The Ones That Got Away: Books Not to Miss

NPR's Lynn Neary talks with book writers — Laura Miller of Salon.com, and blogger Mark Sarvas of The Elegant Variation — about worthy books that got overlooked by the mainstream book-review sections in 2007. Here's a rundown of their recommendations.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Today, we begin a weeklong series called The Ones That Got Away. We'll hear about some of the music, TV shows and video games that went under the radar in 2007, and books. Every year, book reviewers face the same dilemma, how to write about everything that deserves coverage. Even reading at a rate of, let's say, a hundred books a year, reviewers can barely make a dent in the thousands that are published.

NPR's Lynn Neary talked with several reviewers about some of the books they wished had not gotten away.

LYNN NEARY: Talk with anyone who writes about books and they'll sheepishly admit or loudly lament their inability to read everything that's sent to them in a given year. Sally Williams, books editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, says she has a guilt pile that stares her in the face every day.

Ms. SALLY WILLIAMS (Book Editor, Minneapolis Star Tribune): On my guilt file this year are people like Philip Roth and even Oliver Sacks. I that kind of winced when I say that because I thought that was a lovely book. And I don't feel so bad about them because I know they've had attention elsewhere. But there are other books that caught my interest that for some reason just didn't make it to the finishing line of my pages.

NEARY: One such book, says Williams, is "The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman" by Nancy Marie Brown. It's the story of Gudrid, a Viking explorer, every bit as adventurous as Leif Ericsson who's been overlooked by history because she's a woman.

Brown, a science writer, retraced Gudrid's journeys, even helping archeologists unearth a longhouse in Iceland. The result, says Williams, is a book filled with fascinating details about an ancient time.

Ms. WILLIAMS: And you get these wonderful tidbits of medieval culture - what people wore and what they ate and what was in their garbage pile, and it feels like a treasure hunt, you know, and you're going along with her. She went to Iceland. She went to Greenland. She went to Newfoundland. And explore these places herself and tried to find all the little calling cards that Gudrid left behind.

NEARY: Another book that deserve more attention this year, says Laura Miller of Salon.com, is a collection of short stories called "The Winds of Marble Arch" by Connie Willis who's best known as a science-fiction writer. Miller says her stories ran the best of that genre with the best of literary fiction.

A number of the stories are about luck or chance. In one, an experiment reverses the luck of everyone in the town. Miller says the best of the stories are witty, charming and clever, and perhaps most importantly, they're real stories.

Ms. LAURA MILLER (Editor, Salon.com): If what you want from a short story collection is a lot of really perfectly, flawlessly written, wispy melt-away moments of melancholy and sadness and - or epiphanies - then you will not find that in "The Winds of Marble Arch." These are story's stories, things happen. There are crises, and there are moments of narrative tension in a way that you just don't really see in literary fiction very much anymore.

NEARY: Miller says a lot of books fall through the cracks in November because fall books are still coming out at the same time that reviewers are trying to get ready for their best of the year-list.

That's why Miller never got a chance to review one of her favorite books of 2007, "The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved" by Judith Freeman. It's the story of Chandler's marriage to a much older woman. Miller says, Freeman, a Chandler fan, became preoccupied with this marriage and its effect on Chandler's writing.

Ms. MILLER: It's such a beautiful book. I felt like it was a dream reading it. And some of the early reviews have described the author and the book as being haunted, and that a strange mix of nostalgia and dread and melancholy that she captures in allowing herself to be haunted by Raymond Chandler. It's so perfectly in tuned with Chandler himself that it just is a beautiful, kind of sad, seedy reverie.

NEARY: The couple moved frequently, and Freeman drove around L.A. visiting all the houses where they lived. The result, says Miller, is a mood piece about the city.

Here's Miller reading from the book.

Ms. MILLER: (Reading) What Chandler understood and what he wrote about so well in his novels was the fact that a new kind of American loneliness was born in L.A., and people who found themselves marooned in paradise, lonely emits abundance and incredible wealth.

Lonely in a seemingly incurable fashion, lonely in spite of the crowds and opportunities because suddenly they had been cut off from their past, from all that was familiar and had given meaning and shape to their lives, a widespread feeling that took hold in a large number of people.

NEARY: Mark Sarvas, who writes the literary blog The Elegant Variation, has another take on L.A. on his list of overlooked books. "Zeroville" by L.A.-based author Steve Erickson, is the story of a film-obsessed young man who arrives in Hollywood in 1969.

And Sarvas says one of the most unusual reads of the past year was a new translation of "Autonauts of the Cosmoroute" by Julio Cortazar and his partner Carol Dunlop. It's a very different kind of travelogue. The couple set out on a French auto route from Paris to Marseille for a month-long journey that usually only takes about 10 hours to drive.

Mr. MARK SARVAS (Literary Blogger): And their plan was never to leave the auto route to hit two rest stations every day and live in this camper bus. And it's unlike any book you will read this year. It's charming. It's whimsical, and it's also poignant because it's a record of this great love that this couple shared, and unfortunately before the book came out, she died and he dies shortly after its completion. So there's an element of poignancy and sadness that hangs over the whole work.

NEARY: Sarvas says one of the goals of his blog is to bring attention to first-time authors and books that might otherwise get lost in the shuffle.

One book that he and other bloggers in the Litblog Co-op have put on their read-this list is "The Farther Shore" by Matthew Eck.

Mr. SARVAS: It's a very small, contained story about a group of soldiers who get cut off from their unit, and they're trying to survive and trying to get back and what's so interesting about the book, you know, as the old saying goes, this is not your grandfather's war.

NEARY: Set in a country that seems to be based on Somalia, Sarvas says "The Farther Shore" is more compelling than many of the new books about the war in Iraq.

Mr. SARVAS: A lot of those books, although very realistic, every - even graphic, they don't have what this novelist has and if I can let you kind of read a very short bit, but in the very first paragraph of there book where they're talking about how these soldiers are positioned and they're in essence, in essence, transmitting the coordinates for the attack helicopters to come in, and (unintelligible) it was a tight world, a balancing act, a burden we adored. And to me, the moment I saw that line a burden we adored, I knew that this was a different kind of a military novel. And it's one that connects itself to books like "All Quiet on the Western Front" and even some of the works of Hemingway.

NEARY: Even as reviewers are trying to get the last word on the books of 2007, they are already looking ahead to a new year when well-known authors will once again be competing for their attention with the unknown who might have written the next great novel. So, says Sally Williams, the time for looking back is over.

Ms. WILLIAMS: The spring catalogs are sort of pouring in right now just like a salmon run(ph); they're all slippery and shiny, so you just have to say, okay, the turn of the year is, you just have to turn the page and go forward at some point.

NEARY: As for that leftover guilt pile, Williams says she still hopes she'll get around to reading some of those books one of these days. Maybe like the rest of us, she'll catch up next summer on the beach.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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For a New Age of War, a New Kind of War Novel

Farther Shore cover
The Farther Shore, by Matthew Eck. Hardcover, 192 pages. List price: $22.

Mark Sarvas, who writes the literary blog The Elegant Variation, says Matthew Eck's The Farther Shore isn't your grandfather's war novel. It's a story about a group of soldiers separated from their unit, trying to survive until they can rejoin it. It shows how combat has changed, and what it's liked to be dropped in hostile countries. Sarvas describes it as a new kind of military novel, which in its sensibility and approach belongs in the continuum of books like All Quiet on the Western Front and some of the works of Hemingway. He says there's something lovely and harrowing about this work.

Road-Tripping With the Love of Your Life

Cover: Autonauts
Autonauts of the Cosmoroute: A Timeless Voyage from Paris to Marseille, by Julio Cortazar and Carol Dunlop. Paperback, 354 pages. List price: $20.

A road trip that usually takes 10 hours got stretched over the course of a month in Autonauts of the Cosmoroute, a new translation of the last work by author Julio Cortazar and his partner Carol Dunlop. Mark Sarvas says it's unlike any other book you'll read this year — charming, whimsical, but also poignant. While it's a record of the great love the couple shared, Dunlop died before the book had been completed and Cortazar followed shortly after. Autonauts includes photographs of their journey and their daily itineraries, and contains a remarkable universe within the confines of a French highway. Sarvas says anyone who reads the book will never look at the freeway in quite the same way again.

From Hollywood, Fiction that Moves Like a Movie

Zeroville cover
Zeroville, by Steve Erickson. Paperback, 329 pages. List price: $14.95.

Mark Sarvas says Steve Erickson's novel Zeroville takes advantage of Erickson's encyclopedic knowledge of film history. (He's a critic for Los Angeles Magazine). In Zeroville, a film-obsessed young man comes to Hollywood in 1969, and the novel follows his adventures in Tinseltown during the Easy Rider era. Sarvas calls the protagonist a remarkable, strange creation, and says this book — although unconventional — is one of the more accessible and less experimental of Erickson's works, mimicking the experience of watching a film. If you're ready to dip your toes into the avant-garde, Sarvas says, Zeroville is for you.

A Passionate 'Embrace' of an Author and His City

Long Embrace cover
The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved, by Judith Freeman. Hardcover, 368 pages. List price: $25.95.

Laura Miller of Salon.com also chose Judith Freeman's book The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved. It's about the marriage of Raymond Chandler to a woman who was considerably older than he was. Although their marriage had some bumpy spots — including his drinking and occasional extramarital affairs — he remained devoted to her until she died. But the marriage is sort of mysterious, because he burned all of her papers and letters after she died. So it's kind of an enigma in the life of a man who specialized in solving enigmas. Freeman is a novelist, and a great admirer of Chandler's prose — he was the master stylist of the hard-boiled detective novel and the patron poet of a certain kind of seamy, ugly side of Los Angeles; Freeman also lives in Los Angeles, and Miller says she wanted to write about this relationship because she was convinced that it had had a pronounced effect on Chandler's fiction. Freeman takes an unconventional approach, traveling to every single house that the couple lived in when they were in Los Angeles. She looks at these sites, and she thinks about L.A. as it used to be, and L.A. as it was when she first moved there, and as it is now. This book, Miller says, becomes a mood piece about the city, which is a city a lot of people think they understand, but is actually quite inaccessible, especially to outsiders.

Literary Stories from an Artful Sci-Fi Writer

Marble Arch cover
The Winds of Marble Arch, by Connie Willis. Hardcover, 600 pages. List price: $40.

Connie Willis is known as a science-fiction writer, but Laura Miller of Salon.com doesn't want to give people the idea that these stories are going to be about spaceships or robots or aliens. They're an unusual mixture of subject matters that might be dealt with in literary short stories: Family relationships, love and loss, grief, loneliness again, and some wonderful, fizzy comic stories, as well. (In her introduction, Willis lists one of her influences as the classic screwball romantic comedies of the 1930s) Miller says Willis represents an interesting trend in her genre, that of bringing in a lot of the interests and techniques of literary fiction, and she thinks that some of the most exciting things that are going on in fiction these days blend the two. But Connie Willis is not very well known because she's not a conventional science-fiction writer, and she's not really known in literary circles.

Undiscovered Countries, Unexpected Voyagers

Book Cover: 'Far Traveler'
The Far Traveler, by Nancy Marie Brown. Hardcover, 320 pages. List price: $25.

The subject of Nancy Marie Brown's book The Far Traveler is a Viking explorer who had just as much spirit and sense of adventure as Leif Ericsson or Eric the Red — but who was slighted in the sagas because she was a woman. Brown tells the story of Gudred, who, rather than staying home and making sails, traveled to Greenland, Iceland, Rome and Newfoundland 500 years before Columbus set sail. Eventually, Gudred settled in Iceland and became a nun. Minneapolis Star Tribune book editor Sally Williams says Brown has clearly taken a lot of joy in researching this. In 2005, she showed up in Iceland with a trowel to help unearth a Viking longhouse in which it was believed Gudred had lived. Her enthusiasm comes through in this book, with lessons about the sagas, a little bit of archaeological science and controversy, and wonderful tidbits of material about a vanished culture: what people wore and what they ate, what was in their garbage pile. Williams says it feels like a treasure hunt, like going along with Brown to Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland. The author explored these places herself, and tried to find all the little calling cards her unsung heroine left behind.

Books Featured In This Story

The Farther Shore
The Farther Shore

by Matthew Eck

Hardcover, 176 pages | purchase

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Purchase Featured Books

  • The Farther Shore
  • Matthew Eck
Autonauts of the Cosmoroute
Autonauts of the Cosmoroute

A Timeless Voyage from Paris to Marseille

by Julio Cortazar, Carol Dunlop, Anne McLean and Stephane Hebert

Paperback, 354 pages | purchase

close

Purchase Featured Books

  • Autonauts of the Cosmoroute
  • A Timeless Voyage from Paris to Marseille
  • Julio Cortazar, Carol Dunlop, et al
Zeroville
Zeroville

by Steve Erickson

Paperback, 329, [4] p. | purchase

close

Purchase Featured Books

  • Zeroville
  • Steve Erickson
The Long Embrace
The Long Embrace

Raymond Chandler and The Woman He Loved

by Judith Freeman

Hardcover, 353 pages | purchase

close

Purchase Featured Books

  • The Long Embrace
  • Raymond Chandler and The Woman He Loved
  • Judith Freeman
The Winds of Marble Arch
The Winds of Marble Arch

And Other Stories

by Connie Willis

Hardcover, 700 pages | purchase

close

Purchase Featured Books

  • The Winds of Marble Arch
  • And Other Stories
  • Connie Willis
The Far Traveler
The Far Traveler

Voyages of a Viking Woman

by Nancy Marie Brown

Hardcover, 306 pages | purchase

close

Purchase Featured Books

  • The Far Traveler
  • Voyages of a Viking Woman
  • Nancy Marie Brown

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