Dear Lovers of the Printed Word,
I am lucky. I still have my sight, my wits, and my health after the latest passage around the sun. I am unlucky. I still have my TBR pile unreduced, growing, and teetering in a threatening manner. Has Hollywood ever produced a horror movie about the world being taken over by unread-as-yet books? Silly me. To belong to that genre the subject would have to be a variation on the opposite fate, like in Fahrenheit 451. Growing older, I know the time may come when the pleasure of reading may be the last pleasure left to me. I would not find that an unwelcome day when it comes.
And even if that pleasure may be denied me while I still kick and breathe, I live in the hope that I will always have the memories of the books I've read. Who knows, I may age into one of those pleasant old ladies to whom her family and friends enjoys reading aloud. A remote possibility but I will cling to it -- I mean about me becoming pleasant. If that proves to be the the case, I will hand them my Book Journal and ask them to read from there. I anticipate I will be too doddering to comprehend anything new, my existence pared to living within the Memory Halls of My Shadowy Past. For now, while the present me is still bright and sharp and functioning, I will allow you a peek into it and a look back at some of the textual gems (and maybe a couple of gyps thrown in?) I've perused in 2013.
Please turn the page. . .
I think I'll model this reading year in summation on the format I adopted in R&BLers: Galloping Through the Reading Year 2013 only focusing on the second half of 2013. However, I may add new different categories and eliminate some of the old.
Best New Book of 2013
The Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau
“What is it like to lose everything?” is more than the idle question of an aid worker to Younis after the American bomb destroys his Afghan home and kills everyone in his family but him. As a 15-year-old boy, while on a plane to America, destined to live with the Martins, his host family, he changes his name to Jonas, thinking it is a direct translation of his own name. From now on, Younis/Jonas Iskander floats between two worlds. “Where do you go in your mind?” he is asked by Paul, his mental health counselor at his high school, assigned to him after Jonas gets into a fight. The book is structured in parts like a Catholic funeral mass, "Processional," "Remembrance," "Communion," "Confession," "Atonement,” "Benediction," and "Recessional." Jonas makes up stories, one about meeting the Dalhi Lama, in order to avoid answering his counselor's and others' probing questions and to keep himself secret, to avoid self-knowledge. Later, at university, he meets Shakri and falls in love, perhaps setting him on the path to becoming a normal integrated American? Dau tells his tale in a dance executed by Jonas to encounter and avoid his memories in flashbacks stimulated by his present circumstance. In this way we come to know about his family, his childhood. In the same way, Christopher Henderson’s story of being an American soldier in Afghanistan, who is declared MIA, is slowly revealed in preparation for when their world’s collide and their lives are changed. The two stories converge when as a college student, Jonas visits the mother of the American soldier (Henderson) who saved him. The style, tone, and emotional tenor of this novel echo and evoke Ondaatje’s war story, The English Patient. Discomforting, dangerous, and at once beautiful and dreadful, Dau has written an impressive debut novel.Best Literary Fiction by a New (to me) Author
The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer
Pearlie Cook is married to Holland and lives with him and their son in the Sunset district of San Francisco in a house next to the Pacific Ocean. Holland is breath-stoppingly handsome and Pearlie never quite understands why he married her, even though they were childhood friends. One day Buzz Drumer, a white man and WWII “buddy” of Holland’s, shows up at her door and gently but insistently insinuates himself into their family. Pearlie, who has long believed that Holland has a heart condition from his shocking war experiences, devotes herself to shielding him from the bruises of life. She is shocked to learn from Buzz that he and Holland had met in the military psychiatric hospital and that they had been lovers. Now he wants Holland back, and he’s prepared to pay. Greer’s story of the taboos and racism of mid-century America unfolds in gentle petals, but the sense of foreboding and perhaps doom pervades in the atmospheric prose and telling incident that feel secretive. Yet, Geer holds nothing back, warning us from the opening of the book what kind of story he is going to tell us, “We think we know the ones we love, and though we should not be surprised to find that we don’t, it is heartbreak nonetheless.” An American Gothic tale with balanced overtones of shattering betrayal and ultimately exquisite kindness. This is a book about the lengths people will go to avoid becoming cannon fodder in war, about the silent depths with which they love one another, and about width of one man’s “curious” human heart. A best read of the year. Now want to read Greer’s earlier novel, The Confessions of Max Tivoli.Best Literary Fiction by an Old Friend Author
Claudius the God by Robert Graves
A lifetime has passed since I read I, Claudius. At last, I get to the sequel and after only a few pages, I am submerged into that delightful voice of Claudius, “a fool who wants to look a fool.” But is nothing of the kind. The novel opens with the roguish history (as told by Claudius, the self-styled historian – he never wanted to be Emperor) of his childhood friend Herod Agrippa. As the novel progresses, Claudius appears to be an effective ruler, ending many of the harsh and arbitrary impositions on Romans and citizens of the Empire that had been instated by his predecessors, Caligula and Tiberius. He also proves to be an excellent field general, directing the re-conquest of Britain by planning a strategy superior to the one offered by his commanders. While Herod admonishes him to trust no one, Claudius demonstrates his ineptitude in recognizing treachery in his wife Messalina until the end of the novel. Likewise, he allows or ignores the plotting of Herod who possibly believes himself to be the Messiah. Fortunately, Herod dies (terribly) before he can realize his dreams and truly betray his childhood friend. Claudius’ own death is reserved for the appendix in which Graves’ presents varying historical accounts from Roman chroniclers. So completely does Graves weave his spell around me, so thoroughly does Claudius' voice inhabit my mind's ear, it will forever be hard for me to separate author from character. I'm afraid that when I see photos of Robert Graves, I believe I am looking at the face of the Emperor Claudius!Best Experimental Fiction by an American Author
[Disclaimer: Best of the second half of 2013, but does not unseat The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson as Best of the Year in this category and maybe all categories.
Ed King by David Guterson
In this concept novel, Guterson delivers Oedipus Rex for the Information Age, creating Ed “The Search” King, an Internet entrepreneur who had been literally left on a doorstep by his English-born mother, Diane, a woman of questionable morals and unquestionable financial ambition who enjoys moderate success as a con-artist. Ed is the product of an affair with Walter Cousins, a “type” – 50s colorless worker drone, when she was his teen-aged nanny. Later adopted by a childless and nominally Jewish couple, Ed manages (somehow) to grow up a total WASP who is a wild child enamored of fast cars, older women, and Goth fashion during his teen years. A fit of road rage leads him to force a middle-aged man off the road who dies in the ensuing one-car crash. Unbeknownst to him, Ed has just killed his father. Some years later, enjoying the early blossoming of success, Ed encounters Diane (well preserved thanks to plastic surgery but unfortunately between husbands) in a museum. They have sex and eventually get married. Thus Ed has fulfilled the second phase of his Oedipal destiny: marrying his mother. Guterson has managed to create a soulless cast of characters who aspire only to wealth and self-gratification. Bad. Yet the good is, it’s a breathtakingly bold attempt to make Greek tragedy timely and show how hubris still is always our Achilles heel, even when we are the cleverest people of the 21st Century. The bad still is, all the major characters are contemptible and we feel no sympathy for how the gods treat them – because there are no gods in this fable other than Mammon. While there is plenty of incident there is not particularly much of any story, thus reader empathy is impossible for me. The novel is at the same time heavy but thin, yet inexorably memorable. Perhaps because it is shocking? Couldn't imagine a book more different from what I would expect from the author of Snow Falling on Cedars.Best Literary Fiction by an International Author
Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje
Anil, a forensic anthropologist, returns to her native Sri Lanka at the behest of an international human rights group to investigate the mass murders of citizens by government, insurgents, and separatists during the early 90s. She is helped by the local anthropologist, Saratha, a secretive man with contacts. One of them, his old blind, professor/mentor may prove useful in helping them identify “Sailor” a twice-buried corpse. The book is stunning with detail about forensic pathology – so modern in contrast to what was available to Ci Song in the book The Corpse Reader by Antonio Garrido – and bears the hallmark of Ondaatje’s signature style. That quiet space between the shadowy seen that one perceives from the corner of the eye and the clearly seen in front of us that Ondaatje illuminates and gives life to while chaos, upheaval, brutality, and death swirl around. He is the master of the slow boil of submerged emotion, the layered onion of hidden secrets, the sly revelation of the big picture – all done with the skill of painless surgery such that you don’t realize you’ve been skillfully flayed emotionally until it’s all over.Best New or Experimental Fiction by an Unknown to Me International Author
Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie
Ifemelu is a Nigerian woman whose everywoman story is that of the emigrant prodigal. Adichie’s skill as a writer lies in her simple storytelling without obvious literary flourishes. She is able to make Ifemelu seem like someone you know and like, even though to a reader like me, she would, in real life, seem an exotic personage. Adichie wants us to know that Nigerians are sophisticated, complex, intelligent, talented, and flawed. She wants to talk to us about race and racism that exists in white America and black Africa. She wants us to feel the agony of a people who love their country yet are crushed by its corruption; have dreams, yet can’t realize them as easily as Americans (and Europeans); experience disappointment in love, feelings of worthlessness at being unable to find even low-wage employment; know the taste of bitterness from rejection; achieve ordinary triumphs that make a life a life. But Ifemelu returns home after acquiring her American education, determined to do what she can to build her country on its possibilities, even in her small way. Running throughout the book is the love story of Ifemelul and Obinze, who remained in Nigeria and who we come to realize is her lighthouse, guiding her into port. This is a realistic story with some political heft, contemporary and promising, but missing being memorable and definitive in the fashion "Cry, the Beloved Country" was.Best Mainstream Fiction by Any Author
Home by Toni Morrison
Frank Money is a broken and traumatized Korean War vet whose inward and outward journeys as he crosses America to return to his boyhood home in rural Georgia is a compelling and unforgettable read. From the first page, Morrison, the master story teller, breathes life into Money whose clever escape from a mental hospital sets his feet on path from which there is no return, even though the planned return home can be nothing but painful for him. Like a John the Baptist wandering in the desert, reminiscent of Pea Eye Johnson (Lonesome Dove) wandering in the Montana wilderness, Money begins his journey penniless, shoeless, and utterly dependent on the kindness of strangers – preachers and Pullman porters – who help him navigate the “normal” world of segregated and racist America as he returns to civilian life after his stint in the Army, where he fought in a war that served him its fair share of nightmarish atrocities. What awaits him at home is his sister Cee, on the verge of death from medical/sexual abuse at the hands of her white doctor employer. What remains behind him is the strong-minded, ambitious yet gentle Lily who begins his post-war healing, but who ultimately doesn’t need him and lets him go without a backward glance even though he’s not finished needing her. The pull of family, a sister whom he’s always cared for, and the necessary resolution of a frightening and mysterious scene they witnessed as children tug him back to Lotus, Georgia. And inexorably this reader with him. Is there any other living American author who wields such power over the imagination with so few words? How does she make a reading experience so rich when her prose is so spare?Best General Nonfiction by Any Author
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson
Reading this book debilitates the emotions. Larson builds the tension as Hitler’s regime of terror and brutality sets its strangle hold on the people of Berlin, especially its Jewish population, not infrequently American tourists and business visitors, and shockingly, against his own henchmen in the Night of the Long Knives murders. William Dodd, an unassuming university professor of history and gentleman farmer whose real ambition is to complete a history of the Civil War South is named Ambassador to Germany albeit reluctantly. The State Department, that “pretty good club” of mostly Ivy educated and old-monied gentlemen are aghast at President Roosevelt’s appointment – a man vociferously dedicated to Jeffersonian principles and determined to carry out his mission on his departmental salary alone. From the moment of his nomination, the internal machine sets to work to plague Dodd’s diplomatic life and ruin him. Dodd takes his two adult children with him and his daughter, Martha, finds herself enamored of the Nazis initially. Her flirtatious nature captivates several of them as well as other international figures, including Boris, unbeknownst to her, a KGB agent who has been directed to seduce her. They fall in love but it is a doomed affair. Dodd sticks to his principles; increasingly is horrified by the actions of Hitler’s government, and seems to be the only American in politics who is capable of taking the true measure of the Fuhrer and his intentions to plunge Europe into a war of German conquest. Events, of course, prove Dodd correct. But not before the powerful interests within State have him recalled at the end of 1938. Larson has written a riveting account of pre-war Hitler Germany, emphasizing the sociopathic nature of Hitler, Goebbels, and Goering, the pervasive evil of the Gestapo and SS, and the rising tide of tyranny that consumes a country once beloved by the Ambassador who had known its better days when a student there. Remarkable book about a cusp in WWII history.Best Nonfiction on My Favorite Hobby Subject -- Modern Physics
Knocking on Heaven's Door by Lisa Randall
More philosophy than hard physics at the early going. Theoretical particle physicist, Randall, considers the subject of scale when explaining how scientists think about theories and ultimately, grand unifying theories. The laws of physics change when certain scalar plateau’s must be transitioned as we explore the Universe going from the very large inter-galactic speed of light scale to the unimaginably infinitesimal Planck length. The need for flexible thinking, the requirement to alter theories, or discard all together old ones and adopt the better new one, causes some of us to question the "authority" of science. Randall spends time discussing this intellectual difficulty, focusing on the age-old conflict between science and religion. Currently, the most interesting scientific exploration is occurring in the minute scales of high energy and transient matter that tantalizingly begin our approach to understanding what may be the nature of reality at the Planck length. [Haven't finished this book yet, so entry incomplete and my theory about it may need revising. ;^)] So far, Randall is her eminently readable self. A great book for those "afraid" of particle physics.
Off with the good! On with the bad!
There were some real toads trying to pass themselves off as princes that hopped into my hands or onto my Kindle. I don't know how. My only excuse I can offer is that I'm a book slut and will try anything for the right price. As in free e-book, or borrow, no strings.
Here are some titles best left unmentioned, but mention them I will in hopes you can be saved from reading experiences that I wish I never had. Well, I didn't always experience them fully. When a book is bad enough to make my Truly Dreadful List, it probably was kicked to the curb unfinished. But here goes. However, don't expect me to comment on them. Titles only. Unless I can't refrain from saying something nasty, brutal, and short.
The Year of the Dogs (and Katz)
Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna -- "There are books you want to like but it just can’t be done. This is one of them."
In the Sea There Are Crocodiles by Geda Fabio -- ". . .but another of the endless such tales of emigration to lands of hope and promise. It is not uplifting, nor particularly unique, and absent an angle of perspective, it reads like a list of events that don’t particularly impact the reader because there is no emotional content at all. Further, the egregious insertion of the translator’s questions also annoys. Nothing is added to the reading experience by them, and the content of the various prodding questions could have been simply stated in a prologue, 'Enaiatollah records what happened to him but offers no meaning, interpretation, or assessment of those events on the man he is today.' Save everybody a lot of time and unpleasantness.”
The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie McGill -- "If you can plow, enjoy hard slogging, and aren't bored by a flat one-note tone when you read a book, then this one's for you."
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond -- "Why this won a Pulitzer, I don’t know. There is no artistry in the writing and the content is largely common sense connections (formulaically stated and restated ad nauseum) that I’m sure I’m not the only one who had made already."
My Brief History by Stephen Hawking -- "Very disappointing autobiography, lacking in needed revelatory self-evaluation and introspection. Perhaps I am expecting too much; considering his other contributions, I should not ask him to make an additional one to the art of autobiography."
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst -- "The sound you hear is my jaw cracking. What a yawner. Didn't finish."
Finally, for those among you who must have the ne plus ultra delivered on a platter. . .Beating out these strong contenders for Best Read of 2013: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, TransAtlantic, Astonishing Splashes of Colour, Benediction, The Garden of Evening Mists, and by a nose over The Orphan Master's Son is:
My Best Read in 2013
The Blue Book by A L Kennedy
What an author! I think she’s the reincarnation of Virginia Woolf. Prose like a dream that carries the reader along on waves of internal dialogue suited exactly to a building mystery that is revealed as Elizabeth, her current lover, Derek, and her past lover, Arthur Lockwood, sail to America, Beth and Derek using the tickets gifted to them by her friend. Why are they all on this boat? Are they fleeing someone, something; are they engaged in a dance of contest for Beth’s love – is it lost? Derek is ill-tempered, prone to sulks, and prostrated by seasickness; Elizabeth isn’t sure why she’s on the boat with him. The boy Arthur fell in love with card tricks and magic and is now obsessed with number and is a successful psychic reader; he and Elizabeth, who was his partner in his auditorium sessions, shared a number code for use in public places. One: listen; Two: look at me; Three: touch me; Four: fuck me; Five: help, or come. . .Eight: no; Eleven: be beautiful. An unreliable narrator opens the book, telling the reader that “this book is for you.” Gradually, surreptitiously almost, the narrator becomes Elizabeth – but which “you” is the book for? This is a novel about love’s destruction by horrific events kept secret and the possibility for love’s resurrection if enough determination, force, and will lies within the lover’s heart. Elizabeth tells herself that “. . .loving the unlovable is stupid, is self harm – loving the reasonable is what I need and I can have that.” But does she want that, does she even believe it? Can she overcome the secret in her past that drove her from her first love – Arthur – and prove to him that she still loves him? Kennedy has written a book so fine yet harsh, so fragile yet strong, so repressed yet overflowing with emotion that the tension of the lovers’ dance is unbearable and can only be broken by a painful confession that could destroy everything – the reason for the Blue Book. It’s devastating.
Other than that, nothing's happening. Until I pick up a new book in 2014!