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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
Chapin, Ted. When Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies. Knopf, $30 (0-375-41328-6).
As a gofer for the production team of Stephen Sondheim’s landmark musical Follies, Chapin knew something big was happening. He kept a journal that became the basis of one of the most important books ever about mounting a big-budget Broadway show.
Geesaman, Lynn and Klinkenborg, Verlyn. Gardenscapes. Aperture, $40 (1-931788-20-0).
To confer painterly qualities on her ravishing photographs of formal gardens, Geesaman experiments with degrees of coloration in the darkroom and realizes a new, unsentimental photographic pictorialism as timelessly beautiful as the best of its late-nineteenth-century precursor.
Hughes, Robert. Goya. Knopf, $40 (0-394-58028-1).
Hughes, art critic for Time, offers an expert, passionate, and profound appreciation for Goya’s revolutionary genius, “immense humanity,” and indelible works of both bold satire and epic tragedy in a fresh and dynamic portrayal of the great painter, his powerful oeuvre, and his volatile world.
Reynolds, Nancy and McCormick, Malcolm. No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century. Yale, $50 (0-300-09366-7).
Twentieth-century dance encompasses an astonishing range of innovations and styles, thanks to the vision of a group of seminal choreographers, who are sensitively profiled in conjunction with authoritative analyses of their work in this outstanding dance history.
Baiev, Khassan and others. The Oath: A Surgeon under Fire. Walker, $26 (0-8027-1404-8).
This remarkable memoir tells the story of a surgeon in Chechnya who, through two invasions of his homeland, refused to take up arms, choosing instead to treat civilians and soldiers on both sides, even as he was targeted for death by both Russian and Chechen leaders.
Bate, Jonathan. John Clare. Farrar, $35 (0-374-17990-5).
Often writing as beautifully as his subject did, Bate creates the first full-scale biography of the farm laborer who is now considered the peer of his fellow second-generation British Romantic poets, Byron, Shelley, and Keats.
Bizot, Francois. The Gate. Tr. by Euan Cameron. Knopf, $24.95 (0-375-41293-X).
As the only Westerner to survive one of Pol Pot’s prison camps, Bizot saw up close the faces of the ideologues who dragged Cambodia into the nightmare of genocide. His tale of his experiences, both in the camp and as translator at the gate of the French embassy, leaves readers with haunting images of the doomed.
Bruck, Connie. When Hollywood Had a King: The Reign of Lew Wasserman, Who Leveraged Talent into Power and Influence. Random, $29.95 (0-375-50168-1).
In this riveting account of power-broking in Tinseltown, Bruck shows how Lew Wasserman managed both to end the era of movie moguls (by freeing the stars of the 1940s from their studio contracts) and then to become the greatest mogul of them all (by realizing that television was an opportunity not a threat).
García Márquez, Gabriel. Living to Tell the Tale. Tr. by Edith Grossman. Knopf, $26.95 (1-4000-4134-1).
Nobel laureate García Márquez tells the entrancing story of his remarkable family, chronicles the turbulence of his troubled country, Colombia, and offers a piquant portrait of himself as a struggling young writer. A resplendent memoir written with compassion and artistry.
Gilmour, David. Curzon: Imperial Statesman. Farrar, $45 (0-374-13356-5).
Many of the men who administered the British Empire possessed immense intellect, creativity, and curiosity. Here Gilmour chronicles the life of one of the true giants of the latter stages of the empire, and it is a superbly written account of a proud, talented, but rather tragic figure.
Moorehead, Caroline. Gellhorn: A Twentieth-Century Life. Holt, $27.50 _(0-8050-6553-9).
Acclaimed biographer Moorehead offers a riveting portrait, the first, of Martha Gellhorn, intrepid world traveler, war correspondent, and true free spirit, who covered the twentieth’s century’s most horrific conflicts, married and divorced Ernest Hemingway, and devoted herself to bearing witness to life on the edge.
Nuland, Sherwin B. Lost in America: A Journey with My Father. Knopf, $24 (0-375-41294-8).
Although Meyer Nudelman died without having revealed much of his tragedy-stalked early life, his son Sherwin (who changed his last name) makes of what he knew and learned a book to stand with Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son.
O’Faolain, Nuala. Almost There. Riverhead, $24.95 (1-57322-438-3).
With a candor that is both rare and startling, sixtysomething Irish Times journalist O’Faolain speaks poignantly and eloquently about the struggle for emotional growth in the face of pain and midlife disappointment.
Silverman, Kenneth. Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse. Knopf, $35 (0-375-40128-8).
Masterful biographer Silverman’s great talent, in this exemplary work about the inventor of the electric telegraph, lies in the way he refrains from expostulating directly, allowing Morse’s habits and actions to speak through his own words.
Starkey, David. Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII. HarperCollins, $29.95 _(0-694-01043-X).
In Starkey’s account of the fates of the six wives of England’s king Henry VIII, the detail is profuse but luscious. Truly, this is history made as fluent and compelling as excellent fiction.
Taubman, William. Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. Norton, $35 (0-393-05144-7).
Taubman highlights the paradox at the center of Khrushchev’s life-although he was complicit in the crimes of the Stalinist era, he nevertheless retained his natural humanity. This outstanding work will assuredly be the reference point for any future writings on the Soviet leader.
Wolff, Geoffrey. The Art of Burning Bridges: A Life of John O’Hara. Knopf, $30 (0-679-42771-6).
Often drunk, obsessively vain and thin-skinned, writer John O’Hara gave fits to his friends, ammunition to his enemies, and headaches to his editors. Wolff makes a compelling story from the juxtaposition of his subject’s personal pathology and creative brilliance.
Applebaum, Anne. Gulag. Doubleday, $35 (0-7679-0056-1).
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the gradual opening of KGB archives, the full horror of the Gulag is gradually emerging, and Applebaum has done a masterful job of chronicling the origin, growth, and eventual end of this monstrous system. A brilliant and often heartbreaking work.
Hemley, Robin. Invented Eden: The Elusive, Disputed History of the Tasaday. Farrar, $25 (0-374-17716-3).
Hemley revisits an infamous and persistently enigmatic chapter in the long and harrowing conflict between traditional cultures and industrialized societies in this compelling and exacting inquiry into the 1971 “discovery” of the Tasaday, allegedly a band of Stone Age people living in the Philippines.
Rocco, Fiammetta. The Miraculous Fever Tree: Malaria and the Quest for a Cure That Changed the World. HarperCollins, $24.95 (0-06-019951-2).
Rocco magisterially unfolds the saga of quinine, from seventeenth-century Spain’s South American colonies to today’s Congo, in the age-old battle against one of humanity’s most persistent and pervasive scourges--a battle that is still far from won.
Winchester, Simon. Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883. HarperCollins, $25.95 (0-06-621285-5).
The eloquent, prolific British writer submits a fascinating account of the cataclysmic explosion of the East Indian volcanic island of Krakatoa in 1883. As exciting as the details are, Winchester gives us a wealth of further information, setting the incident within the contexts of Dutch rule in the East Indies and the region’s flora and fauna.
Hirsch, Edward. Lay Back the Darkness. Knopf, $23 (0-375-41521-1).
As Hirsch travels between the hectic and painful present and the timeless underworld--the wellspring of archetypes, dreams, and visions--in a quest for understanding life’s hidden dimensions, his beautifully lucid poems of sacredness and suffering, mourning and sensuality, dispel the isolation of grief.
Poets of World War II. Ed. by Harvey Shapiro. Library of America, $20 (1-931082-33-2).
Compared to the upper-class men who wrote the most famous English World War I poems, America’s World War II poets lack patriotism and camaraderie. That doesn’t detract from the later soldiers’ work, however, which reflects the wary endurance and occasional terror of the individual soldier.
Williams, C. K. The Singing. Farrar, $20 (0-374-29286-8).
Williams addresses the dark mysteries of lost love, brute aggression, hate, and death with philosophical candor and a bracing command of language and imagery in this transfixing and cathartically probing collection, resonant testimony to the radiance of the human spirit and the consolation of art.
Zahl, Paul F. M. The First Christian: Universal Truth in the Teachings of Jesus. Eerdmans, paper, $16 (0-8028-2110-3).
Pastor and theologian Zahl re-presents the Jesus who proclaimed the kingdom of God and announced the good news of salvation but also made clear that each person’s salvation depends solely on God, not on anything any human does. Basic Christianity restated with maximal cogency.
Gallison, Peter. Einstein’s Clocks and Poincaré’s Maps: Empire of Time. Norton, $23.95 (0-393-02001-0).
Gallison shows how Einstein’s work was influenced by French cartographer Henri Poincaré and by the physicist’s own experience working in a Bern patent office, where the numerous patent requests for devices designed to coordinate distant clocks may have prompted further inquiry into the problem of simultaneity, which lies at the heart of relativity. Few books have ever made Einstein’s theories more accessible-or more engrossing-for general readers.
Mackenzie, Dana. The Big Splat; or, How Our Moon Came to Be. Wiley, $24.95 (0-471-15057-6).
Ace science writer Mackenzie’s account of humanity’s long relationship with Earth’s only natural satellite, from a probable lunar calendar found in the Lascaux caves to the new “giant impact” theory of the moon’s origin, is magnetically readable, preternaturally clear, and amazingly concise.
Quammen, David. Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind. Norton, $25.95 (0-393-05140-4).
Seasoned science writer Quammen offers a unique and thought-provoking history of our species’ complex relationship with man-eating lions, tigers, bears, and crocodiles, revealing how our fear of and reverence for these alpha predators have played a key role in our psychological, mythic, and spiritual evolution, and asking what will happen if we allow these magnificent and endangered creatures to become extinct. (Top of the List winner-Adult Nonfiction.)
Watson, James and Berry, Andrew. DNA: The Secret of Life. Knopf, $35 (0-375-41546-7).
It’s been 50 years since James Watson and Francis Crick divined the structure of DNA, and Watson celebrates by writing with great clarity about the revolution that followed, elucidating the biochemistry of genetic engineering and addressing objections to its use.
Berry, Wendell. Citizenship Papers. Avalon/Shoemaker and Hoard, $24 (1-59376-000-0).
Berry’s recent essays may restate what he has said before--that agribusiness and the new globalism are inimical to human thriving--but they say it better, and through different immediate subjects, saliently including sound sheep raising and 9/11, than ever before.
Cohen, Lizabeth. A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. Knopf, $32.50 (0-375-40750-2).
Without question, this is a difficult, demanding, and dense book-but it is also a greatly significant contribution to business literature. Prizewinning author Cohen submits a copiously researched, brilliantly conceived, and ultimately quite instructive study of American economics since the Depression.
Kagan, Robert. Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order. Knopf, $18 (1-4000-4093-0).
Tight, rigorous reasoning stands behind Kagan’s cold analysis of the growing disparity between U.S and European views of the post-cold war world and how best to achieve peace and order. The controversial arguments presented deserve to be read by all conscientious citizens.
Kennedy, Randall. Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption. Pantheon, $30 (0-375-40255-1).
Kennedy offers a brilliant analysis of one of the most controversial areas of American race relations-interracial sex. The text weaves together history, law, literature, and politics in a searing examination of how blacks and whites have intermixed since Africans were brought to the U.S. as slaves.
Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. Crown, $25.95 (0-609-60844-4).
Larson’s ambitious, engrossing tale of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 focuses primarily on two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect who was the driving force behind the exposition, and Henry H. Holmes, a sadistic serial killer working under the cover of the busy fair. A magnificent book.
Light, Michael. 100 Suns: 1945-1962. Knopf, $45 (1-4000-4113-9).
The “suns” Light presents to readers in this unprecedented and unforgettable photography collection are manmade: aboveground atomic detonations captured on film both in the Nevada desert and at sea, terrifyingly beautiful images that remind readers of the apocalyptic might of nuclear weapons.
McKibben, Bill. Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age. Holt/Times, $25 (0-8050-7096-6).
Technological advancements are proceeding so rapidly that we will soon need to make decisions about how much technology is enough. McKibben makes genetic engineering understandable even to those who are not techno-savvy. A disturbing though ultimately optimistic book that examines the arguments against technological advancements that come eerily close to leaving behind humanness.
Seaman, Barbara. The Greatest Experiment Ever Performed on Women: Exploding the Estrogen Myth. Hyperion, $24.95 (0-7868-6853-8).
Scathingly indicting hormone replacement therapy in general and estrogen in particular, science journalist Seaman demonstrates that the pandemic abuse of the trust women place in their doctors begins with medical practitioners, abetted by drug manufacturers and the Food and Drug Administration, from synthetic estrogen’s 1938 debut onward.
Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake. Doubleday/Nan A. Talese, $26 (0-385-50385-7).
Atwood conjures a bleak, all-too-plausible future in this hijack-intense and caustically humorous speculative novel about a man struggling to survive in the wake of a bioengineering-stoked Armageddon.
Boyle, T. C. Drop City. Viking, $25.95 (0-670-03172-0).
Mesmerizing storyteller and shrewd satirist Boyle writes with seductive detail about a hedonistic hippie commune that coalesces in California and then moves to Alaska, where survival is a more serious endeavor.
Bukoski, Anthony. Time between Trains. Southern Methodist, $22.50 (0-87074-479-8).
In some of the most beautifully written short stories since Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Bukoski presents the people of Superior, Wisconsin’s Polish East End, each of them passionate, sad, proud, limited-- utterly, disarmingly, heartbreakingly real.
Cantor, Jay. Great Neck. Knopf, $29.95 (0-375-41394-4).
Cantor explores the psychology of revolt and the high cost of radical activism in this many-faceted novel about a group of young Jews growing up in Great Neck, New York, who are shocked to learn about the Holocaust, then galvanized by the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.
Carey, Edward. Alva & Irva: The Twins Who Saved a City. Harcourt, $24 (0-15-100782-9).
Novels come no odder than Carey’s daft and poignant human comedy about six-foot-two, blonde twins, whose secretly built scale model of their middle European city, Entralla, comes in handy after a major earthquake.
Dislocation: Stories from a New Ireland. Ed. by Caroline Walsh. Carroll & Graf, paper, $14 (0-7867-1206-6).
New Irish writers from both sides of both waters (the Irish Sea as well as the Atlantic) prove diverse in content, style, and approach but even in quality in this gathering of stories expressly commissioned for this collection.
Dybek, Stuart. I Sailed with Magellan. Farrar, $24 (0-374-17407-5).
Dybek presents a suite of 11 extraordinarily imaginative interconnected stories about the coming-of-age of one Perry Katzek on Chicago’s ethnically diverse South Side, tales that are by turns magical and gritty, hilarious and unnerving as they embrace the ravages of violence, loneliness, and love.
Epstein, Leslie. San Remo Drive. Other/Handel, $26 (1-59051-066-6).
Epstein portrays a premier but troubled Hollywood family drawn into the HUAC debacle and confronted with anti-Semitism, all seen through the eyes of the eldest son. A cinematically vivid and deeply humanistic tale.
Erdrich, Louise. The Master Butchers Singing Club. HarperCollins, $25.95 (0-06-620977-3).
This emotionally powerful, richly detailed novel displays the full breadth of Erdrich’s literary talents. Combining a cast of remarkable characters, a compelling plot, and an unforgiving North Dakota setting, Erdrich tells the story of indefatigable Fidelis Waldgovel, a butcher with a talent for singing.
Goodwin, Stephen. Breaking Her Fall. Harcourt, $24 (0-15-100806-X).
Goodwin homes in on parents’ deepest fears and their all-too-flawed attempts to keep their children safe. A layered, compassionate, extraordinarily graceful novel.
Griesemer, John. Signal & Noise. Picador, $26 (0-312-30082-4).
This rousing historical adventure set in the mid-nineteenth century, an ambitious, technology-obsessed era, features an immense cast of characters, head-spinning changes in scene (from the bleak coast of New Hampshire to the gambling dens of London), and a truly impressive grasp of the art of creation.
Hazzard, Shirley. The Great Fire. Farrar, $24.95 (0-374-16644-7).
With fierce knowledge and clean, pure prose freighted with feeling, Hazzard describes a disquieting time much like our own. Set in postwar Japan, her novel follows sensitive people dispirited by the war as they rediscover meaning and hope through the transforming power of love.
Hospital, Janette Turner. Due Preparations for the Plague. Norton, $24.95 (0-393-05764-X).
Drawing as she did in Oyster on our greatest fears, Hospital turns this time to terrorism-and its effect on individual psyches. Through the lives of children whose parents died in an aircraft hijacking, the novel confronts a world in which government “intelligence” has become the ultimate weapon of mass destruction.
Jones, Edward P. The Known World. HarperCollins/Amistad, $24.95 (0-06-055754-0).
Through deftly portrayed characters, this elegantly written novel explores the complexities of slavery and social relations in a Virginia town just before the Civil War. Jones moves back and forth in time, making the reader omniscient, knowing what will eventually befall the characters despite their best and worst efforts. A profoundly beautiful and insightful look at American slavery and human nature. (Top of the List winner-Adult Fiction.)
Maillard, Keith. The Clarinet Polka. St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne, $24.95 (0-312-30889-2).
Maillard brings home the warmth of community in his heartfelt depiction of a depressed war vet who is saved by the red-hot music of an all-girl polka band. This hilarious, often sentimental novel is ultimately a joyous, foot-stomping celebration of the human spirit.
McCabe, Patrick. Call Me the Breeze. HarperCollins, $24.95 (0-06-052388-3).
Joey Tallon, a bartender from Northern Ireland, has never quite fit in, whether as a flower child in the midst of the IRA or a Mohawk-sporting Travis Bickle. But with his physical girth, intellectual myopia, and righteous indignation, he could be the Irish cousin of Ignatius J. Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces. A rollicking tragicomedy.
Millhauser, Steven. The King in the Tree. Knopf, $23 (0-375-41540-8).
This triptych of novellas further confirms Millhauser’s brilliance in using language and his creativity in technique and subject matter. The characters range from an American housewife to Don Juan to Tristan and Ysolt as Millhauser astutely renders the universality of love’s complications.
Morrissey, Donna. Downhill Chance. Houghton/Mariner, paper, $14 (0-618-18927-0).
In this superb successor to her acclaimed first novel, Kit’s Law, Morrissey returns to the insular world of Newfoundland’s remote fishing villages. Beginning during World War II and following the lives of several interlocked families from two villages, the novel tells an often heartbreaking story of constricted lives, of individuals bent by bitterness but capable of great courage and passion.
Morrison, Toni. Love. Knopf, $23.95 (0-375-40944-0).
As a vivid painter of human emotions, Morrison is without peer. This is a surprisingly accessible and profound novel about a once magnificent black seaside community run by the powerful Bill Cosey. The novel has the tone of an elegy, for it emerges as a remembrance of and yearning for past times and past people.
Murray, John. A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies. HarperCollins, $24.95 (0-06-050928-7).
Murray’s stunning story collection examines well-educated, successful characters whose lives seem doomed by forces of science and heredity. The stories are set in intriguing locations across the globe-a cholera tent in the slums of Bombay, for example-yet they all live most vividly in the world of emotion.
Parkhurst, Carolyn. The Dogs of Babel. Little, Brown, $21.95 (0-316-16868-8).
Linguistics professor Paul obsessively researches animal communication because he wants his dog, the only witness to his wife’s death, to tell him what happened. Subtly building emotion, Parkhurst beautifully expresses the universal quest for meaning in this unforgettable debut.
Phillips, Caryl. A Distant Shore. Knopf, $23 (1-4000-4109-0).
Phillips, an impeccable stylist, continues his dramatic inquiry into the African diaspora. This searing tale of outsiderness focuses on the fate of an African man living in an English village who befriends a white woman and runs afoul of the local racists.
Powers, Richard. The Time of Our Singing. Farrar, $28 (0-374-27782-6).
When Jewish physicist David Strom meets African American Delia Daley at Marian Anderson’s Washington Mall concert in 1939, they fall in the most unlikely love. A sweeping story forging stunning connections between race and physics, music and time.
Scott, Gail. My Paris. Dalkey Archive, paper, $12.95 (1-56478-297-2).
This is a novel of place, of urban place, and Scott captures postcard Paris, bourgeois Paris, and even scruffy Paris. Ostensibly the journal of a Canadian writer in temporary residence in a Paris atelier, it is a tour de force of technique, style, and soul.
Tremain, Rose. The Colour. Farrar, $25 (0-374-12605-4).
This is an authentically detailed, compellingly plotted historical novel set in the wilds of nineteenth-century New Zealand during the gold rush. Newlyweds Joseph and Harriet Blackstone play out their destinies in light of the discovery of gold. Astonishingly, Tremain lives up to the soaring standards set by The Restoration.
Turner, Frederick. 1929. Counterpoint, $25 (1-58243-265-1).
In this extraordinary first novel about the meteoric life of musician Bix Beiderbecke, Turner conjures America in the late 1920s, when bootleg booze and red-hot jazz could be found in almost any speakeasy across the country.
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