Monday, November 19, 2007
Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut
We’ve all heard of Slaughterhouse-Five, but this title by the recently deceased master of postmodern fiction is another must-read. The novel follows Walter F. Starbuck, a low level player in the Watergate scandal who has just been released into the corporate world from a minimum-security prison for his involvement in said scandal. In Vonnegut’s unique, brilliant and satiric style, he delivers a novel that is absurd, humorous, and smart and touches on a vein of truth about the American experience that resonates with us all.
I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb
Begins with the protagonist Dominick Birdsey’s schizophrenic twin brother, Thomas, slicing off his hand. This thematically ambitious novel encompasses family history, dysfunction, mental illness, and the complication of family loyalty and responsibility and spans the length of three generations. Lamb pulls it all off and then some while still making it look easy.
Me Talk Pretty One Day – David Sedaris
The widely acclaimed Sedaris is a master of acerbic wit and this collection of autobiographical essays showcases his talents at their absolute best. His observations and stories about his family growing up in North Carolina and his time as an expat in Paris are by far among the funniest essays I have ever read. I laughed until I cried.
Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace
This Pulitzer Prize winning 1,000 + page tome may look daunting, but it will grab you at the very first page. The all-encompassing work (co-written by one of my former professors) is almost novelistic; peppered with stories of well known and lesser-known Gothamites that shaped this city, while still being so broad in scope as to be a definitive work of the history of New York from the Dutch settlers up until the end of the 19th century. If you read one book about New York, read this one.
There is just something about him. Bryson has the ability to find the humor in almost everything he writes about. And he brings that, along with a laid-back style, astute observations and genuine child-like curiosity to every one of his books. He primarily writes travelogues, but this smart and funny author can write about anything. Start with In a Sunburned Country and work your way up to A Short History of Nearly Everything, which I loved so much I put it in our staff recommendations.
Atonement by Ian McEwan
You might want to pick up a copy of this breathtaking novel before the movie comes out, as no movie can compare to McEwan’s stunning prose. The novel begins as 13-year-old Briony Tallis witnesses her sister, Cecelia, stripping out of her clothes and diving into a fountain on a scorching summer’s day in 1935. Beside Cecelia stands Robbie Turner, the housekeeper’s son and close friend. By the end of that day Briony will commit a crime that will change their lives forever. McEwan follows the characters and repercussions that the crime has had on their lives. McEwan is a true master of his craft and nothing could have prepared me for the novel’s ending, which takes place many years later in 1999.
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
Like many of Irving’s novels, this one, about a young boy and his strange friend, received mixed reviews. While the novel is, in fact, strange – Owen, the title character, is extremely small, has a distractingly high-pitched voice, and believes he is God’s vessel – it is one of the most touching and lovely books I have come across, and certainly one of Irving’s best.
And now, over to you…
Monday, November 12, 2007
When the AP did their recent poll on literacy, they found that one in four Americans didn’t read a book last year. I know a lot of people who found that news depressing, but my own reaction was more, “Rock! Three out of four people read a book last year!”
Let me just get one important fact out there—I’m not an optimistic person by nature. If I’m excited about a concert, when it starts I’m less, “This is gonna be great!” and more, “I hope the speakers don’t fall on anyone.” I worry—it’s just what I do. When I tell my mother I’m traveling, she usually replies with something comforting like, “I hope the plane stays up.” Me too. It’s in the genes. Which is to say: when people proclaim the death of the written word, and I of all people think, “You seriously worry too much…,” that’s saying something.
So 25 out of 100 people didn’t read a book last year. At least one or two of them must not be able to read, right? (Note to self: look up American illiteracy rates) And then you have people who just don’t like to read. I’m not thrilled with that fact, but I’m at peace with it. Because elsewhere in that group of 100 are people who read 20, 30, 40 books a year—folks for whom the written word can’t be replaced by TV, movies, the internet, or any other media yet to be created. Sure, we have more entertainment options now, and people have a little bit less time to read. But do we actually think books are so easily replaced?
When it comes right down it, there is little I find as satisfying as a great read, and it has nothing to do with any lack of affection on my part for every other type of entertainment.
Perhaps it’s because I’m consistently surrounded by book lovers (it comes with the job), but the chance that books will become passé seems a bit unlikely to me. All the people who were up in arms over this poll only were so because they’re readers. And readers are still in a majority.
What I do find unnerving is that other poll from a year or so back that indicated 80% of Americans wanted to write a book. First of all, that means that at least 5% of people who want to write a book didn’t read one in the past year. That is frightening. Truly. I honestly don’t believe someone can be a great writer without being well-read, let alone without being just…read. Beyond that, if four out of five people in the entire country are going to be sending query letters…that’s a lot of digging we’re going to have to do, not to mention a lot of awkward cocktail party chatter. “What do you do for a living? Oh! Well, let me tell you, I have the most wonderful idea for a book. It’s about kittens.” Scintillating stuff. There’s nothing like dodging the mother of the bride at a wedding after she tells you about her “brilliant” concept for a picture book about cheese. Not that I don’t love cheese.
I kid (mostly). I’ve said it before, and I still mean it: I love the slush pile and the feeling of potential when I dig in. It’s intimidating at times because there’s just so much, but finding something brilliant in the mass is such a thrill. Just like starting a book and finding yourself instantly hooked.
I digress… So why do you read? And why do you write? And am I overly optimistic in thinking books will always be around?
Monday, November 05, 2007
Telling people that I represent young adult books can be annoying, whether it's because of blank stares from people who don't understand that children's books go through much the same process as adult books, or the gentle ribbing from friends that think I'm still stuck in high school.
But there are great YA books out there that everyone can appreciate and enjoy, like my own client Sara Zarr’s Story of a Girl a finalist for this year’s National Book Award, I put together a short list of some of my favorite books for teens that even adults reluctant to read YA should be able to enjoy and appreciate.
1. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
A gritty, honest, sober look at what it means to be a teenager. Alienated from her peers after calling the cops during a party over the summer, Melinda has become an outcast at school, and can barely speak. We experience her pain, anger, and frustration dealing with her school and home life. It isn’t until much later in the book that we come to understand her silence. This is an important and powerful novel that has started many discussions between parents and children.
2. Monster by Walter Dean Myers
Teenager Steve Harmon is accused of being the lookout during a burglary that ended in murder, and is now on trial for the crime. Innovatively told with a mixture of screenplay dialogue and journal entries, all written by Steve, Monster asks important questions about morality and conscience, and is a quick, engaging read.
3. Twilight by Stehpenie Meyer
Much more commercial than my first two picks, this one has easily been successful with adult readers already. It is the romance between the self-assured Bella and her vampire beau that has quickened many pulses. Like good chocolate, Twilight is the perfect balance between dark bitterness and sugary sweetness. Perfect for any romance reader.
4. Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
This one is perfect for anyone who likes sci-fi or fantasy. Set in a world where everyone is made “pretty” on their 16th birthday, Uglies is a Brave New World for the Paris and Britney generation. All of the books in the series deal with issues like beauty standards, the role of government, the importance of free will, and celebrity culture, all the while being a thrill-a-minute ride.
5. Clay by David Almond
The story of two boys who build a monster, Clay deals with questions of faith, character, and evil. This is one of my favorite books, period. The language is beautiful and evocative, and I think anyone can relate to the issues at hand. I find myself recommending this book more often than almost any other.
I hope I can convince some of you who aren’t already hooked on YA books that they’re just as good and varied as the adult books you’re reading. They run the gamut from literary to commercial, and they welcome every genre (and don’t mind mixing them sometimes). For those of you that are reading YA, what would be on your list of recommendations?