The Love Wife by Gish Jen: This novel takes us to the heart of the most complicated–and a complicating–American family. It broke my heart and then put it back together again.
Last Seen by Jacqueline Jones Lamon: Sometimes poetry can take us somewhere that fiction just can’t. These poems the aftermath of those left behind when children are abducted.
The Leftovers by Tom Perotta: As always, Perrotta gives us funny ha-ha and funny strange. Imagine American after a “Rapture-like event.” It’s like Octavia Butler meets Cheever meets a total stranger who shakes everything up even more.
The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson: A novel dedicated to making serious beauty out a family dedicated to making serious art out of the serious damage they do to one another.
The Call, by Yannick Murphy: A lovely, funny, odd and rigorously structured novel about a large animal vet and his rising levels (you’ll understand what that means once you’ve read the book).
Trophy, by Michael Griffith: A wise, brilliant, hilarious book about a man who tries to delay his death (crushed by stuffed bear, is the cause of death) by reliving every bizarre, sad-sack, riotous, heartbreaking moment of his life.
I loved Mat Johnson’s Pym. It’s a hilarious, thought-provoking story about a sad-sack professor who journeys to the South Pole to discover the mythical land of pure blackness that Edgar Allen Poe describes in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.
Danzy Senna’s You Are Free is funny and heart-wrenching–a wonderful collection of stories about womanhood, mothering, and identity.
The Souls of Mixed Folk: Race, Politics, and Aesthetics in the New Millennium, by Michele Elam. This is an excellent book on new artistic works about the Mixed experience and the ways in which the narratives are possibly shaping a new “Creole aesthetic.”
Mark Richard’s Memoir House of Prayer # 2. That rare thing–an account of the making of a writer which manages to be both honest and interesting at once. It helps that Richard writes some of the loveliest and most sonorous sentences of anyone alive.
Carlos Fuentes’ The Old Gringo: I somehow missed this novel when it came out, which is embarrassing because it is wondrous and important. This account of the disappearance of Ambrose Bierce and his imagined life (and death) among Pancho Villa’s men is hallucinatory, concise, lyrical in the most restrained manner, and–as with everything Fuentes has written–as good a guide to Mexican history and culture as you’ll find.
I also loved Isabel Wilkerson’s story of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns. Excellent and deeply readable mix of vibrant storytelling and carefully researched cultural history.
Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-dirty in Seventies New York, by James Wolcott:
A thrilling, funny memoir that brings back a New York moment no sane person wants to remember – complete with burning garbage, hideous crime, and Patti Smith.
Old Filth, by Jane Gardam: The acronym behind this novel’s title–Failed in London, Tried Hong Kong–is the first clue that this finely-wrought story of an ancient, flinty English barrister is about far more than it first appears.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (translated by Lydia Davis)
In her elegant translation of this classic tale of hypocrisy and romantic illusion in the French provinces, Lydia Davis beautifully evokes Flaubert’s precise, crystalline prose.
Luminarium by Alex Shakar. Shakar’s third book and his second novel, Luminarium announces the arrival of a master unafraid to grapple with large subjects and big themes. The book is so captivating, you might not realize how finely crafted and ambitious it is. While never violating the novel’s sense of realism, Shakar describes altered states, hallucinations, visions, dreams, alternate cyber realities, planned cities, mega-churches, Margaritavilles, magic shows, and a host of scientific experiments and explanations, all with an understated panache. It’s also a sweet love story played out against the background of the 10th anniversary of 911. Full disclosure: Shakar is a dear friend and one of my most valued colleagues. Still, the book is the real deal.
In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood. I’ll start with the full disclosure here: This book includes Atwood’s Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature, given in 2010 at Emory University. I am the director of the Ellmann Lectures. This book comprises the critical summation of the thinking that went into Atwood’s three SF novels: The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. The essays and lectures included in this volume are as delightful, charming, thought-provoking, honest and funny as their author.
And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts. I never read this classic book about the early days of the AIDS crisis, published in the late 1980s, but I always meant to. This summer, it occurred to me that I should probably read it, and by coincidence, I found it on the book shelf of a house I rented this fall in Austin, TX. It’s as good, as essential, as fascinating as everyone said it was 25 years ago.
David Anthony, author of Something for Nothing
Tea Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife: I read this modern-day fairy tale as slowly as possible, because I didn’t want it to end. It’s absolutely absorbing and other-worldly—especially the main story line, which revolves around a Tiger that has escaped from a zoo during a war in an unnamed Balkan country, and the human that befriends it.
John Banville, The Book of Evidence: I was blown away by this book—less by the plot, which is the recounting of a murder the narrator has committed, than by the incredible images Banville offers in his prose. The protagonist is a monster in the tradition of Humbert Humbert, but Banville, like Nabokov, makes him seductively likeable.
Alina Bronsky, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine: This hilarious and unsettling novel begins as the narrator tells us that her daughter—pregnant by an unknown man—is stupid and unattractive and unfit to raise a child. It continues to up the ante from there as grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter make their way from East Germany to West Germany. I was exhausted by the time I was done with this, but in a mostly good way.