By Randy Kraft
I resist making these “best of” lists as a rule, because they’re just one person’s opinion, and this person favors certain types of books – fiction mostly, told in compelling prose, about interesting characters. I’m not so much about page-turners or the so-called “wow” factor as I am about great storytelling. Then again, it appears there are a lot of you, so in response to those who have asked my favorites for the year, here goes … (and most have already been reviewed at the OC BookBlog).
The most profound goes without question to Richard Powers’ epic Overstory. The primary characters here are trees, and, secondarily, the people who study them, protect them or profit from them. It’s of course a metaphor for humanity, and our potential demise, and so brilliantly written and conceived, it’s a cautionary tale in real time. Beautiful and powerful.
The most interesting novel may be Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room. How often do we peek inside the minds and hearts of incarcerated women? And, like the women of “Orange is the New Black,” they were poorly treated and treated poorly, they made bad decisions, sometimes on purpose, they committed crimes for which some will forgive themselves even as society will render them guilty for life. Heart-wrenching and soul-searching, occasionally funny material written by a hand that never ever goes over the top or saps the sentiment.
The second most interesting is the amazing memoir Educated by Tara Westover. A page-turner of its own, with characters you might consider implausible in fiction but who are real live members of an off-the-grid religious family who pushed this brilliant young woman to the brink. Even if she lived to tell the tale, and prevail, the damage has been done. It’s a remarkable true life tale that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
The same might be said for the original and thought-provoking novel There There by Tommy Orange. I call it road-kill fiction, because you want to look away, but you cannot. The images are too strong. Here we face the historic hardships and contemporary nightmares of Native Americans, not on the range but in Oakland, California. This writer is the real deal.
The great Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight is a must read for the elegant writing. Here we discover the subtlety of a child’s unusual life told in retrospect, an eclectic set of characters, a unique look at England in the aftermath of WWII, and the drama that unfolds when one woman is willing to park her kids to the side while she fights the good fight. Churchill would be proud.
The novel I didn’t get to review, yet, but which I recommend highly, is His Favorites by Kate Walbert. A small book [you could fit five of them in the Powers tome] that packs a huge punch, and timely, this reminiscence of a girl abused and oppressed by a high school teacher, is a stark reminder of the meaning of MeToo.
And, also pending a full review, another great novel from Juan Gabriel Vasquez, The Shape of the Ruins. He is one of my favorite writers – the “unmagical realist” he calls himself – and, once again, the story serves as a backdrop to the larger truths about political unrest and cultural unraveling in Colombia, South America. Vasquez never shies away from harsh truths and here he ponders the tentacles of conspiracy theory and asks the great question: what is truth?
I would like to add that while I haven’t read the new Barbara Kingsolver yet, it’s on my pile and although critics love to take her to task for so-called agenda-laden fiction, she is one of our great writers and yes, she has some important things to say about our world, so keep her high on your list.
I will close by commenting on some of the best-of’s already out there. There’s more than a little bit of quid pro quo going on these days, even at the NY Times, and others, sad to say. Too many books seem to make lists because their writers contribute reviews, or one of their reviewers has taken a shine to a book and wields a lot of clout, or the subject matter is hot even if the writing is tepid … So, when you’re not wild about a book that has received a lot of accolades, that’s why. Or maybe it’s just not for you. I care about good writing, but my choice of books is to my taste (for example, I have trouble reading Murakami) so I urge you to find reliable sources for referrals, then read fifty or so pages and if you’re not anxious to get back to it, move on. SO many others worthy of your time even if they haven’t made a list.
Happy holidays and happy reading in the new year.