|The 2020 List
reverse chronological order
»Love in the Time of Cholera
»Strangers on a Train
»The Fact of a Body
»Dept. of Speculation
»Conversations With Friends
»The Family Fang
»A Room With a View
»Under the Greenwood Tree
The 2019 List
The 2018 List
The 2017 List
The 2016 List
The 2015 List
The 2014 List
The 2013 List
The 2012 List
The 2011 List
The 2010 List
The 2009 List
The 2008 List
Sometimes a Great Notion,
Franny & Zooey,
David Foster Wallace
Honorable mentions: Paul Auster, Rick Bass, Michael Chabon, Charles Dickens, Stephen Dobyns, Neil Gaiman, Thomas Hardy, Graham Swift, Tim Winton.
|The books of 2020|
Disappearing Earth (2019, Julia Phillips)
Why I picked it: It got good reviews — one of NYT's top five fiction books of last year, PBS book club, that kind of stuff. Also, I was intrigued that it's set on the Kamchatka Peninsula, a place I know little about.
What it's about: The bookend episodes — the abduction of two preteen sisters, and their mother's search for them — bracket interlinked vignettes of people in modern-day Kamchatka, one for each month in the year after the disappearance.
What I thought: I knew going in that this one wasn't a conventional thriller, but I did not expect how far the narrative would wander. All of the vignettes have at least a mention of the girls' disappearance, and toward the end, the characters start showing up in each other's chapters, but it really doesn't all tie together until the very end. I started getting a little weary of this string of stories about unhappy women and cloddish men. I had expected something a little less quotidian. The writing is good, though, and I did like the setting, which was presented as an Alaska-like place — few cities, natural beauty that draws tourists, substantial native population still following traditional ways of life.
I think I have to say something about the end, but it's enough of a thriller that I don't want to give it all away. The mystery is solved. The reader has known from the beginning that the girls were abducted (this is not a given to some of the characters) but does not know the culprit. The threads of the early chapters are woven together over the course of the novel to make the outcome plausible. Plausible, but unlikely, but the way it had to end if there was to be any sort of reader satisfaction.
Manhattan '45 (1987, Jan Morris)
Why I picked it: Manhattan in 1945 would be an appealing time-machine destination for me, and I liked Morris' "Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere."
What it's about: A snapshot of Manhattan in 1945 — neighborhoods, commerce, politics, transportation, entertainment, etc.
What I thought: If I had known anything about this one going in, I probably wouldn't have started it. I could have realized my misconception if I had just thought about it for 10 seconds longer. Jan Morris is old but she's not 100, and she would have to be close to that if she actually wrote this from her first-person observations in 1945. It turns out Morris (who is 93) made her first trip to New York in the mid-1950s and wrote this more than 30 years later through research.
Her research is fine, and I don't doubt any of the portrayal, but I couldn't really get behind the whole idea of her trying to write basically a travel book about a time/place that she never experienced — and from the omniscient future vantage.
Her solution is to put all the modern perspective in footnotes, writing the main text as if she's a 1945 visitor. The main problem is that, given the conceit, she writes without regard for some of the lenses/contexts that the modern-day reader expects, particularly economic and social inequity. The voice she uses is that of a privileged visitor unquestioning of the values of the 1940s. The chapter called "On Race" veers into the distasteful, as when the narrator marvels at the well-dressed professional black men one encounters in Harlem. ("Good Lord, did black people really occupy these fine houses … which looked just made for nannies, nursery schools and the walking of pedigree dogs? … Was that swish tennis club, the Metropolitan, really for blacks?") I much preferred the later chapters, on things other than people — apartments, stores, night life, boats, newspapers.
So, despite the frequent delightful factoids I picked up, I probably would have been better off to go for one of Morris' other books. I'd like to read "Coast to Coast," her account of her American driving trip in the 1950s, and perhaps "Venice." I think I also started her "Oxford" on a summer trip a couple years ago and never finished it.
Love in the Time of Cholera (1985, Gabriel García Márquez)
Why I picked it: I needed to break my split decision on García Márquez — yes for the novella "Chronicle of a Death Foretold," meh for "One Hundred Years of Solitude" — and this is his other big novel.
What it's about: In a Colombian port city in the late 1800s, a young man loses his intended to another suitor. Fifty years later, he resumes the courtship.
What I thought: Decision to GarMar. I give it a qualified thumbs up. None of the main characters are particularly delightful — I particularly was repelled by Florentino's long-running molestation of an adolescent girl — but I liked the storytelling and the setting.
Strangers on a Train (1950, Patricia Highsmith)
Why I picked it: I was getting the Ripley books from the library for Alex, and this one, which I hadn't read, was right there.
What it's about: An unhappy husband meets a twisted young man on a train who drags him into a murderous plot.
What I thought: It isn't bad, but I would recommend people jump straight to Ripley. This one seems a little like a warm-up for that, with its amoral killer and homoerotic undercurrent. The plot also got off to a bumpy start for me, because I don't have enough of a grasp on the mores of the time to understand why our hero Guy is so stymied over how to end his marriage, given that his wife is pregnant by another man. But it does a good job of getting the reader to put himself in Guy's head — the what-would-you-do sort of narrative. I also liked the descriptions of the settings: the tourist views of Santa Fe and Mexico City in the late 1940s, and an amusement park in Texas.
Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation (2019, Andrew Marantz)
Why I picked it: Topic of interest to me.
What it's about: How we got to this place of such ugliness in online discourse.
What I thought: I've read a few other books on this topic, and this one was definitely the best. It is comprehensive, and really fun to read. I'd read some of Marantz's writing on this topic in the New Yorker, but this goes far beyond just a compilation of those articles.
The book has six parts, each focusing on a person or group of people, and it explores, well, basically like the subtitle says — how the well-intentioned "online community" was hijacked. Some of the hijackers were just out-and-out sociopaths or racists. Some were people who saw themselves as smarter than everyone else and so resisted conventional wisdom and conventional courtesy. Some were looking to make money and realized that clicks = profit. Some saw the internet as a place to amuse themselves, even at the cost of someone else's pain. Some were looking for community and purpose, and they fell in with who they thought were like-minded people. And they all pretty much were allowed to run wild because of the somewhat naively idealistic vision (that's the most charitable read) of the men who created Reddit and Facebook and Twitter.
I don't think my employer — or even me — is completely without blame for some of the less admirable elements of online journalism. The part about "king of clickbait" Emerson Spartz, in particular, mentioned several headline tactics that were familiar to me — some of which I didn't even know were acknowledged tactics, just things that worked in terms of getting clicks.
I can't say I felt any less pessimistic on finishing this book, but I did feel like I understood a little bit better this whole trollosphere, the fringes of which I have to deal with every day.
The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir (2017, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich)
Why I picked it: I ran across a mention of it that described it as genre-bending — true crime woven with personal discovery — and that sounded interesting.
What it's about: The crime is the 1992 murder of a 6-year-old Louisiana boy by a pedophile neighbor. The first-person part is the memoir of a woman who as a student had interned with the killer's appellate lawyers.
What I thought: For the first half or so, I thought it was pretty well done. It set up how Marzano-Lesnevich became acquainted with the case, then went back and forth between the crime/investigation and the writer's childhood. Neither of them is a hugely gripping tale — it was a fairly ordinary child murder (horrible as that is to say), and M-L's family life, though dysfunctional, was nowhere near, say, "Educated" levels. (I wasn't a big fan of "Educated," but I acknowledge that was a seriously fucked-up situation.) Still, she's a decent writer, knows how to structure a narrative.
At some point, though, it became a bit of a stretch for her to maintain the device of twining the stories, particularly since it becomes obvious that she had very little to do with the killer's defense. She conducted her research instead specifically for her memoir 20 years after the fact, and that research was mostly reading the trial transcripts and other people's accounts, rather than firsthand reporting. There's a lot of "imagining" and "re-creating" that goes beyond what I'm comfortable with in ostensible non-fiction, and her prose becomes quite dramatic. Too much is made of some of the connections on which the whole structure hangs: "Two of his siblings died before he was born, and my sister died when I was a baby! And the dead boy has a half-sibling who was born six months after the murder!" Though I have sympathy for the substantial trauma she went through, I started to realize she isn't a person I'd want to spend much time with, in real life or in print, and I didn't linger over the last chapters.
Upstate (2018, James Wood)
Why I picked it: Saw a couple good reviews, and I was familiar with Wood from his criticism for the New Yorker. Also, very nice cover, a Frederic Edwin Church painting.
What it's about: A 60ish British man and his daughter travel to New York after hearing from his other daughter's boyfriend that she is in an emotional crisis.
What I thought: Good book. Very thoughtful on the topics of family, love, passion, tradition, change, whether one can really know somebody else. I also liked reading the British protagonist's thoughts about America on his first visit to upstate New York (specifically, Saratoga Springs and Troy, which I drove around on Google Streetview while reading this). I wasn't far in before I started envisioning him as Bill Nighy, and it totally worked.
The Immortalists (2018, Chloe Benjamin)
Why I picked it: Read a mini-review and thought, wow, what a good premise.
What it's about: Four siblings who, as children in 1969, were told by a fortune-teller the dates of their deaths.
What I thought: OK, it is a good premise. How would you live your life if you had been told — even if you didn't truly believe it — that you would die at 20 or 30 or 90?
The novel follows each of the siblings serially, by order of death. The first part is long, the second less so, the third quite short and then the fourth is drawn-out. By the fourth part, it was losing momentum. I stuck with it, but the story was diminished for me by carelessness with some real-world facts.
The carelessness was particularly jarring because Benjamin put in a lot of verifiable detail — specific addresses, numbers of bus lines in San Francisco, the pre-Vegas biography of Siegfried & Roy, that sort of thing. In fact, it got a little heavy-handed at times, like "Look how much research I did!"
But after a few unlikely coincidences and out-and-out errors of fact*, I realized, OK, the encyclopedia details do not necessarily imply careful plotting. If I think I'm seeing a "clue" or some suspicious element that's going to be important later, I am most likely wrong. It's an unintentional red herring, if there is such a thing. So I damped down my critical brain and just read everything at face value — this guy is really an FBI agent, this guy is really a newspaper reporter — even if things seemed hinky. And I don't like to read novels that way. I don't demand trickiness or surprises, but I like to think there's a smart storyteller at the helm, giving the reader a chance to be an astute observer.
There was one piece of dialogue in Part 4 that with a more conscientious writer I would have thought, "Whoa, big red flag." But because I figured it was just sloppiness instead of significance, I told my brain to ignore it. And then when it turned out it actually was intentional, I was so surprised I exclaimed out loud. That conversation leads to the revelation of a secret that even a discerning reader could not have been expected to guess, because it's sort of a "ha, tricked you!" twist on something the writer has already told us.
The other thing that made the end of the book a bit of a slog is that the last sibling is the one I found least likable. Part 2 was my favorite, and 1 and 3 were pretty good, but I probably could have walked away with 50 pages unread and not felt any qualms.
* Some of the things that bugged me were just developments that seemed unlikely — improbable devices used to move the story along and tie the narrative together. A few details, though, were so disconnected from truth as to be baffling:
• One of the characters, a magician, performs at "California desert casinos" in the late 1980s. The first such casinos opened in 2001.
• That same character, who can barely afford groceries and lives in an RV at a rundown trailer park, has a carphone, which in the late '80s was a luxury item.
• The temperature is said to be "above 90" on the night (the night!) of Dec. 28, 1990. It takes five seconds with Google to find out that Vegas' record high for December is 78 degrees. Plus: That particular week, the last week of 1990, Las Vegas experienced a historic cold snap, and nighttime temperatures were below 20.
• A character named Luke mentions that his brother has the same initials as he does. Luke's brother's name is Asher.
The Woodlanders (1887, Thomas Hardy)
Why I picked it: This is the one I thought I was getting when I read "Under the Greenwood Tree." And it was the only major Hardy novel I hadn't read.
What it's about: Two young women in a small Dorset village circa 1860, and their romantic misfortunes.
What I thought: It was much better than "Greenwood Tree," but I'd still put it below the other Hardy novels I've read. (Except maybe "Jude the Obscure." I have a complicated relationship with "Jude.") I guess I would have liked it to be a few clicks more tragic, and have a different resolution to the marriage that's at the heart of the narrative.
The good stuff is what is always good about Hardy: his cinematically vivid imagery, his deft plotting. He is so great at setting up a chain of events without tipping off the reader until all of a sudden everything clicks into place and it's like oh my god, look how that worked. In this book, there's some casual business with a gray horse bought for the young woman Grace that is just part of the color of everyday life … and then chapters later, the horse, having meandered through the intervening action, drives a significant narrative turn. Hardy always gets me thinking "could this be adapted as a contemporary story?" because the relationships of his characters seem so modern and complex. With this one, I was thinking, yes, I could do it — even figured out a way to replace the horse with a car — but the novel starts with a scene in which a young woman is coerced into cutting off her hair and selling it to a rich woman, and I kept thinking I would not put it past Hardy to all of a sudden bring that hair back in. And he does, though I think I could get around that in the adaptation. I ended up deciding I couldn't put it much past 1950, though, because of a matter involving family law.
In this one, I also liked the focus on the woodlands, and how life in Little Hintock is so enmeshed in the seasons and the trees. There's an episode early on, one of those that reads like you were watching it in a movie, where an old man's bizarrely intimate relationship with a certain tree comes to an end, and it's darkly hilarious but also touching.
Dept. of Speculation (2014, Jenny Offill)
Why I picked it: Offill's new novel, "Weather," has been getting a lot of press, and all the reviews speak highly of this one.
What it's about: A marriage, from start to collapse and beyond, told in little bites.
What I thought: I was lulled by the brevity and the fragmented format into thinking of this as a quick read, but then occasionally it would spring on me insights and depths I wasn't expecting. I particularly liked the portrayal of the narrator's daughter, growing from infancy to the brink of her teens. I wouldn't give this one a big recommendation, but I'm keeping "Weather" on my list.
Conversations With Friends (2018, Sally Rooney)
Why I picked it: I liked Rooney's "Normal People" from 2018.
What it's about: An undergraduate in Dublin circa 2014 becomes involved with the husband of a woman she knows.
What I thought: Rooney has just these two novels so far, but even if she had more I wouldn't be leaping to the next one. Both are concerned with the power dynamics of personal relationships, particularly where class/wealth is involved. They're thoughtful and well-written, and I enjoyed them both, but — especially given that they're very similar in setting and tone and characters — I'm not hungry for more. Part of that might be my preference for novels that take me to a different world. Though these characters are Irish and 20-30 years younger than me, it wasn't a stretch for me to access their concerns and conflicts. The one major theme that is a bit of a generational disconnect from my view is the characters' detached, even ironic, approach to sexual relationships. Everybody seems resistant to declaring love or even any sort of desire or attachment.
The Family Fang (2011, Kevin Wilson)
Why I picked it: Wilson's "Nothing to See Here" was in my top five last year.
What it's about: Two siblings have been scarred by their upbringing as participants in their parents' performance art pieces. As young adults, both suffer personal/professional setbacks at the same time and end up back at their parents' house.
What I thought: Not nearly as good as "Nothing to See Here" (the rough plot of which has a cameo in this book as a movie project of one of the characters). "Nothing" seems to me a lot more focused and simple (though its premise is undeniably bizarre), and it lets one really well-drawn character pull the action along. "Fang," by contrast, is quite frenetic — never really settles down, and every chapter there's another strange twist, clear to the end.
Movie: Hadn't heard of it before, but there's a 2015 feature directed by Jason Bateman and starring Bateman and Nicole Kidman as the siblings (both playing 15 years older than the book) and Christopher Walken as their father. Didn't get great reviews, but ... Christopher Walken.
A Room With a View (1908, E.M. Forster)
Why I picked it: I had just finished "Howards End."
What it's about: A young woman in Edwardian England fights her attraction to an unconventional man.
What I thought: At least right now, I like this one better than "Howards End." It's more lively, with younger main characters, a less ambivalent ending. Although, somewhat contradictorily, it seems less modern, particularly in all the fuss at the start about a kiss.
Movie: I rewatched the 1986 Merchant/Ivory version. It held up very well. Daniel Day Lewis is great as Cecil — he's still every inch the prig he is in the book, but Day Lewis makes him kind of amusing and worthy of sympathy — even though the movie pretty much denies him the tearful mea culpa in his final scene with Lucy. Earlier, there's a blink-and-you-miss-it shot where Cecil is seen out a window over someone's shoulder and he's swatting at a bee or something; it's one second of genius physical acting. I also forgot how good Simon Callow is as Mr. Beebe. Because of the necessary condensing of the narrative, you don't get to see the full opening up of George, but Julian Sands is still very good.
Under the Greenwood Tree (1872, Thomas Hardy)
Why I picked it: I have liked other of Hardy's novels — in descending order of preference, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, The Return of the Native, Far From the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Jude the Obscure. I thought I had run across a mention that "Greenwood Tree" was Hardy's own favorite, but now I'm wondering if it wasn't "The Woodlanders."
What it's about: The courtship of a young couple circa 1830 in Hardy's Wessex (southwest England).
What I thought: This is an early Hardy novel, and it's much different than those that came later. It's sentimental and humorous, with none of the dark tone I associate with Hardy. For me, it was too sentimental. The main characters are a rather uninteresting young man and an immature young woman (though she matures somewhat by the end of the novel). It's short, thankfully. I appreciated it most for its humor, some intentional* and some not**.
*When one character says of another's wife, "'Tis my belief she’s a very good woman at bottom," and the husband replies, "She’s terrible deep, then."
**There are multiple references to the "back hair" of women, which are quite funny if you interpret that as the hair on one's back rather than the hair on the back of one's head. I also laughed out loud when Dick is returning from "nutting" and encounters his beloved on a dark path: " 'Is it you, Dick?' 'Yes, Fancy,' said Dick, in a rather repentant tone, and lowering his nuts."
What's next: I might still read "The Woodlanders," but I hope it's not as sweet.
Howards End (1910, E.M. Forster)
Why I picked it: I hadn't read any Forster since "A Passage to India," and that was decades ago.
What it's about: Two sisters in early 20th-century London, and their dealings with a wealthy industrialist's family and a poor clerk.
What I thought: I had seen the Merchant-Ivory movie of "Howards End" when it came out, and in my mind it was apparently mixed up with "A Room With a View," because at first every new character I kept thinking, oh, is this Daniel Day Lewis? Eventually I straightened out which movie this was — Helena Bonham Carter, Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins — though I didn't have much recollection of the plot.
It's a good book. It occasionally gets a little talky, but that's mostly the sisters' dialogue, and it's in keeping with their earnest, emotional characters. That's tempered by a drily whimsical tone that occasionally bubbles into funny passages:
• "The niece was now mortified by innumerable chickens, who rushed up to her feet for food. She did not know what animals were coming to."
• "'A woman's been here asking me for her husband. Her what?' (Helen was fond of providing her own surprise.) 'Yes, for her husband, and it really is so. ... I offered Bracknell, and he was rejected. ... Oh, dear, she was incompetent! She had a face like a silkworm, and the dining room reeks of orris-root.'"
It was more modern than I expected, except perhaps in the matter of the marriage of two of the main characters. I had a hard time understanding why she married him, and stayed married, and I suspected that a lot of the reason was that it was 1910.
What's next: I'll put "A Room With a View" on the list, and I might want to reread "A Passage to India."
Movie? BBC did a 4-episode version a couple years ago that I'd like to see. Seems kind of odd casting that patriarch Henry Wilcox — the Hopkins role — is played by Matthew Macfadyen, who was barely 40 at the time
The Group (1963, Mary McCarthy)
Why I picked it: I've been running across mentions of it for years.
What it's about: Nine new Vassar graduates in the 1930s.
What I thought: I knew this came out in the early '60s, so I figured it was set in the '50s. It's not. It starts in 1933 and runs for six or seven years. Oddly, it even feels like it was written in the '30s. Except for one sex scene, it feels a lot more like Booth Tarkington than McCarthy's contemporaries on the best-seller list (Salinger, Bellow, even "Up the Down Staircase.") The attention to psychoanalysis and breast-feeding in particular feels really dated, and the whole tone is pretty melodramatic. The main events that befall the women are connected to the men who dump them or mistreat them. Maybe this is just accurate toward the time — that Vassar women in the 1930s ended up as overeducated wives and mothers rather than professionals — but it makes for kind of a pathetic narrative.
I found most of the women unsympathetic — not just the couple I assume I'm supposed to dislike, but everyone except the oddest duck, Helena.
So, yeah, no recommendation from me. And no desire to see the 1966 movie, though Sidney Lumet directed.
Olive Kitteridge (2008, Elizabeth Strout)
Why I picked it: It was very well-received when it came out, but I didn't find the description appealing — Olive sounded like a pretty odious person to me. But the HBO miniseries sounded good (Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Peter Mullan), and now there's a book sequel, so I thought I'd give it a shot.
What it's about: A woman — wife, mother, schoolteacher — who lives in Maine. It ends in the 2000s, when she's about 75.
What I thought: I doubt I'll read the sequel. I know Olive is not supposed to be likable, and there is, I guess, a little redemption toward the end, but overall I found the book too bleak and depressing because of the way Olive treats people. It's written as 13 chapters, each of which could stand alone as a short story, and four of which include only a passing mention of Olive. I liked the writing style. I've had Strout's "My Name is Lucy Barton" on my list for a while; it doesn't sound like it's a barrel of fun, either, but I might still give it a try.
The Leopard (1959, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa)
Why I picked it: I had hastily and/or partially read it many years ago and wanted to do it right.
What it's about: A Sicilian prince in the later part of Italy's Risorgimento, when Sicily was united with the states of the Italian peninsula.
What I thought: I think I almost spent less time thinking about the story than about 1) how this book came to be, and 2) how it came to me.
To take the second first, I have a vague memory of being assigned to read this in college -- I can picture the paperback copy I had — and I'm thinking it might have been for a historiography class I had in my first quarter a freshman. At any rate, not much of it stuck. I have a much stronger memory of seeing Visconti's movie, at an old Hollywood movie house. I think that must have been a 20th anniversary release, which would put it in 1983. I have recently been wanting to rewatch the movie and figured it would be good to read the book properly before I do.
On to the first matter: I started reading the book (this time) with the assumption that it was written in the early 20th century, maybe 50 years after the events described. And then at one point the narrator, in something of an aside to the reader, mentions traveling by jet. And I'm thinking, OK, there's probably a non-anachronistic explanation; I mean, Dickens' "Bleak House" (1852) mentions "a magnificent refrigerator." But I flipped to the front and, yep, this was published only three years before the movie came out. It got me wondering what was going on in Italy in the late 1950s that a book like this would become such a hit (and it apparently was, popularly and critically). That piece of history is something of a blank to me. I think my main source would be Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels, which don't give many clues as to why Italians would be nostalgic for 100 years previous. Maybe that's what I was supposed to be figuring out in historiography class.
So, finally, the story. It's a lot less involved with specific historical events than I remembered. The reader can get by with a very basic familiarity with Garibaldi. It is more about the end of an era, and how the fictitious Prince of Salina — one of "the lions, the leopards" of that era — deals with it. I liked the prince, and I liked the sense of place and of a way of life. The narrative goes a lot quicker than I had expected. The chapter about the prince's last hours is perhaps the best depiction of death I've encountered except maybe "All That Jazz." I thought it could have ended right there but there's a coda about his daughters in their old age. I'm definitely glad I read this book
The movie: I rewatched it right after finishing the book — Criterion's three-hour Italian version. (Though almost all the actors were Italian and spoke Italian for the movie, Burt Lancaster spoke English, as did Claudia Cardinale, for some reason, and Alain Delon spoke French. The Italian version dubs those three. The shorter American version, disavowed by director Luchino Visconti, uses Lancaster's own dialogue and everyone else is dubbed.) It is a good and faithful rendition of the book, though it ends much earlier (to my thinking, an improvement). There were unexpected little touches from the book that aren't called attention to but add to the whole atmosphere — the cake called Triumph of Gluttony, the party urinals, the constant presence of the dog Bendico (who turns out to be quite an important character in the book). It includes a lengthy battle scene which was not in the book and which I don't think adds anything — it's the sequence that looks the most dated from a cinematic point of view. A good movie, and enhanced by my reading of the book.