Welcome to the third annual list of writerworking’s favorites. As always, it doesn’t include the newest off the press, just what I’ve picked up through various sources and liked. There, however, more new titles this year than in the last two. There’s a bit less non-fiction than in the 2007 bumper crop, but more poetry–though not much more. It’s a pale start toward fulfilling the resolution I made at the end of 2006 to develop a healthy poetry category. In that regard, I reiterate that it’s good to have unkept–or half-kept–resolutions. “The reach should exceed the grasp,” says Browning, a maxim I obey at all times. This is also the year I stole the “little man” reviewer image from the SF Chronicle.
One of my better acts of larceny, I think. I haven’t included him in the summaries below because you can assume that he’s leaping out of his seat for every one. The list is in reverse chronological order of reading, not in rank order of quality–a task I’d rather not attempt.
Richard Price–Reading Lush Life and Freedomland suggested he might be a one of those rare authors who is both of iterary quality and popular appeal. A reading of Clockers suggests he’s a formula guy whose river runs fast, but not so deep or wide.
Swann’s Way–I wanted to like Proust better, but alas. Maybe the disappointment should be directed at me, but alas.
Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon, I wanted to like this one better, neighbor, but sorry.
Michael Ondaatje, Anne Enright, Junot Diaz
Richard Price, Paul Auster, Richard Wideman, Arthur Koestler, Bayaard Taylor
FICTION HONORABLE MENTION
The Antelope Wife by Louise Erdrich
One Good Turn, by Kate Atkinson
Design Flaws of the Human Condition by Paul Schmidtberger (Best first novel by a neghbor’s nephew)
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
No Great Mischief by Alistair McLeod
The Baron in the Trees, by Italo Calvino
NON-FICTION HONORABLE MENTION
The Mothers by Vardis Fisher
Keeping it Green by Richard A. Walker
Sri Lanka is the primary (but not sole) setting for Anil’s Ghost. Anil is a forensic graphologist. One who is able to discern from bones–old or new–not only the age and sex of an individual who once fleshed out an exhumed skeleton, but the probable occupation, marital status, cause and place of death, and any number of other particulars. She is sent by a human rights organization to Sri Lanka to investigate charges about the activities of the various groups engaged in armed civil conflict with one another. She welcomes the assignment because she spent a good part of her childhood in the country, her father having been a respected physician there. She teams up with a forensic anthropologist who is nominally her host, but who has conflicting family and political alliances–most of them unknown to Anil–which complicate the situation. The setup is perfect for Ondaatje’s skills since, aside from being born in Sri Lanka himself, the vague and shifting ambiguities of religion, politics, loyalties, and fears inherent in the situation are part and parcel of the reality one finds in his books.
I won’t go farther into the plot. You should discover that for yourself. I will dip a hesitant toe into the waters of MFA terminology to say that if there are indeed (And I dispute the notion.) plot-driven, voice-driven, or character-driven novels, Ondaatje’s novels might be called spirit-driven, borne on the breath of language and soul as expressed in terms of character and action.
Anil’s Ghost is a relatively short book, but it has Tolstoyan impact. It’s religious, political in scope, yet entirely individual in its subject and its action. Ondaatje is not prolific. That’s too bad. The world badly needs more of him. But I’m thankful for what we have.
The focus of The Given Day’s action is the Boston Police Strike of 1920 (which I hadn’t known about) and an Irish family whose lives and fortunes are twined with the department. The tyrannical father is a Captain, the older son, Danny, (our protagonist) a patrolman, one younger brother a lawyer. Amid horrid working conditions (72-hour shifts, requirements to buy their own uniforms, filthy station houses) the officers strive to protect and serve under the yoke of brutal management which constantly breaks promises to increase wages and clean things up. In the course of the novel, we wade through the 1918 flu epidemic, the tensions of WWI, the birth of FBI anti-terrorism (Meet the young and zealous John Hoover), the rising influence of the NAACP, and the birth of modern big league baseball (Babe Ruth is a recurring character.) This may sound like a kitchen sink potpourri, but Lehane manages it all deftly.
Lehane’s characters–flawed, often flailing, try to keep themselves on track toward some version of happiness and virtue even though circumstances conspire send them another way. It’s a struggle we all have, though most of us don’t have to suffer so extremely. But we all have it, and The Given Day yanks you in and keeps tugging at you all the way through. It’s one of those books I’m sorry I finished. I’d like to still be reading it. Why this book hasn’t appeared on ever “best of” list may be one of the literary crimes of the year. But i on Writer working. What more could Dennis ask?
Professor David Zimmer loses wife and two sons in an airplane crash. Moreover, he’s the one who talked them into taking the particular flight responsible. Heavy with grief and guilt, he plunges into liquored-up isolation, eased somewhat by a sudden influx of cash from life insurance and a couple of other sources. He stumbles on a short film starring an obscure silent film actor who disappeared at the height of his career. The man’s films make him laugh for the first time since the tragedy. Being a professor, he starts his research and, predictably, his recovery.
The predictability ends there. Illusions is a fairly quick read, but it leaves echoes. I keep remembering scenes, lines, ideas. Wondering about I’m not exactly sure what, but it has to do with creation and art and destruction and the futility of aspirations of immortality. Or of destroying those aspirations. It’s a work that lives with you and a work that’s nice to live with. Try it.
In Northern California in the 70’s a cobbled-together family consisting of a father, his daughter, whose mother died in childbirth, a foundling girl whose mother also died in childbirth on the same day as the daughter, and an orphaned boy boy from a nearby farm. The family creates a viable, if rather isolated and odd, existence in the hills outside Petaluma. Then, Anna at 16 and Cooper (Coop) at 20 begin their affair. Dad catches them. There’s graphic and ugly violence, and thus begins the “Divisadero” that is the true focus of Michale Ondaatje’s Divisadero.
Years later, we find Claire (the “adopted” daughter) in and around Petaluma/San Francisco, Coop in Vegas as a card sharp, and Anna in France working on a biography of an obscure writer. Except the facts behind those facts are deeper. Anna is living and working in the very house of the writer she’s studying and having an affair with a man who lives nearby and, when he was a boy, knew the writer. Coop is a gambler who’s able to walk away from a card game. Claire works for a public defender, an investigator analogous to, but not at all identical to Anna’s wandering through the past lives of her writer. She’s in some ways a caretaker for both her boss, prone to DUI, and her father, with whom she spends weekends.
But plot summaries are inadequate here. Even the word “inadequate” is inadequate. Divisadero’s world is one of metaphor and implication. There are intertwined metaphors of maps and lives and plenteous confusion between reality, illusion, past, and present. In one reading, I could not quite tie the two worlds together to my satisfaction. It was as if I were reading not just about parallel lives on the same planet, but lives in some kind of parallel universe. But that’s on me. Not smart enough. And mostly I didn’t mind. As one reviewer put it, reading Ondaatje’s prose is like listening to music. It’s an experience that often needs no reference point outside itself to convey great satisfaction and meaning. Ondaatje’s writing leaves me in nearly prayerful awe.
Junot Diaz. For once, I’ve encountered an author’s wonder roughly at the same time as everyone else, even the Pulitzer folks, who gave The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao this year’s nod for fiction.
There are a multitude of reasons to praise (as the book jackets say) Oscar, but the main element for me is voice. At the risk of sounding like one of the apostles of MFA voice/character-driven tome, I think the wave that carries all the extraordinary events, history, insight, terror, and wonder of this book is the authentic, overwhelming voice of the narrator. I could love Oscar for that alone, but I don’t love it for any reason alone. I love it for its rich totality of literary experience. It’s a package of inspirational excellence.
Richard Price has become the sine qua non of what TV promos like to call “gritty police drama.” His work on the prize-winning cable show The Wire vaulted him into national mass media recognition to go along with his literary accomplishments.
Lush Life introduces us to Detective Matty Clark, who, of course, has a murder to solve. Working out of a precinct on the lower East Side of Manhattan, Clark and his colleagues have to sift through a complex mix of thugs, project victims, upper class slummers, and recent gentry immigrants into the historic neighborhood. There’s also the history of the place to consider–a conglomeration of immigrant tenements cum artist lofts or modern project slums. Since the murder is of a young white man, drunk, shot in a robbery attempt in full view of two also-inebriated companions, the investigation necessarily traces its way through the full wilderness of the area.
The story lines fan out as the investigation expands farther and farther into the environment of the complex neighborhoods surrounding the crime scene as well as into the complex psychologies of those on both sides of the law Price seems to suggest that even if you can hide from the police, you can’t hide from yourself. Or–more properly complex–even if you can hide from yourself the fact that you’re trying to hide from yourself, and even if you think you’ve hidden yourself from yourself, there are plenty of people who have had you figured out all along. Fine work, Mr. Price.
The Plague of Doves opens with one of those unforgettable passages you run into now and again:
The gun jammed on the last shot and the baby stood holding the crib rail, eyes wild, bawling. That’s the first sentence. A couple of hundred more juicy words finish the scene, and the novel is set up with superb clarity and excitement.
The rest of the book is centered on that opening scene, but you don’t always know it. Sometimes you might even think Erdrich has forgotten it entirely as she beautifully describes a world of the past being drowned in pigeon (dove) shit, or that she uses it merely as a way of focusing on the oppression and injustice of the three innocent Indians hung for the crime. Thus we embark on a tale where the age-old Erdrich-old conflicts between Christianity and Indian spirituality are worked out in yet again other intricate and baffling ways.
And after all these years and all these books, there is something new as well. A subtlety of design that holds back on delivering the sense of corrupted wholeness, interconnectedness, that pervades Erdrich’s world view, holds that delivery back until almost the very last line. Or, come to think of it, holds it back even beyond that. For what happened to Marne, with her kids and her snakes and her unique cosmology? And did Corwin and Evelina ever make it to Paris? Keep writing, Louise, I want to meet up with those folks again.
Sometime in the eighteenth century, the Xhosa people of South Africa followed the advice of an early-day intelligence report–an oracle–and began destroying their cattle in the belief that the slaughter would help them avoid European domination. The killing of their number one means of sustenance proved even more self-destructive than our own flocking to follow pied pipers Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Bush. At least so far.
Richard Wideman’s The Cattle Killing uses this historical event as a metaphor for the centuries of destruction and self-destruction of culture and identity that have characterized the collision of blacks and whites unto our own times.
This is one major writer who deserves more recognition than he’s received and who should not be pigeonholed as a black author. Based on The Cattle Killing, I don’t think there’s a better writer in the country today.
The Gathering is a suicide story, and the central event has occurred when the book begins. The rest of the novel jumps back and forth in time and space as well as back and forth in the mind and heart of the narrator, Veronica.
Since the setting is in Dublin and is the work of a superb Irish writer, comparisons to Joyce’s work are almost mandatory. Unless I’ve missed it, there doesn’t seem to be the kind of symbolism that JJ employed, but the language and the wonderful weave of characters, relationships, and traditions is as complex and wonderful as Dubliners. Enright’s got the Booker prize, and she deserves it, and I’m off to read more of her stuff.
Arthur Koestler was one of a group of extraordinary Hungarian Jews who escaped communists and Nazi’s and changed the western world in a number of fields during their exile. Darkness at Noon ranks among the elite of anti-commist/anti-soviet novels such as 1984 and Animal Farm. And it certainly deserves a place in the list of top political/revolutionary works of fiction of all time, I’d like to think in the end we have here an example of how literature—not just propaganda, but true literature, for there is fine writing here—can be a force for social good as well as forceful good art.
The focus of Lost City Radio is personal, but the scope covers a great deal of history and geography. I believe you’ll end up grieving, as I did, not only for the book’s characters, but for the millions who are trapped in civil wars that split families and relationships the way a machete splits coconuts–or skulls. the situation that Alarcon describes. A significant piece of writing and of history from the same guy whose War by Candlelight collection of short stories I reviewed with such admiration last year. I look forward to more from the young guy.
Any writer who steps into the field of American war novels is treading ground with some literary giants. With Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson proves he belongs in the crowd. I can’t help comparing Johnson’s characters and wit to Catch-22, aspects of the book’s setting and action to Heart of Darkness, (not a war novel, but since Coppola appropriated it for his Apocalypse Now film, it’s become part of the scene.), and his sardonic grimness to O’Brien’s. Johnson’s Vietnam is as absurd a place as Heller’s WWII, but it’s a lot more brutal and bloody. Some of his characters talk a lot about The Quiet American and The Ugly American as they try to figure out where they belong in the culture and military clashes that characterize the second half of the twentieth century, but they never do make real sense of anything despite some valiant efforts. This is a complex book, one that would reward many readings. It’s also a moving book that grabs you by the lapels and pulls you through the story as fast as you can go.
I resisted reading That is No Country For Old Men because the reviews were tepid, because McCarthy is probably my favorite living American writer, and I didn’t want to be disappointed. I did go to the movie because I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed in that. My Hollywood expectations are too low. As it turned out, the film tore me up, and the more I talked about it with people the better I liked it. A copy of the book dropped into my life, and, by then insulated from disenchantment, I dived in.
The title is from Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium,” one of my favorite poems, and though “Byzantium” is not bathed in blood the way No Country is, the protagonists of both are searching for meaning beyond the demands and frailties of transient flesh. Sheriff Bell’s ruminations culminating with the absolutely spellbinding closing words of the book (and movie) that lift No Country above the level of pulp fiction bloodletting.
I’m embarrassed to attempt a “review” of a work as well-established as this one and one about which my expertise is even more lacking than about most literature. Therefore, I will simply say that in my quest to become immersed in poetry to a greater degree than I have been in recent years (decades?) immersed to an extent I was in younger days, I find Rilke modern, classic, inspirational. “Beauty’s nothing but the start of terror we can hardly bear” is by itself a line worth a whole year’s reading. Next year, though, there’ll be more.
Danny Barth and I don’t share any DNA, but he’s a cousin of mine, or of my wife’s or of my wife’s ex-husband, so he’s definitely family however you want to argue it. And he’s quite a writer on top of it all. If you want some proof, check out Fast Women Beautiful: Zen Beat Baseball Poems.
There’s whimsy and vernacular, more than a little semi-Buddhistic philosophy, and sometimes a rhyme or two, but it’s all engaging and pulls you into an experience or a moment with clarity of image and emotion. Take the title piece:
Fast women beautiful horses
banjos bluegrass bourbon
it’s a region it’s a religion it’s a
way of life and on the first
Saturday in May it all comes
together for two heart-pounding
minutes at Churchill Downs racetrack
in Louisville someday you
gotta go there sometime you
gotta see it by god it’s wonderful
it’s amazing there’s nothing else
like it it’s the Kentucky Derby.
I can guarantee you’ll find your favorites in this readable volume. as well. Check into Amazon and pick up a copy. It will do you, Dan, and the faltering economy a lot of good. Guaranteed.
The title of Grace (Eventually), Thoughts on Faith sounds a little like a philosophical/theological treatise. In truth, there is a healthy dose of both philosophy and theology, but none of it is abstract or academic. It’s all wrapped in anecdotal packages that range in seriousness from a walk with a wayward dog to pondering the meaning of a parent’s death. You get stories of Lamott’s struggle to behave like a Christian without exactly believing in a lot of what Christianity teaches. Tales of her attempts to corral her adolescent son without destroying their relationship. Accounts of what it takes to nurse a friend through cancer without succumbing to the despair and depression to which she is prone and which she tells of with the sideways humor that both masks and marks the pain: “. . . Ty fell . . . in love with another woman, who had so many unfair advantages over me. For instance, she was not a falling down drunk.”
In the end, I guess, the grace Lamott describes is one gained both from good works and from a hope (not assurance) that goodness will triumph, even over the likes of George W. Bush, who comes in for special mention several times. This is a deep work drawn from the trivial of the everyday. It’s a fine book and a good place to meet Anne. And yourself.
Nathaniel Philbrick gets a WriterWorking prize for the best epigram ever to frame a book for this quote from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII: “I have ventured this many summers in a sea of glory but far beyond my depth.” Sea of Glory is the story of Charles Wilkes and the voyage of the great American Exploring Expedition of 1838-42. It was America’s first great effort to stake a place in the annals of world science and exploration. It gave this country a share in the discovery of Antarctica as a continent. It led to the founding of the Smithsonian. It should have been as famous and legendary as Lewis and Clark’s trek over mountain and plain. Yet, few of us have ever heard of it. Why? Sea of Glory provides fascinating answers not only about this voyage but about the importance of image and personality in public life. (Hint: It isn’t all superficial.)
Dwight Eisenhower seems to have gotten insufficient credit for much of what he accomplished, either in war or peace. Especially from me. Korda changed my mind, and his book is an important read for those of us interested in how we got into our current set of international messes. Maybe if he’d been more flamboyant, made more out of the principles he followed to accomplish all this, he might have had more of an effect on the future. But who knows?
His swan song, of course, was a warning against the military-industrial complex–a phrase he created and an establishment he helped build–and we should have listened. Apparently we can’t.
This one is infinitely more readable than Montefiore’s earlier The Court of the Red Tsar, though it still doesn’t measure up to the lively novelistic quality that Henri Troyat achieves in his story of Catherine the Great, let alone of David McCullough. The difference here is that Montefiore tells a story as much as he presents his catalogue of facts, figures, and biographical sketches. I even caught myself rooting for the Bolsheviks over the Menscheviks during the short time in 1917 when the issue was in doubt.
Most important, I now think I know a bit about Stalin the inner man, how he got to be such a brute, and what, aside from position and savagery, gave him his power over others. Nature loves a vacuum and doesn’t seem to care how it gets filled. In this case, she filled the empty power space left by the Romanovs with a poisonous substance that killed 20-25 million people over the course of thirty-seven years. Quite a guy.
Testimonios is a book of interest to a pretty limited audience, of which yours truly is one of the rarified members. Not only is it Mission California history, but it is history of that period through the eyes of a number of women who were not so much selected as grudgingly chosen for interviews by men who were really waiting to interview other men. The noted historian H.H. Bancroft started everything in the mind 1870’s by sending out his minions to gather papers and narratives for his work on the history of California. They dispersed far and wide looking for material and found plenty. Only thing was, they sometimes had to wait for the gentleman they’d come to interview. Sometimes the guy didn’t show at all, this being an era when it was pretty hard to phone ahead. Once in a while, then, they had to take the next best thing, which was the wife, mother, or female friend. These accounts have been pretty neglected because, of course, women weren’t the generals or governors, so what did they know or what could they have to do with what was really happening? As it turns out, quite a lot. They confronted politicians, hid fugitive revolutionaries in their homes, clandestinely brought food and supplies to the front lines, and manipulated relationships through marriage and courting.
The style is not as captivating as one might wish. I doubt many readers would make it all the way through, and no one would think the worse of them, but I made it. And enjoyed it. Go figure.
If you want a primer on gold rush California, you want this book. I’ve never read a clearer, more exciting account of the people and events surrounding the founding of CA than El Dorado. Bayard Taylor’s prose is sharp and concise, especially for a Victorian. See, for example, his account of his ship into San Francisco Bay in August of 1849 after a rigorous journey from New York, down the Atlantic coast, and across the Panamanian Isthmus, and up the Pacific coast:
We glide on with the tide, past the U.S. ship Ohio and opposite the main landing, outside the forest of masts. A dozen boats are creeping out to us over the water; the signal is given–the anchor drops–our voyage is over.
Bayaard is a remarkable observer, able to give equally lucid accounts of street life in San Francisco, the deliberations of the California Constitutional Convention, and the natural life of Monterey flora and fauna. I read wistfully of the abundance of wildlife. He pries abalone from shoreside rocks for an impromptu dinner. Grizzly bears still wandered the land from sea to mountains. Salmon choked the streams in the fall.
Most remarkable, I suppose, is his description of the enormous diversity of cultures, languages, and dress that proliferated throughout the state. A remarkably modern man for one who died in 1878. And a remarkably modern book for one written in 1850. Readable, informative, and entertaining history.
Knowing nothing more than common lore, I imagined Marco Polo as something like a Medieval travel writer/Scheherazade, globe trotting across Asia and spinning tales of the exotic East for a European audience hungry for novelty. I knew he’d brought back artifacts and curiosities—spices, gunpowder?, silk. I knew he was Venetian. I knew little–all right, nothing–else.
Bergreen opens his book at a point where Marco, in his forties early in the fourteenth century, is sailing a warship in a Venetian attack on the Genoese fleet. He is captured and tossed in prison. He lives in comparative luxury for a prisoner, and it is here that he is able to consolidate his notes and dictate what would become the opus of his travels to a contemporary professional author. Without this jail time, we would likely have only fragments of the chronicles that have become known as The Travels.
My only reservation about From Venice to Xanadu is that Bergreen spends too much time filling in gaps, correcting inaccuracies, and speculating about whether Marco’s version of events is fact or fiction, that I never got the sense of the inner life of Marco Polo. Something I expect from a biography. Whatever expectations of mine Bergreen failed to fulfill, he more than made up for with the full story of a remarkable time and man whose contribution to western civilization is little known and even less appreciated.