I read a lot of books. I set out to finish 150 before December 31 this year — a personal record — and I'm close. But I can never keep up with the impossible number of books published each year.
I'm always seeking a balance between all that new stuff and an ever-growing stack of old books awaiting my attention. And then every December, I see "Best Books of the Year" roundups popping up, and I find that I've read only a fraction of what's listed.
Is it a coincidence that many of the year's talked-about titles I've missed are extremely long? Maybe. But did Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch really need to be almost 800 pages? Did Doris Kearns Goodwin require 900 pages to tell us about Teddy Roosevelt's relationship with William Howard Taft? Seriously?
I'll get to those books eventually, but I've spent this year reading others — titles that don't take a month to read or feel like homework assignments. Among those books, I found a handful this year that I felt sure I could thrust at a friend and say, "Read this! You'll love it!" Here they are.
Best Novel Set in a War-Torn Country That Is Hard to Find on a Map
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
By Anthony Marra
Holy hell, is this book good. It's set in Chechnya after the fall of the Soviet empire, when Chechen citizens were always in danger of being abducted or killed by federal forces. Don't worry if you don't remember much about the conflict — Marra focuses on the lives of everyday villagers who are just trying to survive. The story opens with a precocious little girl who hides in the woods as soldiers arrest her father. A kindhearted neighbor helps her escape to a nearby town and asks a doctor to look after her. Through flashbacks, the details of the characters and their families unfold, and the stories ebb and flow together in overlapping melodies. It also features the year's most gorgeous prose.
Best Groundhog Day–like Novel
Life After Life
By Kate Atkinson
This is an engrossing story about a woman who keeps living her life over and over again, changing her behavior each time. When baby Ursula is first delivered, on an English country estate in 1910, the umbilical cord is wrapped around her throat, threatening a stillbirth. Ursula discovers that if she lives long enough to breathe, there are many other ways by which death will try to claim her. In each reincarnation, she has dark premonitions and tries to alter the outcome of a calamity. The plotting is masterful, and the story expands and folds back in on itself like an accordion. One of my favorite plot lines involves Ursula's experience in Germany in the 1930s. What will she accomplish? What will she learn in this life? Questions we end up asking ourselves as we read.
Best Comeback of a Character Played by Renée Zellweger
Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy
By Helen Fielding
Bridget Jones is back! Our favorite singleton from the 1990s is now a 50-something mother with two children. Early in the book, it's revealed that Bridget's husband, the wonderful Mr. Mark Darcy, was killed in an accident, and now Bridget is emerging from her grief to start dating again. I think so many women liked the Bridget Jones books (and the movies) because the character allowed us to laugh at our own preoccupation with dieting, dating and self-improvement projects. Here we see Bridget become obsessed with Twitter, texting and dating a younger man — new challenges that Fielding presents with much humor. There's also a sweet side to the story: Bridget genuinely loved her husband and was devastated by his death. Her forced cheerfulness as we rejoin her is touching because she's trying to be a good mum, though she'd rather wallow in bed and eat ice cream. This novel made me laugh out loud, and I often smiled while I read. I declare it to be v.v. good.