Claire Messud, author of The Emperor’s Children
The Cats Table, by Michael Ondaatje
Fiction at its best compels and challenges simultaneously. Set in 1954, The Cat’s Table tells the story of a boy (named Michael, who will grow up to be a writer) and his crossing by ship from Sri Lanka to England to rejoin his mother. Alternately a Peter Pan adventure story and wise, melancholy reminiscence, the novel powerfully evokes the full gamut of emotion.
Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, by Phoebe Hoban
I also highly recommend Phoebe Hoban’s biography of Alice Neel, a riveting portrait of one of twentieth-century America’s most significant women artists, whose recognition late in life came on the heels of tragedy and mental illness, through unwavering—even pigheaded—determination. It makes for gripping, and sobering, reading.
John Freeman, editor of Granta
Head Off & Split, by Nikky Finney
This is a beautiful book, full of sorrow and soul, which weaves from prose poetry to verse as lean as anything William Carlos Williams wrote, from the wisdom of grandmothers to the love of a good woman (by a woman). Very few poets write so sexily and thoughtfully at the same time.
The Angel Esmeralda, by Don Delillo
This collection distills four decades of DeLillo’s obsessions—fear and terrorism, the uses and abuses of language, and the body’s animal intelligence—into nine fantastic stories. They are supercool and unexpectedly moving, a reminder that DeLillo is not just our culture’s most reliable oracle; he’s a beautiful writer, too.
author of The Master
The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Marriage Plot wields a tone filled with sympathy for its characters and their plight, which sees into their souls, allows them to live fully in the world. But there is an undertone that is oddly comic, that allows the reader to see, or sense, that there is an author at work, and the author’s talent is to offer us a version of the human predicament that is ambiguous and slyly dark.
Evening’s Empire: A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe, by Craig Koslofsky
Evening’s Empire is proof that how we control the night (by sleeping, walking the streets, or just turning on the light) or how the night controls us (by keeping us indoors, afraid, or just in the dark) tells more about our civilization than anything else. The book is an ingenious study of how we, or people like us, conquered darkness and what a difference that made to belief and daily life.
author of The Brief Wondrous
Life of Oscar Wao
The Enculturated Gene: Sickle Cell Health Politics and Biological Difference in West Africa, by Duana Fullwiley
For the hard-core braniacs, I recommend Duana Fullwiley’s The Enculturated Gene. A vigorously argued, meticulously researched, disturbingly fascinating ethnography about the politics of sickle-cell anemia in contemporary Senegal that lays bare the tragic consequences that international medicine’s disease ideologies have on the developing world.
Say Her Name, by Francisco Goldman
For those not willing to go the full nerd, Francisco Goldman’s searing novel Say Her Name is for me the book of the year. This fictionalized account of the heartrending death of Goldman’s wife, Aura Estrada, is a soaring paean to a brilliant young woman and to the infinite invincible power of love.
David Wallace-Wells, literary editor of New York
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, by Manning Marable
A dizzying, intimate biography that is also a meditation on the making of an American legend—and our need for one.
The Information , by James Gleick
Computers may tell us the world is now just a string of bits, but Gleick argues brilliantly it was always thus—and that we got from stone tablets to liquid-crystal ones via many centuries of information envy.
Justin Torres, author of We the Animals
If You Knew Then What I Know Now, by Ryan Van Meter
Ryan Van Meter’s memoir-in-essays is worth reading for the etymological-riff essay on the word faggot alone, but because each and every one of the other essays are equally moving and finely crafted, the book is one of the year’s best.
The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka
Another is this refreshingly unusual and stylistically perfect novel. A catalogue of experiences, objects, births, and deaths and disappearances, all vividly portrayed. I was shocked by how much Otsuka managed to squeeze into such a short book.
Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review
Pulphead, by John Jeremiah Sullivan
I hesitate to recommend this collection, since two of the essays first ran in The Paris Review, and he’s our southern editor, and a friend—but what the hell. I’ve reread that book so many times I quote it by mistake, and still it’s on my bedside table, like a talisman against night terrors.
Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner
I’ve also found myself rereading Ben Lerner’s supersmart first novel. It belongs on a short shelf with Kundera’s Life Is Elsewhere, Bolaño’s By Night in Chile, and A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man—those little masterpieces exposing the sausage factory that is a young poet’s soul.
Jessica Hagedorn, author of Toxicology
Leche R., by R. Zamora Linmark
Leche is an extravagant affair, adorned with drag queens, postcards, tourist tips, witty Filipino puns and malapropisms. You can sense the anger and melancholy behind its glittering façade.
Open City, by Teju Cole
The cool, concise prose of Open City draws you in more quietly, then breaks your heart. Who knew that taking a long walk in Manhattan could be so profound?
author of Personal Days
A Drop of The Hard Stuff , by Lawrence Block
Instead of being merely the umpteenth installment of Block’s popular Matthew Scudder series, A Drop of the Hard Stuff turned out to be one of this seventysomething crime author’s very best, a New York story about the messy work of forgiveness.
The Vices , by Lawrence Douglas
The second novel by Lawrence Douglas gave me delight on every page. I’m always careful about calling something Nabokovian, mostly because I’ll see that in a review and read the book in question and it’s fine but not as good as Nabokov, you know? But this one is Nabokovian—there is no other word.