Monday, February 2, 2015

Five-Star Books 2014

I once read a review on Goodreads that started with the reviewer's 'personal system' for rating books. The first thing she said was something like "I never give five stars because no book is perfect."

Now, I don't know this woman anywhere near well enough to be getting unreasonably snotty about her personal book-rating system, but all I could think was that if she's never finished a book, closed her eyes with the strains of the last words floating in the air and thought "that was perfect", well, that's really quite sad. It also made me think (again, with no real justification) that she's probably like those teachers that will go out of their way to find tiny imperfections in any assignment to avoid giving out a perfect score, as if granting an A plus would scald their parsimonious little souls. In any case, the Goodreads rating system considers a five-star rating to denote "it was amazing", not "it was perfect". So, anyway...


Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin: Goodreads synopsis: A new edition published on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Baldwin’s death, including a new introduction by an important contemporary writer. 
Since its original publication in 1955, this first nonfiction collection of essays by James Baldwin remains an American classic. His impassioned essays on life in Harlem, the protest novel, movies, and African Americans abroad are as powerful today as when they were first written.

I actually didn't rate this on Goodreads, but I didn't want to leave it out of the tally. I suppose it kind of flies in the face of my above rant, and there's a heaping helping of white liberal guilt behind my reticence, but I just don't feel qualified to rate this. I still don't understand a lot of it. It didn't move me the same way Langston Hughes' poems have, but I felt like I should make an effort. 

The Nigerian-Nordic Girl's Guide to Lady Problems by Faith Adiele: Goodreads synopsis: What’s a Nigerian-Nordic-American girl to do when she develops fibroids in rural Iowa? Battle the American health care System or summon Nordic mythology and traditional Nigerian medicine? While at the renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop to write a book about meeting her African father and siblings as an adult, Faith Adiele develops a medical condition that can be interpreted—and treated—completely differently according to her three cultural backgrounds. Frustratingly, each tradition suggests that Adiele herself is responsible for her condition (and potential barrenness) for having violated gender or racial norms. While wittily detailing her struggles with doctors determined either to remove or to use her uterus as a Midwestern teaching tool, she draws parallels to history: her Nordic family’s immigration experiences, her Nigerian family’s independence struggles, and the fate of women, the poor, and folks of color in American medicine. Award-winning memoirist (PEN Beyond Margins Award for Meeting Faith; Millennium Award from Creative Nonfiction) Adiele takes a clear-eyed, sharp-tongued look at healing, from Western science to a good metaphor to Nigerian healers advertising the cure for “Lady Problems”.

I considered a four-star rating, but screw it, it WAS amazing. I realize it's not fair to expect superior writing from a memoir based on medical issues, but it is a sheer joy to be taken through this experience by an author so witty, self-aware and wry, in prose so supple, barbed and brilliant. And now I've said that I felt joy at someone's extreme misfortune and I feel like an asshole. I'm sorry. But this was so wonderful - the way she weaves together the strands of both her cultures, the way she relates to her own body and its invasion by illness. There is so much insight and humour and anger densely packed into this short work. (P.s. this was the review that taught me that you can't post a review to Amazon with the word 'asshole' in it). 


Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. Goodreads synopsis: Cry, the Beloved Country, the most famous and important novel in South Africa's history, was an immediate worldwide bestseller in 1948. Alan Paton's impassioned novel about a black man's country under white man's law is a work of searing beauty.
Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.
The eminent literary critic Lewis Gannett wrote, "We have had many novels from statesmen and reformers, almost all bad; many novels from poets, almost all thin. In Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country the statesman, the poet and the novelist meet in a unique harmony."
Cry, the Beloved Country is the deeply moving story of the Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo and his son, Absalom, set against the background of a land and a people riven by racial injustice. Remarkable for its lyricism, unforgettable for character and incident, this is a classic work of love and hope, courage and endurance, born of the dignity of man.

This book broke my heart. It reminded me a little of Home by Marilynne Robinson (which was published later but I read it first) in its sensibility - an aching, infinite sympathy and sorrow for good people caught up in pitiless circumstances. So nuanced and beautiful and so incredibly sad.

The Orenda by Joseph Boyden. Goodreads synopsis: In the remote winter landscape a brutal massacre and the kidnapping of a young Iroquois girl violently re-ignites a deep rift between two tribes. The girl’s captor, Bird, is one of the Huron Nation’s great warriors and statesmen. Years have passed since the murder of his family, and yet they are never far from his mind. In the girl, Snow Falls, he recognizes the ghost of his lost daughter, but as he fights for her heart and allegiance, small battles erupt into bigger wars as both tribes face a new, more dangerous threat from afar.
Traveling with the Huron is Christophe, a charismatic missionary who has found his calling among the tribe and devotes himself to learning and understanding their customs and language. An emissary from distant lands, he brings much more than his faith to this new world, with its natural beauty and riches.
As these three souls dance with each other through intricately woven acts of duplicity, their social, political and spiritual worlds collide - and a new nation rises from a world in flux.

Intense, and incendiary, and discomfiting. I was riveted. It brings history to life in the way only the very best written works can. Some of the violence is horrific, but I don't agree at all with people who thought it was gratuitous or excessive - it seemed completely integral to the story. 

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. Goodreads synopsis: On the faded Island Books sign hanging over the porch of the Victorian cottage is the motto "No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World." A. J. Fikry, the irascible owner, is about to discover just what that truly means.
A. J. Fikry's life is not at all what he expected it to be. His wife has died, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. Slowly but surely, he is isolating himself from all the people of Alice Island-from Lambiase, the well-intentioned police officer who's always felt kindly toward Fikry; from Ismay, his sister-in-law who is hell-bent on saving him from his dreary self; from Amelia, the lovely and idealistic (if eccentric) Knightley Press sales rep who keeps on taking the ferry over to Alice Island, refusing to be deterred by A.J.'s bad attitude. Even the books in his store have stopped holding pleasure for him. These days, A.J. can only see them as a sign of a world that is changing too rapidly.
And then a mysterious package appears at the bookstore. It's a small package, but large in weight. It's that unexpected arrival that gives A. J. Fikry the opportunity to make his life over, the ability to see everything anew. It doesn't take long for the locals to notice the change overcoming A.J.; or for that determined sales rep, Amelia, to see her curmudgeonly client in a new light; or for the wisdom of all those books to become again the lifeblood of A.J.'s world; or for everything to twist again into a version of his life that he didn't see coming. As surprising as it is moving, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is an unforgettable tale of transformation and second chances, an irresistible affirmation of why we read, and why we love.

I started this in the middle of a sleepless night, and it went SO MUCH BETTER than the last time I started an ebook on a sleepless night. This book is full of beautifully improbable events and improbably beautiful coincidences, and has real ordinary people that love books and talk about books and connect over books and I LOVED IT SO MUCH. I gave it to several people and happily, unlike with many of my favourite books, everyone so far has concurred with my conclusion. 
The publisher provided a copy through NetGalley. I want to send the publisher a lollipop.

Native Son by Richard Wright. Goodreads synopsis: Right from the start, Bigger Thomas had been headed for jail. It could have been for assault or petty larceny; by chance, it was for murder and rape.Native Son tells the story of this young black man caught in a downward spiral after he kills a young white woman in a brief moment of panic. Set in Chicago in the 1930s, Wright's powerful novel is an unsparing reflection on the poverty and feelings of hopelessness experienced by people in inner cities across the country and of what it means to be black in America. 

I don't really know HOW to rate this, or how to review it. I read it only after reading James Baldwin's pointed critique of it in Notes of a Native son, and I'm certainly less qualified than he is to offer an opinion, but in my experience it did exactly what it seemed to be meant to do. I felt physically ill while reading much of it, and I'm not generally that sensitive to unpleasant material. Some of it did feel a little preachy, I think only because that in the time it was written it seemed that things had to be laid out that bluntly and specifically, even didactically, to have an effect. It was horrifying.

Young Adult and Children's:

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. Goodreads synopsis: Two misfits.
One extraordinary love.
... Red hair, wrong clothes. Standing behind him until he turns his head. Lying beside him until he wakes up. Making everyone else seem drabber and flatter and never good enough...Eleanor.
Park... He knows she'll love a song before he plays it for her. He laughs at her jokes before she ever gets to the punch line. There's a place on his chest, just below his throat, that makes her want to keep promises...Park.
Set over the course of one school year, this is the story of two star-crossed sixteen-year-olds—smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try.

Another Little Piece by Kate Karyus Quinn. Goodreads synopsis: On a cool autumn night, Annaliese Rose Gordon stumbled out of the woods and into a high school party. She was screaming. Drenched in blood. Then she vanished.
A year later, Annaliese is found wandering down a road hundreds of miles away. She doesn't know who she is. She doesn't know how she got there. She only knows one thing: She is not the real Annaliese Rose Gordon.
Now Annaliese is haunted by strange visions and broken memories. Memories of a reckless, desperate wish . . . a bloody razor . . . and the faces of other girls who disappeared. Piece by piece, Annaliese's fractured memories come together to reveal a violent, endless cycle that she will never escape—unless she can unlock the twisted secrets of her past.

I give out 5-star ratings pretty rarely, and I've given two of them in a week, so it's possible that my reading psyche went on an "I love you guys" drunken tear in May 2014. This blew me away, though, particularly considering it's a first novel. I had no idea what to expect at any point, the writing is remarkably assured, and characters are allowed to be more than they first appear to be. I actually really enjoyed the non-linearity and the fact that things seemed impenetrable and ambiguous at times. It was fresh, original, unexpected and a near-perfect reading experience. 

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. Goodreads synopsis: When suburban Claudia Kincaid decides to run away, she knows she doesn’t just want to run from somewhere, she wants to run to somewhere — to a place that is comfortable, beautiful, and, preferably, elegant. She chooses the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Knowing her younger brother Jamie has money and thus can help her with a serious cash-flow problem, she invites him along.
Once settled into the museum, Claudia and Jamie find themselves caught up in the mystery of an angel statue that the museum purchased at auction for a bargain price of $225. The statue is possibly an early work of the Renaissance master, Michelangelo, and therefore worth millions. Is it? Or isn’t it? 
Claudia is determined to find out. Her quest leads her to Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the remarkable old woman who sold the statue, and to some equally remarkable discoveries about herself.

For years I kept thinking that I had read this book, then realized that I was confusing it with the E.L. Konigsburg book I had read and loved (The View From Saturday). This requires a lot of suspension of parental horror as well as disbelief, but if you can get past that it's possible that you will find it as utterly charming as I did. Or not. No pressure. 

Short Stories:
The Janus Tree and Other Stories by Glen Hirshberg. Goodreads synopsis: "Welcome back to Glen Hirshberg country, where griefs are at least as dangerous as ghosts. Where terror and wonder become not just inextricable but often indistinguishable. Where the worlds of imagination and everyday reality color and corrode and sometimes overwhelm each other. A country surprisingly like your own".

Just....just... disturbing and creepy and brilliant and sad and wonderful.

St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell. Goodreads synopsis: A dazzling debut, a blazingly original voice: the ten stories in St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves introduce a radiant new talent.
In the collection's title story, a pack of girls raised by wolves are painstakingly reeducated by nuns. In 'Haunting Olivia,' two young boys make midnight trips to a boat graveyard in search of their dead sister, who set sail in the exoskeleton of a giant crab. In 'Z.Z.'s Sleepaway Camp for Disordered Dreamers,' a boy whose dreams foretell implacable tragedies is sent to a summer camp for troubled sleepers (Cabin 1, Narcoleptics; Cabin 2, Sleep Apneics; Cabin 3, Somnambulists . . . ). And 'Ava Wrestles the Alligator' introduces the remarkable Bigtree Wrestling Dynasty' Grandpa Sawtooth, Chief Bigtree, and twelve-year-old Ava' proprietors of Swamplandia!, the island's #1 Gator Theme Park and Cafe. Ava is still mourning her mother when her father disappears, his final words to her the swamp maxim 'Feed the gators, don't talk to strangers.' Left to look after seventy incubating alligators and an older sister who may or may not be having sex with a succubus, Ava meets the Bird Man, and learns that when you're a kid it's often hard to tell the innocuous secrets from the ones that will kill you if you keep them.
Russell's stories are beautifully written and exuberantly imagined, but it is the emotional precision behind their wondrous surfaces that makes them unforgettable. Magically, from the spiritual wilderness and ghostly swamps of the Florida Everglades, against a backdrop of ancient lizards and disconcertingly lush plant life 'in an idiom that is as arrestingly lovely as it is surreal' Karen Russell shows us who we are and how we live.

I read this after being bowled over by Vampires in the Lemon Grove, her second collection, and loved it just as much. It must be said that several of my friends don't love her stories, so I should be clear that these are not plot-driven and there is often not what you might think of as a satisfactory resolution. The strange thing is, I usually don't love short stories that are short on story either, but somehow these work for me. The title story alone was amazing - it was like the most perfect allegory that would have been a wonderful story even if it wasn't allegorical. Yes, clearly this book has robbed me of the ability to be coherent and articulate. 

The Curiosities: a Collection of Stories by Maggie Stiefvater, Brenna Yovanoff and Tessa Gratton. Goodreads synopsis: From acclaimed YA authors Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton, and Brenna Yovanoff comes The Curiosities: A Collection of Stories.
- A vampire locked in a cage in the basement, for good luck.
- Bad guys, clever girls, and the various reasons why the guys have to stop breathing.
- A world where fires never go out (with references to vanilla ice cream). 
These are but a few of the curiosities collected in this volume of short stories by three acclaimed practitioners of paranormal fiction.
But The Curiosities is more than the stories. Since 2008, Maggie, Tessa, and Brenna have posted more than 250 works of short fiction to their website Their goal was simple: create a space for experimentation and improvisation in their writing—all in public and without a backspace key. In that spirit, The Curiosities includes the stories and each author's comments, critiques, and kudos in the margins. Think of it as a guided tour of the creative processes of three acclaimed authors.
So, are you curious now?

How do I count the ways? Two of my favourite young adult authors plus one I hadn't yet discovered. I often don't WANT to hear about writing processes or what inspired which story or what an author had for lunch, but in this case I found all the notes and insights fascinating and charming, and I love the friendship and dynamic between the three writers. And I realize that the stories were chosen from many and edited, but the stories are REALLY FREAKING GOOD. Unrepentant fangirl.

Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck. Goodreads synopsis: Enter the strange and wonderful world of Swedish sensation Karin Tidbeck with this feast of darkly fantastical stories. Whether through the falsified historical record of the uniquely weird Swedish creature known as the “Pyret” or the title story, “Jagannath,” about a biological ark in the far future, Tidbeck’s unique imagination will enthrall, amuse, and unsettle you. How else to describe a collection that includes “Cloudberry Jam,” a story that opens with the line “I made you in a tin can”? Marvels, quirky character studies, and outright surreal monstrosities await you in what is likely to be one of the most talked-about short story collections of the year.
Tidbeck is a rising star in her native country, having published a collection there in Swedish, won a prestigious literary grant, and just sold her first novel to Sweden’s largest publisher. A graduate of the iconic Clarion Writer’s Workshop at the University of California, San Diego, in 2010, her publication history includes Weird Tales, Shimmer Magazine, Unstuck Annual and the anthology Odd.

Holy fucking fuck. Seriously. English isn't even her first fucking LANGUAGE. These stories shimmer with weirdness and wisdom. I read feeling like I was discovering something completely new and yet something that should have always already been. 


Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin. Goodreads synopsis: A breathtaking novel by the author of A Soldier of the Great War, this is a book about the beauty and complexity of the human soul, about God, love, and justice, and yet readers can lose themselves in it as if it were a dream.

I bought a crappy second-hand copy of this years ago and read a bit of it and was utterly enchanted. I got to one particularly cinematic bit about a very imaginative method of thievery which I would quote if I had any idea where the book was and wasn't too lazy to go and find it, and I laughed out loud and then I put the book down and away because I wanted to hold it in reserve. Years went by. I gave my sister a copy and she read it. I finally realized I didn't know what exactly I was holding it in reserve for and started reading it again, parcelling it out a few pages at a time. I was awestruck at the breadth of imagination and vision Helprin held in his mind and spooled out between the covers. And the Lake of the Coheeries, and the white horse, and Peter Lake, and New York and the way that the snow and ice sounded so pure and cold and silent and perfect, and the marsh and the fog curtain and people falling in love and dying and building fabulous empires, and magic and immortality, and the efforts to shatter time and bring back the dead. 

The ending, in fact, didn't seem perfect to me. I wanted something more, or something else. But altogether? This book was amazing. 

The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey. Goodreads synopsis: Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don't like her. She jokes that she won't bite, but they don't laugh.

No way, I said, a couple of chapters in. No way am I giving another five-star review. I have been WAY too profligate with five-star reviews lately.

But dammit - it's a five-star book. It's a flat-out edge-of-your-seat need-to-read, AND it has flawed, nuanced characters AND good writing AND some fairly unpalatable musings about humanity, AND the science makes sense.

And oh my god, does he stick the landing. 

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. Goodreads synopsis: Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn't thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she'd claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.
Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.
A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Laneis told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly's wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.

To conclude my review of books read in 2014, I give you the very first book I read in 2014, on New Year's Day, in my comfy reading chair. I don't really know what to say about it, since I have used many many adjectives in these posts. It is short. Some people liked it, some didn't. I thought it was terrifying and sweet and sad and perfect in that way that makes you feel like it is a story that you've known since you were very very small, but always wanted someone to tell to you again so you could remember it just right. 


Steph Lovelady said...

You're right that the Mixed Up Files does read differently when you've got kids of your own, but I do still love it. Read it multiple times as a kid, twice with Noah, and it might be about time to get it out for June.

Haven't read Cry the Beloved Country since high school. I do remember liking it.

DaniGirl said...

Wait, what? Have you been linking to the books on Goodreads all along? Why didn't I notice that four blog posts ago? Could you make it any easier for me to populate my "want to read" shelf?

I finally found some books I actually read this year in one of your posts, and I'm glad to see our assessments line up so well. Now I have to find more time to read. And an Amazon sugar daddy!

I really loved these posts - thanks for the huge effort you've put into them! I'm so so so glad there are still smart bloggers talking about books. Makes me feel all 2007 warm and fuzzy.

Maggie said...

I was lucky enough to go to see Neil Gaiman reading from this book last year and he was so great! I love his work, but have become stalled out on Ocean At The End of The Lane because I'm afraid. That's right, he is such a good writer I had to step away because the book was making me scared. I promise myself I WILL get back to it this year.

Both my kids love his book Fortunately the Milk, which I completely recommend for all, hilarious, ridiculous, and fun.

Nicole said...

Bookmarking! That Nigerian-Nordic one looks very interesting!

Lynn said...

Hm. I am putting Fikry on my list, but many of the others sound a little too..."should read" to me. Know what I mean? I'm sure it's just the summaries but a lot of them sound like they are about personal growth and I am too tired for growing right now :).

I am still working on that book I had with me when we got coffee, Red Rising. It is AGGRAVATING. I almost want you to read it just so we can vent about it together. My husband LOVED the book so every five minutes he's all, "What part are you at now?" and "Ooooh, what do you think of that?" and I'm halfway between "meh" and a detailed breakdown of why the motivations of the main character are in question, and the so-called "bad guys" are possibly just doing their jobs. So far, in the interest of staying married, I'm holding my tongue! GAH.

Magpie said...

you are a wonder. the nigerian/nordic one sounds fascinating. mrs. basil e. is one of my favorite-est books ever...and i think of it every time i see a bed or a fountain in a museum.

Ms. G said...

Winters Tale...Did I read that? Why didn't I read that? Off to check my library stock list!
Fikry! : D