In “Consolations of the Forest” (Rizzoli Books, $24.95), French writer Sylvain Tesson goes off to live in a cabin in the Siberian taiga for most of a winter and part of a summer. I’m kind of a hermit at heart myself, and I loved reading about his days and weeks of solitude and the utterly natural way he took to life in the forest, training a tiny bird to accept his bread crumbs, snowshoeing up past the treeline in thigh-deep snow, spending hours gazing at a frozen Lake Baikal. Despite the solitude, there was plenty of action and emotion — he encountered some larger-than-life characters, acquired two dogs, drank a lot of vodka, more than seems humanly possible, and had his heart broken, long-distance. But I never got tired of the quieter moments, and his many and varied descriptions of ice and snow.
On Jan. 3, the New York Times Magazine went out on a limb with the headline: “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year.” With a few weeks yet to go, I’d say they called it. In “The Tenth of December” (Random House, $26), Saunders takes our most debased language — the idioms of sales and self-help, for instance — and makes it heartbreakingly funny. His stories speak for the heartsick and striving and beleaguered among us — and while they’re reminding us of our shared humanity, they manage to be brilliantly inventive and wildly entertaining.
On the night John Lennon died, Howard Norman was living in Canada’s Northwest Territories, hanging out with an Inuit rock band that specialized in Lennon covers. In the central essay of his memoir “I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26), Norman mines this experience for a thoughtful (and funny) study of loss vs. connection and folklore vs. pop culture. The whole book suggests that Norman’s life, much like his excellent fiction, has overflowed with strangeness and tragedy. But though he shares a crate-load of odd and harrowing experiences — a brother on the lam, a murder-suicide in his home — Norman doesn’t oversell their drama or mine them for easy lessons. He’s content with a Zen-like wonder at life’s randomness, which gives his storytelling a cool but ultimately hopeful vibe.
Following his astonishing, ecstatic first novel, “Tinkers,” Paul Harding returns with “Enon” (Random House, $26), a searing tone-poem of a novel that delves into searing grief. Charlie Crosby lost his 13-year-old daughter when her bicycle was mangled by a car. A year later he is dosing himself with painkillers and whiskey. Pushed to an extreme of yearning and emotion, Charlie is a hapless Orpheus, “stepping over the same dark threshold, night after night, trying to follow her into the country of the dead in order to fetch her back.” “Enon” is a deep and lovely book, studded with haunting images.
Like John Green’s “Fault in Our Stars,” Patrick Ness’ “More Than This” (Candlewick, $19.99) is a YA game-changer. It’s provocative and philosophical, sweet and darkly funny, and destined to be discussed and debated. And there’s not a vampire or a zombie lurking anywhere in its dystopian landscape. In the prologue, Seth Wearing, the novel’s protagonist, dies. Then his real story begins. He wakes from death wrapped in thin strips of bandages, hair buzzed and body covered in small cuts. Seth’s search for what is happening to him is also a search for what has happened to him. In life, he may have been conflicted about a tragedy surrounding his brother Owen, but Seth was sure of one thing — his love for Gudmund (means good man) and the intimacy they shared (the lovemaking between Seth and Gudmund is poignant and beautiful to read). If you have a teen reader in your life, find a way to bring this book to his or her attention, then step away. Let them make sense of it for themselves.
CAROLE E. BARROWMAN
“Hanns and Rudolf” by Thomas Harding (Simon & Schuster, $26) was the standout book of the year for its ability to wring a series of emotions from the reader: shock, disgust, despair, excitement and relief. The true story of how a British Jewish soldier tracked down and caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz is at one point a sobering account of the darkest chapter of the 20th century and then, once the chase is on, an electrifying thriller that has us cheering for the hero. Victim becomes victor in a book with an ending that offers the ultimate in cathartic release.
In Susanna Daniel’s novel “Sea Creatures” (Harper, $25.99), a family valiantly struggles to stay together under the looming shadow of a natural, and domestic, disaster. Daniel deftly navigates the reader through a stormy sea of emotions, as she blurs the edges between dreams and reality under the hot Miami sun.
With beautiful prose (“The emptiness of things rose like the sound of a choir making the sky bluer and more vast.”), “All That Is” (Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95), James Salter’s first novel in 34 years, follows the long life of Philip Bowman, from his daunting experiences in the Pacific theater of World War II to his old age on the East Coast after a successful career as an editor for a small literary press. Bowman’s life is filled with difficult authors and difficult lovers, which makes it easy for readers to enjoy this satisfying story by a masterful and lyrical writer.
“TransAtlantic” (Random House, $27), Colum McCann’s luminous triptych of a novel, spanning 150 years, recounts the experiences of iconic non-Irish figures (Frederick Douglass, Alcock and Brown, Sen. George Mitchell), whose achievements in Ireland have become part of the historical canon. Even more than this, though, McCann adds dimension and nuance by introducing Douglass to an impoverished maid fleeing the Famine, and the other famous men to the maid’s female descendants. The prose is beautiful, careful, and probing; it offers the clarity and confidence of an engraving.
“Year Zero: A History of 1945,” by Ian Buruma (Penguin, $29.95). The year 1945 marked not just the end of World War II, but also the end of an entire world. It was a year of euphoria, wild celebration and hope — and devastation, reprisals and despair: a year of transformation on an unprecedented scale. While Buruma’s history is impressively global, chronicling social, cultural and political upheavals in both Asia and Europe, the dramas are played out on a human scale, creating a compelling narrative that helps us make sense of our lives in “the long dark shadow of what came before.”