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The Donoghue Interregnum: 2005!

By (December 16, 2015) No Comment

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We come at last to the final year of the Donoghue Interregnum, the final year in which the reading public was fumbling blindly for guidance, taking book-recommendations from random strangers or desperate, malodorous librarians. The year is 2005, when Saddam Hussein went on trial, Islamic terrorism continued to rise all over the world, “Deep Throat” went public, and Frank Conroy died. The Republic of Letters continued to prosper, and its best fruits were these:

Best Fiction:

maps for lost lovers10 Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam – This beautifully-written novel concerns a pair of Pakistani immigrants to a small English town who suddenly go missing. The police investigation that follows is painfully tone-deaf, and the shock-waves that ripple through the community’s other Pakistani members are very sensitively portrayed. And the undertones throughout the book – the simmering resentments in immigrant Muslim communities – are eerily prescient for the world a decade ahead.

9 Europe Central by William Vollmann – There’s something just a bit europe centraldepressing about the fact that the most conventional William Vollmann novel is also his best-selling novel, but that doesn’t detract from the worth of the book itself, a sprawling historical novel centering on a wide cast of characters immediately before, during, and after the Second World War. All the usual Vollmann tics are here, but they’re far more controlled than in any of his other novels (his most recent, the 3500-page The Dying Grass, most certainly included), and the result is that rarest of rare things: A William Vollmann novel you can give the marchto your grandfather.

8 The March by E. L. Doctorow – Another historical novel, this one set in the American Civil War and centering on Union General Sherman’s “March to the Sea” – a campaign Doctorow researched extensively and writes about here as a kind of protracted violent dream. Doctorow specializes in creating galleries of vivid characters, and he does it brilliantly in this book, giving us dramatic viewpoints from the entire spectrum of the March.

7 Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon by Dean Bakopoulos – Thisplease don't come back from the moon weird, haunting debut novel takes place in a working-class suburb of Detroit, a seemingly normal place in which the husbands and fathers have suddenly begun disappearing, often leaving notes mentioning that they’re going to the moon. But regardless of their destination, their old neighborhood is thrown into chaos, with the women-folk forced to rely solely on themselves to raise their kids. One of those kids is the book’s main character, a smart young man who grows up in that manless world and seems sometimes to teeter on the brink of disappearing himself. The book is an amazingly deft novel, one that’s stuck in my mind the seaever since I read it.

6 The Sea by John Banville – This author is usually far too buttoned-up for my tastes, but that very quality works supremely to strengthen this novel about a middle-aged man named Max, who’s returned to the seaside town where he spent many summers as a boy. He’s retreated to this place out of wild grief at losing his wife, and in this isolated spot he relives his memories and, almost against his will, starts to make contact with other people, make connections about his own past, and gradually think about healing. It’s a very soft-spoken, very sad novel, the best thing Banville’s ever written.

5 Seven Types of Ambiguity by Elliot Perlman – Referencing William Empsonseven types of ambiguity in the title of your own book is one of life’s sure-fire indicators that you’re a pretentious twat, but only a tiny, permissible trace of that pretension actually seeps into this remarkably complex and ambitious novel (by the author who would go on to write a magnificent novel called The Street Sweeper) that centers on a young boy who may or may not have been briefly abducted by the ex-boyfriend of his mother. Perlman takes this kernel of, yes, ambiguity, and adds layer upon layer of complexity and character development, turning what is in essence a second-tier John Grisham novel into a work of genuinely memorable depth.

arthur & george4 Arthur & George by Julian Barnes – Barnes here takes the premise of a straightforward historical novel – the friendship that develops between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and a rural vicar – and slowly, inventively complicates it with plots spun from Doyle’s famous struggles with his most famous fictional creation and the trials faced by the mixed-race vicar, George Edalji, in the small village he calls home. I don’t know quite why I found this novel so much more palatable than all of the other fiction Barnes has written, but I very much did; I recommend and re-read it, when I’m not at all tempted to do either of those things with, for instance, Flaubert’s Parrot.

3 The Brothers Bishop by Bart Yates – I could barely plow my way through the brothers bishopthis author’s debut novel Leave Myself Behind, so I went into this book with my guard up – a situation not exactly helped by the book’s plot-premise: two small-town brothers, one light and carefree and sexually promiscuous, the other dark and brooding and sexually inhibited, come together in adulthood to confront their personal issues. It all seemed too formulaic, but Yates managed in short order to convince me to allow him his conveniences in exchange for a wonderfully sharp and emotionally fraught novel.

short history2 A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka – This extremely assured debut has a comedic premise: a retired widower from Ukraine becomes sexually infatuated with a buxom younger woman, swears he’s in love, begins lavishing her with presents, and thereby unites his two daughters, who attempt to put aside their mutual dislike in order to save their father from himself. But although Lewycka displays some genuine comic ability in these pages, she steadily shades the story darker and darker as it develops. A very satisfying first novel.

1 The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – The best novel of the year was, much to the book thiefmy surprise, a YA novel, the nakedly emotional story of a little girl, the Holocaust, and Death personified. Although maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, since this author had been impressing me for years before this, his final novel, appeared. All his gifts – especially for hurrying his narrative along without seeming to – are on full display here.

 

 

Best Nonfiction:

emperor of japan10 The Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World – 1852-1912 by Donald Keene – The dean of Japanese studies here delivers an invaluable and extremely readable biography of the great-yet-elusive Japanese emperor who shaped much of the Japan that entered the 20th century and who was the first to begin adapting his country to the West. Keene had long before this mastered the art of large-scale narrative history, and this book is in many ways the postwarbest thing he ever wrote.

9 Postwar by Tony Judt – This monumental one-volume history of Europe in the wake of the Second World War is likewise the best thing its author ever wrote, full of searching personal stories and a huge amount of research about an entire continent traumatized by war and brutality and famine. His book’s chapters recount their horrors and flashes of heroism at an almost leisurely pace, taking the reader all the way to the more-or-less present and making me wish like Hell Judt were still around to keep bess of hardwickchronicling the times. A big history volume to read and re-read.

8 Bess of Hardwick by Amy Lovell – This terrific book is another in a string of great biographies to end the Interregnum, this time a spirited study of a woman who was an expert in Tudor marriage politics, a behind-the-scenes power-broker, and jailer to Mary Queen of Scots – and Lovell not only tells the story with real narrative zest but also digs deeper into her subject’s various financial wheelings and dealings thanemerson Bess of Hardwick would have liked.

7 Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert Richardson – Not long after I read and loved this suitably eloquent and complex biography, I started noticing it on the bookshelves of friends and acquaintances – their real bookshelves, where the books they’ve read and loved reside. I know so many people – including notoriously post-literate young people – who were captivated by great biography, and justifiably so: Richardson has written a handful of first-rate books (his volume on William James in particular), but this is his masterpiece.

the nature of sacrifice6 The Nature of Sacrifice (Charles Russell Lowell, Jr.) by Carol Bundy – When I first saw advance notices of this book, I was both pleased and doubtful – pleased because I’m always happy to see the three-named denizens of 19th century Boston get even a fraction of the credit they deserve for being the most important generation in the nation’s history, but doubtful because the beautiful boy on the book’s cover, Charles Russell Lowell, Jr., seemed like an impossible subject for a biography, since he died in the American Civil War before his 30th birthday. But Carol Bundy does the near-miraculous, fleshing out this young man’s amazingly full life and giving it a very touching resonance for all its brevity.

5 The Great War for Civilization by Robert Fisk – There’s probably no more the great war for civilisationprescient work anywhere in the Interregnum than this enormous book detailing – with vivid, novelistic efficiency – the long-brewing and incredibly complex cultural conflict between Islam and civilization. Fisk has traveled widely and interviewed virtually every key figure in his sprawling story (including, memorably, Osama bin Laden), and his decades of reporting in the Middle East show in the steep objectivity of so much of his accounts. My big hardcover copy was extensively annotated – and then torn to shreds and eaten by a young basset hound who was obviously an al-Qaeda sympathizer.

high noon in the cold war4 High Noon in the Cold War by Max Frankel – This story – the tense confrontation between President Kennedy and Soviet premiere Khrushchev that climaxed in the Cuban Missile Crisis – is perennial fodder for historians, and in that sense Frankel brings nothing new to the subject. But he’s a storyteller of boundless energy, and through expert pacing and pitch-perfect choice of quotes, he creates a minute-by-minute drama that’s one of the best historical renditions of the crisis I’ve ever read (and, the beatlesneedless to add, I’ve read them all)

3 The Beatles by Bob Spitz – Ordinarily, rock music biographies leave me limp with distracted boredom, and in the past that’s even applied to the Beatles, the very ur-group of the genre. But even so, Spitz’s long and lusciously detailed account hooked me early on and effortlessly held my interest through the band’s anonymous early days, through their skyrocketing to world-wide fame, and through their protracted and seedy dissolution. Spitz tells the story like a modern-day epic, and that’s just what it ends up feeling like.

mark twain2 Mark Twain by Ron Powers – This book faced inevitable comparisons with one hell of a tough act to follow: Justin Kaplan’s Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, and I went into it expecting to be disappointed. But Powers is a passionate, shrewd, and powerfully moral narrator of Twain’s famous life story, and his readings of the huge variety of Twain’s work are unfailingly thought-provoking. And his book is at its best and most evocative right at the place where most Twain biographies lose their way: the author’s last years, when you can almost feel him sensing the whole tenor of the times changing and leaving him behind. Not a replacement, then, but like a few other biographies we’ve seen in the Interregnum, a necessary addition.

1 Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin – This, the best nonfiction work of team of rivalsthe year, is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s long and lavishly detailed account of the election of Abraham Lincoln, the formation of his cabinet (composed almost exclusively, as Kearns and others have pointed out, of men who thought they were better-qualified for Lincoln’s job than he was), and the unthinkable Civil War that cabinet waged, trying to govern a country that was tearing itself apart. Kearns has a handful of fiercely domineering personalities to deal with, and her narrative strategy cannily reflects the personal strategy of Lincoln himself: she plays each member to his strengths and lets their very animosities work toward cohesion. In a body of Lincoln-literature that could fill a large library, this one ranks with the greats.