In 1795, William-Henry Ireland, a nineteen-year-old clerk, forges Shakespeare's signature to impress his antique collecting father. His father is so happy, he forges more and more complex documents, including a never-before-seen play that he wrote himself. The nation's adulation turns to fury when the deception is uncovered.
Why I picked it up: Unshelved reader Robert Leone said it was really good.
Why I finished it: The ever-escalating fraud and danger of discovery sucked me in while William-Henry's desperate attempts to get his father's approval broke my heart. Everyone in his life underestimated him so much that, even when the jig was up, no one believed that he could write well enough to create the forgeries.
I'd give it to: Mike, who would love the way the various characters feel both real and flawed, with lots of detail drawn from contemporary sources. Craig, who will enjoy the way Shakespeare's work and reputation changed as people began to idolize him. (Hamlet had new lines added to make it more popular. And a Dutch production included a spring-loaded wig so that an actor could look surprised when he saw the king's ghost. Boiiiiiing!)
Early in “Showdown at Checotah” a fifteen-year-old Carlos Webster witnessed Frank Miller rob a drugstore and murder a police officer. Later, as a U.S. Marshall, he makes a reputation for himself by helping to hunt down Miller and his gang.
In “Louly and Pretty Boy,” a young woman, obsessed with the bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd, runs away from Tulsa to try life as a gun moll.
“Comfort to the Enemy” (originally published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine and available online) features Carl and Louly later in life. Carl is sent to investigate the death of a German POW in Oklahoma.
Why I picked it up: I love novellas and really enjoyed The Hot Kid, which is also about Carl Webster.
Why I finished it: In the first story, the scene where the bank robber Frank Miller eats Carl’s ice cream, talks about Carl’s race, and shoots a police officer, is Leonard at his best. I remember the scene from The Hot Kid, but it’s even better the second time around.
I'd give it to: My friend Eric, who would love the FX series Justified (also based on Leonard’s work) but doesn’t watch TV. He’s a literary snob sometimes, but if I can get him to read a few pages he’ll talk about this book for weeks, and maybe he’ll stop turning down my offer to loan him Leonard’s Valdez is Coming.
From the start of the book, David Rakoff is unabashed in his doubts about can-do American culture. The first essay contrasts Julie Norem’s defensive pessimism with the positive psychology movement, and then critiques the grotesque if-you’re-not-optimistic-you-hate-America attitude of the post 9/11 era. I thought the book might do nothing except underline this point again and again, but topics range from his view on Mormons to a surprisingly timid erotic ball in New York. He also writes about deeply personal experiences like his recent cancer diagnosis, after which he prepared for the possible amputation of his arm
Why I finished it: As a child, Rackoff saw himself as a tiny, different, but much loved member of his family, so he strongly identified with Stuart Little. Reading his description of the mouse’s “full regalia of vaguely pornographic sailor whites” made me set the book down to laugh out loud, as I did many times.
I'd give it to: Iggy, a teenager I know who is in the process of defining his own cynicism. Also Jenny, who likes the uncensored personal perspective of Pekar’s American Splendor.
Bean lives across the street from Ivy. Bean's mom tells Bean that she should try to make friends with Ivy. But Bean doesn't think that she will because she always sees Ivy reading on her porch. Bean is a very mischievous girl. She thinks Ivy is nice, and that means she’s boring! Bean thinks she and Ivy are not alike at all. But when Bean tries to play a trick on her older sister, she finds out that she and Ivy are almost exactly alike. They make plans, create potions, and get into trouble together.
Why I picked it up: Some people in my third grade class said it’s really good.
Why I finished it: When Ivy asks Bean to come over. Ivy’s wearing a robe covered with stars and moons that she glued on. (I think she calls it her witch robe.) Ivy takes Bean a secret place where they try to catch a frog for one of their spells.
I'd give it to: Grace, because I thought of her when they made a crazy plan and painted red tears on Ivy’s face so she looked scary.
On a whim, precocious and shy thirteen-year-old Lou begins a school project to study homeless girls in Paris. She meets No, an eighteen-year-old who agrees to be interviewed as long as Lou buys her drinks and smokes at a local café. Lou loses herself in the effort to understand and help No, even recruiting Lucas, an older friend from school, in the process. Lou even gets her broken, grieving parents to bring No into their home. Her mother has been deeply depressed since the death of Lou’s younger sibling, and No’s presence seems to help her. But none of them can force help on No, and they all suffer as they watch her slow decline and return to her life on the street.
Why I picked it up: It was translated from French, published here in 2010, and was nominated for my ALA book committee.
Why I finished it: Lou is a thoughtful, unusual character unlike anyone that I have run across in my reading this year. She is frank with her doubts and fears. I waited for the other shoe to drop as I read about No moving in with Lou’s family. Lou’s feelings for No are touching and realistic, but this is not Hallmark material.
I'd give it to: My sons Caleb and Joshua who have worked with the homeless before and might benefit from this sobering view of the effort, hopes, and fears that go along with helping someone who is down and out.
Avi Steinberg needs two things: health insurance and to escape from his job as an obituary writer. When he sees a want ad for a Prison Librarian, he submits his application and cuts his hair short to make sure he can pass the hair sample drug test. He gets the job. Inside, he learns the ropes from fellow officers, helpful prisoners / library staff, and the garrulous hustlers who hang out at the counter. He helps a prisoner who wants to be a TV cook with his own show, Thug Sizzle, and writes the introduction to a memoir by a pimp named CC Too Sweet. A former prisoner mugs Steinberg in a park -- as he runs away he gleefully shouts, “I still have two overdue books!”
Why I picked it up: My mother clipped out a New York Times book review about this memoir for me because I regularly visit an inmate through a program at my church.
Why I finished it: An incarcerated woman and her estranged son are both imprisoned at the facility where Steinberg works. She can only see her son during his yard time, so she stares intently out the library windows. Before she is released, Steinberg violates prison rules to pass on a portrait and letter to her son, who she abandoned years earlier.
I'd give it to: The other men who visit a local prison with me every month, because the book chronicles asinine prison procedures similar to what we’ve witnessed. (During visits, we use pre-loaded cards to buy vending machine snacks for ourselves and the inmates. In just a year’s time, they’ve been allowed, taken away, then given back with no explanation.) Also to Emily, an English teacher who would like that female prisoners agreed to read work by a poet who “looked like she had also lived a hard life.”
Atlanta girl meets Miami boy in Stiltsville, a community of houses built on pilings in Biscayne Bay in South Florida.
Why I picked it up: I was telling Virginia Stanley from HarperCollins how I'm the only guy I know who likes quiet and emotionally resonant books about families, and she handed me this. I'm also fascinated by South Florida in much the same way as I'm fascinated by car crashes.
Why I finished it: Frances truly loves Dennis, so the moment when she contemplates being unfaithful to him felt immensely real and bittersweet.
I'd give it to: Florida haters. It's easy to be one, but this book opened my eyes to the quiet beauty that exists underneath the rampant development.
Uncollected, unpublished, and “hard to find” works by Jeffrey Brown. Most of the comics are autobiographical and focus on Brown’s relationships and childhood, with a few notable exceptions.
Why I picked it up: I love his work and was interested to read his next book after seeing one of his notebooks in MOCCA last May.
Why I finished it: I’m a big fan of Brown’s simple biographical stories of heartache. There are several stories in this book I’ve read before as well as others that are new to me. Every Girl Is The End Of The World For Me, one of my favorite stories, chronicles Brown’s romantic troubles years ago. Pregnant Pause a more recent story (and new to me) starts with his girlfriend Jennifer’s pregnancy and ends with the birth of their child. And then at the end of the book, after a healthy dose of sensitivity, I reread Be a Man in which he mercilessly mocks his overly considerate attitude (and the lack of it in stereotypical manly men) by casting himself as a lout who mistreats women.
I'd give it to: My friend Kevin, the well-dressed, well-coifed, former New Wave softy (in high school) who would enjoy everything I liked about the book plus, especially, “My Conspiracy To Not Sell You The New ‘Garden State’ DVD”.