The presents aren’t wrapped yet, I have more shopping to do, and those flippin’ cookies will not be baking themselves, but I’d rather think about books. In the spirit of the season and in no particular order, here is a list of the best novels I read this year.
“Girls in their Married Bliss” by Edna O’Brien. A Dublin bookseller recommended this book after we chatted about Irish authors. I started reading it on the walk back to the hotel and didn’t stop until I finished. It was written in 1964, and there are some anachronisms, but Baba is so fresh, funny, and irreverent, I loved her immediately. The novel is the third in a trilogy about Baba and Kate, who grew up together in the Irish countryside and now live in London, both unhappily married. The two characters take turns as narrator, and despite Baba’s sauciness and all the laughs (and there are many), the story is dark, cynical, and heartbreaking. This novel is available in the U.S. only as part of “The Country Girls Trilogy and Epilogue.” I haven’t read the other two stories, or anything else by Edna O’Brien, but her work is on my list for 2011.
“Nemesis” by Philip Roth. If you know much about me, you probably know Philip Roth is my favorite writer. Ever. Period. It’s not a blind love, though, and his last few books haven’t had the stunning impact on me as “The Human Stain” or “American Pastoral” did. “Nemesis” is set in 1940s Newark during a polio epidemic. It is the simple but tragic story of Bucky Cantor, director of the neighborhood playground and ordinary “nice guy.” The seeming simplicity of the writing and the story put me off at first. I thought maybe Mr. Roth was phoning it in. Who could blame him? This is his 32nd novel and boy, his hand must be tired! By the end of the book, I knew I’d judged too quickly. The story might be simple, but it is brilliantly so. The raging epidemic, the death of neighborhood kids, the life-altering guilt, and where is God in all of this? Bucky wants to know, so did I. Weeks after finishing the book, the questions still linger. That’s powerful writing.
“Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen. It took a little self-debate, but I decided to include this book on my list. It should be here; I did like it, but I don’t understand what all the big noise was (is) about. Franzen is an excellent writer and this is a well-told story, but the preachiness was a turn-off, and so was its occasional self-importance/ self-awareness. Enough has already been said by others about “Freedom,” but I just read this piece from the New Yorker Book Bench blog, and I thought I’d share. It’s pretty funny, as is the author. The Year in Reading: Tad Friend. It’s a great light look at a novel that no one is looking at lightly.
“The Ice Age” by Kirsten Reed. This book cover jumped off the shelf to grab my attention, and the first few paragraphs were just as strong, maybe more so. Think of a cross between “Lolita,” “Catcher in the Rye,” and “On The Road.” It is the story of a 17 year old girl who starts hitching and is immediately picked up by Gunther, a mysterious, quirky, older man. Together they vagabond around the country, staying in seedy hotels or crashing with an odd cast of Gunther’s friends and former girlfriends. The narrator, as 17 year old girls sometimes do, imagines Gunther is a vampire, but she’s also smart enough to know what a silly fantasy it is. That’s the thing about our narrator, she’s as cool, goofy, and naive as most teens, but she’s also incredibly astute, more so than most of the adults she meets, and her insights add to this book’s poignancy. Unfortunately, this book is not available in the U.S. (Why not?!? — would some smart American publisher please pick this up!), but used copies can be found on Amazon, and I still have my copy if anyone wants to borrow it.
“Lost” by Alice Lichtenstein. Susan, Jeff, and Corey, three very different and distinctive characters come together after Susan’s husband, 12-years her senior and suffering with Alzheimer’s, wanders off on a frigid New England morning. Alzheimer’s stories can get mired in the sentimental, but this novel does not; it’s beautifully and cleanly written. Jeff, the search and rescue expert, first judges Susan to be a stoic. As a biology professor she has a scientist’s mind for facts, but she’s more than that. She’s also deeply caring and in love with her husband. Jeff deals with his own trauma as his wife, a woman lost in her own way, repeatedly betrays and humiliates him. Corey, a 12-year-old rendered mute after a family tragedy, has a secret that binds all three of them. Each character is lost and in need of redemption, but by connecting with each other, the novel ends on a hopeful note. Ms. Lichtenstein’s writing is spare and poetic, a perfect complement to the story.
“Bastard Out of Carolina” by Dorothy Allison. This book has been on my list forever, and I’m so glad I finally read it. It’s not an easy read, but it’s an unforgettable one. Knowing that most of the trauma is autobiographical made it even more difficult to take in, and I had to put the book down a few times because it was just too disturbing. The title refers to Ruth Anne, the main character, nicknamed Bone. Not only does she bear the labels “illegitimate” and “poor white trash,” she must also endure the physical and sexual abuse of her stepfather. Her large extended family is an assortment of drunks, fighters, womanizers, and the women who put up with them. As screwed up as they are, they are fiercely protective of one another and provide Bone with a sense of belonging and home. Throughout the book I wondered how someone survives this kind of devastation, and I’ve since heard Ms. Allison say in interviews that writing saved her. Lucky for us, because she tells this story with honesty, resilience, and grace.
“The Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro. Oh, to write like Kazuo Ishiguro, with that much precision, clarity, and meaning. Stevens, the main character and narrator, is the butler in charge at an English estate. He is completely devoted to his employer, Lord Darlington, and blindly accepts Darlington’s words and actions, when they are clearly misguided. In his loyalty, Stevens’ only concern is the mechanics of running a proper English household. As the novel progresses, we learn there’s more to him than that, but his commitment to propriety prevents him from sharing that part of himself. This is a quiet and subtle novel about missed opportunities, suppressed emotions, and a life lived in devotion to the wrong master. Stevens is a remarkable character and this novel is a pristine example of writing that transports you seamlessly into a different time and place.
Now I need some reading recommendations for 2011. Any suggestions?