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The Ones That Got Away: Books Not to Miss


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Today, we begin a weeklong series called The Ones That Got Away. We'll hear about some of the music, TV shows and video games that went under the radar in 2007, and books. Every year, book reviewers face the same dilemma, how to write about everything that deserves coverage. Even reading at a rate of, let's say, a hundred books a year, reviewers can barely make a dent in the thousands that are published.

NPR's Lynn Neary talked with several reviewers about some of the books they wished had not gotten away.

LYNN NEARY: Talk with anyone who writes about books and they'll sheepishly admit or loudly lament their inability to read everything that's sent to them in a given year. Sally Williams, books editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, says she has a guilt pile that stares her in the face every day.

Ms. SALLY WILLIAMS (Book Editor, Minneapolis Star Tribune): On my guilt file this year are people like Philip Roth and even Oliver Sacks. I that kind of winced when I say that because I thought that was a lovely book. And I don't feel so bad about them because I know they've had attention elsewhere. But there are other books that caught my interest that for some reason just didn't make it to the finishing line of my pages.

NEARY: One such book, says Williams, is "The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman" by Nancy Marie Brown. It's the story of Gudrid, a Viking explorer, every bit as adventurous as Leif Ericsson who's been overlooked by history because she's a woman.

Brown, a science writer, retraced Gudrid's journeys, even helping archeologists unearth a longhouse in Iceland. The result, says Williams, is a book filled with fascinating details about an ancient time.

Ms. WILLIAMS: And you get these wonderful tidbits of medieval culture - what people wore and what they ate and what was in their garbage pile, and it feels like a treasure hunt, you know, and you're going along with her. She went to Iceland. She went to Greenland. She went to Newfoundland. And explore these places herself and tried to find all the little calling cards that Gudrid left behind.

NEARY: Another book that deserve more attention this year, says Laura Miller of Salon.com, is a collection of short stories called "The Winds of Marble Arch" by Connie Willis who's best known as a science-fiction writer. Miller says her stories ran the best of that genre with the best of literary fiction.

A number of the stories are about luck or chance. In one, an experiment reverses the luck of everyone in the town. Miller says the best of the stories are witty, charming and clever, and perhaps most importantly, they're real stories.

Ms. LAURA MILLER (Editor, Salon.com): If what you want from a short story collection is a lot of really perfectly, flawlessly written, wispy melt-away moments of melancholy and sadness and - or epiphanies - then you will not find that in "The Winds of Marble Arch." These are story's stories, things happen. There are crises, and there are moments of narrative tension in a way that you just don't really see in literary fiction very much anymore.

NEARY: Miller says a lot of books fall through the cracks in November because fall books are still coming out at the same time that reviewers are trying to get ready for their best of the year-list.

That's why Miller never got a chance to review one of her favorite books of 2007, "The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved" by Judith Freeman. It's the story of Chandler's marriage to a much older woman. Miller says, Freeman, a Chandler fan, became preoccupied with this marriage and its effect on Chandler's writing.

Ms. MILLER: It's such a beautiful book. I felt like it was a dream reading it. And some of the early reviews have described the author and the book as being haunted, and that a strange mix of nostalgia and dread and melancholy that she captures in allowing herself to be haunted by Raymond Chandler. It's so perfectly in tuned with Chandler himself that it just is a beautiful, kind of sad, seedy reverie.

NEARY: The couple moved frequently, and Freeman drove around L.A. visiting all the houses where they lived. The result, says Miller, is a mood piece about the city.

Here's Miller reading from the book.

Ms. MILLER: (Reading) What Chandler understood and what he wrote about so well in his novels was the fact that a new kind of American loneliness was born in L.A., and people who found themselves marooned in paradise, lonely emits abundance and incredible wealth.

Lonely in a seemingly incurable fashion, lonely in spite of the crowds and opportunities because suddenly they had been cut off from their past, from all that was familiar and had given meaning and shape to their lives, a widespread feeling that took hold in a large number of people.

NEARY: Mark Sarvas, who writes the literary blog The Elegant Variation, has another take on L.A. on his list of overlooked books. "Zeroville" by L.A.-based author Steve Erickson, is the story of a film-obsessed young man who arrives in Hollywood in 1969.

And Sarvas says one of the most unusual reads of the past year was a new translation of "Autonauts of the Cosmoroute" by Julio Cortazar and his partner Carol Dunlop. It's a very different kind of travelogue. The couple set out on a French auto route from Paris to Marseille for a month-long journey that usually only takes about 10 hours to drive.

Mr. MARK SARVAS (Literary Blogger): And their plan was never to leave the auto route to hit two rest stations every day and live in this camper bus. And it's unlike any book you will read this year. It's charming. It's whimsical, and it's also poignant because it's a record of this great love that this couple shared, and unfortunately before the book came out, she died and he dies shortly after its completion. So there's an element of poignancy and sadness that hangs over the whole work.

NEARY: Sarvas says one of the goals of his blog is to bring attention to first-time authors and books that might otherwise get lost in the shuffle.

One book that he and other bloggers in the Litblog Co-op have put on their read-this list is "The Farther Shore" by Matthew Eck.

Mr. SARVAS: It's a very small, contained story about a group of soldiers who get cut off from their unit, and they're trying to survive and trying to get back and what's so interesting about the book, you know, as the old saying goes, this is not your grandfather's war.

NEARY: Set in a country that seems to be based on Somalia, Sarvas says "The Farther Shore" is more compelling than many of the new books about the war in Iraq.

Mr. SARVAS: A lot of those books, although very realistic, every - even graphic, they don't have what this novelist has and if I can let you kind of read a very short bit, but in the very first paragraph of there book where they're talking about how these soldiers are positioned and they're in essence, in essence, transmitting the coordinates for the attack helicopters to come in, and (unintelligible) it was a tight world, a balancing act, a burden we adored. And to me, the moment I saw that line a burden we adored, I knew that this was a different kind of a military novel. And it's one that connects itself to books like "All Quiet on the Western Front" and even some of the works of Hemingway.

NEARY: Even as reviewers are trying to get the last word on the books of 2007, they are already looking ahead to a new year when well-known authors will once again be competing for their attention with the unknown who might have written the next great novel. So, says Sally Williams, the time for looking back is over.

Ms. WILLIAMS: The spring catalogs are sort of pouring in right now just like a salmon run(ph); they're all slippery and shiny, so you just have to say, okay, the turn of the year is, you just have to turn the page and go forward at some point.

NEARY: As for that leftover guilt pile, Williams says she still hopes she'll get around to reading some of those books one of these days. Maybe like the rest of us, she'll catch up next summer on the beach.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.