I have a lot of Amazon links here for those of you who like to shop there, but I am recommending Brilliant Books, based out of Traverse City, Michigan. Like with Amazon, I am an affiliate, so I skim some of their profit when you buy a book via links here. As an author, it’s tricky to make a buck and this is sort of my jar of loose change. Plus by cooperating with Brilliant Books, I have a partner in a small business which can be just as effective with books as the other. I’d prefer to refer business to them, but that’s your choice. And get this FREE SHIPPING for a much smaller minimum purchase: “Any order over $10 is shipped Media Mail free of charge, within Michigan. Any order over $12.50 (which still covers a lot of books) is shipped Priority Mail free of charge, outside Michigan.”
I’ve been a little lax on my reading, I think, but also tend to forget the book I read a dozen books ago. So I figured it’s best to keep a running list with a few comments about them in case others are interested in a few recommendations. This is my list of books I’ve read in 2014 so far, the most recent are at the top.
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Another happy (sarcasm) romp through the West as McCarthy follows a band of brutal men who are paid to scalp the natives and often don’t mind taking out a village of Mexicans (who have also paid them for scalps) along the way. The author’s command of language is unbelievable, and as well as needing a dictionary from time to time you may also want to brush up on your Spanish. This is often referred to as his masterpiece but it is not for the faint of heart. Not a positive statement about men and war and the “dance” of violence. Anyone in the habit of romanticizing the Wild West should read this. While a work of fiction, it is based on an historical band of scalp hunters who killed and raped their way through the southwest in the mid-nineteenth century, and much of the research involved the personal account of one of the members. The ending threw everyone for the loop and a Google search reveals the amusing ongoing debates over what it all meant. (McCarthy refuses to say, apparently — if in fact he even knows.) It is a worthy read, an astounding piece of writing, but if you are on the edge wondering if the world is hopelessly dark, best move on to something lighter.
A great non-Amazon alternative if you’re inclined: Brilliant Books – Blood Meridian
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
Is there any Japanese novel that doesn’t involve suicide? This is a coming of age (or coming of gloomy self-demise) set in late 1960s Japan. Vague mental illnesses plague the various characters, many of whom might not make it to the final pages, and while the writing is great as always, this seems either too personal or too fantastic without venturing into actual fantasy. Despite being one of the smaller books (and actually two in Japanese) it dragged at some points. Unlike The Windup Bird Chronicles, images and thoughts from the story don’t stick with me. I will remember it as the book where there possibly fictionalized Murakami has a lot of sex and deals with a few very odd women. Entertaining in some respects, but if you’ve got a long reading list to get to, this shouldn’t extend it.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his years of pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
Better than Norwegian Wood, I’d say. At least there’s an element of mystery to pull you along. An odd protagonist sorting out why his close group of high school friends just suddenly cut him off. Over a decade later he is driven by a new girlfriend to explore this thing that’s bothered him all these years before moving on with his adult life. It’s a worthy read and somewhat mundane when compared to Windup Bird Chronicles, of course. But well written and a quick read.
The next three books I’ve read were three of my favorites for the year. Just wow:
Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson *****
Set in the early 1980s in Montana, a social worker with an overwhelming area to cover, no supervision, and a world of personal problems himself takes us into a rather dark world of rural America, conspiracy nuts, and child suffering. It’s a train wreck but has some fantastic writing and makes you think a bit about when helping someone is actually helping someone. As the protagonist says about himself and his ex-wife, I take kids away from people like us.
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell *****
Full disclosure: I’ve been a big fan of David Mitchell since I read Cloud Atlas. I then started reading the rest of his books methodically. While this book certainly stands on its own as a supernatural mystery/thriller, knowing his other works adds to the joy of it. Everything is interconnected somehow with Mitchell. This is a great good vs. evil adventure that covers decades and brings in some familiar characters (even some background characters from other books). Mitchell has a knack for making very diverse and yet always convincing narrators. His best book ever? Maybe not. But that’d be a tall claim to make anyway. One of the best of the year for me.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt *****
When I read The Secret History, I was smitten. Or maybe that was her author photo back in 1991. She’s had two more books since that time. The second didn’t blow me away like the first. In fact, I couldn’t even get started on it. This is different but just as a fine a masterpiece. A New York kid effectively orphaned by a terrorist attack in an art museum ends up with a famous painting. His deadbeat dad shows up to ruin his life a bit and he spends the rest of the book trying to sort out why he ended up with this painting. It’s a rough ride for him, lots of drugs, some abuse, but you want to hang in there and see if he makes it, and how. A terrific story.
Kindred by Octavia Butler
Nation by Terry Pratchett
Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Season of Water and Ice by Donald Lystra
As I was on by beer book tour in Michigan, I sat in a good number of indie bookstores gazing at titles in between chats with patrons. This one came highly recommended by one of the booksellers who has met the regional author. A coming of age novel set in 1950s rural Michigan. It took me some time to get into it, but it kept me moving along, sort of fascinated by the young boy narrator who seemed at times to be detached. I didn’t feel his emotional struggles, but I wasn’t sure I was supposed to. The ending took me by surprise and then I wondered if a certain level of detachment is via the narrator reflecting on it, a method of dealing with it. He lives with his eccentric father who wants to make a go of living in the northwoods and being a traveling salesman. At the beginning of the story, the mother has already left to live in Chicago and pursue her own self-development, something that wasn’t common at the time but perhaps was about to be. The narrator starts curious but eventually falls for the neighbor girl who is being abused and rejected by her parents and small town society because she has become pregnant. The slightly dangerous boy who’s the father becomes involved and the three try to sort out what they all want. The loneliness of the narrator and the girl he is sweet on is really the focus of the tale.
The Weight of a Human Heart by Ryan O’Neil
Mostly good short stories by a Scottish-Australian. The author lived and taught abroad in several places, including Rwanda. The African stories are the most potent as one might expect from a setting such as Rwanda. Some of them are a little off the wall, stylistically, playing with typography and other nontraditional forms. Some of those were OK just for the trick of them, but the more traditional stories were better. Overall, an enjoyable read.
Facing the Congo: A Modern-Day Journey into the Heart of Darkness by Jeffrey Tayler
This is the story of someone who is insane. Because life as a former Peace Corps worker turned Russian security expert who might one day take a bullet who is dating a beautiful Russian woman decides he is unsure about his life and maybe he needs to test his mettle a bit. Why, what better way then to go to the Congo, get upriver, and paddle down in a pirogue for 1000 miles? Just his landing and voyage preparation are sort of terrifying, so much that by comparison the journey almost seems tame (and believe me, it is not tame). Hammers home just how wild and basic the struggles of life and survival are in some places and how unsuited most of us from the so-called West are for them. A depressing view of a tough part of Africa. Also, a reminder of just how lucky we are in this life, especially when you realize that this guy stumbled into a few very important people without whom he would have been dead by about page 20. What a story!
Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje
I loved English Patient and In the Skin of a Lion (below) and I think this guy is one of the most incredible writers alive today. That sets up some pretty steep expectations and I think that tainted the reading experience for me. This is quite good, of course, but maybe I needed some distance from In the Skin of a Lion. Anil grew up in Sri Lanka but left to be educated and became a forensic anthropologist. She returns to her homeland during its violent political times and starts nosing around some suspicious dead bodies. Amid the reflections on torture and loss, the science of forensics, the history of Sri Lanka, and memories of her past, a bit of a thriller results. Very good.
Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon
My favorite city to travel to and hang around in is Istanbul. So a story set there is likely going to be a winner for me. This is a political/spy thriller a la John le Carre or Graham Greene and somewhere in between the two in terms of literary merit. Set in Istanbul after World War II, the political landscape has changed and now it is the US vs. the Soviet Union in the larger picture. During the war, the characters had been helping Jews escape Europe to Palestine. Now that has become more challenging as the Brits keep turning them away. The narrator’s wife lost her mind when a ship of children sank, drowning all of them, and now she is catatonic. The man presses on with his tasks but a high value political fugitive brings death and chaos and complicates his life ethically and puts him in real mortal danger. Enjoyable, maybe more so if you know the city and history at all (though some of that is explained as well).
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
I’ve been seeing this on every Must Read list for years now. Best 100 books, etc. I’ve read Rushdie before: The Jaguar Smile, about his time traveling/writing/reporting in Nicargua (great!) and The Ground Beneath Her Feet (also great). But this 600+ page monster had eluded me. Short version: worth the read if you are willing to work for it. It may in fact be a grand work of fiction, the “Booker of the Booker” prize-winning books, but it also didn’t pull me along like other huge tomes such as Grapes of Wrath, Moby Dick, Les Miserables. Part of the challenge is as it progressively moves from some sort of magical realism more and more deeply into the fantastical world familiar to Indian culture. The story is narrated by a man who was born at midnight at the birth of modern independent India. The family’s story parallels the history of the nation (so you learn a bit of that story as well). The writing style may challenge you but at least for the first two-thirds I found it quite enjoyable. At this point it just starts to feel very long and drawn out, the narrator often summarizes what we’ve covered, returning to recurring elements in his life, and it makes me want to say, yeah, I REMEMBER, get on with it. (To be fair, the listener of his story in the book also frequently loses patience with his storytelling!) The ending came and picked up the intensity and pace of the story, but I still shuffled over the finish line feeling not inspired or longing for more or missing the characters, but rather thankful I managed to get through. I am not sorry for reading it, but I wouldn’t take responsibility for telling someone they need to do the same.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
I’ve been interested in Gaiman’s stuff since I heard him speak at the Wisconsin Book Festival a few years back. I was impressed by his modesty despite his passionate and growing following. He seems to work hard and his ideas are so creative and, well, a little bit “out there.” His latest is a story with fantastical elements of course, other dimensional things and magic, and it is narrated by a man who came back to his childhood home for a funeral and remembers a magical time in his childhood. It’s a quick read and if you are open to the magical element, you are going to like it. Reflecting on childhood, coping with the good times and bad, and seeing your adult life in that light are topics I enjoy, so this was a slam dunk for me. The adult world, according to Gaiman, doesn’t see what the young see, and that is a tragic loss.
How to Be Good by Nick Hornby
I feel like I should like Hornby more, but this is the first book I’ve actually finished. (That can often just be attributed to bad timing.) A good writer makes a character seem very real, and Hornby is a good writer. And funny. But what if your character is an annoying jerk with some serious issues? And is married to another character with serious issues? At what point does it just become painful to listen to them? I’d say by page 190. But that said, this is funny, it does have heart, as they say. The narrator, a doctor who is unhappy with her marriage, is reflective and trying, like her husband, to figure out some big life questions. Both my wife and I got sick of listening to her at some point, though I’d say the ending (which perhaps should have come 50-100 pages sooner) raised my opinion of it overall and felt true enough. I’m thinking About a Boy or High Infidelity might be better bets.
In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje
OK, so THIS is my new favorite book for the year. I am the pilferer of book exchanges and I saw this on a shelf and had to have it. If you haven’t read The English Patient, I highly recommend it. Don’t cringe, but the writing is potently poetic. If you love the English language, you should love reading Ondaatje’s stuff. This particular novel got high praises a couple decades ago. It took him 10 years to write it. As a writer myself, that sort of blows me away. Ten years working on something. It’s like trying to consider a tour of Iron Man Triathlons as a person who is used to running two warm-up laps around the high school gym. Ondaatje’s storytelling is unusual, jumping around willy-nilly in time and with characters. It is set in Canada in the early 20th century and approaches history from the perspective of the immigrant workers, the real people behind all the building that a few historical figures often have their names attached to. It is powerful and beautifully written. For me, I think of my own great grandparents and their lives of work, the awful conditions, the unsung hero efforts of the nameless souls who risked their lives just to put food on a table. But this book is much more than that. With parallels to the ancient Sumerian tale The Epic of Gilgamesh, the protagonist comes to understand the complexity of lives and their interactions, and mortality and memory and loss. I couldn’t put this one down, and yet it wasn’t really a “quick” read: I found myself re-reading sentences two or three times, sometimes aloud as I rolled the words around and appreciated the lyricism or the imagery. There were moments when something struck me so strongly that I put the book down to go write myself. I am glad I have a number more of this man’s books to read. I hope he writes them faster than every ten years though.
Countrymen of Bones by Robert Olen Butler
Just stumbled across another Robert Olen Butler novel I hadn’t heard of, a bit old; I picked it up at a hostel book exchange. I like him generally and it is interesting to read his earlier stuff to see how it differs from his Pulitzer Prize stuff such as A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain: Stories and later. 3 of 5 stars I’d give it. Partly annoying to watch men be men — obsessive, possessive, capable of awful things. Set in Los Alamos during the testing of the Bomb, the novel features a scientist on the team and an archaeologist uncovering an amazing mystery in the test zone and running out of time. Love for, or obsession with, a woman brings them into conflict. Oppenheimer plays a background character. The writing is good, and one can see Butler developing if you’ve read many of his books, but the behavior of the characters may irritate some. I’d like to say it is unrealistic, but on further reflection upon men and jealousy and power struggles… well, maybe pretty spot on.
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan
Though not a religious person, I grew up Catholic, and have since been fascinated by the various mythologies from all parts of the world and history. But the Christian mythos is by far the most familiar for me and one of the most fascinating. Of all the historical Jesus books I’ve run across, this one seems one of the best and most accessible. Thanks to the low-brow FOX news interviewer, this pathetic interview went viral and piqued my interest. Otherwise, the book may have slipped under the radar. Who ever said FOX was good for nothing? I mean, besides me. I stand corrected. Read this.
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Winner of the National Book Award, for starters. Plus a very entertaining book that tells the tale of Old John Brown and Harper’s Ferry, and the re-imagined events that may have led up to it in a fictional version. The story is narrated by a black boy who is mistaken for a girl and taken in by John Brown. His experiences in the volatile atmosphere of pre-Civil War America are a portrait of a nation dividing and gradually forming the battle lines. It’s a crazy and funny as it is brutal and thought-provoking.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Loved. Partly narrated from a diary of a young Japanese girl, a book that washes ashore on an island in British Columbia, and partly a third-person look at the couple who find it (the wife is an author with writer’s block). The stories play off each other and there are elements of Buddhist philosophy and thoughts about truth in fiction and the relativity of time. Schrodinger’s Cat even makes/doesn’t make an appearance. Bullying plays a big part, and those scenes make one wince, but the will to live and the point of doing it with dignity and honor are what matter here. You’ll go from the present to the near past and back to World War II in Japan, and it’ll be a ride you’ll not soon forget.
City of Thieves by David Benioff
The narrator’s grandfather, a survivor of the siege of Leningrad, tells the story of how he met his best friend, his true love, and killed two Germans when he was just 18. Not a book to read in Wisconsin in the winter maybe; the descriptions of the deadly cold and the horrors of war tend to exacerbate the chill in your living room. This was quite a tale and the third in what would be four books in January that I randomly chose but all had a bit of World War II in them. While it paints the brutal picture of death, destruction, starvation, and loss, it never loses its sense of humor. Parts are laugh out loud funny, and the best friend character is a charmer for sure.
Maus: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman
This graphic novel tells the tale of the Holocaust using mice and cats. The narrator’s father is the survivor who reluctantly recounts everything at the prodding of his son who would like to publish the story. This isn’t a new book but rather one that I’ve been asked 100 times Have you read that? until I finally felt compelled to get that done. Besides, it fits in with the inadvertent World War II theme for January, and the Holocaust elements of three books plus a DVD we saw Sarah’s Key, which is worth noting. (Sarah’s KeyIt’s a book as well, of course)
The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure
Set in Paris during the Nazi Occupation, this is another Holocaust novel. What sets it apart from the others is that the writer, an architecture historian, created an architect character not at all interested in the plight of the Jews. You end up with a reluctant hero and an unlikely method for becoming one. It’s a page turner, for sure. At times I felt maybe the body count got a little high and some of the victories of the character felt just the tiniest bit convenient, but then this was World War II. As far as history goes, I am not sure there is any other human event that truly went way over the top in reality. In any event, this is a great read and can be rounded off nicely with a viewing of Sarah’s Key.
The Windup Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami
Hold on to your hats. This one is delightfully weird. Murakami has a quite a fan base clamoring for his Nobel Prize. This, one of his most famous works, certainly is big enough, both in themes and page-count, to be taken so seriously. I felt hints of David Mitchell in here and had to Google to see if Mitchell listed him as an influence (he did). There is the main story of the narrator whose seemingly settled, stable life suddenly gets upended and sends him down a long and twisted path in search of some answers. Then there are the various characters who tell him their own back stories, which brings in a variety of Japanese elements including World War II experiences (this is where my WWII theme started at the beginning of January). For the most part I couldn’t put it down (notwithstanding the times my arms were tired) but there are some points where continuing did take some effort on my part. But pushing through, in any case, is worth it. This will leave you thinking. Partly thinking philosophically on the soul and existence and solitude, and partly thinking What the hell did I just read? Fun.