Notable Reads– I like that better than a favorite books or top ten list. Just, these are the books I read that I most want to talk about and recommend to people.
I’m not going to try to rank these, and I’m lumping books in series together. Just some books that I read that I liked and that I feel like sharing with other people because you might like them too and because I like writing about books. First, a quick list and then some further words about each book.
I might break this up into a few posts so it doesn’t get too overwhelming.
1. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene (I always have to look up his name spelling, is the E on the end of Graham or Green?)
2. My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok and the sequel, The Gift of Asher Lev, which I think should be bound together as one novel.
3. Brisbane and the Aviator by Eugene Vodolazkin
4. Works of Mercy by Sally Thomas
5. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
6. Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri
Favorite genre fiction (I guess I feel like fantasy and science fiction reads deserve their own separate space. I’ll write about them in my next post. I love them as much as I love literary fiction, but they also feel somewhat bracketed. Anyway, that’s how I’m listing them:
7. Golden Enclaves by Naomi Novik (third in the Scholomance series)
8. Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold (second in the Five Gods series)
9. The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells (series)
10. The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold (really long epic series)
11. I also re-read Piranesi because I love it so much (the audiobook is fabulous)
There were a few notable end of year books that didn’t make the list when I was making it and I’m too lazy to reformat now. Like A Ghost in the Throat, a sort of literary memoir by Irish poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa, a re-read of Till We Have Faces, and my re-read of The Goblin Emperor. And of course a lot of good books I’m skipping over that I might want to come back to.
I read 71 books this year, according to Good Reads, but I’m not great at tracking and that doesn’t count all the books I read with the kids (only some of them). And the books of poetry which I never feel like I can mark off because did I actually read EVERY poem? That’s also not counting the binge read over the summer where I got to the end of the Vorkosigan Saga and then re-read almost all of the books again, which might bring me closer to a hundred, but I didn’t keep track. Anyway, there are more books to talk about than I have energy to cover, but these are some of the best. If you want the full list, I guess you can find me on GoodReads. Maybe I’ll copy it over to here later, but that seems like a lot of work to get the formatting right and I’m feeling too lazy. Again, the reason I let go of the blog for so long was an obsession with things being neat and correct and complete that I’m trying to let go of.
1. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
I finally got around to reading this classic novel during Lent this year. And yes, it’s a classic for a reason. It’s quite as good as everyone says.
Thanks to my friend Zina who invited me to a Facebook group that was reading it together and listening to the Close Reads podcast. I read it slowly, then re-read bits and had some lovely deep diving conversations about it. It will be worth reading again some day. I don’t have a lot to say here, except to add my voice to the swell chorus that says this book is one of the greats.
I will say the first chapter was really hard and I had to push past a lot of resistance, but after that I got caught up in the story. Of course not all books that are hard at first are worth the effort, but usually classics are.
I don’t know if I’d have got much out of it when I was younger, in college. It feels like I encountered this novel at the right time in my life. Which is a nice feeling.
It was also very good to read with others. That always pushes me to be a better reader. Sometimes the best moments are when someone else asks a question or makes a comment that challenges me. I find myself going back to reread and discovering things I’d never have found on my own. That’s a lovely experience.
2. The Aviator and Brisbane (And Laurus reread) by Eugene Vodolazkin
I re-read Laurus along with the Close Reads podcast this year. A historical novel set in medieval Russia, it’s a beautiful exploration of sin and expiation. Also a meditation on history and how the Middle Ages looks an awful lot like the modern world. There’s a bit of post-modern slippage through time. But mostly it reads like a medieval chronicle. Which isn’t surprising because Vodolazkin is a medievalist. Re-reading with the podcast was fun. Books are always better when read in company and discussed and I saw much this second time that I’d missed before.
The advertisement for Brisbane popped up on the internet at some point and I was intrigued. I’d loved Laurus when I read it previously so Vodolazkin was an author whose skill I trusted.
Brisbane is a novel about a musician, a Ukrainian guitarist named Gleb, who finds out he has Parkinson’s. He meets a writer, Nesterov, on a plane who offers to write his biography. They get together and Gleb tells his story. Moving forward into the future the story is told by Nesterov who befriends Gleb and gets caught up in his life, but the novel also gives us Gleb’s memories of the past from his first person point of view. The reflections on art and faith are beautiful– at some point in the story Gleb begins to be rather serious about the Orthodox faith and while the book doesn’t linger long on theology or mystical experienes, it does ponder about heaven and the afterlife and Gleb’s music seems to be a vehicle through which he approaches heaven, transcendence, and something greater than himself. There is also Gleb’s mother’s obsession with the country of Australia and especially the city of Brisbane, which is for her an image of paradise, always longed for– and perhaps unattainable. Or is it?
This novel also felt rather timely given the current focus on Ukraine. I appreciated the small window into what it’s like to live in Ukraine, pulled between two worlds. Gleb’s father speaks Ukrainian and Gleb attends a Ukrainian language school while his mother and grandmother speak Russian. There are many musings on language, some on politics and revolution, and history.
But what I loved most about it was the music and the reflections on art. I’d love to reread Brisbane and write more about it some day. It’s a novel that really begs for a closer reading.
After I read Brisbane I wanted more Vodolazkin and so I picked up The Aviator, which is a very different sort of novel, though it has many of the same concerns as Brisbane: history, especially Russian history, art, personhood, faith. The Aviator is a novel that it rather hard to write about without giving anything away. It’s an epistolary novel that begins with a man in a hospital who has amnesia and doesn’t remember who he is or why he is there. But he seems to be remembering a past that is much too far in the past for the setting he finds himself in. It’s a great mystery as to who he is and how and why he is there. The story unfolds first in a fragmentary fashion as he gradually recovers more and more of his memories and continues to move forward into relationships with his doctor, a nurse, and eventually a greater world.
He is a Robinson Crusoe figure, shipwrecked, at least metaphorically, and trying to find his place in a new world and a sort of Lazarus as well. I loved this story and highly recommend it.
3. My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
A story about a Hasidic Jewish boy growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s, told in the first person point of view. Rather like Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, we begin with Asher’s experienes as a very young child. Asher has a gift, he is a natural born artist with an artist’s way of seeing the world and a compulsion to draw what he sees. (At times Asher’s hyperfocus on his drawing and his inability to communicate in words feels almost autistic). But in his orthodox religious community there is no place for his art. The tensions between his love for his family, his community, his faith are almost unbearable. A beautiful exploration of art and faith. Also I immediately read the sequel, The Gift of Asher Lev, which reads like the second half of the novel, not like an afterthought or like the author is grasping at something he should have let go of. I love Asher, love his family, the Rebbe and the way he sees the world. This was one of those books that swept me off my feet. I love it. Another Close Reads book.
4. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
A Russian Count in exile returns to Russia after the Bolshevik revolution. He lives in the Metropol hotel when the revolutionaries turn their attention to him, they decide to spare his life for the sake of a pro-revolutionary poem he once wrote, but put him under house arrest in the hotel. He must not leave on pain of death. A charming book with a charming protagonist. It’s a lighthearted take on a painful time in history, much as Life Is Beautiful, the story of a father and son who survive a Nazi concentaation camp by playing a game. It’s not so much realistic as hopeful, but not completely ignoring the pain and suffering that the revolution brings. I really feel like I could write a very long post about this novel, but I wrote a lot about it on Facebook as I read with the Close Reads podcast crew.
5. Works of Mercy by Sally Thomas
It’s not a slam to say this novel feels small, intimate, but not less important for that. Like a miniature portrait you want to spend time poring over the details. I can’t think of a way to sum it up that doesn’t make it sound boring, but it really isn’t. Kirsty Sain, a widow, cleans the rectory once a week. She goes to Mass. She’s originally from England and seems to have never really put down roots in her new home. She doesn’t really have friends, community, connections. She’s self-contained. And the new pastor in her parish is an extreme introvert who wanted to be a Carmelite monk, was told after a period of discernment that he didn’t have a vocation, entered seminary expecting not to make it there either… and he doesn’t know how to be in a parish. And Janet who talks to Kirsty after Mass, monologues mostly, is the mother of a large family married to a Jewish man. But this novel is about the connections that exist among people. And about how the works of mercy are acts of grace that make those connections, even when we aren’t sure we want connection. Kirsty knowing she should bring food to Janet on bedrest with her latest pregnancy, but putting it off, not really wanting to. Kirsty getting caught up in Janet’s messy life. Kirsty obsessed with (or is it haunted by?) the Jesuit poet Robert Southwell. Kirsty’s past, her childhood in the Shetland islands, her university days, her abrupt marriage to an American and immigration to North Carolina. Anyway, read it. You won’t regret it.
And I feel like I should mention that Sally is a friend and a wonderful poet and this is her first novel. But I’d be raving about it if I picked it up in a bargain bin and didn’t know the author at all. Because I don’t rave about books I don’t like.
6. Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri
A fictionalized memoir of Nayeri’s childhood immigrating from Iran to Oklahoma. The story is framed, mostly, as a series of oral report to his class/teacher in Oklahoma. But sometimes it’s clear the narrator protagonist is addressing the reader directly. It’s self-consciously modeled on Scheherazade’s story in the Thousand and One Nights and other Persian myths and folktales, there are stories within stories and many fantaastical elements as Daniel (Persian name Khosrou) tells not only his personal history, but also his family’s history going back many generations. For every story he tells, there is a story in the mythic register, the legendary register, and the historic register. There are many hilarious moments, many poingant, and some tragic. There are also stories of abuse and murder and drug use… but all filtered through the consciousness of an 11 year old boy. I really loved this one. And after I finished, I went back to re-read it a second time on Audible, the narrator is the author and it gives the story an added dimension to hear it in his voice.
This book will be a Close Reads book in the coming year, maybe I’ll reread it again when they cover it.