The annual lists of the Year’s Best Books are a rite of literary journalism — a vacuous rite, if you ask me, by which critics make themselves the shills of the publishing trade. (Not that I don’t participate as eagerly as anyone else!)
’Tis the season, too, for shopping guides. COMMENTARY herewith offers a different kind of shopping guide. COMMENTARY writers and friends of the magazine were asked to recommend a novel for holiday buying or reading — their personal favorite, their personal secret. It’s an eclectic list (I’ve only read five of the titles myself), but every book on the list is something you will want to hunt down as quickly as possible. Supplies are going fast! Remember: there are only 17 shopping days left until Christmas! Here is a good place to start your wish list for that hard-to-please reader in your family or your bed!
The books are arranged alphabetically by author, with the recommender’s name in bold afterwards, followed by his or her comments.
Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger (2008). Matthew Ackerman, Middle East Analyst for The David Project and a contributor to COMMENTARY:
Enlightening take on modern India. Great anti-hero narrator with a superb voice. Man Booker prize winner.
A briskly written but sweepingly comprehensive survey of the constitutive vagaries in the human condition: the ebb and flow of empire, the ever-present specter of civilizational decline, the indeterminacy of social progress, and — despite these fundamental challenges — the ability of carefully crafted institutions, designed with careful attention to human imperfection, to preserve knowledge and transcend history. Also the series has spaceships and eventually robots, and is one of the most entertaining reads in existence.
I have a soft spot for this gothic-comic tale of two not-terribly-powerful wizards and the lurking menace they must face. It’s no Lord of the Rings, but it is a confection of horror and whimsy perfect for a fireside evening.
I can’t say anything about the translations into English, but this is quite likely the funniest sad novel I’ve read, in any language. At the novel’s core: the relationship between its first-person narrator — a young boy of Arab descent called Momo — and the elderly Jewish ex-prostitute (also an Auschwitz survivor) who is responsible for his care. I’d read nothing like it before it was assigned in a class 20-plus years ago, and I’ve read nothing like it since.
Gay had the title before a Mormon housewife filched it for her prudish vampires. Owing much to Faulkner, O’Connor, and McCarthy at his bloodiest, Gay’s gorgeously wrought novel is a human-horror story so depraved it will remind you why you’re afraid of the dark.
Olga Grushin, The Dream Life of Sukhanov (2005). Seth Mandel, Assistant Editor of COMMENTARY:
As we mark the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union while Russians are protesting in the streets of Moscow by the thousands to call for free and fair elections, Grushin’s first novel has a new relevance. Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov, the title character, gave up a life as a talented underground artist for the mindless comfort of an apparatchik’s career, the salary it comes with, and the stability of having a family with his beautiful wife. But the plot takes place as Gorbachev begins unintentionally deconstructing the rigid society Sukhanov gave up his dreams for, his family emotionally and physically abandons him, and he is haunted near to the point of madness by his past, as it comes rushing back in the form of vivid daydreams and the excruciating sense of nostalgia and regret that he can no longer hide from.
Haunting and touching in equal measure. As in Remains of the Day, Ishiguro once again creates characters who live in a world not of their making, but who are forced by circumstance to make choices that reveal the complexity of the contemporary moral landscape. In this case, Ishiguro places his story in a not-too-distant future in which medical science has made it possible to prolong life indefinitely for some, but at the cost of devaluing it for the unfortunate others upon whom the scheme rests. The prose is sparing but packs an emotional wallop uncommon in today’s fiction.
Dave Kattenburg, Foxy Lady: Truth, Memory and the Death of Western Yachtsmen in Democratic Kampuchea (2011). Bethany Mandel, Social Media Associate for COMMENTARY:
It’s a book about nine Westerners who stumbled into Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge era, and who met an untimely death alongside thousands of Cambodians in the main torture prison. The story follows the author’s journey through four continents as he uncovers the story of the men who died and watches the trial of the man who ran the prison. There’s plenty of books out there that tell the story of Cambodians in the Khmer Rouge time, but this is a relatable story of people who accidentally became part of history in a tragic way.
Kirkwood was the son of silent movie stars Lila Lee and James Kirkwood, Sr., and the novel is a more or less thinly veiled memoir. It is often very funny and sometimes achingly sad. It isn’t easy growing up the son of famous people, who always tend to be self-absorbed, especially if their careers are on the wane. Kirkwood wrote several other novels worth reading including Good Times/Bad Times and P.S. Your Cat Is Dead. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as the co-author of the book of A Chorus Line.
In 1949 the Canadian poet A.M. Klein went on a fact-finding mission to see what was left of the Jews in Europe, Morocco, and Palestine. The Second Scroll, his only published novel, is a fictional account of such a journey, cast as a modernist epic in a high literary style to transmit the magnitude of the Jewish renewal. We were not present when Moses led the Children of Israel out of Egypt, but Klein feels he was there during an exodus and ingathering of no less consequence. This book is spiritual-intellectual red meat for readers who may have tired of their diets of minimalism, irony, and polymorphous perversity.
György Konrád, The Case Worker (1969), trans. Paul Aston (1974). Patrick Kurp, author of Anecdotal Evidence:
I still remember Irving Howe’s review in the Times. I reread Konrád every few years, including earlier this year. I don’t know a better novel about children, disability, madness, the animal in man. Gorgeously written, even in translation.
In the 16th-century French Pyrenees, a husband returns after an eight-year absence much changed. His wife loves him with joyful passion until she begins to suspect that he is an imposter, and turns against him. A tragedy that could not end otherwise than it does, Lewis’s novel shows that there are some human desires that are stronger than erotic passion — and among them is the desire to remain faithful. (A fuller account is here.)
Candia McWilliam, What to Look For in Winter (2010). Sam Schulman, a contributor to COMMENTARY:
A 53-year-old Scottish novelist begins to lose her sight through blepharospasm — being unable to open one’s eyelids. With three children, all with different last names, of two fathers, and a handful of novels — her presiding genius is Sybille Bedford — she has lived through writing, and reading. Now she can only read books on tape, and she dictates this memoir:
I am six foot tall and afraid of small people.
I am a Scot.
I am an alcoholic.
There is nothing wrong with my eyes.
I am blind.
I cannot lose my temper though I am being helped to. . . .
I exude marriedness and I am alone.
Those are her compass bearings. Here is a typical sentence, describing the contents of her mother’s workbasket: “The pinking shears were so heavy and specific that they lived in a holster in the sewing chest with the button box, the cotton reels and the Kwik-unpik, a natty hook for the slashing open of stitches mainly to ‘let things down,’ or to ‘let things out,’ terms perhaps now unknown outwith the psychotherapeutic context.” One of the great books.
George R. R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons (2011). Jonathan S. Tobin, Senior Online Editor of COMMENTARY:
The latest installment in the brilliant fantasy series that inspired HBO’s Game of Thrones. But these novels are not what you’d expect from the genre since they’re beautifully written and filled with fascinating, complex characters.
Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal (2002). Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributor to COMMENTARY:
A Catholic priest who shares my offbeat sense of humor recommended Lamb to me a few Christmases back when we were both lecturing at an army base around the holidays. With tongue-in-cheek, Lamb explores the childhood of Jesus Christ through the eyes of childhood pal Biff. The story is wickedly funny, but also respectful. After a run-in with the Romans in Galilee, Biff and Jesus (or Joshua as he was known) set out on an epic adventure to track down the Three Magi — all adherents of Eastern religions. Their journey takes them to Afghanistan, China, and India, where their interactions not only illuminate Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism — but also answer such age-old questions such as why Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas.
Alan Paton, Cry, The Beloved Country (1948). Peter Wehner, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributor to COMMENTARY:
Because it’s a book of unusual power, deeply moving and at times lyrical, with vivid characters. Because a great novel emerged out of a great (and real) tragedy and injustice, apartheid in South Africa. And because it reminds us that there is enough hating already in our lands and that the dawn will come, as it has come for a thousand centuries.
A book of more recent vintage, which didn’t get a fair shake since its publisher essentially collapsed when it came out. It’s a riff on tall tales that satirizes modern-day narcissism.
An historical novel about the Spartans at Thermopylae that is brilliantly written, richly detailed, and, friends who are classical scholars tell me, has historical accuracy.
Silverberg offers telepathy as a metaphor for any tremendous gift or personal ability which distorts all the other aspects of a person’s selfhood, or causes his full personhood to atrophy. David Selig, Silverberg’s protagonist, who is slowly losing his ability to read other people’s minds, an ability he has relied upon his entire life to the virtual exclusion of any other talent, is a science fictional Bobby Fischer, a prodigy whose extraordinary ability in one narrow realm has benighted the lives of those closest to him and helped twist David into a despicable human being. David’s slow, painful coming to terms with the approaching death of the only thing which has ever made him special stands, along with Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, as one of science fiction’s finest achievements in the portrayal of loss and bereavement.
A cruelly, wildly funny tale of Irish village life told from the point of view of an innocent visitor who wants to be charmed by the comprehensive inefficiencies of the insular, alien culture into which he has thrust himself, but finally ends up longing to exterminate all the brutes. Though she is now remembered (if at all) as a “humorist,” Tracy’s wit was far sharper and more penetrating than that bland word would suggest, and The Straight and Narrow Path, her second and best novel, is one of the smartest portrayals of cross-cultural confusion ever to see print.
David Foster Wallace, The Pale King (2011). Rick Richman, author of Jewish Current Issues and a contributor to COMMENTARY:
A book about an IRS Regional Examination Center and its trainee, “David Foster Wallace,” who goes through boredom-survival training to cope with the endlessly tedious work. The Pale King is a meditation on overcoming the apparent pointlessness of life, by a person tragically unable to survive it even at the pinnacle of his success as the most extraordinary writer of his generation. (A fuller account is here.)
COMMENTARY readers are encouraged to add their own quirky and idiosyncratic recommendations by means of the comment thingamajig below.