Fiction and nonfiction releases from Ann Patchett, Chad Harbach, Jennifer Weiner, Jorie Graham and Erik Larson.
This was a terrific year for fiction and a particularly strong year for first-time novelists. Some of the literary debutantes who glide through this "10 best" list are so young, their wisdom teeth probably haven't had time to become impacted yet. Majestically bringing up the rear of the procession are some much-decorated veterans whose sustained achievements in fiction should ensure that the young 'uns don't rest too comfortably on their laurels.
From what I know of book clubs, I would wager that no two are exactly alike. There are the groups who take their books very seriously and frown on regulars who have failed to read that month's selection. Then there are the ones where members might be more interested in sharing the latest gossip than discussing the book.
Still, people who join book clubs usually do like to read, and they are always looking for that perfect book that will please everyone or, at the very least, get both the very rigorous and the somewhat frivolous on the same page. Here are five fascinating books that will be sure to catalyze serious and lively conversation.
There are a couple of ways to approach summer reading. You can think of the long, hot days as the perfect time to kick back with an exciting plot-driven thriller by Stieg Larsson. Or you might feel that summer's leisurely pace gives you the space you need to take on more challenging material. (Moby Dick anyone?) What it all boils down to is simple, really: What you want in the summer — or anytime of year for that matter — is a good book. To that end, I spoke with three critics — Laura Miller, reviewer for Salon.com, Ron Charles, fiction critic for The Washington Post and freelance reviewer Rigoberto Gonzalez — about their summer book recommendations. They came up with a list that should appeal to anyone's taste.
Recommended By Laura Miller
By Lars Kepler, hardcover, 512 pages, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, list price: $27
Miller is a fan of thrillers and she says this one is as good as the Dragon Tattoo series. She calls it "Stieg Larsson without the rough edges" because she thinks it's better written. It has a great plot but is more literary. It's the story of a publicly disgraced hypnotist who has vowed never to hypnotize anyone again. But when he is asked to help solve a terrible crime, he winds up hypnotizing a traumatized young man who is the only survivor of the crime. That decision jeopardizes the hypnotist and his family. Miller says the book is full of surprises and more than enough twists to keep those pages turning well into the night.
The Man In The Rockefeller Suit
By Mark Seal, hardcover, 336 pages, Viking Adult, list price: $26.95
This real-life crime story about a serial impostor began as a magazine piece in Vanity Fair. The Man in the Rockefeller Suit chronicles the exploits of the son of a house painter in Bavaria who entered the U.S. illegally and pretended to be a nobleman. He assumed a series of false identities in communities from California to Connecticut. But his masterpiece was passing himself off as a member of the Rockefeller family. He was so convincing that the smart, successful woman he married never doubted he was a Rockefeller. But when their marriage fell apart and he kidnapped their daughter, she hired a detective who uncovered his true identity. Miller says if someone tried to write this book as a novel you wouldn't believe it.
Recommended By Ron Charles
State Of Wonder
By Ann Pachett, hardcover, 368 pages, Harper, list price: $26.99
Charles calls this "the book for smart readers this summer." It combines a serious look at some profound ethical issues with an exciting story about a woman going into the Amazon — a journey that Pachett herself took in preparation for writing the novel. Readers follow the journey of Dr. Marina Singh as she travels into the jungle to find out how and why a friend and colleague died there. To get some answers she must meet up with a former teacher, the formidable Dr. Annick Swenson, who wants only to be left alone so she can continue to do her scientific research without any oversight from anyone. The story echoes of both The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Heart of Darkness. Charles says this is a "wonderful, wonderful book".
By Mary Doria Russell, hardcover, 416 pages, Random House, list price: $26
This latest version of the story of Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, says Charles, is both smart and fun. The author takes the reader into the wild wild west of Dodge City with vivid portrayals of brawling saloons and whore houses. At the same time she reminds us that the "Doc" in Doc Holliday stood for dentist. It's funny, Charles says, to imagine the mythical Doc Holliday reminding people to brush their teeth. That is just one way, says Charles, that Russell "tweaks the old style westerns we think we know ... she makes fun of them and challenges them and tries to revise them in a way that is interesting".
West Of Here
By Jonathan Evison, hardcover, 496, Algonquin Books, list price: $24.95
This sprawling story of the Pacific Northwest moves back and forth from the late 19th century to contemporary times. Charles likes it because it is full of so many characters doing crazy things. Evison introduces us to the men and women who were determined to settle this wild land. Then he shows us how their dreams turned out as their descendants, a motley crew of misfits, live with the successes and mistakes they inherited. Evison spent most of his life hiking and camping on the Olympic Peninsula and he brings his experience to the book's sweeping descriptions. Charles says the book, like the territory it chronicles, has a "boundless feel" to it.
Recommended By Rigoberto Gonzalez
Orientation: And Other Stories
By Daniel Orozco, hardcover, 176 pages, Faber & Faber, list price: $23
Gonzalez says he likes to read books that challenge him. He especially likes books that use fiction to explore contemporary issues and reveal new insights into the way we live our lives. That's why he likes Orientation, a book of short stories that are linked by the idea that in each story a character is being oriented to a new job. It might be in an office or a factory but no matter where it is, these positions make them invisible. Orientation is an exploration of what dehumanizing jobs do to people's psyches, to their personalities and to the way they look at the world.
By Tayari Jones, hardcover, 352 pages, Algonquin, list price: $19.95
The first line of this book reveals the secret that informs the lives of this family's story: "My father James Witherspoon is a bigamist." Two families live with this reality, but only one knows the truth. The daughters become friends. They are half sisters, but only one of them knows it. One girl moves through life guarding this secret, the other lives in blissful ignorance. While Jones' book is fiction, it has roots in her biography. Gonzalez says this is a fascinating story that examines the psychological effect a father's deception has on his wives and children.
It's not often that a novel leaves me (temporarily) speechless. But Ann Patchett's new novel isn't called State of Wonder for nothing, because that's exactly the state I've been in ever since I first opened it. The numbness has worn off by now, but for days, all I could say to friends who asked me about it was the one-word review "Wow."
If you're familiar with Patchett's work, particularly her most famous novel, Bel Canto, you know that her imagination roams far afield without sacrificing authenticity or lyrical power. The idea of terrorists invading the South American estate of an opera-loving Japanese businessman sounds like a premise for a disposable thriller; in Patchett's hands, of course, it turned out to be a riveting mediation on how love can reveal itself in unexpected human and artistic forms. State of Wonder revisits the South American locale and even features a key scene that takes place in the Manaus Opera House deep in the Amazonian rain forest of Brazil. Otherwise, the basic plot of State of Wonder is more directly indebted to those classic tales where Western explorers delve deep into the primitive "off the map" places left on the planet and in their own psyches. Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is the main inspiration here, but old English majors will catch references to other "gone native" tales like Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust, where an adventurer marooned in the Brazilian jungle consoles himself, as Patchett's characters do, by reading a mildewed collection of the works of Charles Dickens.
The gist of the storyline of State of Wonder is this: Dr. Marina Singh, a 42-year-old research scientist working for a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota, is sent to Brazil to locate the remains of her deceased lab mate — a nice family guy who was himself sent into the rain forest months earlier to find another employee, the reclusive Dr. Annick Swenson. Dr. Swenson has been in the wild 10 years, working to unlock the secret to the prolonged fertility of an isolated Amazonian tribe. The women of that tribe give birth well into their 70s, and if the fertility chemical found in a rare tree bark can be distilled and made available back in the States, it will be, as Marina's deceased co-worker once said, "menstruation everlasting ... the equivalent of Lost Horizon for American ovaries." Marina is an ideal candidate for what turns out to be a female explorer tale because she's so alone: Apart from a secret tepid affair with her boss, the most profound human connection she has had for years has been the daily small talk she shared with her dead colleague. With so little to lose, Marina sets off for the Amazon, dully suspecting that what awaits her there may well be "the horror, the horror."
Over half of State of Wonder is devoted to Marina's struggles in the rain forest, and one of the miracles of this novel — at least to a non-nature enthusiast like me — is just how inexhaustibly enthralling Patchett's descriptions of the flora, fauna, ants and anacondas are. Here's a snippet of a description of Marina walking out of the airport in Manaus and following her driver to his car:
The outside air was heavy enough to be bitten and chewed. Never had Marina's lungs taken in so much oxygen, so much moisture. With every inhalation she felt she was introducing unseen particles of plant life into her body, tiny spores that bedded down in between her cilia and set about taking root. An insect flew against her ear, emitting a sound so piercing that her head snapped back as if struck ... They were not in the jungle, they were in a parking lot.
Similarly, the characters Marina stumbles upon in the Amazon are uncharted worlds unto themselves: There's a strange young slacker couple who act as gatekeepers for Dr. Swenson; a deaf native boy named "Easter" whom Marina comes to cherish as a son; and the imperious Dr. Swenson, the center of the mysteries, who holds herself and her colleagues to almost suicidally high standards of self-denial. Even with such a relatively limited cast of characters, Patchett keeps the plot twisting, turning, like one of those slithery anacondas, until the very last pages. This is a masterpiece of a novel about the awful price of love and the terror of its inevitable loss. As much as readers will surely come to admire Marina for her explorer's bravery, we should also applaud Patchett for her own fearlessness in expanding the terrain of the possible in storytelling.