The winners of the 2017 National Book Awards in all four categories, as well as the presenters and the lifetime achievement award.
Seven books—six novels and a memoir—were named finalists for the 2017 BookLife Prize. Each book was selected by an award-winning or bestselling author who served as a guest judge in one of seven genres.
Every December 31st I sit down with the list of books I read that year and choose the best ones. I usually end up with 10 bests plus 5 honorable mentions. I include this many because I’m fortunate enough to be in the time of life when I can choose to read whatever I want, so I usually like every book I read. Sometimes whittling the list down is hard work.
Recently I saw a meme in an online book group: What are your top 5 novels of all time?
If choosing 10 or even 15 from a year of reading is hard, how difficult could it be to pick my top five books of all time? I decided to give this challenge a try.
To my surprise, the top four came quite easily. Although I’ve read a lot of books in my time, these four novels have stuck with me because they hit that sweet spot of my encountering them at a time when I needed what they have to offer.
1. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee
I remember this book being on the reading curriculum in eighth grade. I did the math, and 1960 was the year I finished eighth grade, so my memory may be correct. However, it’s possible that my memory is distorted. I distinctly remember feeling outraged when, three or four years after I was in eighth grade, the mother of a then eighth grader filed a complaint over having her daughter read a book about rape. Maybe I did read it in eighth grade, or maybe it didn’t land on the curriculum until later and I read it on my own.
Whichever is the case, this is the book that has stuck with me the longest and that I have reread the most often. Whenever I get to feeling down on my fellow man, I reread this book to restore my faith in humanity. (In fact, I’m due for another reread soon.)
Yet, as much as I’d like to think that I love this book for its themes of justice and human compassion, I’m pretty sure the novel stuck with me because my father died in 1960, two months before I turned 12, after a long and painful separation from my mother and me. The portrayal of Atticus Finch, the wise and caring father, probably impressed me just as much as the story of Atticus Finch, the brave lawyer who defended Tom Robinson. If it’s true that we can live vicariously through literature (and I believe it is), then this book probably comforted me through my fatherless adolescence.
2. All the King’s Men (1946) by Robert Penn Warren
Again, I’m not sure when I first read this remarkable novel. My memory places it in eighth or ninth grade.
This is the novel with which I discovered how powerful a fine work of fiction can be. For the first time, all the pieces of the literary criticism puzzle fell into place: the use of the first-person narrator, the metaphor of the narrator’s last name (Burden), the powerful (for both the narrator and the reader) epiphany, the quality of the prose.
I don’t remember why I first read this book. It’s possible that it was on a reading list for school (in which case, I would probably have come across it in ninth grade). I can’t imagine how else I would have found it. Nobody in my household was a reader, and we didn’t have many books around. But no matter how I came upon it, I always think of this novel as my initiation into adult reading. I have reread it a couple of times in my adulthood, and it holds up very well.
3. Disturbances in the Field (1983) by Lynne Sharon Schwartz
This story features a group of people who have known each other since their college days, when they used to get together and discuss philosophical ideas. In the book’s present time, these people are entering middle age.
I read this book when I was about the age of those characters and was beginning to realize that life is much more complicated than school prepares us for. In late adolescence and early adulthood, when we are beginning to be able to reason abstractly, we tend to think in dichotomies: it’s right to do this and wrong to do that, you either believe what I believe or you’re on the other side.
But life is very seldom so simple. Approaching middle age, I had had enough life experience to realize that what sounds convincing in theory often isn’t directly applicable in reality, that actual situations are usually not black or white but one of many—way more than 50—shades of gray between the two extremes. Like the characters in this novel, I had to learn by experience how to navigate life’s big events such as love, marriage, parenthood, death, and grief.
4. A Little Life (2015) by Hanya Yanagihara
This recent novel is a lot like To Kill a Mockingbird in the sense that it’s one of the most moving, poignant books I’ve ever read.
This big novel covers the lives of four men who met as college roommates. The story opens just after they have graduated from college in Massachusetts and have all moved to New York City to undertake their careers as an actor, a lawyer, an architect, and an artist. In 814 pages, the book unfolds their intertwined lives in magnificent detail.
The story of how four people come together to form a surrogate family moved me because, like all four of them, I grew up in a dysfunctional, non-nurturing household and went off to college to start a new life.. One of the four characters, who becomes the focal point of the book, suffered a horrific childhood that he’s unwilling to talk about. The other three all intuit that he needs their protection and support, and the novel probes both the high and low points of their shifting constellation of interpersonal relationships. As someone who has been fortunate enough to meet a crucial person whom I needed at each significant point in my life, I found this novel both poignant and ultimately uplifting.
Although these four books came easily, number five was a tough decision. Only one more spot on the list remained, yet several books came to mind:
- Plainsong by Kent Haruf
- The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
- Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney
- The Help by Kathryn Stockett
- Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
When I looked at the first four, I realized that they give a chronology of my life, from childhood to early adulthood to middle age and then to older age. This suggested that the last spot on the list should also go to a book about my current point on life’s continuum, older adulthood. The Blind Assassin, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, and Our Souls at Night all fit that category. On the other hand, Plainsong is about the most effectively written novel I’ve read.
But after a lot of dithering I have decided to go with the following choice:
5. The Help (2009) by Kathryn Stockett
When I was 57, I felt driven to go back to school because of a nagging feeling that there was more I needed to learn through formal schooling, not just life experience. I started a doctoral program in psychology during which several pieces fell together seemingly by magic. I wrote my dissertation on life stories and received my doctorate on my 63rd birthday.
One of those pieces that fell magically into place was this novel. Set in 1962, it’s the story of a young, white southern woman who dares to write down the life stories of the African American women who work as maids in her community. This book strongly asserts the belief that everyone has a life story and that everyone’s life story deserves to be heard.
In my late-life doctoral study I realized that it’s especially important for us to seek out and learn from the life stories of marginalized people and of people different from ourselves if society is to evolve and persevere. For that reason, this novel won the final spot on my list of the Top 5 Novels of All Time.
How about you?
What titles are on your list of the Top 5 Novels of All Time?
© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown
Grafton, Sue. Y is for Yesterday
Random House Audio, © 2017
(print edition also © 2017)
I’m always eager to read the newest installment of Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series. However, this time my pleasure in digging into it was bittersweet. Y is, after all, the penultimate letter of the alphabet.
This time Kinsey is hired to look into a murder that occurred 10 years earlier. In 1979 four high school boys from an elite private school sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl and filmed the attack. Soon afterwards the tape vanished, and a female classmate, suspected of the theft, was killed. One boy agreed to a plea deal that got him and two of the other boys convicted and sent to prison, but the fourth boy, the ringleader, escaped and hasn’t been heard from since.
The present time of the novel is 1989, and one of the men, Fritz McCabe, has been released from prison. Although he’s now in his late 20s, he shows little remorse and in fact still acts like a moody, angry, angst-ridden teenager. He’s back living with his parents, who want to control his every movement, when a copy of the tape mysteriously arrives at the house along with a ransom demand. The McCabes hire Kinsey to find out who’s trying to blackmail them.
Kinsey’s investigation turns up secrets that get darker the deeper she digs. Most of those secrets revolve around the feeling of entitlement assumed by the children of families with wealth, status, and power. To complicate matters further, Kinsey soon suspects that a serial killer from a recent case may be in town seeking revenge against her. She continues to rely on friends such as her landlord, retired baker Henry, now 89 years old, to comfort her through the dark times.
There were moments when I thought this book could have been trimmed and tightened up. There’s a long description of Kinsey crawling under a building that particularly befuddled me. This scene includes a lot of detail about how she moved around down in that tight crawl space. I tried to follow all her movements, I really did, but I couldn’t at all visualize what was happening. Of course I knew what that scene was building toward, but the scene should have been significantly compacted to build suspense commensurate with the potential peril of the situation. Also, there were several times when key points about the old murder case were repeated—so much so that I began to wonder whether Grafton had forgotten she had already given us that particular tidbit of information.
Nonetheless, I look forward to next year’s publication of the last book in the alphabet series. I hope Grafton will wrap up the story of Kinsey and friends in a way that is true to their characters. I read a couple of interviews with Sue Grafton at the time of the publication of Y, and she indicated that she is not averse to the notion of perhaps writing some one-off novels about Kinsey after Z. Maybe we Kinsey Millhone fans won’t have to go into mourning after all.
© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown
Since reading and writing about books is my primary activity, I’ve recently been reading some articles on reading and writing about books
One of the biggest recent events among book people was the retirement of Michiko Kakutani, who had been the chief book critic of the New York Times for 38 years. She was a touchstone for both writers and readers. Her judgment could make or break a new book’s reputation, so authors lived in fear of her. Many readers would choose their reading material on the basis of her reviews, though some chose books because she recommended them and others chose book because she panned them.
I admit that I often found her reviews baffling. Nonetheless, she was a force in the book-reviewing world, so I’ve bookmarked this article and am slowly working my way through the samples. According to the article:
Together they represent a vigorously led life of the mind, a crash course in contemporary literature and a tour through the zeitgeist of the turn of the millennium.
The compendium of examples above was put together by the New York Times, so I wanted to see what other reviewers and cultural critics had to say about Kakutani’s departure. In this piece Boris Kachka discusses Kakutani’s “growing estrangement from the job of country’s most powerful book critic.”
With Kakutani’s departure, Kachka declares:
an era really has ended. As chief book critic, Kakutani was inimitable and irreplaceable. (In fact, there are no plans to name a new “chief critic.”) She was the “voice of God,” as one writer put it to me.
But does the end of the Kakutani era at the New York Times have any significance for a personal book blogger like me? I’ve periodically looked at her writing, although I never wanted to emulate it because, as Kachka writes:
There wasn’t much personal presence on the page, either. You won’t find the word I in a Kakutani review, just an omniscient “reader.” … Even her overuse of specific ten-dollar words and her occasional parody reviews were exceptions that proved the rule: a limited quiver of quirks standing in for a colorful voice. “I used to call them her book reports,” says [Jonathan Galassi, the publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux]. “They were quite formulaic and they weren’t always subtle…”
One quality I’ve been trying to develop is how, after a long academic career, to reinsert myself into my discussions of the books I read
But Kakutani had one quality that her colleagus praised: they regarded her as “a straight shooter with few axes to grind.” As such a large cog in the publishing machine, Kakutani would have had many opportunities to nurture personal grudges and to engage in their expression. That’s one advantage to being a lonely personal blogger: I can base my opinion of a book on how good I think it is rather than on whether I like the author or am likely to bump into the author at some social event.
According to Kachka, Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the Times, described Kakutani as “an intellectual who can synthesize many strands of both culture and politics in a way that I haven’t seen.” That’s another quality of her work that’s worth emulating, since literature is a cultural artifact that mirrors the culture from which it arises.
John Maher reports for Publishers Weekly on the consolidation taking place at the New York Times books desk. These changes, which included the paper’s buy-out of long-term chief book critic Michiko Kakutani, constitute an effort to move, finally, out of the outdated print modality into a new print/online world:
Previously, books reporters and editors had been in different departments: the Book Review, part of the Times’ weekend edition, remained strictly separate from the publishing reporter, who went between the paper’s Culture and Business Day desks, and the three daily critics, who remained firmly under the culture department’s wing. That made sense for a print-first enterprise. For the new digital-first Times, it was something of an albatross.
After the reorganization, the Books staff did research into what kinds of book coverage readers wanted to see in the paper:
That research led them to a number of conclusions, many of which came in the form of questions: What should a reader of the New York Times read next? Why does this book—say, Colson Whitehead’s _The Underground Railroad_—matter? What is the role of books in our culture, and what is the relationship between books, the larger culture, and the news cycle? What are people across the world reading?
I welcome this change from dictating what people should read to understanding what people actually do read.
Discovering this article lifted a great weight off my shoulders. I grew up when New Criticism dominated literary studies. This approach to theory and criticism pounded all sense of personal involvement in reading out of us. From the description of Michiko Kakutani’s lack of any personal voice—and since she’s less than 10 years younger than me—I’m betting that she got her literary training under New Criticism as well. I’ve been working hard to insert myself back into my writing about literature.
In this article Bruce Bawer explains how Stephen Greenblatt was a frontrunner in the development of New Historicism, the critical darling that supplanted New Criticism. According to New Historicism, literature is
not the path to a transhistorical truth, whether psychoanalytic or deconstructive or purely formal, but the key to particular historically embedded social and psychological formulations… . Where traditional “close readings” [in the New Critical mode] tended to build toward an intensified sense of wondering admiration, linked to the celebration of genius, new historicist readings are more often skeptical, wary, demystifying, critical, and even adversarial.
New Historicism developed shortly after I left my graduate studies in English and American literature, so I missed it. I’m glad I finally found it, as it very well describes my belief that literary works are societal constructs that individual readers respond to on the basis of their unique combination of learning and life experience.
Now, I return to my own writing about literature with a clearer understanding of what I want to communicate.
© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown
This list from Publishers Weekly includes links to its reviews of many of the nominated works.
Background: Genre Fiction
Genre is a term applied to different kinds of literature that can be defined by their subject matter, form, or technique. According to A Handbook to Literature, 7th ed., by William Harmon & C. Hugh Holman (Prentice Hall, 1996):
Genre classification implies that there are groups of formal or technical characteristics among works of the same generic kind regardless of time or place of composition, author, or subject matter; and that these characteristics, when they define a particular group of works, are of basic significance in talking about literary art. (p. 231)
Genre fiction originated in dime novels—cheaply printed paperbound books, originally sold for about 10 cents, featuring tales of crime or adventure. Two of the most popular types of dime novels were detective stories and tales of Western adventure by men like Buffalo Bill Cody.
Dime novels became popular with troops during the United States Civil War and remained popular until about the 1890s, when pulp magazines began to replace them. Like dime novels, pulp magazines were printed on cheap pulp paper and featured tales of adventure, love, or crime. Pulp magazines became especially popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Over time, several distinct genres of fiction developed to fill these publications:
- tales of crime detection
- tales of adventure, especially stories of espionage or travel to exotic fictional lands
- science fiction
Each genre had its own standards, including characters, plots, and writing styles.
Because each genre had characteristic contents and format, the term genre came to refer to formulaic writing. Today the term genre literature is often used pejoratively, with the sneering note of “mere genre fiction” used to distinguish works of popular fiction from more high-brow literature (I do not hold this view. In fact, one of the reasons why I didn’t finish my doctorate in English and American literature was that I didn’t agree with the note of snobbery that pervaded the academic study of literature.)
Here’s an article that makes a case for reading widely, in all genres, by a man whose discovery of genre fiction saved his appreciation for fiction and made him a writer: Class, Race and the Case for Genre Fiction in the Canon.
Review: The Blinds
Sternbergh, Adam. The Blinds
Caesura, an isolated town in rural Texas, houses about 40 people who’ve all chosen to live there, though they no longer remember why. Some committed a crime, others witnessed one. But all they know now is that they agreed to live here before having certain crucial moments wiped from memory, then chose a new first and last name from two lists, one of famous movie stars and the other of former vice presidents of the United States. They also know the rules of their new life: no visitors, no contact with the outside world, and no return if they ever choose to leave.
The town, called The Blinds by its residents, has been receiving a trickle of new inhabitants every few months throughout its eight-year existence. When the novel opens, we meet Frances Adams, one of the original eight residents.
And then she hears a gunshot…
Just like that, the novel’s action is under way. Its progression incorporates elements of five literary genres:
- police procedural
- science fiction
That early gunshot produces a body, the traditional opening for a mystery. And the characteristic process of a mystery is to answer two questions: Who killed whom, and why? But a traditional mystery takes almost the complete book to play out. In The Blinds, we learn about the killer much earlier than we expect.
(2) Police Procedural
A police procedural, in some ways a subgenre of mystery, shows the steps a law enforcement officer takes to solve a crime. Although we meet Sheriff Cooper early in The Blinds, it’s Deputy Sidney Dawes who undertakes an investigation—one that involves the sheriff.
This is the genre that carries most of the weight of the novel. In many ways the town of Caesura and what happens there is straight out of the typical Western playbook.
First of all, we meet Sheriff Cooper. Like all the other town’s residents, he has chosen a new name for himself, and he chose Cooper after Gary Cooper, the actor who played a sheriff in many Western movies. Our Sheriff Cooper wears a badge and considers it his job to protect the residents of his town. Second, the town itself resembles a typical nineteenth-century Western town: isolated, located miles away from civilization, a self-contained microcosm of the world.
Third, the plot comprises that of a generic Western: strangers from outside—riding in black SUVs rather than on black horses—arrive and set into motion action that threatens to destroy the town’s equilibrium. And the climax of that action occurs in a shootout, just like the famous confrontation at the O.K. Corral. And for good measure, the person behind the existence of Caesura is Dr. Holliday.
(4) Science Fiction
Research scientist Dr. Holliday (who, unlike her Wild West namesake, is a woman) created Caesura as a laboratory for her experimentation with a technique that removes specific memories from the human brain. Her discussions with Sheriff Cooper late in the novel reveal her as an example of the genre fiction trope of the mad scientist, such as occurs in H.G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau, published in 1896.
As does most science fiction, this element of The Blinds comprises the novel’s thematic material. Dr. Holliday’s experimentation takes to the extreme current scientific interest in brain science and in the nature of consciousness, of memory, and of self-identity. Can science truly change people by eradicating some of their memories, then giving them a new name? And if such changes could be made, who has the right to make them?
This novel also contains a bit of romance, but I’ll leave that for you to observe for yourself.
Like many contemporary works of fiction, The Blinds combines elements from several literary genres. A good part of the enjoyment of reading a novel like this is recognizing and appreciating how it both embraces and subverts those generic elements to create an original literary work.
© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown
Kubica, Mary. Every Last Lie
Harlequin Audio, © 2017
(print edition also © 2017)
I enjoyed Mary Kubica’s first three novels: The Good Girl (2014), Pretty Baby (2015), and Don’t You Cry (2016). Each features a twist at the end. But these twists aren’t simple plot tricks designed to shock or titillate readers. Rather, they demonstrate that life and people may not be what they appear to be, that there may be more to any story than we know because we are limited to what we can see.
In this novel we meet Clara Solberg holding her four-day-old infant son in her arms. Her husband, Nick, driving four-year-old Maisie home from dance class, calls to say he’ll pick up dinner and to ask if she wants Chinese or Mexican. A while later the police ring Clara’s doorbell. There has been a terrible car accident. Nick is dead, though Maisie is unhurt.
The investigation of the accident concludes that Nick had been driving too fast when he tried to round a notorious curve on the road home. But Clara insists that Nick wouldn’t have driven so recklessly with their young daughter in the back seat. She can’t accept that Nick’s death could be so random, so without cause. There must be some other explanation for what happened. Her suspicions grow when Maisie begins having nightmares from which she wakes up sobbing, “The bad man, Daddy. The bad man is after us.”
The novel unfolds in sections alternating between Clara’s and Nick’s first-person accounts. Clara’s sections aren’t labeled, but Nick’s sections are labeled “before,” which I initially found confusing. Before what? And before suggests that there will be an after. Will Nick eventually somehow speak from beyond the grave? However, I soon realized that Nick’s sections narrate his and Clara’s life from his perspective leading up to the time of the accident. I would have preferred a label something like “six months earlier” for Nick’s sections in order to avoid this bizarre, creepy confusion.
Complications ensue for Clara: a woman from Nick’s life before he met Clara turns up, Nick’s supposed best friend and business partner isn’t the man Clara thought him to be, Clara finds a suspicious receipt … . Was Nick having an affair? These complications fuel Clara’s spiraling paranoia as she insists that someone must have killed Nick and sets out to determine who wanted Nick dead. Clara’s increasing paranoia, plus exhaustion from caring for two children, one a newborn, alone, plus a likely dose of postpartum depression, plus her own grief all make Clara’s agitation credible.
Meanwhile, we learn from Nick’s narration that his life also had its complications. He experiences financial strain from starting his own dental practice in an area with stiff competition for new patients. His business partner, supposedly his friend, isn’t pulling his weight and may even be sabotaging the practice. A second child on the way makes Nick even more worried about money. And then his high school girlfriend, whom he left when he went to college 12 years earlier, appears out of nowhere with an 11-year-old son and tells Nick she needs to talk to him.
The use of alternating first-person narratives builds suspense and tension as we watch both Clara and Nick dissect their life together separately. As in Kubica’s earlier novels, things may not be as they appear to be. Will Clara be able to find the truth she so desperately seeks? And what really happened on that road the night Nick took that curve too fast?
© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown
Connelly, Michael. The Late Show
Hachette Audio, © 2017
(print book © 2017)
Michael Connelly is one of my favorite authors. His two series characters are LAPD homicide detective Harry Bosch and criminal defense lawyer Mickey Haller, known as the Lincoln lawyer because he works primarily from the back seat of a chauffeur-driven black Lincoln.
In The Late Show Connelly introduces a new character, LAPD detective Renée Ballard. Ballard holds a degree in journalism from the University of Hawaii and worked as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. But after a few years reporting on crime, Ballard decided that she didn’t want to just write about crime, she wanted to be the one solving the crimes. She therefore joined the LAPD. (Michael Connelly himself has a journalism degree and worked as a crime reporter at the LA Times before becoming a full-time novelist.)
Detective Ballard was advancing well in her police career when she filed a sexual harassment complaint against her superior officer, Lt. Olivas. Ballard’s partner at the time, Ken Chastain, saw the writing on the wall and declined to support her claim. With no one to corroborate her story, her complaint was thrown out.
As punishment, Ballard was demoted to the night shift, known as the late show. This was not simply a demotion, but, for Ballard, a career buster because late-shift detectives don’t get to follow through with the investigation of their cases. Rather, they take the late-night calls but then turn the cases over for follow-up to the day-shift detectives.
The book opens with Ballard answering a call about a transgender woman who was brutally beaten. Ballard is at the hospital waiting to hear whether the victim will survive for questioning when EMTs arrive with a shooting victim. The young woman, a waitress at the Dancers Club, was shot when a customer at the club opened fire on three men seated at a booth with him. After killing the three men, the shooter shot a bouncer and the waitress on his way out. The bouncer was dead at the scene, and the waitress, near death, was transported to the hospital, where she died.
Sensing an opportunity, Ballard begins asking questions about the waitress. After questioning the EMTs, she goes to Dancers, where she questions the employees and takes the dead woman’s belongings as evidence. Meanwhile, the assault victim at the hospital survives her surgery but remains in a coma. Before her shift ends, Ballard also picks up a stolen credit card case that leads to a burglary suspect.
Knowing that detectives on the day shift won’t take much interest in the burglary and assault cases, Ballard manipulates and cajoles her way into investigating them on her own time. She also uses her initial work on the waitress’s death to hang around the Dancers Club investigation the next day. But that high-profile case is under the jurisdiction of Lt. Olivas, who won’t let Ballard anywhere near the investigation. But before leaving the scene Ballard notices her former partner, Chastain, retrieving a piece of evidence from the floor of the club.
Ballard continues to use her off-duty hours to investigate the assault and burglary cases. But the Dancers Club case takes a nasty turn when Chastain is killed execution style. Despite Chastain’s failure to support Ballard’s harassment claim, she feels a sense of duty toward her former partner and begins to investigate this case surreptitiously on her own time as well. Her work eventually solves the case, a fact that Lt. Olivas grudgingly must acknowledge.
I had wondered what Michael Connelly would do now that his mainstay character, Detective Harry Bosch, is nearing retirement. In The Late Show Connelly has introduced a younger character who, like Bosch—like all of us, really—deals with her own personal demons while remaining dedicated to her own notion of justice and the job she loves. I look forward to more Ballard novels in the future. In the meantime, I’m waiting for the fourth season of Amazon’s show Bosch, starring Titus Welliver, due next year.
© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown