2011 was a banner year for literary fiction. In addition to The Summer Book and The Art of Fielding, the following novels were my favorite "gourmet" reads.
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka tells the stories of the “picture brides” who came from Japan to California in 1917. Told in the collective, the language is spectacularly evocative. It’s short and each word is absolutely perfect. The Greek chorus of the women’s voices both mesmerizes and entertains. This book has humor, pathos, and warmth. It was finalist for the National Book Award. Revisit her When the Emperor was Divine, too as it’s also phenomenal. Otsuka is a unique author as she manages to convey so much in so few words yet she never sacrifices quality for brevity.
Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry may be the best portrait of a 20th century woman ever and that a man captured her voice perfectly is amazing. He distills Christianity. You must slow down to ponder and appreciate the beauty and truth shown in a life well and carefully lived. Berry’s characterizations reminded me of Reynolds Prices’ Roxanna Slade. His chapter on Okinawa should be read by everyone as a meditation on war. This has been around for several years but I just read it.
Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry portrays the central figure in fictitious Port William, Kentucky, a river town where Berry sets his novels and explores the meaning of life and all its ramifications. Jayber Crow is the town barber, a simple man with a seminary education. He loves his community so much that he makes everyone in it better. They live through war, peace, love, forgiveness and sacrifice together. I wrote down quotes on almost every page. I started this soon after finishing Hannah Coulter as I didn’t want to leave the Port William community.
Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks, only a writer with Banks’ skill could make me care about a social misfit who can’t join society because he’s on a sex offender list. “The Kid” is such an engaging character; I can’t let this go. It made me think about society’s underbelly and homelessness yet it also entertained me because he made the disparate cast seem completely human.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern - I rarely enjoy fantasy outside of children’s literature and often find historical fiction novels contrived if they twist the story line to fit history yet this captivated me much as the Harry Potter novels did. Two young illusionists are pitted against each other in a magical fairy tale of a novel set primarily in London and the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century. The magic clock and the other inventions sweep the reader into a luminous world but the fine character development makes the novel succeed as a strong narrative as well. The circus setting and characters reminded me of Water for Elephants.
Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell is a true American novel with a girl who resembles Huck Finn, Annie Oakley and Hester Prynne in one unforgettable character living on the river near Kalamazoo, Michigan. It’s an American Odyssey and a page turner you won’t forget. Read the full review here.
Room by Emma Donoghue is a great read. It’s about a mother who does everything for her young son despite her harrowing circumstances. It’s told in his charming 5-year-old voice and you’ll love it. Don’t ask anything more, just read it. I promise you won’t be able to put it down. It’s on my list even though it came out in 2010 as I didn’t read it until this year.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett creates a special world in the Amazon and populates it with characters and adventures that will take your breath away. It’s her best and that’s saying something. The subtle growth of the main character is still under my skin as is one scene on the river that left me holding my breath until I finished it. Read the full review here.
The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obrecht won the Orange Prize and it’s completely original in its evocation of the Balkan conflicts. It uses fables and allegories to tell a story filled with superstition. If it were a cake it’d have twenty layers and thus it demands a careful and concentrated reading.
The Upright Piano Player by David Abbott - The first chapter of this British novel is one of the hardest hitting and most gripping sections I’ve ever read. Henry is an “upright” man, one who followed the rules, built a company and made a family then because he couldn’t bend, his life spiraled out of his control. As I read, I felt like a bystander, intimately involved, yet unable to change the outcome. This is truly a unique read and one that would make for an exceptional discussion for book clubs.
The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson is for all who left small towns in the 1960s and 70s. It humanizes the farm crisis and makes you ponder why people become who they are. It also shows how place and family influence development and captures an era beautifully. Thompson creates characters that we all know well and helps us see them better.