As longtime readers likely are aware, I don’t do my “best of” for books until the year has ended. I always fear I am going to read THE BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR after I post that if I do so before year-end.
This is another year, though, where I can say nothing in the fiction market really blew me away. While that makes it difficult to pick a “best” novel, it does leave a sense of, “Maybe this is the one” throughout the year. And while perhaps it will change on rereading a year or more from now, I can say there was a nonfiction work that stood head and shoulders above the rest, as you will see.
Like many, I’ve kind of tired of waiting/searching for the “great post-9/11 novel.” And I almost hate to categorize Amy Waldman’s The Submission as being part of that genre (if it actually exists). Yet with her story of an American Muslim winning the competition to design a 9/11 memorial, Waldman does a wonderful job capturing the dichotomies and fractures that developed in America over the last 10 years. It is a fair and objective look at a number of those issues and the vehicle of fiction allows the exploration of a variety of views and aspects.
My two honorable mentions surprise me because of their authors. When I first heard that singer/songwriter Steve Earle was writing a book where the main character is haunted by Hank Williams’ ghost I admit I rolled my eyes. For whatever reason, though, I picked up I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive and was very glad I did. Earle is a compelling writer and he tells a saddening and redeeming tale set in the early 1960s that is well worth reading.
Likewise, I thought I’d given up on James Frey after the scandal over his “memoirs” and his crappy novel about L.A. Thus, as with Earle’s book, I was skeptical when I heard he had written a book on a messiah in contemporary New York City. And, as with Earle’s book, I’m very glad I read The Final Testament of the Holy Bible. As I noted in my short review, the book “raises fundamental questions about religion, how it affects our lives and how religious doctrines are interpreted.”
If you can’t tell from my review, Karl Marlantes’ What It Is Like to Go to War was my favorite book this year. Mixing autobiography, mythology and psychology, Marlantes may have written one of the finest explorations of war and its effect on our soldiers. I still believe it should be required reading for military and political leaders and is a book “far too important to ignore.”
A memoir and three biographies round out my nonfiction list. Although I feared it would be exploitive, I found Jaycee Dugard’s A Stolen Life: A Memoir better written and more insightful than I anticipated. Hopefully, it was equally therapeutic for her, if not more so. And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Shields is something most Vonnegut fans will relish, providing a balanced look into the author and his life. Likewise, The Long Night: William L. Shirer and the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by Steve Wicks’ and John Farrell’s Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned are worthy and insightful examinations of their subjects.
BEST TRANSLATED WORK
Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight might also qualify for another “award” I usually have — books I wish I’d read the year they were released. Problem is that After Midnight first appeared in the U.S. in 1938. Released again in 1985 and then this year as part of Melville House’s Neversink Library, it is a sparse and well-written look at the lives of average Germans following the Nazi rise to power in the 1930s.
A similar double nod also goes to Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi, another examination of life in a totalitarian society in the 1930s. Tabucchi sets his story in Portugal in 1938 and we’re never quite sure if the third person narrator is an interrogator or someone writing an investigative report. It was first released in the U.S. in 1986 but made another appearance this year, thereby qualifying it for the double “honor.”
BOOKS TOO LONG FOR THEIR OWN GOOD
Both Stephen King’s 11/22/63 and Haruki Murakami 1Q84 were interesting and often entertaining reads. But, damn, both really needed some editing. Clocking in at nearly 1,800 pages between them, some of those pages could have disappeared without adversely affecting the stories. Now I don’t have a problem with lengthy works; in fact, one of my favorites last year was 975 pages. But there can come a point where the content of the extended length damages the work as a whole and both these books went beyond that point.
PRAISED BOOKS THAT DIDN’T CUT IT WITH ME
Each year I become a bit more convinced that the amount of hype and praise a book gets before I read it isn’t good for the book. That’s certainly the case with several books I read this year where I found the advance billing far outweighed the story: The Third Reich: A Novel, Roberto Bolaño; The Illumination, Kevin Brockmeier; A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan; The Leftovers, Tom Perrotta; and, Robopocalypse, Daniel H. Wilson. But then, I’ve long been an illiterati.
I find myself happiest in the middle of a book in which I forget that I am reading, but am instead immersed in a made-up life lived at the highest pitch.
Pat Conroy, My Reading Life