This was a TERRIBLE year for book reviews. I produced a grand total of 17. Which is awful. There’s a reason for it. It was a TERRIBLE year for reading. For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel like picking up a book. There were several times I had to force myself to get back in the groove. The pandemic came with some side effects I didn’t expect. This is the only time in my life when I felt little urge to read.
Fortunately, what I did read this year was good. None of the books ranked below a three-star review. And four reached the very top.
Just missing the list was “A Separate Peace”. It’s a title that comes with some discussion, I know. I like this book. It’s not cheerful, or funny, or light. It is (like “Catcher in the Rye” and “Lord of the Flies”) “…ugly, angry, and without the pleasant ending we would like.” That doesn’t mean it isn’t brilliant. The book’s greatest issue is that is too often taught in high school. That’s a terrible decision, and I outline my thoughts on that in the review.
So what did make the cut? Here we go (in calendar order):
337 by M. Jonathan Lee – A single day haunts Sam Darte’s life. The day his mother left the family sends ripples through everything that comes after. Lee does an amazing job winding through all the pain and destruction in Sam’s dysfunctional family. All of it leads to a stunning ending. Not your “same old, same old” book, but rather something special.
Light In August by William Faulkner – One of four “classics” that make the list this year. Faulkner is another great American author that I missed until now. “Light in August” is a southern gothic classic, telling the story of a young woman trying to find the father of her baby. Nothing is easy, nor clear, or even honest. As the review says, “Light In August” is a series of runaway trains, all headed to the same crossing. In Jefferson, Mississippi, those stories collide at full speed.” Faulkner isn’t everyone’s cup of sweet tea. The book is a challenge. But then great things usually are.
No Gods, No Monsters by Caldwell Turnbull – The “monsters” of our imagination are not, in fact, imaginary. Turnbull reaches for something amazing in this examination of “otherness”, and achieves the goal. The book is challenging, but it is so worth falling into the storytelling. Brilliant writing. I know this is a good bit shorter than the other posts, but this book is a little hard to describe. So I’ll settle for this from the review “It’s frigging brilliant”.
The Guest List by Lucy Foley – Don’t take this the wrong way, but every book doesn’t have to be challenging and brilliant. Good writing and fine storytelling are more than enough, and Lucy Foley nails that here. This may be the book I enjoyed the most all year. A celebrity wedding on an island off the coast of western Ireland brings together many people with many secrets. Take a little of “The Great Gatsby” and some of “A Separate Peace” and swirl them together Agatha Christie style and you’re in the neighborhood. Great fun and a great read from beginning to end.
The Pearl by William Steinbeck – Classic number two on the list. A poor pearl fisherman in Mexico discovers a pearl of legendary value. It will change his family’s life forever. Pino doesn’t realize that that truth may be the worst thing that ever happens to him. This is another book that shows up on high school or college reading lists with regularity. At novella length, the master storyteller weaves a story of depth and humanity. It is a story of bigotry, greed, family, and community.
Our Riches by Kaouther Adimi – A stunning book that straddles the line between fact and fiction. Adimi builds on the history of Edmond Charlot, a visionary young man who founds a legendary bookstore, “Les Vrai Richesse” in Algiers in the 1930s. The story examines Charlot’s astonishing life, as well as the painful relationship between France and Algeria. A history filled with arrogance and violence. Bouncing between Charlot’s time and the modern-day, where a young man has been hired to empty the derelict store, the author draws you into the wonder and agony of those people and that place. At the very end, she addresses the reader directly. “One day, you’ll come to 2b Rue Hamani, won’t you?” For any book lover, the answer must be yes.
Tiny Planet Filled With Liars by Stephen M.A. – This book is brilliant. Talk about NOT your “same old, same old”, this book is incredible. Set in a dystopian future where society finds its structure through corporate economics. Once a month an ever-growing fleet of ships attack and are repulsed, at a terrible cost. A single person, known as The Interviewer, follows a twisting tale toward an awful truth. Told in a non-linear fashion, it is challenging and brilliant.
Finally, two classic novels to round out the list. It is interesting that both of them are told in first person.
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain – There is something unfair about the career of James M. Cain. This is his first novel, which set the stage for much of what came later in the noir genre, both written and film. This is classic hard-boiled fiction about a drifter who falls in love with the boss’s wife, a plot to put the husband out of the scene, sex, violence, betrayal, and death. It was stunning (and controversial) in its day but retains the punch almost a century later.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison – It took me a little while to get into the flow of Ellison’s classic. The narrator, whose name we never learn, talks about his life as a black man in America. He carries us through the competition for a full scholarship to an historic black college. A competition that requires him to fight the other candidates for the rich white audience. Once he arrives at the college, he discovers that it is not what it appears. His travels will take him to Harlem, where he becomes the face of a radical community activist group. Over and over he is betrayed until he finds a way to become “invisible”. Once the story caught me, it wouldn’t release me. A milestone novel for African-American authors. Like the previous novel on this list, it retains its power decades after its debut.
I’m looking forward to more (definitely MORE) great reads in 2022!