In time for the holidays—a comprehensive selection of books highlighted in The Atlantic in 2007
House of Meetings
by Martin Amis (Knopf)
Amis’s short eleventh novel works intermittently as a grimly comic assault on the peculiar monstrousness of Russia. The remainder—a ponderously suspenseful drama about two Russian brothers, gulag survivors fixated on the same woman—is, uncharacteristically for this gifted writer, a tinny, hyperbolic, static affair.
Returning to Earth
by Jim Harrison (Grove/Atlantic)
With his roots in the hunting and fishing ethos of the upper Midwest, his straightforward style, his appreciation of the natural world and of life’s sensual pleasures, his focus on grand themes, Harrison might almost be a parody of the quintessential American male writer, were he not the real thing. In the first section of this empathetic novel about love, death, and redemption, a man dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease gives his wife a digressive account of his family’s hard-knocks history. The remaining three sections explore how his death affects those who loved him.
by Michael Redhill (Little, Brown)
Lou Gehrig’s disease again! In this case, a local historian, suffering from the malady, posits, to public ridicule, that a trove of photographs of early Toronto lies beneath a landfill. Redhill, author of the affecting short-story collection Fidelity, shifts between the present-day account of the widow’s efforts to vindicate her husband and the story of the photographer in mid-nineteenth-century Toronto. Puzzlingly, the modern bits are stilted, at times almost amateurish, while the historical parts sing.
by Vikram Chandra (HarperCollins)
This well-written entertainment, with a plot of Victorian complexity and a page count to match, centers on the cat-and-mouse between a Bombay police inspector and a crime boss.
The Other Side of You
by Salley Vickers (FSG)
Vickers’s training as a psychologist mostly serves her well as a novelist: She can decipher her characters’ internal motivations with intense clarity and she has a high tolerance for contradictory emotions and unreasonable, though believable, behavior. In previous books, passages in which she wears her therapist hat can be jarring, but in this tightly structured novel about how self-doubt frustrates happiness, she turns that tendency to her advantage by making her protagonist a psychiatrist and analyst. As in her best-selling debut, Miss Garnet’s Angel, here she uses art—in this case Caravaggio’s paintings—to intensify and elevate her themes.
Ten Days in the Hills
by Jane Smiley (Knopf)
Contemporary Hollywood in the hands of Jane Smiley: What could be more promising? Yet this richly cast novel—in which a director, his how-to-book-writer lover, and various satellite figures hang around a mansion overlooking the Getty and talk, talk, talk—suffers from its form. The trouble is that the talk—bemoaning the war in Iraq, for instance, and reviewing the plots of fictitious movies and the events of past lives—is not nearly as fascinating as the characters, and obviously Smiley, think it is.
The Notebooks of Robert Frost
edited by Robert Faggen (Harvard)
A reprinting of Frost’s extant notebooks, spanning more than sixty years, this volume offers the voyeuristic thrill of peering into a master craftsman’s workshop to glimpse the discarded drafts, private musings, and scattered fragments that can in time become art.
The Custodian of Paradise
by Wayne Johnston (Norton)
In this wildly dramatic novel, Johnston, ever bold in character, plot, and setting, has plucked the 6-foot-3-inch, intellectual, hard-drinking, and intensely independent Sheilagh Fielding from his earlier book on Newfoundland, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, and set her down on a long-abandoned island in the waning days of World War II to review her past.
by Trezza Azzopardi (Grove Press)
Two young misfits negotiate old betrayals, long-standing attachments, and fresh love, in a windy town on Britain’s North Sea. As always, Azzopardi thrusts her readers inside her characters’ skins with her tight focus, stream-of-consciousness style, and use of the present tense. There’s lots of charm here, as well as suspense and occasional moments of madness.
In the Driver’s Seat
by Helen Simpson (Knopf)
English writer Helen Simpson is mordantly funny and unafraid of life’s big issues, such as love, aging, and war. While the stories in this collection are as vigorously written as her previous works, they lack the subtlety and complexity of which Simpson is capable. The touching “Early One Morning” and the multi-themed “Constitutional” are sparkling exceptions, though, and well worth the price of admission.
This Human Season
by Louise Dean (Harcourt)
Dean, also English, sets her remarkable second novel in 1979, in the midst of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, and tells her story alternately from the point of view of a political prisoner’s mother and of one of his guards. Her research is both impressive and unobtrusive, and she develops her characters with unwavering clarity and sympathy. Here, as in her first novel, Dean evinces a remarkable maturity of outlook and supreme control of her form.
by Anita Shreve (Little, Brown)
Shreve, with her serene style and impeccable pacing, returns to familiar territory: the house on the New Hampshire coast that was the setting for The Pilot’s Wife, Fortune’s Rocks, and Sea Glass. Here, a young widow gets drawn into a rivalry between two adult brothers, with heartbreaking consequences.
by Ron Carlson (Viking)
This novel, in which three men labor on a fraught construction project in the mountains of Idaho, is a masterpiece of precision in its details, its structure, and the articulation of its themes. As Carlson, an acclaimed short-story writer (this is his first novel in 30 years), proceeds toward a well-earned, striking finish, he juxtaposes the salvation of daily, concrete work—assembling a grader, drilling postholes—with perfectly paced revelations about the grief in each man’s past. Neither affectedly stark nor stuffed with strained metaphor, Carlson’s novel is the distillation of reality that readers crave.
by Penelope Lively (Viking)
This English novelist’s books are dependably smart, seamless, and well-observed, if not always as vivacious as their author’s name might suggest. Here Lively creates three generations of women and traces the consequences of their romantic decisions over the course of the latter half of the 20th century, deftly noting the shifting social mores along the way.
The Sea Lady
by Margaret Drabble (Harcourt)
Here’s another novel spanning the second half of the 20th century by another English grande dame of letters. In this playful, gently biting, multifaceted story, a self-dramatizing doyenne of gender studies and a reticent marine biologist— both fantastically introspective and self-aware—review salient points of their pasts when they’re reunited in the seaside town where they met as children.
by Annie Dillard (HarperCollins)
Dillard is more essayist and poet than novelist, and her latest novel— a humane story of a man and woman negotiating marriage, his running off with a mutual friend, and their eventual return—holds the reader at a distance. Her observations on all manner of human emotions, however, and her evocation of Cape Cod, are compelling, gorgeous, and at times profound.
by Michael Ondaatje (Knopf)
In this structurally disjointed but thematically cohesive tale divided between Northern California in the 1970s and France in the early 1900s, Ondaatje explores the tenacity of youthful experiences and relationships in the face of life’s radical forks. Emotionally enthralling and lushly envisioned, this novel, like The English Patient and Anil’s Ghost, demonstrates Ondaatje’s rare talent for imposing satisfyingly clear ideas on realistically ambiguous lives.
by Tova Reich (HarperCollins)
In this merciless satire on the American glorification and commodification of victimhood (the first chapter of which appeared in this magazine), every group vies for the distinction of having suffered the most. As one of the characters (the president of Holocaust Connections Inc.; slogan: “Make Your Cause a Holocaust”) observes, “Everyone wants a piece of the Holocaust pie.” Reich, whose husband once was the director of the Holocaust Memorial Museum, writes with intense authority and relentless humor, so that this bitter poison goes down like sweet butter.
by Lore Segal (New Press)
A refugee from the Anschluss, Segal is particularly interested in how people establish and maintain connections when thrust into a new milieu. These wry, finely honed, interlocking stories (some first published in The New Yorker) center on a young Austrian woman, recently transplanted from New York, who joins an institute “that paid its members … to read and write and think” in a small Connecticut town.
by Annie Dillard (HarperCollins)
This is a humane story of the way a straying husband and a forgiving wife negotiate their decades-long relationship—a relationship that involves both infidelity and, eventually, an unusually complex domestic arrangement. Although Dillard’s examination of all manner of human interactions is nuanced, and her evocation of Cape Cod is at once precise and gorgeous, the author is more essayist and poet than novelist; she assesses emotion, rather than creating it, and so holds the reader at a distance.
The Uncommon Reader
by Alan Bennett (FSG)
This witty novella, in which Queen Elizabeth takes up reading in a big way (much to the consternation of her attendants) and discovers what all the fuss is about, is another bonbon from Bennett, the best-selling British novelist and Tony Award–winning playwright (The History Boys). He dispenses his observations on the purpose of reading—aside from pleasure, he contends, there isn’t much reason for it, although it does develop empathy—with the light hand of a true authority. Delectable, yes, but also nutritionally sound.
by Graham Swift (Knopf)
Along with Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and A. N. Wilson, Swift was born around the midpoint of the last century and, like them, writes movingly about middle-aged parenthood. In this, his latest novel, the soft but urgent voice of a mother lying beside her sleeping husband rehearses the life-altering revelation they must make to their twins the next day. The tale she recounts isn’t perhaps as surprising or as shattering as it might be, given the buildup, but Swift’s capable narrative control and many sensitive touches make the book a satisfying read.
by Sebastian Faulks (Doubleday)
One of the most consistently interesting and versatile of today’s British novelists, Faulks is particularly adept at period atmosphere. Whether it’s the First World War in Birdsong or the Second in Charlotte Gray, the author gets the details and—more important—the zeitgeist right. Here he tackles the 1970s in all their squalor, complete with varieties of drugs and sexual experience. Faulks shows restraint and skill in telling the story of his eponymous hero, a scholarship student at an English boarding school and at Cambridge who later winds up at an altogether different type of institution. Getting into the mind of a psychopath and rendering it on paper aren’t easy, but Faulks has performed this twin feat admirably.
The Air We Breathe
by Andrea Barrett (Norton)
Near the end of this surprisingly suspenseful novel, Barrett quotes from a chemistry textbook: “Every chemical … reaction … can only take place under a condition of most intimate and close contact of the re-acting substances.” Setting her story in a public sanatorium in the Adirondacks in 1916, she puts her characters—mostly working-class immigrants well educated in their native countries—into just such an intimate situation, ripe for reactions. They room together, eat together, spend long hours taking their rest cures side by side, in air charged with turbulent national and world events: labor organizing, the Great War, and rising nationalism. (Comparisons to The Magic Mountain are inevitable.) Feelings of frustration, betrayal, and unrequited love drive the action, but these people have intellectual, as well as emotional, obsessions. Here, as in several of her other works of fiction, including the National Book Award–winning Ship Fever, Barrett enriches her story with science—in this case, paleontology, organic chemistry, relativity, and, most interestingly, radi-ology. In fact, her style, always stylish and exact, is at its most compelling when she’s describing her characters’ engagement in their scientific studies.
by Ann Patchett (HarperCollins)
Patchett’s novels are constructed with precision, and her characters, while disparate at the outset, end up bound tightly together. In this gracefully executed book, she starts with an Irish family, adds two adopted African American sons, and then, on a snowy night in Boston, tosses in an 11-year-old girl and her mother, who turns out to be … well, let’s not spoil the excellent plot. Patchett’s themes are weighty, and the emotional connections she builds among her exceedingly well-developed characters are powerful, yet the read is effortless.
by Nick Hornby (Putnam)
Funny, empathetic, morally aware, attuned to popular culture and lingo, Hornby has always had the makings of a “young adult” novelist. His first foray into the genre features the poorly timed fatherhood of a likable teenage skateboarder. The product of a teenage relationship himself, our boy is more worried about telling his mother than about the consequences for his life, and, it turns out, rightfully so. As always in Hornby’s world, just stepping up to the plate goes a long way, and though our hero ends up more overscheduled than he’d like, this is hardly a cautionary tale. Young-adult readers are in for the treat of Hornby’s wit and warmth, but legions of more mature fans will be disappointed. This book lacks the counterpoint of melancholy and wistfulness that makes the humor of Hornby’s adult novels so rich—the vague and troubling sense of time lost, never to be recovered, and of experience that forever leaves a dark mark. After all, how bad could anything be when most of life is still ahead?
A Free Life
by Ha Jin (Pantheon)
This engrossing chronicle of the contemporary Chinese immigrant experience is far more loosely structured and wide-ranging than Jin’s National Book Award–winning novel, Waiting—for better and worse. But admirers of Jin’s work will recognize his direct, unaffected style and slightly foreign rhythms, which suit his subjects. Jin decided to make America his home just after the Tiananmen Square massacre, and he uses that incident here as an impetus for his characters (a brooding man with literary aspirations and his wonderfully resolute wife) to break with China and make their lives in the United States. As the narrative moves the couple down the East Coast, trying out various jobs and circumstances, it accumulates the details of modern American life and illuminates the gradual maturation of a man’s vision of freedom and success.
Cheating at Canasta
by William Trevor (Viking)
In this pensive short-story collection, the prolific Trevor exposes, with precision and grace, the complex motives underlying his characters’ behavior. A wide range of voices—from teenage Irish working girls to urbane English gentlemen—create a fully realized world, discrete in its particulars but universal in its concerns. Clarifying without ever simplifying, Trevor is at his best when trafficking in guilt, doubt, deception, and shame. And though darkness pervades these stories—murder and blackmail, illness unto death, adultery, sins both careless and malicious—it never overwhelms them. Instead, it’s tempered by hope, mostly in the form of human understanding and love, whose strength here owes far less to romance than to forgiveness and tolerance.