I’ve never ranked my top ten (or twelve or so) before, but this year, the top five are top—way above the others, even though those others are very fine books. I haven’t ranked the top five among themselves, though. Numbers ten, eleven, and twelve actually comprise a total of six books by three authors. I couldn’t decide which of the books belonged on the list, so I included the writers instead.
Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee. I believe I previously in these pages called Coetzee the finest craftsman writing in English today, and Diary of a Bad Year forces me to agree with myself. The book’s structure–and I’m talking physical as well as literary structure here–gives credibility enough in itself. Three parallel voices appear on each page. On the top, the reader finds objective essays on matters political, philosophical, psychological ranging from Guantanamo Bay to music to motherhood. These are by and large pieces being composed as the novel proceeds, by the book’s narrator, a prestigious author in his eighties, for a German publisher who is putting together a gathering of opinions from literary notables for a non-fiction anthology . . .
Tent by Margaret Atwood. The Tent, a collection of short pieces published in various periodicals over the years, is a unique and precious volume of, well, of what? The book jacket calls them literary essays, but no. Give me an “essay” word association prompt and I come up with “expository.” And these writings are much more than exposition. “Musings,” or “meditations” might fit. Some of them have strong narrative lines, even beginnings, middles, and ends like stories; but there’s nothing to say a meditation can’t lead to a story. So let’s call them that.
Whatever they are, they are exquisite, and they are often LOL funny. Crisp sentences, shrewdly crafted into miniature windows to reality, imagination, souls.
3. Crossers by Philip Caputo. I almost made this one my book of the year. Caputo’s novel is positively Greek in its depiction of human existence as a baffling combination of fate and will. Mostly fate. The crossers in question go back and forth between Mexico and AZ, past and present. There are avenging furies (embodied in one character) who mysteriously bedevil and endanger our protagonist and everyone around him. There is a twisted chorus (embodied in another character) who gives the upper world and the nether world equal time and dispenses some trenchant philosophy as he travels from one to the other. Said chorus also adds a measure of magical realism, appropriate to the context of an hispanic culture, in his ability to make contact with his preconscious mind, to do such things as “see” smells and “hear” colors.
From the prosaic perspective, Crossers focuses on Gil Castle, a Wall Streeter, whose wife (second) was vaporized on 9/11. Unable to handle the grief, he tries suicide but can’t handle that, so dumps everything and heads to his first wife’s family’s ranch in the Arizona wild near the Mexican border. He takes up residence in a one-room adobe hut and goes about pursuing a life of isolation and pain. He does okay with that for a while, but of course, events intervene, and. . . I just may re-read it.
Birds Without Wings by Louis De Bernieres. This was also a candidate for find of the year, BWW traces the lives of several characters in a Turkish village through the last gasps of the Ottoman empire in the late nineteenth century through the founding of the Turkish nation in 1923. It’s a unique history and an important one. But of course important history doesn’t make a novel. Characters and fine writing do that, and De Bernieres has created just that in this absorbing and compelling story. Susanne said when she finished it, she wanted to start over. I can’t put it better, so we’ll leave it there.
Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje. In the other two Michael Ondaatje novels I’ve read this superlative writer soars through time and space unconstrained. In the Skin of a Lion stays in his home territory of Ontario, with Toronto as the hub of the action. Moreover, the novel sticks to a defined couple of decades and is a work of social protest as much as it is anything else.
The title and epigraph are from the epic of Gilgamesh, the ancient Sumerian story of a mythical king who undertakes dangerous quests both on earth and in the netherworld with a close companion, then wanders in sorrow after the friend dies.
The joyful will stoop with sorrow, and when you have gone to the earth, I will let my hair grow long for your sake, I will wander through the wilderness in the skin of a lion.
The lion’s skin is at once a shroud, a hair-shirt of mourning, a camouflage for protection, and a mantle of storyteller. All of these are appropriate images for the trio of protagonists Ondaatje uses to tell the story of the triumph of Canadian industrialism and of its victims.
The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway. From 1992-96, Sarajevo was under siege–the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. Another example of the shameful brutality we perpetrate and perpetuate unto this very day. The Cellist of Sarajevo, like the memoir-cum (fine)-movie The Pianist , is a story of beauty defying devastation. In this brief novel, based, as they say, on an actual event, Galloway ties the lives of several characters to the improbable response of one of Sarajevo’s finest musician’s (principal cellist in the symphony) to a mortar shelling in his neighborhood, an attack which killed twenty-two of his neighbors and injured about seventy others. Already robbed of his livelihood and performance space by the unrelenting attacks from the surrounding hills, he placed a chair on the sidewalk outside his apartment building at the hour of the bombing (4 p.m.) each day for twenty-two days and performed a little known adagio in honor of the dead and in some sort of indefinable protest against the violence.
The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak.There are a number of stock WWII elements in The Book Thief–nasty Nazi’s, conflicted Germans with a conscience, Jews in the basement. However, here’s something decidedly original–death as the narrator. As an author’s device, death has quite a few advantages. He can be everywhere–past, present, future, in and out of the characters’ minds and hearts just like an omniscient narrator. Yet, since he’s speaking in the first person, you get a sense of intimacy you can’t get from old Mr. Omniscient. And Zusak makes death an engaging and sympathetic fellow. A guy doing a job, mind you, but with nothing approaching the ghoulishness of a Halloween specter. “I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s,” he remarks at the outset. And he lives up to his self-billing.
Peter Doyle by John Vernon. Every once in a while, the cliché goes, a work comes along … Actually, Peter Doyle is not the work for the ages that introduction might imply, but it’s a terrific historical novel and deserves to be better known and more widely read. I mean, who else has done all these things in a single work: Written a book centering around a penis purloined from Napoleon Bonaparte’s corpse? Taken the reader from St. Helena, 1821, to Colorado Territory, 1886? Given us Emily Dickinson in drag? Brought Emily and Walt Whitman together in the same room (well, hallway)? And there’s more, believe me, a lot more.
Rhino Ranch, by Larry McMurtry. I just realized this is two books on the list that I read the same year they were published (Crossers the other. Probably a record. )
McMurtry has said recently that he feels his powers are waning, that it’s a common condition among aging writers. The recent Berrybender tetrology, would seem to bear him out. Rhino Ranch, however, gives him the lie.
Duane is old now, and Texas is no longer really Texas. You have a few cowpokes around, but they’re now wrangling black horned rhinoceri, imported from Africa for their salvation by a billionairess with more fantasies, time, and money than good sense. McMurtry introduces serious elements of magical realism in the form of Double-Aught, a sort of ghost rhino, which unpredictably appears and reappears to various people at various times. When he does materialize, he’s liable to inflict serious damage on such sacred symbols of modern civilization as school buses and Texas Ranger patrol cars as well as on folks’ sense of reality and expectations. Although this is clearly the last Duane, I hope it’s not McMurtry’s Tempest. Except for that business about the ending, I thought this was Larry in top form. Chalk up one for us old guys.
Love and A Mercy by Toni Morrison. Love and Mercy received such tepid reviews I was almost afraid to read them for fear they would bring Toni Morrison down from her (all right, my) pedestal. I shouldn’t have worried. This is not Morrison at full power. It’s neither Song of Solomon nor Beloved, but eighty or ninety per cent of Toni Morrison is worth a hundred and twenty per cent of almost anyone else.
Rebel Angels, The Lyre of Orpheus, by Robertson Davies. The Rebel Angels opens Robertson Davies Cornish Trilogy, and Lyre of Orpheus ably continues the saga of the denizens of “Spook” (St. John and the Holy Ghost University) beyond the first fireworks passion and murder that provided the juice for Rebel Angels. Damned good stuff, and I’ll soon be going after the third in this little tryptych–What’s Bred in the Bone.
St. Urbain’s Horseman and Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler It was nice to shake hands with Duddy Kravitz again, however, the protagonist of St. Urbain’s is Jake Hersch, who is pretty much the flip side of Kravitz. Where Duddy is relentlessly amoral, Jake is burdened with an overactive social conscience; where Duddy is rapaciously acquisitive, Jake takes whatever wealth drops in his lap without actively pursuing it. Interesting point-counterpoint with Richler’’s acerbic wit.
However, twentieth century Eastern Canada is only a pivot point for Solomon Gursky. It opens in seventeenth century Maine, wanders around to Newgate prison, puts us among a tribe of Jewish Eskimos (courtesy of a disastrous search for the Northwest Passage), generally sprawling all over time and space.
When Richler’s good, you wonder why he hasn’t won a Booker or even a Nobel. However, he needed a Maxwell Perkins to barber things for him. Wonderful as he often is, the narrative sags and meanders too often to consider the work a complete success.
A Bit On The Side by William Trevor. William Trevor has a reputation as a short story master, and A Bit On The Side does nothing in my mind to contradict his reputation. Each tale is a carefully constructed gem of simple, clear writing. Simple people in real life dilemmas who touch the heart as they work their way through their difficulties. And yet. And yet. Yet what? I ask myself.
Well, something is still missing, and it is this: none of the stories is truly moving. Even the one where a mother finds herself pregnant and proposes to sell this fourth offspring to a childless couple to relieve their poverty so her gifted husband can continue to carve the holy-figure but commercially unviable statues seems to engender nothing more intense than anxiety and regret and sadness and acceptance either for the reader or the characters. I envy those writers who can make a great deal out of a small events. I tend toward the Faulknerian style (not talent or skill) of needing something obviously significant to happen and wish sometimes I could make more with less. However, Trevor seems to have the opposite knack of making very little out of potentially large events, and it leaves me feeling a bit cheated.
Fine Just the Way It is by Annie Proulx. You can find some old-time tales here, like the incredible “Them Old Cowboy Songs.” “Tits up in a Ditch” sounds frontier, but it’s as up-to-date as Iraq. Of course, since this is Proulx and this is Wyoming, there’s a frontier flavor to it, but it’s all twenty-first Century. There are a couple of satirical pieces that take place in Hell, which I didn’t find particularly successful. Trying her hand at some Mark Twain, I guess. Maybe some other folks would disagree. There some paranormal/supernatural stuff in “The Sagebrush Kid.” Solid writing that ranges from light to gut-wrenching. A great way to end the year.
FICTION–TOXIC WASTE OF ’09
The Bolyen Inheritance by Phillipa Gregory. What the fascination for women (and that’s clearly the audience here. All the characters are first-person women.) with an obese, homicidal wife-murdering tyrant I couldn’t say. Maybe the same kind of motivation that makes women propose marriage to imprisoned serial killers. As for the book itself, Barbara Cartland lives.
The Turkish Gambit by Boris Akunin.It’s advertised as a thriller, it’s a Cartland-like romance (yes, another one) complete with swooning damsels and girl-as-boy disguises. It’s nasty. Don’t go near it or anything else of Akunin’s. You’ll risk PMD (permanent brain damage).
The Balm of Gilead Marilynne Robinson. As far as I got (about fifty pages) I gleaned that this book is a putative letter from a near-death, small town, Iowa preacher to his young son. Robinson uses this device to create a fictional memoir/autobiography full of reminiscences of family and advice for his offspring. I find the whole thing mawkish and sentimental. Reminds me of Spoon River Anthology, and not in a good way.
Saints at the River by Ron Rash. I don’t recall how Ron Rash got on my list of writers to try, but he’s off now. Saints at the River is full of cartoony black hats and white hats, clumsy characterization, and overwriting. Predictable and unsatisfying in nearly every way. Avoid it.
5. Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear by Javier Marias.
Someone once wrote of William Shawn during his reign as editor of The New Yorker that he favored the intellectual, meditative narrative. Stories in which nothing (almost) happens. The comment it seems to me applies also to Javier Marias. In my April 27 comments on Dark Back of Time I said, “For all its virtues–wonderful ideas, heady prose–there’s not much of a story and no juice. Too much of the head and not enough heart and gonads.” That goes double and triple for Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear.
I finished the book only because I’ve had a record year for quitting early, and I didn’t want to add to that record. However, the book jacket’s mention of a possible Nobel, favorable comparisons to Dovstoyeski, Proust, and Beckett (as if those three were all alike) seem to belong to the PR realm of Gov. Sanford comparing himself to King David.