Deck the shelves with boughs of good books. That's the seasonal wish from a trio of independent booksellers we get in touch with from time to time — for ideas on new and old books to consider. This season, they have fiction — and food — on their minds.
They've selected some captivating titles, from An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England (it's a novel, not a how-to guide) to My Last Supper (the world's most famous chefs share their final-meal ideas). And from Novels in Three Lines to a novel in 1,296 pages (a new translation of War and Peace).
Steve Shapiro, Rainy Day Books
Steve Shapiro is the official Book Maven at Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kan.
Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink, edited by David Remnick, hardcover, 608 pages, list price: $29.95
Food is a comforting tradition around the holidays; reading about food is a delicacy available to anyone with a yen for nostalgia or a taste for adventure, whether it comes in the form of French cuisine, the bean curd shima dofu, or Nora Ephron's hot pastrami sandwich from Langer's Delicatessen in L.A.: "the finest ... in the world." This ideal collection of food-happy pieces from some of the magazine's greatest contributors on cooking and dining — Calvin Tomkins on Julia Child, Malcolm Gladwell on ketchup, M.F.K. Fisher on tripe, Calvin Trillin on "the magic bagel" — yields pleasures of all kinds. Travel pieces, essays and memoirs feed into parodies (Woody Allen, Dorothy Parker), fiction (Cheever's classic story "The Sorrows of Gin"), even cartoons. The unique approach each writer brings to his subject makes the reader ponder at the wonders of the culinary world: how deeply Mrs. Fisher has thought about the casserole! How thrilled Roger Angell is over the misting of the martini pitcher before pouring it! Food is next to reading; they are both preferable to godliness, if you can have seconds.
The Assassins Gallery, by David L. Robbins, paperback, 544 pages, list price: $7.50
This brainy thriller is set in 1945, when a foreign black arts assassin (and a woman, at that) makes her way into America to kill F.D.R. The novel acts as a vessel for the author to discuss the place that assassinations have played in history. Like an Umberto Eco historical mystery channeled through the Jason Bourne series, the factual information is balanced out by the fictional suspense. Robbins' hero, a history of assassinations professor named Lammeck recruited by the Secret Service, presents an intriguing thesis that there are "good" assassinations and "bad" ones; that is, some killings alter history for the better while others create revolution. Did Caesar's death change anything? Would killing Hitler earlier have discouraged Stalin? What might Jack Kennedy have done about Vietnam had he lived? Robbins' "wild cards" have an impact on history which cannot be ignored, even if we read about them from the relative safety of fiction.
The Poets' Corner, compiled by John Lithgow, hardcover, 304 pages, list price: $24.99
Many people know John Lithgow from his entertaining stage and television roles. He has also become a versatile children's author. This new book is neither written down to kids nor filled with hokey hidden references for adults; it is a straightforward book on the glory of poetry. Lithgow has chosen 50 classic poets, from Shelley and Wordsworth to Frost, Eliot, and even Wallace Stevens, giving each a personal, pertinent introduction followed by a selection — not necessarily a representative poem, but always a favorite of the actor's. He warmly writes about growing up with poetry; his grandmother was of that last generation to memorize poetry (and like it!) — something she passed down to him. And because Lithgow understands the importance of making language sing to an audience, the book includes a CD of each poem, read by the likes of Jodie Foster and Helen Mirren. It is neat to hear great actors read great lines, but the real stars remain the poets and their poems. At a time when more Americans prefer to watch a presidential debate than read quietly, Lithgow offers a chance to connect with our inner voice.
War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, hardcover, 1296 pages, list price: $37.00
This new translation reinforces the old but still reliable opinion of Tolstoy as a master and this book as his masterpiece. Set in the follow-up to and the aftermath of Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia, this epic covers what was, for Russia at the time, the precipice of modernity: the speaking of French by the upper-class as much as the ways of European influence in fashion and thought; the opening up of the country, with the action divided between the Moscow and St. Petersburg; the new military aesthetic that foreshadowed the world wars in the 20th century. But to speak of Tolstoy as a technician would be to miss his uniqueness as a storyteller. Though dozens of characters flow though the 1,200 pages, none are irreplaceable; Tolstoy's sense of life, so easy to ridicule now, was and remains one of great generosity and necessity. As his characters develop before us, like images from a snapshot, they ache, they argue, they resolve to change their lives, and the reader cannot but feel a part of their struggles (certainly, I have read the book so many times that I can open it to any page and feel like one of the characters).
How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, by Pierre Bayard, hardcover, 208 pages, list price: $19.95
We read to understand ourselves; we share our reading with others to understand them. Yet, in Pierre Bayard's view, reading books and not reading but discussing them, anyway, are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In this half-serious, half-mischievous treatise on what reading means, non-reading becomes another form of reading. In quintessential French fashion, Bayard has devised a felicitous methodology to permit one to converse intelligently about books without shame: there's skimming; reading reviews; making up stuff about what one has read and forgotten; and then, if one has completely run out of things to say about the book in question, Bayard suggests talking about oneself. Beneath his wry commentary (reminiscent of Alain de Botton's philosophical books on travel and architecture), Bayard views reading as one component of a larger social discourse with the world; to be able to chat about books via second-hand means is neither duplicitous to others nor demeaning to the author, who, after all, really only wants to know that one likes his book.
Rona Brinlee, The Bookmark
Recommendations from a store by the sea, The Bookmark in Atlantic Beach, Fla.
'An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England'
An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, by Brock Clarke, hardcover, 305 pages, $23.95
Sam Pulsifer "accidentally" burned down Emily Dickinson's house, killing two people who were in it. While Sam's serving his 10-year sentence for this crime, his father receives letters from people asking if he could please have his son burn down the houses of Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and other famous authors. After he's released, some of these houses are burned, but not by him. An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England is more than a mystery, though. It's a reminder that books and the stories in them can change people's lives. Sam blames his plight on all the time his mother spent reading Emily Dickinson to him. Just as her obsession with Dickinson affected Sam's life, it appears that others are also haunted by the works of famous authors. Yet, in his quest to understand his own life, Sam turns to books and decides to write his own memoir. This wildly odd novel is the result.
The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World, by E. L. Konigsburg, hardcover, 256 pages, list price: $16.99
Two-time Newbery Medal winner E.L. Konigsburg delivers another gem that appeals to young readers and adults alike. In The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World, two boys befriend an eccentric old lady who is their neighbor. Mrs. Zender, who was once an opera singer and is still larger than life, is leaving her longtime home that is filled with art and secrets. One of the boys, Amadeo, has decided that his goal in life is to discover something no one else knows. Mrs. Zender could be the person to help him fulfill this dream. In a seemingly unrelated story, in another part of the country, Amadeo's godfather is planning a show of Degenerate Art once banned by and later reclaimed from the Nazis. Konigsburg masterfully weaves these two stories together, revealing fascinating information about art and history as she does. She also makes it clear that things are not always black or white or right or wrong. Life can be more complicated.
Ghost, by Alan Lightman, hardcover, 256 pages, list price: $23.00
On one level, Ghost is the story of David Kurzweil, a man searching for a better life — specifically a job, a girlfriend, and a less hostile relationship with his mother. What he finds is a job in a mortuary that he's ashamed to tell his mother about, and a woman he thinks he could love. But when David sees a ghost, or at least what he thinks is a ghost, while working in the slumber room of the funeral home, his life is profoundly altered. Underlying David's story is the larger question of how to prove what is real and deal with the dichotomy between science and rationality, on the one hand, and spirituality and belief on the other. Having been a professor both of science and the humanities at MIT, Lightman has established himself as the poet physicist. He is uniquely qualified to navigate between the complex ideas of art and science in Ghost.
Sundown, Yellow Moon, by Larry Watson, hardcover, 320 pages, list price: $25.95
On a cold, icy day in 1961 in Bismarck, North Dakota, Raymond Stoddard kills a popular state senator and then goes home and kills himself. His teenage son, Gene, finds him hanging in the garage. Sundown, Yellow Moon shows how this one act affects the lives of everyone on Stoddard's small street. Since no one really knows what happened, each person develops his own theory. All these "explanations" reveal more about the people who tell them and about their own lives than they do about the two deaths. The unnamed narrator, Gene's best friend at the time of killings, finds himself still haunted by events 40 years later. Although he tries to sort through all of these stories, including his own, and somehow figure out what really happened, the answer remains elusive. He discovers that the stories concocted by the various storytellers over time may be more informative than "the truth."
Mister Pip, by Lloyd Jones, hardcover, 272 pages, list price: $20.00
On a war-torn island near New Zealand, Mr. Watts stands out as different from the natives. For one thing, he is the only white man there. All of the teachers have fled, so Mr. Watts agrees to teach. Having no experience, he decides to read Dickens' Great Expectations to his students. Mister Pip is the story of one student, Matilda, who thinks of herself as Pip, the orphan in Dickens' book. Like Pip, she leaves home to find out about the larger world. Although Dickens' tale compels her to expand her horizons, Matilda discovers that the stories from home may be the most interesting after all. Mister Pip is a testament to the power of stories and the universal appeal of a true classic.
My Last Supper: 50 Great Chefs and Their Final Meals, by Melanie Dunea, hardcover, 224 pages, list price: $39.95
If Mario Batali were to die tomorrow, what would he concoct for his last meal on earth? Thanks to Melanie Dunea, we now know that his elaborate 10-course meal at a small trattoria on the Amalfi coast would include the Neapolitan version of a grilled cheese sandwich, R.E.M. would play live with U2, Anthony Bourdain would be among the guests, and they would cap the meal with "a sea of icy limoncello." It's an insider's game chefs have always played in darkened kitchens over pints of beer, and now, luckily for us foodies, photographer Melanie Dunea has crafted their responses into a truly delicious coffee table book, replete with wine lists, guest lists, locations, soundtracks and recipes. From the exacting and elaborate to the simple and sublime, the menus are paired with Dunea's playful and varied portraits, making this is a dream of a book you won't be able to put down, unless it's to run, mouth-watering, to your favorite restaurant.
'Women Travelers: A Century of Trailblazing Adventures, 1850-1950'
Women Travelers: A Century of Trailblazing Adventures, 1850-1950, by Alexandra Lapierre and Christel Mouchard, hardcover, 240 pages, list price: $45.00
Great photographs and illustrations and informative, engaging text introduce us to 31 women who bucked tradition and propriety and set out on their own (or with entourages of varying sizes) to explore the world. Some wore suits and passed as men, but many maintained their corsets and crinolines across the continents. Blue-bloods, impoverished drifters, thrill-seekers, intellectuals, scientists, writers and anthropologists all voyage out across a man's world, braving deserts, jungles, icebergs and mountains and countless naysayers along the way in this fascinating coffee table book. A great gift for young girls.
Novels in Three Lines, by Felix Feneon, translated by Luc Sante, paperback, 208 pages, list price: $14.00
If you like weird little books no one knows about that you can read aloud to your friends, put this at the top of your list. Feneon was an anarchist, editor, and all-around dandy. He discovered Seurat, translated Rimbaud, and was the first French publisher of James Joyce. But in 1906, his day job consisted of writing anonymous two-or-three-line news items for the French newspaper, Le Matin. Reporting mostly unfortunate circumstances of the tabloid variety, Feneon crafted these stories-in-miniature with a dry sense of humor that comments at once upon the horror of the facts and the awkwardness of our fascination. Translated into English for the first time, the more than a thousand notices compiled here read like train-wrecked haiku, tragedies distilled with a ruthless smirk. Clever, funny, dark and strange, they're not the normal holiday fare, but then, perhaps neither are you.
'Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote'
Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote, by Truman Capote, hardcover, 528 pages, list price: $28.95
If you weren't lucky enough to have drunk and dished with Truman Capote, (or unlucky, depending on how many drinks and on just how incriminating your behavior was), here's what you missed. Deftly laced with just enough fiction and fancy to make the truth of these true stories emerge, and crafted with Capote's trademark, pitch-perfect ear for dialogue, these are delicious, dramatic, and tender non-fiction portraits and tales. In the same way that a photograph is not the actual person at all, but renders in its fantasy of light, shadow and time the fleeting essence of a person or place, Capote crafts his conversational vignettes. From drinks with Marilyn Monroe (A Beautiful Child) to one of the most haunting true-crime tales you'll ever read (Handcarved Coffins), this hefty tome gathers together much long-unavailable work along with the complete text of Music for Chameleons and the celebrated masterpiece The Muses Are Heard, making it a must-have treasure for Capote fans.
Away, by Amy Bloom, hardcover 256 pages, list price: $23.95
How do you make a dazzling, compulsively readable novel out of such a tragic story? While a first glance at the dust jacket suggests a laborious, dirge-like read, Amy Bloom immediately takes the reader by the shoulders and spins him about-face from the very first page. Her style is immediate, arresting, and finely tuned. Her sentences nail it every time, the details and tone are spot-on, and the results are by turns energizing and devastating. On a purely formal level, Away is stunning, and could succeed solely as a gleaming showcase for Amy Bloom's considerable talents. But what makes Away an up-all-night read is its vitality, the breath that makes it all come alive. It's a tight story — in 235 pages it spans three years and a cast of characters each worthy of their own novel. But the focus is clear. Bloom's spotlight pans where it needs to, and then stops on a dime, showing you where to look, deep at the quick of the story, where it pulses with life.