My friend's obsessive 10-year-old son begins writing his next year's list for Santa as soon as the last Christmas present of the current season has been torn open. Maybe he'll grow up to be a book critic! For, in the dreary light of early January while the natural world slumbers, I, too, open up a fresh computer file and begin the process of putting together my new list — my "Best Books of the Year" list.
Every week throughout the year, I receive roughly 100 new books delivered to my home; an additional 25 or more delivered to my office. I wade through those books (and the publisher's catalogues that precede them) and decide what to review. Some books I start to read and discard; others receive a much-deserved pan; still others I never get to for one reason or another. (Much to my mother-in-law's dismay, I haven't read The Help yet!) The happy news for book lovers is that every year, I read and review more good books than this list can hold. Some are even Great.
And, if you want to know how a book earns its place on my "Best of the Year" list, well, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, you know a book is a winner when it takes the top of your head off.
By Patti Smith; Hardcover, 304 pages; Ecco, List price: $27
Sometimes there is justice in the world. That was my first thought when I heard that Patti Smith had won the National Book Award this fall for her glorious memoir, Just Kids — which has just come out in paperback. Smith wrote the book to honor Robert Mapplethorpe, her youthful partner in love, art, and ambition; but Just Kids is also a celebration of the frayed beauty of New York City in its so-called years of decline — the late 1960s into the 70s.
Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage
By Hazel Rowley; Hardcover, 368 pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, List price: $27
Hazel Rowley's revelatory biography of a marriage, Franklin and Eleanor, explores an even more famous couple who defied convention. Rowley charts the evolution of the Roosevelt union from a standard-issue high society alliance to something we don't even have a label for — maybe "semi-open marriage" comes closest.
Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election That Changed Everything For American Women
By Rebecca Traister; Hardcover, 336 pages; Free Press, List price: $26
Speaking of conformity and rebellion, Rebecca Traister's so-very-smart and lively book about the 2008 presidential campaign, called Big Girls Don't Cry, teases out how our reigning cultural narratives about femininity and "playing nice" came to wield so much power during the campaign and, finally, in the voting booth.
Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History
By Yunte Huang; Hardcover, 354 pages; W.W. Norton & Co., List price: $26.95
For all its daring allure, early 20th century American detective fiction played by the rules when it came to the look of its detective heroes: Same Spade and company were white straight males who were quick to pull the trigger on any characters who were "different." It's still a mystery whether the exception to this standard profile — Charlie Chan — challenged or confirmed reigning cultural narratives about Asian Americans in mid-20th century America. Yunte Huang's fascinating mish-mosh of a book, also called Charlie Chan, explores the honorable detective's legacy in film and investigates the story of the real life Hawaiian police detective on whom Chan was based.
There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America
By Philip Dray; Hardcover, 784 pages; Doubleday, List Price: $35
In the late 19th century, ordinary people — mill girls, railroad and garment workers and miners — embraced the revolutionary idea that by banding together they might better their lives. Philip Dray's spectacular narrative history of the American Labor Movement is called There Is Power In A Union. Dray's chronicle reads like a novel, filled with dramatic acts of barbarism and bravery.
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption
By Laura Hillenbrand; Hardcover, 496 pages; Random House, List Price: $27
Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken is a superb follow-up to her 2001 bestseller, Seabiscuit. Unbroken recovers the incredible and, yes, inspirational tale of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete who joined the air corps during World War II, Zamperini was shot down; survived, with his pilot, for 47 days on a raft in the Pacific; and, subsequently became a prisoner of war of the Japanese, Zamperini puts to shame all of us these days who use the word "survivor" casually.
Searching for Tamsen Donner
By Gabrielle Burton; Hardcover, 328 pages; Univ of Nebraska Press, List price: $26.95
Gabrielle Burton, a writer now in her 70s, has nurtured a near-lifelong obsession with Tamsen Donner, the wife of the leader of the notorious Donner Party. A few years ago Burton wrote a fabulous feminist on-the-road memoir, called Searching for Tamsen Donner about piling her husband and five daughters in the family station wagon and retracing Tamsen's life. This year, Burton published an evocative recreation of Tamsen's lost journal; the novel, called Impatient With Desire, gets its title from a phrase in one of Tamsen's 17 extant letters.
Freedom: A Novel
By Jonathan Franzen; Hardcover, 576 pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, List price: $28
Certainly, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom — the decades-long saga of a long and fraught marriage — deserved all of its applause, despite the literary spitball fight over Franzen's demi-god status. There's not one throw-away scene in Freedom and, yet, for all that effort, nothing feels overwritten or false.
So Much for That
By Lionel Shriver; Hardcover, 448 pages; Harper, List price: $25.99
My personal favorite novel of the year was Lionel Shriver's So Much For That, a black comedy about the emotional and financial cost of health care in America. Shriver's satire tackles the twin questions about cutting-edge medical treatments of life-threatening illnesses: "At what cost?" and "To what end?"
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel
By David Mitchell; Hardcover, 496 pages; Random House, List price: $26
I also admired David Mitchell's beautiful novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet which traces the life of its title character who starts working in 1799 on a small European outpost in the harbor of Nagasaki, Japan.
Super Sad True Love Story
By Gary Shteyngart; Hardcover, 352 pages; Random House, List price: $26
Finally, Gary Shteyngart's novel, Super Sad True Love Story moves at warp speed rat-ta-tat telling a dystopian but comic story about a future where books are derided as objects that "smell like wet socks."
I want to end this list by doffing my hat not to a book, but to an independent bookseller and small press publisher. David Thompson was known throughout the mystery world; he died suddenly this year at 38. David introduced me to the wonders of noir writers like Reed Farrel Coleman, Daniel Woodrell and Martin Limon. His legacy is a reminder to all of us who love books that, as someone once said about the late critic Irving Howe, enthusiasm is not the enemy of the intellect.
Too Much Happiness
by Alice Munro
Is there anyone writing short fiction today in English who has more authority than Alice Munro? As safely settled inside the gates of literature as she may be, she advances her art in this current collection with a cast of husbands and widows; scientists; female geniuses who solve difficult math problems and also write novels; and people who labor with their hands. In "Wood," we learn about the bite of a life working with bark: "Ironwood, that heavy and reliable firewood," Munro writes, "has a shaggy brown bark ... Ash is a soldierly tree with a corduroy-ribbed trunk," and the descriptions go on. If this is what she does with the trees in the stories that make up Too Much Happiness, you can just imagine what she does with the people.
320 pages, $15, Vintage
The Swan Thieves
by Elizabeth Kostova
Elizabeth Kostova's second novel after the blockbuster success of The Historian tells the story of a disturbed artist named Robert Oliver through the eyes of his psychiatrist, also a painter. "Robert Oliver is a landscape and portrait painter who is really reaching the peak of a great career," Kostova tells NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. "When he is brought into [psychiatrist] Marlow's care, he refuses to tell his own story." Marlow's efforts to uncover Oliver's motivations lead him to talk with the many women in the artist's life, and to investigate the 19th century themes that Oliver obsessively paints. "It's a story of people who I think really would not be drawn together except through the power of art," Kostova says.
592 pages, $15.99, Back Bay Books
by George Carlin
During his 50-year career, irreverent comedian George Carlin stood in front of his audiences questioning, condemning and cutting through what he called "middle-class crap." Carlin's performances were often rants against authority and censorship; his "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" routine became a classic. Carlin also didn't like the word "autobiography," but before his death in June 2008, he spent more than 10 years working on this memoir, Last Words, with comedian, writer and longtime friend Tony Hendra.
320 pages, $15, Free Press
Stones into Schools
Promoting Peace Through Education In Afghanistan And Pakistan
by Greg Mortenson
Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute, his nongovernmental organization, have been building schools in the most remote corners of Pakistan and Afghanistan for the past 16 years. In Stones into Schools, he continues where his runaway best-seller, Three Cups of Tea, left off. The tale of his extraordinary efforts to keep his 1999 promise to help the villagers of Afghanistan's isolated Wakhan Corridor build a school threads between members of the town and former mujahedeen commanders, ex-Taliban and village elders, and the American soldiers stationed among them. It's an effective testament to what Mortenson describes as the "cascade of positive changes triggered by teaching a single girl how to read and write."
448 pages, $16, Penguin
by Patti Smith
It was in 1967, on her first day in New York, that 20-year-old aspiring poet Patti Smith met fellow artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Their friendship, romance and creative collaboration began on that day and lasted until Mapplethorpe's death in 1989. Both children of religious upbringings and influenced by ideas of outsider culture, the pair would stay up painting and listening to records in their Brooklyn apartment before Mapplethorpe eventually moved to San Francisco. In the course of their friendship, Smith would become a punk icon and Mapplethorpe a famed photographer. Smith's memoir, Just Kids, tells the story of their 22-year friendship.
320 pages, $16, Ecco Books
Charlotte Abbott edits "New in Paperback." A contributing editor for Publishers Weekly, she also writes the Follow the Reader blog about digital publishing issues.
This interview was originally broadcast on January 19, 2010. 'Just Kids' was recently nominated for a National Book Award and will be released in a paperback edition on November 2, 2010.
It was in 1967, on her first day in New York, that 20-year-old aspiring poet Patti Smith met fellow artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Their friendship, romance and creative collaboration began on that day and lasted until Mapplethorpe's death in 1989.
Both children of religious upbringings and influenced by ideas of outsider culture, the pair would stay up painting and listening to records in their Brooklyn apartment before Mapplethorpe eventually moved to San Francisco.
In the course of their friendship, Smith would become a punk icon and Mapplethorpe a famed photographer. Smith's new memoir, Just Kids, tells the story of their 22-year friendship. She joins Fresh Air for a conversation about her career and her singular relationship with Mapplethorpe.
"Come on now, try and understand/The way I feel when I'm in your hands," sings Patti Smith in her 1978 song "Because the Night." It's tempting to wonder whether the Godmother of Punk was thinking of Robert Mapplethorpe, Smith's ex-lover and first muse, when she sang those words. Smith and Mapplethorpe met in New York in 1967, when both were young aspiring artists — Smith had grown up in working-class New Jersey, the daughter of a Jehovah's Witness jazz singer; Mapplethorpe was raised in a devout Catholic family in Floral Park, Queens. Later, of course, Smith would become a critically acclaimed poet and singer, and Mapplethorpe would come out as gay, and gain fame as a brilliant and controversial photographer. But it's the story of their romance — two young people desperately in love — that Smith recounts in her remarkable, evocative new memoir, Just Kids.
For those familiar with Smith's edgy brand of rock 'n' roll or Mapplethorpe's explicit, homoerotic photography, the sweet and naive couple in Just Kids might come as a shock. The two moved in together shortly after meeting, bonding over art, making small and sweet gifts for each other, promising never to be apart. Later, they would rent a room at the Chelsea Hotel, meeting some of their artistic heroes — the musicologist Harry Smith, Jefferson Airplane banshee Grace Slick, members of Andy Warhol's Factory. Smith writes about Mapplethorpe with such authentic sweetness and wistful tenderness it's impossible not to be drawn in by the young couple's adoration of each other. Even when they're faced with adversity — poverty, rejection, Mapplethorpe's decision to make extra money as a street hustler — the reader can't help but be taken in by the ardor of their love.
So much so, in fact, that it's easy to forget who Smith and Mapplethorpe would later become. In one telling scene, the two are walking in Washington Square when they're spotted by an older couple. The woman urges her husband to take their picture: "I think they're artists. They might be somebody someday." The husband refuses: "Oh, go on ... they're just kids."
Smith is an excellent writer, and her memoir is sweet, sad and deeply felt, but never mawkish or sentimental. Her relationship with Mapplethorpe was complicated, of course, and she does a wonderful job relating her love for him and her heartbreak at the slow dissolution of their romance: "Paradoxically, he seemed to want to draw me closer. Perhaps it was the closeness before the end, like a gentleman buying his mistress jewels before telling her it's over." She didn't want to let him go; she wanted, more than anything, to be there for him, to protect him.
In the end, she couldn't. Mapplethorpe died of an AIDS-related illness in 1989; Smith's recounting of his death is one of the most beautiful, heartbreaking passages I've read in years. Just Kids is more than just a gift to her ex-lover; it's a gift to everyone who has ever been touched by their art, and to everyone who's ever been in love. Like the best of Smith's music and Mapplethorpe's art, this book is haunting and unforgettable.
This week, a novel from Jonathan Dee looks at the costs (and wild benefits) of living wealthy in America, and a memoir by Patti Smith recalls the singer's long friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe. Also, T.C. Boyle offers a new book of short stories, and a novel dives into Britain's mid-1950s "Cyprus Emergency."
Wild Child: And Other Stories
By T.C. Boyle
T.C. Boyle — like the megalomaniac American overachievers at the heart of his quasi-historical novels The Road to Wellville, The Inner Circle and last year's The Women — runs on a powerful mix of ambition and brilliance. "Wild Child," the title novella of his engaging ninth collection of stories, also captures this spirit of hubris. Left to die in a Languedoc forest by his stepmother, the story's title character survived on a foraged diet of raw tubers and rodents. After the boy is captured in the late 1790s, the Frenchmen who attempt to civilize him are convinced that in studying this so-called wild child they can settle fundamental questions about human nature. Their results are equivocal at best. The 13 other stories in Wild Child, almost all attention-grabbers, are set largely in the California hills or working-class upstate New York that have provided the backdrop for much of Boyle's fiction.
There's nothing precious about T.C. Boyle's stories. Boyle isn't a squeamish writer, and there's an exuberant physicality to these stories, which involve rats, chinchillas, snakes, feral tomcats, scorpions, fire, mudslides, a cloned dog and curiosities such as the wild child of Aveyron or a boy born with a mutation that prevents him from feeling pain. Like his novels, the 13 stories and title novella in this collection are lively and entertaining and show off his range and energy — and his delight in posing the kinds of moral dilemmas that can so easily throw us off-balance. — Heller McAlpin, book critic
Hardcover, 320 pages, Viking Adult, List price: $25.95, pub. date: Jan. 21
By Jonathan Dee
Not many American writers have tended to write about people with money, but when they have done it the results have often been spectacular. Think of Wharton, Fitzgerald, Capote and the fiction of the lately deceased Dominick Dunne. Add to this list now the work of New York novelist Jonathan Dee, a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine whose 2002 novel, Palladio, looked at American life in the 21st century through the lens of an advertising agency. Dee's newest book, The Privileges, the story of a special marriage in a time quite close to our own, gives every one of his predecessors a, yes, run for its money.
You may think you're in a John O'Hara novel when you first begin turning the pages of The Privileges — the sharply etched sentences about the manners and mores of the bride and groom, Adam and Cynthia Morey, and their families and friends, make you wince and smart. But a bridal party that trashes a fancy hotel is one thing. A couple that takes New York by the cojones and makes piles and piles of money by means of shrewd decisions — some of them criminal — in a market begging to be taken, that's another. Dee has a great eye for detail, physical and emotional, and invites us to watch with eyes wide open as the Morey family sails past disaster into a future most people — until they read about such matters in novels as good as this — would think they would like to inhabit.— Alan Cheuse, All Things Considered book critic
Hardcover, 272 pages, Random House, list price: $25, Pub. date: Jan. 5
By Patti Smith
Singer, songwriter, poet, painter, rock star — Patti Smith is now an icon. But when she met "hippie shepherd boy" Robert Mapplethorpe on her first day in New York City, in 1967, she was just a 20-year-old Jersey girl. Smith's new book, Just Kids, tells the story of the romance and friendship that blossomed over the 22 years between their fateful meeting and Mapplethorpe's death in 1989. That the pair were close isn't news; Mapplethorpe took the famous photo on the cover of Smith's first album, Horses. But in Smith's telling, their story takes on fairy-tale dimensions: two young artists in the big city protecting each other from loneliness and encouraging the pursuits that would turn each into leading figures in the New York art scene.
Punk rocker Patti Smith delivers many surprises in her new memoir. She's a Bible reader and a teachers college dropout. Most surprising of all are the intimate details of her life-changing romance with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The former altar boy from Long Island and the lanky former factory worker formed an artistic bond. Their relationship is worthy of a tragic opera, a musical form that Smith knows well — another surprise from a singer known as the "Godmother of Punk." The book, which chronicles 1970s New York and a confluence of artists living at the Chelsea Hotel, is funny, reflective and at times sentimental. I was captivated by Smith's descriptions of her younger self, a struggling artist trying to find an outlet for her many talents and creative mind.— Deborah Amos, NPR foreign correspondent
Hardcover, 304 pages, Ecco, list price: $27, pub. date: Jan. 19
By Sadie Jones
Sadie Jones' second novel, Small Wars, takes place during the mid-1950s Cyprus Emergency — the attempt by an occupying British Army to hang on to one of the last shreds of the British Empire. Major Hal Treherne and his wife, Clara, arrive at the army base in Episkopi full of personal optimism and professional ambition. The Trehernes are decent, conventional British people ready to participate in what they believe to be a decent, honorable British cause. What they increasingly are faced with, however, is the inherent immorality of this particular "small war." The Cyprus Emergency is a conflict without clear goals, during which decent behavior is regularly required to give way before convenience and convention.
I'm a complete sucker for novels that engage me in the making of difficult decisions. Hal and Clara are such thoroughly decent people. I liked them and wished them well from Page 1. Then when they are plopped down into Cyprus, a conflict with obvious resonance to our own current "small wars," I actively pulled for the Trehernes to resist the corruption all around them. Small Wars is a novel that pits innate human goodness against the innate indecency of war. As to what wins out? I'm not telling. You'll have to read the book. And while you're reading it, you'll be drawn, as I was, into contemplating the many parallels between the Trehernes' situation and what our soldiers and their families face today.— Martha Woodroof, book critic