Books You Might Have Missed This Year

Reviewer Maud Newton reveals her favorite overlooked books of 2007.

ALISON STEWART, host:

As we wind down our best of the best of 2007, it's time now to take a look at some of the best literature of '07.

(Soundbite of song "You're Simply the Best")

Ms. TINA TURNER (Singer): (Singing) You're simply the best.

STEWART: But in this case, it's the best literature you may have missed. No Don DeLillo here or Philip Ross.

Helping us out is Brooklyn-based reviewer Maud Newton. She's going to suggest how to use that Barnes & Noble or Borders gift cards you got.

Hi, Maud, how are you?

Ms. MAUD NEWTON (Book Critic): Hi. I'm great. How are you?

STEWART: I'm well. Your blog is MuadNewton.com and it's listed as where you can find occasional literary links, amusement politics and rants. So this should be a good list. I'm looking forward to it. How did you select the pieces that you want to discuss today?

Ms. NEWTON: Well, I enjoyed so many of the books that were on the end-of-year lists - Junot Diaz's "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao."

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

Ms. NEWTON: Shalom Auslander's "Foreskin's Lament,"and also some overlooked books like Kate Christensen's "The Great Man." But I thought it would be fun to talk about a couple of books about reading, and then a couple of anthologies that I have enjoyed, just to kind of mix it up and provide, you know, a glimpse into some things that people might not have picked up otherwise.

STEWART: Now, you made an observation, even glancing through the various best of list and putting your own together, but there weren't a lot of women represented.

Ms. NEWTON: That's right. There really weren't, and that's one reason I really enjoyed Kate Christensen's "The Great Man." She talks about kind of the arbitrariness of men's art being prioritized over women's art, and partly it's the question in her book it seems of the force of personality. And the funny thing about that book is that it's actually - it's - a couple of biographers are competing to write the biography of the Great Man Oscar Feldman, an artist. But they're actually talking to the women in his life.

STEWART: Oh, it's interesting.

Ms. NEWTON: And so, really, we're learning about the women, more about the women than about Oscar. And the sort of trick ending forces the reader to consider the possibility that his artist's sister is just as talented, if not more so, than he is, although she is perceived as the sort of safe, less interesting artist.

STEWART: The next book on your list is called "The Uncommon Reader" by Alan Bennett. And I just love the plot of this - that the uncommon reader in question is the Queen. And she falls in love with the reading, and the whole palace schedule has to change. Becomes - she becomes an obsessed reader.

Ms. NEWTON: That's right. She becomes an obsessed reader and she picks up all the eccentricities that her passion for books tends to engender. She's perpetually late. She lets her grooming go. She doesn't want to go on pointless day trips to, you know, christen boats and what not…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NEWTON: …anymore. And it's really quite a lovely book and a very smart book too.

STEWART: Well, the way she discovers or this passion for reading is ignited as she stumbles on a small book mobile of sorts. And let me read this passage from it.

(Reading) As the Queen hesitated because, to tell the truth, she wasn't sure. She'd never taken much interest in reading. She read, of course, as one did, but liking books was something she left to other people. It was a hobby, and it was - in the nature of her job, she just didn't have hobbies - jogging, growing roses, chess, or rock-climbing, cake decoration, model airplanes. No. Hobbies involved preferences, and preferences had to be avoided. Preferences excluded people. One had no preferences. Her job was to take an interest not to be interested herself. And besides, reading wasn't doing. She was a doer.

Do you want to say what happens to the Queen? Is reading become her own doing?

Ms. NEWTON: Well, I don't want to give away the ending, but it really is very funny. She - there's an absolutely hilarious exchange with the prime minister, who I believe Bennett intends to be a stand-in for Tony Blair, the recently - former prime minister. And the Queen normally does this sort of wrote thing for her Christmas broadcast. But she tells him, I'd like to read from Hardy's "The Convergence of the Twain" this year. It would show that faith, she says, is something to which we are all subject. And the prime minister says, I'm not sure that is a message that government would feel able to endorse.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NEWTON: So she really becomes a bit of a thorn in his side. And the ending is very funny. And it really - one thing that struck me about it is that she's a monarch. But you have the sense that Bennett is making the point that reading is a very democratic activity, and it leads to a more democratic and empathetic way of thinking so that this elected government leader is actually in the end less democratic. The prime minister is less democratic than the Queen becomes.

STEWART: The next book you have on this list takes place in an imaginary island in 1942. The protagonist is Estrella Thompson, which Estrella means star. I don't think that's any accident.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NEWTON: Right.

STEWART: Probably. She's banished from her coastal village. What did she do?

Ms. NEWTON: Well, she taught herself to read and she became…

STEWART: How dare she…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NEWTON: She became an object of suspicion. And even her parents turned against her. She - the people in the village really weren't able to understand why she had this longing to know about the world outside of their village.

STEWART: The name of the book is "The Girl with the Golden Shoes" by Colin Channer. Are we giving away anything by telling people what the golden shoes are and how they fit in the plot?

Ms. NEWTON: The golden shoes she has, and she carries them with her throughout the book. And to me, they kind of represent her desire to move to the West and live in the West. And at the beginning of the book, though, she has, I would say, this very - it's a view of the West that is not very realistic. And as she encounters these various English men and other people who are kind of coming on to her and mistreating her, her view shifts. But she retains her ambitions to do more than to continue to live in the village. And she carries the shoes with her the whole time.

STEWART: On this list of books that you've given us, not just fiction, "The Paris Review Interviews" too. What made you decide to go down this route?

Ms. NEWTON: Well, they really are just an incredibly inspiring collection of interviews for any artists. I'm a writer so I - obviously, I was fascinated to read how James Baldwin, and Eudora Welty, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, William Faulkner, Tony Morrison, how they think about writing, and how they have wrote their own books. But I really - Orhan Pamuk's introduction sort of encapsulate for me the allure of these interviews. He read them first when he was writing his first novel, he said, and it was 600 pages. And it took him four years to complete. And he says, whenever I was stuck, I would again read those interviews struggling to regain my faith in writing and to find my own way. During my early years as a writer, when I lack confidence and had doubts about my future, I would return to those interviews to bolster my resolve. And I think it's really fascinating to look into the mind of a creative person and see how he or she has created his art or her art. And…

STEWART: Do they ever talk about their weaknesses? I'm always interested when you read someone who's so very good at something and they acknowledged what their weaknesses are.

Ms. NEWTON: Oh, absolutely, they do. They absolutely talked about their weaknesses. And I really love this one section from Tony Morrison that one of the interviewers asked her about writing out of anger or other emotions. And she acknowledged that she had those feelings, but she said, anger is a very intense but tiny emotion. It doesn't laugh. It doesn't produce anything. It's not creative. I don't like this little quick emotions like, oh, I'm lonely. Oh, god. I don't like those emotions as fuel.

And I think it's really helpful if you're someone who's directed toward art to think about that, you know? About these questions of should one be motivated by an emotion or should one be motivated by a sort of more abstract cool-headed approach. And so I - there is just so much wonderful stuff in these interviews.

James Baldwin, surprisingly, talks about how he admires Emily Dickinson. He talks about the minor characters in (unintelligible), how they have freedom that major ones don't. Eudora Welty talks about how the hardest part for her is getting people in and out of rooms, the mechanics of the story. It's really…

STEWART: It makes you feel better as a writer that, oh, my gosh. This great writer had the same problems with exposition and just the functionality of getting a story from beginning to end.

Ms. NEWTON: Absolutely. And I think that Pamuk's introduction really captures that, just the - how inspiring it is to see how these people have learned to deal with their weaknesses, learned to deal with their doubts.

STEWART: The last book on your list is in the Library of America - "American Food Writing: An Anthology: With Classic Recipes." This is a really interesting choice.

Ms. NEWTON: It's a fascinating book. It's really a history of the country through our food, and through the eyes not only of some of the - are well-known food writers like MFK Fisher, but through literary writers and thinkers and even politicians. There - you have Melville on clam chowder, Thoreau on watermelon, Jefferson on ice cream. And the section on clam chowder comes from "Moby Dick." And here's a little section.

(Reading) Oh, sweet friends, Ishmael says, hearken to me. The smoking chowder was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazelnuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork chop cut up into little flakes. The whole enriched with butter and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt.

And I just think it's - that's not really what I think of clam chowder as consisting of ship biscuit…

STEWART: Or when I think of "Moby Dick" - I read the book twice, and I have to be honest, I don't remember that passage. He does what you don't think about.

Ms. NEWTON: I didn't either.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: "Moby Dick" and chowder necessarily.

Ms. NEWTON: That's absolutely right. But it's really interesting to sort of trace the history of the country through its food and trace these writers' preoccupations and what not through what they ate. I particularly - I grew up in Miami, and it's relatively rare. Even when I was growing up, it was increasingly rare to be an Anglo in Miami, and I loved that. And I loved the feeling of being constantly surrounded by a culture that was very different but became increasingly familiar to me.

And Ana Menendez talks about her Cuban family Thanksgivings and how when the family first relocated to South Florida. They still made the pig on a spits and they still ate the traditional Cuban side and what not. And she really mourns the lost of that. She says eventually someone brought a pumpkin pie, and of course, it was pronounced inedible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Maud Newton reviews all things literary on her blog MaudNewton.com.

Ms. NEWTON: Thanks for doing all these research for us. We really appreciate it. It was fun.

Ms. NEWTON: Oh, thank you. Thanks for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: So, John, does that make you think about the best books you read this year?

JOHN FUGELSANG, host:

It certainly does, yes, and "Moby Dick" as well. You were talking about (unintelligible), and you just said you reread "Moby Dick" and it didn't hold up.

STEWART: Not so much…

FUGELSANG: After all those years.

STEWART: …on a page that blubber.

FUGELSANG: Yeah.

STEWART: It's not that interesting when I was 7.

FUGELSANG: That clam chowder was 75-page (unintelligible) wrote about the chowder. Yeah, I read quite a few this year. What book did you like?

STEWART: I love "The Ruins" by Scott Smith. I'm not really a horror book fan, but let's put it this way. This is what Stephen King said about this book. "The Ruins" does for Mexican vacations what "Jaws" did for New England beaches.

FUGELSANG: Mm-hmm. And it's becoming a film.

STEWART: Vacationer - yeah. In the spring, vacationers - they go and try to find these ruins in Mexico, but there's something evil living in the ruins. They find out it's actually the jungle itself can think and just played all kinds of mind games with the tourists.

FUGELSANG: Very scary.

STEWART: Very scary. How about you?

FUGELSANG: Well, the scariest thing I read was "Ghost Plane" and how the rendition is like.

STEWART: Sure.

FUGELSANG: But actually my favorite reading experience of the year. I'm one of the millions of adults who got caught up in "Harry Potter," and I wanted to finish. I live with a "Harry Potter" addict…

STEWART: Yeah.

FUGELSANG: …and so I have to enable. And I got to the final three books this year.

STEWART: And was it worthwhile?

FUGELSANG: You know what? As - I mean, what a great experience as an adult to read something that reminds you of why you fell in love with reading in the first place. The fact that so many kids are turned on to reading by these books is just - it keeps boggling to mind.

STEWART: Well, link through all of our favorites as well as Maud Newton's favorites on our blog. That's npr.org/bryantpark. That does it for this hour.

I'm Alison Stewart.

FUGELSANG: I'm John Fugelsang, and this is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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