By Tom Beer
Selecting the best books of the year is not a science. There is no data involved. Instead, we looked back at our reading over the past 12 months and picked the titles that wowed us when we first read them and still do. Here the results: 10 works of fiction and nonfiction we passionately recommend. They’d make great gifts, too.
The House of Broken Angels
Set in San Diego over an eventful weekend, this clamoring and joyful novel assembles the members of the Mexican-American de la Cruz family for the funeral of matriarch Mama America and then the 70th and final birthday of her son, Big Angel, himself dying of cancer. These two days overflow with family, food, music, jealousies and two languages. “Urrea’s affection for his characters is contagious, and the reader feels as though she’s been welcomed to the party,” wrote reviewer Kristin Valez Quade.
From one of our finest comic novelists comes this novel with equal parts smarts and heart. Barry Cohen, a New York hedge fund manager whose beloved son is severely autistic and whose marriage is in freefall, boards a Greyhound bus at Port Authority and sets out to discover America. Reviewer Marion Winik calls Lake Success “a rueful mash note to the author’s adopted country (with an extra kiss blown to the Long Island village of the title).”
“A nation born in contradiction, liberty in a land of slavery, sovereignty in a land of conquest, will fight, forever, over the meaning of its history,” writes Harvard scholar Lepore in this sweeping one-volume history of our country, conceived and written in the years since the momentous 2016 election. These Truths brims with historical figures and voices, from 1492 to the present.
The 19th century was full of extraordinary life stories, and none more so than that of Frederick Douglass, the self-taught escaped slave turned abolitionist and author. Yale historian David W. Blight captures the many sides of this complex man, including his political evolution, thunderous oratory and unorthodox family life, which included relationships with two women activists. Reviewer Matthew Price called Frederick Douglass “one of the year’s most impressive biographies.”
Raised one of seven children off the grid in rural Idaho by a bipolar, fundamentalist Mormon father, Tara Westover had to make her way to Brigham Young University and then to Cambridge and Harvard in order to rewrite her own story. Her memoir, a surprise bestseller this year, is the story of a family in thrall to a strict, abusive man, but the author refuses to demonize; she wishes to understand.
The Great Believers
This sad, beautifully realised novel of Aids and its aftermath should come with a box of tissues. Two storylines run parallel and then converge: One, set among a close group of gay friends in 1980s Chicago, tracks the epidemic’s tragic toll; the second, set in current-day Paris, checks in on the survivors and the price they have paid.
Arthur Fellig became famous for a series of New York City tabloid photographs depicting murder victims, fires, car crashes and other lurid urban scenes of the 1930s. This biography captures both the man and his city, a place that could be grim and violent but had a jaunty flamboyance.
All You Can Ever Know
The complexities of race, family and adoption receive a full airing in this sensitive, insightful memoir. “All You Can Ever Know has the patient pacing of a mystery and the philosophical heft of a skeptic’s undertaking,” wrote reviewer Lisa Kennedy.
An American Marriage
This Oprah Book Club pick is Jones’ fourth novel and best yet. The marriage in question is between Roy and Celestial, a prosperous African-American couple from Atlanta brought low when Roy is sentenced to 12 years in prison for a rape he did not commit. And then the marriage is further complicated when Andre, best man at their wedding, enters the picture
The Largesse of The Sea Maiden
This story collection from Johnson, who died of liver cancer in 2017, was clearly meant to be his final word to readers. Each of its five stories is in one way or another about wrapping up a life; the plots are littered with dying people, corpses, ghosts and commentary on mortality. –Newsday/TNS
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