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Fresh Delivery: Indie Booksellers Pick 2010 Favorites

It's that time of year again! Susan Stamberg chats with three independent booksellers about their favorite reads of the year, from an atlas of remote islands to a children's book about feminist heroes.By Susan Stamberg/NPR


So many books. So little airtime. So, below, a cornucopia of book choices ? fabulous range, really ? from some independent booksellers across the country. The theme of several of the books seems to be about place ? going places, having a sense of place, getting stuck in a place. Every year, when we present these holiday book choices, I'm struck by how idiosyncratic the picks are. I suppose it's because of that immense world of books out there (we're talking hardcover here ? independent sellers know about e-books, but their passion is for pages and print). These sellers have the chance to read publisher's lists, to see what will come out in a given season, and then to order, on the basis of what they know about the readers in their communities. It's such a personal process, so full of good and considerate connections. It's almost as nice as sitting down in the most comfortable chair in the place, and getting lost in a fine story. Happy holidays, and enjoy your choices.

Daniel Goldin, Boswell Book Co.
Recommendations from Daniel Goldin at Boswell Book Co. in Milwaukee

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
By Tom Franklin; hardcover, 288 pages; William Morrow, list price: $24.99

Larry Ott is the outcast of rural Chabot, Miss. He's a bit of a geek, but not the kind with technical skills. He keeps up his deceased dad's car repair place, despite having no customers, and visits his mom in the nursing home. Maybe it's because when he was in high school, he was accused of killing a fellow student. That legacy comes back with a vengeance when another woman in town disappears.

The area constable helping out with the crime is Silas "32" Jones, a onetime high school baseball hero who knows Larry a lot better than most of the town imagines. They were friends as kids, at least of a sort. There are lot of secrets to be discovered, and much figurative baggage to be unpacked.

Franklin's Mississippi is richly atmospheric, and Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is one of those books that work both as a mystery and as a novel. I can even imagine a sequel with Silas Jones, but the obvious title (Humpback, Humpback) seems to come with its own baggage.

The Wilding
By Benjamin Percy; paperback, 288 pages; Graywolf Press, list price: $23

Three generations of a family (grandfather Paul, father Justin, young son Graham) plan one final hunting trip in the wilderness area, slated to become a golf resort, outside of boomtown Bend, Ore. There are ill winds ahead for this expedition, alas. For Paul has revealed to an angry local at a convenience store that he had a hand in the resort deal, and this guy's out for revenge. Left behind, Karen has inadvertently caught the interest of a troubled Iraq war vet and is now stalking her. And did I mention that there is a bear in the woods?

Percy maps the harsh terrain between father and son, husband and wife, and wilderness and civilization, creating the tension of a horror novel minus the supernatural. In the original story that was the genesis of this novel, the bear was feared to be Bigfoot. It turns out that a wild bear and a sharpshooting soldier are no less spooky, and perhaps, being real, are more so.

The Cookbook Collector
By Allegra Goodman; hardcover, 416 pages; The Dial Press, list price: $26

Two sisters during the 1990s tech boom find that love and happiness are not so easily sorted out in their lives. Emily is the determined head of a startup company while Jess flits from cause to cause, working at a secondhand bookstore while she pursues a graduate degree. Emily is dedicated to Jonathan, her cross-country boyfriend, who is head of a rival tech company, while Jess has dumped her save-the-trees activist boyfriend for the organization's leader. Life seems pretty good, but the tech bust is just around the corner.

Goodman's newest novel plays off Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, but it's as much that as The Gate at the Stairs is Jane Eyre. It's important to know that the title is a bit misleading; this is not one of those foodie stories with lots of recipes. But most important, you should know that this is a glorious novel, infused with insight and joy.

Wordcatcher: An Odyssey Into The World Of Weird And Wonderful Words
By Phil Cousineau; paperback, 202 pages; Viva Editions, list price: $15.95

It's my thought that every book lover is also a lover of language; why else would there be so many language books released every year? But the thing I love about Wordcatcher is the way every word becomes a story with the help of author Phil Cousineau, who has been writing stories for some time now, about mythology, travel, design, spirituality and, yes, riddles. It is his breadth of knowledge and storytelling skills that bring this book to life.

The entries are a mix of the everyday, such as honeymoon and fury, and ones you probably don't think about, such as portmanteau and gorgonize. I love the way he captures the spirit of a culture, from the Portuguese saudade and fado to the Japanese wabi/sabi and Irish kibosh. I want to ask someone, "Where's the craick?" I want to apologize for my "borborygmus" and be called out for my "fribbling." This kind of book is the kind you dip into, but I read it cover to cover, not wanting to miss an entry.

My Year Of Flops: The A.V. Club Presents One Man's Journey Deep Into The Heart of Cinematic Failure
By Nathan Rabin; paperback, 288 pages; Scribner, list price: $15

Rabin writes for the A.V. Club, the arts and entertainment section of The Onion, and this column revisited some of the most notorious critical and financial failures in the film world. Rabin revisited each film, offering some background into why it got made and what likely went wrong. He then rates the movie ? failure, fiasco or secret success. Films are divided into calamitous comedies (like Scenes from a Mall), musical misfires (such as Glitter), unsexy sexy films (including Exit to Eden) and so forth.

Though the website focused on relatively recent films, the book ventures into such older fare as Otto Preminger's hippie comedy Skidoo, with noted counterculture icons Groucho Marx, Jackie Gleason and Carol Channing, and Preston Sturges' The Great Moment, the world's first "dental-ether tragicomedy." The thing that's great about My Year of Flops is that it's both funny and fascinating, even if you haven't seen the films, and I hadn't seen most of them. And how in the world did some of them get financing? The world is a strange place.

Lucia Silva, Portrait Of A Bookstore
Recommendations from Lucia Silva, the book buyer at Portrait of a Bookstore in Studio City, Calif.

A Week At The Airport
By Alain de Botton; paperback, 112 pages; Vintage, list price: $15

In 2009, Heathrow Airport invited the writer and philosopher Alain de Botton to be writer-in-residence in their newly built Terminal 5. He would live at the airport for a week, occupying a desk situated in the middle of the departure hall, record his impressions, and then compile them into a book. The result is this slim volume that waxes philosophical on all the things airports represent: escape, anonymity, longing, aspiration, impatience. De Botton offers funny, erudite ruminations on such things as the implications of reclaiming our baggage after hours suspended in weightless flight; illusions of perfection upon departing for a family holiday; and the complex emotions involved in "arrivals" and "departures." At just over 100 pages, this one is perfect for your carry-on.

Atlas Of Remote Islands
By Judith Schalansky; hardcover, 144 pages; Penguin, list price: $28

"Give me an atlas over a guidebook any day. There is no more poetic book in the world," declares the author, illustrator and designer of this dreamy atlas. Who hasn't stared at those specks of earth (or ice) in the middle of foreign oceans and wondered what stories they hold? Schalansky uses historic events and scientific accounts as inspiration for the "imagined realities" she creates for each of these 50 real islands. This beautifully illustrated atlas reveals that cartography and the creative imagination have always intersected, spurred on by human wanderlust.

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me
Edited by Kate Bernheimer; paperback, 608 pages; Penguin, list price: $17

This international collection brings together brand-new stories inspired by the oldest literary tradition. Neil Gaiman riffs on Homer's Odyssey, Francine Prose remakes Hansel and Gretel, and Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike both take on Bluebeard. Sure, there are princes, talking birds, witches and spells, but there are also 7-Elevens, hipsters and performance artists (to say nothing of the runaways, addicts and drifters named after the Seven Dwarfs). Though mostly anchored in the very real world, all of these stories are sprinkled with a beguiling darkness that recalls the enchanting lilt of our earliest story times.

The Open Daybook
Edited by David P. Earle; hardcover, 384 pages; Mark Batty Publisher, list price: $45

David Earle assigned 365 artists each a day of the year and gave them 24 hours to create a work of art dedicated to that date. Both an art object and a functional perpetual calendar, the collection inspires viewers to stretch their creativity and reimagine the significance of their next 24 hours. Each page has a blank space where one might jot down a poem, sketch a doodle, or paste some ephemera, reminding us of our own capacities and desires to make, to do, to engage beyond our appointments and responsibilities.

Where We Know: New Orleans As Home
Edited by David Rutledge; paperback, 304 pages; Broken Levee Books, list price: $16

This beautifully designed collection brings together essays from New Orleanians who stayed to rebuild their lives in a broken city, and those who chose to leave. Along with historical references, maps, photographs and quotes from both the famous and unknown, Where We Know creates a mosaic of the ultimate mosaic city. Whether writing about a baby born in the midst of reconstruction, wrestling with the many voices of the city's tangled heritage, or looking back from a new home in Los Angeles, these writers illuminate the city's past and the present in a gritty homage fit for natives and foreigners alike. Designed as though Chin Music Press/Broken Levee Books intends to singlehandedly resurrect the art of bookmaking, Where We Know is a book you'll want at your bedside and on your coffee table.

Rona Brinlee, The BookMark
Recommendations from Rona Brinlee at The BookMark in Atlantic Beach, Fla.

The Gendarme
By Mark T. Mustian; hardcover, 304 pages; Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, list price: $25.95

At 92 years old, Emmett Conn is experiencing dreams about his forgotten time spent as a Turkish gendarme responsible for Armenian deportees during World War I. Repressed memories of his cruel acts are tangled with a powerful love for one of his prisoners. She is both the object of Conn's hatred of Armenians and his greatest love. More than 70 years later and on the verge of senility and death, Emmett is disturbed by his own past actions and seeks forgiveness. The Gendarme highlights the power of memory and forgetting, the inspiration of love and regret, and the triumph of humanity and forgiveness over war and pain.

It's A Book
By Lane Smith; hardcover, 32 pages; Roaring Brook Press, list price: $12.99

This is every book lover's book. It proclaims what a perfect invention the book is and proves that it really can't be improved. The monkey introduces the jackass to a book. In amazement, the jackass asks a series of questions in rapid succession about how you scroll down, if it can blog and if it can tweet. The answer is always the same ? NO, it's a book! Mesmerized by the story and the book itself, the animal refuses to return it but promises in the end, "Don't worry, I'll charge it up when I'm done!" to which the monkey replies, "You don't have to ... it's a book, Jackass." Doesn't that just say it all?

My Name Is Not Isabella: Just How Big Can A Little Girl Dream?
By Jennifer Fosberry and Mike Litwin; hardcover, 32 pages; Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, list price: $16.99

Isabella is a little girl who dreams of being famous women in history. So when her mother wakes her to greet the day with "Good morning, Isabella," Isabella informs her she is not Isabella; she is Sally, the greatest astronaut who ever was. At each step in the day, Isabella is someone else, including Annie Oakley, who eats her breakfast; Rosa Parks, who waits for the school bus; and Marie Curie, who does her homework. To complete the circle, at the end of the day, Isabella is herself as she goes to sleep to dream about whom she'll be tomorrow. This book features delightful illustrations of a round-faced Isabella who has purple hair, and includes information on each of the famous women featured.

The Tower, The Zoo, And The Tortoise
By Julia Stuart; hardcover, 320 pages; Doubleday, list price: $24.95

Imagine a funny, poignant book, full of delightful and wacky characters, then add a bit of English history, and you've got The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise. When the Queen decides to house animals she's received as gifts from foreign countries in the moat around the Tower of London, she puts the Beefeaters (the Tower's guards) in charge. One in particular, who owns a 180-plus-year-old tortoise, is the perfect choice. Other noteworthy characters include his wife, who works in the lost and found for the London tube and worries about returning left-behind items ? including an urn and a glass eye ? to their rightful owners, and the reverend who writes erotica under the name Vivienne Ventress, but donates all his profits to help prostitutes. This is Carl Hiaasen for the Tower of London.

What Is Left The Daughter
By Howard Norman; hardcover, 256 pages; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, list price: $25

Like Howard Norman's previous novels, What is Left the Daughter begins with a confession. In this case, 43-year-old Wyatt Hillyer is writing a letter to his estranged daughter on the occasion of her 21st birthday to tell her about "the terrible incident that I took part in on Oct. 16, 1942," when he was 19. The entire book is Hillyer's letter to his daughter, written over the course of weeks to explain his life and, in the process, shed some light on hers as well. The novel unravels the interwoven and complex motives surrounding this event and exposes the force of love, revenge and xenophobia. With such universal themes, it is a tribute not only to the continued importance of the novel as a representation of society but also to the dying art of letter writing.

The Sound Of A Wild Snail Eating
By Elisabeth Tova Bailey; hardcover, 208 pages; Algonquin Books, list price: $13.99

This gem of a book proves that good things do come in small packages. Finding herself bedridden, the author becomes mesmerized by a snail delivered to her in a plant. She contemplates a slow life, the lives of creatures not usually examined and the place of humans in the realm of nature. Her fascination with her gastropod companion expands to the place of the snail in literature and poetry and evolution. Books like this one that quietly capture our hearts and minds are a welcome treat.

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