The Best Books for Holiday Vacation

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Travel around the world this holiday weekend in reading three novels by modern masters.

Avenue of Mysteries

Simon & Schuster

John Irving’s 14th novel—which follows aging Mexican-American writer Juan Diego from his childhood in a Oaxacan dump to a final, fated trip to the Philippines—consists of a series of mysteries. Who, for instance, are the two alluring women he meets in the airport and why do they seem to know all his movements? What terrible secrets did his mind-reading sister find in the thoughts of others that caused her death? Why do the symbols of Juan Diego’s past—dogs, draft dodgers, the Catholic Church—keep resurfacing? These are enough to keep a reader engrossed, but Irving also poses the ultimate conundrum: How does a person keep faith in a faithless world?

The Japanese Lover

Simon & Schuster

World War II may be well-worn literary ground, but Isabel Allende’s latest novel manages to evoke the terror and fragility of that period with an unusual freshness. In the present day, Alma Belasco, resident of a San Francisco home for the elderly, receives flowers and letters from an unknown admirer. Her young caretaker investigates Alma’s past and learns about her 1939 escape from Poland to San Francisco and her forbidden love for Ichimei Fukuda, the youngest son of her family’s gardener. That bond forms the heart of the novel, but The Japanese Lover is also a beautiful meditation on growing old and what remains at the end of life.

The best new novels

The Mare

Penguin Random House

On the surface, Mary Gaitskill’s sixth book seems unlike anything else she’s written. Her previous work has earned her a reputation for cool, hard-edged prose and sexually self-destructive characters. The Mare, by contrast, features a kid—tough preteen Velveteen Vargas, who lives in Brooklyn with her abusive mother and younger brother. Through the Fresh Air Fund, Velvet spends two weeks with a wealthy white couple in upstate New York and comes into contact with an equally tough horse at a nearby stable, a meeting that will change everyone involved. Ultimately, like Gaitskill’s other work, The Mare draws a graceful connection between pain and salvation.