Best ‘New to Us’ Books in 2012: Sarah K.’s Picks

This year, I decided to clump my favorite “old reads” into two categories. In one, I have stories which concern themselves with the lives of women and the other is stories which play with the Western genre in unconventional ways. On one hand you have female characters who must struggle against society’s limitations and constraints on women, and on the other you have two authors who have struggled against the conventions of a dusty genre with deep-set tropes. — Sarah K.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Nowadays, most people associate the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn with hipsters and all their accoutrements, such as fixed-wheel bikes, ironic facial hair and craft foods. However, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Williamsburg was a hard-scrabble, working class neighborhood. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn follows the coming of age of Francie Nolan, who lives there with her family as they struggle against poverty and the consequences of her father’s alcoholism. Though Smith wrote with a natural lyricism and was able to capture hope and beauty despite difficult circumstances, she did not flinch from realistic depictions of unwanted pregnancies, substance abuse and child predators. If you haven’t had a chance to read this classic or haven’t read it since your youth, give it a try and prepare to be charmed.

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
Fans of large country houses, large eccentric British families, and outsized personalities will enjoy The Pursuit of Love. Breezy, but sharp, Mitford based her portrayal on her own family and neighbors causing much pearl-clutching and gasps of outrage when it was published. The story follows the romantic misadventures of Linda Radlett as she seeks out true passionate love and adventure. Unsentimental, the book’s candy-coating of wit hides a deeper melancholy as it examines the conflict between seeking out romantic fulfillment or settling for domestic stability.

The Group by Mary McCarthy
The Group follows the lives of eight Vassar graduates as they navigate relationships, careers and motherhood in the mid-1930s. Think of this as the Depression-era, Girls or Sex and the City. Considered scandalous upon publication in 1963, many of the themes in the book pertaining to sex and its complications are fairly tame by today’s standards. However it’s compelling to read this and see the similarities and differences in the “women having it all” discussion that American women continue to struggle with. A fascinating aspect of the book is the section centered on new mother, Priss and the proto-mommy wars into which she gets sucked. Yes, the breastfeeding versus formula debate existed even then.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
Reminiscent of the tone and style of Charles Portis’ True Grit, The Sisters Brothers tells the tale of Charles and Eli Sisters, as they pursue Herman Kermit Warm at the behest of the Commander, a powerful tycoon who wants to cash in on Warm’s chemical formula for finding gold. The book is narrated by Eli, a reluctant murderer who is plagued by self-doubt, yet stays in the business to remain close to his reckless and callous brother. DeWitt uses deadpan formalized 19th century vernacular as a gateway to melancholy dark humor, and his portrayal of lonely, woebegone Eli is the highlight of the book.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Not for the faint of heart, Blood Meridian follows the bloody trail of ‘the kid’ as he joins a violent band of mercenary scalp hunters as they tear through the borderlands of the U.S. and Mexico during the mid-1800s. A meditation on the nature of violence, embodied by the grotesque character of the Judge, McCarthy explores the myth and reality of the Westward Expansion. What elevates this book from merely a laundry list of gratuitous acts of violence is McCarthy’s piercing, hypnotic prose and surreal imagery.

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