Between my annual Oscar blitz and my surveys of screwballs and Spielbergs, the first half of this year has definitely been more about the visual than the literal. Still, in surveying the books I have managed to read so far, I have quite a few to recommend.
Best in Biography: The Black Count by Tom Reiss. This biography of Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, father of Alexandre Dumas père and the first black general in French history, was absolutely riveting. Using the lens of this incredible life story, Reiss mixes personal narrative and historical context to provide a unique perspective on the period and helped me see events that I felt I knew in a completely different light. It also supplies tremendous insight to the novels written by Dumas as well as coverage of subjects as diverse as race relations in eighteenth-century France, major military campaigns of the Revolution, and the creation of the Italian state. My one quibble was that the author injected himself into the story a bit too much (saying things like “when I read the letter in the archives…” instead of simply “the letter in the archives reveals…”), but I imagine many readers would like that kind of personal touch. Be prepared for a lot of history and a less-than-kind depiction of Napoléon.
Best in Booker: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Even though this Booker Prize winner took multiple attempts (because it reads slow and always seemed to come due at the library before I was finished), it was well worth it. This is a book to make you fall in love with Thomas Cromwell. The first part chronicles the fall of Cardinal Wolsey, of whom Cromwell is a protégé, and then the bulk of the story details Cromwell’s rise, along with that of Anne Boleyn. Court politics are made personal by the unique viewpoint of the novel, told in the third-person present tense but from Cromwell’s distinct point of view. This narrative conceit forces the reader to slow down, often to simply figure out if “he” is referring to Cromwell, or another person in the room, and therefore one gets fully immersed in the setting. I loved how it made the political personal and that I felt I was a witness to the action.
Best in Britain: The Observations by Jane Harris. For the second year in a row, I’m bestowing the Best in Britain classification on Jane Harris, this time for her debut novel, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2007. I read an inordinate number of books set in the UK [Note to self: I really need to follow more American book blogs], but it’s not a part of the world I know very well, especially outside of London. Therefore, I appreciate the strong sense of place Harris’s novels provide. Like last year’s Gillespie and I, once again we are in Scotland, although this time near Edinburgh, with a story told through the eyes of a teenage maid on a country estate in the nineteenth century. I loved Bessy’s voice and her relationship with her mysterious employer, Arabella. Incredibly, the large amount of Irish/Scottish slang used throughout didn’t impede my understanding or appreciation of the narrative.
Best in Book Salon: The Color Purple by Alice Walker. The beginning of this novel is rough. Well, a lot of it is hard to read (literally and figuratively), and so it took me some time before I realized I was going to love this book in the end. Let’s just say, if you had difficulty with Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, you will have difficulty with this. However, it is an incredible tale of a woman breaking the cycle of sexism and violence in her own family and gaining independence for herself. I picked it up for my Song of the South book salon thinking it would be mostly about racism, but it was much more about women and the subversion of traditional gender roles than I expected. It is a short novel with a great impact; I see why it has won so many accolades.
Best in Bohemia: HHhH by Laurent Binet. The title of this novel stands for the phrase Himmler Hirn heißt Heydrich or “Himmler’s brain is named Heydrich” and it tells the story of the rise of Reinhard Heydrich and the assassination plot that brought him down in Prague in 1942. The incredible true story of Operation Anthropoid is interwoven with the tale of the author himself researching and writing the book. While it could be pretentious at times, as a former historian, I found the combination of story telling and the writer’s perspective on telling the story fascinating; however, if you don’t enjoy meta-commentary this might not be for you. HHhH won the Prix Goncourt for best debut novel in 2010, which is how it got on my radar (since I’m trying to read more novels in French this year). Although I read this in French, the English translation by Sam Taylor was a finalist for the French-American Foundation’s Translation Prize this year, so I imagine it’s quite solid.
Best in Bunnies: Lucky Bunny by Jill Dawson. I learned of Lucky Bunny from the 2012 Fiction Uncovered list and it made me want to seek more of these books out. I’m sure there are many people who could just pick this book apart, but it really appealed to me. I loved Queenie’s voice from the opening pages and was eager to see where it would go. I felt it conveyed the flavor of the East End (which, granted, I know nothing about) and I could imagine myself there quite easily. It could have used more “caper” elements, but I loved how the connections to actual events during the Blitz and in the postwar had me running to Wikipedia afterward.
Best in Babies: This Is Life by Dan Rhodes. I also found This is Life on the 2012 Fiction Uncovered list. It is the rare book about Paris that doesn’t drive me crazy somehow, but I really enjoyed this one. The plot is utterly ridiculous, but the novel is much more than what it appears to be on the surface. In a way, it reminded me of Skios, but the farce works much better and the whole take on modern art/intellectual life is far more interesting. The book reflects on the impressions you form based on brief interactions and scenes you witness—what might be going on with the people you see throughout the day, but don’t necessarily talk to at length, or even at all—in short, all the little instances that might lead to twists and turns in your life. In fact, like the characters, readers themselves might form impressions of the story and characters without realizing how wrong they are. The construction of this novel is quite fascinating that way and makes you want to reread the early passages to see how easily you were led astray. Very fun.
For more on what I’ve read recently, you can find me here on Goodreads.
What is the best thing you’ve read so far this year?