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July 10, 2007

CAAF: 5 x 5 Books I Press Upon Thee

5 x 5 Books ... is a recommendation of five books that'll appear here on Tuesdays.* Sometimes I'll make the list, sometimes the list will come from someone else.

Here is where I confess I have a terrible weakness for lists. Always have. A picture from the fourth grade shows me at a desk in my room with a list of what I hoped to accomplish over the Christmas holiday (one of the items was something like: "Read pgs. 60 -100 of The Outsiders" ). If there were a List Fancy magazine I would not only subscribe, I would try to work there, so I could spend glorious status meetings with my coworkers, drinking coffee and making lists of everything we had to do ("1. Make lists").

So of course I love reading lists that suggest books to read, and I like making them. As with all such lists, sometimes the relationship between the books is obvious, but it's more fun when the relationship is unexpected but, on examination, completely apropos. Example: I'd put M.T. Anderson's Feed, recommended below, on a list of "Great Books About Failing Empires" alongside J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians, Meg Rosoff's young-adult novel How I Live Now, and Jared Diamond's Collapse.

For this inaugural 5x5, a list of books I press upon thee. If you yourself are someone who likes to press books upon people, you probably have certain books you like to give again and again. In college, my favorite books to give were Katherine Dunn's Geek Love and Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale. These are five current favorites, books that, while they're not new, I read for the first time this year:

1. Jeremy Thrane by Kate Christensen: At one point, the eponymous Jeremy says, "The better a book, the more frantically I dog-eared it, the more food I spilled on it. I almost couldn't tolerate too much verbal brilliance flowing past my eyes; I was driven very nearly mad by my inability to physically ingest every word." That's how I felt about this book: It's so good I wanted to eat it. Christensen's fourth novel, The Great Man, comes out in August. Read Jeremy Thrane while you wait. (Maud provides an overview of Christensen's novels.)

2. The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy: The adventures of one Sally Jay Gorce in Paris in the 1950s. Reading this novel was, for me, like watching a great old screwball comedy. Frothy and funny on the surface, and beautifully constructed underneath. The plot does a bit of a 23-skidoo at the end, but that's almost beside the point (again, like an old comedy). It's Sally Jay I loved -- her healthy animal egotism (a nice break from self-effacing Plain Jane narrators), her acute yet rapturous observations. (If you haven't already, see Terry's introduction to the NYRB's reissue of the novel.)

3. Feed by M.T. Anderson: I'm a little obsessed with Anderson right now. His most recent book, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, won the 2006 National Book Award for Young People's Literature, but I prefer this earlier novel, an incredibly smart & chilling satire/love story that takes place in a future world where a media "feed" is hardwired into people's brains. Even if you think you don't like science fiction or young adult novels, I urge you to give this a try. (A charming interview with Anderson.)

4. Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey by Isabel Fonseca: A nonfiction title that deserves to be a classic, in my opinion. Like Alma Guillermoprieto (The Heart That Bleeds, Looking for History), Fonseca is a marvelous synthesizer, combining first-hand reportage with history, linguistics and other disciplines, to present a picture of modern Gypsy (or Rom) culture in Eastern Europe. Fonseca has a novelist's eye for the enlivening detail and a gorgeous writing style; she also can write with a great (and contagious) fury when the occasion calls for it. (Gossipy side note: Fonseca is married to Martin Amis, yet profiles of him often neglect to mention that she's an author too. Now that I've read Bury Me Standing, this makes me bristle.)

5. A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons by Robert M. Sapolsky: Another nonfiction title. This may seem an odd compliment to pay a primatologist, but as an author Sapolsky reminds me of a rather wonderful, intelligent monkey: Deeply curious and alert to the absurd, kind without being pious. Here he recounts decades of study of a single baboon troop in Kenya. Over the years he traveled extensively around Africa, and these sections are especially fascinating. The description of teaching himself how to tranq. baboons as a student at college is one of the funniest things I've ever read, like a lost chapter from James Thurber if Thurber had a yen to study monkeys.

* Yes, it's a Buffy reference.

Posted July 10, 2007 12:00 AM

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