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Culture Lust by Angela Carone

On Guilt, Notable Book Lists, and Gifts for Book Lovers

The New York Times just published their list of 100 notable books from 2007. Each year, when this list is published, I suffer. I berate myself for not reading enough. I look back wistfully to my youth when all I did was read. I worry about my brain. I worry that I read more about books than the books themselves.

Basically, I work myself into a dust storm of anxiety and when the dust settles, I print out the NY Times list and post it in my cubicle. I assure myself that bearing witness to the list will prod me into literary rigor. At some level, I also look forward to the day in February when the long arm of The Times loses power over me and I tear down the list, relinquish my guilt, and happily return to reading about books and watching YouTube. But right now, dear readers, I'm in the middle of the dust storm and looking for absolution. I decide to consult more trusted sources on what to read. I email Seth.

Seth Marko is a bookseller and jack-of-all trades at Warwick's bookstore in La Jolla. Seth also writes an insightful blog about books called The Book Catapult. Check out his list of top 10 books for 2007 and his highly entertaining posts on My Life With George . Seth upset some readers by voicing his frustration with the publishing industry's obsession over neurotic dogs, a la Marley and Me . It's good stuff.

Anyway, I asked Seth what five books he would suggest as gifts for book lovers. He emailed me the following choices with his thoughts on each...


Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson (fiction)

Fresh from winning the National Book Award, Johnson's magnificent saga of the Vietnam War is one of those books I think will stand up as an important, politically poignant piece of fiction - most likely remembered as the quintessential novel of Vietnam. The story of humble, everyman soldier, Skip Sands, is funny, sad, serious, critical, cynical, all the time, on every page. I was pleasantly surprised at my level of emotional and intellectual commitment by the end, as one can't help drawing parallels to our current foreign predicaments.

Gentlemen of the Road

by Michael Chabon (fiction)

Chabon is one of those writers for whom I feverishly drop whatever I am reading whenever his latest crosses my path. This I wouldn't really call "serious" fiction - although Chabon's work rarely is - for it's clearly a playful piece for the author. (His working title for this was "Jews With Swords"....) Set in the neighborhood of 950AD, the "gentlemen" of the title are two compatriots & part-time swindlers/swordsmen, cut from very different cultural cloths, who spend their lives adventuring around the cities on the western Caspian Sea. Written with typical brilliant Chabon wordplay & filled with bizarre, beautiful characters (elephant lovers, harems of beautiful women, murderous Russian warriors, cruel emperors), this is escapist fiction at its finest.

Five Skies by Ron Carlson (fiction)

A heartbreaking, beautifully wrought masterpiece of devastating loss & questioned faith, of earned trust & unbreakable friendship. Ron Carlson's unerring command of language sweeps over you with its beauty and subtlety - there's something about his voice that utterly compels you to listen, to heed every word he has to say. Three men fleeing hardship and pain in their lives meet on a summer-long worksite, high on a barren plateau in southern Idaho. You can feel the mass of the sky above you, see the chasm of red rock canyon, and hear the sounds of the river below. As the men slowly begin to trust each other in work, they each begin to toil inward on their own wounds. Watching the transformation of these characters, these men, in the hands of Mr. Carlson is unlike anything I can recall reading. Easily the best book I read in 2007.

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman (non-fiction)

Weisman presents a readable, cohesive series of hypothetical situations in order to explore humanity's impact on our planet. What would the world be like if humans disappeared overnight? How soon would the earth reclaim? Would the damage we have already done be irreversible in global terms or would the planet rebound quicker than we would imagine? Really a fascinating book that subtly scares you with science, forces you to reflect on your own footprint, and tries to get all of humanity to view the world through greener eyes.

Clapton by Eric Clapton (non-fiction)

This is a very candid, (seemingly, hopefully) honest memoir of EC's life as a rock god, his struggles with fame, addiction, & healthy relationships, and the crafting of some of the greatest rock albums of all time. I think he realizes how lucky he is to have survived his own life - and his natural humbleness regarding his own work, as well as his awe for the artists he's worked with, feels genuine. I also heartily recommend dusting off any of your old Clapton LP's to accompany your reading - I spent a week with only 461 Ocean Boulevard and Derek & the Dominoes in my rotation. What can I say - "Clapton is God".

In the coming months, you'll find more book recommendations from Seth Marko on Culture Lust, but until then and in between, visit The Book Catapult . Tammy
November 29, 2007 at 06:54 PM
Thank you for this list, Angela!! I'm just finishing a book, and I'm looking for something new to read. This came at just the right time. Can't decide from your picks though. All look so good! -----

aaryn b.
December 04, 2007 at 01:24 AM
Thanks for the great post, Angela. Like Tammy above me, I'm looking for a new book. And imagine this funny coincidence: Just this morning, I was thinking about one of my favorite holiday stories, The H Street Sledding Record by none other than Ron Carlson, a long-time favorite author of mine from my hometown. I was wondering what he'd written lately and made mental note to google him today (which I promplty forgot to do). Then I stop in here and read Seth's praises. I can't wait to get my paws on his new book. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Michael R.
December 12, 2007 at 12:52 AM
"I worry that I read more about books than the books themselves." Word! Glad to hear I'm not the only one.