Saturday, November 27, 2021

Bookseller Top 5 of 2021 - Part 2

 We continue our daily roundup of the Boswellian's top five books of 2021!

Conrad Silverberg, our special orders guru.

#1 Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975 by Richard Thompson with Scott Timberg. Conrad says: "Is there anything Richard Thompson can't do (hasn't done)? He is one of the finest guitarists to emerge from the late-Sixties stew of London and distinguished himself further by being one of the most sophisticated and clever songwriters. I'm not a big fan of biographies, especially those narcissistic, overblown ones ageing rock stars have been churning out of late. I make the exception here because Thompson is the exception. This is the goods!"

#2 The Bookseller of Florence: The Story of the Manuscripts That Illuminated the Renaissance by Ross King. Conrad's staff rec: "Continues King's long fascination and study of that great city, this time with a topic near and dear to our own hearts - books! This is a meaty tome to indulge in while curled up in your most comfy reading chair, casting your mind back 500-plus years to an age when such activities were the exclusive province of the aristocratic elite. A technological innovation was about to change all that, and Florence was at the heart of the revolution."

#3 Colombiana: A Rediscovery of Recipes and Rituals from the Soul of Colombia by Mariana Velásquez. Conrad is one of our few regular cookbook reviewers, and his adventurous palate finds lots of great books! This one is no exception. Conrad's rec: "Looking for an esoteric and unexpected cuisine that the cooking aficionado on your list almost certainly does not have in their collection (or has even thought of)? Try Colombian! You've had your Korean bulgogis, your Moroccan tagines, your Szechuan spare ribs, your Mexican moles... now take a deep dive into a heady Colombian arepa or two or three! These recipes are tried and tested and stand up to the best the world offers."

#4 Talk to Me by TC Boyle. Conrad's write-up: "Unknotting topical issues that raise complex ethical questions is Boyle's specialty. So are crafting hysterically flawed and self-deluded characters who think that they rise above and are the best ones to take on such dilemmas. Here Boyle confronts the unethical treatment of animals with the plight of a chimpanzee being taught sign-language. Everything is fine as long as the chimp remains young and cute, but once adolescence hits, his future becomes increasingly bleak as he grows larger and stronger and wilder. His handlers want to save him, but their motivations are selfish and self-serving, especially when they think they are most altruistic. Can he be saved?"

#5 When Ghosts Come Home by Wiley Cash. From Conrad: "A plane crash-lands at a small town North Carolina airport during the dead of night. All the passengers and crew have disappeared before the sheriff can investigate. The only body he finds is that of a local black man lying nearby, dead from a gunshot wound to the head. The sheriff's investigation is hampered by interference from his main political rival: the scion of old plantation money whose close ties to the Klan and history of good ole boy hellraising threatens to derail finding answers. The deep-seated and virulent racism of the town threads its way through every twist and turn of this gripping novel. A truly can't-put-it-down read."

Our proprietor, Daniel Goldin, narrows down his picks this year into a tip-top 5 list. 
#1 The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade. Daniel says: "The story opens with Amadeo, a struggling, chronically unemployed man being chosen for the part of Jesus in the Penitente ritual during Holy Week in a small New Mexico town. It doesn’t go well. And over the course of the year, the Padilla family confronts one setback after another - matriarch Yolanda’s cancer, Amadeo’s daughter Angel’s struggles at the education center for teenage moms, and any number of slights over the years that have divided husband from wife, parent from child, and brother from sister. The slights and betrayals keep coming, leaving no time for Yolanda to reveal her diagnosis. The thing about Kirstin Valdez Quade’s debut novel, though, is that the characters are suffused with such grace (and the writing is so beautiful) that it’s impossible not to keep going, as I hoped that somehow the characters would break through the barriers not just of misunderstanding, but of everything stacked against them. Like maybe that window repair kit would actually work. It’s hard to conceive that The Five Wounds won’t be one of my favorite books of 2021."
#2 Gold Diggers by Sanjena Sathian. Daniel's rec: "Stuck at his suburban Atlanta high school, Neeraj (Neil) Narayan simply doesn’t have the drive of his older sister Prachi or the other striving families in his community. But then, through his on-again, off-again friend Anita, he learns the true meaning of the adage, ‘when life gives you lemons…’ Why are little bits of jewelry disappearing from the families of Hammond Creek? And how far can Anita and Neil go in the pursuit of ambition, especially when they settle in the Bay Area, paradise on Earth for the tech striver? I love the way Gold Diggers solders imagery onto the story, whether the tale of the Bombayan prospector Neil is researching or Kanye West’s ‘Gold Digger’ wafting through the high school dance. It reminded me that despite the tension (did I mention this is also a caper novel?)  and the likely heartbreak (we all can’t get what we want), this engaging and insightful novel is a comedy, and there will be a wedding at the end."
#3 Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood by Mark Oppenheimer. Another book about Pittsburgh, a place which we hold dearly in our hearts here at Boswell. Staff rec from Daniel: "Director of the Yale Journalism Initiative Mark Oppenheimer goes behind the headlines of the tragic Tree of Life shooting to explore the fascinating community of Squirrel Hill, a walkable Pittsburgh neighborhood that has retained both religious and secular Jews when so many others have scattered to suburbs. Even the Tree of Life building itself was home to three congregations of different denominations. In Oppenheimer’s exhaustive interviews, he found a pathway to healing that doesn’t always happen after other mass shootings – there wasn’t a single post-event suicide connected to the incident, and there were no controversies over how money flowed to victims and their families. But there was a cost too, at least for some, as activism was played down in favor of unity. I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed Squirrel Hill, which is much more of an exploration of a community, rather than the crime drama or issue book you might have thought it was. There are so many interesting players in the story, not just the victims and their families, but folks like the Iranian student and his hugely successful fundraising efforts, and the young Christian woman who painted images in the Starbucks windows that became a symbolic center of the neighborhood. My top Hanukkah pick!"
#4 The Secret History of Food: Strange but True Stories About the Origins of Everything We Eat by Matt Siegel. Daniel recommends this tasty book: "Vanilla ice cream, breakfast cereal, corn, tomatoes, and several other foods become the jumping-off point for Matt Seigel’s meandering and quirky food history. Why is British pie crust traditionally inedible? How is honey kosher if most samples likely have traces of unkosher insects? And while we’re on the subject, why do vegans eschew honey, but not all the foods that bees pollinate? Why did Nathan’s Famous employ college students who dress like doctors? Could it possibly be true that the USDA is responsible for open-faced sandwiches, but the FDA monitors closed-faced ones? So much food ephemera! Best of all, there are often interesting points to be made about human nature slathered between the easily transportable iceberg lettuce and tasteless-but-great looking tomato. Be warned that The Secret History of Food pretty much uses all secondary sources (over 40 pages of notes!), but what other kind of book are you going to write during COVID?  A multi-course feast of delights! "
#5 Swimming Back to Trout River by Linda Rui Feng. Daniel's staff rec: "Dawn is an architecture student whose love for Beethoven and classical music proves to have dangerous consequences during China’s Cultural Revolution. Momo is another music lover, but he safely kept to engineering. And as for Cassia, the love of her life was attacked for being the son of a spy, and worse, for liking Western literature. Cassia wound up marrying Momo and mothering Junie, but the parents struggle with June’s disability, and a second pregnancy does not fare better. All three adults wind up in the United States, but the mess of the past isn’t any less messy stateside as it casts a shadow on the present. Linda Rui Feng’s gift is in the descriptions, the little moments, and the internal ruminations. Quietly beautiful!"
And Daniel would also like to update last year's top five / augment this years with a "published last year but fell between the cracks until this year when it became one of his favorites and one of our bigger hits of the year" picks - Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession. His recommendation: "Hungry Paul wants a job. No, that’s a lie, he’s got one, a once-weekly substitute mail carrier gig. It’s actually his sister Grace who wants him to get a full-time job, so he’ll finally move out from his parents’ house. Leonard lived with his mom too, but she just passed away. Leonard has a job, ghost-writing copy for children’s reference books. He also has a dream, to write his own children’s book.  And maybe to go on a date with Shelley, with whom he shares office space. Hungry Paul also has a dream – to win a local contest coming up with a better way to close correspondence. ‘Sincerely yours’ just doesn’t cut it. Leonard and Hungry Paul is a delightful book with a gentle sense of humor - and sometimes not-so-gentle - I laughed out loud more than once. Leonard and Hungry Paul is perfect for fans of  - dare I say it? - A Man Called Ove. It was recommended to me by two customers, and now I’m recommending it to you!"
Jason Kennedy (no relation to Margaret) is our fearless buyer of books for adults and leader of the Sci Fi Book club. He loves these books.

#1 All's Well by Mona Awad. Jason says: "Miranda’s brilliant career as a stage actor was halted by a fall that broke her hip.  After surgeries and therapy, she is still in chronic pain. Hobbled, she has become a teacher for a theater department, and they put on a Shakespeare play every year. Everyone seems to have written off Miranda’s pain as in her head, and they (her ex-husband, her best friend, and her physical therapist) can barely hide their disbelief that she has any pain. After a mutiny lead by student who wants a different Shakespeare play, Miranda is distraught and in pain. She drowns her sorrows at the pub, where she meets three mysterious men who know all about her and her pain. After a golden drink, Miranda is able to start transferring her pain to others, and her life takes on a new light. Much like Mona Awad’s Bunny, All’s Well starts to get more and more surreal and fantastical. I loved every minute of this crazy, amazing novel - Mona Awad is madly creative and inventive. Bravo."

#2 The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina. The international bestselling novel sold in 21 countries, about grief, mourning, and the joy of survival, inspired by a real phone booth in Japan with its disconnected 'wind' phone, a place of pilgrimage and solace since the 2011 tsunami. When Yui loses both her mother and her daughter in the tsunami, she begins to mark the passage of time from that date onward: Everything is relative to March 11, 2011, the day the tsunami tore Japan apart, and when grief took hold of her life. Yui struggles to continue on, alone with her pain. Then, one day she hears about a man who has an old disused telephone booth in his garden. There, those who have lost loved ones find the strength to speak to them and begin to come to terms with their grief. As news of the phone booth spreads, people travel to it from miles around.

#3 The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman. Jason's recommendation: "Christopher Buehlman hasn’t just written a really good epic fantasy; he has taken the reader and dunked them into a world full of joy, wonder, heartbreak, foulness, horror, and hope. Once I started the book, I couldn’t put it down. The prose! And the dialogue was so perfect, I was laughing out loud from the snark that Kinch Na Shannack narrated his story with, and I was cringing from vicious, nasty goblin attacks or towering giants tossing trees. Kinch owes the Takers Guild for his education, and when they tell him to accompany a knight on her quest, he has no other option – he must go. Know that there is so much to this book; Buehlman will take you down crazy paths that will delight and fright, but I will not say any more about the surprises that are in the book. Go read it now!"

#4 Bubbleball: Inside the NBA's Fight to Save a Season by Ben Golliver. A captivating account of the NBA’s strangest season ever, from shutdown to championship, from a prominent national basketball writer living inside the bubble. Golliver, national NBA writer for the The Washington Post, was allowed access, and Bubbleball is his account of the season and life inside, telling the story of how basketball bounced back from its shutdown, how players staged headline-grabbing social justice protests, and how Lakers star LeBron James chased his fourth ring in unconventional and unforgettable circumstances. Based on months of reporting in the exclusive, confined environment, this is an entertaining record of an extraordinary season.

#5 The Last Winter: The Scientists, Adventurers, Journeymen, and Mavericks Trying to Save the World by Porter Fox. A pick from this year's gift guide. Jason's rec: "An entertaining yet sobering look at how climate change has affected our world - not in some coming-soon-to-you preview, but how people, animals and environments are forever changing right now. More than once, the book left me feeling very dejected and terrified at what we face in the coming decades. This is not a new argument; this is not something that has snuck up on civilization, and we are past the time for turning away from the stark realization that we are losing glaciers and snow (and the important melt that comes from snow that keeps areas from drought in the coming summer). Porter Fox introduces the reader to some amazing people, some of whom have lived through horrible experiences like wild fires, and some who are trying to geoengineer the earth (think floating sea walls) to help protect our shores. Is it too late - will we completely lose our winters? Only if we don’t at least try to help those on the front lines deal with climate change."

More top 5's to come!

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