Believe it or not, I consider myself a very middlebrow reader and tend to genre reading. I'd read only two books on this list before tackling it: Ayn Rand's We the Living and Pat Conroy's The Prince of Tides. (And I'd read other works by Oates, Proulx and Updike.) I wasn't expecting to like a lot on this list. My impression of "literary fiction" was that they tended to be tedious, pretentious, depressing, a slog to read and with unappealing characters. I was pleasantly surprised with how many below I did love, and I graded on a curve; it was hard to pick the 4 that most stood out to give five stars and you can assume if a book earned four stars I found it a great read (and even some three star novels impressed).
Oh, one thing. I don't know if it's the Oprah Book Club effect, but about a third of the novels below involve rape, half of those of children. Good God.
Oh, and my neighborhood Barnes and Noble, my home away from home, will be closing January 1, 2011. When I lined up for that midnight copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows--that was there. It's the beginning of the apocalypse! *sobs*
= Outstanding! Strong characters and involving plot told with style. Worth buying and keeping on your book shelf and recommending to others--even give as a gift. I'd read other books by this author - these might make good introductions to the genre.
= Exceeds Expectations. Likable characters, interesting plot, readable style with aspects that make this book stand out within the genre - a good, fun read, or if parts are a slog, nevertheless worth it.
- Acceptable. Mostly enjoyable. I made it through the entire book and didn't consider it a waste of time or money, though it's not getting shelf space and I can't see ever rereading it nor does this make me want to rush to read more of the author. Worth a try if the subject appeals.
- Not terrible, but it didn't hold me and I stopped reading--or I finished it wanting to hurl the book against the wall. Someone else might find it more appealing.
= Dreadful - I don't get how this tripe got published or on a recommendation list. Or how even an academic could like this pretentious crap.
Alexie, Sherman, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven - The glimpse into another world, the world of the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington State, is a lot of what kept me reading this collection of linked short stories, but I wondered at times when Alexie was giving us a look behind the stereotypes or playing with them. Especially given the touches of magical realism, I found myself wishing at times this was straight memoir and not (as admitted in the introduction) autobiographically inspired fiction. This is a very bleak book--so much of it dealt with drunkenness and alcoholism and the self-destructive behavior it engenders, sprinkled with historical grievance and the experience of present-day bigotry and a terrible poverty told with a spare style and a cruelly self-directed gallows humor. I don't know if it's a book that I can say I enjoyed, or one where the individual stories impressed--I think often the titles were more impressive than the stories, which felt a bit thin and the repeated (and repetitive) notes of hopelessness ground me down. However, the book did make me think and once or twice broke my heart a little. A friend told me the film based on this, Smoke Signals, is much better than the book.
Atwood, Margaret, The Handmaid's Tale - Set in a near-future New England, this story thoroughly engaged me from the start and really zipped past, as well-paced as any thriller. Unlike most novels that could be described as such though, this is beautifully written with prose poetic in power and imagery. It's been described as a "feminist novel" and though that's accurate enough, it never felt preachy or didactic to me; I think that's because Atwood's world is so well-imagined, so detailed, I felt both well-grounded in its reality and fascinated by its working out. Offred makes for an intriguing narrator and protagonist as we see her both resisting and being subsumed by the society around her. This novel is a must-read of dystopian fiction worthy of being shelved with Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and Brave New World. If I had to pick one book from this post as destined to be a classic, it would be this one. This is only the second Atwood I've read--the first was Oryx and Crake, another thought-provoking dystopia with lovely prose, but not in my opinion as strong.
Boyle, T. Coraghessan, The Tortilla Curtain - The book follows two couples that live near each other in the outskirts of Los Angeles: one a rich white tofu-eating liberal American couple, Delaney and Kyra; the other two illegal immigrant Mexicans, Candido and America, squatting on public land. The Mexican couple's desperate circumstances are affectingly told, and the contrast and savage irony with Delaney's assumptions and circumstances often is priceless. There are flashes of brilliant insight throughout the book, when Boyle is able to hold out contemporary American attitudes to a bright satiric light that kept me reading. The book is well-paced, a page-turner, and I enjoyed Boyle's voice and style. I felt mixed about Boyle's characterization of the Mexican couple at times--felt there's something a bit too facile and caricatured about his characterizations that depended too much on a sprinkling of Spanish and bits of cultural trivia. But what ruined this book for me were the twists and turns of plot. It's too easy to simply roll your eyes at Boyle's book and dismiss it because of the ridiculous pile-on of disasters. I almost put the book down twice at certain events and the conclusion made me want to throw the book against the wall.
Byatt, A.S., Possession - I did ultimately love this book, but it took me over half its length to warm up to it. I enjoy literate love stories, the mixing of genres, literary allusions and pastiches, and this book provides all of the above. This is a literary mystery as well as a contemporary and a historical romance: two contemporary literary scholars, Roland Michell and Maud Baily, fall for each other as they uncover the romance between the two Victorian poets they study, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. Byatt's creations of stories and poems by her fictional poets, some lengthy, bored me, then I hit a wall about a third of the way through when I reached the chapter of about fifty pages of their correspondence in the style of the era. After reading a few letters, I skipped the rest of that chapter, and then started skipping the poems that began the chapters. The book is also studded with diary entries, portions of Mortimer Cropper's biography of Ash, and articles of literary criticism. It's all technically impressive, but often dragged down the narrative. Much of the first 300 pages of the book were a grind, but then after that it became for me more and more of a page-turner, and I stayed up late to read those last hundred pages. I liked how the tales of past and present intertwined, and I grew to love the characters, the way the many meanings of possession figure in the plot in thought-provoking ways, the lovely prose, and ultimately I got caught up in the interplay of ideas and how they fit into the romances. So if you find yourself wanting to give up (and it crossed my mind at one point), all I can say is I think the book's difficulties are worth pushing through, and if you need to skip that epistolary section or the poems to keep going, I don't think it hurts the narrative to do so. I found the concluding pages moving and the post-script was a lovely grace note. I could see coming back to this book for rereads someday and finding more each time.
Chabon, Michael, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay - The author is wonderful at conjuring up WWII era New York City. The novel also somehow in its characters and events gives me a new understanding of what went into the imagining of comic books from the feats of Houdini to the yearning to punch Hitler in the face. It made me care about the characters, particularly Joe--you feel his desperation trying to get his family--his Jewish family--out of Nazi Europe. As many takes on the Holocaust as I've seen, I can't recall a work that shows you this aspect of it--not of those trying to get out but those trying to get them in and those efforts lend a great deal of suspense and poignancy. Then there's the style: Reading I'm reminded of some virtuoso on the piano. The work is in done in omniscient voice--beautifully, sometimes sensuously written, insightful with flashes of humor, a wonderful imagination and the sort of story you're sorry to come to an end. I left it feeling this was a story for the ages--but it was something else I've rarely read in so-called "literary fiction"--great fun to read. Definitely will be reading more of this author's books.
Conroy, Pat, The Prince of Tides - Rereading this I was reminded why I had loved it so much: My wound is geography. How can you not read on after a line like that one? It's a fitting line, because the work does deal with two places as much as any human character: small town Colleton in lowcountry South Carolina and New York City--quintessential big city and its perfect foil. The work features snappy, witty dialogue, with humor both hiding and expressing a lot of pain. Tom Wingo, the first person narrator, tells his sister's psychiatrist, Susan Lowenstein, their family history--to help his sister, but to help himself too. Through a great deal of flashback, we learn of the wounds inflicted on all three Wingo children. The flashbacks don't ever feel static though, but suspenseful, because we're engaged in the mystery rooted in the past of what damaged all of them. The central event does seem implausible in several details though. The prose is often lyrical--the descriptions of lowcountry South Carolina read like prose poems. I've read several of Conroy's books, beginning with his memoir The Water Is Wide assigned me in high school and I found his mystery The Lords of Discipline riveting--set in a military college patterned after The Citadel, from which he graduated.
Cunningham, Michael, The Hours - I think the highest praise I can give this novel is that it was worth suffering through Mrs Dalloway to get the most out of it. The Hours, you see, could be described as a "derivative work" ie fan fiction. One thread is about Virginia Woolf, the author of Mrs Dalloway, another about a woman reading Mrs Dalloway and a third about a woman nicknamed Dalloway by a friend. It's this last thread where reading Woolf's novel first pays off since it's a riff on the characters and events of that novel only set in contemporary New York City, and translated beautifully and movingly. One of the pleasures for me in the book was recognizing the references. Eventually the three narrative threads connect up. I loved this book a lot more than the source. For one a central event in first novel has a lot more resonance in the second where it has a real effect on the other characters. The narrative of The Hours, although lyrical and interior, is far more coherent than Woolf's almost mad stream of consciousness narrative--and certainly, present-day New York City is far more accessible to me than 1923 London and the way of its upper classes. I also found the characters of The Hours much more sympathetic and easier to identify with than Woolf's characters. (That's not the distance of time or country--Austen, Forster, Shakespeare--Gilgamesh have characters far more accessible and sympathetic to me than Woolf's in Mrs Dalloway.) I felt the second novel illuminated and used the first well, while standing on its own with its themes of the terrors of middle age and taking a measure of one's life.
de Bernières, Louis, Captain Corelli's Mandolin - This story deals with the Italian invasion and occupation of Greece during World War II, and though the love story between Pelagia, a Greek woman, and Captain Corelli of the Italian army is important, I'd say the central character in this book is the Greek Island of Cephalonia itself where the story is set. I loved this novel but don't think it's for everyone. Despite expectations the book might lead you to, you're not going to get a conventional romantic resolution, and its a long book studded with chapters of letters, diary, interior monologue among the mostly omniscient third-person narrative. Some might find that tedious; I overall found the discursive quality part of the book's charm, though there were some parts enough of a slog to dock a star even though I really did love this novel. The story kept me reading because of its exuberance, its wonderfully quirky characters, its sense of humor, the often gorgeous, quotable prose, the way it transported me to another place and time--and yes, its romance.
DeLillo, Don, Underworld - Not only was this book a bestseller, you can find superlatives among the blurbs like "great American novel" and "thrilling page-turner." This book was runner-up in a 2006 New York Times survey of eminent authors and critics for best American novel of the last 25 years. All I can say is I felt about this novel the way I do about many a purported masterpiece hung in the Museum of Modern Art. Good God, why? I not only don't find this is a great book and a "page-turner," I think it's badly written. I wish I had the room on this post to give you samples, but if you go read the first two pages that should be enough. Here's one sentence with one of his unapt similes: The faces of the ticket sellers hung behind the windows like onions on strings. The novel is filled with run-on sentences of doom, forced metaphor, and nonsensical asides. DeLillo uses baseball and trash as extended metaphors in the book for American culture, and there's nothing subtle about how he pounds out his themes. In short, if you're looking for a gripping story with characters you care about and a narrative that sucks you in, you're looking in the wrong place. But if you're a fan of "post-modern literature" with disjointed narratives and turgid, abstruse prose that revels in showing us the tawdriness of American life, by all means, go pick up a copy.
Erdrich, Louise, Love Medicine - Like Alexie's book this is a linked set of short stories, mostly told in first person from multiple viewpoints, set in an Indian Reservation--in the case of this book a Chippewa Reservation in North Dakota. Both books often feel bleak, filled with tales of suicides, alcoholism, and grinding poverty. I wound up a lot more impressed with Erdrich--the tales, and her characters, felt much richer and packed a lot more of an emotional impact and in the end felt more than the sum of their parts. The prose is so gorgeous--often passages make you slow down to savor them and you feel this is one book you'll have to keep and return to read again. Her book did take me a while to get into. At first I found the first chapter, with its plethora of related characters, confusing. I eventually got to know the characters and how they all interrelate and for me the memorable, strong-willed characters kept the novel from being depressing, despite a lot of tragedy in this book. I was especially surprised to feel fond about Lulu in the end--believe me, for plenty of reasons, she's unlikely to strike most readers as sympathetic for much of the book. To round out the comparison, although I found Alexie interesting for his window into into life in the modern American Indian reservation, his book didn't leave me wanting to ever read more of him. That's not the case with Erdrich.
Esquival, Laura, Like Water for Chocolate - This novel is unique--literary fiction imbued with magical realism set in on a Mexican ranch near the border in the early 20th century. Tita is denied permission to marry her love Pedro because a family tradition demands as youngest daughter it is her fate and duty never to marry but instead care for her mother until she dies. The cruel Mama Elena then marries off her middle daughter, Rosauro, to Pedro. Tita expresses the yearning, desire, her anger and despair of her thwarted love through her food, with whimsical consequences. Each chapter begins with recipes exotic and everyday, and then with the description of how to prepare the food. Somehow the writer conveys the romance and love of food--from the sweet, nurturing tastes we associate with childhood to the bitter ones of happiness crushed under the heel of family authority and propriety. The language is simple--has the feel of a child's tale even if with very adult content. Along with the omniscient point of view it is part of what gives the story a fairy tale feel--an evil
Eugenides, Jeffrey, Middlesex - I loved this novel. I picked up this fat tome with some trepidation, hearing it was inspired by a memoir discovered and promoted by Foucault by and about a hermaphrodite. I pictured some post-modern turgid avant-garde mess--like Delillo's Underworld. Instead I found what was promised in Underworld's blurbs was fulfilled in Middlesex--a Great American Novel--and a page-turner. Strangely, in the tale of a hermaphrodite I didn't find anything remotely freakish, but humanely universal, as if by having this protagonist of an ambiguous gender, Eugenides was able to embrace and bridge both (all?) genders. It's an ambitious work, taking in about 80 years from his Greek immigrant grandparents roots in Turkey, to his parents and childhood in Detroit, to his coming of age on the road from New York City to San Francisco and his current life at a diplomatic posting in Germany. It takes in massacres in Turkey, Ellis Island, Prohibition with it's speakeasies and bootlegging, The Great Depression, World War II, the development of America's car culture, The Nation of Islam, Detroit race riots and Black/White relations, the sexual revolution, politics, religion--there doesn't seem anything missed, and yet nothing that feels rambling or contrived or caricatured. The voice is miraculous. Technically it's a first person narrative, but it breaks the bonds of that point of view into an expansive omniscience in telling its story of three generations. I ached for Callie--and Cal--both. I laughed with him. (There's a lot of humor in the novel.) I worried for him. I hoped for him. I was propelled through the 500 pages not wanting to skip one paragraph and ended it sorry it was over and wanting to read this again sometime--and Eugenides other novel.
Gibbons, Kay, Ellen Foster - The book recommended, Charms for the Easy Life, wasn't available in my neighborhood store so I tried Ellen Foster instead. Gibbons' style reminds me of Cormac McCarthy. For me, that's no compliment. There are no quotation marks around the dialogue, making it harder to keep track of who is speaking, and almost no commas as far as the eye can see. Gibbons, at least, could claim a rationale for what in McCarthy I can only see as an affectation. The first person narrator, Ellen Foster, is a child, poor and uneducated, so at least one could say the style fits her. That doesn't mean I found the novel a pleasure to read, and not just for style reasons (though it's my biggest issue) Although it's at least short--I'd estimate 50 thousand words. But it's fairly bleak, even if shot through with hope since right from the beginning Ellen intersperses the story of her happy new home with the story of her uber-dysfunctional biological family (her father isn't sure if his own daughter is 9 or 10, Ellen keeps the home, even pays bills and gets herself her own Christmas gift--and that's the small stuff). There is a dark humor threaded throughout and not a bit of self-pity, but the style kept me from ever connecting with the story.
Glass, Julia, Three Junes - This is more three related stories--a short novel flanked by two novellas--than an integrated novel. They're united by being set in three June months and one character appears in all three stories--Fenno Macleod a gay man and Scot ex-pat living in New York City. He's a supporting player in the bookend third-person stories and the first person narrator in the central section. The book misses being a favorite--maybe because I wished the three stories were closer entwined rather than feeling I was reading three separate stories. This isn't a plot-driven novel with all loose ends nicely tied. The three do have a kind of momentum and closure, growing lighter in feel as you go along. The writing was truly lovely and lyrical. The kind you savor, that pulls you into the story and has descriptions that makes you see the story unspooling like a film before your eyes. Which makes me recognize my own New York City and makes me feel as if I've visited Scotland and Greece.
Guterson, David, Snow Falling on Cedars - The novel has been compared to To Kill a Mockingbird and there are similarities in plot and theme--but I have to say I wouldn't compare the the two--Guterson's novel just isn't anywhere near as powerful as Harper Lee's classic novel. The novel is set in 1954 in Washington State and involves the murder trial of Kabuo Miyamoto and the lingering issues of the forced removal and internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, interweaving the present of the trial with the past of those involved. I was thrown a bit by the first courtroom scene. Reading it I wanted to yell, "Objection, leading the witness!" (Yes, that sort of thing bothers me--harder to suspend your disbelief when you know the author right at the start has things wrong.) The story didn't always flow and was slow-paced, almost glacial at points, and devoid of a sense of humor; the sex scenes felt rather romance novel (bad romance novel), and if I had to hear about the Sheriff's Juicy Fruit gum one more time I thought I'd scream. Kabuo, his wife Hatsue and the man who loved her as a boy, Ismael, are all sympathetic characters though, and the story of the Japanese American experience in those times did hold my interest. (The scenes in the internment camp were among the most vivid and riveting, I suspect because I'm unfamiliar with the subject rather than Guterson's prose.)
Haddon, Mark, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - This reminded me strongly of Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. That story about a mentally retarded man is a first-person narrative that puts you into an utterly alien mindscape. In this novel it's an autistic English teen: My name is Christopher John Francis Boone. I know all the countries of the world and their capital cities and every prime number up to 7,057. Also like Keyes book, this novel was filled with the ironies of reading tragedy between the lines to which the narrator is oblivious. Haddon's book uses illustrations, structure, syntax, and other nuances of word-choice to put us into the protagonist's head and heart. The workings of Christopher's mind more than plot is what made this a fascinating read for me. A quick, page-turning read at that and like no other novel I've read, touching and filled with dark humor.
Haruf, Kent, Plainsong - Hated this sooo much and didn't get far in. The book rotates between Guthrie, a teacher; his two young sons Ike and Bobby; a pregnant teen Victoria and two elderly bachelor brothers, the McPherons, in small town Holt, Colorado. The author writes the dialogue without quotation marks. Now, believe it or not, I love it when authors play with style and interweaving narratives. I loved Chaon's Await Your Reply with seeming unconnected narrative strands that eventually come together. I loved how Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time used its style to tell its story--it's quirky structure and syntax had a purpose. I felt the same about McInerney Bright Lights, Big City, a novel told entirely in second person. I have a friend who is a writer and loves that point of view because she says it is a great way to convey a damaged character. In this case, I couldn't see any purpose to omitting quotation marks except raising a flag that says "See, I'm a genius! See how iconoclastic I am!" Eccentric styles like this one can be bearable in a short poem or story but a novel of this length? One so otherwise dull and plodding? What I saw was something that was a pain to read without enough payoff--so I stopped about a third way through.
Hoffman, Alice, Practical Magic - I liked this from the start and by the end loved it. The perfect feel good book if you're feeling blue and in that regard the lightest in tone of any book on this post. The novel creates its own unique world that could be described as urban fantasy or magical realism. The story concerns the Owens family. At the novel's start, two little Owens girls, Sally and her sister Gillian, are living with their aunts. The entire town shuns the girls since Owens women have been believed to be witches in the Massachusetts town for generations. Both grow up and breakaway from the town, Sally settling with her own two girls, Antonia and Kylie, in Long Island. The style is marvelous--omniscient point of view done with a light, sure touch with passages of beauty and perfectly paced. I can't recall any part of this book that ever dragged and Hoffman has the gift of making you fall in love with her characters--even ones that don't seem at all appealing at first. I could criticize it for it's bolt out of the blue romances--but I don't have the heart to. It fits somehow with the way the book is permeated with magic, and the book left me smiling at the world.
Hosseini, Khaled, The Kite Runner - This story is told by Amir, who at the start is a young boy coming of age in an Afghanistan falling apart, and primarily dealing with his friendship with Hassan, the "kite runner" of the tale. Taking us from the 1970s to March of 2002, this riveted me from the first page. The style is elegant and clean, with an eye and ear for the details to bring an unfamiliar culture to life. Be warned. There are some very raw scenes in this book. The portrait of the Taliban is harrowing. One scene shows a Shar'ia execution--done at a stadium during half-time at a soccer game. It reminded me of a scene out of Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, all the more surreal for being based on fact. And that isn't even the most disturbing scene in the book. Despite all that, I think the journey is worth it--a story about fathers and sons, Afghanistan and America, and above all redemption. This book brought me close to tears, and at the end I found this tale not just moving but hopeful.
Jin, Ha, Waiting - The writing seems very spare--and the characters often exasperated me with their varieties of passivity: Lin in not insisting on divorce or letting Manna go; his wife Shuyu in her submissiveness and passive-aggressive refusal to divorce; Manna in her--waiting. That's very much the plot and theme for two-thirds of the book--waiting. And the last third... well. That would be a spoiler, but not much, because it would imply much happens. Also, the cover has a blurb from The New Yorker calling this a "bracingly tough-minded love story." I think that's misleading. The story does involve the emotion of love. But it's not a romance or romantic. However, I did find so many details of the China of the Cultural Revolution and its totalitarian absurdities and squashing of happiness fascinating. One detail in particular stuck with me. When a girl, Manna had been called "an angel" by an elderly Christian. She didn't know what that was having grown up in Communist China--and the very word had been expunged from the dictionaries. It's the picture of life in that time and place that kept me reading and made it worth reading even though I found the plot thin, the characters unappealing, and the prose dull.
McCarthy, Cormac, All the Pretty Horses - Set in the 1949, the novel revolves around 16-year old Texan John Grady Cole. McCarthy is the kind of author that dumps the grammar book into the trash: No quotation marks. Almost no apostrophes. No commas as far as eyes can see. (Now, what did the comma ever do to the man? Did he run afoul of fanfic moderated archives?) The word "and" connecting clauses with the monotony of a metronome. Talking heads dialogue. Frequent made-up compound words like "blanketlined," "ardenthearted" and "spragglelegged." Unapt metaphors. And if I didn't know Spanish somewhat, I no doubt would have found myself irritated by all the untranslated conversations in that language. I couldn't see character or plot with all the Style in my way. I forced myself to read the first section of about 100 pages only because I swore I'd do that with this list to give the books a fair chance. I've seen the film based on one of his other books btw, No Country For Old Men, and it counts as one of the darkest and most depressing films I've ever seen. Not a writer for me. (And yes, I know some on my f-list, even people I respect, think McCarthy's awesome. Don't try to convince me to read more. Too many good books I'm never going to have the time to read in my lifetime to waste hours on a style I utterly despise.)
McEwan, Ian, Atonement - I loved McEwan's prose style, and there are scenes in this book I know are going to haunt me. Part I, written in omniscient, takes place on one Summer day in 1935 and covers different perspectives, the most crucial being that of thirteen year old Briony who commits the "crime" against Robbie and her sister Cecilia that requires atonement. That part often dragged for me, but was terrific in conveying the angst of early adolescence. Part II covers Dunkirk from Robbie's perspective. Part Three is from Briony's perspective as a nurse in wartime London when she was eighteen. The scenes in those second two parts involving World War II were so evocative and immersive I can't regret reading this book. But then we get the coda set in 1999 and it left me sputtering. The thing is that ending in many ways is brilliant, and I can recognize that even through my hate for it. It said thought-provoking things about the act of writing and the role of the writer.
Oates, Joyce Carol, We Were the Mulvaneys - Oates is one of the few authors on this list I'd tried before: her novel Black Water as well as some of her short stories. Just never clicked with her. Oates still leaves me cold after this doorstopper soap opera set in Upstate New York. She overuses the exclamation point. She indulges too often in the post-modern habit of piling on lists rather than using the carefully chosen detail; so many details and description that made me want to skim or just struck me as wrong. (A cat is named "E.T."--in 1974 in terms of the story--although the film wasn't released until 1982; Patrick is said not to be a genius with an I.Q. of 151 but the genius range starts at 140. Lots of factual errors I picked up that stripped authorial authority.) The major problem, though, is that Oates' characters don't ever come alive for me, not even Judd the narrator. Her Mulvaneys seem a bit too precious at first. Each has their pet name(s). There's the father Micheal (Curly), the mother Corinne (Whistle), and their children: the eldest Michael, jr, a star jock, (Mule); the nerdy Patrick destined for the Ivy League (Pinch); the too-saintly cheerleader Marianne (Button); and the youngest, Judd (Ranger). Co-starring are a zoo of horses, dogs, cats, canaries etc. Marianne in particular irritated me. She seemed too good to be true and to have "victim" stamped on her forehead. This is how she's described at one point: "Button" Mulvaney was so sweet, so sincere, so pretty, so--what exactly?--glimmering-luminous--as if her soul shone radiant in her face you could smile at her, even laugh at her, but you couldn't not love her. Then it all falls apart for the family--hard, fast and the next two-thirds of the book is miserable. And I'm not sure, despite a precipitating tragedy, how it went from something so rosy to that--it's as if all the characters do a 180. The dark side and what motivated it seemed as unreal, yet as stereotyped, as the idyllic, good side.
Patchett, Ann, Bel Canto - I was positively mesmerized by this from the first page. The story concerns an international group of party-goers gathered in a unnamed fictional South American country to hear a star opera singer, Roxane Coss, singing in honor of Katsumi Hosokawa, head of a major Japanese corporation. They're taken hostage by a terrorist group who had hoped to kidnap the president of the country--who, as it happens, wasn't present because he couldn't miss his favorite soap opera. After releases early on, a core group of 40 hostages remain--Roxane the only woman--and the 18 terrorists. Besides the above, they include Gen Watanabe, a translator; Father Arguedas, a priest who refused to leave; and the Vice President, Ruben Iglesias. I quickly came to care about those characters and their fates--and even about some of the terrorists, especially the the two girl soldiers, Beatriz and Carmen, and two young boys--Ismael, who teaches himself chess and Cesar, who discovers a gift of singing. The book is written in omniscient but Patchett doesn't let you keep your distance, and somehow I can't imagine this written any other way. Yes, there's more than a bit of Stockholm Syndrome to this tale but there's more to it--a startlingly warm and romantic book considering its subject. It might help that I'm an opera fan, because the ability of music to bond people of disparate backgrounds and different languages is definitely a major theme. After reading this I had an itch to listen again to Dvořák and Puccini.
Proulx, Annie, The Shipping News - Proulx is the author of the short story "Brokeback Mountain" which was made into the film of the same name. I read that short story soon after seeing the movie and remember finding it moving. But Proulx might be one of those authors whose extreme styles are more effective (at least for me) at the shorter lengths. I love several short stories by James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway, for instance, but hate the novels by them I've tried. In the case of Proulx, her style quickly wore on me. I'm truly not a Grammar Nazi; fiction is not meant to be an essay. But she uses sentence fragments so frequently she doesn't flow, and boy she piles on the metaphors in her drawn-out descriptions. But the worst aspect is the protagonist: Quoyle. This is a paragraph of how he's described early on which should give you an idea of Proulx's characterization and style: A great damp loaf of a body. At six he weighed eighty pounds. At sixteen he was buried under a casement of flesh. Head shaped like a crenshaw, no neck, reddish hair ruched back. Features as bunched as kissed fingertips. Eyes the color of plastic. The monstrous chin, a freakish shelf jutting from the lower face. Note the choppy syntax. That could be effective done sparingly but the entire book is written like that. (And er...plastic has a color? Kissed fingertips are bunched? Really?) Quoyle's a lump of a character in every way who has never been able to hold a job long. His wife, Petal Bear, who thankfully is killed off early in the novel, sold their two young girls to a pornographer. (The girls are found before they can be harmed.) The pace is slooooow and about a third of the way I knew I'd had enough. I struggled to get that far. Painful. If you don't love Proulx's style--and I hated it--there's no reason to stay.
Rand, Ayn, We the Living - Rand's first novel is more approachable than her more famous Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead--much shorter, far less didactic and with characters that are more human and complex than the almost abstractions you see in her other novels. Maybe that's because, as Rand herself wrote in the introduction, We the Living "is as near an autobiography" as she'd ever write, that though the plot and characters are from her imagination, "the background is not." The setting is revolutionary Russia in the twenties, which is where Rand came of age before she immigrated to America. The novel revolves around a love triangle: Kira, the central protagonist, is in love with Leo, a counter-revolutionary, and in order to save his life gets involved with Andrei, an idealistic communist and a decent man. I find Andrei the most interesting, complex and sympathetic character in the novel--not what you might expect from Rand's reputation. But there may be no better way to show how the Communist Revolution betrayed what is human than through someone who sincerely fought for its ideals. This is definitely Rand's darkest work--but I think it's rewarding to read particularly as a bleak but vivid portrait of Soviet Russia from a keen observer that escaped it. I know many are hostile to Rand, but she is a favorite writer of mine who I find, to say the least, thought-provoking--and I'm not going to pretend otherwise just because it's not politically correct. However, this is her first novel, English wasn't her first language, and I think at times that shows. I'll also admit at times her rhetorical touches, especially her dialogue, might strike some as artificial. In recognition of that I'm rating it only four stars, but I do honestly love this novel, so mock at your peril!
Roth, Philip, The Plot Against America - Given eminent literary critic Harold Bloom names Roth along with Delillo, McCarthy and Pynchon as the four greatest American authors of his time, I expected to hate this book. Well, I did, but not for stylistic reasons--I liked Roth's style, which was eminently readable; I'd even describe the novel as a page-turner. The book's premise is fascinating: an alternate history where Charles Lindbergh defeated Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940 to become president of the United States and came to an accommodation with the Nazis. I also rather liked Roth's central narrative conceit. The book is written as if it were a memoir of an alternate Philip Roth looking back at his experiences from age seven to nine years old, covering the time from Lindbergh's nomination for president to October of 1942. There's a wealth of evocative (if sometimes twisted) historical detail used to ground Roth's vision and some really nice touches, such as having Lindbergh campaign by barnstorming America. That's enough to give it two stars. The problem is that the workings of Roth's plot, his characterizations of historic Republican politicians and of the anti-war movement reminds me far too much of loony leftist fantasists like Michael Moore and Oliver Stone. Maybe the title should have warned me. Given some of the descriptions of the "laconic" Lindbergh, his mastermind vice-president Wheeler and the publication date of 2004, I suspect we were supposed to see George W Bush and Dick Cheney in Roth's depiction. But there's a rather savage irony here. The most sinister governmental act in Roth's tale is the forced relocation of 245 Jewish families to the heartland. Ironic, because in reality, exactly at the time Roth sets this, a far vaster racially motivated forced relocation and internment, of Japanese-Americans, was occurring--enacted by Roth's hero, FDR. An injustice not alluded to in Roth's novel or even his historical "postscript" listing the real FDR's acts. Someone who really wanted to write a powerful indictment of tyranny should have pointed that event up, not ignored it. But that wouldn't have suited Roth's simplistic partisan fable.
Roy, Arundhati, The God of Small Things - This novel centered upon twins, the boy Estha and the girl Rahel, during a crucial time when they're seven-years-old in 1969 and when they're reunited 24 years later. I found many of the cultural details depicting modern India intriguing: the complex interplay between religion, region, politics, ethnicity, race, gender, the colonial legacy and especially caste. But I found the story hard to get into and never engrossing. Partly this was because of jarring jumps in time, which left me disoriented at times, especially since it often wasn't transitioned well or unified through a single point of view but told in omniscient. I found the constant foreshadowing of "the Terror" annoying quickly. The imagery and metaphor, even if at times striking and lovely, is overdone. Never mind the often choppy syntax and that the writing suffers from the Capitalization Syndrome of Death(tm). (I've seen words capitalized to good comic effect in some works, but here I felt it overdone and distracting.) My unfamiliarity with Indian culture, particularly names, and the multi-generational nature of the story meant that in self-defense I had to draw up a genealogical chart to try to keep track of the characters--all of whom left me cold. (And though I might have my issues with Christianity, my goodness what evil caricatures of Christians in this book!) Besides a genealogical chart, the book could have also used a glossary--a lot of foreign words are left untranslated you can't get from the context. Around page 50 the characters started coming into focus for me, but then about a third in I hit my first "oh no" moment. This tale was just too sordid and bleak for me and contained scenes that made me feel literally nauseous.
Russo, Richard, Empire Falls - This started with a slog of a prologue (done completely in hard-to-read italics) setting up the cliche of the EVIL rich person running and ruining a small town--Empire Falls, Maine. Past that though the novel was mostly focused and seen through the point of view of the sympathetic, though passive, Miles Roby, who runs the Empire Grill diner for the EVIL rich woman. I liked the loving relationship with his 16-year old daughter, Tick; I found that refreshing given so much "literary fiction" is focused on dysfunctional, indifferent or even just evil parents. I didn't like how little gray there is to be found in Russo's characterizations though. That's particularly evident in Miles' ex-wife; there are hints in the bare facts of the marriage and her life that could create reader sympathy for Janine, but when we turn to her point of view, she's a one-dimensional bimbo bitch: a walking stereotype who dumps her husband for a jerk because he gives her great sex. There are some lovely insights and memorable lines in this novel: about religion, family, small-town life. There is also some winning humor leavening the bleak portrait of this dying town--particularly whenever Miles' father Max shows up. However, I did feel bogged down at times--especially in the five flashback chapters (written in hard-to-read italics). I might have rated this novel higher, but I found the ending completely unsatisfying on multiple levels, even before the even more unsatisfying epilogue (done almost completely in hard-to-read italics).
Sebold, Alice, The Lovely Bones - Start to the first chapter: My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973. Susie has--and uses--the ultimate omniscient view as she tells us of both the afterlife and of watching her family and her murderer as they go on living without her. Judging from reviews and my friends, many either love or hate this book. Being perverse I merely liked it. Some decry the writing as awful. One reviewer on GoodReads pointed out a doozy of a simile: Her pupils dilated, pulsing in and out like small, ferocious olives. I'd agree that line should not exist and the editor should be slapped for letting it go to print. I don't think it's typical of the writing though. Sebold goes to bat with simile and metaphor a lot, and some swings she misses, but most times she connects, and her strikes didn't annoy me overmuch. The author is good at giving little details that capture life in American suburbia and a family going through the worst of times: such as a father trying to explain to his four year old son why his big sister is never coming home through the game of Monopoly. The story never came close to moving me to tears, no. But the story made me care enough about its characters to keep me reading; I wanted to know what happened to Susie's family and whether or not her killer would be caught. And at the end if I don't consider the book a keeper, neither am I sorry I read it.
Shields, Carol, The Stone Diaries - The book recommended by this author on the list is Happenstance, but that's out of print, so I substituted this book--her Pulitzer Prize winner. This book grew on me--at first appearing distant in how it treated its subject, Daisy Goodwill Flett, but ultimately moving and singular. The chapters in the table of contents tip you off you'll be reading about a life entire: Birth - 1905; Childhood - 1916; Marriage - 1927; Love - 1937; Motherhood - 1947; Work 1959 - 1964; Sorrow - 1965; Ease - 1977; Illness and Decline - 1985; Death. Yet, despite that, the first line, the title, this isn't memoir. First person peeps out only in bits here and there in the story--you don't feel this is Daisy's voice. It reads more like omniscient, with lots of other narrative devices (except diary): newspaper articles, letters, lists, looks at her by other points of view. It's not an extraordinary life, the kind that makes the history books, just a rather typical life of a North American woman of the twentieth century--born in Mantioba, Canada and ending her life in Florida. But the novel encapsulates much about the experiences of a woman, the stages of life, family and the changes in the world around her through the years. The style is very lyrical--much of it told in present tense, with poetic prose at times and striking insights into life. I still feel a bit distanced from Daisy at the end--as if I quite don't know her--but strangely as if I know myself a bit better by the novel's end.
Smith, Zadie, White Teeth - The novel deals with two English families connected by the friendship of their fathers which goes back to World War II. Archie Jones, who in the opening pages attempted suicide, soon after meets and marries a girl less than half his age, Clara Bowden. She's a girl of Jamaican extraction raised as a Jehovah's Witness described, when she enters the story, as having no upper teeth. This is how she sees her husband three months after the wedding: No white knight, then, this Archibald Jones. No aims, no hopes, no ambitions. A man whose greatest pleasures were English breakfasts and DIY. A dull man. Unfortunately, I think that's pretty accurate--about all the characters: Dull. Which isn't entirely true of Smith's voice. There is a sense of humor evident--but not a warm one, or even an angry, biting one. More that of someone who enjoys taking people down several pegs, undermining her own characters. I just couldn't connect to any of them--they seemed to range from "dull" to repellent. A turning point for me was the chapter of flashback about Archie and his friend Samad Iqbal during World War II about 100 pages in. Both are involved in something heinous for trite reasons. I limped on dozens of pages beyond that point, but stopped when I realized I just couldn't care why they did it or anything else. I just wanted out. I didn't want to spend time with these people.
Suskind, Patrick, Perfume - I wanted to take a shower after reading this book--it is seriously, seriously creepy. About a serial killer stalking virgins for their essence to create the perfect perfume, the novel is filled with fantastic touches and the simply bizarre. All in all, I have to admire the way the author vividly creates a grotesque monster, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, as memorable and original as Dracula. An olfactory genius on the order of a Mozart, he has no smell of his own but can distinguish between the most subtle of scents. I'd also give the novel high marks for how it evokes France on the eve of revolution--the sights, sounds, and of course, especially the smells, and for how it conveys the perfumer's art. The descriptions of all the elements of smell and their power is unlike any other book I've read. The book is translated from the German, and the translator seems to have done well by it given how evocative and gripping I found the novel (and often darkly funny). If I'm not ranking it higher--well, blame the climax and denouement--which I found ridiculous.
Updike, John, Rabbit, Run - The title is a good summation of the character and plot. Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom runs: runs out on his heavily pregnant wife and two-year old son, runs to the arms of a prostitute, runs into the minister who invites him to play golf. (When Rabbit shows up at the minister's house, he slaps the ass of the minister's wife.) Half-way through the novel Rabbit sums up his working philosophy: "If you have the guts to be yourself," he says, "other people'll pay your price." A guy saw me reading this and asked how I liked Rabbit. "Despicable loser," I answered and he replied, "About right." The thing is this story is all told with this incredible lyricism. It was almost worth reading the book for Updike's pretty, pretty prose. Almost. But it seemed such a mismatch for the hollow character and plot. I read Updike's famous short story "A & P" in high school--it's memorable and much anthologized, and I've read other short stories by him I've found impressive. But I can't see ever wanting to read more of Rabbit. Updike obviously disagreed. There are three sequels.
Vreeland, Susan, Girl in Hyacinth Blue - This novel consists of 8 short stories, some first person and others third person, involving a Vermeer painting and its owners from present day working back to when the work was created. The painting has a different meaning for each story's protagonist and captures life in various eras of Dutch History down to the 17th century. "Love Enough" and "A Night Different From All Other Nights" deal with the Holocaust. "Adagia" and "Hyacinth Blue" are the least connected--both are set in the 19th century and deal with the memories of disappointed love. "Morningshine" and "From the Personal Papers of Adriaan Kuypers," set in the 18th century, are linked by a foundling. "Still Life" is Vermeer's own story and "Magdalena Looking" features his daughter, the model for the painting. I think the two opening and closing stories are the strongest. The writing style is natural and flows well, but none of the individual stories feels like a standout to me, that contains a twist or evoked sharp emotion, nor do they feel as if they together made up a whole stronger than their parts. I can't help but compare this novel to a film with a very similar theme, The Red Violin, which was much stronger both in its parts and its whole. It's not that this is a bad book--but I don't think it's striking or memorable. It was a short, quick pleasant read though that held me to the end.