Monday, December 25, 2017

My Favorite Books of the Past Year

I’ve decided to depart from my usual routine of reviewing a single book and instead talk about my favorite books over the past year. I make almost no attempt in my reading to stay current with what is being published. Thus, in 2016, I discovered Kent Haruf who had died just before I began reading him. I quickly read up everything he had written. My discoveries this year were Mary Lawson and William Boyd (though Boyd has been writing for decades and I had not read him at all until a friend from Austrailia recommended him to me. 

Mary Lawson
I will begin my list with all three of Mary Lawson’s wonderful books: Crow Lake, Over the Bridge,  and Road Ends. The reader who loaned me Crow Lake is still a bit miffed at me, because I loaned it out before getting around to returning it, and then forgot to whom I had loaned it. Lawson is a quiet writer, who makes manifest the extraordinary in ordinary lives. One reviewer gets directly to the heart of the matter. “Like her fellow Canadians Alice Munro and the late Carol Shields, Lawson is a master of the quiet moment made significant.” Just so and she belongs in that select company of Munro and Shields. Like Kent Haruf, she writes about a single small town and her characters overlap from one book to the next. I suggest you begin with Crow Lake and read all of her novels, though one can start with any one of them.

Eowyn IveyNext I will mention again a book I reviewed a short time ago, and one that charmed me so that I have already given away or loaned a half dozen copies, The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey. Based on a Russian fairy-tale, this is a book you will want to share with or read to your children. I should mention however that the content is complex and sometimes troubling. I was reminded of this when one of my reader friends read it to her six-year-old, and while she is glad she did, and the young boy loved the book, it did provoke very serious discussions about death, our relationship with the animal kingdom and the nature of human love. I rarely read fantasy fiction, but this is a book I am so glad I happened on to.

Next, let me talk briefly about William Boyd whose imagination continues to astound me. I just yesterday finished the last of his books that I had not already read, Armadillo, and like The Blue Afternoon, The New Confessions, Brazzaville Beach and others, I was swept into the complicated  life of his main character. Many of his novels are either mysteries or war stories, and each is carefully researched, and yet one never knows what to expect when moving from one novel to the next. I would suggest starting with Any Human Heart since I believe it is the most autobiographical of his many novels written over the past two or three decades. Again, one can start anywhere in his twenty some novels.

Although I am not attempting to rank these in any particular order, the next on my list is Amor Towel’s novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, a thoroughly researched book about the early days in Russia after the revolution. I would also recommend Towel’s The Rules of Civility, about as different from Gentleman in Moscow as could be. Incidentally, this latter book has a woman as its main narrator, and several of my reader friends (including myself) thought as we were reading that certainly the author must be a woman.

Next on my list is yet another male author which surprises me some, since I have been reading and reviewing mostly women writers for the last ten or twenty years. The book is Brooklyn, and the author is Colm Toibin. This is the story of an Irish girl who comes to this country with little money and very little training. It is in many ways a simple story of a very courageous young woman. You may already know Toibin as the the author of The Master, a book based on the life of Henry James. 

jennifer egan
Next on my list, and perhaps the best book of 2017, is Manhattan Beach, by the superb author Jennifer Egan (author of A Visit From the Goon Squad). This is an historical novel that focuses on the role women played in shipyards and factories during World War II. It shows again that Egan is in the very front ranks of living authors.

Although I don’t read (or review) many mysteries or thrillers, I was very impressed with Tara French’s The Trespasser. This is again about thee Murder Squad in Dublin, and Detective Antoinette Conway is as tough as they come. While it is a serious mystery, it is also often very funny, and describes well the difficulties of being a woman cop surrounded by men who want to see women fail. 

Just two more, and I will stop for now, although I have read so many excellent books in the last year. Alice McDermott published another fine novel (all of her work is extraordinary); this last one is titled The Ninth Hour and I reviewed it just last month. I see her as an extremely perceptive feminist author, and enjoy reading of her tempestuous relationship with Catholicism.

Finally, if you have not read Alice Munro, whom I consider the finest fiction writer alive today, I would recommend to you a new collection of stories she, herself, put together selected from her many previously published short-story collections. Its title is Lying Under the Apple Tree, and although it contains no new stories, it was a pleasure to revisit some of her tales and especially ones that she selected, and would serve as a fine introduction to her work. 

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