Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sandra's List of Notable and Not-So-Notable Fiction of 2008

It's the last day of the year and I find myself thinking back over the books I read in 2008. Why should The New York Times or The Washington Post have all the fun? I thought I'd jump in to include my list of the best and most disappointing reads of the year.

The Best:

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Richard Price is fast becoming one of my favorite writers. I've known of him for years and I've had this mental note to read him. It wasn't until I heard him in an interview talk about this book and of writing in general that I decided to pick the book up from the library. He is one of best writers of dialog out there. What I love most about this novel is Price's ability to paint life in all it's complexity and simplicity. There are no easy sides in this rich mural of urban life.

Another novel by Richard Price. The characters are so strong and real. I felt this nagging sense that I just "knew" these people. I loved the theme of nostalgia and how often the past we remember doesn't belong to us at all but is collective movement. Plus Richard Price is able to write with honesty and clarity about characters of different races, sexes, and ages in a way that I've seldom seen in other writers.

This one was a wonderful surprise for me. I read a small review in The New York Times that intrigued me and picked it up the next day at the library. Hannah Tinti writes with the sensibility of Charles Dickens, except that in The Good Thief her main character, Ren is able to maintain a child's sense of wonder and trust throughout the journey into the shadow of his new life outside of the orphanage.

Growing up, I was an avid reader but I must admit that John Steinbeck left me cold. I read The Grapes of Wrath in high school and found myself slogging through it. Of Mice and Men left me warmer but I wasn't eager to read any more Steinbeck. I think I started East of Eden around the same time but never managed to finish it. This time around I read it for a book group and could not put it down. It turns out that East of Eden was Steinbeck's favorite book and I can understand why. It reads like love letter to the Salinas Valley. It is a wonderful example of how words from the pen of a master can be transformed into art.

The Disappointing:

I really wanted to like this book. I read a review in The New York Times and I was intrigued but the book left me frustrated. I struggled with the passivity of the main character. First person is tough but when filled with pages and pages of a character who doesn't quite know why they've made the choices they've made it can be unbearable. The last section of the book which mirrors the presidency of George Bush did not work for me at all; it felt forced and repetitive.

I started out with The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen Carter. I loved the premise of the story and the writing was vivid. He gives his readers a marvelous view of the upper black middle class but the mystery as it unraveled left me cold. Undaunted I bought New England White. A minor character from the first novel becomes one of the main characters in this novel. Once again vivid writing, upper black middle class life and another frigid mystery (unfortunately this one went on far too long and could have done with some major editing towards the end).

Then while listening to an interview on NPR with the author, I thought maybe this time it will be different. I felt like the woman going back out with the same boyfriend for the third time. I raced to the library and picked up The Palace Council and there was vivid writing- check; upper black middle class society- check; and another mystery that fell flat- check.

This was one of those insider reads. For a writer who spends way too much time with kids, I often fantasize about a world where writers pal around with one another sitting in cafes or bars for hours talking about writing. It was fun to drift inside the world of publishing, agents and the media. What writer hasn't daydreamed of conquering the top of the bestseller list and becoming a media darling? Grub offered much in the way of inside elbow in the rib and wink-wink insider gags but unfortunately the characters never made it beyond the initial character sketch stage for me.

Beginner's Greek was not a book I would have picked up on my own. I tend to avoid the pastel romance-like books. But every magazine, newspaper or NPR segment insisted that this was one of the most amazing books of the year. I was sold. I picked it up and read it in a couple of days. I raced through it because I kept hoping it would have to get better. I even checked online to make certain there wasn't another book by the same title out there that everyone was raving about. Sadly this was not the case. Thin plotting, bland lifeless characters and a convenient death by lightning kept me wondering how this baby wound up the critics' darling.

So these are my hits and misses of 2008. What were the books that kept you reading or made you want to throw the book out the nearest window?

1 comment:

Cheryl M. said...

I have Lush Life on my reading list, but our library doesn't have it yet. I also picked up The Emperor of Ocean Park and had lukewarm feelings about it. This year I enjoyed fiction stories by Ryan Boudinot, the non-fiction book Three Cups of Tea, and The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Chabon - an interesting mix of mystery/fantasy set in Alaska.