"Eleven Days" by Lea Carpenter

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"Ghost Man" by Roger Hobbs

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"Benediction" by Kent Haruf

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"Schroder" by Amity Gaige

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"The Women Upstairs" by Claire Messud

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"The Son" by Philipp Meyer

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"Dissident Gardens" by Jonathan Lethem

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"A Tale for the Time Being" by Ruth Ozeki

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"Submergence" by J.M. Ledgard

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"The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt

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Holiday books: Fiction

  • Article by: MARK ATHITAKIS
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • November 30, 2013 - 4:02 PM


By Amity Gaige (Twelve, $21.99)

Amity Gaige’s third novel is a harrowing glimpse into the mind of a man slowly coming apart. The (deeply unreliable) narrator of the title is a refugee from East Germany who’s picked up a new identity in the United States. As his marriage fails and he kidnaps his daughter, Gaige explores the ways that separate identities come together or fail to reconcile.

“The Woman Upstairs”

By Claire Messud (Knopf, $25.95)

Nora Eldridge, the narrator of Claire Messud’s stellar fifth novel, is furious: furious at her crushed dreams of becoming an artist, furious at the failed relationships that pockmark her life and furious at her own delusions about herself. Messud’s sentences are crisp, stark and engineered to reveal Nora’s desperate character — she’s at once smug and pleading, and Messud’s ability to sustain her mood through the entire book makes this one interior story a major achievement.

“Eleven Days”

By Lea Carpenter (Knopf, $24.95)

American novelists are finally reckoning with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, be it through sharp commentary on armchair patriotism (Ben Fountain’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”) or harrowing interior glimpses of PTSD (Roxana Robinson’s “Sparta”). Lea Carpenter’s debut novel is among the best of the batch, tracking a mother’s anguish over the disappearance of her Navy SEAL son. Carpenter’s study of the making of an elite soldier reveals careful research without sacrificing heart-in-throat storytelling.


By Roger Hobbs (Knopf, $24.95)

Roger Hobbs’ brash and remarkably assured debut thriller features an independent jack-of-all-schemes chasing down a bundle of cash missing from a heist gone bad. Jack Delton has the cool demeanor and talent for death-avoidance that the genre demands, and Hobbs seems preternaturally gifted at inventing propulsive story lines and cliffhanger chapter endings. But he also gives the novel a noirish tone that’s entirely his, and Delton’s smarts and attitude (“I don’t get out of bed for less than two hundred grand”) can fuel a shelf’s worth of stories.


By Kent Haruf (Knopf, $25.95)

Haruf’s five novels set in the town of Holt, Colo., are as sturdy and frills-free as its hardy citizens. His latest, “Benediction,” centers on hardware-store owner Dad Lewis, who receives a cancer diagnosis on page one and declines rapidly from there. Though Haruf’s prose is terse, it’s never simple. “Benediction” complicates our certainties about God, sex, responsibility and death — that is, all the big stuff, addressed with honesty and clarity.

“The Son”

By Philipp Meyer (Ecco, $27.99)

Meyer’s multigenerational tale of one Texas family is a study of how claims to land shift hands, often violently, from Comanches in the 1850s to predatory oil tycoons in the late 20th century. “The Son” is part throwback to the rip-snorting westerns of Zane Grey, part contemporary, De­Lillo-in-spurs analysis of capitalism and identity. Like any good historical novelist, Meyer has done his research, but what matters is that he identified the most telling, visceral stuff to feature. What does buffalo blood taste like? How do you deny somebody else’s legal claim to your property? How do you do it for 150 years?

“A Tale for the Time Being”

By Ruth Ozeki (Viking, $28.95)

Ozeki’s ingenious debut novel opens with a Japanese teenager’s chirpy diary, which a woman discovers on a beach in the Pacific Northwest. From that unlikely scenario, Ozeki weaves a contemplative novel about memory, the 2011 tsunami, the nature of uncertainty and Zen philosophy. The book rambles — Ozeki muses on quantum mechanics, tide patterns and Japanese school-bullying culture — yet it’s anchored in a deep appreciation for human connection, and Ozeki addresses it in ways that transcend the contrived worlds-in-collision plots of lesser novels.


By J.M. Ledgard (Coffee House Press, $15.95)

Ledgard’s magnificent second novel runs on two parallel tracks, following a British spy captured by Muslim extremists in Somalia and his girlfriend, a marine biologist preparing for a deep dive into the Greenland Sea. As the title suggests, “Submergence” deals with depths — of political extremes, of emotional need — and as Ledgard whipsaws the reader from luxurious hotels to soul-crushing prisons, he reveals the ways that faith and science support and upend our sense of utopia and order.

“Dissident Gardens”

By Jonathan Lethem (Doubleday, $27.95)

Lethem needs nostalgia and music for his books the way steam engines need coal, and “Dissident Gardens” is no different: Set mostly in mid-20th-century Queens, the novel is rich with riffs on baseball, leftists and Dylan wannabes. Though the opening chapters take a comic view of a pink-tinged era, its closing chapters are a somber portrait of the price of radicalism and the steeper price of not pushing back against authority.

“The Goldfinch”

By Donna Tartt (Little, Brown, $30)

Tartt’s third novel has received plenty of comparisons to Dickens: It’s big, it turns on an “Oliver Twist”-like orphan, and its cast is thick with reprobates and gentle souls from every rung of the class ladder. But its true pole star may be Dostoevski. Tracing the life of a young man who absconded with a precious Dutch painting after a terrorist attack, Tartt addresses questions of good and evil with both psychological acuity and a page-turning sensibility.


Mark Athitakis is a book critic and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.


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