This week, one of the best novels of 2013, the life of Johnny Cash, and the history of America in 101 objects.
Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow (Scholastic/Levine) - Otter is the daughter of Willow, the most powerful woman in a matriarchy that exists on the edge of a dangerous forest. Willow, the binder, casts yarn into “wards” that protect the village by keeping the dead at bay. Although Otter has inherited her mother’s magic, Willow mysteriously refuses to teach her spells, expels her from home, and chooses another girl as her apprentice. Otter must rely on two best friends: Kestrel, a ranger in training, and Cricket, who plans to become the village’s storyteller.
Jonathan Swift: His Life & His World by Leo Damrosch (Yale Univ.) - The outlines of Swift’s life are more or less familiar. To render a novel account of Swift’s biography, then, Damrosch investigates myths and assumptions about such vexed questions as Swift’s disappointed political ambitions, his moral and religious views, and his love affairs.
City of Lies by R.J. Ellory (Overlook) - In this outstanding noir from British author Ellory, Miami hack journalist John Harper, drinking less, believing in God less, but still unable to recapture the muse that inspired his first and only novel eight years earlier, is called back to New York City, scene of his bitter childhood and now the Faustian arena for a deadly gangland game where everyone but Harper knows the rules.
Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn (Little, Brown) - A decade after his death, Johnny Cash still towers over the landscape of country and rock music, a legendary figure whose work with figures as diverse as Bob Dylan, Cowboy Jack Clement, Kris Kristofferson, and producer Rick Rubin illustrate Cash’s embrace of musical eclecticism and his deep devotion to finding that musical moment when tune and lyrics blend to make a great song.
Sea of Hooks by Lindsay Hill (McPherson & Co.) – One of 2013’s best books, this first novel by poet and one-time banker Hill is less a novel, in the traditional sense, than a spiritual biography. Christopher Westall, raised in San Francisco in the 1950s and heady ’60s, is the only child of an alcoholic and distant father and an eccentric, meddling mother. Nearly every paragraph astonishes, every moment rich with magic and daring. An unforgettable trip.
The Animal Book: A Collection of the Fastest, Fiercest, Toughest, Cleverest, Shyest—and Most Surprising—Animals on Earth by Steve Jenkins (Houghton Mifflin) - Jenkins compiles more than 300 animals, using a loosely encyclopedic format with sections covering topics like “Animal Extremes,” “Predators,” and “Animal Senses.” Jenkins’s always skillful use of cut- and torn-paper animal artwork appears throughout (several images comes from his earlier books), while factually detailed captions describe each subject, resulting in a vibrant juxtaposition of science and art.
The Dissertation by R.M. Koster (Overlook) - A careful fake is better than the truth, according to fictional Banana Republic president León Fuertes, and so it is with Koster’s 1975 novel masquerading as a doctoral dissertation, reissued after four decades and still fresh, funny, and disturbingly relevant. Half text, half footnotes, this second volume in a trilogy (after The Prince) about the imaginary Latin American country of Tinieblas purports to be the annotated biography of the leader, as written for academic credit by his son, Camilo, whose sources include interviews with dead people.
The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects by Richard Kurin (Penguin Press) - As Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture for the Smithsonian Institution, Kurin has intimate knowledge of the organization’s inventory of over 137 million items (that doesn’t include millions and millions of books, photos, documents, recordings, etc.). That blessing had the potential to turn into a curse when he was challenged to select a mere 101 objects that would tell the history of the United States. But he’s done a masterful job. Yes, there are obvious inclusions, like the Declaration of Independence, Neil Armstrong’s space suit, Dorothy’s red ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, and the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk Flyer, but even these well-known items have surprising and significant backstories.