Thursday, January 07, 2016

Fiction of 2015: Grown-Up Novels

Besides all the read-alouds, I did make it through some grown-up novels last year. My favorites were All the Light We Cannot See, which seemed to be popular everywhere (it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction), and Cutting for Stone, which I listened to and loved. Otherwise...quite a few of my 2015 novels were somewhat controversial in content, I'll be honest. Here's to more discriminating choices in the coming year.

For various reasons, I didn't or couldn't rate half of the novels I read this year, but for those I did rate, my system is:
***** Loved it, would definitely read again
**** Liked it, would recommend
*** It was OK
** Didn't really like it
* Hated it

All the Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr*****
It's a rare book that keeps you in suspense up through 97% and isn't merely tying up loose ends at that point. Up until the very end, in the second week of January last year, I was ready to say, "This novel will not be beaten for my 'best of 2015' list." But. But! I couldn't decide what I thought of the ending. It seemed disappointing and abrupt. Still, even if I wasn't totally satisfied with how it ended, it enthralled me from page one and it was incredibly well done. The characters were so vivid--I especially appreciated the way the author made certain German characters human. The Nazis were still portrayed as deplorable, but I was impressed and moved by the way you saw their inner struggles and motivations. The whole book was full of sympathetic characters, the kind who stick with you. And the writing was skillful, compelling.

Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese (audio)*****
WOW. What a powerful book. An epic story, and so beautifully told. It stunned me at times. Compelling characters and plot twists that constantly had me going "OH MY GOODNESS I DID NOT SEE THAT COMING...but of course! How did I not see that coming?!" I really enjoyed it as an audiobook too--the narrator is not a native English speaker, and his accent seemed to make the story feel more authentic. Disclaimer for the sensitive: It does have some graphic descriptions of medical procedures, some very disturbing. It also has a few sex scenes--though I will say that while these made me uncomfortable, they bothered me a lot less than in other books that are pure fluff/chick-lit, where it's less necessary to the plot/characterization and more just titillating/mere entertainment. IMO, the literary quality and value of the book outweighed these concerns, but your mileage may vary.

The Bluest Eye - Toni Morrison****(*)
I tried to read a Toni Morrison novel in high school, but wasn't ready for it and couldn't get through it. I've grown up enough, and my perspective of the world/capacity for empathy has increased enough, for me to be able to appreciate her work now. I understand why people find this book offensive and don't want their kids reading it for a school assignment. It has some profoundly disturbing graphic content. Yet I also understand why it is considered a classic, important novel, and I understand why Toni Morrison has won the awards she has. The story was haunting, and masterfully told. Painful, hopeless--definitely not a beach read--but heartbreakingly "true." I was astonished, and unsettled, by how Morrison could evoke even a tiny amount of sympathy for such unsympathetic characters.

The Birth of Venus - Sarah Dunant****
I always struggle to know how to review books with R-rated content. I do think it's different than movies, but it's still a gray area. This had some content that might offend the conscience, but for me it was a fascinating, compelling story--very provocative. Set in Renaissance Florence, it definitely worked to whet my appetite for visiting Florence.

Pompeii - Robert Harris****
A gripping novel about the 79 A.D. eruption. Coarse at times, to be sure, but that aspect seemed to me to be true to the cultural history, not necessarily gratuitous. The historical details about the Roman aqueducts, Mount Vesuvius, and the culture of first-century Campania were fascinating.

What Alice Forgot - Liane Moriarty****
Chick-lit, but still thought-provoking. An engaging and suspenseful story with enjoyable twists and turns. 

A Home at the End of the World - Michael Cunningham
My favorite literature professor from college recommended this to me quite some time ago. I can definitely see how reading it in her Contemporary Lit class would provoke lots of thoughtful discussion; it's full of complex relationships and themes that pushed me *way* out of my comfort zone. To that end, the content was such that I don't think it was a particularly edifying book for me to read on my own, without opportunity to discuss, analyze and think carefully about its themes. 

Home - Marilynne Robinson (audio)
I don't even know how to give this a rating. It was a troubling, depressing book--but Robinson is a gifted writer, for sure. Also I think Jack Boughton might be the most devastating character I have ever encountered in literature.

The Food of Love - Anthony Capella
Another Italy novel, this one set in modern-day Rome. It whetted my appetite in a more literal way, with its tantalizing descriptions of classic Roman foods (one of the main characters is a chef who sets out to woo a girl through his cooking). However, this was much more of a fluff read than The Birth of Venus, and while it engaged my attention, I can't recommend it based on the gratuitous sexual content, crass language, and negligible literary value. Also, I didn't love the ending, and one of the main characters was really not likable. OK, so basically its only value was educating me about Roman food.

The Wedding Officer - Anthony Capella
I gave Capella one more chance with this novel set in Naples during World War II. Maybe the content is typical for romance novels, and I was just surprised by it because I don't read that genre. This one, too, had marvelous descriptions of traditional Neapolitan foods, so it was great to read in preparation for our trip. But ultimately I don't recommend it, again based on the R-rated content (less explicit than The Food of Love, but still beyond what I am comfortable with).

Lila - Marilynne Robinson (audio)
I find Marilynne Robinson's novels difficult, for reasons I'm not sure I can identify or articulate, and yet I keep coming back to them. Her characters are poignant and compelling, and she often writes beautiful, stirring sentences. This third book (also set in Gilead, Iowa, and covering roughly the same time frame as the other two but told from a different perspective) fills in a lot of background about Lila Ames. Since I was listening instead of reading, and took a big break in the middle, I struggled with the chronology a bit, especially toward the end. I still can't quite decide what I think about the book on the whole. I never manage to give her novels star ratings. They often leave me unsettled. 

Abandoned novels:
A Soldier of the Great War - Mark Helprin (audio)
This is another of the books I picked up in preparation for our Italy trip (yes, I was a bit obsessive)--though it also happened to be on my want-to-read shelf because of friends' rave recommendations. I was interested enough, but with all I had going on in the summer/fall, I just didn't listen very often. It got to the point where I'd taken too many long breaks and didn't really remember what was happening...and it's SO long...that I ended up jumping ship.

What novels did you love in 2015?

1 comment:

Danielle said...

Glad you liked All the Light (I think you'd already read and recommended to me by the time I got to it) and Cutting for Stone. I loved that novel and thought it so masterful in terms of story and language. I hesitate to recommend it though sometimes if I don't know what others like due to the graphic nature but I agree with you about it being necessary to the characters motivations, etc.