The usual format in “best of” lists for books seems to be separate lists for fiction and non-fiction, with ten titles for each. I’ve read much more fiction than nonfiction in the last year, so I’m compromising and creating a single, fifteen-item list that combines fiction and nonfiction. The books are arranged in reverse alphabetical order by title (because it isn’t fair that A always gets to go first).
The link in the header for each book will take you to the publisher’s page for that title. The link in the body of my comments will take you to the full review that I published last year.
Tehran at Twilight, by Salar Abdoh, (Akashic Books)
Abdoh’s Iran is a place where the question isn’t if one has been complicit, but rather the extent of one’s complicity. Malek Reza, the novel’s protagonist, is an Iranian-American, one who initially supported the Iranian revolution, but moved to the U.S. with his father when the revolutionary government became as violent towards its own citizens as the shah’s had been. As Reza notes near the end of the book, “Change always carried a price. Often that price was that there would be no change at all.” Reza’s best friend, Sina Vafa, has returned to Iran after he and Reza finished their educations at U.C. Berkeley. Vafa is still committed to the revolution despite its disappointments, still eager to engage in clandestine activity in Iran or in surrounding countries. Tehran at Twilight opens when, after years of separation, Vafa contacts Reza, asking him to return to Iran and—upon Reza’s return—asking him to accept Vafa’s power of attorney. This request, not surprisingly, is more complex than it seems, ultimately sundering the two men’s friendship.
Stay Where You Are and Then Leave, by John Boyne (Henry Holt and Co.)
Alfie Summerfield, the central character of Stay Where You Are and Then Leave, is five when his father volunteers for the British Army at the start of World War I. He’s an interesting, quirky kid, with a child’s sense of time: “Georgie and Margie [Alfie’s parents] had been very old when they got married—he [Alfie] knew that much. His dad had been almost twenty-one and his mum was only a year younger.” At first, Alfie’s father writes regularly, but then the letters stop coming. Alfie’s mum tells Alfie his dad is on a secret mission, but Alfie grow less and less sure of her honesty as his father’s absence grows more extended. Alfie and his mum quickly become “perilously close to penury,” as she puts it. She works double shifts at a hospital, waking him before she leaves for work in the morning. Now the man of the family, Alfie cuts school and spends four days a week at King’s Cross Station shining shoes in order to make a few pennies to slip into his mother’s purse. When Alfie see his father’s name on a document dropped at King’s Cross by a physician, he begins his own search for his father.
The Sacred River: A Novel, by Wendy Wallace, (Scribner)
The Sacred River focuses on three women: a mother, Louisa; her sister-in-law, Yael; and Louisa’s daughter, Harriet. Harriet, now in her early twenties, is consumptive. She’s spent her years as an invalid studying texts on ancient Egypt, particularly hieroglyphs, and convinces her doctor to tell her parents that travel to Egypt is essential for her health. So Louisa and Harriet, accompanied by the spinster, Yael, set sail. As it turns out, Egypt is good for Harriet’s health, easing her breathing and also giving her life a sense of purpose that it’s lacked before. Harriet is able to participate in archaeological work, sketching paintings and glyphs in a recently discovered tomb. Yael also finds a new sense of purpose in Egypt, one suited to her Christian beliefs and her inherent feminism. Louisa, meanwhile, is confronted with a past that, as a cover copy-writer might put it, she’d “prefer to keep buried.”
Prayers for the Stolen, by Jennifer Clements, (Random House)
Prayers for the Stolen is primarily set in a small hillside community in Guerero, not far from Acapulco, where “Everyone’s goal was to never come back.” This community is a shadow of its former self—now divided by the highway to Acapulco, it’s been fragmented; all the males have left for work in the U.S. and most have broken ties with the wives and children left behind; and the women who remain are at the mercy of the members of the drug cartels that flourish in the area. It’s the women in this book who are “the stolen,” kidnapped by cartel members either for personal use or to be sold for profit. The central characters in this book are a quartet of teen-aged girls growing up under the strict eyes of their mothers who do all they can, first to pass their daughters off as sons, and then, when that is no longer possible, to make their daughters ugly in hopes that this will spare them from abduction: hair is cut short and badly, teeth are deliberately stained with magic marker. These four are Paula, a remarkable beauty; Estefani, whose mother is dying of AIDS; Maria, the illegitimate half-sister of the book’s narrator; and the narrator herself, Ladydi (as in England’s Lady Di). Through Ladydi’s voice, Clement’s book walks a fine balance, presenting the difficulties of the characters’ day-to-day lives in a neutral tone that keeps the events described from becoming unbearable for the reader, but that at the same time adds to the misery depicted, since this tone makes it clear that the events being narrated are ordinary—not moments of unusual terror or suffering. This is the way life is on Ladydi’s hillside.
Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured, by Kathryn Harrison, (Doubleday)
Kathryn Harrison’s Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured is the best biography I’ve read in quite some time—probably the best one I’ve read in years. In fact, Harrison’s book is something like four books in one (or perhaps the best pages of four different biographies excised and stitched together within a new cover. There’s the straightforward biography; the discussion of the way Joan’s life has been interpreted in the arts (theatre, film, painting); the consideration of Joan in the notions of gender prevalent in her own time; and a very interesting comparison of Joan with Christ. Harrison is a perceptive, eclectic thinker, and being able to savor four hundred pages of her research and reflections on Joan of Arc is an exceptional treat.
I Called Him Necktie, by Milena Michiko Flasar, translated by Sheila Dickie, (New Vessel Press)
The promotional material I found online for I Called Him Necktie claims “This is the Japanese Catcher in the Rye for the 21st Century.” Audacious as this claim may seem, I think it’s accurate. The narrator Taguchi Hiro is a hikikomori—one of the estimated 100,000 to 320,000 (data provided by the author) Japanese young people overwhelmed by this highly competitive society who “refuse to leave their parents’ house, shut themselves in their rooms and reduce their contact with the family to the minimum.” Hiro has begun to leave the family home unobserved, spending long stretches of time sitting on a favorite bench in a local park. It’s at this park that Hiro meets “Necktie,” an unemployed businessman who has not been able to tell his wife about the loss of his job and who leaves home each day as if he were still going to work. Hiro and Necktie are compelling characters, deeply troubled, but easy to understand and identify with. Hiro has abandoned societal expectations; Necktie is unable to abandon them, despite his own desires and circumstances. As the two trepidatiously build a friendship they strengthen one another. Hiro recounts stories of classmates with burdens similar to his own; Necktie reveals the tragedy lying in his own past.
Fives and Twenty-Fives: A Novel, by Michael Pitre, (Bloomsbury USA)
Fives and Twenty-Fives, set in Iraq, focuses on the lives of three characters, depicting these through a series of first-person narratives interwoven with “official” documents that also address these characters’ experiences. These characters are all part of an engineering team responsible for filling potholes in occupied areas. Donovan, a young lieutenant responsible for leading one of these road crews, is hindered (as well as embarrassed) by his lack of military experience. Doc Pleasant, the medic for that crew, faces the impossible task of trying to return bodies to wholeness after explosions and fire fights have torn them to pieces. “Dodge,” their Iraqi interpreter, loves heavy metal music and, before the war broke out, was writing a thesis on Huckleberry Finn. As one might expect, Fives and Twenty-Fives makes for a brutal sort of reading, which is precisely why this such a valuable book. Writing cannot begin to replicate combat experience, but truly fine writing can at least give readers a glimpse at the vast desolation and destructiveness of combat, a sense of standing at the edge of an unseeable chasm of almost infinite width and depth.
F: A Novel, by Daniel Kehlmann, trans. Carol Janeway, (Pantheon)
F is one of those novels that a reader picks up because the premise is interesting—something that will either be brilliant or disastrous. Arthur, a father who doesn’t believe in hypnotism, abandons his family after being told by a hypnotist that he must seriously pursue his dream of being a writer. He becomes a famous author; his sons spend their lives responding to his abandonment in different ways. Martin becomes a priest who doesn’t believe in God. Eric become an investment adviser, juggling accounts like Bernie Madoff while over-medicating himself. Ivan, a painter, finds himself unable to produce his own artwork. Bottom line: brilliant. This book is brilliant. Each of the chapters has a different perspective. The story of the hypnosis is told in omniscient, third person style. The next three chapters are each presented in first person, each narrated by one of the three sons. Imbedded among these chapters is one of the stories Arthur writes after abandoning his family. The book ends in third-person again, this time focusing on Arthur’s granddaughter (Eric’s daughter) Marie.
The End of Days, by Jenny Erpenbeck, trans. Susan Bernofsky, (New Directions)
The End of Days is powerfully built. The structure is original; the scope is broad. If I had to say what it’s about, I’d have to give three answers:
1. It’s a sequence of five “novels,” each a life story of the same woman. With a few events changed, the course of her life expands. In the first “novel” of this novel, she dies as an infant of what is most probably Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. By the time the reader reaches the fifth and final “novel,” she’s lived a long life, become an acclaimed writer, and is living in an assisted care facility.
2. It’s a devastating depiction of the many waves of anti-Semitism that swept Europe during the 20th Century.
3. Finally, it’s an examination of the hopes behind and the subsequent betrayal of European socialism, beginning with anti-WWI pacifism, extending through much of the history of the Soviet Union, and ending with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Remarkably, The End of Days, succeeds at doing all of these without sacrificing any one of them to another.
Black Prophetic Fire, Cornel West in Dialogue with and Edited by Christa Buschendorf, (Beacon Press)
In Black Prophetic Fire, Cornel West and Christa Buschendorf wrestle with two questions: “Are we witnessing the death of Black prophetic fire in our time? Are we experiencing the demise of the Black prophetic tradition in present-day America?” West and Buschendorf address their questions through a series of conversations (later edited by Buschendorf) each focusing on a diffferent Black prophet and the movement that prophet was a part of: Frederick Douglass; W. E. B. Du Bois; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Ella Baker; Malcolm X; and Ida B. Wells-Barnett. For the reader, getting to “eavesdrop” on these conversations is an exhilarating and challenging experience. Both scholars have such extensive knowledge in multiple academic fields, that their dialogues become lessons by extension—not because the writers’ tone is didactic, but because few other thinkers would be capable of synthesizing and analyzing this disparate material. Simply put, this is the most intellectually and ethically engaging book I’ve read in years.
Be Safe I Love You, by Cara Hoffman (Simon and Schuster)
Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You follows soldier Lauren Clay on her first few days home following a tour of duty in Iraq. There’s a strong arc to this story: unsatisfactory meetings with old friends and family leading to Lauren’s decision to take her younger brother on a survivalist journey through a remote area of Canada in midwinter. Suspenseful as that narrative is, the real heart of the book is the characters and their wrestling with questions of identity. What makes this book exceptional is what people think, not what they do. Lauren, not surprisingly, has the roughest time of it, unable to drop her vigilance and expectation of command (she was an NCO) as she returns to civilian life. The characters around Lauren struggle with their own displacements. Her high school boyfriend has moved on to college and resents reminders of his working class origins. Her best friend’s early motherhood has limited her to minimum-wage jobs despite her outstanding high school record. There are “the Patricks” three brilliant, but failed men and a choir director who lost a promising career to alcoholism. All of these characters are drawn with a detail and honesty that makes them simultaneously sympathetic and irritating.
The Angel of Losses: A Novel, by Stephanie Feldman, (Ecco)
Stephanie Feldman’s The Angel of Losses is a marvel of a book, a put-on-your-stranded-on-a-deserted-island-list book. The Angel of Losses, set in present-day New York and New Jersey, is narrated by Marjorie Burke, a doctoral candidate writing a dissertation on the character of the wandering Jew. Marjorie is pulled from the world of the scholarly to the fantastic when she discovers handwritten versions of the White Magician stories her grandfather told when she was a child. These alternate versions, featuring the White Rebbe, are found in journals he left behind at the time of his death—journals he’d wanted destroyed. The Angel of Losses moves effortlessly from present to past, from “real” narrative to the White Rebbe folktales and their variations. Its scope is broad, covering centuries and grappling with questions of faith, destiny, and free will; at the same time, it offers human details, the sort that keep the characters vivid and engaging, even within the larger context.
The Anatomy Lesson: A Novel, by Nina Siegel, (Nan A. Talese, Random House)
Nina Siegel’s The Anatomy Lesson is one of those wonderful novels that’s as solid in its realization as it is in its conception. The novel tells the back back story of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson, that wonderful work commissioned by the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons in 1632. The surgeons and city functionaries are pictured gathered round a corpse, as one of their group explains the anatomy of the forearm. The light in the picture falls downward, illuminating the corpse, while placing the other figures in shadow, making death look like life and life like death. The novel is written in an array of first-person voices, with occasional third person framing, all of whom are identified in ways suitable to the dissection process. We have “The Body,” Adriaen Adriaenszoon, the thief whose execution will provide the corpse for the dissection; “The Hands,” Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, who conducts the autopsy; “The Heart,” Adriaen’s lover Flora, pregnant with his child, who hopes to win his acquittal or, failing that, to claim his remains for burial; “The Mouth,” Jan Fetchet, dealer in curiosities and all manner of goods, who also serves as preparator for the Surgeon’s Guild, claiming and cleaning the bodies of the executed who will become the focus of dissections; “The Mind,” René Descartes, who like Dr. Tulp dreams of finding the location of the soul within the body; and “The Eyes,” Rembrandt himself, with connections to every other character in the book from thief to surgeon. We also get occasional excepts from the journal of a conservator working on the painting in the present day.
All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel, by Anthony Doerr, (Scribner)
Set in World War II France and Germany, All the Light We Cannot See is my favorite kind of novel: long, rich, populated by a range of imperfect characters, some who try to transcend that imperfection, others who cannot see it. The cast of characters includes Marie-Laure, blind since age six, with a quick mind and a great deal of self-confidence; her father, locksmith for the Museum of Natural History in Paris; Marie-Laure’s great-uncle, an agoraphobic haunted by ghosts since he returned from World War I; the great-uncle’s elderly housekeeper, who finds the courage to join the French resistance; Werner, a German orphan who is a prodigy in the creation and repair of radios; Werner’s sister Jutta, left behind when Werner is accepted into a science academy for Hitler Youth that offers more political indoctrination than science; and a whole host of others. Anthony Doerr brings this wide assembly of individuals to life, moving among them, slowly drawing them nearer one another, fleshing each of them out so that even those we might expect to be stereotypes are much more multifaceted. And among these multifaceted characters lies a multifaceted stone: a diamond with a legendary history. In less able hands, the diamond would have dominated this story, which would have degenerated into a variation on Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it’s the characters who are the heart of All the Light We Cannot See. There are a few we hate, but for the most part, we can’t help but see the better parts of them. The question is whether they will discover these better selves in time to make a difference of some sort in a world quite literally in flames.
Above the East China Sea: A Novel, by Sarah Bird, (Random House)
Above the East China Sea moves among several settings: the U.S. military base on Okinawa in the present day and Okinawa outside of the base; Okinawa during World War II when the Island served as a defensive barrier between Japan and U.S. warships; the Okinawan spirit world, led by spirits called kami. This book is the story of two young women and is narrated in their voices. The first, Luz James, is a military brat (a term she uses to describe herself), daughter of a single mother. Luz’s world has been torn apart by her older sister’s unexpected enlistment in the Air Force and her death in Afghanistan. The second young woman is Tamiko Kokuba, an Okinawan originally a fanatical supporter of Japan (many Okinawans at the time considered it a compliment to be mistaken for Japanese), who works in the cave hospitals set up on the island for the Japanese forces, and who, pregnant at age fifteen after being raped by soldiers on both sides of the conflict, chooses to commit suicide. Luz and Tamiko’s paths cross in both literal and spiritual senses as Luz contemplates suicide and Tamiko waits for a body to house her spirit. At several moments I was sure I’d guessed how these two different crises would be resolved, but Bird’s nuanced story-telling keeps adding complexity to the narrative, taking it to deeper, richer places than I’d imagined.