Favorite Reads of 2018

photo: Stanislav Kondratiev

photo: Stanislav Kondratiev

I reviewed 72 books on the Cedar Park Book Blog in in the calendar year 2018, and I hosted two additional reviews by a guest blogger. The 15 selections listed here were standouts for me in a year of exceptionally fine reading. You’ll notice that these books are all fiction and are mostly historical fiction. This year, no biographies or social histories made my list of favorites.  

Bear in mind that I never review horror, science fiction, fantasy, or novels with scenes of excessive violence. I haul eight or ten books home from the library every week and reject most of them by page 50. So here are the best of the best, in alphabetical order by title. Click on the title to go to my full review.  

Freya  Anthony Quinn (2017)  HISTORICAL FICTION The friendship of two British women, traced from the end of World War II through the 1960s, with insights into feminism, marriage, and culture. 

Heart of Palm  Laura Lee Smith  (2013)  CONTEMPORARY FICTION A family tale populated with gun-totin’, hard-lovin’, rip-roarin’ Southerners—plus deftly developed story lines.  

Holding Graham Norton (2017)  MYSTERY A village in the west of Ireland, a human skeleton unearthed at a building site, gossip about old love triangles, and a bumbling local police sergeant:  all the ingredients for a classic cozy mystery, but this one goes beyond the genre. 

The Italian Party  Christina Lynch  (2018)  HISTORICAL FICTION As effervescent and rosy as the Campari-and-soda drinks that the characters order constantly, but the sunny picture darkens as we learn the many secrets of an American couple living in Siena, Italy, in 1956.  

The Italian Teacher  Tom Rachman  (2018)  CONTEMPORARY FICTION An inquiry into how to live a meaningful life, centering on the fraught relationship between a famous visual artist and one of his sons. 

Little Fires Everywhere  Celeste Ng  (2018)  HISTORICAL FICTION A story about adolescents in late-1990s Shaker Heights, Ohio, tackles incendiary issues of upper-middle-class Americans: bigotry, greed, and a general disdain for those who diverge in any way from the norms set by their communities. 

Manhattan.jpg

Manhattan Beach  Jennifer Egan  (2017)  HISTORICAL FICTION A noir novel with entangled plot lines, mobsters, and plenty of period detail from 1930s and 1940s New York City, especially the Brooklyn Naval Yard.  

Midwinter Break  Bernard MacLaverty  (2017)  CONTEMPORARY FICTION A masterful study, by an eminent Irish author, of the pleasures and trials of a very long marriage, set in Scotland and the Netherlands. 

The Ninth Hour  Alice McDermott  (2017)  HISTORICAL FICTION Wonderfully resonant prose about the pros and cons of being Catholic in early 20th-century Brooklyn, exploring the intersections of morality, religion, and culture.  

Peculiar Ground  Lucy Hughes-Hallett (2018)  HISTORICAL FICTION A densely layered novel set on a fictional Oxfordshire estate in 1663, 1961, 1973, and 1989, featuring walls—border walls, the Berlin Wall, walls of inclusion, walls of exclusion, and many others. 

Radio Free Vermont  Bill McKibben (2017)  CONTEMPORARY FICTION A local radio show host stumbles into becoming the leader of a movement for Vermont to secede from the United States in this uproarious fable about Trump’s America. 

The Strays  Emily Bitto  (2014/2017)  HISTORICAL FICTION Set in Australia in the 1930s and then the 1980s, a piercingly moving first-person narrative about loneliness, friendship, the art world, and the choices we make.  

Virgil Wander Leif Enger (2018) CONTEMPORARY FICTION In a dying mining town in far northern Minnesota the title character, aided by an ensemble cast, is recovering from a terrible accident. The prose of this novel is quietly dazzling.

West.jpg

West  Carys Davies  (2018)  HISTORICAL FICTION Preposterous plot, peculiar characters, spare language, in a tale that’s akin to ancient myth, set on the North American continent in about 1815, a time when the lure of the western frontier was irresistible.

The World of Tomorrow  Brendan Mathews  (2017)  HISTORICAL FICTION Rollicking action at the fabulous New York World’s Fair, in June of 1939, when the Great Depression has eased and World War II is still unimaginable.

Happy reading in 2019! Keep checking the Cedar Park Book Blog for recommendations!

 

 

Among My Faves—McCall Smith

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series     Alexander McCall Smith

Some of my friends seem abashed to admit that they read a “soft” author like Alexander McCall Smith. His novels run around 225 pages, with simple plots, mostly lovable characters, and generally happy endings. I can consume one in an evening, and I relish every minute of it.

McCall Smith writes most of his books in series, so you get to know the characters and want to find out the next events in their lives. You can, however, select any book from a series as your first foray, and McCall Smith will provide you enough background to get oriented. I’ve reviewed two of his series previously on this blog:  the Isabel Dalhousie series and 44 Scotland Street series. But the grandmother of them all is McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.

McCall Smith 3.jpg

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series is set in Botswana, where McCall Smith taught law in the 1980s and for which he plainly has a great affection. After I’d read a couple of the Botswana novels, I educated myself about this nation in southern Africa (bordered by South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe), to get some context. Since Botswana is at 24 degrees south of the equator, and since the Kalahari Desert makes up about 70% of its territory, you’ll find ample references in the novels to hot, dry, dusty, sunny weather conditions. Thanks to cattle farms and the mining of gemstones and precious metals, the economy of Botswana is especially strong, and residents enjoy a good standard of living, especially with respect to education and health care. Still, the AIDS epidemic has hit the country hard, so a recurring feature of McCall Smith’s books is an orphanage that shelters children whose parents have died from AIDS. The Tswana African people are the predominant ethnic group, and Christianity is the predominant religion. English is the official language of Botswana, but you’ll find honorifics in the Setswana language:  “Mma” for women and “Rra” for men. You’ll also find the English adjective “late,” referring to the deceased, used not only as a modifier (“her late father”)  but also as a predicate adjective (“her father was late”). 

Zooming in to the series, you’ll meet Precious Ramotswe, the owner of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in the capital, Gabarone, a bustling city with a mix of Western amenities and traditional African dwellings and family affiliations. Precious, who is 34 at the start of the series, was raised primarily by her beloved Daddy, the cattle farmer Obed, in a rural village. Although she had a happy childhood, she married the musician Note Mokote, who physically abused her and then abandoned her, leaving her unable to bear children. When her father dies, Precious is able to sell some of his herd to launch her business, the first detective agency in Botswana. She hires the capable Grace Makutsi as her secretary and sets up an office near the auto repair shop of  JLB Matekoni, an excellent mechanic. The detective agency usually takes on cases that involve domestic or business problems—cheating spouses, thieving employees, missing persons, petty vandalism.

Although Mma Ramotswe does thorough surveillance and research, she also applies levelheaded thinking to solve the cases, and she encourages her clients to utilize compromise or forgiveness as part of the solutions. Readers have access to her thoughts as she ponders motives and ethical challenges. McCall Smith’s specialty in his years as a law professor was ethics, and through Mma Ramotswe’s cases he presents many moral quandaries. Is a legal approach or personal reconciliation preferable? What are appropriate punishments for various degrees of crime? How have societal views of women affected attitudes toward domestic violence? At a much lesser level, what should the response be to a coworker who is good hearted and efficient but irritating in manner? These are the kinds of tough questions that underlie the easygoing banter of McCall Smith’s dialogues. He paints scenes of kindness, but not without pushback on ethical issues. Oh, and there’s romance in some of the novels, too.

McCall Smith churns out writing at a prodigious rate. Remember that he’s publishing books in several other series at the same time as he’s writing more for The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. In addition to the two series I’ve mentioned above, he has books in the Corduroy Mansions series and in the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series. He’s also written versions of African folk tales for children, and he’s produced half a dozen freestanding novels for adults. I’d recommend steering away from the freestanding novels, which vary in quality.

But the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is highly recommended. I offer the list to date below. At your library or book store, be sure to look under “M” for “McCall Smith,” since that’s his full, unhyphenated surname.

  • The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998)
  • Tears of the Giraffe (2000)
  • Mortality for Beautiful Girls (2001)
  • The Kalahari Typing School for Men (2002)
  • The Full Cupboard of Life (2003)
  • In the Company of Cheerful Ladies (2004)
  • Blue Shoes and Happiness (2006)
  • The Good Husband of Zebra Drive (2007)
  • The Miracle at Speedy Motors (2008)
  • Tea Time for the Traditionally Built (2009)
  • The Double Comfort Safari Club (2010)
  • The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party (2011)
  • The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection (2012)
  • The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon (2013)
  • The Handsome Man’s Deluxe Café (2014)
  • The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine (2015)
  • Precious and Grace (2016)
  • The House of Unexpected Sisters (2017)

Video side note: In 2008-2009, BBC/HBO broadcast seven episodes of a  television series loosely based on the early books about The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. I found that these episodes, filmed in Botswana, admirably captured the spirit of the books. 

Favorite Reads of 2017

I’ve reviewed 101 books on the Cedar Park Book Blog in the calendar year 2017, counting reviews of book series as one book. Thirteen individual titles, listed below, stand out as favorites of mine. Not all were published in 2017, but all were reviewed on my blog in 2017.

Cedar branch.jpg

Pre-eliminated from this list are titles from categories that I don’t read—science fiction, fantasy, thriller, and horror. I also abandon fiction that turns out to have what I consider to be too many scenes of extreme violence. So this list of my favorites is heavy on historical fiction, family sagas, and introspective novels. I was surprised that none of the many mystery novels that I reviewed stood out for me as top choices for the year. I think of myself as loving mysteries, especially historical mysteries, but in selecting favorites I gravitated toward non-mysteries that presented ethical challenges and complex family dynamics. I occasionally review biographies and social histories, and one social/economic history, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, made my list of favorites.

The brief blurbs here do not begin to do justice to these books. Click on the title to go to my full review! Here are my favorite reads of 2017, in alphabetical order by title:

  • Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout. Interconnected short stories about families in a rural Illinois town; sort of a sequel to My Name is Lucy Barton.
  • Barkskins by Annie Proulx. A sweeping three-century saga of two French Canadian families and their relationship to the forests of North America.
  • The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble. Looking at mortality and the environment through the lens of a contemporary British family.
  • Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. An awkward and abused woman in Glasgow faces her demons and seeks to change her life.
  • The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies. Interlocking stories about the experiences of Chinese immigrants in America over the past century.
  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Adventures of a Russian aristocrat under house arrest in a Moscow hotel from 1922 to 1954.
  • The Golden Age by Joan London. Two young polio victims grow up in a convalescent home in Australia in the 1950s.
  • The Last Painting of Sarah de Vos by Dominic Smith. Visiting a painting and its impact on families in the Netherlands (1636-1649), in New York (1957-1958), and in Sydney (2000).
  • Moonglow by Michael Chabon. The fictional biography of a Jewish engineer, recounted by his grandson, touching on key events of the twentieth century.
  • Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf.  Two neighbors in their 70s find companionship and tackle difficulties together.
  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. The struggles of Korean immigrant families in Japan during the twentieth century.
  • The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The US Standard of Living Since the Civil War by Robert J. Gordon.  A huge and detailed nonfiction book, with emphasis on food, housing, sanitation, and consumer goods that have shaped the economy.
  • The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck. Hardscrabble life in Germany in the aftermath of World War II, with reflections on the rise of Hitler.     

Eight of the titles that I reviewed in 2017 appeared in the New York Times list of “100 Notable Books of 2017.” This list has some overlap with the above list of my own favorites:

I’m looking forward to many more great books in 2018!

 

Among My Faves: David Sedaris

Among My Faves:  David Sedaris

Sedaris.jpg

In 2017, David Sedaris published Theft by Finding:  Diaries 1977-2002. This book of excerpts from Sedaris’s extensive diaries is for serious Sedaris buffs, and I count myself as one. If you’ve never read any work by David Sedaris, do *not* start with Theft by Finding, because it will seem rambling and possibly ridiculous. First go read several of Sedaris’s collections of essays or stories. I especially recommend the following:  

  • Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000) has two sections of essays—one about Sedaris’s youth in Raleigh, North Carolina, and one about his move to France as an adult, with his partner, Hugh Hamrick. The essays about Sedaris’s attempts to learn to speak French are so hilarious that I laughed until tears obscured the words on the page.
  • Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004) has widely-ranging essays, with a focus on family relationships. Sedaris’s realization that he’s gay is presented frankly and yet with comic self-deprecation.
  • When You Are Engulfed in Flames (2008) includes one of my favorite Sedaris humor pieces: the story of his trip to Japan to try to quit smoking. His idea was to get far away from his usual haunts to break his habit, but he found that smoking is very common in Japan.
  • Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk:  A Modest Bestiary (2010) is a collection of animal fables, a departure from the usual Sedaris essay form.
  • Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls (2013) continues with Sedaris’s droll observations on humanity. Of particular note is the essay about Europeans’ reaction to the election of President Obama in 2008.

If we have all these other books about David Sedaris’s upbringing and family members and encounters with odd strangers, why do we need to read his diaries? Well, Theft by Finding provides insights into the creative process that produced so many excellently sardonic essays and stories. For example, there are entries that give the background to Sedaris’s most famous piece, “SantaLand Diaries,” about his experiences working as an elf at Macy’s in New York during the Christmas season. “SantaLand Diaries” appears in his 1994 book, Barrel Fever, and also in his 1997 book, Holidays on Ice, but Theft by Finding records the day in December 1992 when Sedaris first read this essay on National Public Radio and caused a sensation among listeners.   

Theft by Finding also includes entries for important events in history, so that you can read Sedaris’s first notice of the AIDS epidemic, as well as his reaction to the attacks on September 11, 2001, while he was living in France. In Theft by Finding you can watch the development of Sedaris’s style, from jotted observations to more expanded commentary on those observations. Sedaris notices absolutely everything and is a master at capturing offbeat, ridiculous, and sometimes illegal activities occurring around him. In his twenties, his existence on the fringes of life, in crime-ridden neighborhoods, put him in the company of panhandlers, drunks, and drug addicts. In mid-life, his expanding celebrity status exposed him to the rich and famous, who can be equally absurd. From reading the diaries, you can see how Sedaris blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction, taking scenes from real life, amplifying them, and surrounding them with extraordinary contextualizations.

For years, David Sedaris scrimped by on odd jobs—refinishing furniture, cleaning apartments. He kicked his meth habit, cut out alcohol and tobacco, and by sheer hard work became one of the most celebrated humor essayists in the English language. He’s among my favorites.