Sean McDonald Recommends…

Obviously, the best novel of the year is Ellen Ullman’s By Blood, the best nonfiction book Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat Darkness, the best manifesto Jeff Speck’s Walkable City, the best travel book (and the best-titled book) Rosecrans Baldwin’s Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down, the best vampire book Brian McGreevy’s Hemlock Grove, the best memoir Davy Rothbart’s My Heart is an Idiot, the best debut Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.*

But presumably that’s all so obvious that it goes without saying and I should pick some books that haven’t received such unrelenting, universal acclaim. So:

Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers – Obviously a very controversial choice, a book for which no one has had a nice word, a book that will surely be overlooked by all the award-givers. But it deserves every superlative anyone might want to throw at it. Extraordinary.

G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen – Her graphic novels are cool, and her memoir surprising and fascinating, but none of it prepared me for this whirlwind of a novel of young Arab hackers and very old genies. It’s a mix of sweetness and ferocious intelligence – a profoundly unusual book made to work by the author’s humane treatment of her characters (even the non-human) and supremely confident storytelling.

Junot Díaz, This is How You Lose Her – And another shocker, a book that no one seems to have noticed at all this year. But when Díaz is at his best – and I don’t know that he publishes anything when he’s not as his best – he’s pretty much unmatchable.

Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master’s Son – Johnson’s novel of North Korea felt like it was almost overwhelmed by its weird newshookiness, coming out within weeks of Kim Jong Il’s death. Blessing, curse, or truly impressive publishing gimmick, I have no idea – I imagine there’s a few folks hoping Johnson and the Random House publicity team will take on Castro next. But my guess is the novel will prove even more timeless than it was timely- if we manage to run out of crazy, tragic, perverse political situations to keep the book feeling intensely relevant, people will happily read Johnson’s novel just for its high drama and electric prose.

As for gifts, obviously (again), like everyone else (right?), for everyone at least one copy each of the best books of the year (see first paragraph) – why stop being self-interested during the holidays? And one of them glows in the dark!

*All books edited by Sean McDonald, executive editor and director of paperback publishing at Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

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