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July 11, 2013 / schulerbooks

Notes from Neil: Favorites of 2013 (so far)

The year’s half over (!!?!), which means it’s time to give a semi-shout out to the best new books I’ve read so far this year. No claims to a definitive list, I don’t read everything, but these eight were particularly surprising and delightful. If any of them snuck past you, stop, turn around, go back and enjoy them. Go ahead, I’ll wait here. And take your time, I’ve got a book to read.

FICTION:

The Golem and the JinniHelene Wecker
In a time of immense popularity of supernatural love stories, the uniqueness of Ms. Wecker’s is one of the most delightful surprises. Sure, that she’s a clay creature brought to life to serve a man and he’s one of those “I’ll grant you three wishes if you let me out of this bottle” types is important to the story, but it’s ultimately not the heart of the story. Astute observations about the complexity of attraction and trust are much more prominent, as is the deep background of family, culture and neighborhood.

Life After LifeKate Atkinson
There are a couple of ways to look at this absorbing puzzle of a book. On the one hand, you have a story about a young girl born in turn-of-the 20th century England, who dies repeatedly and is reborn each time to correct the path of her life – which eventually leads her to a gripping climactic moment. On the other hand, you have a masterful writer playing with the idea of repeatedly stopping and restarting her plotline, giving us a peek behind the curtain of her creative process.

The Blood of HeavenKent Wascom
An author can mess with a lot of the elements that make up a novel – pacing, sequence, character development, plotlines – you name it. But where every story works or not is in the voice, and that’s where this debut novel succeeds wildly. Angel Woolsack is defiant, remorseful, boastful, irreverent, passionate and brutally honest in the telling of his hardscrabble and violent life story.

The MorelsChristopher Hacker
Don’t expect to like Arthur Morel very much. The protagonist of this complicated and compelling novel doesn’t have a lot of warm and fuzzy qualities.  When does an artist’s commitment to self-expression cross the line? What would that line look like? Arthur finds and crosses the line twice in his life – the first time putting an end to his promising childhood music career; the second tearing apart his marriage, friendships and career. Why does he do it? The story peels back the layers of Arthur’s motivation like an onion – a very surprising onion.

NONFICTION:

Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for ThinkingDaniel Dennett
Don’t mistake the phrase “popular science” for “overly simplified science”. Professor Dennett’s subject matter, explanations and conclusions will require you to meet him halfway, and stretch your brain a little in the process. But after making the effort, you’ll realize you know more about the cutting edge of neurology and cognitive philosophy than you ever expected to, and had a great time getting there, thanks to the good professor’s witty and logical writing.

The New York Times: DisunionEdited by Ted Widmer
If only high school American History textbooks were this fiery, this surprising and suspenseful. Disunion is a NYT blog that began in 2010, inviting contributing essays from modern historians. The intention was to chronicle the Civil War era on a nearly day-by-day basis from as many angles as possible. As the 106 essays culled for this collection make clear, they’re succeeding wildly. History that lives and breathes, jumps and crackles, laughs and cries. No, textbooks were never like this.

Breakfast for Dinnerby Lindsay Landis and Taylor Hackbarth
I love a cookbook that has a unique approach, is fun to read and has recipes that work and are worth making. This one has all those things (along with enticing photos). A simple concept – take the flavors and ingredients traditionally associated with the morning meal and adapt them to hearty and savory evening dishes – perfectly executed.

The JokerAndrew Hudgins
Helen Keller jokes, dead baby jokes, racist, sexist and sacrilegious jokes – we’ve all heard them and caught ourselves laughing when we shouldn’t have. Poet and compulsive joke teller Hudgins’ new memoir is a (mostly) serious look at why. Combining self-deprecating wit and a sociologist’s eye, he tells of his ever-growing fascination with repellent humor. If you find yourself laughing at something you shouldn’t while reading, don’t worry – it’s not you, it’s us.

golem jinni    life after life    blood of heaven    morels              intuition pumps    disunion    breakfast for dinner    joker

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