The best thing about the new year is new books. So now, when all that eggnog is finally flushed out of your system, head to your bookstore. These are, in my not-so-humble opinion, five of the best of early 2011. Happy reading!
1. The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht
“The Tiger’s Wife” (Random House, 352 pp.) is the book that everybody will be talking about this season, not just because Téa Obreht writes like a dream (think Arundhati Roy meets Marilynne Robinson) but because she seems about 15 (read: 25) years old. Though her skill-to-age ratio may make you want to toss your laptop against a wall (no, you will never be this good), you should read her debut novel anyway. Obreht is a master storyteller, and with “The Tiger’s Wife” she weaves an enchanting tale that combines the sharply contemporary with an ethereal, fairy tale quality. In a story set in the present-day Balkans, Natalia, a young doctor, receives word that her grandfather has died far from home in a town that no one in Natalia’s family seems to have heard of. Determined to unravel the circumstances surrounding his death, Natalia sets off on a journey that leads her back through the stories he told her over the years. As two stories in particular – those of the deathless man and the tiger’s wife – lead her closer to answers, they take her further from the rational man that was her grandfather. (To be released in March)
2. Townie: A Memoir, by Andres Dubus III
Ostensibly, “Townie” (W.W. Norton, 400 pp.) is the memoir of a boy raised by his divorced mother in an economically depressed Massachusetts mill town while nearby, his father, Andres Dubus Sr., a prominent author, taught on a picturesque college campus. Really, it’s one of the best and most penetrating explorations of violence in any medium. This story is brutal, painful, and utterly compelling. The revelations to be had (and there are plenty, albeit hard-earned) feel as though they were torn away from the author. No one has written about misery, fury, need, violence, responsibility, and compassion better, and no one has ever strung them up together in quite the same way. “Townie” practically throbs in your hands. No one with a pulse could fail to be moved – forcibly – by this book. (February)
3. House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer’s Journey Home, by Mark Richard.
Mark Richard is the greatest writer you’ve never read, and with the publication of “House of Prayer No. 2” (Nan A. Talese, 224 pp.) that will – thank heaven – change. Richard writes with an otherworldly grasp of voice and description and uses his prose to defamiliarize pretty much everything: in this case, his Southern Gothic coming-of-age. The result for the reader is a hypercolored world rendered with the senses turned up. You will be an outsider in his work until you relearn how to read prose; his writing not only demands that of the reader, but makes it possible – and effortless. Reading “House of Prayer No. 2” is like having a bucket of icy water poured over you: It forces your eyes open, sets you gasping for air, and leaves you utterly refreshed. Nobody alive writes like Mark Richard. (February)
4. You Know When the Men are Gone, by Siobhan Fallon
“You Know When the Men are Gone” (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, 240 pp.) is a revelation, not only in the grace, composure, and sure-footedness of the prose, but in the cultural gap it serves to fill. A loosely linked collection of short stories set in Fort Hood, Texas, the book chronicles the Iraq and Afghanistan wars through the military wives (and families) left behind. A haunting glimpse into the domesticity of war, “You Know When the Men are Gone” is an arresting portrait of absence, loss, anxiety, patience, and courage. (January)
5. Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, by Gabriella Hamilton
I will be the last person to tell you that “Blood, Bones & Butter” (Random House, 304 pp.), chef Gabriella Hamilton’s new cooking/food memoir is great literature. But it is a great read. What differentiates this cooking memoir from the countless that have come before it (most famously, Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential”) is that Hamilton really can write, at least when she manages to get out of her own way. She has stretches of truly excellent prose (the beginning chapters are a good example) that rival writing in any genre. Another point of distinction is that Hamilton manages to successfully tie her familial life to her professional one in a way that feels honest (albeit at times too navel-gazing) and gives the narrative a deeper level. Hamilton, unlike many of her compatriots, is a chef-writer who is worth reading, not just idealizing (although, like many new writers, her prose is still spotty and the presence of her authorial hand could stand to be pared down). (March)
Rachel Meier is a book blogger for the Monitor.