The Donoghue Interregnum: 2000!
Our year is now AD 2000, when Slobodan Mlosevic was removed from power in a coup, George W. Bush was placed in power by a coup, Alexandria is discovered again after 2000 years of slumber, and the great Jean-Pierre Rampal died. The top efforts of the book-world looked like this:
10 The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon – This exuberant fictional embellishment of the archetypal comic book origin story – two oddball boys combining talents they didn’t really even know they had in order to create superheroes and supervillains in the era of the Second World War – (be the pair Joe Siegel and Jerry Shuster or Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, although in this case leaning quite a bit more toward the latter) is so instantly winning, such a perfect mixture of tenderness and wonder that it swept away my initial reluctance right away. It thoroughly deserves its status as a modern classic.
9 The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin – Toibin stuffs this novel with just about every modern cliché of Irish fiction you could shake a shillelagh at: the dutiful son of the Church stricken with AIDS, the griping matriarch, the unwanted intrusions of the non-Catholic world (which leaves the locals angrily shaking their fists at the sky-gods, like newly-discovered Amazon rain forest tribesmen, until you just want to smack Toibin), the long-held family grudges, etc. And yet, in a feat of rhetorical alchemy he doesn’t always manage to pull off, he grants it all a marvelous narrative grace and turns it all into a first-rate novel.
8 The Lost Legends of New Jersey by Frederick Reiken – I absolutely loved this author’s debut, The Odd Sea, so I was willing – though wary – to enter the much different world of this new book. That world is 1980s New Jersey, and one of the book’s most appealing plot lines follows a pair of star-crossed lovers trying to navigate their difficult families. But there’s an effusion of creativity in these pages, and my wariness was quickly calmed.
7 The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif – Much like in the case of Reiken, I jumped into this novel by Soueif because I loved her debut novel In the Eye of the Sun, and if anything this second novel was even more impressive than Reiken’s. It tells the parallel stories of two women dealing in their different-yet-similar ways with colonialism, ethnic identity, and love. One of these women is an Englishwoman in 1901 who falls in love with an Egyptian man, and the other is one of that woman’s descendants a century later, who falls in love with an Egyptian-American man. And although the neatness with which Soueif dovetails the two stories is predictable, there are two moments in particular at the novel’s climax that take advantage of every scrap of power such a dual arrangement can make possible.
6 English Passengers by Matthew Kneale – It took me a while to grow to love this antic historical novel about a small-time English privateer in 1857 who’s forced to take on paying passengers – one of whom turns out to be a harmless crank intent on sailing to the exact location of the Garden of Eden, and the other of whom doesn’t turn out to be quite so harmless. Kneale broadens his story and complicates it with a great many more sub-plots and dozens of well-realized characters, and once I finally loved the novel, I loved it very much.
5 Pastoralia by George Saunders – This collection of short stories cemented George Saunders in my mind as one of the great American practitioners of the short story (and one of the stories included here, “Sea Oak,” simply amazed me). The way this author can conjure entire worlds in just a few short, seemingly simple sentences is consistently astonishing, and the sheer enjoyment to be had here prompted me to recommend it to every customer who even slightly likes contemporary fiction.
4 Perdido Street Station by China Mieville – Not many works of science fiction or fantasy have been making their way into the Interregnum, and that’s much more an indictment of the genre than it is of yours truly. I still read virtually all the major genre releases of this lost fifteen years, but assembling extremely exclusive lists like these really throws a harsh light on just how weak most genre fiction is when judged outside its own narrow, supportive conventions. Perdido Street Station was an easy choice to include, however: Mieville is a terrific writer, and he fills this story of a nefarious plot unfolding in the otherworldly city of New Crubuzon with more invention and dark humor than any ten average SFF novels tend to have.
3 Dream Stuff by David Malouf – Here’s another collection of short stories, this time reflecting an intriguing array of the Australian national identity, all conveyed with Malouf’s usual blend of flinty prose and unfulfilled longing for absolution. As in so much of Malouf’s best fiction, the characters in these stories are basically the sum of their flaws, and yet there’s a wonderful implied sympathy running throughout the book, even when the dramatis personae are suffering.
2 Lightning on the Sun by Robert Bingham – Each time I read this novel I find it harder to classify. On the surface, it’s simply a thriller about a man named Asher who’s working in Cambodia and decides to risk one enormous score by sending an illicit shipment of heroin home to the States and into the care of his girlfriend. The plan goes wrong, the Cambodians find out, etc. But Bingham – who died of a heroin overdose as the novel was appearing – is a prodigiously talented writer, and he invests his characters and settings with five times the depth and richness they’d need to have if this book were only a thriller. The end result is something strange and evocative and rewardingly sad.
1 Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo – Like SFF, it’s rare to see a YA novel on these lists (let alone in the #1 spot), since so much YA is pure drivel. But this story – amazing to think it’s DiCamillo’s first book – about a little girl named Opal and a happy, energizing dog named Winn-Dixie and the changes they make in each other’s lives and the lives of those around them, is certainly worth of being an exception; it’s purely wonderful.
10 The Crucible of War by Fred Anderson – This dense, pleasingly brainy account of the Seven Years’ War between England and France from 1754-1766 is long and very detailed, and yet it’s one of the fastest reads on this list, mainly thanks to Anderson’s great gifts as a narrator. Every aspect of the war France and England fought – both directly and through various agents – in the New World is given a sharp new reading, and many of the conclusions Anderson make along the way are scintillating.
9 Words Alone by Denis Donoghue – Those of you who’ve been reading Stevereads for some time now will be quite comfortable with the idea of an entertaining literary critic having “Donoghue” for a surname, although that’s where the similarities stop in this case, since Denis Donoghue in this book spends at least as much time praising the largely-talentless poet TS Eliot as he does researching him. Every year sees a handful of fantastic works of poetic analysis like this one, and I try not to miss any of them. The annoying parts of this one – I mentioned it’s a book-length appreciation of TS Eliot, yes? – were outweighed by the pleasures of watching this particular Donoghue think things through on paper.
8 Bellow by James Atlas – As I mentioned in an earlier installment of the Interregnum, there’s a particular shivery joy that only comes from reading full-scale but negative biographies of the great and the famous. And what’s good for Lord Byron is ten times better for somebody as recently-alive as Saul Bellow, who’s here given a warts-and-all approach so thorough you halfway suspect Atlas is more of a dermatologist than a biographer. I was wondering if this year’s massive Bellow biography by Zachary Leader would supplant this complaint-fest in my estimations, but it didn’t – proving that complete objectivity is a highly overrated trait in a biographer.
7 Georgiana by Amanda Foreman – The sparkling personality of Georgiana Spencer, the 18th century’s irrepressible Duchess of Devonshire, brims with such storytelling energy that I was almost immediately entranced. Much like Stella Tillyard’s Aristocrats, this book delves into a wittier, more enterprising, more scatological and more celebrity-driven culture even than our own in order to tell the life story of one of its upper-class leaders and shapers, and like the Tillyard book, this one is a glowing success of popular history.
6 Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan by Herbert Bix – Admittedly, then, the year 2000 was a mighty strong one for biographies! This does sometimes happen, and in those years even when I compensate for how much I personally love the genre I still get a “year’s best” list that’s mostly biographies. This one is another case in point, a richly-detailed and intensely-rewarding biography of both the Emperor Hirohito and the end of an entire era of Japanese history.
5 Bruce Chatwin by Nicholas Shakespeare – The author does a marvelous job digging into the life and sometimes almost ephemeral legacy of the renowned aesthete and travel-writer, and the wonder of the book is that Shakespeare manages what very few people who actually knew Chatwin ever did: he manages to resist the man’s charm and stick to the facts at hand. He writes about the travels – both inner and worldly – and he writes about the legion of friends, and he writes very perceptively about the books, and he writes without flinching about the sad end, and it’s all magnificent.
4 Deus Lo Volt! By Evan S. Connell – Definitely the strangest book on this year’s list! In these pages, Connell pulls off the stylistic feat of writing a modern history of the Crusades in the voice of a contemporary history of the Crusades – imagine Jeffroy de Villehardouin, only with access to micro-fiche. It’s the kind of bizarre rhetorical hybrid most authors couldn’t get past their agents, let alone their publisher’s marketing department, but Connell quietly reveled in his sui generis status, and so the book duly appeared – and it’s filled with quirky genius.
3 Herman Melville by Elizabeth Hardwick – As I’ve had occasion to mention here at Stevereads before, the old “Penguin Lives” series of very short biographies had more than its share of gems – Edmund White on Proust, Larry McMurtry on Crazy Horse, Roy Blount on Robert E. Lee, and most of all, this biographical sketch of Herman Melville, whose biographers usually err on the side of excess. There’s more insight into Melville’s art and personality in these few pages than the reading public had seen since Newton Arvin’s book in 1950.
2 The Gentleman from New York by Godfrey Hodgson – I’d begun to despair that any contemporary biographer would ever tackle the subject of the hyper-opinionated and disarmingly thought-provoking Daniel Patrick Moynihan, but Hodgson’s book was very much worth the wait. It’s not as long as I’d like, but it wonderfully captures the life story and complex personality of a man who served four presidents and quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) advised a whole array of public figures, and – rarity of rarities for any elected official – was willing to change his mind and let his thinking on issues evolve over time. He would gaze utterly aghast at the American political landscape today, but it’s undeniably pleasant to keep his company for a while in this book.
1 Colter by Rick Bass – The best nonfiction book of the year is also immeasurably the saddest: Bass’s poetic, moving elegy for “the best dog I ever had,” a German shorthair named Colter who came unplanned into his life and filled it with grace and wonder. As I mentioned a bit earlier, I read pretty much every one of these ‘dog enriches human life’ books, but for sheer emotional punch, I’ve never read another one as good as this one.