The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Everybody loved this book, it got raves all over town. The tale of a young boy who commits a crime in the midst of an unspeakable tragedy, it’ll grab hold of you on page one. At 784 pages, it’s a doorstopper, guaranteed to get you through not just your flight but also the long evenings alone with your parents and their unspeakable affection for binge-watching Rizzoli & Isles. And you can brag later to friends that you’ve read the popular literary hit of the year.
Dear Life by Alice Munro
Look, she won the Nobel Prize, okay? And if you are the kind of person who’s never read her, you must. You must. Munro’s prose has gotten more spare and beautiful as she’s gotten older, which in my book means it’s gotten better. And these tales, most of which straddle the realm between memoir and fiction, all display her characteristic profundity.
Double Down by John Heilemann and Mark Helperin
Normally my take on current affairs books is that they tend to treat events that are a little too current. As in, we just lived through them and don’t need the recap. The joy of the Heilemann and Helperin franchise of election books — they also wrote Game Change — is that they tend to be written as though they were the thriller of the week. Which leads to a lot of fun gossip and hearsay, all meticulously recorded of course, turning the political scene into a richer pageant of absurdity than we are used to in our ordinary lives. It will give you anecdotes to divert those inevitably dreary political discussions at table, too.
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Look, this book has been around forever — it’s been on the NYT paperback bestseller lists for over 290 weeks. It’s in pretty large part about a serial killer, and you’ll learn a lot about architecture along the way. Textured and plotted like the best novels, it’s a true story, too. There are few nonfiction writers like Erik Larson working today. Why are you the last of your plugged-in friends to read this? Come on, you want to be the person who authoritatively says, “It’s not as good as the book,” when they get around to filming the adaptation.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
Semple is a former Arrested Development writer, which gives you some hint that her novels are funny as hell. But this one is also a touching example of a genre we’ve come to call, around the office, the Bright Young Misunderstood Girl. (Think of it as the more literary incarnations of your Katnisses and Hermiones.) People thought Marisha Pessl was going to be the girl in charge of this genre after Special Topics in Calamity Physics, but Semple takes herself less seriously and ends up with the more profound book for her pains.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Filming on the Jean-Marc Vallée-directed, Reese Witherspoon-and-Laura-Dern-starring film adaptation wrapped this week in Oregon. This means you have a scant few months left to read the book before seeing the movie, which you absolutely should do, because I have the feeling you’ll be happy you did both. Strayed’s memoir of hiking — at first rather ineptly and rashly — the Pacific Coast Trail has been a mega-hit for a reason. She’s the rare person whose facility with language is matched by her ability to touch people. Quit waiting around and pick it up.
The Round House by Louise Erdrich
Last year’s National Book Award Winner, it still appears periodically on bestseller lists for a very good reason: it’s an affecting page-turner of a book that manages to treat a difficult topic with sensitivity and panache. It’s also one of Erdrich’s best novels since her breakthrough work Love Medicine from the early 1980s. I only got around to reading this a month ago, and I’ve been kicking myself for it. Definitely grab it.
The Unwinding by George Packer
Fresh off a National Book Award win itself, this sobering book is a picture of the New Economy which, if depressing, will give you ammunition against the inevitable Republican relative whose views on bootstraps become the theme of post-dinner discussion. It also is written in that good, accessible, direct New Yorker style, which makes it the kind of book that both educates and relaxes.
The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison
This mystery novel is a gripping, Gone Girl-esque story of the fallout from a disintegrating marriage. Thrillers are hard to pull off elegantly — most authors just tend to descend into tired stereotypes as filler — but there’s none of that here, just clean, crisp writing that reminds me a bit of P.D. James. A dark horse of a bestseller, it has a sad backstory: its author died of cancer before she could see its rousing success.
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
It’s not yet hitting all the bestseller lists — after all, it only won the National Book Award for fiction just a week ago — but this novel of a male slave passing as a woman got all the raves even before that victory. It’s written in historical dialect, but its jokes are rousingly funny. McBride has often been said to echo Twain in his ear for speech and for humor. Bonus: it doubles as a historical novel about John Brown, for those of you who like that sort of thing.