You guys! Check out the comments section from yesterday! Marshall Karp, author of The Rabbit Factory and Bloodthirsty and the upcoming Flipping Out, visited and left a great comment. Please check out his website and his books. He is a lovely, lovely man.
The Ten Best Books I Read in 2008 - Part Two
I said that these were in no particular order, but that isn't quite right. They are in the order in which I read them. Not that that really means anything.
6. The Year of Magical Thinking - Joan Didion - Starts at Christmastime, with Joan's 20-something daughter hovering near death from pneumonia and septic shock. After visiting their daughter a few days after Christmas, Joan and her husband John Gregory Dunne, return home and begin preparing dinner. Just before they sit down to eat, John collapses and dies from a massive heart attack. Sounds cheerful, right? It's not, of course, but it is beautiful. A powerful testament to love and to the adage that the living have to go on living.
7. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson - Here's the premise: A financial reporter is successfully sued for slander. He steps down from his editorial position on the magazine he co-owns with his sort-of girlfriend. While he's waiting to begin his three month prison sentence, he receives a summons from an ancient business tycoon. The man has a proposition for him. He wants to hire him for a year (minus the three months in jail) to solve a mystery. A mystery that happened 40 years ago. The man's great-niece, his favorite, disappeared 40 years earlier from an island on which an accident had blocked the only bridge to the mainland. The man wants to know what happened to his great-niece. He offers the reporter (roughly) a million dollars to try to solve the mystery, with the understanding that he probably won't be able to. He offers a bonus of four million or so if he succeeds. This book is unbelievably good. The story is tight and cracks along at a brisk pace. The resolution proceeds plausibly, which is difficult with a storyline like this one. (ie. The evidence that the reporter gathers isn't sitting around after 40 years for no reason.) In addition to the allure of the storyline. there's the writing. The novel is Swedish and set in Sweden. I love Scandinavian novels. The prose is gorgeous and has a slow melody that makes you slow down and savor it. I read three Scandinavian novels this year - this one, Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson (Norwegian), and The Quiet Girl by Peter Hoeg (Danish). All three deliver on writing. Here's a sample, from The Quiet Girl: "It was cold. The way it could be only in Denmark, and only in April. When, in mad enthusiasm for the spring light, people turned off the central heating, brought their fur coats to the furrier, dispensed with their long underwear and went outside. And only when it was too late, discovered that the temperature was at freezing, the relative humidity 90 percent and the wind was from the north and went straight through clothing and skin, deep into the body, where it wrapped itself around the heart and filled it with Siberian sadness." Out Stealing Horses probably has the best prose, with descriptions of the cold landscape and flashbacks to the main character's boyhood. Unfortunately, Out Stealing Horses and The Quiet Girl do not deliver on story the way The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo does. The story in Out Stealing Horses is incomplete. There's a great setup, but nowhere near enough resolution or explanation. And we've talked about the story in The Quiet Girl.
8. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Diaz- Won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for 2008. And I am pleased to report that, unlike 2007's winner (The Road), Oscar Wao actually deserves it. It's the story of Oscar, an overweight and underloved Dominican comic book/ scifi geek growing up in New York. The history of the Dominican Republic, especially under the rule of Rafael Trujilllo, is woven throughout the story. There's practically a history book in the footnotes. Narration of the story alternates between Oscar's sister Lola and Oscar's best friend Yunior, with Yunior's narration composing most the book. Lola's section is a firecracker though, examining the strained and difficult relationship she has with her mother, who has raised Lola and Oscar alone and far from her family. A brief quote from Lola's section: "This is how you treat your mother? she cried. And if I could have, I would have broken the entire length of my life across her face, but instead I screamed back, And this is how you treat your daughter?" Oscar Wao has a tragic ending, of course (it IS titled The BRIEF Wondrous Life for a reason). Don't give it a pass, though, it's a great ride. I would voice one minor complaint that there are a lot of Spanish words and phrases mixed throughout the novel and it is not always possible to figure out the meaning from context. I want to get the book translated and read it again. And I'll warn you, it helps to have read The Lord of the Rings and have at least a passing familiarity with Dune. You don't have to be married to a scifi/ fantasy nerd like I am, but it helps. If you've seen the movie of Dune (which isn't bad - hey, Sting is in it, it can't be all bad), you'll be fine. Unfortunately, watching the movies of LOTR isn't enough. Comparisons are drawn between people in Trujillo's administration and characters in LOTR. For example, someone is described as Trujillo's "Witch King of Angmar" and if you haven't read LOTR, you won't know that it means that he was the chief's right hand man. And I'll throw in a recommendation for LOTR, too. I read it years ago at my husband's request and absolutely loved it.
9. The Hour I First Believed - Wally Lamb - Fans of Wally Lamb (that would be me) have waited ten years since his last novel and The Hour is worth (at least most of) the wait. It's a big, sprawling novel that follows an English teacher (Caelum Quirk) and his family. Caelum is from Connecticut and his family founded and runs a women's prison there. Caelum and his wife leave Connecticut (after some unpleasantness) to make a new start and save their marriage in Colorado. They take jobs at nearby Columbine high school (Caelum teaching English, Maureen serving as school nurse). Caelum is called back to Connecticut unexpectedly, and while he's gone, the Columbine school shooting occurs. Maureen is in the library and hides in a cabinet to escape the violence. After the horror, Maureen and Caelum move back to Connecticut, but find it difficult to pick up the pieces of their life. Caelum's family history and the stories of his ancestors are woven into the story of his present life. Like all of Wally Lamb's books, this one launches in and doesn't let go. Big in scope and in heart, it's very much a tour de force. You won't be able to put it down. In fact, I liked it so much that I went back and re-read Lamb's last novel, I Know This Much is True and it's just as wonderful as I remember it being. Similar to The Hour in breadth and scope, it examines the relationship between twin brothers - one stricken with schizophrenia, the other hamstrung by his sense of responsibility for his sick brother. A wonderful novel, even though the title always gets that Spandau Ballet song stuck in my head.
10. The Soloist - Steve Lopez - A true story - and upcoming movie - this is story of a reporter who befriends a homeless man whom he saw playing a violin on a street corner. Turns out, the homeless man had been a Julliard student until he had a nervous breakdown due to schizophrenia and lost everything. It's a trying book, because you want Steve (the reporter) to wave a magic wand and make Nathaniel (the homeless man)'s life better. But life isn't like that. And this book demonstrates quite clearly that working with the mentally ill is a "one step forward, two steps backward" prospect. There are some stunning successes and I personally dare you to stay dry-eyed throughout the entire book. Written with tremendous emotion, ranging from compassion and caring to frustration, The Soloist is a powerhouse.