Whoever predicted the death of the book couldn’t have been more wrong; there are more books around today than ever before—so many, in fact, that a whole genre of books about reading has emerged just to help us make sense of them all. This has, in the last few years, expanded so rapidly that a new example seems to appear every week. There are so many that it would take a whole book to discuss them all—a book about books about books. To avoid tumbling into this frightful abyss, I’ll limit myself to mentioning only the most popular titles published during 2006.
There’s always been a market for annotated anthologies about books, collections of reading lists and reading guides; this year’s compilations include: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, edited by Peter Boxall, a hefty compendium of enthusiastic recommendations; The Book of Lost Books by Stuart Kelly, a whimsical look at the missing pieces of literary history, and Roxanne Coady and Joy Johannson’s The Book that Changed My Life, a survey of books that had an impact on the lives of famous writers (proceeds go to Coady’s non-profit Read to Grow foundation).
Some interesting examples of the genre were published this year by authors best known for their fiction, including Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. Stymied by the frustrations of her latest work, Smiley recounts her decision to shut down her laptop, put her feet up, and re-read 100 of her favorite novels, keeping us informed of her thoughts as she does so. Equally smart is Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, a detail-oriented meditation on the subtle craft of good writing. A couple of heavyweight academics gave us their thoughts on the subject in not-so-heavyweight books. John Sutherland, chair of the 2005 Booker Prize jury, has published a playful little book called How to Read a Novel, and Edward Mendelson of Columbia University reminded us of The Things That Matter, in a questionable attempt to relate “seven classic novels” (all, incidentally, by women) to “the stages of life.”
Then there were the books about books by professional book critics like Michael Dirda of the Washington Post Book World, who, in the last five years, has published five collections of his earnest and popular column, “Readings” (this year’s collection was entitled Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life). Nick Hornby has a monthly column in The Believer magazine called “Stuff I’ve Been Reading,” in which he lists books he bought and planned to read alongside those he actually read; a compilation of all his columns so far was published this year by McSweeney’s, under the title The Complete Polysyllabic Spree. Maureen Corrigan, book critic for National Public Radio, published a book called Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading, a memoir that discusses the way books have shaped her life, from her Irish Catholic upbringing to the books she now reads to her recently adopted daughter.
Corrigan’s book is an autobiography of reading—let’s call it a “bibliofessional”—a hybrid form combining two of today’s most popular literary genres: the book about books, and the personal memoir. Other examples of the form published this year include An Alphabetical Life by Wendy Werris, a part-funny, part-sad account of the author’s long career in the book trade, and The Yellow Lighted Bookshop by author and former bookseller Lewis Buzbee, an interweaving of bookselling history with private memories of a reading life.
On the subject of bookselling, there was Reluctant Capitalists, sociologist Laura J. Miller’s study of the used book trade, and Book Talks, a collection of essays on book collecting edited by Robert Jackson and Carol Zeman Rothkopf. But now we’re getting tangential, and I haven’t even mentioned all the new readers’ blogs that sprouted up this year, though none, so far, is any substantial threat to BookSlut, Maud Newton, Beatrice, Galleycat, or any of the other leading book blogs—except, perhaps, Babes with Books, a blog for the incurable book fetishists in our midst, devoted entirely to pictures of hot girls reading books. It’s true, see—reading IS sexy.
During 2006, PopMatters’ sexiest book reviewers cozied up, in no particular order, to the following:
At first glance, the plot of Sharp Objects
seems unexceptional—a reporter for a third-rate Chicago newspaper returns to the hometown she fled years before to cover a pair of child murders and face the demons of her youth. However, Flynn does not simply twist what is ordinary about the story; she lays waste to it. Flynn’s heroine is flawed beyond redemption, and her fictional world as devoid of hope and rotten to the core as Dashiell Hammett’s Poisonville. Bleakness rarely makes for a page-turner, but Sharp Objects
is shot through with a kind of dread and darkness that’s seductive as hell.
(St. Martin’s Press)
Striking, tragic account of Molly Bruce Jacobs’ troubled upbringing and eventual confrontation with a long lost sister, Secret Girl
is hard going. It reads as a memoir as well as an education in social attitudes that saw families like Jacobs’ doing the unthinkable to retain an image of perfection. The situation, however, wound up—so obviously, in hindsight—ruining them altogether. Jacobs faces and attempts exploration of her parents’ decision to institutionalize and all but ignore daughter, Anne, born in 1957 with water on the brain and consequently deemed “mentally retarded”. She tackles her demons here with sincerity and poetry, and succeeds in honoring Anne even as she struggles to fully understand and accept her.
Making Waves: The Autobiography
(Hodder & Staughton)
Best book of the year? Perhaps not, but certainly one of the most surprising. Morbid curiosity forced me to pick it up, and while I found the Knight Rider’s unwavering belief in himself as an icon and hero to the world a little bit out there, I also found myself entirely behind him as he recounted his childhood, soap opera days, 1980s hunk explosion, through his Baywatch
and Broadway successes. Throughout we meet the highly-strung Hoff, the self-doubting, self-critical Hoff, the survivor, the struggler, the careless alcoholic, and, eventually, the loving family man. If one thing is clear here, it’s that David Hasselhoff is a hell of a nice guy, or at least this presented version is.
The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril
(Simon & Schuster)
In this rollicking, meta-fictional adventure, Malmont pits the real-life authors of 1930s pulp fiction against diabolical villains, supernatural terror, nerve gas, and Chinese warlords hell-bent on vengeance. Like the best historical novels, Malmont nestles little pearls of truth among his fictions, some so improbable that the line between what’s pulp and what’s true becomes blurred. While The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril
‘s plot flirts with outright lunacy, it is grounded in Malmont’s ability to create realistic emotional tension between his characters and moments of surprising depth and feeling. The result an ambitious and loving homage that is greater than the sum of its parts.
But Enough About Me
A Jersey Girl’s Unlikely Adventures Among the Absurdly Famous
Jancee Dunn’s memoir detailing her rise from tease-haired 1980s teen to respected Rolling Stone
journalist dining with Dolly Parton and Ben Affleck is, like, a retelling every girls’ wildest fantasy. It’s Dunn’s connection to her small town that gives her story it’s sensitivity, humility, and humor. She grasps the absurdity of the Chatham, NJ, kid somehow babbling her way into a job at the world’s hottest music mag and not falling on her Faberge-covered behind. Dunn lets us into the world of celebrity interviewing and reveals the gentle humanness in Parton, Affleck, and a variety of others. In this sense, the book is wonderful for celeb gossip, but it’s even better as a you-have-it-in-you-too lesson that does well to chip away at the barriers between the big star, the big-time writer, and lowly article reader. Dunn’s approach is self-deprecating and hilariously honest, like Lynne Stone come to life.
I Like You
Hospitality Under the Influence
This perky, slightly demented guide to entertaining arrived just in time for the holidays. Amy Sedaris (better known as Jerri Blank from the Comedy Central series Strangers With Candy
) knows exactly how to convey traditional party-planning advice in an untraditional manner. From “Entertaining the Elderly” to “Je M’appelle French Night,” Sedaris’ themes are both functional and amusing, though her oddball sense of humor might throw off the skeptical reader into thinking that I Like You
is just one big joke. They may ask, Is she serious? Are these recipes real? Is that what I’m actually supposed to do with a soiled mattress?
Sure, there may be instructions on how to make four different kinds of cheese balls placed intermittently throughout the book. And yes, Sedaris does carefully explain various types of stain removal. But she is dead serious, and by adding in these seemingly out-of-place details, Sedaris comes at entertaining with a holistic approach.
The Black Face of Technology in America
(Cornell University Press)
Kevorkian studies the information age impact of Ralph Ellison’s suggestion that black people serve as “the machines inside the machine”, and it’s a mind-blowing lesson from start to finish as the author provides his examples of the black body as modern machine. The author pays particular attention to Hollywood films in which, more often than not, computer and technical experts are black (Steve Harris in Minority Report
, Ving Rhames in Swordfish
, Art Evans in Die Hard 2
), treated as walking computers, and barely exhibit character traits beyond their technical abilities. These characters, Kevorkian argues, are instrumentalized and put to work to do what whites won’t—work that is “fundamental and inescapable” ... “called ‘nigger work’ [in the South], and ‘drudgery’ in the North”. “Color monitoring”, Kevorkian writes, “in flattening blacks’ allegedly natural technical abilities, ultimately flatters the belief that being above technical work constitutes a core benefit of white privilege.” In examining a series of computer commercials, for instance, Kevorkian drives his point home—a print ad featuring “the enlightened traveler” displays a white airplane passenger daintily holding a cup of coffee, while the black passenger across the isle grips his lap top; an IBM ad features its Director of Marketing in his quaintly furnished home beside a second photo of a black, female “Storage Administrator” standing on a grid floor between filing cabinets; and then there’s Office Depot’s ad featuring the white “goat expert” with the sheep beside the black “RAM expert” with the laptop. This is a riveting, vital work. (And the chapters on Michael Crichton are positively frightening.)
The Lies of Locke Lamora
That an aspiring fantasy novelist should land a multi-book publishing deal on the strength of chapters posted to his web journal is unusual, to say the least. That the book in question should be worthy of its hometown hero origin story is preposterous—but Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora
does exactly that. The first in what will likely be a seven-book series introduces readers to the Gentlemen Bastards, a quick-witted band of thieves with a flair for the long con, and a series of plots so inventive and compelling that even those who shy away from the fantasy genre will find a lot to enjoy.
Searching for the Beaumont Children
(John Wiley and Sons)
Australia Day 1966, Jim Beaumont chooses work over a day at the beach with his three kids, Jane, Arnna, and Grant. Not because he isn’t a committed family man, he’s simply a conscientious businessman, too, and the beach isn’t going anywhere. The kids go alone. And so begins the story of the Beaumont children, a case that would destroy a family and crush a nation’s happy-go-lucky self-view. Forty years later, Alan Whiticker recounts the disappearance in detail, and while he sometimes drops his impartiality, what he builds is a portrait of 1960s Australia and the enduring Beaumont legacy. Whiticker’s book is notable as the first full-length account of the case, and thought it lacks originality and flair (Whiticker is not about to rival Mailer or Erik Larson), it manages to grip simply because the contained story is so absorbing.
The Tenth Circle
(Hodder & Stoughton)
There’s a lot to admire about Jodi Picoult: her dedication to research, her constant need to challenge herself, her no-bullshit attitude to her work and it’s import (i.e., she is so
not chick lit). On top of all that, she’s a fan-lover, who takes time out during the working year to communicate with her readers via Picoult-podcasts and website message boards. Consequently, if you’re a Jodi-fan, you’ll soon become a Jodi-companion, and her books will turn into little comfort pillows. With her accessible stories on vital and tough subjects written with the softest of touches, she epitomizes the book-as-best-friend ideal. Her latest, The Tenth Circle
is a simple story of a Maine father attempting reconciliation with a wayward wife and daughter. Underneath, however, it’s a retelling of Dante’s Inferno
with protagonist Daniel journeying through his own personal hell to save himself from his past. Into the mix, Picoult throws a series of graphic illustrations courtesy of artist Dustin Weaver that offer a passage into Daniel’s own mind, as well as Picoult’s insistence on maintaining ultimate relevance through clever innovation.
The Summer Sherman Loved Me
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
“Little Margaret has a little brain. The twins have undeveloped brains. Mrs. Jenson has a mouth where her brain is supposed to be. The thing that saves them is that they don’t realize what they don’t have.” Margaret is a typical, self-doubting near-teen, frustrated with her family, and unsure just how much of what she feels for the boy next door is love. At the same time, she’s crammed full of kid wisdom that allows her to see beyond the surfaces of her 1960s suburban setting and the families that populate it. Only she doesn’t really know what she sees; it’s just how it is. In this way, the book resembles The Yearling
, Montana, 1948
and That Was Then, This Is Now
with it’s energetic and eager kids who learn and mature despite their surroundings. A wonderful antidote to Rainbow Party
s and Gossip Girl
is a complex examination of pre-adolescence that will work for nostalgic “growed-ups” too.