Thursday, December 30, 2010

Fast Forward: The Top Ten Books of 2011

It feels a bit like crystal ball gazing, sure it does. And it’s also like searching for ten needles in a haystack. Still, here we are taking a run at it: in the glorious literary year that will be 2011, what will be the 10 most important books?

It’s a dangerous business, this sticking out of necks. You have to be prepared to be wrong or corrected. Plus fate can throw a monkey wrench into the works. But the way we see things right now, this is how it looks: an exciting year of books. Despite continuous rumors of falling skies, the world of literature continues to evolve and even to thrive, depending on how you look at things.

Now, clearly, there will be thousands of books published in the English language in 2011. Narrowing that exciting field down to just 10 titles in an impossible task. We’ve done it anyway. Here are the 10 works of fiction that will be published in the first half of the year that we’re currently anticipating the most.


Bella Akhmadulina Dead at 73

The important Russian poet, Bella Akhmadulina, passed away on November 29th at her home outside Moscow. Her husband reported she had suffered fatally from a heart attack. She was 73. From The New York Times:
Ms. Akhmadulina came to prominence during the post-Stalin thaw, when a loosening of censorship led to a flowering of the arts. Along with the poets Yevgeny Yevtushenko (her first husband) and Andrei Voznesensky, she became one of the bold new voices in contemporary Russian literature, attracting ecstatic audiences of thousands to readings at concert halls and stadiums.

Her poetry was resolutely apolitical, making her a target of official criticism. Her early poems, usually in rhymed quatrains, offered random observations on everyday life -- buying soda from a vending machine, coming down with the flu -- in dense, allusive language enriched by coined words and archaisms. A sprightly sense of humor and an audacious way with images marked her from the outset as a distinctive talent.
The Times obituary is here. You can read translations of some of her poems here.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Best Crime Fiction Cover: Cast Your Vote Now!

With only one more week of voting to go in The Rap Sheet’s Best Crime Novel Cover of 2010 competition, three books have established clear leads: Shuichi Yoshida’s Villain, Adam Ross’ Mr. Peanut, and Kelli Stanley’s City of Dragons. Also coming on strong are Graham Moore’s The Sherlockian and Helen Grant’s The Vanishing of Katharina Linden.

If you have not already cast your ballot for one or more of the 10 entries in this competition, isn’t it about time you did so? After all, this contest will close at midnight on Wednesday, January 5, with results to be announced soon after that.

Procrastinate no longer, folks. Vote here.


Wikileaks’ Assange “Forced” into Million Dollar Book Deal

Poor Julian Assange! The founder of WikiLeaks says he’s been forced into writing an autobiography in order to keep his organization from going under. From The Huffington Post:
New York publishing house Alfred A. Knopf confirmed Monday that it had struck a deal with the 39-year-old Australian to bring out his autobiography, whose publication date has yet to be determined.

Assange, speaking to The Sunday Times, said the deal would bring in more than $1 million, with $800,000 from Knopf and another 325,000 pounds ($500,000) from U.K. publisher Canongate. But he said he only agreed to it because he was under financial pressure.

“I don’t want to write this book, but I have to,” he said. “I have already spent 200,000 pounds for legal costs and I need to defend myself and to keep WikiLeaks afloat.”
The full piece is here.

Gabriel García Márquez Shakes It to Shakira

Though it might not actually be newsworthy, who can resist actual video footage of Nobel Laureates dancing (badly?) at a rock concert by a pop princess?

Here’s Gabriel García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera) rocking out at a Shakira concert. But don’t think that García Márquez was going all fanboy: he’s known Shakira for at least a dozen years, having written a profile of her for a magazine in the late 1990s. The two were teamed again in 2006, fighting child poverty together in Panama and in 2007 she wrote music for the Mike Newell-directed film version of Love in the Time of Cholera.

When you view the clip, keep in mind that the Columbian author was born in 1927 and is the earliest winner of the literary Nobel still alive. All things considered, the 83-year-old still has it all going on!

Tip of the hat to the wonderful Lapham’s Quarterly.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Best of the Season!

Here’s wishing you and yours a wonderful holiday 2010!

Thanks for reading with us all year long. We already have great plans for the coming year. Meanwhile, have a well read holiday and a bookish New Year. We’ll be take it easy over the next little while but, in the meantime, have a look through our Holiday Gift Guide 2010 and the selections of our writers and editors for the Best Books of 2010.

At left: Sara and Jett say, “Hey.” Photo illustration by January Magazine art director, David Middleton.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Best Books of 2010: Fiction

Editor’s note: This is the final segment of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2010 feature. The feature includes Books for Children and Young Adults, Cookbooks, Crime Fiction, Part I and Crime Fiction, Part II, Art & Culture and Non-Fiction. The anchor piece is here.

The Bradbury Report by Steven Polansky (Weinstein Books) 336 pages
In what I feel certain will come to be known as the year of fictional dystopia, Steven Polansky’s debut was one of several bright spots. Some critics have said that the science of The Bradbury Report is thin. I didn’t experience that myself but, if I did, it wouldn’t matter: that’s not Polansky’s point. This is a story of terrible possibilities and outcomes -- both expected and unexpected -- due entirely from human machinations. It is 2071 and the government has put in place a large scale cloning program that impacts directly on the population’s insurance of health. Every American citizen has a cloned copy that lives in a different part of the country. The clones are kept absolutely separate from the general populations and the people that they duplicate. Until one of them escapes. The Bradbury Report chills with a close-yet-distant look at all of the things that make us human and all of the things that set us apart. I’m confident that this startling debut will be one of my personal picks for best of the year. -- Lincoln Cho

Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet by Stephanie Cowell (Crown) 336 pages
Stephanie Cowell is building a reputation writing beautiful, cinematic books that bring to life artists from various eras. Nicholas Cooke, the story of a young actor in 1593 London, won the American Book Award in 1996. More recently, Marrying Mozart was translated into seven languages and optioned for film. Cowell seems poised on the cusp of very great things. This feeling is backed by her most recent work, the rich and satisfying Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet. The book breaths life into the story of the young Impressionist painter, Claude Monet, and Camille Doncieux, the well-born Parisian with whom he fell in love. -- Sienna Powers

Delta Girls by Gayle Brandeis (Ballantine) 336 pages
There’s something spirited and satisfying in Gayle Brandeis’ prose. She pushes at language with a poet’s heart and skill, leaving us breathless and always wishing for more. All of that was certainly the case with her astonishing The Book of Dead Birds, which won the Bellwether Prize. And it’s true again in Delta Girls, a rich and gorgeous ride with two very different women: a single mom making a living as a migrant fruit picker and a figure skater, intent on the heights. A series of unlikely events cause their two worlds to collide, with unexpected results. This is not a plot that does well with over-explanation. Brandeis’ books are all about the journey. And this? It’s a glorious one: well worth the effort. -- Sienna Powers

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (Farrar, Straus, Giroux/HarperCollins Canada) 562 pages
Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom begins with a deceptively narrow focus. The life of a single family -- the Berglunds of St. Paul, Minnsesota -- viewed from a distance. The neighborhood they choose. The house they buy and love. The children they grow in the house and how all four Berglunds fit into the neighborhood. When the topic -- the vision -- seems nearly exhausted, the field narrows still further. Now we see things from Patty Berglund’s view. And here, perhaps one third into Freedom, it seems as though it will all either drone on endlessly or all begin again. At this point, Freedom seems to be teetering towards tedious. As much as the precious details are what made Jonathan Franzen’s previous book, The Corrections, soar, early in Freedom, everything seems even more tightly wound: as though we’ll never get out of Patty Berglund’s neurotic grasp. And it’s a big book. When two-thirds of it loom ahead of you and you see no sign of anything but more of the same, it’s easy to gasp a bit, like a fish that can imagine nothing but an endless sea. Then, so subtly you don’t even feel the shift, the world of Freedom widens until you realize that not only is the scope of the book much broader than you could ever have imagined, it’s an important book, full of big thoughts and things worth thinking about. In that way, the National Book Award-winning The Corrections, as gorgeous as it could occasionally be, feels like a warm-up to Freedom, a book that begins with the tight focus of The Corrections -- a single Midwestern family, their foibles, their triumphs and their disconnects -- and ends up being an embarrassingly accurate portrait of the modern age, our concerns and our challenges. We watch as the various arms of the Berglund family struggle against the backdrop of all of the challenges that have plagued America over the last decade: political confusion and in-fighting, war, even the mortgage crisis. Freedom seems, if anything, even more than the sum of its parts. An important, view-changing novel that forces consideration of opinion and focuses thought. An epic and a triumph. Freedom is at once deeply human and astonishingly thought-provoking. In the end, it provides a Tom Wolfeishly good illustration of our times. -- Linda L. Richards

Horse, Flower, Bird by Kate Bernheimer (Coffee House Press)
208 pages

In 2008, I was captivated by a children’s book with a real but ephemeral edge. When the end of the year rolled around, I pegged The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum as one of my favorite books of the year. I wasn’t alone; everyone loved that book, many of them for the same reasons I did: it was smart; it was beautiful; it was easy to look at, yet it didn't give it’s real meaning away easily. The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum was a picture book, but it was an intriguing enough one that when I heard that author Kate Bernheimer had written another, yet very different book, I made sure a copy found its way into my hands and I wasn’t, in the end, disappointed. Bernheimer once again takes the feeling and rhythm of the fairy tale and turns it on its side. The eight fairy tale-like stories tell haunting and poetic tales. A girl makes friends with a tulip bulb. An exotic dancer builds her own cage. A woman keeps a secret petting zoo inside her house. One way and another, these are feminine stories with strong narratives and high consequences. Bernheimer’s tales are brief and surprisingly haunting. Or maybe one shouldn’t be that surprised: this is turf well known to Bernheimer, founder and editor of The Fairy Tale Review as well as the editor of three fairy tale anthologies, including this year’s My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me. -- Monica Stark

The Hypnotist by M.J. Rose (MIRA Books) 416 pages
The Hypnotist, the most recent book in M.J. Rose’s bestselling Reincarnationist series that was also the inspiration for Past Life, the Fox television series that aired this spring is the third of this series, after The Reincarnationist and The Memoirist. Of the three, The Hypnotist is far and away my personal favorite. This is due in one part to the fact that Rose is a writer who seems committed to sharpening her voice and her skills: every book really is better than the last. The other part is thematic. In The Hypnotist Rose returns to some of the themes I really enjoyed in her earlier works -- notably 2002’s breathtaking Flesh Tones -- a book that was never given the attention it deserved. These are themes that Rose does as well as anyone currently writing, notably art and love and how those things can impact one upon the other. In The Hypnotist we again meet Dr. Malachai Samuels, director of The Phoenix Foundation, dedicated to the examination and evaluation of past lives. FBI agent Lucian Glass can’t forget the murder of the young painter who was his lover. When a crazed art collector begins destroying masterworks, Lucian goes undercover at the Phoenix Foundation where he is taken on an incredible journey that vaults him to ancient Greece, 19th century Persia and more modern destinations. In the process, Lucian discovers a plot to steal Hypnos, the 1500-year-old sculpture of the Greek God of sleep: a work of art that is rumored to hold an incredible secret. Along the way, Rose fans a controversial flame: is art owned by a museum or the country in which the piece originated? The Hypnotist is a stunningly satisfying read. Thoughtful, fast-paced and subtly sensual, this is one of the best books thus far from a really terrific writer. -- Linda L. Richards

Katja From the Punk Band by Simon Logan (CZP) 280 pages

So I’m calling this novel SF/F. I’m not sure that’s correct. It seems possible to me that you might choose to call it something else. But I wanted to stick a label on it that would A/ enable those who want to read it to find it and B/ connect it with other books that might be sort of -- though not exactly -- like this one. And that’s the rub, in a way. The thing that makes this whole labeling thing difficult and sometimes even questionable. There’s nothing quite like this. As a result, the publisher created its own label for Katja From the Punk Band, calling it “Jackie Brown meets the Sex Pistols -- a face-paced industrial crime-thriller,” but -- of course and as you know -- there actually is no such thing. In the end, though, this labeling goes where all such things must because, call it what you will, Katja From the Punk Band is a terrific, fast-paced read and author Simon Logan is a writer who is coming up fast. You’re never quite sure when (and even sometimes where) you are. It is a work island somewhere probably near Eastern Europe but what’s more important than that is the fact that no one actually wants to be there. Like just about everyone, Katja is willing to do what it takes to get off the island, so she shoots her boyfriend and steals a drug-like substance that she feels having will help get away in one piece. Of course, none of this goes as Katja had planned and she ends up with a whole platoon of whacky post-punk characters out for her ass with blood in their eyes. It’s exciting stuff. Though the story is compelling enough to make you want to keep reading, Logan’s storytelling decisions here are what really elevates the whole experience. Each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective, a device that sounds awkward and, truthfully, sometimes is. But the ambition to even attempt it speaks volumes for this author and there are times where -- despite the grit and the tawdry surroundings -- Logan comes very close to creating something like art. There are times that Katja From the Punk Band is so good its almost scary. William Gibson fans might like this one as well as those who appreciate the colorful half images that China Mieville creates. But don’t be doing too much comparing as you read Logan’s book. I suspect that, before long, reviewers will be using this one as a basis for compare. -- Lincoln Cho

The Last Jewish Virgin: A Novel of Fate by Janice Eidus (Red Hen Press) 148 pages
Janice Eidus is just about the last author you’d expect to dish up a vampire novel. And yet. Eidus has won the O. Henry Prize for her short stories. Twice. She has won the Redbook Prize, a Pushcart Prize and several others. So it goes without saying that Eidus is a Serious Novelist. (Note the uppercase.) Lilith Zeremba is a New York fashionista with a hunger for a man she figures may well be a vampire. But, clearly, The Last Jewish Virgin is no Twilight and though the novel is slender, it’s hardly (forgive me) bloodless. Eidus uses the contemporary idea of “vampire” as a way to explore issues of sexuality, mythology and family. Or maybe the author is just having some fun. Either way, The Last Jewish Virgin is quite beyond the sum of its parts. -- India Wilson

Learning to Lose by David Trueba (Other Books) 592 pages
Screenwriter and novelist Trueba’s Learning to Lose is the author's third work of book-length fiction, but the first to be published in English. North American fans of arthouse films are more likely to be aware of Trueba’s work in that medium, including his widely acclaimed directorial debut for La Buena Vida. In Spain, however, even three novels in, Trueba’s voice is becoming well known. And it truly is a voice worth knowing. His language is simple; straightforward, but seemingly no detail is left untended. Despite both that and the length, Learning to Lose is never ponderous or hesitant and it is clear from the first that this is an author who has something to say. The trajectory of sixteen year old Sylvia's life is altered forever when she breaks her leg in a car accident. The driver of the car is a 20-year-old Argentinean soccer player. While the broken duo find themselves at the center of a blooming romance, Sylvia’s father and grandfather discover their own drama; one that includes murder and intrigue. These are the bare facts of plot, yet Learning to Lose is about so much more, including the challenges and morals of modern life; the connections of family. In fact, in many ways the book tackles all of the big questions of life while the pace never lessens, despite the weight of the book and the detail Trueba manages to include. It’s a very good book, one that resonates long after the last page is turned. -- Sienna Powers

Noise by Darin Bradley (Spectra) 240 pages
In every niche and genre and corner of fiction, critics and fans always have their ears open for the voice that will lead them into the future or, at very least, will define the fictional moment in terms of the art and the craft of wielding those words. Considering the nature of his dystopic fiction and the fullness of his vision, I can perhaps be forgiven for thinking that, in his debut, Darin Bradley may be The One. Noise is relentless and so succinct, it’s almost not there at all. Bradley has the sharp and pummeling vision of a noirist, but, in the end, this isn’t noir. Rather, it is the end: a view of a world gone so bad, the only thing left to do is destroy it. Noise is not a thick book, so the dense layering and compelling characterizations will surprise you all the more. It’s unexpected. And given Bradley’s dark view and haunting prose, it’s even possible you won’t like Noise. But it is not possible that you will forget it. -- Lincoln Cho

Of Love and Evil (Songs of the Seraphim, Book 2) by Anne Rice (Knopf) 192 pages
I am a longtime fan of Anne Rice. Like many others, I fell for her vampire novels first, and these many years later they still resonate with me. Her style has always been designed to help you feel, sometimes excrutiatingly, what her characters are enduring, their conflicts, their passions, their disappointments. She has also perfected the art of creating worlds for her characters, with all their art and magic and sensory stimulation. Rice’s talents are on full display in her newest novel, Of Love and Evil, the second in her Songs of the Seraphim series. Here her hero, Toby, is wrestling with seeing his love again, as well as his son. Just as he meets them though, he is called to adventure in 15th-century Rome, where there a dybbuk seems to causing some problems in one particular house. Toby comes to the aid of the family, revealing a murderous plot and changing the nature of the family forever. In this novel, Rice casts Toby’s own family against the one he is called upon to help, and the contrast could not be more pronounced. His own is bound by love, and there is considerable jealousy and even hatred in the other. By positioning one against the other, Rice manages to dial up the emotions in both, until Toby is caught unbearably in the middle. Of Love and Evil is simple and direct, but no less powerful than her earlier work. In the end, as she has always done, Rice uses her characters’ flaws to bring out their humanity in all its many facets. -- Tony Buchsbaum

The Passage by Justin Cronin (Ballantine) 784 pages
The best book of the year, in my view? Justin Cronin’s The Passage. This post-apocalyptic thriller, the first of a trilogy, is an electrifying drama that follows a group of survivors after a virus turns much of the nation’s population into ultra-violent bloodsuckers. They’re vampires, yes, but don’t let that make you think this is something in the Anne Rice/Stephenie Meyer vein. These vampires are true monsters -- not thirsty, angst-ridden versions of the people they use to be. These babies mean business, and they’ll rip you to shreds. But the book isn’t about the monsters; it’s about a group of people who are trying to find a way to survive day-to-day. Cronin makes them likable -- and better, compelling. These are people you quickly grow to love and want to see again. It’s also about the world they inhabit, a world that’s based on ours but is vastly different. It’s a world built into the shell of ours, and part of what makes The Passage so amazing is how fully Cronin realizes this world. He’s done it so well, in fact, that it seems as if he’s been there somehow (and not just in his imagination). Written in a crisp style that’s highly detailed and delightfully insightful, the book is positively magnetic: you won’t be able to pry your eyes off its pages. That, to me, is what makes this book the best of the year -- and more, the best read of the year. It will leave you as hungry for more as Cronin’s vampires are. -- Tony Buchsbaum

The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis (Knopf Canada) 370 pages
After the universal disappointment that 2003’s Yellow Dog proved to be, I was frankly a little frightened to pick up The Pregnant Widow, even though I’ve loved so much of the work of this author in the past. (Notably for me, The Rachel Papers, Night Train, the memoir Experience and the essay collection The War Against Cliche). I needn’t have worried. One time literary bad boy Martin Amis is in fine shape for The Pregnant Widow and though the novel seems, at times, startlingly autobiographical, it is also lyrical and creates completely the time and place so important to this book: it’s the summer of 1970 and we enter a castle in Italy filled with 20-year-olds ripe with the magic of their growing self-awareness. Those who, like me, had feared Amis’ skills as a fictionist were fading found their faith reassured by The Pregnant Widow which numbers among the very best books by an exceedingly celebrated author. The Guardian suggested the book may be a contender for the Man Booker Award, but I especially loved the reviewer’s comments. “There’s a full-throated energy to this book that makes perhaps more respectable contemporary novels look like turgid waffles.” I would actually not have dreamed up “turgid waffles,” but the sentiment is what I feel, precisely. -- Linda L. Richards

Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart (McClelland & Stewart/MacAdam/Cage) 288 pages
Jane Urquhart is a winner of the Governor General’s Award (for The Underpainter), an officer of the Order of Canada and recipient of France’s Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. There are many other awards and accolades. Stacks of them, in fact. No one ever argues that Urquhart has a deep and generous talent and that her books have been universally wonderful. But Sanctuary Line? It’s even better. And why? This voice is smooth and rich and polished. Urquhart seems to have figured out where all the words go... and then put them in that order. That’s not meant to trivialize what is truly a significant gift. Rather, seven novels, one work of non-fiction, four collections of poetry and an editorship of a short story collection later, Urquhart has learned a thing or two about conveying her message; sharing her gift. There is no girlish awkwardness in Sanctuary Line. No missteps or false notes. To sit down with the book is to be engaged by it. More: Urquhart has something to say and she says it very, very well. Though historical elements show up in Sanctuary Line -- from 19th century Ontario and Ireland -- they are woven into a contemporary story that concerns a single family. And while a single narrative voice gives the book an intimate feel, there are times the story sweeps along like a multi-generational saga. This, too, is part of Urquhart’s gift: the ability to make us feel connected and intimate and, at the same time, part of something much, much larger than ourselves. That single voice belongs to entomologist Liz Crane, come to stay in her family’s abandoned farmhouse where she spent most of the summers of her life. She’s there to study the migratory patterns of the Monarch butterfly, but she ends up deep in recollections and discoveries about her family and their forgotten secrets and it is all so much more than she bargained for. Sanctuary Line is a beautiful, unforgettable book. How does Jane Urquhart just keep getting better and better? -- Linda L. Richards

Secrets of the Sands by Leona Wisoker (Mercury Retrograde Press) 422 pages
Ten years ago Leona Wisoker’s debut novel -- the first book in a series -- would have been published to much fanfare by a large house. Secrets of the Sands has the kind of clarity of voice and vision and extreme depth of scope that one associates with large publishing companies and media fanfare. It’s a very, very good first book. But this is the new millennium and -- in the publishing industry -- times are shaky. While it saddens me that a work of this calibre is unlikely to get the attention it deserves, I’m heartened to see small presses picking up some of the slack from their less confident big brothers. Their loss, as one might say. And cream tends to rise. And then you read Secrets of the Sands. And here we are. Like all very good works of fantasy, Secrets of the Sands is a complete re-imagining of the world and society. Unlike science fiction, that can offer distinction with a slight shift of the light, fantasy -- properly put down -- carries us away completely. It’s what enchants us so about The Hobbit an what continues to rivet us about the works of George R.R. Martin and Robin Hobb. They tell stories, sure: but also they recreate every aspect of what we hold dear and familiar and it is with these incredible sleights of hand that we come to see ourselves better and more clearly. Desert Lord Cafad Scratha is dedicated to catching the people who murdered his family when he was but a child. But the king has other ideas and he tries to tame the southern lord. As a result, Scratha goes underground under a false identity. This throws the southern lands into chaos and turns the lives of Scratha and the tightest portion of his cadre into confusion. And it’s an opening move. Secrets of the Sands is but Book One of Wisoker’s “Children of the Desert” series. I’m not sure where this series will take us, but I know it’s a bus I’ll be on. -- Lincoln Cho

The Sky is Falling by Caroline Adderson (Thomas Allen) 310 pages
Whether or not you dig the political points being made in Caroline Adderson’s third novel (After The History of Forgetting and Sitting Practice), the writing here is fantastic. Arguably, The Sky is Falling is this talented author’s best book so far. In the politically charged 1980s, two women make choices that will reverberate through their lives. One ends up married to a doctor, with a beautiful life, kids and a big house. The other ends up in jail. And, in both cases, it could so easily have gone the other way. The novel’s two timelines take place in 1984 -- with two idealistic women keen to save the world from what they see as potential nuclear disaster -- and 2004 -- with both women settled firmly into midlife and living with her own choices: no matter how uncomfortably. There were times when, quite frankly, the politics of The Sky is Falling bored me. This was never true for Adderson’s writing which, as always, is self-possessed and beautiful in its clarity. -- India Wilson

Songs of Love and Death edited by George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois (Gallery Books) 468 pages
The idea of books that move beyond the confines of genre gets talked about a lot. And a lot of it is just that: talk. For all of the things that genre isn’t, one of the things that it is is a handy way for readers to get to the books that they most like. As a result, books that bend their way out of those confines don’t tend to be terribly popular. Of all the books I’ve ever heard of moving beyond its genre, Songs of Love and Death may well come the closest. This short story collection, co-edited by fantasy master George RR Martin, brings together stories themed on star-crossed love. As Martin points out in an introduction, this is a theme that has intrigued authors for years. For ever. What distinguished these stories are the voices sharing them: 17 very recognizable names from fantasy, science fiction and romance. As a result we move from high fantasy to zombie-infested woods and from dystopia to paradise. The list of authors contributing star-crossed tales is impressive and inviting: Jo Beverly, Robin Hobb, Jacquiline Carey, Neil Gaiman, Mary Jo Putney, Tanith Lee, Yasmine Galenorn, Diana Gabaldon and nine others. If the collection that results is slightly uneven, is it possible to be surprised? It’s an interesting theme, well-blended. This was my favorite short fiction collection of the year. -- Lincoln Cho

Sweetness from Ashes by Marlyn Horsdal (Brindle & Glass)
264 pages

It surprised me to learn that Sweetness from Ashes was Marlyn Horsdal’s debut novel. Those deeply entrenched in Canadian writing -- especially from the Western part of the country -- know her name well. From 1984 until 2002, she was co-publisher of the small but esteemed Horsdal & Schubart Publishing imprint. She has edited many very good Canadian authors and I’ve always known her own voice held clarity and sense, though it turns out I must have known this through her non-fiction and essay work. It was, however, unsurprising to discover that Sweetness from Ashes is a confident and accomplished debut. An exploration of family feuds and secrets, Horsdal leads her readers across Canada and to parts of Africa on a journey of familial discovery. As those of us who read a great deal of CanLit know, such journeys often end in shame and heartbreak. Refreshingly, though, Horsdal’s vision is a more mature one. She leads us across her vistas with a sort of vibrant abandon. I loved Sweetness from Ashes. It’s a book for which I feel I’ve waited a long time. -- Monica Stark

What Is Left the Daughter by Howard Norman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) 256 pages
When a bizarre love tangle causes 17-year-old Wyatt Hillyer’s parents to jump off different bridges within a few hours of each other, the tone of Wyatt’s life seems set. He must pick up sticks and go to live in a small town with his uncle and aunt and their gorgeous daughter. Despite what could certainly sound like a farcical set up, What Is Left the Daughter is a searing look into the hearts of the characters author Howard Norman builds for us so skillfully. What Is Left the Daughter is a slender book that, nonetheless, packs a surprising punch. Norman’s novel seems oddly weighty at times. Important. As though there are thoughts and lessons being imparted that the reader should pay close attention to. Two of Norman's novels -- 1994’s The Bird Artist and 1987’s The Northern Lights -- have been shortlisted for a National Book Award. What Is Left the Daughter is a book of that calibre. I would not be surprised to see it exceed the accolades accorded Norman’s earlier works. -- Aaron Blanton

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (Picador) 640 pages
Wolf Hall debuted in hardcover late last year, but was released in paperback in 2010. The story portrays a man who has been described by historians as scheming, unscrupulous and utterly ruthless. In a word, the subject is potentially fascinating. Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540) was born of humble parents, and rose to unequalled heights for services rendered to King Henry VIII (the suppression of the monasteries, eviction of the monks, the break with the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope, Henry’s unheard-of “divorce” from Catherine of Aragon, the king’s remarriage to Anne Boleyn and so on). Cromwell became Lord Chancellor and Lord Great Chamberlain, the most powerful man in England, only to be beheaded by his royal patron when he had outlived his usefulness. What draws a writer to such a seemingly negative character? Well, what attracted Milton to Lucifer, or Mario Puzo to the Corleone family? Hilary Mantel was obviously captivated by the complexity of the man behind the public mask. A faithful husband and proud father, a lawyer of exceptional ability, a gifted courtier who’s adroit in outmaneuvering the lords who surround the all-powerful King of England, Thomas Cromwell seems too large for life. He would be too large for fiction in lesser hands, yet Mantel’s Cromwell is wholly believable. She paints a picture of rare intensity, which probes deep beneath the square-faced bulk of the well-known Hans Holbein portrait, revealing Cromwell as a charmer, a gifted linguist, a skilled negotiator, a diplomat, a sardonic wit and an “intelligencer” who is always in the right place at the right time, always ready to offer shrewd advice. Most of all, the author portrays him as a man who coolly accepts the danger of the world in which he moves, knowing that he is bound to be pitched from the saddle, sooner or later. Mantel’s command of the time period and its characters -- Anne Boleyn is a masterpiece of coy practicality; Jane Seymour appears fleetingly as the shy girl from Wolf Hall (the title refers to the name of her family home) who will one day rule the royal roost -- and the effortless interweaving of historical details into a vibrant narrative are a mighty step beyond the norm for historical fiction. Add to this a whirling kaleidoscope of events, plots and counter-plots, which make the novel a powerful page-turner, and you have still barely scraped the surface of its delights. -- Michael Gregorio

You Comma Idiot by Doug Harris (Goose Lane) 326 pages
I have long been a sucker for the sort of fiction that might be known as lad lit, unless there was a better name for it, which there is not. To be honest, though, Doug Harris’ You Comma Idiot did not necessarily hit me as such when I first picked it up. In fact, I wasn’t quite sure just what it was. I knew only one thing: I couldn’t put it down. Small-time Montreal drug pusher Lee Goodstone is the idiot that title refers to. Lee is coasting along slacker-drug-pusher style when a series of events pushes his life into a higher gear than he’s entirely comfortable with. Debut author Doug Harris is a filmmaker and maybe some of that cinematic mojo shows up in You Comma Idiot, a book which seems long on both visuals and dialogue. But Harris’ approach to novel writing, while novel is also very tight. You don’t always know where you’re going, but the ride is a whole lot of fun. -- David Middleton

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Best Books of 2010: Non-Fiction

Editor’s note: This is the sixth segment of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2010 feature. Thus far, we’ve run our choices for the best Books for Children and Young Adults, Cookbooks, Crime Fiction, Part I and Crime Fiction, Part II, and Art & Culture. The final installment, the best of fiction 2010, will be published tomorrow morning. -- LLR

Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky (Broadway) 352 pages
This is not a biography of the late David Foster Wallace. Rather it is a heartbreaking and surprisingly intimate visit with a giant talent that has since been too cheaply spent. Like just about everyone else who knew his work, more than two years after his death, I still feel the loss of this writer acutely. And that word that so many people have used in connection with Foster Wallace -- loss -- is entirely inaccurate. Because, of course, Foster Wallace killed himself. And he left us behind to make of all that’s left what we will. I can’t quite bring myself to forgive him for that. The books he won’t write. The stories he won’t tell. “Suicide is such a powerful end," Lipsky writes in an afterword that runs near the beginning of the book. Appropriate somehow, “it reaches back and scrambles the beginning. It has an event gravity: Eventually, every memory and impression gets tugged in its direction.” In 1996, Rolling Stone assigned Lipsky to travel with Foster Wallace near the end of the tour for Infinite Jest, the work that would make him famous. Lipsky is a skilled interviewer and a terrific writer and so what we end up with is far, far beyond what might be expected. One of the great literary minds of his generation speaking frankly and at length with an award-winning journalist who, himself, has a great deal to say. I imagine that, as the years pass, we will see biographies about the troubled and talented Foster Wallace. I doubt, however, we’ll see another portrait that cuts quite this close to the bone. A remarkable book. You hear Foster Wallace’s amazing voice on every page. And your heart breaks all over again. -- Linda L. Richards

Animal Factory by David Kirby (St. Martin’s Press) 512 pages
Many Americans have no idea where their food comes from, and many have no desire to find out. As author David Kirby himself points out, this is beginning to change. Certainly anyone who manages to read even part of Animal Factory will find themselves unable to look at many things in the same way. Kirby uses all his skill as a crack investigative journalist to tell his story through the lens of three families -- and their communities -- whose lives have been horribly impacted by the factory farms in their neighborhoods. Considering the passionate feelings Kirby uncovers in his travels, Animal Factory is a surprisingly level book. Even if you’ve never given a thought to the welfare of the animals raised in factory farms, recent public health crises -- swine flu, bird flu, mad cow and others -- have been forcing us to pull our collective heads out of the sand. Animal Factory will give you a close look at many aspects you might not previously have considered. It is a book that is capable of changing you. The question is: are you ready to change? -- Aaron Blanton

Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse by James Swanson (Morrow)
480 pages

The assassination of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, was tragic by itself. But the fact that he should have been gunned down in his seat at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., less than a week after Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee surrendered to his Union counterpart, General Ulysses S. Grant -- effectively concluding the U.S. Civil War -- raised Lincoln’s demise from calamity to legend. In the tumultuous aftermath, government officials put together a historic, 1,600-mile train trip that carried the martyred president’s corpse from the U.S. capital back to his former home in Springfield, Illinois. Repeatedly along the way, Lincoln’s casket was unloaded and put on view for the local citizenry, even though it became increasingly difficult to hide the deterioration of his cadaver. Approximately one million Americans showed up to view Lincoln in death, while some seven million more kept vigil along the route of his funeral train, their sadness illuminated by nighttime fires or the daytime waving of flags. Meanwhile, as this 27-day pageant of death unfolded, Jefferson Davis -- a former U.S. senator from Mississippi and Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, who had become president of the breakaway Confederate States of America in 1861 -- left Richmond, Virginia, his recently captured capital, and trained off to the south, hoping to re-establish his government farther from the war’s front lines. Hot on his heels were Union troops, charged with capturing Davis, who many in the North believed was complicit in Lincoln’s murder. Swanson, the Edgar Award-winning author of Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer (2006), does an outstanding job of juxtaposing these two political dramas. He highlights the often weird spectacle of Lincoln’s dying hours and the behind-the-scenes disputes resulting from the late president’s progress westward, at the same time as he lets readers in on the largely forgotten events surrounding the flight of Davis and his cabinet members farther and farther south, into areas where faith in the Confederate cause was rapidly waning. We all know that Davis -- who shared more with Lincoln than either man might have understood at the time -- was eventually captured, and Lincoln’s body (along with the companion casket containing his young son Willie) finally reached Illinois. However, Swanson draws tremendous life from the occurrences in between. He also reminds us that while Lincoln perished at the moment of his foremost success, Davis lived until 1889, long after his failures had been accepted and his unexpected political restoration begun. Together with Manhunt, Bloody Crimes fills out our understanding of a period when the dream of America was most at risk, but also most fervently on display. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Breakfast at the Exit Cafe: Travels Through America by Wayne Grady and Merilyn Simonds (Greystone Books) 308 pages
2010 was the year for Canadian authors to pull up stakes and travel through the U.S., then write about it. Derek Lundy did in the spring with his very good Borderlands: Riding the Edge of America (Knopf Canada), then husband-and-wife authors Wayne Grady (The Great Lakes, Tree: A Life Story) and Merilyn Simonds (The Lion in the Room Next Door, The Holding) did even better in the fall with Breakfast at the Exit Cafe. They begin by saying the didn’t intend to write a book. They were in Vancouver and decided to drive home to Ontario the long way, “down along the Pacific coast, across the southern states, then up the Atlantic seaboard. It was to be a holiday, an excursion.” But, they write in a preface, they should have known better. “Put two writers together in a car and keep them there for a couple of months, and it’s more than likely you’ll get a book.” By the time they got home, they’d driven over 15,000 kilometers and travelled through 22 states. They might have been looking for a taste of America, but they got a whole meal. One of the delightful things about Breakfast at the Exit Cafe are the alternating voices -- different yet certainly complementary. Simmonds is one of Canada’s most respected and lyrical voices. Grady is one of the country’s finest science writers and each of them has written about 14 books but, as far as I know, this is the first time they’ve written one together. And it works. It really, really works. What begins as an examination of the United States by Canadians on the road becomes a portrait of a marriage and, somewhere along the way, the two thoughts converge, with the idea of Canada and the United States, physically linked by the border between, linked also in their own marriage. What, for me, pushed the book from merely really good to sublime were those twinned voices. The things they discovered were secondary for me. I would follow them on any journey. I'd like to listen to the two of them talk all day. -- Linda L. Richards

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James S. Shapiro (Simon & Schuster) 352 pages

The debate goes like this: the man known to the world as William Shakespeare was the uneducated, possibly illiterate, son of a crude glover. He never strayed more than 100 kilometers from his birthplace of Stratford, England. He was a ruthless businessman, not above suing a neighbor over a missed loan payment. (Shylock, call your office!) He was ignorant about history, the machinations of the British monarchy, world travel, art, poetry and from the sounds of his will (in which he left his wife only his “second best bed”), a pretty indifferent spouse. How could this man possibly have written the finest drama and poetry of Western Civilization? The counter-argument has traditionally gone like this: Shakespeare wrote the works of Shakespeare because, well, he just did, and that’s all there is to it. Now run along. In Contested Will, James Shapiro follows up his granular study of 12 months in the playwright’s life (2005’s A Year in the Life of Shakespeare: 1599) with a sweeping view of the authorship questions that have tailed the plays like a tin can ever since the 18th century. While many authorial theories have been debated over the centuries, the two leading candidates to be the real author of Shakespeare’s work have been Francis Bacon and the 16th Earl of Oxford, Earl deVere. In the midst of all of this, Shapiro delights us with tales of ingenious literary forgeries, the backbiting between rival camps and the passionate beliefs of Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain and Helen Keller, among others. To this day, Earl of Oxford devotees include two of our era’s leading Shakespearean actors (Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance) as well as U.S. Supreme Court Justices (Antonin Scalia is rumored to be an Oxfordian). Then, in a twist worthy of the Bard himself, Shapiro coolly skewers the anti-Shakespeare crowd, showing the illogical fallacies, insufferable elitism and convenient amnesia required to maintain the illusion that anyone other than the man from Stratford penned the works of Shakespeare. This book is a magnificent tour de force. -- Stephen Miller

Here’s Looking at Euclid: A Surprising Excursion Through the Astonishing World of Math by Alex Bellos (Free Press) 336 pages
With that title Here’s Looking at Euclid promises to deliver the impossible: math that is fun. Who knew it could even be done? Well, actually, author Alex Bellos did. Bellos claims that, as a child, he was good at both writing and math (a combination many -- myself included -- would have thought was impossible). After graduating from Oxford with degrees in math and philosophy he became a journalist. And where do you go from there? Here’s Looking at Euclid.
This is one of those rare and wonderful books that manages to entertain, enlighten and engage on every level. There are aspects of geometry -- and PI and x-factor and so much else -- that you’ll never look at the same way again. -- Aaron Blanton

The Hilliker Curse by James Ellroy (Knopf) 204 pages
The North American reviews I’ve seen for The Hilliker Curse have mostly been astonishingly lukewarm, at best. This has been a head-scratcher because if you actually read the book you see that the writing here is sterling. Prose-wise, the Demon Dog of American Literature has never been in better shape. Mind you, it’s memoir and, as many people know through Ellroy’s earlier work of autobiographical non-fiction, My Dark Places, this author’s own story rivals that of any of his fictions. But the nail on the coffin for North American reviewers is probably the subtitle: My Pursuit of Women. Before you even get warmed up, a lot of reviewers are going to be compelled to either comment negatively on the book or ignore it. These are the soft and squishy times to which we’ve come. The thing is, The Hilliker Curse is not a story that is either happy or sappy. There are few rainbows here, and the author of L.A. Confidential and The Cold Six Thousand doesn’t ride into the sunset in the end. This is a man whose childhood relationship with his mother was dysfunctional at best. In one of their stormy intervals, then ten-year-old James wished her dead. Three months later, she was. Unsurprisingly, as he grew to adulthood, Ellroy brought his issues with him, among them, a bucketful of oedipal guilt and a front end loader full of issues about women. And this would surprise you because...? Don’t get me wrong: The Hilliker Curse is not a pretty read. And sometimes... well, you just wanna look away. But such is the power of this writer: when Ellroy implies something, you feel it all the way to your bones. And this time out, what you feel, sometimes, is the need to take a shower. But, like it or not, that’s power, as well. -- Linda L. Richards

How to Defeat Your Own Clone by Kyle Kurpinski and Terry D. Johnson (Bantam) 192 pages
Written by a couple of actual and for-real bioengineers, How to Defeat Your Own Clone is fascinating reading. Even when they play it for laughs, a message is being brought home. Here is what your future may look like, they seem to be saying at times and though the tone is often playful, they manage to pack a wallop of a message into this very slender paperback volume. As Kurpinski has said, “While many books have already been published on cloning and genetic manipulation, half seem to be textbooks and the other half are science fiction novels. The problem is that the former are generally unwieldy or boring for the average reader, while the latter have little or no scientific value or basis.” How to Defeat Your Own Clone fills that gap handily, adding just enough silly to make us stop and think. -- David Middleton

How the Scots Invented Canada by Ken McGoogan (HarperCollins) 384 pages
There is a certain delicious levity in Ken McGoogan’s newest book. A certain hands-on-hips insouciance that fans of his sterling quartet of books on arctic exploration might not be expecting. I imagine that will be OK, though. For one thing, How the Scots Invented Canada should win the award-winning author busloads of new fans. Informed, at least in the embryonic stage, by those very books on exploration as well as the slivers of Scottish blood in his own veins, McGoogan (Lady Franklin’s Revenge, Fatal Passage) takes a Bryson-like approach to his topic, jumping in with both feet and spinning out on a journey beyond any at which the staid cover might hint. McGoogan skillfully weaves his careful research through his personal journey through Scotland to look at his own tartan roots and those of his wife, as well as to find answers to a few key questions: “Why did so many Scots emigrate in the first place? And how was it that, once in Canada, they had proven so influential?” Despite the delicious levity in entirely appropriate places, and beneath the somewhat silly title, How the Scots Invented Canada is a serious -- sometimes even scholarly -- work and the author has done his research and shares it skillfully. -- Linda L. Richards

Life by Keith Richards (Little, Brown) 576 pages
I anticipated the worst and got the best. Who would have thought Keith Richards long-awaited biography would actually be worth reading. And yet it was. After two-point-five million years with the Rolling Stones, Richards just has so much to say. So many great stories and, as it turns out, so many scathing observations. (He refers to band-mate Mick Jagger as "Brenda.” One almost doesn't have to say more.) One of the things that makes Life standout is the richness of the life it covers. Compare Life to another rock biography that came out at the same time: First Step 2 Forever by Justin Beiber. Even if Beiber’s life to date had been packed with adventure, it could not have the depth and texture of Richards.’ Deal with it: Beiber was born in 1994. Richards probably has shoes older than that. The comparison isn’t fair, though, because Richards is an international icon and his autobiography reads like (sometimes mean-spirited) decrees from a rock king. -- Adrian Marks

The Man Who Left Too Soon: The Biography of Stieg Larsson (John Blake Publishing UK) 294 pages
The first Stieg Larsson biography to reach bookstores comes from one of Britain’s most knowledgeable literary critics, Barry Forshaw. And it’s clear from the outset that Forshaw is a fan of Larsson’s work, though he does not shy away from pointing out faults in the late author’s Millennium Trilogy, which are often forgotten amidst all of the hyperbole. Forshaw’s book is spilt into three sections. The first, and probably most interesting, offers insight into Larsson’s life and death. Interviews with many of Larsson’s friends and business colleagues, as well as family members, help portray a very driven and fearless journalist. Larsson’s left-wing politics can be traced back to his grandfather’s influence and the period of the Vietnam War, during which Larsson met his longtime partner, Eva Gabrielsson (who is now herself writing a Larsson bio), at an antiwar rally. This section also details the origins of Larsson’s series protagonist, superhacker Lisbeth Salander, being a combination of his niece, Therese, and what Pippi Longstocking might be like as an adult. Forshaw lays to rest some surreal conspiracy theories that have sprouted up like poison ivy since Larsson’s early demise in 2004, recounting the novelist’s obsessive, workaholic nature, his lack of exercise and the punishment his body underwent as he smoked three packs of cigarettes a day, while gobbling mouthfuls of Billy’s Pan Pizza. There’s also significant information provided in these pages regarding the legal battle that has sprung up around Larsson’s estate, because he left no will behind. While the second section of The Man Who Left Too Soon helpfully links Larsson’s life and philosophies to his bestselling fiction, it is perhaps the weakest, focusing on the three Salander books themselves, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008), The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009) and this year’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Finally, Part III of Forshaw’s book provides commentary from his contemporaries, both Scandinavian and British, on the Millennium series. The Man Who Left Too Soon is cast as a warts-and-all look back one of the early 21st century’s most phenomenal crime series and authors. It’s a must-buy for Larsson fans. -- Ali Karim

A Peculiar Tribe of People: Murder and Madness in the Heart of Georgia by Richard Jay Hutto (Lyons Press) 239 pages
For me A Peculiar Tribe of People is the sort of true crime that has wings. Author Richard Jay Hutto’s bio announces him as “one of the foremost historians of the Gilded Age.” As well as being an author, a respected historian, and a former White House Appointments Secretary to the Carter family (President Jimmy Carter blurbed the book) he is also a member of the City Council of Macon, Georgia. Quite frankly, the whole package would seem to indicate someone just born to write this book. Hutto has, in any case, done a very good job. I could not put down this account of murder and madness Southern grotesque style. The murder of the wife of a well-known Macon, Georgia man is murdered and attention is first focused on the local Klan. Later, the man is arrested for murdering his wife and, as the trial gets underway, real Southern mayhem begins. This is one of those stories that, in many ways, truly is stranger than fiction. I simply could not put it down. -- Adrian Marks

The Zero-Mile Diet by Carolyn Herriot (Harbour Publishing)
256 pages

From the very first, The Zero Mile Diet makes the 100 Mile Diet seem like last week’s news. That’s no accident. Bestselling author and accomplished seed grower and vendor Carolyn Herriot has pushed the idea of sustainability right to the very edge. Never mind being able to find everything you eat within a 100 mile radius. What about finding everything you need right in your own backyard? For obvious reasons, actually living off your backyard garden plot -- or apartment balcony -- won’t be viable for everyone, but there is thoughtful, well-documented material here that is widely useful and deeply interesting. Herriot describes the problems that exist as she sees them: urban crawl driving prices up, an aging agrarian class due, in part, to rising land costs, and the fact -- most disturbing of all -- that we’ve mostly lost the ability to even see that there is a problem. The Zero Mile Diet takes us through a year in Herriot’s garden. And it’s a gorgeous, eventful year, filled with great photos -- some illustrative, some instructive -- recipes, hints, tips and plans. It’s an astonishing, eye-opening book, destined to be a modern classic. Anyone who has given even half an hour’s thought to these important issues would do well to add a copy to their library. -- Monica Stark

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Best Books of 2010: Art & Culture

Editor’s note: This is the fifth segment of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2010 feature. Thus far, we’ve run our choices for the best Books for Children and Young Adults, Cookbooks, and Crime Fiction, Part I and Crime Fiction, Part II. Still to come: non-fiction and fiction, which will be rolling out over the next couple of days. -- LLR

Alarm 38: Invisible (Alarm Press) 237 pages
It seems to me that Alarm has become for music what Dwell has become for magazines about homes: a rediscovery and reinterpretation. An application really, of art to the discussion of an industry that is all too often devoid of it. Alarm the magazine has now transitioned to Alarm the quarterly series of collector-quality books. Does the world want that? That is, will people buy what Alarm is selling? I don’t know, but I hope so because, if Invisible is any indication at all, what they’re selling is very, very good. Alarm 38: Invisible dedicates itself to Overlooked Albums and Unseen Artists, which is likely all the description you need other than the diversity of musical styles included is almost unthinkable, the writing is sharp and right on the money, the photography and art memorable and just as good as it gets. In some ways, Alarm seems hardly to belong in a compilation of the best books of the year. (Is it a book at all?) In other ways, how could it not be here? If you enjoy reading about music and if music moves your soul, chances are, you’ll love Alarm. -- India Wilson

American Trademarks: A Compendium edited by Eric Baker and Tyler Blik (Chronicle Books) 256 pages
After I left art school I found three books that were to forever change the way I looked at logo design. Eric Baker and Tyler Blik’s Trademarks of the 20’s and 30’s, Trademarks of the ‘40s and ‘50s and Tyler Blik’s Trademarks of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Each a startling and fascinating collection of some of the finest and kookiest commercial logos. These books were the go-to reference when clients wanted something that looked a bit retro or just for inspiration. Now Baker and Blik have done one better with American Trademarks: A Compendium. More than just a collection of all the logos from the previous three, American Trademarks also includes comments by such contemporary design luminaries as Charles Anderson, Eric Strohl and Michael Doret -- plus many more -- and examples of their work to no doubt be added to the historic compendium. Even if you own the other three books, American Trademarks is still a must-have for designers or anybody interested in the history and evolution of the American logo. -- David Middleton

The Art of McSweeney’s (Chronicle Books) 264 pages
There’s a great deal to like about The Art of McSweeney’s. It is dense with ideas, stuffed with creativity and practically choked by talent. But the thing to like best, at least from where I’m standing, is that The Art of McSweeney’s is like a single volume celebration of the book and a thumb of the nose at the sky-is-falling crowd. Did you say the book has no future? Well The Art of McSweeney’s? It says something else. This book has been published at a time when there are some rumblings about the dire future of the book, and of the printed book in particular. There are various rumors that people read less now, and that people will read still less in the future. And that, even if they do read at all, it will be on screens, and not on paper. The Art of McSweeney’s is a coffee-table-style book that takes us through McSweeney’s various publications since -- and including -- the company was hatched out of then bookish wunderkind Dave Egger’s super creative noggin. Included here are art and comments from David Byrne, Sarah Vowell, Michael Chabon, Chris Ware and many others. It’s a fantastic book: a celebration between two covers, one that should mature to become a gorgeous momento from one of publishing’s strangest hours. -- Linda L. Richards

Art of the Middle East: Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab World and Iran by Saeb Eigner (Merrell) 383 pages
For about the last 10 years, many of us have been more concerned about the connections between west and east than we ever were before. I’m not sure a book like The Kite Runner, for instance, would have had the grand run it did had it been published pre-9-11. Clearly, the events of that day were awful and have left an indelible mark on so much, but there has been some good and we have to take that good where we find it, I think. For me, one of those places has been in looking for commonalities between the Arab world and the west, rather than listening to those who would always underline the differences. Now all of these things are likely not the best reason to enjoy Art of the Middle East, but it’s a good starting point for those who would like a cleaner view of a world that, for some, seems incomprehensible. Like so much else in life, look closely at the art and you see that it is anything but. These are the things I felt as I read and looked and instinctively understood Art of the Middle East. And then I read the Preface. “In a world filled with misunderstanding,” author, linguist and man of the world, Saeb Eigner, writes, “there can be nothing more fulfilling than to engage -- even in a small way -- in dispelling some of the stereotypes and prejudices that cloud people's judgment.” As he points out, culture makes a wonderful bridge for crossing divides. And we cross those divides here in a stunningly reproduced book of art that is mostly clearly understandable to westerners, yet also clearly of its own time and place. More than 400 photographs in a book that includes the work of over 200 artists, Art of the Middle East is a comprehensive survey of the art of the middle east from the 1950s to the present day. An absolute must for scholars of contemporary art and a real conversation starter for the coffee table. Art of the Middle East will take your breath away. -- Adrian Marks

The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves by Andrew Potter (Harper/McClelland & Stewart) 304 pages

No matter what you make of Andrew Potter’s path to bring us back to reality, it’s an interesting journey. A philosophical one, in many ways. On a par with the paths of thought taken by the (thus far) better known Alain de Botton, who is, after all, one of our best known contemporary philosophers. Though he holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Toronto, that isn’t what Potter calls himself, but that does not change facts. Read his work and you’ll see: this is an artful, gymnastic mind and he takes on some of our biggest contemporary foibles in a book that manages to be both sweeping and intricate at the same time. The author argues that the quest for authenticity in our lives is nothing more than yet another form of status seeking: ecotourism, performance art, the cults of Oprah and Obama and more. Potter weaves elements of history, philosophy and pop culture together in a book that will leave an impression even if it doesn’t necessarily show us the path. Is Andrew Potter one of the great thinkers of our age? He may well be: this is great stuff. -- David Middleton

Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim (Knopf) 480 pages
Before I begin, full disclosure: I am named after Tony in West Side Story. I only mention it because Stephen Sondheim wrote that musical’s lyrics -- and I suppose if Tony had been called Fred, I’d have a different byline. Anyway, after some 50-plus years writing for the musical theater, Sondheim, America’s most celebrated composer/lyricist, has collected the lyrics for 13 of his shows in one fat, miraculous volume, Finishing the Hat. The title is taken from the name of a song in his Sunday in the Park with George, whose lyrics are not in this volume (but will be in the next). The song itself is about how the artist seals himself off from life, even insulating himself from it, to finish what he is creating. Perhaps the title tells us a lot about Sondheim, perhaps not. Either way, the book is a treasure trove. It turns out the lyrics themselves, while they occupy most of the pages, play second fiddle to the endless anecdotes about Sondheim’s shows and collaborators. There are also fascinating photographs of scribbled notes, rethought lines, and much more. Truly, this is a book not about lyrics but a laser-sharp examination of the lyricist himself, by himself. I imagine it’s as close to an autobiography as we’re likely to get, sort of a deluxe Cliff’s Notes about one artist’s musical theater literature. -- Tony Buchsbaum

Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language by Robert McCrum (W.W. Norton) 331 pages
There’s something deliciously industrious about Globish, novelist, journalist and premature curmudgeon Robert McCrum’s take on how English took over the world. Compared with the density of thought McCrum establishes in the prologue, the book itself is surprisingly lively. Clearly, the author has a passion for his subject. McCrum takes us through the rise to prominence -- nay: dominance -- of the English language in our modern world. In that way, Globish sometimes feels like a biography -- in this case, of a language. At other times it reads like passionately shared history. At all times, though, Globish is a deeply fascinating book. McCrum brings history -- and language -- to vibrant life. -- Aaron Blanton

Modern North: Architecture on the Frozen Edge by Julie Decker (Princeton Architectural Press) 240 pages
As the topic for a book about architecture, the North seems so esoteric it’s almost ridiculous. How could that possibly be a theme of sufficient glue to connect a book? Especially a book worthy of note? And yet Modern North delivers in every way imaginable. More, really, because there is a vitality and a creativity born of need in play that would have been a difficult thing to factor in. Author Julie Decker (Quonset Hut) points out there is a tradition of deeply created architecture that emerges from the very culture of the north. In the 36 stunning homes and public buildings in Northern Canada, Alaska and Scandinavia, Decker has chosen to include in Modern North, we have moved quite far beyond simple survival. A research center in Norway seems almost to be part of the hills that surround it. A simple hotel in Finland rises box-like and austere from its seaside lot. A cultural center in Dawson City, Yukon, bends old and new design for a striking rethinking of both. And a grouping of schools in Alaska seem more about survival than design until you take a closer look. Decker and a hand-picked team of essayists who comment on the demands and challenges of designing for the North, do a splendid job of sharing that which many of us have not even previously considered. -- David Middleton

Natural Houses: The Residential Architecture of Andersson-Wise (Princeton Architectural Press) 176 pages
At first glance, Natural Houses seems very specific. And it is, I suppose. It’s a very tight and beautifully published portfolio of the work of a single design firm: that of Andersson-Wise in Austin, Texas. But those passionate about a new design vernacular will do well to have a close look at the living visions of Chris Wise and Arthur Andersson. This really is design for the 21st century. And it’s not that they are the only designers bringing a new and more conscious vision to the homes they are creating. But they do it so very well. The book that results from this aesthetic is a series of soaring visits to Andersson-Wise designed homes. It’s an interesting journey, too. Opening our minds to the possibilities not only what can be but what, in some cases, already is. -- David Middleton

The Near-Sighted Monkey Book by Lynda Barry (Drawn & Quarterly) 225 pages
Though I’ve not always been a fan of Lynda Barry’s crudely drawn and sometimes self-indulgent comic art, The Near-Sighted Monkey Book (Drawn and Quarterly) is a work of genius. In this generously proportioned book, Barry uses the most outlandish of her art to muse on some truly important issues and, in the process, she opens the possibility of meaningful discussions on the importance of art in our lives and why -- and when -- we stop making it. Though I would hazard that there’s no right or wrong way to read this book, on your first pass, I would recommend you sit down with the book and begin at the beginning, following all the possibilities of narrative from start to finish, as I’m guessing the author intended. It really is only a guess, though: with the generous flow she’s shared with us here, all things are possible. Long-time fans will recognize Marlys, Barry’s most beloved character. Here she is joined by the Near-Sighted Monkey, a character that various clues had me thinking was autobiographical, at least in part. But don’t look for anything as mundane as story, Marlys and the monkey are merely guides. Barry asks questions: “What is a picture? What is it made of?” and “When we see the water-stain creatures, are we inventing them or is the ceiling inventing them?” and most importantly, “Why do we stop drawing? Why do we start?” The questions are scattered through the book -- and some of them repeat -- along with other questions as well as exercises involving form and color, all of which seem designed to help you open a vein of creativity, especially if this is something that has become difficult for you. “Why do we stop drawing? Why do we start?” I defy anyone to give the book an honest read-through and not feel inspired -- and, yes -- enriched. -- Linda L. Richards

Star Trek: The Original Series 365 by Paula M. Block and Terry J. Erdmann (Abrams) 744 pages
Star Trek: The Original Series 365 touts itself as a definitive guide to the original program. But, really: how can anything about a show that has survived in one incarnation or another over 44 years be that definitive? There is bound to be more Star Trek stuff to come which could be just as definitive. No matter. This book on the original Trek is quite fascinating. It is also what a fan of the original series will love. It not only contains a synopsis of each to the 79 episodes but also includes behind-the-scenes histories combined with what any true Trekker (or have we gone back to being called Trekkies? I can’t keep up) loves to hear: never-before-seen images -- as well as really cool before-seen ones. Neither sappy nor overly romantic, Star Trek: The Original Series 365 is really just a wonderful little book about an iconic television series. True fans will love it. -- David Middleton

Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake: The Life of Artie Shaw by Tom Nolan (W.W. Norton) 430 pages
When Artie Shaw died in 2004 at the age of 94, I was among those surprised that he was still alive: he had quit performing half a century before. “I did all you can do with a clarinet,” Shaw said about his early retirement. “Any more would have been less.” Tom Nolan’s account of Shaw’s life in Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake is both respectful and in-depth. Author and journalist Nolan interviewed Shaw many times while he was alive and since then, “spoke with a hundred other individuals willing to share memories and insights regarding one of the greatest popular artists of the twentieth century.” Nolan takes us through Shaw’s life in chronological fashion, including a string of ill-fated marriages. There were eight wives in all, including actresses Lana Turner, Doris Dowling, Ava Gardner and his widow, Evelyn Keyes and Kathleen Winsor, author of Forever Amber. It is not the many failed marriages, however, that Nolan uses most to transport us. That place is reserved by art in various forms and the way it manifested in Shaw’s life. Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake is a portrait of the King of Swing, sure. More than that, though, it is a jazz biography and a celebration of “America’s indigenous artform.” -- Aaron Blanton

The Tulip Anthology by Ron van Dongen (Chronicle Books)
232 pages

There is something inexpressibly lovely about The Tulip Anthology, a book that celebrates that most common and magical flower, the tulip. With an introduction by Anna Pavord who forever changed tulip literature with The Tulip (Bloomsbury) ten years ago, here sets up a physically very different, but spiritually very similar book about tulips. In fact Pavord’s own The Tulip and van Dongen’s The Tulip Anthology would be a perfect set piece. And you certainly wouldn't ever need to learn anything more about tulips. Though the text portions of The Tulip Anthology are very, very good, they’re not the point of this very large, over-sized coffee table book. The book collects various short writings on tulips and intersperses them with van Dongen’s truly remarkable photos. And so, on one huge page: “The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals; They are like the mouth of some great African cat.” -- Sylvia Plath in “Tulips.” And opposite is a photograph -- close up and personal -- of a Tulipa “Rococo” (Parrot) tulip that truly does look like some jungle creature. Perhaps, indeed, a cat. Tulips in art. In traditional fashion. Snippets of tulip history. And everywhere massively wonderful photos of tulips. “The tulip is a great seducer,” Pavord writes, “and once it has you in its grasp, it is reluctant to let you go.” -- Monica Stark

The Ultimate Metallica by Ross Halfin (Chronicle Books)
232 pages

No one is more astonished than me to be including a book about heavy metal icons Metallica as one of my picks for the top books of 2010. And this is one time you really can not judge a book by its cover because, from the outside, The Ultimate Metallica looks like just another heavy metal handbook. Between the covers, though, it’s another story entirely. Legendary rock photographer Ross Halfin brings together a quarter century of photographs. And these are stunning photographs: simply the best of their kind. From full on stadium shots to intimate and posed portraits to location shoots the photographer himself set up, The Ultimate Metallica presents as finely drawn a portrait of the band as has ever been displayed. Even non-fans can appreciate the quality of this work, but fans will simply lose it. As I’ve stressed the photos -- all of them -- are great as are written chapters by Halfin, Metallica drummer and founder Lars Ulrich and manager Peter Mensch. If I have a quibble, it’s that I would have liked more information on each of the photos: where, what and when were they? Though, in fairness, I have a hunch that real fans will know exactly what they're looking at. It’s a book of few words, though, and big, bold, well-printed photos. Not much talk but a lot of action, a lot like the band themselves. -- Lincoln Cho

Weddings by Tara Guérard (Gibbs Smith) 176 pages
Anyone who ever dreamed of a wedding, dreamed of one of these weddings: society confections quite beyond the means -- and perhaps even imaginations -- of mere mortals. Yet somehow, the perfection and expense displayed in the dozen weddings profiled here does nothing to detract from both the usefulness and beauty of Weddings. Author Tara Guérard calls herself an “event designer” and, if Weddings is any indication, she’s a pretty good one. Her creds indicate the same thing: in 2005 Modern Bride Magazine selected her as a Top Trendsetter and her work has been featured in every magazine one would think it would be important for her to be featured in: Food & Wine, Southern Living, InStyle Weddings, Martha Stewart Weddings and many others. Guérard’s sense of style and what’s right for every occasion shows up again in Weddings, a book quite unlike any other I’ve seen on this topic. Absolutely absent are the endless worrying lists that clutter other wedding books: when to book, when to send, when to fret and -- most worrisome of all -- how much the whole thing might cost. Guérard’s book is about none of that. What we have here are gorgeous photo spreads -- magazine and modern album quality -- of weddings in progress. Included are telling detail shots: letterpress name-tags, perfectly coordinated gift bags, stylishly careless centerpieces, perfect food, perfect food, perfect food. There are hints at how some of the wedding transformations were accomplished: yards of fabric here, spray-painted boxes there, ribbon and gift-wrap fetchingly placed: Guérard shares her secrets and some of her sweetest moments in a way that is both unobtrusive and highly instructional. -- Sienna Powers

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