Sunday, December 30, 2018

Favorite Books of 2018

It seems a bit ridiculous to share my favorite books of the year given that there are more than 1200 such lists. The blogger Largehearted Boy put together a compilation for the 11th year running that includes all the usual suspects plus specialized and offbeat lists like Book Page's Best Book Covers, the Environment Award for Children's Literature (ecological books that inspire Australian children), It's a Hill, Get Over It (best running books) and Notable Books for a Global Society (best books that promote understanding of and appreciation for the world's full range of diverse cultures and ethnic and racial groups). Click here to get to Largehearted Boy. Thanks to the fabulous -- and hilarious -- Ron Charles, book critic for the Washington Post, for directing readers to this rabbit hole.

Despite the recognition that I have nothing revelatory to offer, I'm going to pile on. This blog is, after all, essentially my online diary. Please post your own favorites as a comment!

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje -- "In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals." Seriously, how can you top that as a first sentence? As the story unfolds, the masterful Ondaatje introduces readers to a truly memorable cast of characters. This is not your typical World War II book about spies and resisters, although there's plenty of that world to satisfy espionage buffs. It's a tale of family and choices and love and commitment to country. I am highly tempted to quit typing right now and dive back into this book for a re-read. I loved every moment of it. I have nothing more to say except READ IT!

Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart -- I have yet to decide how much my background as a capital markets lawyer influenced my reaction to this book, which I found absolutely and utterly hilarious. I am talking laugh out loud funny. Our protagonist is Barry Cohen, a man with 2.4 billion dollars of assets under management who also happens to be the subject of a criminal investigation. In the opening pages, we join Cohen as he leaves his family and heads off on a Greyhound bus in search of his college girlfriend. He is drunk, bleeding and has left his credit cards at home. He--and the readers--are in for quite a journey.

"The air here [in the bus station] was different. He could say with certainty that he had not in recent memory, or any memory, really, breathed air of this quality. The easy way to describe it would be to say that it smelled like a foot. But whose foot? The man was not in the habit of smelling feet, except perhaps in the locker room at Equinox where his own feet smelled of chlorine, because he swam. His wife's feet, he was sure, smelled of honeysuckle, like the rest of her, but he was not going to think of her now."

Cohen is an easy man to hate. He is the epitome of a self-important, entitled Wall Street asshole. (There's really no other word for him.) And he's left behind not only his wife but his son, who is on the lower end of the spectrum. But Shteyngart somehow makes Cohen not likable, but enjoyable to follow as he experiences the real world with a childlike sense of wonder. And the comedy is deftly offset by the heart-breaking reality of the struggle of his son's life.

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez --  The winner of the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction might be the most emotionally devastating book I have ever read. The novel opens with the true story of a group of female Cambodian war refugees who have lost their sight. They were all witnesses to/subjects of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. Doctors who examined the women said the blindness was psychosomatic. "In other words," Nunez writes, "The women's minds, forced to take in so much horror and unable to take more, had managed to turn out the lights."

This news story was the last thing our unnamed protagonist discussed with her best friend and longtime mentor before he committed suicide.  Yes, this is one intense book.

The actual plotline of the novel deals with our protagonist taking on the care of her deceased friend's Great Dane. Like our storyteller, the dog is grief-stricken. In an almost stream of consciousness style, we travel with the pair as they work to come to terms with their loss.  

The Friend is not an easy read. If you're like me, you will have to put the slim novel down frequently to absorb the words and the pain. But Nunez' writing is so gorgeous and compelling that the thought of abandoning the book never crossed my mind.

Florida by Lauren Goff -- I am generally not a reader of short stories. I like to dig into a book and its characters and always fear that a short story will leave me unsatisfied. But when my favorite bookseller literally put a signed copy of Florida in my hands, what choice did I have? Thank you, Cathy Graham of Copperfish Books!

Readers of Groff's Fates and Furies will not be surprised that these stories take a hard look at the psychological make-up of her characters.

"I have become a woman who yells," the protagonist in Ghosts and Empties tells us. "And because I do not want to be a woman who yells, whose little children walk around with frozen, watchful faces, I have taken to lacing on my running shoes after dinner and going out into the twilit streets for a walk, leaving the undressing and sluicing and reading and singing and tucking in of the boys to my husband, a man who does not yell." As she walks, she observes the world around her and contemplates its meaning. Spoiler alert: There's no neat ending of the story in which she magically loses her anger and happily resumes her parental duties.

Each story is a self-contained nugget that was surprisingly satisfying. Groff's writing is just so good. FYI, Florida was also in contention for this year's National Book Award.

Virgil Wander by Leif Enger -- Like Lake Success, I picked up an advanced reader's copy of Virgil Wander at this year's Book Expo. These books often end up in the hands of others. But there was something about this novel that made me reluctant to let it go.

The novel tells the story of Virgil Wander, who Enger describes as "a Midwestern male cruising at medium altitude, aspiring vaguely to decency, contributing to PBS, moderate in all things including romantic forays, and doing unto others more or less reciprocally." When we meet Virgil, he's recently been rescued after his car went over a cliff into Lake Superior. He would have died but for the quick action of a fellow resident who was beachcombing.

Amazingly, Virgil is more or less intact, although his memory--both of people and language--is coming back in fits and starts. I took particular pleasure in Virgil's recovery of his words.  "Brusque appeared all by itself, which seemed apt; merry and boisterous arrived together."

Virgil is a charming guy who is surrounded by people you would call characters even if they weren't in a novel. But what really makes this book is its story of a community's residents pulling together to help each other achieve their goals as individuals and a town. It's a lovely message in this time of divisiveness.

Here's to a new year filled with whatever your heart desires. For me, that's time with friends and family enjoying cultural offerings that expand my world -- and, of course, a few good books.  

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