As has been the case for This Reader for the past few years, the pickings in fiction were slim. I picked up several highly touted new titles, only to put them down, with a sigh of frustration. Nonetheless, there were several that made the grade.
The Swans of Fifth Avenue was a pleasant surprise. I wrote about it in a post entitled Book list for a Friend, Part One: Fiction. As I recounted therein, I expected to dislike this book and wouldn’t even have picked it up were it not book club ‘assigned reading.’ At any rate, I was glad to have read it. It has a narrow focus: the female elite, or “swans,” as their friend and acolyte Truman Capote dubbed them, who dominated the social scene in mid-twentieth century Manhattan. But give author Melanie Benjamin her due: she really nailed the zeitgeist and its principle agents.
I was living in Manhattan with my family at this time – though mostly away at college – so I actually have some memory of the comings and goings and general notoriety generated by this wealthy and idle cohort. There was copious news coverage, never more so than for Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball. (Interestingly enough, on its fiftieth anniversary, this famous occasion has once again been deemed news worthy.)
Oh, and the discussion was excellent.
With Dictator, Robert Harris concludes his trilogy based on the life of Cicero. As with Imperium and Conspirata, Harris has given us a riveting account of a complex, fascinating human being navigating his way through turbulent times.
Where historical fiction is concerned, he has risen to the top of my list of favorite novelists. Hail Robert Harris!
I loved Ian McEwan’s wickedly witty Nutshell. Leave it to this inventive, amazingly gifted writer to turn an outrageous conceit like the premise of this novel into high art!
Two short story collections won me over completely this year. The first, Tongues of Flame by Mary Ward Brown – known to her friends and neighbors in Alabama as “Mary T’ – was published in 1986. I first heard of this author from Paul Theroux in his superb book Deep South. Theroux himself had never heard of her until his travels in Alabama led him to a meeting with her. Shortly before that meeting, he read Brown’s stories for the first time.
I told Mary T how pleased I was to meet her. As a short story writer she was the real thing, with a perceptive view of the South today. She wrote about the new tensions, her neighbors and her town, without affectation, in the clearest prose….
Her writing was direct, unaffected, unsentimental, and powerful for its simplicity and for its revealing the inner life of rural Alabama, the day-to-day, the provincial manners and pretensions, the conflicts racial and economic. No gothic, no dwarfs, no twelve-year-old wives, no idiots, no picturesque monstrosities, nothing that could be described as phantasmagoric.
(That last bit, an allusion to Faulkner, among others.)
In “The Amaryllis,” a retired judge, newly widowed, has been given this flower as a gift. Alone in the house, he is increasingly taken with the amaryllis’s showy, assertive beauty. As its blossoms strive toward full maturity, he finds himself yearning to share the sight with others.
He didn’t look at the amaryllis again until after supper, when he went up and turned on all the lights in the front of the house. He turned on crystal chandeliers, table lamps, all. In his mind’s eye he could see the house as it looked from the street, an 1850 colonial cottage in its original setting of trees and boxwoods, all lit up as though guests were expected….
In the handsome room, in artificial light, the amaryllis seemed to have taken on glamour, like a beautiful girl all dressed up for the evening. All dressed up and no place to go, he thought.
The strange thing was, he’d never “felt” anything for a plant before. On the contrary, he’d dismissed them all as more or less inanimate like potatoes and turnips, not animate in the way of cats and birds. He had bought dozen of hospital chrysanthemums, often delivering them himself in their foil wrapping and big bows, but they had seemed more artificial than real. The amaryllis was different, entirely. He liked just being with it. Because of its size, he supposed, it seemed to have individuality, and then he had watched it grow daily, with his naked eye. Looking at the blooms, he thought of words like pure and noble, and old lines of poetry like “Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.”
The other collection is by Constance Fenimore Woolson. Written in the latter half of the 1800s, these stories have been gathered together in a single volume entitled Miss Grief and Other Stories, edited by Anne Boyd Rioux, who has also penned a biography of this inexplicably forgotten author. I’ve written about Woolson and her immaculately crafted tales in a recent post. I’ll probably write about her again. I’ll certainly be reading the stories again.
In part two of Best Fiction Reads 2016, I’ll be discussing yet another gem by Alexander McCall Smith, and a highly original and immensely powerful novel by Argentine writer César Aira.