Each December, our reviewers choose their top books; today's list is by Harvey Freedenberg, attorney and freelance reviewer.
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (Little, Brown)
You don't have to like baseball to savor Chad Harbach's sumptuous debut novel, a wise and tender story of love and friendship, ambition and the cruelty of dashed dreams at a small Midwestern college. Like a true fan enjoying a game of baseball as it scrolls its leisurely signature across a summer afternoon, there are moments when you will find yourself wishing this book would never end. It's that good.
The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier (Pantheon)
What if our physical and emotional pain became visible in the form of light? That's the subject Kevin Brockmeier explores in this gorgeous new work about how we suffer and how we love. Though pain may endure and threaten to break us, his characters show us that in the end love persists, too--and prevails.
Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell (Norton)
To the ranks of memorable literary heroines add the name of Margo Crane, the protagonist of Bonnie Jo Campbell's passionate novel. Navigating the borderline between civilization and the harsh, dangerous natural world, it's the story of a journey that begins with the search for a missing parent and ends in self-discovery.
Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman (Grove)
In a novel that possesses the immediacy and power of a memoir, Francisco Goldman recounts the story of his passionate, if improbable, love affair with his young wife, Aura, and of the nearly insurmountable grief that stalked him after its tragic conclusion.
Volt by Alan Heathcock (Graywolf)
There are short story writers who are masters of characterization and others adept at creating vivid, memorable settings. In his first collection, Alan Heathcock blends both talents to create an assortment of stark, memorable portraits of small-town life. Readers who admire the kind of vivid, distinctive short fiction of writers like Richard Ford and David Means will be excited to discover Heathcock's familiar but wholly original voice.
Life Itself: A Memoir by Roger Ebert (Grand Central)
There are certain books it's a privilege to review, and Roger Ebert's memoir is one of that small number. Facing terrible pain, disfigurement and loss, Ebert long ago could have retreated into a private, silent world. Instead, he's still sending out small sparks of light from the inside of a darkened movie theater and now in this honest, deeply felt reminiscence. That's a tribute to him, and a gift to all of us.
History of a Suicide: My Sister's Unfinished Life by Jill Bialosky (Atria)
That it took Jill Bialosky some 20 years to produce this memoir of her younger sister Kim's suicide is a testament both to the difficulty of revisiting the trauma and her determination to tell that story with sensitivity and honesty. The greatest tribute one can pay to this book is to acknowledge that by the time Kim's short, heartbreaking life reaches its conclusion, we mourn her passing as if we knew her.
Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III (Norton)
In highly regarded novels like House of Sand and Fog and The Garden of Last Days, Andre Dubus III has displayed considerable dexterity in marrying a literary sensibility to an ability to tell a powerful story. Now, in this energetic account of his early days and the birth of his writing career, Dubus applies those same talents to memoir.
Blue Nights by Joan Didion (Knopf)
In The Year of Magical Thinking, the illness of Didion's daughter, Quintana, formed the backdrop for an account of Didion's life with her husband John Dunne and her effort to cope with the enormity of his sudden death. Now, from the same store of still raw memories, this time with her daughter at center stage, Didion has fashioned an equally compelling meditation on parental love, loss, memory and the perils of old age.
The Other Walk: Essays by Sven Birkerts (Graywolf)
Sven Birkerts's collection of 45 masterly essays is a book best consumed in slow, contemplative bites, with ample time allowed to reflect on and absorb them. And it's one that should be picked up, reread and relished for its expressive beauty and its gentle reminder that we can find life's fullness amid its most inconsequential moments.