Roberta Recommends: Best of… 2004?

November 7, 2007 at 9:43 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories)

Before I began blogging, I used to send what I called “Bookletters” to various people who regularly asked me for reading recommendations. Looking back through some of these, I thought I’d pass along some of the titles I was urging on people a couple of years ago. Hence, the title of this post. Yes I know – they’re not new or hot at the moment, but think of it this way: They’re probably not still on reserve at the library, and if they are, you can almost certainly get them in paperback!

So, in that spirit, here goes:

old-school.jpg wolff.jpg I believe I’ve mentioned before that I especially enjoy novels set in academia. Old School by Tobias Wolff is an excellent example of this fiction subgenre. It’s a rueful look back at the rarefied, heady atmosphere at an insular New England prep school, just before American culture succumbed to that strangely potent combination of flower power and civic rage that characterized the 1960’s. (Oh, how well I remember it …) Every year, the school invites a famous author to deliver a lecture and to judge a writing competition. In the course of the novel, the school hosts Robert Frost and then Ayn Rand. (Wolff has great fun describing Rand’s visit in particular.) But the writer who’s up next, who really has the boys in a swoon, is Ernest Hemingway. “Big- Two-Hearted River” himself! In person – coming to their school to confer his greatness upon them as a group and to anoint one of them the literary superstar of the next generation! These competitions are ferocious, and on this occasion, one boy decides that he is going to win by any means necessary…

sweet.jpg el-doctorow-1.jpg Short story collections had an exceptionally good year in 2004. E.L. Doctorow’s Sweet Land Stories was pure delight. I laughed out loud at the exploits of the alternately hapless and scheming characters he creates; I had forgotten what a great sense of humor this author has.

runaway.jpg castle-rock.jpg alice-munro.jpg Alice Munro was stellar, as usual, in Runaway. Her prose is so unadorned, her sentence structure so plain and straightforward, that you are never prepared for that punched-in-the-gut moment of truth she invariably delivers. [Update: Munro came out with another collection last year, The View from Castle Rock. If anything, it was even better than Runaway. I particularly liked the first story, “No Advantages,” in which Munro draws on her personal history as she describes a family’s arduous emigration from Scotland to Canada.]

black-book.jpg as-byatt1.jpg A.S. Byatt’s style contrasts markedly with Munro’s. The stories in the slyly titled Little Black Book of Stories are each radically different from the other; all are effective and memorable; some contain elements of the fantastic. For my money, the standout was “The Stone Woman,” a truly remarkable tale of transformation, one could almost say, transfiguration.

bit.jpg trevor190.jpg Finally, there is William Trevor’s A Bit on the Side, a book widely hailed as once of 2004’s finest fiction offerings. Trevor’s style is somewhat similar to Munro’s – simple and direct. Most of the stories are set in the author’s native Ireland. There are some genuinely superb pieces in this collection; I especially recommend “Justina’s Priest” and the title story, which I found extremely moving, more for its restraint than from its overt power of expression. I wasn’t quite as swept away by this book as I expected to be. I think my problem was that I had John McGahern’s luminous depiction of country life in Ireland, By the Lake, in the back of my mind the whole time I was reading the Trevor stories.

[Update: I am currently looking forward to reading Trevor’s first collection since A Bit on the Side, which is the wonderfully titled Cheating at Canasta. Shortly after his memoir All Will Be Well was published in the U.S. last year, John McGahern, also considered a master storyteller, passed away at the age of 71.]

Here are my favorite mysteries from 2004, with updates on the authors mentioned. As you can see, I was on an international “kick” that year:

dont-look-back.jpg Don’t Look Back by Karin Fossum. Exceptionally good writing (and translating) and great atmospherics characterize this Norwegian author’s crime fiction. I went on to read three more titles by Fossum: He Who Fears the Wolf, The Indian Bride (also published as Calling Out For You!), and When the Devil Holds the Candle. The first two of these were outstanding; Devil was good but I didn’t like it quite as much as the others.

dancing-master.jpg henning-mankell.jpg Return of the Dancing Master by Henning Mankell. Set in the sparsely populated north of Sweden, this novel does not feature Mankell’s series protagonist Kurt Wallander. But it is a police procedural and very similar in tone and structure to the Wallander novels, which I love.

Bill Ott of Booklist Magazine sums up eloquently what Dancing Master is about and why it’s so good: “As always, Mankell tells somber, deeply pessimistic stories about widespread hatred lurking below the multicultural surface, but at the same time, he never fails to find a rich vein of humanity deep within the perpetually furrowed brows of his troubled cops.

southwesterly.jpg luizalfredoroza.jpg Southwesterly Wind by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza . This one has it all: great setting – Rio de Janeiro – ingenious plotting, terrific characters. A psychic tells a young man that before his next birthday, he will commit murder. With less than two months until the fateful date and feeling panicky because of the dire prediction, he lays out the terms of his plight to Inspector Espinosa and asks for his help. Unfortunately, as he has no idea who the intended victim might be. Espinosa is understandably baffled – at least, to begin with…

It is the opinion of one Kirkus reviewer that “Garcia-Roza… writes like nobody else in the world.” This author is an emeritus professor of psychology and philosophy at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. When you have individuals with this kind of education and intellect taking up the challenge of writing crime fiction, it is easy to see why so much that is produced in the genre is so artfully structured and beautifully written.

Garcia-Roza makes some provocative observations in this interview about the creative process in general and the writing of crime fiction in particular. For instance, in discussing the difference between writing crime fiction and academic nonfiction, he offers the opinion that “…mystery novels, like mythological thought or ancient Greek poetry, bring to the center of a fictional narrative the most intense and fundamental questions of the human being: death and sexuality.”

(Note: If a mystery has been translated into English, both the original publication date and the date of the translation are provided on the Stop! You’re Killing Me! site. This information can sometimes explain why mysteries written in a foreign language aren’t necessarily published here in series order. This was a big problem when Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander novels first appeared in the U.S.)

ghost.jpg Ghost in the Machine by Caroline Graham. I’d known of this series for a long time but never read any of the novels. Graham is the creator of Inspector Barnaby, who has become familiar to many mystery fans though the Midsomer Murder films. Now I enjoy those programs greatly, but they have always seemed to me to be “Mystery Lite.” So I assumed that the books would be the same. Boy, was I wrong! I was completely caught by surprise – and a very pleasant surprise it was! – by this book. The writing is wonderful and laced liberally with wit; as for the characters, I was totally unprepared for the psychological acuity with which they were portrayed. Ghost in the Machine is a page-turner, yet it is anything but shallow. Graham breathes new life into a venerable subgenre (one that I fervently adore), the English village mystery. She’s a sort of cross between Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell. That’s high praise, I know, but deserved in Graham’s case. I went back and read the series opener, The Killings at Badger’s Drift, and enjoyed it as well, though it doesn’t quite possess the depth of Ghost in the Machine.

Two nonfiction recommendations:

great-game.jpg hitz.jpg The Great Game: The Myth and Reality of Espionage, by Frederick P. Hitz.
Anyone interested in the history of the novel of espionage and international intrigue should hasten to obtain this fascinating book. All the “usual suspects” can be found here. Characters and scenarios created by the giants in the field, from Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Eric Ambler, and Graham Greene, to John LeCarre and Tom Clancy, are set alongside some of their real life – and stranger than fiction! – counterparts.

too-soon-old.jpg glivingston.jpg Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need To Know Now, by Gordon Livingston, M.D.
I’m not much for self-help tomes; they’ve always seemed to me to specialize in the dispensing of platitudes and the regurgitating of shopworn bromides. Livingston is that rarity: a deep thinker who is nevertheless in touch with the common man and woman. He even has a sense of humor, an amazing quality in a man whose life has been marked by tragedy.

I got this book from the library and read it in just about one gulp. It’s a tiny little thing, 168 pages, but packed with hard-won wisdom. I have since bought it, so I can read it again, underline, and write notes to myself in the margins – like “Listen to him and stop being an idiot!!”

The book consists of a series of short essays. Herewith, some of the chapter headings:

“It is difficult to remove by logic an idea not placed there by logic in the first place”

“The statute of limitations has expired on most of our childhood traumas”

“There is nothing more pointless, or common, than doing the same things and expecting different results”

“Happiness is the ultimate risk”

I’d like to close with Livingston’s suggestion for a definition of love: “We love someone when the importance of his or her needs and desires rises to the level of our own.” He then adds: “In the best cases, of course, our concern for the welfare of another exceeds, or becomes indistinguishable from, what we want for ourselves.”

Note (two notes, actually): Gordon Livingston lives and practices psychiatry right here in Columbia (MD). The foreword to his book is written by Elizabeth Edwards.

This article by Dr. Livingston recently appeared in the Baltimore Sun.


  1. Roberta Recommends: Best of 2007, Part Two « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] 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. […]

  2. The Millions: best fiction of the new millennium « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] wanted to include an Alice Munro title on my list. Either the collection the panel chose, or the one selected by the readers. I […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: