The Story Of Edgar Sawtelle (Ecco, $25.95) is partially a love story between young Edgar and the dogs his family raises, and partially an adventure story as he struggles to tell the truth without speaking a word. This well-paced epic rollicks across the Northern Wisconsin countryside, replete with stunning visual details and intriguing characters. David Wroblewski tells a nuanced, dense story with lyrical ease. As the central mystery unfolds, you’ll find yourself staying up much too late in order not to leave Edgar’s side. With one of the finest debut novels ever, Wroblewski gives us characters and scenes that we will come back to again and again.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s third book, Unaccustomed Earth (Knopf, $25), is a collection of eight short stories, each of which packs the punch of a novel. In the title story, Ruma debates the merits and disadvantages of asking her aging father to live with her growing family; in another, Sudha watches her brother throw away his life in the grips of an addiction he cannot control; in a third, Amit considers how his Bengali upbringing and values are so thoroughly different from those of his American wife, and how that affects their relationship. Lahiri deftly spins her satisfying stories in a way that not only makes you identify with the memorable characters, but also builds toward a stunning conclusion that will haunt you long after you close the book.
Enlisting her research skills as a historian and her rhetorical arguments as a lawyer, Annette Gordon-Reed has written The Hemingses Of Monticello (W.W. Norton, $35), a revolutionary book that successfully topples the received wisdom of the white-male-historian establishment for two centuries. Such scholars as Dumas Malone and Joseph Ellis, who has since recanted, had rejected out-of-hand the possibility of any sexual relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings or of the issue of any progeny. In refuting their rejections, Gordon-Reed builds on the 1997 DNA evidence of one instance of racial mixing between the Hemingses and the Jeffersons, but the strength of her argument resides in the rich oral histories she has uncovered in her research of African-American primary sources. These freshly discovered papers not only enrich our knowledge of the world of Monticello, but also of the development of slavery in Virginia during the 18th century. Gordon-Reed’s work is a milestone in historiography and has been nominated for the National Book Award.