Book 99: Djibouti by Elmore Leonard
Detroit, Vegas, Miami, even Oklahoma, but Djibouti?
The setting is off in Elmore Leonard's newest novel. Way off.
And as a result, nothing really works. Not the snappy dialogue. Or the oh-so cool characters. This one wrong note -- a really loud note -- reverberates throughout the entire symphony.
We find ourselves in Djibouti following an Oscar-winning filmmaker and her assistant who have arrived to do a documentary on pirates. But at some point the novel becomes a story about an American-born al qaeda sympathizer who plans to blown up a freighter. Soon after the clinker becomes a clunker.
Sorry, Dutch, but Oklahoma should remain your most exotic setting.
Book 100: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
Critics everywhere should thank Laura Hillenbrand. She just made the job of assembling our list of The Best Books of 2010 easier.
Unbroken has secured a place on my list without breaking a sweat.
Unbroken is the story of Louie Zamperini. A California native, Zamperini was the highest American finisher in the 5,000 meter run at the Berlin Olympics. His Olympic dreams are ended when, with the outbreak of World War II, he finds himself on the crew of a bomber in the Pacific.
Zamperini's plane is shot down. He and the pilot survive harrowing weeks on a disintegrating raft only to become prisoners of the Japanese. His life as a prisoner of war is marked by brutality, terror and humiliation.
Even when the war ends, and Zamperini is freed, his struggles are not over. Plagued by nightmares and a deep-rooted anger, Zamperini finds consolation in alcohol. He drifts from job to job and his marriage is falling apart.
Enter a young Billy Graham. Strong-armed into attending Graham's tent revival by his wife, Zamperini remembers a promise he made to God were he to survive the war. The sub-title captures the essence of Zamperini's experience -- survival, resilience and redemption.
Were it a movie of the week, it would seem too hackneyed, too earnest, too predictable to be true. But in Hillenbrand's hands Zamperini's story is none of these things. Instead, it soars. Hillenbrand is easily one of the finest storytellers, working in non-fiction, today and Unbroken is easily among the best books of this or any other year.
Book 101: Room by Emma Donoghue
I was skeptical. There were too many glowing reviews, too many bookstore clerks telling me "I loved this book," too many friends asking, "Have you read it?"
The answer is an enthusiastic yes, I have read it. And I love this book, too.
Here's what I admire most about it -- Donoghue has created a work of singular invention. There aren't a hand full of writers who could pull off this high wire act. The wise wouldn't try.
Room is a powerful work of the imagination and a tribute to the power of a mother's love to nurture a child amid a daunting and horrific situation.
Book 102: Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon
Lord of Misrule is a horse. One of many that appears in this award-winning novel about a down-at-its-heels West Virginia racetrack. It is no mistake that Gordon's novel draws its title from a horse named after the individual selected to rule over the annual Christmas Feast of Fools.
With each section, framed by a horse race, we are introduced to new characters and to new horses, who are also important characters in this novel of greed and ambition and hope. Lord of Misrule is a finely layered novel of nuance and observation (of people and horses). It manages to be both elegant and coarse in the way of horses and horse people.
I greatly enjoy, and value, novels that take me into a unexplored world. I have watched horse races at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky. Bet on their outcome. Taken my lunch -- slumming, really -- in the track kitchen. And I have always known that immediately at hand, and yet light years distant, was another world.
Gordon shares that world with the reader in Lord of Misrule.
I have yet to read the other four books that made the shortlist for the National Book Award. Even once I have read those books I may not have a clear idea of which book, among the five, was the best.
I do know that Lord of Misrule is a deserving winner for its authenticity and the quality of its writing.
Book 103: Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane
Thank you, Dennis Lehane. For years I have requested that you write a sequel to your novels featuring Kenzie and Gennaro. I liked Mystic River, but Shutter (Shudder?) Island and The Given Day felt flat.
Now, in Moonlight Mile, not only are Kenzie and Gennaro back, but they revisit their most famous case -- the disappearance of Amanda McCready from Gone Baby Gone.
It is more than I dared ask for, and the book does not disappoint. It is a terrific read because of your sense of setting and the characters that populate this novel. Kenzie and Gennaro (now Kenzie, herself) are intriguing characters filled with doubt and imperfections and moral certainties they find troubling.
Moonlight Mile can be read as a finale for these two characters. I hope that is not the case, but if it is, you have left me satisfied as a reader and a fan.