A couple of weeks ago, as I was experiencing mounting frustration with contemporary fiction ( with the very definite exception of crime fiction), I went back to Best American Short Stories 2007. I’d read only three or four of the stories; now I read twelve more. (There are twenty in all.) Whenever I approach an anthology such as this one, I like to see which selections especially pleased the reviewers; I read those first. And now, Dear Reader, I shall do the same for you!
First off, let me say that there are some real gems here, thought-provoking, beautifully written, and highly original. One of these I’ve already written about: John Barth’s “Toga Party.” Here are some others of that same high caliber:
In “Balto” by T.C. Boyle, a twelve-year-old girl is asked by her father’s lawyer to lie in open court. Will she? You won’t know until the very end of the story.
In Mary Gordon’s”Eleanor’s Music,” a sophisticated Manhattanite finds she is not as immune from pain and injury as she had thought herself to be. (Many of us have cherished Mary Gordon since reading Final Payments, all those years ago!)
I laughed out loud at “Wake,” Beverly Jensen’s tale of a fractious but loving Canadian family getting ready to bury their paterfamilias. Fate seems determined to sabotage the proceedings; for starters; Dad’s body goes missing!
Bruce McAllister’s “The Boy in Zaquitos,” about the deliberate spreading of plague bacteria, enveloped me in dread. This story, which first appeared in Fantasy and Science Fiction, singlehandedly convinced me that I need to go back and read more stories in that genre. (A very intriguing anthology, Eclipse One, is currently on my always-about-to-collapse night table!)
I have said that Amy Bloom’s novel Away served to awaken the ghosts of my ancestors. Eileen Pollack’s story “The Bris,” veering crazily between rollicking and poignant, did the same. Marcus Lieberman’s father is on his deathbed when he makes a most startling confession to his son: not only was he not born a Jew, he has never formally converted to Judaism, either. And he was never circumcised. It is that omission that he wants to remedy before it’s too late. For his part, Marcus is stunned. Who would possibly agree to circumcise a dying man? Oy gevalt! What to do?
Richard Russo’s unadorned, down-to-earth prose style is perfectly suited to his usual subject matter: ordinary people struggling to get by and to make sense of life in the workaday world. Sometimes, when you get to know his characters, you realize that they are anything but ordinary. In “Horseman.” Janet Moore is one such character. At first, she comes across as a prissy academic; she reminded me of the observation some wag once made about the infighting being so fierce in academia because the stakes are so small. But gradually, Russo leads the reader deeper into Janet’s life and her past, and I found myself responding to her with compassion: “So this, she thought, was heartbreak. She’d read about it, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to get any closer.”
There are three stories I admired but had a problem with. The first, Alice Munro’s “Dimension,” is the story of a horrific crime, narrated with the author’s characteristic understatement. She had me with her right up until the end, when an incident happens to the bereft mother that seemed too obvious, too much like a set-up, at least, in my eyes. I still recommend the story; for the most part, it bears all the hallmarks of this celebrated author’s mastery of the form.
Stellar Kim’s “Findings & Impressions” a story told by a radiologist, was moving and beautifully written, but, I also found it pretty predictable, at least as far as the sad outcome is concerned.
Finally, “Sans Farine” by Jim Shepard was in many ways an astonishing feat of imagination. In it, the author re-creates the life and times of a family whose members, over succeeding generations, held the post of executioner in France before, during, and after the Revolution. Shepard really had me during most of this extraordinary tale, but by the end, I felt he had piled on the gore a bit too relentlessly.
Finally… drum roll…three stories that in this standout collection, IMHO really soared: “L. DeBard and Aliette: A Love Story” by Lauren Groff, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” by Karen Russell, and “My Brother Eli” by Joseph Epstein.
Set in 1918, “L. DeBard and Aliette” is the story of a passionate affair between a championship swimmer and a polio victim. It may be the most erotically charged love story I’ve ever read – truly amazing in its intensity.
In “St .Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” Karen Russell takes a pack of feral – perhaps I should say, lupine – girls and throws them into a Catholic boarding school. They’re there to be civilized and un-wolved, as it were, and the results are predictably outrageous. I didn’t expect to laugh so much while I was reading this story, but I did, over and over again.
Finally, in “My Brother Eli,” Joseph Epstein posits the question as to whether a novelist should be forgiven for using the lives of friends family members as thinly disguised fodder for his work. And believe me, this free and unapologetic using is merely one of numerous sins committed by the eminent novelist Eli Black. This story is told by Eli’s older brother Louis in a simple, straightforward way that quite simply, broke my heart. I feel haunted by it; I’ll undoubtedly read it again – and again…
I looked Joseph Epstein up on the Gale database Literature Resource Center and was quite frankly stunned. Born in 1937, Epstein has had a long distinguished career as a man of letters. I have heard of him, but only barely, and I’m pretty sure “My Brother Eli” is the first thing I’ve read by him. I intend to remedy that deficiency. One of the many praiseworthy aspects of these Best American anthologies is that they bring truly gifted writers to the attention of those that appreciate their gifts.
One of the most rewarding features of this anthology is found in the back of the book and is called “Contributors’ Notes.” For each of the authors whose stories appear in this book, there is an entry giving some background information, followed by an explanation by the author as to what inspired him or her to write the story. Fascinating!
[Jim Shepard, Karen Russell, Mary Gordon, and Lauren Groff]
[Joseph Epstein, T.C. Boyle, Alice Munro, and Eileen Pollack]
Best American Short Stories 2007 sees the debut of a new series editor, Heidi Pitlor. This year’s guest editor is Stephen King. He wrote a terrific introduction to this volume; it appeared in the New York Times Book Review this past September. (I particularly relish what he wrote about big box bookstores. I’m with ya there, Stephen; boy, am I ever!) I’d like to personally thank King for the passion and enthusiasm that he brought to this undoubtedly daunting task.
I’ve already written about “Living with Geese” by Paul Theroux; now, I’d like to recommend several other pieces that are included in this outstanding anthology. (Where possible, I have linked to the stories that are full text online.)
“Murdering the Impossible” by Caroline Alexander (National Geographic) is a riveting profile of mountaineer Reinhold Messner. Messner was born in northern Italy’s South Tirol, a region that identifies almost as strongly with Austria as it does with Italy. Writes Alexander: “To non-climbers it may be difficult to convey the extent and grandeur of Reinhold Messner’s accomplishments.” He is especially famous for climbing Mount Everest without oxygen, a feat he achieved in 1978 with his longtime partner Peter Habeler. Messner’s life story is studded with similar triumphs – and one terrible tragedy.
[On its website, National Geographic has posted an excerpt of "Murdering the Impossible." I found the full text of the article on the proprietary database Academic ASAP, available through many public and academic libraries.]
In “Russell and Mary” (The Georgia Review), Michael Donohue literally stumbles on a box of papers belonging to his newly deceased landlady. The papers pertain to her long dead husband, Russell. From these fragments, Donohue reconstructs an entire life. At first, I wasn’t sure why I should care about Russell – there were aspects of his personality that were repugnant and unsavory. But this essay has a cumulative power, and by the end, I found myself immensely moved by Russell’s sad story.
“Inside Scientology” by Janet Reitman (Rolling Stone). I don’t want to say say much about this piece except that Reitman was granted unprecedented access to the inner sanctum of scientology. Her fair-minded report back to the rest of us is a real eye-opener.
On a lighter note, I thoroughly enjoyed “Rhymes with Rich” (The Atlantic Monthly), in which Sandra Tsing Loh takes cheerful aim at well-to-do wives and mothers who bemoan the logistical challenges of their lives, all the while consoling themselves with high-end brand name purchases and other perquisites of the monied classes.
There were two essays that I found immensely provocative and disturbing: “Our Oceans Are Turning into Plastic…Are We?” by Susan Casey (Best Life) and “Prairie Fire” by Eric Konigsberg (The New Yorker). In the first, Casey describes the discovery, in 1997, by California sailor and sportsman Charles Moore of an enormous accretion of junk in an area of ocean called the North Pacific subtropical gyre:
“It began with a line of plastic bags ghosting the surface, followed by an ugly tangle of junk: nets and ropes and bottles, motor-oil jugs and cracked bath toys, a mangled tarp. Tires. A traffic cone. Moore could not believe his eyes. Out here in this desolate place, the water was a stew of plastic crap. It was as though someone had taken the pristine seascape of his youth and swapped it for a landfill.”
This spot in the Pacific, presently called the “Eastern Garbage Patch,” is now roughly twice the size of Texas.
Casey goes on to describe the deleterious effect that an enormous quantity of non-biodegradable plastic is having on other aspects of the environment – and on us, as it insidiously infiltrates our own bodily systems. Very, very scary.
In “Prairie Fire,” Eric Konigsberg writes about the death of child prodigy Brandenn Bremmer. Brandenn, whose IQ was measured at 178, “…liked the musician Yanni, medieval history, making jewelry, baking cheesecake, lifting weights, playing video games (especially SimCity, SimFarm, and the Command and Conquer series) and Late Night with Conan O’Brien. He was intersted in animals, gross-out humor, and science experiments that he could devise at home.”
But that immense vitality was extinguished by a single violent act. Brandenn was fourteen years old when he died. “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now…”
[As with "Murdering the Impossible," only an abstract of "Praire Fire" is posted on the New Yorker site. It too is available full text on Academic ASAP.]
From the depths of sadness engendered by “Prairie Fire” to the exalted heights of artistic brilliance, from one prodigy to another: in “The Storm of Style” (The New Yorker), Alex Ross shares with readers his wonder at the fireworks display of Mozart’s genius. Along the way, he treats us to some verbal pyrotechnics of his own, and more of the same by other Mozart scholars. To wit:
“The scholar Scott Burnham recently observed that Mozart offers the ‘sound of the loss of innocence, the ever renewable loss of innocence.’ There is no more potent subject for an artist, and it explains why Mozart remains so vivid a presence. As ever, the slow movement of the Piano Concerto No. 23 sends us into a wistful trance; the finale of the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony wakes us up into a uniquely Mozartean kind of intelligent happiness; and the apocalyptic climax of Don Giovanni stirs our primal fear of being weighed in the balance and found wanting. The loss of innocence was Mozart’s, too. Like the rest of us, he had to live outside the complex paradise that he created in sound.”
[That finale of the Jupiter Symphony is incredibly sublime. Get the recording made by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra in the early sixties. By all means, listen to the entire symphony. Then brace yourself for the incandescent conclusion]
Alex Ross seems to have ready just about every book ever written about Mozart. Even more impressive: he has worked his way through virtually all of Mozart’s oeuvre. In 1991, the Philips label issued the complete edition of the composers works on 180 CDs; we are informed that the set has recently been reissued “in a handsome and surprisingly manageable array of seventeen boxes.” Ross transferred all of it to his iPod and informs that “Mozart requires 9.77 gigabytes.”
Alex Ross is a terrific writer on a subject – music – that is very hard to write about. His book The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century made several Best of 2007 lists. I very much look forward to reading it; meanwhile, I’ll continue to enjoy his columns in the New Yorker.
I particularly appreciate what Ross has to say about Don Giovanni: “In a jubilee year, when all the old Mozart myths come rising out of the ground where scholars have tried to bury them, the usefulness of Don Giovanni is that it puts a stake through the heart of the chocolate-box Mozart, the car-radio Mozart, the Mozart-makes-you-smarter Mozart.”
This splendid essay concludes thus: “Don Giovanni, which is many people’s choice for the greatest opera ever written, ends with something like a humble gesture: it dissolves its own aura of greatness.Having marched us to the brink of Heaven and Hell, Mozart abruptly pulls us back, implying that, in the manner of Shakespeare’s epilogues, all is show, a pageant melting into air. ‘I’m just the composer, I don’t have any answers,’ he seems to say. ‘Life goes on!’ And he walks away at a rapid pace, his red coat flapping behind him.”
Here are some links to various lists of the Best Books of 2007:
The Guardian/Observer. I really like this way of writing up the selections, and of course, it’s interesting to read writers’ praise others in their profession. The Times Literary Supplement uses a similar approach, although they have posted only a portion of the entire article online;
Crime Fiction Dossier: I was going to put this with the mysteries, but there are many general fiction and nonfiction titles selected by the participating writers and critics;
The online magazine Slate;
From one of my favorite book blogs: Booksplease
Publishers Weekly – Boy, they’ve really expanded this one! And finally, a perennial favorite:
(In the course of pulling this post together, I came across this list of “Best Novels You’ve Never Read” in New York Magazine.)
Now for the mysteries:
Patrick Anderson, reviewer for the Washington Post and author of The Triumph of the Thriller, has appended a “best” list to his review of Eliot Pattison’s Prayer of the Dragon;
Peter Guttridge, whom I had the pleasure of meeting last year in London, reviews crime fiction for the Guardian/ Observer. Here’s his list of the Best of 2007.
This isn’t a “Best of 2007″ list, but I like it anyway; It’s from Martin Edwards’s site.
At this point, what can one say but…”Look on these lists, ye mighty compulsive readers, and despair!!” Yes, it’s hard to refrain from asking myself how, after a year of especially voracious reading, I have managed to read so few of these books. Well, I didn’t miss all of them: several of the titles that appear in my own Best of 2007 lists did appear in one or two of the above tallies, e.g. Nature’s Engraver by Jenny Uglow, Indian Summer by Alex von Tunzelmann, Cheating at Canasta by William Trevor, On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux, The Secret Hangman by Peter Lovesey, and Death Comes for the Fat Man by Reginald Hill. It was especially gratifying to Laura Lippman’s superb What the Dead Know on so many lists of Best Crime Fiction.
A couple of additional observations:
Two novels appeared repeatedly on the lists: The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano and Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson. (I have read neither, naturally! ) Tree of Smoke won the National Book Award last month; interestingly, it was also the subject of a rather vitriolic takedown by B.R. Myers in the December issue of The Atlantic Monthly
Please keep in mind that I said “some links” at the beginning of this entry. It’s very possible that I’ve missed some good ones, and more lists are certain to appear in the coming weeks. If you spot any good ones not included here, feel free to post the information in the comments section.
Meanwhile – Happy Holidays and Good Reading to All!
Nature’s Engraver by Jenny Uglow. I feel indebted to Uglow for introducing me to the life and art of Thomas Bewick. In the process, she gives us a meticulous re-creation of life in the Tyneside region of England in the late 1700′s and early 1800′s. I am always grateful to authors who transport me in this way to another time and place; in this world, this is the only form of time travel vouchsafed to us .
[Thomas Bewick, and two of his engravings]
On our trip in September, we passed through Tyneside on our way to Edinburgh. We stopped briefly in the lovely village of Warkworth in Northumberland , where we had the pleasure of once again meeting with Ann Cleeves. Finally, we stopped briefly on the windswept coast, then boarded the bus once again. We raced past two places I would dearly loved to have explored: Bamburgh Castle and the amazing Angel of the North
. There is much to see along the A1, which closely follows the historic Great North Road, described so memorably by Reginald Hill in Recalled To Life.
Ass you can see, a storm was bearing down us. Shortly after we boarded the bus, the heavens opened up – real Wuthering Heights weather!
Now, back to the books:
Salem Witch Judge by Eve LaPlante. Not only a rich, illuminating biography of Samuel Sewall, but also a provocative meditation on this country’s Puritan heritage.
Indian Summer by Alex von Tunzelmann. The story of England’s grand adventure – and at times, misadventure – on the subcontinent. The author’s account is peopled with an enormous cast of characters, many of whom prove capable of astonishingly bizarre and perverse behavior. In particular, for those of us who were raised to venerate Winston Churchill and Mahatma Ghandi, there are some disconcerting revelations here.
And finally – the nonfiction book that was the most just plain fun to read, providing as it did great dollops of delicious literary gossip: Uncommon Arrangements by Katie Roiphe.
Favorite Crime Fiction: Mysteries, Thrillers, etc.
The Indian Bride, By Karin Fossum. I’m cheating a bit on this one; it was published in 2005 in the U.K. as Calling Out for You! and was acquired by the library under that title, at which time I read it. But it was “officially” published here this year as The Indian Bride, so I’m considering it as a 2007 title. At any rate – whatever the pubyear or the title, it is well worth reading, featuring as it does one of the most poignant love stories I’ve encountered in quite some time. And of course it benefits greatly by being set – vividly – in the author’s native Norway.
Raven Black by Ann Cleeves, whom we had the pleasure of meeting while touring the U.K. in September. This mystery has a uniquely remote, exotic setting: the island of Shetland, off the Scottish coast.
The Broken Shore by Peter Temple. Granted, it took me a while to get into this book by one of Australia’s premier crime novelists, but once I did, I was fairly riveted.
The Savage Garden by Mark Mills. Italy’s glorious art heritage and the beautiful, mysterious countryside surrounding Florence are the real stars in this tale of love, betrayal – and murder.
The Tinderbox by Jo Bannister. A community of the homeless living beneath London’s highway overpasses becomes realer than real in a novel peopled by completely believable and immensely sympathetic characters.
Water Like a Stone by Deborah Crombie. Okay, it was a bit too long, but it’s always a pleasure to spend time with Gemma James, Duncan Kincaid and company. And I especially enjoyed the canal boat lore that was liberally salted throughout the novel. (Plus Crombie was a such a delight at the National Book Festival!)
The Bad Quarto by Jill Paton Walsh. Yet another delightful academic mystery! Though set in Cambridge rather than Oxford, this novel, with its redoubtable protagonist Imogen Quy, put me happily in mind of Gaudy Night by the formidable Dorothy L. Sayers.
Zugzwang by Ronan Bennett. I haven’t quite finished it, but already I know that this thriller set in St. Petersburg in 1917 belongs on this list.
I was trying to decide on one title in this category as THE best of the year – but it was too hard! And I’m glad of that fact – glad that I enjoyed so much high quality crime fiction published in 2007. So…in addition to the excellent novels enumerated above, these four were, for this reader, truly outstanding:
What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman. Basing her story on the actual disappearance of two sisters from a mall in suburban Maryland in 1975, Lippman has written a novel filled with the pain of irreparable loss.
The Water’s Lovely by Ruth Rendell. What can I say except – she’s still got it! – “it” being the knack for creating volatile, unstable, injured characters, throwing them together, and mesmerizing the reader as the pressure builds and builds… One of this amazing author’s best, IMHO – and that means the best, period.
The Careful Use of Compliments by Alexander McCall Smith. My only hesitation in placing this novel in this category is that the plot features only the barest hint of a mystery. Otherwise, I absolutely loved it! The author combines a great cast of characters with an intriguing story and a setting – Edinburgh – brought vividly to life. Who would have thought it would be so stimulating to spend time with a woman – Isabel Dalhousie – who evaluates everyone’s actions, including her own, as to their ethical and moral implications? (Notice I said evaluate, not judge.) Add to this the fact that at the age of forty-two, she is a new mother and is still embroiled in a passionate love affair with the infant’s 28-year-old father. Who could resist this set-up? And the writing is gorgeous.
[There are some good book discussion candidates on this list, in particular The Indian Bride, The Arsenic Labyrinth, Suffer the Little Children, Raven Black, The Tinderbox, and The Careful Use of Compliments. ]
I have no idea how many parts “Best of 2007″ will consist of, so here goes:
Favorite Fiction Published in 2007
Well…here’s a surprise: There’s not much of it! Or maybe it’s not a surprise. I started many books that reviewers liked and friends recommended, only to put them down in frustration. The fault may have been with me; I don’t know. Anyway, these made the cut:
Cheating at Canasta, by that master of the short story William Trevor;
The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux;
On Chesil Beach by “the Magus of Fitzrovia,” Ian McEwan
And finally, a novel that haunts me still – and may do so forever:
[Any of the above fiction titles would make an excellent book club selection.]