{Book Expert} Linda Wolfe: 7 Best Books of the Year

FOF Linda Wolfe, the award-winning author of 10 books and a 12-year veteran of the National Book Critics Circle, picks 2010’s most unforgettable titles. Warm up your Kindle, whip out your library card or just snuggle in bed with a good old-fashioned paper version of one of these works of art.

NEMESIS by Philip Roth
292 pp. Houghton Mifflin. $26.
In the sweltering summer of 1944, the year before World War II ended, a polio epidemic spread throughout Newark, New Jersey, [click to read more]

destroying the lives of many young people, some of whom died, some of whom went on to live as lifelong cripples. Roth, in his thirty-second novel, writes vigorously about the effects of the epidemic on one man, Bucky Cantor, a youthful playground director who is viewed as almost godlike by the boys he teaches to play ball, do exercises, throw the javelin. Due to poor eyesight, Bucky has been denied what he most desires: a chance to serve in the war. But when the epidemic strikes he determines to keep to his post in the playground and care for his charges no matter their – and his – fears about polio. His girlfriend implores him to join her in the presumably healthier air of a summer camp, but he refuses. “This was real war, too,” he thinks, “a war upon the children of Newark.”
What happens to Bucky and the children of Newark is brilliantly evoked by Roth. The book is a triumph of style and sensitivity which culminates in a searing inquiry into the nature of God. The last few pages are among the most breathtaking that Roth has ever written.



OUR KIND OF TRAITOR
by John Le Carré
306 pp. Viking. $27.95
Le Carré, grandmaster of the spy thriller, has written his most suspenseful espionage story in years, [click to read more]

a book about the Russian mafia, international money laundering, stiff-upper-lip British intelligence agents, and two innocents abroad who get dragged–despite their better judgment–into dangerous cloak-and-dagger games. The innocents are Gail Perkins, a young barrister, and her boyfriend, Perry Makepiece, a literature professor and dynamite tennis player. On a much-anticipated Caribbean vacation, they’re approached by an enigmatic Russian bear of a man named Dimitri Krasnov–Dimi for short–who wants to play tennis with Perry. Turns out, he also wants Perry to contact the British government and arrange permanent residence for himself and his family in exchange “for certain informations very important, very urgent, very critical for Great Britain of Her Majesty.” It’s a roller coaster ride from there on in, a tale that will keep you or any of your book-loving friends biting your fingernails and sometimes – how does he do it? – tearing up at the same time.

MOCKINGJAY by Suzanne Collins
390 pp. Scholastic Press. $17.99
This is the third and final novel in Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy. If you haven’t
yet read the first two, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, you’ve been missing some of the most exciting fiction out there [click to read more]

– and even though the books are written for Young Adults, many of us older adults have been passionately devouring them. Not just to have a peek at what our teenagers are reading, but because the books are inventive, fast-paced, ethically provocative, and have an exceptionally charismatic heroine. She’s a moody, spirited sixteen-year-old, and although her adventures take place in a dystopian future society, she’s as true to life, as the girl next door – or in one’s own house. Mockingjay, for those who’ve read the first two books, is less tightly plotted than The Hunger Games, my favorite, but it’s equally compelling.

JUST KIDS by Patti Smith
279 pp. Ecco. $27.
She’s been called “the godmother of punk” and “punk rock’s poet laureate,” and it turns out she’s a terrific memoirist. [click to read more]

In Just Kids, Smith writes about being a pregnant nineteen-year-old “country mouse,” giving up her baby, and seeking a new life in the edgy bohemian world of sixties New York. Unsure of who or what she will become, she’s helped along her way by meeting Robert Mapplethorpe, the taboo-defying photographer who will become one of the most controversial artists of his time as well as Patti’s friend and lover. Her memoir is full of carefree moments and encounters with famous figures like Janis Joplin and Andy Warhol, but there’s a heartbreaking quality to the tale as, still “just kids,” Patti and Robert head toward the fame and fortune that will eventually strengthen one and destroy the other.

HALF A LIFE by Darin Strauss
205 pp. McSweeney’s. $22
A tiny, compact memoir, this book has all the thrust and power of a car crash, and indeed it’s about a crash [click to read more]

in his senior year of high school, novelist Darin Strauss accidentally ran over a girl on a bike. The girl, a schoolmate of his, died, and in a way, Straus died too. He would never be free from thinking about her, even when doing the most mundane things, like getting a can of soda: “Celine Zilke will never feel a can in her grip,” he’d think, and later, Celine would never go to college, get married, have a child. By the time he himself marries, he has come to feel he’s living for two. He changes from being a crass, book-averse teenager to an academic achiever and a writer of enormous talent. His story is a page-turner and a profound exploration of how we are shaped by, and must live with, the consequences of our actions.

THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS by Isabel Wilkerson.
622 pp. Random House. $30.
Starting in the early nineteen-hundreds, black people began leaving the Jim-Crow South in droves and settling down in the North and West. [click to read more]

These immigrants to a new world were not so different from those who fled oppression in Russia, Italy, and other European countries to make better lives for themselves in the freer atmosphere of America. Wilkerson gives us the story of the “epic migration” of blacks, focusing her account on the lives of three fascinating individuals she chose after interviewing more than a thousand people. You’ll learn things about America you never knew before. You’ll come to know her characters intimately (some of them may remind you of the characters in Kathryn Stockett’s The Help). Above all, you’ll be wowed by how readable and absorbing Wilkerson’s important work of history is.

THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS by Rebecca Skloot.
369 pp. Crown. $26.
This is that rare thing – a book about science that is engrossing and understandable even to someone like me who got a “D” in biology. [click to read more]

Skloot, a science journalist, spent ten years tracking down the story of a woman who died of cancer in 1951 but whose cells, withdrawn from her cervix during a biopsy, became immortal by virtue of being the first ever reproduced successfully and in profusion in a lab. The woman was Henrietta Lacks, an illiterate mother of five, and the cells–dubbed “HeLa” from the first letters of her first and last names–have been flown to the moon and bought and sold around the world. They have helped with nearly every important advance in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization–you name it. But while every science student knows about HeLa cells, virtually no one knew anything much about Henrietta Lacks until Skloot undertook to find out who she was. She tells a whopping good tale about her nervewracking search, and writes with uncommon skill not just about Henrietta and her descendants, but about cell culturing, the interplay between race, poverty and science, the ethics of tissue collection, and the laws that are newly emerging to determine whether our cells belong to science or ourselves.
  • Carole Williams

    This is a wonderful list. Now that it’s May of 2014, would L.W. add anything to it?

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  • Gail B Katz

    F O F is solucky to have a woman like Linda Wolfe as our resident Book Expert! What makes her especially wonderful is that she does it ALL in the world of Books – Writes ’em. reviews ’em. shares her thoughts with us in a succint manner!

    I would LOVE an essay here from Linda on the impact of the whole e-book situation. esp her “read” on Kindle/Electronic books. E publishing (“Look mom, no Editor!”) and what her glass book ball sees in the near 20 year future.

    • admin

      Thanks Gail! We feel lucky to have Linda too! Love the idea of “Look mom, no editor.” We will share this with her and see if she is interested.

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  • Anne Eskridge

    This is just terrific. I wanted to run out and buy them all. I have always counted on you to let me know what I should be reading. This is really helpful, informative, tantalizing and your writing is just wonderful.

  • Betty Wald

    I’ve been looking to buy a book for my (over 50) daughter and she loves mysteries so I think I’ll look for the Le Carre book, hadn’t thought of him. Also my granddaughter’s birthday is coming soon – she’s a 14 year old NYC kid, reading In the Woods, which she borrowed from me. Maybe the Hunger Games might be the ticket for her. Thanks for the reviews, they gave me reading ideas I hadn’t had!

  • debby pollack

    I’m eager to read Nemesis which my husband is hoarding right now. Several of the books Linda Wolfe recommends I have on my list to read next. A few I hadn’t even considered, but Linda’s recommendations seem so good, I think I’ll try them.

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  • Debra Jo Jackson

    Linda, Thank you for your wonderful suggestions. How fantastic to have such an accomplished, articulate and accessible writer guide us. I am planning to read all of these books. I look forward to hearing more from you.
    Many Thanks,
    Debra Jo

  • Natalee Fogel

    Over the next 12 months I will try to read most, if not all, of Linda Wolfe’s recommendations, since she has never led me astray.

    • Linda Wolfe

      Thank you for your comment. I’ll be interested in learning your reactions.

  • Jessica Bernstein

    This list is great. I loved Rebecca Skloot’s book. Wish I had time to read all seven of these books before the end of the year!

    • Linda Wolfe

      Thanks for your comment. Don’t worry. These books are so good they’ll still be great reading whatever year you get around to them. I picked them because I think they have legs and will last.

  • Roger Ziman

    As opposed to the New York Times Book Review, I found these reviews excellent. Well-written, to the point, hitting highlights and informative. She must be an experienced, knowledgeable critic.

    • Linda Wolfe

      Thank you. I expect you’ll like all these books. Maybe especially the LeCarre. A guy’s book. No — maybe especially The Warmth of Other Suns.

  • eve preminger

    this list is trustworthy, eclectic enough to be the sign of a real reader. Im going to try The Hunger Games which I have avoided because Linda Wolfe says I should.

    • Linda Wolfe

      I’ll be interested in learning your reaction. I read The Hunger Games after being pressed to do so by a super-literate teenager, who argues that YA books shouldn’t be ghetto-ized. “There are bad YA books and great ones,” she says. “As with adult fiction.”
      She was right. You’ll have fun with it.

  • meryl steigman

    Excellent recommendations on the books we’ve read. I’ll follow along with the others. Thanks

  • Bibliophile

    This is just the list I need to cut through the clutter at the end of the year. Such astute appraisals! Linda Wolfe ratifies my decision to pick up Suzanne Collins’s first book, “Hunger Games.” I wasn’t eager to try a young adult novel, but if a writer as serious as Wolfe likes the series, it must be good.

    • Linda Wolfe

      Thank you, Bibliophile. I’ll be interested in knowing your reaction to the book. I was hesitant myself, and only read The Hunger Games after being pressed to do so by a super-literate teenager, who said, “Some YA books don’t deserve to be in ghetto. This is one.”
      She was right.

  • admin

    I love this list! Just Kids is the only one of these books that I’ve read–and I loved it. I was so surprised by what a fabulous writer Patti Smith is. I’m buying Mockingjay for my husband for Christmas and Henrietta Lacks for myself!

    • Linda Wolfe

      Don’t buy your husband Mockingjay if he hasn’t yet read The Hunger Games. He should start with that — but it’s really more a girls’ nook.

      • Linda Wolfe

        Of course I meant “girls’ book” not nook!

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