From Liz: Dear Committee Members

Here we go! First up is Liz Sher, children’s book buyer at Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, MA. Liz started her bookselling career in 2009 at Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., where she discovered some of her favorite people: me (hi, I’m Dana), Mal Peet, and Julie Orringer. She is one of the most passionate readers I know, and the look on her face while watching certain authors read from their books is the world’s purest example of bliss. Take it away, Liz!

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Ah, December reading round-ups! I look forward to these every year. And I’m grateful that Dana and Serena narrowed their field to books published in 2014. Otherwise the task of choosing just one book would have been (even more) impossible. So I won’t be talking about Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie mysteries; or Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land; or Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah, which I read for the second time; or Dorothea Grossman’s slim little poetry collection The Fun of Speaking English, which I carried around in my backpack for a month like a fizzy stash of nips. (Read them anyway.)

As for 2014 books that I read in 2014, Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members brought me the purest joy. It’s a novel told in increasingly deranged letters of recommendation, as written by a beleaguered English professor at a small Midwestern university. It’s funnier, sadder, more serious, and more soulful than you expect it to be. It’s a paean to and a plea for the literary life. It offers one of the simplest, loveliest explanations for reading books at all: a great book “will speak to something within us – some previously unarticulated thought or reflection that, once recognized, we will never want to be without again.”

Where should you buy this gem? Let’s honor the book’s Midwest college setting and head over to Iowa City’s Prairie Lights.

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Short stories about cheating made me cheat.

Image“Your girl catches you cheating. (Well, actually she’s your fiancée, but hey, in a bit it so won’t matter.)”
This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz

So this is slightly cheating because it’s actually the first line of the last story in this short story collection. But I figured it counts anyway, partly because it is a first line, after all, and partly because it’s representative of the kinds of first lines Díaz uses in all of these stories (for another example, “Miss Lora”: “Years later you would wonder if it hadn’t been for your brother would you have done it?”). It teases a backstory some big thing with big connections, connections that you, as you’re reading, have to keep going to figure out.

This is a collection of stories about a young Dominican man called Yunior and the women he loves, or doesn’t love well enough, or doesn’t understand how to love. He loses all of them. But it’s also about his relationships with his mother and his brother and his friends, and the way he and the other young men in his world live their lives, and how they’re expected to live their lives.

I read the last story in this collection first because my friend Liz (who writes about books and reading here) recommended it for this month’s theme. My first response was, “No. I cannot recommend this. Too much hating on women, too crass, too uncomfortable.” But I couldn’t get Yunior’s voice out of my head, so I went back. And read the whole thing in one day. And a picture emerged of a whole person, the sum of a bunch of parts. These stories can stand alone, but don’t force them to. They’re more complete when they’re connected.

A third morose male to complete the set

download“Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed.”
The Magicians by Lev Grossman

So this is coincidence, I swear, but I’m realizing now that there’s a certain similarity between the protagonists of the books I’ve recommended this month. All three characters (Hildy, Paul, and Quentin) are depressive, compelling, and (at least initially) male. Obviously I love them all, but I think Quentin Coldwater—brilliant, mopey, teenage hero of The Magicians—takes the cake.

Quentin’s one of those maddening characters who seems to be kind of incapable of being happy, even for short intervals, even when all his dreams are suddenly coming true. He spends his entire youth hoping and praying to find a world outside, beyond, this one, but (no spoilers, I promise) when he does, he still spends a lot of his time sulking because it isn’t exactly the way he imagined it would be.

I realize this sounds pretty annoying, and it kind of is, but for some reason, it’s impossible not to love him (and the book) anyway. Because, yes, Quentin may be whiny and obnoxious, but he’s also an incredibly believable teenager living in an utterly fascinating fantasy world that’s only a beat or two off from our own. We all remember what it was like to be him. And we all love watching him grow up, slowly, painfully, and with exactly as much grace as could be expected.

(Also, for the full experience, pick up the rest of the trilogy: The Magician King and, once it comes out in August, The Magician’s Land. I’m almost finished with the latter, and I can tell you this: They. Just. Get. Better. Honestly, I can’t believe I’m writing this instead of reading the last 60 pages.)

I bravely resisted a truly terrible pun.

9781416572459“Hello, this is Paul Chowder, and I’m going to tell you everything I know.”
The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

That’s pretty good, right? But it gets even better if you’ll allow me two more sentences: “Well, not everything I know, because a lot of what I know, you know. But everything I know about poetry.”

I like that first sentence, and the two that follow it, because they perfectly capture the distinctive voice of this lovely little book. That distinctive voice belongs to Paul Chowder (well, it technically belongs to Nicholson Baker, but you know what I mean)—sometimes poet, would-be anthologist, and charmingly melancholy narrator.

Paul is having a tough time right now. He’s broke, his career is seriously flagging, his girlfriend has moved out, and he’s supposed to be writing the introduction to a new anthology of rhyming poetry but he just can’t quite seem to get going. So, instead, he writes about inchworms and canoes and mowing the lawn. He writes about his ex and his neighbors and his dog. And, throughout it all, he does write about poetry, just like he promised. It’s just not exactly the kind of writing about poetry that could introduce an anthology.

You’ve probably guessed this already, but not a lot happens in this book. Paul lives his quiet life, fights his quiet battles, feels sorry for himself, thinks about how little he deserves to feel sorry for himself. It’s pretty low-key. But, trust me, Paul’s musings on poetry (not to mention everything else that pops into his mind) will be all you’ll want to read for as long as it takes you to finish The Anthologist. Maybe longer. Once you’ve had a taste of his voice in all its charm and wit and wisdom, anyone else’s takes some serious getting used to.

If it wasn’t clear, wheels are a metaphor for time.

Tuck Everlasting

The original cover

“The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.”
Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt

You remember this book from fifth grade, don’t you? I did. But I didn’t remember this perfect first sentence, or any of the other perfect sentences that follow, which make it a book you have to reread. I just remembered that it was that book about the immortal family.

Ten-year-old Winnie Foster is tired of being cooped up inside. So she runs away, deep into the woods, where she meets a boy named Jesse Tuck, who is drinking from a spring. But when she tries to drink from the spring herself, Jesse and his family force her away. They kidnap her and take her to their own cabin, where they reveal their secret: they cannot die. Eighty-seven years ago, they innocently drank from that spring, and they haven’t grown or aged or been hurt since. They’ve been forced off the wheel, Mr. Tuck says, and they’d give anything to be able to climb back on again. The Tucks need Winnie to keep their secret, to keep other people from drinking from the spring. But there’s a man on their tail, a man in a yellow suit, and he’s not interested in keeping any secrets.

Lyrical is usually bookseller-speak for “pretty writing, no plot,” but Tuck Everlasting is one big exception. It’s soft and quiet and contemplative, but it’s also a gripping mystery. It’s philosophical and fantastic, but it feels so real and grounded. And every sentence, starting with the very first, begs to be read out loud.

(Plus, neat trivia! Natalie Babbitt modeled the setting, especially the Tucks’ cabin, on an actual place: her own family’s cabin on a lake in the Adirondacks. So maybe it feels so real and grounded because… it is real and grounded. She also painted the original cover art (which, sadly, is not the cover art of the edition that’s currently in print), so yes, that’s her cabin right up there.)