• The cover of the book The Most Fun We Ever Had

    The Most Fun We Ever Had

    I’ll start with Claire Lombardo. Much of the pleasure of reading her new novel, The Most Fun We Ever Had, just published by Doubleday, derives from the fact that the voice I’m listening to is thrillingly new and unexpected, and it introduces readers to one of the most vividly rendered fictional families I’ve ever encountered. There are other surprises, too. Because the book is written by a woman, some reviewers will likely mischaracterize its subject matter as “domestic,” whereas Ms. Lombardo’s is in fact hunting much bigger game. Her real subject is contemporary American suburban life, whose every nuance she captures brilliantly. Lombardo is “domestic” only in the sense that Jane Austen is.

     
  • The cover of the book Washington Black

    Washington Black

    Every bit as surprising was last year’s Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan, a book thrust into my hand not by an editor but one of my daughters. It’s the story of a young slave in Barbados, nicknamed Wash, who escapes from his brutal plantation by means of a flying contraption that’s half glider and half balloon, thereby inviting valid comparisons to both Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and, of course, Jules Verne. The balance Edugyan establishes and maintains between her book’s serious subject matter and the traditional adventure story is something of a narrative miracle, and the tale’s central friendship between Wash and a white man named Titch, feels like Huck and Jim in reverse. That said, if you’re looking for a story in which a virtuous white person saves a lowly black, look elsewhere.

     
  • The cover of the book The Great Believers

    The Great Believers

    Okay, I knew how good Rebecca Makkai was before I read The Great Believers. I’d chosen a story of hers for Best American Short Stories a decade ago and been following her career with interest ever since. Still, I wasn’t prepared for Believers, a novel of breathtaking ambition that reduced me to tears a dozen times. That’s pretty rare for me despite the fact that I am, I confess, a bit of a sentimentalist, especially now that I’ve gotten older and my emotions are nearer the surface than they once were. But having tugged at readers’ heartstrings myself, I know how it’s done, and it’s a rare writer who can make me forget the tricks of my own trade. (Once you’ve taken the underground tour of the Magic Kingdom the above ground version can’t help but lose some of its enchantment.) But the best books break down our defenses, make us forget everything we know, including, while we read, what’s real. The Great Believers is a big book with a huge cast of characters, and every single one of them wrecked me.

     
  • The cover of the book A House Among the Trees

    A House Among the Trees

    Another novel from last year that I haven’t been able to shake is Julia Glass’s A House Among the Trees, which begins with the death with a world famous children’s book author (think Maurice Sendak) named Mort Lear, who’s unexpectedly willed his entire estate to his companion and helpmate, Tomasina Daulair, along with a set of instructions seemingly designed to make her more enemies than friends. For anyone interested in the creative process—how and why artists and writers and actors become what they are, as well as how they differ from the rest of us—this book is for you. It’s also a haunting meditation on love in all its various forms, as well as the unexpected obligations love entails.

     
  • The cover of the book Evicted

    Evicted

    Since becoming a writer myself, I’ve read far more fiction than nonfiction. Lately, perhaps because so many powerful nonfiction books have grabbed the nation’s attention in these fraught times, I’ve started getting off the fiction reservation a bit more and I’m glad I have. Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, which follows the lives of several families who have been forced out of their homes, benefits from asking the exact right question: Are poor people poor because they make bad choices, or do they make bad choices because they’re poor? Do they habitually zig when they should zag, or do their circumstances make zigging and zagging more or less irrelevant? How do family, race, and culture factor in? Read this book and you’ll find yourself thinking not just about the poor but also about the rich, especially those born on third base convinced they’ve hit triples. Are they rich because they zigged when the zigging was good, or did inherited wealth protect them from the consequences of disastrous zagging? The validity of our shared American dream depends on how we answer such questions.