The Top Twelve List of the Best Fiction I Have Read in 2017

 

This year, there were so many fictions clamoring to be on my Best of Year list, that I seriously considered expanding it to a Top 20 list.  However reason ultimately prevailed, so here is my Top 12 list of the best fiction that I have read in 2017.

Click on either the picture or the title and author to read my original review for each book.

 

‘Golden Hill’ by Francis Spufford – Here is a delightful lively and upbeat historical novel about colonial New York City that kept me smiling throughout.  The guiding light for ‘Golden Hill’ is none other than William Shakespeare.

 

 

 

 

‘Miss Jane’ by Brad Watson – ‘Miss Jane’ is a novel that was written in 2016 which never did get the acclaim it deserved.  It is the life story of a girl who was dealt a bad hand of cards when she was born.  The story is told by the doctor who delivered her.  It is a story of quiet moving heroism and is a strong work of empathy.

 

 

 

 

‘Here is Berlin’ by Cristina Garcia – The city of Berlin suffered through a perhaps well-deserved widespread devastation at the end of World War II after its residents blindly followed an evil leader. ‘Here in Berlin’ is a collection of short fictional vignettes of Berliners remembering their pasts.

 

 

 

 

‘Solar Bones’ by Michael McCormick – This is an amazing one-sentence Irish novel that definitely fulfills the Goldsmiths Prize requirement, “Fiction at its most novel”.  It won that Goldsmiths Prize.

 

 

 

 

 

‘Knots’ by Gunnhild Øyehaug – Here are 26 very short stories by a Norwegian writer which are unique comic risqué takes on the relations between men and women. The stories in ‘Knots’ are stunningly original.

 

 

 

 

‘Sudden Death’ by Alvaro Enrigue – ‘Sudden Death’ is an incredibly rich entertaining whirlwind trip through the 16th century presented within the framework of a tennis match in 1599 between Italian artist Caravaggio and Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo. Along the way, we have stops for English Queen Anne Boleyn and Spanish explorer Cortés and the church officials during the Counter Reformation as well as other excursions.

 

 

 

’The Dinner Party’ by Joshua Ferris – These are modern stories.  It is good to see a talented writer tackle what it means to be alive today in the United States.  These often raucous stories contain some quite awful men.  In other words, the stories are realistic.

 

 

 

 

‘News of the World’ by Paulette Jiles – Here is a Western with a simple understated charm.  The story is told in a stately dignified manner like those great old classic Western movies of the 1940s and 1950s like   ‘Red River’, ‘High Noon’, ‘Stagecoach’, and ‘The Searchers’.

 

 

 

 

 

‘So Much Blue’ by Percival Everett – Here is a stylish ingratiating and good-natured novel with an odd mix of plot lines.  The main character is an artist who keeps his magnum opus of a giant painting hidden from his family and friends in an outbuilding near his house.

 

 

 

 

 

‘The Refugees’ by Viet Thanh Nguyen – Viet Thanh Nguyen is rapidly developing as one of the United States’ best writers, and these poignant stories of Vietnam refugees to the United States further enhance Nguyen’s reputation after his wonderful novel ‘The Sympathizer’ which made the upper reaches of my last year’s Best list.

 

 

 

 

‘Dunbar’ by Edward St. Aubyn – This is St Aubyn’s humorous yet honest modern take on Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ as a media company owner.   “They stole my empire and now they send me stinking lilies.”

 

 

 

 

 

‘Based on a True Story’ by Delphine de Vigan – Here is an exceptional novel that deals with the Reality vs Fiction question.  The main character in ‘Based on a True Story’ is Delphine de Vigan herself who is trying to write her next novel, but the mysterious woman L. invades her territory.

 

 

 

 

 

And I didn’t even get to mention ‘Beautiful Animals’…

 

 

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‘Other Men’s Daughters’ by Richard Stern – The Breakup of a Family

 

‘Other Men’s Daughters’ by Richard Stern   (1973) – 246 pages

Here is a novel that one might think would be relevant for today, since it is about a forty year old man, a married Harvard instructor, having a sexual affair with a twenty year old young woman.  The novel was written in 1973, not long after The Pill had burst on the scene which made this type of relationship much more viable than it was before.

In ‘Other Men’s Daughters’ the twenty year-old girl is the ardent pursuer while the forty year-old married man is hesitant and holds back until he finally falls into the affair.  That does not seem particularly realistic as generally the man is the chaser, even if The Pill is available to the girl.

My main problem is that we never get any strong sense of human attraction between this guy and his young girl.  Instead we get miles and miles of pedestrian inane exposition about Harvard with little or no payoff.  The guy is more in love with himself being at Harvard than he is with the girl.   We get very little sense that, despite their pretensions, human beings – both men and women – are still animals wearing clothes.  I guess I’m downgrading the novel for not being raunchy enough.  That was never a problem for Stern’s fellow author, Philip Roth who wrote the NYRB introduction to this novel. I guess that instead of all the maundering around on the streets and classrooms of Harvard, I wanted Stern to just deal directly with the guy and his girlfriend.

However the main point of ‘Other Men’s Daughters’ is to show the resulting breakup of the family caused by this extramarital relationship.  The husband and his wife did not get along at all for a long time, but when the wife finds out about her husband’s affair, it is divorce time.  There are also the four children ranging in age from about five to seventeen to take into consideration.  Here again I felt that Stern over-intellectualizes the situation instead of dealing directly with the feelings of those involved.  However there are a few times when Stern does capture the emotional toll as in the following interaction of husband and wife.

“They would pass each other on the stairs and exchange grunts. Two adult Americans trained in one of the centers of human fluency, grunting.  Twenty years in one bed, and the contra-faction of their lives issued in grunts.”

Despite a few good scenes and lines, overall ‘Other Men’s Daughters’ was somewhat of a slog to read with all of its prosaic avoidance of feelings.

 

 

Grade :   C+

 

‘Heather, The Totality’ by Matthew Weiner – Faux Minimalism

 

‘Heather, The Totality’ by Matthew Weiner   (2017) – 134 pages

I admit I enjoyed ‘Mad Men’ the TV series which Matthew Weiner was heavily involved in creating, writing, and directing.  However I found ‘Heather The Totality’, Weiner’s first novel, to be sketchy and cartoonish and sub-mediocre.

You as a reader know you’re in trouble when a writer uses words like “rich” and “beautiful” and “handsome” with little or no elaboration or explanation to describe their characters.  ‘Heather, The Totality’ has such simplistic and unrealistic one-dimensional portrayals of its characters.  There is a preposterous contrast between the two main families portrayed in the novel.   One family is shown as rich and beautiful and near perfect.  The other family is led by the mother who is a heroin addict and allows a bunch of heroin addicts to party and lay around on the floor at her home until morning.  And her son Bobby, this guy is one bad, bad dude. He goes to prison for nearly killing a woman he wanted to rape.  I can see where Weiner wanted to contrast the wonderfulness of the one family with the horribleness of the other, but this is ridiculous.

The story here has the depth of a ‘Family Guy’ cartoon, a show I detest.

Even though Matthew Weiner is a professional screenwriter, there is hardly any direct dialogue in this novella.  That is why some reviewers called ‘Heather, in Totality’ a treatment rather than a work of fiction.  It is like each character is a blank to be filled in by a perceptive actor or actress.  Since there are no actors or actresses available for the reader, this does not help.

On the back cover of the novel there is an army of misguided glowing raves for ‘Heather, The Totality’ from famous writers, which for me is usually a bad sign.

‘Heather, The Totality’ has been called a minimalist novel, but I would call it a dumbed down minimalism.  A couple of the blurbs on the back of the novel mentioned Richard Yates, and these references made me angry.  I have read all of Richard Yates and am deeply impressed with his work. Richard Yates has great empathy for his characters. Matthew Weiner is in no way a Richard Yates.  Yates had a tremendous depth to his work, while this novella by Weiner is superficial and all on the surface.  Weiner and his admirers should be made to realize there is more to being a minimalist novelist than keeping your book short.

If you want to read a good minimalist novella, you might as well read the real thing, and I would suggest ‘The Easter Parade’ by Richard Yates instead.

 

Grade :   C-

 

‘Here in Berlin’ by Cristina Garcia – A Human Portrait of a City

 

‘Here in Berlin’ by Cristina Garcia   (2017) – 204 pages

 

The story of a city is the story of all the people who lived there.

Cristina Garcia is a Cuban American, and she went to Berlin, Germany to collect stories from Berliners and retell them.  In short vignettes of three to seven pages we get spirited scenes from Berlin’s past told through many distinct voices.

It must be kept in mind that all these stories of Berlin are fiction, enhanced for our reading pleasure, but like all good fiction they have the ring of truth.

  “She’d come to Berlin for stories, and the city had been more than generous.”

In many of these short monologues our author is addressed as Dear Visitor which lends them a certain charm.

“Dear Visitor, how can I convey to you the extent of the city’s ruin.  From the delusional heights of the so-called master race, we were reduced to living like rats in the rubble.  Our once great capital had become a veritable necropolis.”    

 Certainly brutalities were committed against the Berliners and the other Germans at the end of World War II, but nobody in the rest of the world cared after all the atrocities that the Nazis committed.  Most considered it justice.  One can’t help but believe that Berliners brought this all upon themselves with their devotion to Hitler and the Nazis.

“Thousands of Germans committed suicide just after the war – survivors who’d lost loved ones in the bombings, women and girls gang-raped by Russian soldiers.  I pictured river algae draping these girls’ skulls, the sallow cheeks, the perch pecking at their lifeless eyes.”

In one of the stories a zookeeper remembers that by the end of World War II, only 91 of 3,715 animals at the Berlin Zoo had survived. In another story a man recalls the time of the Nazis:

“Let me ask you something.  Have you ever seen a man beaten to death? No? Ah, then you are lucky, very lucky indeed.” 

I found the stories in ‘Here in Berlin’ to be lively and moving, a fitting tribute to the city of Berlin which has been through so much.

When I was in college I took several classes in German, and one of my instructors had lived in Germany for a few years.  The one word he especially wanted us to learn was “Gemütlichkeit”.  “Gemütlichkeit” is a state of warmth, friendliness, and good cheer that was supposedly unique to the German culture.  However Hitler and the Nazis destroyed any sense of a good feeling toward the German people.  The stories in ‘Here in Berlin’ do convey a warmth even when they are relating the terrible events associated with World War II.  Here in the United States, German beer fests are becoming quite popular events.  There is a chance that at some future time the German people will again be associated with “Gemütlichkeit”.

“As for Hitler’s bust, we dug a pit in the garden, dropped the bronze in the bottom and used it as a latrine.”

 

Grade:   A+   

 

‘Dunbar’ by Edward St. Aubyn – King Lear Comically Revisited

 

‘Dunbar’ by Edward St. Aubyn   (2017) – 244 pages

‘Dunbar’ is a pastiche on ‘King Lear’ that is a lot of fun. Instead of a King, we have a media mogul. Edward St. Aubyn writes under the reasonable premise that the world media owner families of today are at least as ruthless, petty, and cruel as the ancient royal families of yesteryear. Think Rupert Murdoch.

King Lear is considered one of the most depressing tragedies ever written, depressing even for a Shakespeare tragedy. St. Aubyn turns King Lear from a tragedy into an over-the-top comedy.  We realize from his Patrick Melrose series of novels that St. Aubyn knows just how dysfunctional and flat out crazy some of these aristocratic families can be.  In ‘Dunbar’ he has perfectly captured the lust for power and the wretched behavior of the super wealthy and privileged.

Old man Dunbar as a media king was the high priest of tabloid entertainment for the masses. Now he has just had his lofty position in his media empire swiped from him by his two elder daughters, and they have stuck him away in a remote sanatorium in the Lake District in rural England.

“They stole my empire and now they send me stinking lilies.”

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The older daughters outdid themselves professing their great love for their father. The youngest daughter refused to play that game, so Dunbar in a rage disinherited her, a bad move because she is the only one who truly loves him. From the beginning, the two older daughters are portrayed as having an evil wickedness that knows no bounds.

St. Aubyn is one of those authors who understand it is not a novel’s final destination that matters but instead the joys and jests and other acute feelings we experience along the way that matter.  The story is played for laughs, but I suppose it also does contain its share of truth. Edward St. Aubyn is rapidly becoming one of my favorite fiction writers.  There is a verve to his individual sentences that carries the tale. Take this sentence from when Dunbar escapes from the care home into the pastoral moorland of the Midlands:

“The white noise of rushing water helped to camouflage the anxious murmur of his thoughts.” 

Here one of the few quiet moments in the novel is well captured. The humor early on is helped along by Peter who is a drunk but sharp-tongued comedian who plays the Fool in the story.

‘Dunbar’ would be an excellent zany novel even without the shadow of King Lear.

 

Grade:   A 

 

Why Poetry?

‘Why Poetry’ by Matthew Zapruder  (2017) – 226 pages

About half way through reading ‘Why Poetry’, I realized that the main purpose for the book is to serve as a textbook for a college survey course perhaps called Poetry 101.  It is written to be a guide book both for appreciating poetry and, to a limited extent, for writing poetry.

Matthew Zapruder occasionally mentions his experiences instructing students in such a course, sometimes at a college near Amherst, Massachusetts.  Amherst is the home of Emily Dickinson so it is the ideal place to be teaching poetry.

“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.”   Emily Dickinson 

I cannot imagine a more perfect line of poetry than that.

I totally agree with Zapruder’s main point which is that we readers of poetry should take the words of a poem at face value, trust what is said on the surface of a poem, and not overextend ourselves looking for deep or buried meanings. Poetry is mainly about using words effectively, and we must count on the poet to do just that.

As for writing poetry, Zapruder’s advice is to not pursue a career of writing poetry unless you absolutely have to, which I think is good advice.  For myself, I majored in mathematics in college at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and I stayed safely on the technical side for my career despite becoming increasingly enamored of literary fiction and poetry during my off hours.  I did not have to write fiction or poetry, so I didn’t, although I tried occasionally.

So ‘Why Poetry’ has that comprehensive textbook feel to it which isn’t exactly what I was looking for, but I stuck with it.  At the beginning there are some meaningful quotes by famous writers as to what poetry is which I appreciated.  Marianne Moore said that a poem is “a place for the genuine”.  Aristotle said poets are those who “have an eye for resemblances”.

  “A poem, when it works, is an action of a mind captured on a page.” – Anne Carson 

The book does not mention my favorite quote about poetry:

“A poet is one who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times.”  – Randall Jarrell

Unfortunately for Randall Jarrell he never did get struck by lightning, and he does not have that one great poem that everyone has heard, although he was a wonderful critic who was responsible for single-handedly rediscovering the novel ‘The Man Who Loved Children’ by Christina Stead.

Anne Carson also has another great quote about poetry which is not mentioned in the book:

“Words bounce. Words, if you let them, will do what they want to do and what they have to do.” – Anne Carson, Autobiography in Red  

Here is a line from Matthew Zapruder himself that I liked:

“Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.” – Matthew Zapruder

The beginning analyses of poems in ‘Why Poetry’ were quite rewarding for me, but as the analyses grew more complicated, they became less helpful to me.  I suppose to some extent my tastes in poetry diverged from Zapruder’s as I prefer the clear, simple and direct whereas he has a taste for the dreamlike and distracting.  There are some poets we both like including the aforementioned Emily Dickinson, Anne Carson, and Wallace Stevens.  However other poems he uses as examples left me high and dry.  I certainly did not study the examples with the intensity required for a college course.

There may be several reasons for my lack of appreciation for a poem.  Often, I suppose, it is me not paying close enough attention to the poem.  Other times a poem is fine, but it’s just not on the same wavelength as me.  The third possibility is that the poem is just not that good.

‘Why Poetry’ probably will work very well as a textbook, but it might not turn you into a poet or even a poetry aficionado.

 

Grade:   B      

 

‘Go, Went, Gone’ by Jenny Erpenbeck – A German Takes an Interest in the African Refugees

‘Go, Went, Gone’ by Jenny Erpenbeck  (2017)  –  283 pages                                               Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky

 

“Where can a person go when he doesn’t know where to go?”

One of the main reasons I read fiction is curiosity about my fellow humans.

‘Go, Went, Gone” tells the story of Richard, a retired, widowed professor in Berlin, who discovers a whole new world of people outside his door.  Near his home, he discovers a group of African refugees, all of them men, who are protesting their treatment by the German authorities.  These refugees are treated by German society in general as nothing more than a problem and to be ignored unless and until they cause any disturbances.  They are moved from school building to office building to warehouse.

In German society where work is so important, these African refugee men are not allowed to work, not even to wash dishes. That is one of these men’s biggest complaints, that they have nothing to do all day long.  Some of them were skilled metalworkers in Libya or Niger or elsewhere, and others had different jobs.

“People have no respect, no empathy for other people; they have no sense of who other people are.  There’s a kind of withering away of the human sensibility, and that leads to the collapse of just about everything.”  – James Purdy

Yet these refugees were treated just as poorly in other European countries. Of Italy, one of the refugees says, “In the subways the Italians get up and sit somewhere else if I sit next to them.”

Richard gives these black men who are stranded in Germany with no place else to go the most important gift anyone can give them, an interest in their lives.  He listens to their stories of their harrowing times while still in Africa.  Many of these men had led relatively comfortable lives when suddenly all was upset by unrest and violence.  They were forced onto unseaworthy boats, and for one man, Rashid, he watched both his children drown when the boat capsized.  Rashid escaped.

The Germans tend to treat the disruptions in these men’s lives as something totally foreign outside of themselves, completely forgetting all the disruptions to Germans resulting from World War II and the division of Germany afterward.  Richard lived in the Eastern sector of Berlin and recalls how he was treated as a second-class citizen when Germany was reunited.

An immigration lawyer tells Richard that two thousand years ago the Teutons in Germany were quite hospitable.  In his book ‘Germania’, Tacitus wrote of these ancient Germans: “It is accounted a sin to turn any man away from your door. The host welcomes his guest with the best meal that his means allow.”

Some writers go overboard with special effects to win over their readers.  Instead Jenny Erpenbeck is one writer, like perhaps J. M Coetzee, who is confident enough in her technique that she remains resolutely unflashy and austere in presenting her story here. Also the lives of these refugees are necessarily plain and austere as they are prevented from doing anything useful and are moved around from building to building.  Perhaps the story Erpenbeck is telling here is so important it goes beyond artifice. “Go, Went, Gone” is not a fun or happy read, but the world is not always a fun or happy place.

In the final Acknowledgements section, Jenny Erpenbeck expresses her deep gratitude to the thirteen African refugees she had many good conversations with.  It shows in her writing.

 

Grade:  A

 

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