As a new addition to the BookPage staff, I'm trying to familiarize myself with as many new and recent books as I can. One of the books that caught my eye is an advance copy of Robyn Okrant's Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Live as TV's Most Influential Guru Advises (to be released in January 2010). Based on Okrant's blog, Living Oprah, the book chronicles the year she spent trying to "live her best life" as Oprah intends. From reading Oprah's book club selections and cooking Oprah's recipes to trying to love shoes as much as Oprah does, Okrant takes Oprah's instructions to heart, and carefully observes the effects, both positive and negative, her project is having on herself and the people in her life.
A recent book with a similar structure is Colin Beavan's No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process (the accompanying documentary is now in theaters). This book also sprang from a blog (No Impact Man) and is about the year that Beavan and his family gave up everything in their lives with a negative environmental impact. Plastic, television, air-conditioning, even toilet paper was forbidden in their household for a year. Although the rules Beavan followed were radically different from Okrant's, it's a fair bet that they both learned something interesting about the way that many of us live our lives today.
And they're not alone. In the last few years, there has been a noticeable rise in the number of books like these. From books about food (Julie & Julia, of course, which according to Amazon is now subtitled My Year of Cooking Dangerously) to books about religion (A.J. Jacobs' The Year of Living Biblically) to books with a social or political agenda (Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping, by Judith Levine), my-year-of memoirs are everywhere these days.
So it should come as no surprise that at least one enterprising blogger has put his own twist on the topic: Dave Holmes (My Year of Everything) plans to read one my-year-of book every week, and then write a book about his experience. As he puts it: "After 12 months of blogging, I’ll have my own book that will teach you how to be a better person, a better cook, a better lover, and literally everything else. How convenient!" I just hope for his sake that this publishing trend lasts long enough for him to land a deal.
Dear reader: if you could get your own book deal, what would you want to spend one year doing?
The year isn't over yet, but in early July Amazon posted their "top 10 books of the year . . . so far" in several categories. This got me wondering: what are my top 10 books of the year so far? In no particular order, some favorite new books from the year. Links will take you to the BookPage review.
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The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Not exactly an original choice, but there's a reason for the good word-of-mouth on this novel. Tremendously moving and unexpected.
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. Like Henry James in Turn of the Screw, Waters leaves the "poltergeist or disturbed protagonist" decision up to the reader, but draws a compelling portrait of Britain's changing class system after World War II.
The Believers by Zoe Heller. Though this one wasn't as much of a page-turner as Notes on a Scandal, I appreciate a writer who's not afraid to make her characters less than likeable. Plus, I envy her Bahamas/NYC lifestyle!
Shelf Discovery by Lizzie Skurnick. Perusing this collection of essays dedicated to the teen reads of my childhood was a fun trip down memory lane. It will be especially enjoyed by anyone in the 25-35 age range.
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins. I know this isn't on sale yet. Does it make you feel better to know that I'm still in a state of anticipation -- this time for book #3? Sequels are often disappointing, but this one lives up to the standard set by The Hunger Games. (Watch for our interview with Collins in the September issue.)
A Day and a Night and a Day by Glen Duncan. I'd never heard of this British writer before galleys of Day crossed my desk, but I'm now on the lookout for his earlier works.
A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert. The lives of four generations of women are captured in just 300-0dd pages that have the heft of a much bigger book. It reminded me in some ways of The Stone Diaries, which I just read (and loved).
Little Bee by Chris Cleave. A talked-up novel that deserved the buzz it got, Cleave's portrait of a Nigerian refugee with a startling connection to a well-to-do British woman and her husband is a moving, honest story of immigrant life and the ties that bind us all.
A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg. I've long read and loved Wizenberg's blog, Orangette. Her memoir is written in the same friendly voice, but goes deeper into the stories behind the recipes. It is heartfelt, but not sentimental, and told with honesty -- so I'll be completely honest here and admit to staying up too late to read the whole book in one gulp and actually wiping tears more than once.
My Abandonment by Peter Rock. This novel about father-daughter survivalists who live off the grid was inspired by a true story and takes an unexpected turn.
What's your top 10?
Saturday, August 29 marks the four-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and the footage and stories from the storm have not gotten any less poignant and painful to watch, read and hear.
Particularly worth checking out is cartoonist Josh Neufeld’s nonfiction graphic work, A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, which is released today. Neufeld tracks the lives of seven New Orleans residents affected by the storm: a woman who faces the filth and chaos at the Convention Center after the levees break; a young couple who flee to Houston, but lose meaningful possessions in their home; two friends who attempt to rough out the hurricane in a family-owned convenience store, only to be forced to the roof and nearly eaten alive by mosquitoes (and toxic flood water); a teenager who gets out of New Orleans in time but must move from city to city after the storm and during college; a doctor who refuses to evacuate his historic French Quarter house.
Neufeld, who after the hurricane spent three weeks volunteering with the Red Cross in Biloxi, Mississippi, originally told these stories online at SMITH Magazine. They got such a following that Pantheon Books picked up A.D. for a hardcover release.
Although Neufeld employs sparse language in speech bubbles and captions, reading his book is a fully emotional, multi-dimensional experience. The dialogue captures the initial skepticism, then disbelief, then fear and terror of people reacting to the beloved city under water. The illustrations give full life to the characters and to New Orleans, particularly in the two-page spread where mobs—abandoned by rescue teams—are forced to fend for themselves in panic at the Convention Center.
For a preview of Neufeld’s work, browse the A.D. website at SMITH Magazine. You can download images from the novel or watch a video of how it got made.
Out on August 29 comes Ned Sublette’s The Year Before the Flood: A Story of New Orleans. Sublette is a historian and musician who spent the year before Katrina as a Guggenheim fellow at Tulane. His memoir is divided into three parts – reflections on his early life in Natchitoches, Louisiana (pronounced “Nakatish”); his year in New Orleans in 2004-2005; and his return to the city after the storm.
The memoir is interesting for Sublette’s acknowledgment of his privilege in New Orleans as a white man, and his frank descriptions of the heated, complicated, and notorious race relations in the city.
Also noteworthy are the descriptions of musical genres and traditions in New Orleans—not surprising since Sublette was at Tulane to study the musical connections between Louisiana, Cuba and Saint-Domingue (now Haiti).
In The Year Before the Flood, as Sublette begins to “inhabit [his] Louisiana self,” the reader, too, starts to long for Coco Robicheaux, Fats Domino and the sticky-hot streets of New Orleans.
Other notable books include The Southern Cross, Louisiana-native Skip Horack’s short story collection that chronicles the Gulf Coast pre- and post-Katrina (published last week). Also check out Plenty Enough Suck to Go Around, the autobiography of “This American Life” contributor and New Orleanian Cheryl Wagner (published in May).
Can any BookPage readers recommend other books that have captured the post-Katrina Gulf Coast in a particularly sensitive or moving manner? Or have stories about New Orleans you’d like to share?
I'm a big fan of Sarah Haskins, a comedian who dares to critique the deluge of media targeted at women in a recurring Current TV segment called "Target: Women." Her riffs on the term "cougar" and yogurt commercials rank among my favorite online videos.
Recently, Haskins took on dating guides (aka books that "offer you a system for understanding and categorizing your failures") with predictably hilarious results. Her impression of Clare Staples, the author of Everything I Need to Know About Men I Learned from My Dog, is a highlight—and you'll never squeeze a tomato at the market in the same way.
p.s. If you're still interested in giving a dating advice book a try, check out my tongue-in-cheek look at a few of them from back in 2007. Can you spot the book Sarah featured in her video?
I didn't catch Little Bee pre-pub, but after reading a few pages in an Oxford bookstore I had to buy it. Luckily the UK practice of putting new books out in paperback made this an affordable and travel-friendly option. If you're put off by the back cover copy (which basically says, this book is so good we can't tell you anything about it), read a few pages and see if you're not captivated by the voice of Little Bee, a 16-year-old Nigerian refugee with a surprising connection to Kidman's well-to-do character, Sarah, and her husband. Unlike many over-hyped novels, this one delivers. Little Bee follows Cleave's Incendiary, a novel in the form of a letter to Osama bin Laden in response to an (imaginary) terror attack on a London football stadium. Unfortunately, the pub date set for Incendiary was July 7, 2005, the day of the London tube bombings, and the novel failed to get the promotion it deserved. We're glad to see Little Bee bring Cleave some well-earned success.
Fun fact: in the UK, Little Bee was called The Other Hand and featured a generic "literary fiction" type cover, a big contrast to the fanciful US jacket. Which do you prefer?
Watch an interview with Chris Cleave here.