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February 1, 2016 BOOKLIST
Find more Booklist Editors' Choice
The Adult Books editors have selected the following titles as representative of the year’s outstanding books for public-library collections. Our scope has been intentionally broad, and we have attempted to find books that combine literary, intellectual, and aesthetic excellence with popular appeal.
Arts & Literature
Ashton, John and Whyte, Tom. The Quest for Paradise: Visions of Heaven and Eternity in the World’s Myths and Religions. HarperSanFrancisco, $30 (0-06-251735-X).
Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam and Bob Marley’s Rastafarian reggae are just two of the artworks chronicled in this beautifully illustrated survey of various religions’ perceptions of paradise, beginning with ancient Egyptian and Buddhist visions and concluding with an optimistic apparition of Earth as a global garden.
Babel, Isaac. The Complete Works of Isaac Babel. Ed. by Nathalie Babel. Tr. by Peter Constantine. illus. Norton, $39.95 (0-393-04846-2).
Remembered primarily for his scorching Red Calvary stories, Babel (1894-1940), elusive and intriguing, was a brave, imaginative, and essential witness of the war against the Jews and the Soviet debacle. This magnificently produced, comprehensive collection preserves Babel whole, in all the terror and vitality of his vision.
Barnitz, Jacqueline. Twentieth-Century Art of Latin America. illus.Univ. of Texas, $70 (0-292-70857-2); paper, $34.95 (0-292-70858-0).
Overlooked in most Western art surveys, Latin American art, the fruit of violent collisions among diverse indigenous, European, and African cultures, is revealed as provocative and vibrant in Barnitz’s well-illustrated and groundbreaking overview of its dazzling twentieth-century flowering.
Hogan, Linda. Woman Who Watches over the World: A Native Memoir. Norton, $24.95 (0-393-05018-1).
Chickasaw novelist Hogan tells her harrowing life story in this beautifully rendered, cathartic, and ultimately transcendent narrative, chronicling her difficult childhood, alcoholism, the anguish of her two psychologically damaged adopted children, and struggles with a neuromuscular disease. She also expresses a lacerating yet crucial vision of the tragic legacies of the U.S. government’s brutal war on Native Americans.
Rose, Aaron and Corn, Alfred. Aaron Rose: Photographs. Abrams, $49.50 (0-8109-4224-0).
A peerless art photographer, Rose creates black-and-white images, caught in long exposures with a pinhole camera, that he individually tints in the development process. The results resemble abstract expressionist paintings and Platonic idealist visions of subjects ranging from night skies to reflective glass objects to the rooftops of Manhattan.
Tice, George A. Selected Photographs, 1953-1999. Godine/Pocket Paragon, paper, $16.95 (1-56792-153-1).
Whether photographing rural or urban, intimate or panoramic subjects, Tice produces sublimely still, exquisitely arranged black-and-white pictures, each compositionally undergirded by a simple cross or curve that often treats its subject with obvious warmth, as when a car fender “shelters” a drunk passed out on a Bowery sidewalk.
Villasenor, Victor. Thirteen Senses.HarperCollins/Rayo, $26 (0-06-62107-1).
The saga Villasenor began in Rain of Gold (1991) continues here, celebrating family, love, and immigrant culture. An enchanting, larger-than-life tale of how extraordinary ordinary people can be.
Bragg, Rick. Ava’s Man. Knopf, $25 (0-375-41062-7).
Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Bragg’s indelible portrait of his grandfather, who displayed a hard-eyed independence despite harsh poverty, is rendered in eloquent, vivid language. Bragg’s great familial pride and deep empathy mark every page of this luminous memoir.
Claridge, Laura. Norman Rockwell. Random, $35 (0-375-50453-2).
Rockwell has remained an enigma in spite of the universal fame of his witty and technically brilliant Saturday Evening Post covers. Now Claridge reveals his dreams and disappointments in a lively and perceptive biography that also illuminates the contradictions inherent in the American ideal Rockwell so slyly depicted.
Fraser, Antonia. Marie Antoinette: The Journey. Doubleday/Nan A. Talese, $35 (0-385-48948-X).
A popular British writer clears up myths and fallacies associated with the consort of the guillotined Louis XVI of France in this vivid, well-rounded biography.
Giddins, Gary. Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, the Early Years, 1903-1940. Little, Brown, $30 (0-316-88188-0).
Those who remember Bing Crosby only for “White Christmas” may be surprised to find jazz-critic Giddins singing Der Bingle’s praises as “one of the handful of artists who remade American music in the 1920s.” Artie Shaw called Crosby the “first hip white person born in the United States,” and Giddins shows us why he was right.
Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. Random, $35 (0-679-44986-8).
Weaving together a chronologically integrated reading of Emily Dickinson’s poetry and correspondence, Habegger has written the most complete and satisfying biography to date of a poet long shrouded in myth and illusion. For the first time, readers share fully in the private struggle through which Dickinson learned how to transform emotional trauma into art.
Jenkins, Roy. Churchill. Farrar, $35 (0-374-12354-3).
This stirring biography concentrates on analyzing the great man’s evolution as a political animal, eloquently illustrating how Churchill, perhaps to serve his insatiable ambition, learned to play the game of democratic electoral politics.
Kondracke, Morton. Saving Milly: Love, Politics, and Parkinson’s Disease. Public Affairs, $25 (1-58648-037-5).
The coolest yakking head in The McLaughlin Group movingly tells the story of his wife, Milly, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. This book is a love letter, an involving story of the devastating impact of the disease, and a polemic demanding a substantial increase in federal funds for medical research.
Mayle, Peter. French Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew. Knopf, $24 (0-375-40590-9).
Former British ad man Mayle has made a career out of living in the South of France and writing marvelously compelling books about it. His latest will inspire readers to travel (despite recent tragic events), eat fine food, and applaud evocative writing for its own sake.
McCullough, David. John Adams. Simon & Schuster, $35 (0-684-81363-7).
McCullough’s masterful biography brings the second president out from under the shadow of his legendary predecessor in that office, and the result is a wonderfully stirring invitation for readers to witness almost firsthand the birth of the country and its first years as a republic. (x Top of the List winnerNonfiction. x)
Milford, Nancy. Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Random, $29.95 (0-394-57589-X).
As she did for Zelda Fitzgerald 30 years ago, Milford resurrects the great and courageous lyric poet Edna St. Vincent Millay from unwarranted marginalization, making extraordinarily compelling use of a vast private archive of Millay’s diaries and letters in a vivid and sensitive portrait of a mercurial, original, and radiant artist.
Morris, Edmund. Theodore Rex. Random, $35 (0-394-55509-0).
The sequel to the award-winning The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (1979) follows the course of TR’s presidency. The reader experiences joy along with Roosevelt as he takes hold of the reins of government upon the assassination of President McKinley and struggles “toward statesmanship.”
Reeves, Richard. President Nixon: Alone in the White House. Simon & Schuster, $28 (0-684-80231-7).
Reeves plunges into the mountains of material generated by “a presidency . . . documented with a compulsion that will probably never be repeated,” adds interviews and oral histories, and emerges with a nuanced, immensely sad portrait of Richard Nixon at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Sacks, Oliver. Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. Knopf, $25 (0-375-40448-1).
In his boyhood before, during, and just after World War II, neurologist-author Sacks was enthralled with chemistry, thanks to an uncle in the tungsten business, who taught him that science’s history and, hands-on, its elements. A delightful memoir and an engaging tutor in chemical lore.
Secrest, Meryle. Somewhere for Me: A Biography of Richard Rodgers. Knopf, $30 (0-375-40164-4).
Think Richard Rodgers was as wholesome as The Sound of Music and his other collaborations with Oscar Hammerstein? Secrest’s warts-and-all biography clearly shows that, his great musicals notwithstanding, he was a cad and a bad husband and father as well as a gifted composer.
Wullschlager, Jackie. Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller. Knopf, $30 (0-679-45508-6).
Fascinating is too mild a word for Wullschlager’s life of the great Danish fairy-tale writer, who came out of more impoverished circumstances than did any other literary titan, retained peasantlike gaucheness and servility throughout his life, and whose neuroses and repressed bisexuality influenced his stories as much as his ugly-duckling success.
Ackroyd, Peter. London: A Biography. Doubleday/Nan A. Talese, $45 (0-385-49770-9).
Readers will be both edified and charmed by the renowned British novelist and biographer’s chronicle of the “life” of the British capital. Full of glorious detail that limns how life was led down London’s streets and byways during all the major epochs.
Bernal, Martin. Black Athena Writes Back: Martin Bernal Responds to His Critics. Ed. by David Chioni Moore. Duke, $84.95 (0-8223-2706-6); paper, $24.95 (0-8223-2717-1).
Bernal’s controversial book Black Athena (1989) provoked passions with its thesis that Western civilization was influenced by Afro-Asiatic cultures and prompted his critics to publish Black Athena Revisited (1996). In this book, Bernal responds to the whirlwind of criticism surrounding his work.
Edmonds, David and Eidinow, John. Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument between Two Great Philosophers. Ecco, $24 (0-06-621244-8).
On the Cambridge University campus in 1946, two of the twentieth-century’s most notable philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper, squared off in an intense 10-minute clash rumored to have culminated with Wittgenstein brandishing a red-hot poker. The authors explain what the fight was about and how it reflects the development of philosophy. Ivory-tower drama at its crackling best.
Ehrlich, Gretel. This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland. Pantheon, $27.50 (0-679-44200-6).
Nature writer Ehrlich began traveling to Greenland during her recovery from a nearly fatal lightning strike, and her keen, often poetic responses to the beauty of the frigid landscape and the warmth of Inuit families, combined with a profound immersion in Greenland history, infuse her captivating account with both drama and reflection.
Gay, Peter. Schnitzler’s Century: The Making of Middle-Class Culture, 1815-1914. Norton, $27.95 (0-393-04893-4).
The award-winning historian demonstrates the Victorian era to be the virtual opposite of that century’s reputation. Gay feels that Queen Victoria does not represent the century as well as the sexually audacious Viennese playwright Arthur Schnitzler.
Hart, Matthew. Diamond: A Journey to the Heart of an Obsession. Walker, $26 (0-8027-1368-8).
Hart’s fascinating account of the glittering business of mining and marketing diamonds is also a story of avarice, theft, aesthetics, monopoly, and war. A thoroughly entrancing book.
Shephard, Sue. Pickled, Potted and Canned: How the Art and Science of Food Preserving Changed the World. Simon & Schuster, $26 (0-7432-1633-4).
In this entertaining, enlightening history of food preservation, Shephard reveals the fascinating cultural backstory behind how and why we learned to salt, smoke, ferment, pickle, and cure food. A foodie-lit classic in the making.
Sneden, Robert Knox. Images from the Storm: 300 Civil War Images by the Author of Eye of the Storm. Free Press, $50 (0-7432-2360-8).
This album captures a selection of a Union soldier’s extraordinary paintings based on his experience in the Virginia-Maryland theater of the Civil War. The vividness of his scenes is undeniable, unmatched, and, in certain instances, unrecorded by any other extant document.
Taylor, Alan. American Colonies. Viking, $29.95 (0-670-87282-2).
This prizewinning historian adds another entry to his prestigious oeuvre with his interpretation of a continent benefiting from a wealth of cultural groups. A far cry from the conventional Anglocentric version of U.S. history.
Wills, Garry. Venice: Lion City: The Religion of Empire. Simon & Schuster, $35 (0-684-87190-4).
Historian Wills authoritatively tackles the complicated but fascinating history of Venice during its golden age of empire in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The uniqueness of Venetian civilization has never been more richly and astutely explained.
Woodson, Byron W. A President in the Family: Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and Thomas Woodson. Greenwood/Praeger, $24.95 (0-275-97174-0).
Woodson conveys the pain, pride, and persistence of a remarkable family that faced nearly 200 years of denial of their descent from the first-born son of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings. An important contribution to the honest presentation of American history.
Jacobsen, Rolf. The Roads Have Come to an End Now: Selected and Last Poems of Rolf Jacobsen. Tr. by Robert Bly and others. Copper Canyon, paper, $16 (1-55659-165-9).
This bilingual (Norwegian-English) edition of 73 poems demonstrates a poet whose vision of the natural world and humanity’s place in it is cosmically penetrative. Jacobsen regards the world as filled with an essential energy, animated by what must be God, and reading his work induces a certain calm ecstasy about everyday existence.
Rogers, Pattiann. Song of the World Becoming: New and Collected Poems, 1981-2001. Milkweed, $29.95 (1-57131-413-X).
Rogers has a scientist’s curiosity and a poet’s eye and consequently writes of the cosmos--from the subatomic world to the stars, from a bird perching on a branch to the workings of the human brain--with passionate specificity, philosophical insight, and elegantly expressed exaltation. A substantial set of new poems crowns this superb retrospective volume.
Chatters, James C. Ancient Encounters: Kennewick Man and the First Americans. Simon & Schuster, $26 (0-684-85936-X).
Found in 1996, the oldest near-complete human skeleton in North America was immediately controversial. Chatters colorfully recounts the wrangle over the remains, then absorbingly recaps what is known and theorized about prehistoric North Americans.
Gott, J. Richard. Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe: The Physical Possibilities of Travel through Time. Houghton, $24 (0-395-95563-7).
Gott well understands the complexities that attend any attempt to turn time travel from an idle dream into a theoretical possibility. Yet in his treatment, these complexities yield their secrets to the nonspecialist. Where else can you turn to find an abstruse explanation of quantum mechanics illustrated with episodes from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure?
Krauss, Lawrence M. Atom: An Odyssey from the Big Bang to Life on Earth . . . and Beyond. Little, Brown, $26 (0-316-49946-3).
Surpassing even Blake’s vision of the world in a grain of sand, Krauss offers readers the entire cosmos in a mere atom. A rigorous, intellectually exciting book.
Matthiessen, Peter. The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes. Farrar/North Point, $27 (0-374-19944-2).
Matthiessen is among the most outstanding nature writers of our time, and his latest book more than amply displays his talents. He writes eloquently of his journeys in search of all the crane species and of his conversations with the scientists working to understand and preserve them.
Pollan, Michael. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World. Random, $24.95 (0-375-50129-0).
Pollan intertwines history, anecdote, and epiphany in this paradigm-altering view of the mutually beneficial relationships between humans and four plants that have thrived under cultivation and satisfied specific desires: apples and sweetness, tulips and beauty, marijuana and intoxication, potatoes and control.
Pringle, Heather. The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead. Hyperion/Theia, $23.95 (0-7868-6551-2).
Besides outstanding members of the scientific association that gathers as the Mummy Congress, Pringle limns the many varieties of mummies, from the world’s oldest, preserved by the high-altitude climate of the Andes, to modern Communist dictators, self-mummifying Buddhists, and the subjects of extreme cosmetic surgery. More astounding than all the fright flicks about shambling, gauze-wrapped menaces wound together.
Terkel, Studs. Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith. New Press, $25.95 (1-56584-692-3).
Gifted interviewer Terkel talks to 60 people about their encounters with death. His subjects range from emergency room doctors and paramedics to public figures such as author Kurt Vonnegut and guitarist Doc Watson. A stirring celebration of life and exploration of death.
Waal, Frans de. The Ape and the Sushi Master: Cultural Reflections of a Primatologist. Basic, $26 (0-465-04175-2).
A great primatologist summarizes 30 years of observing animals, arguing that, since other animals create cultures, they are of a piece with humans, and thereby reasserting a concept held by Aristotle, Aquinas, and Darwin. And since morality is demonstrably part of what humans and animals share, it is fundamentally natural rather than uniquely human.
Bukiet, Melvin Jules. Strange Fire. Norton, $24.95 (0-393-04938-8).
Bukiet’s black and biting satirical fiction has been well received, but this is his breakthrough book--a smart, crisp, political page-turner narrated by a blind Russian immigrant who works as a speechwriter for Israel’s hawkish prime minister. The protagonist is one of the most unlikely in modern fiction, but this book is a stunner.
Durham, David Anthony. Gabriel’s Story. Doubleday, $23.95 (0-385-49814-4).
In this powerful coming-of-age story about two post-Civil War African American teens who leave home to become cowboys, Durham both recalls the work of Cormac McCarthy and formulates his own slant on the settlement of the American West--one that speaks directly to the multicultural character of the nation.
Egan, Jennifer. Look at Me. Doubleday/Nan A. Talese, $24.95 (0-385-50276-1).
In her arresting and masterfully plotted novel of a Midwest girl who becomes a New York model and her bold young namesake, Egan dramatizes the dichotomies of self and image, life and hype, and, in an uncanny portrait of a would-be Muslim terrorist, presciently casts light on the tragedies of September 11.
Enquist, Per Olov. The Royal Physician’s Visit. Tr. by Tiina Nunnally. Overlook, $26.95 (1-58567-196-7).
In this masterful Swedish novel about the Danish revolution of 1768-72, a deranged king, his adolescent queen, his doctor-become-prime-minister, and a puritanical professor-turned-bureaucrat are the focal characters--the principal players in an ironic romantic tragedy that inspires horror and pity on every page.
Erdrich, Louise. The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. HarperCollins, $26 (0-06-018727-1).
In this saga of the common-law widow of a German farmer who finds her mission in life by impersonating a dead priest, Erdrich offers a new and remarkably rich chapter in her ongoing sequence of novels about Native American life on a fictional Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota.
Franzen, Jonathan. The Corrections. Farrar, $25 (0-374-12998-3).
Franzen has taken a potentially sentimental framework, a midwestern woman’s desire to have all three of her adult children home for Christmas before their father succumbs to Parkinson’s disease, and transformed it into a highly imaginative, empathic, ferociously detailed, mind-expanding, caustically funny, and deeply moving saga about the absurdity of life as lived within our rampant global consumer culture. (x Top of the List winner--Adult Fiction. x)
Gordimer, Nadine. The Pickup. Farrar, $23 (0-374-23210-5).
Gordimer takes a postapartheid South African woman out to a widening world in this story of Julie Summers--rich, white, and guilty--who follows her Arab immigrant lover home to his desert village and suddenly finds herself the immigrant. A compelling, unsentimental exploration of the paradox of privilege.
Kurzweil, Allen. The Grand Complication. Hyperion/Theia, $24.95 (0-7868-6603-9).
Alexander Short, NYPL reference librarian, comes to the aid of a bibliophile who is searching for information about an unusual eighteenth-century cabinet. In this delightfully intricate jewel box of a novel, Kurzweil revels in the minutiae of librarianship while offering a thought-provoking, deeply philosophical meditation on the problem of identity.
Makiya, Kanan. The Rock: A Seventh-Century Tale of Jerusalem. Pantheon, $26 (0-375-40087-7).
Immersing the reader in seventh-century Jerusalem, Makiya brings to life K’ab, a Jewish advisor to the fourth caliph of the Islamic empire, who converted to Islam without abandoning Judaism and taught Muslims about the Jewish holy sites, and whose son Ishraq, the novel’s narrator, designed the Dome of the Rock, a flashpoint for religious and ethnic tensions ever since.
Morris, Willie. Taps. Houghton, $26 (0-618-09859-3).
The last book by this gritty, feisty, and eloquent Mississippian (who died in 1999) reads like a summary statement of his fondness for his native state as he follows 16-year-old Swayze Barksdale, who is busy gathering impressions of the adult world at the time of the Korean War.
Pap, Karoly. Azarel. Tr. by Paul Olchvary. Steerforth, paper, $14 (1-58642-019-4).
Gyuri Azarel’s grandfather takes the toddler from his parents to live a life of extreme Jewish Orthodoxy until passage to Israel is arranged. But his grandfather dies, and Gyuri goes home, transformed into a thorough skeptic, who, as a preschooler, nearly kills himself, denies God, and runs away a few years later. Pap’s 1937 examination of lost faith, translated at last, is a modern Hungarian classic.
Perez-Reverte, Arturo. The Nautical Chart. Tr. by Margaret Sayers Peden. Harcourt, $26 (0-15-100534-6).
Merging the swashbuckling spirit of the best sea adventures with an introspective, philosophical meditation on the idea of navigation, Perez-Reverte has fashioned a multifaceted tale of intrigue about the search for a Jesuit ship sunk by pirates off the coast of Spain in the seventeenth century.
Rushdie, Salman. Fury. Random, $24.95 (0-679-46333-X).
The author’s latest novel, about the abrasions on the soul inflicted by today’s cell-phone society, is a brilliant paradigm of contemporary commercial crassness and sexual exhaustion, written in vibrant, metaphorically soaring language.
Russo, Richard. Empire Falls. Knopf, $25.95 (0-679-43247-7).
In a warmhearted novel of sweeping scope, Russo animates the dead-end world of Empire Falls, Maine, and shows an unerring sense of the rhythms of small-town life, balancing his irreverent, mocking humor with unending empathy for his characters and their foibles.
Schneider, Bart. Secret Love. Viking, $25.95 (0-670-89492-3).
In a double love story set against the civil rights activism of the early 1960s, four characters embrace forbidden relationships with tenderness and passion and then must deal with the emotional fallout. Evoking the streets of San Francisco with almost poetic precision, Schneider offers a searingly intimate picture of the human heart in turmoil.
Straight, Susan. Highwire Moon. Houghton, $24 (0-618-05614-9).
In her acutely observant and compassionate fourth novel, Straight casts Southern California as a microcosm of injustice in an involving, often sad, ultimately affirming tale about a young illegal Mexican immigrant, her gruff but loyal white husband, and their teenage daughter, who attempts to bridge the divide between conflicting legacies.
Theroux, Paul. Hotel Honolulu. Houghton, $26 (0-618-14613-X).
Theroux perfectly captures Hawaii’s unique cultural and racial amalgam in a tale rich in vigorous description, complex pathos, and ironic humor. The action is set in a funky old hotel owned by the outrageous Buddy Hamstra and managed by a bookish stranger who chronicles the hotel’s dicey goings-on as though he came from another planet.
Vargas Llosa, Mario. The Feast of the Goat. Tr. by Edith Grossman. Farrar, $25 (0-374-15476-7).
In a powerfully drawn anatomy of tyranny and tyrannicide, the great Peruvian master re-envisions the Dominican Republic in 1961, at the time of the assassination of strongman Rafael (“the Goat”) Trujillo, whose death brought down his 30-year oppressive regime.
Whitehead, Colson. John Henry Days. Doubleday, $24.95 (0-385-49819-5).
Whitehead conducts an inventive, funny, and bittersweet inquiry into the significance of folk hero John Henry by paralleling the legend of the steel-driving man who took on the Industrial Revolution with the story of a cynical black writer, who pits himself against the Information Age.
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