In the last year, I have written 15 book reviews for WEEKEND. These reviews have been, of course, a labor of love. Emphasis on the love. And the labor. Finding time in our busy college schedules for pleasure reading is tough, but every now and then we can set aside an hour, curl up next to the boarded up fireplace, and whip out the Kindles. Our second grade selves might be shocked, but, today, pleasure reading is a treat — a special privilege for only the especially dedicated or those with just enough free time. (Or those with an Audible.com account; I’m serious, books on tape are the way to go.)
’Twas just one year ago that I wrote my first installment of “This year’s 10 must-reads.” Now, 12 months later, I’ve decided to try my hand at a second list. The following books are compiled in alphabetical order by author, as I did not rank within my list. And as with last year’s piece, this collection of titles is super subjective. Alright, disclaimers done — so enjoy!
1. “The Cuckoo’s Calling” by Robert Galbraith: Cormoran Strike was just your run-of-the-mill depressed British sleuth when the murder of a supermodel propels him to fame, misfortune and maybe death? In this explosive novel — by a first-time author and one-time policeman — we meet unforgettable characters, observe heartbreaking strife and witness the rare magic of a really good detective story. Oh, and Galbraith is actually a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling.
2. “The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century” by Joel F. Harrington: Truly interesting diaries are rare — especially those of everyday people, and definitely those from 500 years ago. But this historian has discovered one such diary, that of Meister Frantz Schmidt, who served as a professional executioner for Nuremberg for nearly 50 years. “The Faithful Executioner” deconstructs its subject’s sentences, discovering the shame and brilliance and dare we say compassion lying beneath. This is a book about life — those taken and the one Schmidt tried so hard to live right.
3. “And the Mountains Echoed” by Khaled Hosseini: In this brilliant and cathartic novel, Hosseini weaves together a series of vignettes to produce a complex and unforgettable story of love and hate, family and friendship, life and suicide. Hosseini takes his reader from a tiny, dusty village in Afghanistan to the windy streets of San Francisco to the cobblestones of Paris. He indirectly and slowly reveals what happens when a father must give up his daughter in the hope of securing for her a better life.
4. “The Opposite of Loneliness” by Marina Keegan: This is the only title on this list that I have not read. (Amazon is shipping as we speak.) But I am familiar enough with Keegan’s work to write that this will be a consequential book. Indeed, anyone who has read one of her essays — including those in the News — has surely realized that she possessed a fresh and distinctive voice. Keegan, who died tragically in a car accident in 2012, just days after graduating from Yale, was a stunningly good writer. I’m excited to read “The Opposite of Loneliness” not to lament what could have been, but to celebrate the beauty that she could create in such a short time.
5. “Book of Ages” by Jill Lepore: In this stunning biography of Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister Jane, Lepore, perhaps the nation’s preeminent historian of early America, creates a portrait that is both touching and thrilling, uplifting and depressing. Lepore uses a tellingly spotty record to plot the few definite moments of Jane’s life, and then uses her considerable skill as a writer to fill in the gaping archival holes with context and beautiful imagery. We know virtually nothing about Jane, but Lepore convinces us that, but for the discriminatory strictures of her time, Jane might have been as great as her brother.
6. “TransAtlantic” by Colum McCann: This novel is an initially confusing series of poignant and enigmatic vignettes, tied loosely together by the many generations of one Irish-American family. It takes the reader from the swamps of rural Ireland to the icy lakes of the American Midwest, from the travels of Frederick Douglass to the voyage of Sen. George Mitchell. McCann’s is a story as much about poverty and loneliness as it is about Irish politics.
7. “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America” by George Packer: In this thick, meaty book, an acclaimed journalist spins together several small biographies and vignettes to form a cohesive map of the United States since the late ’70s. The America Packer observes is one in which the people have lost faith in both the public and private sectors, in their leaders and in their laborers. A whirlwind of color and emotions and verve, Packer’s portrait is both depressing and energizing.
8. “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage” by Ann Patchett: In this beautiful collection of essays by one of America’s most gifted novelists, the reader follows Patchett as she scales a wall with the LAPD, impulsively adopts a dog on the street and befriends an aging nun. Patchett, who began her career by writing for magazines so that she did not have to work as a waitress any more, has built up an oeuvre that is as smart as it is funny.
9. “Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish,” a novel by David Rakoff: This is Rakoff’s first — and last — novel. Rakoff, who was a wry and funny critic, passed away last year after a lengthy battle with cancer. He tells the story of a loosely connected group of characters whose lives span a hundred years — with a downtrodden Irish immigrant, a prim secretary, an artist dying of AIDS, Rakoff redefines America. His novel, written entirely in anapestic tetrameter, is just 113 pages. It rhymes, it sings, it moves, you can finish it in an hour or two. But you won’t read it just once. And you won’t stop thinking about it for a long time.
10. “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt: This mammoth book truly is best saved for last — but only because you’ll want a nice long time to savor it. Though “The Goldfinch” is nearly a thousand pages long, it’s the sort of quick, feverish read that makes you want to push it on all of your friends. It is a kind of bildungsroman; it’s main character, Theo Decker, survives a terrorist attack that kills his mother and upends his life; he moves from Park Avenue to Vegas to the West Village to the dark world of art theft. “The Goldfinch” is a story of class, love, loss and one boy’s captivation with a famous, potentially dangerous, painting.