Sunday, January 08, 2006

Final thoughts on 2005

A few thoughts on the New York Times, the National Book Awards and the Booker Prize:

The Times, whose Books page I visit daily on the web, listed four books that I read this year among its 10 best book of 2005: Ian McEwan’s Saturday, Veronica by Mary Gaitskill, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty and The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. McEwan and Didion belong there. Although I did not list either book among my very best reads of the year, they were certainly in the running. But I didn’t care for Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. In particular, I did not find her characters believable. I have just about concluded I am not a Z. Smith fan. As for Gaitskill’s Veronica, I thoroughly disliked this book, a fictional account of a whiny former model. I didn’t find it the least compelling. I did find it tiresome.

Veronica also made the shortlist for the National Book Awards’ best fiction of 2005. That was a sorry lot. I wouldn’t recommend any of the five. If forced to choose, I preferred The Trance, a fictional account of the Patty Hearst kidnapping. I was disappointed in E.L. Doctorow’s The March. And I absolutely hated 2005 award winner Europe Central. I came close to putting it down a dozen times. Reading it to completion felt like a life sentence. It was one of those intentionally difficult books that I thoroughly dislike. Don’t bother. I was indifferent to Holy Skirts by Rene Steinke. Four of the five nominees were historical fiction i.e. fictional accounts with historic events as the backdrop, such as Sherman’s march through the South. It’s as if our current crop of novelists are experiencing a paucity of ideas.

If you must read historical fiction, pick up Julian Barnes’ Arthur & George, about Sherlock Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Barnes gets it right. This is a terrific book that should have won the Booker Prize. My second choice would have been McEwan’s Saturday, which wasn’t on the shortlist, or Ali Smith’s The Accidental. I did not like Smith’s Hotel World, but this was a cool, creepy book. Another second choice (yes, I know that makes three second choices) would be Kauzo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. OK, it was cool and creepy, too. Masterfully told. I find Ishiguro problematic as an author. I never did understand his Unconsoled, but when he nails it, as he did with Never Let Me Go, he nails it. I didn’t read the other two books on the Booker shortlist, including Banville’s winning submission. Based on a few dozen reviews of Banville’s book, I don’t plan to pick it up.

And final thoughts on 2005 . . .

The Position and Aloft dropped out of nowhere. The authors, Meg Wolitzer and Chang-rae Lee, appeared with Jane Hamilton and Karen Joy Fowler at a Pen-Faulkner event at the Folger. I didn’t hear Lee’s reading, arriving late after attending an earlier event at Politics & Prose. I walked in just as Wolitzer was introduced. Her reading was funny, and piqued my interest in her book. First editions of The Position were available, so I scooped up a copy, and a first of Aloft as well, and got both books signed. Both books were uniformly terrific. I found them warm, funny and insightful. Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club was a surprise too—a best seller that was a terrific read.

As usual, I attended a lot of signings in ’05. The best was by the Brit Nick Hornby. He was thoroughly entertaining, playing to one of the largest crowds I’ve seen an author attract in D.C. Someone asked Hornby about his column in Believer magazine in which he wrote that we aren’t only defined by the books we read, but by the books we buy. Hornby confessed “that was total shite.” “I wrote it,” he said, “to justify all the books I buy and don’t read.”

I was introduced to the work of Peter Robinson in 2005. He’s a nice addition to the stable of mystery writers I enjoy. Rankin, Crais, Child and, of course, Leonard join Connelly as my favorites in the genre.

And, if you were wondering, 126 books in 2005 compares with 123 in 2002 and 124 in 2003. The 142 books read in 2004 is a four-year high.

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