By Carole Reedy
Looking back and looking forward, two favorite exercises as the year turns. Now is the time readers make lists of books they’ve read, and then make more lists of books they want to read. Newspapers, magazines, and internet sites are filled with “best of” lists along with tantalizing speculation about newly published works.
Thus the impetus to write an expanded column this month analyzing my favorite choices of 2014 and introducing some exciting possibilities for the year ahead. Happily, there’s a plethora of reading material from which to choose a top-ten list. First we’ll reflect on the old year and then work with the granddaddy of all emotions, anticipation, to explore the new. At the end, a clip-and-save top-ten list.
Jack of all trades and master of all
This is how I view the career of Javier Marías, Spanish novelist, journalist, and essayist. In short, he’s my new hero. Marías’ recognition in the UK and US is recent, though he’s been translated worldwide in 42 languages for years. A recent novel, The Infatuations (2013), brought him into the limelight in the English-speaking world. Amen.
His resume provides reason enough to pique your curiosity and the impetus to reach for one of his novels. In addition, Marías writes a weekly column in the Sunday magazine section of El Pais, the prestigious Spanish newspaper. And he’s not shy about criticizing the government. (His own father, a philosopher, was briefly imprisoned and banned from teaching in Franco’s Spain.)
Marías’ novels often begin with a murder or suicide, entrapping the reader in a maze of metaphysical, philosophic views. His digressions are a frustration to some, but for fans it’s the element that distinguishes him as one of the great writers of our times. In addition to journalism and novel writing, Marías translates English novels into Spanish: Shakespeare, Updike, Hardy, Conrad, Nabokov, and others. He does not, however, translate his own novels, written in Spanish. That challenging task is owned by the talented Margaret Jull Costa. She is a master.
My favorite read of last year was Tomorrow in the Battle, Think on Me, published in 1997. It begins with a man’s casual date who suddenly dies while lying next to him, setting into motion a tangled web of chance, decision, and contemplation. A Heart So White was one of Marías’ best-selling books, and nobody ever forgets the descriptive first chapter. As you might have noticed, many of his titles are derived from Shakespeare, in the first case Richard III and in the second Macbeth.
Marías’ fans can reflect fondly on his past work and also feel great anticipation for his forthcoming novel, Thus Begins Bad (Así empieza lo malo), yet another title from Shakespeare (Hamlet). The English translation will be completed this year, we hope.
My other favorite book of 2014 was The Counterlife (1986) by Philip Roth. Roth and Marías are surely contenders each year for the Nobel Prize in Literature. (At this point I’ll add that one of my least favorite books of the year was the disappointing Missing Person by 2014 Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano.)
In 2014 I read several books by Roth and Marías, but The Counterlife leaves an especially strong impression because of its structure and the surprises Roth plots out. It appears to be a straightforward novel until you delve into the second of the five sections. You’ll likely be a bit confused, but the third section puts it all in perspective.
The other Roth novel on my top-ten list is American Pastoral, very simply not to be missed. I read several others, and I still have a list of his books for future reading.
Another fabulous find
Dave Eggers. It’s impossible to categorize his novels or themes, as his diversity is staggering. Coincidentally, one of his finest books is A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, his own life story, a tragic history told from his comic and truthful perspective.
A recent novel, The Circle, gives us more than a glimpse into the terrifying future of full disclosure and loss of privacy. What Is the What is considered a novel, but only because it is told from the perspective of one of the Lost Boys of the Sudan, who says his tragic existence roaming the desert of Africa for years is sometimes a foggy memory. He preferred his story be told by Eggers in novel form.
Surprise of the year
My longtime dear friend from Chicago, Phyllis, recently sent me a book of short stories for my birthday. Since the book was signed personally to me by the author, I assumed correctly that she was a friend of Phyllis. Her name is Garnett Kilberg Cohen. Remember this name. To be honest, I thought it was a nice gesture on Phyllis’ part to send me the book, but never in my wildest dreams did I expect to open it and become immediately engaged not only in the stories, but also in the excellent writing.
To write short stories takes a writer who, like a poet, can find the precise word for a feeling or thought in order to describe the human condition. Kilberg Cohen possesses this talent. In my view she ranks with the finest of short story writers: T.C. Boyle, Julian Barnes, O. Henry, and head-over-heels higher than Alice Munro. The book is called Swarm to Glory, and it’s available for Kindle or Ipad, and via Amazon in paperback. All this book needs is some good publicity and effort by a prestigious publisher to put it on the New York Times bestseller list. Purchase it for yourself, and give it as a gift. I have, with many heartfelt thanks from friends for this new discovery.
The rest of the list
I fleshed out the rest of my top ten with a fine novel by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, The Sound of Things Falling, an engaging story about Colombia and the effects of the narco world on one family.
Ian McEwan’s last few books left me cold, including Solar (pun intended). But with his newest, The Children Act, McEwan returns to the writing, plot structure, and characterization we admired in Atonement. The story line is twofold. A woman judge in family court is challenged by her cases while dealing with a husband who’s in the throes of love with a younger woman. In this short novel, the taut style is succinct without sacrificing description of events and characters.
My top ten reads of 2014
Here are the titles and authors:
- Tomorrow in the Battle, Think on Me by Javier Marías
- The Counterlife by Philip Roth
- American Pastoral by Philip Roth
- Travels with Herodotus by Rsyzard Kapuscinski
- The Sounds of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
- Bullfight by Garry Martin
- The Children Act by Ian McEwan
- Swarm of Glory by Garnett Kilberg Cohen
- What is the What by Dave Eggers
- The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
In anticipation: literary giants and popular fiction
My mind is bursting with reading ideas: recommendations from friends, Amazon’s picks, new selections from my favorite authors, and books that just drop into your life.
I look forward this year to Javier Marías’ new book mentioned earlier. Also, mystery fans (like me) eagerly await Elizabeth George’s October 6 release of the latest Lynley novel, A Banquet of Consequences.
Members of our Mexico City book club are fans of Alexandra Fuller, who writes about her experiences growing up in Africa. Her new book, Leaving Before the Rains Come, due at the beginning of this year, is a reflection on the breakup of her marriage to an American man and the family she left in Africa. If you haven’t read her previous work, start with Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight and Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness.
Grandest anticipation accompanies the arrival in 2015 of new books from three literary geniuses: Jonathan Franzen (September 15), T.C. Boyle (March 31), and Kazuo Ishiguro (March 3). Franzen’s Purity will be his fifth novel, another multigenerational epic. After a decade of anticipation following Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro gives us The Buried Giant. Best-selling author T.C. Boyle’s The Harder They Come is set in modern-day California.