LJ Best Books 2016

A jury of our peers discussed, debated, disagreed, and finally declared LJ’s annual Top Ten Best Books of the year, selected by our editors, as well as Top Five lists for genre fiction, nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels, and SELF-e titles. VISIT THE WEBSITE

Life During Wartime | Classic Returns

War and genocide are hardly things to celebrate, but to remember (and perhaps learn from the mistakes of others) and pay homage to those who’ve suffered or died needlessly are worthwhile aims. This month’s column includes World War II memoirs and autobiographies; a novel written by one of China’s most revered writers that was used as a Cold War tool by the United States; a book banned by the Nazi Party, which likely “disappeared” its author; Iréne Nèmirovsky’s “spiritual prequel” to her posthumous best-seller, Suite Française; and a long-lost, newly translated intro by The Little Prince author St. Exupery to his friend’s intense account of a 33-day road trip to hell.

The Nazi Officer's Wife Beer, Edith Hahn with Susan Dworkin. The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust. Morrow. 2015.336p. photos. ISBN 9780688177768. pap.. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062190048. Memoir
Originally published in 1999, this true story of plucky (and lucky!) Edith Hahn Beer (1914–2009), who survived the Holocaust by assuming a gentile friend’s identity and later marrying a German officer, is an adventure story and nail-biter as well as a tribute to the unsung heroes who helped young Edith and other Jews live to tell their stories. This edition contains Morrow’s trademark “P.S.: Insights, Interviews & More” extras, including commentary by the author’s daughter and grandson; Beer’s obituary in the Times (UK), as well as readers’ guide questions; and a preface by the author explaining why she waited so long to publish her story..

Naked EarthChang, Eileen. Naked Earth. NYRB Classics. Jun. 2015. 288p. tr. from Chinese by Perry Link. ISBN 9781590178348. pap. $ 16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781590178355. F
This is one of two novels that the United States Information Service commissioned Chang (born Zhang Ying in Shanghai, 1920; she died in Los Angeles in 1995) to write as anti-communist propaganda during the height of the Cold War. Naked Earth, written in 1956, is set during Mao’s land reform movement and features two students, Liu Ch’uen and Su Nan, whose budding love faces obstacles: hard labor on a .collective farm; their own secrets; spies everywhere; war. This edition has an Introduction by Chinese American novelist and short-story writer (and 2010 MacArthur Fellow) Yiyun Li.

Blood BrothersHaffner, Ernst. Blood Brothers. Other Pr. 2015. 176p tr. from German by Michael Hofmann. ISBN 9781590517048. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781590517055. F
Some historians claim that Haffner was a social worker; other sources say he was a journalist. All agree that after 1938, when he was called to the office of the culture ministry of the Third Reich, he disappeared. Before that, in 1933, this book originally titled Jugend auf der Landstrasse Berlin (or Youth on the Road to Berlin), was banned by the Nazi Party. Haffner’s only novel follows the eight youths and their leader, 21-year-old Jonny, through the backstreets of Weimar-era Berlin, conning and pimping and stealing to survive. According to a Feb. 2015 article in the New York Times, a German press, MetroLit, reissued and retitled the novel in 2013, creating “…a sensation at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and [it] went on to harvest rapturous reviews in the German press.” Now English speakers can read this time capsule, translated by Michael Hofmann, who was awarded the Thornton Wilder Prize for Translation by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Fires of AutumnNèmirovsky, Iréne. The Fires of Autumn. Vintage. 2015. 240p. tr. from French by Sandra Smith. 9781101872277. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9781101873960. F
Another casualty of the Holocaust, Nèmirovsky’s (1903–1942) posthumously published Suite Française won widespread acclaim when it was published in 2004 (in English in 2006). Billed as a “spiritual prequel” to that book, The Fires of Autumn was originally published in France in 1957. Taking place in Paris in the years before World War I and through the first years of World War II, it depicts the effects of the great conflict on a group of people. The main protagonists are Bernard, a haunted and disillusioned veteran, and Thérèse, whose husband did not return from the front. Smith, who also translated Suite Française, dedicates this edition to Nèmirovsky’s daughter, Denise Epstein, who “travelled the world, working tirelessly to promote her mother’s canon and re-establish her as one of the most respected writers in twentieth-century France.” Epstein died in 2013.

A Gushing Fountain Walser, Martin. A Gushing Fountain. Arcade: Skyhorse. 2015. tr. from German by David Dollenmayer. 368p. ISBN 9781628724240. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781628725445. LIT
German author Walser’s (b. 1927) semi-autobiographical novel was written in 1998; this is the first English translation. A Gushing Fountain recounts a provincial Bavarian town’s gradual and horrifying descent into Nazism through the eyes of young Johann, whose parents run a restaurant. With the economy in ruins, the people turn to Hitler and the Nazi party as their last hope. Nazism infiltrates all aspects and organizations of daily life—churches, schools, youth organizations—and Johann witnesses the stifling of dissent and the personal costs of war.

33daysWerth, Léon. 33 Days. Neversink: Melville House. 2015. tr. from French by Austin Denis Johnston. notes. 224p. pap. ISBN 9781612194257. $20; ebk. ISBN 9781612194264. MEMOIR
Here is another title with an incredible backstory: The Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a close friend of Werth, smuggled this manuscript out of wartime France and “sold” the book to an American publisher for a military parcel containing food and supplies. The book remained unpublished until now, and Saint-Exupéry’s introduction, long thought to be lost, is included in this edition. Werth (1878–1955), a prolific novelist, biographer, and critic, tells of a harrowing road trip with his wife in 1940. They were fleeing Paris as the Wehrmacht approached, and they were not alone. A huge caravan of refugees, “one of the biggest mass migrations in human history,” also headed for the countryside or points beyond.

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Liz French About Liz French

Library Journal Senior Editor Liz French edits nonfiction and women's fiction reviews at LJ and also compiles the "What We're Reading" and "Classic Returns" columns for LJ online. She's inordinately interested in what you're reading as well. Email: efrench@mediasourceinc.com, Twitter: @lizefrench