The Passage by Justin Cronin (6/8/2010)
Rich Boy by Sharon Pomerantz (8/2/2010)
Man in the Woods by Scott Spencer (9/14/2010)
Listen to This by Alex Ross (9/28/2010)
The Bigness of the World by Lori Ostlund (10/1/2010)
Possum Trot by J. Harley McIlrath (10/2/2010)
World and Town by Gish Jen (10/5/2010)
In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut (10/13/2010)
How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu (10/14/2010)
The Box: Tales from the Darkroom by Günter Grass (11/10/2010)
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey by Walter Mosley (11/11/2010)
The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1 by Mark Twain (11/15/2010)
The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe by Andrew O’Hagan (12/6/2010)
Under Fishbone Clouds by Sam Meekings (12/7/2010)
The Four Stages of Cruelty by Keith Hollihan (12/7/2010)
Old Border Road by Susan Froderberg (12/9/2010)
The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna (1/4/2011)
The Empty Family by Colm Toibin (1/4/2011)


For an avid reader, the value of a good book can’t be priced.  That’s because a book provides an escape for its reader, acting as a portal to other worlds both real and imagined.  Books teach us about ourselves and enrich our lives through the adventures, misfortunes, and insights contained within them.  They have the ability to connect readers to one another—regardless of whether they ever meet—through a shared experience, despite the fact that reading (generally) is a solitary act.

As Anthony Doerr puts it in his essay about The Story and Its Writer, “We fall, we drift, we lose ourselves in other selves.”  Books are priceless because of the sentimental and associative values they have for us, both of which are intangible and can’t be sold at auction.

The essays that make up Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book insist that books in their physical, tangible form also contain a certain level of value that can’t be equaled by digital versions.  Contributors to this collection share stories about the associations they have with bound editions of books that have impacted their lives in one way or another.  These snapshot essays deliver more than a collective crusade for sustaining books printed on paper; they provide an intimate look of how books as irreplaceable objects have shaped these writers.

In the Foreword, Ray Bradbury reminisces about what lured him into reading Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe: it was the sheer size and heft of the book.  Had the massive tome not piqued his curiosity, Bradbury might not have unlocked the key to his own imagination. For Michael Ruhlman, The New Professional Chef, Fifth Edition changed the way he approaches all tasks he sets out to accomplish.  In his essay, he declares that the book “stands smack in the middle of the divide of who I was and who I am.”

Philipp Meyer reminds us that books stand the test of time.  In his own life, he credits the sight of stacked books his parents kept as the reason for reading the collection, the act of which ultimately resulted in his life-changing 180.  E-books, a Kindle, or a laptop, he says, never would have yielded those kinds of results.  Victoria Patterson’s sentiments on digital books run along the same lines: “On a screen, pages disappear.  For me, e-books are like ghosts of books.  They’re not here.”

Sarah Manguso is nostalgic for the book filled with wacky facts and weird pictures.  Her copy of Believe It or Not! gave her the sense of belonging to an exclusive club, a rite of passage reserved for those who made an effort to seek out bizarre knowledge.  Now, with the ease and accessibility of the internet, that exclusivity no longer exists; oddities are just a click away.

Julia Glass explores the connection between reader and story, while recalling her favorite childhood book.  She used the title of this book, Roar and More, in one of her own novels, and when the time came to get permission from the author, she realized that she couldn’t recall who wrote the book.  That’s because children don’t associate books with their authors; children go to books to read about their favorite characters, and in the case of picture books, to see those characters in action.

We put our books through hell, marking the margins in ink, dog-earring their pages in order to hold our spot, or—in Rabih Alameddine’s case—leaving a copy of The Carpetbaggers at his parent’s home in the mountains of Lebanon, which was bombed and looted during a time of civil war.  Sometimes, they return the gesture in various ways.

Shahriar Mandanipour writes about how his book collection, stowed away at a friend’s house, could have gotten them both killed during the Islamic Revolution; and Xu Xiaobin, who didn’t have the access to foreign titles in communist China, relates how alone and unloved she felt until Emily Dickinson’s work became available to her.  For the artist, Karen Green, The Collected Stories of Amy Hempl provided her comfort and companionship following the suicide of her husband, David Foster Wallace.

In one instance, a writer displays a moment of ambivalence toward the shift from print to digital.  While searching for an e-copy of Another Country—a book that has been, and still is, with him in every stage of his writing career—he was unable to find it in the electronic format.  “This makes me sad,” he says, “and extremely happy.”

Bound to Last isn’t meant to denounce or reject e-books completely; rather, this collection is a reminder—almost a rally—to book lovers from book lovers of books’ importance in printed form.  To hold a book in your hands, smell the must it gives off, see the worn binding, feel the page turn—these sensory perceptions can send you back to a pivotal moment in your life, in addition to transporting you into the world of a great story.  Books, in their digital form, can still give you that world, so long as they’re experienced and don’t get lost in the virtual shuffle.

Da Capo Press
October 26, 2010

Just in time for the holiday shopping season, Da Capo Press has released some new titles worth checking out:

Best Music Writing 2010
Ann Powers (guest editor), Daphne Carr (series editor)
November 1st, 2010

From the publisher:

Best Music Writing has become one of the most eagerly awaited annuals out there. Celebrating the year in music writing by gathering a rich array of essays, missives, and musings on every style of music from rock to hip-hop to R&B to jazz to pop to blues and more, it is essential reading for anyone who loves great music and accomplished writing. Scribes of every imaginable sort—novelists, poets, journalists, musicians—are gathered to create a multi-voiced snapshot of the year in music writing that, like the music it illuminates, is every bit as thrilling as it is riveting.

The Envoy: The Epic Rescue of the Last Jews of Europe in the Desperate Closing Months of World War II
by Alex Kershaw
October 26, 2010

From the publisher:

December 1944. Soviet and German troops fight from house to house in the shattered, corpse-strewn suburbs of Budapest. Crazed Hungarian fascists join with die-hard Nazis to slaughter Jews day and night, turning the Danube blood-red. In less than six months, thirty-eight-year-old SS Colonel Adolf Eichmann has sent over half a million Hungarians to the gas chambers in Auschwitz. Now all that prevents him from liquidating Europe’s last Jewish ghetto is an unarmed Swedish diplomatic envoy named Raoul Wallenberg.The Envoy is the stirring tale of how one man made the greatest difference in the face of untold evil. The legendary Oscar Schindler saved hundreds, but Raoul Wallenberg did what no other individual or nation managed to do: He saved more than 100,000 Jewish men, women, and children from extermination.Written with Alex Kershaw’s customary narrative verve, The Envoy is a fast-paced, nonfiction thriller that brings to life one of the darkest and yet most inspiring chapters of twentieth century history. It is an epic for the ages.

Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book
Sean Manning (editor), Ray Bradbury (foreward)
October 26, 2010

From the publisher:

Lovers of the printed book, arise! Thirty of today’s top writers are here to tell you you’re not alone.
In Bound to Last,an amazing array of authors comes to the passionate defense of the printed book with spirited, never-before-published essays celebrating the hardcover or paperback they hold most dearnot necessarily because of its contents, but because of its significance as a one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable object. Whether focusing on the circumstances behind how a particular book was acquired, or how it has become forever “bound up” with a specific person, time, or place, each piece collected here confirms—poignantly, delightfully, irrefutably—that every book tells a story far beyond the one found within its pages.
In addition to a foreword by Ray Bradbury, Bound to Last features original contributions by:
Chris Abani, Rabih Alameddine, Anthony Doerr, Louis Ferrante, Nick Flynn, Karen Joy Fowler, Julia Glass, Karen Green, David Hajdu, Terrence Holt, Jim Knipfel, Shahriar Mandanipour, Sarah Manguso, Sean Manning, Joyce Maynard, Philipp Meyer, Jonathan Miles, Sigrid Nunez, Ed Park, Victoria Patterson, Francine Prose, Michael Ruhlman, Elissa Schappell, Christine Schutt, Jim Shepard, Susan Straight, J. Courtney Sullivan, Anthony Swofford, Danielle Trussoni, and Xu Xiaobin

For a complete list of Da Capo titles, click here.  Stayed tuned for a book review of Bound to Last; it should be posted in the next few days.

Just Kids by Patti Smith (1/26/2010)
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson (3/2/2010)
So Much for That by Lionel Shriver (3/9/2010)
Ignatz by Monica Youn (3/9/2010)
Lighthead by Terrance Hayes (3/30/2010)
The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman (4/6/2010)
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey (4/20/2010)
I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita (6/1/2010)
The Eternal City by Kathleen Graber (7/21/2010)
Swan: Poems and Prose Poems by Mary Oliver (9/14/2010)
The Silent Season of a Hero by Gay Talese (9/28/2010)
Life by Keith Richards (10/26/2010)
Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick (11/1/2010)
Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane (11/2/2010)
Saul Bellows: Letters by Saul Bellows and Benjamin Taylor (11/4/2010)
The Petting Zoo by Jim Carroll (11/4/2010)
Selected Stories by William Trevor (11/4/2010)
Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer (11/8/2010)
The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard by J.G. Ballard and Martin Amis (11/8/2010)
Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King (11/9/2010)
Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon (11/15/2010)
The New Yorker Stories by Ann Beattie (11/16/2010)
Decoded by Jay-Z (11/16/2010)
Best European Fiction 2011 by Aleksandar Hemon, Colum McCann (11/22/2010)
An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin (11/23/2010)
20 Under 40: Stories from the New Yorker by Deborah Triesman (11/23/2010)
One with Others: [a little book of her days] by C.D. Wright (11/23/2010)
Best Spiritual Writing 2011 by Philip Zaleski and Billy Collins (11/30/2010)
By the Numbers by James Richardson (11/30/2010)
While Mortals Sleep: Unpublished Short Fiction by Kurt Vonnegut (1/25/2010)

Oh, people are always whining about being labeled a Southern writer or a sci-fi writer or a writer of women’s fiction. We love to categorize, and one of the categories I’m associated with is the “Neo-Masculinist” movement. I’m not sure what that means—though if people want to read me that way, fine. I’m not intentionally trying to explore maleness, and I know anything I say on the subject is going to come across as bullshitty intellectualism. I’m just trying to write good stories, and the place those stories come happens to be hairy and sweaty and snarled with barbed wire. When you get down to it, I’d rather move peoples’ hearts than their heads.

To read the interview in its entirety, click here.

In his short stories, Ben Percy writes characters who work blue collar jobs and live in working class towns.  The male characters do manly things—fishing, hunting, and other outdoorsmen activities—and respond to conflict like men are suppose to—by drinking beer or fighting.  But they’re never one-dimensional.  They have sensitive sides, they question their fathers—not necessarily in the open—and they doubt their own mentalities.  In order to adapt to this sort of predetermined idea of masculinity, they partake in acts of savagery or, depending on the opponent—say, an Alpha male, like one of their fathers—they react by submitting.  These testosterone-fueled occurrences mask the character’s underlying issues.

Percy continues to write about the male dynamic in his debut novel, The Wilding.  Set in and around Bend, Oregon, the novel weaves together the stories of three primary characters—including a fourth near the end—as personal and geographic landscapes continue to evolve in the new millennium.  This change, of course, is met with resistance from humans and from nature.

One of the focal characters—Brian, a locksmith who has returned from Iraq wounded both physically and emotionally—literally wears a mask and suit made from animal pelts in an attempt to feel powerful and invisible.  Because when he’s not wearing it—when he’s out at a bar in Portland with his war buddies, for example—he’s unable to “process friendship or love or any human desire except for want and not-want.”

He puts on this suit to stalk the only woman who can make him feel human—Karen, an athletic suburban mother who tries to distract herself from the malaise of an unhappy marriage by running long distances.  While Brian’s storyline is secondary in this novel, his struggle to readjust to civilian life, trying to forget the savagery of war, helps fully develop the book’s major theme of how little separates man from beast.  And his connection to Karen acts as a direct link to the primary story.

Which belongs to Justin—Karen’s husband—an English teacher who embarks on a hunting trip with his father, Paul, and son, Graham, on the eve of a major rezoning development in the forest where they’ve always camped.  While in woods, the three encounter problems that put a hamper on the trip, causing tensions to rise between them instead of them being allowed to enjoy each other’s company and the landscape surrounding them.

There are the run-ins with a local who’s upset about the impending destruction of the area.  He takes it out on them—with good reason, since Paul is heading the new rezoning project—by sabotaging their trip any way he can.  Paul’s health is in a state of decline, and out of stubbornness he refuses to leave the woods without scoring one final buck. But the most vital external conflict is that a rare grizzly is roaming these woods.  Reports of the bear attacking people have already surfaced, and because they don’t have the modern conveniences that will be available to the area once development commences—like cell phone signals—their family hunting trip turns into a feat of survival.

What makes the bear so significant is its association to the strain in Justin’s relationship with his dad.  The novel opens with a recounting of his most damaging childhood memory: at the age of twelve, his father ordered him to kill a wounded bear found in the ten acres of woods surrounding their home.  This anecdote becomes a metaphor, one that Karen’s quick to point out, for the relationship between father and son.  Justin has a tendency to do whatever his father tells him, even when reason and better judgment would suggest otherwise.

And now, on this hunting trip, Paul is trying to make a man out of Graham the same way he tried to with Justin.  Which Karen had expressed disapproval of prior to them leaving, since she finds Paul’s old school habits to be reckless.  She fears for Graham’s safety, and rightfully so, seeing as she recently miscarried hers and Justin’s daughter, adding to the strain of an already fragile marriage.  Justin wants to please her and to regain a sense of the union they once had, but on this trip after Graham tags his first deer, something grabs a hold of him:

Justin feels gripped by a reckless idea.  The darkness of the woods and the thrill of the hunt and the wildness of his father have torn away some protective seal inside him; he cannot control himself.  For a moment, just a moment, he forgets about his mortgage payment, his shaggy lawn, his Subaru and the groaning noise it makes when he turns left, his desk and the pile of ungraded papers waiting on it.  All of that has gone someplace else, replaced by an urge, a wildness.

The Wilding blends compelling storylines with emotionally significant themes, creating a richly layered novel that makes a reader care about its characters.  Percy’s able to seamlessly weave together the multiple narratives in powerful, yet elegant, prose without making the story seem contrived, forced, or overwritten.  If you’re looking for a solid book that follows the lives of the middle class—the blue-collar workers and the underpaid academics—working out real problems, then look no further; this is your book.

Graywolf Press
September 28, 2010

Photo by Jennifer May

From the book jacket:

Benjamin Percy is the author of [the short story collections] The Language of Elk and Refresh, Refresh.  His honors include the Plimpton Prize, a Pushcart Prize, a Whiting Writers’ Award, and inclusion in Best American Short Stories.  His fiction and nonfiction have been published by Esquire, Men’s Journal, the Paris Review, and Orion.  He teaches in the MFA program in creative writing and environment at Iowa State University.

The Wilding is Percy’s first novel.  To read his story, “Somebody is Going to have to Pay for This,” published in the Barcelona Review, click here.