Tag Archives: Best of 2010

My Best of 2010, Part Two

J. L. Carr, A Month in the Country

A short novel about a First World War veteran who recovers from PTSD and a broken marriage as he restores a fresco by an unknown medieval artist in a village church. If you have much experience with a certain determinedly whimsical subgenre of story, you may think you know what kind of story this is: over several small, gentle adventures, a menagerie of eccentric locals bond with our hero and bring him out of his shell (shock). There is some of this, yes. But the narrator’s closest relationship is with the anonymous medieval artist: we never learn the man’s name, but by the end of the book the narrator has deduced the outline of his life from his art. A Month in the Country is about the healing power of professionalism and love of a craft, and about how we connect to long-vanished people through the work they leave behind.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

We live in a society where the cream of Wall Street can crash the economy and be rewarded with six-figure bonuses, and the idea of looking into possible crimes in high places is dismissed as looking backwards. So Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, about a student who kills a pawnbroker because he thinks he’s too extraordinary to be held to the same rules as us peons, is as relevant as it’s ever been. Russian novels have a reputation as bleak and heavy stuff, so it might surprise you to learn that Crime and Punishment is also as unbearably suspenseful as any good Hitchcock movie, and at times very funny.

Dry high school English classes (which often expose us to books before we’re ready to enjoy them) train us to think of The Classics as medicinal: dreary, bitter, but good for you. In fact, more often than you’d expect, classics become classics by entertaining the hell out of people.

Tove Jansson, The True Deceiver

The alphabet arbitrarily put The True Deceiver next to Crime and Punishment, but seeing them together made a new connection in my head: both novels attack an Ayn Randish philosophy which has way too much influence in 21st-century America. Crime and Punishment argues against the impulse to divide the human race into a mass of commoners and a special super-creative producer class. The True Deceiver ridicules the mindset that thinks the world is a Social Darwinist tooth-and-claw struggle, selfishness is a virtue, and other people are marks to be exploited for one’s own gain; and that believes thinking this way means one is clear-eyed, realistic, and tough-minded.

The True Deceiver is about two women, Katri Kling and Anna Amelin, whose characters are expressed by their names. Katri is a struggling shop assistant who lives with a huge wolfish dog; Anna a wealthy but financially naive artist who seems as mild as the rabbits she paints for her children’s books. Katri intends to insinuate herself into Anna’s confidence and take over the older woman’s affairs, house, and money. It doesn’t go as she expects. This is a little two-paragraph review, not an analytical essay, so I don’t want to give away too many details, but I’ll say that Anna unknowingly derails Katri with a kind of moral judo throw, and that real strength isn’t what or where Katri believed it was. Everyone comes out ahead in a way that utterly dismantles Katri’s worldview.

(More to come in part three”¦)

My Best of 2010, Part One

As I too often note on this blog, I haven’t written much lately. I could claim I haven’t been writing because haven’t had much to say, but the truth is that I haven’t had much to say because I haven’t been writing. Sometimes I don’t consciously realize what it is I have to say until I try putting it into words.

The sticking point is that to write something I have to put in some serious thought–serious for me, anyway–and I cut down on sustained pondering over the last couple of months. I’ve spent the year anxious about a number of things, the biggest of which are the economy and the direction in which the country is headed. It feels like everything we’ve built in the last century is being torn down and hollowed out. Lately, if I’m not careful, contemplation can metamorphose into perpetual low-grade panic.

So I haven’t engaged enough with the books I’ve read. I’ve let the texts wash over me, let the authors’ thoughts drown out my worries, escaped from a world where, for the moment, I don’t want to spend very much time. I managed this without focusing on any particular kind of book. Some people disdain “escapist” literature, but, truth be told, you can escape into Dostoevsky as easily as Doctor Who.

This is, of course, not good for me. So I’m going to try to post more often. I’m starting slowly with a review of 2010–just a paragraph or three on the books that made the biggest impression on me, for good or ill. I’ll split it into multiple posts, because in a few cases I’m coming up with encouragingly long paragraphs. I may eventually try to come up with longer essays on a few. (If nothing else I’m a little chagrined that, of the books I did manage to write about, the only ones by female authors were the among the books I didn’t like.)

The books will be listed in alphabetical order by author, because I hate trying to rank things. (Anyway, it’s not fair pitting contemporary writers against the aforementioned Dostoevsky.)

The Best (Part One)

Kage Baker, The Bird of the River

This is, sadly, Kage Baker’s last novel. It’s one of her better ones, another book in the fantasy series that began with The Anvil of the World, set in a secondary world which draws as much from America as most Extruded Fantasy Product does from Europe. Like Anvil, it’s very much a working class fantasy: it focuses on the kind of people who stay in the background of most secondary world fantasy, and it spends a lot of pages just watching them do their jobs while the plot casually emerges from the background. The Bird of the River is about a riverboat and some of its day-to-day operations would have looked familiar to Mark Twain. I came away thinking I should really read Life on the Mississippi again. Maybe in 2011…

Christopher Barzak, The Love We Share Without Knowing

This is one of the books I reviewed. In the absence of new insights, I’ll simply direct you to that post.

Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn

I avoided The Last Unicorn for years because of the word “unicorn,” which for me conjures up black velvet paintings sold out of a trailer. Peter S. Beagle is a genius, though, so inevitably I was going to get around to reading this, and when I finally did it blew away any thought of kitsch.

The Last Unicorn is set in a world balanced halfway between fairy tale and history, tipping towards mundanity. It’s a world aware of itself passing into legend, a place where wannabe Robin Hoods hope a folklorist will come along and transcribe ballads about them. This may sound very twee and self-referential, but it’s not. It never feels like the characters are playing parts, or that the things that happen to them don’t matter.

Beagle remembers that, in legend, wonders cost something. As one character says, “Real magic can never be made by offering someone else’s liver. You must tear out your own, and not expect to get it back.” The novel is tinged as much with loss and disappointment as hope. It’s not about heroes, but failures: people who’ve reached the middle of their lives and found they haven’t wound up in anything resembling a fairy-tale ending, or even a fairy-tale mid-plot. There’s a unicorn in The Last Unicorn, but the book is mostly about the human characters coming to terms with lives that aren’t the stories they’d wished for.