Written by Hannah
We’d be hard-pressed to find someone who reads more than Hannah (although Michelle gives her a run for her money) so we tapped her yet again for yearly top literary list. So, here are are Hannah’s Best Books of 2005, in no particular order:
Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
One of the few books published this year that had (and still has) an enormous run on the best-seller lists and IMO, deserved too. Ever wondered why so many drug dealers still live at home instead of buying fabulous mansions? Ever wondered if names do make a difference? What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? And how did radio — and one very determined man — help to diminish the power of the Ku Klux Klan? This highly readable book answers all these questions in ways that will make you think.
Melusine, Sarah Monette
I picked this up because it got a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly and also because there wasn’t anything else I wanted to get at the bookstore at the time (I normally don’t read a lot of fantasy/sci-fi). I didn’t expect much, especially because the cover is horrific (it’s like one of those romance novel covers that people always make fun of), but this is a great book. It’s set in a world that has magic, etc, but Monette isn’t stupid about it and doesn’t do any of those damned info dumps I loathe. Instead she just drops you in and trusts that you’re smart enough to figure it out. Three cheers to her for trusting her readers!
The story focuses on Mildmay, a thief who lives in the bad/poor part of the city of Melusine and Felix, a powerful wizard who runs with the rich ruling class and who loses his power and goes crazy when his former very evil “lover”/spoiler-I-won’t-reveal uses him for a ritual that threatens to destroy Melusine in the first, oh, 50 pages. Mildmay’s and Felix’s stories are both really interesting–opening with an all-powerful wizard who isn’t powerful and spends all of his time seeing things is a cool way to start a book and get you feeling some sympathy for the not-very-sympathetic-when-he-isn’t-crazy Felix. As for Mildmay… oh, he’s the kind of character you can’t help but adore. Though their eventual meeting isn’t unexpected (nor what happens/is revealed) when it does happen, it works. Though there are many (by which I mean most) plot points left hanging, the journeys that Mildmay and Felix both undergo (and eventually end up undertaking together) are so action-packed and emotionally engaging that you end up not caring about the things Monette doesn’t tie up. Or at least I ended up not caring. (For those that do, however, a sequel is scheduled to be released this year.)
Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, David Foster Wallace
All right, I admit it. I don’t like David Foster Wallace’s fiction. In fact, his craptastic six zillion page novel is the only book I’ve ever actually thrown away. But when it comes to non-fiction — well, that’s a different story. DFW (I can’t bring myself to call him David, or to type Foster Wallace, which just looks idiotic) writes damn fine essays, as was illustrated in his first collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. In this collection, DFW attends the AVN awards, the Academy Awards for the porn industry, ruminates on 9/11 and Tracy Austin’s tennis memoirs, spends some time following John McCain’s campaign (easily the best essay in the collection, and the book is worth purchasing for it alone), and asks us to think about how lobsters feel when they’re dunked in pots of boiling water. DFW’s writing isn’t for everyone — if you don’t like footnotes, run away, and some of his shorter essays/speeches read as the filler they are, but the remainder are extremely well done and thought-provoking.
True Story, Michael Finkel
This memoir/apology is about a man – Michael — who gets fired from writing for the New York Times because he made up parts of a piece he wrote for their magazine. As he’s holed up at home out in Montana, hiding out from the world and a terse retraction about his work about to be printed by the Times, his phone rings. A reporter is calling him. Finkel resigns himself to dealing with this and tells the reporter he’s the first one to call and that the story hasn’t run yet, and won’t for a little while. The reporter tells him it’s running tomorrow, and it’s already at press. They both ask each other what they’re talking about, and the reporter who called? He’s not asking about what Finkel’s done. He’s calling to talk to Finkel about “the murders.”
It turns out that a man named Christian Longo murdered his entire family and then fled to Mexico, where he pretended to be Finkel until he was arrested by federal agents. Finkel, horrified and intrigued, writes to Longo, and the two begin corresponding. What follows is a riveting story — two liars, one exposed, and one who freely admits he did lie all his life but that he didn’t murder his family — discussing their lives. Longo is fascinating — charismatic, literate, and possibly a cold-blooded killer, and Finkel is drawn to him. As their lives become more and more entwined, Finkel becomes more determined to find out what really happened to Longo’s family. An enthralling, unusual (I can’t think of anything I’ve read that was about two liars, one of whom pretended to be the other one) and wonderfully written book. Regardless of what Finkel did, there’s no denying he’s a writer who knows how to build a story and this one keeps you hooked till the very last page. Want to read about how dark the human heart can be? Read this book.
We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver
This actually came out in 2003, but it won the Orange Prize for 2005 and so it counts for this year. Frankly, even if it hadn’t won the Orange Prize, I’d put it on the list anyway, because I think you should read it. Written from the point of view of a woman whose son went to school one day, locked a bunch of his peers, a teacher, and a cafeteria worker in a school building, and then killed them, you will not be able to put this book down. Shriver offers a chilling look into the soul of a teenage boy who was born without one, by his mother, a person who should love him but who knew there was something wrong from the moment he was born — and had to live with that, with him, with waiting, and with a husband who refused to see what was obvious out of hope or fear or both. Amazing. I don’t know why more people haven’t read this and I don’t know why this book has gotten more publicity. (And still hasn’t, even though it won the Orange Award!) Shriver’s work with Kevin, the teenage killer is mind-blowing, chilling and insightful, and sure to leave you shaken. The book is a little slow for the first third but stick with it. It’s worth it. It’s so worth it.
A Certain Slant of Light, Laura Whitcomb
This outstanding Young Adult novel deserves a wider audience among teens and adults alike. Whitcomb’s story focuses on Helen, a woman who, as the novel opens, has been a ghost for over a century, or as she calls it, Light. Helen is bound to the Quick, the living, and must always stay close to whomever is her Host, or the person who keeps her from sliding into a morass of darkness and pain. Over the years, her Hosts have changed, and currently she is with a young English teacher. Then, one day, while her host is teaching his classes, one of his students looks at her. Sees her. Helen is stunned by this, because no one can see her, not even her hosts. But this boy, named Billy, can.
Eventually, Helen finds out that the teenage boy looking at her has had his body taken over by someone like her, a man called James. James took over the Billy’s body during a drug overdose, when Billy’s spirit, who did not become a ghost like Helen or James, left his body. James talks Helen into trying what he’s done — entering a body that has no spirit, and after a scary encounter with a woman who is not what she seems, Helen ends up inside the body of a teenage girl, Jenny.
Helen and James, now in bodies, can touch each other, and as Billy and Jenny, begin a relationship. This becomes incredibly complicated because not only are both Billy and Jenny underage, they both have complex family relationships to deal with as well, and neither Helen nor James understand them. Gradually, Helen comes to realize what drove Jenny away from her own body, and, at the same time, both she and James realize they cannot keep the bodies they have slipped into. In the end, James and Helen must face their pasts and look at why they became Light, and leave so that Billy and Jenny can come back.
Typing this all up, it seems absurd, but Whitcomb truly makes it work. This is a beautiful, careful book that asks a lot of questions about faith and love and family, and does so in a very creative way.
The Good Wife, Stewart O’Nan
Quietly compelling and thus, criminally overlooked by everyone else doing their ‘best of’ lists. O’Nan’s story focuses on Patty, a twenty-something woman, who, as the book opens, is awake late one night, at home pregnant with her first child and waiting for her husband, Tommy, to get home. Unfortunately, Tommy, along with his buddy Gary, have decided to rob a house and the old woman who lives there dies in a scuffle. Both Tommy and Gary are arrested fleeing the scene, and the first third of the book is taken up with Tom’s trial and eventual sentencing to a 20 plus year term in prison. Patty stays with Tommy through the trial, brings along their son, Casey, and when he goes to jail, although Tommy does suggest divorce, she doesn’t leave him. The book is literally about one woman waiting over 20 years for her husband to be released from prison and her struggles to raise her son and make enough money to live on.
The Good Wife doesn’t have a lot of action — Patty works a series of average jobs — retail, restaurant, construction — constantly struggling to get by and never making enough money to leave her mother’s house, which she moved into shortly after Tommy went to prison. O’Nan details her visits to Tommy — the ordeal to get to the prison, to get inside, and then the awkwardness of making conversation, her hope when weekend visits are allowed (and what happens on their first one). He covers her jobs, her relationship with her son (free of TV movie type drama), her mother, and her unwavering determination to stick by Tommy. I know this doesn’t sound very exciting and O’Nan’s prose isn’t full of the kind of phrases that make you stop and think “wow,” but this very quiet novel about one woman’s strength is a really different and wonderful read. So often novels are about big moments, big lives, but The Good Wife is about the ordinary, about struggling to pay bills, to raise a child, to find a decent job, to cope with circumstances one never asked for, and it is surprisingly gripping and, in the end, actually made me think that maybe there is really something strong and pure in everyone. Which is something I don’t usually think.
Josie and Jack, Kelly Braffet
Disturbing and intense, this first novel is about a brother and sister, Jack and Josie, who live the lifestyle of a VC Andrews novel. (Yes, really.) All alone in a huge and decaying house, visited only by their brilliant but disturbed father, their relationship is passionate in every sense of the word, and only deepens when Jack goes away, then comes back long enough for Josie to go with him. Once they are on the road, their relationship becomes even darker, and the ending, though expected, still carries quite a punch.
Now here’s the tricky part: why on earth should you read this? After all, novels about creepy brother and sister love aren’t exactly groundbreaking. Or necessarily the kind of book you want to curl up with.
But yet this is a novel you’ll curl up with. Granted, you won’t be grinning while you read it, and it’s not a book to pick up for, say, a weekend at Grandma’s (unless your Grandma is cooler than mine), but it’s amazingly compelling reading. I am not a fan of the incest, but Braffet makes Josie and Jack’s relationship plausible and her Josie is unforgettable, torn between her overwhelming love for Jack and her gradual realization that she may not survive life with him. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but worth it if you like your dark novels very dark indeed.
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguao
I went into this with a lot of, shall we, say, ideas, all based on the fact that one of Ishiguao’s novels was turned into a movie with ads that featured Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins looking all restrained and pained and stiff-upper lip-ish. So I figured it would be a prettily written look at a bunch of repressed English people.
I got one thing right. The people in this book are English. However, there is debate, in the world they live in, about whether or not they are even people at all. Reviews for this book tend to shy away from describing the actual plot but I don’t get that as the plot is really obvious within the first few chapters. Never Let Me Go centers around Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy, and opens with Kathy looking back at their time at Halisham, which seems to be some sort of orphanage/school but is in reality a center for clones raised for the purpose of donating organs to prolong life/save people from disease. Over the course of the book, Ishiguao gradually reveals this to us, and though his premise is interesting, it’s certainly not anything that you couldn’t find in a sci-fi novel (why is it that literary authors can write books with speculative elements and still be called literary, but most genre authors can’t seem to earn that term? It seems unfair to me).
What makes this book extraordinary is the writing. Ishiguao’s characters, in particular Kathy, are so vivid and so well portrayed that you get totally sucked in to the world Ishiguao has created. I literally took this book everywhere with me — I read it sitting at stoplights, while standing in line at the grocery store — because once I got into it I just had to keep reading. And the writing! Oh, it’s just so achingly lovely. He does a wonderful job of evoking place and feeling and showing how carefully friendships and love are built and maintained, and how easy it is to not see what is true when you don’t want to. I have seen some reviews talk about the ethical questions raised by this novel but I don’t see any question in whether or not it’s a good idea to create people solely for use as walking and talking organ banks — and frankly, don’t want to meet anyone who thinks it’s a good idea. In the end, this is a book that should be read not for it’s plot, though I did find it interesting, but for a beautifully written and emotionally compelling look at three people and the complicated relationships between them. Gorgeous, gorgeous writing.
First things first. This author had no novels come out this year. In fact, her books can’t even be found in the United States!
Consider this my ‘Dear U.S. Publishers, What The Hell is Wrong With You?’ entry.
Helwig, a Canadian, is the author of two tremendously moving and gorgeously written novels, neither of which has found distribution in the States because–well, I don’t know why. Do yourself a favor, visit Amazon.ca, and order either her Between Mountains or Where She Was Standing. Or better yet, get both, as you deserve to read books this good. They’re heartbreaking and yet somehow hopeful, and you emerge from each stunned and wrapped in Helwig’s prose, which is a thing of beauty. Here’s hoping that 2006 finds her work reaching the audience it deserves.