Few things please as much as the right book
by Rob Neufeld
For a sawbuck or two, you can get something priceless to put in a chum’s gift bag.
Most likely, unless a bespectacled bird has whispered in your ear, you’ll have to invest a good deal of thought into your choosing, and then sample an array of intriguing titles in a Bombay of book shelves and e-lists.
I present the following front table of recommendations on the chance that a few may click for you. Did I read them all? No. I did some; and the others I vetted by consulting other reviewers and examining the books in hand.
My main bias is style. I reject the tendentious and glib, and favor simplicity backed by authority, feeling, and narrative strength—whether the book is a romance or a study. My longer list can be viewed on the website, “The Read on WNC.”
Nemesis by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin hardcover, Oct. 2010; Vintage paperback, Oct. 2011, 304 pages, $15)
Roth has just announced that this book, his 31st, is his last. It is a straightforward character story—involving a camp counselor, his fiancée, and a close-knit community. And it’s also an expert evocation of a time with which people in this region are familiar: 1944, the polio epidemic.
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (Little, Brown hardcover, Sept. 2012, 240 pages, $24.99)
The Richmond, Virginia-raised author, who served as an Army machine-gunner in Iraq, provides an unsparing look at battle and home, including the protagonist’s inability to save a friend and his troubled attempts to piece vivid memories into a completed puzzle. Having gotten an MFA in poetry after the war, Powers crafts descriptive sentences that are resonant but not overheavy. “As I reflect on how I felt and behaved as a boy of twenty-one from my position of safety in a warm cabin above a clear stream in the Blue Ridge,” the returned-home narrator says, “I can only tell myself…We only pay attention to rare things, and death was not rare.”
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand (Random House hardcover, Nov. 2010, 496 pages, $27)
The story of Lt. Louis Zamperini, child delinquent; redeemed Olympic runner; airplane crash survivor; and P.O.W.—as told by author of “Seabiscuit.”
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable (Viking hardcover, Apr. 2011; Penguin trade paper, Dec. 2011, 608 pages, $18). Alex Haley’s standard, co-authored autobiography intrudes Haley’s conclusion and short-changes politics and Malcolm X’s many masks, Marable says.
Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories by Sherman Alexie (Grove Press hardcover, Oct. 2012, 480 pages, $27).
Alexie, author of “Reservation Blues,” makes “This American Life” sound like American blithe.
Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub (Riverhead hardcover, Sept. 2012, 320 pages, $26.95)
You want pop? Straub, Peter’s daughter, pens an inside-the-industry novel about a girl who becomes a movie starlet and loses her identity. Laura’s not deep—as her life dictates—but she is pure in a way, and the smooth prose reflects that.
Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans (Random House hardcover, Nov. 2010; trade paper, Nov. 2011, 672 pages, $20)
Commercial tie-ins, which dominate the market, are not my thing; but enhancing popular experiences is, and that goes for going beyond the best reality shows, such as “So You Think You Can Dance.” Homan’s history of ballet gets inside the mind and body of a dancer, seeking forms that transport character; and within a storytelling tradition. She presents the “art of memory,” not just memorized but physically ingested. The story begins in Renaissance France, with a wedding performance that accompanied “tournaments, a horse ballet, and fireworks.”
Smithsonian Fashion by Dorling Kindersley staff (DK large format hardcover, Oct. 2012, 480 pages, $50).
From ancient Egypt and Greece to Heidi Klum, the book boasts remarkable scope, detail, and illustration.
The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman (Knopf hardcover, Oct. 2012, 336 pages, $35). Perelman at first seems too cute and glib, but she delivers with prose and with recipes that make you want to rush to the skillet. She tells stories, such as the time her mother beamed when Deb’s friend called Deb a pancake snob. Her 10-ingredient pancakes from scratch involves covering the pools of batter with peach slices. “I hadn’t anticipated the marriage of peaches and sour cream to be so weepingly delicious,” she writes. “The sugar in the peaches, it caramelizes in the butter and then melts into the pancake.”
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt (Norton hardcover, Sept. 2011; trade paper, Sept. 2012, 368 pages, $16.95)
A long-lost book changed the world, Greenblatt relates in a dramatic story, and ushered in the Renaissance.
Descent by Kathryn Stripling Byer (LSU Press, Nov. 2012, 68 pages, $17.95)
Cullowhee poet Byer’s newest is a landmark, as always. This title appeared on my recent “New Books of the Region” list. See more new WNC Books.
The Best American Science Writing 2012 edited by Michio Kaku (HarperCollins: Ecco trade paper, Sept. 2012, $14.99)
I’m a big fan of the HarperCollins and Houghton Mifflin series of best journalistic writing along several themes.
This Is What It Smells Like by Cathy Adams (New Libri Press e-book)
Former Montreat College teacher now living in China has published, for Kindle and Nook book readers, a story set in a fictional college town near Asheville. The contemporary, irreverent drama involves a returning father, dysfunctional mother, family secret, and a narrator who has an exceptional sense of smell. More and more local writers—including acclaimed author Charles Price with his new novel, “Sweetgrass: A Literary Western,” are turning to e-publishing in the wake of commercial publishing’s neglect of unpromoted quality.
The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer (Tor Books hardcover, May 2012; trade paper, May 2012, 1,152 pages, $29.99)
112 stories, written 1908-2010—not vampires and werewolves—plus a “Foreweird” and “Afterweird” that give a thorough history of the anti-genre.
The Expats by Chris Pavone (Crown hardcover, March 2012, 336 pages, $26)
I keep searching for genre fiction with natural style. Here’s one—a spy thriller, the heroine of which has a double-life as a mom.
The News from Spain: 7 Variations on a Love Story by Joan Wickersham (Knopf hardcover, Oct. 2012, 224 pages, $24.95)
This one’s not on anyone’s best of 2012 lists yet, as far as I can tell. The stories—some fiction, some historical—examine relationships with close scrutiny and subtly.
Gold by Chris Cleave (Simon & Schuster hardcover, July 3, 2012, $27)
Little Bee author writes about ethical dilemmas of athletes Zoe and Kate going to compete in Olympics in London.
Goodbye for Now by Laurie Frankel (Doubleday hardcover, Aug. 7, 2012, $ 26)
Contemporary love story about an internet dating company worker who can't get a date.