Tana French – In the Woods
French’s debut rides on her beautiful prose; it’s a haunting story of childhood trauma and the lines we cross. French is able to craft sequences of real beauty, but then there are also sequences of almost unbearable suspense and even terror. It’s the most quotable book I’ve read in ages. French manages to be both hard-bitten and beautiful.
Tana French – The Likeness
French’s second novel is narrated by a different character from her first and the character’s voice is different, but no less beautiful. The prose here is dreamier, less stark than In the Woods, but it’s equally atmospheric and transporting. French manages to change her voice dramatically, but somehow not lose the things that made her first voice so great. That’s what I call genius.
Philip Roth – Indignation
Roth’s Indignation is a beautifully crafted gem. Just when the story itself begins to get interesting, Roth steps outside of it with one of the most shocking passages of the past ten years. And if Roth’s clinical detachment is often where the beauty is found, it’s in the sheer emotional rawness of the ending where this book comes together. This is Roth like you’ve never encountered him before.
Philip Roth – Nemesis
A polio epidemic in a sweltering summer is the setting of this harsh masterpiece. Roth conjures this neighborhood in stark detail and I’ve never read a book before where the natural setting was so alive. The heat seems to ripple right off the page, the too-bright sunshine beam into your eyes, the claustrophobic feeling of dread devours everything. As Roth ages, he’s only gotten better.
Saki – The Unbearable Bassington
Saki’s incredible ability to puncture the upper classes with snarky, biting satire is in full evidence, but this book features Saki’s prose at his most beautiful, not just his sharpest. The dark humor is there, but Saki finds a strange pathos in this story and creates beautiful, lyrical prose when the story calls for it. It’s nothing but his masterpiece.
George Saunders – Tenth of December
Saunders is surely the greatest short story writer of his generation and in this stunning collection, he excels. The stories are in a variety of formats and a variety of voices, but Saunders captures interior monologue like no one else. Painfully hilarious, bracingly angry, deeply sad; Saunders captures everything in his spare, unflinching prose.
Maria Semple – Where’d You Go, Bernadette
When a young girl sets out to find her vanished mother, she begins an assemblage of documents that contain clues. Semple unfolds this brilliant fictional story by crafting what is essentially a scrapbook, filled with court depositions, e-mails, school bulletins, police interviews, tape transcriptions, chatlogs, etc. It’s a brilliant way to tell the story and the high concept never loses its charm. Semple is quite a cat herder.
Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch
Donna Tartt tells a labyrinthine story of one young man’s journey to adulthood and the journey of a stolen painting mixed up in one. Tartt’s eminently readable prose makes the characters come intensely to life and she’s able to keep the reader turning the pages violently, even when she’s spending five pages on a couple of potheads smoking dope on a playground swing set. Tartt captures the rhythms of life, the rhythms of epic adventure and collapses them on top of each other in this dizzying, never less than fascinating eight-hundred page epic.
Jesmyn Ward – Men We Reaped
Ward is angry and deeply sad in this non-fiction memoir. Over the period of just a couple of years, five young black men from her hometown die violent deaths and Ward hopes to use these specific stories to get at the heart of a general question: why do young black men die so very, very often in our world? She weaves a story about each of these men and threads it through her own life story in that small town. It’s an amazing feat of storytelling, of raw emotional catharsis. Ward is a beautiful storyteller and she never loses sight of the heart-wrenching realities at the heart of her stories.
Lawrence Wright – Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief
Wright went inside the terrifying world of Al-Qaeda with The Looming Tower; now he’s in the breathtaking, strange, unsettling, horrifying world of Scientology. Wright’s writing is clear, sharp, clever. He writes this story like it was a novel and, given the plot twists and vivid characters, it kind of seems like it could be. Wright keeps you turning the pages, twisting the knife at the right times, hammering home some moments, letting others sit there quietly until you get it. Wright’s one of the best non-fiction authors of our age, if you ask me. He could write about anything and it would be compelling; give him a subject like this and it’s non-fiction writing like you’ve never seen before.
Okay, tomorrow, I’m going to flip to the movies, I think, and talk about the runners-up in the category of Best Directing! Oh, good stuff! Be here for that.