Maybe you’re shopping for the holidays, maybe you’re just cobbling together your own reading list for the coming winter. Either way, here are recommendations for you, one suggestion each from 10 of the Star Tribune’s most trusted book critics. The best books of the year? Maybe. Books that you should read? Definitely. And books that will make fabulous gifts? Absolutely.
Jenny Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation” (A.A. Knopf, $23) probably isn’t the first novel you’ve read about a stymied writer and infidelity, but it might feel as if it is. Its narrator is a conscientious mother, wife and breadwinner who’s surrendered her plans of being an “art monster” — single-mindedly devoted to her creative work. When a marital crisis breaks out, she’s devastated, and irritated by how predictable (yet unpredicted) it all is. Short, fragmentary and sometimes seemingly desultory, “Dept.” takes cues from experimentalists such as Renata Adler and David Markson, and it musters its emotional power through melancholy, wit and an ingenious sort of narrative shorthand. It also has the momentum of a good detective novel; you might be torn between wanting to read it in one sitting and wanting to make it last a month.
In 1989, Richard McGuire published “Here,” a six-page comic that used panels within panels to wryly explore the passage of time on a particular speck of land, from a dinosaur creeping 100 million years ago to a living-room party just the other day. “Here” quickly became a cult classic on the order of “Battleship Potemkin” or Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” — evidence that simple techniques could produce deep art. For the long-awaited book-length “Here” (Pantheon, $35, illustrated), McGuire adds lavish color and some plot, but he preserves the captivating, uncanny sense of love, anger and tragedy flying across the centuries while staying in one place.
“Updike” by Adam Begley (Harper, $29.99) does what all good literary biographies should — shows how life influences art. Through meticulous research into Updike the man and critical readings of Updike the writer, Begley constructs a compelling and intimate portrait of a true American great. We come away with a better understanding of this prolific man of letters but also with the urge to rediscover him. Updike’s star fell somewhat in the years before his death, but this stunning work could be the first sizable step toward rehabilitation.
Nobody can tell a tale, spin a character, break a heart, the way Alice Munro can. And even though the Canadian writer, now 83, has said she has retired from writing, here is a fat and appealing new collection of old stories. “Family Furnishings: Selected Stories 1995-2014” (A.A. Knopf, $30) includes 24 stories, each of which is its own exquisite, fascinating, self-contained world. Munro sets her stories in western Ontario and populates them with unhappy spouses, impatient young people and women, yearning women — trying on clothes, eating breakfast, making a break for it. But the judges of the Giller Prize, the Man Booker International Prize, the Nobel Prize — all of whom have honored Munro — know these are not strictly Canadian stories. These are human stories, and great ones.
“Women in Clothes” (Blue Rider Press, $30) is the book I want to give all my women friends for the holidays. Co-authored by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavitis, Leanne Shapton and “639 others,” it is an unparalleled compendium that uses photographs, illustrations, interviews and essays to explore women’s multilayered relationship with clothing. This collection goes beyond the inane “Women love shoes!” line and “Do’s and Don’ts” of mainstream publications and elevates the discussion of fashion in all its forms to a higher plane. This is a book I’ll return to again and again.
“Lila,” by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26). In this story of a rough, uneducated woman’s romance with an older, erudite, religious man — the third in the author’s series about a tiny, history-laden and spiritually burdened Midwestern town — Robinson finds the perfectly precise and evocative language for framing experience that doesn’t know how to express itself. However deep the book goes, the surface sings.
“The Republic of Imagination” (Viking, $28.95) by Azar Nafisi is, for me, the most inspirational book of 2014. It’s as much a cautionary tale about the dangers of losing touch with important works of fiction as it is an homage to some of her favorite novels. In “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” Nafisi reveled in the importance of fiction in a free society. In this book she immerses us in the subversive spirit found in much of America’s classic fiction. A U.S. citizen since 2008, Nafisi writes that her “true home” is a “land with no borders” that she calls “the Republic of Imagination.” One needs only “an open mind, a restless desire to know and an indefinable urge to escape the mundane” to enter.
In a year of magical reading, one book stands head and shoulders above the rest: “Long Man” by Amy Greene (A.A. Knopf, $25.95). It’s hard to do justice to a book that is as compulsively readable as it is intellectually profound, but if such a book exists, it is this one. When a 3-year-old girl goes missing on the eve of a major dam project, her mother must traverse the landscape she loves and a past that is as tangled as the briars in the Tennessee hills. Swift, gorgeous and wickedly smart, “Long Man” is nearly perfect, and Greene is a major American novelist in waiting.
Robert Harris is the best historical novelist writing now, with political intrigue his specialty. “An Officer and a Spy” (A.A. Knopf, $27.95) takes on the notorious Dreyfus Affair, tracing the plot to scapegoat a Jewish army officer — which led to a life sentence on Devil’s Island — and the subsequent campaign to exonerate him. The story emerges through the eyes of the actual whistleblower, and we are plunged into a paranoid France and cynical, vindictive Army, both pervaded by anti-Semitism. This superb novel is as suspense-filled as a crime thriller, rich in character as any drama and astute as the most penetrating history.
KATHERINE A. POWERS
Some books grow on you with distance. Other books — so vividly rendered that you forget to sleep, eat, sometimes take a breath — take you under. Anthony Doerr’s heartbreaking novel “All the Light We Cannot See” (Scribner, $27) did both for me. The story takes place during World War II, alternating between Werner Pfennig, a German orphan obsessed with radio, and Marie-Laure, a blind Parisian who during the Nazi occupation loses her father in a sojourn to Saint-Malo. They’re both thrust into an often unforgiving and sometimes bloody coming-of-age. Doerr’s lyrical style gives boundless life to the surrounding sea, Saint-Malo, the burgeoning technology, a fabled crystal, on and on — a stunning achievement.