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What with one thing and another I’ve probably read fewer books this year than in any other in recent memory. Still, one of the (many) benefits of working in a library is that one is always well supplied with choices, and with opinionated readers to recommend them. Anyway, this is the very best of what I’ve read in the last year.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind
This actually came out about ten years ago (earlier in the original Spanish) but it was reissued in hardback a couple of years ago. This is a real librarian’s book, i.e. it’s about people who are obsessed with books and their power. But it’s also about Spain in the Franco era, and about love and courage, and the willingness to sacrifice for something larger than oneself. It’s beautifully written and has a sense of place that makes it really delightful. I absolutely didn’t want it to end.
These two trades were the best graphic novels that I read all year. They tell the story of Clara Bronson who arrives with her son to be the new sheriff of a mining colony on a remote planet. The storytelling is excellent and the art brings the whole thing to life. I like comics best when they try to examine sides of life outside the normal run of superheroes and villains, and looking at the narrative of the new sheriff in town through the lens of the challenges of a single mother fits the bill.
Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend
The first of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, My Brilliant Friend is the story of two girls growing up together in the gritty neighborhoods of Naples in the 1950s. Dangers are everywhere: from the power of the local criminal groups, to the more mundane issues of boys and school. Ferrante’s writing is spare but also beautifully expressive. The sense of beauty and danger vibrates from every surface of everyday life. This book has been constantly checked out from here ever since it was released, and when you read it you’ll know why.
Scott Hawkins, The Library at Mount Char
Can this really be Scott Hawkins’ first novel? It’s hard to figure out what genre this book actually falls into. It’s not really fantasy, although it has some what you might call “magical” elements. It’s supernatural fiction I guess. Anyway, it’s a really entertaining story about a group of librarians whose areas of specialty control actual things in the world. There’s a strongly uncanny aspect to the writing which creates compelling atmosphere.
Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt
Originally published in the 1950s, The Price of Salt got a bump in popularity with the release of a movie version this year. The book tells the story of Therese, a young shop girl who escapes from her unsatisfying life by starting a relationship with an older woman. Highsmith explores Therese’s internal monologue in sumptuous detail and creates a story that is warm, beautiful, and challenging. If for no other reason, you should read this book because of the courage that it took to publish it in the first place.
Primo Levi, If This is a Man
This is the retranslated version of Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz that came out as part of the complete edition of his works. If there was one book that I would want every civilized person to read it would be this one. It not only tells the story of Levi’s experiences in the most notorious of the Nazi concentration camps, it is in a larger sense a meditation on the human condition. The new translation spruces up the prose (which had already been well-rendered in the original but needed some fixing here and there).This book should be read as an homage to indomitable humanity.
Enzo Traverso, Fire and Blood: The European Civil War, 1914-1945
Traverso looks at the two world wars of the 20th century as part of a single complex of events. This is one of those books that gives the reader a leg up on understanding an extremely complicated subject in a new way. Unlike many academic writers, Traverso writes a compelling readable prose. For those interested in the history of the last century, or in finding out something new about horrors that people know less about than they think they do, this is a very useful place to start.
Faith Erin Hicks, Nameless City
It’s a little unfair to mention this, since I actually only read an ARC copy of it late last year (it doesn’t come out for real until next month). Hicks established herself as a top level graphic novelist with Friends with Boys a few years ago. Nameless City (which is by the way the first of a three volume story arc) tells the story of a boy who journeys from his home village to a city so central to the politics of the countries around that it is constantly under threat of being conquered by someone else (and thus it has no real name). This is a story of political power, but also of friendship and of learning to understand the lives of people different than ourselves. When the final volume is published it will, I expect, establish Faith Erin Hicks as one of the top four or five people working in this genre. You’ll want to get on that train early.
Felicia Day, You’re Never Weird on the Internet(Almost)
Felicia Day is one of the most interesting people working in the world of media right now. From her pioneering work in web based series, to her iconic status as a leading female gamer, to her appearances on Supernatural, Day has been flying the flag for a kind of civilized nerdiness for years. Her writing is a real reflection of her personality, and this book is both really fun to read and the bearer of an extremely important story about how women can carve out a niche for themselves without being intimidated by haters and other gamergate halfwits.
Matthew Beaumont, Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London
You might not think that walking around at night would be an interesting subject for a history book, but you’d be wrong. Walking around at night seems, in a certain sense, normal to us. But there was a long time in which being outside at night was very strange and probably dangerous. Beaumont does a kind of longitudinal history that is enjoyable to read and tells you something both about the past and about the world that we live in today.
Those are my five-star reads. What are yours?