In the old days, when a book came out it just had to compete with other books. But these days a book has to compete not only with other books, but also with blog posts and tweets and tumblrs and everything else in written form. There's only so much that readers feel like reading, and as a result, every year many good books get lost under a tide of prose. How many times does a writer go to a party and someone asks, "When is your book coming out?" And the answer is, "Uh, six months ago." And then there's an awkward, horrible silence, and the person asking the question mutters something and rushes off to refresh his drink.
The publication of every good book should ideally be met with a triumphal, trumpet fanfare. But that doesn't always happen. I looked back over many of the books that have been published this year and selected five that deserve a little more fanfare.
Having recently purchased Mark Bittman's VB6, a book of diet advice and recipes whose philosophy is essentially to go vegan before 6 p.m. (you'll lose weight and be healthy), I feel as though The Duke's Table, by Enrico Alliata, the Duke of Salaparuta, could be called VB21. This cookbook, which was originally published in 1930, advised readers to eat not vegan but vegetarian (another V), long before the sophisticated foodie's paradise that is the 21st century.
The duke was an Italian gastronome and visionary who wanted to "transform our diet — and, by doing so, repair our health, our culture, and our world." His ambitious book takes classic Italian dishes and translates them into meatless versions. So we get recipes for dishes like Egg Medallions in Fricasee, which involves 10 eggs, 4 ounces of butter, and 4 ounces of Parmesan cheese, among other white and yellow ingredients. There's a Carrot and Beet Flan, and Artichoke Cutlets, which I definitely plan to make, as well as a dish called Milk Squares Cooked in Broth, which I definitely do not. The duke was even prescient and canny enough to write an entire section on raw food. (That said, he did not seem to realize he should've also devoted another whole section to the wonders of kale.)
Mental illness has long been the subject of important books, from The Bell Jar to A Beautiful Mind. Juliann Garey's novel, Too Bright to Hear, Too Loud to See, is a significant contribution to the genre, but more to the point it stands out as a riveting and memorable fiction debut. When bipolar Hollywood studio executive Greyson Todd leaves his wife and daughter and breaks free of his life to go off on a worldwide, decade-long bender, the reader tags along in a state of wonder and fear. I've rarely read a novel that describes the feeling of being inside an unquiet brain with such precision, as this one does: There were "millions of tiny cackling wings all flapping inside me," observes Greyson. Juliann Garey, who has spoken openly about being bipolar herself, is a vivid and startling writer, and this novel shouldn't be relegated to the mental illness shelf unless it's also placed squarely in fiction and literature, where it will not only teach, it will shine.
There's an unwritten rule that writers should try to avoid writing fiction about writers. It's apparently less inside-baseball to make those writer characters into, say, painters or composers. But I've never understood this. I like to read about writers, for they come in an infinite variety. In The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, Kristopher Jansma accurately nails the young male writer type, and he also includes scenes set in that breeding-ground of double-spaced manuscripts and fear known as the creative writing workshop. Jansma's unnamed young male writer narrator also happens to be deeply unreliable, a fact that makes for a playfully weird narrative experience. I'd call this book "postmodern," but that makes it sound like it's not as pleasurable to read as it is.
Because this novel is delicate and impressive and concerns itself with food and its meanings, I imagine thatreviewers might have had to restrain themselves from using the word "soufflé." But Jessica Soffer doesn't shy away from heaviness in Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, the story of a teenage girl named Lorca who cuts herself; her distant mother who uses a knife in more artful ways (she's a chef); and a grieving widow, the former manager of an Iraqi Jewish restaurant who gives Lorca cooking classes. The daughter yearns to prepare her mother's favorite dish, masgouf, the national dish of Iraq, for which Soffer includes a recipe at the back. (The directions state that if you make the dish outdoors, you have to "impale fish vertically on wooden stakes," and they note that cooking will take "anywhere from 45 minutes to a couple of hours." But whoever said that anything really good was simple?) Soffer's style is natural and assured whether she's writing about adolescent longings, adult sorrow, or the seemingly endless and sometimes thankless desire to please one's parent. Novels about food are often, by nature, about love — its presence or equally deeply felt absence — and this one is no exception. And now you will please excuse me, because I have to go impale a fish.
Though a questionnaire that writer Michelle Orange filled out in fourth grade revealed her desire to be Michael Jackson when she grew up, she seems to have ended up a little more like Susan Sontag. With its stew of high and low cultural references and extremely confident voice, Orange's essay collection This is Running for your Life displays a crackling brain choosing to turn its attention to an array of topics and ideas. While the author is knowledgeable about what came before her (the book is studded with references to figures such as Marshall McLuhan, Norman Mailer, Pauline Kael, Roland Barthes and, yes, Sontag), she is also of her era, and Ethan Hawke and Amy Winehouse make appearances too. Though "cultural critic" is a fair description of Michelle Orange, she's politically astute, and graceful and effective when exploring personal subjects, such as her own grandmother's life. Also, she has a fiction writer's flair for the knowing detail, such as this observation about boarding airplanes: "I've always enjoyed the pomp and semaphore of the seat-filling pageant."
This Is Running for Your Life is accessible and wide-ranging, and I for one am glad that Michelle Orange's fourth-grade ambition was never fulfilled.