How do I choose books to write about here in "Creating in Flow?" Either I find them delicious (you know the feeling, I'm sure), or I learn something from them, or they surprise me with their fresh take on a familiar subject.
Some of the books below have gotten or will surely get their share of national media attention no matter what. The quirk factor of others may keep them slightly under the radar.
And, occasionally, I'll choose to write about a book I liked, but didn't love, because I want to make a point about the writing process itself.
I've included the publication dates of those not officially out as of this writing.
The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller (Knopf). Literary science fiction is one of my favorites, and a good futuristic after-the-end-of-the-known-world novel can be a dark depressing treat. The Dog Stars is an original, and not to be missed. The writing is brilliant, the scene-setting is just right, and the characters are genuine, sympathetic, human beings struggling with loss and taking risks. Not a zombie or vampire in sight, though the way human nature tends to break down to its essential selfishness (and resilience) is described with rigor.
Zoo Time, by Howard Jacobson (Bloomsbury USA). Jacobson is a darkly funny and creative writer who won the Man Booker Prize for The Finkler Question. This new novel involves deep ideas as well as odd characters and bizarre situations. It's purposely non-suspenseful; as the narrator notes, "Reading should be like sex. The end is written in the beginning, so just lie back and enjoy the journey."
The Hot Country, by Robert Olen Butler (Mysterious Press). Butler's latest novel, like most of his work, involves a complete change of pace from the one before. His "voice" always shows through, whether he concocts surreal stories like those in Tabloid Dreams, or a love story like A Small Hotel, or this one, the first of a series of thrillers. Here the story is narrated by a swashbuckling newspaperman who lives in Mexico in 1914.
The Dinner, by Herman Koch (Hogarth, Feb. 2013). An unusual book, translated from the Dutch, that could be claustrophobic in lesser hands. A bestseller in the Netherlands, and having sold a million copies in 24 countries, The Dinner is Koch's sixth novel. It's a psychological novel about two families having dinner (though major stuff has happened). The narrator begins with our full sympathy, but surprises us again and again. You may never think about the Dutch the same way again.
Middle C, by William H. Gass (Knopf, March 2013). Not an easy book to read (none of Gass's are). Most of his prevalent themes are here, and why wouldn't Gass's rage and despair about humanity's inhumanity still loom large when he's 88 years old? Themes of identity and change and truth and lies are brought out by means of the main character Joseph's efforts to fit into his adopted world. He doesn't really connect with anyone, perhaps lest he cause pain. The narrator's lists of evils throughout history do go on. Joseph goes mad gradually. Gass, a professor himself, describes faculty meetings with delightful scorn.
Harvest, by Jim Crace (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, Feb. 2013). I've read and loved all of award-winner Crace's novels (Being Dead, Quarantine, etc.), and this one did not disappoint. All the action takes place in a centuries-old English village setting, where the farmland that has kept the townsfolk alive is about to be turned into sheep grazing land. A simple premise, but the voice in which it is told is so beautifully rendered that I would have had it go on for double the length. Low-key emotionally, yet deeply psychological.
The Paternity Test, by Michael Lowenthal (University of Wisconsin Press). I fell for the gently sympathetic characters in this novel about a gay male couple, in a sometimes uneasy relationship, who want a baby and enlist a surrogate. Psychologically astute and realistic, the story readily engages the reader in the emotional ups and downs of the journey.
The Man in the Empty Suit, by Sean Ferrell (Soho Press, Feb. 2013). Time travel fiction gets me every time. This one nearly lost me, with all the back-and-forth time-shifting over a period of a hundred years, always coming back to a certain Manhattan hotel where a convention is taking place, a convening of the protagonist at different ages, along with a few mysterious others. The action involves murder (but of whom?), hidden rooms, surreal and point-view-shifting efforts to figure things out so as not to die (or kill). Quite an absorbing brain-teaser.
Ashenden, by Elizabeth Wilhide (Simon & Schuster, Jan. 2013). Ashenden is the name of a fictionalized English country house built 240 years ago and since owned by many families. Each family worked hard to keep it from falling into disrepair. The house is the main recurring character. And therein lies the problem, novelistically, for me. Wilhide, who's authored many books on interior design, decoration, and architecture, has given us a story of the house and its transformations. It's as though she wrote more than a dozen partial novels, each one engrossing in itself. Yet they each ended, the narrative only picking up with new characters many years later, which is why I wasn't entirely satisfied. The vignette about the final (or current) owner was the least satisfying of all. The historical settings and the sense of lost time, lost ways of life, are all beautifully described. The difference in the lives of those who owned the house and those who served them is ever-present.
The Elephant Keepers' Children, by Peter Høeg (Other Press). Bizarre, philosophical (in an Eastern spirituality way), magically real, with more than enough action and twists, this novel is delivered in a unique voice. Høeg, who also authored Smilla's Sense of Snow, writes a story that is, on the surface at least, about two children whose very strange parents have disappeared. Once you get past the very silly names (Minna Thorlacius-Claptrap?), the novel is oddly moving in its own fairy-tale-like way.
Fever, by Mary Beth Keane (Scribner, March 2013). You may have heard the nickname "Typhoid Mary" and wondered who that actually was. The real woman, Mary Mallon, was the first person to be imprisoned (in isolation for years) when she accidentally infected people she worked for and with, without ever having had typhoid fever herself. This novel combines history and real people, carefully imagining their lives in believable depth. She offers medical details, a love story, and a nice sense of New York in the early 1900s.
Copyright (2013) by Susan K. Perry