Just in case you forgot someone—or forgot to get yourself something wonderful to read in the dark days ahead—here are some terrific books: a jewel of a novel plus some gems in brief. Want to win a copy of The King’s Grave? To enter to win, comment below by answering the question: What was your favorite book from 2013?
A Sparkling Jewel
by Donna Tartt
Little Brown. 771 pp.
I took the longest time about getting to this one. Seven hundred and seventy-one pages! Who has time for that? But curiosity about all the raves got the better of me. So I plunged in. And found myself so absorbed I wanted it never to end.
It’s the story of 13-year-old Theo Decker, whose father, an irresponsible alcoholic, has abandoned Theo and his doting, artist-loving mother. Because of a sudden torrential downpour, Theo and his mother, heading elsewhere, take temporary refuge in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s the wrong place at the wrong time. While Theo and his mother are looking at 17th Century Dutch paintings, out of the blue a terrorist bomb suddenly explodes, leaving scores of severely injured people and quite a few dead ones, including, although Theo doesn’t know it at first, his mother. She’s not in the same gallery as he is when the bomb goes off and, fighting billowing clouds of smoke and chunks of crashing masonry, he’s trying desperately to find her. But he stops his search to tend to an old man with a bloodied head. Then, dazed, scared, unable to think clearly, and not sure why he does it except that the old man seems to be telling him to, Theo takes “The Goldfinch,” a tiny painting by Carel Fabritius, a contemporary of Rembrandt, down from the wall, shoves it into a bag, and attempts to make his way out of the unlit, debris-strewn museum. Brushing against unmoving bodies, stumbling past a disconnected limb here, a head without a top there, wanting only to be reunited with his mother, Theo finally finds a path through the wreckage, emerges onto a Fifth Avenue packed with ambulances, police cars, firetrucks, and hordes of panicked people. Another bomb is about to go off. Theo heads for home, sure his mother has decided to do the same and will be waiting there to rendezvous with him.
She isn’t, of course, and the rest of The Goldfinch recounts Theo’s adventures as, orphaned, he is passed from the home of the dysfunctional Park Avenue family of a schoolfriend friend to the bizarre Las Vegas home of his detested father, who has suddenly reappeared. Always mourning the loss of his beloved mother, always feeling like a rootless soul, and always hiding his guilty secret—the theft of the painting—Theo nevertheless forms some astonishing attachments that will lead him to the peace he will find at the novel’s end.
Tartt’s story of an orphaned boy makes one think of Dickens, master of tales of orphaned boys, and so too does her ambitious, well drawn cast of characters, among them a kindly furniture maker and a Russian friend of Theo’s from his Las Vegas high school years who has a Tolstoyan soul and a handy hand with a gun. Yet it isn’t just her great ability at creating unusual characters that has earned Tartt comparisons to the great Victorian novelist. It’s also that like that master storyteller, she knows how to tell a whopper of a story. This one ultimately involves a true love, an inadvisable wedding, drugs and gambling, the art and craft of antique furniture reproduction, head-spinning reversals of fortune, and a gaggle of international art smugglers.
But what really keeps you turning pages in this book is the voice. Tartt writes in a voice that immediately puts you on intimate terms with Theo, a voice that is observant, sorrowful, anxious, filled with inchoate longings and altogether enchanting. I promise you, you won’t feel like you’re reading a long book. You may even find yourself wanting to turn back to the beginning and start all over again, it’s so much fun.
by Jo Baker
Knopf. 332 pp.
Was I just talking about Dickens? Here’s a book that will take you back to Jane Austen and the delights of Pride and Prejudice. But it’s not one of those books that sets out to recapture our enthusiasm for the characters in a classic work and ends up being only mere shadow of the original. Longbourn is a fully realized novel about the home of Pride and Prejudice’s Bennett sisters. It’s a work that has little to do with those fascinating girls but instead tells the story of the equally fascinating servants, hardly mentioned in P & P, who keep their home running. There’s Mrs. Hill, the cook and housekeeper, who holds a dark secret about Mr. Bennett, James, the new stable hand and coach driver, who is in flight from something dark and ominous in his past, Polly, the scullery girl, a child rescued from an orphanage, and Sarah, the housemaid and central character, overworked, underfed, sensitive, brainy, and ambitious. (She’s an orphan, too—this seems to be the season for orphan books.)
Filled with engrossing information about how the meals got cooked and the beds made and the clothes washed in middleclass families at the start of the nineteenth century, Longbourn is also a sagacious, moving tale of lives lived in hardship but camaraderie, and its spunky heroine, Sarah, though she has no advantages of wealth or class or good connections, is as unforgettable as Elizabeth Bennett.
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Knopf. 477 pp.
The heroine of this book is Ifemelu, a high spirited young Nigerian woman who emigrates to the United States, where she becomes highly successful at what she does—writing. Americanah is to some extent autobiographical, Ngozi’s own story—at least in its observations about life in America, where Ngozi too has become highly successful at what she does—writing. She’s won a raft of honors, among them the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for a previous novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, a MacArthur Genius award, and, most recently, the distinction of having her words used by none other than Beyoncé who, in her latest album, inserted a sample of Adichie reading from a speech on feminism into her song “Flawless.”
In the novel, Ifemelu, when she emigrates, leaves behind her girlhood love, Obinze, the one man who “made her like herself. With him, she was at ease; her skin felt as though it was her right size.” Soon afterward, Obinze, too, leaves Nigeria, in his case for England. In America, Ifmelu suffers homesickness, loneliness and financial hardship while attending college but, struck by the differences between African Americans and American Africans, she begins writing a blog called, “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black,” with postings entitled, among other things, “Sometimes in America, Race is Class,” and “Hair as Race Metaphor,” “How the Pressure of Immigrant Life Can Make You Act Crazy.” and wry observations like this one, about the tendency of black American intellectuals to wear casual clothes: “When it comes to dressing well, American culture is so self-fulfilled that it has not only disregarded the courtesy of self-presentation, but has turned that disregard into a virtue.” The blog becomes a success, with thousands of unique visitors each month, and Ifemelu begins to earn good speaking fees, wins a fellowship to Princeton, and acquires an American black lover.
Meanwhile, Obinze, who has been a failure in England, where he was unable to obtain legal status, has returned to Nigeria and, entering the oil-rich country’s booming real estate business, begins earning vast amounts of money, marries a beautiful doting well-to-do wife, and fathers a child.
But despite all the achievements of their new lives, Ifemelu and Obinze still long for one another. Ifemelu, in particular feels “cement in her soul.” And after thirteen years in America, she decides to return to Nigeria where, after she starts a new blog, “The Small Redemptions of Lagos,” and eventually has a reunion with Obinze.
While the book is on one level the love story of Ifemelu and Obinze, it is also a work that is filled with acute reflections about life in America, in England, in Nigeria, and in other new African nations. Adichie is after something that goes beyond story in Americanah, She is determined to give us insight into our multicultural world today and in the process, she has written not only a well plotted novel about love but one that is immensely eye-opening on the subject of race.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Confession
by Leo Tolstoy
W.W. Norton. 224 pp.
If you’ve never read The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the incredibly poignant novella that Tolstoy began soon after completing Anna Karenina, or even if you read it once back in your college days, you’re in for a treat with this new translation by Peter Carson, one of the greatest translators of Russian fiction there has ever been. Ivan Ilyich is a long-married prosperous Russian judge, with an apparently devoted wife and two children, who falls sick and, confronting mortality, begins to question the sincerity of all his relationships, the point of all his achievements, and the very meaning of life itself. Ivan Ilyich is also Everyman, a stand-in for all of us when we fully realize that our time on earth is no longer limitless. Take my word for it: there has never been a story about dying as moving as this one.
Carson has paired it here with Confession, a less known, introspective, nonfiction work of Tolstoy’s, begun at about the same time. A memoir, Confession deals with some of the same questions that arise in Ilyich, questions about the inevitability of death and how that stunning often denied and ignored fact affects how—and even why—we live our lives. It is dense and philosophical, and usually published along with other religious treatises of Tolstoy’s. But Carson’s idea of pairing it here with the novella makes for very interesting reading.
The King’s Grave
by Philippa Langley & Michael Jones
St. Martin’s Press. 288 pp.
I have to make my own confession: this isn’t a book for everyone. I liked it, but I admit that reading about Richard III is an acquired taste. I acquired that taste way back when I read Josephine Tey’s mesmerizing mystery, Daughter of Time, which explored the ways in which writers of the Tudor period blackened the reputation of Richard, the king the Tudors overthrew, to make him seem far more villainous than he actually was. It was their versions of King Richard’s life that Shakespeare relied on in writing his malevolent king in Richard III. And since Shakespeare is Shakespeare, and his Richard III such a compelling and constantly produced play, then and now, it is Richard as demonic we all have come to know.
Much of that 15th century false history is presented and countered in this book by British historian Michael Jones. But the book is also the story of how, just last year, the body of Richard was unearthed underneath a parking lot in Leicester, England, in the East Midlands, the very town where, historically, he was said to have been buried. Finding that body was due to the obsessive dedication of one woman, Philippa Langley, and she is the co-author of this book. The chapters alternate between her vivid accounts of the search and Jones’s scouring of the historical records.
Now that Richard’s bones have been found, the maligned king is to be given a proper burial, though whether it will be in Leicester—the city is fighting to have his remains remain—or in Westminster, along with all those other English kings, has not yet been determined. Wherever it is, “when we finally lay Richard to rest,” write the authors, “we do not seek to make him ‘bad” or ‘good’. Rather, we [hope to] put a stop to the stigmatizing and vilification and allow for complexity. We also grant him the dignity of resting in peace, a dignity that 500 years of history have denied him.”
As I said, this book isn’t for everyone. But if you—or the recipient of your gift—loves English history, or was an avid watcher of the recent Showtime series, The White Rose, or an admirer or critic of the current Broadway production of Richard III, starring Mark Rylance, it’s just the ticket.
To enter to win,
comment below by answering the question:
What was your favorite book from 2013?
3 FOFs will win. (See official rules, here.) Contest closes January 14, 2013 at midnight E.S.T. Contest limited to residents of the continental U.S.