Message in a Bottle
Best of the Rest? No, the Rest of the Best

Another year brings another set of Top Ten lists and another reminder that those lists are supposed to be about the quality of the books rather than the number of them. That is, we like compiling our Best of the Year lists in fiction and non-fiction (and for the first time this year, in children’s and tween/teens) because it gives us a chance to look back over the last twelve months and remind ourselves how great the books we read were. The ten titles we listed in each category are our collective favorites, but it’s not as if we can really argue that they’re measurably better than the eleventh- and twelfth-best ones. Different readers (or the same readers in different circumstances) will have other favorites, which is why we always like to talk about the books that almost made the cut.

For example, The Infatuations by Javier Marías and The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez were among the last titles knocked off our fiction list. The first is a slowly unspooling mystery set in Spain and written wiith great psychological acuity by an author we’ve previously trumpeted as a potential Nobel laureate; the second is a novel that deals with decades of drug trafficking, not by explicitly detailing it, but by showing the after-effects on the next generation of Colombians. Both are intelligent, even brilliant works, but there didn’t seem to be room for them alongside Daniel Alarcón’s At Night We Walk in Circles, which addresses political violence in Peru. Could we have included all this great Hispanophone fiction? Sure, but we felt like that would have unbalanced the list, so out those last two went.

That kind of horse-trading forces a great many excellent books off the winners page on our website, but fortunately, we have room on Message in a Bottle to give them their due. The rest of the best fiction of 2013:

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  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: There’s no truth to the rumor that we dropped this marvelous novel of romance between two Nigerian immigrants from our list because we were afraid to type the author’s dauntingly long name. We can prove that it’s false: Emma mentioned the book on our blog earlier in the year.
  • Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon: It’s hard to believe that fifty years have gone by since Pynchon first published. He remains as inventive, energetic, and in touch with the zeitgeist as ever.
  • Half the Kingdom by Lore Segal: Sparkling wit and emotional resonance don’t often walk hand in literary hand, but Segal marries them like no one else. James rhapsodized about her on the blog just recently.
  • The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton: The youngest-ever Booker Prize winner also wrote the longest-ever Booker Prize winner, concocting a rich historical stew that updates the 19th century for 21st century audiences.
  • & Sons by David Gilbert: A great novel for book lovers (aren’t we all?) about a genius writer who’s a sub-par father.
  • The Good Lord Bird by James McBride: Winner of this year’s National Book Award (and author of the beloved memoir The Color of Water), McBride has outdone himself with this tale of a young boy, born a slave, who must pass as a girl to survive.
  • And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini: Another success for Hosseini, long a favorite of island readers. Miriam took keyboard in hand some months ago to tell us exactly how good it is.
  • All That Is by James Salter: We don’t always trust the jacket flap to tell the real story, but in this case we do: “[A] young naval officer in battles off Okinawa, Philip Bowman returns to America and … finds that he fits in perfectly. But despite his success, what eludes him is love. Romantic and haunting, All That Is … is a dazzling, sometimes devastating labyrinth of love and ambition, a fiercely intimate account of the great shocks and grand pleasures of being alive.”
  • The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud: A great discussion sparker, Messud’s novel provoked strong feelings that Miriam expressed in yet another blog post.

Great non-fiction that deserves a mention includes the following titles:

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  • Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr: Can you imagine the meals M.F.K. Fisher, James Beard, Julia Child, and all their other friends cooked when they were together in the south of France? You don’t have to imagine them when you read Barr’s vivid history.
  • Mercer Island History by Jane Meyer Brahm: Local kid Brahm makes good. As the only book of its kind, anyone around here must obtain a copy. As a really tremendous book, all considerations about geography aside, you’ll be ecstatic to own one.
  • Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson: What was a “sideshow of a sideshow” in World War I, the carving up of the Arabian peninsula, set the stage for the most important geopoliticking of the current age. Anderson’s account is the best imaginable explanation of how those times led to today.
  • The Lost Carving by David Esterly: Our staff, but especially Roger, is interested in any book that deals with real work and the struggle to maintain a sense of authenticity in our increasingly plastic, ersatz era. Esterly’s memoir of self-education, about teaching himself the techniques of the master woodworkers of the 1600s, is riveting.
  • I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai: Her story has often been told in the media, but not so well, nor so inspirationally, as she tells it herself.
  • Surfaces and Essences by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander: This is a very difficult book to summarize, but James gave it a shot earlier in the year.

You probably have other books in mind, and we’d love to hear about them. There’s always room on our blog for comments, and we love to read your emails too, so don’t hesitate to share your opinions with us and your fellow customers.

—James

Counter Intelligence: Half the Kingdom by Lore Segal

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As I’m sure you already know, we at Island Books send a monthly newsletter to subscribers via email—the latest issue went out last week. What you may not know is that month after month, the most-read section is the one we call Counter Intelligence. That’s where we share the current titles that our staff is reading and recommending. Since Counter Intelligence is so popular, it seemed like a good idea to devote a little more space to it in this forum. I promise in future to get my very knowledgeable colleagues to share their own favorites, but right now I’m the one with mike in hand, so you’ll have to listen to me talk about Lore Segal’s Half the Kingdom first.

Segal has had a long, eventful life that she’s drawn on for her fiction in the past (her 1964 novel Other People’s Houses, for example, recasts her experiences as one of the final Kindertransport children rescued from Austria before World War II) and she does so again in this, her most recent work. Half the Kingdom features various characters who collect together in a byzantinely bureaucratic hospital emergency room that appears to be ground zero for an Alzheimer’s epidemic. It is, as its publisher says, a “poignant, and profoundly moving portrait of life today—where terrorist paranoia and end-of-the-world hysteria mask deeper fears of mortality; where parents and their grown children vacillate between frustration and tenderness.” Segal turned eighty-five this year, and her personal experience of aging, as well as the time she spent caring for her own mother, who reached the century mark before dying in 2005, inform the book deeply. She has a remarkable understanding of the topic and of herself, as she demonstrated in an online discussion that’s well worth reading in its entirety:

In an interview that you did a few years ago … you said, “Being an elderly person, I want to write about the loss or partial loss of memory, so I’ve got myself a character who remembers nothing—an amnesiac.” Is Half the Kingdom the culmination of your interest in memory loss?

Incidentally, one of the things that I’m going to find as I talk to you and as I will be talking: my facility with language is quite slower; [words are] much less available to me than [they were] ten years ago, twenty years ago. And that’s part of the experience, and that’s part of the conversation. When I went to speak in Austria some ten or twenty years ago I had the experience of speaking in German when my vocabulary was missing. I had the vocabulary of a ten-year-old. And now I have the same experience as an old person; my vocabulary is not necessarily available to me. And I think most people in my generation are now experiencing that. It’s sad. I miss it. I regret it.

Yes, Half the Kingdom focuses on dementia and death, but believe it or not, it’s a comedy. Whatever afflictions and indignities the characters may suffer are outweighed by their intelligence and wit, and for all the serious issues it raises, the book has a positively spritely feel. Segal works carefully and slowly (this is just her fifth novel in a fifty-year career) but as a result her prose works fast. There’s an unforgettable scene she sketches in a diner, as two former lovers converse over lunch, that fills just four pages yet reveals a lifetime of information about each of them. With that kind of tight craftsmanship on display, it takes less than two hundred total pages to flesh out the stories of a dozen or more characters to full length.

It’s such an enjoyable book that I’m declaring it the front-runner in the race for a new prize I’ve just invented: Best Novel Ever Written by an Octogenarian. This is no backhanded compliment, because just recently we’ve seen some stellar work produced by eighty-and-overs. For example, Elmore Leonard died earlier this year, but in 2012 he published the well-received Raylan at the age of eighty-six. There is also considerable new work from Toni Morrison (81 when Home was published) James Salter (87, All That Is), Willam Gass (88, Middle C), Doris Lessing (88, Alfred and Emily), and Herman Wouk (97(!), The Lawgiver). It’s an esteemed bunch to be leading, and I can’t think of too many younger writers who can beat Segal, even if she spots them a lap or two.

—James

Many Words About Relatively Few Words

I wrote some time ago about the special pleasures of really fat big-boned books, and it remains true that there’s nothing like sinking deeply into the warm bath that is a long novel. There’s not enough time to indulge in one of those every day, though, so lately I’ve been looking into the bookish equivalent of the brisk shower—the novella. What is that exactly? Well, if it’s longer than a short story but shorter than a novel, it’s probably a novella. Somewhere between 15000 and 50000 words, or 50 to 175 pages, just to give a ballpark definition. Stephen King once called the form “an ill-defined and disreputable literary banana republic,” probably because fiction of that length can be a tough sell, difficult to fit into a magazine or a collection and perhaps too slim to market on its own. But as publishing options expand and daily life grows more distracting, it feels as if more writers and readers are willing to eschew the heavier classes, at least some of the time, and enjoy a bantamweight bout.

Two Island Books favorites of the past year were slender things indeed. Train Dreams by Denis Johnson had a mere 128 pages, while We the Animals by Justin Torres was 144 pages long. For the purposes of off-the-cuff blogging, that would be more than enough evidence for me to start expounding on the Resurgence of the Novella, but this is a serious journal of ideas, so I’m held to stricter standards. Around here, it takes three to make a trend, so let me cast about to find another example.

The first that comes to mind is Rebecca Lee’s The City Is a Rising Tide, a book that took ten years to hone into its final form. The result of this obviously painstaking effort is a marvel of concision, with a complex story that deftly hopscotches from China to North Carolina to the plains of middle Canada. Lee’s sympathetic but fundamentally untrustworthy narrator works for a nonprofit organization that’s attempting to build a spiritual retreat along the Yangtze River, but given the impending damming of the river, she knows the project to be a futile effort. These professional troubles are further compounded and paralleled by an unrequited romance with her boss. Drifting along in apparent passivity, she nonetheless becomes the central figure in a series of financial, legal, and even cinematic crises. Even as the settings vary, the emphatic center of the book is New York. The city is lit with a nostalgic 1990s warmth (how much of that nostalgia is intentional and how much is simply inevitable when referencing the period before 9/11?) that makes this melancholic comedy of manners a real love letter to Manhattan. It’s more than that, though. Rising Tide treats an entire network of personal, political, sociological, aesthetic, and even theological topics; it’s surprising how many ingredients are combined into something that initially feels so light. One character says, “A person can carry a whole world of ideas and associations and plotlines, don’t you see?” Rebecca Lee proves you can carry that world conveniently in your pocket. It’s a marvelous read, but it’s just over 200 pages and came out a few years ago, so it’s slightly too long and too old to make a perfect threesome. 

Instead I’ll try The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers by Delia Falconer. It’s only 133 pages, so I’m on safe ground lengthwise. The book speaks in the imagined voice of Captain Frederick Benteen, survivor of the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, as he reminisces about his experiences with Custer’s army. The narrator was a real participant in the battle whose company escaped the massacre, and he was frustrated in later life to see his name tarnished for an excess of cautiousness while his reckless general became a folk hero. Inspired by a letter that offers him a chance to redeem his reputation, the fictional Benteen relates his version of events with remarkable accuracy, but the story doesn’t focus on military tactics. It’s the personalities that come to the fore, along with the inner landscape of minds at war. The boredom and crass humor of the barracks share stage time with the thrilling danger of combat, rounding out the cardboard cutouts from our textbooks. Falconer’s great achievement is finding poetic language that brings life and significance to every detail, however mundane it might otherwise appear. Pure history buffs may not find exactly what they’re looking for, but lovers of fiction can’t help but be impressed. Fresh as the story is in my mind, though, I realize that it too is a few years past its first publication, so maybe it’s not topical enough to prove my point.

Lucinella by Lore Segal? It’s a remarkably effective satire of a rarefied subculture that simultaneously celebrates it. The titular heroine is one of my favorite fictional characters, a sweet-natured but sharp-tongued poet striving to make her way in the low-stakes but cutthroat world of writer’s retreats and cocktail parties. She’s so multi-faceted she has to appear in more than one incarnation—older and younger visions of herself pop in continually to comment on the action. All three manifestations can be charming or annoying, and Lucinella has (they have?) a quality that’s unusual in fiction, the self-awareness to recognize her imperfections. She and her compatriots are exceedingly bright, and Segal displays that intelligence convincingly instead of just asserting it. Few books are this smart, and fewer still are this witty and playful at the same time. I dare say no others manage the feat in less than 160 pages. It was published more recently than the others I’ve mentioned, but it still doesn’t qualify for my trend-piece because it’s a reprint of the original release, which has been unavailable since the 1970s. 

Wait, I know another novella that came out this past year. It’s called The Duel, and it’s by Heinrich von Kleist. Or is it Giacomo Casanova? Joseph Conrad? Anton Chekhov? Alexander Kuprin? All of the above, actually. Five different authors at different times in different places all chose the same title for their very different stories of romance and rapiers. They’re great tales on their own, but taken together they’re like a mosaic portrait of a cultural phenomenon. The archaic practice of dueling, where honor was purchased in spasms of ritualized violence, is an ideal subject for the narrow turf covered by the novella. Narratives need conflict, and novellas need containment; two antagonists choosing swords or pistols fill the bill quite nicely. OK, all these stories were written over a hundred years ago, but if a hip publishing outfit like Melville House has chosen the present moment to bring them out again, I think we can be sure that we’re seeing a trend. Skinny books, like skinny jeans, are officially part of the zeitgeist.

—James

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