TEN BEST OF 2006

My ten best are not the ten best new books. I may not even have read them all in 2006. I’m a lousy recordkeeper, and there’s no one, like a  literary IRS who cares enough to keep me honest. So here’s a list, not necessarily in order.

1. Passion by Jeannette Winterson. Enchanting story set in Napoleonic times. There’s so much poetic prose and sensuality in this story you almost forget about the blood and the pain of a soldier caught in the Little Emperor’s fateful Russian campaign. Get to it.

2. Love, Etc. by Julian Barnes. Barnes is a unique storyteller, and no book better illustrates his innovativeness than the form of Love, Etc. The story is told alternatively in monologue by different characters speaking to an unidentified audience. Probably, but not certainly, a counselor of some sort. It’s a complicated love triangle, and the story changes with each monologue, not just from character to character. Characters’ own versions change with each telling.

3. Arthur and George by Julian Barnes. The form here is much more conventional than Love, Etc., but it’s no less full of surprises and wonder.

4. Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes. Noticing a trend here? Parrot is a pretty old book, but I’m slow sometimes. I expected something much more fictional, but was unexpectedly delighted to find almost a treatise on Flaubert’s life and work written in the voice of a narrator whose life and attitude is so opposite the French sensualist you wonder at first why he’s attracted to him. You do find out and are glad for it.

5. The Power Book by Jeannette Winterson. Winterson’s theme of adultery and lost love is sometimes wearying, but here it is enchanting. The power book refers literally to the laptop the writer is using, and metaphorically becomes the mind of the writer writing. Not a new approach to a story, and something I generally steer away from as narcissistic. However, Winterson makes the whole enterprise more about how the human mind and heart works rather than just how the sacred creature the writer does the sacred act of creation.

6.The Devil’s Teeth by Susan Casey. Nothing literary about this one, except that it’s written in lively, vivid prose. It’s a story about shark-watching–research off the Farallone islands near San Francisco. The Great White is the particular species of shark under investigation, and Casey is a journalist who becomes obsessed with the project. There’s a healthy meal of history, privation, and adventure with a plate of suspense for dessert.

7. With Malice Toward None–The Life of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen B. Oates. The biography is about twenty years old now, but I’m just getting to it. I hadn’t read a life of Lincoln since I read Sandburg’s long ago. It deserves all its plaudits. Of note, I think, is that Lincoln’s arguments against the Mexican War when he was in congress sound remarkably similar to today’s arguments against the Iraq invasion–bogus justification for a preemptive strike into a sovereign nation. In 1846, it was for territorial gain. In our case, for oil. I guess.

8. Team of Rivals–The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. This one is not old, and I found it a fascinating  look at how Lincoln pulled off the old adage about keeping your enemies close to you. Every one of his original cabinet members either despised him or wanted his job. And they took every opportunity to slip a knife into his or each others’ political ribs. His ability to balance their animosities and ambitions was a major reason for his success in prosecuting the Civil War.

9.  Tales of Burning Love by Louise Erdrich. If you’ve read my blog on Erdrich, you’ll know why this is on the list. Erdrich’s cast of characters in a Faulkner-like imaginary geographical setting has assumed mythic literary proportions. This one follows the fortunes and feelings of four wives of one man, all of whom end up snowbound with one another. Sounds almost like a sit-com setup, doesn’t it? But this is Louise Erdrich, so it’s no trivial T.V. half-hour.

10. The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich Easily the funniest book I’ve read in years. But not comical in the sense that it digs deep into the psyche. Little No Horse is a reservation. The report is the last in a series of letters the resident priest has been sending to the Vatican for decades. The book explores all the mysteries that surround the incidents that are the subject of the report.

11. Disgrace by Paul Coetzee I did a blog on this one, too. In conjunction with my reading of Rushdie’s Shame. No book ever deserved a prize more than this one deserved its Booker. Prose as spare and precise as Ishiguro’s, a presence in the protagonist’s psyche as complete as McEwen’s, action and suspense worthy of a glossy-covered thriller. This is my first go at Coetzee, and I’m off for more.

12. Saturday by Ian McEwen. McEwen does more than any other writer to inhabit the profession of his characters. In this cases, he’s chose brain surgery, and according to a medical man I know, he’s done it just right. Too, he’s playing to his strength here, which is to follow the intricate patterns and processes of human thought and feeling. My main complaint about him in other works I’ve read is that in his fascination with his characters’ psyche he often wanders away from the action. Not so here. I have some minor problems with the way the plot develops, but Saturday is overall a masterful performance by an author who is undoubtedly one of the finest of the age.

 

So my ten best have morphed into twelve. I told you I was a bad record  keeper. I’ve probably left off a few that should be there, but no reader can lose with any of these, so do yourself a favor and pick one up.

 

WHO KNOWS BARRY UNSWORTH?

Few authors are as versatile as Barry Unsworth, whose works range from the Booker-winning historical novel Sacred Hunger–a thick (though enormously entertaining)
philosophical and wide-ranging exploration of capitalism and the slave trade–to  Morality Play–a medieval murder mystery–to Pascali’s Island — a story of love and intrigue on a Greek Island during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire (1912). He’s equally at home inside the head of a mentally ill reclusive (Losing Nelson) and among the gods and heroes of ancient mythology (Songs of the Kings).  You want light and funny? try After Hannibal,  a very nice little piece about life among ex-pats of various countries in rural Umbria (the path Hannibal took to Rome). He’s also done a sort of history/travelogue on Crete. Called Crete.

Unsworth hasn’t been as celebrated as some other Booker winners such as Ian McEwen and Kazuo Ishiguro, possibly because his range makes him difficult to pigeonhole. If you’re looking for an Unsworth kind of book, you won’t find it. With McEwen and Ishiguro, you have a much better idea of what you’re going to get.

You might think movie credits would help. Pascali’s Island made a very nice little film with Ben Kingsley and Helen Mirren. Morality Play became The Reckoning (albeit with a less distinguished cast), but neither was a blockbuster which made a household name out of the writer. Films don’t do that for writers anyhow, just for actors and directors.

So we have the case of one of the most powerful writers of our time confined to–well, not obscurity, but at least to a lesser status–because his versatility makes him hard to market? Could be. It wouldn’t be the first time in this benighted age that logo beat out quality.

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WHO IS JEANETTE AND WHAT DOES SHE WRITE?

 

I discovered Jeannette Winterson because a friend recommended The Passion. I went on to The Power Book, and I had a new literary heroine. She writes more poetically than anyone I’ve read in a long time, loves language as completely as her lovers love each other. No one else I’ve read in modern fiction can render the ecstasy of physical/emotional love as vividly. Or the pain of separation and rejection. The Passion, in addition, takes in huge gulps of geography and  time as it follows its Napoleonic-age anti hero across Europe to the Russian Steppes and back to Venice. The Power Book does the same with the human heart and psyche as the computer upon which the book is being written becomes a metaphor for the mind and heart of the writer/lover. We are one with creator and the creation as we move through an engrossing plot. Sexing the Cherry, like The Passion, goes back in history for a look at the female heart. Not as engrossing as The Passion, it is nevertheless a literary accomplishment of great merit.

 

Imagine, then, my astonishment when a friend whose judgement I generally trust even when we don’t necessarily agree, took a course which assigned Written on the Body and pretty much dismissed it. “I wasn’t taken with it,” was her most definitive comment. I hadn’t read the book, but couldn’t imagine how someone who cared about language could wave away any Winterson. Sadly, I think my friend is right.

Written On the Body is a good example of how a writer’s best traits can betray. All the virtuosity of her love descriptions become tedious and repetitive. It’s a little embarrassing sometimes, as if you’re reading a journal instead of a novel, as if there’s no authorial detachment between the feeling and the event and its literary rendering. Too little of that which Joyce describes as taking the dross of human experience and shaping it into art. I hope I can persuade my friend to go to one of the other books for a second opinion. They’re short, after all. And as for myself, I’ll go for some more Winterson, certainly. The Whitbread ain’t the Booker, but it’s a considerable achievement, and I’ve not yet gotten to Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.

sitting up clapping

 

SHAME AND DISGRACE

I write today out of ignorance, but would rather do that than let the moment pass. Without advance planning I ended up reading the above entitled novels, the first by Salman Rushdie, the second by Paul Coetzee. They are the only works I’ve read by these two celebrated writers–thus my confession of ignorance–and figured it was about time. Disgrace I picked up at the library because it was a Booker winner (1999), Shame because it was there. Unlikely holiday reading, I’d agree, but I am glad I read them in tandem because you cannot imagine two more different treatments of similar themes.

Shame  is fantastic–not in the pop sense of high quality, but in the literal sense of worlds beyond reality. The book is filled with strange beasts and diseases. It travels through vast realms of soul, spirit, government, psychology, medicine, history, politics, religion, philosophy. It takes place in a country that is “not quite Pakistan,” and in a time that ranges from prehistory to the present. I am quite sure that those versed in Indian/Afghan/Iranian history find reams of allegory in the recounting of revolutions and coups and generals and presidents. Once again, I write from ignorance so can be of no help in limning these elements. However, they are gripping enough just on literary terms to justify the read–if you’re open enough to the fantastic. Why the title? Because the people of this country which is not Pakistan is full of notions of honor, and violations of honor bring shame, which brings consequences both for individuals and societies. Rushdie breaks many conventions of modern fiction, one of which is that of the unobtrusive author. This writer is right there all the time directing the reader at every turn, explaining what he’s doing and why–shamelessly, as it were–pulling us back from the fifteenth century to twentieth century London where a father slit his sixteen-year-old-daughter’s throat because she had shamed the family with her (reputed) sexual exploits. When such acts and attitudes reach the national or international level, you get what we now have. And this book was written in 1983.

Disgrace is a work of much smaller scope, but no less impact. The focus is on a literature professor fired for his affair with a twenty-year-old student. The professor is an unlikable sort, given to self-justification of the most fatuous kind, uncaring about others’ opinions to the point of ugly insensitivity.  Societally he is in disgrace, but he doesn’t feel either disgraced or persecuted. He’ll explain himself, but never engage in spin or justification, allowing his actions to speak for themselves.

Searching for direction now that his career is gone, Professor Lurie visits his daughter, Lucie, who is living on a small farm  some distance from his residence in Cape Town. The novel, through Lurie, plays itself out in the contrasts between urban and rural, black and white society/history, intellectual/artistic and agricultural, western and African mores.  In the course of the interaction among all these, we are led not only to understand his disgrace, but the disgrace of all of South African white society–and the degradation that has come equally to black and white society because of it. There’s also a hint of where the path of redemption might lie. Coetzee, though, unlike Rushdie, makes no attempt to explicitly outline any of this. It’s all implied through the look at part the life of the (flawed and often unattractive) protagonist. I do believe that Lurie needed to be about ten years older (he’s only fifty-two) to make some of the description of him work, but maybe they age differently in South Africa.

And a final word. There’s a lot to compare between McEwen and Coetzee. This is a novel which follows the thoughts and emotions of its main character in meticulous detail. However, unlike McEwen, who sometimes lets the joys of wandering around in someone’s noggin divert from the book’s central action, Disgrace is taut with suspense and excitement throughout.

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WHAT WILL ATONMENT BRING?

Continuing on my blitzkrieg campaign to make up for the the fallow no-blog weeks of November, I look today at a literary rock star who is about to allow Hollywood to have a go at his work.

Ian McEwen has been hitherto untainted by the denizens of pop culture despite an international literary reputation. You don’t see his name on the shiny foil covers of airport paperbacks, and as far as I know Elton John has yet to compose a note or word in his honor. I’ve read not a great deal of his stuff. Atonement, Amsterdam, and Saturday is the entire list. They’re all worthy books, and I have no general quarrel with the plaudits he’s received. McEwen invests huge effort into researching a wide variety of professions for his books. Journalism and music for Amsterdam, neurosurgery for Saturday, and both medical and military historical techniques for Atonement, which is set in the first world war. Every professional character seems faultlessly at home in his/her professional skin to this outsider, and I’ve been assured by a surgeon friend that he indeed got it just right in Saturday, so I’m happy to assume the same for the other works. This would be a prodigious writing feat in itself, but accompanied as it is by the ability to delve into the psychology and emotion of the world she creates in rich, poetic language, McEwen is an all-around big-time author. For the ages? Certainly for our times. His greatest strength is to continuously monitor every emotional, physical, and spiritual nuance of his characters. He plays to the strength particularly well in Saturday, which takes place inside the head of one man on a particular–you guessed it–Saturday. To me, this strength is also an occasional weakness because McEwen wanders around in a character’s mind to the expense of a book’s action and through line. He then loses focus and dramatic tension.

I found this particularly true of Atonement, even though I think the book was ultimately more successful than either of the others, partly because of the work’s scope and depth and partly because it essays a fascinating psychological ambiguity which carried forth into the action. Thus, the reader can choose between or embrace at least two possible endings. Very juicy.

Which brings us finally to Hollywood. They’re making a movie of Atonement. Kiera Knightly stars. I have no complaints about Knightly. Pride and Prejudice proved she can act (I liked her in Pirates of the Caribbean also, even though Johnny Depp stole the show.) despite the fact that she’s too pretty for Elizabeth Bennett. She’s been almost as big a surprise as Reese Witherspoon to me, though nothing will ever equal the transformation from Legally Blonde to June Carter. But I digress. I think Atonement could make a fine film EXCEPT for that delicious ending. They’re going to screw it up. I know it, and I dread it. Hollywood won’t be able to stand it. But am I going to see it? Oh. Yeah. Kiera will be enough reason in herself. How about you?

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