Best Reads of 2013: Fiction
So far I’ve read 229 books in 2013, so although my task is nigh on impossible I’m gamely attempting to reduce that list down to just ten stand-out titles, five nonfiction picks last week and five fiction this week. (Some of these have already featured in other Bookkaholic articles, but some will be new to you, I promise!) So without further ado, here are my favorite novels read in 2013:
[Featured in my article on the 2013 Booker Prize race]
My favorite novel of the year is a rich reflection on what it means to be human in an era of short attention spans, the dearth of meaning, and imminent environmental threat.
The time being: the present moment is what we’re stuck with now and must embrace.
The time being: in the Buddhist viewpoint, each human is entrapped by time, which means that we are all in this together; this is an Everyman tale.
On present-day Vancouver Island, “Ruth,” a Japanese-American novelist who is attempting to write a memoir of her mother’s slow demise from Alzheimer’s but has a bad case of writer’s block, stumbles across a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the beach. Inside she finds a cache of old letters and a teenage girl’s diary in Japanese, disguised as a copy of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu.
The diary belonged to sixteen-year-old Nao (pronounced “now” – is it all starting to fit together?) Yasutani, who cheerfully and informally confides in her imagined reader. The past few years in Tokyo have not been easy for her – she’s been the victim of extreme bullying at the hands of her classmates, and suicide seems to run in the family – but she has a guardian angel in the form of her great-grandmother, Buddhist nun Jiko, who is approaching death at age 104 but still represents the voice of wisdom and a timeless perspective.
In a modified epistolary format that includes diaries, letters, e-mails, and an abstract of a disappearing journal article, Ozeki builds her gentle academic mystery: where did the lunchbox come from? How did it wash up in Canada? Are Nao and the other diary subjects still alive and well, or did they die in the 2011 Japanese tsunami? Alternating chapters contrast Nao’s diary entries with Ruth’s reactions and commentary a decade later. Yet, in a delicious outbreak of magic realism, it seems Ruth may actually have some power to change Nao’s fate.
This is a superbly intelligent novel, with concerns ranging from ocean currents and pollution to the wacky quantum physics theory of multiple worlds. Ultimately, it is about being happy in the here and now – not looking to the past or the future for contentment or hope; and not indulging in regret or wishes. As the character Ruth states in the epilogue: “I’d much rather know, but then again, not-knowing keeps all the possibilities open. It keeps all the worlds alive.”
[Featured in our Lost Classics column]
Stoner has been the surprise publishing phenomenon of 2013. How did this unassuming novel – first published in 1965, when it sold just 2,000 copies and quickly slipped out of print – become an American and European bestseller?
The odds are that you have never heard of John Williams, or of Stoner itself. If you’ve seen a few too many Judd Apatow movies recently, you might be expecting some kind of pothead comedy, but nothing could be further from the truth. Instead Stoner is a quiet masterpiece about the humble life of a college professor named William Stoner; it is simultaneously ‘about’ very little but also encompassing the whole of a life, with all its minor triumphs, disappointments, and tragedies.
The cataclysms in Stoner’s life are of deceptively simple origin: his marriage to an emotionally disturbed and sexually frigid woman, and their fight over raising their daughter; his undistinguished career, blighted by department politics; and a single affair at the age of 43 that brings him alive like never before but is doomed to failure, like so much else in his life.
This might all sound rather depressing, but Stoner has a raw truth and brilliance that makes it essential reading. On nearly every page you will encounter a line that stops you short, that speaks so authentically to the human condition that you gasp to think Williams understood you, the reader in 2013, so perfectly. I won’t spoil the beauty of the final chapter for you, except to say that it surely has one of the best deathbed scenes ever to grace world literature.
What dispiriting smallness there is to this life – and yet it contains everything worthwhile: love, struggle, marriage, career, affair, fulfillment, illness, and death. I can hardly recall the last time I read a more powerful or affecting novel. A book for 2013, or for any year.
3. Want Not by Jonathan Miles
(My review is forthcoming in the January 8th issue of BookBrowse.)
“Waste not, want not” goes the aphorism, and Jonathan Miles’s second novel (after the success of Dear American Airlines) explores both themes to their fullest extent: the concept of waste – from lives spent profligately, to garbage and excrement – and ordinary people’s conflicting desires. In three interlocking story lines, Miles looks for what is really of human value at a time when everything seems disposable and possessions both material and digital can exert a dispiriting tyranny.
The novel opens on Thanksgiving 2007, with New York City buried under an early snowstorm. The nation’s annual excuse for gluttony makes a perfect metaphorical setting for Miles’s exposé of food waste and consumerist excess. Like Ozeki’s, this novel takes environmental issues seriously but doesn’t ever resort to polemic. It’s a humane story, one for time beings everywhere. This is one I really wish I had written.
[See my A+ review in What Should I Read Next]
Jane Austen meets Downton Abbey. Could this be better than the original? (Pride and Prejudice, that is.) Perhaps better is not the right word, but fuller: Baker’s is a fully convincing and unbiased vision of early nineteenth-century English life, featuring multiple classes and races – and it doesn’t airbrush away unpleasant bodily realities.
Longbourn is (for the most part) meticulously contemporaneous with the action of Pride and Prejudice. A house the size of Longbourn was run by a small band of servants; all Baker has done in the way of invention is to give faces and stories to those previously nameless below-stairs characters – expanded roles for Mr. and Mrs. Hill (the latter both housekeeper and cook); young maids Sarah and Polly; and a new footman with murky origins, James Smith. For the most part, readers are limited to knowing whatever the servants can overhear or imply. The Bennets’ utter obliviousness to the reality of life for the lower classes is slyly juxtaposed with a growing awareness of the brutality of slavery. Baker also expertly mimics Austen’s trademark use of free indirect speech and witticisms.
Our protagonist, housemaid Sarah, is a feisty heroine of the lineage of both Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Eyre; indeed, the first line is particularly reminiscent of Jane Eyre: “There could be no wearing of clothes without their laundering.” Like Miss Eyre, Sarah is an eager orphan who turns to books for temporary escape from her troubles; like Lizzie, she faces a similar choice between two very different suitors; and again like Jane, she will set off on a fraught, solitary adventure to secure true love. Meanwhile, there is just the right level of earthiness (chilblains, scars, lice, reeking chamber pots, and so on) here to root the romantic plot in reality. Kudos to Jo Baker.
For fans of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, this last selection will be a special treat. Mathis’s debut novel is the achingly sad saga of one black family making their way north and fighting to break free from poverty and prejudice. In the early years of the 1920s, Hattie Shepherd longs to escape from Georgia, where her father was lynched. When she marries August, they set off hopefully for Pennsylvania only to watch their seven-month-old twins, Philadelphia and Jubilee, die of pneumonia despite Hattie’s desperate ministrations.
This loss will haunt Hattie throughout the years to come, even though she bears nine more children (who, together with the dead twins and a granddaughter, form the twelve tribes of the title – an explicit echo of the dozen tribes of Israel in the Hebrew Bible). Violence, disappointment, love affairs, and discrimination: from the 1920s through to the 1980s, Mathis traces an American family in crisis and suggests that, clichéd as it may sound, love may have the power to heal what seem like fatal emotional wounds.
Each chapter shifts to the perspective of another of Hattie’s offspring, in either first- or third-person narration, making for an impressive variety of voices and styles. Readers gain an intimate view of each of the children, but also of Hattie herself, through the composite, peripheral glances each chapter allows. Hattie is a troublesome yet compelling character; as cold as she often seems to her children, she feels things deeply. One perceptive daughter realizes “She’d never seen her mother laugh…She’d never seen any joy in her at all. Hattie had been stern and angry all of Bell’s life, and it occurred to her that her mother must have been very unhappy most of the time.”
Mathis’s novel is also strong at the level of language and allusion; she subverts biblical narratives even as she relies on them for structure. The pattern of devoting one chapter to each family member reminded me of Hanna Pylväinen’s We Sinners, while the portentous biblical rhetoric, applied to the reality of southern and/or African-American lives, recalls not just Morrison and Walker but also William Faulkner. It’s no surprise that Oprah Winfrey chose The Twelve Tribes of Hattie for her book club relaunch. With writing this confident and characters this convincing, it will be a pleasure to await Mathis’s next work of fiction.
Next week: The Rest of the Best – more fiction and nonfiction that must not be missed.