2011 Holiday Gift List for Fiction Readers

Cashmere scarves, pocketbooks, and jewelry-- all frivolous holiday gifts compared to the best of all-- books!  The following are my ten recommendations (in no particular order) for holiday gift giving for those who love to curl up with a great novel.


The Art of Fielding



By Chad Harbach

Everyone in the book business lives for that rare new book that you could recommend to absolutely everybody, including the legions who don't even know what they're looking for. Put this novel in the hands of those looking for a good story or those looking for something to give to Uncle Steve or to a golfing buddy in the hospital or to a friend whose read everything. "THE ART OF FIELDING" is that rare new book.


Amazon Best of the Month, September 2011: Though The Art of Fielding is his fiction debut, Chad Harbach writes with the self-assurance of a seasoned novelist. He exercises a masterful precision over the language and pacing of his narrative, and in some 500 pages, there's rarely a word that feels out of place. The title is a reference to baseball, but Harbach's concern with sports is more than just a cheap metaphor. The Art of Fielding explores relationships--between friends, family and lovers--and the unpredictable forces that complicate them. There's an unintended affair, a post-graduate plan derailed by rejection letters, a marriage dissolved by honesty, and at the center of the book, the single baseball error that sets all of these events into motion. The Art of Fielding is somehow both confident and intimate, simple yet deeply moving. Harbach has penned one of the year's finest works of fiction.--Kevin Nguyen



By Julie Otsuka

In the Japanese art of sumi-i, strokes of ink are brushed across sheets of rice paper, the play of light and dark capturing not just images but sensations, not just surfaces but the essence of what lies within. Simplicity of line is prized, extraneous detail discouraged. Although Julie Otsuka was born and raised in California and trained as a painter in the Western tradition, she seems perfectly attuned to the spirit of sumi-i. Otsuka claims to have been a failure as an artist, but she might only have erred in choosing the wrong medium. Proof arrived almost a decade ago, long after she traded painting for writing, with the publication of "WHEN THE EMPEROR WAS DIVINE", a spare but resonant portrait of one Japanese-American family's daily life, at home and in the internment camps, during WWII. Now she returns with a second novel, also employing a minimalist technique, that manages to be equally intimate yet much more expansive. Like its predecessor, "THE BUDDHA IN THE ATTIC" unfurls as a sequence of linked narratives, some no longer than a paragraph. While it appears to hold the characters at a formal distance, the reticence infuses their stories with powerful emotion. This new novel is about Japanese women who arrived in California in the aftermath of WWII, most of them young and inexperienced, most bearing photographs of men they had agreed to marry, sight unseen. Otsuka's incantatory style pulls her prose close to poetry; it's filled with evocative descriptive sketches and hesitantly revelatory confessions.



By Amy Waldman

The premise of Amy Waldman's powerful first novel, "THE SUBMISSION", can be distilled readily enough: two years after New York City is struck by a catastrophic terrorist attack (essentially identical to 9/11, but never identified as such in the book), a jury selects a design for the memorial in an anonymous competition. Then they discover taht the architect of their choice is a Muslim American. Waldman provides her readers with access to the protean inner lives of a half-dozen conflicted individuals, each with his or her own peculiar history and partial perspective on the world. In direct, uncluttered prose, Waldman charts the evolution of the memorial controversy, a media circus in which each participant's position is simultaneously understandable and untenable.


state of wonder


By Ann Patchett

In Ann Patchett's new novel, an ordinary woman winds up in increasingly extraordinary circumstances. That woman is Marina Singh, a 42 year old pharmaceutical researcher who travels to a remote part of the Amazon after receiving news that her colleague, Anders, has died there. The pharmaceutical company has been financing the Amazonian work of the formidable Dr. Swenson. Singh is sent to Brazil to track down Swenson and assess her progress on a new drug. What Swenson may have discovered is a feminine fountain of youth. An Amazonian tribe, the Lakashi, is populated by women who remain fertile their entire lives, giving birth into their 80's. The wonder of "STATE OF WONDER" is that Pratchett poses essential philosophical and bioethical arguments in a story that speeds along like a literary thriller, reaching a tremendous, deeply emotional crescendo.




By Simon Mower

In 1929, newlyweds Victor and Liesel Landauer commission the visionary architect Ranier Von Abt to build them a house overlooking their hometown in Czechoslovakia. The result is a modern masterpiece: a sculpted confection of glass, concrete and steel, holding light and air and the dream of a transparent future free from the freight of the past. But the light that pours through the glass walls isn't bright enough to illuminate the murkier corners of their family life nor is it capable of dispersing the rising shadow of National Socialism. Barely a decade later, Czechoslovakia's nascent democracy is subsumed and the Landauers are forced to flee. Through the story of the house and its occupants, Mawer shines a light on central Europe through the 20th century as it drowned under successive waves of invaders and was forced to abandon dreams to concentrate on survival.



By Alice LaPlante

Jennifer White, a retired orthopedic surgeon, may have brutally murdered her best friend, but Dr. White suffers from Alzheimer's, and the inevitable and irrevocable slide into dementia means that the crime is a mystery even to her. The circumstantial evidence is strong, leading the Chicago police and White's own family to suspect she is guilty. White and Amanda O'Toole, a retired school teacher, had a roller coaster friendship, one with long periods of stong camaraderie but deep dips of jealousy and manipulation by O'Toole that occasionally plummeted into vicious fights. Most damaging, however, is the nature of the murder. After a blow to the head killed O'Toole, four fingers were sliced off with suspicious expertise. White's medical speciality was hand and wrist surgery. 



By Paula McClain

In 1920 in Chicago, twenty-eight year old Hadley Richardson is well on her way to spinsterhood when she meets the young Ernest Hemingway. Their attraction is instantaneous. They marry and move to Paris to live a Bohemian life surrounded by their friends: the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, John dos Passos, and others. Hadley soon struggles with her roles as a woman -- wife, lover, muse, friend, and eventually mother -- and tries to find a place for herself in this tumultuous world. "THE PARIS WIFE" is set during an amazing time, the same period as Hemingway's "A MOVEABLE FEAST" and "THE SUN ALSO RISES". Paula McClain brings something wholly her own to the story of Hadley and her marriage to this stormy force of nature.



By Jeffrey Eugenides

The heart of Jeffrey Eugenides's 80s-era coming-of-age novel is Madeleine Hannah, an English major at Brown whose worldview has been cast by literature's greatest hustlers of "The Marriage Plot": Jane Austen and George Eliot. True to form, Madeleine is bright, curious, better turned out than the rest of the college rabble, and nibbled by the dissastisfaction in the way Victorian heroines must be -- until she finds herself intellectually and erotically drawn to Leonard, a magnetic and temperamental loner. Drama ensues when her old beau, Mitchell, believing she is his destiny, returns from his pilgrimage to tend to the destitute with Mother Teresa, thus completing this marvelous triangle. Eugenides's ability to reinvent the timeless tale of love and soul-searching is formidable.



By Ellen Feldman

This is the story of three young women and their enduring friendship and their evolving relationships with the men they love. The men go off to war and return, changed, to a country they don't recognize. But what' most moving is that the novel gives us a new lens through which to understand our parents' WWII generation. Though I've read many books and seen many movies set during and after the WWII years, I've never understood as clearly what life was life back home until I read "NEXT TO LOVE". 



By Michael Ondaatje

This is a story shaped by a journey, so it builds dramatic tension by forcing a small group of characters to spend inordinate amounts of time in the same space, observing, manipulating, and seducing one another. The tradition stretches back at least to "THE CANTERBURY TALES". "THE CAT'S TABLE" must be largely autobiographical -- the novel takes places on a sea journey from Ceylon to London in 1954, the year Ondaatje himself left the island. This novel is conscientious, character-driven, and psychologically acute. You'll savor every word.