Your Christmastide Present: A List of Books
Not only do these lists drive my editors crazy, they seem like a breeze (read: copout) for me to assemble when in fact they are a bear. But what decent gift doesn’t entail a lot of work? Dear Reader’s prize this Kwanzaatide is thus…a list. Of books I read this year I think you might like.
As a celebrity businessman once said to me with a wink, “Charity begins at home!” While a nod to a talented writer is hardly charity, it is a plug, and I shamelessly command you now: turn on, dig in, and kindle up to Vermont’s own Archer Mayor if you like mysteries with snowy backdrops. Mayor has penned 22 books in his Joe Gunther detective series. Even if you’re clever at plot prediction, Mayor keeps you guessing. His novels take place in Vermont, and the new one looks hot.
Cloud Atlas by nutter Brit, David Mitchell, winner of and short-listed for coveted awards, is a crazy-smart patchwork of genres spanning the globe from the 18th century to a post-apocalyptic future. Warning: you can’t be tired or dumb when you read it. Dennis Lehane’s Shelter Island boggles the bean; don’t see the movie first because the plot is the whole thing. Hotel World by Scottish-born Ali Smith won awards, but I preferred her The Accidental which is dark, with things that make you go Ooh. Meg Wolitzer’s The Uncoupling received accolades though I wasn’t wooed. Then, when you read a book can make all the difference. Timing was clearly good for Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre because I bathed in its dated melodrama. Her sister’s Wuthering Heights got canned, and Bronte fans will can me for saying so. We hags don’t finish books we’re not thoroughly digging.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is frustrating as hell but, oh, the scene where the townspeople think the butler is a gentleman…painfully aws for Dear Reader made omniscient by Ishiguro. Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has a Murder on the Orient Express quality, with satisfying retaliatory violence (sorry, Jesus!) I enjoyed Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero more than his latest, but Ondaatje fanatics might spank me for saying so. Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen is Calgon Take Me Away to a Nunnery, depositing you in a world as foreign as The Handmaid’s Tale, if less menacing—both divinely spare.
20th Century Ghost by Joe Hill is a brain-liquefying short story collection. His father taught him well, else he was born with it. Forgetting English by Seattle’s Midge Raymond is another artful collection; it whisks you to foreign lands wherein you totally buy her characters. A writer’s writer.
Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You is funny, foul, funny. His characters speak like my people in New York; you was warned. The Help is terrific on tape. The readers are so good I can’t imagine reading it yourself would be better. Murder in the 11th House by Mitchell Scott Lewis is a treat if you really know astrology.
For nonfiction, I dug Ellen Langer’s Counterclockwise (on atypical aging) and Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach. The Soloist by Steve Lopez describes with delicacy an L.A. journalist befriending a schizophrenic music prodigy. Water Cooler Diaries, a compilation of women’s workday diaries by Joni B. Cole, is perfectly edited and reminiscent of an older treasure, Gig: American talk about Their Jobs.
Some older gems. Nonfiction: Woe is I and Eats, Shoots & Leaves (both grammar), Freakanomics, The Tipping Point. Fiction: The Ice Storm, The Wonder Boys, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, The Kite Runner, The Hours, The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Joy Luck Club and The Bonesetter’s Daughter. Memoir: I Feel Bad about My Neck (on tape!), The Year of Magical Thinking, A Girl Named Zippy (fave charmer of all time), and The Glass Castle—all terrific.
Here on Earth is Alice Hoffman’s rewrite of one book on this list. Weirdly, I happened to read it right after the original and thought she’d ripped off the plot. Snort.
The Most Brilliant Jewel of my 2011 Reads is a tie between The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by French genius Muriel Burbery, and A Visit from the Good Squad by American genius Jennifer Egan. I’m not spoiling it if I tell you that the goon squad, as Egan told NPR, is time. Or that I bawled with abandon at Burbery’s poetic sparkler. To both authors—all authors, really—I say: we are not worthy. Good day.