Monday, December 14, 2009

The Ten Fiction Books I Wish I Had Read in 2009

--by Hanje Richards

This is the time of year when lots of publications and celebrities and authors publish their lists. Top Ten Books of 2009. Top 100 Books of 2009. Top 10 Books of The Decade. You get the idea. Usually, these are books that the creator of the list has read, studied, and considered carefully, based on statistics, sales and marketing, and so on and so forth.

I decided that my list would be a little different. My list is about the Ten Books I Wish I Had Read in 2009.

You read that correctly. I didn’t read these books. I didn’t study them. I didn’t check their sales or circulation figures. I just remember looking at them and thinking, “I Would Really Like to Read That Book This Year.” (My reasons are added in parentheses after the annotations.)

The Ten Books I Wish I Had Read in 2009 (Fiction)

1. Her Fearful Symmetry (Audrey Niffenegger)

When Elspeth Noblin dies of cancer, she leaves her London apartment to her twin nieces, Julia and Valentina. These two American girls never met their English aunt, only knew that their mother, too, was a twin, and Elspeth her sister.

The girls move to Elspeth's flat, which borders Highgate Cemetery in London, and come to know the building's other residents. As the girls become embroiled in the fraying lives of their aunt's neighbors, they also discover that much is still alive in Highgate, including – perhaps – their aunt, who can't seem to leave her old apartment and life behind.

Niffenegger weaves a captivating story in Her Fearful Symmetry about love and identity, about secrets and sisterhood, and about the tenacity of life – even after death.

(Because I really loved her first novel, Time Traveler’s Wife)

2. Last Night In Twisted River (John Irving)
In 1954, in the cookhouse of a logging and sawmill settlement in northern New Hampshire, an anxious twelve-year-old boy mistakes the local constable’s girlfriend for a bear. Both the twelve-year-old and his father become fugitives, forced to run from Coos County – to Boston, to southern Vermont, to Toronto – pursued by the implacable constable.

In a story spanning five decades, Last Night in Twisted River – John Irving’s twelfth novel – depicts the recent half-century in the United States as “a living replica of Coos County, where lethal hatreds were generally permitted to run their course.” What further distinguishes Last Night in Twisted River is the author’s unmistakable voice – the inimitable voice of an accomplished storyteller.

(Because John Irving is one of the voices of my generation, and I was affected by The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules and other Irving novels.)

3. Little Bird of Heaven (Joyce Carol Oates)
Set in the mythical small city of Sparta, New York, this is a searing, vividly rendered exploration of the mysterious conjunction of erotic romance and tragic violence in late-twentieth-century America.

When a young wife and mother named Zoe Kruller is found brutally murdered, the Sparta police target two primary suspects, her estranged husband, Delray Kruller, and her longtime lover, Eddy Diehl. In turn, the Krullers' son, Aaron, and Eddy Diehl's daughter, Krista, become obsessed with each other, each believing the other's father is guilty.

(Because I have a goal of reading every Joyce Carol Oates novel, which is a daunting task, and because one of my Top Ten Novels Of All Time is Blonde, a brilliant novel based on the life – and inner life – of Marilyn Monroe.)

4. Little Giant of Aberdeen County (Tiffany Baker)
When Truly Plaice's mother was pregnant, the town of Aberdeen joined together in betting how record-breakingly huge the baby would ultimately be. The girl who proved to be Truly paid the price of her enormity; her father blamed her for her mother's death in childbirth and was totally ill equipped to raise either this giant child or her polar opposite sister Serena Jane, the epitome of feminine perfection. When he, too, relinquished his increasingly tenuous grip on life, Truly and Serena Jane are separated – Serena Jane to live a life of privilege as the future “May Queen” and Truly to live on the outskirts of town on the farm of the town sad sack, the subject of constant abuse and humiliation at the hands of her peers.

(Because it has a great title and a great cover and, contrary to popular belief, sometimes you can judge a book by its cover!)

5. South of Broad (Pat Conroy)
Against the sumptuous backdrop of Charleston, South Carolina, South of Broad gathers a unique cast of sinners and saints. After Leo's older brother commits suicide at the age of thirteen, the family struggles with the shattering effects of his death, and Leo, lonely and isolated, searches for something to sustain him. Eventually, he finds his answer when he becomes part of a tightly knit group of high school seniors that includes friends Sheba and Trevor Poe, glamorous twins with an alcoholic mother and a prison-escapee father; hardscrabble mountain runaways Niles and Starla Whitehead; socialite Molly Huger and her boyfriend, Chadworth Rutledge X; and an ever-widening circle whose liaisons will ripple across two decades - from 1960s counterculture through the dawn of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

(Because Pat Conroy kissed me on the cheek in a bookstore in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1985. And because The Prince of Tides is on my Top Ten Novels Of All Time list.)

6. Still Summer (Jacqueline Mitchard)
In high school, Olivia, Tracy, and Holly had been known as The Godmothers, and their friendship has endured throughout the ensuing decades. Now, with the death of Olivia's husband, a wealthy Italian Count, and her return to America, the friends decide to reunite on a luxury cruise in the Caribbean. Along with Tracy's college-aged daughter and a two-man crew, they begin their journey uneventfully, enjoying the sun and the warm, clear waters of the Caribbean.

Then, a series of devastating events unfolds, leaving the women crewless, starving, and terrified. Almost overnight, what was meant to be a blissful vacation devolves into a desperate fight for survival, as they soon find themselves battling the elements, a horrifying attack by drug traffickers, and their own frailties. It is at once a story about the bonds of friendship, the love between mothers and their children, and the strengths we don't know we possess until we are faced with our own mortality.

(Because, years ago, I read her Deep End of the Ocean and thought it was good. I have lost track of her in the meantime.)

7. Story of Edgar Sawtelle (David V. Wroblewski)
Born mute, speaking only in sign, Edgar Sawtelle leads an idyllic life with his parents on their farm in remote northern Wisconsin, where for generations, the Sawtelles have raised and trained a fictional breed of dog. But with the unexpected return of Claude, Edgar's paternal uncle, turmoil consumes the Sawtelles' once peaceful home. When Edgar's father dies suddenly, Claude insinuates himself into the life of the farm – and into Edgar's mother's affections.

Grief-stricken and bewildered, Edgar tries to prove Claude played a role in his father's death, but his plan backfires – spectacularly. Forced to flee into the vast wilderness lying beyond the farm, Edgar comes of age in the wild, fighting for his survival and that of the three yearling dogs who follow him.

(Because someone told me it was good.)

8. Third Angel (Alice Hoffman)
In The Third Angel, Hoffman weaves a magical and stunningly original story that charts the lives of three women in love with the wrong men: Headstrong Madeleine Heller finds herself hopelessly attracted to her sister’s fiancé. Frieda Lewis, a doctor’s daughter and a runaway, becomes the muse of an ill-fated rock star. And beautiful Bryn Evans is set to marry an Englishman while secretly obsessed with her ex-husband. At the heart of the novel is Lucy Green, who blames herself for a tragic accident she witnessed at the age of twelve, and who spends four decades searching for the Third Angel – the angel on earth who will renew her faith.

(Because I have been a fan of Alice Hoffman since I found her first book on a remainder table in 1982.)

9. Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel) Winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize
England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope – and most of Europe – opposes him.

Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell is a wholly original man, a consummate politician, hardened by his personal losses, implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?

(Because in the last year I have become fascinated by this period in history, and because I like really fat books!)

10. Year of the Flood (Margaret Atwood)
A dystopic masterpiece and a testament to her visionary power.

The times and species have been changing at a rapid rate, and the social compact is wearing as thin as environmental stability. Adam One, the kindly leader of the God's Gardeners – a religion devoted to the melding of science and religion, as well as the preservation of all plant and animal life – has long predicted a natural disaster that will alter Earth as we know it. Now it has occurred, obliterating most human life.

Meanwhile, gene-spliced life forms are proliferating: the lion/lamb blends, the Mo'hair sheep with human hair, the pigs with human brain tissue. As Adam One and his intrepid hemp-clad band make their way through this strange new world, Atwood’s characters will have to decide on their next move. They can't stay locked away . . .

Sequel to Oryx and Crake, Atwood’s 2003 novel.

(Because I read Oryx and Crake so I feel compelled to read the sequel, and because I have had a love-hate relationship with Margaret Atwood for years.)