1. Tree of Smoke
by Denis Johnson
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27)
Denis Johnson’s 600-page novel about the Vietnam War is “something like a masterpiece,” said Jim Lewis in The New York Times. Many of its key characters are figures we’ve seen before—a naïve CIA officer, a commander who fancies himself a god. But Johnson’s book feels essential anyway. His marvelous sentences “roll like billiard balls with weird English on them,” and his crowded, sweeping story conveys with rare power both the horror of war and the possibility of individual redemption. If particular scenes feel unoriginal, said Laura Miller in Salon.com, it’s because Johnson is intentionally borrowing from Joseph Conrad and Hollywood movies to argue that history is circling, not moving forward as the book’s American characters expect it to. The plotting of the novel underlines this point: Its “daring” double-mirror-like structure is “what makes it exceptional.”
A caveat: Johnson’s widely praised prose is annoyingly mannered and
hopelessly imprecise, said B.R. Myers in The Atlantic Monthly.
2. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
by Junot D
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