Once again, the good librarians at the Williamsburg (Virginia) Regional Library have performed a public service and compiled all the best lists, awards and other honors for books published in 2010 for their annual megalist — available as an Excel spreadsheet.
The fiction winner is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which is kind of interesting since it hasn’t won the Big Name awards (though it still has a shot at the Pulitzer, which is announced this month). And I was delighted to see that three of the eight writers in the Speculative Fiction category (Gary Shteyngart, Charles Yu and William Gibson) will be here for the 2012 Key West Literary Seminar, Yet Another World (check out the rest of the amazing line-up: still room to register!). So, by the way, will the author of the No. 2 in fiction (and National Book Critics Circle Award Winner), Jennifer Egan. And yes, we have the vast majority of the top books listed here in the library collection.
BTW, for those of you who follow books more than basketball, that other big tournament is getting ready to wrap up — The Tournament of Books — and the championship round features the top two novels on Williamsburg’s list, Freedom versus A Visit From The Goon Squad. The best part of this tournament is you can go back and read all the different rounds in whatever order you like. I suppose some might frown on this sort of competitive literary exercise, but it’s all in good faith and good fun — I’ve never seen cheap shots or nasty takedowns here. And any time I get to read anything by Elif Batuman, I’m happy. I wonder if they’d consider adding a nonfiction category?
Update: And the winner is … A Visit From the Goon Squad! Which I’m delighted to hear, not only because I happen to have a copy of the book in my house (though I’ll admit I haven’t read it yet — or Freedom, either) — and because Egan will be here in Key West, in January, for the Key West Literary Seminar — still time to sign up!).
Airstream provided by Josh Rowan. Drinks provided by Jason Rowan. Photo by Ian Rowan. Rosemary gimlets offered after the opening keynote from Adam Gopnik. Need we say more?
For some reason I don’t really want to think about too hard, I am not hung over today but Billy Collins, at some point (I think it was yesterday) read a poem called The Hangover which included the most poetic rendering of the children’s pool game Marco Polo one could imagine. You should look it up, or better, find a recording of Billy reading it. It’s entirely possible you will find such a recording in the near future on Littoral, The Key West Literary Seminar’s entirely excellent blog. At least I hope so.
In the meantime I can now recite from memory the poem Bacon and Eggs by Howard Nemerov, like Billy a two-time Poet Laureate and apparently like Billy a funny guy, too. This is the entire text:
The chicken contributes
But the pig gives its all.
It’s a good poem and it bore repeated recitation, along with Roy Blount, Jr.’s poem Oysters, of which I cannot recite the entire text though I do know the last lines:
I prefer my oysters fried
That way I know the oyster’s died.
A sentiment with which I agree after reading The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky, in which he reports that if you have to shuck an oyster, it’s alive (once it’s dead, it relaxes the ligament holding the two sides of the shell together). I always liked them Florentine anyway, plus that way you don’t have to worry about that pesky liver thing that can kill you.
All of which is to say, I learned a lot over the last 10 days and had a great time, too. It was cool to see New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik in action — if you weren’t at his keynote you’ll just have to wait for the podcast because there’s no way I could possibly describe it except as a cultural history of the concept of taste. My take-home from that talk: E Pluribus Unum, our national motto until 1956 when they replaced it with In God We Trust, came from a recipe. Pretty cool. (June 10 update: It’s here! Download now for your auditory enlightenment!)
The Key West Literary Seminar is underway — we just wrapped up the first session; there’s still room in the second session and if you’re a literary foodie at all, this is one of those rare opportunities for your passions to combine. One topic that keeps coming up, as it has since we began discussing food as a theme for the Seminar, is the question of literariness (if that’s a word). One of my fellow board members, whom I respect a lot and like even more, dislikes it when the writers get off the topic of writing and literature and just start talking about food.
I disagree. And here’s why:
First of all, there is plenty of talk about writing itself and to be honest, a diet of just that gets to be too much for me, especially since we’re dealing with a double session here.
Second, we have gathered some of the smartest, most articulate people in the country who know from food. Why on earth would we NOT want them to talk about this subject, about which they are passionate and knowledgable — and often quite funny. Not just the known funny people like Calvin Trillin, Roy Blount and Billy Collins, but Julia Reed was a revelation to many of us — the woman should have her own standup act — and even an eminence such as Madhur Jaffrey had the auditorium laughing out loud many, many times. Isn’t their foodiness the very reason we brought them, along with their proven literary chops? When the subject is “more literary,” say a genre like memoir, we don’t object when the writers discuss some topic that is the focus of their work, do we? The whole point of the Seminar, to me, is to hear directly from the writers telling stories, about themselves, their own work and about other people, stories that are funny or sad or significant in some way. It’s stuff you just wouldn’t hear otherwise and it is very different hearing spoken by the writer herself than it is reading on the page.
There’s just a month to go before the next Key West Literary Seminar and just in time, we at the Key West Library have received a shipment of books by writers appearing at the Seminar. This year’s subject is The Hungry Muse: Food in Literature and the offerings are indeed appetizing. (It’s not, by the way, the much-feared “cookbook seminar” and it’s not just straight-up food writing, either — our panelists will include novelists and poets and historians as well as some of the finest food writers in the nation.)
We already had a bunch of books by these writers in our collection but the new ones are most welcome, including Eating by Jason Epstein, Ratio by Michael Ruhlman and At Home with Madhur Jaffrey. Jaffrey, by the way, will be at both sessions, as will be Calvin Trillin, Roy Blount, Jr., and Billy Collins. If you’re interested in attending, there are still spots left in the second session — and if you’re in Key West, don’t forget the Sunday afternoon panels and readings are always free and open to the public. Bon appetit!
And if you’re wondering what’s up with the slide show below — well, I’m not much of a cook, to be honest. Given a couple free hours I will invariably spend my time reading instead of shopping for and preparing food. But these are some recent culinary creations of mine worth note — the Swedish family recipe cake I made for our Stieg Larsson Book Bites session at the library, two pies I made for Thanksgiving (the inevitable pumpkin and the always popular apple-cranberry-raisin from the Fanny Farmer Cookbook), a batch of liebkuchen from another family recipe (and my favorite Christmas treat of the many, many kinds of cookies my grandmother used to make every year) and a cocktail, a Pisco guava punch prepared at the long-distance direction of Embury Cocktails impresario and New York Times-certified cocktail expert Jason Rowan. And all of them turned out pretty well, if I do say so myself. Recipes available on request.
No not that kind of March madness. But somehow, during this last month, I managed to read a lot. Not sure if I’ll be able to keep this up but I’ve decided to take a more traditional book blogging approach and start posting reviews/opinions on my reading as I go. I’ll use the grading system of my alma mater, the University of Massachusetts, where we did not mess around with plus and minus signs:. So here’s a roundup of my March reading, starting with the most recent (technically finished April 1 but it was 3 a.m. and I read most of it in March so there):
The Ghost by Robert Harris — political thriller, which I checked out from the Key West Library. I started reading this on my lunch hour last Saturday, got half way through very quickly then realized that we planned to see the Roman Polanski movie based on the book, currently playing at The Tropic — and that the point of movies like this is suspense. So I stopped reading and saw the movie, then returned to the book. I thought the movie was good, though not necessarily worth the rave reviews it received — I think people are just thrilled to see a thriller that’s not a shoot ‘em up or that bears some resemblance to reality. In general, I preferred the book — the characters were more nuanced, especially Adam Lang, and the big reveal felt more obvious and silly in the movie. I’ve read Pompeii by Harris and plan to read more of his historical fiction. AB
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins – young adult fantasy/dystopia fiction that I checked out from the library. The second in her Hunger Games series, which I picked up because of a rave review on Citizen Reader and because I’m scouting dystopia lit for a future Literary Seminar — and I think it would be particularly cool to get some YA writers in there, since fantasy including dystopian fantasy seems to be huge in that area now. Maybe it always has been (LeGuin, L’Engle, even Tolkein and Lewis and Pullman if you want to extend the boundaries). Anyway it was GREAT — now I’m lining up with all the others waiting for the third installment in the trilogy, Mockingjay, which is to be published this summer. A Continue reading
In Key West, when the weather cools and the wind picks up it’s time to start thinking about the Literary Seminar. The upcoming seminar focuses on poetry, honoring longtime Key West resident and two-time Pulitzer winner Richard Wilbur. Happily, amazingly, the Seminar is a sellout — quite a feat in these uncertain times — if you are planning to attend or just want to read along at home, the Key West Library has books by just about all the panelists and workshop leaders (and it’s an impressive bunch). So stop by, check them out and, you know, check them out. There’s a lot to read! (And it’s never too early to start thinking about 2011 — when the Literary Seminar will be looking at food in literature – yummmmmmmmmmm …. )
I wish my obsessive-compulsive tendencies were in the housecleaning vein, but unfortunately they are limited to useless tasks like carefully keeping track of what I have read. And why? Am I supposed to be earning gold stars from someone? I don’t know why I do this. But I do — and this year, I kept more careful track than ever, with each book noted by fiction vs. nonfiction, if it came from a library, whether I read it for review, etc. etc. I can only blame this on working in a library, where our job is to keep track of things, and classify them. It turns out I like cataloging.
The good news: I read almost twice as much this year as last. That, too, is probably due to my new job. Not that I read on the job — a common but mistaken belief about working in a library — but being surrounded by books all day and learning about lots of newly published books probably inspired me. Not to mention having a job that truly is limited to 40 hours a week most of the time, unlike any job in journalism. Continue reading
The great, smart, public spirited, hardworking people at the Monroe County Public Library aren’t letting budget blues or holiday overload get them down — instead they’re keeping up great public service, like this online display of books by writers who will appear at the upcoming Key West Literary Seminar (spaces still open for the second session! free Sunday afternoon sessions both weekends!). My man Christopher, owner of the increasingly essential Voltaire Books, just stopped by and told me they have books by all the seminar writers — what a great Christmas gift!
And if that’s not enough reason to love this library, here’s another: Saturday is the season’s first book sale in the Palm Garden. Woo hoo! Lord knows I don’t need more books in my house but these are still irresistible bargains for any bibliophile (and you never know when you might find, say, a signed first edition Elizabeth Bishop in there). It has happened. As a weekday gal, it’s also good to see these events back on Saturdays.
In today’s Miami Herald, my story about Dennis Lehane and his new book “The Given Day,” a big historical epic which I strongly recommend. It’s set in Boston in 1918-1919, leading up to the Boston Police strike — lots of real people figure, including Babe Ruth, although the main characters are fictional. It’s a big book, at 720 pages, but an absorbing read. And it gets you into the historical fiction groove, which I hope many people are already, with the upcoming Literary Seminar.
Right now, I’m reading Gore Vidal’s Burr, a book I read many years ago — closer to 20 than 10, yikes! It’s a great one, too, funny and surprising, all the stuff that made Vidal the man of letters we love (and fear). Sounds like he was on his game at the Book Fair last night; can’t wait to hear what he has to say at the Key West Literary Seminar, on the eve of Obama’s inauguration in January.
Tomorrow I’m heading up to the Book Fair, where I hope to see Lehane and many, many other writers — because, gosh, I just don’t have enough to read already.
I really have been reading a lot, or at least I was until we got cable and the Tour de France took over my waking, non-working hours. But I can see the end and the stack is piling up. I read Dominion by Calvin Baker, who will be appearing at the Key West Literary Seminar in January. It was a little outside my normal reading, which is the best kind (it’s the reason I joined a book group years ago although that fell by the wayside when I was pursuing my master’s). I read Women and Ghosts by Alison Lurie, a slim book of short stories that I think I might have read before, unless that was an effect of its eerieness. It reminded me how much I like her, and how much I need to read The Last Resort even though I have a strange fear of reading about places I know and love. (Haven’t been able to make myself read Tracy Kidder’s Hometown yet, either, about Northampton, Mass., where I was born.) I read Sacrifice by Eric Shanower, the second volume in his Age of Bronze series of graphic novels about the Trojan War — it was as good as the first, though it does suffer from that effect of many of the guys looking the same; you can distinguish them by their headbands, though. Over the Fourth of July weekend, perhaps influenced by the reintroduction of cable television into my brain, I found myself craving brain candy so I read The Boleyn Inheritance by Philippa Gregory (author of The Other Boleyn Girl and numerous other works of Tudor Trash). I gulped that down in a day and a half so maybe I’m not over my Tudor thing entirely; plus it was fun to hear from/about a couple of the lesser-known Henry VIII queens (Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard, or Nos 4 and 5 if you’re counting). And just today I finished Dreaming Up America by Russell Banks, which I’ll be reviewing for Solares Hill shortly. Whew.