It is always a challenge to narrow down a year's worth of reading to a list of only five books. Not only were there outstanding novels that I enjoyed beyond the five I will feature here, there are tons of books that I have not read this year: The Dying Grass, A Brief History of Seven Killings, A Little Life, My Struggle: Volume Four and Fortune Smiles come to mind as books that I will surely enjoy immensely but have not found the time yet to do so.
This list is not what's "best" by my top favorites of a not-broad-enough swath of a year of contemporary literature. There are omissions, of course, both due to my arbitrary "eligibility" period (sorry Knausgaard) and my decision to pick only five (sorry to Will Self's Shark and to Adrian Tomine's Killing and Dying, my six and seven). Still, I remain very excited to share with you, perhaps for a second time, these great books. In no particular order:
Ludmila Ulitskaya, The Big Green Tent
Not since Doctor Zhivago has there been a Russian epic of this scope and finesse. While Ulitskaya's story begins with Stalin's death in 1953 and carries into present-day, this is not a midcentury classic but is decidedly modern in its form. She jumps between plotlines like a illegal samizdat changes hands and sprints through timelines with a brazen disregard for a traditional epic's sense of drama. In The Big Green Tent, narrative "arc" is exchanged for a narrative "network"; it's a difficult read but an appropriate form for the politically expansive CCCP. My full review can be read here at Run Spot Run.
John Banville, The Blue Guitar
John Banville is one of the best living British writers and can command a sentence with masterful grace. His beautiful, vital prose contrasts dramatically with his protagonist in The Blue Guitar, the scummy, cheating Oliver Orme. He's a washed-out painter and a relentless kleptomaniac who, perhaps in an effort to maintain some semblance of the rakish dandy he once though himself to be, steals the wife of his friend. Wryly written in a manipulative first-person narrative, Banville lets a heartbreaking subtext seep through Orme's wretched tryst, revealing much more that his character would comfortably, intentionally share. My full review can be read here at Run Spot Run.
Tom McCarthy, Satin Island
I was shocked that this did not win the Booker Prize this year. I think McCarthy is a genius and that Satin Island has expanded the possibilities of what a novel can do. McCarthy writes as if he's challenging himself with an almost Oulipian level of constraints and limitations: 2010's C. was a dizzying and complicated novel about the history of communication, ranging from a school for the deaf to the dawn of radio, to seances and military transmissions. Satin Island trumps all that tenfold: this is a Kafkaesque novel about contemporary anthropology, written like a bureaucratic report, that manages to spin outward into a treatise about who we are as contemporary readers and writers and where to find artistry underneath our culture's glut of data. My full review can be read here at Run Spot Run.
Amitav Ghosh, Flood of Fire
The long-awaited conclusion to Amitav Ghosh's Ibis Trilogy Flood of Fire sticks its landing and delivers a finely composed epic of masterful storytelling of Tolstoyan caliber. The Ibis Trilogy follows the First Opium War between the Chinese and the British (all with India stuck in the quagmire): Ghosh's first volume Sea of Poppies began in 2008 and in seven years has sailed from the rural villages of India to Hong Kong's Pearl River, amidst British galleons and the threat of cannon-fire. Ghosh proves the vitality of a story and how a well-told tale can not just entertain but stay relevant throughout history. Exceptionally well-researched and flawlessly executed, Flood of Fire concludes what should be long remembered as an essential work of historical fiction. My full review can be read here at Run Spot Run.
Ander Monson, Letter to a Future Lover
I first discovered Ander Monson through his mind-expandingly good collection of experimental essays Vanishing Point. With Letter to a Future Lover he has become an essential voice and a beacon of hope for books and reading and critical theory. Letter to a Future Lover is a collection of short, two-page essays about marginalia and the often-unintended communication between readers across timelines. If I underline a passage in a book, and that same copy is read forty years later by someone who is similarly moved by the same words, the bond that's created between is is more powerful than anything its original creator may have ever imagined. As crazy as it sounds, Letter to a Future Lover is about those connections. My full review can be read here at Run Spot Run.
But there's more: "When possible, each of these essays was originally published (on a 6" x 9" card) back into the space (typically the book or library) that started it... Though they are bound here, no meaning is intended by their ordering." Absolutely fascinating, and enough for me to race out and by the last handmade, unbound limited edition of Letter to a Future Lover. That's the book's clamshell case above; I'll feature it solely here in a forthcoming post. It's a treasure of my collection.
I wish you all a happy holiday of family, books and fireplaces and will continue posting around this time next month. As always, thank you for reading.
My Struggle: Volume Four by Karl Ove Knausgaard