23 BOOKS WE’VE LOVED SO FAR THIS YEAR
THE BOOK OF ARON
By Jim Shepard Knopf. 260 pp. $23.95
In the summer of 1942, German soldiers expelled almost 200 starving children from an orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto and packed them into railcars bound for the Treblinka extermination camp. Drawing on his imagination and dozens of historical sources, Shepard brings the Warsaw orphanage to life in this remarkable novel about a poor Polish boy and his friendship with the caretaker of the Warsaw orphans, a pediatrician named Janusz Korczak. Although relentless in its portrayal of systematic evil, “The Book of Aron” is, nonetheless, a story of such startling candor about the complexity of heroism that it challenges each of us to greater courage.
BORN WITH TEETH
By Kate Mulgrew Little, Brown. 306 pp. $28
Kate Mulgrew has so convincingly played strong women on screen — think Capt. Kathryn Janeway on “Star Trek: Voyager” and Galina “Red” Reznikov on “Orange Is the New Black” — that you can be forgiven for believing she’s probably that way in real life, too. Her memoir, “Born With Teeth,” will prove your suspicions correct. Mulgrew swaggers endearingly across its pages, her “able and hardy constitution” ever on display as she powers through the many challenges — both personal and professional — that life has tossed her way. Eloquent and impassioned, the book reaches beyond the standard Hollywood memoir to something more affecting and enduring.
THE CHINA COLLECTORS America’s Century-Long Hunt
for Asian Art Treasures By Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac
Palgrave Macmillan. 420 pp. $30
How did the United States become, as a recent Wall Street Journal article proclaimed, “the capital of Asian art”? Part of the answer can be found in this excellent book, which tracks the adventures of the learned, cutthroat and eccentric scholars and collectors who brought the treasures of the Middle Kingdom to America. Sharply written throughout and packed with anecdotes, “The China Collectors” is as entertaining as it is eye-opening. After reading it, you’ll never visit an Asian art exhibit again without shuddering at how much Sturm und Drang went into the creation of such peacefulness and serenity.
The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
By Erik Larson Crown. 430 pp. $28
The broad strokes of the sinking of the Lusitania will be familiar to most readers, but Larson’s account is the most lucid and suspenseful yet written. He uses letters, journals and the accounts of survivors to reconstruct the shipboard experiences, and these are among the most vivid and often heartbreaking passages in the book. In one, Theodate Pope, one of America’s “few female architects of stature,” recalls the consternation of a fellow passenger who had been served a dish of ice cream but no spoon: “He looked ruefully at it and said he would hate to have a torpedo get him before he ate it.” When the Lusitania finally crosses the path of the deadly Uboat on May 7, 1915, only 764 of the 1,959 passengers and crew members survive.
By James Hannaham Little, Brown. 367 pp. $26
A fantastically propulsive story about a teenager trying to save his drug-addicted mother from indentured servitude on a modern-day fruit farm. In swift, startling scenes, Hannaham makes visible the ornate prison of racism that constricts the spirits of ordinary people and crushes the spirits of extraordinary ones. The narcotic high from this novel comes from alternating chapters narrated in the disembodied voice of crack cocaine itself.
Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable, and What We Can Do About It
By Marc Goodman Doubleday. 392 pp. $27.95
Goodman’s addictive book introduces readers to the brave new world of technology, where robbers have been replaced by hackers, and victims include nearly anyone on the Web. A former beat cop who founded the Future Crimes Institute, Goodman warns that even the human body is hackable. Researchers have successfully broken into a pacemaker — as happened on the television show “Homeland” — and not only were able to read confidential patient information but also could have delivered jolts of electricity to the patient’s heart. Goodman says he isn’t in the business of fear-mongering. Instead, he wrote “Future Crimes” to shed light on the very latest in criminal and terrorist tradecraft and to kick off a discussion.
By Ted Lewis SoHo Crime. 323 pp. $26.95
Never before available in the United States, “GBH,” set in mid-1970s Britain and first published in 1980, is one of the most coldly brilliant crime novels you will ever read. If you read it, that is. Ted Lewis’s last and possibly greatest work isn’t, as the old saying goes, for the faint of heart. Torture, murder, orgies, sadomasochism, porn films, massacres and not a single likable or trustworthy character aren’t precisely the stuff of best-sellerdom. Or . . . perhaps they are? “GBH” — the initials stand for grievous bodily harm, a British legal term — is a mesmerizing story of power, love, hubris and betrayal but, above all, the portrait of a tragic villain.
A True Story of Murder in America
By Jill Leovy Spiegel & Grau. 366 pp. $28
Leovy, a Los Angeles Times reporter, has spent more than a decade in her city’s most dangerous neighborhoods with killers, mothers, drug dealers, gang members, adolescent hookers and cops. And she brings them all to life with grace and artistry and controlled outrage in “Ghettoside.” If there’s any justice, this will be the most important book about urban violence in a generation. In a world after Ferguson (and after Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and all the rest), as we debate the harm done by police, Leovy focuses on the harms that come from things left undone by police. She has visited, and she speaks for, the dead, their survivors, their neighborhoods and the cops who deal — and more important, don’t deal — with them all. She organizes the book around one central narrative: the investigation of the killing of Bryant Tennelle, the young black son of a Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective.
THE GREEN ROAD
By Anne Enright Norton. 310 pp. $26.95
Welcome to the Madigan family of County Clare: four adult children, all contending in various ways with the emotional tyranny of their never- satisfied mother. In the first half, each masterful chapter focuses on one of the siblings at a different time around the world. In the second half, Enright brings them back to the old family home for a momentous Christmas in 2005. There’s nothing Enright can’t do with perspective, tone and time. This is a rich, capacious novel, buoyed by tender humor.
By Harriet Lane Little, Brown. 261 pp. $26
As this brilliant psychological thriller opens, Nina spots a younger woman named Emma whom she believes she knew long ago. Over the next few months, Nina slowly and craftily cultivates Emma, even playing hard to get, as the women give their perspectives on their growing friendship in alternating chapters. ( Why Emma doesn’t recall Nina is one of the story’s several mysteries.) As Nina insinuates herself deeper into Emma’s life, the reader’s anxiety is compounded by the likelihood that her nastiness is payback for some wrong that Emma did to Nina a long time ago — but what?
H IS FOR HAWK By Helen Macdonald Grove. 300 pp. $26
Macdonald was in her late 30s when her father, a photojournalist, died suddenly. Deep in grief, she seized upon a curious book called “The Goshawk,” by T.H. White, and began following the author’s example by training her own raptor. Macdonald evokes the elusiveness of so much that we all want. She wants her father back; she wants her hawk connected to her; she wants the natural world guarded and preserved in its disappearing glory. Needs accumulate, come into conflict and are bravely explored. This is an elegantly written amalgam of nature writing, personal memoir, literary portrait and bereavement explored.
THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD
By Elizabeth Alexander Grand Central. 209 pp. $26
Alexander may be best known for her poem “Praise Song of the Day,” which she delivered at President Obama’s 2009 inauguration. “What if the mightiest word is love?” she asked in that powerful verse. It’s a sentiment she plumbs beautifully in this affecting memoir, which gracefully tells the story of her relationship with her husband, the artist and chef Ficre Ghebreyesus, who died suddenly in 2012 at age 50. Given its subject, the memoir is remarkably uplifting. Alexander, who grew up in Washington and is a professor at Yale, doesn’t wallow in her grief or vent anger at her loss. “I miss my friend,” she says, “plain and simple.” By the end of the book, you will understand precisely why.
A LITTLE LIFE
By Hanya Yanagihara Doubleday. 720 pp. $30
Yanagihara’s novel is a witness to human suffering pushed to its limits, drawn in extraordinary detail by incantatory prose. At the opening, four young men move to New York City after college: a gay, brilliant and arrogant figurative painter sure of his inevitable success; an architect unsure of his sexuality and perplexed about his “insufficient blackness”; a handsome, unambitious actor who works as a waiter while being desired by men and women alike; and an assistant prosecutor whose desire to maintain a veneer of control despite his past physical and sexual trauma create the major dramas in the narrative. His friends’ love — real, selfless love — is the thing that could save him, if only he would let it. It’s a life, just like everyone else’s, but in Yanagihara’s hands, it’s also tender and large, affecting and transcendent; not a little life at all.
THE NUNS OF SANT’ AMBROGIO
The True Story of a Convent in Scandal
By Hubert Wolf Translated from German by Ruth Martin
Knopf. 476 pp. $30
This astonishing book is much more than a true-crime thriller about murderous lesbian nuns — it’s also a very serious study of how the church deals with scandal. As Wolf points out, we aren’t supposed to know about this story. The tale centers on Sister Maria Luisa, the novice mistress at the Sant’ Ambrogio convent in Rome. She was intelligent, charismatic and stunningly beautiful. She was also a sociopath, embezzler, false saint, sexual predator, pathological liar and murderer. A less-principled author would have turned this into a tale of naughty nuns and perverted priests and watched the royalties roll in. Wolf is, however, a scholar of immense integrity who realizes that this story does not require embellishment.
By Tracy K. Smith Knopf. 349 pp. $25.95
In a world of gimmick memoirs — I spent a year doing this, a summer trying that — Smith’s “Ordinary Light” stands out for the universality of its subject and the luminosity of its treatment. A Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Smith writes of her childhood in Northern California, the youngest of five kids in a loving black family suffused with a mother’s faith. “Belief was stitched into me, soldered tomy bones,” she explains. Yet faith, and Smith’s relationship to her mother, are tested by age, distance and illness, leaving the author unsure of herself and of the woman she thought she knew. “Did I ever wonder whomy mother used to be,” she asks, “before she belonged to me?” There is so much we say and wish we could take back. Smith’s memoir is about finally uttering things left unsaid for too long.
SEVENEVES By Neal Stephenson Morrow. 880 pp. $35
Written in a wry, erudite voice, Stephenson’s novel explores the reaction to the news that in two years, moon fragments will pulverize Earth and destroy all life. Scientists and engineers develop the Cloud Ark, a space station to be filled with scientists, engineers and a few civilians who will keep the human race procreating. However, radiation poisoning and deadly skirmishes between factions on the ark leave the world’s fate in the hands of seven women. Without any men or access to stored sperm, they become humanity’s “Eves,” reconstructing various races from their genes. Five thousand years later, we see how these choices play out as the seven “people” groups created by the women try to resettle on Earth.
A SLANT OF LIGHT
By Jeffrey Lent Bloomsbury. 357 pp. $27
Lent’s heartbreaking new novel chronicles the agonized aftermath of a Union veteran’s return to the Finger Lakes region of New York. In the stark, violent opening scene, Malcolm Hopeton confronts a hired hand who plundered his farm and slept with his wife while he was away. In the process of killing his employee, Malcolm accidentally slays his wife and injures a 15year-old helper. A widowed neighbor takes the boy to recuperate on his farm and tries to protect him from the intrusive interrogation that quickly follows. Lent has always been as deft with plot as any other thriller author, and he expertly weaves a half-dozen narrative strands into a richly textured tapestry of a community no longer unified by shared values.
A Brief Education in Politics
By Barton Swaim Simon & Schuster. 240 pp. $25
“The Speechwriter” is a remarkable political memoir, trafficking neither in score-settling nor self-aggrandizement but simply revealing what the author saw and learned. Swaim details his years working for Mark Sanford when the Republican was South Carolina’s governor, and Swaim features hilarious speech-prep moments (“Find me something on the liberty tree,” the governor demands moments before addressing a tea party rally), as well as poignant insights into the daily challenges of political communication. A spare, memorable work on the meaning and power of words in public life.
A SPOOL OF BLUE THREAD
By Anne Tyler Knopf. 368 pp. $25.95
These quirky characters initially look like the Baltimore family members we’ve socialized with for 50 years in Tyler’s fiction. But somehow what’s familiar seems transcended in this wonderful novel infused with freshness and surprise. When Red and Abby Whitshank get too old to care for themselves, their adult children rally to help. Suddenly, the Whitshank house is too full, bursting with children and spouses and grandkids, a cacophonous orchestra of emotional needs, buried resentments and disagreements about how dinner should be cooked.
THE SYMPATHIZER By Viet Thanh Nguyen
Grove. 371 pp. $26
Nguyen, who was born in Vietnam and raised in the United States, has wrapped a cerebral thriller around a desperate expat story that confronts the existential dilemmas of our age. Startlingly insightful and perilously candid, the narration comes to us as a confession written and rewritten many times in an isolation cell. An imprisoned Viet Cong captain recalls fleeing with a South Vietnamese general and insinuating himself into the refugee community that settles around Los Angeles. There he continues spying on the restless warriors as they plot a quixotic plan to liberate their homeland from the communists.
THE WATER KNIFE By Paolo Bacigalupi Knopf. 371 pp. 25.95
Residents in the western United States enduring that water crisis will appreciate the precision with which Bacigalupi imagines our thirsty future. In “The Water Knife,” politicians and their private armies fight one another using drones, attack helicopters and lawyers to take control of the precious lifegiving liquid still flowing, fitfully, from the Colorado River. Angel Velasquez, the “water knife,” is as tough and cunning as a noir detective. Outfitted with assorted futuristic accoutrements, he must find water using a combination of legal and thuggish tactics. This is a vision of the near future that borrows heavily from the strangeness and conflicts of the present.
THE WHITES By Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt
Henry Holt. 352 pp. $28
In this compelling novel, Price initially focuses on veteran New York Police Department detective sergeant Billy Graves, who confronts two life-defining challenges. But “The Whites” is also about his wife, father and children and the four cops who are his closest friends. The story expands to include the criminals they confront, the mean streets they patrol and the realities of America in the 21st century. That’s the vast landscape that Price takes us through with stylistic grace and pitiless honesty.
THE WRIGHT BROTHERS
By David McCullough Simon & Schuster. 320 pp. $30
McCullough provides detailed glimpses of the Wright family in his superb new book, giving more personal information than most of us can claim to know about the aviation pioneers Wilbur and Orville Wright. We learn that Wilbur was fascinated since childhood by the flight of birds and began ameticulous study of avian flight. Wilbur was older, more serious and more studious; Orville, shyer, gentler and more optimistic. And when they achieved their extraordinary feat of manned flights off the Outer Banks of North Carolina at Kitty Hawk in 1903, few people showed any interest. McCullough’s magical account of their early adventures— enhanced by volumes of family correspondence, written records and his own deep understanding of the country and the era — shows as never before how two Ohio boys taught the world to fly.