Monday, December 12, 2005

Mutt Ploughman's Best Books of 2005

The Known World, Edward P. Jones

About the book: An historical novel about black Americans who owned slaves in the pre-Civil War era in the South. First novel from Jones; published in 2003; winner of several awards including the Pulitzer Prize.

About the author: Previously published one story collection called Lost in the City; was unemployed after being laid off from his job when he wrote The Known World; has stated in interviews that he had planned to read many books about the Civil War period as research for the book, only to abandon the reading and make most of the details up.

Why it made the list: This is a fascinating, moving exploration of a little-noted aspect of the history of slavery, that of black people owning black people. Numerous memorable characters; impressive plotting that skips episodically back and forth in time. This book is a testimonial to the power of a determined imagination and a writer’s confidence in the story he has to tell.

Riders in the Chariot, Patrick White

About the book: Epic novel examining the intersecting lives of four charismatic outcasts living in suburban Australia in the 20th century: an eccentric woman, a humble Jewish man, an aborigine painter, and a saintly washer-woman.

About the author: Enigmatic and somewhat reclusive, Patrick White remains the only Australian writer ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1973). Riders may be his best known work; other works include The Tree of Man, Voss, and The Solid Mandala. He is not easy to read but his work is very rewarding.

Why it made the list: Impossible not to include it. This is a complex, sweeping novel filled with fascinating existential- and religious-themed passages, and includes some of the most strikingly original prose in English I have ever read. All four of the main characters are thoroughly unique and believable.

World Light, Halldor Laxness

About the book: Sprawling story about the life of an Icelandic orphan who is convinced his destiny is to become one of his country’s great poets. Originally published in the late 1930s.

About the author: Icelandic novelist Halldor Laxness won the 1955 Nobel Prize in Literature. His work was heavily steeped in the ancient literary tradition of Icelandic sagas and are notable for their humor, passion and portrayal of the peasantry as dignified, humble people often struggling against oppressive forces. His most famous novel is Independent People.

Why it made the list: This is a sprawling novel that is swollen with emotion, humor and grace. Laxness’ protagonist, Olafur, struggles all his life to make himself into a poet worth reading and remembering. This book is filled with exquisite passages on the power of literature and would appeal to anyone who has ever tried to do credit to their own creative impulses against all the odds.

The Ice Palace, Tarjei Vesaas

About the book: The odd story of two young girls who become friends in the frozen lake country of remote Norway, and the mysterious tragedy that separates them forever.

About the author: Vesaas is considered one of the greatest Scandinavian writers and was repeatedly considered for the Nobel Prize but never won. His novels and poems explore the lives of people living in desolate regions of Norway and the emotional and physical burdens of such a harsh existence.

Why it made the list: This is a totally unique, atmospheric, almost creepy novel written in very spare, beautiful prose (expertly translated). The unusual relationship between the two girls is never fully explained, but is rendered in simple, heartbreakingly lyric terms, and the wintry landscape with all its grace and beauty is a major force in this spare work. This is a hypnotic and fascinating novel.

Chronicles, Bob Dylan

About the book: Supposedly Volume 1 of three planned volumes of the memoirs of the iconic singer and songwriter, one of the most famous and influential figures in American culture.

About the author: Bob Dylan is a truly classic American voice, an enigmatic poet of our times with an eye for small details and a gift for rendering powerful truths in simple terms. He has one of the few songwriters who has been repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and his numerous albums include some of the most famous songs in the history of modern music.

Why it made the list: This is a spare, surprisingly satisfying memoir told in a unique style and tone of voice that could only belong to Bob Dylan. Most memoirs have limited appeal except to strict enthusiasts of the person writing them; this one manages to make Dylan’s story broadly fascinating and appealing. The prose is elegant and simple, and the unusual structure eschews conventions by skipping whole swatches of time in his career to focus instead on the interesting stories behind certain periods or particular albums. It’s impressive to follow along as Dylan steps into the literary world almost without effort and plays strictly by his own rules.

The Double, José Saramago

About the book: Bleak but powerful novel about an aimless, tired man who spots his ‘double’, a clone, playing a bit part in a rented home video, and the reckless pursuit of his ‘double’, which brings unexpected consequences.

About the author: Winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature, the only Portugese artist to do so, José Saramago is one of my favorite writers, although I do not share his worldview or his atheistic values. Nonetheless he is a brave, powerful novelist who has produced his most extraordinary work after age 60. I also recommend his other extraordinary novels, including The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, Baltasar and Blimunda, All the Names, and The Stone Raft.

Why it made the list: Saramago has taken on the folly of human cloning in this typically bleak, pessimistic story that proves nonetheless to be a thrilling mystery and comical exploration of identity all at once. I admire Saramago’s bluntness with the truth and willingness to express his controversial views on complex ethical problems of our age. He also has a gift for comedy, particularly when it comes to pointing out the ridiculous paradoxes of humankind. Yet Saramago’s books can take unexpectedly chilly turns towards violence and inhumanity. This novel was by turns fascinating, hilarious and frightening, all the way to an expertly executed final chapter.

Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

About the book: Published in 1981, this book made Rushdie’s international star explode and drew immediate and earned comparisons to the great ‘magical realist’ novelists Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Günter Grass. It tells the long and convoluted story of two Indian babies, switched at birth, and their parallel destinies, which also coincide with the birth and infancy of the modern Indian nation.

About the author: Salman Rushdie is a British-raised Indian writer who is frequently mentioned as deserving the Nobel Prize, but his complex relationship with Islamic nations, borne of his controversial novel The Satanic Verses, may prevent this from ever happening. A rich, melodious, confident prose stylist, he perhaps more than any other modern literary giant bridges the chasm between Eastern and Western cultures.

Why it made the list: This book has a sprawling, complex plot and very colorful, rich characters, particular the female ones. It was a totally unique reading experience, rich in detail about Indian culture and the volatile political and socioeconomic conditions that brought about its establishment of independence in 1949. Rushdie clearly played by his own rules, allowing his imagination and creativity to flourish and succeeding spectacularly. Reading this book one feels the growing confidence and narrative power of a major voice in world literature.

Water Music, T. Coraghessan Boyle

About the book: This is T.C. Boyle’s first novel, also published in 1981, and like my previous selection, it clearly demonstrates the power of a confident, exuberant writer’s imagination when it is allowed to run wild. Set in the 18th century, this book tells the story of Ned Rise, a child of the London streets, and his fateful collision with Mungo Park, the famous explorer who was the first white man to locate the source of the Niger River in Africa.

About the author: One of the most prolific and talented writers of the modern era, T.C. Boyle has written seventeen books, including seven short story collections. He writes confidently on a wide variety of subjects from a very humanistic / secular perspective.

Why it made the list: Its sheer imaginative brio. T.C. Boyle was a young, brash writer when this book was published and obviously had supreme confidence in his own narrative gifts, and that is what comes through in this wild, very funny and intriguing story. Boyle studied 19th century literature at the University of Iowa, and this novel was his take on the classic Victorian-era novel, but written with his own modern, wise-cracking style. Rich in historical detail and immensely entertaining to read, this was one of the most pleasurable reads I encountered this year. Highly recommended.

The Amalgamation Polka, Stephen Wright

About the book: Technically this shouldn’t even be on this year’s list, since this book is not being published until February 2006, but I got an advanced copy. This book is Wright’s first in twelve years and marks a departure from his previous novels: it is an historical tale about a young man raised by abolitionists during the Civil War-period who discovers his own ancestry has a slave-owning heritage, and sets out to find out more.

About the author: One of the most under-valued American writers of our time, Stephen Wright was my mentor in graduate school and is the author of three previous novels, all of which are extraordinary. He is a powerful, stylistically original writer whose novels hit hard. I highly recommend any of his books to readers of serious American literature.

Why it made the list: Wright has proven he has versatility, mastery of the language, and an acute vision of what it means to be American with this fourth novel, by turns a bold new direction for him and an extension of some of his previous themes. This novel was both horrific and humorous, with a surprisingly empathetic heart for the goodness of humanity against the terrors of war and insanity of racial injustice. This is the first of Wright’s books to end on a note of hope, and I am hopeful that it accomplishes for him what All the Pretty Horses did for Cormac McCarthy in the early 1990s.

The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake

About the book: A brief collection of twelve short stories about the desperate, disadvantaged lives of poor working-class people in rural West Virginia, this was Breece Pancake’s only published book.

About the author: Breece D’J Pancake killed himself at age 26 in 1979, two years before his only collection appeared. With the publication of his stories he was hailed as one of the major new voices in American literature, a writer of brooding, poetic vision and powerful emotional courage.

Why it made the list: Sheer grace, talent and power. This book is raw, gripping, sad and beautiful, the work of an extremely talented young writer who could not overcome his own depression and self-destructive instincts. These stories are filled with yearning to break free from spiritual bondage and create something meaningful out of one’s existence in dark times, stuck in dark corners. It is a collection that will not leave any reader unmoved, and it stands as a painful testimonial of what might have been for Breece Pancake.

1 comment:

Duke Altum said...

OUTSTANDING list, Mutt... just happened to get on here not long after you posted it and went through it quickly... great write-ups too. When you take a look at all of the selections on here, there is not a lightweight read among them... they are all the real thing, powerful stuff indeed. Good format you came up with too. Interestingly, when and if I get to posting my list, there will be a few repeats (Vesaas, Pancake among them). 3 Nobel laureates and 3 others nominated/often cited for the honor... half of them American writers, half not. All in all, a very interesting list. I may post again (the rare double post) on it, if I can find the time...