Monday, January 7, 2008

Brockmeier's Multi-Layered Views

You know the moments where the world seems perfect and beautiful precisely because of all it's diversity and faults? When you are plugged into an iPod listening to music while waiting at the airport and everyone appears to move to the music in an odd synchronization? Or when you look out upon a snowy world in all its silent splendor and for a brief second, everything is a glimpse of heaven? Or a split second of utter and complete zen-like happiness descends upon you at the most routine time (showering, eating breakfast, shaving, walking the dog, watching a child at play)?

It is that precise moment when the world is illuminated in a way that you are left breathless; for your heart flutters a few times and it's as if the world is such pure perfection that with one breath you will break its delicate magic spell.

That moment is what it is like to read Kevin Brockmeier's short stories. And his latest collection (The View From the Seventh Layer, arriving March 4, 2008 to an indie bookstore near you) is a shining beacon atop a whitewashed lighthouse of whimsical, haunting, original, perfect, fantastical prose. The stories are hypnotic, mesmerizing whiffs of fantasy blended with the brutal realities of human existence. From a thousand parakeets that mimic the daily sounds of a mute's life to a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story of mundane proportions. From photos that observe a houseguest's every move and word to a man who buys a thrift store overcoat only to discover the former owner was God and that its pockets spill over with earnest, and frightening, prayers.

Brockmeier's gifts are in his precision writing: Each word carefully placed "just so", and in his effortless way of seeing beauty in the simplest things, the unlikeliest of people. To see the world through his literary windows is to learn to love unconditionally and not take for granted the billions of little things that mosaic our lives.

I know I only taunt readers with this review as you must wait nearly 2 months for this collection to arrive on shelves. But, Dear Reader!, it will be well worth the wait, I promise you! For your reward will be his presence at our Downer Avenue store on March 27th at 7pm. To tide yourself over I suggest reading his last novel (also something very, very special): The Brief History of the Dead. It will be only a taste of the magic that is to come.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The List List

Many lists, one spot - that's the motto now! Rather than a post for each "best of 2007" list that I stumble upon or gets sent to me, I'm going to centrally locate all of those links, with copied content, right here.

I do it all for you, dear readers.

(NPR One's that Got Away can be found here. NYT and Washington Post are in the left column.)

Entertainment Weekly's Best (and Worst!) Books of 2007, because books are entertainment, too, lest you literatis forget!

The Best Books of 2007
EW critic Jennifer Reese honors the top ten in both fiction and nonfiction, and names five titles you'll be hard-pressed to give away at yard sales for years to come.

By Jennifer Reese

10. THE TERROR by Dan Simmons

In this mesmerizing thriller, Dan Simmons offers one possible (if improbable) answer to the real-life question of what happened to a British naval expedition that vanished in the Arctic in 1845. In Simmons' version, the sailors confront challenges ranging from the mundane (anarchy, starvation) to the extraordinary (a soul-devouring demon, a seductive ''Esquimaux'' girl missing her tongue). You'll want to read this book in a warm, well-lit house stocked with plenty of grub and a few gills of rum. Though dauntingly long, Simmons' epic, like the frozen sea that trapped the sailors, holds you fast.


by Junot Díaz

Junot Díaz recounts the saga of Dominican-American nerd-boy Oscar in irresistible, high-energy Spanglish. Sample sentence: ''You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto. Mamma mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest.'' That's Oscar's deal, but Díaz also has much to say about sci-fi fandom, bodacious chicas, and
an ancient family curse.

8. OUT STEALING HORSES by Per Petterson

Trond Sander, the 67-year-old narrator of Per Petterson's quietly unsettling tale (gracefully translated from Norwegian by Anne Born), has moved to the countryside hoping to finish out his years in solitude. Then a chance encounter starts him eflecting on his past, in particular the shattering summer of 1948, when a freak accident and dawning revelations about his father's emotional allegiances turned his world on end. Beneath the wintry surface of this marvelous book, you'll uncover layers of mystery and sorrow.


by Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates is at the height of her considerable powers in this dark, lush novel loosely based on the life of her Jewish grandmother. After watching her German-born gravedigger father kill himself, Rebecca Schwart willfully reinvents herself, methodically erasing all vestiges of her immigrant past. What she gains in security and respectability is quickly apparent; what is lost becomes clear only in a devastating coda.

6. ON CHESIL BEACH by Ian McEwan

The year is 1962, and Edward and Florence, ''young, educated and both virgins, on this, their wedding night,'' are anticipating conjugal relations with equal parts eagerness (his) and fear (hers). What transpires is funny, embarrassing, dreadful, and all too believable. Sex can be a tricky, delicate business, as McEwan poignantly illustrates in this tiny and wise masterpiece.

5. A FREE LIFE by Ha Jin

You could mistake the unadorned prose of Ha Jin's fifth novel for artlessness. In fact, his storytelling — direct, homely, affecting — represents a perfect marriage of subject and style. Nan Wu longs to write poetry, but instead takes a series of menial jobs to support his family. Over roughly 10 years, Nan folds dumplings, washes dishes, and clerks at a motel, while struggling to find the inspiration and time for literature.
Shimmering language has no place in this deeply felt portrait of the artist ground down by middle-class routine.


Another generous novel about work, this one set during a blizzard at a languishing Red Lobster restaurant in New England on its final day of operation. For the very last time, Manny DeLeon, Stewart O'Nan's grave hero, negotiates
between his bickering waitstaff, tends to the Frialators, banters with a longtime customer, and pushes the tilapia. Without quite admitting it to himself, he is mourning the dissolution of this strange little community, however makeshift and dreary. And why shouldn't he? O'Nan turns everyday loss into poetry.

3. THEN WE CAME TO THE END by Joshua Ferris

Novelists work in their pajamas, which explains why fiction so rarely gets office life quite right. Joshua Ferris' dazzling debut is an exception. Set in a Chicago ad agency, the action consists primarily of the rumor peddling, flirting, and time wasting familiar to most white-collar drones. Just when you think this is merely a glib literary stunt, Ferris shifts into a somber and lovely minorkey. ''Every agency has its frustrated copywriter whose real life was being a failed novelist working on a small, angry book about work,'' the narrators tell us. This is a large, generous book about work.


When gregarious New Yorker Ilka Weisz takes a job at a small-town Connecticut think tank, she worries she'll never find new friends. But Ilka, introduced in Lore Segal's 1985 novel, Her First American, is quickly embraced by an insular clique of intellectuals who drink martinis, obsess over poetry prizes, philander, and gab about it all nonstop. Billed as a story collection, the volume starts off as fizzy academic comedy. By the time you realize that you're actually reading a novel — and that it's profoundly sad — this sneaky, splendid book is over.

1. THE POST-BIRTHDAY WORLD by Lionel Shriver

In a year when nearly everyone was caught up in the story of a young wizard, an ensorcelling book about a mortal adult woman went virtually unnoticed. The heroine of Lionel Shriver's extraordinary novel The Post-Birthday World is Irina McGovern, an illustrator living in London with her longtime partner, Lawrence Trainer, an earnest policy wonk. They share values and routines, if not a world-beating sex life. As the first chapter ends, Irina finds herself alone with a roguish acquaintance, pro snooker player Ramsey Acton, whom she's always found dangerously attractive.
Here, the novel branches into two competing narratives. In the
first, Irina kisses Ramsey. In the second, she resists. Chapter by chapter, these two richly imagined scenarios play themselves out, eventually meeting up again some 500 pages later. Which was the better choice for Irina — the steamy lover Ramsey or the steady companion Lawrence? Shriver playfully suggests
answers, only to snatch them back again.

Before it was co-opted and trivialized by chick lit, romantic love was a subject that writers from Flaubert to Tolstoy deemed worthy of artistic and moral scrutiny. This is the tradition into which Shriver's novel fits. In 50 years, we'll still be wild about Harry.
And a lucky handful of readers may stumble across The Post-Birthday World and wonder why they've never heard of it.


10. AGENT ZIGZAG by Ben Macintyre

If this rollicking bio were fiction, you'd call it far-fetched. In 1941, a charming English con man, thief, and womanizer named Eddie Chapman was apprehended by the Nazis and recruited as a spy. But after parachuting into a British celery field, Chapman promptly turned double agent, launching his fabulous, albeit short-lived, career as a dashing player in world history. Ben Macintyre's chronicle reads like top-flight John le Carré, but it's all true.

9. THE WILD TREES by Richard Preston

Richard Preston's subject is the primeval redwood forest canopy of northern California, and the handful of quirky souls obsessed with ascending to this world hundreds of feet above the ground. As Preston writes, a man falling 100 feet from a sequoia lands with a ''deep, wet boom'' and probably won't get up again. After finishing Trees, you'll understand why someone might think that's a risk worth taking.

8. BORN STANDING UP by Steve Martin

Another humorist with a complicated inner life, Steve Martin crafts a smart, sweet memoir of his two decades as a stand-up. He focuses primarily on the evolution of his giddy sensibility, with brief interludes about his love affairs and crippling panic attacks. There were nights when Martin couldn't eke a chuckle from his audience, but his memoir kills.

7. SCHULZ AND PEANUTS by David Michaelis

He wasn't a particularly good man, Charles ''Sparky'' Schulz, but for 50 years he churned out the most beloved comic strip in American history. In this definitive life, David Michaelis explores the tortured soul behind the endlessly winsome Peanuts.

6. TWO LIVES by Janet Malcolm

Janet Malcolm's little book about writer Gertrude Stein and her lover, Alice B. Toklas, folds together dishy biography, refreshingly blunt criticism of Stein's work, plus intriguing journalistic forays into the insular world of Stein scholarship. It's hard to know how to classify Two Lives, but a gem is a gem is a gem.


In a review of George Saunders' terrific essay collection, The New York Times mocked the ''Midwestern Sweetness of the Author's Soul.'' Chalk it up to East Coast Snark. Whether he is critiquing the media or patrolling with reactionary Minutemen on the U.S.-Mexico border, Saunders tries to understand before he attacks; he looks for common ground with his subjects; he resists conspiracy theories. You can call it sweet. You can also call it sensible and refreshing.

4. DOWN THE NILE by Rosemary Mahoney

In 1998, at the age of 38, Rosemary Mahoney decided she wanted to paddle down the Nile, alone, in a rowboat. Her sharply written account of the experience illustrates the challenges of buying even a dinky little boat in Egypt (especially if you're a Western woman), introduces us to a series of memorable characters, and brims with the exhilaration of setting oneself an outrageous goal, then achieving it.

3. HOW DOCTORS THINK by Jerome Groopman, M.D.

Calling the practice of medicine ''a mix of science and soul,'' Dr. Jerome Groopman meditates on his experiences as both physician and patient. Why, he asks, do doctors so often make disastrously wrong diagnoses? Why don't they listen more attentively to patients? And how do a doctor's feelings about a patient play into treatment decisions? His answers are fascinating and sometimes disconcerting.

2. THE NINE by Jeffrey Toobin

Jeffrey Toobin's unlikely page-turner, about the Supreme Court under William Rehnquist and John Roberts, balances analyses of major cases (Bush v. Gore gets extensive, scathing treatment) with irreverent accounts of the justices' personalities. Sandra Day O'Connor insisted that staffers join her in salsa-dancing classes to keep fit; Clarence Thomas feels that traveling by RV makes him a better judge; David Souter writes only with a fountain pen. Toobin's best-seller is almost as amusing as it is important.

1. THE WORLD WITHOUT US by Alan Weisman

If the human race were to suddenly disappear, what would become of the planet we've shaped and scarred? This is the thought experiment Alan Weisman assigns himself in his stirring book. A few of his conclusions: Skyscrapers would be overtaken by foliage and collapse; warmhearted dogs would perish; sly house cats would thrive. And the world would never be free of plastic baggies. Is it depressing to contemplate Earth after mankind? Strangely, not. ''The only real prediction you can make is that life will go on,'' says an extinction expert interviewed by Weisman. ''And that it will be interesting.''


1. IF I DID IT (The Goldman Family)

According to O.J. Simpson, whose name was purged from the cover of his ''confession,'' it was all her fault. Nicole Brown Simpson was manipulative, whiny, and confused. She wore ''ridiculous'' short skirts, partied with druggies and hookers, and kept O.J. from seeing his kids. And so if he did it — if he slashed her throat and slaughtered her friend Ronald Goldman one balmy night in 1994 — the exasperating lady had it coming. A bloody glove could have written a more tasteful book.

2. THE ALMOST MOON by Alice Sebold

The narrator of Alice Sebold's queasy second novel smothers her elderly mom, then calmly reflects: ''When I was a teenager, I thought every kid spent sweaty summer afternoons in their bedrooms, daydreaming of cutting their mother up into little pieces and mailing them to parts unknown.'' Actually, they don't. The few who do may be the only readers who relish this unsavory melodrama.

3. 7: THE MICKEY MANTLE NOVEL by Peter Golenbock

With this trashy fictionalization of Mickey's miserable life, Peter Golenbock manages to strike out, pop up, hit into a double play, and foul a ball into the stands, beaning a little kid.

4. CELEBRITY DETOX by Rosie O'Donnell

Here's what you learn from Rosie's sloppy, score-settling memoir: She hates Donald Trump with such a fury she can't see straight; she worships Barbra Streisand more than seems healthy; she can't ''poop'' in public restrooms. Thanks for sharing, Ro.

5. BOOK OF THE DEAD by Patricia Cornwell

Like a putrefying corpse left too long on forensic pathologist Kay Scarpetta's table, Patricia Cornwell's thrillers just get stinkier and stinkier. Her latest gory specimen is in such bad shape it's virtually unrecognizable as a novel.