As my free time to write at this blog gets more and more limited, I’m slimming down my annual books post to just the very best one or two. I wish I could devote a beefy writeup to all ten of these, but there’s no time; such is the reality.
I read 38 books this year, 18 of which were published this year. I also did more reading on my tablet than I ever used to. In fact I now realize that I read seven of the below ten books on iPad, for whatever that’s worth. I still prefer the feel of paper in my hand, but for brand new books, I’d rather have my light, slim iPad Mini than a bulky hardcover.
It was a good year of reading. I strongly endorse any of these books.
Two in particular stood out:
The Zone of Interest, Martin Amis
My track record with reading Amis has been inconsistent. I never read any of his stuff until The Pregnant Widow in 2012; I mostly loved that book, but it shifted between the past (a young British kid, abroad in Italy with two other girls, and this makes up the bulk of the narrative) and the present (the same kid, now middle-aged and depressed, in the present), and I didn’t like any of the scenes set in the present. After that I read his next new book, Lionel Asbo, and loved every bit of it—the dark humor, the cockney dialect, the sometimes-confusing scenes. But then I read Dead Babies (horrible, unpleasant, skip it) and his first novel, The Rachel Papers (flat) and with a 2-for-4 record, I abandoned him for a while. But my friend Ethan who is always championing Amis and is currently on a prolonged effort to read all of his books. At his urging, I read The Zone of Interest, which I was going to skip. It’s outstanding.
If you’ve read about this novel, but not read it, you probably know it’s set in a concentration camp, and that the main characters are Nazi officers, and that, alone, sure sounds controversial. But it’s less shocking than all that. In fact, the most shocking thing about this is how sympathetic all the narrators are, apart from the one obvious villain.
Amis almost takes a “just the facts, m’am” approach here. It’s part love story, part survival saga, and likely Amis’s biggest (certainly bravest) achievement to date. One character is in love with another, but there’s nothing romantic or sexy about it. Another character considers a big, dramatic rebellion, but the daily task he already performs is so atrocious that there isn’t any real possibility of glory in his future. The “Holocaust novel” is a trend as overstuffed as the “9/11 novel,” but this book is different. No character is happy and death is all around them, and yet, the story is compulsively readable. It’s the fifth book I read by Amis, and the best, and it has convinced me to go back and read a couple more.
The Painter, Peter Heller
Peter Heller got a lot more buzz, praise, and flash for The Dog Stars, a dystopia that came out in 2013, than he did for his followup, this book. But it is a quiet riot—absorbing, violent, beautiful, and subtle. Jim Stegner (I like to think the name is a reference both to Jim Harrison, a writer Heller clearly emulates, and to Wallace Stegner) is a burly painter, a strong-but-silent type who is described as looking like Hemingway—ironic since Heller writes like Hemingway. Stegner is also a guy with a sad past. He’s moved to Colorado to try to escape his alcoholism and his grief, but a violent incident early in the book, where he takes it upon himself to punish an act he witnesses against a defenseless animal, governs the entire rest of the story. Eventually it becomes a cat and mouse chase as well as a sort of nail-biting thriller with the reader wondering if Stegner can avoid both death and prison.
I like the way Stegner, who narrates the book in first-person and present tense, speaks. “So I bought this what? Cabin, or cottage, up against the mountain. Bought it because it was made of real adobe bricks by a poet no less—a good one named Pete Doerr, I read his stuff—who had to go back East.” Those simple words there, “a good one,” made me think of the Hemingway character Corey Stoll plays so well in Midnight in Paris. (“And he was young and brave and the hill was soggy from days of rain,” he deadpans.) Stegner is like that. He just wants to fish and paint and maybe occasionally have sex with a woman who doesn’t smother him. Here he is describing Sofia, who comes over to model him and often quietly slips away when she realizes he is in the zone: “She knew what painting was and she allowed for departure, the kind we had this morning, where eventually she disappeared. I loved that.”
None of this is to say that Heller is perfectly restrained in his language. Although his character is a Hemingway archetype, and although Heller’s subject matter is the outdoors and masculinity, he allows himself little jokes, asides, often even cheesy lines that you wouldn’t find in The Sun Also Rises. “I don’t wear underwear unless it’s like some formal event,” is one thing Jim spouts off, and it’s funny but also sort of ridiculous, and makes him cartoonish. Not that humor is a bad thing. I laughed out loud from this part, where Sofia lies to two police officers, who have shown up at Jim’s house early in the morning, in order to establish an alibi for Jim: “He was with me all night and that’s all I’ve got to say. We fucked twice. Once pretty fast, slept. Spooned… Then we both woke up and fucked once really slow and long. I had two orgasms. I mean two more. That hasn’t happened in a while. Then we were exhausted, wrung out, just drugged kind of… Then we woke up because some assholes were knocking on the door. That’s my statement.”
Every chapter in the book is titled with the name of the painting that Stegner completes in the chapter, which is a lovely little touch that you begin to look forward to, just like you start to feel real affection for various side characters, like the friendly gas station attendant who sternly rebukes Stegner for his actions, or the local farmhand who doesn’t. In a way, the book so vividly creates a community and drops you into the setting that it reminded me of the show Everwood, which, tease me if you like, but I loved and was set in a mountain town as well. This book stuck with me.
Honorable mentions/The rest of the best: Fourth of July Creek, Smith Henderson; The Laughing Monsters, Denis Johnson; The Spell, Alan Hollinghurst; Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay; Silence Once Begun, Jesse Ball; Summer House with Swimming Pool, Herman Koch; The Splendid Things We Planned, Blake Bailey; Platform, Michel Houellebecq