Category Archives: Best Books 2010

The PW Morning Report: Thursday, Dec. 9, 2010

Craig Morgan Teicher -- December 9th, 2010

Today’s links!

Book Apps from New Zealand: Publishing Perspectives takes a look at an app developer from down under.

E-Romance: The NYT looks at the hot romance e-book market.

Google E-Books’ Openness?: Slate questions the idea that Google has created a more open e-bookstore.

Google’s Free-Books?: And Mediabeat wonders whether Google is making e-books free.

Literacy Charity Opens in UK: The US e-commerce store and literacy charity Better World Books has opened up in the UK. From the Bookseller.

Phillip Lopate’s Year in Reading: The Millions is doing a series of posts called “A Year in Reading.” Here’s Phillip Lopate’s contribution.

The Patti Cover

Jonathan Segura -- November 5th, 2010

A footnote to the cover of the Nov. 8 PW: We were in the middle of the photo shoot when word came that Just Kids had been named a National Book Award finalist. Those of us in the studio not having our picture taken huddled: Who would tell her? And how great would it be to get a photo of her reaction? That would be great! But nothing was said until photog Matthew Peyton put the Hasselblad down, and it didn’t matter, anyway. She’d found out a couple days before and had been playing it cool since.

So, if it looks to you like she’s keeping a secret, well, she sorta is.

PW Best Books 2010: The Chicken Thief by Béatrice Rodriguez

John A. Sellers -- November 4th, 2010

There’s something amusing about spending a few hundred words discussing a book that doesn’t use any itself, but that’s testament to the strength of the visual storytelling of Béatrice Rodriguez. This story of love and theft initially seems to be nothing more than a good, old-fashioned chase, but has surprising depth and several turns of fate—sometimes humorous, sometimes dark—along the way.

Published in France in 2005 and in the U.S. this past May by Enchanted Lion, the picture book opens with a fox abducting a white hen from a cozy cottage inhabited by a rabbit, bear, and a rooster—presumably her mate—as well as several hens and chicks. The majority of the book is about the animals’ pursuit of the fox, but subtle clues surface that this story isn’t what it seems, paving the way for a twist ending. But enough from me. See for yourself:

The squat, panoramic spreads heighten the sense of distance traveled as the pursuers track the fox over land and sea (a scene that has the enormous bear serving as a raft is priceless). Text would be completely superfluous: Rodriguez telegraphs the animals’ fluctuating emotions—shock, anger, contentedness, betrayal, and sadness—with the lightest of touches. There’s plenty of emotional terrain for adults to explore with children, and the wordless format is ideal for generating deeper conversations about what’s going on in the book. What exactly is the relationship between the bear, rabbit, rooster, and various chickens? (It can look a little Big Love.) Is the white hen’s romance with the fox True Love or a case of Stockholm Syndrome? (She’s, um, definitely being kidnapped…) And what about the rooster, who remains heartbroken at the end? It’s a book that challenges conventions and expectations, giving readers the opportunity to look below the surface and to fill in the blanks as they see fit.

PW Best Books 2010: The Eternal City by Kathleen Graber

Craig Morgan Teicher -- November 3rd, 2010

Kathleen Graber’s second book of poems, The Eternal City, came as something of a surprise this year, at least to me.  Her first collection, a wonderful and mature book that was nonetheless published to little fanfare, came and went a few years ago.  Meanwhile, Graber held a couple of prestigious fellowships (The Hodder at Princeton and the Amy Lowell Traveling Poets Fellowship–opportunities poets jealously covet and which most people have never heard of) and quietly worked away at this second gathering of poems, which is  nothing short of a revelation.  Graber is a new poet that we should have always had but didn’t until just now.

Graber is the kind of poet who thinks out loud, though not in the tricky, needley way of John Ashbery, but like someone very smart and very well-read trying to get to the bottom of every troubling and exciting thought.  She thinks about her day to day life, family and friends, their every day goings on, their deaths and big tragedies, and she thinks about big ideas–life, death, meaning–mostly in the same poem.  She name-checks some of the big figures of Western thought–Marcus Aurelius and Walter Benjamin, for instance–but does so as if she were talking to or about friends.  She manages to do a scholar’s work in these poems without the alienating haughtiness of many scholars.

And despite their learned-ness, these are poems anyone could love.  Graber is a magpie, grabbing whatever is in her head that might fit in one of her long lines: little scenes (“Two little girls emptied their Ziplocs of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish/ onto the carpet & picked them up, one by one, with great delicacy”), artifacts (“The handmade copper phone of Austria’s last emperor”) and good wishes for friends that say what most of us fail to find words for: “Kyle, bundle up.  You’re right.  It’s hard to say simply what is true.”

If you only read one book of poetry this year, that’s not enough, but start with this one.

PW Best Books 2010: A Special Place by Peter Straub

Peter Cannon -- November 2nd, 2010

As a rule, I avoid thrillers or so-called horror fiction about serial killers and the nasty things they do to their victims, but I made an exception for Peter Straub’s A Special Place, a novella in this vein highly recommended by our SF/Fantasy/Horror Reviews editor, Rose Fox. Subtitled “The Heart of a Dark Matter,” A Special Place is a sort of spin-off from Straub’s full-length novel published earlier this year, A Dark Matter, but it stands just fine on its own.

The story opens in Milwaukee in 1958 with the charming, nattily-dressed Tillman Hayward telling his adoring 12-year-old nephew, Keith Hayward, about Keith’s need “for a special place only you know about.” Till and Keith have recently shared an experience they wish to keep secret, an experience involving the unnatural death of a cat. If Keith’s parents ask him what he and Uncle Till have been talking about, he’s to say “baseball,” something that Keith cares nothing about. Meanwhile, women have a way of getting killed whenever Till is in the area.

A few years later, in high school, Keith saves a nerdy kid called Miller from a group of bullies. After that, Miller in effect becomes the property of Keith, who later gives Miller to Uncle Till as a Christmas present. Till orders Keith to wait at a nearby coffee shop while he has his fun with Miller in his “special place,” the basement of an abandoned building. By describing the hour Keith spends at the coffee shop instead of what’s going on between Till and Miller, Straub creates a sense of dread far more powerful than any explicit scene of torture and gore.

PW Best Books 2010: Bomber County: The Poetry of a Lost Pilot’s War

Mike Harvkey -- November 1st, 2010

“The beach where the body washed up is wide and white, with cafes raised on silts and couples drinking beer in the sand.” This sentence begins Swift’s account of the last days of his grandfather, James Eric Swift, a bomber pilot for the RAF during WWII. But Bomber County is no biography. Swift circles his grandfather’s service to examine not just the man but also the myth that the second world war, unlike the first, failed to produce significant poetry; it lacked an image of sufficient horror to grasp the imagination of artists, so the thinking goes. Swift disagrees. The bombing campaign was to WWII what the trench was to WWI. “Bombing forced new verse,” Swift writes, bringing T.S. Elliot, Virginia Woolf, Andrew Marvell, James Dickey, John Ciardi, Stephen Spender and dozens of other poets, including poet-pilots, into a loose narrative that allows him to spiral off again and again on unexpected tangents. In this way the book reminded me a little bit of Sebald’s Rings of Saturn.

By using poetry and the sorrowful story of his grandfather’s fate, Swift is also able to address the morality of sweeping destruction. The guilt question doesn’t come up until late in the book but when it does it sticks. “Again and again, in the poetry of this war, we find the new landscape of a bombed city; again and again, in the new landscape of this war, we find a poet going out for a walk in the rubble.” Swifts’s grandfather, though not himself a poet, went for one of these walks. “He is thinking now, of his own work; he is considering his guilt,” Swift writes. “The early summer of 1943 marked the start of the moral problem of bombing and the close of my grandfather’s war. He was lost, neatly, at just the right time, and so I could tell you here the story of a hero…” Earlier, when considering for the first time the details of his grandfather’s work, he writes:

In the dusk, you go out to the plane, and sit on the grass, and smoke. You know that you will have no real food for ten hours. You have a Thermos of tea, and a piece of chocolate, but it will be so cold in the plane that you have to hold the chocolate in your mouth to warm it up. It will feel like minus fifty degrees and your teeth will ache, and so you get dressed up. Uniform, then a wooly, a thick jumper, then a fur-lined flying suit, with zips, so that if you are wounded they can unzip it from your body; on your feet, silk socks, then Air Force socks, then wool socks, then flying boots. The planes take off close. As one lifts, another is beginning to roll along the runway, and the next is joining the queue.

Throughout the book Swift’s prose is highly restrained; this is his only use of the second person. Of the numerous ways that Swift could have relayed this information, he chose the tricky second person, because it creates an immediate intimacy; that “you” is the reader, and the cockpit comes alive, and that “you” is also Frank Swift, and in this moment you feel Daniel Swift move a bit closer to a grandfather he only knows on paper.

Swift, a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, and The Times Literary Supliment, is an excellent writer (this is his first book), and Bomber County is a unique and beautiful book.

PW Best Books 2010: Duncan the Wonder Dog

Calvin Reid -- October 29th, 2010

You know something’s up when someone grabs your arm and says, “have you seen the book at the AdHouse table?” I had just walked onto the exhibition floor of the Small Press Expo, a highly regarded indie comics festival held in the DC area in September, and that was my introduction to Adam Hines and his new book Duncan the Wonder Dog, a 400 page graphic novel of such eye-popping visual intricacy and invention, narrative complexity and deep, persuasive characterization that it’s hard to believe it’s the young author’s first published work.

Everything about the book throws you for a loop. Duncan the Wonder Dog is set in a world where animals can talk. But they don’t just talk; they argue, debate, ponder and, ultimately, force the world of humans—from household’s with pets to farmers and live stock and animals in the circus—to negotiate their relationships with the sentient animals in their midst. Hines has created a work of speculative fiction, set in an otherwise naturalistic world, where animals can verbally assert a sense of agency (or babble in small talk about the weirdness of humans) and can deliver moral arguments expressly intended to force humans to reflect on their treatment of animals. No, it’s not a PETA-driven screed for animals rights, though there is a clear narrative strand focused on brutality and even bigotry towards animals. The book seems to use the relationship of animals and humans as a canvas of moral culpability—how one life, no matter the species, defines another by the historical power relationships between them—and provides a constantly shifting but coherent point of view as it surveys a variety of characters central to Hines’ narrative. And as we meet each of these characters, their personalities and their acts enlarge our understanding of this unusual but totally familiar world.

There’s Voltaire, a shockingly intelligent orangatang that runs a major coporation; Tivona, a TV journalist in an ambiguous relationship with Voltaire; Jack, an FBI agent assigned to investigate a series of terrorist bombings; Aaron Vollman, a government bureaucrat who directs an agency that oversees animal control; and Pompeii, a psychotic simian murderer politicized by rage and human arrogance. These are just a few but these characters and many others bring this powerful and imaginative narrative to life in a book that is both vividly narrated and rich in illustration, drawing and composition.

Although the work is rendered in a moody gray-scale, Hines uses awkward but emotional figurative drawing and a multimedia technique that features collage, type, dense cross hatchings and photos as well as a densely cluttered panel grid—his tiered and clustered panel compositions are clearly influenced by the work of cartoonist Chris Ware—to give this work impressive visual depth, atmosphere and variety. Although it is an experimentalist work that seems to randomly drop the reader into a sucession of complex and ambiguous events, the book is also serious about presenting a lively and sharply delivered philosophical dialogue as well as the sometimes violent consequences of that debate. Yes, it’s a comic book and a talking animal comic book, to boot—a kind of ironic reflection on the comics medium’s legacy of talking animals—but Pompeii ain’t Magilla the Gorilla and this book ain’t for the kids. Don’t take my word for it. The book will be published this month by AdHouse Books. Buy a copy and see for yourself.

PW Best Books 2010: Yellow Dirt by Judy Pasternak

Parul Sehgal -- October 28th, 2010

Yellow Dirt
Judy Pasternak (Free Press)

Here are the facts:

In the summer of 1943, surveyors from the Manhattan Project began poking around a Navajo reservation that blanketed parts of Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. They were looking for uranium. They found it. Navajo miners blasted open the mesa and hauled out the rock, with its trademark golden veins, with their bare hands. When mining stopped in 1969, the Navajo built homes from discarded blocks of ore. They drank from makeshift lakes, empty pits filled with rainwater. They started to die. Stomach cancer rates on the reservation were up to 200 times higher than normal on average. Babies were born with their fingers fused together in claws, a syndrome doctors began to call Navajo neuropathy. There was no restitution, no adequate effort at cleanup. They are still dying.

Here is the story:

If the facts can be condensed into a paragraph, the story is bigger, baroque, and, at its heart, lies a betrayal.

From 1930-1960, the cold warring U.S. sought to stockpile uranium. When white men were seen sniffing around the reservation, the tribe’s patriarch, Adakai, knew they were after the leetso (“yellow dirt,” the Navajo word for uranium). There was longstanding bitter blood between the tribe and the U.S.—the people had only recently been foisted off their ancestral lands to this reservation. Adakai instructed his people to keep their mouths shut about the leetso on the mesa. But the patriarch’s son (who else?), Luke Yazzie, motivated by patriotism and a generous finder’s fee, disagreed, disobeyed, and blabbed.

From this almost Biblical betrayal, the story becomes mazy; we enter a Kafkaesque world of double-talking government bureaucracies (the acronyms abound!), all intent on concealing the dangers of radiation from the Navajo—one group told the miners that handling uranium was not only safe but fortifying.

It’s an outrageous story, but Pasternak tells it with restraint (she can resist the overheated language I can’t); she is sensitive but unsentimental. And she has the courage to leave the story overgrown, the truth hard-won and ambiguous. This is no Erin Brocovitch with easily identifiable heroes and villains.

We tend to think of the American abuse of indigenous people as a shameful chapter in history—something painful and protracted, yes, but finished. But Pasternak’s is a modern story. It (and so many other stories–see the controversial Canadian Tar Sands issue) is still unfolding; the exploitation of native peoples is still very much a part of our national narrative. Pasternak’s book breaks the silence of the Navajo’s suffering and tells us the truth about ourselves; this is investigative journalism at its most necessary.


PW Best Books 2010: The Heir

Rose Fox -- October 27th, 2010

The HeirI’ve been editing romance reviews at PW for nearly three years now, which means I’ve read a whole lot of historical romance novels. I’ve become very familiar with the standard set-ups, the faux-period language, the spunky heroines and brooding heroes, and the authors’ struggles to make racist, classist, sexist history interesting and appealing to modern readers.

In some ways, Grace Burrowes’s debut novel, The Heir, buys into these conventions: the villains are utterly villainous, the hero (Gayle Windham, earl of Westhaven) is rebelling against his parents’ longing for him to marry, the heroine (Gayle’s housekeeper, Anna Seaton) is sharply intelligent and elegantly feminine. What set it apart–and what will get me to reread it, though my reading time is so limited that I almost never reread anything anymore–are the language and the connections between the characters.

It helps that the book is 480 pages long, while most mass market romances are in the 320-page range. Rather than filling the space with plot twists, Burrowes develops an astounding variety of relationships. Gayle’s interactions with his parents and brothers (one legitimate, one not, and two recently deceased–including the older brother who was supposed to inherit the title that Gayle is now saddled with) include affectionate gibes, occasional out-and-out fights, and heartwarming kindness when it matters most. Much of Anna’s behavior is motivated by a deep and protective love for her deaf-mute sister and doting grandparents. And most unexpected and charming is the snarky friendship that Gayle shares with his ex-fiancée and her husband, on whose hospitality he must unexpectedly rely when he falls ill while traveling:

[Viscount Amery] surveyed the man dripping on his couch. “Westhaven?”

“Amery?”

The earl’s voice was a croak, but one that conveyed a spark of pride.

“If you insist on attempting to travel on in your condition,” Amery said, “I will send a note forthwith to your father, and tattle on you. I will also hold you up to my daughter as a bad example, and worse, my viscountess will worry. As she is the sole sustenance of my heir, I am loathe to worry her, do I make myself clear?”

[The viscountess adds,] “Douglas, you can’t let him travel like this.”

“Using the third person,” the earl rasped from the couch, “when a man is present and conscious, is rude and irritating.”

“But fun,” Amery said.

It’s such a joy to find dialogue like this in a historical novel: not at all an Austen knock-off but also at least relatively true to its ostensible time and place, and sounding like it’s spoken by real people who have real history together and don’t feel any need to recap what everyone knows already. Even with an extra 160 pages to fill, Burrowes knows what to leave out.

The deft use of language is especially impressive in a debut. I look forward to seeing what else Burrowes has up her elegant muslin sleeve.

PW Best Books 2010: The Frankies Spuntino: Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual

Mark Rotella -- October 26th, 2010

The Frankies Spuntino: Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual (Artisan)
Frank Falcinelli, Frank Castronovo, and Peter Meehan

You’ve got two bearded Italian guys in their 40s—both from Brooklyn, both named Frank—who knew each other from the old neighborhood and, later, crossed paths in the restaurant industry as French-trained chefs. They get together and, tapping into their culture heritage, form a restaurant, Frankies 457 Spuntino, that is equal parts nostalgic and hip. Not an easy feat.

Their book, which has an earthy 1970s feel, is complete with gilded pages and hand-drawn illustrations.

As for the recipes, you can’t get any more traditional and simple: meatballs (baked, not fried), and braciola, made with 8oz pork shoulder steaks (rolled with garlic provolone and parmesan). For starters, there’s a great recipe for scarol’ e fagiol’—escarole and bean soup.

Towards the end of the book is a detailed recipe that this Italian American, 40-something man would have loved years earlier—a timeline for preparing your grandmother’s Sunday gravy, or sauce (which includes the above-mentioned meatballs and braciola). It begins on Saturday with a visit to the grocery store, butcher shop and bakery. Sunday starts with 6 a.m. Mass, which ends in time to return home by 7 to begin the tomato sauce. (“We are not our grandmothers,” the authors note. “Wish we had their stamina.” And they adjust their schedules, sans church, to begin cooking at noon—with dinner on the table by 6pm.)

They further impart the unspoken wisdom from their grandmothers, gleaned only from years of observation:

Dig in. Eat and enjoy. Deny that it was any work when everybody asks if you’re tired.

Do it every Sunday.

Do it forever.