Small-town America may or may not be the heart of the country, but it sure is at the heart of many of the books suggested by the independent booksellers this year.
The booksellers' picks cover a territory wide and wild, from the snow-covered terrain of North Dakota in Chuck Klosterman's Downtown Owl, to the forests of 1929 North Carolina in Ron Rash's Serena. Oh, and for the Scrooge on your list? How about The Man Who Invented Christmas, the story of how Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol helped create the holiday spirit?
Rona Brinlee, The Bookmark
by Rona Brinlee
Recommendations from a store by the sea, The Bookmark in Atlantic Beach, Fla.
The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway, hardcover, 256 pages, Riverhead Books. List price: $21.95
Fact and fiction intersect in this haunting novel about four people striving to survive — both physically and spiritually — while their city is under siege during the Bosnian War. The facts are that at 4 o'clock in the afternoon on May 27, 1992, 22 people who were standing in line for bread in Sarajevo were killed by mortar shells. To honor each of the dead, the cellist from the symphony donned his concert tuxedo, sat in the crater left behind by the attack, and played on 22 consecutive days. Inspired by this one devastating event and the actions of one musician, Galloway has crafted a mesmerizing story of how people choose to maintain their humanity and decency when hate would be an easier option. The Cellist of Sarajevo is about 7x5 inches, but its size belies the rich and complex writing inside. Good things often come in small packages.
Esther's Inheritance, by Sandor Marai, translated by George Szirtes, hardcover, 160 pages, Knopf. List price: $24
In her youth, Esther is convinced she loves Lajos, a known liar who leaves her to marry her sister. Twenty years later when he returns for a day to "make things right," Esther finds herself musing about human nature, love gone awry and even the meaning of her life. How Lajos plans to deal with the past is more than surprising. This is another one of those small books that is so rich it takes a week to read. Sandor Marai (who also wrote Embers) writes so beautifully, it hardly matters what he writes about. Peopled with marvelous characters, his stories are intensely intimate and deal with life's big questions.
Gone Tomorrow, by P. F. Kluge, hardcover, 368 pages, Overlook Press. List price: $25.95
Professor George Canaris, the author of two bestselling novels, is wooed to a small college in Ohio to provide star quality to the English department. But 30 years later, Canaris has yet to deliver on the promise of another masterpiece, and he's being forced to resign so a new star can be hired. In the tradition of Richard Russo's Straight Man, P.F. Kluge alternates between humor and poetic examinations of the academic pursuit, along the way touching on the basic elements of love, commitment to career and friendship.
The Man Who Invented Christmas, by Les Standiford, hardcover, 256 pages, Crown Publishing. List price: $19.95
What would Christmas be without Scrooge and Tiny Tim? Bah! Humbug! When Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, Christmas was not popularly celebrated. That was a time, much like today, when people needed something uplifting. And Dickens, who needed a bestseller to save himself from bankruptcy, only had six weeks to write his masterpiece. Not only was this book a success, it changed the way we celebrate Christmas. But Les Standiford's The Man Who Invented Christmas is more than the story of one book; it's also the history of Dickens and other authors, of the publishing industry in that era and of the social issues that haunted Victorian England. And it's a testament to the power of a story to reinvent a holiday and reinvigorate the Christmas spirit. In the immortal words of Tiny Tim, "God bless us, every one!"
Serena: A Novel, by Ron Rash, hardcover, 384 pages, Ecco. List price: $24.99
Set in North Carolina in 1929, Serena is a tale of love and greed — and the not-always-positive consequences of both. When George Pemberton brings his new bride Serena home to his lumber business, the two commit to each other and to cutting down as many trees as possible. You can hear the drumbeat of impending doom from the very first paragraph of Ron Rash's novel, and it just keeps getting louder and more insistent as the story progresses and Serena's determination to eliminate any obstacles increases. As a good Southern writer, Rash juxtaposes the beauty of the North Carolina mountains with the violence of man and nature. The result is a page turner with a truly shocking ending.
Chris Livingston, The Book Shelf
Chris Livingston is the owner of The Book Shelf in Winona, Minn., and the vice president of the Midwest Booksellers Association.
So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger, hardcover, 287 pages, Grove/Atlantic. List price: $24
In 1915 Minnesota, Monte Becket, an author struggling after the success of his first novel years ago, befriends an outlaw who has been in hiding for years. Glendon Hale confesses to Monte his guilt over abandoning his beautiful young wife decades earlier, then
announces his intent to travel to California in hopes of finding forgiveness. Suddenly, Monte finds himself compelled to travel with him, if only to shake up his own life a bit. Thus begins the strange and fascinating journey of two men who, among other things, must evade the ex-Pinkerton agent who has been hunting Glendon for years. Leif Enger's novel reminded me of an old outlaw Western, with its romantic grit delivered in the form of a poetic modern fable; I fell in love with its flavor almost immediately. So Brave, Young, and Handsome begs to be curled up with.
A Splintered History of Wood: Belt Sander Races, Blind Woodworkers, and Baseball Bats, by Spike Carlsen, hardcover, 432 pages, HarperCollins. List price: $24.95
Spike Carlsen delivers a biography of one of the most crucial materials used in the course of human history: wood. Although wood itself is featured prominently, this book concentrates more on how we've used it over the centuries. Mixing well-researched history, trivia and humorous anecdotes, A Splintered History of Wood meanders from chainsaw artists to belt-sander races, from Steinway pianos airdropped during WWII to the first know wooden tool: the toothpick. Though I'm far from handy and I'm definitely not a woodworker or a carpenter, I found this book fascinating. You can read any of the many chapters in this wonderfully strange and interesting book in any order, and you'll find yourself looking for someone to share what you've just learned.
Downtown Owl: A Novel, by Chuck Klosterman, hardcover, 257 pages, Simon & Schuster. List price: $24
The dazzling debut novel by the author of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, Downtown Owl opens with a press clipping of a deadly blizzard that blasts a small town in North Dakota in the early months of 1984. From there, Chuck Klosterman moves backward, beginning the story six months earlier, as three distinct voices impart their view of small-town life and propel the reader towards the fateful event. The three-part narrative is provided by Mitch (the second-string quarterback), Julia (the big city girl fresh out of college and newest teacher at the high school) and Horace (the retired lifetime resident). Small towns like Owl can be found all over this great country of ours, and while those of us who reside in them may take umbrage at Klosterman's portrayal, I found it an honest debut worthy of attention.
Mudbound, by Hillary Jordan, hardcover, 336 pages, Workman Publishing Inc. List price: $22.95
City girl Laura McAllan is woefully out of place on the rural Mississippi farm her husband Henry moves the family to in 1946 — and the ramshackle house with no plumbing does little to improve her outlook. Complicating matters are two returning war veterans who enter the story. The first, Henry's younger brother Jamie, is handsome and charming, but is greatly affected by his time in Europe. The other, Ronsel Jackson, is the eldest son of black sharecroppers who live on part of the McAllan farm. Ronsel found acceptance and respect during the war, only to return to a segregated and bigoted homeland. An unlikely friendship between the two young men brings this wonderful and important novel to its conclusion, as their families become embroiled in the hatred of a small Southern town. This book truly touched me; its characters lingered long after I closed the cover of the book, and I continue to think about the book's affect on me. Mudbound was the deserving recipient of the Bellwether Prize for Fiction, an honor bestowed upon a debut literary novel that addresses social justice.
The Gargoyle, by Andrew Davidson, hardcover, 468 pages, Doubleday Publishing. List price: $25.95
The narrator of Andrew Davidson's novel The Gargoyle is a man of great physical beauty but little virtue who finds himself in a hospital burn unit after a horrible automobile accident. After enduring endless treatments and surgeries, he plans a very elaborate suicide. But before he can put his plan into action, a beautiful but slightly unstable young woman named Marianne appears in his hospital room and confesses that the two of them had been lovers in medieval Germany. Through her many visits and the lengthy telling of their story, the narrator slowly loses interest in his planned death and begins to fall in love. Of course, there is one more wrinkle in the story: Marianne, who is a sculptor of gargoyles, receives word from God that she has just 27 sculptures left to complete and then her time on earth is up. Davidson's mixes the elements of a historical novel with a modern love story between two unexpected characters, even throwing in a trip into Dante's inferno. The end result? A completely satisfying read.
The Oxford Project, photographs by Peter Feldstein, text by Stephen G. Bloom, hardcover, 264 pages, Welcome Books. List price: $50
In 1984, Peter Feldstein photographed 670 of the 676 residents of Oxford, Iowa. Twenty years later he photographed them again. From the flashing images of Hunter Tandy at 9 and 30 years old on its holographic cover to the photographer's self-portrait on the last page, each picture is worth a thousand words, and each pair of portraits is fair trade for an entire novel. Buckskinners-turned-evangelicals, old hippies, children, bikers, farmers, waitresses, widows, euchre-players, orphans and truck drivers — each photographed in black-and white, simply standing in front of a sheet of canvas or a concrete wall, the page accompanied by the words they offer up in front of the camera. The real story unfolds in the sag or thrust of a shoulder, the glimmer in the eyes, the jut of a hip or the wear of a pair of shoes. At 5 and 24, 15 and 45, at 50 and 70 — each set of portraits asks, who will you be in 20 years? Who were you 20 years ago? And what would those two of you think of one another?
'The Economist Book Of Obituaries'
The Economist Book of Obituaries, by Keith Colquhoun and Ann Wroe, hardback, 409 pages, Bloomberg Press. List price: $29.95
Obituaries for Christmas? I can almost hear the catcalls. But secretly, you love reading obituaries! And The Economist obits are the very best of them all: sparkling distillations, 1,000-word gems, lives of the famous, the infamous, and — even more intriguing — the unknown. The unexpected variety of subjects (Arthur Miller, Anna Nicole Smith, Rosa Parks, the inventor of instant Ramen noodles and more than 200 others) and the elegant mix of humor, subtle details, historic context and unorthodox photographs make this collection compulsively readable and educational. A great bedside companion, this collection is decidedly more jovial than macabre.
Pinocchio, by Carlo Collodi, translated by Geoffrey Brock, introduction by Umberto Eco, afterword by Rebecca West, paperback, 208 pages, New York Review Books Classics. List price: $14
Does it really surprise you to know that Disney's Pinocchio bears little resemblance to the original? A new translation of Collodi's original text, re-packaged for adults, reveals a Pinocchio so very bad he smashes the moralizing cricket with a hammer in the first few pages. Delightfully wicked and slap-stick funny, the real Pinocchio is a marvelous discovery for any reader young or old, whether you read it for pure fun or to plumb its depths. After all, as Italo Calvino declared, any reading list "must begin with Pinocchio."
All Art Is Propaganda: Critical Essays, by George Orwell, hardcover, 416 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. List price: $25
Though written more than 50 years ago, George Orwell's nonfiction remains as prescient and startlingly relevant today as his novels. These beautifully designed and elegantly edited collections reveal the "real" career of the revered author of 1984 and Animal Farm who toiled first as a journalist, essayist and critic. Whether writing about political rhetoric, T.S. Eliot, Charlie Chaplin, fighting in the Spanish Civil war or working in a bookshop, Orwell is brilliant, engaging and often laugh-out-loud funny. "Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind," writes Orwell in the essay "Politics and the English Language," published in All Art is Propaganda. These volumes are great reading for lovers of literature or history, and an absolute necessity for any writer.
The Ecco Anthology Of Contemporary American Short Fiction
The Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, paperback, 784 pages, Harper Perennial. List price: $18.95
With dozens of chances to match your recipient's tastes, collections make great gifts — perhaps none so hefty and with such an unexpected, all-star cast as The Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction. Editor Joyce Carol Oates has proved herself as brave and varied in her reading as she is in her writing, eschewing a generic, conservative selection for a knock-out lineup of the very best writers writing right now. A mix of some you've probably never heard of and others you've been meaning to read, many of these are the writers who will likely fill the canonical collections 50 years from now. A compelling variety of styles and subjects, suitable for both the connoisseur and the neophyte.