Thursday, December 21, 2006

More Best of 2006 lists

It’s remarkable how personal reading can be. When I surf through the lit blogosphere I am constantly amazed at the number of fabulous writers I have never heard of, writers who have small but dedicated followings. Take, for example, this list of underappreciated writers. I am unfamiliar with most of them, yet clearly they are doing exemplary work. It’s like everything else in contemporary American culture: certain authors are lauded by the media and they are the ones who sell books. The others have to overcome this huge silence that accompanies their work.

Which is why I am delighted to share four separate Best Books of 2006. (You can see my list here.) These lists were compiled by very different readers with very different tastes. Yet all of them adore books. I respect their taste. I am delivering their thoughts in their raw form so you may see their musings.

Elaine Smith is a woman with one of the most highly developed aesthetic senses I have ever met. She’s a designer of sorts, or more accurately a decorator who appreciates the one-of-a-kind. She also has a dry sense of humor and makes the best waffles I have ever eaten. She lives in Oakland.

Here are the books I most enjoyed reading and/or greatly admired this year:

Donald Antrim "The Afterlife"

David Mitchell "Black Swan Green"

Dan Chaon "You Remind Me of Me"

Jonathan Ames "Wake Up, Sir"

Knut Hamsun "Growth of the Soil" & "Mysteries"

All random choices . . . there are explanations if you want any. The Knut Hamsun ("Growth of the Soil") was given to me by an interior designer. I was so baffled by her giving it to me, I had to read it.

Then bought "Mysteries". Both so odd, but interesting.

My mother insisted I had to read You Remind Me of Me -- and again, so bewildered I had to read it.

Excellent. Excellent.

"Wake Up, Sir" I found in my purse. An old friend passing through town had given it to me; I forgot about it for months and then just started reading it.

Read it like snorting a gram of coke with a similar effect: insanity; uncontrolled laughing all by myself -- in bed in the middle of the night.

Black Swan Green was narrated by a stutterer. Had read a book narrated by an autistic and another by a Tourettes sufferer. Figured it was time to give the stutterer a voice. It was beautiful.

The Donald Antrim just gave me faith in the reality that there are writers out there who can craft a perfect sentence, not wallow in self-involvement, yet still examine their own feelings and get into the complexities of others' (in this case his mother.)

Dan Chaon's book -- one more thing -- blew me away in terms of the writing, and again, very painful story; his similies were astonishing; the story was rough, but compelling. I love books about (apparent) losers.

The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud, in contrast, a book about a bunch of hyper-privileged people in New York -- annoyed me. Couldn't feel much sympathy or interest for any of the characters. And it didn't impress me that her writing was so precise she NEVER EVER EVER split an infinitive.

Cindy Snow is a world traveler who spends her down time reading and working at A Great Good Place for Books in the Montclair section of Oakland. What I love about Cindy is that she appreciates both highbrow and lowbrow literature. She loves a mystery as much as she loves literary fiction. (And since I am a secret reader of chick lit, I can relate)

Hi Frances, here is my list. Not in any order.

The Emperor's Children, Claire Messud.

By a Slow River, Phillipe Claudel

What is the What by Dave Eggers (and i am not an Eggers fan-and i was tired of it by the end but i would include it)

Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta

I also really enjoyed Talk Talk by T.C. Boyle although i don't think it was one of the BEST books.

Betsy Blumenthal works for Kroll Associates, a security consulting firm that works on some interesting cases. Everyone tells me I am a voracious reader and know a lot about books (which I do.) However, when I met Betsy and we started talking about books she kept bringing up fabulous tomes that I had never heard of. She reads a lot of non-fiction. I already plan to read some of the books she recommends here.

I read Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo, the acclaimed English children’s author with my son. It is great for 5-7th grade. A historical novel about WWI. 2 brothers and their lives in England and in combat. I do not want to ruin the punch line however it is worth noting that the author was inspired to write this book because approximately 300 British men were executed by the British for insubordination during the war. As my son said, “but they are on the same team.”

This prompted many questions about WWI and so I then read Barbara Tuchman’s, The Zimmerman Telegram. A page turner which spells out what the US finally did get involved in the war. A fantastic book which read like a thriller.

Another oldie but goodie that I reread was Switch Bitch by Roald Dahl. The 4 short stories each have a bizarre twist which catches you by surprise. A fun read.

I read Tom Nagorsky’s Miracles on the Water. A true account of the ship The City of Benares and its ill-fated voyage in 1940 from England to Canada. A third of the 400 passengers were children evacuees whose parents anguished over whether or not to take advantage of their lucky lottery draw and put them on a ship across the Atlantic and have them live with strangers until the war was over OR keep the children in England and pray they survive the bombing.

I read the book in 15 hours; I could not put it down and sobbed during much of it.

Lastly, The Looming Tower,by Lawrence Wright. A very well-structured and researched book on the personalities and personal history of the Al Qaida leaders. Who knew for instance that Omar Sharif grew up in the same enclave in Cairo as Zahawi? In many ways he makes the world very small, perhaps too small.

Lastly, Chin Up Girls! A book of women’s obituaries from The Daily Telegraph. A charming, inspiring book which you can put down and pick up at leisure.

Nancy Chirinos is the kind of reader publishers love: when she hears of a good book she’ll rush out and get it in hardback instead of waiting for the paperback edition. As her friend, I love this inclination because she’s also generous and passes books on! Nancy is an educator by profession and a voracious reader. You can see she mixes up classics with contemporay literature. Here is her list:

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt (Shakespeare bio)
Desert Queen by Janet Wallach (bio)
March by Geraldine Brooks
Northranger Abbey by Jane Austen
I Married a Communist by Phillip Roth
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathon Safran Foer
The Keep by Jennifer Egan
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Russia is (once again) a Hot Topic

Could there be a new trend brewing in the world of international non-fiction? One that doesn’t involve books about Iraq?

In the last few days publishers have purchased a slew of books dealing with Russia. The Cold War used to be one of publishing’s hottest topics, but the countries of the old Soviet Union have been downgraded to B-status in recent years with all the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The murder of Alexander Litvinenko by radioactive polonium-210 seems to be responsible for this turnaround.

Here are the deals listed recently on Publisher’s Marketplace, including one by the murdered spy himself:

NYT London bureau chief Alan Cowell's SASHA'S STORY: The Life and Death of a Russian Spy, documenting Litvinenko's life and death, the ensuing police investigation, the reaction from Vladimir Putin and others, and the implications of this case for nuclear proliferation and international terrorism in the future, to Charles Conrad for Doubleday, by Michael Carlisle at Inkwell Management.

WSJ reporter Steve Levine's examination of the Alexander Litvinenko affair -- from the polonium poisoning of the former spy in London to the investigation currently underway throughout Europe, including the shadowy underworld of Putin's Russia, to Will Murphy at Random House, by Tom Wallace (world).

NPR foreign correspondent Lawrence Sheets's EIGHT PIECES OF EMPIRE, a panoramic yet intimate look at the former Soviet Union, written in the style of Ryszard Kapuscinski and Rebecca West, drawing on Sheets' 15 years of reporting from every region of the unraveling empire to paint a larger portrait of the nature of empire building and collapse, to Rachel Klayman at Crown, in a significant deal, at auction, by Gillian MacKenzie of Gillian MacKenzie Agency (NA).

Bulgarian rights to Matrena Rasputin's MARIA RASPUTIN'S DIARIES, the colorful memoir by the daughter of the infamous Rasputin psychic, which was found in a trunk in Paraguay in the 60's and is published for the first time ever, to Ciela Publishing House, in a nice deal, by Ana Milenkovic of Prava I Prevodi, on behalf of Barbara Zitwer Agency.

Murdered former spy Alexander Litvinenko's BLOWING UP RUSSIA: The Secret Plot to Bring Back KGB Terror, written with Yuri Felshtinsky, to Martin Rynja at Gibson Square, for publication in January 2007.

My (Paltry) List of the Best Books of 2006

This has not been a great year of reading for me. I’ve been preoccupied with writing my book and teaching journalism, which means I’ve read a paltry 18 to 20 books this year. That is way below my average of 40-45. And I can’t even claim to have read a lot of magazines in the interim.

But that won’t stop me from declaring my favorite books of the year. God knows, I am never short of opinions. To round things out I have once again asked a crew of some of the most voracious readers I know to weigh in on what books they enjoyed this year.

My list, in no particular order:

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel – This graphic novel about a young gay woman and her closeted dad was delightful for the pathos it evoked and all the literary references it managed to squeeze in. I’ve already given it as a present and plan to buy a whole bunch of copies for friends when it is released in paperback.

The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn – By examining the particular way his great uncle’s family was killed in the Holocaust, Mendelsohn gets at the heart of the question of how something so horrific could happen. He takes readers on a meandering journey across continents to a small town in Poland, all along revealing truths about himself. This was a very powerful book.

The Most Famous Man in the World: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher by Debby Applegate. In preparation for writing my biography, I have delved into the genre. I’ve read about the Vanderbilts, the Mellons, and the Hearsts. Applegate’s book took her more than a decade to complete, and she creates a fascinating portrait of a religious man and the world he created in the 19th century.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. I’ve blogged about this provocative book numerous times. Let’s just say it changed my mind about the food I eat.

I only have one novel on my list. How can that be? It’s Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. It’s the story of a boy with a privileged background who runs away to join the circus. He finds out about a world he never knew existed. Gruen creates a brutal, yet captivating world of a traveling circus.

Tomorrow I will share the lists from my crew of ravenous readers.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Trend after the Trend after Chick Lit

Lizzie Skurnick, who writes the blog The Old Hag, has an article in today’s New York Times Style section. It says that chick lit has now morphed into mom lit, or yummy mummy lit. As young female writers age, they naturally want to write about issues they know about. So as they are having babies, they write books about the world of Bugaboo strollers.

“They are written in the wry voices of a generation of women who came of age after feminism, and they have a newly competitive, higher-end set of woes: $10,000 pacifier consultants, nanny-swiping and Harvard-like nursery school applications.”

Okay, everyone knows publishers love trends. The current hot trend is books about mommies. If I start now, maybe I can capitalize on the next hot trend: sag lit, the genre of women’s fiction that deals with the post-baby realities of wrinkles, sagging stomachs, and flapping underarms.

Friday, December 08, 2006

If You Think Getting Service is Bad in the US .....

Laila Lalima, the author of Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, is spending nine months in Morocco on a Fulbright scholarship. She wrote a funny account of her anguish and frustration about getting a fast Internet connection.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Mercury News Layoffs

Final layoff numbers at the Mercury News: 28

16 in editorial

12 on the business side

In addition to the names I already posted, I heard that Rick Martin, a photographer, was let go, as was Veronica Villafane, a convergence journalist who did television feeds for the Mercury News.

Others include support clerks in news and sports, a graphic artist, one news research librarian, and one sports page designer.

The mood on Ridder Park Drive in San Jose must have been grim on Tuesday.

At Least Seven Mercury Staffers Out -- Layoffs less Draconian Than Expected

The early news out of the Mercury News is that about seven editorial staffers lost their jobs this morning. They include long time movie reviewer Glenn Lovell, education reporter Louis Zaragoza, and feature writer Steve Marinucci. Sports writer Gary Hoh also got cut, along with another sports writer and two editorial clerks.

Nervous staffers had been ordered to wait by their phones from 8 am to 10 am this morning. At least one reporter declined to cooperate and left home: “I’m not going to wait by the phone to get laid off. Let them find me.”

Apparently, management was bluffing when it initially said it would lay off 69 workers in the plant, including 40 from editorial. When the Newspaper Guild bargaining team refused to capitulate to the paper’s demands, management backed off their threats of draconian cuts.

The entire staff planned to meet early this afternoon to hear details about the cuts.

Monday, December 04, 2006

A Small Repreive for Mercury News Reporters

The Mercury News’ management and union reached a contract agreement today that means that only 27 – instead of 69 – staffers will be laid off by Tuesday. A number of reporters have already left the paper in recent weeks, so the layoff number in the editorial department may be closer to 15.

That’s still bad news for the reporters and editors of the paper; no one yet knows who will be fired and for what reason. They still have to wait by their phones on Tuesday between 8 am and 10 am to hear if they have lost their jobs.

The management also dropped its request to create a two-tier wage system at the Mercury. They had hoped to pay new reporters about $40,000 a year instead of the current prevailing wage of $60,000.

But management did win the right to use content from other Media News papers and to combine some advertising operations.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Mercury News Reporters Bracing for Layoffs

This is going to be a tense few days for reporters at the Mercury News. Dean Singleton’s Media News, which recently acquired the paper from the McClatchy chain, who bought it from Knight-Ridder, is going to lay off 40 editorial staffers and 60 others in the plant on Monday.

The paper apparently has told everyone to stay at home between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m.ion Tuesday Dec. 5. Executive Editor Susan Goldberg will then call those who have been fired.

The East Bay Express has been following the story closely:

“Once the laid-off employees receive the bad news, they will be given a time on Saturday and Sunday December 9 and 10 to come into the office and collect their belongings. But they won’t have access to their computers. Merc managers plan to immediately turn off the laid-off employees’ computers and change their passwords. This plan has prompted dozens of staffers in the past few days to begin downloading or printing out their phone numbers, source lists, and key work they don’t want to lose. “People are e-mailing stuff to their private e-mail accounts or downloading stuff like crazy,” said one Merc source.

Merc executive editor Susan Goldberg told employees that she decided to call people at home instead of doing it at the office to avoid publicly embarrassing the laid-off employees. But her plan has some people wondering whether her real motive is to avoid possible major disruptions at the paper when staffers learn who gets the ax.”

I have lots of friends at the Merc and everyone is in jitters. No one knows what criteria will be used to lay people off. There are reporters who have angered their editors and who now fear they will be penalized for previous fights. There are reporters who applied for earlier buyout offers who wonder if that has branded them as disloyal. There are well-paid reporters who think that they will be fired to cut costs.

This is the first major step in the dissolution of a once-mighty newspaper. Who is to blame? I can think of lots of people – Tony Ridder, who didn’t try hard enough to protect Knight-Ridder from breaking up; the McClatchy board for spurning other suitors and deciding to sell fine papers to a corporation known for its cost-cutting; Knight-Ridder stockholders and other Wall Street investors who regarded anything less than a 20% annual profit level as unacceptable. And of course there's Dean Singleton, who seems to disdain newspapers with depth and content.

Yes, yes, I know there are lots of factors at play in the decline of the newspaper industry – the plethora of options on the Internet, the fact that young people prefer to read their news online, etc. etc. But the dismantling of the Mercury News feels more deliberate than just market forces at work.

It’s just plain greed.