Below, regular contributors to the Straight’s books section do their level best to boil down another fine year into one title each.
DAVID CHAU No one writes about New York, and a certain set of New Yorkers, like Jay McInerney. Bright, Precious Days, his latest novel featuring Russell and Corrine Calloway, details the midlife disenchantment riddling their marriage. Betrayal. Ecstasy. Regret. Love. The coordinates of this domestic minefield are mapped with style and sensitivity, and offer an engaging look at the yields of time.
JENNIFER CROLL “This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are,” says a character in Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Here we are, indeed. The subject matter may be brutally violent and rooted in too-real history—a black teen girl’s dangerous flight from slavery in the pre–Civil War South—but Whitehead’s wittily graceful prose and magical-realist twist of presenting the Underground Railroad as a literal rail line make this book a transfixing, harrowing reflection of America’s past, and explanation of its present.
GEORGE FETHERLING There’s nothing unusual about New Yorker writers making books out of profiles they’ve written for the magazine. You might even say it’s almost mandatory. Everyone has done it, from Janet Flanner to Kenneth Tynan. Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation to Philip Roth, whose biographer she is) differs from the others in that she profiles the dead. American Rhapsody: Writers, Musicians, Movie Stars, and One Great Building brings together long-form biographical portraits of such cross-purposed figures as Scott Fitzgerald and Marlon Brando, or Stepin Fetchit and Laurence Olivier. The highlight is when she looks at Manhattan’s Chrysler Building as the George Gershwin of architecture and Gershwin as the Chrysler Building of music.
BRIAN LYNCH Praising Known and Strange Things, the debut nonfiction collection by American-born, Nigerian-raised author and photographer Teju Cole, means figuring out where to start. With its passionate meditations on literary ancestors? Or its shrewd, captivating essays on the art and fate of photography? Or its searching travelogues, often expressing Cole’s outrage at state hypocrisy and the brutality that follows in the slipstream of power? The book is impressive on so many fronts, and so utterly cosmopolitan that it comes as a draft of courage and inclusion in a frightened, xenophobic time.
CHARLIE SMITH Ujjal Dosanjh’s Journey After Midnight: India, Canada and the Road Beyond is probably the most compelling memoir ever written by a former Canadian premier. It’s a remarkably frank, well-structured, and highly readable account of Dosanjh’s legal and political career. There’s plenty of drama in his encounters with Sikh extremists, including one who tried to kill him with an iron bar. And there are juicy revelations about his disagreements with two other NDP premiers: Glen Clark and Dave Barrett. Kudos to editor Barbara Pulling for her contributions to this very polished book.
ROBERT WIERSEMA The entirety of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume opus “My Struggle” could be subtitled “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, but the Joycean nod seems especially suited to the fifth volume, Some Rain Must Fall. Following the Norwegian writer through his 20s and early 30s, his years of education and development as a writer, Some Rain Must Fall is compelling, gut-wrenching, emotionally volatile stuff, an account of frustration, loss, and despair. This might not seem like praise, but the result is transfixing and transformative, for writer and reader alike.