Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Best Books of 2011: Fiction

This is the fiction segment of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2011 feature. You can see other sections as follows: Best Non-Fiction, Best Art & Culture, Best Biography, Best Books for Children and Young Adults, Best Cookbooks, Best Science Fiction/Fantasy, Best Crime Fiction (part I) and Best Crime Fiction (part II).

11/22/63 by Stephen King (Scribner)
It’s no secret that Stephen King knows how to weave a tight story in short form, and of course many of his novels are classics. But some of his books are, well, daunting. There was The Stand, as brilliant as it was long. It, which exhausted me before I finished. Under the Dome, 2009’s examination of the population of a small town when a strange dome is lowered over it, trapping them inside. And now there’s 11-22-63, which, at almost 900 pages, approaches epic status. So what does happen when a guy steps back in time from 2011 to 1958, with the goal of stopping Kennedy’s assassination? For King, it involves five years of life beforehand, proving Oswald’s lone-gunman status. The frame is the events of Dealey Plaza -- but the picture inside that frame is something quite different. This is an adult novel that speaks of real relationships, real love; the dialogue and cultural touchstones feel like vintage King. No one is better at zeroing in on the detail that gets us to ooh and aah and maybe even shed a tear as we remember. But this goes beyond that. Far beyond.What’s so wonderful is King’s take on what happens when changes are made in the past. The JFK aspect of this book, for all the hype, is the smallest part of it. Is it cool to see what happens? Well, yeah. We’re all suckers for all things JFK. But this book isn’t really about Oswald and JFK; it’s about a man who agrees to undertake a world-changing mission, then comes to understand how that mission changes his own life -- and possibly the lives of everyone on the planet -- and possibly the existence of the planet itself. 11-22-63 is a surprisingly layered, complex story about the small part we all play in this thing called life. It’s also about the idea that each part may not be as small as we think it is; each one may, in the end, be a tiny, though essential, factor in the future we all share. In a way, it’s that tale about the butterfly that flaps its wings in Iowa and causes a tidal wave in Japan (there are countless variations) -- except each one of us, in turns out, is a butterfly. -- Tony Buchsbaum

A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism by Slavenka Drakulić (Penguin)
Celebrated Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulić takes fiction to its very highest form with A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism, a book that recalls Eastern European Communism through the perspective of several animals: a Czech mouse, a Yugoslavian parrot, a Polish cat, an East German mouse, a pig from Hungary and Albanian raven and a Romanian dog. In a note to the reader, Drakulić cautions against taking her fiction here at face value: “From the point of view of person and events described, regardless of whether a story is narrated by a dog, a cat, or some other domestic, wild, or exotic animal, it all really happened.” Was Communism as described wicked? Absolutely. Are there parts of it to be mourned? Maybe. Perhaps the parts that were the dream of Communism, rather than its reality. That does seem to be part of the idea that emerges. Despite the animal narrators, A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism is no one's idea of a romp. Drakulić takes searing looks at Communism and the price that it exacted on an important part of the world. The book is not as much fun as you might expect, but it is even more important. -- Aaron Blanton

A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear by Atiq Rahimi (Other)
When A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear was first published in the United Kingdom in 2006, The Guardian nailed it in their review, calling the book a “taut and brilliant burst of anguished prose .... both a wonderful and a dreadful little book.” For me that covered filmmaker and novelist Atiq Rahimi’s novella with startling precision. The book is like a beautiful, yet slightly repellant poem. The structure, the meter, the words chosen, all beautiful. But Rahimi’s prose captures the violence of fact and spirit so completely, you don’t always see the art; just feel the hammering of your heart and taste the blood. We’re in Kabul in 1979 when we meet 21-year-old Farhad, a typical student bent on the pleasures of those of his interests and background. One night, not long after the pro-Soviet coup, Farhad goes drinking and falls into the hands of a group of soldiers who brutalize him. Later he wakes up in a strange house where a beautiful woman is looking after him and a child calls him “father.” He thinks he is dead. As he heals, he becomes ever more cognizant of the plight of Afghani women and he realizes he can no longer live in his homeland, but must find his way to Pakistan. This synopsis might give you the idea that A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear is a more traditionally structured book than it is. But it is not. It reads at times like absolute stream of consciousness. In fact at times it feels like your own dream. The images are so vivid, the violence so close, in the time that I read the book, my own sleep was troubled by nightmares. In some ways, one suspects elements of this nightmare/dream might be autobiographical. Author Rahimi was born in Afghanistan in 1962 and fled to France in 1984. He is an award-winning filmmaker -- his film version of his novel Earth and Ashes was an official selection at Cannes in 2004 and has won significant prizes -- and though he lives in Paris, he has set up an organization in Kabul that offers training and support to young writers and filmmakers. -- Linda L. Richards

Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay (McClelland & Stewart)
Elizabeth Hay’s last novel, Late Nights on Air, won the Scotiabank Giller Prize and those of us who have been watching her knew it was only a matter of time before that happened. Knew, also, that the best was yet to come. Alone in the Classroom lives up to that expectation. The Ottawa Valley in summer during the Depression and a young girl is about to disappear. Just before she does: “Early August. The jewelweed was in the air. Every child felt it. She was aware of precious time running out.” Hay evokes first beauty then fear as she explores the connections between two women separated by generations: narrator Anne and her aunt, Connie Flood who, as a student, is both compelled and repulsed by the principal, Parley Burns. Between the two timelines -- Anne’s and Connie’s -- Hay obliquely examines the twinned natures of love and hate and how obsession can cross generations. This is CanLit. Flawlessly rendered. Confidently told. A story that, viewed from above is gorgeous and rich and complete, the imperfections in the world created revealed only to those who jump in with both feet and look beyond the polite veneer to the flawed humans who give the story its pulse. -- Linda L. Richards

The Architect of Flowers by William Lychack (Mariner)
In this collection of short fiction, Lychack’s strength lies in his ability to render details in language so precise -- at once familiar and fresh -- that the stories demand multiple re-reads just to savor the gorgeous flavor of the words. In “Chickens,” we sit in a “house so quiet you could hear the clock chewing minutes the way an insect chews a leaf.” In “Thin Edge of the Wedge,” a lawn is “the green of frozen peas.” In “Like a Demon,” a roadside diner has the “slushy sound of cutlery and voices, walls of quilted aluminum.” Lychack takes all the hard, ugly, misshapen realities of our world, waves his pen like a magic wand, reaches into the hat, and pulls out—not rabbits or doves, but something infinitely better: words. -- David Abrams

A World Elsewhere by Wayne Johnston (Knopf Canada)
While it’s certainly no The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, A World Elsewhere sometimes comes close to reaching the heights Wayne Johnston attained in his wonderful 1998 novel. Landish Druken and Padgett Vanderluyden meet at Princeton near the close of the 19th century, setting in motion a friendship that will have unexpected long-term repercussions for both men: one of them the son of a sealer from the Canadian Maritimes, the other the son of the richest man in America. Does Johnston reach a little too far for the surprises that conclude this novel? Possibly. But, still: the wordplay and story itself make it well worth the journey. Even not Johnston’s best is better than much of what you’ll have read this year. -- Adrian Marks

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin (Delacorte)

I was pleasantly surprised by the new book by the author of 2010’s Alice I Have Been. Not that this earlier work wasn’t terrific: it was. But in some ways and at first glance, it seemed as though The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb was going to be too contrived with a lot of potential of being a lame-duck effort to do something similar-but-different from that the Alice book, which was very successful. Delightfully, then, I’m please to report I was wrong. The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb takes up the voice Lavinia Mercy Warren Bump, for most of her life known as Mrs. Tom Thumb. Once again, Benjamin handles the 19th century material as though she’s seeing it all with her own eyes. Or, of course, more properly, Vinnie’s and it’s exciting -- and sometimes sad -- to spend time looking through the eyes of the woman who was at one time one of the most famous in America. While at the same time, she was necessarily always somewhat outside the mainstream. It is not, of course, an autobiography. It is fiction, though admittedly of the skilled variety. Still it’s easy to lose yourself in Benjamin’s storytelling and imagine that this is the autobiography that history tells us that 32-inch tall Vinnie planned but never wrote. History as it might have been. Enchanting enough to lose yourself in. There are worse things for a book to be. Whatever can Benjamin have in mind next? -- Monica Stark

The Elephant’s Journey by José Saramago (Mariner)
Because The Elephant’s Journey is being published posthumously, it seems all the more special; all the more bittersweet. Portuguese author, José Saramago, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, was prolific and beloved. Over two million copies of his various books are in print, but he is perhaps best known for the novels Blindness, All the Names and Death With Interruptions. He died last year at the age of 87. For those of us who enjoyed Saramago’s work during his lifetime, The Elephant’s Journey seemed a fitting good-bye. Slender, magical, charming and thoughtful, in some ways, the book is like a fairytale for adults. As with a fairytale, we are being told things beyond what we see and, even if -- like me -- you’re never really sure what those things might be, it’s a wonderful journey. In 16th century Portugal, King Joao comes to the realization that he was neglectful of his nephew, Archduke Maximilian of Austria, by not giving him a wedding gift. As it turns out, the King has an elephant, Solomon, that he hasn’t been paying much attention to. He instructs that Solomon be given a good cleaning, gets the elephant’s keeper, Subhro, some new duds, then sends the two of them off with a royal guard and a motley entourage on a mad journey from Lisbon to Vienna. The Elephant’s Journey is enchanting. It is lighter than most of Saramago’s novels; a sweet and easy read. For all of that it is no less thoughtful and insightful than what we’re used to from this author. All in all, a fitting way to say good-bye. -- Linda L. Richards

Glass by Sam Savage (Coffee House Press)
Readers who don’t know that author Sam Savage (Firmin, The Cry of the Sloth) holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale until after they’ve read Glass will be unsurprised. The book, while a skilled piece of storytelling, reads like a philosophical exploration as much as anything else. The story is told by Edna, who has been asked to write a foreword for one of her late husband’s long out-of-print books. And she takes it on, this request. Nay: she wallows in it, turning the relatively simple task into a personal magnum opus. She explains the request and says she wrote back, telling the publisher that she could “not (I underlined not) write a short preface but that I would consider writing a long introduction or even, I said, a separate book (I underlined separate twice, and while there would be a lot about Clarence in it, it would not just be about him but also about my life before and after, as one could not pretend to understand Clarence without that.” Glass is that book: a personal treatise from an unreliable narrator who we’re never quite sure is trashing on her late husband’s memory or grieving with a deep a palpable sadness. Glass is a fantastic experiment in perspective and an oddly memorable book. -- Linda L. Richards

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (Ballantine)
Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s The Language of Flowers, came with a lot of hype. I wasn’t sure it would live up to it. The story jumps back and forth in time, between the childhood and adulthood of a woman named Victoria Jones. As a child, she was shuttled from foster home to foster home, eventually ending up at the farm of Elizabeth, who has familial demons of her own to deal with. As a young adult, Victoria is no longer in touch with Elizabeth -- which fact creates a tension and a question -- Why? -- that drives the twin narratives forward. Elizabeth teaches Victoria about the language of flowers, the hidden meanings, the code, of each flower. What yellow roses mean, versus red. What thistle means. And on and on. And what they mean in combination. This part of the book is fascinating, especially as the flowers are used to deliver messages among the main characters. I was -- and remain -- completely smitten with Victoria. She’s not always likable, with enough rough edges to draw blood if you get too close, but there’s something about her that makes her irresistible. Her forthrightness. Her honesty. She’s compelling, even captivating -- and it’s her personality, above all, that propels the novel forward. The pages turn almost by themelves, and I found myself purposefully slowing down, to read this luscious book at a more relaxed pace, absorbing its language, Diffenbaugh’s gorgeous sentences. Her prose is direct, simple, and she wisely avoids over-writing, which would have been easy to do in a book about flowers how stunningly beautiful they are, and what they say. I’m sure she was tempted to over-describe them, but she resisted. The result is a book that’s smartly assembled and smartly written. The structure of The Language of Flowers forces you to keep reading. As the two halves converge, the tension grows to an almost unbearable state. At the end, I was driven to tears as many of the strands of Victoria’s story come together. As for the hype, why was I worried? -- Tony Buchsbaum

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta (Random House Canada)

In a year when a Rapture scare actually held America’s attention for ten or twenty scary minutes, Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers poses a delicious “what if?” More to the point, what if you got left behind? Though we learn early on that millions of people around the world have simply disappeared, we see how this impacts the small suburban town of Mapleton, whose number has been overnight reduced by over a hundred, leaving large holes and a lot of post-Apocalyptic confusion behind. Though all of this sounds a bit like the plot of some new series on the Syfy network, in Perotta’s hands this somewhat absurd premise becomes material for a starkly human tale. Though Mapleton’s struggles are out of our experience, we can identify with the way the town’s surviving inhabitants deal with what they’ve been given: both individually and as a community in a world where everything is exactly the same… only different. If you find the premise off-putting, don’t give it up yet: Perrotta is a terrific writer who just seems to get better and better. I’m at a point with him that the topics no longer matter: he can tell me any story that he wants. -- Linda L. Richards

Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks (Ecco)
In a 2003 interview with January Magazine, Russell Banks explained why his characters manage to live and breathe as sharply as they do: “Again, it goes back to: how does the writer view the universe? How do you view human beings? It's the case, I think, that no one is simply one thing or the other -- except for those few beings who are out of their minds, in a literal and ongoing way. But most human beings -- almost all human beings -- are made up of this conflicted mix of good and bad motives, and good and bad deeds, and perception and blindness.” It is this conflicted mix of good and bad that most characterizes the main character in Banks’ latest novel, Lost Memory of Skin. “The Kid” is 22 and out on probation, having done his time after his involvement with a girl who was underage. Labeled a sex offender, the Kid no longer belongs anywhere and creates a makeshift life with his pet iguana under a South Florida causeway with others who share his brand. When the Kid is befriended by a professor with an interest in homelessness, both men think the older man will be helping the younger. Both are surprised when it turns out to be the other way around. As in earlier works like Continental Drift and The Sweet Hereafter, in Lost Memory of the Skin, as Margaret Atwood said, Banks “takes us into the dark side of the dark side.” The light never looked so sweet. -- Monica Stark

Men in the Making by Bruce Machart (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Another powerful debut story collection from the author who wrote The Wake of Forgiveness, one of my favorite novels of last year. Machart writes of men -- primarily Texans -- who navigate that tricky territory between the tradition of macho swagger and the inward pull of sensitivity. The stories are so overwhelming in their intensity, I can only read one per day because they are like miniature razor blades bumping through my bloodstream. This is fiction that excoriates and scrubs the reader from the inside out. And lest you think I’m making Men in the Making sound like a visit to the dentist, it’s not. Far from it. It’s beautiful and engrossing and hopeful and funny in all the right places. -- David Abrams

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (Little, Brown)
Everything written about David Foster Wallace since his death by suicide in 2008 is tinged with tragedy. It can’t be helped. The enormity of his talent. Gone. The thought of the books we’ll never get to read. Thinking about it still just breaks our hearts. That being the case, there’s no real surprise that every word breathed about his last book, the posthumously compiled, finished and published The Pale King, should evoke shudders of tragedy from readers and reviewers alike. We’re just so goddamned sad. It doesn’t help that we can’t be sure if this is the book he would have wanted us to read. The core of what was published this year as The Pale King was found in a pile on the author’s desk after he was dead. Michael Pietsch, the executive VP and publisher at Little, Brown, was charged with the daunting task of making something worthy of the celebrated author out of sometimes disconnected-seeming material. Some of the reviews the book received were like love letters to Wallace himself. “The final, beautiful act of an unwilling icon,” Benjamin Alsup wrote in Esquire. “Deeply sad, deeply philosophical … breathtakingly brilliant,” wrote Michiko Kakutani for The New York Times and Lev Grossman at TIME said that “The Pale King represents Wallace’s finest work as a novelist.” I’ve sliced these reviews down to nothing: not even the essence of the love letters that they were. And they are love letters: make no mistake. But that doesn’t make things better. Hell, in some ways, it makes things worse. I found The Pale King impossible to review properly, and for so many reasons. One, of course, is the fact that it’s been pieced together -- by loving hands, sure. But still. We will never know exactly had Wallace had in mind. And it doesn’t matter what the reviews say in this case, does it? Those who loved Wallace will read The Pale King no matter what is said about it. And they should because, in this instance, reviews are really not the point. -- Linda L. Richards

Parallel Stories
by Péter Nádas, translated by Imre Goldstein (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
This toe-breaking novel from the author of A Book of Memories, the book Susan Sontag called “the greatest novel ever written in our time,” is impossible to talk about briefly. It is multi-layered. Difficult to define. Almost unthinkably complex. Eighteen years in the writing, four years in translation, at well over 1100 pages, there is a lot to read and never mind ponder. Any way you look at it, Parallel Stories is a whole lot of book. It begins with a crime -- or the aftermath of one -- amid all the accouterments of the most classic whodunnit. We are in Berlin in 1989, just as the Wall is tumbling. But just as you settle in to the pace and rhythm of the crime and its resolution, we are cast back to 1961 Budapest where we begin to be brought into the parallel stories promised in the title. Some of this historical hither and yon becomes disorienting. How can it not be? But the strength of the prose and its promise lead the reader to doubt their own understanding, rather than the skill of the author. Parallel Stories is, in many ways, an almost unimaginably wonderful and epic book. Is it sometimes too big, too deep and altogether too much? Well, yes. But it is also an event on a grand scale. Magyar Nemzet, the Hungarian newspaper called Parallel Stories a “twenty-first century War and Peace.” I’m a huge Tolstoy fan and reading War and Peace translations is something of a hobby, so my knee-jerk reaction is to call that an overstatement but, honestly? Nádas has here reached that high. -- Linda L. Richards

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (Ballantine)
There was never a moment when The Paris Wife was not going to be a huge seller. In fact, we called it nearly a year ago. The writing here is sharp and terrific, but the subject matter clinches things. The story of Ernest Hemingway’s relationship with his first wife, Hadley, would have been of great interest even without the success of Loving Frank (2007), Nancy Horan’s explosive bestseller about Frank Lloyd Wright and his mistress. But with Loving Frank paving the way, there was going to be no stopping The Paris Wife. (And yes: that is a blurb from Horan on the cover of McLain’s book.) Both books were edited by Random House executive editor Susanna Porter. Porter is said to have paid “north of half a million” for North American rights to the debut novel. McLain’s jazz age love story is perfect from the beginning. “The very first thing he does is fix me with those wonderfully brown eyes and say, ‘It’s possible I’m too drunk to judge, but you might have something there.’” Of course, it’s not all wonderfully brown eyes and strains of jazz. You know going in that The Paris Wife is going to end badly. After all, before Hemingway killed himself in 1961, there would three wives post-Hadley. The book concerns itself mainly with the five mad years the couple spent in Paris and includes the birth of their son, John Nicanor Hemingway (known as Bumby), who would one day grow to be the father of Mariel and Margeux Hemingway. The marriage came to an end when Hadley discovered the other woman, the journalist Pauline Pfeiffer. Hadley and Hemingway were divorced within the year. In between is a heartbreaking stream of pain and near misses. This is, after all, the woman about whom Hemingway wrote, “I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.” Though The Paris Wife is, of course, fiction, sometimes it’s difficult to keep in mind. McLain delivers Hadley’s voice so perfectly, it’s easy to forget that the 28-year-old St. Louis virgin that Hemingway first married didn’t have much of a voice: at least, history doesn’t give her one. McLain has repaired that quite completely. -- Linda L. Richards

Pulse by Julian Barnes
The title of Julian Barnes’ 17th book refers to the rhythms that function within each relationship. So, at least, it would seem, because Pulse concerns itself entirely with love and relationships, a topic that turns out to be as fraught with danger as his previous collection, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, which focused on death. Barnes has broken this collection into two distinct parts. In the first, he explores contemporary relationships, punctuated by repeated appearances of a set of couples at regular dinner parties, observing and commenting, most often not too kindly. “Did you see the map of global warming the paper the other day? It said a four-degree rise would be utterly disastrous -- no water in most of Africa, cyclones, epidemics, rising sea levels, the Netherlands and southeast England underwater.” “Can’t we rely on the Dutch to sort something out? They did before.” “What time span are we actually talking about?” “If we don’t agree now, we could have a four-degree rise by 2060.” “Ah.” In the second part of Pulse, Barnes looks at love in a more historical way, with forays into the 18th and 19th centuries. The results are somewhat predictable: times change, but the human heart, truly, does not. -- Aaron Blanton

Randy Lopez Goes Home by Rudolfo Anaya (University of Oklahoma Press)
The most astonishing thing about Rudolfo “the Godfather of Chicano literature” Anaya is that he’s not better known and more widely read. This is illustrated most dramatically in his latest novel, Randy Lopez Goes Home, an elegant juxtaposition of magical realism and 21st century Hispanic American concerns. Randy Lopez returns to his hometown in Northern New Mexico and everyone -- even his godparents -- have forgotten him. He sets out to build a bridge that will bring him properly home, figuratively and actually. Rich in allegory and steeped in magic, you could shorthand the whole reading process just scanning chapter headlines. “Randy arrives in Agua Bendita, where time stands still.” “The old cowboy explains bet-him-Mike’s-horses, or becoming bear scat.” “Those reincarnation guys have it made… they just keep on being recycled.” While to do this would be to miss out on Anaya’s wonderful prose, it does provide a different sort of journey. And Randy Lopez Goes Home is all about the journey. If you have not read Anaya you really must, and Randy Lopez Goes Home -- slender and sparkly -- is a fantastic starting point. -- Lincoln Cho

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (Knopf)
Who’s to say, when we start a life, where we will end up? What will we do? What will we regret? What, if anything, will we understand? These are a few of the questions posed by Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Award-winning novel, The Sense of an Ending. At just 160 pages or so, the book is deceptive. It’s spare but not sparse. It’s short but not light. Instead, it is a rich tapestry of starts, stops, decisions, regrets, misunderstandings, resentments and rapprochements, all concerning an Englishman named Tony Webster and some of the people in his life, notably his first lover and his ex-wife. Barnes sketches Tony’s years in broad strokes, in little more than an outline. Tony’s schooling, his first girlfriend, his subsequent relationships, his marriage, his work, his divorce, and the latter years of his life. When I say broad strokes, I mean broad. While Tony’s schooling and first girlfriend are given the early part of the novel, almost everything else is summed up in a few paragraphs, all except for the latter part of his life, which occupies most of this novel. It’s here, when Tony is what might be called old but not elderly, that his search for answers takes hold of him like nothing else in his life ever has. Written in the first person, with a sort of blasé intensity, Tony discusses his life as if he were looking at a painting he knows intimately. As if he’s painted it himself. As if it’s not a work in progress, but a finished work that warrants close, almost microscopic examination. In one way, The Sense of an Ending is a Renoir-type Impressionist painting: all swaths of color, one blending and sometimes crashing into another. In another way, it’s more like Seurat: it’s not the brushstrokes that matter, but the dots. Every detail. What happened to Tony’s marriage? What happened with his first, earlier, girlfriend? And why did his close friend commit suicide, ending abruptly a life of such promise? What happened appears to be the key question here. Tony seems to believe that by knowing what happened, he will also understand what happened. This point is the core of the novel, the desire for knowledge, but it ends up a shattering disappointment because it isn’t true; knowing does not necessarily provide understanding. But as he pulls this tightly wound knot apart, Barnes uses language that’s forthright, almost matter-of-fact. In Tony’s voice, there is great pain behind each word, as if he is struggling under the weight of what the words mean as much as what they say. What this wonderful, heartbreaking novel shows us -- what Tony learns, eventually -- is that knowing something may provide a certain clarity, but not the kind one yearns for when examining one’s life so closely. One wants answers, yes, but answers require more than facts. Facts may give one the sense of an ending, surely, but only that. -- Tony Buchsbaum

Soldier of the Horse by Robert W. Mackay (Touchwood)
Most historians agree, the First Great War was one of the most horrible conflicts in history, coming as it did at a time when new technologies -- in the forms of modern arms and chemical warfare -- were being introduced to battlefields still entrenched in the tradition of hand-to-hand combat. Some of the stories and art that came out of World War I were truly awful and thousands of young men suffered unthinkably. In his first novel, Soldier of the Horse, former lawyer and navyman Robert W. Mackay explores the struggles on the Western Front through the eyes of Tom Macrae, a young Canadian soldier intent on just keeping his feet under him in France during the War. In 1914 20-year-old Tom is studying law in Winnipeg when he is caught in a scandal that leaves him in extreme dilemma. In the end, he must choose between incarceration -- and, with it, professional ruin -- or service to his country in France. Tom chooses France. Serving with Lord Strathcona’s Horse in the Canadian Cavalry Brigade, Tom discovers that war really is hell. Before long he knows that if he gets out of this alive, it’ll be due to luck and the cooperation and support of his constant companion; his horse, Toby. Soldier of the Horse is an engaging first novel. A memorable view of a war that, in some of the ways that matter, we really still know surprisingly little about. -- Monica Stark

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht (Random House)
The Tiger’s Wife is a good case study in that age-old debate about separating the artist from the artwork (i.e., Can we appreciate John Cheever’s short fiction for what it is, setting aside his behavior as a father and husband? Or, once upon a time, could we still groove to Michael Jackson’s music and ignore the rumors coming from Neverland?). Given all the marketing noise buzzing around Téa Obreht (and I know I’m a loud contributor to that very huzzah), it’s important to stop our ears and focus on the contents of the page. That’s easy because the assured strength of the prose pulls you right inside. As The Tiger’s Wife opens, Natalia, a young doctor working in an unnamed Balkan country, learns of the death of her grandfather, a distinguished doctor himself who was forced out of his practice by ethnic politics. When he died, the grandfather was far from home on a secretive journey to a remote town. Natalia makes it her goal to learn the truth about her grandfather’s fate and in so doing, she unleashes a flood of memories -- most of them involving her family’s patriarch who was her closest friend when she was a young girl, taking her on long walks and repeated visits to the zoo. Natalia, who is working on a humanitarian mission of her own to deliver medicine to an orphange, begins to recall the stories her grandfather would tell about a certain “deathless man” named Gavran Gaile who never seemed to age but who always shows up just before a person’s death. She also remembers the days when they would visit the tigers’ cage at the zoo, and he would read to her from the well-worn copy of The Jungle Book which he always carried in his coat pocket. The tigers, it seemed, held a deep-seated fascination for her grandfather. Obreht tells the story of the “tiger’s wife” bit by alluring bit over the course of the book. Through the eyes of the grandfather as a boy, we learn how the tiger gave the young Muslim bride confidence and power, and we learn how the frightened villagers eventually came to regard her as a witch, believing the tiger shed his skin each night he paid her a visit. These are the kind of people, Obreht writes, “with small ailments and terrible fears, because everything they do not understand frightens them.” And yet, as she unspools the story, we find there is a mysterious love between beast and beauty. The novel is divided into chapters with headings that evoke fables: “The Bear,” “The Apothecary,” “The Heart,” and so on. Obreht has paid special attention to the structure of the book and, indeed, the way a story is built. Every truss is carefully set in place, the floorboards are squared and true, each nail is pounded into place with the strongest, surest blows. The sentences in and of themselves are miniature works of art and you keep thinking each one is greater than the one before and she could never top herself. And yet, she does. Just look at the beauty Obreht packs into the short space of this one sentence: “It was late afternoon when they came across the tiger in a clearing by a frozen pond, bright and real, carved from sunlight.” The heart of The Tiger’s Wife, however, is how the human race deals with death, grief, and war. Though Natalia aches for her dead grandfather, as she unpeels the many layers of his past, she learns that the afterlife carries its own sense of wonder and hope. “Dying is not punishment,” the deathless man once told her grandfather. “The dead are celebrated. The dead are loved. They give something to the living. Once you put something into the ground, Doctor, you always know where to find it.” The Tiger’s Wife is so majestic in its telling, you almost don’t hear the the morality whispering past your ears. But the philosophical foundation of the book is strong and only serves to deepen Obreht’s strength as a storyteller. Layered in myth, memory and folklore, this novel is one of those rare books which are full-immersion experiences. Long before thirty pages have passed, The Tiger’s Wife ceases to be a book; it becomes a door to a world which we eagerly revisit with frequent trips to the page. Reading The Tiger’s Wife, it is as if we were transported to an age before electricity when storytellers mesmerized listeners with spell-binding tales told in a half-circle around a fireside. We hang on every word, our mouths slowly falling agape as the light of flame licks our faces and whole worlds are built with words inside our imaginations—worlds full of undead men thirsting for water, snowbound villagers ruled by superstition, zoo animals walking the streets of cities, and magical women who lay with tigers. -- David Abrams

Volt: Stories by Alan Heathcock (Graywolf)
The strongest debut of a short-story collection I’ve read in a long, long time. In a tradition stretching from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio to Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, Heathcock links the stories in Volt through setting and character -- the residents of the fictional town of Krafton. They exist in an indefinable place and time. It could be Indiana in the 1950s or it could be Montana in the 2010s, but the characters are, at heart, those folks who live next door to us; or, more precisely, those who live in the mirror. Heathcock has gone directly to the heart of what makes us tick and breathe in a world thrown into disarray, no matter if it’s the Cold War or the Iraq War in the background. With a certain Midwestern stoicism, most of Heathcock’s characters are men and women of few words. In the collection’s opening story, “The Staying Freight,” Winslow Nettles embarks on a weeks-long cross-country odyssey after he accidentally kills his son and, in a separate incident, causes a train derailment. Before he departs, however, he leaves a note on the kitchen table for his wife: “Took a walk. Be back soon.” In fact, Winslow will not be back anytime soon. He has set off on a sojourn across a rough landscape and, metaphorically, across an equally-scarred soul. His prolonged descent into a hell of his own making is the kind of punishing, self-imposed exile typical to many of the characters in Volt. Heathcock’s men and women feel they aren’t worthy -- not in the eyes of their Creator, nor even in the judgment of their friends and neighbors in Krafton. At times, it feels like we’re reading The Greatest Hits of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Sin, guilt, regret, redemption, forgiveness, and mercy wrestle like naked, greased angels of God in these pages. -- David Abrams

West of Here by Jonathan Evison (Algonquin)
It is always distressing to me when I discover a book that I strongly suspect will be one of my picks for best book of the year too early in the twelvemonth. If by late January you’re already reading something you know will be hard to beat, you just can’t help wondering why read any further. I had this feeling again and again while reading West of Here, a lovingly rendered novel, epic in scope, that tells the story of the settlement of the Olympic Peninsula, west of Seattle, and the impact that white settlers ultimately have on the region. That description sounds more dry than the story Evison evokes. This is, after all, a lusty, full-blooded tale and the writer has created a story about nature lost and found in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. Moving us skillfully back and forth between the 19th century and contemporary Washington State, Evison tells a story that melds the mood and sensibilities of another era with the supposedly more enlightened consciousness of this one. It’s difficult to credit that this is Evison’s second novel. West of Here is ambitious and mature; a masterwork. The author’s first book, 2009’s All About Lulu, won the Washington State Book Award. I found myself wondering if West of Here had begun as Evison’s starter novel: begun long ago and pulled more recently from a drawer. After a while, though, I decided it didn’t matter. However it came about, West of Here is one of the best books I read in 2011. -- Aaron Blanton

The Woman at the Well by Ann Chamberlin (Epigraph)
Readers who would take a fictional journey to the heart of Islam to understand it better will enjoy Ann Chamberlin’s The Woman at the Well. On her personal website, Chamberlin says that she believes “the purpose of storytelling -- as of all true art as well as all true religion -- is to support positions in exact opposition to the views prevailing in a culture's powerhouses, whatever those views happen to be.” Her twelfth book makes use of all of her background to tell a story that is no way slight. Chamberlin studied Archaeology of the Middle East, spent a summer in Israel excavating a Biblical city and traveling in the Holy Land. She reads Hebrew, Arabic, Egyptian hieroglyphs and ancient Akkadian as well as French and German and her Reign of the Favored Women series, a trilogy set in the 16th-century Ottoman Empire, has been on the bestsellers list in Turkey for six months. The Woman at the Well is not a light read. Not a beach read. But you’ll come away from it feeling as though you have a deeper understanding of things that were opaque to you before. -- Aaron Blanton

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home