Monthly Archives: December 2015

Is my favorite debut really a debut?

As I read the “Best of” book lists, and reflect back on my year of reading, I concur with Michelle Obama that the best book I read, and reviewed, this year was Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World. Her poetic use of language, emotional openness and roving intellect made this memoir stay with me weeks and months after I put it down. And as I wrote in my review, my husband got so engrossed with the story that he actually missed his subway stop on his commute home, ending up in a completely different part of Brooklyn than he was headed, when he finally looked up from this book.

She tells the story of the untimely death of her husband at age 50, then goes back in time to share their love story and moves forward to explore her, and her children’s, grief. The book is a wonderful meditation on love and on loss. But although this book is her first memoir, Alexander is such an accomplished poet and academic, with eleven books of poetry and four books of essays published, that I wonder if she counts in the debut category? Since it was her first memoir, I took liberties to include her on my “debut” reading list, and after I loved the book so much, I wanted to share that with all of you.

As for the more traditional debuts, meaning an author without much of a publishing record when their debut novel came out, of the novels I read and wrote about this year, The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize and is being picked up on best book lists, including the Times 100. And while I enjoyed this book and admired its ambition, the three books that stayed with me the most are:

Etta and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper, for its magical tale and quirky story.

The Unfortunates, by Sophie McManus, for its breathtakingly precise and beautiful language that made me feel like I was reading a book written 100 years ago.

And Disgruntled, by Asali Solomon, for her ability to capture the teenage years of a unique girl growing up in Philadelphia.

Although The Unfortunates was written up quite widely when it came out and was nominated for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, all of these books deserve more attention than they got. And the authors all capture unique female stories which deepen our collective understanding of the world.

How about you? What debuts did you read this year that you really loved?

In the new year, I will write about books that I didn’t get to yet in 2015, including The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma and Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House.

Happy holidays, dear readers….to a festive end of the year. Until 2016!


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No. 4 Imperial Lane, by Jonathan Weisman

Imperial Lane

No. 4 Imperial Lane

By Jonathan Weisman

Twelve, 2015

342 pages

David Heller is an American who, after studying for a year at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, decides to stay on to be close to a young woman he has fallen for. He moves to Brighton, where she lives, and gets a post with the Community Service Volunteers as a live-in helper to Hans Bromwell, a quadriplegic. Little does David know that by moving in with Hans, he will become a part of his family, and family history.

Hans lives with his sister Elizabeth, and in the evenings, after David is done with his daily duties, he settles into the kitchen with her. While Elizabeth sips vodka she tells him stories of her life. In her early 20s, Elizabeth travelled to Portugal on vacation and fell in love with Joao, a Portuguese doctor who shared her passion for, and recall of, Shakespeare. They marry shortly there after and she travels and lives in Africa with him, where he works for the Portuguese army as a doctor in the 1970s.

The book alternates between David’s story in late 80s England, where he makes the best of the tasks he has to do to keep Hans comfortable, and tries to stay connected to his girlfriend, who he doesn’t see very often, and with the story of Elizabeth’s young adult life with Joao in Africa.

I found the book a little slow to get into, mainly because I expected it to be more about David than it is. I was surprised when the narration jumped into a third person voice that told Elizabeth’s story. But once I got used to the alternating chapters/stories, I became engrossed in her tale. And as her story develops, the book moves to a dramatic and satisfying end that explains why Hans is a quadriplegic and how he and Elizabeth, who are originally from a wealthy family, came to live in Brighton and be in need of a volunteer for Hans’ caretaking. This is a satisfying family and expat story in which you will also learn a lot about the African Portuguese colonies

Weisman is an economic policy reporter for the NYTimes.

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