I’ve read some terrific books this year. While on vacation, I read three four-star standouts. Here are my thoughts about six current best-sellers. Four were excellent and two were duds.
The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout. Yea, Elizabeth. You’ve done it again. In 2009, Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize for OliveKitteridge, a collection of short stories with a tell-it-like-she-sees-it, but flawed protagonist. Strout proves again, in The Burgess Boys, that novels don’t have to be about good people --or even likeable people. Protagonists can have major character imperfections. This is the story of two brothers, Bob and Jim Burgess, and Bob’s twin sister, Susan. They are damaged siblings, but the one most damaged, in the end, turns out to be the one who has it all together. Well, mostly together. The whys and wheres of
the damages and the changes these three undergo is the meat of this novel. I loved it.
I’m especially fond of Strout’s ability to uncover her characters’ personalities slowly, carefully, with a sharpened-knife-like care. She peels people like onions, in layers, until you finally understand why they
are as they are. I love her metaphors, too. They’re never clichés. She describes a woman who normally doesn’t swear: “‘Fuck Jim,’ the woman says, and the word felt like a well-hit tennis ball as it left her mouth.” Strout describes Bob Burgesses’s neighborhood bar: “An osmosis of understanding extended among the
regulars; people revealed only what they wanted to and it was not much.” This is one of those books I “won” in one of those giveaways on a Web site called Shelf Awareness. It was an advanced reading copy—uncorrected --so I found a few typos. Never mind. The book was released a few weeks ago and I highly recommend it. ★★★★out of four stars.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. What is an unreliable narrator? I’ve heard this term used before, but this book shows what it means. I liked this tale of a twisted marriage. Nick and Amy start out as the golden couple – beautiful people, much admired and sought-after, well brought up, educated, living the good life in New York City. Both lose their high-paying jobs at about the same time. They move to Missouri with these excuses: to save money, to look for new jobs and to take care of Nick’s aging father. Their move takes a terrible turn. One beautiful, sunny morning, Amy goes missing and Nick gets blamed not only for her disappearance, but eventually for her murder. Chapters alternate points of view between Nick and Amy. Strange twists kept me reading. ★★★out of four stars.
The Dinner, by Herman Koch. Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett. Wow. Another page-turner. The beautifully crafted plot of this short novel is divided into courses of a gourmet meal at an upscale restaurant in Amsterdam: Aperitif, Main Course, Dessert and Digestif. Two couples get together to have dinner and talk about their teenage sons. Paul begins by telling the reader what he expects of the evening. Another reviewer of this book described it perfectly. As the dinner progresses, he said, the knives are sharpened, the plot thickens and the adversaries thrust and parry. Flashbacks, side trips to the ladies’ room and the
restaurant’s garden, skirmishes with the waiter/manager and sneaky invasions of each others’ privacy (a la cell phone messages) get worse and worse. The mood gets darker and more sinister until the climax puts all the pieces together. The Dinner leaves a nasty aftertaste. But I'd love to read it again. I’d like to read something else by this author, too. ★★★★out of four stars.
Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. Another four-star book, this one a travel memoir. Cheryl Strayed gives herself a goal, a personal challenge. She decides to walk the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from Mojave, California, which is a bit north of Los Angeles, to (eventually) The Bridge of the Gods, which is east of Portland in northern Oregon. She’s mourning the death of her mother and bemoaning a divorce from the man she loves. She decides to walk alone, soon realizing she may by the first woman to hike the PCT by herself.
She writes about preparing for the trip, about the first excruciating days carrying a 24-pound pack on her back, about the people she meets, the obstacles she overcomes, the hardships, the exhilaration, the scary encounters and the heartwarming stuff. We, the readers, are never bored. Never. Along the way, of course, she finds herself, gets centered, works out some personal problems and gains enormous amounts of
self-confidence. She learns to trust her instincts. I loved this book. ★★★★out of four stars.
Snobs, by Julian Fellowes. I thought a novel by the screenwriter who wrote “Downton Abbey” would be a terrific read, filled with British humor and upper class shenanigans. It was, but the story line was dismal. Edith Lavery is the daughter of an English accountant and his ambitious wife. Lavery’s mother wants her daughter to move into the upper class. Edith sets her cap for Charles Broughton, an Earl. She bags him, much to the dismay of Charles’ snobbish mother, Lady Uckfield.
Edith becomes disenchanted with kind-hearted-but-deadly-boring Charles, of course, and tosses him aside for Simon, a handsome film star. It takes forever for the whole story to play out to a less-than-satisfying finish. Much of the description and conversation reminded me of Jane Austen novels, but with less insight into the characters’ personalities and less charm. ★★out of four stars.
The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin. Eh. Kind of boring. Nicely written, but I couldn’t identify with any of the characters. They were solitary, lonely, silent people who didn’t talk to each other. Della and Jane are two young girls who had been forced to work as prostitutes by a man named Michaelson. They are both pregnant. They escape and are taken in by a solitary man, Talmadge, the orchardist. Jane’s daughter, Angelene, is raised by Talmadge. The book drags; it’s slow; the author goes on for pages about things that turn out NOT to be important to the story. I don't think the story is important either. Don’t bother. ★★out of four stars.