As part of our Best Books of 2011 coverage, our editors weigh in on some of their personal favorites from the list.
Geraldine Brooks has a genius for finding history's most fascinating stories. In Caleb's Crossing, she turns to the early days of American history to craft an intensely smart and vibrant story. Her hero, Caleb, was the first Native American to graduate from Harvard—in the 1660s. Brooks portrays him through the eyes of Bethia, a Puritan minister’s daughter who strikes up an unlikely childhood friendship with Caleb that their society makes it difficult to sustain. Moving and memorable, this is a tale of crossing boundaries and quiet strength.
We're creeping ever-closer to the top of our best books of 2011 list. Watch for our Top 10 in just two days! In the meantime, tell us what your favorite book of 2011 was. If you do, you could win 10 books in the genre of your choice.
11. Rin Tin Tin by Susan Orlean
12. The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt
13. Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
14. The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
15. Bossypants by Tina Fey
16. This Burns My Heart by Samuel Park
17. The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
18. Blue Nights by Joan Didion
19. Life Itself by Roger Ebert
20. When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 hit American bookshelves yesterday, and was feted with midnight release parties. The 944-page book, which required the work of two translators, "unfolds as a science-fiction thriller," says our Well Read columnist Robert Weibezahl.
My first (and so far, only) exposure to Murakami was through 2005's Kafka on the Shore, which my book club read a few years ago. I was not thrilled by the choice, but was pleasantly surprised to find that the surrealist elements were intriguing, not precious. Despite being unsure at times of what, exactly, was going on in the book, I couldn't put it down and it sparked a great conversation.
Will you read 1Q84?
Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire
Morrow • $26.99 • ISBN 9780060548940
On sale November 1, 2011
I'm not sure that the conclusion of the Wicked Years series needs much of an introduction. It's been several years since Gregory Maguire's Wicked took readers (and then Broadway!) by storm, but even 6 million plus copies in print hasn't satisfied readers' appetites for tales of the wicked witch that wasn't and her descendants.
It would take Dorothy Gale and her relatives three days to reach the mountains by train from Kansas, the conductor told them.
No matter what the schoolteacher had said about Galileo, Copernicus and those other spoilsports, any cockamamie theory that the world was round remained refuted by the geometrical instrument of a rattling train applied to the spare facts of a prairie. Dorothy watched eagles and hawks careering too high to cast shadows, she watched the returning larks and bluebirds, and she wondered what they knew about the shape of the world and if they would ever tell her.
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie
Random House • $35 • ISBN 9780679456728
To be published November 8, 2011
The fact that I've been anticipating this book for months is no secret to Book Case readers. Having finished it over Labor Day weekend in preparation for interviewing Massie for our November issue, I'm happy to report that this was a book worth waiting for. Eight years in the making, backed up by Massie's decades of research on the Russian family, Catherine the Great is an expertly crafted page-turner of a life story.
One of the things that makes Massie's biographies so wonderful to read is the way he is able to empathize with his subjects, and try to understand their motivations, without lionizing them. While it's clear he likes and respects Catherine and her accomplishments, he doesn't try to hide her flaws.
Since I know that what many people are curious about when it comes to Catherine the Great is her love life, here's a passage where Massie examines her relationships with a succession of younger "favorites" over the last 20 or so years of her life.
What was Catherine seeking in these ornamental young men? She has suggested that it was love. "I couldn't live for a day without love," she had written in her Memoirs. Love has many forms, however, and she did not mean sexual love alone, but also companionship, warmth, support, intelligence, and, if possible, humor. . . . Desire for love and sex played little part in attracting her lovers to her; they were motivated by ambition, desire for prestige, wealth and, in some cases, power. Catherine knew this. She asked them for things other than simple sexual congress. She wanted an indication of pleasure in her company, a desire to understand her point of view, a willingness to be instructed by her intelligence and experience, an appreciation of her sense of humor, and an ability to make her laugh. The physical side of her relationships offered only brief distraction. When Catherine dismissed lovers, it was not because they lacked virility but because they bored her. One need not be an empress to find it impossible to talk in the morning to a person with whom one has spent the night.
What are you reading this week?
The Language of Flowers is "a story that needs to be told"—that of one of the 20,000 teens who grow too old for the foster care system and find themselves suddenly alone at age 18. Debut author Vanessa Diffenbaugh couples her passion for foster care with the Victorian symbolism of flowers in a story that is, according to our reviewer, "visceral and deeply touching."
The story is told in flashback by a former foster child who found a way to express her deepest emotions through the secret meanings of flowers. Read more in our interview with Vanessa Diffenbaugh.
The book trailer from Pan Macmillan is so pretty, and while it may not capture the intensity of Diffenbaugh's novel, it certainly embraces its heart:
Will you be picking up a copy?
The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern's debut and one of our 25 most anticipated books for fall, is a tale of two magicians pitted against each other by Prospero the Enchanter in the astounding Cirque des Rêves. It's an epic love story with an incredible cast, and a Harry Potter producer has already jumped on the film rights.
Check out our interview with Erin Morgenstern, where we talked about the magic of the circus, her research process and what she's working on next.
And to entice you even more, take a look at the book trailer:
The Night Circus comes out September 13! Will you be picking up a copy of this magical debut?
I love stories of writers coming out of nowhere—and I mean nowhere—like the author of Pigeon English (HMH). Englishman Stephen Kelman worked jobs from house-cleaner to warehouse operative until he was inspired by news stories about British youth violence to write his debut.
Combining street inspiration with stories from his own childhood, Kelman crafted the tale of Hari Opuku, the narrator of Pigeon English, whose life changes when he and his friend Dean decide to solve a crime.
Our reviewer found the 11-year-old narrator compelling and believable, and this trailer from Bloomsbury gives a glimpse of his voice:
For more on the child narrator, check out our interview with Kelman.
Pigeon English is not only one of our favorite debuts of the season, but it's also on the longlist for the 2011 Man Booker Prize. Who's grabbing a copy of Kelman's debut?
In case you hadn't noticed, we really love Jeni's ice cream and couldn't be more delighted for our August cooking column's top pick, Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home. The following video and this week's recipe are great reasons to fall in love with Jeni's, too:
Without further ado, Jeni brings us the perfect summer treat:
I’ll never forget the day Adam Welly at Wayward Seed Farm cut open his favorite variety of watermelon for me to try. A bunch of folks from our kitchen and I were at the farm one Saturday, picking huckleberries for a winter jam to use in one of our holiday flavors. As Adam hacked into the sun-bloated melon with a large soil-crusted machete, its juice streamed out everywhere. The warm melon tasted of sunburned cheeks, warm sidewalks, and sunshine and all the summertime memories of my childhood. We made watermelon lemonade sorbet as soon as we returned to the kitchen.
This sorbet is perfect on a hot summer day, and we like to toss a few black watermelon seeds back in for fun.
Fill a large bowl with ice and water.
Life Itself: A Memoir by Roger Ebert
Grand Central • $27.99 • ISBN 9780446584975
on sale September 13, 2011
Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert has written more than 15 books, worked for the Chicago Sun Times since 1967 and been on television for 40 years. While his memoir Life Itself covers every major moment in Ebert's life, it is more than anything an example of why he has become such a preeminent cultural voice.
On the set of the show, between actually taping segments, we had a rule that there could be no discussion of the movies under review. So we attacked each other with one-liners. Buzz Hannan, our floor director, was our straight man, and the cameramen supplied our audience. For example:
Me: "Don't you think you went a little over the top in that last review?"
Gene: "Spoken like the gifted Haystacks Calhoun tribute artist that you are."
"Haystacks was loved by his fans as a charming country boy."
"Six hundred and forty pounds of rompin' stompin' charm. Oh, Rog? Are those two-tone suedes, or did you step in some chicken shit?"
"You can borrow them whenever you wear your white John Travolta disco suit from Saturday Night Fever."
Buzz: "Yeah, when are you gonna wear it on the show?"
"He wanted to wear it today, but it's still at the tailor shop having the crotch taken in."
Buzz: "Ba-ba-ba-boom !"
Will you be reading Ebert's memoir when it comes out in September?