Good books are like lovers. When they’re good, they are impossible to forget. And by good, I don’t mean sweet or kind or endearing. I mean rugged, kick-ass, leg breaking, can’t get them out of your head. These books are usually handed to me by my smart and savvy deputy reviews editor, both past and present, and then I’m cooked. I’m shut down to the hundreds of others that overwhelm PW’s office because I’ve found the one. Sometimes a lot of readers agree with me, sometimes not, and I never care. I’m just grateful. And can’t wait for the Best Books of the Year free-for-all we have every year in the pub downstairs.
The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock
Gritty and terrifying and powerful, yet smooth as silk, this novel about a cadre of characters living on the border between Ohio and Kentucky, includes a malevolent preacher who douses himself in spiders and drags around his wheelchair-bound sidekick whom he crippled in a religious stunt, a married couple who troll the highway looking for hitchhikers to mutilate and murder, and… you get the idea. Pollack knows his territory and his people. Reading him is like stopping at a roadside bar and listening to some stranger tell stories without ever taking a breath.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Ann Patchett is no discovery, true, but for me, this book broke the bank. I confess, I’ve never read Bel Canto which has been in my pile of “to reads” for years, and what brought me to this book was that it was set in the Amazon. I hear Amazon (the jungle) or Nagaland or Ethiopia and I’m halfway there.
Allow me to interrupt here for:
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, about twin boys born to an Indian nun from Kerala who’s come to work in a clinic in Addis Abbaba and dies in childbirth. The saga follows the brothers thorough political upheaval, revolution and time spent in the U.S. for 560 ever more thrilling pages. (Verghese is a doctor born of Indian parents who immigrated to Ethiopia under the Emperor Haile Selassie.)
But back to Pachett. I was overcome and insisted everyone read it. The book is so damn female, and funny and fecund and deliciously mysterious. Patchett did on location research but what comes through on the page is pure imagination. Also, she kissed me on the lips at BEA.
The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann
There’s something going on with the jungle here. But I’m not the only one obsessed. This nonfiction account of the search for a lost civilization by a New Yorker writer who admits he was a dedicated couch potato writer until he came across some diaries of early 20th century British explorer Percy Fawcett mixes history in with his own adventure. Even I was ready to get off the couch.
All of these books combine personal experience with wild vision and gifted storytelling. I am madly in love with them all but the book that I’m consumed with right now:
The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
Yes, it’s set in the jungle, this time in Micronesia and it’s as absorbing and wonderful as any of the books above, but Yanagihara’s debut novel adds another layer, descriptive language that’s so tactile and visceral that it’s like an electrical shock. A seductive one. For instance:
There were so many shades and tones of green–serpent, aphid, pear, emerald, sea, grass, jade, spinach, bile, pine, caterpillar, cucumber, steeped tea, raw tea: how inadequate is our vocabulary for color!
I haven’t finished reading it. I don’t want to yet; I can’t put it down. The People in the Trees is the only book in town.