Year in Review: Books

The closing of Vineyard Stories and another successful Islanders Write conference marked the literary year on Martha’s Vineyard

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Author Junot Díaz read from his novel "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" in the gardens of Noepe last Thursday evening. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Martha’s Vineyard readers experienced a host of beginnings and one sad ending in 2015.

Well-regarded Island poet Jennifer Tseng and resident Alexander Woollacott burst on the scene this year with impressive first novels. Ms. Tseng’s “Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness,” a story of a 40-year-old librarian and her teen lover, created both buzz and literary acclaim as a finalist for the fiction book of the year award from the New England Independent Booksellers.

Mr. Woollacott turned his interest in family genealogy into “The Immigrant,” an extraordinary first novel that depicts the fictionalized life of his ancestor, John Law, a 14-year-old indentured Scot in 17th century Concord. Mr. Woollacott has promised a second book, drawing on the experiences of Mr. Law’s descendants in the American Revolutionary War.

And, alas, Island resident Jan Pogue has shuttered her publishing company, Vineyard Stories, after a decade of finding and publishing Vineyard authors and stories of Vineyard life. Vineyard Stories will be missed.

Our annual list of notable books includes only books that I read and reviewed; there are books of equal note not listed here because I haven’t read and reviewed them.

Given the runaway success in August of the second annual Islanders Write (IW) conference sponsored by the MVTimes, our bookshelves will fill in 2016 with the efforts of Island scribes. It is astonishing to experience the passion for books and writing evident at the IW event, which I noticed has also begun to attract off-Island lit-heads to a daylong event featuring the Island’s best and brightest in seminar.

Of note this year is the increase in the number of memoirs written by Island-related people. It may be that our demographic is aging and the Island is home to a number of people who have lived big lives, some in private and others more publicly.

Carly Simon’s memoir, “Boys in the Trees,” is making news on and off-Island, a Top 10 New York Times nonfiction bestseller and a leader on Amazon’s charts.

Island resident Sally Bennett produced “Immigrant: A Memoir Across the Atlantic,” an arresting and honest story of her life as a young girl shuttling between Europe and America in pre–World War II years, and the effects those chaotic days had on her adult years. It’s a well-written, authentic story of interior life.

Dr. Beny Primm, a seasonal resident for decades, provided a long-term look at our national “war on drugs” that chronicles his days as an intern in a Harlem hospital ER — when no one was paying attention to the problem — his fractious days of establishing drug clinics amid New York City politics, and a continued commitment that led him to become an advisor to several presidents.

Seasonal resident Atul Gawande, a physician and author of national note, used a semi-memoir form describing his family culture in India in order to frame America’s perspective on the meaning of dying and elders in “Being Mortal,” a runaway bestseller this year.

The Island’s favorite author duo, Geraldine Brooks and Tony Horwitz, each produced excellent work this year. Ms. Brooks combined her investigative-reporting skills with top-quality storytelling talent to write “The Secret Chord,” an absorbing fictionalized portrait of the life and times of King David, the leader who joined the tribes of Israel. Many of us have fractured bits of knowledge about biblical figures, and this read makes the man and his travails real.

Real too is “Boom!” from Mr. Horwitz, who trekked the length of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline from its Canadian taproot to the U.S. Gulf Coast refineries. He wrote what he found without taking a position, but what he found was chilling on a variety of human and environmental fronts.

“Boom!” never got the press it deserved (it’s available as an ebook), but if you’re vague about Keystone, read it. You’ll be glad that at least for now, we dodged a helluva scary bullet through no good effort on our part.

In addition to welcome surprises, an ever-growing list of Island-based writers produced work in their specialties that were greeted as familiar friends in this space.

Up-Islander Linda Fairstein sent up “Devil’s Bridge,” the latest in her crime-thriller series featuring New York assistant district attorney and part time Chilmark resident Alexandra Cooper. Ms. Fairstein’s oeuvre has a delightful twist: Each of her books stars a Manhattan landmark, complete with its history and the requisite derring-do.

Susan Wilson published the latest in a series of novels about dogs that are really about the human condition. “The Dog Who Saved Me” is another in the series, which are generally set in recognizable, familiar locales.

Tom Dresser treated us to another of his disarmingly informational Island histories, and the prolific Chris Knowles turned out two thrillers on the shadowy world of terrorism and eco-politics.

As always, many of these books are self-published, but we’ve noticed a growth in small publishers who are willing to take on authors. The irrepressible Holly Nadler found one in a small Wellesley imprint, Branden Books, that allowed Ms. Nadler to bring poet Emily Dickinson back to life in a rollicking thriller called “Emily in the Here and Now.”

Happy New Year, and keep writing. Can’t wait for next year.