Good Books

By Michelle Blake on January 4, 2011 2:52 PM

Just before the flood of enforced holiday downtime swamped my boat, a friend sent me a review by B.R. Myers, titled "Smaller Than Life." Myers's point is that a good deal of award-winning contemporary fiction gives us small characters in small lives doing no-account things, delivered in a language that conjures an overheard subway chat, as if it were fiction's job to reflect back to us in a sort of funhouse way the most tedious moments of our days.

Plenty of the writers producing the subway-chat fiction are smart, thoughtful, and talented. I have heard and read what they have to say about their work, and they clearly have in mind an esthetic that reflects, to them, essential realities of our 21st century world. My own response to their work is grounded in the simple fact that I experience the world differently. I don't find daily life thin and bloodless. I find it rich and weird, deserving of a broad vocabulary, a varied syntax, and a willingness to go way out on a limb to capture the dazzling array of events. To me, these are the necessary elements of a good book.

After I read the Myers essay, I posted it on Facebook and immediately got responses from others who feel frustrated and lost when it comes to the world of contemporary fiction. A couple of people asked if I would suggest some good books, and that seems like an ideal task for the new year. So, my criteria are these: rich language, varied syntax, and a willingness to go out on a limb to capture the dazzling array of events. What follows is a hodge-podge of old books, new books, mysteries, and thrillers, since I find some of the best novel writing is being done by authors in the so-called "genre" categories. I haven't even addressed non-fiction, poetry or drama here, but maybe I will do that somewhere down the road. Also, I've stuck to English-speaking writers (with a couple of exceptions, like Tolstoy). In many cases, I only mention one book by each author, because that happens to be the one that stuck with me, but for most of these writers, all their books are finely-crafted and thoroughly worth the read. Finally, this will work best if readers send in your own favorites, so that we end up with a juicy list of good books that will last us all a good long time.

Old Books: A LEGACY by Sybille Bedford is often my favorite novel, though surely HOWARD'S END, by E.M. Forster, is a more wonderful book. Both the authors concern themselves with the sweep of history and class politics as they play out in the characters' lives. And the characters are stunning.

Other Old Favorites: THE YEARS, by Virginia Woolf, Eliot's MIDDLEMARCH, Wharton's HOUSE OF MIRTH, James's THE AMBASSADORS, and, of course, SWANN'S WAY. My daughter just reminded me about WAR AND PEACE, which is our favorite Tolstoy. If you want to see why and how point of view matters in a novel, reread THE GOOD SOLDIER, by Ford Maddox Ford. I'm a huge Dickens fan; no one more shamelessly puts his characters through the wringer, so that they can come out alchemized into gold or meet their deserved disastrous ends. BLEAK HOUSE is the best, and it leads nicely into another category--mysteries.

BLEAK HOUSE is also the first and best murder mystery ever written. There are a number of books that qualify for second place. My own choice is either GAUDY NIGHT by Dorothy Sayers or NINE TAILORS by Dorothy Sayers. I happen to love Margery Allingham, a doyenne of the Golden Age, but her detective is even sillier than Wimsy. Good contemporary series abound: Donna Leon's Venetian mysteries, starring wise, uxorious Guido Brunetti; James Lee Burke's novels; Tony Hillerman's Navajo mysteries; Robert Parker's Boston mysteries (especially the first two-thirds of the Spenser series); the novels by Israeli writer Batya Gur, set in Jerusalem, featuring Michael Ohayon (start with LITERARY MURDER, one of the best mysteries I've ever read); Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins series; the first three books of Dennis Lehane's series, including A DRINK BEFORE THE WAR. Alan Furst's books are terrific spy thrillers, set in World War II Europe. And, of course, there's always Le Carre, the greatest of them all, if you don't mind his often puerile view of women. Finally, the novels of Lionel Davidson stand alone in the thriller-cum-spy-cum-adventure-cum-murder category. THE ROSE OF TIBET is one of the strangest and most entertaining books I've ever read.

Davidson, Furst, and Le Carre highlight the problem with categories, or genres. Yes, their plots involve spying and stalking and killing, but the books are well written, and the characters are robust, fallible, brave, crazy, and completely three-dimensional. Fortunately, there are plenty of contemporary novelists, whose works fall into the literary fiction category, who are also writing rich prose and creating irresistible characters. Peter Cameron comes to mind immediately: SOMEDAY THIS PAIN WILL BE USEFUL TO YOU, THE WEEKEND, THE CITY OF MY FINAL DESTINATION; and Alice Munro, of course, who is certainly the greatest living short-story writer in the English language. Stories like RUNAWAY and FLOATING BRIDGE are so good it's hard to teach them to students, because it's difficult to articulate what she has done and how she has done it.

Other contemporary books I have loved: THE BOOKSHOP, by Penelope Fitzgerald; THE CAMOMILE LAWN, by Mary Wesley; SINGING BOY, by Dennis McFarland; THE BLUEST EYE, by Toni Morrison; MOON TIGER, by Penelope Lively; BREAKFAST WITH SCOT, by Michael Downing; THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA, by Phillip Roth; THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET, by Sandra Cisneros; and most recently WOLF HALL, by Hilary Mantel, which won the Man Booker Prize last year. Not too long ago, I went through a period of reading a lot of books set out west, and a few of them turned out to be beauties: EVENTIDE and PLAINSONG, by Kent Haruf; THE GOD OF ANIMALS, by Aryn Kyle; and THE HEARTS OF HORSES, by Molly Gloss.

The best contemporary novel I have read in many years is Coetzee's DISGRACE, another brilliant book that embraces an entire political history, the aftermath of apartheid, in a stunningly beautiful story. In an earlier essay, I compared it to KING LEAR because of Coetzee's willingness to take his characters all the way to the brink, and then over the brink, and to follow them every step of the way, never allowing us to avert our eyes from the consequences. I can't recommend it highly enough.