Priscilla Nielsen for NPR
This winter, our independent booksellers have selected books that range in subject from toasters to typeface, odd bookmarks to old Volkswagens, department stores to pasta design. Whether you need a picture book for a toddler, kid lit for a young reader, or quirky nonfiction for the grown-up set, these booksellers have just the thing on their shelves.
Sift through top picks below, from Lucia Silva, the book buyer at Portrait of a Bookstore in Studio City, Calif; Rona Brinlee of The BookMark in Neptune Beach, Fla.; and Daniel Goldin of Boswell Book Co. in Milwaukee. Happy reading!
A Christmas Tree for Pyn
I was snooping in another great independent bookstore with a big children's section, looking for a Christmas book for my daughter. After flipping through dozens of glossy picture books filled with beribboned gifts, bearded Santas and bucolic mangers, my eyes started to glaze over. I didn't know exactly what I was looking for, but I knew that none of these were it. When I opened A Christmas Tree for Pyn, I sat down on the floor and read the whole thing, and by the time I got to the last word, I was that lady crying in the kids' section. A Christmas Tree for Pyn isn't about Santa or presents or the three wise men, and it's not about cliches like "making do" or "it's the thought that counts." Like Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory, it's about the real emotional core of the holiday — that Christmassy feeling we're all looking for. I can't think of a more lovely gift for a new family than this one — a truly beautiful book that will be enjoyed by young and old for many years to come.
The Toaster Project
Or a Heroic Attempt to Build a Simple Electric Appliance from Scratch
Easily my favorite book this year, The Toaster Project should be required reading for artists, designers, consumers and anyone who has ever bought or thrown away a toaster. Thomas Thwaites, a graduate student at London's Royal College of Art, sets out to build a toaster from scratch — not just an object that toasts bread, but one that aesthetically and mechanically replicates the ubiquitous $6 drugstore toaster.
After dissecting a live toaster to uncover its 400 separate parts, he embarks on a project that takes nine months, thousands of dollars and nearly 2,000 miles of travel. He mines his own iron ore to make into steel (and smelts it in a microwave), pillages an abandoned mica mine, and puzzles out making plastic, copper wire and nickel connectors.
Thwaites is a laugh-out-loud-funny but thoughtful guide through his own adventures, touching provocatively on ideas as far-ranging as medieval metallurgy, sustainability, mass production and our "throwaway" consumer culture. You'll buy it as a gift for the title and the concept, but you'll end up keeping it for yourself once you crack the cover — so take my advice and buy two.
Unpacking My Library
Writers and Their Books
The age of the digitization of books may be upon us, but plenty of us still dress our walls, our coffee tables and our bedsides with paper evidence of our curiosities, proclivities and obsessions. Some people spy in their host's medicine cabinets, but I head right for the bookshelves. So when Unpacking My Library offered the chance to mine Junot Diaz's shelves for clues to his genius, I leapt.
From handsome, custom-made libraries with rolling ladders, to sagging Ikea shelves spilling paperbacks into the kitchen, these collections offer satisfying peeks into the minds of contemporary writers, including Stephen Carter, Philip Pullman, Jonathan Lethem, Claire Messud and Alison Bechdel. Interviews accompany photos of the rooms, the shelves and each writer's "top 10" books.
A Bookseller's Collection of Odd Things Lost Between the Pages
As we move away from physical books, I think it's interesting to remind ourselves of the different ways we are attached to books as objects. Michael Popek's collection reminds us of the role of books as repository — for storage, safekeeping, secret-keeping — and that old books can be a window into another era or another mind.
Popek has worked in his family's used bookstore since he was 8 years old; over the years he has amassed a collection of photos, notes, receipts and much more curious objects left between the pages of books. He presents them here photographed with the book they were found in: a recipe for Mrs. Eisenhower's Fudge in Nabokov's Bend Sinister, two tickets to a 1904 masquerade ball in Elements of Greek, letters to a father in a nursing home collected in a copy of A Farewell to Arms, numerous love letters, photographs, lists ... even razor blades and four-leaf clovers.
How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive
It's hard being a single dad — especially when your son is a 1971 Volkswagen Beetle. When I read the tagline, I knew I had to read this book. It's strange and weird and wonderful — wonderful because the weirdness is firmly grounded by solid emotion and character development. Christopher Boucher's prose pushes boundaries, but with elegance and follow-through. He nudges you to rethink the meaning of a word or a stock phrase, engaging you in a way that makes reading the book a kind of mental game — but one with deep emotional and intellectual rewards. With a premise that could easily become too cute or too weird, and styling that could easily become exhausting or irritating, How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive is instead a heart-rich and mind-flexing journey that will satisfy readers looking for something truly new in fiction.
Birds of Paradise
This is the story of a seemingly normal family living the good life in the tropical paradise of Miami — mom Avis bakes, dad Brian is a lawyer who dabbles in real estate development, and son Stan eschews college to open a green market. It's the daughter, Felice, who disturbs this facade when she runs away at 13. What makes this not just another story about a broken family is the secret reason for Felice's decision to live on the streets and beaches of Miami; her family loves her, no one has done anything to harm her, and part of her self-inflicted banishment is that she won't tell anyone, including the reader, what happened. Birds of Paradise is a richly written novel filled with great characters, including the city of Miami itself. Descriptions are so vivid, you will swear you can hear the sounds of the city and smell its lush tropical aromas.
The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead
It's the summer of 1925, and 13-year-old twins Emily and Michael are roaming around the family estate. Emily discovers she can make a knocking sound with her ankle. With this newly discovered talent, she and her brother start entertaining and amazing their friends with Emily's claimed ability to speak with spirits, and what threatened to be another boring summer gets interesting. When the twins get involved with adults who are anxious to contact their deceased loved ones, things get more complicated. Now they're interfering in people's lives and playing with their deepest emotions. What started as a childish game one long summer goes terribly wrong. Family secrets are unearthed, mysterious deaths are revealed, and the truth behind often repeated stories discovered. In the end, people are forced to consider what they believe and if they really want to know the truth about things that perhaps should be left unquestioned.
A Good Hard Look
Southern literary icon Flannery O'Connor has been forced to leave New York City and return to her birthplace in Milledgeville, Ga., because of chronic health problems. Using O'Connor as a central character in this novel is a stroke of genius. It's somewhat like holding a mirror in front of all that is good about Southern fiction. The characters are clear and magnified, and the story encompasses the lives of the people in this small town. Some admire Flannery, and others fear her talent and outspoken nature. She could not be more different from the people she shares her small town with in this book, yet they find commonalities in unexpected circumstances. Mixing fact with fiction makes A Good Hard Look all the richer.
On Canaan's Side
The narrator, Lilly, is 89 years old and has just suffered the loss of the grandson she raised. In order to give herself a reason to go on, she decides to write her life's story. Each chapter is another day after Bill's death, for a total of 17 days. In these days, Lilly receives visitors who conjure up stories from her past. The men in Lilly's life appear and disappear, often mysteriously. Somehow, she is so captivating, it's easy not to worry or wonder what happened to these men. When they reappear at the end of the novel and their fates are revealed, the reader may be surprised. This fast-paced part of the novel seems like an extra gift. It is juxtaposed to a gentle and poetic story about a life well-lived and the musings of a woman deciding what her end will be.
Pasta by Design
This is not a cookbook! It's an architectural design book for pasta. When you think about it, there are so many kinds of pasta, and each has a unique shape. We often ponder them in terms of texture, sauce and maybe even aesthetics to some degree. But this examination is different. Legendre identifies 92 unique types of pasta. He includes photographs of each one, provides its mathematical formula and prepares a three-dimensional drawing. There's even a foldout at the end that groups the various pastas in a diagram that resembles a table seating arrangement. Pasta by Design is for the cook (even though there are no recipes), foodie, architect, scientist or mathematician. Remember that macaroni necklace you made in school as a child? Perhaps that was just the beginning of your fascination with the art of pasta.
Rules of Civility
Imagine strolling through an art opening at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1966, sipping champagne, rubbing elbows with the city's elite, and glancing at photographs by Walker Evans taken at the end of the 1930s. You spot a picture and recognize someone you knew. It's a man, and you don't volunteer who he is and how you know him to your curious husband. Then, on the way out, you see him again in another photograph. This time, instead of appearing disheveled, he's clothed in an expensive cashmere coat and elegant suit. Your husband cheerfully notes that this man is a perfect example of "rags to riches" until you point out that the second picture is dated earlier than the first, making it a story of riches to rags. Thus begins this debut novel. Towles then takes the reader back to New Year's Eve 1937 when the narrator meets the man in the picture, and their story begins.
Matthew Garth is a teen growing up in small-town 1960s Minnesota. Rex Dunbar, the handsome, charismatic town doctor, has taken to schooling Matthew in medical matters. Things get complicated when the doctor is called to help Louisa, a young woman who was shot by her boyfriend. Louisa is taken in as a helper in the doctor's office — and Matthew becomes infatuated with her — which leads to conflict with Dr. Dunbar.
I loved how the roadblocks to adulthood play out among the characters. Whenever a character confronts a base urge (passion, competition, greed, indulgence), his or her success or failure is somewhat determined by maturity and class. And Watson is so good at capturing both lost innocence and the loss of innocence. It's as if he took a series of lovely snow globe images, like Thanksgiving dinner and a hockey game at the lake, and gave them a good shake. Voila, instant blizzard, inside and out!
I have read many more middle-grade books in the past year than previously, in part because working with schools and libraries has become such an important part of bookstore life. Lisa McMann's novel, the first in a series, is my favorite of late. Set in the desolate land of Quill, kids at 13 are separated out into the Wanteds (the ruling class), the Necessaries (they do all the drudge work), and the Unwanted (fit for nothing). This is particularly difficult for the Stowe twins — Aaron is being groomed for leadership while Alex is a discard.
What makes you Unwanted? The curse is to be creative. The Unwanteds are herded together and transported to a secret place called Artime, where their skills in visual arts, music, theater and creative writing are nourished and developed into magic weapons. The book particularly resonates during a time of cutbacks in education and the arts.
Gimbels Has It!
In the old days, a department store would commission a book on their 75th, 100th or 125th anniversary featuring the history of the store, complete with old photos, memories and perhaps a recipe for date spice cake with warm caramel sauce. Alas, these stores don't exist anymore, which is why I'm obsessed with this series of books from History Press that glorify the grand dames of urban retail bustle.
As a child of New York who transplanted to Milwaukee, I was shocked at the love the folks of my new home had for the store. Gimbels was also prominent in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, where they sponsored the Thanksgiving Day Parade. It was a family who made their mark with value ("Nobody, but nobody, undersells Gimbels"), who dreamed of going more upmarket (and should have been content with their success at Saks Fifth Avenue, which they owned) but were instead left behind when their price-oriented customers fled downtown and malls for suburban strip centers.
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle
A great work of fiction can transport you to another place and time, and Roffey's Orange Prize-nominated novel captures Trinidad and Tobago — a place I knew little about — through the eyes of a British couple, among the last wave of colonialists before the country was granted its independence. The story starts in the present day, with the government in shambles and so distrustful of the people that there is a surveillance blimp at a local soccer game. The marriage of George and Sabine Harwood is in similar shape — tired and distrustful.
Then we travel back in time to the 1950s, where Eric Williams, the new leader, promises a great future for the country. George and Sabine have similarly rosy expectations, and stay behind (at George's insistence) when their friends abandon ship. Roffey includes real historical characters in her narrative — not just Williams, but also the prominent calypso musician The Mighty Sparrow. I love a book that makes me wonder how we got from here to there, and Sabine's story, with an arc from ignorance to passion to disenchantment, is fascinating.
Just My Type
A Book About Fonts
One might call Just My Type a history of typography, but it's more of a series of mediations. From hand-lettering to Gutenberg to hot metal type to computer graphics, Garfield's story is filled with twists and turns, and what I can only call typography gossip, reflected on the most vilified types, such as Comic Sans, to the long-standing feud between Helvetica and Arial, and just how much wrath Ikea incurred when it changed typefaces from Futura to Verdana. It's about the creativity inherent in ampersands, the short-lived love for the interrobang, the rebirth of Cooper Black, and the unlikely return of Souvenir (unless there's another '70s revival.) Enjoy learning tricks to spotting a typeface — pay particular attention to the lower-case g.
This book unlocked so many memories of tracing fonts out of a library book as a child, to my surreptitious purchase of IBM Selectric golf balls at my first office job, to a Letraset obsession in my late 20s, and finally my own search for a sign typeface for our bookstore (we settled on Century). Turns out many of my customers are just as obsessed with typeface -- Just my Type has not just been fun to sell, but fun to discuss.
This Burns My Heart
Immigrant stories have an important place in American fiction, and it seems one of the growth areas has been Korean narratives. In Park's new novel, Soo Ja Choi wants to be a diplomat, but that involves moving to Seoul and going to school. There's no way her family, prominent factory owners, are going to allow a single woman to possibly ruin her reputation in this matter. It becomes important that she marry well, and she winds up with two suitors. In a sad turn of events, she makes a bad judgment and picks the wrong one — a dishonorable man with a family who is not only mean, but bad at business.
I love that Soo Ja Choi's story turns the traditional narrative on its head; here is a woman who, more than anything, does not want to emigrate to solve her problems. She's going to make it in her homeland. And she's not your average "American" heroine — passionate, yes, but also practical and calculating. Perhaps that's the kimchi in this culturally rich story: It's not what you're used to, but you might learn to love it.