By Carole Reedy
One advantage of the pandemic is the illusion – or is it an illusion? – of excess time. With limited lunch dates, relaxed shopping, and evenings out, perhaps there actually are more hours in the day for reading.
In my wayward hours when I’m not actually reading, I’ve been pondering writing and reading and how it all comes together.
What makes a book? Start with a room, a desk, paper, and pen. Add a key ingredient, the human imagination. It all seems quite simple. In this day, most writers substitute a computer for pen and paper, but some of our favorite authors, such as Woody Allen and Paul Auster, still use a manual typewriter (Woody an old Olympic) after scribbling notes on whatever scrap of paper is available when an idea sparks.
But arriving at the finished product remains a mystery to those of us who admire the resulting work of the icons of art. Whether it’s War and Peace, the Mona Lisa, or the Moonlight Sonata, it’s the creator’s imagination that creates our universe.
The novels I read this year, which span the globe and the centuries, will permeate my life forever. Perhaps you’ll experience a similar feeling upon discovering these gems of literature.
History of the Rain, This Is Happiness, and The Fall of Light, all by Niall Williams
What took me so long to discover this ethereal writer who has been creating novels for more than 20 years? Several months ago a close friend and avid reader insisted I read History of the Rain (2014) “Because it’s all about reading, Carole.”
Williams’ novels take place for the most part in western Ireland and are written with the gentle lilt of speech and style accompanying the spirit of the Irish heritage the world so envies. It became apparent to me as I read these masterpieces that a mixture of charm and intensity permeates the landscape of the characters and setting. I’m not a fan of the magical realism so prevalent in Latin American writers, but here within the ambiance of the Emerald Isle it more than works for me
The three books differ in plot, but brilliantly depicted characterizations and sublime settings remain a staple of the structure. I would recommend the finely crafted History of the Rain as your first read. The Fall of Light (2001) is a lengthy satisfying saga of the Foley family in 19th-century Ireland and other environs. This is Happiness (2019) centers around the remote town of Faha in the 1970s and the struggle over so-called progress.
Williams takes me to another axis. One observant reader sums it up: “Niall Williams writes like one who has seen the face of God.” Move over, Proust, you have met your match!
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (2020)
A Glaswegian friend advises me that the first name is pronounced with the “u” as in “jug.” Shuggie is a loving nickname for Hugh, the young protagonist, named for his father. The time period is that of the moral destruction resulting from the policies set forth by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s: miners out of work, everyone on the dole, hope lost. Be forewarned: there are few happy moments in the book, although tender emotions are hidden among the travesties.
Stuart, a native of Glasgow who now lives in New York City, didn’t set out to write a book. He merely started putting his thoughts and experiences on paper. It turns out he wrote a best-selling novel that has just won the 2020 Booker Prize (it was also a finalist in the National Book Award for fiction).
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (2020)
Maggie O’Farrell’s remarkable skill is her ability to create a variety of characters, changing tones and plots, each novel vastly different from her others.
Hamnet, her latest, is the story of William Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son (Hamnet is a variation of the name Hamlet) who dies in the plague of the 1590s. Although little is known about the life of Shakespeare or his family, Maggie O’Farrell has woven a world in which Agnes, Shakespeare’s wife, is the protagonist.
Good writing for me falls into two categories: books that are written so well that you can’t put the them down and books that are written so well that you intentionally put them down in order to slowly savor them. Hamnet falls into the second category. It is a mesmerizing read.
The pace is set by the thoughtful, resourceful wife instead of by her frenzied husband. A friend writes, “I liked so much that Maggie O’Farrell reclaimed Agnes as one who had her own worthy life.”
I am most disturbed that O’Farrell’s novel was not present on the Booker Prize short list. Who knows what politics drive these awards?
Flights and Drive your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, both by Olga Tokarczuk
These two novels by the Polish-born winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature make it difficult to categorize the works of this intense and unusual author. I saw this charming woman interviewed at the Hay Festival this year and was quite surprised and pleased to see such a light-hearted, amusing person since her novels reflect a more serious and daring nature. It must be that dichotomy that factors into the unusual ambiance she creates.
The title Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (2009) is enough to perk up the attention of any avid reader. This is a novel of a mysterious nature with colorful characters and a riveting plot.
The novel Flights (2018), on the other hand, is structurally more free-flowing and even more philosophically intense and satisfying. Based on thoughts of movement, the uniqueness of every moment and risk-taking, the numerous short vignettes solidify and flow to create the novel, a well-deserved and winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize International Prize (shared with Jennifer Croft, her translator).
The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes (2019)
Any book by Barnes always makes my best-books list. Barnes’s writing is consistently engaging, and the themes of his novels are diverse. Here’s a new twist. The man in the red coat is a gynecologist from 19th-century France who is part of the Belle Époque society crowd. Enough to capture your attention? As many of you know, Barnes is an utter Francophile, and his knowledge of everything French captures the interest of even those who have never visited the European continent.
The physical book is a joy to behold (making it an excellent Christmas gift or a special treat for you in these times of pandemic) with its high-quality paper and large size, as well as beautiful color photos of all the engaging characters of the era.
Leave the World Behind: A Novel by Rumaan Alam (2020)
“Awestruck” is the only word I can find to define this short novel. I started reading one afternoon, went reluctantly to sleep at 11:30 pm, only to awaken a few hours later with the characters invading my disturbed sleep. I heeded their message and stayed up to finish their story.
Concurrent feelings of certainty and uncertainty dominate the characters’ actions and emotions. This is the story of two families caught up together during an apocalyptic event in New York. Alam’s fast-paced framework for the disaster and the reactions of the various people involved makes for disturbed but exciting reading. Leave the World Behind was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Awards.
The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal (2010)
This memoir of the European/Jewish banking Ephrussi family, originally from the Ukraine, kept popping up from time to time in discussions with varying opinions of its worth. Essentially there are those who love it and those who are utterly bored by it. I finally bought a copy and found myself in the first camp. The descriptions of Paris and Vienna are riveting, significant, and timely in our world today.
De Waal introduces us to his uncle’s collection of netsukes (miniature sculptures from 17th-century Japan) that follow the family and lead us through the journey of success and destruction of this once-prominent family.
The Pull of the Stars: A Novel by Emma Donoghue (2020)
Here’s another work I read in two long sittings for the simple reason that the theme, the influenza pandemic of 1918, is close to our hearts and minds these days.
Most of the story takes place in a cramped storage room that has been converted into the maternity/influenza ward in Dublin. Donoghue’s story is simple and intense, involving just a few female characters to engage us in a world rife with uncertainty, pain, and hope.
A Backpack, A Bear and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir by Lev Golinkin (2014)
The title implies a light-natured, entertaining tale. It starts out thus, but midway through the tone becomes darker, revealing the effects in his later life of the protagonist’s youth. This is a memoir of hardship and prejudice against a Jewish family in the Ukraine and their subsequent lengthy journey and eventual re-settlement in the US.
The skillfully written memoir makes for another page-turner.
So, dear readers, here’s to 2021 and the inspiration that the pandemic may bring to new and old authors alike!