By Harvey Freedenberg
If we’ve connected on Twitter or Facebook, you know this column isn’t the only place I’m reviewing books. Annually, one of those other publications asks me to compile a list of my 10 favorites of the year. Of the 60-odd books I reviewed this year, these are the ones that brought me the most pleasure.
1. Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth)
Before age 30, Anthony Marra has produced a gorgeous and gut-wrenching first novel rooted in the ethnic wars that have devastated Chechnya over the past 20 years. Displaying the assurance of a seasoned novelist, Marra creates a vivid fictional universe in which his characters – from an orphaned 8-year-old girl to a cynical Russian physician – somehow retain hope in a hopeless world.
2. Amity Gaige, Schroder (Alfred A. Knopf)
Amity Gaige’s novel tells the heartbreaking story of a father’s reckless response to a lacerating battle for custody of his 6-year-old daughter. That his desperate act exposes an equally desperate lie about his own identity adds depth and texture to this engrossing novel, transporting readers from the realm of mere artifice to that of real art.
3. Colum McCann, Transatlantic (Random House)
Colum McCann’s success at weaving disparate narratives into a lavish tapestry in his National Book Award-winning Let the Great World Spinwas no accident. This sensitive examination of connections between Ireland and America over the past 150 years is every bit the equal of its predecessor. Tender, poetic and teeming with a deep understanding of life, in all its grace and sadness, Transatlantic is a novel indisputably worthy of its subject.
4. Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers (Scribner)
Rachel Kushner’s second novel, set principally in 1970s New York and Italy, is an intricate examination of art, revolutionary politics and the risks her often exotic characters are willing to take in life and love. It gains its considerable power through the accretion of closely observed detail and Kushner’s skill at translating that into alluring prose.
5. Philipp Meyer, The Son (Ecco)
In his second novel, the story of six generations of a Texas family and its rise to power, Philipp Meyer takes on nothing less than the founding myths of the American West. The Son is the frank story of the successive waves of deception, lawlessness and outright theft that marked the settlement of Texas’ Hill Country. Whether your tastes run to Cormac McCarthy’s novels or J.R. Ewing, it’s a fair bet you will find this novel a sumptuous feast.
6. Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland (Alfred A. Knopf)
It’s been five years since Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, and 10 since her sole novel, The Namesake. The Lowland, an exquisitely plotted melancholy family drama that plays out over half a century in India and America, will reward readers’ patience. Lahiri’s novel has been shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, but no award is necessary to validate a work whose beauty and pathos will reside in memory long after it’s read.
7. Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings (Riverhead Books)
In previous novels, Meg Wolitzer has demonstrated she’s a keen-eyed observer of the foibles and follies of contemporary American life. The Interestings is the absorbing, expansive story of the triumphs and disappointments of six people whose friendships are forged at a Massachusetts summer camp, their lives and loves linked forever thereafter. In its best moments, this novel feels as vital and tangible as life itself.
8. George Saunders, Tenth of December: Stories (Random House)
There are times when our world seems so strange no fiction can capture its essential weirdness. Then George Saunders publishes a new story collection, and we realize we’ll always need writers like him to look obliquely at what we think of as real life and help us grasp it in all its absurd beauty. “The artist’s job is to be a conduit for mystery,” Saunders has said. He’s done that admirably here without sacrificing the real human feeling that infuses these 10 distinctive tales.
9. Kent Haruf, Benediction (Alfred A. Knopf)
Eight years after the publication of his novel Eventide, Kent Haruf returns with the final volume of what someday may compose, along with 1999’s Plainsong, the “Holt Trilogy.” Whether he’s portraying this small town on Colorado’s high plains or the complex inner life of his protagonist, a septuagenarian hardware store owner who’s dying of cancer, Haruf brings to the story the same empathy and insight that have marked his earlier novels.
10. Mark Slouka, Brewster (W.W. Norton)
The town of Brewster, New York, Mark Slouka inhabits in this taut, honest coming-of-age story set in the 1960s, doesn’t have much in common with the comparatively benign world of Richard Russo’s Empire Falls. Instead, it’s a trip into the heart of darkness explored by writers like Russell Banks in his novel Affliction. And though it clearly invites comparison to those justifiably praised works, in Brewster, Slouka has created something more deeply impressive than an entire bookshelf of similar novels.
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