is written from Moehringer's evolving point of view from childhood through adulthood. His love affair with words began early, and was fanned to flame by his high school job at a bookstore under the tutelage of two erudite if antisocial booksellers. His style is easy, funny, smart. Moehringer went to Yale, wrote for The New York Times, but chose to write about this bar because these were the salty dogs who raised him, and because of the sanctity of this specific place.
Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple is an epistolary novel set in Seattle. Semple wrote for Arrested Development, and at times her writing reads like a fast paced, funny script. Semple's characters are 3 dimensional, and I cared about all of them, including the less likeable ones. If you want a fast, fun novel, try Where'd You Go, Bernadette.
Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health is a first-class coffee table-style reference book that is both thorough and approachable. B.K.S. Iyengar, the world's leading teacher of yoga (and my teacher!), shares detailed instructions for beginner, intermediate, and advanced students. Clear photographs and step-by-step instructions outline how to perform each posture correctly while a full view of the final pose shows exactly how to position each part of the body. One section illustrates sequences of asanas to treat or prevent a wide range of ailments. Further, a 20-week yoga course, formulated by Iyengar, progresses from simple to more challenging postures. This is a highly accessible gift for anyone who might not be able to make it to a class, but wants a safe and comprehensive guide to use at home.
Astray by Emma Donohue is a series of stories about people on the periphery; slave, Puritan, prostitute, orphan, murderer, immigrant. Donohue peaks the interest with short historical vignettes at the end of each story on which the characters are based. I couldn't wait to finish the stories to find out who, where and how this person, that situation, actually came to pass. Although completely different in tone and subject than her previous Booker-nominated novel Room, Astray drew me in as voyeur to what it has meant to be society's outsider.
The well-read Penguin reps recommended The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty, and I heartily agree that it is a well researched, fun read. It's an historical novel about the silent film star Louise Brooks, who traveled to New York in 1922 with her chaperone. Expect twists and turns; this is not a just a sweet tale. The story takes us all the way up to 1970, and subtly illustrates the evolving cultural mores of American culture.
After a haunting stint as a soldier in the First World War, Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia to man a lighthouse off the coast. He meets and marries vibrant Isabel, and they set off for their idyllic, if remote, life on their island. When they struggle to start a family, the choices they make and the consequences that ensue gripped me to the end. I was captivated by character and plot, and Stedman's beautiful imagery of light and darkness, integrity and deceit, isolation and community.
West of Sunset by Stewart O'Nan is a stunning biographical novel about Scott Fitzgerald. It opens with Scott visiting Zelda in an asylum, and leads into his years writing for studios in Hollywood. I knew nothing of Fitzgeralds life aside from his brief time in Paris, and was fascinated by the company he kept in 1930s Los Angeles: Dorothy Parker, Bogart and Mayo, Hemmingway and Sheilah Graham. Fitzgerald was unsuccessful as a screenwriter in Hollywood-shuttled from picture to picture, laid off, fired. He struggled not only with the booze but at earning a living writing; famous, but broke, utterly human and vulnerable. This would make a wonderful book club selection, for its references to old Los Angeles alone.
Outline is a meditation on observation. Faye is a teacher spending the summer conducting a writing seminar in Athens. What follows is not a page-turning plot, but rather a series of exchanges -- with the man seated beside her on the plane, with a colleague, with her students and friends. The result is philosophical and beautiful.
I love Cusk's writing style so much it needs to be quoted. During her first conversation with her neighbor on the plane, he observes, "A sentence is born into this world neither good nor bad, and to establish its character is a question of the subtlest possible adjustments, a process of intuition to which exaggeration and force are fatal. Those lines concerned the art of writing, but looking around himself in early middle age my neighbor began to see they applied just as much to the art of living. Everywhere he looked he saw people as it were ruined by the extremity of their own experiences."
Outline is spare and contemplative, engaging the reader with a clean cadence that reminded me of Panorama City by Antoine Wilson.