Reviews Roundup, December–January
It’s been a slow period for reviewing; I was mostly focusing on ongoing projects and year-end lists, and didn’t take the time to review a lot of the books I borrowed from libraries while in the States visiting family. Enjoy the respite! And I promise more productivity next month. There’s a rating (below each description) and a taster so you can decide whether to read more.
Fig Tree Books
Everyman by Philip Roth: It has now been about three years since Philip Roth, then 79, famously announced his retirement from fiction writing. In a look back over Roth’s career—spanning half a century and 30 books—Everyman (2006) might fade into the background, especially given the book’s novella length. But to overlook it would be a mistake: This is a near-perfect fable about the life we build through decades of small choices and the death that is always lying in wait, whether we feel ready or not.
(Have a look around at the great work this publisher does in highlighting the American Jewish Experience; for instance, they released Safekeeping by Jessamyn Hope, which I loved this past summer.)
A Smile at Twilight by Robert Loyst and Wayne Yetman: Loyst gives a candid account of the joys and difficulties of helping to care for Poppy, an Alzheimer’s patient he met through a Toronto-based “Seniors Helping Seniors” organization. It’s an appealing “opposites attract”/“odd couple” scenario: Poppy was a perfectionist with a foul mouth and a withering glare of disapproval, while Loyst describes himself as “more of a take-it-as-it-comes type of guy.” Those who have family members or friends struggling with dementia will probably benefit most from the memoir, but readers of Still Alice might enjoy trying a real-life story.
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads.
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout: Lucy Barton is in the hospital for nine weeks following an appendectomy. The novel zeroes in on the five days her mother comes to stay by her bedside, a pinnacle in their often difficult relationship. For a short book, this packs a lot in: an artist’s development, the course of a marriage, poverty and class distinctions. Lucy grew up in rural Illinois, where words like “cheap” and “trash” could easily have been applied to her family. I read this in one sitting on a plane ride and found it to be a powerful portrayal of the small connections that stand out in a life.
Eligible: A modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld: Pride and Prejudice transplanted to Cincinnati in 2013? That might sound like a stretch, but Sittenfeld pretty much pulls it off. The characters and underlying plot are virtually identical to the original, with just a few tweaks here and there. What Sittenfeld does update are the particular scenes and situations, as well as the cultural norms and sexual practices. My main problem is how slavishly Sittenfeld replicates Austen’s third-person voice and vocabulary. Sittenfeld is the queen of first-person female narration; this is the first time in my memory that she has attempted an omniscient voice. To me it felt like the book was crying out to be told from Lizzy’s perspective. Releases April 19th.
The Best Fiction of 2015: My Top 15
2015 was a great year for fiction, largely dominated by doorstoppers (like Death & Mr. Pickwick and City on Fire, in addition to the Franzen and Yanagihara listed below) and Harper Lee. I’ve decided to pass on Go Set a Watchman, but I’ve read plenty of the year’s big-name fiction, as well as some more obscure titles I’d like to bring to your attention.
As difficult as it is to pit books against each other and come up with a numbered list, I’ve given it a go and come up with my top 15 fiction works of the year. To keep it simple for myself and straightforward for potential readers, I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I also link to any full reviews.
Let the countdown begin!
- The Shore by Sara Taylor: Gritty and virtuosic, this debut novel-in-13-stories imagines 250 years of history on a set of islands. Every region needs a literary chronicler, and I reckon Taylor – channeling David Mitchell with her cross-centuries approach – is it for the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia’s islands.
- Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins: Gold, fame, citrus: reasons people once came to California; now, only a desperate remnant remains in the waterless wasteland. As a smart, believable dystopian with a family at its heart, this trumps any of last year’s efforts (like Station Eleven or California).
- Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish: Like West Side Story, this debut novel is an updated Romeo and Juliet narrative – a tragedy-bound love story with a grimy contemporary setting and a sobering message about racism and the failure of the American dream. The matter-of-fact style somehow manages to elevate the everyday and urban into an art form. (Reviewed for Third Way magazine in August.)
- Circling the Sun by Paula McLain: Before she ever thought of flying solo across the Atlantic, aviatrix Beryl Markham was just Beryl Clutterbuck: raised in Kenya, one of Africa’s first female horse trainers, its first professional female pilot, and the other side of the love triangle featuring Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) and Denys Finch Hatton. McLain describes her African settings beautifully, and focuses as much on the small emotional moments that make a life as she does on its external thrills.
- Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal: One of my favorite debuts of the year: a culinary-themed collection of short stories loosely linked through the character of Eva Thorvald, a young chef with an unfortunate past and a rare palate. Read it for a glimpse of how ordinary, flawed Americans live – no fairytale endings here.
- Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum: This arresting debut reads like a modern retelling of Madame Bovary, with its main character a desperate American housewife in Zurich. Watch Anna’s trajectory with horror, but you cannot deny there is a little of her in you.
- The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett: In this impressively structured, elegantly written debut, Barnett chronicles the romantic lives of two Cambridge graduates through three-quarters of a century, giving three options for how their connection might play out. There is no one perfect person or story: unsentimental this may be, but it feels true to how life works. (Reviewed for Third Way magazine in July.)
- Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff: An incisive study of a marriage, beautifully written and rich with allusions to Shakespeare and Greek mythology. Groff makes it onto a short list of women I expect to produce the Great American Novel (along with Curtis Sittenfeld, Jennifer Egan, and Hanya Yanagihara).
- Purity by Jonathan Franzen: East Germany, Bolivia and Oakland, California: Franzen doesn’t quite pull all his settings and storylines together, but this is darn close to a 5-star Dickensian read. It’s strong on the level of character and theme, with secrecy, isolation and compassion as recurring topics.
- You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman: Kleeman’s first novel is a full-on postmodern satire bursting with biting commentary on consumerism and conformity. Think of her as an heir to Dave Eggers and Douglas Coupland, with a hefty dollop of Margaret Atwood thrown in.
- The Animals by Christian Kiefer: Kiefer’s second novel contrasts wildness and civilization through the story of a man who runs an animal refuge to escape from his criminal past. A tough opening sequence establishes themes that will be essential to the novel: the fine line between instincts and decisions, the moral dilemmas involved in environmentalism, and the seeming inescapability of violence.
- The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra: A collection of tightly linked short stories giving an intimate look at Russia and Chechnya in wartime and afterwards – revealing how politics, family, and art intertwine. Just as he did in his first novel, Marra renders unspeakable tragedies bearable through his warm and witty writing.
- Girl at War by Sara Nović: This pitch-perfect debut novel is an inside look at the Yugoslavian Civil War and its aftermath, from the perspective of a young girl caught up in the fighting. The way Nović recreates a child’s perspective on the horrors of war is masterful: Ana’s viewpoint is realistic and matter-of-fact, without the melodrama an omniscient narrator might inject.
- Adeline by Norah Vincent: Set in 1925–1941 and structured like a five-act play, the novel revolves around Virginia Woolf’s philosophical conversations with Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey and his lover Carrington, T.S. and Valerie Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and her doctor, Octavia Wilberforce. Vincent has produced a remarkable picture of mental illness from the inside.
- A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: Jude St. Francis: Dickensian orphan, patron saint of lost causes, Christlike Man of Sorrows, and one of the most memorable characters in recent fiction. This novel is an attempt to tackle the monolithic question of what makes life worth living; among the potential answers: love (though it doesn’t conquer all), friendship, creativity, and the family you create for yourself.
Best Discoveries of the Year: Mary Lawson (Road Ends), Daniel Kehlmann (F: A Novel), Jonathan Evison (This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!) and Jonathan Coe (Number 11).
Debut Novelists Whose Next Work I’m Most Looking Forward to: Jessamyn Hope (Safekeeping – reviewed here in June) and Carmiel Banasky (The Suicide of Claire Bishop – reviewed for Foreword’s Fall 2015 issue).
The Year’s Biggest Disappointments: Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper; Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks and Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving (both rehash the authors’ familiar themes; I couldn’t make it past 15% in the latter).
Novels I Most Wish I’d Gotten to in 2015: Nell Zink’s Mislaid, Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither, and the final two volumes of Jane Smiley’s “Last Hundred Years” trilogy.
What are the best novels you read this year? Any new favorite books or authors? Your comments are always welcome.
I’ll be back tomorrow with my top 15 nonfiction books I read this year (most of them not published in 2015, however – I seem to have been a nonfiction slacker!)
Audiobook Giveaway: Safekeeping, Jessamyn Hope
This giveaway is now closed. Congratulations to Lisa Lieberman and Maureen Cean, winners of the two audiobook copies!
I’m excited to announce my first-ever blog giveaway! Jessamyn Hope is kindly offering copies of the audiobook of her debut novel, Safekeeping, to two of my blog readers. This was one of my favorite books of the summer; check out my full review here. The audiobook is narrated by Kristen Potter, who also recently voiced Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.
For your chance to win one of the two available copies, simply leave a comment below. The giveaway will stay open for just over one week, until 10 pm GMT / 5 pm ET on Monday, August 17th. After that point I will number the comments and choose the winners through a random number generator.
This giveaway is open to readers in any country. Good luck!
The Truth According to Us and Safekeeping
They say there are only two basic plots: a stranger comes to town, or the hero sets off on a journey. So far this summer I’ve enjoyed two novels that exemplify one or the other model.
First is The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows, co-author of the endearing The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This atmospheric historical novel is set in the sweltering summer of 1938. Layla Beck, a spoiled senator’s daughter, has been sent to Macedonia, West Virginia by the WPA to document the town’s story in advance of its sesquicentennial. Her uncle pulls strings to get her the job even though he thinks his flighty niece is “exactly as fit to work on the project as a chicken is to drive a Buick.”
From a lunatic Civil War general onwards, Macedonia has certainly had a colorful history. The problem is that all the local lights want to skew history to present themselves in the most favorable light. This applies to the family Layla boards with as well, the Romeyns. Felix and Jottie’s father ran the American Everlasting Hosiery Company until a devastating fire some 20 years ago – blamed on Jottie’s old sweetheart, Vause Hamilton.
Now Felix’s twelve-year-old daughter Willa, who narrates much of the novel, wants to get to the bottom of things. What really happened during that factory fire? Why are the Romeyns snubbed around town? Has her divorcé father turned to bootlegging, and can she stop Miss Beck from bewitching him? Like Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird or Flavia de Luce in Alan Bradley’s mysteries, Willa is a spunky heroine whose curiosity carries the plot.
Once again Barrows makes good use of the epistolary format by inserting the letters Layla sends and receives during her time in Macedonia. Third person narration also gets us into the mind of Jottie, one of the strongest characters. However, later sections of the novel get a little bogged down in Jottie’s romantic history, and overall it is too long by at least a quarter. Barrows is better at capturing everyday speech and routines than momentous activities like a factory strike, but she certainly evokes the oppressive heat of a long American summer.
As Willa concludes, “The truth of other people is a ceaseless business. You try to fix your ideas about them, and you choke on the clot you’ve made.” This novel reminds us that others – whether strangers or family – are always a mystery, and history is a matter of interpretation.
Next up is Safekeeping, the debut novel from Jessamyn Hope. A bit like All the Light We Cannot See, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from Anthony Doerr, the plot revolves around a priceless jewel. In this case it’s a medieval sapphire brooch that has been passed down through Adam’s family for centuries. In 1994, after the death of his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, Adam undertakes a quest to return the brooch to the woman he fell in love with on an Israeli kibbutz and never forgot. Adam has his own problems – he’s a recovering junkie and alcoholic – but he feel he owes this to his grandfather’s memory.
A kibbutz undergoing the bitter transition from communalism to salaried work provides a vivid contrast to Adam’s native New York City. Hope populates her novel with a wonderful cast of eccentric characters. There’s Ulya, a Belarussian prima donna with a shoplifting habit; Claudette, a French Canadian Catholic crippled by mental health issues; Ziva, a kibbutz veteran who fights the changes tooth and nail despite advancing infirmity; and Ofir, a young man who endeavors to finish his military service early so he can return to his beloved piano.
I loved the way that Hope links the disparate characters in a constellation of connections. Acts of generosity, small or large, make a huge difference, even though betrayals past and present still linger. Close third person narration shifts easily between all the characters’ viewpoints, while two surprising historical interludes add depth. Hope handles flashbacks as elegantly as I’ve ever seen: you follow characters into their thoughts and suddenly snap back to the present right along with them.
I’ll confess I was slightly disappointed with the inconclusive ending. We follow the brooch rather than the characters, which means that in two cases we are left wondering about a person’s fate. Still, I was so impressed with the writing, especially the interweaving of past and present, that I will be eager to watch Hope’s career. Safekeeping is published by Fig Tree Books, a champion of modern Jewish literature, and has one of the most terrific book covers I’ve seen in a while.