Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sunday Book Recommendations

It's only been in the past few years that I've started keeping track of what I've read. I'm not sure why this is--you would think that as a Virgo, I'd have years worth of excel spreadsheets tracking every stray novel and audiobook. But no--only the last few years, and those kept in a somewhat haphazard way. I also haven't really participated in the end-of-the-year "best" lists on Readerville and other places, even though, every year, I always have some favorites.

This year, my overall list is rather paltry, and I hope to make up for that this summer. But when I look back on it, my favorites are clear.

Best (Serious) Novel--The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver, a tour-de-force of a "what if" novel, whose alternate chapters proceed along the premise of what happens to the main character if she runs off with the championship snooker player she impetuously kisses on his birthday one year and what happens if she resists the temptation and stays with her long-time partner. Writing one novel is hard enough--I can't imagine having written one that contains two alternate plot trajectories. Very satisfying all the way through.

Best Short Stories--Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. Admittedly, I haven't read a lot of short stories this year, but Lahiri's stories would be on my best list no matter what. I'm one who still hasn't read The Namesake (though I enjoyed the movie) and thought that her first book of stories, Interpreter of Maladies, was uneven (though I loved the first story in the book, "A Temporary Matter" the first time I read it, in The New Yorker, and then again in the book). But Unaccustomed Earth is just gorgeous all around, and I really had the sense I was in the hands of someone supremely confident of her craft. I didn't like all the stories equally, but none were weak; the last three connected stories were heartbreaking. I remember reading "Year's End" in the Chennai Airport in January 2008, while en route to Sri Lanka, and I was stunned by it then. It's even better in the context of the slightly larger view she offers in those last three stories.

Notice the dual wedding ring-themed covers. I bought my copy of Unaccustomed Earth in Varanasi, so it's the Indian edition with this cover:

Best Memoir: Elizabeth McCracken's An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination. I've been a fan of Elizabeth McCracken's since The Giant's House as well as her early book of stories, Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry, and her usual humor is present here, which may seem strange because it's a book about losing her first child. It is wrenching and clear-eyed and unsentimental and without any self-pity, and sometimes it is funny. The sadness is tempered, somewhat, by the knowledge that after her first stillborn son (who never grows beyond his in-the-womb name of Pudding), she gives birth to a healthy son just over a year later. (She also now has an infant daughter, which is also heartening.) I can see how this book would be a comfort to other women who have had stillbirths, but it's worth reading even if you haven't.

And finally, the book I've been meaning to write about all along. (This was originally going to be a post just about this book, but I got distracted by my other favorites when I went back to look at my list.)

Best (Light) Novel--The Family Man by Elinor Lipman. I mentioned in my last audio book post that I've been a fan of Elinor Lipman's for more than 20 years. (She came to read at Amherst from Into Love and Out Again right when it came out in the late 80s.) I've enjoyed all of her books since then, but here she is at the height of her comic powers. The novel's main character is a 50-something gay man who gets back in touch with his long ago ex-wife (after her most recent husband's death) and then finds himself reunited with his long-lost beloved stepdaughter, who, (in one of the things that makes the plot move along) has just signed on to be the fake girlfriend of a creepy sitcom star who wants to raise his profile. Lipman's main characters, Henry and Thalia, are sweetly drawn, but the scene stealer is Henry's ex-wife and Thalia's mother, Denise. Lipman is always good at dialogue, but here it just zings, and there are many laugh out loud moments. Serious literature it is not, but sometimes I think that serious literature is overrated. Sometimes a book like this is just the thing. I'm only sorry that I finished this one so quickly.

Happy Reading!


Lisa said...

That's a great list, Sue. The first bunch have been on my list all year, and the Lipman I don't know but sounds like fun.

Somehow I always like book lists better when there are pictures. Thanks!

Amelia said...

Thanks for this review, I was keen over the book EXACT REPLICA, but could not find a good review about it.

Perhaps, I will include this in my chart next time. Thanks!

nyc bride guide said...


I'm a book worm but i haven't encountered those books that you were listing. Would be kind enough to tell me if you have links where i can read them online? Are these still available in the bookstore?