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January 1&15, 2017 BOOKLIST
Find more Booklist Editors' Choice
The Adult Books editors have selected the following titles as representative of the year’s outstanding books for public-library collections. Our scope has been intentionally broad, and we have attempted to find books that combine literary, intellectual, and aesthetic excellence with popular appeal.
Arts & Literature
Blumenthal, Eileen. Puppetry: A World History. Abrams, $65 (0-8109-5587-3).
Blumenthal’s exhaustively researched, lavishly illustrated volume chronicles the roles puppets and puppeteers have played throughout the world in everything from prehistoric shamanic rites to state-of-the-art multimillion-dollar stage musicals.
Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. Knopf, $23.95 (1-4000-4314-X).
Didion employs her signature blend of intellectual rigor and deep feeling to explore the nature of grief as she chronicles with masterful restraint the sudden death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, and the deathly illness that struck their daughter, Quintana.
Marcus, Greil. Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads. PublicAffairs, $24 (1-58648-254-8).
Premier rock critic Marcus focuses intense and loving scrutiny on Bob Dylan’s groundbreaking 1965 hit, “Like a Rolling Stone,” a watershed work in Dylan’s career that Marcus says changed pop music forever and remains potent and compelling today.
Newgarden, Mark. We All Die Alone: A Collection of Cartoons and Jokes. Ed. by Dan Nadel. Fantagraphics, paper, $24.95 (1-56097-661-6).
Writer-draftsman Newgarden chose the gag cartoon as his principal métier, and mind-boggling is too mild a term for what his slickly outrageous drawing and mordant verbal wit do with that lowest form of vernacular art.
Smith, Charles Merrill and Bennett, James W. How the Bible Was Built. Eerdmans, paper, $12 (0-8028-2943-0).
In a tiny but mighty volume, begun to answer a granddaughter’s questions and sure to become a preferred basic reference, Smith and Bennett straightforwardly explain the evolution and permutations of the documents we know as the Holy Bible.
Trav S. D. No Applause—Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous. Faber, $25 (0-571-21192-5).
Vaudeville grew with the railroads, became “fit” for the whole family, dominated early-twentieth-century show business, and then . . . didn’t die, performer and theater historian Trav S. D. says, but, rather, infused TV and is now resurgent in a host of variety, burlesque, and vaudeville-like fringe performers and shows.
Updike, John. Still Looking: Essays on American Art. Knopf, $40 (1-4000-4418-9).
As exceptional a critic as he is a novelist, Updike writes with knowledge, insight, and wit about an illustrious spectrum of artists, from John Singleton Copley to Winslow Homer, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Hopper, and Andy Warhol.
Abu-Jaber, Diana. The Language of Baklava. Pantheon, $23 (0-375-42304-1).
Novelist Abu-Jaber turns to nonfiction with this chronicle of growing up as the oldest daughter of an American mother and an exuberant Jordanian father. With penetrating insight and perfectly timed comic self-depredation, she writes about the profound disorientation of the immigrant experience and of childhood itself.
Amiry, Suad. Sharon and My Mother-in-Law: Ramallah Diaries. Pantheon, $23 (0-375-42379-6).
Drawing on her personal diary entries and e-mails, Amiry captures the face and sorrow of daily life in the West Bank town of Ramallah over the last 20 years. This is no political rant: the suffering is omnipresent, but so, too, is a wonderful sense of irreverence and a feeling for the soap-opera aspects of everyday living.
Bird, Kai and Sherwin, Martin J. American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Knopf, $35 (0-375-41202-6).
Bird and Sherwin explore the full range of Oppenheimer’s remarkable life, from his youth as a child prodigy through his radical political activities in the 1930s, and on to the Manhattan Project and its political fallout. The humanity of the troubled man behind the porkpie hat emerges on every page of this unquestionably definitive account. (Top of the List winner—Adult Nonfiction.)
Chang, Jung and Halliday, Jon. Mao: The Unknown Story. Knopf, $35 (0-679-42271-4).
This biography of the giant of twentieth-century Chinese history boasts a monumental marshaling of detail and historiographically overturning revelations that clear up several myths—actually outright deceptions—perpetuated about Mao.
Delbanco, Andrew. Melville: His World and Work. Knopf, $30 (0-375-40314-0).
Avoiding extensive psychological analysis, Delbanco limns the historical-literary connections behind Melville’s greatest works (in Senator John C. Calhoun, Melville found a model for Captain Ahab). An enlightening cross-disciplinary approach to the life of an American literary giant.
Gordon, Charlotte. Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America’s First Poet. Little, Brown, $27.95 (0-316-16904-8).
To tell the story of America’s first best-selling author, Gordon delved deeply into the fascinating, too-little-known annals of seventeenth-century domesticity as well as Puritan politics and society. Limning Anne Bradstreet, she brings early colonial Massachusetts to vibrant life.
Lesley, Craig. Burning Fence: A Western Memoir of Fatherhood. St. Martin’s, $24.95 (0-312-31846-4).
In his first memoir, novelist Lesley comes to terms with his larger-than-life, largely absent father—and how that troubled bloodline influenced his own difficult journey as a dad. The evocation of eastern Oregon in the 1950s is as raw and real as a Springsteen song.
Marrs, Suzanne. Eudora Welty. Harcourt, $28 (0-15-100914-7).
The need for a comprehensive, compassionate biography of much-loved southern short-story writer and novelist Welty is filled by this straightforward and unembellished title, which solidly establishes the life record of a major writer.
Martinson, Deborah. Lillian Hellman: A Life with Foxes and Scoundrels. Counterpoint, $26 (1-58243-315-1).
Playwright and memoirist Hellman was as controversial as she was accomplished, and Martinson is the first to tell the whole story of Hellman’s complex and radical life, from her demanding temperament to her gutsy politics and legendary relationship with Dashiell Hammett.
Moehringer, J. R. The Tender Bar. Hyperion, $23.95 (1-4013-0064-2).
Moehringer, raised poor by his melancholy mother, looked for male role models wherever he could find them—often among the regulars at a Manhasset, Long Island, bar that sounds a bit like Cheers with swearing. Funny, honest, and insightful.
O’Toole, Patricia. When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt after the White House. Simon & Schuster, $30 (0-684-86477-0).
What Teddy Roosevelt did after he left the White House, which he did at a relatively young age, is given a well-researched and excitingly written answer in this account of a man who possessed too much energy, attitude, and ego to be a truly effective ex-president.
Rodgers, Marion. Mencken: The American Iconoclast. Oxford, $35 (0-19-507238-3).
With obvious affection for her subject, access to untapped sources, and interviews with Mencken’s friends and enemies, Rodgers offers a completely absorbing look at the “bad boy of Baltimore,” who grew to international fame and influence.
Seth, Vikram. Two Lives. HarperCollins, $27.95 (0-06-059966-9).
Indian author Seth brings the attention to atmospheric detail and nuance of character present in his hugely popular novel Suitable Boy (1993) to this deeply engaging dual biography of his great-uncle and great-aunt.
Shapiro, James. A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. HarperCollins, $26.95 (0-06-008873-7).
In 1599 England saw rebellion in Ireland, another Spanish invasion scare, severer press censorship, formation of the East India Company, and Henry V, Julius Caesar, and As You Like It by the Globe Theater’s resident playwright, who was writing Hamlet for next year. A wonderful book about a wonder-filled year.
Worthen, John. D. H. Lawrence: The Life of an Outsider. Counterpoint, $29.95 (1-58243-341-0).
Using as a unifying theme Lawrence’s perpetual status as an outsider, both in working-class Nottinghamshire and in the English literary world, Worthen gives us the full sweep of this groundbreaking writer’s utterly unconventional, often torturous, and occasionally rhapsodic life.
Buck, Rinker. Shane Comes Home. Morrow, $25.95 (0-06-059325-3).
Marine First Lieutenant Shane Childers, so dedicated and intense that he could be alarming, became the first American combat fatality of the present war in Iraq. Gifted with a genius for characterization, Buck makes Shane just one of the many extraordinary people involved in his historic homecoming.
Feldman, Noah. Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem and What We Should Do about It. Farrar, $25 (0-374-28131-9).
Before suggesting that the First Amendment’s religion clauses be enforced utterly straightforwardly—no public funding of church-related activities and no hindering of religious expression in public—Feldman invaluably surveys the reciprocal waves of religious revival and secularism during 216 years of U.S. history.
Flood, Charles Bracelen. Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War. Farrar, $26 (0-374-16600-5).
Two men who were remarkable failures as civilians use their West Point backgrounds to rejoin the army during the Civil War. In this winning book, the author underscores the powerful bond between Generals Grant and Sherman and tells the story of a friendship that influenced the operations of the war.
Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Simon & Schuster, $35 (0-684-82490-6).
Lincoln, “coming from nowhere,” beat his chief contenders for the Democratic nomination in 1860, and then, when he went on to win the presidency, built an effective cabinet from these former rivals.
Lepore, Jill. New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan. Knopf, $26.95 (1-4000-4029-9).
Fear of a slave revolt convulsed New York City in 1741, and Lepore analyzes the course of events in a stellar narrative that explains legal intricacies even as it vivifies the anxiety rippling across the city. A searing work of historical scholarship.
Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. Knopf, $30 (1-4000-4006-X).
Science journalist Mann proves audacious as a surveyor of pre-Columbian history. He had to master an impressive breadth of material but better yet is his clarity and judgment, which meld into a compelling and balanced introduction for general readers.
McCullough, David. 1776. Simon & Schuster, $32 (0-7432-2671-2).
From a gifted writer who has proven himself an expert at composing stirring accounts, a fresh look at a pivotal year in the Revolutionary War, which began with the British abandonment of Boston and ended with Washington’s small but symbolically important triumph at Trenton; McCullough’s portrayals of the two protagonists, Washington and George III, are engrossing and poignant.
Tougias, Michael J. Ten Hours until Dawn: The True Story of Heroism and Tragedy aboard the Can Do. St. Martin’s, $24.95 (0-312-33435-4).
In this white-knuckle read about the attempt to rescue the original rescuers as well as the rescued when a tanker ran aground off Salem, Massachusetts, in the blizzard of 1978, Tougias balances human and technical detail to create the best book of its kind since Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm (1997).
Graham, Jorie. Overlord. Ecco, $22.95 (0-06-074565-7).
In a distinctly forthright and empathic collection, Graham has constructed poems of lyrical steeliness and cauterizing beauty in which she considers the repercussions of war, environmental decimation, and the polarizing conflicts of the post-9/11 world.
Perillo, Lucia. Luck Is Luck. Random, $19.95 (1-4000-6323-X).
Perillo is funny, tough, and rigorous, transforming the intimacy of candid autobiography into electrifying lyrics about abandoned dreams and making do, illness and a blighted earth, age and death. With birds as her totem animal, it’s fitting that Perillo matches power with grace.
DeGroot, Gerard. The Bomb. Harvard, $27.95 (0-674-01724-2).
“Nothing man has made is bigger than the Bomb,” writes DeGroot in this comprehensive yet well-paced history of the atomic bomb from its inception at Los Alamos to Hiroshima, the madness of the cold war–era hydrogen bomb tests, and the precarious balancing act we call deterrence.
Lightman, Alan. The Discoveries: Great Breakthroughs in 20th Century Science. Pantheon, $32.50 (0-375-42168-8).
Even though the discovery papers of such scientists as Einstein, Bohr, Krebs, Watson, and Crick are crucial to our understanding of the universe, these landmark works are rarely seen, an omission physicist and novelist Lightman redresses in this invaluable combination of original documents and illuminating commentary.
Weidensaul, Scott. Return to Wild America: A Yearlong Search for the Continent’s Natural Soul. North Point, $25 (0-86547-688-8).
Nature writer Weidensaul chronicles a cross-country journey that reveals both the extraordinary diversity and beauty of the American landscape and the inadvertently deleterious impact human activities are having on the biosphere.
Wilson, Diane. An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas. Chelsea Green, $27.50 (1-931498-88-1).
Wilson, a shrimp-boat captain and mother of five who took on the multibillion-dollar international chemical company responsible for polluting Texas’ Lavaca Bay, tells her “Diane-versus-Goliath” tale with candor and wisdom.
Berry, Mary Frances. My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations. Knopf, $26.95 (1-4000-4003-5).
Berry brings a heroic but little-known woman to life by telling the dramatic story of Callie House. Born into slavery in 1861, she defied the conventions of race, class, and sex to lead a 30-year campaign to secure pensions for former slaves, but her extraordinary efforts led to her eventual imprisonment.
Cone, Marla. Silent Snow: The Slow Poisoning of the Arctic. Grove, $24 (0-8021-1797-X).
Award-winning environmental reporter Cone travels to the Arctic to investigate troubling findings regarding the toxic chemicals that have collected in the bodies of polar people and the animals they eat, creating a crisis with global implications.
de Waal, Frans. Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who Are. Riverhead, $25.95 (1-57322-312-3).
For a quarter-century, de Waal has urged learning more about humanity from the behavior of the great apes, especially chimpanzees and bonobos. Never has he written better on his great theme than in this absorbing overview of power, sex, violence, and kindness among apes—and humans.
Loewen, James. Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of Segregation in America. New Press, $29.95 (1-56584-887-X).
One fairly hidden and unstudied practice in the history of race relations in the U.S. has been the blatant exclusion of racial minorities in towns through violence, laws, and tradition. Loewen explores the history of places where blacks were warned, “Don’t let the sun go down on you in this town.”
Rogers, Heather. Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage. New Press, $23.95 (1-56584-879-9).
Rogers’ galvanizing exposé analyzes the contents of America’s garbage and its disposal while also revealing the corporate strategies behind the disposable-goods explosion and assessing the ecological toll of our consumer habits.
Allende, Isabel. Zorro. HarperCollins, $25.95 (0-06-077897-0).
Allende imaginatively creates “the origins of the legend”—the legend being none other than Zorro, the famous Robin Hood of eighteenth-century colonial California. This exciting novel’s conceit is that the testimony offered here is a bird’s-eye view of the provenance of Zorro as recorded by someone who knew him well.
Banville, John. The Sea. Knopf, $23 (0-307-26311-8).
This splendidly profound, beautifully written novel offers lessons aplenty about how the shadow of the past does not necessarily cast darkness over the present but certainly leaves its imprint. Middle-aged Max, after losing his wife to cancer, answers an inner call to return to a seaside resort, the site of his childhood vacations.
Chadwick, Charles. It’s All Right Now. HarperCollins, $27.95 (0-06-074286-0).
Written by a 72-year-old British civil servant, this novel is told in the first person by an unprepossessing, ordinary businessman, whose story gradually builds a powerful momentum, taking readers on one man’s incredible, transformative journey.
Chao, Patricia. Mambo Peligroso. HarperCollins, $24.95 (0-06-074286-0).
Chao takes readers on a floor-scorching spin in this high-voltage novel set in the sensuous world of salsa dancing. Filled with believable, complex characters and throbbing to its insistent beat, this is a toe-tapping delight.
Doctorow, E. L. The March. Random, $25.95 (0-375-50671-3).
Doctorow dramatizes the fury and chaos of the Civil War with exceptional lyricism, deep psychological insight, and peppery humor, transforming the infamous march through Georgia and the Carolinas orchestrated by General William Tecumseh Sherman into a poetic vision of the span of humankind’s cruelty and glory, and the grand march of time. (Top of the List winner—Adult Fiction.)
Duncan, Glen. Death of an Ordinary Man. Grove, $13 (0-8021-7004-8).
This cerebral novel is narrated by a dead man with a cloudy memory who functions like “a radical amputee. No body, but a maddening imposture of sensation.” A powerful, unflinching, and frequently dazzling meditation on the kind of courage it takes to endure the unthinkable.
Eco, Umberto. Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. Harcourt, $28 (0-15-101140-0).
This deeply cerebral novel teems with erudition; its plotline is woven through with learned discussions of history, religion, and philosophy. But, as is typical of Eco, it also offers compelling storytelling and greatly sympathetic characters—in this instance, an Italian rare-book dealer with amnesia, who must construct his life anew.
Ephron, Amy. One Sunday Morning. Morrow, $21.95 (0-06-058552-8).
The setting is New York and Paris in the 1920s; through the prism of the lives of four well-heeled, socially connected women friends, Ephron, in language mesmerizing for its punch and brevity, casts a subtle drama arising from the conflict between the old social behavior and the new post–World War I attitude, with much less strict ideas of conduct.
Erdrich, Louise. The Painted Drum. HarperCollins, $25.95 (0-06-051510-4).
The latest title in Erdrich’s cycle of novels revolving around an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota homes in on the role of a sacred drum that serves to connect a disaffected Native American to her heritage and to her deepest emotions.
Evans, Diana. 26a. Morrow, $23.95 (0-06-082091-8).
Tugs-of-war between dueling identities (geographical, cultural, marital) define the Hunters, a biracial family in suburban London. Evans’ trenchant debut speaks eloquently about identity, displacement, the most anguished of losses, and bone-deep love.
García-Márquez, Gabriel. Memories of My Melancholy Whores. Knopf, $20 (1-4000-4460-X).
The Colombian master storyteller’s latest lyrical novel briefly but piquantly captures a single year in the life of a nonagenarian who proves himself capable of undergoing a significant life alteration.
Hornby, Nick. A Long Way Down. Riverhead, $24.95 (1-57322-302-6).
In his trademark warm and witty prose, Hornby follows four depressed people from their aborted suicide attempts on New Year’s Eve through the surprising developments that occur over the following three months. Funny and moving.
McNally, T. M. The Goat Bridge. Univ. of Michigan, $24 (0-472-11511-1).
In McNally’s lacerating and exquisite novel of loss and mourning, a photographer whose young son has disappeared prowls the dangerous streets of besieged Sarajevo, focusing his lens not on images of death but on visions of life’s persistence under even the most brutal circumstances.
Millet, Lydia. Oh Pure and Radiant Heart. Soft Skull, $25 (1-932360-85-9).
Millet time-travels pioneering atomic physicists Oppenheimer, Fermi, and Szilard to present-day Santa Fe, then sets in motion events of catastrophic proportions and cosmic dimensions. A remarkable mix of lyrical realism, brilliantly engineered fantasy, and madcap yet keen satire.
Miller, Sue. Lost in the Forest. Knopf, $24.95 (1-4000-4226-7).
Miller, in a riveting novel about a grieving family, once again demonstrates her singular gift for capturing the rhythms of daily family life with laserlike clarity while also summoning the turbulent emotions swirling just beneath the surface.
Moody, Rick. The Diviners. Little, Brown, $25.95 (0-316-08539-1).
In a dizzying, exhilarating comic narrative, Moody follows the doings of Move On Productions and their feverish attempts to launch the miniseries The Diviners, a multigenerational saga about dowsing. A wild and woolly take on our media-saturated culture.
Prose, Francine. A Changed Man. HarperCollins, $24.95 (0-06-019674-2).
The changed man in Prose’s riotously funny novel is Vincent Nolan, a neo-Nazi who walks into a human rights foundation and announces that he wishes to renounce his previous way of life. In what may well be her best novel to date, Prose uses humor to light up key social issues, to skewer smugness, and to create characters whose flaws only add to their depth and richness.
Rushdie, Salman. Shalimar the Clown. Random, $25.95 (0-679-46335-6).
Before the eyes of his grown daughter, a former American ambassador to India is stabbed to death by his enigmatic chauffeur. What contemporary novelist knows more than Rushdie about the political-religious tensions besetting the globe? In this complex and beautiful novel, he proves his knowledge once again.
Salter, James. Last Night. Knopf, $20 (1-4000-4312-3).
In these 10 shimmering short stories, the author deals in the broad subject of relationships, but within each relationship, which may seem so ordinary on the outside, he finds corners of peculiarity to illuminate.
Schneider, Bart. Beautiful Inez. Crown/Shaye Areheart, $24 (1-4000-5442-7).
Schneider returns to the setting, San Francisco in the early 1960s, and several of the main characters from Secret Love (2001), focusing this time on Inez Roseman, a deeply melancholic violinist who finds herself drawn into an intense affair with another woman. Schneider explores with great sensitivity the way that confronting our inherited sense of the forbidden can unlock us, at least temporarily, from ourselves.
Tan, Amy. Saving Fish from Drowning. Putnam, $26.95 (0-399-15301-2).
In Tan’s most politically astute and shrewdly satirical novel to date, 12 American tourists find themselves in over their heads in Myanmar (formerly Burma) in a piquantly humorous ship-of-fools tale of cultural collision, oppression, media spin, tragedy, and folly.
Vollman, William. Europe Central. Viking, $39.95 (0-670-03392-8).
Vollman presents an epic inquiry into the nature of conscience and the cost of survival during the horrific World War II conflict between Russia and Germany, creating a many-faceted story anchored by a fictionalized portrait of the great composer Dmitri Shostakovich.
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