Forty-year-old Miles Roby seems to be one of life's born losers. Or are his problems self-made? He manages a decrepit restaurant in the dying Maine burg of Empire Falls the place he was born and feels helpless to leave in the wan hope of inheriting it from the widow who owns it. The limited social circles available condemn him to repeated and unpleasant meetings with his ex-wife's obnoxious boyfriend. He has lost parental control of his bright but troubled teenage daughter. Why doesn't he pack up and start somewhere new? In answering that question, Richard Russo's richly textured novel not only offers an enthralling and sometimes scary portrait of small-town life but also reveals a dignity, unexpected yet totally convincing, in its beleaguered hero.
True History of the Kelly Gang
Ned Kelly, an Australian outlaw who was eventually captured, tried and hanged for murder in 1880, still remains a Down Under hero and legend. He left behind some papers, which Australian-born author Peter Carey deftly incorporates into an exculpatory fictional autobiography of enormous imaginative power, the story of a normally flawed man driven to desperate acts for the sake, ultimately thwarted, of self-defense.
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
The nine tales assembled under this long title again demonstrate Canadian author Alice Munro's thorough mastery of the short story. All of them are touched, in one way or another, by the specter of death, a topic that Munro's skill makes surprisingly lively.
Peace Like a River
This engaging first novel, set in the early 1960s, follows the Land family father Jeremiah; son Reuben, 11; and daughter Swede, 9 as they try to track down eldest son, Davy, 17, who has been convicted of murder but escaped from jail. Their trek occasions some literally miraculous events, and author Leif Enger makes the preposterous plausible and good fun.
It's a pity that Jonathan Franzen's dustup with Oprah she chose his novel for her book club; he expressed some ill-advised reservations has overshadowed what he wrote, for his saga about a dysfunctional family has accomplished something rare: a mix of high literary ambitions with reader friendliness.
The second U.S. President lacked the charisma of such fellow Founding Fathers as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin (and who didn't?), but David McCullough's sprightly, magisterial biography makes a strong case for John Adams' importance, both to his contemporaries and to posterity. Sensible, independent, rather prim, Adams was among the first to advocate American independence, and he displayed a crucial steadying hand during his four years as Chief Executive while the toddling Republic stretched beyond baby steps. Filled with fascinating people, momentous events, shrewd insights and excerpts from letters between Adams and his wife Abigail, John Adams is a marvelous singing of a hero historically unsung.
How I Came Into My Inheritance
No memoir about caring for elderly parents is quite like this one, a piercingly funny book without a joke in it. Dorothy Gallagher opens with the sickroom of Bella and Izzy, her Russian-Jewish mother and father, then takes their stories backward in time through the chapters of the American immigrant experience. No filial whining, just keen observations and a steady affection.
Carry Me Home
A white native of Birmingham, Ala., Diane McWhorter was 10 in 1963, roughly the same age as the four black girls killed in her hometown's notorious church bombing. Her adult questions about her father's hostility toward the civil rights movement has led to a comprehensive, fast-paced history of that era and its tangled racial animosities.
Why are there so few good biographies of horses? Well, never mind, here's one. The main character was an improbable racing champion: undersized, injury prone and ridden by a one-eyed jockey. Yet Seabiscuit captured America's heart, which pounded harder when he faced War Admiral in a showdown in 1938. Seabiscuit won, and Laura Hillenbrand does too with her deft blending of racing lore and social history.
President Nixon: Alone in the White House
Those who feel they can't bear to read another word about perhaps the most peculiar man ever to occupy the White House should think again. Richard Reeves sifted mountains of evidence in an attempt to get inside the President's skin. This approach works wonders. Nixon haters will still hate him, but they and less partisan readers will come away from the book feeling they have lived a portion of Nixon's life.