Books for the holidays — whether they're hardcovers or digitized — are always good gifts. NPR's Susan Stamberg talked with some of our go-to independent booksellers — Lucia Silva, former book buyer at the now-closed Portrait of a Bookstore in Studio City, Calif.; Daniel Goldin of Boswell Book Co. in Milwaukee; and Rona Brinlee of The BookMark in Neptune Beach, Fla. — to find out what's on their Best of 2012 lists. This year's crop includes gritty, free-verse fairy tales; ballerinas who hug their children the way we normal folks do, but more prettily; and a grim Southern story about a small town that would rather its unleashed ghosts remain at rest.
Rona Brinlee, The BookMark
100 Diagrams That Changed the World
If you think about it, everything begins with a diagram, whether it's where to sit, how to get somewhere, or how to put together that new toy or gadget with "some assembly required." The diagrams in this book span more than 32,000 years, starting with the cave drawings in France, ending with the iPod, and including such things as the cotton gin, the bicycle (velocipede) and the periodic table. Some were drawn by famous people like Leonardo da Vinci, and others by individuals not so well known. They encompass diverse fields, such as architecture, mathematics and science. Some of the choices are surprising, perhaps not because they're included, but because of when the diagram was created. The flush toilet, for example, was diagrammed in 1596 but didn't become part of our world until the mid-1800s. Others may seem mundane but now are part of our everyday life. How would we understand the news without bar charts and line graphs, both of which were first plotted out by William Playfair in 1786 to track imports and exports? Many of these 100 diagrams are works of art, but they are not art for art's sake; they are art with a purpose.
A natural-born storyteller and proud Southerner, Janis Owens tries to reconcile the South she loves — filled with good food and family — and the South of racism and violence that she abhors. American Ghost is a novel based on research the author conducted about an actual lynching that occurred in the Florida Panhandle in 1934. The real town of Mariana and Owens' fictional town of Hendrix are both haunted by a lynching in the 1930s.
The shameful past of Hendrix is disturbed when a graduate student from Miami arrives ostensibly to study the ethnic composition of the town and stirs up memories from the town's past. Owens weaves a love story between a young woman determined to get out of Hendrix and the exciting stranger who comes to delve into the town's history. Their views provide a clear lens for witnessing how people cope with secrets old and new. American Ghost is part mystery, part history, part anthropology — and all great Southern fiction.
The Art Forger
In 1990, two men disguised as police officers entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and stole 13 works of art with an estimated total worth of $300 million. None has been recovered. This art heist is the centerpiece of Shapiro's novel. Fact and fiction are woven together in a story that exposes the dark underground of the art world, including the skill and larceny involved in creating a copy of a painting. A fine line is drawn between just copying a painting to create a reproduction, and forging one with the intent to sell it as the original.
When a young struggling artist is asked to make a "copy" of one of the museum's iconic stolen paintings in exchange for a show at a prestigious gallery, she knows she's making a deal with the devil. What she doesn't know is which painting is the original, which is forged, and where the stolen piece is hiding. To further complicate things, family feuds emerge, passions flare, and ego and talent run rampant. By mixing art, history and complex characters, The Art Forger produces a thrilling canvas.
City of Women
What did the women of Berlin do while their men were fighting the war? This interesting perspective fuels David Gillham's debut novel, which takes place in Berlin during World War II. The women's activities and beliefs were as diverse as the men's. Some mirrored their husband's commitment and rank, seeing their duty as serving the Gestapo. Others chose to aid the resistance. Others just wanted to enjoy the freedom to do as they wished without the watchful eyes of their husbands. Some of the women discovered the world of illicit sex and the black market, and found themselves keeping dangerous secrets.
Gillham's telescopic focus on just a few of these women not only clarifies the issues confronting all German citizens at the time, but also the humanity and inhumanity of the decisions they made. As the novel unfolds, the author forces the reader to wonder what each character truly believes and whom to trust. In the end, betrayal and survival confuse moral choices.
Travels With Epicurus
It wasn't a major event or crisis-inspired epiphany that led Daniel Klein to consider how to spend his old age; rather, it was a trip to the dentist. Confronted with the choice to spend a year of painful dentist visits and thousands of dollars on implants to avoid "an old man's goofy smile," Klein decides instead to go to Greece and ponder how to enjoy an "authentic old age" — one that doesn't involve pain or the "youth implants" that came to symbolize the American desire to stay forever young. Surrounded by the great thinkers of the world, he soaked in the wisdom of the philosophers such as Epicurus and began to appreciate the joys of old age. These included time to play, the ability to talk to anyone — including attractive women — without being considered a threat or possible seducer, and the enjoyment of friendships without worrying about ulterior motives. It's not every author who can quote both Epicurus and Sinatra with equal attention, but Klein can and does, and it's just this skill that makes Travels With Epicurus a delightful adventure.
Lucia Silva, Portrait Of A Bookstore
Before there was Instagram, before the digital camera, before iPhones or even Apple Inc., there was Polaroid. This is the story of the most innovative and creative technology company of postwar America, and its visionary founder and all-around genius, Edwin Land. In addition to inventing the Polaroid camera, Land also received more than 500 patents in his lifetime. He advised several presidents on technology and virtually created the U-2 spy plane. In the meantime, he completely revolutionized photography as both a social and artistic medium. Artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, Chuck Close and David Hockney made their careers with Polaroid cameras.
Christopher Bonanos tells Polaroid's story with fluid, energetic prose that mirrors the thrilling arc of the company's story, twining together technology, fine art, business, design and pop culture into a 175-page powerhouse. Whether you pick it up because you loved your old Polaroid camera or because you want to find out why Steve Jobs modeled Apple after the Polaroid company, you'll be delighted by this pithy snapshot of a true American icon.
The Carter Family
What do Taylor Swift and Neil Young have in common? Not much, perhaps, but both play in a style that can easily be traced back to the same troubadour family, the Carters. At a time when the country was bursting with different musical traditions, A.P. Carter and his kin took the rich harmonies of church music and combined them with the lilting rhythms of the guitar and autoharp. The result was an infectious blend that shot into the veins of American popular music and has been there ever since, giving nourishment to everyone from Johnny Cash to Jeff Tweedy.
As it turns out, the Carter family's personal story is as dramatic as their cultural legend. In a graphic novel styled after old serial comics, Frank M. Young and David Lasky trace the Carters from their beginnings in rural Virginia in the early 1900s through heartbreak, betrayal, familial obligations, abandonment, financial success and personal failure, ending with the breakup of the original Carter Family in 1944. Lasky's gorgeous artwork animates the story and evokes a mood that mirrors the era and the music. Packaged with a CD of rare Carter Family recordings, it's enough to keep even the biggest Grinch on your list looking on the sunny side.
Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses
Working in free verse, Ron Koertge uses the parlance of malls and urban street corners to bring classic fairy tales into the 21st century. The Ugly Duckling is a suicidal skater, the Little Match Girl is a strung-out busker selling CDs to stoners, and the transformed Frog Prince rises up as his princess swoons:
"OMG. He's a gift shop, a lamb kebab with mint,
a solar panel poetry machine with biceps. He's the path through the dark woods, the light on the page, a postcard from the castle and a one-way ticket there. He's the most astounding arrangement of molecules ever!
"Just look at those tights! An honest-to-God prince at last."
I'll admit, I'm a sucker for a fairy tale. But not since Angela Carter or Francesca Lia Block have I been so delighted by a fresh look at an old tale. And while it is technically for teens, anyone who admires the form will fall hard for this book. With intricately detailed (and delightfully gruesome) digital paper cuts by Andrea Dezsö, the book is as gorgeous to behold as it is fun to read. If a hard-to-please teen is on your list this holiday season, gifting this book will ensure your place as the coolest aunt or uncle on the block.
The Graphic Canon, Volumes 1 & 2
Classics may be timeless, but that doesn't mean you can't make them new again. In The Graphic Canon, editor Russ Kick plucks the world's most revered classics from their dusty, hallowed shelves, and remixes them with illustrations from today's finest illustrators, graphic novelists and comic-book artists. Volume 1 begins with The Epic of Gilgamesh and takes you through Native American folktales, The Tale of Genji, Dante's Inferno and Shakespeare, along with over 50 others. Volume 2 picks up with "Kubla Khan," Austen, Poe, the Brontes, Moby-Dick, The Picture of Dorian Gray and pretty much any other major and minor work you could think of in between. More than 100 different illustrators bring their truly awesome talents to the page in a mesmerizing mix of styles, with full color throughout. Each volume clocks in at 500 pages, each page the size of a full sheet of paper.
It's funny, I haven't read many classics, nor do I read many graphic novels or comics, and yet The Graphic Canon collections are the books I covet most this year. It's easily the most ambitious and successfully realized literary project in recent memory, and certainly the one that's most relevant for today's readers. Now if only we could make it required reading for high school ...
My Ideal Bookshelf
Jane Mount and Thessaly La Force asked more than 100 writers, chefs, architects, musicians, actors and other cultural celebrities to select a small shelf of books to represent them — the books that made each of them who they are today, their "favorite favorites." Mount and La Force then crafted the selections and commentary into a delicious coffee-table book that reminds us of the fiercely possessive way we readers feel about the books that transformed, delighted and inspired us.
In Mount's illustrations, books look the way their readers feel about them: sophisticated, elegant and, most importantly, loved. Drawn with exacting detail and painted in with brilliant gouache, the spines of the books line up proudly, exuding all the beauty and brilliance their readers found within. They are objects, but they are also experiences.
My Ideal Bookshelf casts readers' bookshelves as self-portraits, albeit either very intimate or heavily curated ones. It reveals the books on our shelves as maps of our emotional and intellectual journeys, evidence of our obsessions, desires, pretensions. Our books reveal our younger, more naive selves, and also the selves we aspire to be. Lining them all up next to one another becomes an invitation to reckon with all of those things, all together.
The Paris Review asked 20 contemporary short-story writers to choose a personal favorite from the magazine's archives and talk about why the story works. But be forewarned, and relieved, this is not an introduction to the classics. It's just a collection of great stories chosen by great writers from the most outstanding laboratory for short fiction. Writers like Lydia Davis, Jeffrey Eugenides and Dave Eggers act as disarming guides, leading the reader to discover what the experience of reading a great short story can be like.
For me, one of the selections is worth the price of the book by itself: David Means' introduction to the Raymond Carver short story "Why Don't You Dance?" The story is about a young couple who chance upon a yard sale where a middle-aged man is selling all of his belongings. It grows dark, the streetlights come on, and the girl ends up dancing with the older man on his lawn. It's impossible to describe why the story is so beautiful and so sad. Impossible, except that's just what Means does in his introduction. He explains exactly how Carver makes this story work, and, more broadly, he explains why short stories work in general. It's sophisticated and technical, but also deeply tender, and his love for the story comes leaping through. Means reminded me how I felt when I read that story for the first time 20 years ago, and he explained precisely why I've read it again and again in the decades that followed. And that's a gift I'll never forget.
Daniel Goldin, Boswell Book Co.
My Heart Is an Idiot
Davy Rothbart, known best for Found magazine and its spinoffs, is an inveterate wanderer, a nostalgic dreamer, a collector of characters, a bit of a hustler and most of all, a great storyteller. All these elements come into play in this new collection of essays, and though the situations are varied, they often hinge on Rothbart falling in love at a moment's notice. Whether he's wandering Buffalo with a new centenarian friend, or hanging out with a gang of abandoned bus passengers in the wake of Sept. 11, or seeking revenge on a literary scammer who puts together fake conferences, you can see the angle and the dream come together to become a larger but distinctly crazed truth. And when Rothbart hits it out of the park, like the story of a guy he befriended who was doing a life sentence for killing one of his friends, you think, "What is this anyway?" It's a sometimes entertaining, occasionally shocking slab of humanity, that's what it is — and worth every page.
Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures
From a young age, Elsa Emerson didn't just dream of becoming a famous actress; she was certain it would happen. A family tragedy doesn't get in her way, but simply gives her more drive to escape, sending her to Hollywood, a new name and an Oscar-winning performance. But in Emma Straub's first novel, the end of the story isn't about the Hollywood finish, but about life beyond, with all the personal loose ends left unraveled in the pursuit of fame. What could be period melodrama becomes a fascinating and fully realized exercise in literary character, with a missing person driving the plot, and a main character who lives her life as if she's playing a part. Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures reminds me of Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife in the way it goes behind an iconic shell to find the true person within, and also because it's a rewarding read that has stayed with me long after I finished the story.
The News from Spain
In Joan Wickersham's new collection, we are given seven stories, and we can't refer to them by name because all of them are called "The News from Spain." I finally read this book after the umpteenth person I trust told me that I had to. A friend contemplates her husband's affair while at a wedding party; a woman visits her mother in a nursing home while her personal life is in free fall; a gay man is caregiver to an incapacitated former dancer; the broke widow of a race car driver survives as a paid companion. What I love about this collection is the way traditional, carnal, relationship love is played against other kinds of love (and generally loses). I love the way not only the title but other small notes repeat, as if the collection is a musical suite, leading me to revisit previous stories as I read each subsequent one. It's a lovely collection that does everything you want a story to do.
Dancers Among Us
What do you want from a photography book? Should each photo tell its own story? Do you want a rush of emotion, of joy, sadness, passion? Should there be a sense of wonder about how it all came together? I think Jordan Matter does all of this in his new collection, Dancer Among Us: A Celebration of Joy in the Everyday. The project started with the Paul Taylor Dance Company, but Matter eventually expanded to working with companies all over the United States and Canada. The collection is divided into a number of sections — loving, playing, working, grieving and so forth. The dancers are placed into an everyday setting, perhaps walking to work, fishing, commuting to work or flying a kite. The photos are breathtaking and almost unbelievable, but there is no computer manipulation to this work. It's hard to choose a favorite, but if I bought just one print, it would probably be "Rise Above It All," of a woman in a contemplative mood, leaping several feet above a park bench.
Edie Middlestein was taught to equate food with love, with disastrous consequences. She's ballooned to more than 300 pounds, faces serious health issues, and her husband has left her. But how has the family been doing? Don't worry about them. Her husband, Richard, is vilified and flailing in his search for love; daughter Robin has a serious drinking problem; and son Benny is under the thumb of his perfectionist wife. Can this dysfunctional family at least make a show of functioning in time for the twin grandkids' bar and bat mitzvahs with their show-stopping, hip-hop dance routine? While I've read my fair share of fiction with drug and alcohol abuse, I've read very few novels with an eating disorder at the center. But in Edie Middlestein, we have a character both sympathetic and confounding. It's sometimes hard to straddle this line in a story with both sharp humor and an underlying poignancy, but I think in this case, Jami Attenberg nailed it.