Brandon is a recovering English major. He's also an Italophile and '80s heavy metal enthusiast who once read the novels of Saul Bellow chronologically and wouldn't shut up about it for months. He thinks Andrei Rublev is the greatest film ever made, but derives his greatest cinematic pleasure from this scene from KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park. Career highlight: scalding his tongue on a fried risotto ball and nearly blacking out from excitement while chatting with his literary hero, Philip Roth, at Café Gray in New York City.
A punch to the heart lies at the center of History of Wolves—a punch readers may not see coming until some critical point when they look up from the page and realize what Fridlund has been doing to them all along: setting them up to knock them down. Hard. In this tremendous debut, she writes with unbelievable craft and depth of feeling about girlhood, sexual awakening, guilt, belief, and above all the shattering limits of faith. The result is a novel of huge power, one destined to be among the most talked-about of the season
Green Island is a triumph. Without sacrificing anything of craft or literary credibility, it's got everything going for it — epic historical setting, multi-generational sweep, insight after lacerating insight, gorgeous sentences that will please lit snobs but won't alienate more casual readers, and plot, plot, plot. Things actually happen in this novel. Important things. Devastating things. Hopeful things. Things I'll never forget. I love this book.
Fiona Maazel writes like an angel—and prods and stabs like a devil. Woke Up Lonely is a torrent of narrative energy, rich with observation and incident, all of it shot through with a sad, savage humor that had me laughing and wincing at the same time. Maazel brilliantly taps into the sinking feeling that, even in wired and socially networked America, we're all in this together, alone.
Opium Fiend opens with one of the most harrowing chapters you're likely to read this year: a graphic description of Steven Martin's attempt to kick his thirty-pipe-a-day opium habit cold turkey. I challenge you to read it and not feel compelled to continue. Martin, the world's foremost authority on opium antiques, goes on to detail how his compulsion to collect the accouterments of this once pervasive drug—pure chandu, not lesser and, in Martin's view, more barbaric opiates like heroin—led to his nearly lethal detox attempt, from which he was rescued by Jean Cocteau's advice from 1930: "Do not persist. If you delay too long, you will no longer be able to take your equipment and roll your pipe. Smoke. Your body is waiting only for a sign." It wouldn't be Martin's last relapse. Along the way we learn much about the British Opium Wars, opium in nineteenth-century America, opium eradication efforts worldwide, and Martin's single-minded passion as a collector, which allowed him to assemble one of the most exquisite collections of opium accessories in the world. In some ways it's easy to romanticize the exotic world Martin conjures for us. But looming over his tale of travel, adventure, lavish opium dens, and paraphernalia of ivory, hammered silver, jade, and precious gems, is the stark reality of addiction, social isolation, and a yearning for an idealized past that slowly morphs into a hellish present. Also recommended: Martin's first book, The Art of Opium Antiques.
Much has been made of Adam Haslett's zeitgeist-capturing prescience in Union Atlantic (the New York Times, for example, noted an "eerie overlap of its narrative with current events in the American economy"), but ultimately this is a story about people. Wealthy businessman Doug Fanning is a despicable but compelling protagonist, Charlotte Graves and her unusual dogs are unforgettable, and Nate Fuller's emotionally brutal coming-of-age story ends on a grace note whose poignancy is among the most heartbreaking I've read. Highly recommended. —Brandon
Our greatest living novelist gives us two of his greatest novels in his so-called “American Trilogy.” I Married a Communist is a good book by any standard, but American Pastoral and The Human Stain—both of which were singled out by the New York Times as contenders for the best American novel of the last 25 years—are flat-out masterworks. If you’re familiar only with Portnoy’s Complaint (the book that made Roth a superstar), do yourself a favor and pick up the American Trilogy. The eloquence of Roth’s prose and the sagacity of his endlessly fascinating and agile mind are electrifying. Each is a stand-alone novel, so I recommend starting with American Pastoral, then The Human Stain, and finally I Married a Communist. —Brandon
Simply finest prose ever written by an American novelist. Period. A bold claim, yes, but I stand by it. —Brandon
Every once in a while a book comes along that changes everything about the way I read and appreciate short fiction. Steve Almond did it with My Life In Heavy Metal. Adam Haslett did it with You Are Not a Stranger Here. Now James Salter has done it with Last Night, a stunning collection of stories by a writer whose supple, understated prose is among the finest I know—all the more so for its ability to quietly set up one electrifying revelation after another. These are masterful stories about men and women, memory and loss, but above all they are stories about desire—how unfulfilled longing defines and dismantles us. Grab a copy and find a quiet spot in the bookstore. Open to the first story and read. I’m confident you’ll be unable to forget it. —Brandon
An impressively researched book not only about the flood that inundated Florence in 1966, but about the city’s dizzying collection of Renaissance masterworks, the men who created them, and the volatile river Arno that has routinely attempted to carry them off. Clark also tells the story of the angeli del fango, or "mud angels," who traveled to the devastated city to help however they could, and the art-besotted Life photographer who recorded it all for posterity. He reveals the struggles and triumphs of the men and women who labored for years to restore the work of Florence’s greatest sons -- Giotto, Michelangelo, Donatello and, most dramatically, Cimabue, whose Crosifisso, the painting that touched off the Renaissance, was found severely damaged in the church of Santa Croce. —Brandon
Jess Walter has written a 9/11 novel of darkly comic genius that is plot-driven, suspenseful, heavy on the dialogue (for which he has a remarkable ear), and above all, funny. Sadness, astonishment, absurdity and an exhilarating gallows humor easily coexist in The Zero, all of it rendered in prose that at times will take your breath away. —Brandon
We all have a friend like Jonathan Lethem—the charmingly obsessive pop culture aficionado who’s forever compiling, ordering, and re-ordering personal top ten lists of favorite books, films and recordings (think Rob Fleming from High Fidelity, only smarter and even more obsessive). From comic books and the novels of Philip K. Dick to Star Wars and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (both of which he saw twenty-one times in their original theatrical release), Lethem chronicles the ways in which his youthful obsessions continue even now to define him. —Brandon
Forgoing the graphic litany of atrocities that characterizes so much Holocaust literature, Auschwitz survivor Paul Steinberg instead focuses on the lingering effects of having survived—the fifty-plus years of sleeplessness, strained relationships and brutal self-recriminations that haunted him until his death in 1999. An unapologetic rejoinder to fellow prisoner Primo Levi—who recast Steinberg as “Henri,” the ultimate survivor, in If This Is a Man—Speak You Also asks the terrifying question, At what price survival? The answers tormented Steinberg all his life, but there is peace amid the turbulence of this astonishing little book. “A delivery,” Steinberg writes, “no matter how long overdue, is still a deliverance.” —Brandon
Zembla, Zenda, Xanadu:
All our dream-worlds may come true.
Fairy lands are fearsome too.
As I wander far from view
Read, and bring me home to you.
Like all good children’s fables—and this is among the best—Haroun and the Sea of Stories is dense with allusion and adult themes, in this case the vital role of storytelling and unrestricted speech in a healthy democracy. Mostly, though, you'll delight in the adventures of young Haroun and his friends Iff the Water Genie, Butt the Hoopoe, the glumfish Bagha and Goopy, and Haroun’s storyteller father, the famous Shah of Blah. (By the way, if you can find it, pick up the audio version, read by Rushdie himself. It’s one of the most joyous recordings I know.) —Brandon
Hitchens isn’t the first writer to unleash a blistering (and bestselling) anti-religion polemic in recent years, but his is easily the most fun to read. In God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, he makes mincemeat of every sacred cow that lumbers across his path, never once yielding to the traditional—and in his view, dangerous—habit of respectful deference in matters of religious debate. When his pen flashes from its scabbard, heads roll. The result is one of the more biting and entertaining manifestos in the growing literature of the atheism movement. —Brandon