Posted by: Matt Compton | December 23, 2017

My favorite books of 2017

LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders is a novel about President Lincoln coming to terms with the death of his 11-year-old son in the midst of the Civil War. The narrative is conveyed through two distinct threads. The first features the voices of the ghosts of Oak Hill Cemetery where Willie is buried, who collectively form a kind of Greek chorus. The second is a collection of excerpts from primary documents, diaries, and analysis from historians writing about the era. It’s like nothing else you’ve ever read, with imagery and ideas that linger on in your imagination well after you’ve turned the final page. It’s a piece of writing from Saunders, so there’s humor here — but mostly, this is a careful, empathetic study of grief and missed opportunity. http://amzn.to/2zkRqSl

KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON by David Grann is the best piece of nonfiction I read in 2017. It’s a story about the Osage Tribe in southeastern Kansas. Because they managed to hold onto their mineral rights while negotiating land treaties with US government, they became some of the richest people in the world during America’s first big oil boom in the 1920s. Then, the killings started. Some members of the tribe were shot. Some were poisoned. At least one house was bombed with dynamite. All those crimes remained unsolved until one of the first agents in the newly-formed Federal Bureau of Investigation was tasked with the case. The answers he found remain dark, chilling, and incredibly relevant in our current political climate. http://amzn.to/2DBb7bP

MY ABSOLUTE DARLING by Gabriel Tallent is a beautiful piece of literature that unfolds with the rhythms of a horror film. The hero is a 14-year girl named Turtle Alveston. The monster is her father, Martin. There’s no escaping the fact that this is a story about abuse — emotional, physical, and sexual. Martin Alveston is convinced that societal collapse is just around the corner, the inevitable result of an impending environmental apocalypse. He doesn’t so much raise his daughter as he does train her — how to break down and reassemble an assault rifle, how to amputate a splintered finger, how to measure her self-worth by the amount of pain she can endure. Given the brutal state of her home life, it’s no surprise that Turtle finds refuge in the natural world, and the Northern California landscapes are a driving force in this novel, nearly a character in their own right. On one trek, she meets a pair of teenage boys, and the friendship they strike gradually pulls Turtle out of her isolation. The conclusion is tightly plotted, and the inevitable confrontation between Martin and Turtle has a cinematic quality which, even weeks after putting it down, I found difficult to get out of my mind. http://amzn.to/2BZTLYe

MAGPIE MURDERS by Anthony Horowitz is a send-up to the classic detective story. In the first chapter, we learn that we’re about to read the final novel by the most popular mystery writer in the world, which was delivered to his publisher just before he took his own life. You launch into the manuscript — which is a pitch-perfect, post-WWII British countryside murder mystery. And then you realize that the last chapter is missing — you’re left not knowing who actually committed the crime in the novel within the novel. Then, you’re back with the dead author’s literary agent as she sets out to find what happened to the missing conclusion. And as she begins to ask questions, you realize that maybe the author’s death wasn’t a suicide after all. The whole thing is clever and delightful. http://amzn.to/2D4ay9o

THE POWER by Naomi Alderman is a piece of speculative fiction that imagines a moment in the very near future when girls suddenly exhibit the ability to discharge a deadly electric shock from their bodies. As women throughout the world begin to exercise this power, the result is a fundamental and irreparable upheaval of societal dynamics. Governments collapse, prophets emerge, and the basic tenants of civilization begin to realign. Alderman tells the story from the perspective of four very different protagonists — observing (or influencing) events across the globe — and each of their stories is gripping. Early on, one of those characters tells us that, “transfers of power, of course, are rarely smooth” — and the rest of the book sets about proving that point. http://amzn.to/2zlZBh8

THE LAST COWBOYS OF SAN GERONIMO by Ian Stansel is a modern Western. In the opening pages, Silas Van Loy kills his older brother, Frank, then heads into the hills of Northern California on horseback. His sister-in-law, Lena, sets off in pursuit. As the chapters alternate back and forth, we learn the backstories of all these characters — how the brothers inherited a horse training operation from their father, then adapted the stables to meet the wants of the changing demographics of Marin County. We learn about the rivalry, which propels them to success but poisons their relationship. And we learn about the way of life that connects them to each other. From start to finish, this story is a quick-moving 208 pages, and there’s not a wasted word. http://amzn.to/2D40QUz

MANHATTAN BEACH by Jennifer Egan is a timeless, almost-old-fashioned piece of historical fiction from a thoroughly-modern writer. It’s 1942 in New York City, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard is fully mobilized in support of the war effort. Anna Kerrigan has a job inspecting component parts destined for battleships and freighters. Dexter Styles is a gangster, running night clubs for a crime boss. Anna dreams of becoming a diver, and Dexter wants to go legit. She finds more success than he does, and soon, she’s one of the first women in the Navy to wear the 200-pound suit of rubberized canvas and slip beneath waves to lead salvage operations and conduct repairs. As you might guess about a book where characters are constantly moving between the surface and the seafloor, perspective is deeply important to the narrative. Events viewed a particular way by one character look radically different to another, and readers will find disparate themes in this story as well. For one, this will be a war novel; for another, a coming of age story; for yet another, a piece of noir. But because it’s Egan, it’s all of those things — and it works. http://amzn.to/2DBU5tW

SING UNBURIED SING by Jesmyn Ward is a ghost story. Jojo is a 13-year-old black boy, living with his grandparents in Mississippi, helping to raise his three-year-old sister, Kayla. Leonie is their mother, wrestling with a drug habit. Jojo and Leonie are each haunted by souls with connections to their family’s past. When the children’s white father is granted parole from Parchman penitentiary, the three set off to collect him, their respective ghosts along for the ride. While that road trip delivers its share of physical calamities, the true tension for these characters is a product of their need to reckon with history. Late in the book, one character tells another, “We don’t walk no straight lines. It’s all happening at once. All of it.” That idea is essential for understanding Ward’s view of our world — the past lingers on in our lives, and there’s no escaping it. http://amzn.to/2Brv4QX

THE ESSEX SERPENT by Sarah Perry is a novel defined by its boundless self confidence. It’s fully aware of the tradition in which it exists — the Victorian romance — but is modern and lively enough to defy expectations of that genre wherever it wants. Freed from a loveless marriage by the untimely death of her husband, Cora Seaborne decides to explore her passions for the physical world. She leaves London and sets off for the marshes and shorelines of southeast England, hunting for fossils. There she catches wind of a local legend about a giant, perhaps prehistoric, serpent. She also meets Reverend William Ransome and his wife, Stella. Both monster and vicar become sources of fascination. This is a book that finds space for scores of love triangles, questions of faith, medical drama, and natural philosophy — without ever feeling cramped or hurried. http://amzn.to/2l4507n

AMERICAN WAR by Omar al Akkad is about a second civil war in the United States, set in the closing decades of the 21st century. As the impacts of climate change become more severe, the federal government bans the use of fossil fuels. Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, and South Carolina secede from the union. Soon, weaponized drones are patrolling border areas, suicide bombers are attacking government buildings, and refugee camps become recruitment centers for both sides of the conflict. While the book wrestles with big-picture, geopolitical questions, there’s a single family at its center. As we watch twin sisters Sarat and Dana, their brother Simon, and their mother Martina navigate a path through this world, the tragedy of this possible future gains weight and becomes tangible. It’s a piece of post-apocalyptic fiction that feels all too present. http://amzn.to/2D3BwxD

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Posted by: Matt Compton | December 23, 2017

My favorite books of 2016

EVICTED by Matthew Desmond is a vivid, powerful piece of policy reporting that drops us into the lives of a series of families desperate to make ends meet in working-class Milwaukee. Central to this book is the idea that eviction is a cause (not just a condition) of poverty. And gradually, Desmond reveals both the immediacy of the problem and its scale. “Every year in this country,” he writes, “families are evicted from their homes not by the tens of thousands or even the hundreds of thousands, but by the millions.” EVICTED is filled with moments that leave you furious and frustrated, but Desmond describes the people he follows with such sensitivity and candor that, mostly, this is a book defined by its empathy. http://amzn.to/2j1ZmzJ

HERO OF THE EMPIRE by Candice Millard is a biography of Winston Churchill in the Second Boer War, written with a thriller’s breakneck pace. Sent to South Africa in 1899 as a correspondent for the The Morning Post, Churchill is seeking redemption. Twice already, he had fought for the British Army — both in the Sudan and in British India — without an opportunity to show his valor. That changes when Boer forces ambush an armored train and Churchill is captured while leading an effort to free the locomotive from a damaged set of cars. That initial act of bravery inspires headlines, but when Churchill slips away from the Boer prison, he becomes an international sensation. In Millard’s hands, the young man’s escape, a hallmark of the Churchillian legend, becomes cinematic. http://amzn.to/2jFMBN0

LAB GIRL by Hope Jahren is a beautiful, fascinating, often-hilarious memoir from a geobiologist. It’s a story of discovery — both in how Jahren found her vocation and in the nature of what plants and soil can reveal to us about life. Early on, we meet Jahren’s lab partner, Bill. Like her, he’s misfit, but somehow the two fit together. As they navigate fights for funding, university politics, and the backroads of Ireland, Alaska, and Georgia on research trips, we watch them grow from colleagues to friends to a kind of family. Over time, the depth and contours of their relationship becomes the heart of this wonderful book. http://amzn.to/2iROOYu

COMMONWEALTH by Ann Patchett is a novel about the lives of six children from a blended family. As we watch them grow into adulthood, there’s drama — a love affair, a brush with the law, an unexpected death — but it’s unadorned, almost scrubbed bare. Patchett is a wonderful observer of the rhythms of everyday life, and here, she brings that talent to bear in writing about the injustices of childhood, the geopolitical relationships between siblings, and the way that our perspectives can shift with time. http://amzn.to/2iRE2Sg

A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW by Amor Towles is a mannered, elegant piece of historical fiction. In an early chapter, Count Alexander Rostov stands for judgement before a Bolshevik tribunal — charged with writing subversive poetry. He’s sentenced to a lifetime of house arrest in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel. Gradually, he builds a full life for himself. And when the diversions offered by the hotel are no longer enough, Rostov finds employment as a waiter in the hotel’s restaurant, and then, unexpectedly, meaning as a parent. As you read, avoid the mistake of thinking this book is a mere collection of tasteful interludes strung together. In the conclusion, we see that Towles has worked a kind of magic trick — where the details come together to create something greater than the sum of its charm. http://amzn.to/2j21B5N

MOONGLOW by Michael Chabon is a novel written as a memoir, and we’re left to wonder what’s fact and what’s fiction. In the author’s note, Chabon tells us, “I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” The narrator (a writer named Michael) details the life of his grandfather (who goes unnamed). As the narrative zigzags back and forth through time, we learn about a man who hunts Nazi scientists in his youth and boa constrictors in his retirement. We’re treated to stories touching on mental illness, the Space Race, pool sharking, and the nature of local broadcast television. There’s sex and combat, comedy and tears. But once your vision adjusts to the dazzle of the pyrotechnics (and all the brilliant wordplay you expect from Chabon), what emerges is a portrait of a complicated, tender marriage and a meditation on the evasive nature of memory. http://amzn.to/2jNBOT1

NEWS OF THE WORLD by Paulette Jiles is 219 pages of near-perfect writing and quick-moving plot. Just after the Civil War, Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd makes his living traveling from one end of Texas to the other, reading a collection of broadsheets to people eager to hear the latest news from the wider world. At one stop, he’s asked to deliver a 10-year-old girl, “rescued” from a band of Kiowa, who took her captive four years prior, to her closest surviving kin. Kidd and the little girl, Johanna, must navigate bad roads, an absence of common language (she has forgotten the English of her earlier childhood), and, of course, a group of men with bad intentions. Their destination is, perhaps, what you might expect — a growing regard for one another that blossoms into partnership and trust — but the way they arrive is so beautifully rendered that it’s captivating, even thrilling. http://amzn.to/2j1VM8z

THE TRESPASSER by Tana French is the sixth novel in the author’s series about the Dublin Murder Squad. As before, a supporting character from a previous book is now our new narrator. This time, the case belongs to Antoinette Conway, now the only woman in the unit, and the victim is Aislinn Murray — young, blond, murdered in her own home. There’s a boyfriend without an alibi, a best friend who’s hiding something, and another detective with a bit too much interest in the investigation. But while there is, of course, a murder to solve, the real mystery we explore is the case of Detective Conway — who she is, where she comes from, and what makes see the world as she does. http://amzn.to/2iRGEj1

Posted by: Matt Compton | January 5, 2016

My Favorite Books of 2015

So, this is late, and I’m sorry for that. It took longer this year—for a very specific reason. When December finally came around, I was close to doing something I’d never done before: knocking out 100 books in 12 months.

And for the last few days of 2015, I stressed about that. I read as furiously as I’d read in a long time. I finished things I’d started and put down months earlier. I dug up an old graphic novel that I’d meaning to read for years and tore through it. And just before the end of December 31 (and for the first time in my life), I actually did hit the century mark.

Here are my ten favorite books of 2015:

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 in recent memory. http://amzn.to/1mDujMb

FATES & FURIES by Lauren Groff is a powerhouse. It’s the story of a marriage, told from two sides. We begin with Lotto, a failed actor who grows into a wildly successful playwright — supported, encouraged, and adored by his wife Mathilde. Midway through the story, the perspective flips, and we see life through the eyes of Mathilde. The fundamental condition of their relationship never changes, but the way we view specific events diverge wildly. The result is a portrait with depth and breadth — filled with characters we come to know and understand intimately. http://amzn.to/1SxOMyx

GHETTOSIDE by Jill Leovy 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. http://amzn.to/1mDuo2w

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 quiet observations and transforms them into visions of pure wonder. http://amzn.to/1mDueZ7

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 Yeager, 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. http://amzn.to/1mDu0RB

LAFAYETTE IN THE SOMEWHAT UNITED STATES is exactly the kind of wry, road-trip history lesson that we’ve come to expect from Sarah Vowell. But seldom has she been so well served by a subject. Even nearly 200 years after his death, Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, bounds through these pages full of life. America’s favorite fighting Frenchman is earnest and charming, equally capable of a stunning display of immaturity or cool courage under fire — all in service of the birth of a new nation. The audiobook version of this story is a particular winner — with John Slattery giving voice to Lafayette, Patton Oswalt playing Jefferson, and Nick Offerman chewing up his scenes as George Washington. http://amzn.to/1SxOKXA

PURITY by Jonathan Franzen doesn’t shock you. Like many of his previous novels, the story revolves around a single family, bounces from location to location across the globe, and gradually teases apart a major set of culturally-relevant issues. But there are two qualities that set PURITY apart from those earlier books. First, Franzen ups the plot — a middle section of the book set in Stasi-era Berlin reads like a tight spy thriller. Second, while Frazen’s view of humanity in general remains as jaundiced as ever, for his characters, at least, he’s developed some sense of empathy. And this touch of nuance does a lot of work to enhance his many talents as a writer. http://amzn.to/1SxOJ5P

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. http://amzn.to/1mDuqYc

THE WRIGHT BROTHERS by David McCullough allows our most popular historian to pursue his preoccupation with the qualities that make up American heroes. It’s a story of pluck — about how two guys from Ohio, with high school educations, decided to do the impossible. It’s a story of ingenuity — and how the brothers combined self-taught mechanical know-how with years of research, then designed, tested, and tweaked until they literally got off the ground. It’s a story of courage — how the Wrights realized that they’d need to risk their lives to put their ideas into practice. And not for nothing, it’s a story of community — how friends, family, and their neighbors in Kitty Hawk stood by the brothers through failure and disappointment, until that moment of triumph. http://amzn.to/1mDtG5l

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 pretty much impossible to put down. http://amzn.to/1mDtYJz

Posted by: Matt Compton | August 17, 2015

My Favorite Books of 2015 (so far)


BookReview_midyear

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. http://amzn.to/1UIFpeX

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. http://amzn.to/1J4FLEo

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. http://amzn.to/1LaXj5u

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. http://amzn.to/1COXJ1q

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. http://amzn.to/1LfOhXZ

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. http://amzn.to/1IWpWR4

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. http://amzn.to/1g3zjaf

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. http://amzn.to/1gNhP1Z

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. http://amzn.to/1DtnsHy

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. http://amzn.to/1COXGCE

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: http://tinyletter.com/mattcompton

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. http://amzn.to/1otd6Fh

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. http://amzn.to/1wGgUF0

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. http://amzn.to/1mbPToX

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. http://amzn.to/1zwTKB2

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. http://amzn.to/1uU2zj1

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. http://amzn.to/1qp8Ia9

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. http://amzn.to/1nW2jOK

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. http://amzn.to/1iRzF3J

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. http://amzn.to/1AIooqk

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. http://amzn.to/13cg1IM

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. http://amzn.to/JpJqoR

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. http://amzn.to/18uiXlC

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. http://amzn.to/13DT13F

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. http://amzn.to/1cLj7EN

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. http://amzn.to/1c6dh2d

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. http://amzn.to/18uiZtT

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. http://amzn.to/1gAOxRD

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. http://amzn.to/1fg4PLQ

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. http://amzn.to/1bISL1F

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. http://amzn.to/1fg4AAF

Posted by: Matt Compton | December 4, 2012

My favorite books of 2012

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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. http://amzn.to/wjv6ZP

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. http://amzn.to/Kw3C62

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. http://amzn.to/NvPm0c

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. http://amzn.to/Ulig2v

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. http://amzn.to/MbzaPU

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. http://amzn.to/MbzRIU

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. http://amzn.to/QDiunA

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. http://amzn.to/VhTi2H

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. http://amzn.to/TyMgXq

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. http://amzn.to/TEy1Tv

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.

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