Books, Inc. and Kepler's Top Book Picks of 2011
Staff members from Books Inc., Kepler's, list this year's favorites
With the holiday season upon us, the Palo Alto Weekly asked local booksellers Kepler's and Books Inc. to recommend their staffs' top five picks for 2011.
Here are some of their favorites, which range from biographies to historical fiction.
"Steve Jobs," Walter Isaacson, Simon & Schuster: Although written with Jobs' cooperation, this biography offers a candid and often painfully truthful look at his life and career. Isaacson interviewed a variety of people associated with Jobs, both personally and professionally, many of whom openly painted both the good and the bad aspects of the late Apple leader.
Aside from the book's in-depth look at Jobs the man, it is also a history of the most exciting time in the age of computers, as well as a textbook study of the rise and fall and rise of Apple and the brutal conflicts that ruined friendships and careers. And it is a gadget lover's dream, with fabulous, inside accounts of how the Macintosh, iPod, iPhone and iPad came into being.
Having spent most of my life as a Silicon Valley-ite, I was fascinated by the insights into this brilliant, charming, loathsome, maddening, obsessive, complicated, and very private man. (Pam Grange, Kepler's)
"Boomerang," Michael Lewis, W.W. Norton & Company Inc.: With his trademark readability, Lewis makes this book about the European debt crisis easy to enjoy. He takes us through the history of the crisis, but adds to this some interesting and thought-provoking ideas about how the national traits of each troubled country may have played into the ensuing mess.
You may find yourself repeating parts of this incredible story to anyone who will listen, or urging them to read it themselves. I can't remember when I found a book about finance to be so engaging, and though ignorance maybe bliss, I think this time around it pays to be more informed. This book will help get you there, painlessly. (Linda Reid, Books Inc.)
"The Cat's Table," Michael Ondaatje, Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.: Three young boys set off on a three-week voyage bound for England. They pursue their own interests and intrigues with only slight supervision from a distant aunt and a glamorous cousin. Their home base is established at the first ship's dinner -- they sit at the "cat's table" set for single passengers, far from the captain's glittery table.
They take to the journey with the thrill of a chase, often underfoot and always observant. I savored the boys' roaming and chaotic behavior, picturing their wildness and unmasked joy of youth. Ondaatje's beautiful and elegant storytelling skills weave magic and discovery into the book's stories; back and forth through time, from incidents during the trip to their adult reminiscences of it, and its life-altering impact. (Marilyn Smith, Kepler's)
"11/23/63: A Novel," Stephen King, Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.: The master-storyteller has done it again! And this time it's something completely different: a time-travel tale of the highest caliber.
A portal to 1958 is discovered in the pantry of a diner in a small town in Maine, and schoolteacher Jake Epping is given the task (by the dying owner of the diner), to go back to 1958, live through the next few years, and kill Lee Harvey Oswald before Oswald shoots JFK. What Jake discovers, though, is that the past is obdurate and does not want to change. Many obstacles (and a tall, beautiful librarian) are thrown in Jake's path as he attempts his task.
Along the way we learn many details of Oswald's life (surprisingly interesting) and are exposed to rich details of life in mid-20th-century America. The surprise ending is the finishing masterful touch to this gem of a novel. (Lori Haggbloom, Books, Inc.)
"We the Animals," Justin Torres, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company: "We the Animals" is my favorite book of 2011. This short autobiographical novel about three young brothers, their Puerto Rican father and white mother, is a roller-coaster ride of powerful images, flashing before our eyes: the boys' childhood in upstate New York, their abusive father, drinking, sex, poverty, violence, brotherhood and ultimately love.
This book is made of moments of light and darkness, with a rhythm of a song, written in a language so precise, and so raw, you'll want to read it aloud to experience the sound of its wild joy, with your "heart ticking like a bomb." (Aggie Zivaljevic, Kepler's)
"The Outlaw Album," Daniel Woodrell, Little Brown and Company, Hachette Book Group: Daniel Woodrell has aptly called his writing "country noir," and his newest book, "The Outlaw Album," does not disappoint. It's a collection of stories that I found incredibly engaging.
Woodrell writes with candor and authenticity. His descriptions are lush. The dialogue is mesmerizing. The tension is metered so well, the first page is just as exciting as the last. His characters are always unique, yet somehow seem familiar, and they tend to have a great amount of depth.
I have been a fan of Woodrell ever since I read "Tomato Red." Before that, I had never really considered myself a fan of noir. However, his brilliant writing opened my eyes to the possibilities of the genre.
"The Outlaw Album" is a perfect read for winter, when the weather is cold and the mind tends to wander. Curl up under your favorite blanket with this one. It's sure to give you chills. (Anthony Ramirez, Books Inc.)
"In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin," Erik Larson, Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.: In 1933 Hitler is only the newly appointed Chancellor of Germany. There are no SS, no Gestapo and no concentration camps. The horror of the Third Reich is barely apparent, a few seemingly random, if brutal, attacks on Jews and foreigners. The SA (the first Nazi paramilitary army) is filled with handsome young men and patriotic pride. The Nazis are the first party in 10 years to care about the needs of ordinary Germans in the midst of an economic disaster.
President Roosevelt must appoint a new ambassador to Germany and chooses a college professor, William E. Dodd. Neither Dodd nor the world has any idea what is about to be unleashed. Erik Larson takes us through the daily lives of the Dodd family as they are entertained by Goebbels and Himmler; as the ambassador meets the strange little Chancellor before he names himself Führer; and as he desperately tries to convince a hostile State Department of the horror that's about to befall Europe. (Antonia Squire, Kepler's)
"The Dovekeepers," Alice Hoffman, Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.: This is a spellbinding tale of the fall of the Second Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and of the subsequent takeover of Herod's fortress at Masada by the Jewish rebels. It is a tale told through the eyes of four women, each of whom has many secrets, and who are bound together in mysterious and complex ways. We follow the lives of these women from their childhoods, through their various travels and travails, to their ultimate meeting in the dovecote of Masada, and through to the bittersweet end.
Told in Hoffman's astonishingly lyrical and lush prose, this book has the feel of an ancient epic, and yet is very readable. Prepare to spend a few evenings reading late into the night, as it is (as they say) unputdownable. (Lori Haggbloom, Books Inc.)
"The Tiger's Wife," Tea Obrecht, Random House: From the very first pages, I felt as if I had just entered a temple and all of my prayers were answered, at once. This is not an ordinary book; it's one of those sacred books that bring miracles into people's lives, with page after page bringing me to tears. Obrecht's writing is so evocative that every character, every place that she describes, becomes, or already is, part of my life.
Natalia, a young doctor, is on a quest to unravel the mystery of her grandfather's sudden departure and his abrupt death. Why did he leave to search for a deathless man of local legend, and what does the love story between a young peasant girl and a wild tiger have to do with his disappearance? With her magical storytelling, Obrecht resurrects a whole lost world, a place and a country no longer on the map. (Aggie Zivaljevic, Kepler's)
"Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design," Jennifer Bass and Pat Kirkham, Laurence King Publishing: You may not know the name, but you've definitely seen Saul Bass' work, especially if you're a film buff or a fan of graphic or industrial design. This gorgeous volume combines a nice overview of the designer's life with an extensive sampling of his unique artistry, from pantyhose packaging and Kleenex boxes, to Case Study Houses, book jacket art, and opening sequences for television (Playhouse 90, Walt Disney Presents, The Frank Sinatra Show) and film (Anatomy of a Murder, Bunny Lake Is Missing, Vertigo, and Psycho -- Bass storyboarded the famous shower scene sequence for that film).
Bass worked and designed for more than 50 years. His work remains as fresh and vital today as when it was first created. This book would be a fine addition to any design-lover's library. (S.G. Mullin, Books Inc.)