Sunday, January 2, 2022

The Year in Reviews by Greg Gilbert

The Year in Reviews By Greg Gilbert

 Though, admittedly, while I am a reader too soon made glad, I think that most would agree with me that 2021 has been a good year for books. Among my discoveries are recurring themes involving libraries, literacy, and calls to defend biodiversity. Optimism suggests that through the arts (nod to Stephen Dedalus) we may yet fly beyond the nets of social, political, and intellectual decline. Sapere aude!

1. Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford (2021, 272 pages). Maybe my book of the year. A V2 rocket plummets into London’s Woolworths in 1944. Among the dead, five fictional children. We experience their unlived lives, each unique, roundly drawn, and carried by a mastery of prose styles tailored to each story. This is a writer’s book, yes, but also one for a student of the human condition and the realities of a post-WW2 world that is falling from its own grace.

2. The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki (2021, 489 pages, magical realism). Benny Oh’s father, Kenji, dies tragically – absurdly – run over by a garbage truck. Kenji was a jazz artist. Benny Oh is young, and after his father’s death he begins to hear voices from inanimate objects. His mother, Annebelle, hordes, converts her sorrow into weight gain, and we accompany mother and son as their troubles mount. Her job involves clipping news articles that offer a parallel narrative of a growing global climate crises, the degradation of news services, and a declining concern for individual lives. The book offers an interesting group of characters: a dark spirit guide in the person of Aleph, a young artist; and an old Slovenian poet, B-man. The two most prominent settings are Benny’s home with its trash bags and mountains of hoarded items; and an old, renovated public library with its haunted cutting room. This book is an admirable stretch by an accomplished writer with the “Book” itself serving as the narrator.

3. A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor (published 2005, written in 1930s, 344 page) The reader will experience a sumptuous travelogue as Fermor walks across Europe and describes the world from multiple perspectives, seeing it both as it is and as it has been presented by mythology, art, and history. In Holland, he enters the Groote Kirk, the cathedral filled “with early morning light” that induces an imagined overlay “of half-forgotten Dutch pictures,” a vision of “seventeenth-century groups . . . burghers with pointed corn-colored beards . . . conferring with their wives and their children, still as chessmen, in black broadcloth and identical honeycomb ruffs under the tremendous hatchmented pillars.” The author tells us that the “beautiful city” that surrounded the cathedral, Haarlem, “was to be bombed to fragments a few years later.” He would have lingered, he says, had he known. This is a superbly rendered first-person account of Europe before the cataclysms that soon followed.

4. Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr (2021, 640 pages) Reminiscent of Cloud Atlas, but not nearly as demanding or self-consciously brilliant. This is the stirring fiction of an ancient play by Aristophanes that is sought by generations past and future as their own stories intertwine. While not readily comparable to Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See (permanently on my top ten list), it does offer the same inspiring regard for the worlds inhabited by his characters.

5. Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (2016, 259 pages) The novel is presented in the voice of an Irish immigrant who flees the Great Famine only to be caught up in the Indian Wars and the American Civil War. The narration is colloquial mid-19th century USA and permitted the occasional overstep for the sake of an ongoing poetic presence. I found myself enthralled by what is both a historical adventure and a love story. The narrator’s lyrical voice is that of Thomas McNulty, a deeply conscientious person who lives a life defined by his times and by his growing awareness of who he is. The entire story is framed by his relationship with John Cole, his partner in all things, and the makeshift family they form with an adopted young Sioux girl, Winona. No less than Kazuo Ishiguro wrote, “I am resolved to read more of Sebastian Barry, a contemporary Irish poet and fiction author.” Now, having read all of his published fictions, I believe that Days Without End stands as his finest effort. Barry is a two-time Man Booker Prize finalist.

6. Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen (2021, 507 pages) Associate pastor, wife, and four children – their lives in a small Indiana town, each character thoroughly developed, each an everyman struggling with issues of religious faith, family, and personal longings and guilt. Their inner lives are authentically depicted, and their interpersonal relationships ring true. The novel is as complex and arresting as real life. The novel’s arrangement allows each character his or her own intimate third person chapters as well as settings where they interact, thus allowing a good deal of subtext to exist in the minds of the readers. While the novel turns largely on sexual and social issues, it will speak volumes to anyone who has been immersed in religious communities, a subject respectfully examined from the perspectives of each character. Crossroads is utterly devoid of derision or satire, but, rather, delves into the choices that define the courses our lives will follow.  

7. Lincoln Highway by Armor Towles (2021, 576 pages) Beginning in 1954, a young man who slugs a bully who in falling hits his head and dies, returns from a year at a work farm and sets out on an adventure with his little brother to follow the Lincoln Highway. Supporting characters serve the plot with their eccentricities and moral complexities, each a hero on an individual journey. The book is sweet and charming, particularly the protagonist’s 8-year-old brother, a uniquely wise and attentive child who loves tales of heroes and travel. My favorite is Woolly, a runaway from the work farm, a dreamy, innocent, and gentle character, an ideal companion for the 8-year-old boy. While this isn’t a literary tour-de-force, taken as a whole, I recommend it as a favorite journey of the heart this past year.

8. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (2021, 307 pages, dystopian scifi) Klara, an AF (Artificial Friend), watches over a child who is ill. All AF’s are solar powered, and Klara treats the sun as a compassionate deity. Klara is a reliable narrator, devoted to the child and the sun. The story studies human relationships from a slight distance. Ishiguro’s writing is a lesson in restraint and balance.

9. Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy (2020, 259 pages. An Irish/Australian woman’s journey to follow the last migration of arctic terns. This is a near future story where climate disruption and mass extinction loom large. Central to the story is Franny and her quest to follow the last of the Arctic terns on their historic migration. Her journey takes her to sea, both figuratively and literally. While this is a worthy reading experience in its own right, it taught me to see bird migrations as never before. In terms of education, I equate this book with how The Overstory by Richard Powers helped me to better see the trees and the forest.

10. Silverview by John Le Carré (2021, 224 pages). The final book, edited by his son after Le Carré’s death. Sharp, crisp, and as insightful as any of his works, but, in this instance, mocking the service’s lack of a moral compass and its confused loyalties, a book John Le Carré wouldn’t have published during his life. The book is named for a house where a Polish émigré lives, an enigmatic character who inspires a central deconstruction of the worldly alliances that shape British spy craft.

Quick Mentions:

The Thursday Murder Club and The Man WhoDied Twice, by British comedian, Richard Osman. One can only imagine the author’s 6-foot 7-inch frame hunched over his keyboard launching this remarkable group of senior citizens into their various escapades. Comic, well plotted, extravagantly well-mannered and witty, this is a crew that I’d follow the length of Hadrian’s Wall and back.

The Dark Hours by Michael Connelly (2021, 401 pages) The 4th Renee Ballard and Bosch book. Ballard is imbued with the same drive for justice as her mentor, Bosch. Two crimes are investigated, and Bosch consigns himself to a fatherly role, as guide and protector. This is standard Connelly fare, always solid and well plotted. The conclusion is a bit formulaic and rushed, but, overall, the book doesn’t disappoint. I was fortunate to discover Connelly with the publication of his first book, and my wife and I have followed him faithfully ever since.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (2016, 560 pages) A whodunit in the style of AgathaChristie but with a book within a book, one offering clues to the murder in the other, two well-crafted stories, two conclusions intricately woven and carefully plotted. The surrounding story is narrated by the publisher of the first book and contains literary histories and insights into plot/character devices used within the genre. The books are populated by stock characters, so I never felt as invested in the outcome as I would like, but I cannot fault the creation of a brilliant parody.

Five Decembers by James Kestrel (2021, 432 pages. A hardboiled crime novel set in WWII) The story begins in Pearl Harbor shortly before the December 7, 1941 attack. A Honolulu police detective, Joe McGrady, becomes involved in solving a murder, a journey that is backdropped by war, particularly his years in Japan hiding in the home of a pacifist ambassador. While true to the genre of hard crime fiction, the story blends romance without making it seedy, desperate, or cliched. This was an enjoyable book, at once escapist and sensitive to culture and recent history while retaining the straightforward no-nonsense style of the genre.

An America Sunrise by Joy Harjo (previously reviewed for Cholla Needles)

Augustus by John Edward Williams (previously reviewed for ChollaNeedles)

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