Wednesday, December 29, 2004


It was a good year for reading. Here's a meandering, uneven look at a stack of the best books I read this year (cobbled together from an earlier reading journal, when necessary):

Cloud Atlas was my hands down favorite. I haven’t been this excited over a book since discovering Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red in the spring of 2003. Both clever and brilliant, funny and heartbreaking, the book left me feeling exhilarated and full of hope—an amazing achievement considering that we’d been through the end of civilization and back again. A couple of the story lines, the contemporary ones, seemed of lighter heft when first introduced, and my attention flagged, but both managed to convince me of their import in their concluding sections.

There are numerous reviews of this one out there, and I particularly enjoy the Byatt and Norfolk (Complete Review), so I’ll not say more here except, oh, how I wish I’d written this book.

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From its first paragraph:

“Muthengi was fourteen years old when he first saw a column of shining-skinned young Kikuyu warriors swinging along the forest’s edge toward the plains, like a ripple of wind across a field of ripening grain, on the way to war. Afterwards he could not remember the names of the warriors, nor the boasting words they had shouted to his father as they loped past, nor even the designs painted boldly in black and red on their long shields; but from that moment he became a warrior; his spirit marched with theirs, and dreams of battle filled his waking mind. While others of his age were preoccupied with their skill in games, with the herding of goats, or with bird-scaring among the millet, he would practice hurling sticks against the trunk of a banana tree; and in his imagination bronze-limbed Masai warriors surged in full retreat over the millet-fields, and captured Masai cattle flowed in a brown flood over the pastures of his clan.”

To its last:

“He was glad that God had decided to bless his wives with fertility, now that he had been baptized a Christian. The name of the child, he decided should be Aeroplane. His wife, he thought, would never be able to pronounce such a difficult word, but educated people would know, and understand.”

Elspeth Huxley describes the lives of four generations of a family in Kenya, both before and after European settlers—the Red Strangers of the title—move in and transform their way of life. Female circumcision rites are presented. Customs and beliefs and morality are encountered and come to seem more logical to the reader than those substituted by the Europeans.

R. selected this one in Borders three or four years back, although I don’t think she ever got around to reading it. It’s out of print now, but is definitely worth going through the trouble of getting through interlibrary loan.

I’d stuck this note in the back of Red Strangers:

“First we must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relatism.” –Aime Cesaire

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Anne Tyler has been my favorite writer for 25 years now, but she never made me cry until this January. The Amateur Marriage is definitely the best Tyler of recent years although it's no Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant or Searching for Caleb; although passing reference is made to Ezra's gizzard soup and the private investigator hired by the Pecks, I was happy to note. I didn't like it at first; I read the first three chapters the night my Amazon shipment arrived and was terribly disappointed by how ordinary the characters seemed. But everything clicked for me the next day, and it became a book that I literally didn't want to put down. I teared up several times and wound up crying for an hour after I'd finished it. Realized later that I must have been subconsciously comparing Michael and Pauline's relationship with my parents', and when it eventually veered off on a different course, well, I think my heart broke for four people instead of for two.

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William Boyd wears sly boots. Prior to publishing Any Human Heart, which includes cover art by and mention of New York artist Nat Tate, who destroyed most of his work before jumping off the Staten Island Ferry at age 31, he wrote a biography of Tate, in which he claims that he first learned of Nat Tate while editing the collected journals of Logan Mountstuart (the protagonist of Any Human Heart). Tate, of course, is as fictional as LMS himself, but Boyd managed to fool quite a few people who should have known better before it was all revealed as a hoax. I'm only disappointed in that Nat Turner: An American Artist is out of print, because I would enjoy looking for it in bookstores, where, same as with Steven Millhauser's Edwin Mullhouse, I would probably find it mistakenly shelved with the biographies.

I encountered—briefly-- two or three of the characters from Any Human Heart in Boyd’s The New Confessions later in the year and was happy to see them. Logan Mountstuart, through whose journals readers view both the 20th century and his evolution as a writer, managed to both infuriate me with his actions while making me care deeply about what happened to him.

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Not epic in scope like Any Human Heart, but also told through the journals of another infuriating antihero narrator, Kate Christensen’s The Epicure’s Lament was a joy from start to finish. I wound up loving the determinedly unlovable misanthropic Hugo Whittier, whose intentions to read and eat and smoke himself to death go wonderfully askew. I’ve read all Christensen’s novels, but this one is by far the best. I can’t wait to read it again.

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From my journal last February:

I ventured out in the early hours of last Thursday's snow storm to pick up Guy Vanderhaeghe's latest, The Last Crossing, at the public library based on a glowing endorsement from a Readervillan with impeccable taste and the fact it'd just been chosen winner of the Canada Reads program. The biggest snow storm of the past 16 years and a book I was most anxious to read--an unbeatable combination.Or so I thought. From Thursday to Saturday, I managed only 40 pages in The Last Crossing. It refused to snare my attention. I'd read Vanderhaeghe's The Englishman's Boy back in the fall of '01 and came away with a feeling of "eh," and that's all I was managing with this one. I much preferred watching Season 1 eps of Angel with S. On Sunday I picked it up again and it was good. Very good. By the time I finished it last night I'd decided The Last Crossing is, next to Lonesome Dove, the best western I've read. The ending is probably a little too good to be true, the identity of the murderer a little too underscored, and now that I've looked back on the first 40 pages I'm not sure exactly what my problem was there, except that the book refused to come alive for me until Custis Straw was introduced peeing on the haystack behind the livery and hauled off to jail, so maybe the book should have started there, and all the previous stuff worked in later, or left out altogether? Maybe I just shouldn't expect a book to grab me if I can't manage to give it more than five or ten minutes' worth of attention at a time.

At any rate, The Last Crossing is the story of Victorian brothers Addington and Charles Gaunt, who have been sent to Fort Benton by their domineering father to search for Charles' twin Simon. Simon had earlier gone to America with an insane minister who believes "Red Indians" are the Lost Tribes of Israel, and has not been heard from since. The brothers, evil former military captain Addington and not particularly talented artist Charles, hire a half-breed guide, Jerry Potts, and a sycophant reporter to write a book on Captain Gaunt's hunting adventures. They agree to take along Lucy Stoveall, who pretends to be looking for her brutal husband instead of the men she's sure recently raped and murdered her younger sister. Custis Straw, Civil War veteran and book's true center, takes off after Lucy, whom he loves, and his best friend, saloonkeeper Aloysius Dooley, takes off after Custis. Beautiful descriptive writing, characters with interior lives and individual voices, witty, lively dialogue. Finest kind of book.

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C. first introducted me to Kate Atkinson back in ’99 with Behind the Scenes at the Museum, and I’ve been a fan since. I had this to say about Not the End of the Story back in January: Totally enchanting mix of contemporary and/or apocalyptic short stories that twist into updated versions of classical myths, liberally sprinkled with references to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. Made me want to reread Human Croquet for another wallow in the catnip that is Kate.

Case Histories is even better than the story collection.

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I wonder how long it'll be before Orhan Pamuk wins the Nobel Prize? I started Snow before the Europe trip and was just blown away. I shouldn't have attempted to read it in Germany since it's a book that deserves more concentration than I could give it there, although I experienced a frisson reading about Ka living in the Turkish sector of Frankfort while we were staying at in an apartment in the Turkish sector of Berlin. I'll be a better reader of this one the next time and I'll read Dostoevsky's Demons before I do. Margaret Atwood wrote the best review I've seen of Snow. (New York Times)

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Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian. My favorite review comes from Forty-Two: "The past as epic fantasy – with bird watching. A 5,000-page buddy movie (but not the crap Hollywood version). Introvert and extrovert fall in love, go around the world (without violating Article XXIX). Best is #13 – tea with an orangutan atop a volcano."

I haven't reached the orangutan yet, but I love the debauched sloth.

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Not available for the photo op:

Anne Tyler was interviewed in the NY Times earlier this month. She said she reads contemporary fiction "nonstop," and that new writers seem "to be starting out at a higher and higher level." She said she was reading "fresh, funny, quirky" The Sleeping Father by Matthew Sharpe. The Sharpe was on the new book cart in the back when I went to work that evening, and since I'd finished the Boyd the day before, started it immediately. Astringent, darkly humorous, ultimately warmhearted, I doubt I would have trusted a book giving the postmodernist treatment to a family dealing with a parent's coma and stroke and subsequent rehab to do anything more than push all my buttons, but Sharpe made it work. I loved the relationship between Chris and his best buddy Frank Dial. (February)

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Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins. I don't know where Wiggins is from, but I doubt it's North Carolina: shortening the name "Foster" to "Fos" works well to underscore the character's interest in phosphorescent light, but it's generally pronounced "Fawster" around these here parts. Otherwise, I loved, loved, loved this book until the end, when the coincidences and Wiggins' desire to set up generational parallels got a little out of hand. I'd like to pick up a used copy of this sometime. (August)

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I luxuriated in Colm Toibin's The Master all of last week, and if it weren't for books I have to read now (because, you know, due dates trump current interest nine times out of ten in my world), I'd let that one chart my course for a good while to come. I should give The Golden Bowl another try. I have a leatherbound edition of James' short fiction that I'll work my way through first, though. And maybe Milly Theale won't make me want to pull my hair out if I read Wings of the Dove again now that I know about Minny Temple. But before I get around to any more Henry James, I want to read Constance Fenimore Woolson, Alice James' diary (I checked it out last week, and two days later someone came in and asked me to help her find it for her women's diary class, and I brought it back in to her), and R.W.B. Lewis' bio of the James family. At the moment I'm reading Oscar Wilde, whose theatrical success came as James' debut resoundingly failed. (September)

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