Best Books of 2011
From auspicious debuts to long-awaited returns from literary stalwarts, from funny celebrities to seriously great histories, eMusic’s favorite audiobooks of 2011 has something for everyone.
#40 ALBERT BROOKS, 2030
Writing a novel, Albert Brooks has said in interviews, was a freeing experience, one unhindered by the usual practical limitations. The guy's been a mostly successful filmmaker for going on three decades, but never had the sort of budget that would allow him to, say, destroy Los Angeles on the big screen. The blank page, essentially, is a blank check, and it's actually pretty refreshing to see what he does with it... in 2030.more »
Indeed, L.A. gets leveled by a mega-earthquake in the early passages of Brooks' dystopian literary debut, and in the prose-projected big screen of the mind, it's impressive and horrific. But he doesn't linger there, because the year 2030 is a tumultuous time in America on all fronts, especially when it comes to health and debt issues: Cancer, obesity and bone depletion are a thing of the past, and people are routinely living past the century mark. Yay! But the young and youngish now have to pay for this new elderly but undying generation, so everybody's going broke. Boo! Things can get funny and schticky, and there's a healthy dose of satire, as you might expect (for instance, the AARP is the most powerful lobby in Washington, and wait till you see how the U.S. finances the rebuilding of the West Coast), but Brooks doesn't shy away from tough, gut-twisting human drama, either.
Told from a number of diverse and likeable perspectives - a lapsed idealist president with a mom on life support (bad for approval ratings), a sad old dad living on a cramped retirement cruise ship, a millionaire self-styled freedom fighter leading an uprising against the elderly, and so on - 2030 is surprising and classically stylish. Brooks seems to have created a perfectly unworkable version of the future that's just ridiculous enough to laugh at, just brutal enough to make you worry.-Patrick Rapa
#39 BRIAN GREENE, THE HIDDEN REALITY
Physicist Brian Greene is without a doubt our leading, most articulate proponent of string theory: science's best guess of how reality functions. In two previous, widely lauded books he's put forth the idea that the holy grail of physics - a theory that could be applied to anything from a flying airplane to an atom smashed in a black hole - comes down to vibrating strings and a universe of more than... 10 dimensions.more »
In this, Greene's third book, he takes us farther than ever into the bizarre, frequently outlandish world that string theory says we live in, mixing the hard fact of generally-accepted science with Greene's passionate, honest advocacy for theories that are at the forefront of our understanding of the cosmos. Many (including Greene himself) have rightly pointed out that string theory is untestable, and Greene readily admits that some of these ideas may one day be seen as nothing more than misguided guesses. Still, for anyone who's interested, The Hidden Reality delivers a lucid, compelling narrative that explains the most advanced theories from the smartest physicists the scientific community has to offer.
Their ideas are amazing to behold. Take "inflationary cosmology," which uses the available evidence to theorize that a moment after the universe began, it suddenly expanded by an amount equal to "a region of space the size of a pea" being "stretched larger than the observable universe in a time interval so short that the blink of an eye would overestimate it by a factor larger than a million billion billion billion." Or then there's the idea that our universe might only be a hologram of another universe - one shot through with black holes at that! Smart readers will take all this with a grain of salt, but, still, no other author delivers such clear, accessible explanations of science's answers to the big questions. The Hidden Reality is candy for minds that want to know where science is headed in this 21st century. -Scott Esposito
#38 DIANE KEATON, Then Again
In the three decades since Diane Keaton seduced America with her sweetly stammering Annie Hall, she's beguiled a number of "unattainable greats" as well: Woody Allen, Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, even Steve Jobs. "Talent is just so damn attractive," she offers as an organizing principle to her love life. But Then Again, her new memoir, is much more than a catalog of her Hollywood affairs. Though Keaton does disclose fun... tidbits about her former paramours (she loved Woody Allen's body and taught Al Pacino how to drive), the book is less about her romantic life than her family life.more »
It might be necessary even to qualify the term "memoir." Then Again requires some hyphenated descriptions: "half-posthumous" perhaps, and maybe even "co-written." Keaton's writing partner is Dorothy Hall, her ever-encouraging and optimistic mother, who died in 2008 after a long struggle with Alzheimer's. As she pores over decades of her mother's journals - 85 in all - Keaton comes to know a familiar but still-strange figure: "Mom," surely, but also a woman of creative temperament and thwarted ambition, a housewife with internal conflicts she never allowed herself to betray, and a darker sense of humor than Keaton ever suspected. "Those pictures are just as I expected - awful." Dorothy writes in a letter. "Diane looks kind of funny. I'm not going to send them 'cause you'll think I've been kidding you about how cute she is." Such personal gems aren't few and far between, either; they're embedded throughout the book. Part-paean, part-autobiography, Then Again - read by Keaton herself - is intimate but sprightly and utterly all-consuming.-Alice Gregory
#37 MICHAEL LEWIS, BOOMERANG
Michael Lewis is not always a simple writer, but no matter his subject, he promises a fun, eye-opening ride in exchange for the reader's undivided attention. The fascinating Boomerang arose out of Lewis's previous book, The Big Short, a study of the 2008 global financial crisis. The new book picks up where the previous one left off, examining what the crisis looked like in five very different places: Iceland, Greece, Ireland, Germany... and California.more »
Lewis likes people, and as such, Boomerang largely consists of the author's observations and theories, generated with the help of financial experts, politicians, city workers, and even some enterprising Greek monks, on the cultural reasons behind the predicaments these countries (and a state the size of some countries) got themselves into. For instance, Lewis finds that while highly educated in fields they're passionate about, such as fishing or literature, not many Icelanders involved in the country's financial system at the start of this century seemed to actually know anything about finance. And in Greece, he learns that tax evasion is so rampant that tax collectors are just as likely to join the nonchalant evaders, not try to beat them.
It may sound like a cavalier American's tour through the pile of dominoes left in 2008's wake, but Boomerang is focused and detailed in spite of its brevity and Lewis's frequent flashes of humor. The book is also a close look at what these four European nations thought of the U.S. crisis and how their banking systems connected to it. For his final flourish, Lewis comes home to California (he currently teaches at Berkeley). In a standout section of the book, he goes on a hair-raising bike ride through Santa Monica with former Governor Schwarzenegger to try to find out how the state wound up so spectacularly broke.
Throughout his travels, there's one valuable conclusion Lewis keeps arriving at: that there were far too few women operating in the financial sector in the lead-up to the global financial crisis, and those who were seldom listened to. Some people seem to have learned their lesson. Lewis tells us that one women-run investment firm opened in Iceland 2006 is now one of the country's most profitable businesses. As one of its clients put it when he came knocking on the founder's door, fed up: "I just want some women to take care of my money." -Liz Colville
#36 TEA OBREHT, THE TIGER’S WIFE
In Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife, family history and Balkan myth are woven together with exquisite lyrical skill. The youngest of The New Yorker's "20 Under 40" Obreht, who had not yet even published a book when the magazine ran her story last summer, was already poised for critical acclaim. In her debut novel, Natalia Stefanovi, a young doctor living and practicing in an unnamed Balkan country, is vaccinating orphans when she... hears of the death of her grandfather, a fellow doctor, who had been secretly and seriously ill. When she learns that the body has been stripped of all belongings, Natalia journeys into the remote countryside to learn what exactly happened. Her quixotic quest is interrupted with sprawling magical realism - the folktales peopled with spiritedly imagined figures - a deathless man, a talking parrot, a deaf-mute tiger's wife - that her grandfather told her as a little girl. In Obreht's masterful spinning of disparate narratives, she attends with equal devotion to the fantastical, collective past of legends and to the stark reality of Natalia's own dilemmas: Her work with the orphans and her scattered family's attempt to suture a long-raw wound. By way of an intensely imaginative fiction, Obreht renders the war-ravaged history of her native Yugoslavia with a singular sense of depth. Indeed, she is wise beyond her years. - Alice Gregorymore »
#35 LILY TUCK, I MARRIED YOU FOR HAPPINESS
An unexpected death can throw the living world off its axis. At one moment, there are the expectations of a life proceeding normally: the dinner to be eaten, the vacation to be taken, the argument to be had, had again, and, finally, to be resolved or forgotten; at the next, all expectation is rendered obsolete. What do we do when struck with that equilibrium-obliterating force?more »
In Lily Tuck's I Married You For Happiness... Nina's husband of 30-some years goes upstairs for a nap before dinner and never wakes up. Nina sets up an overnight vigil during which her life with her husband, Philip, unfolds: all the countries they traveled to, the birth of their daughter, their sweetest and sexiest times, and also the infidelities, the lies, the regrets. The stuff of their life floats past in beautiful vignettes that feel as fragmented and ethereal as memory itself; the listener's understanding of Philip, and of Nina, deepens as the vignettes dovetail and repeat. Because Philip was a mathematician who specialized in probability, larger questions about human agency in the face of the knowable or unknowable universe loom throughout the narrative. The listener feels Nina wondering: could knowing Philip was going to die like this have saved her from the shock of its suddenness?
For all its huge themes - death, betrayal, love, loss - this is an amazingly subtlr book, and that subtelty, ultimately, is the novel's strength. In spare, measured prose, Tuck shows how death resounds in the life of one individual. The listener is intimately close to Nina, in her thoughts and memories, as she mourns, reflects, and, finally, moves toward healing. -Sara Jaffe
#34 MITCHELL ZUCKOFF, LOST IN SHANGRI-LA
Mitchell Zuckoff's wild and harrowing adventure/survival story is the kind of thing you'll want to recount in casual conversation, but be warned: I tried, but nobody believed it could be nonfiction. The plot may be too preposterous for Hollywood, with so many terrible and enlightening and befuddling moments you kinda can't believe it. Spoilers would do you a great disservice, but here's the gist: A U.S. Army plane crash lands in a... remote jungle in Papua, New Guinea, during the fading days of World War II. Many die right away, and more succumb to their wounds and burns during that first terrible night. But three lucky, bruised souls - two soldiers and a WAC (a member of the Women's Army Corps) - miraculously limp away and into the arms of a tribe of people who'd never before laid eyes on a Westerner. The soldiers mistake them for savages. The tribesmen mistake them for ghosts. What follows is a comedy of errors and a triumph of human nature, as the two groups with little in common culture shock each other all over the jungle. And just wait till you hear about the rescue plan. Part of what makes Lost in Shangri-La so effective is Zuckoff's straight-laced sense of journalistic fairness. There's little embellishment, and very little unnecessary drama heightening. He lets the facts and the historical record tell the story. Plus: How many white man-meets-natives yarns actually include interviews with the natives?-Patrick Rapamore »
#33 TAYARI JONES, SILVER SPARROW
Familial roots are exposed and tangled in Tayari Jones's spirited coming-of-age tale, set in mid-'80s Atlanta. Teenagers Dana Yarboro and Chaurisse Witherspoon may be raised on pop music and television, but even a "modern" family like the Bradys can't prepare them for a harsh reality. When the girls meet in a drugstore and bond over faux hair and handbags, Dana knows Chaurisse is her sister. This is no Parent Trap-style farce, however.... James Witherspoon, a car service owner and driver, has kept Dana and her mother out of his daily life for years. James has worked hard to keep the girls apart - he forbids Dana from taking a coveted summer job at Six Flags when Chaurisse applies, and discourages them from choosing the same college. While sweet Chaurisse sees her father at the dinner table every night, the younger Dana is used to feeling slighted. "When most people think of bigamy," she says in the novel's opening passage, "if they think of it at all, they imagine some primitive practice on the pages of National Geographic." Far from a foreign landscape or scripted dramedy, Silver Sparrow tells the story of two working families. Divided into two narratives (told by Heather Alicia Simms and Rosalyn Coleman Williams), the novel offers a funny and affecting glance at haves and have-nots. From Dana's need for a father's love ("Who doesn't want to be loved? Anyone who has been cast off knows the pain of it"), to Chaurisse's mother's Scarlett O'Hara fantasies and a desire to run a successful hair salon, the women are feisty and filled with desire. Their stories are fresh and nostalgic as an icy Coca-Cola from the bottle.-Kate Silvermore »
#32 WALTER ISAACSON, STEVE JOBS
It seems strangely fitting that you can now listen to Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs on one of the latter's inventions. It's a powerful reminder of the ubiquity of the man whom Isaacson boldly proclaims an American innovator of the caliber of Thomas Edison. What comes across most clearly in Steve Jobs isn't that Jobs invented any one particular gadget, but rather the way he raised existing ideas to perfection, making... products people rushed to with a religious fervor.more »
Isaacson, who conducted countless interviews with Jobs and his immense network of rich, powerful and incredibly smart friends and lovers, offers us an unprecedentedly close portrait of the man. He starts from the very beginning, with strong portraits of Jobs's biological parents as well as the adoptive ones who took him in after he was abandoned. He follows Jobs through adolescence, eventually offering a fresh take on the now-familiar saga of his fall from grace with Apple. Some of the most revealing stretches in this book come in the final act, where Isaacson charts out Jobs' personal and private life as he helmed Pixar, NeXT, and, ultimately, took Apple to the top of the world's corporate entities.
The book is a treasure trove of Jobs's mantra-like sayings ("Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do") as well as revealing stories, like the 67 nurses Jobs ran through while being treated for cancer until he found the perfect ones, and the oxygen mask he rips off because it was poorly designed. Although Isaacson doesn't cover up what a difficult and demeaning person Jobs could be, this is clearly a sympathetic portrait meant to enshrine Jobs more than deconstruct him. That's fine for a first draft of history, as there will surely be scores of books to offer the critical opinions that Isaacson largely eschews in favor of showing us the man behind the technology virtually all of us are now hooked on.-Scott Esposito
#31 SIMON PEGG, NERD DO WELL
Actor, writer, director and comedian Simon Pegg is much too modest to write a memoir, so what the Sean of the Dead and Hot Fuzz star publishes instead in Nerd Do Well: A Small Boy's Journey to Becoming a Big Kid, which is half-autobiography, half fan-fiction. The irony is that despite the crime-fighting, robots and sex in the fictional portion of Pegg's book, the true story is more interesting. Pegg, a self-admitted... fanboy of sci-fi, horror and humor, is a role model to anyone who ever dreamed of actually making their fantasies a reality. Several times throughout the book, Pegg ponders what would happen if he could take a time machine back to his boyhood and tell, for instance, the young Star Trek fan within that he would one day play Scotty in a future film version of the series. What's especially charming about the memoir is how much homage Pegg plays to the positive influences in his life - teachers, parents, mentors - who encouraged his drive and creativity. The audiobook is read by the author, who makes you think he must be a whiz at doing voices when it comes to reading bedtime stories to his children.-Claire Zulkeymore »
#30 MINDY KALING, IS EVERYONE HANGING OUT WITHOUT ME? (AND OTHER CONCERNS)
To the casual viewer, Mindy Kaling is the actress who plays Kelly Kapoor, the materialistic, vapid, occasionally psychopathic young employee at Dunder Mifflin on The Office. To many comedy fans, however, Kaling is a hero; one of the few non-white, non-male comedy writers to write and direct episodes of a long-running prime-time comedy. (And maintain an entertaining shopping blog, "Things I Bought That I Love," at the same time.) Kaling has the... same fun, girlfriendly personality traits as Kapoor but she's both more intelligent and sweetly traditional than her television character. The pieces in her book that reflect those qualities are the strongest, particularly her revelation that she wants a marriage like her parents', whose dynamic she likens to "pals." Some sections are a little more lightweight than others (such as when Kaling discusses the exact level of fame she wants), but they're not unpleasant. They just reveal less than when Kaling discusses the behind-the-scenes information about how a girl goes from a glasses-wearing dork to a writer for a beloved show who occasionally gets to play dress-up for People magazine. New and old fans of Kaling will feel close to the writer and may wish to Tweet her after certain passages of the book, to say "OMG me too!"-Claire Zulkeymore »
#29 JO ANN BEARD, In ZANESVILLE
Some readers adore juicy coming-of-age novels, while others are just glad to have survived their own adolescence - no need to revisit. So here's a test. If the following sentence makes you nod with recognition rather than roll your eyes, keep reading: "I'm sick of being a teenager. Being a teenager so far hasn't gotten me anything beyond period cramps and nameless yearning, which I had as a kid too, but this... is a new kind of nameless yearning that has boys attached to it." Still with me? Good. In Zanseville is filled with these kinds of poignant meditations on the trappings of puberty, from the delicious agony of a first crush to the thorny politics of high school cliques. Such topics are far from revolutionary, but they're undeniably affecting all the same. Hormone-fueled angst is universal, after all.more »
Which isn't to say that Jo Ann Beard's first novel (after her acclaimed autobiographical essay collection The Boys of My Youth) simply retreads Judy Blume tampons-and-slumber-parties territory - far from it. In Zanesville brilliantly captures a particular time and place - a working class Illinois suburb in the early 1970s - back when lunches of banana and mayonnaise were eaten at soda fountains and children were regularly enlisted to fetch their mothers' cigarettes. In retrospect this era seems both simpler and more dangerous than the present, and Beard's precocious 14-year-old heroine is at the center of this dichotomy. Her nuclear family is almost sitcom-worthy - a tough-but-loving mom, an older sister who's equal parts friend and tormenter - until we get to her father, an alcoholic who disappears on benders for days at a time. A palpable sense of dread underlies the narrator's more frivolous anxieties: In between worrying about whether her best friend will snag a real boyfriend before she does, there's the niggling fear that when she's sent down to the basement to get a jar of yams for her mother, she'll find her father's shotgun on the ground, her father's body close by.
Where to find redemption in the midst of these challenges? One of the book's greatest charms is its depiction of the narrator's intellectual awakening, from her discoveries about art ("The thing is, once you start thinking about surrealism, everything starts to seem both relevant and absurd. A pencil? A piece of twine? A fork? Air?") to her avid consumption of literature. If you're the kind of teenager who stays after school to page through your art teacher's coffee table books, and if the boys you have the strongest opinions about are Charles Dickens, Thomas Wolfe and Stephen Crane, then the world is so much bigger than your small town, your family, your hormones. It's enormous.-Maris Kreizman
#28 BOB MOULD, SEE A LITTLE LIGHT
Save the occasional trip to a clothing-optional resort, the autobiography of Hüsker Dü and Sugar frontman Bob Mould is almost completely devoid of the hedonistic tales that peppered recent tomes by Keith Richards and Nikki Sixx, collectively part of the profitable "rocker tell-all" genre. Instead, in the spirit of the punk rock and alternative movements he fostered, Mould digs much deeper and gets more confessional and granular, baring all about his obsessive... work habits, the slowly decaying relationships between his bandmates, and the troubled romances that wouldn't die. By going heroically personal in every sentence, Mould even makes quitting smoking seem like a harrowing tempest of emotion.more »
His honesty is most affecting when he talks about his sexuality, detailing the complicated feelings when his preferences were an "open secret" in the world of '80s punk, all the way through his life as a 39-year-old adult finally "getting a crash course in how the gay world turns." Mould is assisted by Michael Azerrad, whose Our Band Could Be Your Life already established him as indie rock's greatest storyteller. Together they offer not only a revealing peek inside Mould's ecstasy and agony, but also a first-hand look at the American punk revolution, the major label alternative implosion and (thanks to Mould's brief career writing wrestling storylines) the rise of Chris Benoit. The book's conversational tone is amplified in the audiobook, read by Mould himself in a warm, matter-of-fact pace.-Christopher Weingarten
#27 DAN SAVAGE & TERRY MILLER, IT GETS BETTER
Distressed and dismayed by the suicides of several bullied LGBTQ teens, Dan Savage and husband Terry Miller launched the It Gets Better project with an online video in which they promised gay youth a hopeful future if only they would stick around to live it. It didn't take long before the campaign received thousands of videos from people around the world, all willing to share personal stories of how they'd overcome adolescent... harassment to lead happy, fulfilling adult lives. A fraction of those stories have been transcribed and included in this audiobook, which is meant to accompany the hugely successful online video campaign. The result is a candid, touching, moving and - at moments - surprisingly funny compilation.more »
Savage should be given kudos for including such a diverse array of voices. Contributors are drawn from across racial, religious, lingual, international and socioeconomic lines; there's even a piece from a reformed bully among these tales of the formerly harassed. The diversity of the authors - among them, everyday people, celebrities and heads of state - is reflected in both their accounts of their experiences and the messages they convey. Randy Roberts Potts, grandson of televangelist Oral Roberts, reflects on the suicide of his gay uncle, and the decision to come out in a deeply homophobic community. Michelle Faid discusses the pitfalls of being openly bisexual in high school and the unexpected backlash that followed her decision to bring a female date to prom. And Gabrielle Rivera writes, "As a gay woman of color...it doesn't get better, but what does happen is this: You get stronger."
For the most part, pieces from high profile contributors - and there are many, including President Barack Obama, Ellen Degeneres, and Prime Minister David Cameron - fail to connect as deeply as those from their lesser known counterparts. And though the narration of the audiobook can sometimes be flat, it's wonderful to hear the voices in the book brought to life. It Gets Better can and should serve as an indispensable resource to parents, educators and youth, and will resonate with anyone who has ever felt different or out of place. Here's hoping every young person, gay or not, gets a chance to listen.-Kali Holloway
#26 DEBORAH HARKNESS, A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES
Deborah Harkness's A Discovery of Witches is not exactly Twlight for grownups - it's better. Comparisons to that blockbuster series are hard to ignore; yes, there are vampires, and yes, there are star-crossed lovers and a ruling cabal that wants to keep them apart, but Witches also throws in Oxford University, genetic crossbreeding, demons, alchemy, and, well... witches.more »
Harkness's protagonist, Diana Bishop, is a powerful witch through her mother's genealogy, but her interests... are in academia. She shuns her powers until she's presented with an ancient alchemical manuscript that responds to her touch. Mere possession of the book opens her up to scrutiny by the vampires who inhabit Oxford's Bodleian Library. One in particular, Matthew Clairmont, a tall, handsome, 1500-year-old neuroscientist and biochemist (who, it must be said, bears more than a passing resemblance to Twilight's Edward Cullen), takes a liking to Diana. However, relations between witches and vampires are strictly forbidden by an international cabal of supernatural beings, and Diana's newfound ownership of the manuscript puts a price on her head, leading to an all-out sprint for answers that can only be found somewhere between Darwin's Theory of Evolution, and magic spells.
With the world hanging in the balance, Harkness doesn't skimp on levity. Her demons are thoroughly modern. They drop the odd reference to pop culture - albeit the kind of pop culture the History Channel specializes in ("Didn't we watch a television program about the Crusades that had an order of knights in it?" is a typical girls-night conversation here), and they're also yoga nuts. They just happen to be yoga nuts who can levitate.-Leah Friedman
#25 STEVE EARLE, I’LL NEVER GET OUT OF THIS WORLD ALIVE
Mix one part Raymond Chandler with two parts Charles Bukowski and you'd wind up with something like Steve Earle's I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive. Doc Ebersole is a down-and-out physician with a morphine habit who's eking out a pathetic existence in San Antonio's skid row. The year is 1963, and the disgraced doctor is reduced - has reduced himself - to patching gunshot wounds, repairing broken ribs, and performing... abortions for poor souls even worse off than he.more »
Into this grim picture enter two figures: one is the ghost of Hank Williams, who visits Doc to float eerily and accuse him of administering the shot of morphine that did Williams in. ("There are some things about being haunted that Doc will never get used to.") The other is a more beatific character. Eighteen year-old Graciela speaks little English when she comes to Doc in dire straits. After performing the necessary procedure, Ebersole takes a liking to the young woman, and she returns the sentiment. Beautiful Graciela - "finely chiseled features more Indian than mestiza, glossy black hair contrasting against her bare shoulders" - turns out to have powers of her own, including the ability to heal everyone who crosses her path. The ghost of Hank Williams, however, is not pleased to cede his share of Doc's attention, and it is this uncommon conflict that brings a listener into Earle's gritty, boozy, sin-riddled world. The author is a Grammy-winning performer whom viewers might recognize from roles in The Wire and Treme. The audio version of his book is read, most fittingly, by Earle himself.-Molly Young
#24 STEPHEN KING, 11/22/63
Jake Epping is a high-school English teacher with a crumbling personal life and a taste for greasy food. Both are normal enough traits, and Epping is a typically likable Everyman. What's abnormal - and so very Stephen King - is how the Everyman's everyman-ness leads him into a tangled ball of bizarre and unsettling events. In the case of 11/22/63, those events constitute an alternate history of mid-20th-century America. Yep, that's right:... Jake Epping is the hero of a time-travel novel.more »
Here's how it works. Left alone by his wife, Jake eats occasional suppers at a local diner that his teaching peers avoid, and it so happens that a time portal has opened up inside the greasy spoon's pantry. Don't ask how - the mechanics of the rabbit-hole go mercifully unexplained. What matters is where it leads, and what might be accomplished by returning to that era. After revealing his secret and explaining that the portal leads back to1958, the diner's proprietor urges Jake to make the journey. "If you ever wanted to change the world," he pleads, "this is your chance. Save Kennedy, save his brother. Save Martin Luther King. Stop the race riots. Stop Vietnam, maybe."
How can Jake say no? He steps through the portal and finds himself whisked back to the tail end of the fifties - a time of Eisenhower, rabbit-eared televisions, Viceroy cigarettes and 95 cent meatloaf dinners. The problem, of course, is that Jake doesn't know what happened on the day of the Kennedy assassination, and neither, really, do we. The fog of uncertainty around that day complicates the novel's question of whether it is possible to change the past. If Jake doesn't know what happened, how on earth is he supposed to circumvent it?
The struggle to answer that question is what drives 11/22/63, and what comes through most powerfully is the author's joy at working a new muscle. King's enthusiasm is infectious.-Molly Young
#23 ERNEST CLINE, READY PLAYER ONE
Not sure what's more impressive about Ernie Cline's debut novel: that he managed to pack it with so many pop-nerd-culture references or that he created such a fresh and memorable story while doing so. Okay, here's the situation: It's 2044, and America, if not the world, is a bleak, dystopian craphole where the poor are just as likely to live in trailers stacked 10-high as they are to be owned outright by... some predatory megacorporation. In contrast we have OASIS, the gigantic virtual universe where pretty much everybody - like Wade, our poor as dirt street urchin/hacker/hero (a 21st Century Charlie Bucket) and the best friends he's never met - spends their time working, playing, going to school, and pretending things don't suck as bad as they do. Then uber-rich reclusive tech magnate James Halliday dies and leaves the keys to his empire to whoever can solve the 1980s-themed puzzles he's hidden all over OASIS. After that, it's on like Donkey Kong: scrappy, chubby, sunlight deprived Wade vs. megacorp thugs, battling to see who can beat this old arcade game or decipher this Reagan-era reference first. There are '80s namechecks on just about every page, but you don't actually need to know Rush lyrics, Atari cheat codes or Matthew Broderick quotes to navigate Ready Player One. Like Wade, you just gotta plug in. It is your density.-Patrick Rapamore »
#22 ELISSA SCHAPPELL, BLUEPRINTS FOR BUILDING BETTER GIRLS
The title of Elissa Schappell's short story collection comes from a vintage '60s etiquette guide that B, the playwright-protagonist of "Aren't You Dead Yet?", scores at a flea market. B finds the guide quaint, convinced that those blueprint-building days are firmly in the past. The irony, of course, is that women continue to live, resist and question the blueprints the world hands them, and Schappell's collection masterfully illustrates this timeless dance.more »
Schappell's gang... of once-and-future "better girls" run from teenaged to middle-aged, from sheltered small-town Southerners to worldly New Yorkers. They have a multitude of strategies and defenses, too, for living female: In "Monsters of the Deep," the opening story and the collection's strongest, teenage Heather, an aspiring oceanographer, suffers taunts of "Slut!" at school, and does her best to both resist and inhabit the rumors that fly about her; in "Elephant," two young mothers broach the taboo subject of whether having kids was, after all, worth it. In "Joy of Cooking," a mother instructs her anorexic adult daughter on how to cook a chicken, the deeply dependent daughter clinging to and rejecting her mother with equal force. A number of these stories are linked by shared characters, and it's a pleasure to recognize Charlotte, or Paige, or Bender as she reappears.
To an extent, Schappell is presenting us with tropes of womanhood that are familiar in popular culture, and the stories are at their strongest when the characters are the least self-aware of the roles they inhabit: we know that Bender, the narrator of "Out of the Blue and Into the Black," is pushing away the boy who loves her because she can't stand the idea of being loved, even though she views her rejections of him as casual, accidental. Moments like the one where we see Bender grappling with emotions she can't understand are so powerful not because they illuminate for us the blueprints of one girl; rather, they illuminate the ways that our society hands girls these blueprints, and then leaves them to flounder through them on their own.-Sara Jaffe
#21 TOM PERROTTA, THE LEFTOVERS
What would happen if the apocalypse did occur now, but not in the way anybody predicted? Tom Perrotta tackles a tantalizing and thought-provoking premise wherein the Rapture occurs but very little answers are left behind. Seemingly random adults and children disappear without a trace and without any indication of why some were chosen and others left behind. Those who are left behind struggle with their new reality, some by choosing strange new... religions and cults like the Guilty Remnant, a silent robed sect that smokes in order to demonstrate that health is no matter when the world is about to end. Listeners looking for an apocalyptic sci-fi novel may be disappointed, as Perrotta somehow turns the end of the world into an everyday affair, but the author of Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher is an expert at turning the little moments of middle-aged upper-middle-class suburbia into graceful and intriguing scenes. The Leftovers has a large cast of characters and so listeners with short attention spans, especially those who listen to the story in bursts, may have a few moments where it's difficult to remember which character is which. However, it all comes together in the end, all except the whys, hows and whats of the Rapture, but that turns out to be surprisingly irrelevant.-Claire Zulkeymore »
#20 DANIEL KAHNEMAN, THINKING, FAST AND SLOW
Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman wouldn't go so far as to say that we, as humans, are inherently stupid or lazy, but he's just being polite. There's really no other conclusion to come to as you work your way through his fascinating (and humiliating) dissection of our species' psychological profile. Human beings are easily tricked, routinely irrational and prejudiced on multiple levels. We are so often confused, distracted and lazy in our personal... and professional lives that we're always looking for easy answers to make our zombie-walk through the day's decisions even easier. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Dr. Kahneman lays out all the ways we fool ourselves: jumping to conclusions, mistaking talent for luck, defending poor decisions, and so on. Along the way, he teaches some fine pop-psych terms you can drop at parties like the mere exposure effect (wherein we start to like even dumb ideas the more we hear them) and the law of least effort (our slothful brains gravitate toward easy answers), and hundreds of examples of people being irrational, sometimes with hilarious or devastating results. Like, did you know that companies with easily pronounced names do better in the stock market during their first week? Apparently their familiar syllables just make us feel comfortable. And guess what: We do better on tests with smaller, less legible fonts, probably because we're concentrating more. I think this book is amazing, but I've also lost all faith in my stupid, lazy opinions.-Patrick Rapamore »
#19 PATTON OSWALT, ZOMBIE SPACESHIP WASTELAND
Comedian and actor Patton Oswalt ("Ratatouille," "Big Fan") brings a little of this and a little of that to his first book. It's part memoir, part humor, part list of things he looked up on the Internet as he wrote. As the author puts it, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland is a work of comedy, terror and autobiography that begins with his early memories of working in a movie theater, committing light larceny and... playing Dungeons & Dragons until its magic is eclipsed by an actual social life. The amusing autobiographical sketches are interspersed with short out-and-out humor pieces (the title is a reference to the various philosophies nerds take towards life as we know it: you either identify with zombies, wish you commandeered a spaceship or looked forward to living a quiet life in a wasteland).more »
The best moment of the book is when Oswalt offers a look at what it's like to headline a comedy club somewhere in Canada (not nearly as glamorous as it seems, when you don't want to be there nor, seemingly, does the audience), while a reverie of a trip to an MTV gifting suite is rife with self-consciousness and loathing. Helped out by his musical friends Michael Penn and Michael Stipe, the book includes a few semi-jokey, semi-autobiographical musical references (like meaningful-to-Oswalt REM lyrics recited gamely by Stipe). At just over three hours long, it's ideal for a mini-road trip.-Claire Zulkey
#18 STEPHEN GREENBLATT, THE SWERVE
Perhaps it's not surprising that Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern is no lightweight listen. It is, after all, an examination of the 2000-year-old, 7400+ word Latin poem "De rerun natura" ("On the Nature of Things") and the effect it has had on philosophy and history since its rediscovery in 1417 in the archives of a German monastery. Despite this dense subject matter, Greenblatt, a major figure in academia,... has accomplished a truly remarkable feat: he's made his discussion not only eminently understandable to those of us not in the midst of a dissertation on Renaissance philosophy, but immensely fascinating and relevant to the 21st century American experience.more »
The comforting voice of narrator Edoardo Ballerini takes us through a papal emissary's initial discovery of the text by Roman writer Lucretius, as well as its unfriendly reception in the Catholic Church. Along with a discussion of the Roman understanding of physics, Lucretius's work proposed a truly radical idea: the gods were so absorbed in their own lives that they gave little thought to the acts or morality of mortals - and with that lack of attention came a lack of ultimate judgment after death. From this understanding came the conclusion that without that sort of final accounting, man had nothing to fear from death, and that one's only goal should be to live in the pursuit of personal fulfillment.
At the time, the Church was the leading school of science and philosophy, and Lucretius's thesis was borderline heretical to its teaching of faith and moral order. Greenblatt posits that because of the distribution of this one poem, a shift occurred in the philosophical community, and contributed a great deal to the Renaissance's push towards modernity and greater diversity of thought.
Taking his title from one of the lines of "De rerun natura" in which "the swerve" refers to an unpredictable change, Greenblatt draws a line from ancient Rome through the Renaissance and Enlightenment to the Declaration of Independence's "pursuit of happiness," while his discussion of Lucretius's zen-like treatise on life and death doubles as a meditation on the modern fear of mortality. So no, it's not a beach book, but it is a fascinating - and extremely accessible window - into the evolution of modern thought.-Leah Friedman
#17 ANN PATCHETT, STATE OF WONDER
Ann Patchett's State of Wonder begins, elegantly, with a death. "At that moment she un-derstood why people say, 'You might want to sit down,'" writes Patchett of Midwestern pharmaceutical researcher Dr. Marina Singh, as she is informed of a colleague's demise in the Amazon jungle. "There was inside of her a very modest physical collapse, not a faint but a sort of folding, as if she were an extension ruler and her... ankles and knees and hips were all being brought together at closer angles."more »
But what follows this moment is the most vibrant of stories, full of color and life. As Marina sets off for the Amazon in search of the last person to see her research partner alive, the reclusive and cantankerous Dr. Annick Swenson, the book blooms. The prose is rich, the characters are vividly rendered, and the relationship between Marina and Dr. Swenson, who is investigating an absurdly fertile Amazonian tribe, is complex, funny and deeply engaging.
State of Wonder, the sixth novel from Pen/Faulkner award-winning Patchett, is the product of an artist in her prime. So, too, is the audiobook, which is narrated by actress Hope Davis, who mesmerizingly voices dozens of characters of different genders, ages and nationalities. A lesser work would still be worth listening to if Davis was reading it. But the combination of Pat
#16 AMOR TOWLES, RULES OF CIVILITY
Amor Towles' Rules of Civility is a romp through the 1930s Manhattan glamour scene. His effervescent heroine, Katey Kontent (formerly known as Katya) manages to work her way up from law firm secretary to darling of Cond é Nast's Gotham - a thinly-veiled New Yorker Magazine - and entangle herself in a tempestuous love triangle involving her best friend, Eve, and the exquisitely-named, Jay Gatsby-esque Tinker Grey.more »
After Tinker injures Eve in a... car accident, he finds himself to be not only her generous benefactor, but a romantic conquest as well. However, Katey has already fallen for Tinker after a few chance encounters on the party circuit, and when she believes he returns her affections it becomes all the more difficult to be confronted with gossip about his and Eve's escapades. The vagaries of love and money push the listener through a number of twists regarding who is really manipulating whom, which, combined with the ultra-snappy dialogue and glamorous settings lend Rules the air of an old fashioned caper.
Capably interpreted by Rebecca Lowman, Rules can feel at times like the ultimate 1930s literary pastiche, however Towles' characters are charming enough to justify the plunge into familiar territory. Tinker may have the wealth and the mystery, and Katey may be the rags-to-riches American story, but it's Eve - the child of Midwestern privilege - who gets all the best lines. It's hard to resist a real broad in the tradition of Dorothy Parker - especially when she's dropping bon mots like, "I'm willing to be under anything - as long as it isn't somebody's thumb."-Leah Friedman
#15 JANE LYNCH, HAPPY ACCIDENTS
#14 HELEN OYEYEMI, MR. FOX
Helen Oyeyemi's playful, audacious and often breathtaking new novel, Mr. Fox, begins with an accusation: "You kill women." The accuser: the wickedly funny muse come-to-life, Mary Foxe. The accused: St. John Fox, the mid-century author of dark little books that always end with his female characters dying in gruesome ways. As Mary challenges Mr. Fox to treat his female characters differently - "Just be flexible," she says - a game commences, and... one of the more delightfully unconventional narratives in recent memory begins to unfold.more »
A good swath of the book, which in many ways is a retelling of the Bluebeard story, is comprised of extremely clever short stories co-written by Fox and Foxe. In this struggle, Mary insistently tries to get Mr. Fox to treat his female characters better, often with little success. There is also a separate storyline where we learn more about Mr. Fox's life, and his tumultuous relationship with his real-life wife, Daphne, who objects to the his relationship with his fictional universe and, by extension, Mary. ("Why have husbands got to keep themselves all locked up, that's what I want to know," wonders Daphne.)
Mr. Fox is Oyeyemi's fourth novel - she is just 26, and has won numerous awards - and she handles the complexities of the novel deftly and purposefully. Again and again, we see female characters get crushed in various ways, either physically or emotionally, which sounds sort of oppressive, but actually becomes empowering. As the stories get richer and darker, the novel begins to feel more expansive. And suddenly the female characters begin to thrive. There is still a struggle between all the voices - there will always be a struggle - but Oyeyemi presents a hopeful vision for love and equality in the end.-Jami Attenberg
#13 GABRIELLE HAMILTON, BLOOD, BONES AND BUTTER
New York chef Hamilton has built a career on feeding people small, meaningful meals at her beloved eatery Prune, and this bittersweet memoir doles out her unusual life experiences in equally compelling, well-paced morsels. After a magical, party-filled childhood in rural Pennsylvania with an exacting French ballet dancer mom, a whimsical set designer dad and four wild siblings, Hamilton's fairy tale ended when her parents divorced. Abandoned and broke, the young teen... found work in restaurants to support herself - and her precocious habits. Later on, the waitressing and catering jobs got her through a few failed runs at college, and finally, a graduate writing program. Despite her intention to become a published author, Hamilton's passion for food - and for the ways food could convey emotion - drew her back to kitchens time and again. When she finally had the opportunity to open her own restaurant, she eagerly set about trying to recreate the cozy enclave of her lost youth, replete with bone marrow and sardine and Triscuit snacks. Her single-minded commitment brought in the crowds while alienating those closest to her. As a narrator, Hamilton is an alternately tough and vulnerable character whose difficult family life has led to ongoing personal disappointments, yet these very losses have also inspired culinary greatness. Her candid confessions, her obvious love for food and the sheer expressive force of her writing make Blood Bones & Butter a book to savor.-Elisa Ludwigmore »
#12 LEV GROSSMAN, THE MAGICIAN KING
What exactly does one do with a degree in magic? Excepting the odd Hampshire student, it's a dilemma confronted mostly by fictional characters, such as the recent graduates of Brakebills, the magical college in Upstate New York where Lev Grossman's The Magicians was set. The answer, though, is not so different than it is for non-magical graduates: anything. You can do anything with a degree in magic, though in practice - and... perhaps as a direct consequence - more often you wind up doing nothing. Quentin Coldwater, the titular king in Magicians sequel The Magician King, has left behind a vague and cushy sinecure to reign over Fillory, a Narnia-like kingdom, with three friends. Having saved the kingdom in the previous book, they don't have a whole lot to do, except drink copious amounts of whiskey and gallop around the forest in "man-tights" looking for a quest. When the quest finally finds them, it brings Quentin directly back to the place all recent grads, magical or not, fear the most. As in The Magiciansmore »
#11 CHAD HARBACH, THE ART OF FIELDING
Chad Harbach's much anticipated, decade-in-the-making debut doesn't disappoint. The Art of Fielding is a campus novel, but one that spends more time in the locker room than the library. Henry Skrimshander might look like a scrawny kid from South Dakota, but within months of his arrival at Westish College, he's known as one of the best players on the varsity baseball team. Recruited for his improbably good arm and virtuosic sense of... fielding, it's soon clear that Henry is meant for the big leagues. But not all dreams come true, and on the field, anybody can choke. As what once appeared to be an inevitably bright future fades, Henry - like his mentor, Mike Schwartz - is forced to rethink his prospects and grapple with a life after college that suddenly looks a lot different than he'd envisioned.more »
But Henry's story isn't the only one unfolding at Westish. There's also Guert Affenlight, the college president who's fallen head over heels in love for the first time - with Henry's roommate, Owen Dunne; and Affenlight's daughter, Pella, recently escaped from a misguided marriage to a much older man. The campus quarters are relatively close, and the lives led in the ivory tower are inextricably entangled. All of the book's characters - young and old, male and female, scholars and athletes - have their fair share of lessons to learn, not to mention mistakes to make. The Art of Fielding is brimming with snappy dialogue and excerpts from Melville, and listening to Harbach's prose read aloud is a perfect pleasure.-Alice Gregory
#10 SARAH VOWELL, UNFAMILIAR FISHES
Can any other American state boast a biography as interesting as Hawaii's? The 50th state, in Sarah Vowell's tale, is a land of tropical breezes, lepers, missionaries, deposed monarchs and hula dancing. It is a land of mayonnaise-based salads and proselytizing. It is where our current president grew up, and it is the subject of "Unfamiliar Fishes", an effort destined to please fans of David Sedaris and Gordon Wood alike. The book's... well-chosen narrators - Paul Rudd, Fred Armisen, Catherine Keener and Keanu Reeves, among them - elevate Vowell's material into something that can only be characterized as a "star-studded historical fiesta." Needless to say, it's fun.more »
Vowell's presence will be familiar to fans of This American Life and The Daily Show, both of which have featured her signature wise-cracking commentary. In writing, she's is a lot like the whiz kid from AP History - that lucky joker who sat in the back and made everyone laugh while effortlessly retaining every scrap of information that floated her way. Hawaii is rich territory, "a multi-ethnic miscellany in which every race is a minority," as Vowell characterizes it, which has lead to a "habit of hodgepodge" producing such Hawaiian delicacies as the loco moco, "a hamburger patty topped with gravy and a fried egg, a dish presumably invented to remedy what has always been the hamburger's most obvious defect: not enough egg." The archipelago is also a politically rich territory (see Queen Liliuokalani, overthrown in 1893) and a culturally intriguing one (the Hawaiian language contains no word for "adultery"). Not surprisingly, Vowell is the perfect serio-comic hostess for a Hawaiian tour.-Molly Young
#9 ROB LOWE, STORIES I ONLY TELL MY FRIENDS
Rob Lowe understands if you have a hard time taking him seriously. Looking back in his upbeat and quite entertaining memoir, he has a hard time, too - a serious thespian trapped in the body of a teen idol, a kid who makes up for his geekiness big-time once killer chin and ice-blue eyes begin to announce themselves to any number of gorgeous women, on and off-set. At one point, co-hosting a... fundraiser in Canada with Princess Stephanie of Monaco - with whom he has been carrying on a month-long affair - he approaches Gregory Peck, Robert Wagner, Cary Grant, and Prince Rainier to thank them for a wonderful evening. As he leaves, he hears Wagner mutter, "Ya know, guys, I think that kid's banged every one of our daughters." He has, though he's gentleman enough to leave out the sordid details.more »
Lowe's accentuating-the-positive means we get only the bare minimum on the videotaped sex scandal with a pair of women, one underage, during the 1988 presidential campaign (lifelong Democrat Lowe was stumping for Michael Dukakis). But Stories I Only Tell My Friends hardly skimps on dirt, as when the author dishes on his "fairly friendly but simmering rivalry" with Michael J. Fox, with whom he butts heads by "debating whose movie themes were better": John Parr's "Man in Motion," from St. Elmo's Fire, or Huey Lewis & the News's "The Power of Love." "Hey, Teen Wolf, what time is it?" asks Lowe, to which Fox shoots back, "Screw off! You've made seven movies. My last one [Back to the Future] made more than all of yours combined!"
Lowe isn't always a sparkling stylist, but he's sharp, aware, and - deliberate omissions to the side - unself-important about his work and his time in rehab during 1990 for excessive drinking. "[B]eing in treatment lets my real self emerge," he writes. "But first, it will have to gradually strangle the good-looking, successful, charming poster-boy pod person that stunted its growth many years ago." Looks like he did a good job of it. -Michaelangelo Matos
#8 ANDRE DUBUS, TOWNIE
It may be a little bit early to start counting the votes for audiobook of the year, but Andre Dubus III's Townie should be on the ballot. The book - Dubus's fifth; he is best known for the novel House of Sand and Fog - is a compelling and brave memoir of Dubus's troubled childhood in a Massachusetts mill town. But beyond the excellent source material is Dubus's narration, which is so... expert and engaging that he transforms the traditional audiobook into something quite intimate and special. And, with apologies to Mark Wahlberg, Dubus's representations of the subtle shadings of the Massachusetts accent are some of the finest recorded.more »
The heart of the story focuses on Dubus's relationship with his father, acclaimed short-story writer Andre Dubus II, who left his wife and small children, becoming an irregular yet powerful presence in their lives. Life is tough in their town, and his mother struggles. Eventually, Dubus's brother attempts suicide and his sister is assaulted. Dubus responds to the tumultuousness of his life by working out, bulking up and resorting to violence as a means of conflict resolution on more than one occasion. It was, of course, a plea for attention. "Did he think I was building muscles for my health?" he writes of his father.
Townie is so fluidly written it feels like a novel. And through it, Dubus treats every character fairly, especially his father, who could easily be the villain in this story, but instead just feels very human and flawed. And, as Dubus evolves from a musclebound troublemaker into someone who falls in love with writing, the book collects some truly enchanted moments. "I blinked and looked around my tiny rented kitchen, saw things I'd never seen before: the stove leaning to the left, the handle of the fridge covered with dirty masking tape, the chipped paint of the window casting, a missing square of linoleum on the floor under the radiator." We are with him the entire time.-Jami Attenberg
#7 KAREN RUSSELL, SWAMPLANDIA!
In the opening pages of her debut novel, Karen Russell creates a wonderfully primeval paradise and then starts pulling the Jenga pieces away in bold, beautiful sentences. Ava Bigtree and her siblings grow up in Swamplandia!, a charming little tourist trap on an undertamed island in the Florida Everglades, with a dad who calls himself Chief and a mom who wrestles alligators nightly. All around them is the teeming chaos of nature... but, as long as the rest of civilization is a long ferry ride away, the Bigtrees are free and safe and happy.more »
This kind of thing can't last, and when it all comes crashing down - mom gets cancer, a crass rival theme park opens up on the mainland, siblings start running away - it's a special kind of heartbreak, for the Chief who tried his hardest to keep the tribe together, for Ava who's so young and unworldly, and for the reader who, if only briefly, wanted nothing more than to watch Hilola Bigtree dive into that pool full of gators forever. Swamplandia! is about a lot of things: coming of age, coming to grips, learning you're not the hero of the story. It's also about that thick, murky line between fantasy and reality, and wanting to live in a world more lovely, more magical, and less precise than the one we're stuck in.
#6 JOSHUA FOER, MOONWALKING WITH EINSTEIN
Given that humans screw up so often and so spectacularly, it's nice to be reminded that we're also capable of performing incredible feats. It's especially nice to be reminded by someone like Joshua Foer, the talented and likable young author of Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. With his debut effort, Foer has written a book that mingles science writing with picaresque memoir and daubs of history (try... finding that combination elsewhere!) in which he tells the tale of how his investigations into the art of memory led him to compete for, and win, the title of 2006 U.S.A. Memory Champion. The crown doesn't come easily - Foer trains like a fiend - but he does make the case, convincingly, that having a good memory depends more on discipline than it does on genetics. Anyone can memorize dozens of random digits or the order of a deck of cards provided he's willing to practice. Listeners can decide for themselves whether they're up for the challenge. In any case, Foer's account is compelling and adventuresome.-Molly Youngmore »
#5 PATTI SMITH, JUST KIDS
#4 ROGER EBERT, LIFE ITSELF
For decades, Roger Ebert has been a pop-culture fixture as a film critic, television host and late-night talk show couch-warmer. In recent years, however, he's been more prominent than ever: His struggles with thyroid cancer may have silenced him in the literal sense, but they've made him more vocal as a writer, especially in new media.more »
In Life Itself, Ebert traces a full life with proud roots in Urbana, Illinois. Like many memoirs,... Ebert's has a sepia-tinged "good ol' days" quality at the start, but his life story quickly evolves as he travels the world, works with Russ Meyer to write Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, struggles with a drinking problem and learns to balance a desire for social justice with his Catholic roots. In the middle, film buffs can feast on Ebert's meditations on his favorite directors, including Werner Herzog, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen. The book, narrated beautifully by Edward Hermann, never becomes gloomy or full of self-pity, although the last chapter is heavier than all those that precede it.-Claire Zulkey
#3 PATRICK DEWITT, THE SISTERS BROTHERS
"I do not regret that the man is dead, but I wish I had kept better hold of my emotions. The loss of control does not frighten me so much as embarrass me." - Eli Sisters. Most of the time it's only the darkest, most honest corners of your brain that can fess up to liking Eli and Charles Sisters. Even for Gold Rush-era hitmen, the brothers are bastards: They'll punch a... kindly woman in the stomach, rip off a whore and cheat at a gentleman's duel. The dusty, ramshackle towns in their wake are often strewn with blood and humiliation, and while we readers can't shrug off the cruelty as easily as the Sisters do, we gotta admit: These are men of action, and we kinda admire that about them. (And besides, there are rare moments of unexpected civility - even kindness - that let us know there is some sort of moral foundation, however corroded by greed and cynicism.)more »
On the payroll of a mobster-like tycoon back in Oregon City, the brothers are trekking south to San Francisco to kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm. Whether they should have a good reason, besides a paycheck, for taking a man's life, well, that's just one of the philosophical conundrums that (however briefly) occur to the brothers during their long, grisly ride. The Old West yarn has had no shortage of reinventions and reinvigorations in the past few decades, but Patrick DeWitt has managed to breathe rare new air into the genre with this stylish road novel. The Sisters Brothers is self-aware without getting meta, and funny without devolving into farce. It's also beautifully dark and inventively vicious, and it's okay to admit you're into that sort of thing.- Patrick Rapa
#2 DANA SPIOTTA, STONE ARABIA
Dana Spiotta's third novel is, among other things, a poignant ode to the act of writing and the ways we document the events of our lives. Set in Los Angeles in the middle of the last decade, it tells the story of Nik Worth, a prolific and talented musician who spends his life on the outskirts of the industry. It turns out Nik, now approaching 50, had a chance to make it... big decades ago. But in place of that elusive record deal, Nik turns his obsessive documentation of his career - journal entries, letters, press clippings - into a fictional account of what could have been, achieving through his imagination what he couldn't achieve in real life. The Chronicles, as they're called, support the art and vice versa: Experimenting in different genres and founding homemade record labels, Nik also creates volumes of fake album reviews and a variety of dramatic yarns to go alongside his massive oeuvre. To add to the intrigue, it's only through the book's narrator, Nik's younger sister Denise, that we get to experience the Chronicles. Her documentation of Nik is a second purview woven through his.more »
The Chronicles are quite a feat. What Nik writes might be fictional (and, when juxtaposed with reality, depressing), but in his creation of another life richer and more public than his actual one, he holds a certain power, a control over his existence. Denise, meanwhile, is an ex-bad actress who feels her life's destiny is to "witness and witness and stupidly survive." She is preoccupied with other people: Nik, her daughter Ada and strangers, particularly the subjects of headline-making tragedies - murder-suicides, abductions and the like. College-age Ada is also transfixed by Nik, and soon enough the three of them have added a third layer to the story, a documentary film created by Ada about her uncle's life in the musical margins.
Listeners will find Nik as utterly fascinating as Denise and Ada do, owing to the verisimilitude of this eccentric yet charming character. Stone Arabia is an ode to family, to the people in our lives we never don't know - "no first impressions, no seductions, no getting to know each other," as Denise puts it. But it is also a first-rate rock 'n' roll novel. Spiotta was as meticulous and inspired as Nik when she dreamed up a fake life for this die-hard musician, a true artist who finds a strange and beautiful way of sublimating that very human desire to stand out in the crowd.-Liz Colville
#1 TINA FEY, BOSSYPANTS
Do yourself a favor and do not read Bossypants. Why read it when you can listen to it? If you don't listen to the audiobook version of Tina Fey's autobiographical essay collection, you won't be able to hear the beloved 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live star do impressions of her no-nonsense dad, or her fellow counselors at a Delaware County theater camp, or Monica Lewinsky, or (yay!) Amy Poehler, or,... last but certainly not least, her Red State doppelganger and intellectual polar opposite, Sarah Palin. Bossypantscontains everything fans have come to love about Fey: a healthy dose of self-deprecation ("I wouldn't even trade the acne scar on my right cheek, because that recurring zit spent more time with me in college than any boy ever did" ), a deep appreciation for the absurd and the embarrassing, and an unapologetic, take-no-prisoners attitude where it matters most - in describing her triumphs and struggles as a harried working mother who's become one of the most successful women (or people, for that matter) in show business today.more »
There's a moment in the book when Fey describes a famous SNL sketch in which she and Amy Poehler first impersonated Palin and Hillary Clinton: "You all watched a sketch about feminism and you didn't even realize it because of all the jokes. It's like when Jessica Seinfeld puts spinach in kids' brownies. Suckers!" And this is exactly what she does in Bossypants - sneaking us our daily recommended allowances of empowerment and self-acceptance, all through the alluring guise of comedy. Whether she's doling out career advice ("I encourage [young women] to always wear a bra. Even if you don't think you need it, just... you know what? You're never going to regret it") or saying a wonderfully perverse prayer for her young daughter ("May she play the Drums to the fiery rhythm of her Own Heart with the sinewy strength of her Own Arms, so she need Not Lie With Drummers"), Fey embraces the irreverent even as the wisdom of her words seeps through.-Maris Kreizman