Notable Books of 2017

I read so many books in 2017 most of them seem to have run together in my head. But four absolutely stand out in my memory. The first one is a re-read. The other three were new discoveries.

cover image of Absalom, Absalom by William FaulknerAbsalom! Absalom! by William Faulkner.

Every time I read this novel I am astounded and moved, often by passages I don’t recall from previous readings.  For those who haven’t read Absalom, Absalom!, it’s a novel within a novel. For his entire life, young Quentin Compson has heard vague, contradictory stories about local plantation owner Thomas Sutpen and the horrific self-destruction of the Sutpen family forty years earlier at the end of the Civil War. Now Quentin and his Harvard roommate, Shreve McCaslin, spend their evenings speculating on what actually happened, trying to reconstruct lives from clues, recollection, and rumor. On this rereading of the novel I was reminded how seldom women can actually control the stories about their lives. One of the most important characters in the novel is Judith Sutpen, Thomas’ daughter.  She’s pivotal to the entire story Quentin and Shreve are piecing together, but most of the time she’s eerily absent, a voiceless figure at the center of the plot.  I was struck by one of the few passages in which Judith actually speaks directly, without intermediary, and I can’t get over how beautiful it is. She says to a family friend after her fiancé’s murder

“You get born and you try this and you don't know why only you keep on trying it and you are born at the same time with a lot of other people, all mixed up with them, like trying to, having to, move your arms and legs with strings only the same strings are hitched to all the other arms and legs and the others all trying and they don't know why either except that the strings are all in one another's way like five or six people all trying to make a rug on the same loom only each one wants to weave his own pattern into the rug; and it can't matter, you know that, or the Ones that set up the loom would have arranged things a little better, and yet it must matter because you keep on trying or having to keep on trying and then all of a sudden it's all over.”

Lucky You by Carl Hiaasen

I envy anyone who has yet to discover Carl Hiaasen’s bizarre, hysterical Florida thrillers. I thought I had read all of them, but I was surprised and delighted to stumble  across the unfamiliar title Lucky You on SPL’s fiction shelves. Here's a brief summary:

Not much happens in Grange, Florida--aside from the Christian bus tours to see the statue of the Virgin Mary that weeps fragrant tears (thanks to a discreetly placed pump full of diluted perfume) and the face of Jesus on the highway (or is that just brake fluid?). But then local woman JoLayne Lucks wins the state lottery. Unfortunately she wasn't the only one who played the winning numbers that day. Two dim-witted low-lifes named Bode and Chub bought a ticket together, and they're not about to settle for just one half of the $28 million prize--because they need way more money than that to start a white supremacist militia (it's got to be "well-regulated" like the Second Amendment says, so uniforms, weapons, the works). They drive across the state to track down JoLayne and steal her ticket. Unfortunately for them, this means they cross paths with Tom Krome, a bitter, burnt-out investigative reporter who, to his disgust, has been sent on a trip to Grange to do a human interest story on JoLayne (Krome's editor feels safer when they're not in the same town). Needless to say, hilarity ensues. And violence.  And difficulties with tenacious crustaceans--as well as an object lesson in the stupidity of using WD-40 for dental purposes.

The Siege of Krishnapur by J. G. Farrell

At the beginning of 1857 the British in India see themselves as bringing science, progress, and true religion to a subcontinent trapped in ignorance, barbarism and superstition. What they don't realize is that behind the fawning obedience of most Indians is resentment of a century of foreign domination. This Booker Prize-winning novel recreates the year of the Great Mutiny, when Indian soldiers rebel against their British officers, and all the natives from the great rajahs to peasant farmers enjoy the spectacles of their former masters being slaughtered.  Krishnapur is one of the more isolated towns with a British settlement (a Residency) so when Indian troops arrive the prospect of rescue arriving in time is remote: the British residents--merchants, clergymen, engineers, travelers (in addition to a few actual soldiers)  have to learn on the fly how to erect fortifications and how to fight. The author leaves us with no illusion that all these characters are complicit in brutal, exploitative colonial rule, yet we get to know them well enough as people that we don't want to see them killed. As the siege continues and the rations dwindle, the fight both for survival and for the maintenance of "normal" life goes on with a touching desperation.  When the tea runs out, the ritual of afternoon tea continues—but just with drinking hot water.  As they confront the possibility that each day might be their last, these people who thought they were born to rule the world lose almost all certainties. Brilliantly conveying the chaos, quiddity and utter strangeness of the past, The Siege of Krishnapur is historical fiction in a class with True Grit and Wolf Hall.

cover image of This Close to Happy by Daphne MerkinThis Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression by Daphne Merkin.

I haven’t liked most memoirs I’ve tried to read. There are simply too many of them and most memoirists aren’t good enough writers to effectively convey their emotional experiences. The foundation of a good memoir isn’t the author’s personal history, it’s the delivery. Merkin is both an excellent writer and a discerning observer of herself and others, so her delivery is impeccable. From the outside, she seems an unlikely candidate to write a memoir of lifelong struggle. She was born to a life of privilege: her parents were Manhattan philanthropists; she attended Barnard and became a staff writer for The New Republic and The New Yorker. Merkin would respond that’s part of her point: depression is an illness. A successful career or a lot of money won’t cure depression any more than they would diabetes or cancer: “the sadness running under the skin of things begins as a trickle and ends up a hemorrhage, staining everything.” Most memoirists seem to want the reader’s sympathy if not approval. Refreshingly, Merkin doesn’t seem to care whether you like her or not. And she certainly isn’t afraid to offend by taking issue with some of therapy’s most sacred clichés. For example, she writes: “I know all the arguments about the cowardice and selfishness involved in committing suicide, but nothing can persuade me that the act doesn’t require some sort of courage, some steely embrace of self-extinction.” Many memoirs end on a note of triumph, but Merkin’s too smart and too honest to do that: she knows she can manage her depression, but she knows she’ll never be cured.  She describes the belief of sufferers from depression that they will one day be cured as resembling “religious faith, although it demands nothing and offers nothing back except its own irrationality.”

Would that more memoirists could write even a tenth as well as Merkin.

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