by Jo Keroes
I know it’s ridiculous suggesting that you sit down and read anything other than a catalogue, a gift list, or an instruction manual for putting together the latest four hundred-piece toy during the frantic holiday season, but consider this: January. The kids are back in school and you’ve been moved by Risa Green’s latest column to take time for yourself . What better way to recede from the chaos than to tuck yourself into a good novel? With this in mind, I offer my highly selective and very short “best books of the year” list.
Let me say at the start that these have nothing whatsoever to do with raising kids, negotiating flex time and/or a raise, organizing your closets, or achieving work/life balance, which we all know is impossible anyway. Au contraire. Each of these books in its way does precisely the opposite, and that’s the point: we may find echoes of our lives in a good work of fiction, but the best ones take us out of them, into the lives and minds of others.
These are all novels, but if you send in hundreds (ok, tens) of requests for a similar non-fiction list I’ll be more than happy to oblige. For now, here are my highly personal candidates for the you’ve got to read these books of the year.
Brooklyn : A young Irish girl leaves her small town for America after WWII, makes a life, finds work and friendship and love, only to be compelled back home. In lovely, luminous prose Colm Toibin captures the poignant pull of regret for what we leave behind when we forge a new life.
Invisible : If you’ve never read Paul Auster, here’s your chance. This is the story of a young Columbia student, a writer in love who falls under the dangerous spell of a mysteriously powerful professor and his lover in 1967. In four distinct sections, the narrative moves through to the present as Adam, the protagonist, struggles to come to terms with questions of justice, truth, and love, in particular his love for his own sister. Always intrigued by the stories we tell to make sense of our lives, Auster is at once a serious and playful writer whose prose is deceptively easy to read and provocative to think about.
A Happy Marriage : Rafael Ignesias’s novel is, quite simply, the most powerfully honest, intimate, and moving story of a marriage I’ve read. In chapters that counterpoint the beginning of Enrique and Margaret’s relationship with its anguishing end thirty years later, we grow to know and identify with this couple. From radically different upbringings – he’s a brilliant young high school drop-out who’s had a stunning early success as a writer but is still struggling to define himself as a man; she’s a talented graphic designer from an upper middle class suburban family, sure of herself and her gifts – they forge a life. The novel takes us through all too ordinary phases of a long marriage – children, a parent’s death, infidelity, and, ultimately, devastating loss – but the recounting of this passionate marriage is nothing short of extraordinary. Read it to know what love is.
Let the Great World Spin : Not just a New York novel, though it’s that. Not just a post 9/11 novel, though it’s that, too, in an oblique way. In Colum McCann’s National Book Award winner Phillipe Petit’s dazzling tightrope walk across the unfinished twin towers in August, 1974 brushes the lives of a group of disparate city dwellers. A radical young Irish monk working among the poor in the South Bronx and his brother; a group of mothers who meet in a Park Avenue apartment to mourn the loss of their sons dead in Vietnam; a prostitute caring for her grandchild when she’s not turning tricks; a beautiful nurse from Guatemala – each stops for a moment as the walker’s feat comes into his or her awareness and the metaphorical power of both the towers and the city to reflect our most powerful yearnings gradually comes into ours. This novel is as dazzling as the feat that propels it.
Netherland , by Joseph O’Neill: If I were a stickler, I wouldn’t put this on the list, since it came out in 2008, but it was the best novel of that year by far and if you haven’t already gotten to it, read it now. Another work that reminds us who we are as individuals, as families, and as a society, this one re-imagines The American Dream through the lives of two immigrants – Hans, a successful Dutch stockbroker and his English wife and small son and Chuck, a cricket playing, smooth talking dreamer from Trinidad with unsavory connections and a great plan to make cricket the new American sport. Their lives conjoin when Hans’s wife flees him and their upscale Manhattan life for the safety of London after 9/11. Living alone in the Chelsea Hotel, amidst its eccentric host of tenants, Hans finds camaraderie among the diverse band of cricketers who play regularly on Staten Island, as he tries to hold his life and, most important, his marriage together. Unable to bear the loss of his wife and son, he travels back and forth to London trying to reshape their life. In gorgeous prose, the novel explores the power and peril of dreaming large and, like several of these other works, asks us to think hard about the meaning of love and of home. If you read and remember The Great Gatsby, Netherland will hold extra pleasures.
It has not escaped my attention, nor probably has it yours, that all of these books were written by men. This does not, repeat not, mean that women haven’t turned out some terrific novels this year, only that, coincidentally, the above five just happened to hit me the hardest.