Employee call-outs reach all time highs through cold and flu season. Indoor working environments and the need to be right on top of each other in the morning coffee machine huddle send the germs flying. Kids haul everything but the kitchen sink home from school (and we can’t verify that wasn’t there either). If you’re going to be stuck home on the couch, why not use the time to catch up on your reading? (And yes, remind yourself why podcasts and television haven’t replaced the written word just yet.) That way you can feel all smart when you get back to work and ask your co-workers what they thought of the literary symbolism in Kevin Brockmeier’s The Illumination, or the character development in Jonathon Evision’s West of Here.
February’s Top 10 Books
From Amazon.com, with Reviews from Amazon Staff and/or Popular Publications Such as Publisher’s Weekly. All Reviews Available on the Amazon Website
1. West of Here, Jonathon Evision.
Jonathan Evison opens his electrifying epic, West of Here, at the Elwha River dam, where over a hundred years since settlers of the fictional town of Port Bonita tamed the river, their descendants gather in anticipation of the dam’s blasting, and a new era of restoration. Across the next five hundred pages, Evison’s story moves between 2006 and the town’s earliest days at the close of the 19th century, overlaying stories of the people who passed through or dug in at Port Bonita, which swelled from settlement to town on the ragged shoreline of Washington State’s Strait of Juan de Fuca. The past is populated by intrepid folk–an exploration party penetrating the Olympic Mountain range in the depths of winter, Klallam natives sickened by homeland eviction and whiskey, a young feminist at odds with motherhood, a prostitute doing covert battle with her whorehouse’s owner, and an idealistic entrepreneur, blasting the river canyon into submission. In 2006, we meet their softer progeny–an ex-con who flees into the mountains with a stash of Snickers, the lonely parole officer determined to find him, a fish processing plant worker with a Bigfoot fixation, a native woman who rethinks her whole life when her son has a psychic break, and more memorable characters haunted by the past, by their unlived lives, by themselves. Though its themes are weighty, West of Here never bogs down–irreverent humor, lustrous prose, and unexpected moments animate a tale as vast as the land it inhabits. –Mari Malcolm
2. Endgame: Bobby Fisher’s Rise and Fall-From America’s Prodigy to the Edge of Madness, Frank Brady.
There may be no one more qualified than Frank Brady to write the definitive biography of Bobby Fischer. Brady’s Profile of a Prodigy (originally published in 1969) chronicled the chess icon’s early years, a selection of 90 games, and (in later editions) his 1972 World Championship match with Boris Spassky. With Endgame, published two years after Fischer’s death, Brady’s on-and-off proximity to Fischer lends new depth to the latter’s full and twisted life story. Though Fischer’s pinnacle artistry on the chessboard may often be discussed in the same breath with his eventual paranoia and outspoken anti-Semitism, the particular turns and travels of his post-World Championship years (half his life) lend his story most of its vexing oddity: the niggling insistence on seemingly arbitrary conditions for his matches, the years on the lam after flagrantly disregarding U.S. economic sanctions, his incarceration in Japan, his eventual citizenship and quiet demise in Iceland. All told, Fischer’s life was like none other, and told through the lens of Brady’s personal familiarity and access to new source material, results in an utterly engaging read.
3. A Discovery of Witches: A Novel, Deborah E. Harkness
In Harkness’s lively debut, witches, vampires, and demons outnumber humans at Oxford’s Bodleian Library, where witch and Yale historian Diana Bishop discovers an enchanted manuscript, attracting the attention of 1,500-year-old vampire Matthew Clairmont. The orphaned daughter of two powerful witches, Bishop prefers intellect, but relies on magic when her discovery of a palimpsest documenting the origin of supernatural species releases an assortment of undead who threaten, stalk, and harass her. Against all occult social propriety, Bishop turns for protection to tall, dark, bloodsucking man-about-town Clairmont. Their research raises questions of evolution and extinction among the living dead, and their romance awakens centuries-old enmities. Harkness imagines a crowded universe where normal and paranormal creatures observe a tenuous peace. “Magic is desire made real,” Bishop says after both her desire and magical prowess exceed her expectations. Harkness brings this world to vibrant life and makes the most of the growing popularity of gothic adventure with an ending that keeps the Old Lodge door wide open.
4. Townie: A Memoir, Andre Dubus III
Rarely has the process of becoming a writer seemed as organic and–dare I say it–moral as it does in Andre Dubus III’s clear-eyed and compassionate memoir, Townie. You might think that following his father’s trade would have been natural and even obvious for the son and namesake of Andre Dubus, one of the most admired short story writers of his time, but it was anything but. His father left when he was 10, and as his mother worked long hours to keep them fed, her four children mostly raised themselves, stumbling through house parties and street fights in their Massachusetts mill town, so cut off from the larger world that when someone mentioned “Manhattan” when Andre was in college he didn’t know what they were talking about. What he did know, and what he recalls with detailed intensity, were the battles in bars and front yards, brutal to men and women alike, that first gave him discipline, as he built himself from a fearful kid into a first-punch, hair-trigger bruiser, and then empathy, as, miraculously, he pulled himself back from the violence that threatened to define him. And it was out of that empathy that, wanting to understand the stories of the victims of brutality as well as those whose pain drove them to dish it out, he began to write, reconciling with his father and eventually giving us novels like House of Sand and Fog, now giving us this powerful and big-hearted memoir.
5. The Illumination: A Novel, Kevin Brockmeier
In Brockmeier’s spectacular latest (after The View from the Seventh Layer), pain manifests itself as visible light after a mysterious event called “the Illumination,” revealing humanity to be mortally wounded, and yet Brockmeier finds in these overlapping, storylike narratives, beauty amid the suffering. Jason Williford, a photojournalist, loses his wife in a traffic accident and fixates on a troubled teenage girl who teaches him to cultivate pain “in a dreamlike vesper.” Chuck Carter, a battered and bullied neighbor boy, steals a journal of love notes from Jason’s house, and later gives the journal to door-knocking evangelist Ryan Shifrin, who found his faith after watching his younger sister die from cancer. Telescoping into his decades of service to the church, Ryan wonders at the civil strife and disasters that “produce a holocaust of light.” Through accounts of quotidian suffering depict humanity’s quiet desperation–the agony of a severed thumb, the torture of chronic mouth ulcers–Brockmeier’s careful reading of his characters’ hearts and minds gives readers an inspiring take on suffering and the often fleeting nature of connection.
6. Sex and the River Styx, Edward Hoagland
In recent years, the best reason to have a Harper’s subscription has been the appearance, once every year or two, of a long and life-giving essay by Edward Hoagland. Whatever topic they hang themselves on–political dissent, the circus (where Hoagland spent two memorable young summers), sex, aging, nature–they circle around and wander through all of the above, each a memoir in miniature, each a guide to life as lived in its seventh and now eighth decades. Hoagland’s best known as a nature writer and has been called “the Thoreau of our time,” but his tolerant and curious affection for human nature too makes him closer to Thoreau’s friend and landlord, Emerson. In any case, his sentences sing like theirs: elegant and aphoristic, but chunky with thought and image, leaping and pausing like a line from Monk’s piano. As you might guess from the title, the essays in Sex and the River Styx, his first new collection in a decade, are both late and lively. Hoagland is far sadder about the accelerating destruction of the earth’s bounty and variety than he is about his own decline; while he angrily fights the former, he happily accepts the past tense in talking about ways he once lived but won’t again. He’s grown wise in the best way: he’s learned some things in his time, none more than how little he knows.
7. The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, Benjamin Hale
From the first page of Benjamin Hale’s exquisite novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, Hale’s linguistic talent locks the reader into their seat and sends them ticking up the roller coaster ride of Bruno Littlemore’s life. An unlikely narrator, Bruno is a chimpanzee trying to become a man–a process he sees as “equal parts enlightenment and imprinting your brain with taboos.” Bruno acquires a fervent love of language–and of primatologist Lydia Littlemore, with whom he develops a deep relationship until she falls ill. Comic relief comes in the form of Leon, a boisterous subway thespian, who introduces Bruno to the stage shortly before a murderous transgression results in Bruno’s return to captivity. With Bruno Littlemore, Hale has crafted a truly original narrator, holding a mirror on humanity with a razor-like precision that makes this stunning novel one readers will want to discuss the minute they turn the last page
8. Delirium, Lauren Oliver
Lena Haloway is content in her safe, government-managed society. She feels (mostly) relaxed about the future in which her husband and career will be decided, and looks forward to turning 18, when she’ll be cured of deliria, a.k.a. love. She tries not to think about her mother’s suicide (her last words to Lena were a forbidden “I love you”) or the supposed “Invalid” community made up of the uncured just beyond her Portland, Maine, border. There’s no real point—she believes her government knows how to best protect its people, and should do so at any cost. But 95 days before her cure, Lena meets Alex, a confident and mysterious young man who makes her heart flutter and her skin turn red-hot. As their romance blossoms, Lena begins to doubt the intentions of those in power, and fears that her world will turn gray should she submit to the procedure. In this powerful and beautifully written novel, Lauren Oliver, the bestselling author of Before I Fall, throws readers into a tightly controlled society where options don’t exist, and shows not only the lengths one will go for a chance at freedom, but also the true meaning of sacrifice.
9. When I Grow Up, Al Yankovic (Children’s Novel)
Eight-year-old Billy gives a flamboyant show-and-tell presentation, reciting for the class and his hapless teacher Mrs. Krupp, all the professions he has in mind for his future. From master snail trainer to dinosaur-dusting museum curator, the possibilities he imagines are seemingly endless. Billy’s great-grandfather is his inspiration, having had many different jobs and who, at age 103, still doesn’t know what he wants to be. Billy’s carefree enthusiasm is contagious, and the bubbling rhythm of When I Grow Up makes it a lively read-aloud
10. Amos Daragon #1: The Mask Wearer, Bryan Perro (Young Readers)
Melding the best of mythology and fairytale, Amos Daragon #1: The Mask Wearer is the first book in a fast-paced adventure series for middle grade readers. Amos is a hero straight out of the Brothers Grimm–loyal, trustworthy, and very clever–outsmarting villains with their own nefarious schemes. In this classic story of good versus evil, Amos has been chosen as a Mask Wearer, tasked with combating forces of evil using the power embedded in four lost masks. Encountering gorgons, mermaids, nagas, and the Egyptian god Seth, Amos proves he is a fierce opponent and a steadfast friend. A satisfying conclusion sets the tone for the next book, and the mythology glossary at the end is an added bonus.–