The holidays are looming over us like the tree I saw at Rockefeller Center last week: big, bright, twinkly, and able to cause the more pressing aspects of life to temporarily fade out of view. I'll admit that the upcoming holidays already have me under their spell. It looks to me like others are enchanted as well. Along with mailing some presents, I'm not so sure that some of the reviewers in the book media aren't guilty of mailing in their reviews and articles a little in anticipation of earning a much-needed break. I did my best to find the best of the week.
The best-selling Bill Clinton has written a new book. It's called Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy, and the Times describes it as "less a bold plan to create jobs than it is a passionate rebuttal of 'our 30-year antigovernment obsession.' That obsession, he insists, is public enemy No. 1. He also seems to be sending a barely disguised message to Barack Obama to join him in confronting the antiÂgovernment chorus." Although it's in part about them, this is a book that probably won't get many Tea Party readers. As far as who might be interested in reading President Clinton's book, reviewer Jeff Madrick has this to say: "Many inside the Beltway welcome Clinton's modest pragmatism. They think it politically realistic. But if those few people who have a national megaphone "” like a former president "” don't use it to influence and change America's thinking, who will? The nation badly needs a counternarrative to the antigovernment orthodoxy Clinton describes. His is welcome. But even if we adopted all of his suggestions, America would still have a long way to go." I talked to President Clinton about his book a couple weeks ago. If you're interested, you can hear the conversation on the book page.
Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice's No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington is reviewed by Susan Chira, who writes that the book addresses Rice's strong personal and working relationship with President George W. Bush. "I liked him," Rice writes. "He was funny
and irreverent but serious about policy." We also learn that she had troubles with Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. And of course she talks about the very active foreign policy that she and Bush undertook during their tenure. Is summary, Chira writes, "No Higher Honor really shows us two Condoleezza Rices: one, the impatient unilateralist who was national security adviser, the other the born-again diplomat who, as secretary of state, worked to repair some of the damage that had been done to American credibility by its unilateralism. 'People were tired of us,' she told the president a few months before they left office. A humbling thought as history renders judgment."
Peter Orsner's fifth novel Love and Shame and Love: A Novel recieves a strong review in this weekend's Times Book Review. In part: "Teeming yet not hyperactive, full of emotion without being mushy, elegant yet intimate, this is a book that gets into your head and makes itself at home there." It's about a man named Alexander Popper, a Jewish man living in and around Chicago. "With its short and evocative chapters," writes reviewer Maria Russo, "its charged and playful language, its movement to and fro in time, the novel is indeed poetic. It's epic too, encompassing Popper's life from childhood into his early
30s as well as chunks of the life spans of his parents and two of his grandparents, with check-ins on various other relatives." Popper is kind of a depressed guy, we are told. Still-- "There's something noble and moving about Popper's resolute sorrow, about all the Poppers' largely unsuccessful struggles to connect to their times, to their city, to others. Love and Shame and Love doesn't end so much as fade into a Lake-Michigan-in-winter mood of quiet devastation. It doesn't grab for glory, but it wins a big share anyway."
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai is a book that you might not have heard of, but it's this year's National Book Award winner for Young People's Literature, and it's a very worthy selection. Imagine being 10 years old, being driven from your country by war, and having to move to a new, very
different country where you look different and don't even speak the language. Most of us can't. Thanhha Lai can, because that's what happened to her in 1975 after the fall of Saigon. The book consists of short chapters, told in verse, and of it, Susan Carpenter writes: "Assimilation isn't an easy experience, but it's rare that readers are given an opportunity to experience its specifics, and rarer still to hear it from a Vietnamese perspective. Lai's fictionalized portrait of HÃ may not become as well-known as the Pulitzer-Prize-winning photograph of 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc running naked and burning from a napalm attack during the Vietnam War. But just as that picture was worth a thousand words, Lai's Inside Out & Back Again paints another, much-needed portrait "” one that humanizes what otherwise would be a history-book experience." Kudos to Harper Collins and to the National Book Foundation for selecting a book that might otherwise been little noticed. as Carpenter puts it, "the United States prides itself on being a melting pot, but the many immigrant stories that make up our uniquely American stew aren't always known and are even less frequently published by the mainstream press."
Carolyn Kellogg reviews Lydia Millet's novel Ghost Lights: A Novel, and opens with the observation that "few writers are known for combining dark humor and environmentalism in their fiction; in fact, Lydia Millet may be the only member of that club." Millet was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer with her short story collection Love in Infant Monkeys. In this new novel, the second in a series after How the Dead Dream, Kellogg notes that one needn't have read the first novel in order to understand the first. Millet makes this possible by telling the story through a relatively clueless character from southern California, a "widget among men," one who must constantly assess his dim knowledge of what's going on around him. Eventually, this poor fellow travels to Belize in a misjudged effort to help an ex-pat. Kellogg writes: There is a wink toward Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and parallels with Ann Patchett's recent bestselling novel State of Wonder in which an American goes to a tropical outpost in pursuit of a lost colleague. In Patchett's book, the focus narrows on what her protagonist finds there; in Ghost Lights, it's about how Hal is changed. As a thinker, he wonders about the role of authority, of nature, of his relationships and their failures. As an American expat, he sees new edges of the world, and of himself. He is frequently drunk."
Finally, Wendy Smith turns in a review of Simon Sebag Montefiore's "sanguinary history" Jerusalem: The Biography, which she notes "does not inspire confidence in the civilizing qualities of religion." The book covers the three major religions that have jostled over the holy city, and Smith remarks that the author "succeeds admirably in remaining evenhanded." Politics don't seem to inspire much more confidence than religion (why should they, frankly). We learn that "anyone frustrated by the intractable stalemate in the contemporary Middle East peace process may take grim comfort from the knowledge that Jerusalem has been a flash point for global warfare since the time of the Egyptian pharaohs: 'the desire and prize of empires,' as Montefiore puts it, 'yet of no strategic value.'" One question... why is this book subtitled the Biography? Smith summarizes Montifiore's choice of subtitle as follows: "The author of prize-winning biographies of Stalin and Potemkin, he uses the same focus on individual lives to tell Jerusalem's story, though in this case the cast of characters is much larger and stretches across more than 3,000 years."
National Public Radio has a review of Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil that opens, "Extra-virgin olive oil is a ubiquitous ingredient in Italian recipes, religious rituals and beauty products. But many of the bottles labeled 'extra-virgin olive oil' on supermarket shelves have been adulterated and shouldn't be classified as extra-virgin, says New Yorker contributor Tom Mueller." There's been some very positive buzz about this book, and it's gotten a lot of attention over the last week or two. It was an Amazon Best of the Month pick for December, where Darryl Campbell gave it a cheeky review that says in part, "Tom Mueller's Extra Virginity is about as explosive as an expose can get, at least if your subject is liquid fat."
Readers of our blog and best-of lists will be familiar with these books, deemed the five top book club picks of the year.
The Millions continues its Year in Reading series with what seems like literally dozens of authors chiming in on their favorite books of the year. It really is impressive.
In a review of 1Q84 that in typical London Review of Books fashion seems almost as long as the novel itself, we are told "1Q84's first 600 pages are an imposing display of narrative engineering. Information is dispensed in a controlled, thrifty manner; tropes from high and low culture are handled with easy showmanship; further plotlines and curlicues are effortlessly thrown out. Towards the end of Book 2, with Aomame entering Leader's hotel room and Tengo experiencing a kind of waking sleep paralysis, Murakami pulls together a suspenseful, impressively outrageous climactic sequence, topped by an alarming sexual encounter and a suicide attempt."
Here's an interesting list of famous literary peoples' favorite books.
Winnie the Pooh is my finest book memory from my early reading years (For the record, Horton Hears a Hoo and The Wind in the Willows are both second). So I am including this touching piece on Winnie's origins.
USA Today has a nice list of some of the best books some authors have received during the holidays.