Lars Iyer’s Wittgenstein Jr. is the only book I read twice this year. It took me much longer than usual to write the review, because I was afraid I wasn’t doing the book justice. It is an absolutely exquisite, elegant novel, with a cadence and rhythm all its own.
I picked up the galley of Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things with low expectations, because it was just one of those random books that arrive on my doorstep every day and aliens and interstellar travel aren’t usually my thing, and found one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s about a Christian missionary on an alien planet, and it’s a love story, and the last line destroyed me.
Some months later in London I was signing stacks of books in the basement of the wonderful Goldsboro Books, which specializes in signed first editions, when the proprietor wandered downstairs with the Goldsboro edition of The Book of Strange New Things, an exquisite object in white and gold. I am generally immune to the charms of signed first editions, but I ordered it when I returned to New York. A few weeks later, an editor in New York sent me a finished copy of the American version, and now the two hardcovers sit next to one another on my bookshelves, and usually I am ruthless about preserving bookshelf space, but it is impossible to dispose of either edition.
Elena Mauli Shapiro’s second novel, In The Red, was left out in the rain by a UPS delivery guy. By the time it reached me it had turned into a swollen, rain-warped thing. I brought it indoors and let it dry for a few days before I read it.
Shapiro’s novel is spectacular. It’s a dark story about a bright young woman’s descent into a criminal underworld, realism interlaced with fairy tales. The protagonist is the kind of woman who we’re used to seeing as arm candy in gangster films, the kind of woman whose main jobs are to be beautiful and to not notice what’s going on around them.
The book is an expert meditation on money, morality, and belonging, and I found it mesmerizing. I tried to champion it on tour. That was the book I named when people asked what I’d read recently that I’d recommend, unless they asked about books that have science fictional overtones, in which case I went with the Michel Faber.
The book I loved most this year was J.M. Ledgard’s Submergence. Without reservation, I would call Ledgard’s novel a masterpiece. It opens in Somalia, 2012, with a British spy imprisoned by jihadists in a windowless room. Far away, on a distant northern sea, a biomathematician is preparing to descend by submersible to the ocean floor; her area of expertise is the Hadal zone, which encompasses the very deepest parts of the ocean. The imprisoned man and the biomathematician met some months earlier, and are in love; they are hopelessly far apart, but their thoughts return to one another as they go about their days.
When you consider that the Hadal zone exists in trenches and was named for Hades, unexpected parallels between their situations begin to emerge. It’s a book about, well, submergence; a man sealed into a prison from which he might not emerge, a woman descending into the inhospitable dark.
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New this week: Stone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood; The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters; My Life as a Foreign Country by Brian Turner; Wallflowers by Eliza Robertson; On Bittersweet Place by Ronna Wineberg; Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce; In the Red by Elena Mauli Shapiro; and Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats. For more on these and other new titles, go read our Great Second-half 2014 Book Preview.