This is always a promising season for readers. As leaves fall, good books pile up on your winter reading stack. But is my good your good? Most of the time when I read, I know almost immediately whether a book will represent only a pleasurable few days or something I'll want to return to again someday.
As a child, I knew what I liked to read: adventure, sea stories, space-travel tales, mysteries. And even as my tastes have broadened, my palate seems to have remained true. Although I love the wit and mood of introspective (and lyrically composed) fiction, I'm nearly always drawn to thoughtful, well-plotted books — everything from Ulysses to The Man Without Qualities, Cervantes to Murakami, and Faulkner and Hemingway and Woolf in between. Given all this, 2011's best books made me a happy reader.
Every year, on the night before the National Book Award winners are announced, the finalists are celebrated in an evening of readings from all the nominated books. NPR was there Tuesday night to record the proceedings.
In a little annual celebration of our own, we now offer for your listening pleasure the performances of the fiction finalists. The nominated works this year are five sober and splendid books that, curiously enough, seem to be in conversation with each other, each exploring how the life of the individual intersects with the life of the nation.
by Andrew Krivak
Paperback, 191 pages
A mother flings her child into a freezing river — not to kill him, but to save him. It's this act, riddled with ambiguities, marked by great love and great violence, that opens and sets the tone of The Sojourn, a slim, brutal fiction debut from Andrew Krivak, author of The Long Retreat, a memoir of his years in the Jesuit order.
After a devastating tragedy, the Vinich family abandons its efforts to make a life in a small Colorado mining town and returns home to rural Austria-Hungary. When World War I breaks out, the Vinich boys enlist as sharpshooters in the kaiser's army. They endure a trek across the frozen Alps and, later, are captured by their enemy. Based on the author's own family history and encompassing divided familial and national loyalties, a fracturing Europe and an aborted American dream, The Sojourn is a harrowing read leavened by the assurance and beauty of Krivak's prose.
by Tea Obreht
Paperback, 337 pages
The wunderkind 26-year-old Tea Obreht had one of the splashiest literary debuts of the year. The author, born in the former Yugoslavia and now based in New York, was named one of the New Yorker's 20 Under 40 writers, and her novel, The Tiger's Wife, garnered her the Orange Prize — much worldly success for a book whose charm is decidedly so otherworldly and, in its own way, so subversive.
When a young doctor named Natalia Stefanovic begins to investigate the death of her beloved grandfather, she finds clues in, of all things, his beloved, battered copy of The Jungle Book and in the folk stories he used to tell her. Obreht juxtaposes straightforward stories from the present — of Natalia inoculating war orphans — with fabulous contemporary fairy tales, giving us an alternative history of the Balkans told through myth, magic and allegory.
by Julie Otsuka
Hardcover, 129 pages
Julie Otsuka's highly anticipated follow-up to When the Emperor Was Divine is a group portrait of Japanese "picture brides," young women who traveled by boat to California in the 1900s to marry men they had only corresponded with. It's a classic immigration story — struggles to master a new language and culture are followed by the heartbreak of children who reject old customs. But there's a twist: The women recount their story collectively and with all the power and fury of a Greek chorus ("This is America, we would say to ourselves, there is no need to worry. And we would be wrong").
Trained formally as a painter, Otsuka brings precision and subtlety to her description of the picture brides' efforts to survive their marriages to strangers, the backbreaking labor in the fields or in the kitchens of their white employers — and the final indignity of internment during World War II.
by Edith Pearlman
Paperback, 373 pages
Featuring 18 prize-winning stories and 13 new ones, this story collection is a capstone of a celebrated career. Edith Pearlman, recent winner of the PEN/Malamud Award, takes readers around the world and through history — czarist Russia, the London Blitz, present-day Manhattan — returning to relish her pet characters (the laconic New Englander, cultivated Europeans) and themes (motherhood, diaspora). Although Pearlman's work has consistently been lauded in the Best American Short Story anthologies, she has flown under the radar. These stories — her finest from three previous collections — are small miracles of observation and empathy, and the collection is both a fine introduction and a tribute to Pearlman's body of work.
by Jesmyn Ward
Hardcover, 261 pages
Set in a fictional town in Mississippi 10 days before Hurricane Katrina struck, this fierce novel explores the responses of a poor black family on the verge of destruction. The coming of the storm gives the book an innate, propulsive pace, and the pitch-perfect collisions of character and fate endow it with the scope and impact of classical tragedy. The protagonist, 14-year-old Esch, is unforgettable, as canny and observant as any of Carson McCullers' heroines and blessed with a singular gift for making language all her own. Author Jesmyn Ward has been celebrated for her essays and one previous novel, Where the Line Bleeds, but Salvage the Bones is poised to be her big breakout book.
Fiction releases from Tea Obreht, Walter Mosley, Matt Rees and Henning Mankell.
Tea Obreht makes her sparkling debut with the folkloric Tiger's Wife, and another new author, Cara Hoffman, holds her own with the creepy but elegant So Much Pretty. A Jay-Z biography falls short, but Jonathan Coe's Maxwell Sim, a humorous novel about Internet loneliness, provides an acerbic glimpse of modern times.
The Tiger's Wife
by Tea Obreht
In The Tiger's Wife, Tea Obreht deftly weaves the past with the present, fantasy with reality and superstition with the cold hard facts of war and its aftermath. The book is set in a country presumed to be the former Yugoslavia and draws on the rich folk culture of that region. When the novel opens, Natalia, a young doctor, learns that her beloved grandfather has died alone in a remote village. As she tries to find out more about his death, she learns more about his life through two fables: the story of the deathless man whom her grandfather claims to have encountered several times during his life, and the story of the Tiger's Wife, a richly imagined tale of his encounter with an escaped tiger that haunted the village where he grew up. These stories are told against the backdrop of Natalia's own life. As Obreht follows her protagonist across borders that once did not exist into a country that was only recently enemy territory, she creates a vivid sense of the complexity of a region ravaged by civil war.
If you grew up reading fairy tales you will love this book. If you are drawn to stories that are steeped in the real world, you will also find much to love in The Tiger's Wife. The relationship between Natalia and her grandfather anchors a story that encompasses both rural village life in the years during World War II as well as life in an unnamed city before during and after the civil war. Obreht left Belgrade with her family at the age of 7 to escape that war. But her understanding of the culture of her homeland is deeply ingrained. Though only 25, she writes with extraordinary insight about an inbred world that thrives on distrust and superstition but can also be elevated by the power of myth and the strength that comes from stories handed down from one generation to the next. - Lynn Neary, NPR books and publishing correspondent
Hardcover, 352 pages; Random House; list price, $25; publication date, March 8
Empire State Of Mind
How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office
By Zack O'Malley Greenburg
Empire State of Mind tells the story of rapper Jay-Z (aka Shawn Carter) and his rise from drug slinger to tape slinger and, later, to corporation runner. The best-selling musician, who has had more No. 1 records grace the Billboard charts than Elvis (second only to The Beatles), no longer makes all his money from rapping — and he hasn't for years. According to author Zack O' Malley Greenburg, he invests in brands and then boosts their sales by dropping their names into his music. He ensures that his partnerships are as profitable as they can possibly be with savvy product placement and cross-promotional deals. Carter is also very good at realizing when the brands he invests in or represents are at the top of the market and cashing out (see: Armandale Vodka, Roc-a-Wear). Greenburg even suggests that Jay-Z's marriage to Beyonce is something of a corporate merger, and that any children the couple might have would allow both of them to move into more markets and make even more money.
In the introduction to Empire State of Mind, Greenburg floats the idea that Jay-Z's business acumen is so sharp partly because when other people attempt to make money from his work (or even his persona), he insists on the biggest cut possible of their profit. Greenburg suggests that's why Jay would not consent to an interview for this book — he even says that's why Jay took his long-shelved autobiography, Decoded, off the shelf, rushed it to publication a couple months ahead of Greenburg's book and gave interviews all over the place to promote it (listen to our Fresh Air interview here). I felt the absence of Jay-Z in this book acutely. No matter how often Greenburg inserts lyrics from Jay's songs to reveal his innermost workings, Greenburg hasn't managed to peel back even the first layer of the rapper's motivations or intentions. Despite Greenburg's experience covering music and finance for Forbes since 2005, he simply cannot tell us what goes on behind closed doors or nondisclosure agreements. Relying on songs that Jay-Z wrote as entertainment, to sell, even in combination with interviews with people close to Jay-Z over the years, is a poor substitute for the man himself. It can't stand up to an autobiography. — Frannie Kelley, editor at NPR Music
Hardcover, 240 pages; Portfolio; list price, $25.95; publication date, March 17
The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim
By Jonathan Coe
It was only a matter of time before someone wrote a novel examining the psychological impacts of social media and Internet addiction on our lives, and that person (this month, anyway) is Jonathan Coe, a British novelist who deserves more attention on these shores. His latest, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, is a meditation on loneliness and disconnection as it relates to the Internet era. Maxwell Sim, his schlumpy, downtrodden narrator, has 70 friends on Facebook, but no real shoulder to cry on when his wife leaves him. He decides to take a trip offered by a friend to drive a Prius to a remote British isle (as part of a promotional gig for an organic toothbrush company), and along the way he falls in love with the voice coming through his GPS system. Feeling as lonely as ever, Sim decides to court his ex-wife online by adopting a fake Web persona, an act that — as you can probably guess — does not have the intended results. Maxwell Sim is funny, acerbic and, most of all, a novel that could not have been born at any other time than the present.
Author Jonathan Coe manages to portray a lonely man's misery and sense of worthlessness in a very funny short novel that never disappoints. Coe brilliantly tells the story in the voice of a man who declares himself to be a "non-writer" and says he's reluctant to narrate. He does so anyway, continually reminding us of his incompetence as a writer. Cute. But in lesser hands, this could prove a bit too cute. Coe's strength is his ability to make his character — and Sim's indifference to the very things the likely reader of this book might cherish — believable. I found myself completely satisfied by page after page of compelling observation and plot. The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is an adventure story in a familiar landscape of freeways and fast-food restaurants, and Coe navigates this territory with a comic brilliance I fully embraced. - Art Silverman, senior producer, All Things Considered
Hardcover, 336 pages; Knopf; list price, $26.95; publication date, March 8
So Much Pretty
By Cara Hoffman
So Much Pretty is a haunting, gloomy novel that defies genre — it is one part crime thriller, one part ambitious novel, one part prose poem. Hoffman's debut tells the tale of a series of horrific events that take place in Haeden, a small town in upstate New York, drawing on multiple perspectives to glimpse all sides of the same story. Two girls go missing in Haeden — first, waitress Wendy White. Recent-transplant journalist Stacy Flynn — who wants to get a big scoop and get out of town — decides to cover the White case with a controversial angle, using the girl's murder as a chance to ask big questions about assault, women, blame and deceit in a small town. Fifteen-year-old Alice Piper, a local brainiac and the daughter of Gene and Claire (who narrate much of the novel), reads Flynn's story and decides to do some probing of her own into the White case, connecting several dots and nearly discovering the killer — until she too goes missing. So Much Pretty raises questions about denial, violence against women and when a citizen should speak up, even if it puts another at risk.
I am not the kind of reader that goes in for gimmicks or noticeable literary devices — I also don't tend to read anything that could find its way into the "thriller" section of the bookstore. I should have picked up So Much Pretty and put it right back down again. But I didn't! I stayed up all night reading it, and then the next day, I found myself so sucked into Hoffman's world that I forgot to eat lunch. Sleep and nourishment aside, I don't regret taking a chance on it — I am already anticipating Hoffman's next book so I can do it all over again. Criticisms first: Hoffman does employ a kind of debut novelist's gimmick here. She writes each chapter from a different point of view, giving the book a "Greek chorus" feel (another sign of a first writer: She uses invented court documents and letters to fill in plot holes in her characters' knowledge) — but I didn't mind it after a while and found myself happy to hear several voices take on what in the voice of only one observer may have felt like an insurmountable tragedy. So Much Pretty is certainly a thriller (it made me double check my door locks), but it is more challenging than that would imply; Hoffman uses terrifying events to scratch at some darker issues beneath the surface, and like any promising novelist, she does so with more showing than telling. She points out the ways in which small-town communities rally around their own after a crime, and often let the truth (and in this case, women's rights) fall to the wayside. As the young Alice writes in a letter before her disappearance, "I think I have fallen through the hole in all the logic in the entire world and I can see now that nothing holds up and I am going to keep falling." This is, in essence, what reading So Much Pretty feels like. - Rachel Syme, books editor, NPR
Hardcover, 304 pages; Simon & Schuster; list price, $25; publication date, March 15
In The White Album, Joan Didion writes that "we tell ourselves stories in order to live." Though many of today's stories may be limited to 140 character tweets, Tea Obreht, in her novel, The Tiger's Wife, shows how shared mythology (where history meets speculation) is essential, particularly in times of war and loss.
The Tiger's Wife takes place in an unnamed Balkan country — closest in character to the former Yugoslavia, where Obreht was born. Natalia, a young medical student, is on her way to an orphanage in enemy territory when she learns that her beloved grandfather has died. Though his wife had no idea he was sick, Natalia was his confidant — not only was she aware of his cancer; she was privy to his many incredible adventures, the two most fantastic being the stories of the Deathless Man and the Tiger's Wife.
These myths are fresh on Natalia's mind in the village of the orphanage, where superstitions take precedent over medical science. A family of gypsies suffering from a mysterious illness digs away in a vineyard, looking for the bones of a long-lost cousin who was supposedly buried there, albeit haphazardly, in a past war. One family member explains that his spirit, or mora, "doesn't like it here, and he's making us sick. When we find him we'll be on our way." Their insistence gets Natalia thinking about her grandfather. It turns out he died alone in a clinic nearby in Galina — the town where he grew up. As Natalia travels there to collect his belongings, she realizes it was his search for the Deathless Man that brought him back to his birthplace.
Galina's history is also intertwined with the tale of the mythical Tiger's Wife. In the spring of 1941, disturbed by continuous bombing, legend has it that a tiger escaped from the local zoo and came to call the woods near Galina home. Natalia's grandfather, then just a boy and a lover of The Jungle Book, found the tiger beautiful, but the other villagers, terrified, enlisted a slew of hunters to kill it. The tiger found another ally in the battered (and deaf-mute) wife of the butcher. When she became pregnant even after her husband's suspicious disappearance, the villagers took to calling her the Tiger's Wife, convinced she had made a pact with the devil.
The novel shifts back and forth, chapter by chapter, between the story of the tiger and the gypsies, with brief interludes back to Natalia's experience at the orphanage. This constant movement is difficult to adjust to at first, but any discomfort quickly wears off — Obreht has a knack for making these fantastical stories seem entirely plausible. She keeps the reader engaged not only with the Deathless Man's harrowing fate (doomed to roam the Earth for eternity), but the humor in it.
Man or myth, all of the characters in The Tiger's Wife are lovingly rendered. They could be the subject of their own novels — from the Deathless Man to the apothecary down the street. In fact, the only character in The Tiger's Wife we never really get to know is Natalia, who functions less as an active character than an interpreter of her grandfather's life.
The Tiger's Wife rests securely in the genre of magical realism, inciting comparisons to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and even Kafka. In terms of structure and pacing, Obreht still has a way to go — the conclusion of the novel comes at the reader too abruptly, leaving us startled. But her attention to detail in creating a believable world — in spite of its magical elements — is the work of a mature storyteller.
Natalia's conclusion at the end of the novel explains that the truth of these stories is less important than the symbolism they provide. She wonders: "If the situation had been different, if the people of Galina had been more aware of their own ephemeral isolation, more aware that it was only a matter of time before war tightened around them — their regard for the Tiger and his wife might have been more cursory. Isn't it strange, they might have said, here is a kind of love story, and then moved on to some other point of gossip." Similarly, whether The Tiger's Wife is the product of Obreht's personal history or her active imagination, it doesn't matter. She has lifted an entire world steeped in tradition and superstition and placed it securely on the page, leaving no detail unwritten — quite the accomplishment considering The Tiger's Wife is her debut.
Jessica Ferri is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker's Book Bench, The Economist, The Daily Beast, Bookslut, Time Out New York, Bookforum and more. She is currently at work on her first book, on women and horror movies.