Happy New Year!
With a new baby in the house, 2009 was a tough reading year for me. I read fewer books, and, because I was often in a zombie-like state of sleep deprivation and/or reading on my iPhone while nursing a baby in the middle of the night, sometimes the quality of the books I did read was not as I might have prefered. Still, I read a few books this past year that I would count among (an admittedly longish list) the best I’ve ever read:
The Housekeeper and the Professor – Yoko Ogawa
A quiet, subtle book that possesses a certain wistfulness that is common to a lot of modern Japanese lit. Also common to a lot of Japanese lit: a bittersweet element relating to a relationship that goes unfulfilled in some way. In this case, doubly unfulfilled: unrequited love, and a man who cannot remember those who love him like family. Ogawa gets credit for managing to successfully write a novel about a man whose memory only lasts for 80 minutes — how does he build relationships if he cannot remember anyone from a few hours before? And I give her credit for writing a novel about math. Explanations of formulas and theorems and so on as part of fiction might turn some people off — I certainly thought I’d be one of them — but Ogawa makes it work.
Dreams from My Father – Barack Obama
I was completely wowed by this memoir, written well before Obama became president, or even ran for the Senate. It’s that aspect of the book, I think, that’s so startling. It’s impossible to read it, of course, without knowing what becomes of the man who in his youth and early adulthood struggles with his identity and purpose so much. Beyond that though, the memoir is well-written, with lyrical descriptions and an honest, thoughtful voice. Like any good memoir, this book is about much more than Obama’s life story, and I was impressed with how wide Obama’s worldview seemed to be – and how his thinking about community, race, history, and identity as displayed in this book were echoed in his presidential campaign. (Did he and his handlers do that on purpose? Is he that singularly focused?) I suppose I should say that in the run-up to the election last year I was what might be described as a lukewarm Obama supporter. I didn’t expect to be so blown away by this book, and I don’t think it’s perfect. There are moments in which I felt Obama glossed over some difficulties in his life – there’s no doubt he comes out looking pretty good in most of the situations in the book (though by no means all). The presence of his mother in this book is a bit foggy as well. I wondered how she felt about her son’s quest for identity. But these are small complaints. I came away believing that Obama may be one of American history’s great thinkers, and I feel lucky to be able to watch his career unfold.
Olive Kitteridge: A Novel in Stories – Elizabeth Strout
From a craft perspective, these are some of the best short stories I have ever read. In my MFA program, there was occasional discussion of the “prefect” short story, and if there is such a thing, I would guess that the stories in this collection are darn close. These are not easy stories to read, and I found myself at several points in the book having to put it down for a while – days even – before I could return to the thick emotion that pervades each story in the collection. They are not, despite that, heavy-handed, nor are they maudlin. This novel-in-stories revolves around a retired teacher, but also the small Maine town she lives in. The town and its people are undeniably American – by that I mean, it’s possible to come away from this book having read about the whole, not just a tiny slice.
Revolutionary Road – Richard Yates
I count this book as an example of “the great American novel.” It’s a masterpiece, it really is. For this reason, and for its structure, its characters, and its evocation of a time period, Revolutionary Road brings to mind another great American novel, The Great Gatsby. It’s not for the faint-hearted, particularly if you find reading about dysfunctional suburban marriage unsettling. It’s depressing. No surprise, really, since it’s about 1950s America, done better than (dare I say it?) “Mad Men.” Though if you’ve ever watched “Mad Men” you won’t be able to keep from visualizing the set, costumes, and characters from that show as you read Revolutionary Road.
The Song Is You – Arthur Phillips
I bought this to read on my iPhone after being won over by a review somewhere in cyberspace. Not more than a chapter in, I had to go get the book from the public library because the language was too complex for me to read on an iPhone. What better compliment could there be for a writer? Phillips is a master of vocabulary, metaphor, and quirky turns of phrase. His writing is challenging to read – but it’s also fun. Music pervades every page of this book –the references to songs and bands are impressive in their number and, in some cases, obscurity. Some reviewers were annoyed by all the references, but I enjoyed them, in part because it felt like Phillips was enjoying them. Phillips revels in bands I grew up listening to (some of which I’d forgotten about completely). He writes what he knows, and what he knows is the experience of Generation X.
Unaccustomed Earth – Jhumpa Lahiri
The Story of a Marriage – Andrew Sean Greer
Tunneling to the Center of the Earth: Stories – Kevin Wilson