Norman's Best Books of 2012

Note from Susan: For the fourth year in a row, my husband, Norman, has written about his favorite books of the year. He's the reading-est guy I know, so seeing him hard at work on his list always makes me happy, knowing that I'm about to read—and sharesome great recommendations. Hit it, Norm.

As the year 2012 comes to a close, I am happy to share with Susan’s readers my list of the best books that I’ve read over the last 12 months. The three most powerful were The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo, and Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman. These books were so well-written and engrossing that they were hard to put down and stayed with me long after I finished them, despite the difficult topics (the effects of war in The Yellow Birds; the devastating poverty of people living in an Indian slum in Behind the Beautiful Forevers; and the hard life of a young girl growing up in a trailer park outside of Reno, Nevada, in Girlchild). The Yellow Birds and Behind the Beautiful Forevers received the wide critical acclaim and recognition they deserved; one was a finalist for this year’s National Book Award in fiction and the other was the nonfiction winner. I hope that over time more people will read and appreciate the excellent writing and unique storytelling in Ms. Hassman’s book.

Adding two more to come up with my top 5 reads of the year is easy: This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz and The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín. Díaz’s collection of stories about love and family is at times moving and at times laugh-out-loud funny, but always smart and entertaining. And Colm Tóibín is just a beautiful storyteller, and this novella about Jesus’ mother is both courageous and thought-provoking.

Continue reading "Norman's Best Books of 2012" »


Junot Diaz, Short Stories, and Such

Junot Diaz's latest book is This Is How You Lose Her, a collection of short stories, released in September by Riverhead. Yesterday the MacArthur Foundation announced its annual awards, the so-called "genius" grants, one of which went to Diaz. $500,000, no strings attached.

9780802133991On the day before the grants were announced, the New York Times Magazine ran a short interview with the author, focusing on short fiction. I was intrigued by the collections Diaz cited as influential; I have not read any of them. He mentioned

Aha! Books to look for on the next trip to the library. Walking the dog in the rain this afternoon, I coped with the downpour by coming up with a roster of short story collections I admire. Everyone's lists are so different! Here's mine. What's yours?

Image borrowed from Powell's Books. Links go to Powell's, also. I do not get any money from the store for linking. I have had good experiences ordering books there.


Fishin' and Swimmin'

Yesterday my son and I spent the afternoon by the river. The spot we like is not a whole lot wider than a creek; at that point, the water is shallow, and clear and full of stones to skip. Junior fished, and I read. He caught a trout. I showed him how to hold the fish firmly while you unhook it. He did that, and then threw it back. Too small to keep. He continued fishing, and I finished Leanne Shapton's Swimming Studies, an illustrated meditation on pools and competitive swimming. Lately, the almost-adolescent and I are butting heads lot, usually over screen time, but our hours by the water yesterday were unhurried and sweet.

Shakespeare Season

Some years back I spent a grand Fourth of July sitting  in a long line for free Shakespeare in the Park in NYC. To get into the play, you had to line up early and wait until 6 or so when the Delacorte Theater handed out evening's allotment of tickets. I forgot what we saw, though I remember loving the play; maybe it was "Much Ado About Nothing" or "Twelfth Night." Several people in our group had brought along bags of fresh cherries, which arrive in plenitude in the city's Korean delis around the first of July. We snacked, shot the breeze, and let time drift by until the ticket guy appeared. I'll always associate the happy feeling of friends, Shakespeare, and cherries with the Fourth. 

On the Fourth this year I finished reading the history play "Henry IV, Part 1," and also stumbled across Oxford's Emma Smith's free online lecture about Falstaff, the play's most interesting character. Smith even compares the "fat-kidneyed rascal" to Homer Simpson! Both are funny because they're countercultural, she says. The talk is part of the "Approaching Shakespeare" series of podcasts, which can be found here

Emma Smith figures in Me and Shakespeare: Adventures with the Bard, by Herman Gollob, a Texas-born book editor (Doubleday, 2002). Seeing Ralph Fiennes in a Broadway production of "Hamlet" changed Gollob's life, and he began to study Shakepeare on his own. Part memoir and part guide, Gollob's book is full of good recommendations (particularly for books and films) for people who want to deepen their appreciation of the Bard. Gollob's adventures include a three-week summer course at Oxford taught by...Emma Smith.

A local company is performing an outdoor "Romeo and Juliet" soon, and that will probably be my next brush with Shakespeare. The Washington State cherries have hit the stores, too.

Links:

Shakespeare in the Park (now celebrating its fiftieth anniversary)

"Shakespeare After All: The Later Plays," with Marjorie Garber. A free video series from the Harvard Extension School. I haven't seen this yet, but it sounds great.

Shakepeare on the Sound. The Bard in the 'burbs.


Monday To-Do List

I'm borrowing this format from the What Do We Do All Day? blog, who employs it on Fridays.

Listen: Chains, by Laurie Halse Anderson. Cool book, set in Revolutionary War-era New York and told by an enslaved girl. I am loving the history. 12-year-old Jr. and I listen to this one in the car.

Read: Henry IV, Part 1, by William Shakespeare. I am actually listening to this on audiobook, too, as I read the text. My first time with Prince Hal, Falstaff, and Hotspur. I am using a BBC Radio recording (rawther expensive at $14.95 on iTunes), and right like it.

Puzzle Over: A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster. Brits in India. Forster's syntax confuses me more often than I'd like to admit, but I think I'm going to stick with it. Something terrible is going to happen, yes?

Think About: Books for second graders. (I'm a volunteer classroom reader.) This year's Top Three were Bark, George, by Jules Feiffer; Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, by Mo Willems; and SpongeBob and the Princess, by David Lewman (Clint Bond, illustrator). Several children knew the first two from kindergarten, and everyone knew SpongeBob. I'd like to find slightly longer books that the group will like as much as these for next year. Also popular was playing Mad Libs with the students.

Add: To the library list: Quinn Cummings' The Year of Learning Dangerously: Adventures in Homeschooling. Due in August. Quinn Cummings! If you were a kid in the seventies, you remember this very funny writer as a child actor ("Family," "The Goodbye Girl"). She blogs at The QC Report. Hat tip: Melissa Wiley.

Recommend: 1. Pulphead, by John Jeremiah Sullivan. Essays, profiles from magazines like GQ and the Paris Review. The collection includes a somewhat disrespectful but fascinating piece on the Southern Agrarian Andrew Lytle. Dwight Garner wrote in the New York Times, "Most of the essays in 'Pulphead' are haunted, in a far more persuasive way, by what Mr. Sullivan refers to with only slight self-mockery as 'the tragic spell of the South.'" 2. " 'Not Everyone Can Read Proof': The Legacy of Lu Burke," by Mary Norris, at The New Yorker's Page-Turner blog. A copy editor leaves a million dollars to a library. A town vs. library dispute ensues. Mary Norris is a friend of mine, and I am a huge fan of her always excellent writing and storytelling.


Saturday Morning Reading, 05.19.12

A few highlights from this week's reading:

Tanita S. Davis, author of the newly released YA novel Happy Families, pens a wonderful tribute to the late Jean Craighead George's novel My Side of the Mountain. I loved that book when I was a kid. Loved it. Jean Craighead George died recently at the age of  92.

In tomorrow's New York Times Book Review (available online now), Judith Shulevitz writes about listening to audiobooks with her children. I smiled at her choices, "...or they’re books we’ve always meant to read but needed children as an excuse to do so" because I've felt the same way. See "Let's Go Reading in the Car."

The Nonfiction Detectives review Kelly Milner Hall's Alien Investigations: Searching for the Truth About UFOs and Aliens. I added the title to our library list immediately; my 12 year old can't get enough of this subject. Don't miss the other articles on the Detectives' blog; you'll find all kinds of good recommendations for young nonfiction fans.

After following a link from Page-Turner, the New Yorker's revitalized book blog, I was happy to add Rohan Maitzen's Novel Readings: Notes on Literature and Criticism to Google Reader. In a recent post, she makes the case for Middlemarch and book clubs, providing a number of helpful tips to taking on George Eliot's 1,000+-page classic. Maitzen is an English professor at Nova Scotia's Dalhousie University.

I'm bookmarking this post from Misadventures of the Monster Librarian because of the folktale recommendations for second graders. "My" second graders (the class I read to once a week) like folktales a lot.

Speaking of second graders, I read Lita Judge's excellent nonfiction picture book Bird Talk: What Birds Are Saying and Why to them a few weeks ago. My crew was particularly delighted by the scat-bombing Scandinavian Fieldfare, mentioned by NC Teacher Stuff in his review. In our conversation after the read-aloud, I found out that several of the kids own parrots. Parrot stories abounded.


Advice from Emily Post, 1951: Hats

StateLibQld 1 205152 Two women enjoying a drink, 1940-1950

 

Shall I Wear a Hat?

Notwithstanding the continued practice of certain younger women to go hatless on all occasions, best taste exacts that in a city a hat be worn with street clothes in the daytime. In fact it is impossible for a hatless woman to be chic. With an evening dress a hat is incorrect—except on the stage in a musical review.

 from Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage, by Emily Post. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1951.

Reading excerpts from Emily Post's 1951 guide made three of us laugh til we cried. Hatless! Horrors. 

Image digitised by the State Library of Queensland, and provided to the Wikimedia Commons as part of a cooperative project. The original photograph is in the public domain. The metadata has been released by State Library of Queensland under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 license.


Transcendence

I've been to Graceland a couple of times, and even wrote a little gift book about Elvis for a book packager years ago. The following passage, though, which comes from Darcey Steinke's memoir, Easter Everywhere, strikes me as about the truest thing I've ever read about E.P.

In Graceland light seems to come at you from all directions, as if the sun has liquefied and flowed into the floor, walls, and ceiling. I recognized in the glittery decor a longing for transcendence that is often labeled as tacky.

"A longing for transcendence." Beautiful.


Educational Bonus

9780553211801She [Rosamond Vincy] was admitted to be the flower of Mrs. Lemon's school, the chief school in the county, where the teaching included all that was demanded in the accomplished female—even to extras, such as the getting and and out of a carriage.

I laughed when I came across that passage in Middlemarch; "the getting in and out of a carriage" was just too delightful. I've recently begun George Eliot's novel for the fifth or sixth time, but this go-round feels like I'll read all the way through. My copy, a Bantam Classic paperback, features an introduction by Margaret Drabble, but I'd like to finish the book before reading Drabble's words. Sometimes authoritative opinions can color what I read. At any rate, a literary classic seems just right for the cold spring that usually constitutes April around southern New England.

Image courtesy of Powell's Books


Quoted: Wild

"I'd loved books in my regular, pre-PCT [Pacific Crest Trail] life, but on the trail, they'd taken on even greater meaning. They were the world I could lose myself in when the one I was actually in became too lonely or harsh or difficult to bear."

from Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed (Knopf, 2012). I highly recommend this new memoir/quest story.