“Personal best” for 2008: Fiction, with a (brief, I promise!) sentimental digression

December 10, 2008 at 3:43 am (Best of 2008, books, Family)

I’ll begin with a confession. There are times when working on this blog seems like just that:  work. Drudgery. A slog. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve derived great pleasure from many aspects of  this experience. And I really amaze myself, in one respect: Did I ever think writing well (or at least, reasonably well) would be  easy? If I did…shame on me!

The reason I’ve begun this post in this manner is that I am finding, as I go back through the past year of Books to the Ceiling, that I am thoroughly enjoying myself. Does this sound outrageously narcissistic? I hope not. I’ve been perusing the archives in search of my “personal best” for 2008. That’s the part that’s been just plain fun. In addition, there’s been a revelatory component: as I got closer to  January and February, I was seeing items that I’d almost completely forgotten about.

benercia And I really had to laugh at myself when I got to June. At first I was perplexed by the paucity of posts for that month; then I thought, Oh, yes, there was a reason..a  very good reason.. the best in the world, in fact!

Okay, right; any excuse to place yet another picture of  Erica and Ben in Books to the Ceiling! I’m sure you’ll indulge me just once more,  Faithful Readers…

But where was I? Oh yes -back to the books!  To begin with, my definition of “personal best”  includes anything noteworthy that I read in year 2008 – regardless of when it was originally published.

I’m starting with fiction (excluding crime and suspense) and I’m presenting my picks in two groups.

netherland sleepy trauma

cleaver1 senators

In the first group: five novels that I very much enjoyed and would warmly recommend to interested readers:

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill. This title was recently named by The New York Times as one of the ten best books of this year.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. Oh dear – Whatever happened to my resolution to  read more of Irving’s works?  Sleepy Hollow was so thoroughly entertaining!

Trauma by Patrick McGrath. McGrath is a master of the psychological novel; I also recommend an earlier work in this vein,  Asylum.

Cleaver by Tim Parks. I really liked the throw-caution-to-the-winds writing that made Cleaver such a wild ride. I haven’t liked everything Parks has done, but I do admire his willingness to go slightly crazy in his fiction from time to time. (Parks has also written several nonfiction works about living in Italy.) Of his earlier works, I very much enjoyed Tongues of Flame and Goodness. For readers like myself who are always alert for a novel that features a provocative moral dilemma, Goodness is a real gift.

The Senator’s Wife by Sue Miller. I have enormous respect for this thoughtful, intelligent writer. Although I enjoyed reading this novel, I did have some reservations about it, and I think I liked Lost in the Forest a bit more.

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In Group Two: four novels that were quite simply stellar.  They are not only the best novels I read in 2008 – they’re among the best I’ve ever read:

unaccustomed Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. Lahiri rode to prominence on the recent wave of astonishingly gifted writers with ethnic ties to the Indian subcontinent: Manil Suri, Amitav Ghosh, Monica Ali, and Rohinton Mistry, to name a few. Her first published work, the marvelous story collection Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000. Next came The Namesake, which I liked, but not quite as much as Interpreter. Then this year: Unaccustomed Earth, another short story collection, which may be her best work to date.

shooting2 The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate. Thank you, thank you to Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley for urging this small, unassuming masterpiece on area readers. The perfect read for Anglophiles in particular and lovers of terrific writing in general.

thief The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Numerous passionate readers had been pressing me to read this book since it came out, to great acclaim, two years ago. I was avoiding it for a number of reasons: it was long – in excess of 500 pages; I perceived it as a book for children or young teens, an area I don’t normally read in; I had heard that it was narrated by Death, and this fact put my “gimmick-ometer” on high alert. Finally, I knew that The Book Thief was about my least favorite subject, World War Two.

Nevertheless, I decided to listen to it. Let me say right off: this is probably the most riveting recorded book I have ever encountered. The reader is Allan Corduner, a British actor whose vocal range and powers of empathy are astonishing. As for the novel itself…well, others have already said it, but I’ll say it anyway: Zusak has told a tremendously powerful story with great skill. And as for the characters: I came to care about them as though they were my own family.  These are dangerous ties of affection to develop in wartime Germany. Zusak records the fate of his fictional creations with the kind of unblinking eye that  I have rarely encountered in contemporary fiction, tempered though it is with restraint and compassion. I shall never forget young Liesel Meminger and her brave and difficult  passage through the Hell of Hitler’s Reich.

anya Writing about The Book Thief has reminded me of an extraordinarily powerful novel of the Holocaust that I read shortly after it came out in 1974: Anya by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer. This book was out of print for many years; I am delighted to see that it is once again available.]

fortune And last, but most certainly not least, a beautiful novel of love, loss, and all that can befall us poor mortals in between: The House on Fortune Street by Margot Livesey.

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Watch this space for my nonfiction and crime/mystery fiction picks – coming soon!

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