A Few of Last Year's Belated Favorites

by Louise Erdrich
The Accursed

Because I started reading spy novels during a difficult month, and then couldn't stop, I have to include everything by John Le Carre and Graham Greene -- my favorites among them being Le Carre's A Perfect Spy, and Green's The Comedians and Travels With My Aunt. These aren't exactly spy novels, but they are rich with intrigue and loaded with phenomenal characters.

The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates is one of the best books that I read that was actually published last year. I am not ordinarily a fan of books about famous historical figures, but The Accursed hooked me in immediately with the overheated voice of an academic historian. With each additional character, and each layer of text from what becomes an absurd, wondrously varied number of "found" notebooks, the plot gets wilder, spookier, and in many places laugh out loud hilarious. The voice of one particular sly invalid had me in stitches of delight. Oates' portrait of Woodrow Wilson is a masterpiece of passive aggression -- his final letter to his wife dripping with candied blame. Nobody can make the devil as grotesquely attractive as JCO -- I guess readers in the know just use her initials -- this was one of the very best reading experiences of a beautiful bookish autumn.

More recently, I've just finished Chang-Rae Lee's On Such A Full Sea. Set in New China, or B-Mor, previously known as Baltimore, Lee draws a hypnotic portrait of self-strangled humanity. B-Mor is a hydroponic vegetable and fish producing community in which everyone has cancer. People appear, disappear, live and die with little emotion attached to their fate. The communal voice, haunting as a Greek chorus, wonders what it could mean to be an individual. Yet the book is about an individual, Fan, and follows her storied escape through a bizarre afterworld where the fossil fuel corporations and Monsanto and every other greed based short sighted company has triumphed. My Facebook page has a link to what could be a prelude to this powerful novel.

Last night I began reading Amy Tan's latest novel The Valley Of Amazement. I was up into the hours of the wolf. This promises to be one of those reads, much like Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, where nothing and nobody gets by the open book and the pages just keep turning themselves.

I'm extremely grateful to these writers, for I've realized there is no cure for this fundamental happiness that always ends in craving, except more narrative. Thanks for the narrative. And yet, have I been fair to the writers who don't use what is usually identified as plot, writers whose prose is set down with such willed precision, that each sentence seems drawn from an emotional stillness resulting from decades of devotion? No. That is why I'm looking forward to whatever is in that new (grievously posthumous) book by W.G Sebald.