Monday, December 26, 2011

Best of 2011: A Half-Dozen Books That Blew Me Away

Everyone's doing it, so why not me? I've been the book review editor at several national magazines (including Body+Soul, now Martha Stewart's Whole Living) and am currently the reviewer for Good Housekeeping (those four Book Picks in every issue: I pick 'em and write 'em up). I have published hundreds of reviews in newspapers, magazines and online journals; receive book catalogs from every major publisher and many small presses; and get some 200 advanced review copies sent to me each year in the mail. But here, and only here, do I share my complete and unedited thoughts on the books that knocked me over and woke me up with their exciting originality and arresting charm.

A few caveats. All but one of these is a debut; clearly I have a bias toward the new and undiscovered. Another bias: I tend to like art—literature, film, theatre, painting—with a ratio of approximately 27 percent surreal or magic or whatever you want to call it to 73 percent realism. Also, language matters as much as story to me. And finally, keep in mind that I did not read every book published this year; there are others out there that I could have, would have, should have.


Let's start with The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht. You might approach the amply praised and prized Téa Obreht with disbelief, envy, even cynicism; she is, after all, the youngest writer on The New Yorker's new “20 Under 40” list and the youngest writer ever to pick up a coveted Orange. But then you open The Tiger's Wife and the eerie confidence of the twenty-six year old's voice melts away any resistance. Soon you have entered a world—an unnamed, war-torn Eastern European country—that seems modern and factual (didn't we read about this strife in the newspaper?) but ancient and fabulist at the same time. A young doctor journeys across the border to discover the circumstances of the mysterious disappearance and death of her grandfather—also a doctor—in an obscure village far from home. Clues come from his beloved copy of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book; a ghostly, ageless character her grandfather once betrayed; the granddaughter's own scant but vivid memories of the recent war that defined her childhood; and the myths, legends and superstitions that have long both guided and hindered the people of this region. Chief among those tales is the story of an outcast deaf woman who makes love to the very tiger menacing a mountain village. Stories within stories, like a Balkan Arabian Nights, but grounded in endless resonant truths and tragic contemporary social upheavals: how can an author so young be so wise about the workings of the world, especially in her complicated corner of the globe (Obrecht is from what used to be called Yugoslavia)? And how can she write about such eternal strife so enchantingly that I had to dole out the pages of her book in my nightly reading, limiting myself to no more than ten or twelve at a time, because I wanted above all to avoid the sadness that would arrive with coming to the end of this book? 
This is what I'm talking about:
“If things had turned out differently, if that winter's disasters had fallen in some alternate order—if the baker had not sat up in bed some night and seen, or thought he had seen, the ghost of his mother-in-law standing in the doorway, and buckled under the weight of his own superstitions; if the pies of the cobbler's aunt had risen properly, putting her in a good mood—the rumors that spread about the tiger's wife might have been different. Conversation might have been more practical, more generous, and the tiger's wife might have immediately been regarded as a vila, as something sacred to the entire village. Even without their admission, she was already a protective entity, sanctified by her position between them and the red devil on the hill. But because that winter was the longest anyone could remember, and filled with a thousand small discomforts, a thousand senseless quarrels, a thousand personal shames, the tiger's wife shouldered the blame for the villager's misfortunes.”

Next up, ambitious secretary in 1930's Manhattan with the mouth of Dorothy Parker and the eye of F. Scott Fitzgerald...

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