Saturday, December 31, 2016

Best of 2016

The benefit of putting together a "Best of . . ." list is reminding yourself that you did read some good books--even amid the too numerous bad mysteries and the lack of poetry (not a single book of poetry this year!). Anyway, here are my picks for best of 2016.

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
The Underground Railroad has appeared on more "best of" lists than any other title in 2016, so there's little left to say about it. It's fanciful yet deadly serious and its central character is one of the most fully realized I've encountered this year. I can't recommend it more highly.

Honorable Mention: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy; The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, by Heidi Durrow; The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen; Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett.

Short Stories
Thirteen Ways of Looking, by Colum McCann
This collection is really a novella and three short stories. The pieces are varied--a retired judge is murdered on the street, a writer tries to create a unique story about New Year's, a woman struggles to understand her deaf-mute child, and a nun travels across the ocean to confront a man who raped and tortured her. The novella is the most fully realized but all are interesting and well written.

Honorable Mention: Fortune Smiles, by Adam Johnson

What She Knew, by Gilly Macmillan
Macmillan tells her story well, with excellent character development, solid writing, and an interesting structure. The mystery itself--about an eight-year-old boy who goes missing while walking with his mother--isn't unique, but the book is still compelling.

Honorable Mention: Human Remains, by Elizabeth Haynes

My Kitchen Year, by Ruth Reichl
My Kitchen Year is a beautiful book, a collection of recipes and a photographic and written journal of Reichl's life the year after she lost her job as the editor of Gourmet, My favorite parts of the book were the tweets that she sent as she went through the process of grieving her job and finding new directions. The tweets are impressionistic and evocative, like little poems. Example: "Sun coming up. Hawks hovering outside. Dancing in the kitchen with gnocchi and the blues. Good way to start a Sunday."

Honorable Mention: Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

A Theme

I noticed that one of the themes in my favorite passages this year had to do with truth--perhaps not coincidental in this year marked by lies and fake news:

"Poets, like detectives, know the truth is laborious: it doesn’t occur by accident, rather it is chiseled and worked into being, the product of time and distance and graft. The poet must be open to the possibility that she has to go a long way before a word rises, or a sentence holds, or a rhythm opens, and even then nothing is assured, not even the words that have staked their original claim or meaning."--Colum McCann

"It's easy to smile just to make other people feel better. But when a person fakes happy, it has edges. Regular people may not see, but the people who count, they can see edges and lines where your smile ends and the real you, the sadness (me) or the anger (Grandma) begins."--Heidi Durrow

"Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach."--Colson Whitehead

Wrapping up December's Books

December was a crazy month both because of work and the holidays and my reading was somewhat curtailed--but there were still some definite highlights.

Still Missing, by Chevy Stevens
Random Acts, by J.A. Jance

The narrative of Still Missing is told as a series of sessions in which Annie O'Sullivan tells her therapist--without interruption from the therapist--about her abduction; year-long captivity in which she was terrorized, raped, and gave birth; her escape; and the effort to find out who her captor was and what his motives were. What she eventually learns is as horrifying as her experiences in captivity. I can understand why the author chose this device--it provides a specific purpose for the telling of the victim's story--sadly, I don't think it really works. The story has some similarities to Room, but lacks the nuance and redemptive power of that superior book.

Random Acts is a novella in which J.A. Jance once again brings two of her characters--Ali Reynolds and Joanna Brady. It's very thin in terms of actual mystery--but the author does kill off Brady's mother and stepfather. Who is going to be around to annoy Joanna now?

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, by Stephen Carter
The Versions of Us, by Laura Barnett
Nobody's Fool, by Richard Russo
Rules of Civility, by Amor Toles
Faithful, by Alice Hoffman
Spectator Bird, by Wallace Stegner
Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett

Stephen Carter asks us to imagine that Abraham Lincoln survived the assassination attempt by John Wilkes Booth (Andrew Johnson was instead killed) and went on to face impeachment. That's the context, but the center of the story is Abigail Canner, a young African American woman who has recently graduated from Oberlin and has returned to her home town of Washington, DC, to pursue a career as an attorney. She finds herself as a valuable and also manipulated law clerk at the firm defending Lincoln. The plot is extremely complicated and the writing occasionally flawed, but The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln is interesting for its exploration of racial, gender, and, well, politics of all types.

Until a few years ago, I'm not sure I had ever read a book that presented different futures for a cast of characters, depending on some relatively minor decision early on in the story; lately such books have proliferated. The Versions of Us is the latest and it adds another layer of complexity by tracing three story lines in the lives of Jim, Eva, and David, students at Cambridge in the late 1950s, Because there are events that cross all three versions of the story, I occasionally found myself struggling to remember which version I was in, who was married to whom in that version, who the children belonged to, and where the characters were in their lives and careers. Nonetheless, I enjoyed following how decisions about family, love, and career evolved and changed subsequent events.

Richard Russo published a sequel to Nobody's Fool and, given its stellar reviews, I decided I should read Nobody's Fool (despite having been in a book group that had a bit of a Russo obsession, I had not read this one) as preparation for Everybody's Fool. If you haven't seen the movie starring Paul Newman (recommended), Nobody's Fool is the story of Sully, a 60-something ne'er-do-very-well who lives in a retired teacher's upstairs apartment in small-town New York. Sully hides his caring under a facade of obnoxiousness and minor criminal behavior. Still, he is the heart of a constructed "family" of the type of oddballs who populate Russo novels. Looking forward to the sequel.

Rules of Civility feels like Edith Wharton's House of Mirth set in the late 1930s. It's the story of Katey Kontent, a young working woman in New York City who by chance becomes involved with a group of upper class New Yorkers. Katey fares better than Lily Bart (perhaps the 30 years difference in the setting made the difference), but the descriptions of the city and the cultural mores of the various social groups were Whartonesque. An enjoyable read.

I am not a huge fan of Alice Hoffman, in large part because of the magical realism aspects of her books. Faithful is the story of Shelby, whose life fell apart when she was in a car accident that left her best friend in a persistent vegetative state. When Hoffman started describing how pilgrims came to the friend's home because they believed she had healing powers, I thought I was going to have to stop reading. But that story line just fizzled out (thankfully) and what Hoffman does in the rest of the book is demonstrate how a broken person can put herself back together. The details may not be all that original, but Shelby's story moved me.

Spectator Bird is, to my mind, one of Wallace Stegner's minor book. In it, retired literary agent Joe Allston is basically waiting to die in his lovely home in the hills above Palo Alto, much as his career was about waiting to retire. Then suddenly he receives a postcard from a Danish woman he and his wife met on a European trip decades earlier. Prompted by the card, his wife prevails on him to read his journals from the trip to her as "bedtime reading," both knowing that they will eventually get to the point where Joe was attracted to the "Countess," as they called her. The Countess' story is sordid and sad, but why both Joe and his wife should be harboring dark feelings they have never discussed is somewhat inexplicable. Still, Stegner's incredible writing makes the book worthwhile.

Historical novels set in 12th century England are not exactly my cup of tea, but when I read The End of Your Life Book Club a few years ago, I wrote down the books that author Will Schwalbe and his mother read together, and The Pillars of the Earth was one.  In a prologue, author Ken Follett describes his long fascination with old churches and cathedrals and how that obsession led to writing a book so different from his usual genre (suspense). The book is about the building of the cathedral at Knightsbridge, England--and the tangled lives of the people involved. The stuff about architecture is interesting, but the rest is just a soap opera, with a bit too much relish for scenes of violence, particularly sexual violence. The writing is also flawed (e.g., Follett uses vocabulary that is out of place in the time in which the book is set). Given that the book is over 900 pages, I feel like Will Schwalbe owes me one!

Young Adult
Side Effects May Vary, by Julie Murphy

Alice is a not-too-lovable teenager who, when diagnosed with leukemia, decides to wreak revenge on everyone who has ever wronged her. Then, a year later, she is in remission and having to deal with the fallout of her revenge bucket-list. Alice is not a sympathetic character and the off again/on again relationship with her friend Harvey is beyond my ken (perhaps I am just too old).

My Favorite Things, by Maira Kalman
Everybody's Got Something, by Robin Roberts

My Favorite Things has been rapturously reviewed--here is an example sentence from one: "From Maira Kalman . . . comes this beautiful pictorial and narrative exploration of the significance of objects in our lives, drawn from her personal artifacts, recollections and selections from the collection of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum." Sounds delightful, right? Sadly (oops, that word keeps reappearing), the book did not move me in the least. In fact, it felt like the author/artist was trying too hard to delight. I wish I could have liked the book as much as other people did.

Everybody's Got Something is Robin Roberts' account of the life-threatening illness brought on by the chemotherapy she underwent after a breast cancer diagnosis. Her ability to fight through another terrible illness and grueling treatment while maintaining a positive spirit is truly admirable, but the book is not really worthy of her story. She is sometimes just too smarmy about her circle of beloved friends, family, and colleagues, and she repeats maxims from her parents over and over. I listed to the audio book, which Roberts narrates herself, and her delivery is overacted (though not sure how you can overact your own story). Perhaps the book would be  uplifting for someone going through a similar experience, but I was disappointed.

Pick of the Litter:  Faithful 

Favorite Passage 
As for Joe Allston, he has been a wisecracking fellow traveler in the lives of other people, and a tourist in his own. There has not been one significant event in his life that he planned. He has gone downstream like a stick, getting hung up in eddies and getting flushed out again, only half understanding what he floated past, and understanding less with every year.
Wallace Stegner in The Spectator Bird (Joe Allston describing himself)

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Giving Thanks for Books: November's Reading

November brought some really good books, some not-so-good books, some popular books that fell flat for me, and some books that made me question my own reactions.

After the Storm, by Linda Castillo
Black Irish, by Stephan Talty

I had missed a couple of Linda Castillo's Kate Burkholder mysteries so have been catching up on them. They're generally okay but not great; this one used an unplanned pregnancy as a plot device that was rather annoying, so definitely not my favorite.

Black Irish reminded me that a couple of decades ago, there were a number of crime novels/mysteries about the IRA and American supporters (as well as episodes of television crime shows); I haven't read a book with that particular focus for quite a while, but Black Irish goes there. Set in Buffalo, it is the story of a gifted but depressive detective, Abbie Kearney, who is investigating a murder involving friends and colleagues of her adoptive father, a retired Buffalo police officer. She is drawn deeper and deeper into the dysfunction of the Irish community, eventually solving not only the murder (which expands into five or six murders--I lost track) but the mystery of her parentage. Either I am naïve or this story is quite far-fetched.

The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes
My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante
Today Will Be Different, by Maria Semple
Silver Linings Playbook, by Matthew Quick
The Word for World Is Forest, by Ursula LeGuin
Children of God, by Mary Doria Russell
The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
The Painted Veil, by Somerset Maugham
The Last Anniversary, by Liane Moriarty

In The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes imagines the inner life of Russian composer Shostakovich, who endured censorship, reeducation, and a variety of other indignities under Soviet rule, while trying to maintain some degree of artistic integrity. The fear, humiliation, and self-loathing are palpable and, while we cannot assume this is what Shostakovich actually thought, it is a thought-provoking depiction of the effects of tyranny on the artist.

My Brilliant Friend is the first of the mysterious Elena Ferrante's much-ballyhooed Neapolitan novels. It is the story of the two bright young friends who face various challenges as one sticks to the academic path while the other veers off that path and marries young. Each is jealous of the other. Sound familiar? Yes, it sounds like a million other coming-of-age novels! Being set in a poor neighborhood in Naples post-World War II makes it slightly more informative but no more inventive or engaging. Furthermore, there are point-of-view problems--the narrator knows things she shouldn't--and it's clearly a set-up for a sequel, always annoying to me. Not recommended!

And, continuing the theme of "I just don't get it," Maria Semple's Today Will Be Different follows the pattern of her earlier bestseller Where'd You Go, Bernadette. A 30-something Seattle woman struggles with First World issues depicted in a manner intended to be humorous. Most of the action takes place in one day when protagonist Eleanor Flood discovers a former employee has become wildly successful, her child Timby feigns illness for the umpteenth time so he can leave school, and she suspects her husband is having an affair. Flashbacks provide background on her marriage, her career, which is now languishing (her graphic memoir is 8 years overdue), and her family. Some pieces of her story are sad, but she's an annoying character who puts her child in iffy situations while she runs off half-cocked. Sorry . . . this author is, in my view, seriously overrated.

I was recently at a dinner with a group of "book people," when one woman mentioned she doesn't read much fiction but really loves Silver Linings Playbook. I had never read the book because I found the movie somewhat annoying in that it seemed to be getting its laughs at the expense of the two people with mental illnesses. As is generally the case, the book was definitely better--Quick still finds humor in mental illness, but it somehow feels more like we are with the main character, Pat Peoples, than simply observing him. Quick also makes the reader feel that there is still hope for Pat. The dance competition is much less central to the book than it was to the movie, which is also a positive. I didn't love the book but it has caused me to think about how mental illness is depicted in fiction, so that's a positive outcome.

The Word for World Is Forest (great title!) is the third Ursula Guin that I've read--all at the urging of my son Kevin, who is infinitely more knowledgeable about the science fiction genre than I am. In comparison to the previous two--The Dispossessed and The Lefthand of Darkness--The Word . . . seemed very mundane to me. Humans from Earth have colonized the planet Athshe in order to harvest wood from its forests; in the process, they have destroyed the environment and enslaved the peaceful Athseans.  Eventually, the Athsheans rise up and reclaim their planet, but their nature is changed by the experience of violence. The book also suffered because I was reading Children of God at the same time--that book has some similar plot points but is much more complex. Overall, The Word for World Is Forest fell flat.

Children of God, on the other hand, I very much enjoyed. It's a sequel to Russell's The Sparrow, an excellent book about an ill-fated Jesuit-sponsored mission to the planet Rakhat. In Children of God, survivor Father Emilio Sandoz, who was subjected to sexual torture on Rakhat and has been reviled since returning to Earth, is trying to rebuild his life despite the loss of his faith. The order asks him to prepare another group of Jesuits for a second mission to Rakhat and he agrees. But then, just as he is about to be married, he is commandeered into the mission. Meanwhile, on Rakhat, another survivor of the mission, Sonia Mendes, is involved with the struggle between the two species that inhabit the planet--the subservient Runa and dominant Jana'ata. The plot is even more complicated and layered, but what is more notable is how Russell explores a variety of theological, sociological, psychological, and political themes. Highly recommended.

Also highly recommended is Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad. In Whitehead's imagining, the Underground Railroad is an actual subterranean railroad; as refugees from slavery ascend to ground level at various stops, they find different cultures and levels of development. For example, in South Carolina, the protagonist Cora, who has escaped from a plantation in Georgia, finds skyscrapers and a society nominally dedicated to the uplift of the "colored people"--not surprisingly, there is a sinister side to this apparently progressive approach. Cora also spends time in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Indiana--all dealing differently with the formerly enslaved. When I read about this book, I thought--as a friend said the other night--it sounded weird. But somehow Whitehead makes it all work, creating an engaging character, a spellbinding story, and a thought-provoking discussion of slavery and its aftermath. The Underground Railroad recently won the National Book Award--well-deserved!

The Painted Veil is a character study of a shallow but beautiful Englishwoman living in Hong Kong in the 1920s. Shockingly still unmarried in her mid-twenties, Kitty ties her fortunes to a scientist, Walter Fane, but is soon bored with her intellectual but not amusing husband. When Walter discovers that she is having an affair, he forces her to go to a cholera-infested area in China. There, she for the first time finds herself interested in something other than herself--she enjoys working with the children being cared for by nuns. However, she soon finds herself pregnant and widowed; she returns to England to seek shelter with her father. The book is often described as an affirmation of the human capacity for growth and change, but I'm not convinced of real growth on Kitty's part and unless you are particularly interested in the lives of British colonials in the Far East, I wouldn't recommend The Painted Veil.

My friend Suzy and I recently went to hear Liane Moriarty talk at the Tattered Cover; I found her as I expected from having read several of her books--sarcastically funny but also warm. When asked which of her books was her favorite, she equivocated but expressed some fondness for The Last Anniversary.  Ergo, I decided to read it. Like her other books, it has numerous quirky narrators and deals with serious topics (in this case post-partum depression) and relationships in a humorous way. Although I have found several of her books very funny, I found myself bothered by the humor in the last two I have read. Maybe they just aren't as effective--or maybe as I age, I'm just finding life more sad/less funny. It does have me questioning myself. But back to the book--Moriarty frames the book around the mystery of what happened to a young couple who disappeared during the Depression, leaving their daughter behind. Most readers will figure out the mystery fairly readily and perhaps become a little annoyed with the ongoing hints--however, at the end, Moriarty does throw in a twist that I did not expect--so kudos to her for a genuine surprise.

Turn of the Screw, by Henry James
Night, by Elie Wiesel

I remember seeing the movie version of Turn of the Screw many years ago and being pretty creeped out, but I had never read the book. Sadly, the book did not have the same impact. The story revolves around a young woman who is engaged to care for two orphaned children whose uncle wants to hear nothing about them once he hires someone to replace their previous governess, who died. The governess finds the little girl to be delightful, the little boy (who has been expelled from boarding school) somewhat less tractable. But soon enough, she realizes that the previous governor and her lover, a handyman around the estate, are visiting the children. And creepy events ensue. Perhaps I am harder to shock today or I knew too much about the story to find it scary. I also think the frame that James used--presenting it as a "ghost story" being told by a man to his friends--lessened its impact. Whatever the reason, Turn of the Screw was a disappointment.

Sadly, I also found myself less moved than I thought I should be by Night, Elie Wiesel's account of a young man's horrifying experiences in a Nazi concentration camp. The depiction of man's inhumanity to man is certainly beyond comprehension, but perhaps we have seen, read, and heard so much about the Holocaust that it ceases to shock. Perhaps it is peculiar to me and yet another sign of aging. But if it's more general, it's worth thinking about how we can keep our horror alive to prevent future genocides (somehow the recent election makes this seem timely).

Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela
The Road to Character, by David Brooks
Without You, There Is No Us, by Suki Kim
Why We Write, edited by Meredith Maran

Nelson Mandela is one of my heroes, and I hoped this biography (covering from childhood up to his election as president of South Africa) would give me some insight into how he maintained his positive spirit and staved off bitterness despite the travails he experienced. The book was definitely informative, particularly about the work and strategies of the ANC and others in the movement to end apartheid. Yet, I still don't understand Mandela's indomitability--perhaps I'm just not capable. I also wished he had talked more about what happened with Winnie--he claimed to have believed in her innocence, but nonetheless they divorced and she seems simply to have disappeared from his life. Again, he is probably too good to go into the details and I am venal enough to be interested. Not entirely fulfilling but worthwhile.

David Brooks is a conservative with whom I, not a conservative, often agree. Brooks found himself concerned about the imbalance of attention on "resume virtues"--achieving wealth, fame, and status--and our "eulogy virtues," those that exist at the core of our being: kindness, bravery, honesty, or faithfulness, focusing on what kind of relationships we have formed."  This, I think, is a very worthy concern, and Brooks approached it by examining how notable people whom he judged to focus more on eulogy virtues--Francis Perkins, Dwight D. Eisenhower, George Marshall, Dorothy Day, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and others--worked, sometimes struggled to develop character. At some point, I became a bit bored with the case studies, wishing there were fewer or that some might be contemporary figures. I actually preferred the parts of the book in which Brooks simply talked about aspects of character and its development. Overall, I have to give The Road to Character a thumbs-sideways review.

I recently heard Suki Kim being interviewed on NPR; she was complaining that her book about teaching in a school for privileged North Korean boys was being marketed as a memoir rather than a piece of brave (she was in North Korea under false pretenses) investigative journalism. She felt this was largely due to her being a woman. I had some sympathy for this argument, so I decided to read her book and guess what? It's a memoir! Yes, she did something dangerous. Yes, we do get insights into the effects of tyranny and leader-worship on people, especially young people. But she didn't really do any additional reporting outside of her life at the school and she didn't even seem to do any additional research. It's totally the story of her experience/her emotions . . . yes, it's a memoir. Interesting, but my sympathy for her dissipated.

Why We Write is a collection of interviews the editor did with 20 authors, ranging from Isabel Allende, Sebastian Junger, and Jennifer Egan to Jodi Picoult, Michael Lewis, and Terri McMillan (whose angry comments are my favorites). Maran asked them not just why they write, but when they are happiest, when they are saddest, tips for writers, etc. I found little new insight--most say they write because that's what they do, perhaps all they can do and their advice tends toward "just sit down and write." A few struck me as particularly over-confident (James Frey is notable here) but most seem quite unprepossessing. If you've never read any authorial reflections, this might be interesting; if you have, it's pretty mundane.

Pick of the Litter:  The Underground Railroad and Children of God

Favorite Passages:

What mattered was not so much whether a particular story was factually true, but rather, what it signified. Though it was also the case that the more a story circulated, the truer it became.

What could be put up against the noise of time? Only that music which is inside ourselves—the music of our being—which is transformed by some into real music. Which, over the decades, if it is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time, is transformed into the whisper of history.
All his life he had relied on irony. He imagined that the trait had been born in the usual place: in the gap between how we imagine, or suppose, or hope life will turn out, and the way it actually does. So irony becomes a defence of the self and soul; it lets you breathe on a day-to-day basis. . . .
However, he was no longer so sure. There could be a smugness to irony, as there could be a complacency to protest. . . If you turned your back on irony, it curdled into sarcasm. And what good was it then? Sarcasm was irony which had lost its soul.
Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time

Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.
Time enough for Cora to take stock of her journey from Randall and make a thick braid of her misfortunes. List upon list crowded the ledger of slavery. The names gathered first on the African coast in tens of thousands of manifests. That human cargo. The names of the dead were as important as the names of the living as every loss from disease and suicide and the other mishaps, labeled as such for accounting purposes, needed to be justified to employers. At the auction block, they tallied the souls purchased at each auction and on the plantations the overseers preserved the names of workers in rows of tight cursive. Every name an asset, breathing capital, profit made flesh. The peculiar institution made Cora into a maker of lists as well. In her inventory of loss, people were not reduced to sums but multiplied by their kindnesses, people she had loved, people who had helped her . . . the ones who disappeared . . .
Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad