Good Reads

Our Favorite Books of 2012: Tina Brown, Andrew Sullivan, and Others’ Picks

From Tina Brown to Andrew Sullivan to Michael Tomasky, our writers and editors pick the favorite books they read this year.

12.11.12 9:45 AM ET

Into the sinister, bizarre kingdom of North Korea Johnson leads us with flair.

On Saudi Arabia
By Karen Eliot House

One of the most revealing and impressively reported books I read this year. Karen Elliot House’s 30-plus years’ experience in one of the least accessible countries makes us see, hear, and experience Saudi Arabia like a local.

Sweet Tooth
By Ian McEwan

My old friend has delivered another stylish, immensely readable novel that captures gray, grimy 1970s England so perfectly you feel despair just cracking the spine.

The Man Without a Face
By Masha Gessen

Thanks to her fearless reporting and acute psychological insights, Masha Gessen has done the impossible in writing a highly readable, compelling life of Russia’s mysterious president-for-life.

By Andrew Nagorski

As the cloud descended on Europe, some of America’s brightest journalistic and diplomatic stars were there to dine with Hitler and be chased by Nazi thugs. Nagorski tells their story vividly.

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Prague Winter
By Madeleine Albright

We knew her as one of the great diplomats of our time, but now Albright has proven herself a serious historian, too. She brilliantly places her own life against the collapse of Europe and the fall of her native Czechoslovakia. History at its most personal.

Kill or Capture
By Daniel Klaidman

From one of our crack correspondents, a meticulous and revealing account of how Obama grew a pair and learned how to out-macho Bush.

Stephen Voss for Newsweek & The Daily Beast

It’s a book that rescues the human being from hagiography, and that is, in fact, two biographies: one a purely historical one, based on contemporary accounts; and the second a review of the enormous literature of legend and spin that his Order bestowed upon him. The Francis in this book is terrifying and self-destructive, visionary, and tormented. And the way he was subsequently used—in legend and parable and hearsay—speaks not just to the imagination of the church, but to the obvious miracle of Francis’s life’s work.

headshot, square

Everyone who has said or written anything these past four years about the “loss of our freedom” should read Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain, a tragically intimate account of the imposition of communism in Central Europe. Here is a world in which political authorities shut down choral singing societies, bird-watching clubs, anything that might nourish an independent social sphere. The story is told both with artistry and scholarship. I’m not a bit biased by the fact that Applebaum is co-author with my wife, Danielle Crittenden, of a new cookbook celebrating the rebirth of Polish cuisine and culture.

Popular Crime
By Bill James

The inimitable sportswriter brings his formidable analytic talents, and breezy prose style, to America’s greatest murder mysteries. So good that I’ve already reread it; whenever I am bored or blue, I open up a page at random and let Bill James walk me through another puzzle.

The title says it all: it is a manifesto against the backseat drivers and Monday-morning quarterbacks who think they have a foolproof plan for success, if only the rest of those idiots will listen.

Oddly Normal
By John Schwartz

The true story of John Schwartz and Jeanne Mixon, and their remarkable, funny, bright, troubled, gay son Joe. Joe leaps off the page—full of wit and energy and yet he wrestles with demons. His parents struggle against a system that has good intentions but wants to categorize and pigeonhole their son who is not ADD, not Asperger’s, and not at all average. Your heart will be in your throat when they endure a parent’s worst nightmare: their son’s suicide attempt. But Joe’s resilience, and his parents bottomless love, give us a hopeful, happy ending.

A funny, cynical look inside the hotel biz. It is at turns nauseating, at turns enlightening. If you travel as much as I do, it is a must.

The Fallen Angel
By Daniel Silva

Silva has done it again. Master Israeli spy and ace art restorer Gabriel Allon returns, this time to solve a murder mystery inside the Vatican itself. I don’t read a lot of fiction, especially in election years, but I can always count on Silva to give me a smart, challenging, fun distraction from politics.

The Oath
By Jeffrey Toobin

My CNN colleague has produced a book on the Supreme Court that is somehow both wonky and gossipy. Justice Scalia is a right-wing crank who repeats Fox News talking points; Justice Kennedy is, how shall we say, a bit windy. Chief Justice Roberts is a brilliant legal mind and a shrewd political tactician. How he gets the justices to open up to him is beyond me.

Back to Work
By Bill Clinton

Want to know what one of the smartest people in the world thinks about our biggest economic challenges? My old boss has produced a highly readable, engaging, lucid book on practical economics. If you liked President Clinton’s convention speech in Charlotte, you’ll love this book.

Like most of the reading public, I was blown away by Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers. I’ve known Kate for over 15 years and still can’t figure out how she does what she does.

Sweet Tooth
By Ian McEwan

John Le Carrè meets Jane Austen in this utterly beguiling espionage novel, in which a callow, beautiful English girl comes of age as a spy. Few books have evoked quite so perfectly the disconcerting shabbiness of 1970s Britain and the mundane paranoias of the Cold War era. Heartless men, women who wash their one good blouse every night, Cambridge erudition, Communist inscrutability, boozy lunches—this book has it all.

British executive’s bizarre, brief tenure as CEO of troubled Japanese company.

Anthropological look at the .001 percent reveals the pathologies, fears, and foibles of the global class of truly, filthy rich, frequently in their own words.

Historian explains how U.S. ate the world’s economic lunch in the 19th century.

The New New Deal, by Michael Grunwald: Incredibly thorough analysis of stimulus bill that makes a strong case for government.

The Cause, by Eric Alterman with Kevin Mattson: The story of liberalism and why it’s still a lot less bad than all the other ideologies.

True Believers, by Kurt Andersen: Rollicking, knowing, unsentimental study of the legacy of ’68-ism among the cultural elite. With many pitch-perfect cultural-touchstone asides.

HHhH, by Laurent Binet: The story of the successful Czech plot to assassinate Heydrich, but told in, if such is possible, an almost humourous way. I found it totally spellbinding.

Bruce Riedel

A sparkling great read on why we are headed for catastrophe in Afghanistan and how to avoid it.

An oral history of America’s first war with Iran filled with lessons for today’s confrontation with Tehran.

At Risk
By Stella Rimington

The first novel by the best spy storyteller today, the former head of MI5.

The story of America’s greatest general ever and a much underrated president told in a sweeping narrative.

Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1945-56 is a fascinating insight into how the Soviets established control over half of Europe after the end of the war, and kept it. William Shawcross’s Counting One’s Blessings: The Selected Letters of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother shows how Queen Elizabeth II’s mother had an instinct for politics and personalities that was often far keener than those of her professional advisers. Ben Chatfield’s book, Mediterranean Homesick Blues: A Diary of Life-Affirming Disasters on the Côte D’Azur is a very funny book, even though it self-deprecatingly describes itself as “kind of like Apocalypse Now without the helicopters.” Celia Lee and Paul Strong’s superb Women in War: From Home Front to the Front Line traces the enormous contribution that women made to the Allied victory in the Second World War. Finally, Martin Amis’s Lionel Asbo made me laugh out loud on public transport, but there’s a serious point to its portrait of Britain’s underclass too. He’s still our greatest living novelist in my view, bar none.

Most of the books I read aren’t new, not brand-new anyway. I spend a lot of time catching up, and this year that included my initial taste of Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels, the first four of which Picador has reissued in a single volume. I still haven’t gotten to the conclusion of this five-book sequence, the 2011 At Last—I’m parsing out my pleasures in the way that St. Aubyn’s characters can never quite do, though pleasure is the wrong word for the freezing hot desires that motivate them. Yet there’s pleasure indeed in the prose, a prose made troubling by its very control, and something more than that in the way he makes you understand but not forgive the most unspeakable of acts.

Kevin Wilson offers a different form of comedy in The Family Fang, a kind of manic, shaggy-dog-story laughter, though he too has the steel needed to push on to the other side of desperation. The parents of the family in question are performance artists, and though the things they do to their children aren’t quite so dreadful as the ones St. Aubyn describes, they’re bad enough to make the kids wonder if there’s any such thing as life; life as opposed to art. This first novel is a paradox: a persistently inventive act of narrative chutzpah that is profoundly suspicious of performance itself.

I especially enjoyed two new scholarly books. Michael Anesko’s Monopolizing the Master: Henry James and the Politics of Modern Literary Scholarship is a meticulous account of the way James’s extended family and first biographer, Leon Edel, tried to control his reputation by controlling access to his papers. Anyone who hopes to write about someone with living relatives should read it, and be warned. Alice Kaplan’s Dreaming in French describes the effect that studying abroad had on three iconic American women: Jackie Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis. Her reconstruction of both their “Paris Years” and the American aftermath is at once sympathetic and sharp, and no one will forget the snapshot she’s found of Jackie chomping away on a baguette.

On Dec. 23, the Museum of Modern Art is launching a show called “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925,” which takes on a moment that changed the entire future of art.  Whether you make it to the show or not, you’ll want to read the catalogue. MoMA curator Leah Dickerman gives an overview of the issues, and then those are treated in depth by major art historians such as Yve-Alain Bois and Hal Foster—not to mention historian of science Peter Galison. This book’s so fresh, I’ve only been able to read it in galleys.

Or maybe modern art wasn’t only about moving forward; it was also about looking back, way back. In a book called Medieval Modern being published this December, my friend Alexander Nagel, a scholar at NYU, shows how the art and culture of the middle ages prefigured many of modernism’s moves—partly because some 20th-century artists had a thing for the medieval. With its lavish illustrations, the book targets a wide readership, but it’s also bound to shake up the field.

It seems that we’re all forced to be busier, more industrious, than ever before. That made this the perfect year to read Oblomov, the novel written by Ivan Gonchorov in 1859. The title character wallows in a sloth that’s forbidden to us.

The Passage of Power by Robert Caro—Sometimes reality exceeds the hype. Robert Caro’s magisterial portrait of Lyndon Johnson hit new heights as this fourth volume chronicled his rise from a much-disrespected VP to a president capable of greatness and uniting the nation in the wake of tragedy. What emerges is as complex and textured as any novel while providing a primer on the use of power in a democracy. It also doubled in the Obama era as an extended memo to the president on the virtue of muscular politics—the art of getting things done. Johnson’s reputation will only grow in future decades, in large part because of his biographer.

Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson—I was blown away by the opening chapters of this biography of Hemingway through the life of his boat, the Pilar. I reread pages for enjoyment as well as the workman-like effort to unpack the prose—I wanted to understand how Hendrickson created the lyrical reported voice, walking the reader into the past while freely admitting the undocumented and unknowable. The writing is lush and seamless. It is a beautiful and brilliant work, something to savor.

Defender of the Realm by William Manchester and Paul Reid—Churchill fans have been waiting for this to be completed for decades and many feared it would never appear. The first two volumes of the Last Lion trilogy are exemplary epic biography and after Manchester’s death it seemed like the story would always be incomplete, a phantom limb on the bookshelf. But Manchester’s designated successor Reid picked up the mantle and the first chapters were so good that I decided to go back and read all three volumes in sequence—a welcome indulgence that will define my reading life for the next nine months or so.

It’s Even Worse Than It Looks by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein—The only contemporary political book on my annual list out of the many I read this election year, Mann and Ornstein’s work is the definitive look at our dysfunctional divided Congress—how it got that way and what we can do about it.  Driven by data and the sweep of historic perspective, the bipartisan duo comes to the unflinching conclusion that we are experiencing “asymmetric polarization”—namely that Republicans have objectively moved much further to the right that Democrats have moved to the left, creating a crisis of representative government and self-government.  The book provides answers to instincts—yes, hyper-partisanship is worse than at any time in our recent history, and no, it doesn’t need to be this way.

Deadline Artists: Scandals, Tragedies and Triumphs, edited by John Avlon, Jesse Angelo, and Errol Louis—Yes, I’m biased because I co-edited this second collection of America’s Greatest Newspaper columns. But besides the shameless plug, I can say without ego that it’s my favorite book of the Christmas season, because I didn’t write it. Read the best of Jimmy Breslin, Murray Kempton, Mike Royko, and many other Deadline Artists from the 19th century to the 21st and you’ll see why columns are an American art form. Scandals, Tragedies, and Triumphs are the stuff of breaking news, and in the hands of literary journalists, they resonate decades later. This is a book of short stories that really happened, celebrating the classic reported column and giving readers a chance to view history written in the present tense.

Honorable Mentions: Cronkite by Douglas Brinkley; Ike’s Bluff by Evan Thomas, and Me the People by Kevin Bleyer.

Nathaniel Rich

Wherever I End Up, R. A. Dickey’s moving and revealing memoir, joins Keith Hernandez’s Pure Baseball and Ron Darling’s The Complete Game in the New York Mets’ Library of Fame. The Letters of Kurt Vonnegut are a joyous and terrifying glimpse of the writer’s mind. Stephen Cave’s Immortality is a fascinating history of man’s greatest obsession and poses a stunning theory of society. Of the novels I read for the American Dreams series, the most pleasurable and surprising to me was Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast.

For me, the novel of the year and the best American novel about the Iraq War. Big-hearted, spectacularly well written, it’s an angry, fearsome take on the mess of the Bush/Cheney years.

Gods Without Men
By Hari Kunzru

A novel of mysticisms high-tech and ancient, God Without Men sets grand ambitions for itself but largely achieves them. It offers the kind of refracted, wormhole narrative that generates comparisons to David Mitchell—deserved in this case.

The Messiah of Stockholm
By Cynthia Ozick

This was my first time through with this classic Ozick novella. Few literary martyrs have gone in for as much worship from fellow writers as Bruno Schulz, but Ozick’s story—about a possible son of Schulz and the search for a lost manuscript—remains a marvelous tale of obsession, pride, and the burdens of inherited tragedy.

Cities Under Siege
By Stephen Graham

Published last year, this book about military urbanism—think anything from barriers around financial zones to mass CCTV surveillance—should be the book of the moment for the Occupy generation. Hailed by some critics in Britain, where Graham is a professor at Newcastle University, it deserves more attention stateside.

The best books this year? A hard question to answer, for someone who is writing a full-scale biography of Robert E. Lee, and spends most of his off-time with the West Point Atlas of the American Wars, a magnifying glass and a ruler. That is to say, I haven’t been reading all that much away from my subject, and that The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies has played a large part in my reading life this past year.

Occasionally, I have broken stride (as we say in the British armed forces), rather like somebody going off a diet. I would single out a place among guilty pleasures for Wild, which was urged on me by my wife, Margaret, who proved right as usual. I couldn’t put it down, and could have started reading all over again when I reached the last page, although I have no desire to follow in the author’s footsteps. I read (again at her suggestion) Robert Goolrick’s Heading Out to Wonderful, which I liked (although I still want to know where the central figure got all the money he brings in a suitcase), but not as much as his earlier A Reliable Wife, which was terrific.

I read with fascination and huge admiration Robert Caro’s fourth volume on Lyndon Johnson, feeling on every page, this is what I would like to do with Lee—I believe Caro is, together with David McCullough, a national treasure—and a model for all biographers. I am rereading Tolstoy’s War and Peace in Russian slowly (perforce, I am out of practice), with great pleasure, and anticipate starting Anna Karenina in Russian when I finish it. No translation does justice to Tolstoy, alas. I also reread Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities, my two favorite Dickens novels, a very necessary thing to do from time to time, and Kipling’s poems, which, if nothing else, remind us that no great power should commit its armed forces to war in Afghanistan, but also ought to make us realize that poetry can be startling, politically powerful, imbued by current events, raw and real, rather than ethereal and about sunsets and feelings. (Speaking of which I highly recommend two books about poetry, Daniel Swift’s Bomber County, about British World War II poetry, and Nicholas Murray’s Sweet Red Wine of Youth, about the British war poets of World War I.) Kipling makes one think—or ought to make us wonder—why if neither the British in the 19th century nor the Soviet Union in the 20th could make headway there by force, what makes us suppose we can? It would be nice to imagine that somebody in the White House is reading Kipling:

"When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
And go to your Gawd like a soldier.”

Oh, and I hugely enjoyed Michael Hill’s book on Elihu Washburne, the American minister to France during the siege of Paris and the Commune, which proves that our ambassadors ought to be people of substance, courage, strong opinions, and acute intelligence, as our ambassador in Libya was, not merely civil servants serving abroad.

And of course Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, a novel I would love to read again, and an astonishing piece of work. I can hardly wait to read the next.

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison: I thought I’d read this in high school; I didn’t. It’s a fascinating study of an anger and sorrow that still hovers over parts of our culture like a fog.

The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson, was just sheer brilliance and told me so much about a generation that I knew but really didn’t understand.

Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward: A great tale of family, class, and Katrina.

James Wood, The Fun Stuff. Wood is our premier invigilator of literature old and new, and his book of essays reflects his relentless and restless search for fresh insights. A mandarin rather than a vernacular writer, to borrow Cyril Connolloy’s famous distinction, Wood is a dauntingly talented stylist.

Sam Tanenhaus, The Death of Conservatism. Tanenhaus’ foray into the precincts of the conservative mind remains as acute and informative as when it was first published in 2009. Some critics concluded that the 2010 congressional elections and rise of the Tea Party repudiated his thesis. They were wrong. Who but the most obdurate observer could disagree with his observation that “conservatives resemble the exhumed figures of Pompeii, trapped in postures of frozen flight, clenched in the rigor mortis of a defunct ideology”?

Catherine Hall, Macaulay and Son. A significant new contribution to our understanding of the great English liberal historian of the nineteenth century, whose work helped shape England’s perceptions of itself as an empire. Along with Edward Gibbon, Macaulay remains an immensely impressive figure whose prose reached literary heights. If Hall’s book inspires some readers to turn back to Macaulay’s essays and History of England, all the better.

Robert Gerwarth, Hitler’s Hangman. An excellent inquiry into one of Hitler’s most fearsome paladins, the aide to Heinrich Himmler who played a key role in implementing the Holocaust. Gerwarth dispassionately examines Heydrich’s rise and assassination, which resulted in a horrific series of Nazi reprisals in Czechoslovakia. The best account of Heydrich.

David Nasaw, The Patriarch. A perspicuous study of the founder of the Kennedy dynasty, a man who could rail against the blinkered plutocrats who condemned Franklin Roosevelt’s attempt to save capitalism from itself but also displayed lamentable judgment himself when it came to assessing the intentions and plans of the greatest criminal in human history, Adolf Hitler. Nasaw tells the whole story with verve and sympathy. Packed with information, his book is hard to put down.

The Orchardist
By Amanda Coplin

This hypnotic and beautifully crafted first novel is based in part on Coplin’s family history in the Wenatchee Valley of Washington state. Talmadge, central in a series of idiosyncratic characters, lives in this isolated valley, tending apple and apricot orchards, from boyhood on. In his forties, his quiet life is interrupted when two young pregnant sisters squat on his land. They have escaped from a backwoods brothel where they had been forced to work after being orphaned. Talmadge’s connections to these sisters and the surviving baby remake his sense of family. Coplin’s lyrical language and evocative details create a near mythic sense of an Eden lost.

The Round House
By Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich’s fourteenth novel, The Round House, begins with a crime: Geraldine, a tribal enrollment specialist, is raped and almost set on fire in the round house where tribal ceremonies are held. Joe, her uncannily savvy 13-year-old son, describes the aftermath of this act as having “nearly severed his mother’s spirit from her body.” Over the following summer, as his father, a tribal judge, investigates, Joe and his friends dig up their own clues. Winner of this year’s National Book Award and the second in a trilogy (after The Plague of Doves), The Round House reflects through layers of family history the repercussions of the gradual narrowing of the borders of the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota, the setting for much of Erdrich’s fiction. It is at once a raucous coming-of-age tale, a family tragedy, a superbly paced mystery, and a meditation on justice that circles around decades-long questions of sovereignty and jurisdiction.

By Richard Ford

“First I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later,” 15-year-old Dell, the narrator, tells us in the opening lines of Richard Ford’s majestic, transporting new novel. The suspense is not about what happened, but why, as Dell struggles to understand his parents’ impulsive and bumbling act, his twin sister’s choice to go her own way, and his own new life, after he’s spirited away across the border to a new life in Canada. Dell tells the story in retrospect, 50 years later. Ford digs deeply into the ways memory reshapes the complex realm of the past, revealing the wildness and yearnings at the heart of our mysterious lives.

Dear Life
By Alice Munro

Alice Munro’s Dear Life brings a new set of unpredictable, thoroughly imagined stories from a virtuoso who circles yet again the small-town prairie universe she has staked out over the years. Her thirteenth collection, with its infusion of four “almost stories” based on her own life—glimpses into her artistic wellsprings—is one of her best. Many of these stories are driven by an impulsive action—a soldier jumps from a slowing train rather than make an expected homecoming; a husband-to-be changes his mind about getting married in the few moments it takes to acknowledge a man waiting for a parking space; a young girl leaps into water without knowing the consequences of her action and changes her sister’s life forever. All of them meander through multiple surprises to satisfying and unexpected endings. No one else writes like this. Munro reminds us once again why she is an international treasure.

Between Heaven and Here
By Susan Straight

This gritty and elegiac novel is the third in a trilogy (A Million Nightingales, Take One Candle Light a Room) set in Rio Seco, based on Straight’s hometown of Riverside. Straight focuses on a group of Louisiana families who left the canefields, where their young daughters were being abused by a predatory boss, to pick oranges in Southern California in the 1950s. In the hardbitten community where they settled, harsh fates awaited some of their daughter’s daughters. Case in point: Glorette Picard, a high school beauty turned prostitute, who is found murdered in the alley behind a taqueria at the opening of Between Heaven and Here. In ever-intensifying chapters, Straight takes us into Glorette’s life and death, and tells the stories of her family, friends, and neighbors—and her murderer. In her ambitious Rio Seco trilogy, Straight has created an unflinching yet tender portrait of a contemporary American community where struggles are the norm, and hope appears rarely as a mirage in the desert.

Benjamin Franklin, in a letter describing his experiments in electricity to a member of the Royal Society in London (in 1750), apologized for the unwieldy length of his missive: “I have already made this paper too long, for which I must crave pardon, not having now time to make it shorter,” he wrote. I here preemptively assert the opposite apology. A jumble of assignments, books to read, and imminent travel plans make it impossible for me to write with any kind of expansiveness.

Here, however, are some books that wowed me in 2012.

Gone to the Forest
By Katie Kitamura

Katie Kitamura is an American who spent significant time living in England. But this novel, a dark and apocalyptic parable set in an unnamed colonial country at a time of environmental disaster and social unraveling, made me think of the terse and potent writing of the French author Alain Robbe-Grillet. A sexually fulminant, selfishly destructive and opportunistic young woman is the engine of this story about a weak son who in no way can compete with his charismatic but cruel father; who, nonetheless, cannot live forever. For me, this made delectable, foreboding reading.

Far From the Tree
By Andrew Solomon

A masterful, thorough nonfictional labor of love by the uniquely sensitive and eloquent writer Andrew Solomon, about the difficulties of raising children with exceptional abilities or exceptional disabilities. Solomon interviewed 300 families to present a well-rounded perspective on the complex variety of combinations that can occur. This book is a must-read for anyone who wants to think deeply about the blessings and burdens of parental love and responsibility. You may want to read the chapters that resonate with your own family portrait.

The Art of Fielding
By Chad Harbach

Anyone who twits this book—a coming-of-age book (first published last year) about baseball and college, honor, shame, sexual experimentation, and … Melville … is inane. Harbach has written a great American novel here; he’s the next John Irving—though his preoccupations are less perverse. I don’t love the last fifth of the book, but the first 80 percent knocked it out of the park for me; I didn’t need to follow the ball over the meadow and through the woods to see that this was a home run.

By John Lanchester

A thickly detailed, entertainingly Trollope-ian novel (as in The Way We Live Now) about the fallout of the financial crisis, refracted through the differing experiences of a half dozen British households on a once upwardly mobile London street, in (mostly) 2008. Lanchester pins his subjects on a slab, taking a scientist’s pleasure in detachment. I adored seeing these specimens gathered under the glass, and appreciated his taxonomy of Britain’s evolving, multicultural social classes. I found this book shrewd and wickedly funny.

Stone Arabia
By Dana Spiotta

This remarkable, imaginative, beautifully written novel has nothing at all to do with the Middle East. (I worry that its title misled people, who may have ducked it, thinking wrongly that its subject was geopolitical.) This is a story of the childhood relationships that give an adult life its shape and its complexion. Spiotta explores the difficult dynamic between an older brother and a younger sister. As a child, the sister had lionized her older brother, but not nearly as much as he lionized himself. “Self-curate, or disappear,” he tells her early, playing the sage. The brother was an anti-social, self-mythologizing would-be rock star. The sister had wanted to be an actress, but early on accommodated herself to her sub-star power. Her big brother, who was was incapable of such accommodation, suffered for it. Throughout his life, he produced yearly R. Crumb-style illustrated chronicles of his life, for which he wrote fake journalistic articles covering his not-so-famous adventures and misadventures. A touching, thought-provoking, important novel.

The 158-Pound Marriage
By John Irving

This novel by Irving, written in 1973, is my favorite of his. I reread it after reviewing his new novel, In One Person, which I liked very much, and which, as ever, dealt with such familiar Irving themes as college towns, wrestling, homosexuality, transsexuality, infidelity and identity, but also significantly and humanely explored the AIDS catastrophe of the 1980s and ’90s. The 158-Pound Marriage, written 40 years earlier, also touches on those themes, but is, in short, less weird; which makes it more universally relevant and lasting. The 158-Marriage is set in American academia, and involves two couples who decide to have an open relationship, which causes them (and their children) tremendous damage.

But unlike, say, Updike, Irving makes their story less about sexual hijinks than it about the strangely protean role that the forces of history, nationality, intellectual competition, and feminism exert on the players in this drama. Each couple has one European and one American partner. Both of the Europeans were born in Europe (well, one in England) during World War II; both of the Americans want to be taken seriously as writers. Incredibly rich, associatively, to read this novel.