Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Best of the Backlist

Once a week or so, I add a title to my little sidebar feature, "The Best of the Backlist." The most recent one is shown with its cover and a link to the publisher's site, or perhaps to another book-related site which describes the title. Previously displayed titles are listed below the one most recently added. The category appears in parentheses.

These are books, mostly non-fiction, but not always, which I have read and taken great pleasure in. They would all be carried by my ideal bookstore, even though they probably sell very few copies these days. Here are my capsules for the ones I've listed so far:

The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich. A series of interlocking personal essays on living and ranching in Wyoming. The book has the twin virtues of brevity (it's only 131 pages long) and clarity, and lives as a testament to that still vital Thoreauvian counter-current which runs through American life. Ehrlich has subsequently written other books, including one about being struck by lightning, all of which are exceedingly fine, but none of which consistently show the spark of natural genius that this one does throughout.

A Visit to Don Otavio by Sybille Bedford. A Mexican travelogue. Bedford, who died three years ago at 94, was an aristocrat in the best sense of the word. Her prose is delicious, her eye is keener than a jeweler's, and her sensibility sublimely comprehensive. Tragedy or comedy, outrage or sympathy, she misses nothing and she feels everything. Her many other books are also wonderfully entertaining, but this one stands out. A masterpiece of the genre.

Adam's Task by Vicki Hearne. A book about animals by a trainer and poet who dabbled in philosophy. Published in 1986, before Temple Grandin, Peter Singer, Jeffrey Masson, the Horse Whisperer and all the rest. Hearne outlines the moral imperative behind just (and meaningful) animal training, thus leading the reader to think hard about the place of humans in the animal kingdom. Hearne, who died of cancer in 2001, wrote two more 'animal books' and at least one volume of poetry I know of. All are worth looking for.

The Oysters of Locmariaquer by Eleanor Clark. A book about the culture and cultivation of Belon oysters in Brittany. Written in the mid-1960s, this is one of those indelible works in which close observation, great literary skill, and thorough historical research combine to produce a richly nuanced narrative that transports the reader to a place wonderfully alive and makes him long to stay there. Clark was a companionable and deeply intuitive writer who also wrote an exceptional book on Rome, a must-read for anyone visiting that city.

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