The Thing Itself
368 pp., $23.99
Favorite Books Of 2016
Good as Gone. Amy Gentry (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Here's part of what I wrote about this superb first novel a couple of months ago: "It's fair to say (as Gentry herself has acknowledged) that the story was inspired by the case of Elizabeth Smart, who (as a fourteen-year-old in 2002) was abducted from her bedroom in Salt Lake City. But it is not a fictionalized retelling of Smart's experience.
"What is it, then? It is, among other things, a book animated by anger—especially anger against sexual abuse of women, but not only that. Anger at hypocrisy, too, and in particular against bent Christianity. (The book is set in Houston, and one of the characters is the slick pastor of a quasi-evangelical megachurch.) The novel includes a brief travesty of one of my favorite books of the Bible….
"[T]he suspense in this book derives not only from the twists and turns of the story and its sinewy sentences but also from the reader's own changing perceptions of the author's intention, her ‘point of view’ not just as a storyteller within the frame of the book but as the human being who told this story that adds up (as all novels do) to a little model of the world we all share. You might suppose, early on, that you know pretty well what that model will look like (whether or not you feel that she's a kindred spirit); you will probably be wrong."
The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ. Andrew Klavan (Thomas Nelson). Here's a bit from my review of this memoir: "If you have been reading Books & Culture for any length of time, you know that Klavan is a writer I greatly admire. Stephen King has called him "the most original American novelist of suspense since Cornell Woolrich," and his most recent novel, Werewolf Cop, is (so I think) his best yet.
"When I started reading Klavan about ten years ago, devouring his books, I had no idea that he had recently been baptized (nor did I know that he had grown up in a secular Jewish family). Gradually, as new books appeared, I began to think that this writer might be a Christian, until finally I was convinced that it must be so. The Great Good Thing tells the story of his conversion with candor, wit, and humility (no preening, no cant). It is a memoir, he emphasizes, focused on that story, not a full-fledged autobiography, but it encompasses the whole arc of his life, and especially his childhood and growing-up years before he left home at the age of seventeen. (In my favorite part of the book, he tells of meeting and pursuing his wife-to-be, Ellen, when he was a student at Berkeley.)"
The Hidden Letters of Velta B. Gina Ochsner (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). If the International Court of Justice at the Hague ever begins to treat "cultural appropriation" as a crime against humanity, you can be sure that Gina Ochsner will be in the dock before long. In her new novel, she brazenly appropriates the Latvian experience over decades of upheaval, making use of her own homegrown magic realism. She's a serial offender, too—she's currently at work on a novel about Gypsies in the Pacific Northwest. You might enjoy her conversation with fellow-writer Paula Huston, published this summer in B&C.
House of Lords and Commons. Ishion Hutchinson (FSG). This is one of the strongest collections by a new poet I've seen in the last several years. Dan Chiasson's piece in The New Yorker is perceptive, and all the more valuable for praising without gushing. What Chiasson doesn't spell out (though he hints at it, referring to Hutchinson's "hyperkinetic ear") is how rich the sound of Hutchinson's poems is, in contrast to so much contemporary poetry from so many different factions. A poem titled "Sibelius and Marley" begins thus: "History is dismantled music; slant, / bleak on gravel." I can't wait for Hutchinson's next book.