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

LJ’s Reviews of the 2016 Andrew Carnegie Medal Winners | ALA Midwinter 2016

Established in 2012, the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction honor the best fiction and nonfiction books for adult readers published in the United States the previous year. This year’s winners (one for fiction, one for nonfiction) were announced Sunday, January 10 at the American Library Association’s Midwinter Conference, the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) Book & Media Awards Ceremony & Reception. Winning authors receive a $5,000 cash award, and two finalists in each category receive $1,500.

Fiction

starred review starNguyen, Viet Thanh. The Sympathizer. Grove. Apr. 2015. 384p. ISBN 9780802123459. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780802191694. F
sympthazier.jpg11216Written as a postwar confessional, this novel begins with its nameless protagonist, a highly placed young aide to a general in the South Vietnamese army, recalling how he finalized the details of escape before the fall of Saigon. But our hero is a double agent, a communist sympathizer who will continue to feed information to the North even after he makes the harrowing escape with his loyalist friend Bon and the general’s family on the last plane out, and becomes part of the Vietnamese refugee community in Southern California. Breathtakingly cynical, the novel has its hilarious moments; the reader will especially enjoy Nguyen’s take on 1970s American life. To maintain his cover, our hero must become entangled in the general’s underground resistance group, which plots a return to Vietnam through Cambodia, and the tale turns seriously dark. VERDICT Ultimately a meditation on war, political movements, America’s imperialist role, the CIA, torture, loyalty, and one’s personal identity, this is a powerful, thought-­provoking work. It’s hard to believe this effort, one of the best recent novels to cover the Vietnamese conflict from an Asian perspective, is a debut. This is right up there with Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. [See Prepub Alert, 10/27/14.]—Reba Leiding, emeritus, James ­Madison Univ. Lib., Harrisonburg, VA

Nonfiction

Mann, Sally. Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs. Little, Brown. May 2015.
496p. ISBN 9780316247764. $32; ebk. ISBN 9780316247740. MEMOIR
holdstill.jpg121115Here photographer Mann chronicles her rich and eccentric family history, told through the exploration of old documents and images stored away in her attic. What started out as a series of lectures for Harvard University ended up as a personal, 400-plus-page memoir that recounts tales of “deceit and scandal, alcohol, domestic abuse, car crashes, bogeymen, clandestine affairs, dearly loved and disputed family land…and maybe even bloody murder.” Raw and darkly humorous, Mann’s writing is consistently honest and poignant as she depicts her beloved Virginia farm, her childhood, her parents, and her children. She further discusses how her passion for photography evolved, thus offering an intimate look into the artist’s life and creative process. Illustrated throughout with personal and vintage photographs, the book also provides an in-depth discussion of Mann’s now-infamous body of work Immediate Family, the provocative series featuring her three young children that cemented her place as a major artist. VERDICT This title is for anyone interested in the career and experience of one of the 20th century’s most important figures. [See Prepub Alert, 11/10/14.]—Shauna ­Frischkorn, Millersville Univ., PA

fiction Finalists

starred review starShepard, Jim. The Book of Aron. Knopf. May 2015. 272p. ISBN 9781101874318. $22.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101874325. F
bookofaron.jpg11216The Warsaw Ghetto during the darkest days of World War II is the setting of this important, heartbreaking but also inspiring new novel from National Book Award nominee Shepard (Like You’d Understand, Anyway). Told from the perspective of Aron, a Jewish boy in the ghetto, it is the study of the sadistic and systematic deprivation and dehumanization of a people. Forced with his family from the countryside into the ghetto, where he joins a band of hardy young smugglers, Aron eventually loses his entire clan to typhus, malnutrition, and forced labor and ends up in an orphanage in the ghetto run by Janusz Korczak, an important historical figure from this period. Korczak was a well-known advocate for children’s rights before the war and became famous for the orphanage he ran in the ghetto, and the author brings this heroic figure powerfully to life. Shepard also skillfully depicts the blighted human and moral landscape within the ghetto, where normal understandings of right and wrong have become impossibly compromised under the pressure of extermination. Surrounded by devastation, hopelessness, and cruelty, Korczak becomes an exemplar of all that is good and decent in the human spirit. Few will be able to read the last terrible, inspiring pages without tears in their eyes. VERDICT Indispensable reading. [See Prepub 11/3/14.]—Patrick Sullivan, Manchester Community Coll., CT

Yanagihara, Hanya. A Little Life. Doubleday. Mar. 2015. 736p. ISBN 9780385539258. $30; ebk. ISBN 9780385539265. F

alittlelife.jpg11216Yanagihara follows her debut novel, The People in the Trees, with a deceptively simple tale of four male friends, Jude, Willem, Malcolm, and JB, who meet during their college years at Ivy League institutions. The men choose to continue their journeys into adulthood together by relocating jointly to New York. As they sustain their friendships into their fifties, the author delivers tales of their loyalty, love, and support for one another. However, lying beneath the surface is an emotionally disturbing story line about Jude, a highly successful lawyer and the brightest of the four men. The horrors of Jude’s victimization during his youth by the brothers of a monastery and his eventual abduction by Brother Luke, a pedophile and pimp, force him to struggle relentlessly with inner demons and a deep-seated distrust of others, with his pain manifested in constant acts of cutting. VERDICT As in her previous novel, Yanagihara fearlessly broaches difficult topics while simultaneously creating an environment that her audience will find caring and sensitive. Not all readers will embrace this work, given its intense subject. However, for those strong of stomach or bold enough to follow the characters’ road of friendship, this heartbreaking story certainly won’t be easily forgotten.—Shirley Quan, Orange Cty. P.L., Santa Ana, CA

Nonfiction Finalists

H Is for HawkMacdonald, Helen. H Is for Hawk. Grove. Mar. 2015. 320p. notes. ISBN . $25; ebk. ISBN 9780802191670. HIST
After the sudden death of her beloved father, Macdonald (history and philosophy of science, Cambridge Univ., England), an experienced falconer, acquired, raised, and trained a goshawk—a bird that is found in North America and Eurasia—as a means of coping with her loss. The author had been captivated by hawks since childhood and upon caring for Mabel, she saw the goshawk’s fierce and feral anger mirrored in herself. Using T.H. White’s The Goshawk as guidance, Macdonald introduces readers to the craft of falconry, chronicling the patience required to successfully raise and train a hawk. The author’s descriptions of Mabel’s powerful beauty, along with observations of the natural countryside near Cambridge, are very lovely, but readers might find the British vocabulary too unfamiliar. Also the constant references to White’s book and analysis of his life, though they are obviously important to Macdonald, feel superfluous and detract from the focus of the work—the relationship between Mabel and Macdonald. ­VERDICT Overall, this unsatisfying mishmash of memoir, nature writing, and commentary might be of interest to falconers but will be of limited appeal to armchair naturalists.—Eva Lautemann, formerly with ­Georgia Perimeter Coll. Lib., Clarkston

starred review starWulf, Andrea. The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. Knopf. 2015. 474p. illus. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780385350662. $30; ebk. ISBN 9780385350679. SCI
inventionofnature.jpg11216This masterly written and important biography covers a brilliant explorer, writer, naturalist, and thinker—in short, an accomplished polymath—who is underappreciated today. The writings of Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), who is considered the first ecologist, combine science and poetry and touch on the harms of colonialism. The scientist pioneered the synthesizing of myriad observations on the natural world (his most extensive explorations were in South America, Russia, and western Europe) and espoused the importance of the interrelationships of disparate sciences, with early descriptions of phenomena that would not become accepted for many decades: continental drift and humankind’s influence on climate are but two examples. Wulf (author of the well-received Chasing Venus, Founding Gardeners, and The Brother Gardeners) has performed exhaustive research for her compelling and readable story of a man who was no less than a rock star in his day. The author documents von Humboldt’s deep influence on any number of luminaries, including Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, Wolfgang van Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, Jules Verne, Simón Bolívar, and many others, making her claim for Humboldt as “the most extraordinary scientist of his age” totally convincing. VERDICT Stimulating reading for those interested in general history, natural history, exploration, science, and philosophy.—Henry T. Armistead, formerly with Free Lib. of Philadelphia

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