The Book Maven’s Literary Advent Calendar, 2014: Day One

December 1st, 2014

It gives me great pleasure to say I’m back for the second year in a row of my Literary Advent Calendar. Last year I started quietly, unsure of whether or not I’d be able to sustain the project, but here’s the full slate from 2013 in case you’d like to check back on it.

This year, I’d like to be a little more deliberate in explaining why I’m creating a Literary Advent Calendar. So many, many critics, bloggers, and media sites give Top 10 lists. You don’t need another one from me–but what you might want from me, self-proclaimed Book Maven that I am, is an idea of some books that won’t be on everyone else’s lists, books that are excellent and worthy of listdom, but for many reasons weren’t deemed The Best or The Most or The Top.

Since I don’t blog year ’round, allow me to tell you a little bit about my reading habits. I usually finish between 175-200 books each year (most years I hit the 185 mark; I’ve only gone past 200 once or twice, and those were years in which I was laid up in bed for a while). Almost all of those books are what we in the publishing business refer to as “front list,” or books released in that calendar year. I have one colleague who regularly reads 200+ books annually, and another who limits books to one per week, so I’m pretty confident that I read enough new titles to be able to make an Advent’s worth of recommendations.

So these books are not second-tier; I prefer to think of them as sleeper hits. Everyone can and will tell you how terrific All the Light We Cannot See is. Truly, it’s a wondrous novel. I’ve read it, and I promise, it’s terrific. It’s just that I’d rather tell you about a few of the wondrous novels that didn’t get the same amount of attention.

My first selection is an almost impossibly bleak yet completely compelling novel from another continent.

Eyrie: A Novel by Tim Winton

Eyrie by Tim WintonIf anyone can tell me why this masterful work from Australia’s most important contemporary novelist isn’t on all the Best of 2014 lists, I’ll eat my (inscribed) copy of Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune. I’ll wager a guess: Because it isn’t about anything that pushes our American buttons. It doesn’t involve a beautiful, mysterious locale (All the Light We Cannot See), a cultural icon (A Brief History of Seven Killings), or apocalypse (On Such a Full Sea). Winton’s study of a man on the edge is set on the edge, too: Protagonist Tom Keely lives in the port city of Fremantle, Western Australia–as far away from anything else as you can possibly get in this world, at least in terms of sea miles.

Keely teeters professionally and personally. His former high-flying career as a muckraking environmentalist is in the gutter along with his mental and physical health. Most days he can hardly drag his wrecked body and soul a few hundred yards down the street for breakfast at the local greasy spoon. However, after he encounters his former high-school flame in the elevator of his high rise, he musters up the gumption to beg for a job in that greasy spoon.

Why? Because Gemma lives in that high rise, now–along with her much-neglected grandson Kai. It seems that a renewed affair with Gemma and a paternal interest in Kai may help bring Tom Keely out of his shabby “eyrie,” and at first, the future looks not rosy but at least pinkish at the edges. Keely’s parents, inveterate Christian do-gooders who sheltered Gemma from a miserable family situation in her teens, seem to inspire in him an edge-of-the-world warrior spirit, especially as his mother in Perth still wants to coax her adult child into some semblance of a typical life.

But the complications of Gemma’s past have affected her present. No matter how hard she tries, leaving behind what Anne Tyler once called “a slipping-down kind of life” proves too difficult. Kai’s mother lounges in prison, caring little about her family, while his father’s criminal life unravels things for everyone–including Tom Keely. Unhappy families really are all different, and Winton renders the particular horrors of Tom Keely’s last attempt at honor with writing at once so beautiful and so accurate that you may find yourself rooting for these characters on the sidelines long after you’ve rationally given up hope.


The Last Days of Publishing, Part Deux

January 7th, 2014

Throw A Coin on the Lorry photoFor a few minutes last week, this op-ed had the publishing sector on Twitter, well, a-twitter. Most of the comments I read (admittedly not all of them) were along the lines of “Oh look, publishing’s dead. Again. NOT!” Everyone seemed to be quite jolly about the plethora of ways in which we can read and write and share these days.

Yes, reading is not the same as publishing. Writing is not the same as publishing. These things have their own separate lives. However, as I’ve said before, we who read and we who write (who are sometimes members of both groups at once) are not part of a giant arts collective. Most of us would like to earn a living from our creative endeavors. Few of us actually do.

We need publishing. That does not mean the way publishing works now is the best way, nor does it mean that some of the new ways of reading, writing, and sharing don’t count as publishing. What it means is that readers and authors will always need some way of exchanging stories and reactions thereto. Authors need to find a way to be compensated for their creative output, and readers need to find a way to discover books they like.

As Colin Robinson, publisher of OR Books, pointed out in his op-ed, both authorial compensation and readerly discoverability suffer, in different ways and for different reasons, when publishing as it has worked (more or less, often less than more) for the past half century falters. As he pointed out, the sector that suffers most is the midlist, “publishing’s experimental laboratory.”

Mr. Robinson is correct. The midlist is very important; it’s where material bubbles up to readers who often do play it safe. Why shouldn’t we? Playing it safe and reading what we know we like is easy, and if nothing else has been discovered about human beings in the past century or so it’s that we like things easy (think household appliances, packaged foods, and cubicle culture). Many of the new ways of reading, writing, and sharing have devolved into exactly what Robinson states: “another typical Internet characteristic: the “mirroring” of existing tastes at the expense of discovering anything new.” There’s an awful lot of activity on Goodreads in the genre zones, much less in the murkier midlist categories.

But I submit to Colin Robinson that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Traditional publishing is broken, and not just because of the usual “blah-blah-blah” reasons like “No one’s reading anymore,” “No one cares about books,” etc. Why not use expertise gained as a publisher to find new ways of reaching readers, new ways of convincing them to read midlist material, new ways to make it possible for authors to make money from their work?

We need to find new ways to connect rather than bemoaning the loss of an industry model that needed an overhaul long before anyone thought to complain.

The Book Maven’s Literary Advent Calendar, Day 25

January 1st, 2014

12.25.13 | “On the actual day of Christmas, The Book Maven gave to me–well, us–all of her book selections in one place!”

Here are the 24 books I chose to highlight in this first annual Literary Advent Calendar. I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing them, and that someone out there will pick up one of these because of my recommendation. That is truly all I want for Christmas.

Well, that and…MORE BOOKS.

Happy Everything! See you in 2014 with some new releases.

Day OneThe Sleep Room by F. R. Tallis

Day TwoLove, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff

Day ThreeWave by Sonali Deraniyagala

Day FourThe Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

Day FiveSomeone by Alice McDermott

Day SixHelp for the Haunted by John Searles

Day SevenMother Daughter Me: A Memoir by Katie Hafner

Day EightThe Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by by Anton DiSclafani

Day NineWant Not by Jonathan Miles

Day TenMy Education by Susan Choi

Day ElevenWoke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel

Day TwelveMy Notorious Life by Kate Manning

Day ThirteenThe Astor Orphan: A Memoir by Alexandra Aldrich

Day FourteenIn the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell

Day FifteenThe People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

Day SixteenVisitation Street by Ivy Pochoda

Day SeventeenThe Last Summer of the Camperdowns by Elizabeth Kelly

Day EighteenA Guide to Being Born: Stories by Ramona Ausubel

Day NineteenThe Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

Day TwentyCritical Mass by Sara Paretsky

Day Twenty-OneStill Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of A Creative Life by Dani Shapiro

Day Twenty-TwoThe Dinner by Herman Koch

Day Twenty-ThreeThe Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

Day Twenty-FourThe Great War: July 1, 1916–The First Day of the Battle of the Somme by Joe Sacco

The Book Maven’s Literary Advent Calendar, Day 24

December 29th, 2013

12.24.13 | As the weeks of the Advent season have gone by, I’ve had to have some stern talks with myself; each passing day means one less space in which to talk up a book from 2013. Now that I’m down to two days and two spots, I’m splintering into multiple book personalities. One of these wants me to include a favorite nonfiction pick. Another one of these urges me not to forget a terrific memoir. And so on… As these facets of my reading self were wrangling today, I suddenly remembered that one of my favorite books of 2013 is not even considered a book by some people:

The Great War: July 1, 1916–The First Day of the Battle of the Somme by Joe Sacco

In his graphic novels like Safe Area Gorazde and Palestine, Joe Sacco has created a new kind of war reportage, one that combines a journalist’s eye with an artist’s heart. He brings that same sensibility to a much older war now, but instead of proceeding  page-by-page (as graphic novels usually do), he has instead chosen to let the full first day of the Somme unfold in cardstock panels. Fully extended, this first “volume” of Sacco’s planned series on World War One reaches 24 feet. Its detailed illustrations are completely wordless, which is one of the reasons that many reviewers have claimed it is not precisely a book. However, I submit this to you: The Great War: July 1, 1916 tells a complete and complex story. Do words define books? Or not? I won’t reach a conclusion without a lot of stern talks with myself and a lot of reading of other people’s opinions, but I do think that in our brave new publishing world it bears consideration.

The Book Maven’s Literary Advent Calendar, Day 23

December 29th, 2013

12.23.13 | Savvy readers will note that although this post is dated December 23rd, it’s not being published until December 29th. Although the Christmas holiday interrupted by regular writing, I am determined it will not derail this calendar entirely. I mean to finish, so that I can attack the New Year’s new releases with alacrity.

But first I must tell you about just a few more of 2013’s best books. I’ve been on the fence about this next one, both because I have mixed feelings about its overall quality, and because you’ve heard about it elsewhere–but I’ve decided it’s worth adding my two cents:

The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

Author Shannon is quite young, quite beautiful, and quite successful–not only is this first volume of her planned trilogy already in movie production, it was also the inaugural pick for The TODAY Show Book Club. It does not need my recommendation, but I’m giving it because even though I think there were flaws in the story, it’s wonderful to see a Millennial female writer trying something new in dystopian fantasy fiction. The Bone Season has elements of everything from The Hunger Games to Game of Thrones to Star Trek: The Next Generation–in other words, all of the cultural referents of Shannon’s childhood and adolescence. Heroine Paige Mahoney is a voyant of the highest class, a dreamwalker, who runs afoul of Scion, the security force that controls London. The prison to which she is sent is actually the ancient City of Oxford, which has been erased from maps and memories. Now controlled by an alien race known as the Rephaim, Oxford is a mishmash of old colleges and new shantytowns, in which the lower levels of voyants operate a shadow economy. For anyone who loves the “city of dreaming spires,” this is intriguing, and for anyone who has ever attended a university at any level, even more so, as the stratification of classes mimics academia. Eventually, Paige’s struggle turns into what I found to be far too conventional a romance story. However, I’m looking forward to the next book regardless.

The Book Maven’s Literary Advent Calendar, Day 22

December 24th, 2013

12.22.13 | There are a couple of memes making the Facebook rounds right now, centering on the books and films that have “stayed with you” through the years. One thing I’ve found personally true is that I pretty much know once I’ve seen a movie or finished a book whether or not it’s going to stay with me. Rare is the creative work that I dislike or feel “meh” about that wends its way back into my consciousness. For example, I finished one of this year’s “big books” (both in acclaim and heft) and thought–Is that all there is? There was nothing in it that called to me (which does not mean that there is nothing in it that will call to anyone else!). The stories that stay with me do so quickly, and last (see my Day TK post).

That’s why I’m going to share today’s book with you. It’s troublesome and perhaps even a bit controversial, but I know it’s going to stay with me:

The Dinner by Herman Koch

Imagine that your child has done something so heinous that it might cause you to rethink his entire existence, and your own. That’s the premise behind the ever-so-polite social occasion of “the dinner” in Dutch novelist Koch’s plot. The troublesome bits: the author often allows the framing device (each chapter focuses on a course at a restaurant) to obscure things, and his narrator is unsympathetic to the point of discomfort. The controversial bit: At the end, a weirdly ambiguous disorder intrudes on what readers may feel should have been justice properly meted. However, as is my wont, while I found this difficult I also found it to be part and parcel of Koch’s purpose. Several reviewers have noted that he is commenting on Dutch national character, but if that were where he stopped the book wouldn’t be the hit that it has become over here. He’s commenting on modern character, and woe be unto us all. I highly recommend taking a look at this elegantly plotted novel of suspense, even if it makes you cringe in the process.

The Book Maven’s Literary Advent Calendar, Day 21

December 22nd, 2013

12.21.13 | It must say something about my psyche that I’ve always referred to December 21st as “the darkest day of the year” rather than “the shortest day of the year” or “the winter solstice.” I don’t experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (although my sympathies are with those who do), but I do prefer the possibilities of the dark. I like thunderstorms, gloomy libraries, overcast afternoons, and nights camping when everything else is pitch black.

On those pitch-black nights, sometimes the sky is filled with stars, as if the cosmos opened a treasure chest. That’s how I feel about my book selection for today:

Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of A Creative Life by Dani Shapiro

Full disclosure: I know Dani Shapiro, and she was my writing instructor for the 2011 Sirenland Workshop. I consider her a friend. That means you may not be able to consider this an unbiased review–but I hope you will view it as an enthusiastic recommendation and not miss this slim lovely book, which has already given me comfort and joy in 2013, and I believe will provide both for many years to come. Shapiro is a writer of serious talent, whose novels and memoirs are favorites of many, yet her calling seems to be as a teacher and nurturer of the creative spirit. In Still Writing, she meditates on items, moments, and events that are common to thousands of writers and authors–yet makes each short essay her own, considering things from all angles. I’ve noticed more than one review of this volume in which the writer got cranky with Shapiro for being too privileged. Here’s what I say: Thank goodness some people are privileged, so that they can consider all of the angles, then wonder what the angles might look like if they were reversed. Any one of us who has any time at all to devote to writing–whether 15 minutes a day or 15 hours–is privileged compared to millions of others around the world. There is time for books on hard rules of craft (not that Shapiro doesn’t throw out a few!), and there is time for books that help us become better, stronger, finer craftspeople. Do not waste time envying Shapiro’s life or thinking that her sometimes gentle words aren’t what you need. Read this book, then write. Read other books, then write. Repeat.

The Book Maven’s Literary Advent Calendar, Day 20

December 22nd, 2013

12.20.13 | I don’t watch a lot of television. This is not because I think television is beneath me; neither is it because I never have time to watch–although it’s true that I spend most of my media hours reading, I can fit in plenty of news programs. It’s really due to the fact that I’m tremendously picky, and once I’ve discovered something I really like, I’d rather see it again than try something new. This is why, despite its brief two-season run, I’ve seen every episode of “Fawlty Towers” a dozen times.

It’s the same thing with series books. I don’t follow many series, because once I’ve found and finished a set that works, I return to it. Many a sleepless night has found me re-reading Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. (Why, o why, aren’t there more???) However, one series that’s ongoing still delights me, and I’m happy to say its latest installment may be its strongest:

Critical Mass by Sara Paretsky

I don’t know how Paretsky does it, but I’m damn glad she does. Her latest V. I. Warshawski mystery turns that intrepid investigator’s eye back to World War II and some very important secrets, but it never feels like any of the characters involved have been sitting in mothballs. V. I.’s longtime close friend Dr. Lottie Herschel sets this book’s plot in motion, asking the younger woman to look into the disappearance of a friend’s grandson. It turns out that the grandson may have inherited his great-grandmother Martina Saginor’s scientific genius, along with the clues to an unsolved mystery about the discovery of the atomic bomb. (Saginor is based on the real-life character of Austrian physicist Marietta Blau.) Paretsky has stated in interviews that not only has V. I. gotten a little less brash over the years–in this story, she’s even more toned down, as the author confronted what she terms the “sacred dead” of World War II’s European Holocaust. The muted V. I. helps the parallel narratives (modern Chicago and mid-twentieth-century Austria) work, and although the book has a great deal going on, I never felt lost while reading, or wanted to eliminate a storyline. If you’ve never read a V. I. Warshawski novel before, you certainly will after you pick up this one.

The Book Maven’s Literary Advent Calendar, Day 19

December 19th, 2013

12.19.13 | One of the toughest aspects of listing my favorite reads of the past year in this manner is that I keep seeing other people’s “Best Of” lists and thinking “Ooooo, that book! I should include it” or “Why didn’t I read that book?” I must endeavor not to have regrets, at least until I’ve finished posting next week.

Fortunately, today’s pick is one almost universally acknowledged (see what I did there, book nerds?):

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

I’ve been singing the praises of this big, sprawling, ambitious, novel since receiving it earlier this year. It’s about time that someone wrote a big, sprawling, ambitious novel in the style of the 19th century that stars an adventurous woman. While Alma Whittaker’s professional interests in mosses and lichens may not sound particularly adventurous, that is in keeping with how men have long looked at female sexuality. Alma discovers that there’s far more to both low-growing plants and low-lying genitalia than anyone cared to tell her. Although her marriage is unfruitful and her adopted sister a seeming prig, Alma forges her own identity and path in a time when few women thought about either, let alone went after them.


The Book Maven’s Literary Advent Calendar, Day 18

December 19th, 2013

12.18.13 | Just one week ’til Festivus!

Just kidding. There is no set date for Festivus! We choose it for ourselves, just as we choose our own reading timetables (at least those of us who don’t have review schedules do). Since next week’s Christmas holiday is one for which many people celebrate the birth of a baby, I think today’s book pick from me might fit in well with your upcoming reading timetable:

A Guide to Being Born: Stories by Ramona Ausubel

Divided into stages of life, from “Love” through “Conception” and on to “Gestation” and “Birth, Ausubel’s slightly strange and and wholly lovely short stories were one of 2013’s best literary surprises for me. (I still haven’t read her novel No One Is Here Except All of Us, although it is now definitely on my list.) Each story’s twist–a cruise ship of the dead, a Civil War soldier’s ghost, parents planting a piece of their progeny–shimmers and disappears into as you read the next one, and I mean this in a very good way. Ultimately, these stories and this book concern how we cope with the strangeness of being human, of having both corporeal needs and spiritual desires, of how we reconcile sex and love, birth and death. If you love Karen Russell, you’ll love this collection.


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