Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Books of the Year, Part 1 - Fiction

Not yet a Kindle convert
I’m usually about three years behind current releases, but due to a more conscious effort to read The New York Times Book Review (rather than putting it in a pile to be ‘read later’ - another phrase for ‘recycling’), and a couple of nice presents, I somehow managed to read a lot of novels this year that actually were published in 2010. Before this thrilling news completely overwhelms you, let me get on with recommending them, in approximate order, and adding a sample quote from each book that may lure you to further exploration:

Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez (Riverhead Books)

I like post-apocalyptic books, if they’re not too apocalyptic. This book takes place in a tiny southern Indiana town after a flu pandemic has wiped out millions worldwide, and follows Cole Vining, a 13-year-old orphan of liberal, urban parents, in his new life with ex-alcoholic, self-appointed Pastor Wyatt and his kind but ill-educated wife. Despite all the anguish of death, separation and relocation, the likeable but complex kid still has the hots for an unattainable 16 year old, and that keeps him as mentally busy as multiple other conundrums of faith and fate. Beautifully written.

Sample quote: It was now common practice to ask if any children in the congregation had received word [of the coming Rapture] to share with their fellow worshippers. Pastor Wyatt had started doing this at every service, but so far (in spite of some whispering and sharp elbowing here and there) no child had stepped forward. Each time, the disappointment in the air seemed to grow a little thicker. Then Pastor Wyatt would chide his flock for a lack of faith and for the sin of impatience, quoting from Lamentations, “The Lord is good to those who wait for him,” and from the book of James, “Be patient, then, my brothers and sister, until the coming of the Lord.”
    And, according to Clem, “If they hadn’t been so darned impatient, Adam and Eve would still be in Paradise.”

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman (The Dial Press)

Having once worked in a foreign news bureau of variably dysfunctional English-language reporters and editors, I can definitely relate to Rachman’s clutch of weirdoes working in a dying, Rome-based English language newspaper. Sharp and entertaining from back to front.

Sample quote: When she realises that Nigel is having an affair, her first sentiment is satisfaction that she figured it out. Her second is that, despite all the palaver about betrayal, it doesn’t feel so terrible. This is pleasing – it demonstrates a certain sophistication. She wonders if his fling might serve her. In principle, she could leave him without compunction now, though she doesn’t wish to. It also frees her from guilt about any infidelities she might wish to engage in. All in all, his affair might prove useful.

The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg (Picador)

Four collections of stories published in a single volume at just under 1,000 pages (I’m still not finished – but stretching it out is a pleasure), most of these works are long and involved enough with their characters to be classified as mini-novellas. Odious, latter-day colonialists and travellers in central America are particularly well drawn, and as a whole the human condition is not, if this work is to be believed, much to look at right now. But that’s what good literature is supposed to show, isn’t it?

Sample quote: Again, Rosie’s memory offers up things Rosie didn’t even notice at the time: the sadness of herself, the sadness of all the others – the secretaries and clerks, working away like mice in their little cubicles, at their endless miniature tasks, their careful clothes and clean hands. Good morning, good morning, how was your weekend? And Mr. Gage and Mr. Peralta in their horrible suits and ties, appearing at the doorways of their offices with sheaves of paper, the light from their windows flashing into the fluorescent over Rosie’s desk.
    How polite everyone was, and how cheery! Their cheerfulness lay like boulders over geysers of misery. Have a nice night. See you tomorrow. By five in the evening you were abrim with filth.

One Day by David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton)

Every now and then a book is good enough that you write a day’s work off just to sit down and read it. I did that with One Day for the first time since I read Cormac McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses during a one-day strike at the BBC in 1993. He’s not going to win the Nobel, but he has that enviable ability, like Nick Hornby (but not the execrable Tony Parsons), to make you keep going, and want to keep going. Spot-on, and extremely funny, fictional reflection of Britain, 1985-2005.

Sample quote: The growing antagonism between them [Dexter Mayhew and his wife] was exacerbated by the fact that, as the new century began, he found himself without a job, or even the prospect of a job. The broadcast slot for Sport Xtreme had crept inexorably towards dawn, until it became clear that no-one, not even BMX riders, could stay up that late on a weeknight, no matter how rad, sweet or old skool the moves. The series limped to an end, and Paternity Leave shaded into the less fashionable state of unemployment.

Every Last One by Anna Quindlen (Random House)

A steady, suburban mother of three’s life is shattered half way through this book by a violent incident so shocking it leaves you as numb as the narrator, grasping for something to hold on to for the rest of the novel. The writer handles the tragedy superbly, like she’s turning a barge on a duck pond without disturbing a single lily.

Sample quote: “How was your day?” I ask.
    “Fine,” Glen says. “Did you have someone take a look at the roof?”
    “They’re coming tomorrow,” I say. “Do you want some wine before dinner?”
    “I think I’ll have a beer,” he replies.
    What if I were to tell him that that night, driving home late from weeding a garden, heading into a line of darkening pink and mauve where the sun had settled below the ridgeline, I had sobbed as though broken hearted. “Why?” he would have said, and what would I tell him? Could I sit opposite this open-faced man, with his pink cheeks and his warm brown eyes (not clinically significant), and say, “Loneliness?” Worse still, what if he said he had done the same, felt the same? Then where would we all be?
    “There’s a six-pack in the fridge,” I say, taking dill from the crisper drawer.

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux)

You should read at least one novel set in Manhattan every year, and it should be written by a neurotic, slightly lost mid-life male who can no longer connect to his wife and daughter, but starts nursing sexual fantasies about his much younger brother-in-law (Mizzy – short for ‘Mistake’, as he arrived somewhat late in his parents’ marriage), a directionless but charming and beautiful drug user who’s in town looking for a new career direction. With hilarious consequences! Not really. But there’s plenty of the requisite self-questioning that every good work of literature should have in skads.

Sample quote: Peter still doesn’t want to have sex with Mizzy, but there is something thrilling about downing a shot of vodka with another man who happens to be naked. There’s the covert brotherliness of it, a locker-room aspect, the low, masculine, eroticized love-hum that’s not so much about the flesh as it is about the commonality. You, Peter, as devoted as you are to your wife, as completely as you understand her very real worries on Mizzy’s behalf, also understand Mizzy’s desire to make his own way, to avoid that maelstrom of womanly ardour, that distinctly feminine sense that you will be healed, whether you want to be or not.

Bound by Antonya Nelson (Bloomsbury)

More a novel of ideas, compensating for the lack of much plot, about the reunification of two old school, friends – one living, one dead. Catherine hasn’t heard from the formerly delinquent Misty for 20 years, but when Misty accidentally drives off the side of a cliff, Catherine – married to a risible old lothario who sleeps in a separate bedroom - is bequeathed custody of her teenage daughter, who needless to say is no studious, horse-loving Barbie-child. Good cast of loping, drifting side-characters. I’m not exactly sure why, but this novel feels like its about the vast scope and landscape of America, and how that’s something we can never quite get a grip on. Maybe because it never belonged to us in the first place.

Sample quote: Misty had had a personality unlike anyone else’s, peculiar and earned, her own. This bedroom, these recent professional photographs, had the feel of borrowed identity – that wasn’t an actual bridge they were standing on, it traversed only the floor of the photographer’s studio. The sky behind was made of paper. [Catherine had plowed] through Misty’s closet for any sign of a current life, some hidden message from the past one. But Misty either didn’t possess such a thing as a secret life, or knew better than to hide its evidence at home. She lived, after all, with that most persistent and gifted detecting snoop, a teenage girl.


nathan3e said...


What good taste you have. Loved By Nightfall, loved One Day, loved Bound. Especially By Nightfall, I can almost always hang with any book that has anything to do with art. Unless it is written by Danielle Ganek.

Stay-At-Home Indie-Pop said...

Nathan, there's a great novel by a Swiss writer, Martin Suter, set in the art world ('Der Letzte Weynfeldt') - it came out in 2008, and as some of his earlier stuff's translated into English, it should appear some time soon.

nathan3e said...

Thanks Ian. I'll look into it.