Posted by: Matt Compton | August 17, 2015

My Favorite Books of 2015 (so far)


BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a fully-charged, wholly-realized argument about where we stand as a society on the question of race — a searing, powerful, emotional memoir of what it means to grow up black in America. It takes the form of a series of letters Coates writes to his son, which means it’s also full of tender, often heartbreaking, observations. The writing here is so finely crafted that you occasionally find yourself holding your breath. Can a sentence so delicately constructed, you wonder, support the weight of the ideas it’s asked to contain? That it succeeds so magnificently is just part of why this book is the most important thing you’re likely to read this year.

GHETTOSIDE by Jill Levoy is a book about murder in America — an argument about how lawlessness manifests itself in violence. Levoy, a writer for the LA Times, spent almost a decade embedded in the city police department, and for two of those years, she kept track of every homicide in Los Angeles County. The central narrative of the book hinges on the investigation of one death — the killing of Bryant Tennelle, the black son of an LAPD homicide detective. Her protagonist is John Skaggs, the complicated and deeply idealistic, cop assigned to work the case. As his team follows leads and tracks down suspects, Levoy zooms out to place this particular murder in the context of history to show the lack of value America has placed on the lives of young black men. This book is a rock-ribbed piece of old-school journalism that quivers with rage.

A GOD IN RUINS by Kate Atkinson is the story of a Teddy Todd, a veteran, father and grandfather, whose life spans the 20th Century. It is also, technically, a sequel to LIFE AFTER LIFE, her best-selling 2013 novel about Teddy’s sister, Ursula — a woman who lives and dies repeatedly between and after the World Wars. Any review of LIFE AFTER LIFE begins with a description of its puzzle box structure — the way each chapter ends with Ursula’s death, then picks up after a different choice allows her life to continue and unfold in a new way. On its surface, A GOD IN RUINS doesn’t traffic in the same metaphysical pyrotechnics. But its structure, too, has tricks to play — jumps in time, shifts in perspective — which make it clear that Atkinson is operating on a different level. She has themes she wants to explore that play out in the narrative (about conflict and the changes to society that war can bring), but equally, she has ideas about the way that stories are told she wants us to examine as well.

H IS FOR HAWK by Helen MacDonald is about how people process grief, birds of prey as culture artifacts, and how we take responsibility for things other than ourselves. It’s also, somehow, a literary biography of T.H. White. You think there’s just no way all those threads come together, but it works — and does so beautifully. That’s in part because MacDonald, a professor of history at Cambridge, is a crackerjack writer. Again and again, she takes small moments and quiets observations and transforms them into visions of pure wonder.

KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST by J. Ryan Stradal is a novel with big-hearted generosity for its setting and characters, but it’s also a book that quietly peels back the layers that define its location and skewers those who populate it. Eva Thorvald is the woman at its center — though we only see things from her perspective once, just before she turns 11 years old. The other chapters are narrated by her friends and family, colleagues and customers. She’s a woman with a gift — a palette that allows her to imagine new possibilities with food and provoke emotional responses with her menus. And this story is about how that gift develops, one dish at a time. It’s funny, full of life, and perfectly attuned to this particular moment in time.

THE LAST PILOT by Benjamin Johncock is a gorgeous, nostalgia-soaked debut novel about ambition, the Space Race, and loss. Jim Harrison is an Air Force test pilot in the aftermath of World War II, part of a team pushing jets to break the sound barrier over the Mojave Desert. At home, he and his wife, Grace, quietly grapple with their inability to have children. For a time, that changes. But the daughter they never expected is taken from them too soon, and each parent struggles to cope with that loss. Rather than grieve, Jim throws himself into work — joining the Gemini space program — until he’s forced to make a choice about what he actually values. This is a book constantly weaving in real history. Real people (like Chuck Yeagar, Jim Lovell, and Pancho Barnes) help shape its contours. But its well-earned humanity is very much a product of the fictional family at its center.

THE STAR SIDE OF BIRD HILL by Naomi Jackson is a story about identity, family, and sense of place. Its heroines are a pair of sisters — Phaedra, just 10, and Dionne, 16. They’re sent from Brooklyn to spend a summer with their grandmother in Barbados and gradually asked to contend with who they are and where they belong. The magic of this story is in their voices. They’re real, these girls — with frustrations and faults that we can recognize. But they’re also incandescent — Phaedra through her observations of this world and Dionne through her force of will. And Naomi Jackson is more than enough of a poet to make their story sing.

THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE by James Rebanks is an attempt to capture and distill life on a farm in the Lake District of northwest England. So it’s a study of a place with a deep history and sense of self. It succeeds because it features some knockdown beautiful writing about nature and our relationship to it. But it also works because Rebanks is more than just a keen observer of his family tradition who can turn a pretty phrase. He’s also an expert advisor to UNESCO on sustainable tourism — who can put his community into context and infuse his observations with meaning.

UPROOTED by Naomi Novik is as good a piece of stand-alone fantasy as you’ll find. It’s a fairy tale, rooted in a folklore tradition that stretches back for, you know, all of human history. But it’s a deeply modern piece of storytelling — with a core set of interesting, complicated characters and a world around them that’s fully formed. And even better, this book has a plot that moves — which helps to distinguish it from a lot of modern fantasy. Her stories have enough twists and turns to show off their depth, but Novik doesn’t need to lead you down every path to show off the breadth of her imagination.

THE WATER KNIFE by Paolo Bacigalupi is near-future science fiction, set in the American Southwest a few decades from now. The entire region has been crippled by drought, and the local governments have learned to use every tool at their disposal to secure water rights — or they’ve collapsed altogether. Rumors of a new claim to a major water source brings together a lot of conflicting interests in Phoenix, bodies start to pile up, and shortly after, this book becomes becomes pretty much impossible to put down.

Posted by: Matt Compton | December 18, 2014

My Favorite Books of 2014

One quick note: Next year, I want to talk about books a little more frequently. To that end, I’m creating an email list to help share some recommendations a bit more often. If you’d like to get the occasional book update from me, go here to sign up:

WE ARE NOT OURSELVES by Matthew Thomas is a novel about an Irish-American family through the course of six decades. It’s not an epic—there’s no violence, no political machinations, no tumultuous affair—but it has a staggering amount to say about life in America. It’s mostly oriented around a woman named Eileen Tumulty, and she’s one of the great characters in literature of the past decade. She’s generous and petty, confident about her abilities to improve her life and anxious about where she’s going. In other words, she’s incredibly real, a person with competing agendas and motivations that change over time. And because it’s a novel about life, it’s also a story about loss—the details of which are so honestly and credibly presented that it left me in tears.

STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel is a novel about a post apocalypse that spends as much time in the past as it does in the future. It’s about whether culture can endure even if civilization does not. And it’s a gorgeous piece of writing. The particular flavor of this disaster is a global pandemic—the Georgian flu. Twenty years after humanity is nearly wiped out, we follow a group of survivors—members of the Traveling Symphony, who perform Shakespeare to scattered communities of those scraping by. As we explore the bonds between them, we cut back and forth from the time before the plague to what comes after, all the while exploring whether survival itself is sufficient.

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr is a big, intricate novel set before, during, and after the Second World War. Marie Laure is a blind 14-year-old French girl, whose father is the master locksmith for the Museum of Natural History. Werner is a young German soldier, recruited to military service because of his genius with gadgets. Chapter by chapter, their lives unfold, gradually moving closer until an intersection that feels inevitable—but is never less than welcome.

THE FACTORY MAN by Beth Macy is a powerhouse piece of reporting with more drama and genuine human emotion than most of the novels I read this year. It’s about the working class of the American South—specifically those who make their living in the region’s factories. It’s about globalization and offshoring. It’s about a landmark legal battle. And it’s the epic, at-time-almost-Shakespearian story of John Bassett III and his family, who carve out an empire making furniture—then spend almost as much time feuding with each other as they do fighting to keep it. Tom Hanks has apparently already begun working with HBO to turn this book into a miniseries—and no wonder.

BROWN GIRL DREAMING by Jacqueline Robinson is a memoir of childhood, a book about growing up during the Civil Rights movement, and an examination of the way that the need to write imprints itself on a person. It’s about the search for home from her father’s people in Ohio to her mother’s people in South Carolina, to life on her own in New York. It’s about the connection between family, and it’s an exploration of memory. It’s a winner of the 2014 National Book Award—and it’s rightfully been celebrated far and wide. Because somehow, Robinson manages to do justice to all these varied themes while writing in exquisite, little free verse poems that each last a chapter.

SHOTGUN LOVESONGS by Nickolas Butler is the story of a group of friends from a small town in Wisconsin. One of them hits it big and grows up to become an indie rock star—touring the world, dating a beautiful actress. His friends stay closer to home. While the others fantasize about his life and the escape he made, he pines for the sense of place that comes from knowing where you belong. It’s a great piece of writing with a lot to say about friendship between adults and the value of community.

AN UNTAMED STATE by Roxane Gay is the most gripping, unsettling, and challenging piece of writing I read in 2014. Mireille Duval Jameson is jerked from a car outside her family compound in Haiti. For 13 days, she’s held, then tortured, as her father refuses to negotiate for ransom. When she’s finally released, the book is just getting started. This is a story that’s concerned with privilege, resentment, redemption, and humanity—and it holds back nothing.

THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir is a high-flying piece of science fiction, that never fails to feel grounded in reality. On the second manned mission to Mars, things go terribly wrong. A sudden dust storm forces the crew to abort and leave one of their missions specialists behind. But Mark Watney survives, and then goes to work staying alive until Earth figures out a way to bring him home. He relies on ingenuity, good humor, and the contents of a planned-for Thanksgiving dinner to carry him forward.

THE INVISIBLE BRIDGE by Rick Perlstein is about the invention of modern rightwing political culture in the United States, but first and foremost, it’s an excellent biography of Ronald Reagan. And as far as accomplishments go, that’s not a small one. Reagan is a notoriously difficult person to pin down in print, but Perlstein manages to cut through the hagiography of his supporters and the opaque nature of the man himself to give us some sense of who our fortieth president actually was—what motivated him and propelled him to the forefront of a movement that still defines our politics.

THE BONE CLOCKS by David Mitchell is genre-jumping, voice-shifting, narrative-twisting whirligig of a novel. The plot stretches out across decades. The story spins around Holly Sykes, a teenager in 1980s England when we first meet her. Each subsequent section features another character whose life will intersect with Sykes, and we move forward until we’re gradually pulled into an epic of good versus evil. It’s deeply ambitious, clever, and an interesting piece of showmanship. But there’s a beating heart in the middle of all the pyrotechnics. Plus it’s a lot of fun.

Posted by: Matt Compton | December 17, 2013

My Favorite Books of 2013

LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson is the story of Ursula Todd, who dies on the night that she’s born in 1910. Two pages later, on that same cold night in February, her life begins again– this time, the doctor whose car had been stuck in the snow arrives on the back of a farmer’s horse. As her lives unfolds, she drowns as a toddler, she dies of the Spanish Flu, she’s killed during the Blitz — but each time, in a different continuity, a different set of choices propels her forward. This is a plot as intricate as the workings of a clock, but atop all the clever machinery, Atkinson has written an old-fashioned story focused on revealing a bit of truth about the consequences of the decisions we all weigh. It’s wonderful.

THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE, like all the best of Neil Gaiman’s work, begins with death and ends in wonder. Our middle-aged narrator returns to his childhood home in Sussex, England to attend a funeral and finds himself confronting the memory of an adventure long forgotten. Forty years before, when a drifter commits suicide in the family car, the death opens a rift in the world, and in that moment, something very old and dark slips through. Soon, his family has fallen under the influence of a creature who calls herself Ursula Monkton, and our narrator turns to the girl from down the lane, Lettie Hempstock, for help. Lettie is older and wiser than she appears — but her assistance doesn’t come without sacrifice.

THE SON by Philipp Meyer is about six generations of one family and 200 years of Texas history. The plot unfolds in alternating chapters with three distinct voices. The first belongs to Colonel Eli McCullough, captured by a WPA recording on the date of his 100th birthday. He’s just thirteen when a band of Comanche slaughters his family and takes him as a slave. Eli’s story is filled with buffalo hunts, cattle drives, and fights with Texas Rangers — the stuff that becomes the mythology by which his family defines itself. The second thread belongs to Eli’s son, Peter, who has the misfortune of coming of age just as Texas begins to make the transition from a cattle economy to a petrostate. In the name of decency, he tries to stand in the way of his family’s broader ambitions — and fails. The final voice belongs to the novel’s most original character — Eli’s great granddaughter, Jeanne Anne McCullough. She takes the family from the Second World War to the present day, from local heavyweights to global titans. This is a book that attempts to define the cost of progress and what it takes to succeed in America, a story about a group of conquerors that remains focused on telling the truth about the fate of the vanquished.

On January 3, a week before THE TENTH OF DECEMBER was released, the New York Times published a profile of its author under the headline, “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year.” They weren’t necessarily wrong. In this new collection of stories, the first he’s published in seven years, Saunders focuses on characters who are lost or strange or stuck in situations that are as often sad as they are terrifying. And yet this book is hilarious, and ultimately we connect with these people on a real, emotional level. The title story, in particular, is worth the cover price by itself.

THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt starts with an explosion and the theft of a priceless piece of art from the Met. Through the course of 800 pages, we watch as our protagonist, Theo Decker, smuggles a Dutch masterwork from adolescence into a damaged and complicated adulthood. It’s a story about growing up, friendship, grief, and the underground world of forgery and smuggling. It jumps from New York City to Las Vegas to Amsterdam — each setting simultaneously grounded and a little bit druggy. It plays with the idea of what is art — both fake and real. This is the rare kind of book that forces you to stop and savor individual sentences and turns of phrase, even as you fight the urge to race through the 700 pages of hard-to-put-down plot.

In some ways, when trying to describe THE UNWINDING by George Packer, it’s easier to begin with what the book is not. It is not a collection of essays. It is not a work of history. It’s not a study of economic forces or cultural change. Yet it somehow manages to combine all those elements, propelling itself forward. Even without an overarching narrative, you never lose the central thread — that our basic social contract has unraveled and that we as a people have downsized our dreams. That the widening gap between rich and poor in the United States is a threat to the American identity. This is a book as angry as it is sad.

COOKED by Michael Pollan is an argument for making food from scratch — for whole-hog barbecue, for fresh-baked bread, for home-brewed beer. It’s from a writer whose books have helped to launch a national conversation about the choices we make when it comes to what we eat. Thus there’s some obvious irony in the fact that Pollan needed this project to inspire his own efforts in the kitchen. But once ensconced, he’s pretty damn compelling. He believes that cooking inspires deeper connections not just with the animals and ecosystems that make up our food — but with each other. He argues that taking the time to produce our own meals is as good for our souls as it is for our physical well being. To prove the point, he learns how to make crackling at the hip of a pitmaster from North Carolina, how to prepare a sofritto from a chef trained at Chez Panisse, how to cultivate cheese from a nun with a PhD in microbiology.

GULP by Mary Roach is a wide-ranging exploration of the human digestive system, from consumption to elimination. It’s a helluva tour. You meet college professors who’ve spent their entire careers studying intestinal gas. You learn why human teeth are sensitive enough to recognize the presence of a single grain of sand in a bite of food. You investigate the viability of survival after being swallowed alive. You discover the stain-fighting secret of laundry detergent. It’s fascinating but also, regularly, very funny — more so than a book about the alimentary canal has any right to be.

THE LOVE AFFAIRS OF NATHANIEL P. by Adelle Waldman is a biting analysis of a particular man (Nate Piven) who represent a general type (the urban American heterosexual male). Nate is rising star in the New York literary scene, whose outward success and confidence makes him something of a catch among the women of his acquaintance. But Waldman writes with a scalpel, and chapter by chapter, she peels back his layers to reveal a writhing mess of insecurities and superficial judgments. The trick that puts Waldman’s talent on display is the fact that for all the sharp elbows she throws, her writing is filled with empathy. We quickly come to hate Nate Piven, but we never lose our sympathy for him — or doubt that he’s grounded in contemporary reality.

THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI by Helene Wecker is as much an thoughtful, detailed piece of historical fiction as it is a fresh and provocative piece of fantasy. Chava is a golem, carved from living clay in Poland in 1899. Ahmad is a jinni, released from centuries of imprisonment in a copper flask by a Syrian tinsmith. Their folkloric abilities might keep them apart from the humans around them, but they experience turn-of-the-century New York City as immigrants — Old World creatures making their way on New World streets. The combination is as charming as it is magical.

Posted by: Matt Compton | December 4, 2012

My favorite books of 2012


There’s a little less than a month left in 2012, and I’ve already knocked out 78 books. If I can somehow make it to 86, it will be the most productive year of reading in my life. More likely, I’ll finish around 82.

Occasionally, when I sit down to write this list, finding 10 titles can be a bit of work. Not in 2012. It’s been a remarkable year for books — particularly fiction. This year, the difficulty was all about narrowing things down, and in 2012, these are my favorites.

To write BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS, Katherine Boo spent more than three years (from November 2007 to March 2011), inside Annawadi, a Mumbai slum, watching and interviewing the people who lived there. She gave some of the residents Flip video cameras so that they could record their own observations. She dug through thousands of records. And then she sat down and wrote something that is transcendent. What this book allows us to do as readers is come closer to inhabiting the place than perhaps we have any right.

BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK by Ben Fountain takes place during the course of one football game — the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day, 2004. It follows a group of soldiers — Bravo Squad — who are getting honored at halftime for their heroics during a firefight in Iraq. It’s about privilege and war and family and sex — and everything else about which America obsesses. It’s satire, but nothing about it feels false. The world that Bravo Squad inhabits is instantly recognizable, and as smart as this books is, the way it hits you is visceral. Also, Ben Fountain is a Tar Heel.

BRING UP THE BODIES by Hilary Mantel shouldn’t be a thrill to read. Back in school, all of us were asked to learn something about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. And yet Mantel doesn’t just give the story new life — she manages to make it both taut and suspenseful. Her Thomas Cromwell is like few other characters in historical fiction — more than just smart and ambitious, he sees truths about his world in a way that’s strikingly modern.

In THE DOG STARS by Peter Heller, the world comes to an end, and the killer is a global pandemic — a flu that wipes out most of the human population. Hig — a small craft pilot — is one of the survivors, scratching out an existence at a backwoods airport in rural Colorado with a dog named Jasper and a prickly neighbor named Bangley. The setup might sound boilerplate, but the end result is something deeper. Even if Hig has to contend with marauders and the fallout from societal collapse, it’s the memories of the life he’s left behind that truly haunt him. And this novel is beautifully written — lyrical, haunting, and unforgettable.

GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn is a dark thriller as smart as it is hard to put down. A woman named Amy disappears on the anniversary of her wedding. Her husband, Nick, is immediately suspected. Hearing that, you might think you know how this plot is going to unfold, but you’re almost certainly going to be wrong. I can’t tell you the last time something I read gave me nightmares. This did.

BEAUTIFUL RUINS by Jess Walter is a very different type of book. It’s a combination of love story, satire, and clever modern piece of fiction. It jumps around in time and place — from an isolated Italian fishing village in the 1960s to Los Angeles of the present to Idaho in the 1980s. You cross paths with Richard Burton and Liz Taylor. You read some chapters as excerpts from a screen play, and others as bits of an autobiography. The whole damn mix is hilarious and wonderful.

WHERE’D YOU GO BERNADETTE by Maria Semple is undeniably clever and occasionally sublime. But above all else, it is hilarious. And you might expect that when you hear that Semple has written for Saturday Night Live and Arrested Development. But it’s hard to be prepared this epistolary novel that pieces together court documents and FBI files, high school report cards and fundraising letters — as well as more traditional correspondence from a range of characters who inhabit the tech-chic neighborhoods of Seattle. Semple sets out to skewer these people but does so with such a light touch that this book is never anything less than heartfelt.

Alan Clay was successful once, and on its surface, A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING by Dave Eggers is the story his attempt to redeem himself, or at least cobble together an identity in the absence of professional accomplishment. When the novel begins, Alan is part of a team dispatched to Saudi Arabia to pitch IT solutions for the King Abdullah Economic City — including a teleconferencing system featuring holograms of the participants. But anxious as Alan and company are to make their presentation, they’re again and again asked to wait. That in turn leaves Alan with plenty of time to ponder his life, examine his relationships with his daughter, wife, and father, and worry if the cyst in his back is cancerous. You can read this novel as a personal story of self-discovery or a broader parable of America’s place in the world, but either way, you should read it.

THE ROUND HOUSE by Louis Erdrich won this year’s National Book Award against competition so steep that the prize actually meant something. When Geraldine Coutts is raped, the tribal judge — who is also her husband — is left with more questions than answers. It matters whether or not the assault occurred on tribal land. It matters whether or not her rapist was white or Indian. And sensing that justice is slipping away, the couple’s 13 year old son — who narrates the book — decides to take the investigation into his own hands. As a coming of age story, it immediately invites comparisons to TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, and in that vein, it’s perhaps Erdrich’s most accessible book. It’s also possibly her best.

THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER is a collection of nine new stories from Junot Diaz. Most of them feature Yunior — who has been a voice in each book Diaz has published. And with that, you know what to expect: a multilingual combination of impossibly cool geekery and charming bits of heartbreak, stories of immigrants coming of age and falling in and out of love. And given the title, and what we know of Yunior, you can imagine the central theme: the damage, collateral and otherwise, that comes of cheating and womanizing. This book doesn’t have the ambitions of THE BRIEF, WONDROUS LIFE OF LIFE OF OSCAR WAO (one of the best novels written in our lifetimes), but that doesn’t mean it’s anything less than devastating.

Posted by: Matt Compton | December 12, 2011

My favorite books of 2011

So far, in 2011, I’ve read 68 books. That’s a bit down from last year, but I still have a couple weeks to catch up. I’m shooting for 75. This was a year was dominated by novels — only 22 of the books I read in 2011 were nonfiction.
As I’ve worked on these lists, I’ve tried to choose 10 books that were standouts — books I want to recommend to everyone. The one rule I’ve tried to keep is that the books I choose in any given year should be published in the year I’m putting together the list.
But today, I’m going to bend that a bit. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan should have been on last year’s list. It was one of the first books I read in January, and it was beyond brilliant. It is an incredible novel, written as a series of time-hopping, genre-bending, interconnected stories about rebellion, rock and roll, and loss. Sharply-poignant bits of heartache flow into acute, pitch-perfect moments of satire. No chapter is better than the 70 page power point presentation toward the end.
Here are my favorite books of 2011.
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
Henry Skrimshander is the kind of baseball player whose abilities transcend the sport. In game after game, he’s perfect. Until suddenly he isn’t, and a routine throw manages to put his roommate in the hospital. You could say this is a book about baseball, but that would be like saying that The Great Gatsby is about parties. This is a story about failure, brotherhood, and becoming an adult. It’s the kind of novel that takes a decade to write, but the result is something old-fashioned and honest.
Ready Player One by Earnest Cline
Ernest Cline’s first novel is geeky, engaging, and sweet. It’s a funny, page-turning adventure filled with cultural catnip for anyone who spent a part of childhood in the 1980s. Wade Watts is a young gamer in a race with the planet to unlock a series of puzzles and win the estate of a dead billionaire game designer. Along the way, he grows up, falls in love, and tangles with an evil corporation bent on unwinding the online world that is his life. This is science fiction — alternating between a deeply-imagined, advanced multiplayer game and a run-down, resource-poor America of 2044. But at its heart, this is a narrative of the future that’s obsessed with nostalgia.
The Submission: A Novel by Amy Waldman
As this novel opens, a jury is making its final decisions about the memorial that the city of New York will build at Ground Zero. Choice made, the jury chairman opens the envelope that holds the name of the winner, and then all hell to break loose. They’ve picked a submission from an architect named Mohammed Khan and everyone has an opinion about whether or not a Muslim should be allowed to build the memorial. This is a story about how America views itself. It’s brave, honest and beautifully written — and I knocked it out in one sitting.
If there’s any justice in this world, Laini Taylor’s young adult novel will develop the kind of following that puts her heroine, Karou, in the same pantheon as Katniss, Bella, and Harry. Karou is an art student in Prague, who is regularly tasked with running shadowy errands for her family — all of whom are otherwordly. The plot is exciting, the characters are fully realized, the writing is beautiful, but more than anything, the story is startling and original. And when we’re talking about fantasy — a genre where too many novels grow in the shadow of earlier work — creating something new is no small achievement.
Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell
The heroine at the center of this novel is Margo Crane. I don’t know if there is a stronger or more idiosyncratic character in any book I read this year. She suffers from appalling violence without being a victim. She struggles to carve out a life for herself but never loses sight of her identity. She has a genuine talent — the ability to do nearly anything with a gun — and the determination of a survivor. But her innocence is deep and nearly inescapable, a fact which continually gets in her way. This is a story of rural Michigan which tells a broader truth about what it means to be free anywhere.
In this new book, Charles Mann has written a history of how the modern world came to be. He looks at how corn, tobacco, and sweet potatoes helped to bring an end to the Ming Dynasty, how malaria added years to the Civil War, and how smallpox might have helped to create the Little Ice Age — and that’s all before the book is halfway done. It’s a globe spanning dynamo of a read that chronicles disease and social upheaval, innovation and exploration. Throughout, Mann weaves together agricultural history, economic analysis, political science, and personal observation to create a book packed with startling insights and fascinating anecdotes. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton.
Hamilton is the owner of Prune in New York City and an incredible chef. She’s also an MFA graduate from the University of Michigan. When I began her memoir, I didn’t realize that fact, and as I read, I became more and more frustrated by the depth of her talent. It seemed patently unfair. Somehow, knowing that she had to work to get this good as a writer made me feel better. This is a story of self-discovery and invention, and it’s easily one of the best books of 2011.
When a monarch is remembered with an honorific like “Great,” it can be hard to peer into the fog of mythology and identify anything resembling objective truth. But the portrait of Empress Catherine that emerges in Robert Massie’s narrative is substantive, warm-blooded, and surprisingly modern — she’s human. Through almost 600 pages, we watch her grow from a girl of 14, far from home and largely without friends, to a charming and ambitious woman at the head of an expansive empire. This biography has been called novelistic, and for good reason: the pacing is tight, the details are fascinating, and the product is nothing short of remarkable.
In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
By the time the Second World War begins in earnest, William Dodd and his family have left Berlin and returned to the United States. But that makes Erik Larson’s story of Dodd’s ambassadorship in Nazi Germany no less thrilling. The family is there as Hitler consolidates power, and each of them experiences the mounting oppression and paranoia from a unique perspective. Unique, by the way, is perhaps the only way to describe Dodd’s daughter, Martha — opinionated, shameless, and in many ways, captivated by the dramas unfolding around her.
Steve Job by Walter Isaacson
For all the ink that’s been spilled writing up profiles of Jobs — some fawning and others not — there’s never been a treatment of his life and career quite like this. In writing this book, Isaacson had Jobs’ cooperation but not his oversight. He talked to scores of the Apple founder’s friends and collaborators, associates and rivals. The resulting book is as complex and fascinating as Jobs himself. We all have our own opinions about the man changed the world in which we live, but it’s impossible to read this book and not walk away with a different impression of Steve Jobs and what he accomplished.
Posted by: Matt Compton | February 16, 2011

What I’ve been reading

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell: Swamplandia! is an alligator-wrestling-centered tourist trap, run by the Bigtree family. But when Ava Bigtree’s mother — Hilola — dies from ovarian cancer, the theme park loses its star attraction — and the Bigtree clan loses the force that keeps it together. Ava’s brother leaves to find a life bigger than the one planned for him, her father sets off to try to keep the business afloat, and her sister announces plans to elope — with the ghost of a boy who has been dead for 70 years. If all of this sounds weird, it is — but the strangeness is compelling, and the writing is too damn good to believe.

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff: Even in her own day, Cleopatra was an individual susceptible to myth and slander. Through the course of history, that tendency has become even more pronounced. But Schiff’s biography cuts through the legends and outright propaganda to reveal a substantive and commanding figure. With wit and brilliant, burnished writing, Schiff shows the true Cleopatra as a clear-eyed queen with talent and genius.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: This is an incredible novel, written as a series of time-hopping, genre-bending, interconnected stories about rebellion, rock and roll, and loss. Sharply-poignant bits of heartache flow into acute, pitch-perfect moments of satire. No chapter is better than the 70 page power point presentation toward the end of the book.

Room: A Novel by Emma Donoghue: In five-year-old Jack, Donoghue has created a narrator who is wholly unforgettable — and unlike anyone else in fiction. That voice, by itself, is reason enough to read this novel. A captive since birth, an 11-by-11-foot room and his mother are all that Jack has ever known. But their liberation changes everything.

Posted by: Matt Compton | December 1, 2010

The Best Books of 2010

With about a month left in the year, I’ve read 73 books in 2010, and my goal before the end of December is 80. This year has been fiction-heavy — almost 60 percent of the books I’ve read so far have been novels — and a lot of them have been incredible.

The fact that I’m ready to put out a list of my favorites with four weeks left in the year is pretty solid indication that my list isn’t comprehensive.

But these are my favorites, and I have a hard time seeing them get overtaken.

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman: A clever set of interlocking story about a group of journalists working for an English-language newspaper in Italy. Each chapter takes the perspective of a different staffer. Some of them are funny; others are almost heart-breaking. This is the kind of book that rewards lingering over passages, flipping back to reread earlier sections, and laughing about how well everything fits together.

Savages by Don Winslow: Winslow’s thriller about a pair of drug dealers who come under pressure to sell their business to a Mexican cartel is the kind of book you read too quickly, then spend days thinking about. The story doesn’t begin, unfold, or end the way you expect. And the writing is better than good, it’s stylish — because it takes risks and pulls them off.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shtenyngart: This is a fantastic novel. It’s funny and depressing — and in some ways, even haunting. It takes place a few decades in the future, in an America on the brink of economic and political collapse. Shtenyngart’s best gift as a writer is the set of voices he creates for his characters, and this book particularly showcases that talent to particularly hilarious effect.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: It seems silly to add more praise to this book, except for the fact that Freedom is the best novel that Franzen has written. While the themes and ambitions are as big as ever, the characters are drawn with more sympathy and life — from start to finish. People will be reading this book for years to discuss what it means to have lived through the start of the 21st Century.

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey by Walter Mosely: Mosley’s new book is hard to classify. It’s not a crime novel like those that made him famous — not exactly. It’s not science fiction or fantasy, though there are elements of each. The only real way to describe Ptolemy Grey accurately is to say that it’s a work of honest-to-God literature and then smile at the story Mosely has written.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot: When doctors were able to harvest cells from Henrietta Lacks and replicate them in a laboratory, she changed the course of human history. That one discovery led to a staggering range of medical breakthroughs. But Lacks died after her cells were harvested, and her family still struggles to deal with the ramifications of her contributions to science. Skloot’s book isn’t just fascinating, it’s important to read.

War by Sebastian Junger: This is the best account of combat in Afghanistan I’ve read. Junger doesn’t write a wide-view portrait of the war. This is a close examination of one group of soldiers in a remote outpost in the Korengal Valley. Junger lives with these guys, goes on patrol with them, comes under fire with them, and I don’t know if his writing has ever been better.

Play Their Hearts Out by George Dohrmann: Dohrmann — the last sports writer to win a Pulitzer — follows a group of amateur basketball players through middle school and high school and writes a story that reads like a goddamn Greek tragedy. He has a lot to say about the state of AAU basketball, what it does to kids, what it asks of parents, what it means to be a successful coach in the system. He writes about the recruiting services, the scouts, and basketball fans. None of it is inspiring, but all of it is interesting.

The Tiger by John Vaillant: In 1997, an Amur tiger starts hunting poachers in the back country of Siberia. That becomes the lens through which Valliant explores post-Communist Russia, the nature of environmental conservation, and the relationship between mankind and the predators who occasionally prey upon us. The narrative that Valliant has written about the tiger and the men called in to deal with the threat is a heart-pounding adventure story, but there are economic, societal, and political implications at every turn.

Unbroken by Lauran Hillenbrand: Before the end of World War II, Louis Zamperini had competed for Olympic medals, spent nearly a month adrift at sea when his bomber came down in the Pacific Ocean, and suffered as a prisoner of war at the hands of the Japanese. Any one of these episodes would make for a compelling story — all three narratives, at the hands of Hillenbrand, make for something closer to unforgettable.

Posted by: Matt Compton | December 7, 2009

Best Books of 2009

So far in 2009, I’ve read 65 books. I hope to read at least 10 more before the end of December, so there is a real possibility that this list will see a few additions over the course of this month.

But as of now, these are my favorite books from the year 2009. As always, I’d love to hear your reactions and suggestions for other things I should read.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel won the Booker Prize this year. It’s a portrait of Thomas Cromwell, who for a time was Henry VIII’s closest advisor. History remembers him as a villain who helped to execute Thomas More, but Mantel treats him as a very modern character — a self-made man, who was an accomplished soldier, merchant, and diplomat, as well as a secret supporter of the Reformation. At its heart, this is a book about politics — both on the personal and the national level — and Mantel turns all of that turmoil into fascinating story.

The Gamble and The Good Soldiers are two different books about the surge in Iraq. The Gamble, written by Thomas Ricks, takes the broad perspective, focusing on the formation of the strategy, the work that Petreaus and his deputies did to advocate and push for the counter insurgency plan. The Good Soldiers, by David Finkle, focuses on one battalion charged with securing part of Baghdad. Both of them are powerful and hard to forget.

A Happy Marriage by Rafael Yglesias is a portrait of a relationship from the beginning through the course of 30 years. It’s full of emotional impact and loss.

Fordlandia by Greg Grandin is a history of the rubber plantation that Henry Ford tried to carve out of the Amazon. His ambition was to create a model of Americana in the middle of the jungle, but it was a project almost doomed from the start.

Columbine by Dave Cullen is a fascinating history of the Columbine school shooting, which offers up new details and perspectives and cuts down many of the myths that took root in the immediate accounts of the tragedy.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is a strong short story collection from Wells Tower, none better than the title piece about a crew of Vikings who set out to raid a frequently-targeted island.

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers is an incredibly powerful book about Katrina and what it means to be both an immigrant and an American. I started it one Sunday morning and did not put it down until I’d read the last page. This is arguably Eggers’ best piece of writing.

The Lost City of Z by David Grann is a fascinating story about an explorer who set off into Amazon in search of a lost civilization, but disappears completely.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman is a self-reflective novel about the difficulties of growing up, which draws heavily from Rowling, Lewis, and Tolkien.

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall is an account of a tribe of legendary runners in Mexico, a profile of the best ultramarathoners in the world, and an argument for running as an evolutionary imperative. Other books I read this year might be arguably better, but none was more interesting or fun.

The City & The City by China Mieville is a tense story set in a fictional country in Eastern Europe, which is fundamentally detective novel, but draws heavily from science fiction and fantasy.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba is a memoir about a childhood in Africa and the imagination that inspires a boy to teach himself to build a windmill to power his home using castoff parts.

Posted by: Matt Compton | October 8, 2009

The Wild Things review

My latest from Boldtype.

The Wild Things is easily the best book ever adapted from a movie that was adapted from a picture book, but it also succeeds in its own right. Dave Eggers has created a novel that is deeply imaginative, slightly strange, occasionally dark, and ultimately touching.

On some level, we know the story. (Weren’t we all exposed to Maurice Sendak’s Caldecott winner in childhood?) And the world Sendak evokes is so gripping that it is easy to forget that the original book was built around nine sentences. Eggers, however, has produced a work of 300 pages and many, many sentences, which uses the original for inspiration but leaps off to create a world of its own.

There is still a wild boy named Max, of course, and he still bites his mother. Max still visits an island inhabited by wild Things. But before we meet one of the monsters, we spend time in Max’s home. We learn that Max has a sister who has grown too old for the games they once played, and we are introduced to his mother’s younger boyfriend, whom Max is not prepared to accept. When confronted with changes in his actual life, a place filled with Wild Things seems satisfactory by comparison.

On the island, Max is still a king, and he still leads the Things in a wild rumpus. But where Sendak’s monsters are distinct mostly for the way they are illustrated, each of Eggers’ monsters has a unique voice and personality. And where Sendak’s readers have the perspective to understand that Max is dreaming, in Eggers’ story, everything — no matter how strange — is all too real. When the Things suggest they’re ready to eat Max, it’s a threat we can believe.

With Sendak’s original, part of what works so well is the style in which it’s drawn. Anyone who has seen the trailer for Spike Jonze’s film knows that’s true for the movie as well. So too with Eggers’ adaptation. The writing is crisp and alive, and it works, perhaps better than an adaptation ever should.

Posted by: Matt Compton | July 5, 2009

Stone’s Fall review

My latest review from Boldtype.

Stone’s Fall: A Novel
by Iain Pears
Published: May 2009
Pages: 608
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

For a novel that seeks to explain the circumstances of John Stone’s death, Stone’s Fall spends a lot of time exploring the details of the man’s life. The story unfolds in three parts, each narrated by a different character, each set in a different city. That set-up seems straightforward enough, but the narrative grows in complexity as it moves from London in 1909, to Paris in 1890, to Venice in 1867. Details that seem innocent upon first introduction become vitally important later. Minor characters in the early sections step into the spotlight later.

John Stone is a Gilded Age industrialist, who first made his fortune selling self-propelled torpedoes and dreadnoughts. When he dies suddenly, his widow — Elizabeth — hires a young journalist named Matthew Braddock to find a child who may or may not exist. Unraveling that mystery requires Braddock to dig deeply into Stone’s business affairs. The more Braddock learns, the less he understands. Was Stone’s corporation in deep fiscal trouble? Why is Elizabeth connected to an assassination-minded band of anarchists? And who is Henry Cort — the man who ordered London’s papers to withhold details of Stone’s death?

Cort, in fact, is the man who picks up the narrative in Paris. As a young spy, he stumbles upon an international conspiracy to sabotage London finance (which eerily reflects our own banking crisis). Cort needs help from Stone and Elizabeth to end the threat, and offers the reader important details about the background of both. The final section is voiced by John Stone himself, dispatching each lingering question with the same efficiency he brings to the arms business. Some answers are easier to predict than others, but the ending is unexpected and well worth the wait.

Stone’s Fall is an intricate, layered puzzle, and from an author like Iain Pears, we expect nothing less. But this is also a novel about ideas, which finds beauty in the rhythms of commerce and politics. At 600 pages, it demands some dedication, but offers plenty of rewards for the effort.

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