I don’t keep lists of what I read, I rely on what sticks in my memory. And it seems that I read fewer really terrific books in 2009. Maybe it was my mood, maybe my choices, but whatever the reasons there were only a handful that really stuck with me, but the ones that did were wonderful. Here are my favorites.
I was surprised by how compelling Pearl S. Buck’s THE GOOD EARTH was. It is the storyof one man’s life, the complete arc of his life, from boyhood to very old man. Wang Lung is a poor, nearly destitute farmer’s son when he marries O Lon, a “slave”, as all orphan serving girls were called. This is their story set amidst the ferment of the ancient Chinese ruling powers breaking up in early 20th century. That historical background is a vivid and integral part of the plot. Buck makes Wang Lung and O Lon’s troubles, triumphs, follies, cruelties and relentlessly hard, attentive work more sharp and real to the reader than today’s news. Pearl Buck was raised in China, spoke and wrote Mandarin Chinese, and seems to have understood everyday life in China better than the U.S. State Dept of that time. THE GOOD EARTH deserves all the accolades it received during the 20th century and deserves to be re-discovered.
THE CELLIST OF SARAJEVO by Stephen Galloway uses a real-life event: a cellistin Sarajevo who played Albioni’s Adagio everyday to honor the 22 citizens killed by artillery fire in the public square where he performed. The novel uses that as a focal point as he tells the story of four fictional Sarajevans affected by his courageous playing and of course deeply affected by the senseless bombing they endured for two years. It has an almost lyrical quality even though the subject is war, because the characters, especially the college girl who finds she has an aptitude as a sniper, are so vivid and real.
WOLF HALL by Hilary Mantel won the Man-Booker Prize this year for her novel aboutThomas Cromwell and the swirling politics and religious battles in England at the time of Henry VIII’s wish to divorce his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn. This is not a “historical novel”. Though there is plenty of background detail about Tudor history, dress and manners, Mantel’s book is an examination of the rapaciousness of orthodoxies, the potential for killing by those who are certain they are right, and the debt we owe to people of good will and pragmatic good sense, like Thomas Cromwell, who ensure that that destruction is often averted. There is a quality to her writing that is luminous and glowing, perhaps because she loves this character she has created. And you will love him too.
Anne Cleeves’ RAVEN BLACK is a mystery set in the Shetland Islands. It is a perfectplace for a “closed room” mystery, since so few people are there and those that are can rarely leave during the winter months. The death of a pretty young woman causes the whole population of the island to re-examine another death of a young girl years before, and of course they begin to suspect their neighbors. The plot is believable, the characters interesting and the setting is rich and interesting. I like it when the story could happen in no other setting than the one it is told in, and that’s the way this book is. This is the first of a trilogy and it’s an excellent start.
THE CHALK CIRCLE MAN by Fred Vargas is another notable mystery of the past year. Vargas is a French woman, real first name is Frederique, and she writes crime fiction featuring Inspector Adamsberg. There is an astringent quality to her stories, they are filled with oddball characters and unusual circumstances and yet you feel a cool distance from the action. The habit of philosophical ramblings of some of the characters adds to this rarefied world feeling. I liked Adamsberg, he is a refreshing surprise among the mumbling, morose European detectives and I liked this strange story. Very French, but that’s a good thing sometimes.
A PARADISE BUILT IN HELL by Rebecca Solnit is on one NY Times critic’s list of the bestbooks of 2009, and other lists too, so I will add my voice to appreciative applause. Solnit is a very thoughtful, graceful writer who tackles an interesting topic: that disasters/tragedies bring out altruistic qualities in people, a solidarity and communal helping that is often ignored by the press and especially by “governments”. She examines such different events as the San Francisco earthquake, the Battle of Britain Blitz, 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. I myself have often noticed that photos of people in the midst of floods or fires seem relaxed, composed, full of energy, even cheerful. Solnit tries to account for that and show us the ability most of us have to not just make do but to join together to make something better. A fine book.
GHOST TRAIN TO THE EASTERN STAR by Paul Theroux tells of his repeat journey all across the continents of Europe and Asia by train that he first told about in his fabulous THE GREAT RAILWAY BAZAAR in 1973. Now he goes again to see what has changed and of course finds that he himself has changed a lot too.
He’s a fabulous travel writer because he is so opinionated, picky and shrewd. He is also fearless. His return to the backwaters of Southeast Asia, then during the Viet Nam war, now full of dilapidated boats plying the rivers filled with travelers is amazing and his experience in Siberia on the way home is worth the whole book.
Here’s hoping for more great books in 2010.