One of the best parts of my gig as assistant editor of Irish America magazine is writing book reviews. Every press copy that turns up in my office in a fresh beige envelope, new and smelling like all the public libraries I've loved, is a promise of a latest favorite, a gem to discover and recommend and lend out to everyone I know. This fall's crop boasts an impressive selection of fare, from fiction to history to political memoir to cookbooks (I think I adore Jamie Oliver more fervently than some people love their firstborn children.) Here are some standout selections:
- Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad: I couldn't recommend this book any more highly. Unchronologically spanning almost half a century in a collection of linked stories that comprise a whole greater than the sum of their parts, it's the book most writers of my generation wish they'd written: stylistically daring without being trendy, post-postmodern with the marks of classically satisfying narrative. It opens on 20-something kleptomaniac Sasha and her boss, music producer Bennie, then spirals out to the voices of Bennie and his friends as 80's Bay Area punks before diving into an anthropological take on a wealthy man going on an African safari with his young grad student girlfriend and his two adolescent children. For me, however, the most stellar part of Egan's epic of cultural evolution and individual decay was a flash-forward into an uncannily believable and terrifying near-future.
- Tana French, Faithful Place: French's epic mysteries, which have become known as the 'Dublin Murder Squad' trilogy, are not my usual fare, but I was sucked in when I read her last novel, The Likeness, over the course of a few days. Faithful Place takes as its protagonist Detective Frank Mackey, who is drawn back to the childhood neighborhood he's avoided for twenty-two years by new evidence on a case long closed: the disappearance of Frank's teenage love, Rosie Daly.
- Mona Simpson, My Hollywood: Told from the alternate points of view of Claire, an upper-class mother of a young boy named William and also a struggling composer, and her Filipina nanny, Lola, Simpson's smart, clever and wholehearted observation of the parallel universes they inhabit. Satirical but never judgmental, My Hollywood is a fully inhabited picture of a world that is wholly familiar but never resorts to stereotype. This is an absolutely fantastic read.
- Thomas Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilization: This may be cheating, as Cahill's first volume of the Hinges of History series, which had an impressive run on the New York Times best seller list, was actually published a full fifteen years ago. But, having never read it, I was exposed to it for the first time in preparation for an interview with Mr. Cahill in our October/November issue. I experienced for the first time his surprisingly accessible thesis on how the Irish people's passion for literacy and disinterest in censorship rescued civilization during and after the fall of the Roman Empire. If you've never read it, do. If you have, you'll be amazed at how well it's held up over the last decade and a half.
- John Toomey, Sleepwalker: I'm actually only halfway through John Toomey's debut novel, about an attractive young guy, Stuart Byrne, who becomes suddenly sickened by his own shallowness and spiritual decay and dives headfirst into some dark attempts to fill the void. But I can tell already that Toomey has a strong literary voice, hilarious and also heartbreaking, and I can see why Colum McCann has hailed Sleepwalker as "funny, smart, and intuitive."