“I’ll be posting more soon,” I wrote (February 28, 2012). If we are going by geological time, I suppose nearly two years later qualifies as “soon,” but by normal human calendar time, I missed the mark a bit. Here is the final batch of read-in-2011 favorites, a continuation of this “best of 2011” post.
Many of these books have gotten a fair amount of attention in the last couple years (Cloud Atlas was made into a movie), and some authors have published additional books since these: Hilary Mantel followed up Wolf Hall with Bring Up the Bodies, Patrick Somerville published This Bright River in 2012, Emma Donoghue published Astray the same year, and Simon Van Booy came out with the slender and luminous The Illusion of Separateness last year. Here, though, are my brief and belated roundups of some favorite novels I read in 2011.
Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy (2011): Having read Simon Van Booy’s short stories (The Secret Lives of People in Love; Love Begins in Winter), I was looking forward to his first novel, and it didn’t disappoint, although I think his style is best suited to short stories and novellas. Characters take precedence over plot in this story (except for one main event): the relationships between Rebecca, Henry, and George are the central aspect of the story. The setting – Athens, Greece – is also a character of sorts. Van Booy’s writing is poetic, and creates a mood that lingers even when you’ve put the book down.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010): This novel spans a few decades, stretching into the near future; sections are linked through loosely connected characters. Each section serves as a snapshot or cross-section of a time in a life, and the character’s interaction with others during that time. I enjoyed these sections on their own (many parts appeared in The New Yorker in advance of the novel’s publication) and would have gladly spent more time with the characters. However, I remember not liking the sections set in the future as much as the ones set in the past or present, and now that it has been a few years, I don’t remember the overall arc of the book.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (1999): As impressed as I was with Goon Squad, Cloud Atlas blew me away. Structurally, the book is unlike any other I’ve ever read: like the eponymous “sextet for overlapping soloists” described in the novel (“In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order”), the book is made up of six sections, five of which are divided in half, with the sixth in its entirety in the middle of the book. The six narratives are so wildly different in setting, character, voice, and style that they could have been written by different authors, but a single theme emerges. Most readers will prefer certain narratives over others, but overall, the book is masterful, and David Mitchell’s genius is apparent.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009): Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII are two of the most popular characters for historical fiction authors, but Thomas Cromwell, who lurks in the shadows in most books, takes center stage (center page?) in Mantel’s. She describes his miserable childhood, his travels as a young man, and his rise to power with superb and engaging thoroughness, so the reader empathizes with the character completely. Wolf Hall has a strange grammatical quirk – every “he” or “him” refers to Cromwell, regardless of subject/object conventions – but this quirk was ironed out in the subsequent Bring Up the Bodies. I can’t wait for the third and final book, The Mirror and the Light, expected sometime in 2015. (Will it, too, win the Booker Prize?)
The Widower’s Tale by Julia Glass (2010): Set in the Boston area, The Widower’s Tale may be Glass’ saddest book to date, but it is also one of her best. She weaves a web of interconnected characters, creates a beautiful and believable setting, and writes with emotional truth about the people she has brought to life – in this case, the Darling family, including retired librarian and grandfather Percy; his daughters, high-achieving Trudy and floundering Clover; and his grandson, Harvard student Robert.
Room by Emma Donoghue (2010): A distinctive departure for Donoghue (Slammerkin, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits: Stories, The Sealed Letter), Room centers closely on two characters, mother and child, in a tightly circumscribed environment – the single, eponymous room. The reader gleans that the mother has been kidnapped, imprisoned, and raped, but her five-year-old son Jack knows none of this; the room is his whole world. When they manage to escape, the real world is a shock to both of them, for different reasons and in different ways. A novel premise, thoughtfully carried out.
The Cradle by Patrick Somerville (2009): For better or worse, there wasn’t a tremendous amount of buzz about this book when it came out, so reading it felt like a wonderful and secret discovery. It is about the marriage of Matt and Marissa, who, facing impending parenthood, are reflecting on their own family histories. On the back of the book, Benjamin Percy wrote, “Like a magic trick, The Cradle will make you blink, chew your lip, try to figure out how he did it, how in the world Patrick Somerville managed to sneak this big, beautiful story of familial love into such a slender novel – a saga writ small, swiftly paced, intricately structured, precisely told.” Well put.
The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: fourteen amazing authors tell the tales (2011): I have long been entranced by Chris Van Allsburg’s illustrations, especially The Chronicles of Harris Burdick. Each illustration in this collection has a title and a caption that tantalizes the imagination. As the subtitle of this edition suggests, fourteen authors have taken on the challenge here, with one story per illustration (how did they decide who got which?). Each tale is magical and inventive; some are funny, some are dark. My favorites are “Oscar and Alphonse,” written by Van Allsburg himself, and “The House on Maple Street” by Stephen King. Great for most ages (10 and up?).