By Carole Reedy
“Art is too diffuse, too vital. It’s always growing and changing.”
Calvin Tomkins (New Yorker staffer and art critic) on the reason one cannot define art
For whatever reasons you pick up a book – to allow your mind to wander, to gaze, daydream, laugh, cry, or seethe with anger or joy while ensconced in it – these are essential elements that make reading an art and imagination the vehicle. Today I present my top-ten reads of 2019, though not all were written during this year. The list is a mixture of fiction and nonfiction that will satisfy, I hope, the tastes of all readers of The Eye.
The first two books on this list, Milkman and Say Nothing, are fiction and nonfiction respectively, each in its own way analyzing the history and effects of the “troubles” in Northern Ireland in the 1960s and beyond.
Milkman: A Novel, by Anna Burns
Burns, the first author from Northern Ireland to win the Booker Prize for Fiction (2018), captures the reader from the very start with her breakout novel, Milkman. Some readers and critics were put off by a style that does not give proper names to the characters, instead identifying them by their roles. For those who appreciate this technique, which contributes to the overall fear created in and for the reader, it is essential. Few readers will not be swept up in the descriptive, frightening, isolated landscape Burns creates.
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe
One might call this a history of the “troubles,” but it is surely more than that. Not only are the sources complete, reliable, and varied, but the author portrays the main figures involved in a detailed, nonjudgmental manner, thus creating the ambiance and tension of the times. The structure of the research leads us to think we’re reading a murder mystery and the pace is perfect for this rather long tome. To be honest, and a bit trite, you can’t put it down! Say Nothing is a finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction.
Berta Isla: A Novel, by Javier Marías
My favorite author has written his best yet. I say this not because of any change of style or philosophy of the writer, but rather because of the plot. I found the story totally satisfying in every way, especially the end with its unexpected twist. Marías is a master of diversion and precise language and thus his writing always fascinates.
Quichotte, by Salman Rushdie
Yes, a modern-day Don Quixote, told by the master of story-telling. I laughed from beginning to end and, as always, was in awe of Rushdie’s intricate take on the timeless legend and complex characters returned to life in this new century.
Fleishman Is in Trouble: A Novel, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
This debut novel, a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction, surprises in myriad ways. Brodesser-Akner takes us on a journey that evolves and shifts as the chapters progress, allowing one’s mind to form new ways of thinking about universal problems. It could be called a family saga of the 21st century, but it is rather a statement on the status of women.
There There, by Tommy Orange
You not need be of American Indian descent, or even from the US, to appreciate the insightful, vivid description of the plight of native Indians in the 21st century. My British and Mexican friends were equally surprised to find that this reads as a universal novel.
The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester
I couldn’t resist picking up this Winchester book about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary after the satisfying experience of reading his The Professor and the Madman (recently made into an excellent movie starring Sean Penn and Mel Gibson, both outstanding in their respective roles). This version of the story is more detailed with regard to the main character, James Murray, and his stamina over the years as he creates this most famous of world resources.
The Library Book, by Susan Orlean
A “must” not just for lovers of libraries, but for all readers. Every wonderful thing about libraries is explored and described in this book. In addition, there’s a story line about a fire at the Los Angeles Library and its supposed perpetrator. I have loved reading Orlean ever since The Orchid Thief left me in awe of orchids and their explorers … and of her.
The Overstory: A Novel, by Richard Powers
I list this as one of my favorites not so much for my emotional attachment to the plot or characters, but because it was a compelling and different way to understand climate change and the importance of trees. There are quirky characters and a plot in this novel that get you through the lengthy discussion of trees and nature. It may sound clichéd, but I think it is a necessary read for our times.
Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society, by Daniel Barenboim and Edward W. Said
Barenboim, the Argentinian-Israeli pianist, conductor, and music director, and Said, the Palestinian-American academic and literary/social critic, co-founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra to bring together young Arab and Israeli musicians. Close friends, they conducted a Carnegie Hall Talk in 1999, of their thoughts about music, politics, and clture, from Wagner to Israel, Bayreuth, Beethoven, Dickens, and Toscanini, to name just a few.
Olive Kitteridge lovers alert: As I finish this article, I eagerly await the new novel, Olive, Again: A Novel, by Elizabeth Strout, arriving any day now.