Yuletide Books of 2011, and a 2012 Resolution

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.

21 thoughts on “Yuletide Books of 2011, and a 2012 Resolution

  1. Three Junes and Lush Life are both fantastic. And yes, you do need to start watching The Wire, though I’m not sure how you’ll manage to do that and read all these books.

    I love your goal to give away all the books you read this year. I used to hoard my books, and I think living abroad has made me a little better at that – there are so few English language books around that you naturally end up wanting to share what you have with your friends. When I was home for the holidays I finished a book I bought in the summer, then gave it to a friend. Something I never would have done before, but now I get to look forward to his thoughts on the book. I’d like to hear how this goes for you, it’s something that I should think about instituting if only so I don’t have to cart so many boxes of books around when I move apartments.


    1. Oh, Ellen, you’re making me sound far more magnanimous than I actually am, ha — I’m only giving away the books I get for myself, once I’ve read them — not the books others have gotten for me (or the ones I borrow from the library, as I’m pretty sure that would constitute thievery, ha!).

      What was the book you read then gifted to your friend, I wonder? I plan on documenting how the book giving goes, including my feelings on the whole process – I’ll probably set up a separate page for it as time goes by, so you and anyone else who’s interested can definitely keep track.

      (Going to get my hands on Season 1 of ‘The Wire’ by this weekend!)


      1. I gifted The Blind Assassin. I’d been reading it while I visited one of my friends, and figured that after a full day of saying “you have to read this” the only correct thing for me to do was to give it to him when I finished.

        Can’t wait to hear what you think of The Wire! I feel overwhelmed with great new television right now (how is there so much of it?), but I think it’s near time for me to rewatch the series.


  2. What a lovely selection of books! The Lacuna and Small Island are ones I have been wanting to read, and the Sloane Crosley is one I now have to add to my list! I hope you adore the Jhumpa Lahiri, thought it was absolutely wonderful (and also that Anis likes to be provocative). The Urrea cover is, as you point out, just gorgeous. Will look forward to your thoughts on them all.


    1. Thank you, Jennifer 🙂 my mum has gorgeous taste, I’ve always found — and she knows within a teeny-tiny margin of error what appeals to me, too. The Sloane Crosley one really stood out to me, too. It’s quite the attention grabber!

      You’re right — I do think that Anis Shivani works the provocative angle, because it must garner him a larger readership. Have you read ‘The Namesake’, too? I’m sure when I read the short fiction collection, I’ll share my thoughts on Novel Niche. Can’t get ‘Zazen’ out of my head now, thanks to your stellar review!


  3. I read this post whilst sitting at my kitchen table, still festooned in its vintage snowman tablecloth, covered in writing detritus and several spooning kittens who alternately slumber, stretch, groom each other, and fight. I ate my very late breakfast whilst reading it–almond Special K with Rice Dream. It was cosy, like you were here with me, telling me about your books while I shook the bleariness from my eyes, and slowly unravelled my I-hate-morning scowl. It was a very good way to come back to the world.

    I am intrigued by all of these books, given to you by those who love you. Your mother, I am not surprised to see, has impeccable taste. Can I borrow her for next Christmas? My mum didn’t give me any books! Ha. I was hoping you would post about which books *you* gave as well–perhaps a subsequent post?

    The books I most want to borrow from your shelves, if that were possible (and you never know–I could send a slippery seal emissary through your bedroom window at night–or a crafty, canny crow) are Staying Alive, I Was Told There Would Be Cake, and Wandering Star (which made me get that Portishead song stuck in my head). The Barbara Kingsolver looks irresistible, too–but I am gunshy, because I’ve never loved a single one of her novels but The Poisonwood Bible. And yes. I was jealous, too.

    As for Shivani’s list, I knew Jonathan Safran Foer would be on there, of course, but I am a bit miffed that Sharon Olds is. I have a thorny place in my heart that turns a bit tender for her, even though some of her stuff makes me physically ill, ha! Some writing should do that, non?

    Oh, and I wanted to say–“hilarious and affecting” and “sardonic without being cruel, tender without being sentimental…” sounds like rather an apt description of *you*, dearest, so I have no doubt you and I Was Told There Would Be Cake will either get along famously, or loathe each other on contact–what do you think? X^]


    1. I am half-expecting, now, to turn to my side in the midst of dream-clotted sleep one night to blearily spy a wily octopus, Mission-sent, with her tentacles poised around eight titles. Ah, the look I would give her, one of wonderment and instant knowing. I hope she would gaze back at me in kind. 🙂

      I believe you are utterly right about the Sloane Crosley title. We will either be fast, firm friends who finish each others’ sentences and tie red ribbons in the other’s hair, or mortal enemies, arch-nemeses who hurl expletives across the school playground. It was just that dynamic with David Sedaris, too, and I am thrilled he wound up on my good side, and I his. I would dearly love to hear him read in person, one day.

      You know, I hadn’t read any of Sharon Olds’s work, so when you mentioned her I went in search of some of her poems. Reading them was like listening to a conceptual sort of music album — one doesn’t necessarily bosom-embrace it right away, and yet bookmarks it for future encounters. There is something here over which it is worth returning, the ears and eyes transmit to the mind. So it shall be.

      You and I might well be on one of Shivani’s lists, one day. He will still be writing scathing, intelli-sardonic hatchet jobs then…and we will be writing books that are unputdownable, for one series of reasons or other. 😉


  4. Tsk tsk, what were you thinking indeed? 😉 Great pile of books received here!
    Impressed at your goal of giving them all away this year. I give away a large portion, but must keep some 🙂


    1. It doesn’t surprise me that you give many books away for some reason, Amy! 🙂 And, oh goodness, no, I am not giving any of these Yuletide books away! Just the ones I buy for myself, with my own funds…not the ones given to me as presents. The gift-givers might riot if they knew I had such intentions, haha.


      1. Ah that makes more sense. I do give away gift books sometimes, and personal books sometimes, but it usually depends more on how much I loved it! If I know I’ll want to reread it, I usually keep it 🙂


    1. Oo, what a Kindly Christmas you had! I hope you’ve since christened both with some excellent reading, Jennifer. Yes, I rarely buy paper books for myself these days, though I think in the spirit of my giveaway policy for 2012, I’ll do much more browsing about in tangible bookstores.


  5. I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts on Unaccustomed Earth. I finally made time for it late last year, and I couldn’t believe just how much I loved it. The characters are no more special than a stranger you might pass on the street, but they stick with you even after you’ve put the book down. At least that’s how it was for me. Happy reading.


    1. Thank you, Disconnect. Believe me, I’m not buying into Anis Shivani’s anti-hype of Lahiri. I’ll definitely wait til I’ve been properly introduced to her work before casting any formal opinions. I love the way you’ve described the affinity you feel to non-extraordinary characters who stick with you nonetheless. In a way, I think they can be even more challenging to craft than the off-the-wall quirky ones.


  6. Pingback: Novel Niche Recommends: Six Caribbean Novels « Novel Niche: A Place for Books

  7. Pingback: Reading Ruminations: January to March 2012 « Novel Niche: A Place for Books

  8. Pingback: Yuletide Books of 2012, and a 2013 Resolution « Novel Niche: A Place for Books

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