Lit and Nonfiction
final phase of one of the most disastrous presidencies ever;
a protracted, hard-fought, ultimately historic election; peak
oil; economic recession; and a recent moratorium on acquisitions
from one of the nation’s largest publishers—it’s no wonder
fiction took a backseat in 2008. It seems like there was a
disproportionate literary preference for nonfiction this year,
but this doesn’t mean that your shopping has to follow suit.
The whys and hows of this kind of trend sound like subject
matter Malcolm Gladwell might tackle. This isn’t exactly the
premise of his latest, Outliers (Little, Brown,
$27.99), but it’s in the same neighborhood. As always, Gladwell
is obsessed with trends—all the unseen reasons behind stuff
we otherwise take for granted. This time he’s unearthed some
startling coincidences regarding highly successful people.
Turns out that there’s a magic year to be born in if you want
to be a software tycoon, and one demographic you really don’t
want piloting your airplane. He might even offer insight into
why a relatively obscure Chilean novelist could garner such
rapid posthumous acclaim.
This is, after all, the story of Roberto Bolaño, whose novel
2666 (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $30) is the
undisputed fictional triumph of the year. The manuscript was
produced in the last five years of the author’s life, and
all 912 pages (bound in three paperbacks, packaged in a box)
were published in Spanish four years back. Now that it’s arrived
in English, the book is being heralded as a masterwork of
the form for the postnational world. Though it’s Pynchon-esque
in scope and cast, a more timely and fitting comparison is
to the late David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, in
the way the novel responds to and revolutionizes the literary
milieu in which it has emmerged.
In the midst of a few forgettable offerings by heavyweights
John Updike and Toni Morrison (not to mention the Twilight
craze), it is worth noting a couple other novels. The
Mayor’s Tongue (Riverhead, $24.95) is the debut by
Nathaniel Rich, a 28-year-old editor at the Paris Review.
Through letters, post-it notes, newspaper articles and more
conventional narrative techniques, the stories of two protagonists
unfurl in different parts of Manhattan and eventually rural
Italy. A love story and a travel narrative frame themes of
identity and communication with all the surreal complexity
of Beckett and Bulgakov. Girl Factory (Tin House
Books, $14.95), by Jim Krusoe, represents a sector of the
literary world that doesn’t get much attention, but is all
the more relevant and forward-thinking for its low profile:
the small, independent press. A novel that begins with a dog—rendered
rabid and brilliant by government testing—killing a Cub Scout
and running amok stands as a proper analogy for the type of
work waiting to be unearthed in many contemporary literary
journals. What could be a more consistent literary gift than
a subscription to Tin House, n+1, Open City,
Conjunctions, or hometowners FENCE?
With so much happening in the world right now, it is understandable
that readers are preoccupied with matters of reality. The
fact that truth is so elusive in the information age is one
of our era’s great paradoxes. Dexter Filkins’ The Forever
War (Knopf, $25) harkens back to a time when we could
expect probing war reportage. Filkins is one of very few war
reporters who have spent extensive time (since 1998) on the
ground in Afghanistan and Iraq. His is an unbiased glimpse
of the “war on terror” that provides the stark images of conflict
that we have thus far been deprived.
Love him or hate him, Thomas Friedman is one of the most influential
writers around. Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a
Green Revolution—and How It Can Renew America (Farrar,
Straus, and Giroux, $27.95) is his updated view of the increasingly
globalized world. His case: that the global ecological crisis
is a prime opportunity for America to unite around the common
cause of nation building. Doesn’t sound so much like revolution
as common sense.
The latter always has been Michael Pollan’s chief concern.
The food-movement icon followed his enormously influential
Omnivore’s Dilemma with In Defense of Food (Penguin,
$21.95). Who would possibly care to assault it? Well, the
food industry for one, which profits according to the degree
they can process food into “foodlike substances” and keep
nutrition perpetually ill-defined. Pollan shows that health
is actually much simpler than the grocery store makes it seem.
Lest we forget that humor can help ease the burden of real
knowledge, the Onion faithfully reminds us. Our Dumb
World: The Onion’s Atlas of the Planet Earth 73rd Edition
(The Onion, $27.99) is the definitive fake news reference
for the savvy fake news consumer. The only info you won’t
find here, you will find in Daily Show correspondent
John Hodgman’s More Information Than You Require (Penguin,
$25)—like how to tell the future using a pig’s spleen.
And if projections for 2009 are looking a little grim, it’s
probably best to stock up on Bill O’Reilly’s memoir A
Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity (Broadway, $26), you
know, for its sheer flammability.
again, there’s been a hefty shelf- load of books about music
published over the course of this year, with many making their
first appearance in time for the holidays.
First up are the large-format, picture-heavy volumes. Preeminent
among these is Pure Country: The Leon Kagarise Archives,
1961-1971 (Process, 204 pages, $35). Kagarise, who
died earlier this year, photographed scores of country and
bluegrass performers who were then making their way to the
public through the outdoor music park circuit. Posters and
other ephemera sweeten the deal, all lovingly assembled and
One the heaviest publications of the season is The Clash
(Grand Central, 384 pages, $45). This mammoth book is told
in the words of Strummer, Jones, Simonon, and Headon, but
is largely presented with stunning photos as well as covers
of albums and rare singles. No Wave (Abrams
Image, 144 pages, $24.95) by Thurston Moore and Byron Coley
is a celebration of the brief New York City scene that bubbled
underground in the second half of the ’70s, fearlessly mixing
confrontational artistry, punkish attitude, renegade impulses
and heady experimentation. So You Want to Be a Rock
‘n’ Roll Star by Christopher Hjort (Jawbone, 336 pages,
$29.95) is the latest entry in the genre of musical day-by-day
books, this one covering the comings and goings of The Byrds
from 1965 to 1973.
Covered in a plush pink cover is New York Dolls
(Abrams Image, 160 pages $24.95), a collection of photographs
of the band by Bob Gruen. R.E.M. Hello (Chronicle,
192 pages, $29.95) shows the band offstage, backstage and
onstage, all through the lens of David Belisle. May Pang’s
Instamatic Karma: Photographs of John Lennon
(St. Martin’s, 156 pages, $29.95) affords a glimpse into the
erroneously named “Lost Weekend” (it was actually eighteen
months), before the ex-Beatle returned home to Yoko and the
final five years of his life. Grateful Dead 365
(Abrams, 744 pages, $29.95), edited by Holly George-Warren,
is 365 images of the band by a slew of top-flight photographers.
This year’s most formidable biography is Philip Norman’s John
Lennon: the Life (Ecco, 822 pages, $34.95). Already
the author of The Beatles’ bio Shout!, Norman had access
to and support from such key members of the Lennon orbit as
Paul McCartney, Yoko Ono, the late Neil Aspinall, and George
Martin. No mere rehashing, Norman’s meticulous research and
potent writing make this the definitive book on Lennon.
by Annie J. Randall (Oxford, 236 pages, $24.95) is less a
biography than an in-depth look at her influence on popular
culture, hence its subtitle “Queen of the Postmods.” David
Wild’s He Is . . . I Say (DaCapo, 206 pages,
$25) is part biography, part personal memoir, and part musical
analysis. The book’s subtitle explains his purpose: “How I
Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Neil Diamond.” Sly &
The Family Stone’s dramatic rise and fall are explored in
I Want to Take You Higher by Jeff Kaliss (Backbeat,
230 pages, $24.95). Sly’s recordings continue to electrify,
but his disappearance from the public eye and erratic behavior
when he’s in it are cause for bafflement, frustration, and
sadness. He did contribute a brief forward to this book, which
concludes with his name and a note that he wrote it in his
car (a 1958 Packard).
A band biography of note is John Einarson and Chris Hillman’s
Hot Burritos: The True Story of the Flying Burrito Brothers
(Jawbone, 336 pages, $19.95). The same publishing house has
also brought forth a pair of tomes that look at select aspects
of well-covered artists, Beatles For Sale:
How Everything They Touched Turned to Gold by John
Blaney (Jawbone, 288 pages, $19.95), and Bowie in Berlin:
A New Career in a New Town by Thomas Jerome Seabrook
(Jawbone, 272 pages, $19.95).
The field of memoirs has grown to now encompass artists who
made their mark in the ’90s. Dean Wareham of Galaxie 500 and
Luna has brought forth Black Postcards (Penguin,
336 pages, $25.95). It’s written with the concise sentences
of a lyricist and finds the author holding accountable the
bad behavior of his colleagues as well as himself. His contemporary,
Juliana Hatfield, has penned When I Grow Up
(Wiley, 336 pages, $24.95), and, like Wareham, also has a
new album out after a period of relative silence. Danny Goldberg
comes from the business side of the music world, having been
in journalism, public relations, artist management and a label
executive. His new Bumping Into Geniuses (Gotham,
320 pages, $26) is subtitled “My Life Inside the Rock and
Roll Business.” It’s a life that’s included managing and steering
Nirvana and Bonnie Raitt to success, as well as working with
acts as varied as Warren Zevon, Stevie Nicks and KISS at important
points in their careers. The title references a bit of advice
from Ahmet Ertegun: The way to get rich is to keep walking
around until you bump into a genius, and then hold on and
don’t let go.
When the 33 1/3 series started five years ago, there
was no telling how many volumes would be published. Each book
is devoted to a single album, and the approaches have varied
as widely as the authors. Some are straight reportage on the
creation of the work, others are memoirs surrounding the writer’s
first encounter with the work. Among the new titles this year
are Rum, Sodomy & the Lash by Jeffrey T.
Roesgen, Swordfishtrombones by David Smay, Horses
by Philip Shaw, Master of Reality by John Darnielle
(of the Mountain Goats), and Shoot Out the Lights
by Hayden Childs (all published by Continuum, $10.95). Best
Music Writing 2008 (DaCapo, 368 pages, $14.95) is
the latest in this now-annual tradition, guest edited by Nelson
George. I was again glad to find some memorable pieces I’d
read earlier in the year (such as David Margolick’s piece
on Louis Armstrong from The New York Times), and plenty
that I’d otherwise have never known about.
when I think that the prospects for holiday gift giving can’t
get any worse, what when every kid’s desire is a new IPOD,
MP3, DS, R2D2 lifesize robotic figure or any other configuration
of alphabet mumbo jumbo, I get the annual selection of books
from the Book House, and I think, yes, Virginia, there is
a Santa. And he’s a reader.
New Fave Bedtime Story: The Bears in the Bed and the
Great Big Storm, by Paul Bright, illustrated by Jane
Chapman (GoodBooks, $16.95). Like We’re Going on a Bear
Hunt and There’s Room on the Feather Bed, The
Bears in a Bed and the Great Big Storm is patented for
maximum cuddle time. Little ones will relate to the idea of
being afraid of night noises, and parents will chuckle at
the acknowledgement of their own fear.
For the Water Lover: Wave, by Suzy Lee (Chronicle
Books, $15.99). Almost like a pictoral haiku, Wave thoroughly
captures the joy and wonder of simple play at the water’s
edge. Lee masterfully uses line and color to explore the power
of the natural world.
The Sneaky Historian, with apologies to that lady who is suing
Jerry Seinfeld’s wife: United Tweets of America, 50
State Birds: Their Stories, Their Glories, by Hudson
Talbott (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $17.99). Your kids groan when
you suggest watching something on the History Channel, or
during that pop “name all the presidents” quiz you thought
would be fun. The United Tweets of America is just
the ticket to sneak some book learning into their little minds.
This tongue-in-cheek compilation has all of the state birds
vying for to be First Bird. Along the way, we learn a lot
about each bird, and the states that they represent. Hilarious
illustrations, like the one in which Florida’s Northern Mockingbird
is perched atop a gator, who is holding a bigmouth bass, who
is atop a Florida panther, who is balanced precariously between
a dolphin and a manatee—well, you get the point.
If You’re Only Buying One Book This Year: Be Glad Your
Nose Is on Your Face and other poems, by Jack Prelutsky,
illustrations by Brandon Dorman (Harper Collins, $22.99).
Our country’s first Children’s Poet Laureate, Prelutsky gets
the royal treatment in this comprehensive compendium of his
greatest work, including 15 brand-new poems. Who can resist
such words and names as Euphonica Jarre and The Ghostly Grocer
of Grumble Grove? Dorman’s vibrant illustrations perfectly
capture the spirit and fun of Prelutsky’s verse.
My Kid Reads Only Harry Potter—So?: The Tales of Beedle
the Bard, by J.K. Rowling (Children’s High Level Group,
$12.99). You knew she wasn’t really finished. This slim book,
Hermione Granger’s new translation from the ancient runes,
is a collection of stories for young wizards and witches.
Like the Potter books, it’s curiously addictive.
My Kid Reads Only Harry Potter—Help!: The Magician:
The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flattel, by Michael
Scott (Delacorte Press, $16.99). First of all, I feel your
pain. My eldest went through an entire year of rereading the
Rawlings books. That was until he discovered the Twilight
trilogy, but I digress. The Magician is a riveting
fantasy that juxtaposes our reality with magic and myth.
Buy Locally: Sunny Holiday, by Coleen Murtagh
Paratore (Scholastic Press, $15.99). Local author Coleen Murtagh
Paratore has a way with tapping the psyche of young adults,
like the eponymous heroine of her latest, Sunny Holiday.
This is a girl whose cheerful disposition and quick wit make
light of some of life’s downers, like Dad’s being in the pen
and Momma having to work extra hours to pay to get the car
fixed. Very uplifting, yet very wry.
Buy Locally Part II: Along Came Spider, by James
Preller (Scholastic, $15.99). Preller, author of the popular
Jigsaw Jones series, has penned a great story for kids at
that age when friendships are tested in light of new concerns,
mainly, popularity. Warm and funny, Along Came Spider
is an excellent choice for kids in the middle grades.
This Year’s Classic Redux—Fairy Tale: Rapunzel,
retold and Illustrated by Rachel Isadora (G.P. Putnam’s Sons,
$16.99). Isadora takes the classic tale, which usually conjures
up a blonde damsel in distress entombed in a tower, and transposes
it to Africa. The result is stunning. Working in collages
of painted, textured paper, the author evokes a dramatic African
This Year’s Classic Redux—Noel: The Gift of the Magi,
by O’Henry, Illustrated by P.J. Lynch (Candlewick Press, $15.99).
Maybe it’s because of the economy, but O’Henry’s classic tale
of sacrificing for each other the greatest treasures of their
house, has special significance. Lynch’s illustrations indelibly
re-create a Victorian landscape comprising both warmth and
For the Budding Epicure, or America’s Next Top Junior Chef:
Dear Julia, by Amy Bronwen Zemser (Greenwillow
Books, $16.99). American adults are hooked on food and food
television—why not children? Amy Bronwen Zemser’s protagonist
Elaine Hamilton just wants to cook, on her own, but through
a series of ingeniously crafted happenings, she’s on camera—and
not even out of high school!
In Honor of the Great Senator from Illinois: The Lincolns:
A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary, by Candace Fleming
(Schwartz Wade Books, $24.99). Who did you think? Combining
intimate details with the broad sweep of history, Fleming
provides vital context to the lives of both Lincolns, and
gives budding historians a lot of little-known data. “President
Lincoln Tramples on Civil Liberty” reads one “scrap,” which
details how Lincoln repeatedly suspended the writ of habeas
corpus in places where secession talk was especially spiteful.
There is also a lot of neat stuff about other Civil War personages,
laws, battles, and even Mary’s Blue Room Salon.
and cookbook reading are separate activities in my house,
and I’m a devotee of both. Where others plunk themselves in
front of the cacophonous Food Network, I prefer to enrich
my culinary ambitions with the quiet majesty of the page.
Then I photocopy the recipes that intrigue me, so that the
books themselves remain as pristine as possible.
Shopping from my list, therefore, puts you in no danger of
presenting a loved one with some overhyped celebrity-driven
screed. The celebrities we’ll meet are the chefs themselves,
generally as insane as any A-list actor or music star, but
at least proffering actual nourishment.
Heston Blumenthal, for example, injected one of his sous chefs
with hot pepper essence and studied a brain scan of the result
in order to pinpoint where the hotness hits. Dedicated? Insane?
You might as well ask the same of Van Gogh or Beethoven. Blumenthal’s
The Big Fat Duck Cookbook (Bloomsbury,
$250, blooms bury.com) celebrates the intricately creative
fare at his Berkshire, England, restaurant, a perennial Michelin
three-star winner. Not surprisingly, this big fat book is
to cookbooks as a Blumenthal entrée is to more standard fare:
unpredictable and gorgeous, with a spectacular design by artist
The aesthetics of dining are vital to another Michelin fave,
elBulli, which perches on the coast of Spain and sells
out a year’s seating on a single, preappointed day. Chef Ferran
Adrià has been acclaimed as the world’s best, and his book
A Day at elBulli (Phaidon Press, $50,
phaidon.com), starts with photos of the early morning and
moves hour by hour through the process of designing the day’s
menu, prepping the food and restaurant building, feeding the
staff, and then welcoming the lucky diners who will partake
of a 32-course meal in which no course looks or tastes like
what you’d expect, yet transcends those expectations.
I noted in a recent column, Thomas Keller is another of the
many current chefs rethinking the entire process of cooking
and dining. Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide
(Artisan, $75, artisanbooks.com) celebrates Keller’s newest
enthusiasm, which is a carefully measured process of cooking
items at a specific temperature. Not surprisingly, in Keller’s
hands it becomes much more than that, as the acclaimed chef
shows how he further enhances this technique to produce the
meals at his restaurants The French Laundry and per
Almost 30 years ago, David and Karen Waltuck opened Chanterelle
in Manhattan’s SoHo district. It’s now in a handsome TriBeCa
building, where it continues to set culinary standards. One
of its secrets is a keen sense of hospitality, which informs
David Waltuck’s Chanterelle (Taunton Press,
$50, taunton.com). He targets the 150 recipes for the home
cook, and provides enough assembly detail to guide the reasonably
skilled to successful results. Never made an aspic? You’ll
learn the secret behind it for your preparation of duck
terrine with pistachios & Armagnac.
Eric Ripert’s restaurant Le Bernardin is on Manhattan’s
West 51st St., serving seafood. Redefining seafood, actually,
and setting standards that have reverberated throughout the
industry. While the second half of Ripert’s book On
the Line (Artisan, $35, artisanbooks.com) is a fish-by-fish
(and other items) treasure trove of recipes, you’ll start
with a station-by-station tour of the kitchen, and your understanding
of restaurants will be enhanced immeasurably.
Cuisines of Spain, Mexico and parts of South America inform
the creations of Jose Garces, whose Philadelphia restaurants
Amada, Tinto and Distrito are must-visits. His
book Latin Evolution (Lake Isle Press, $38,
lakeislepress.com) gets into the component flavors and cooking
techniques, then puts them back together in intricate ways.
Not for the easily intimidated, these recipes ask you to create
foam and cook sous vide, but a dish like shredded confit
pork with rosemary-brown butter applesauce and Catalán escarole
is worth the effort.
Two different views of Italian-inspired cooking come from
San Francisco’s A16 and Philadelphia’s Vetri.
Nate Appleman and Shelley Lindgren wrote A16 Food +
Wine (Ten-Speed Press, $35, tenspeed.com) to share
their insights into ingredients, beginning with wine and traveling
through the components (pizza included) of their restaurant’s
fare. Marc Vetri betook himself to Italy to learn in the trenches,
and Il Viaggio di Vetri (Ten-Speed Press, $40,
tenspeed.com) is a memoir of those travels, complete with
recipes and photos and cooking techniques.
I’m no fan of hurrying your food preparation, but Bon Appétit
came out with such a nice basic cookbook two years ago that
I picked up the new Bon Appétit: Fast Easy Fresh Cookbook
(Wiley, $35, wiley.com) and was persuaded by the recipes.
There are more than a thousand, and they really do give you
a leg up when you’re faced with fixing an unplanned meal.
But forget recipes for a moment. The Flavor Bible,
by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg (Little, Brown,
$35, littlebrown.com), contains not a one. It’s an exhaustive
list of the component items you mix into meals, and it gives
many a history of those associations along with excellent
ideas for combinations you may never have thought of. Always
reliably engaging writers, Page and Dornenburg make even as
austere a premise as this one work.
Keeping with fundamentals, nothing dresses a dish more nicely
than well-chosen and tasty sauce, and culinary polymath James
Peterson has revised his classic Sauces (Wiley,
$50, wiley.com) to include more contemporary recipes that
don’t rely on butter and flour. Its 600 pages tour the world,
giving a fascinating history behind the saucier’s art, as
well as some 450 recipes.
Marcella Hazan advanced the art of Italian cooking like nobody
else, and her many books, starting with 1973’s Classic
Italian Cook Book, are essentials for your culinary shelf.
The energetic 84-year-old finally wrote her memoirs, and Amarcord
(Gotham Books, $27.50, us.penguingroup.com) is as
lively and entertaining as you’d expect. Her gospel is that
cooking comes out of life itself, and there’s no shortcut
around living that life as richly and fully as possible, and
excellent thought with which to inform the holidays ahead.
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