Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Books of the year from bookseller Liz Whaley

These are the favorite reads of the year from our beloved, venerable, veteran bookseller Liz Whaley. She basically reads for a living, and these were the ones she thought were the very best in 2013 (plus a few older ones, too).

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt   
My favorite read of the year, this is an old-fashioned novel in terms of plot and as exploration of morality, fate, love, and betrayal.  Theo Decker at 28 looks back on his life and the day he and his mother were at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when an explosion rocked the building and killed his mother.  A devastated Theo survived and when he escaped, he took a Dutch painting, “The Goldfinch,” by Fabritius.  Theo, whose father had left some time ago, now an orphan struggles with his guilt over having the stolen  painting. Written with beautifully chosen sensory images, gorgeous prose, and a stunning lyricism, the novel also has suspense.  New York City, Las Vegas, and Amsterdam are richly described.  Tartt puts us not only in the places but in the hearts and minds of the fascinating, complex characters Theo meets along the way.

You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt
Sarah Zuckerman is a shy, lonely10-year-old living in D.C. in the 1980s.  Her father has returned to his native England; her mother is agoraphobic.  When Jenny Jones moves into the house across the street, Sarah’s life takes on new meaning and brightness.  Cold war rhetoric is heating up, and one rainy day the two girls distract themselves by writing to Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov seeking peace.   Jenny is invited to visit the USSR.  She becomes an international media sensation, and then she and her parents die in a plane crash.  Ten years later Sarah receives a mysterious later suggesting Jenny’s death may have been a hoax.  She sets off for Russia to learn the truth.  A gripping tale superbly told.
The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin 
A highly original short novel told from the point of view and in the voice of Mary, mother of Jesus.  An old woman and a widow, she looks back over her life and that of her son.  The powers that be watch her, not wanting her feelings made known to the world.   She remembers Jesus as a rebellious boy and young man, and she worried when word of his miraculous powers became known.  When Pilate and the Romans were calling for his crucifixion, May recalls trying to get Jesus out of Jerusalem.  When people tell her that he died so that the rest of us could have eternal life, she says it wasn’t worth the sacrifice.  A truly fascinating read which became a big one-woman hit as a play on Broadway.

The Last First Day by Carrie Brown 
I was awed and thrilled by this quietly strong and pervasively beautiful interior novel.  Peter and Ruth, in their late seventies, have been at Derry, a private boarding school for boys in Maine, for 50 years.  Peter has been headmaster for the last 40.  Ruth tells this story from their marriage to this “last first day,” historically the first day of school each year in September.  Ruth loves Peter dearly, but she often regrets having done nothing with her Smith degree except serve, unpaid, as headmaster’s wife.  In Part I, she goes back and forth, but it is in Part II that we get a full account of her unhappy childhood.  Poetic, lyrical, but understated, this novel haunts me, and I look forward to re-reading it at some point.

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini 
An epic novel spanning 61 years from 1949 to 2010 and ranging from Afghanistan to Greece, Paris, San Francisco, Pakistan, and London.  Weaving back and forth in time, the novel introduces a variety of characters and shows ultimately how they are related in some cases, how they disappear from one another’s lives and eventually re-appear.  The history of both the Russians and the Taliban in Afghanistan impinges on the characters’ lives, but there is violence too of a personal and familial type.  Betrayal, loss, love, and redemption all figure in this beautifully written novel.

Someone by Alice McDermott
Going back and forth in time, McDermott weaves the story of an ordinary woman, Marie Commeford, from adolescence until old age.  Using well-chosen sensory images to give us a real, palpable sense of Marie’s world, and that of all the people around her, McDermott writes in spare prose but with perfectly chosen details.  As this Irish American’s tale unfolds with its depiction of love, loss, marriage, birth, and death, it is not dramatic-- there are no huge events--but it’s so lovely, so human.

Ten White Geese by Gerbrand Bakker 
A woman academic has lost her job because of an affair with a young student.  She has disappeared, and her husband has no clue as to her whereabouts.  A mysterious novel which unfolds slowly, it begins in a house she has rented in Wales.  Ten white geese graze in a field next to the house.  Gradually they are picked off by a fox so they are eventually down to four.  The woman is an Emily Dickinson scholar who throughout the novel is focused on the poem beginning “Ample make this bed.” By the end we understand this focus.  Haunting, mesmerizing, unique. 

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud 
The title suggests Bertha Mason, but as Nora Eldridge, the protagonist, says, “We’re not the madwomen in the attic,” but rather “the quiet woman “at the end of the third- floor hallway.”  At 37 Nora is a popular third grade teacher who has given up her dream of being an artist whose ambition was to create meticulous shoebox-sized dioramas of the living spaces of women heroines like Woolf, Dickinson, and Edie Sedgwick.  How Nora becomes attracted to a new Lebanese student, Reza, and his parents, and how initially they pull her back to her dream make for a wonderful, suspenseful read.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
On a cold and snowy night in February, 1910, a daughter, Ursula Todd, is born to a banker and his wife.  She dies before taking a breath.  In another chapter on that same night Ursula is born and does not die.  She grows up, appearing to die at various other times, but then reappearing. In 1930 she kills Adolph Hitler.  Does this alternate dying and surviving give her the power to change the world?  Imaginative, often funny, and poignant, this novel is stunningly original and is also a novel about storytelling.

Canada by Richard Ford – “First I’ll tell about the bank robbery our parents committed.   Then about the murders, which happened later.”  So begins this absorbing novel told by Dell Parsons, now 65, looking back on the time when he and his twin sister, Berner, were 15 and living in Great Falls, Montana.  Why and how the parents rob the bank is made credible as Dell recounts his life from the time they are arrested to his journey to Canada and the strange people he lived with there.  Ford constructs a riveting story.

Other noteworthy reads: Stoner by John Williams, a classic novel from 1965 that has been re-issued several times, written in the pure, plain, uncluttered style of Willa Cather and Kent Haruf, tells the life story of William Stoner; The Gravity of Birds by Tracy Guzeman in which birds, art, a missing painting, love, and passion all play a part; The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, a long novel following the intricate lives, the joys, and sorrows of a group of people who meet one summer at a camp for artistic and creative adolescents; The Professor of Truth by James Robertson, an interesting novel that raises questions of truth, justice and morality based somewhat on the Lockerbee bombing in Scotland in the 1980s. 

Some good mysteries:  In The Dinner by Herman Koch, set in Holland, nothing is what it seems to be in this taut, ominous novel; Ghostman by Roger Hobbs – A terrific noir thriller in which every chapter ends with a cliffhanger; Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin – John Rebus, going against the rules and with his instincts, tries to find a girl gone missing since 1999; Leaving Everything Most Loved by Jacqueline Winspear finds Maisie Dobbs doing much soul searching as she investigates the murders of two Indian women; The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) a superb literary mystery with Cormoran Strike as the appealing 50ish protagonist, a down-and-out private investigator; How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny – the latest Armand Gamache mystery, terrific as always.

Three good nonfiction:  Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed; Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala – heartbreaking memoir of a woman caught up in the Tsunami in Sri Lanka in 2004, beautifully written; Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman – a fascinating window into the author’s time in prison years after getting involved with drug dealers.

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