Great Books, 2014 Edition

Before I sign off for the remainder of the year (I’m lucky enough to be on vacation between now and January 5th), allow me to make note of my 2014 Best Reading Experiences.

This evening I finished Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.  I wept.  A Holocaust story told from the point of view of Death (natch!), the book refuses to compromise on its story of ordinary, messy human beings redeemed (but not saved) by small acts of kindness.  Zusak’s prose is unique and vivid.  Death, a decidedly unearthly presence, does not view the world through our ordinary human senses but fixates on the smells of certain colors, the sound of emotion.  Much of his (its?) point of view is written through personification:

“The only sign of war was a cloud of dust migrating from east to west.  It looked through windows, trying to find a way inside, and as it simultaneously thickened and spread, it turned the trail of humanity into apparitions.  

     There were no people on the street anymore.

     They were rumors carrying bags.”  (The Book Thief, p. 383)

A couple other great books:

Octavia Butler‘s Parable of the Sower is McCarthy’s The Road for the YA set.  Written in 1993 in the aftermath of the LA Riots, it anticipates global warming and presents an apocalypse of resource scarcity through the eyes of a 15-18 year old African American heroine.

Sofia Samatar‘s glorious and glistening A Stranger in Olondria, like Parable, presents a classic genre through an under-represented point of view.  Jevick, the novel’s protagonist, is a member of a marginalized island community who dreams of the glories of the dominant–slightly Roman, if not Fellini/Satryricon-esque–Olondria, a realm in which the elite live in “a city of pomegranates, of sounding bells.”  The novel is a deep meditation on how language shapes culture, and could have won the World Fantasy Award (which, this year, it did) on the strength of its prose alone.

“As I was a stranger in Olondria, I knew nothing of the splendor of its coasts, nor of Bain, the Harbor City, whose lights and colors spill into the ocean like a cataract of roses.” –A Stranger in Olondria (p. 1)

No Romantic can fail to be seduced by Samatar’s opulent writing and the surprise love-story that develops between Jevick, his books, and a certain ghost. Fans of Salaman Rushdie or Patricia McKillip will fall into her evocative language as into a scented bath.

Finally, I read Junot Diaz‘s scaldingly funny tour-de-force: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  The story immerses us in the lives of three generations of Dominican women (and one overweight teenage “ghetto nerd”) as they are propelled, afflicted by, and rage against the forces of recent history from 1940s Santo Domingo to 1990s New Jersey.  The evil spirit of the dictator Trujillo hangs menacingly over the narrative much like Sauron did over Lord of the Rings– a comparison that, in this story of the titular character’s search for love and respect despite his nerddom, Diaz makes explicit.  ( “He was our Sauron, our Arawn, our Dakseid, our Once and Future Dictator, a personaje so outlandish, so perverse, so dreadful that not even a sci-fi writer could have made his ass up” – The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, p. 2) The novel is written in a blistering, exhilarating combination of high prose, slang, profanity, and pop-culture bon-mots and may give those of the Caucasian persuasion the very experience Diaz illustrates through his characters: the sense of admiring another culture even as you realize you are doomed to stand outside of it.

Here, for me, was the kicker:

“[Oscar] read the Lord of the Rings for what I’m estimating the millionth time, one of his greatest loves and greatest comforts since he’d first discovered it, back when he was nine and lost and lonely and his favorite librarian had said, Here, try this, and with one suggestion changed his life.  Got through almost the whole trilogy, but then the line ‘and out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls,’ and he had to stop, his head and heart hurting too much.” –p. 307

This brought home to me several things I have been ruminating on over the past few years. Things about race, culture, and the power of art to both embrace and repel, to shelter and wound—often in the same breath.  Diaz’s novel, never stooping to reassurance, provides stunning examples of both prose and its power to shape our individual experiences. In this novel of diaspora and longing, there are beauties that truly pierce like swords.

About hsmartin

I'm a writer in Northern California.
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1 Response to Great Books, 2014 Edition

  1. Virginia Strom-Martin says:

    So why am I not reading this in the New Yorker where it belongs? Excellent astute and informative…bravo!

    Liked by 1 person

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