Staff Picks

Staff Picks: Winchester, Scrabble, Byron, Dumas, Irving, Christensen

By posted at 4:33 am on February 11, 2008 0

The “staff picks” shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many bookselling alums in our ranks, we offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature appearing irregularly.

coverThe Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester recommended by Andrew

The subtitle says it all: “A tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary”. In this engaging slice of history (with a narrower focus than his later The Meaning of Everything), Winchester zooms in on the intersecting lives of two men: Professor James Murray, who oversaw the committee which collected the submitted definitions, and Dr. W. C. Minor, formerly a respected American doctor and medic in the Civil War, who then transplanted to England, and at the time of his 10,000-plus contributions to the dictionary was a psychotic murderer and inmate at a mental institution.

coverThe Official Scrabble Players Dictionary recommended by Noah

It sounds ridiculous, but I never travel without my O.S.P.D. Published by Merriam Webster, Inc. for Hasbro, it is the game of Scrabble’s one and only arbiter, from AA to ZYZZYVA (a tropical weevil and a damned hard word to make, given the fact that there is just one Z tile.) My Third Edition, with gold embossed lettering on a stately green hardcover, never sits on the shelf for very long since I became addicted to the Scrabulous application on Facebook. I may be a bit old for social networking, but opening a Scrabulous game with someone faraway by playing ZODIACS for 106 points? Priceless. And as long as I’m using my O.S.P.D., and not online references, it’s not cheating – at least that’s what I tell myself. Scrabulous may carry a price for its creators, who have been sued by Hasbro. If only life came with an O.S.P.D., such disputes would be so much easier to settle.

coverThe Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron recommended by Timothy

In 1933, British author Robert Byron, a distant relative of Lord Byron, embarked on an 11-month journey with a friend across the Middle East, eventually ending up in India. Along the way he kept a journal – full of caustic wit and genuine discovery – later published as The Road to Oxiana. The book offers an historical look at the people and places of the Orient through the eyes of a privileged and opinionated traveler who makes his way by boat, bus and stolen horse. The journal can be enjoyed either in its entirety or by reading accounts of select cities, such as Beirut, Damascus, Tehran, Kabul and many others in between. The entries, each noting the date and city elevation, range from descriptions about the joys of bargaining to verbatim accounts of memorable conversations concerning local customs. To be sure, Byron occasionally makes sweeping generalizations about the ethnic groups he encounters. While in Baghdad he writes: “The hotel is run by Assyrians, pathetic, pugnacious little people with affectionate ways.” More favorable opinions are formed when Byron gets to know people beyond monetary transactions.

At its best, travel writing offers a healthy balance of observation and attitude. And if you’re lucky, the author will not shy from the self-revelation inherent when encountering new cultures. Byron accomplishes both. In his final entry, upon returning home, Byron expresses the timeless sentiment of a world traveler: “I began to feel dazed, dazed at the prospect of coming to a stop, at the impending collision between eleven months’ momentum and the immobility of a beloved home.”

coverThe Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas recommended by Emre

I am easily impressionable. And sometimes my tendencies are highly ephemeral. Yet, for some obscure reason, I have a constant longing for that of the old, which – absolutely – can no longer be had. That is why I venture to recommend The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas to you fellow readers. Granted, it is a classic so oft cast in movie renditions and referred to in modern language that you – just as with the author’s Three Musketeers – might think you know all its details, but Dumas’s Count is still likely to entrap you in the mysterious ways he moves. Born into the lower classes and securing for himself the promise of a decent lower middle-class status, Edmond Dantes, the protagonist, is cast off society’s script as it unfolds with Napoleon’s return to the throne and immediate downfall. But Dantes lives on in the depths of a dark prison cell, and once free, plots a magnificent return, beautifully articulated by his vengeance. If you thought anyone vengeful, peek into the Count of Monte Cristo’s schemes and you will quickly change your mind, not to mention that you will appreciate them for their brilliance and ability to make you fly through upwards of 1,200 pages. Hefty as it might be, and outdated as honor might seem in our age, The Count shines a romantic light on the magnificent Parisian society of the early- to mid-1800s, providing the modern reader with a gripping story, colorful characters and a reflection on times and thoughts that may seem far away but are very much a part of our lives today. See also: Max on The Count.

coverSetting Free the Bears by John Irving recommended by Max

It was John Irving who introduced me to contemporary fiction. As a young teenager, his novels were the first I digested with an adult mind. Though it pains me to note that his later novels have been sub-par at best, the novels of his most fertile period – Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Hotel New Hampshire and of course The World According to Garp – are nearly unparalleled. But often given short shrift is the book that started it all: Setting Free the Bears. Where some of Irving’s novels can sometimes suffer from baroque plotting, Bears is refreshingly direct and light-hearted. Written when Irving was just 25, he submitted the book’s initial draft as his Masters thesis at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (where Kurt Vonnegut was a professor). The book offers a pair of free-spirited protagonists on a motorcycle adventure through Austria and a plan to liberate the animals in Vienna’s zoo. As is so often the case with Irving, things go awry. Though regarded as one of Irving’s lesser works, Bears is good fun that lays the groundwork for the books that made him famous.

coverThe Epicure’s Lament by Kate Christensen recommended by Patrick

Peppered with references to MFK Fisher, this beautiful, readable novel could be described as the seminal work of foodie fiction (although such an appellation would belittle it). Hugo Whittier has removed himself to his ancestral home on the Hudson River, where he’s dying from a disease that could be cured if only he’d stop smoking. Hugo is the quintessential antihero, a sardonic, narcissistic curmudgeon grown prematurely old. He struggles to stay out of the affairs of his brother, who is stumbling headlong into divorce, and his estranged wife, who has appeared suddenly seeking reconciliation. Hugo is perfectly rendered, in all his self-centered glory. As a bonus, the book contains a ripping recipe for Shrimp Newburg.





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