Entertainment Spotlight

Word power: The Star’s top 100 books of 2012

Updated: 2012-12-05T19:02:21Z

The Kansas City Star

Warm and wild tidings in the year’s top books ...

If you think books have begun the inevitable death spiral in the overcrowded circus of our entertainment culture, here’s a reminder that much is alive and well in the world of literature and reading.

Our contributing reviewers, friends and other avid readers who helped compile The Kansas City Star’s Top 100 Books of 2012 had no trouble finding passion, quality and transporting armchair experiences to highlight.

This year seemed an especially big one for fiction and our top picks — the books that stand out as the best of the best — include an unexpected and eclectic range of page-turning hits, somber emotional journeys, suspenseful escapades and cogent, firecracker satire.

Inside you also will find recommended reading in nonfiction, history, biography and poetry as well as books for young readers. There are enough books here to make it through the coming winter, a season made warm by climate change, fireplaces and/or the power of words on page and screen.

Top fiction

“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” by Ben Fountain (Ecco). In this novel about soldiers home from Iraq and being celebrated at a Dallas Cowboys football game, Fountain satirizes 21st-century America’s gluttony for spectacle, media heroes and feeling good about ourselves. Frequently cited as this generation’s “Catch-22,” the comparison is apt.

“Dear Life,” by Alice Munro (Knopf). In her latest collection of masterful stories, the Canadian writer explores wartime romances, her own personal history and chance reunions between characters after decades apart. Munro’s characters often observe “dear life” from its outskirts.

“The Fault in Our Stars,” by John Green (Dutton). Two smart teens dying of cancer are determined to focus what little time they have to be alive and experience love in this unsentimental, nearly irreverent, soulful and unforgettable novel. The novel invites readers to contemplate big issues — friendship, love and how to live a full life knowing your cancer is terminal. (Ages 14-Adult.)

“Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn (Crown). On their fifth anniversary, Amy Dunne disappears and husband Nick quickly becomes the logical suspect in her apparent murder. This suspenseful, twisting and often twisted tale, set in Missouri and told from the perspectives of husband and wife, becomes a brilliant study of deception and marital decay. The author is a Kansas City native, and her third novel makes “Law & Order: SVU” look like “Inspector Gadget.”

“The Round House,” by Louise Erdrich (HarperCollins). Winner of the National Book Award, Erdrich’s 14th novel is the taut first-person tale of a boy pushed into darkest adulthood by a brutal attack on his mother that begs for righteous revenge. A legacy of genocide and the Ojibwa’s precarious survival emerge as themes as cultures collide in the wake of the reservation crime. Despite the dark narrative, the book is salted liberally with Erdrich’s sly humor.

“Telegraph Avenue,” by Michael Chabon (HarperCollins). Chabon embraces a dizzying and thrilling spectrum of American dreams and conflicts in this virtuoso and soulful novel headquartered in a used record shop in Oakland, Calif., exploring with piquant insights, humor and soaring language marriage, fatherhood, race, the corporate imperative, jazz, blaxploitation films and freedom. It’s a multigenerational, interracial saga by a novelist at the height of his talent.

“This Is How You Lose Her,” by Junot Diaz (Riverhead). No one else has a voice like Diaz’s (or a mouth, either), nor his insight into race and cultural identity, and in his first outing after “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” (which took the 2008 Pulitzer), he returns to the economic, lively and hilariously incisive narrative style familiar to fans of his 1997 debut collection, “Drown.” A series of linked short stories star his alter ego, Yunior (now middle-aged) and Yunior’s serial troubles with love and fidelity.

Top nonfiction

“Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, & Hope in a Mumbai Undercity,” by Katherine Boo (Random House). An immensely moving narrative of Annawadi, a slum-shack village and its grimly determined, resourceful citizens. The vivid narrative, transporting readers into lives and landscapes they would never discover on their own, won the National Book Award for nonfiction. Not for the faint of heart no matter how liberal.

“The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol. 4,” by Robert A. Caro (Knopf). This latest entry in Caro’s monumental project is a propulsive and insightful portrait of leadership amid political ugliness and a profound American tragedy. It spans the period up to and after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and Johnson’s ascent to the Oval Office.

“Some of My Best Friends Are Black,” by Tanner Colby (Penguin). This rich and fascinating book examines how the policies of the Civil Rights era played out on the ground in the 1980s and 1990s. In other words, it’s the story of a crucial and often overlooked period of American history, featuring a marvelously researched chapter on Kansas City real estate and how it shaped not only geographical divides but the social fabric as well.

“When I Was a Child I Read Books,” by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). In her third gorgeously wrought essay collection, Robinson, whose spiritually resonant novels including “Gilead” and “Home,” argues knowledgeably and passionately for renewed support of public schools, universities, and libraries — the true source of America’s greatness, so that we can continue to dwell in the light of literature, art, science and the humanities. Robinson challenges readers to consider the public good over market economics in personal and orthodox religious terms, as she lifts our idea of literature back to where it belongs — to a form of transcendence.

More fiction

“The Age of Miracles,” by Karen Thompson Walker (Random House). The Earth’s rotation suddenly slows in this accomplished first novel, and a teenage girl notices her parents’ strained relationship, a worry eclipsed by environmental catastrophe. “Battleborn,” by Claire Vaye Watkins (Penguin). The stories in this debut collection take place in the mythic Old West and in its imagined playlands like Las Vegas and the “Gunsmoke” movie set. Watkins is a writer to watch.

“Beautiful Ruins,” by Jess Walter (HarperCollins). This amazing and consistently entertaining novel hopscotches through history, from war-torn Italy to the set of the doomed blockbuster “Cleopatra,” to modern Hollywood. Walter is unerringly funny and incisive about matters of the heart and, when he ushers a blustering and alcoholic Richard Burton onstage, you wish the show would never stop.

“Birds of a Lesser Paradise,” by Megan Mayhew Bergman (Scribner). Bergman creates rich emotional landscapes in these short stories that explore relationships between people, animals and their environments.

“Bring Up the Bodies,” by Hilary Mantel (Henry Holt). That one of the most vivid, charismatic characters of 21st century literature thus far is Thomas Cromwell, a man deeply enmeshed in his time and place — 16th century Tudor England — testifies to Mantel’s ability to pull readers into a world startlingly contemporary and startlingly foreign. (This sequel and its predecessor, “Wolf Hall,” are winners of the Man Booker Prize).

“Canada,” by Richard Ford (Ecco). Ford creates a memorable voice for Dell, a 15-year-old who deals with the aftermath of a bank robbery executed by his parents.

“The Casual Vacancy,” by J.K. Rowling (Little, Brown). A multicharacter, Dickensian-style novel that uses the story of a small town to paint a picture of society as a whole.

“The Chaperone,” by Laura Moriarty (Riverhead). In this novel by a Lawrence writer, a meek Midwestern woman accompanies rambunctious Louise Brooks to New York in the summer of 1922. Both women epitomize the rapid changes and poignant struggle of womanhood during the Jazz Age.

“Drifting House,” by Krys Lee (Viking). In darkly elegant stories that explore dual cultural identities, this debut collection features characters who live in South and North Korea and in immigrant communities in the coastal United States.

“Flight Behavior,” by Barbara Kingsolver (HarperCollins). Kingsolver’s timely novel puts a scrappy Tennessee stay-at-home mom at the center of an environmental anomaly — monarch butterflies overwintering in Southern Appalachia — that expands her small world.

“In One Person,” by John Irving (Simon & Schuster). The ever-popular Irving outdoes himself in this audaciously explicit, hilarious, wise and resounding tale of one young Vermont boy’s coming-of-age in a loving enclave where theater, wrestling and sexual tolerance are cherished.

“The Invisibles,” by Hugh Sheehy (University of Georgia Press). In these literary stories with a hardboiled sensibility, Sheehy explores the dark side of the Midwest and captures the inner worlds of misfit teens.

“May We Be Forgiven,” by A.M. Homes (Viking). In this wrenching, hilarious, compassionate and wildly eventful tragicomedy, Homes pits two brothers, a television executive and an historian, against each other in an epic battle that at once summons the dark archetypes of the human condition and shreds our corrupt, dumbed-down, screen-addicted society.

“Mudwoman,” by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco). With macabre ferocity and astute psychology, Oates portrays the first woman president of an Ivy League college whose horrifying Adirondacks childhood surges back to threaten not only her career but her sanity and very soul as she suffers a nightmarish breakdown that embodies the grueling adversity girls face simply to survive and ambitious women confront in even the most civilized institutions.

“Pure,” by Andrew Miller (Europa Editions). On the cusp of the French Revolution an impecunious, inexperienced young engineer is summoned to Versailles and charged with the monumental task of emptying Les Innocents, the sanctified but overcrowded and putrefying cemetery in the center of Paris, thus setting off a clash between the Enlightenment and the Church, politics and people, conveyed in brisk, almost cinematic minimalism.

“Red Weather,” by Janet McAdams (University of Arizona Press). This suspenseful debut novel portrays a woman’s search for herself in the guise of her search for long-missing parents, who had fled imminent arrest for a 1970s American Indian protest action. McAdams’ beautifully rendered characters and places lure us on in this journey from grief and longing to the potential of a new life.

“The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving,” by Jonathan Evison (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill). A quirky road trip through the American West combined with a poignant story about parenting and grief.

“Running the Rift,” by Naomi Benaron (Algonquin). This rich first novel about an innocent Tutsi boy who aspires to be an Olympic runner asks whether it is possible to pursue a personal goal, however noble, during a time of national crisis, in this case the Rwandan genocide.

“San Miguel,” by T. C. Boyle (Viking). Boyle reclaims and fictionalizes the dramatic stories of two sheepherding families who lived on San Miguel, one of California’s Channel Islands, in the wake of the Civil War and World War I, in a stormy and eye-opening novel about our hubristic fantasy of controlling nature.

“Sweet Tooth,” by Ian McEwan (Doubleday). In this twisty, comic novel about espionage, love and literature, a young woman gets recruited by MI5 to cultivate a young writer in 1972 London.

“Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” by Maria Semple (Little, Brown). This epistolary novel translated to the electronic age by former TV writer Semple, affectionately skewers Seattle’s cultural climate in a warm story about maternal love run off the rails to frigid Antarctica.

“The Yellow Birds,” by Kevin Powers (Little, Brown). As “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien documents the Vietnam conflict, this novel tells the truth of Iraq warfare.

“You Came Back,” by Christopher Coake (Grand Central Publishing). A man tries to rebuild his life after his son’s death in an accident, but a woman contends the boy’s ghost appears in her house and cries out for his parents in this gripping tale, a ghost story less in the Stephen King sense than a Henry Jamesian one — the reader isn’t sure if the ghost is real, a manipulation or a psychotic break.

“We Are Taking Only What We Need,” by Stephanie Powell Watts (BkMk Press). Winner of the country’s largest prize for African American writers, this collection of meticulously crafted stories examines the lives of mostly female African Americans and Jehovah’s Witnesses (often in the same character) surviving and making full lives in a South not particularly hospitable to either.

“Western Avenue and Other Fictions,” by Fred Arroyo (University of Arizona Press). This impeccably crafted collection of short stories about people who do unthinkable damage to each other and make inconceivable sacrifices for each other is brought to life by Arroyo’s gifted command of language, adept characterizations and lush, poetic realization of place.

“What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” by Nathan Englander (Knopf). The stories in this second collection from the author of the prize-winning “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges” originates once again in the particular milieu of Orthodox and observant Judaism but travel far afield in their subtlety, concerns and moral complexities, and in a compulsively readable, wise — and wisecracking — storytelling style that recalls his antecedent Grace Paley.

“Where I Am Now: Stories,” by Robert Day (BkMk Press). First-person short stories by this master writer, whose work evokes Evan S. Connell’s, create new mythologies about Kansas City suburban life, the Great Plains and California.

Mystery, suspense

“Defending Jacob,” by William Landay (Random House). If you’ve ever cared about the welfare of a young child, this wrenching and gripping legal thriller about an assistant district attorney whose 14-year-old son is accused of murdering a classmate will tear you apart.

“The Fear Index,” by Robert Harris (Knopf). In this canny, Kafkaesque financial thriller, a cyber program tracking downward-spiraling stocks turns on its creators.

“Hell or High Water,” by Joy Castro (Thomas Dunne Books). A literary thriller that delivers on both counts with a smart, finely wrought narrative of recovery and resilience through the story of a conflicted young woman in New Orleans investigating the hundreds of registered sex offenders who fell off the radar after Hurricane Katrina.

“A Land More Kind Than Home,” by Wiley Cash (William Morrow). This lyrical thriller explores the dark perversion of a fundamentalist religious cult when an innocent mute boy dies at the hands of snake healers.

“No Mark Upon Her,” by Deborah Crombie (William Morrow). Crombie weaves together Olympic rowing, canine search and rescue teams, the vagaries of London neighborhoods, and sexual harassment within the Metropolitan Police into a beautifully written and complex British police procedural.

“The Other Woman,” by Hank Phillippi Ryan (Forge Books). A disgraced TV reporter stumbles upon evidence of a politician’s possible career-ending affair and follows it at the risk of her newspaper job and perhaps her life in this tight, suspenseful read with well-drawn characters, a complex plot, and writing that brings the world of Boston politics alive.

“Raylan: A Novel,” by Elmore Leonard (William Morrow). Dope dealers, organ harvests, coal mines, poker princesses and dark family secrets — U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens finds himself in the midst of a surreal cast and a rollicking, short-fuse series of scrapes, all delivered with the wry eye and masterly pen of a crime-writing legend.

“Young Philby,” by Robert Littel (St. Martin’s ). Veteran spy novelist Littel works yet another twist on the infamous real-life case of Kim Philby, the British spy exposed as a double agent working for the Kremlin.

“The Woman Who Died a Lot,” by Jasper Fforde (Penguin). In the seventh Thursday Next novel, Thursday’s family helps her solve mysteries and save the world with Fforde’s trademark mixture of silliness, pseudoscience and imaginative metaphysics.

More nonfiction

“Assignment to Hell,” by Timothy M. Gay. (New American Library). This account of five accomplished World War II war correspondents includes Walter Cronkite (decades before his avuncular network news period) as well as Hal Boyle, an Associated Press reporter from Kansas City.

“The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675,” by Bernard Bailyn (Knopf). The Harvard professor emeritus chronicles the brutal tapestry of early colonists in North America, delving into the struggle and violence among natives, enslaved people and settlers.

“Blue Highways Revisited,” by Edgar I. Ailor III and Edgar I. Ailor IV (University of Missouri Press). This retracing of the 1978 trip taken by Kansas City native William Least Heat-Moon (described in “Blue Highways”) documents that the off-the-interstate landscape hasn’t changed that much in three decades.

“Cronkite,” by Douglas Brinkley (HarperCollins). The first major biography of the celebrated news anchor describes his Kansas City background as well as his not-quite-standard-procedure moments, including the time he met privately with Robert Kennedy in 1968 to urge him to run for president and — not long after — conducted an exclusive interview with Kennedy about that very topic.

“The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination,” by Matthew Guerrieri (Knopf). One of the most famous and clichéd musical phrases of all time provides the doorway to this engaging discussion of the meaning and purpose of art, culture, the power of music and the act of listening.

“Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy,” by Douglas Smith (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Smith explores the fate of Russia’s aristocratic class during and after the Revolution by following three generations of two major families as they go from immense wealth to persecution and death.

“The Generals: American Military Command From World War II to Today,” by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin). An unexpectedly timely — its last chapter focuses on David Petraeus — and refreshingly clear-eyed critique by a longtime observer of American leadership and its failures.

“The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness,” by Kevin Young (Graywolf Press). This book won the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, and it is brilliant entertainment as it considers hip-hop, blues, slavery, Langston Hughes, postmodernism and post-soul poetics.

“Heartland: The Photographs of Terry Evans” (Nelson-Atkins Museum/Yale). The first full retrospective of a major American photographer whose exploration, often from aerial perspectives, of Midwestern life — from the prairie to tiny Matfield Green, Kan., to Chicago, to fracking sites — yields magnificent images and raises profound questions about our land ethic and the wonders of the Earth.

“Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails,” by Anthony Swofford (Grand Central Publishing). Swofford’s unsparing account of his troubled relationship with his ailing father brilliantly illuminates his own personal crack-up after the success of his memoir “Jarhead.” The result is as riveting as a slow-motion car crash, made beautiful by Swofford’s trademark humor and honesty.

“House of Stone,” by Anthony Shadid (Houghton). Imagine “A Year in Provence” in war-torn Lebanon and you start to get an idea of this stirring, beautifully written, unexpectedly funny memoir of the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Middle East reporter’s quest to restore his ancestral home while recovering from injuries suffered during his captivity by Libyan forces. (Tragically, Shadid died on assignment in Syria four days after this book’s publication.)

“The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire,” by Ted Gioia (Oxford University Press). From “All of Me” and “All of You” to “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” a reliable and insightful jazz writer journeys through the American songbook to deliver fresh, entertaining backstories and recommends recordings of each selection.

“Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat,” by Max Holland. (University of Kansas Press). Forty years after Watergate, this book detailed how W. Mark Felt, Federal Bureau of Investigation associate director, leaked details about the FBI investigation of the break-in not because of his dismay at the behavior of the Richard Nixon White House, but because of his anger at being passed over for the bureau’s top job following the May 1972 death of longtime director J. Edgar Hoover.

“Mao: The Real Story,” by Alexander V. Pantsov with Steven I. Levine (Simon & Schuster). An enormous, important and richly detailed portrait of Communist China’s supreme leader made rounder and more complete than prior accounts by the authors’ access to previously unmined Soviet archives.

“The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court,” by Jeffrey Toobin (Doubleday). The shelves are full of insider scoops about Washington and various flavors of policy wonkness, but this well-crafted narrative takes readers deep into the workings, politics and philosophies of the executive and judicial branches of government. To Toobin, Chief Justice John Roberts’ climactic ruling in the Affordable Health Care Act case must have seemed like a gift.

“On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines — and Future,” by Karen Elliott House (Knopf). A deeply reported look at an increasingly complicated and fragile society.

“Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter,” by Frank Deford (Atlantic Monthly Press). This memoir by the veteran Sports Illustrated writer includes the moment he realized he was really getting older: when the stories told by the veteran coaches were a lot more interesting than anything said by the athletes.

People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished From the Streets of Tokyo — and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up,” by Richard Lloyd Parry (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). A London Times reporter’s investigation leads to the Japanese underworld and the discovery that the distant political past can influence individual lives into the present day.

“Prairie Fever: British Aristocrats in the American West 1830-1890,” by Peter Pagnamenta (Norton). How our region attracted a stream of 1 percenters, tourists and land-grabbers, and how that influx ultimately shaped public policy.

“Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, and Survival,” by Christopher Benfey (Penguin). Benfey’s complex and poignant family history and free-roaming interest in art and creativity converge in a dazzling history of love, deep connections to the land and its riches, exile, and innovation that embraces brick-making, pottery, weaving and art education. “Reinventing Bach,” by Paul Elie (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Every generation has a way of reinterpreting and rediscovering the past, and for our lasting appreciation of Johann Sebastian Bach we can thank the arrival of electricity, recording technologies of the 20th century and the passionate attention of musicians such as Albert Schweitzer (an organist and Bach biographer in addition to his life’s work as a medical missionary) and cellist Pablo Casals — the story of all of which comes together brilliantly in this learned and highly readable book.

“The Rise of Rome : The Making of the World’s Greatest Empire ,” by Anthony Everitt (Random House). Told as a compelling narrative, Everitt traces the history of the Eternal City from its legendary origins to its rise as a superpower and the end of the Republic.

“Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year,” by David von Drehle (Henry Holt). A book season rarely goes by without a nod to our 16th president, but an election year and a Steven Spielberg movie conspired to prompt even more attention. This stirring reappraisal of familiar territory, by a Kansas City-based writer for Time magazine, is a standout of recent Lincolnalia.

“Say Nice Things About Detroit,” by Scott Lasser (W.W. Norton). The troubled city of Detroit is in need of as much redemption and loyalty as one of its wayward sons.

“Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel,” by John Guy (Random House). A concise and highly readable account of the murdered Archbishop of Canterbury, nemesis to Henry II, and “a more credible, and creditable, figure,” as one critic wrote, than often portrayed.

“Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet,” by Andrew Blum (Ecco). What is the Internet? What does it look like, how does it work and what is its future? A curious writer goes on an affable and informative quest in search of the answers.

“When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice,” by Terry Tempest Williams (Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Sarah Crichton). Twenty years after “Refuge,” her startling essay on cancer, nature and nuclear testing in the West, Williams returns with another transcendent meditation on women’s lives and wilderness.

“A Wicked War : Polk, Clay, Lincoln and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico,” by Amy S. Greenberg (Knopf). How a president engineered a war with misleading purpose and wide and tragic consequences.

Literary lives and letters

“Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace,” by D.T. Max (Viking). Max does not try to take on the kitchen-sink novelist with a kitchen-sink bio — the book is selective and judicious, big-hearted without being hagiographic.

“Farther Away,” by Jonathan Franzen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Love or hate his fiction, Franzen’s essays — which explore his personal relationships and examine modern notions of progress — are stunning.

“The Fun Stuff,” by James Wood (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Fun with culture, that is, and a formidable critic, in this collection of literary essays and magazine pieces on subjects ranging from George Orwell to rocker Keith Moon.

“Joseph Anton: A Memoir,” by Salman Rushdie (Random). Rushdie’s masterful memoir of living under siege for 13 years after the Ayatollah Khomeini sentenced him to death for writing “The Satanic Verses” is riveting in its revelations not only of his terrifying and absurd struggles to live and write in protective custody, but also in its elucidation of why artistic freedom matters.

“Kurt Vonnegut: Letters,” by Kurt Vonnegut, edited by Dan Wakefield (Delacorte). It’s remarkable how a voice emerges — wry, restrained, wise, perhaps a bit of velvet crankiness — and remains steady throughout a career, but that’s how it goes in this entertaining and enlightening visit with the World War II POW and author of “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “Cat’s Cradle.”

“One for the Books,” by Joe Queenan (Viking). A celebration of literature, reading and the call of books from a stylish humorist who has a soft spot for Georges Simenon and a hard time with trendiness and “astonishing” reviews.

“Reading for My Life: Writings, 1958-2008,” by John Leonard (Viking). Leonard was the most important, stylish and influential cultural critic of recent times, and this gathering of his greatest hits, spanning 50 years, has indelible takes on a wide range of subjects, from Richard Nixon, Tom Wolfe and Bob Dylan to Toni Morrison, Michael Chabon and Joan Didion.

“Stealing History,” by Gerald Stern (Trinity). These 84 short essays offer something necessary and rare — a poet’s commentaries on our world, from John Cage to the Marx Brothers, politics in Israel to the poetry of Lucille Clifton.

“The Tender Hour of Twilight: Paris in the ’50s, New York in the ’60s: A Memoir of Publishing’s Golden Age,” by Richard Seaver (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). As the world of book publishing travels the inexorable slog into the entertain-me-now! future, this vivid and passionate account of the literary demimonde, renegades and trailblazers reminds us how much we have lost.

“Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow: The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Marriage,” by Ruth A. Hawkins (University of Arkansas Press). Pauline Pfeiffer Hemingway, the writer’s second wife, gave birth to their two sons in Kansas City, and this unprecedented account of their dozen-year marriage, during the height of her husband’s literary career, spans glittering Paris, remote Key West and her homeland in heartland Arkansas.

Poetry

“The Apothecary’s Heir,” by Julianne Buchsbaum (Penguin). Buchsbaum creates an alternative vision of the Midwest in her innovative and sparkling National Poetry Series Award collection.

“Cell Traffic: New and Selected Poems,” by Heid E. Erdrich (University of Arizona Press). Erdrich critiques technologies of DNA sampling, digital scanners, carbon dating and more from the perspective of Native American sovereignty.

“Collected Poems,” by Jack Gilbert (Alfred A. Knopf). Jack Gilbert would not want the attention he deserves for more than 50 years of astonishing poetic achievement, collected here.

“The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010” (BOA Editions). The lifework of this seminal poet influenced the Civil Rights generation and all those who follow.

“Everyday People,” by Albert Goldbarth (Graywolf Press). Readers actually learn things reading Goldbarth’s poems about science, weather and the poppy fields of Afghanistan, all showing us the lyrical beauty of our world.

“The Frame Called Ruin,” by Hadara Bar-Nadav (New Issues Poetry & Prose). Dynamism, exploratory forms and the surreal take on art, eroticism and other topics in this work by the director of creative writing at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“Inferno,” by Dante Alighieri, translated with an introduction by Mary Jo Bang (Graywolf Press). Bang, a major poet herself, has made an audacious, eccentric version of the traditional poem for contemporary readers.

“Thrall: Poems,” by Natasha Trethewey (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). The U.S. poet laureate continues her examination of historic identities in the Americas.

For young readers

“Beautiful Redemption,” by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl (Little, Brown and Co.). The fourth and final book of the “Caster Chronicles” series, Garcia and Stohl tackle life after death and the in between in this dark, mystical love story. (Ages 14 and up).

“Goblin Secrets,” by William Alexander (Margaret K. McElderry Books). Look for goblins to be hot this season following Alexander’s National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, which he won for this novel weaving a magical world of theater, masks and family. (Ages 8-12.)

“I Have a Dream: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” paintings by Kadir Nelson (Schwartz & Wade). This is a beautiful picture book that illustrates the iconic words of King’s actual speech with luminous oil paintings. (Ages 4-8.)

“Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses,” by Ron Koertge and Andrea Dezso (Candlewick). Fairy tales lose the shimmer in this dark and twisted poetic retelling of some of the most beloved and abhorred characters. (Ages 14-Adult).

“This is not my Hat,” written and illustrated by Jon Klassen (Candlewick). Klassen follows his best-selling picture book “I Want My Hat Back” with another clever story about a tiny, hat-stealing fish whose fate is left to the reader’s imagination. (Ages 3-6.)

“This Moose Belongs to Me,” by Oliver Jeffers (Philomel). A fun story about a boy and his moose, with just one problem, the moose doesn’t quite realize he belongs to anyone, especially a small boy with rules. (Ages 3-6.)

“Why We Broke Up,” by Daniel Handler with illustrations by Maira Kalman (Little, Brown). How Handler gets into the mind of a teenage girl in love is a mystery, but his writing is charmingly poignant as Min describes the items in a box of memories she is leaving on her boyfriends’ steps. (Grades 9-12.)

Our contributors

Gerald Bartell is a book critic and arts writer in New York.

Brian Burnes is a reporter for The Star, who writes the weekly Books page column, Readorama.

Elyssa East is a freelance writer in New York and author of “Dogtown.”

Jeffrey Ann Goudie is a freelance writer and book critic living in Topeka.

Denise Low is a former poet laureate of Kansas and a longtime teacher and critic. Her review column, On Poetry, appears quarterly in The Kansas City Star.

Jeneé Osterheldt is a features columnist at The Kansas City Star.

Steve Paul is senior writer and arts editor at The Kansas City Star and coordinator of the annual Top 100 Books section.

Ben Pfeiffer, of Lawrence, is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Fiction Writers Review, the Rumpus, The Kansas City Star and elsewhere.

Christine Pivovar is a graduate student in creative writing at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and an intern this semester at The Star.

Linda Rodriguez, of Kansas City, is an award-winning poet and writer whose next novel, “Every Broken Trust” (St. Martin’s/Minotaur), will be published in May.

Mary Schulte is a photo editor and children’s book reviewer at The Kansas City Star.

Donna Seaman is an editor and book critic who lives in Chicago.

Robert Stewart is a writer and editor who lives in Prairie Village.

Sebastian Stockman is a writer, teacher and former Missourian who lives in Boston.

Kaite Stover is director of readers’ services for the Kansas City Public Library.

Whitney Terrell is the New Letters Writer in Residence at UMKC and author of “The King of Kings County.”

David Walton is a writer, teacher, and longtime reviewer for The Star who lives in Pittsburgh.

The Star’s wire services also contributed to this article.

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