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Nicki Leone's Best Books of 2011

Written by Nicki Leone Sunday, 22 January 2012 17:02

I've been dragging my feet about giving my "best of" reading list because I had such an odd reading year. Mostly, the things I read were for reviews and I read under the pressure of deadlines. But since my reviewing life and my reading life are impossible to disentangle, I'd have a hard time listing the books I just read "for pleasure." And part of the problem with not ever turning off the analytic and critical part of my brain, is that I tend to dissect everything I read, making it hard to ever give an unqualified "I loved this" to any book, even when I really did. Love it, I mean.

The Ghosts of CannaeBut, here is what happened to me instead. I ended up with a list of books that engaged me, sometimes for days or weeks at a time. I'd find myself thinking about them all the time, arguing in my head with their authors, working out my issues with them. I've never had a year where so many books just wouldn't let me go. So those are the ones I'm offering as my "best of 2011" list. They all nearly bested me:

An African in Greenland by Tete-Michel Kpomassie
A young man from Togo decides to run away from home to live with Eskimos. This is not your usual arctic adventure story. In fact, this book--with its lovely language and contemplative, engaging approach, pretty much spoiled me for any other kind of adventure reading. He-man tales of white people conquering exotic lands and enduring ridiculously extreme hardships now all sound brash, testosterone-fueled and arrogant to me, placed next to the tale by this gentle and ever-curious African.

The Ghosts of Cannae by Robert L. O'Connell
I wasn't expecting to become enamored of a military history book about a two thousand year old battle, but what can I say? O'Connell does a wonderful job of balancing technical discussions of military strategy with vivid historical recreation. Classical history is a subject especially vulnerable to the imaginative excesses of its practitioners (I'm looking at you, Stacy Schiff), O'Connell manages to keep on the right side of academic accountability while still wrapping you up in the wonder and drama he finds in the subject.

Read more: Nicki Leone's Best Books of 2011


One Story at a Time: "Roman Fever"

Tuesday, 10 January 2012 00:00

Edith WhartonJoin us January 16 for a discussion of Edith Wharton's "Roman Fever." The discussion will be led by Katharine Weber, who writes:

Edith Newbold Jones Wharton was born in 1862 and died in 1937. She was a member of the aristocratic Jones family, the very Jonese with whom people tried to keep up. She is, of course, best known for her majestic novels, from The House of Mirth to Age of Innocence (though my personal favorite is the bitter and ironic Custom of the Country), but legions of high schoolers are annually deadened to her charms by being forced to read her grim novella, Ethan Frome. Taught so much and to the exclusion of her other work, because of its useful length (this is my theory and I'm sticking to it) rather than any other literary quality, Ethan Frome is a terrible introduction to the novels and short stories of one of the great American writers.

"Roman Fever" is a late work, published first in Liberty Magazine in 1934 and then in Wharton's last story collection, The World Over. While the trappings of the story could seem to be all brocade and bromide, it is a subversive and sly work of fiction that deserves close reading.

If you're already a registered member of BookBalloon, click this link to go straight to the discussion. If you're not already a BookBalloon member (and why not? It's free!), click here to begin.


Focus on Film: Cave of Forgotten Dreams, December 14

Sunday, 11 December 2011 00:00

A couple of weeks ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the fifteen finalists for the five Documentary Feature nominations at next year's Oscars. As usual, critics and bloggers responded with howls of anger and indignation at the Academy documentary committee's exclusion of several highly regarded films. The snubs this year included our next featured title, Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

Cave of Forgotten DreamsHerzog himself is a fascinating figure, the German director of more than sixty feature films and documentaries since the early 1960s. In 2011, Herzog produced two acclaimed documentaries, neither of which made the Academy's short list. One was Into the Abyss, an examination of the death penalty and the nature of justice. The other is our featured film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

In 1994, a group of scientists discovered a cave in Southern France containing the earliest known human paintings. Recognizing the cultural significance of the find, the French government immediately restricted access to it, save a few archaeologists and paleontologists. For this documentary, the filmmakers were given limited access to the caves and their 32,000-year-old artwork. Herzog documents the difficulties in viewing these astonishing paintings and the technical problems he encountered in filming them. He also manages to find and interview the several interesting and eccentric people to help him illustrate the remarkable nature of the find.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams scored an impressive 96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and an outstanding 86 on Metacritic. The film was heralded for its unique use of 3D, though you'll need a 3D television and the 3D Blu-ray to view it in this format. The documentary is now available in HD on Netflix streaming but for some reason cannot be seen on Amazon Instant at this time. The movie is 90 minutes long and is rated G.

Join us for this remarkable journey to the south of France and speak your mind beginning Wednesday, December 14!

If you're already a registered member of BookBalloon, click this link to go straight to the discussion. If you're not already a BookBalloon member (and why not? It's free!), click here to begin.


One Story at a Time: "Bullet in the Brain" by Tobias Wolff

Friday, 09 December 2011 00:00

One story at a timeThe latest story up for discussion in One Story at a Time is "Bullet in the Brain" by Tobias Wolff. "There is something cinematic about the way the story unfolds," Katharine Weber says in her introduction to the discussion. "I also think this story exemplifies the alchemy of inevitability and surprise that drives the best fiction."

If you're already a registered member of BookBalloon, click this link to go straight to the discussion. If you're not already a BookBalloon member (and why not? It's free!), click here to begin.


Q and A with A. S. King

Monday, 03 October 2011 00:00

A. S. KingEverybody Sees the Ants launches today, October 3, and we are lucky to have author A. S. King here for a special event.

Join us October 3 and 4 for a discussion with Amy about her book, writing YA, ants, and everything. Bring your questions and your comments about her previous books, too: Please Ignore Vera Dietz and The Dust of 100 Dogs.

School Library Journal calls Ants, "A haunting but at times funny tale about what it means to want to take one’s life, but rising above it so that living becomes the better option." Find out more about Everybody Sees the Ants at King's website.

A. S. King will be at BookBalloon beginning Monday, October 3. Please join us in the forum  -- and bring your questions for Amy. Forum participation requires registration, which is free.


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Speedboat by Renata Adler


"When Speedboat burst on the scene in the late ’70s it was like nothing readers had encountered before. It seemed to disregard the rules of the novel, but it wore its unconventionality with ease. Reading it was a pleasure of a new, unexpected kind." -- New York Review Books

John Leonard said, "Nobody writes better prose than Renata Adler." What do you think? The discussion begins May 15 in the Forum.

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