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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
Bloom, Harold. Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds. Warner, $35.95 (0-446-52717-3).
Famed critic Bloom conducts an enlightening, and entertaining inquiry into that elusive quality called genius, portraying 100 poets, dramatists, novelists, philosophers, and religious writers whose quests Bloom considers cosmic, their language transcendent, and their lives intriguing.
Gass, William. Tests of Time. Knopf, $25 (0-375-41257-3).
Gass’ newest essays are grounded in erudition, spiked with wit, and charged with a trenchant passion for and belief in literature. As he considers the work of writers around the world and literature’s role in preserving freedom, he evinces a deepening humanitarianism.
Lane, Anthony. Nobody’s Perfect: Writings from the New Yorker. Knopf, $30 (0-375-41448-7).
Lane has been a movie critic at the New Yorker since 1993, and his delightfully spunky, absolutely brilliant criticism has proven to be one of former editor Tina Brown’s most significant and pleasurable legacies.
Marin, Cheech. Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge. Little, Brown/Bulfinch, $35 (0-8212-2805-6); paper, $19.95 (0-8212-2806-4).
Marin is a pioneer in recognizing the vibrancy and significance of Chicano art, and his magnificent collection forms the foundation for this exciting and invaluable volume showcasing the spiritually powerful and aesthetically diverse work of 30 outstanding Chicano artists.
Prose, Francine. The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women & the Artists They Inspired. HarperCollins, $24.95 (0-06-019672-6).
Novelist and critic Prose brings her acumen and wit to a rarely considered subject, the lives of women who served as muses. In nine strongly composed and deftly synthesized portraits, Prose analyzes the passion and sacrifice that shaped the lives of such women as Hester Thrale, Alice Liddell, and Suzanne Farrell.
Belli, Gioconda. The Country under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War. Tr. by Kristina Cordero. Knopf, $25 (0-375-40370-1).
Nicaraguan poet and Sandinista Belli relates the astonishing story of her life as a privileged young wife and mother, advertising and media executive, gun-running revolutionary, and exiled enemy of the state with magnetic directness and lithe lyricism.
Caro, Robert. Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Knopf, $35 (0-394-52836-0).
The third volume in this author’s dynamic, definitive biography of LBJ lives up to the profound success of the earlier volumes. Covering Johnson’s career in the U.S. Senate, Caro authoritatively and rousingly shows us the man’s unprecedented, unsurpassed talent for leading the Senate wherever he wanted it to go. (Top of the List winner—Adult Nonfiction.)
Coetzee, J. M. Youth: Scenes from a Provincial Life II. Viking, $22.95 (0-670-03102-X).
South African Coetzee’s wry, honest, edgy memoir is a portrait of the young artist as a failure. The third-person present-tense narrative takes you right into the young man’s angst and is wonderfully particular about time and place.
Everitt, Anthony. Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician. Random, $25.95 (0-375-50746-9).
Everitt’s masterful biography draws on Cicero’s letters to his friend Atticus to give a remarkably clear picture of the famous Roman orator, noting both his brilliance and his faults.
Gilmour, David. The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling. Farrar, $26 (0-374-18702-9).
Focusing on Kipling’s political ideas and influence, Gilmour portrays the Nobel-laureate poet, short-story writer, and novelist as the most humane of imperialists and the most prescient pessimistic prophet of Britain’s empire.
Miller, William Lee. Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography. Knopf, $30 (0-375-40158-X).
In this sophisticated examination, Miller argues that Abraham Lincoln should be admired on the basis of his moral character. Miller delivers a still-enigmatic Lincoln, possessed of the steely but subtle personality that has made him one of the most read-about figures in history.
Zwonitzer, Mark and Hirshberg, Charles. Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music. Simon & Schuster, $25 (0-684-85763-4).
The Original Carter Family’s repertoire is the bedrock of country music. Zwonitzer and Hirshberg show that although Alvin Pleasant Carter, his wife, Sara, and her sister Maybelle grew up remote from urban amenities, they were, from the beginning, hardly uncomplicated bumpkins.
Ansary, Tamim. West of Kabul, East of New York. Farrar, $18 (0-374-28757-0).
Afghan American Ansary shares his compelling and illuminating life story with the hope that it will provide the sort of perspective on and personal insight into Afghanistan and the roots of Islamic terrorist groups that we need in the bewildering aftermath of September 11.
Bernstein, Richard. Out of the Blue: The Story of September 11, 2001 from Jihad to Ground Zero. Holt/Times, $26 (0-8050-7240-3).
Bernstein, a veteran New York Times reporter, correspondent, and critic, prepares an amazingly comprehensive account of September 11. His story is not only about the victims, the rescuers, and their families but also about the 19 Arab men who hijacked the planes.
Bowden, Charles. Blues for Cannibals: The Notes from Underground. Farrar/North Point, $24 (0-86547-624-1).
Bowden writes with red-hot lyricism and intellectual intensity about life along the Mexican border, profiling outcasts and criminals; victims of racism, injustice, and violence; and the legal system that fails them, all the while sharing his rage and his compassion.
Burrows, Larry. Vietnam. Knopf, $50 (0-375-41102-X).
Life staff photographer Burrows regarded the war in Vietnam as his greatest professional opportunity. This selection of his photo-essays confirms that he was an artist as well as a journalist, capable of arousing the great tragic emotions, pity and terror.
Horwitz, Tony. Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before. Holt, $26 (0-8050-6541-5).
Horwitz retells Captain James Cook’s story and tries to re-create first contact from the point of view of the South Pacific locals and judge the legacy of his landing. This thought-provoking travelogue brims with insight.
Linklater, Andro. Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy. Walker, $26 (0-8027-1396-3).
Here is the never-before-told saga of the survey that turned America’s unmapped tribal lands into a plotted grid of properties for purchase. With spare lucidity, Linklater brings to life a host of compelling personalities as well as huge political and economic issues.
Nicolson, Adam. Sea Room: An Island Life in the Hebrides. Farrar/North Point, $27 (0-86547-636-5).
Nicolson owns the tiny Shiant Islands between the Outer Hebrides and the Isle of Skye; in this literary and ecological masterpiece, he recounts their human and natural history so vividly, sensually, and lovingly that they attain an immense spiritual presence.
Pleshakov, Constantine. The Tsar’s Last Armada: The Epic Journey to the Battle of Tsushima. Basic, $30 (0-465-05791-8).
Pleshakov conveys a mood of foreboding in this story of a Russian battle fleet sailing around the world to its doom. In woeful condition, the Russian warships suffered from unremitting mechanical breakdowns and the demoralization of their crews. A compulsively readable account.
Preston, Diana. Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy. Walker, $30 (0-8027-1375-0).
Preston’s brilliant account of the destruction of the liner Lusitania in 1915 is two stories rolled into one: a Titanic-type tale of personal catastrophes and a still murky diplomatic incident of the first order.
Standage, Tom. The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess Playing Machine. Walker, $24 (0-8027-1391-2).
Wolfgang von Kempelen’s magnificent machine, called the Turk, was an automaton that could play chess, outwitting some of Europe’s finest players. Was it a hoax? Standage keeps us on the edge of our seats, wondering about the secret to this magical device.
Whitaker, Robert. Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill. Perseus, $27 (0-7382-0385-8).
Whitaker’s history of “mad medicine” in the U.S. shows why U.S. schizophrenics’ recovery rates are far below those of Third World schizophrenics and reveals that once, in Quaker Pennsylvania, kindness and sympathetic companionship succeeded when drugs and therapies failed.
Fairchild, B. H. Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest. Norton, $22.95 (0-393-05096-3).
Fairchild’s lusciously long story poems suggest that we create and re-create ourselves out of memory. Strong emotion suffuses this poetry, while concrete vocabulary and images, propulsive syntax and rhythms, keep it earthy and relevant to life as it is lived.
Good Poems. Ed. by Garrison Keillor. Viking, $25.95 (0-670-03126-7).
Memorableness and recitability are Garrison Keillor’s criteria of goodness in poetry, and it is astonishing how well they serve. Perhaps the one commonality in the collection is homeliness, or domesticity. These are poems to live comfortably with all one’s life.
de Villiers, Marq and Hirtle, Sheila. Sahara: A Natural History. Walker, $26 (0-8027-1372-6).
This engrossing study will bring the Saharan landscape to life even for those who have never set foot in a desert. Insightful and intelligent, it will appeal to anyone with a curiosity about the world’s largest desert and the people who inhabit it.
Fukuyama, Francis. Our Postmodern Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. Farrar, $25 (0-374-23643-7).
Fukuyama warns that eugenics and genetic engineering threaten to undermine the principle of human equality by creating a powerful new genetic overclass. Incisive and disturbing, this is an urgent summons to a critically important public debate.
Montgomery, Sy. The Search for the Golden Moon Bear: Science and Adventure in Pursuit of a New Species. Simon & Schuster, $26 (0-7432-0584-7).
Courageous and eloquent science writer Montgomery accompanies biologist Gary Galbreath on a harrowing quest for the mysterious golden moon bear throughout Southeast Asia, where they confront the horrors of the illegal wildlife trade and a great scientific challenge.
Jenkins, Philip. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. Oxford, $25 (0-19-514616-6).
Islam is booming, but Christianity will remain the largest world religion, Jenkins says. By 2050, however, most of the faithful will be poor nonwhites south of Europe, the U.S., and Russia, who will spur a revival of Christianity’s root emphases on healing and prophecy.
Meloy, Ellen. The Anthropology of Turquoise: Meditations on Landscape, Art, and Spirit. Pantheon, $24 (0-375-40885-1).
Southwestern writer and outdoorswoman Meloy, knowledgeable, forthright, and witty, combines superbly wrought natural and cultural history with soulful memoir in this creative approach to the fascinating and resonant story of turquoise.
Pesic, Peter. Seeing Double: Shared Identities in Physics, Philosophy, and Literature. MIT, $23.95 (0-262-16205-9).
Is identity resemblance or distinction? Answer: yes, because physical reality consists of unchanging things that are exactly alike and changing things that are individually distinct. Citing literature to illustrate the implications of identity, Pesic also shows that philosophy and science are, if not identical, inextricable.
Rodriguez, Richard. Brown: The Last Discovery of America. Viking, $24.95 (0-670-03043-0).
In a meditative, witty, and deeply philosophical essay, the always-provocative Rodriguez celebrates the browning of America, reflecting on how the mixing of different races, religions, styles of dress, kinds of food, and expressions of sexuality has produced a “glorious impurity” in this country that offers the hope of reconciliation.
Scruton, Roger. The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat. ISI, $19.95 (1-882926-81-1).
In one of the most cogent books on Islamic-Western relations, Scruton argues that the war on terrorism is based in a misunderstanding of Islamic identity that reflects invidious Western prejudices about immigration, multiculturalism, free trade, and religion.
Barry, Sebastian. Annie Dunne. Viking, $24.95 (0-670-03112-7).
Old Annie Dunne, crippled in body and spirit, lives on her once-fair cousin Sarah’s farm in rural Ireland in the late 1950s. When a man ambitious for land begins courting Sarah, it threatens both women and their relationship to the smallholding.
Boswell, Robert. Century’s Son. Knopf, $24 (0-375-41237-9).
In his deeply affecting novel, Boswell illuminates the subtle interplay of a grieving family with great compassion. Like an alchemist, he uses language to invoke a depth of feeling out of all proportion to the simplicity of his words.
Bragg, Melvyn. The Soldier’s Return. Arcade, $25.95 (1-55970-639-2).
Bragg weaves a powerful, deeply moving story of a family and a society torn apart by war. The depth and reality of his characters and his ability to bring the horrors of war alive are nothing short of brilliant.
Cisneros, Sandra. Caramelo. Knopf, $24 (0-679-43554-9).
The author’s long-awaited second novel is a sweeping, fictionalized history of her Mexican American family. Her gorgeous prose and sumptuous scene-setting make this an unforgettable read.
Eco, Umberto. Baudolino. Harcourt, $27 (0-15-100690-3).
In keeping with his customary practice, Eco sets his latest novel in the past—in this case, twelfth-century Europe and the Near East—as a man named Baudolino, of northern Italian peasant stock, tells his life story— and what a life it has been. Smart, authentic historical fiction.
Faber, Michel. The Crimson Petal and the White. Harcourt, $26 (0-15-100692-X).
This is part saga, part morality play, and utterly engrossing. The large themes that intertwine the characters—religion, health, sexuality, death, and, reluctantly, love—are juxtaposed against the most minute and intimate details of Victorian life. Startling and absorbing.
Hijuelos, Oscar. A Simple Habana Melody. HarperCollins, $24.95 (0-06-017569-9).
Perhaps no other contemporary novelist has managed to sustain a melancholy mood more convincingly than Hijuelos does in this haunting story of a Cuban composer whose life is an agonizing mix of joy and sadness, creativity and repression.
Jin, Ha. The Crazed. Pantheon, $24 (0-375-42181-5).
Jian Wan’s graduate studies at Beijing University are derailed when his beloved mentor suffers a severe stroke. As Jian listens to Professor Yang rant and rave in the grip of painful memories of the Cultural Revolution, student protestors gather in Tiananmen Square, and all the anguish and madness of a warped and vicious society reach a bloody climax.
Kadare, Ismail. Spring Flowers, Spring Frost. Tr. from the French of Jusef Vrioni by David Bellos. Arcade, $23.95 (1-55970-635-X).
An artist-teacher in a small city in Albania is drawn, in his dreams as well as his waking life, into the re-irruption of Albania’s age-old culture of the blood feud in Kadare’s poetic and spine-tingling meditation on the murderousness of human nature.
Kaye, John. The Dead Circus. Grove/Atlantic, $24 (0-87113-849-2).
In this evocative novel, Kaye calls up a richly atmospheric and surprisingly small-town version of L.A., where everyone seems to be connected and where fame is completely arbitrary. The author masterfully creates and sustains a palpable, pure, elegiac paean to lost hopes and dreams.
Kennedy, William. Roscoe. Viking, $24.95 (0-670-03029-5).
World War II is over, and Roscoe Conway, the driving force behind Albany’s formidable Democratic machine and a truly soulful man, wants out, but his cronies still need him. Writing with unsurpassed exaltation and wry romanticism, Kennedy brilliantly conjures the crooked underworld, the ghostly otherworld, and one good but besieged man’s full heart. (x Top of the List winner—Adult Fiction. x)
Lin, Ed. Waylaid. Kaya; dist. by D.A.P., paper, $12.95 (1-885030-32-0).
The nameless 12-year-old narrator of Lin’s harsh realist novel schemes to lose his virginity in an inchoate attempt to prove himself to himself when everything else at the run-down motel owned by his immigrant Taiwanese parents is utterly demoralizing.
McDermott, Alice. Child of My Heart. Farrar, $22 (0-374-12123-0).
McDermott offers an exquisite, sly, and profoundly discerning tale about a watershed Long Island summer in the life of lovely 15-going-on-30-year-old Theresa and her sweet little cousin in a magical yet cunning novel redolent with the enigma of sex, art’s mutability, death’s shadow, and love’s precariousness.
Merullo, Roland. In Revere, in Those Days. Crown/Shaye Areheart, $22 (0-609-61032-5).
Merullo’s supple storytelling about a boy who loses both parents in a fiery air crash reveals a quest: What does it mean to be a good man? The sacrament of Italian American family lives in the heart of the words, displayed with perfect clarity and utter humanity.
Mistry, Rohinton. Family Matters. Knopf, $25 (0-375-40376-6).
Bombay circa 1990 is the setting for Mistry’s flawless novel about an extended Parsi family suffering the long-term consequences of a catastrophic love affair. A penetrating social observer and master dramatist, Mistry evokes laughter and tears as he tells the complex story of septuagenarian widower Nariman and his descendants.
O’Brien, Edna. In the Forest. Houghton, $24 (0-618-19730-3).
O’Brien’s latest novel, set in her native Ireland, is a psychological thriller about a damaged young man who has carried the seeds of killing within him since childhood. A brilliant illumination of human nature.
O’Neill, Jamie. At Swim, Two Boys. Scribner, $27 (0-7432-2294-6).
This powerful debut novel, which took Irishman O’Neill 10 years to write, is the story of two boys and their tragic involvement in the 1916 Easter Uprising. O’Neill creates a stunningly vivid world (“a strange land of rainshine and sunpour”) in a language all his own.
Otsuka, Julie. When the Emperor Was Divine. Knopf, $18 (0-375-41429-0).
Otsuka tells an exquisite psychological tale, inspired by her own family’s travails, of the internment of tens of thousands of innocent Japanese Americans during World War II.
Pears, Iain. The Dream of Scipio. Riverhead, $27.95 (1-57322-202-X).
Pears’ elaborate narrative triptych joins together three different historical periods and three love stories, all of which take place in Provence. This grand-scale historical thriller is dazzling for its complexity, its structure, its richness of thought, and above all, its passion.
Pearson, T. R. Polar. Viking, $24.95 (0-670-03035-X).
Despite the engaging plot, it’s the characters, the narrative voice, and the meandering stories within stories that make this novel so special. Pearson peoples this tale with a baker’s dozen of ne’er-do-well families who occasion loopy stories that are at once laugh-out-loud funny and genuinely poignant.
Shields, Carol. Unless. HarperCollins/Fourth Estate, $24.95 (0-00-714107-6).
Shields writes a gut-gripping story of one woman’s difficult psychological journey, which becomes, in effect, a treatise on goodness and a testament to the several roles women must simultaneously shoulder.
Smith, Lee. The Last Girls. Algonquin/Shannon Ravenel, $24.95 (1-56512-363-8).
With graceful, even brilliant shifts from past to present, during the course of a reunion of women who went to college together and took a riverboat trip more than 30 years ago, Smith builds this absolutely inviting, completely compelling novel around the idea that “whatever you’re like in your youth, you’re only more so with age.”
Spragg, Mark. The Fruit of Stone. Riverhead, $23.95 (1-57322-223-2).
Spragg finds poetry (and humor) in the silence of his characters in this superb first novel about a recalcitrant Wyoming rancher who understands the land but struggles to master the tricky terrain of the heart.
Tartt, Donna. The Little Friend. Knopf, $26 (0-679-43938-2).
This is an exceptionally suspenseful, flawlessly written story fairly teeming with outsize characters and roiling emotion, and at its center is a ruthlessly clever, poker-faced 12-year-old named Harriet. A lyrical, harrowing coming-of-age story.
Trevor, William. The Story of Lucy Gault. Viking, $24.95 (0-670-03154-2).
Trevor’s novel begins in the early 1920s in his native Ireland and continues through the present day. This beautiful, haunting tale of love and redemption rings with the resonance of a legend.
Updike, John. Seek My Face. Knopf, $23 (0-375-41490-8).
Artist Hope Chafetz recounts the story of her life to a woman doing research for an article, and as it turns out, Hope’s long life more or less represents the entire history of post–World War II American art. This novel achieves a remarkable depth of characterization and a glowing beauty in its articulation of the artistic sensibility.
Warner, Marina. The Leto Bundle. Farrar, $26 (0-374-18548-4).
Warner cunningly parses the undercurrents of hate and fear in today’s multicultural metropolises by interleaving the spellbinding, time-warping tale of a seemingly mythological figure, Leto, a self-sacrificing mother and unwanted refugee, into a wickedly incisive contemporary plot involving a young man who claims to be in contact with the goddess of the displaced and disenfranchised whose name is, of course, Leto.
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