Tag Archives: sequels

Best of 2019: Fiction and Poetry

I’ve managed to whittle my favorite releases of 2019 down to 20 in total: 12 nonfiction (that’s for tomorrow), 5 fiction and 3 poetry. It felt like a particular achievement to limit myself to five top novels, though plenty more turn up on my runners-up list, due Saturday.

Let the countdown begin!

 

Fiction

 

  1. Bloomland by John Englehardt: Subtle and finely crafted literary fiction about a mass shooting at a fictional Arkansas university. The second-person narration draws the reader into the action, inviting ‘you’ to extend sympathy to three very different characters: Rose, a student who becomes romantically involved with one of the injured; Eddie, a professor whose wife dies in the massacre; and Eli, the shooter. Englehardt writes a gorgeous sentence, too.

 

  1. Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler: Autofiction in fragments, like a pure stream of memory and experience. Navigating between two cultures and languages, being young and adrift, and sometimes seeing her mother in herself: there’s a lot to sympathize with in the Brazilian–English main character. What a hip, fresh approach to fiction. I’d hoped to see Fowler on the Women’s Prize longlist and winning the Young Writer of the Year Award.

 

  1. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo: A terrific linked short story collection about 12 black women in twentieth-century and contemporary Britain balancing external and internal expectations and different interpretations of feminism to build lives of their own. It’s a warm, funny book, never strident in its aims yet unabashedly obvious about them. It’s timely and elegantly constructed – and, it goes without saying, a worthy Booker Prize winner.

 

  1. The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer: Every day the Emergency Rescue Committee in Marseille interviews 60 refugees and chooses 10 to recommend to the command center in New York City. Varian Fry and his staff arrange bribes, fake passports, and exit visas to get celebrated Jewish artists and writers out of the country via the Pyrenees or various sea routes. The story of an accidental hero torn between impossible choices is utterly compelling. This is richly detailed historical fiction at its best.

 

  1. Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout: Crosby, Maine feels like a microcosm of modern society, with Olive as our Everywoman guide. She hasn’t lost her faculties or her spirit, but the approach of death lends added poignancy to her story. Strout is a master of psychological acuity and mixing hope with the darkness. Those who are wary of sequels need not fear: Olive, Again is even better than Olive Kitteridge. (I revisited the book for BookBrowse, whose subscribers likewise voted it the 2019 Best Fiction Award Winner.)

 

Poetry

 

  1. Reckless Paper Birds by John McCullough: From the Costa Awards shortlist. I was struck by the hard-hitting, never-obvious verbs, and the repeating imagery. Flashes of nature burst into a footloose life in Brighton. The poems are by turns randy, neurotic, playful and nostalgic. In “Flock of Paper Birds,” one of my favorites, the poet tries to reconcile the faith he grew up in with his unabashed sexuality.

 

  1. A Kingdom of Love by Rachel Mann: The Anglican priest’s poetry is full of snippets of scripture and liturgy (both English and Latin), and the cadence is often psalm-like. This is beautiful, incantatory free verse that sparkles with alliteration and allusions that those of a religious background will be sure to recognize. It’s sensual as well as headily intellectual. Doubt, prayer and love fuel many of my favorite lines.

 

  1. Flèche by Mary Jean Chan: Exquisite poems of love and longing, with the speaker’s loyalties always split between head and heart, flesh and spirit. Over it all presides the figure of a mother – not just Chan’s mother, who had difficulty accepting that her daughter was a lesbian, but also the relationship to the mother tongue (Chinese) and the mother country (Hong Kong). Fencing terms are used for structure. I was impressed by how clearly Chan sees how others perceive her, and by how generously she imagines herself into her mother’s experience. I’ve read 3.5 of the 4 nominees now and this is my pick to win the Costa Award.

 

What were some of your top fiction (or poetry) reads of the year?

 

Tomorrow I’ll be naming my favorite nonfiction of 2019.

Olive Kitteridge and Olive, Again

Although I’ve confessed to being generally wary of sequels, and I am scrupulously avoiding this autumn’s other high-profile sequel (you know the one!), I loved Olive Kitteridge enough to continue straight on to Elizabeth Strout’s sequel, Olive, Again, which I thought even better.

 

Olive Kitteridge (2008)

I have a soft spot for literature’s curmudgeons – the real-life ones like J. R. Ackerley, Shaun Bythell and Geoff Dyer as well as the fictional protagonists like Dr. James Darke in Rick Gekoski’s debut novel, Cassandra Darke in Posy Simmonds’s graphic novel, Hagar Shipley in The Stone Angel, Hendrik Groen in his two titular Dutch diaries, and Frederick Lothian in Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions. So it’s no surprise that I warmed immediately to Olive Kitteridge, a grumpy retired math teacher in Crosby, Maine. She’s seen and heard it all, and will bluntly say just what she thinks. She has no time for anyone else’s nonsense.

I love our first introduction to her, three pages into the opening piece of this linked short story collection: she dismisses her pharmacist husband Henry’s new employee as “mousy,” and when Henry suggests inviting the girl and her husband over for dinner, snaps, Bartleby-like, “Not keen on it.” The great sadness of Olive’s life is the death of a fellow teacher she never quite had an affair with, but loved in her early forties. The great failure of Olive’s life is not connecting with her only son, Christopher, a podiatrist who marries a woman Olive dislikes and moves to California, then remarries a single mother of two and settles in New York City.

I started this in February and didn’t finish it until this month. I lost momentum after “A Different Road,” in which Olive and Henry are in a hostage situation in the local hospital. This was a darker turn than I was prepared for from Strout – I thought unrequited love and seasonal melancholy was as bleak as she’d go. But I hadn’t read “Tulips” yet, in which we learn that a local boy is in prison for stabbing a woman 29 times.

My least favorite stories were the ones that are about other locals and only mention Olive in passing, perhaps via advice she once gave a student. It almost feels like Strout wrote these as stand-alone stories and then, at her publisher’s behest, inserted a sentence or two so they could fit into a book about Olive. I much prefer the stories that are all about Olive, whether she’s engaging in a small act of rebellion on her son’s wedding day, visiting his new family in New York, or entertaining the prospect of romance some time after Henry’s death.

Olive is a sort of Everywoman; in her loneliness, frustrated desire and occasional depression she’s like us all. I wrote an article on linked short story collections some months ago and pretty much everyone I consulted mentioned Olive as the epitome. I didn’t love the book quite as much as I expected to, but I was very glad to have read it. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.

[Apropos of nothing: this book contains the worst possible nickname for my name that I’ve ever encountered: Bicka-Beck.]

My rating:

 

Olive, Again (2019)

(Coming from Random House [USA] on October 15th and Viking [UK] on October 31st)

I liked this that little bit more than Olive Kitteridge for a number of reasons:

1) I read it over a matter of days rather than months, so the characters and happenings stayed fresher in my mind and I experienced it more as a novel-in-stories than as a set of discrete stories.

2) Olive, our Everywoman protagonist, approaches widowhood, decrepitude and death with her usual mixture of stoicism and bad temper. You may hear more about her bowels than you’d like to, but at least Strout is being realistic about the indignities of ageing.

3) Crucially, Olive has started, very late in life, to take a genuine interest in other people, such as her son’s second wife; a local girl who becomes Poet Laureate; and the carers who look after her following a heart attack. “Tell me what it’s like to be you,” she says one day to the Somali nurse who comes over from Shirley Falls. Comparing others’ lives with her own, she realizes she’s been lucky in many ways. Yet that doesn’t make understanding herself, or preparing for death, any easier.

4) There are connections to other Strout novels that made me intrigued to read further in her work. In “Exiles,” Bob and Jim Burgess of The Burgess Boys are reunited in Maine, while in the final story, “Friend,” Olive befriends a new fellow nursing home resident, Isabelle Daignault of Amy and Isabelle.

5) Olive delivers a baby!

As with the previous volume, I most liked the stories that stuck close to Olive, and least liked those that are primarily about others in Crosby or Shirley Falls and only mention Olive in passing, such as via a piece of advice she gave to one of her math students several decades ago. Twice Strout goes sexually explicit – a voyeurism situation, and a minor character who is a dominatrix; I felt these touches were unnecessary. Overall, though, these stories are of very high quality. The two best ones, worth seeking out whether you think you want to read the whole book or not, are “The Poet” and “Heart.”

My rating:

I read an advanced e-copy via NetGalley.

 

Are you a fan of Elizabeth Strout’s work? Do you plan to read Olive, Again?

Continuing the Story: Why I’m Wary of Sequels and Series, with Some Exceptions

Most of the time, if I learn that a book has a sequel or is the first in a series, my automatic reaction is to groan. Why can’t a story just have a tidy ending? Why does it need to sprawl further, creating a sense of obligation in its readers? Further adventures with The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window? Returning to the world of The Handmaid’s Tale? No, thank you.

It was different when I was a kid. I couldn’t get enough of series: the Little House on the Prairie books, Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew, the Saddle Club, Redwall, the Baby-Sitters Club, various dragon series, Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who mysteries, the Anne of Green Gables books… You name it, I read it. I think children, especially, gravitate towards series because they’re guaranteed more of what they know they like. It’s a dependable mold. These days, though, I’m famous for trying one or two books from a series and leaving the rest unfinished (Harry Potter: 1.5 books; Discworld: 2 books at random; Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files: 1 book; the first book of crime series by M.J. Carter, Judith Flanders and William Shaw).

But, like any reader, I break my own rules all the time – even if I sometimes come to regret it. I recently finished reading a sequel and I’m now halfway through another. I’ve even read a few high-profile sci fi/fantasy trilogies over the last eight years, even though with all of them I liked each sequel less than the book that went before (Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam books, Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden series and Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy).

A later book in a series can go either way for me – surpass the original, or fail to live up to it. Nonfiction sequels seem more reliable than fiction ones, though: if I discover that a memoirist has written a follow-up volume, I will generally rush to read it.

 

So, what would induce me to pick up a sequel?

 

I want to know what happens next.

 

WINNERS:

After reading Ruth Picardie’s Before I Say Goodbye, I was eager to hear from her bereaved sister, Justine Picardie. Ruth died of breast cancer in 1997; Justine writes a journal covering 2000 to 2001, asking herself whether death is really the end and if there is any possibility of communicating with her sister and other loved ones she’s recently lost. If the Spirit Moves You: Life and Love after Death is desperately sad, but also compelling.

Graeme Simsion’s Rosie series has a wonderfully quirky narrator. When we first meet him, Don Tillman is a 39-year-old Melbourne genetics professor who’s decided it’s time to find a wife. Book 2 has him and Rosie expecting a baby in New York City. I’m halfway through Book 3, in which in their son is 11 and they’re back in Australia. Though not as enjoyable as the first, it’s still a funny look through the eyes of someone on the autistic spectrum.

Edward St. Aubyn’s Never Mind, the first Patrick Melrose book, left a nasty aftertaste, but I was glad I tried again with Bad News, a blackly comic two days in the life of a drug addict.

 

LOSERS:

Joan Anderson’s two sequels to A Year by the Sea are less engaging, and her books have too much overlap with each other.

Perhaps inevitably, Bill Clegg’s Ninety Days, about getting clean, feels subdued compared to his flashy account of the heights of his drug addiction, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man.

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water was an awfully wordy slog compared to A Time of Gifts.

Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow was one of my favorite backlist reads last year. I only read the first 60 pages of Children of God, though. It was a recent DNF after leaving it languishing on my pile for many months. While I was, of course, intrigued to learn that (SPOILER) a character we thought had died is still alive, and it was nice to see broken priest Emilio Sandoz getting a chance at happiness back on Earth, I couldn’t get interested in the political machinations of the alien races. Without the quest setup and terrific ensemble cast of the first book, this didn’t grab me.

 

 

I want to spend more time with these characters.

 

WINNERS:

Simon Armitage’s travel narrative Walking Away is even funnier than Walking Home.

I’m as leery of child narrators as I am of sequels, yet I read all 10 Flavia de Luce novels by Alan Bradley: quaint mysteries set in 1950s England and starring an eleven-year-old who performs madcap chemistry experiments and solves small-town murders. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (#6) was the best, followed by Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d (#8).

Roald Dahl’s Going Solo is almost as good as Boy.

Alexandra Fuller’s Leaving Before the Rains Come is even better than Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.

Likewise, Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children, about a female doctor in the 1880s, is even better than Bodies of Light.

Doreen Tovey’s Cats in May is just as good as Cats in the Belfry.

 

LOSERS:

H. E. Bates’s A Breath of French Air revisits the Larkins, the indomitably cheery hedonists introduced in The Darling Buds of May, as they spend a month abroad in the late 1950s. France shows off its worst weather and mostly inedible cuisine; even the booze is barely tolerable. Like a lot of comedy, this feels slightly dated, and maybe also a touch xenophobic.

The first Hendrik Groen diary, about an octogenarian and his Old-But-Not-Dead club of Amsterdam nursing home buddies, was a joy, but the sequel felt like it would never end.

I loved Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead; I didn’t need the two subsequent books.

The Shakespeare Requirement, Julie Schumacher’s sequel to Dear Committee Members, a hilarious epistolary novel about an English professor on a Midwest college campus, was only mildly amusing; I didn’t even get halfway through it.

I finished Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy because I felt invested in the central family, but as with the SFF series above, the later books, especially the third one, were a letdown.

 


What next? I’m still unsure about whether to try the other H. E. Bates and Edward St. Aubyn sequels. I’m thinking yes to Melrose but no to the Larkins. Olive Kitteridge, which I’ve been slowly working my way through, is so good that I might make yet another exception and seek out Olive, Again in the autumn.

 

Sequels: yea or nay?

Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy

Jane Smiley’s “The Last Hundred Years” trilogy is a saga prioritizing the experiences of the Langdons, an Iowa farming family, over the century beginning in 1920. In chronological chapters, one per year from 1920 to the near future of 2019, Smiley follows an ordinary couple, their six children and several generations of their descendants as they navigate America’s social changes and re-evaluate their principles during decades of upheaval.

some luckSome Luck

Here’s an excerpt from my Shiny New Books review in early 2015: “Farming, unpredictable and frequently heartbreaking, is an appropriate framework for an all-American story. Aspects of the Great American Novel are certainly on display: immigrant roots, coming-of-age trajectories for individuals and the nation, and American dream scenarios of reinvention. Within the confines of its third-person omniscient point-of-view, the novel shifts between the perspectives of each main character, especially the children. Smiley avoids a gimmicky One Day effect by varying the time of year so most chapters highlight different events, birthdays or holidays. Droughts, the Great Depression, the Second World War, and McCarthyism all feature, while the start of the Cold War – including paranoia over the Russians getting the bomb – sets up the second volume.”

My rating: 4 star rating


Some months ago it occurred to me that I never followed up with the Langdons. Although I don’t generally read sequels or series, I nonetheless made it a priority to find the other two volumes of the trilogy from the library.


Early Warning

The second book covers 1953 to 1986. The family loses one member to Vietnam, one to cancer, and one to the easiest, simplest death you could imagine. There’s a shotgun wedding, a divorce, and several affairs. In short, it feels like a real family, like your family. Events seem arbitrary at the time but later take on the cast of inevitability. Historical landmarks are there as background information, not as clichéd points of action (a good example is the JFK assassination). The Vietnam War threads through the middle section, but isn’t overpowering. The connections with history are pretty subtle here. One of my favorites is when Janet, at a Vietnam protest march, suddenly realizes she’s behind Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dr. Spock. Her later involvement with the Peoples Temple grew tiresome for me, but I appreciated the ironic eye on the future: in 1980, “Well, I guess, they invaded Afghanistan…wherever that is!”

early warningIowa was still my preferred setting, an ideal site for pondering time’s workings and how money comes and goes: Joe “knew enough at his age to know that dollars were like drops of mist – they fluttered around you and then dissipated.” I also like Andy’s therapy sessions, frequently featured in the first half. There’s even a gentle mystery in this book: a boy who doesn’t seem to be related to the family keeps showing up, but by the end we figure out who he is.

People may rise and fall in importance, just as they do in real life, but everyone has a perspective. That’s part of Smiley’s message here, I think. Early on she observes that Rosanna “hadn’t thought of Roland Frederick as having a point of view.” Recognizing other people as valid subjects, overcoming solipsism, is really what literature is all about.

Although I’m interested in what happens next, I don’t like the grandchildren generation all that much; Richie and Michael are especially unpleasant, and I have a feeling they will be major players in Golden Age. Still, I feel invested in and close to this family, so I’m going to see it through to the end.

Favorite passage:

Joe’s dystopian vision: “But he could see it, looking south – he could see all the layers lift off – the roof of the house, the second floor, the first floor. He could see the children and Jesse and Jenny and Lois and Minnie being lifted out on a fountain of debt and scattered to the winds; then he could see the corn and beans scoured away, and the topsoil, once twelve inches thick, now six inches thick, and below that, the silty clay loam, more gray than black, then the subsoil, brownish clay all the way down, down, down to the yellow layer, mostly, again, clay, all of it exposed, all of it flying into the atmosphere like money, burning up in the hot sunshine, disappearing.”

My rating: 4 star rating


Golden Age

Alas, the final installment was my least favorite. There are a few reasons for this. One is simply that I didn’t like the third- and fourth-generation characters as much. Another is that, with such a large family tree, you get more lists of names and catch-up sessions. The intrusion of history is also more overt. I noted this in the 2011 chapter, especially, which mentions the Japanese earthquake, Utøya and the Occupy movement. One character dies on 9/11; another gets a flesh-eating bacteria. One is struck by lightning; another dies in a hit and run. Not only are several of the deaths unrealistic, but, true to the winding-down spirit, there are simply a lot of them.

golden ageAs people disperse and the second generation starts to die off, the bonds between the family members weaken. The Iowa farm diminishes in real-life and symbolic importance compared to the action on the coasts: California, New York and Washington, where Richie is a congressman. I might actually have preferred if Smiley had imagined an alternative history for the 2000s and 2010s. (Of course, that would have broken the mold she made for herself.) For me, it all felt too close. I had a sense of her picking easy targets: “I would like to thank the members of the U.S. Congress for being so easy to satirize,” she writes in her acknowledgments. There’s also too much horse material – a frequent indulgence for Smiley.

The last five or so chapters were speculative at the time Smiley was writing, and some of her predictions already seem a little silly, like violent protests against a Harper government in Vancouver in 2016. However, her environmental worries are right on, and her words about the 2012 presidential election seem prescient in relation to this year’s race: a character advises his family to vote Democrat “as a protest against the Republican Party for offering a roster of candidates that went from bad to worse to worst ever.”

My rating: 3 star rating


Ultimately, my favorite overall character was Andy, who reinvented herself as a young woman and does so again as a widow, turning into a computer and investment whiz. Frank was an early favorite in Some Luck, where he reminded me a lot of Mad Men’s Don Draper, but I grew less enamored with him over the years. Henry was perhaps my second favorite in the previous two books, but he rather fades into the background in the final book.

My advice to anyone wondering whether they should read this trilogy would be to start with Some Luck and, if you really like it, proceed to Early Warning. Golden Age is largely unnecessary and can be reserved for die-hard Smiley fans or series completists.

Further reading: Literary Hub article, “Why Wasn’t Great American Novelist Jane Smiley on the Cover of a Magazine?”