13 Best Surprizes of the 2000-aughts

January 11, 2010

Jennifer Crusie

Verdejez put the first romance novel into my hands, Charlie All Night, during a Very Bad Year in the life of my graduate student career. And damn! It wasn’t even Crusie’s best effort. Kind of like if you are sending a friend to their very first opera, it should be La Boheme or Die Zauberflote, if you are sending a friend on their first romance, Crusie is a safe place to start. She writes the sex and happy endings, but also includes decent plotting, characterization and dialogue (I happen to know that a certain male roommate of mine snuck into my room and secretly read through my selection). I find that Romance requires a highly selective filter. I may be unfairly judging, but I’m not willing to venture into category romances, especially those with apostrophized titles, e.g. The Multi-Millionaire’s Virgin Mistress, or any title that includes sheiks, secret babies, billionaires/millionares, bosses, secretaries, tycoons or mistresses (exception: several of Kathleen O’Reilly’s Harlequins are pretty great and have awesome titles like Hot Under Pressure).

Romance is the most prolific, popular, and broadly mocked and maligned genre of all time. Romance fans are sensitive about this issue; they feel Romance is disrespected because it centers on topics of interest to women. There is truth in the argument. Think of Jonathan Franzen’s ungracious response to Oprah’s selection of The Corrections for her Book Club. He thought he was heir to the Great Male Writers and did not belong among those woman books. I can’t see that the bulk of the genre is more poorly written or more fantasy-fulfilling than Dan Brown’s bestsellers. However, when pressed on improbable plot lines and characterizations, the fan base says, I don’t care about credibility, I want to enjoy my fantasy. And that conflict, more than the great titles and cover art, makes romance novels mockable. I find it best to stick with recommendations, and authors I know and trust.

The Economist

Not just for business folk.

The Time Traveler’s Wife

A co-worker recommended it, but I had doubts, even as I made myself patron 263 on the library waiting list. I judged it unfairly by its apostrophized title and overweening popularity. I had to change my mind. Besides compulsively readable (terrible phrase, isn’t it? I promise not to use it again), it is beautifully crafted. Niffenegger sewed two different chronologies together and all the stripes met. I could have gone for a bit more science and philosophizing however. She’s indeterminate on determinism. Her genetic and evolutionary explanations for Henry’s time-traveling are garbled and nonsensical, but I’ll give her a pass. Good effort.

Anathem and Cryptonomicon

All science and philosophizing, all the time, by Neal Stephenson.

The Thief

I’ve already babbled on about this one in my post on Megan Whalen Turner.

Science Magazine

I recommend the gossip news and perspectives pages of Science.

The Splendid Table

Lynn Rossetto Kasper has that wonderful rolling voice. I want that voice. I want to channel it. She’s doesn’t sound like Terry Gross or Ira Glass or other heavies of the public radio nation. She’s not channeling anyone but herself apparently, as she was a cookbook writer before The Splendid Table, not a radio host. What has this to do with literature, you ask? Every week the website sends me a recipe with Lynn’s advice on adaptability and making it work. I am not a foodie or a cooking show connoisseur, but I do enjoy adventures into personal culinary frontiers. I like to believe that in cooking, as in most quarters of my life, I combine dad’s engineering style (probably the best choice for baking, but can lead to anxiety and nitpicking) with mom’s laissez-fair/ creative style (fun and sometimes brilliantly successful, but can end in burnt pasta, burnt toast, odd flavor balance, and just really bazaar concoctions, failures), but the truth is I lean toward the laissez-fair. While I enjoy reading cooking books, I have an aversion to following recipes. Especially really involved recipes. They remind me of Work, and frequently involve Troubleshooting. The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper is compiled of quotes, tips, and adaptable, simple recipes: suggestions.

Captains Courageous and Kim

Sometimes classics really are classic.


You feel like you’re being hoaxed, but you are seduced anyway. Malcolm Gladwell is a master of non-offensive rhetoric. And his theses are interesting, too. See Gladwell and Steven Pinker face-off in the New York Times Sunday Book Review.


Although Robin McKinley wrote several of my favorite childhood novels- books I return to in times of distress- I hesitated on this one. Vampires? I said. Really, Robin? But this vampire novel is Different. The vampires are scary, ugly and vicious, even the “good” one. The protagonist, while bringing a fair amount of whupass during the course of the story, is uneasy and unhappy about her new situation. Fighting and killing are psychologically damaging. She would prefer to return to her regular life baking cinnamon roles at her family bakery. McKinley’s work since Sunshine has been a bit blah in comparison. Dragonhaven had a cool concept, but rambled in execution, and the narrator’s voice resembled that of Sunshine too much. Meaning it resembled the author’s too much, I deduce, a risk authors run when choosing to write in first person.

Allen & Mike’s Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book (also: Telemark Tips and Backpackin’ Book)

The Really Cool Backpackin’ Book looked really silly. I wouldn’t have cracked it if a hard-core backpacker had not insisted it was for real. Then the Big Haired Woman who sold me her telemark gear threw in the Telemark Tips, and I became acquainted with the brilliance of Allen and Mike.  O’Bannon and Clelland know a lot about outdoor adventures; they’ve spent years in the wilderness of Wyoming, among other hard-core places, and teaching at NOLS. The hard-core Washington Alpine Club used the Backcountry Ski Book as a text for their winter backcountry travel course. And the cartoons do serve to describe some things better than words.

The New York Times

This is embarrassing, but I never read newspapers until I had graduated from college and moved to Boston, and had a roommate who held a subscription to the Times. I worked my way out from the Arts section, and soon developed a fine periodical addiction.

Slate’s Culture Gabfest

OK, there is no prose tie-in here, but it includes discussion of literature, and they are sponsored by Audible! So there is always a (audio) book recommendation. I love podcasts- I’m restraining myself, here- and this is a great one if you like semi-formal gossipy discussion of tv, books, film, art, music, pop-culture, and magazines. You know: elitist liberal cultural stuff.

*Special Bonus Best-of*

Best Journalistic TMI of 2009

See: the 29 Dec. 2009 post at inkyfreshpress.com

Still, Dan was not 100 percent enthusiastic, at least at first. He feared — not mistakenly, it turns out — that marriage is not great terrain for overachievers. He met my ocean analogy with the veiled threat of California ranch-hand wisdom: if you’re going to poke around the bushes, you’d best be prepared to scare out some snakes…

So instead of speaking our harshest truths, for six weeks running Dan and I pursued the lesser offense of making the other sound crazy. Holly cooperated, too, offering feedback that we used to confirm our sense that the other was neurotic.

~Elizabeth Weil, Married (Happily) with Issues


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