My ten favorite books of the year (in no particular order), with reviews if applicable:
The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides: Reviewed below
The Pale King, David Foster Wallace
The City and the City, China Mieville
The Name of the World, Denis Johnson: The Name of the World is a gorgeous, compact, lucid little novel about a man who has lost his family. This tragic event is far enough in the past that it’s not really what the story is about even while it’s everything the story is about. It’s a novel in which nothing much happens and lots of things happen, and it feels like life.
Johnson’s storytelling is so lush and vividly depicted that the entire book is highly cinematic. It is sad and beautiful and hopeful.
One of my favorite scenes involves the protagonist, Mike, visiting a Midwestern church. Johnson describes the “nearly three hundred people, all singing beautifully. I wondered what it must sound like out in the empty green fields under the cloudless blue sky, how heartrendingly small even such a crowd of voices must sound rising up into the infinite indifference of outer space. I felt lonely for us all, and abruptly I knew there was no God. A tight winding of chains had burst. Someone had unstuck my eyes. A huge ringing in my head had stopped. This is what the grand and lovely multitude of singers did to me…I sang, too, and nobody stopped me…For exactly an hour by my watch, we praised the empty universe. I felt our hearts going up and up into an endless interval with nothing to get in the way. All my happy liberated soul came out my throat.”
Despair, Vladimir Nabokov
The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, Leo Tolstoy
The Sea, John Banville: The Sea by John Banville is exactly the kind of book that I am prone to love: the lyrical, poetic inner workings of a person’s mind meant to highlight the complexity of memory and the impact of the passing of time. And, for the most part, I really liked the novel, but it fell short of “love,” and I think this is because Banville did too good a job writing it.
The novel is narrated by a middle aged man—Max?—who has recently lost his wife to cancer. He can no longer live in the house he shared with her, so, in his grief, he sojourns to the place on the sea where he spent his childhood and had his first loves. The story is his remembering: his childhood and the tragedy that befell the family of his first girlfriend, Chloe Grace, and his wife and her slow demise.
The prose is vivid and carefully composed. The memories shine or blur as needed to show the allure and trickery of the past. But our narrator is almost too well rendered by Banville: He’s so lost in his grief that the tragedy of the far past pales when put side by side with the grief of the loss of his wife. His drunken distance and remove end up keeping the readers at a distance. The tragedy of the Graces, foreshadowed on the first page, ends up falling flat when it is finally revealed to us at the very end of the novel. It no longer holds much emotional weight for our narrator, so it doesn’t end up having any emotional weight for us, the readers, either.
I’m excited to read other works by Banville. It’s clear that he is a meticulous writer of gravity, but, at least in The Sea, a little less poetry and a little more urgency would have gone a long way.
Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie: “Joseph Anton” is the name Salman Rushdie took while living in hiding under the fatwa issued in reaction to his book The Satanic Verses, and this is his memoir of that time. I found most fascinating his discussion of his early life–his arrival in Britain to attend boarding school at the age of 14 and what that immigration and uprootedness meant to him–and his thinking about the writing of “The Satanic Verses” and its historical roots. The descriptions of life under the fatwa are also very moving–Rushdie’s ideas on the role literature and free speech play in forming a free society are particularly eloquent and inspiring–however he catalogs every detail of his clandestine life to the point where some of the memories start to feel repetitive. Also his discussions of his relationships to various authors–supporters and detractors alike–and his romantic life, while interesting, at time come across as self-aggrandizing. I’m a big Rushdie fan and enjoyed most when he’s talking literature, but I felt he could have used a more aggressive editor.
The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie: Reviewed below
The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis