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I didn’t get my mother any books last Christmas. I know… what was I thinking? In my defense, my favourite second-hand bookshop underwent a severe truncation of its store space this year, which was rather disheartening, considering that the bulk of reading material I gift to others, including (and especially) to her has been whittled down in selection. I made, all tomes considered, a much better bookish showing in the Yuletide book exchange of the year before. Still, I promise, I got her nice things… pretty, thoughtful, carefully selected things. (Yes, I’m hanging my head in shame over the lack of books. I’ve already got her three for this Yuletide, in advance against my guilt.)

She, however, being my mother, continues to give me the best books, and last year beneath the Christmas tree, there were nine, each one corresponding to an aspect of my reading tastes with the exquisite, comfortable ease of synchronized swimmers finishing each others’ chlorine flourishes.

1. Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times, edited by Neil Astley. Bloodaxe Books. 2002.

Hailed on the front cover as “a magnificent anthology” by Philip Pullman, the author of one of my favourite books in the History of Ever, I got the immediate impression that Staying Alive would be nothing less than that: magnificent. Astley brings together, from all the despairing, life-affirming cloisters and corridors of the world, a five hundred poem collection of how to get through the pain of living by embracing it, how to write deep into sorrow, how to sing with exultation even by the wayside of grief—the things the best poems are made of, frankly.

My first thoughts: A-ha! I saw this book lying around the house, unguarded, in the weeks leading up to Christmas. I should have known it would be for me. My mother knows me so well. I trust so few people to give me poetry that speaks to my sensibilities, but she nails that feat every time.

2. I Was Told There’d Be Cake: Essays by Sloane Crosley. Riverhead Books. 2008.

There will always be room on my shelves for acerbically-conducted, intelligently rowdy, self-and-societally-investigative non-fiction, and Crosley’s collection appears sculpted on the riverbed of such tenets. Colson Whitehead endorses the work as “hilarious and affecting and only occasionally scatological … sardonic without being cruel, tender without being sentimental …”. Can I get into something thus-described? Very absolutely, yes. I think I’ll keep I Was Told There’d Be Cake handy in my purse for those moments in the upcoming year when I’d like the comfort/swift kick combination in literature that few writers, even those calling themselves satirists, seem to achieve.

My first thoughts: Hmm… this writing seems like it’d be comparable to the work of David Sedaris—ah, there it is, on the front jacket, being compared to David Sedaris. I feel a little self-satisfied, I don’t mind saying.

3. Bright Shiny Morning by James Frey. Harper Perennial. 2008.

This is James Frey’s first novel, though, somehow, that sounds like an odd statement—the blurb assures me it’s entirely true. Indeed, the first page of the work proper advises the reader (somewhat ominously?), “Nothing in this book should be considered accurate or reliable”: as clear a clarion call for fiction as ever I’ve heard. The narrative is described as being peopled with vibrantly unforgettable characters, whose poignant, fiery stories all combine to etch a portrait of the vast, insurmountable protagonist: the city of Los Angeles. I enjoy reading fictive pieces that are presented as homage/hatchet job to specific cities, so I’m hoping that Bright Shiny Morning will live up to its dazzlingly-depicted premise.

My first thoughts: Look, it’s a James Frey novel! I’m beginning to round out my Frey collection. Hmm… why haven’t I read A Million Little Pieces yet, anyway?

4. Three Junes by Julia Glass. Anchor Books. 2002.

Michael Cunningham (The Hours) says that this book “almost threatens to burst with all the life it contains”. I adore Michael Cunningham, but I’ve been suckered before by the beaming endorsements of even my favourite writers, on books over which I ended up feeling very lukewarmly. Glass’s first novel, this is an intergenerational familial examination spread across several continents, the kind of fare, that, depending on how well it’s told, makes for either a tearjerker of a Hallmark movie or a rousing low-budget, indie-produced theatrical success. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it embodies attributes of the latter.

My first thoughts: This sounds like the epitome of adult contemporary book club fare. Oh, look… it’s a selection of “Good Morning America’s “Read This!” Book Club”. It’s a good thing my mother got me this one. Mass media endorsements (in the vein of Oprah’s cheery, validatory stickers which I adore pulling off my personal copies) tend to send me running. I’m such a snob.

5. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. HarperCollins. 2009.

The only hardcover of the gift pile, and rightly so—everything about this book seems to imply a subtle, sexy swagger. The novel’s plot is concerned with charting the story of Harrison Shepherd, an American adventurer who forms friendships with the artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo while working in Mexico. He traces his life between the north of his provenance and ambition, and the south of his imaginative and personal development. The result is described by the Chicago Tribune as “rich…impassioned…engrossing…Politics and art dominate the novel, and their overt, unapologetic connection is refreshing”. I’m hooked before the fact, which is one of the most perilous and exciting places to begin with a freshly-acquired work.

My first thoughts: Why haven’t I finished reading The Poisonwood Bible yet? Is it because I began it, became darkly compelled, then put it down because I felt the need to produce writing of my own that would speak as strongly to my own concerns? Is it because I was jealous? Quite possibly.

6. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. Vintage Books. 2008.

Okay, show of hands: who remembers Anis Shivani’s vitriolic, rapier-sharp article on The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers? Have a look at it, if you’ve not come across it before—though you might shake a stick at many of his conclusions, you’ll probably concede his writing style to be immensely enjoyable, in a piquant, vigorous fashion. I bring it up because Shivani… um, praised Jhumpa Lahiri as being the only readable writer on his cautionary list. The short story collection’s blurb describes Unaccustomed Earth as having rendered, in exquisite craft, “the most intricate workings of the heart and mind”. I am particularly interested in seeing how much of Shivani’s admonition is true, of how well Lahiri’s otherwise colossally-famed talent suits the short fiction format.

My first thoughts: Didn’t I see a film adaptation of The Namesake, protagonizing the Indian half of the Harold and Kumar franchise? He displayed surprising depth.

7. Wandering Star by J. M. G. Le Clézio. Curbstone Press. 1992.

Telling the twinned tale of two women trying to navigate their lives as successfully as possible against the backdrop of Middle Eastern war, Wandering Star proclaims itself as no lightweight: “2008 Nobel Prize Winner” is emblazoned across its front cover in a self-assured swath of red. I feel somewhat chagrined to not have known this before—to not, indeed, have even heard of Le Clézio before this point. Acclaimed by Le Figaro as “…a luminous lesson in humanity amid the ruins of civilization and intelligence”, I have little doubt that this will be an impacting read, and will endeavour to also read it in its original French, either afterwards or concurrently.

My first thoughts: The Peruvian song that prefaces the body of the work is beautiful:
Wandering star
Transitory love
Follows your path
Through seas and lands
It breaks your chains
(It’s even lovelier in Spanish.)

8. Lush Life by Richard Price. Picador. 2008.

HBO is still proud of The Wire. Why shouldn’t they be? From what I hear (because I’ve yet to see), it’s one of those television series that helped define what outstanding TV means today. No doubt once I’ve seen it in its entirety, my life will be neatly dissected into “before and after I saw The Wire” references. I mention this because Richard Price is one of the cowriters of that small screen bastion, and the premise of Lush Life sounds no less terrestrially gritty: two Lower East Sides collide in a catastrophic turf war that redefines everything in insidious, startling ways. Described by Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) as “…our best, one of the best writers of dialogue in the history of American literature”, Price is a writer whose work has eluded me until now. Does your mother gift you blood-spattered, street-fresh fiction over the Christmas breakfast table? She should!

My first thoughts: Oh my goodness, that is a lot of endorsements on the back cover. It’s a wall of admiration. Almost every one of these people praises the author’s dialogue. The dialogue must be…. boom, outstanding! I really need to start looking at The Wire.

9. Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea. Back Bay Books. 2009.

Luis Alberto Urrea’s book covers always seem to herald some sort of imminent magic—magic waiting to leap into your lap and command your bookish attention. “Magical” is just the word that Vanity Fair uses to describe the book (and just that word, too, no others), while the Seattle Times calls it “a wondrous yarn in the hands of a terrific storyteller”. Spurred on by visions of The Magnificent Seven, nineteen year old Nayeli embarks on a rousing U.S. adventure with her compatriots, hunting down recruits for her own team of seven stalwarts, so that she can bolster her village against the threat of bandidos. Are you rolling your eyes at this premise? Shame on you! Magic is most malleable when charted on a secure system of disbelief, didn’t you know? What’s Christmas day without the offering of at least one book that trails along the glittery, bandido-infested highway?

My first thoughts: Why did I not finish The Hummingbird’s Daughter? Why have I not finished, or begun, quite a few of the other books written by these authors? Too many books, not enough world and time. Read more—everything else, less.

People other than my mother also gift me books, with varying degrees of success, though I’m pleased to say that 2011’s non-maternal literary offerings all met with approval and gratitude. I’m a nice girl, so I’m always grateful for the books I get! My inner snob might just sneer at the Oprah stickers, but there were none of those to be had on the following titles.

From my brothers:

1. Small Island by Andrea Levy. Headline Review. 2004.

Having read both Never Far from Nowhere and Fruit of the Lemon, (the latter which I read and reviewed for my ambitious, ultimately unsuccessful Caribbean Writers Challenge 2011) it’s difficult for me not to get excited about Andrea Levy’s work. I’ve had my eye on Small Island for a while now, so it was a pleasure to unwrap it over Christmas morning tea. Levy writes evocatively of the quandaries inherent in straddling identities, of the persistent struggle of finding one’s place, when one belongs to places. Set in 1940s England at a time of shifting perceptions regarding race, class and colour politics, the novel focuses on the concerns of a handful of people who find themselves entrenched in the mire of a world that’s changing whether they embrace it or not. I particularly enjoyed seeing the specificity of praise offered by the Evening Standard: “Never less than finely written, delicately and often comically observed, and impressively rich in detail and little nuggets of stories”. This novel won the “Orange of Oranges” in 2005, acclaimed as the best book of the Orange Prize for the past decade. I’m eager to read why.

My first thoughts: I really need to read more Caribbean writing.
(Yes, I did have that thought in italics. It was/is urgent.)

2. Songs of Love and Death, edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. Pocket Books. 2010.

Anyone familiar with my reading habits will already know that I have a mild… well, more than mild fascination with Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. I reviewed A Game of Thrones last year (plans to review the other four are on my Best Intentions blogging to-do list), and having finished A Dance With Dragons in less sittings than you’d imagine, I’m already avid for something bearing G. R. R. M.’s seal of approval. This collection of stories documenting star-crossed lovers seems to have arrived at a fortuitous time, therefore. It boasts contributions from Neil Gaiman (The Graveyard Book), Diana Gabaldon (the Outlander series) and Tanith Lee (the Tales from the Flat Earth series), as well as several other authors, all beloved in their specific genres. Melding speculative fiction with romance  and fantasy, this gathering of darkly and sweetly twisted tales will probably provide a platter of uneven delights (as most short fiction anthologies tend to do), but I expect to be delighted, nonetheless.

My first thoughts: So this is what you’re doing when you should be working on chapters for The Winds of Winter, G. R. R. M., you grizzly old goat.

From my cousins:

1. Juliet by Anne Fortier. Ballantine Books. 2010.

I will confess upfront to not being the biggest fan of Romeo and Juliet. Give me the tragic splendour of Antony and Cleopatra, if you’re giving me tales of Shakespeare’s tempest-tossed lovers. Still, Juliet comes with a lofty recommendation from the Washington Post, wherein the writing is thusly described: “Fun … engaging … The Shakespearean scholarship on display is both impressive and well-handled”. As a huge proponent of deftly-decorated Shakespearean scholarship put to poetic/prosaic good use, I’m incredibly intrigued, though I doubt, somehow, that the calibre of writing will be on par with the lush fantastic-historical embellishments of A. S. Byatt’s Possession (though, to be fair, few books, if any, dwell in that rarefied company, for me). When endorsements like the Washington Post‘s are proudly flanked by ones from Elle and Marie Claire magazine, too… well, I suppose I just wonder, is all. I know. I’m a snob.

My first thoughts: So Anne Fortier holds a Ph.D in the history of ideas from Aarhus University… what exactly would a doctorate in idea-history entail?

2. Frog on the Log, written by Leyland Perree, illustrated by Joelle Dreidemy. Alligator Books. 2011.

I’m pleased to say that I have read Frog on the Log from cover to cover, and plan to feature it in my next Charting Children’s Literature post. This is  the tale of Frog, who is much taken with his log-residence, and is loath to leave it under any circumstances. Even when a storm washes away the permanency of his former abode, he drifts downstream, clinging to said log, soliciting the aid of other woodland creatures. When they insist that he can only be aided if he gives up his log, Frog staunchly refuses… but to what end will his stubborn, house-proud insistence lead him, as the river’s end rushes ever closer?

My first thoughts: FROGS!!!

As for my 2012 resolution when it comes to books, here it is:

I will give away every single book I buy for myself in 2012.

I’ve had this intention for some time now, but was, frankly, nervous about implementing it. Books are my ultimate sanctuary of revelling in the joys of material ownership. To gift them, even ones I’ve waited for ages to buy, has previously seemed like too much of an imposition. I’ll willingly part with pretty much anything else, I’ve told myself, so why should this giving extend to my favourite things?

Without wanting to carry on too much about it, I think it’s precisely because books are my favourite things that I must give them away. Someone reminded me, recently, that a book lives anew every time it’s read and held, cherished by someone new. That on its own would be reason enough for me to embark on this project.

Some of the books will be given to specific people whom I believe would love certain titles. Some will be offered up as randomly selected (or thematically-selected, such as the less impartial ‘best response wins book’ system), giveaways here on Novel Niche. I’ll likely also make some of the giveaways exclusive to my e-mail, WordPress, Facebook and Twitter followers, as a continued mark of gratitude. All book gifting will be logged on Novel Niche in one format or other.

It’s 2012… as pertinent and as timely a year as any to give the things that matter most. For everyone who’s read and found resonance with even a fragment of a post on Novel Niche, thank you. I have so very much more to share.

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