Desiderata: The Best Reads of January

Desiderata (things desired): A monthly review of books recently read

January brought me a handful of critically-acclaimed and/or commercially successful 2019 books. This is what happens when you wait not just weeks, but months, for hot titles to wend their way through the library queue to land on the holds shelf, your name printed in bold font on a scrap of paper tucked inside.

January’s biggest news in publishing was the controversy surrounding the debut of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. I have not read the book (see: library request list), but I weighed in on the controversy all the same. The notion who has permission to tell which stories, the flinging around of the word censorship, the state of the publishing, and a myriad other issues moved me, as a writer and reader, deeply. My post on Goodreads led to some interesting discussion.

As always, clicking on the book cover will take you to my full Goodreads review…

The Dutch House

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Danny Conroy and his older sister, Maeve, sit in Maeve’s car across the street from their childhood home, watching, waiting, reviving the ghosts of their memories. They catch an occasional glimpse of their stepmother, Andrea, who turned them out of the house soon after their father died, when Danny was in high school and Maeve was in college, but they leave her be. There are deeper wounds than an evil stepmother to contend with, and even though the mansion they spy upon has enormous windows that provide views from front to back, the source of their pain — and their healing — is not visible.

 

Disappearing Earth

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

In Russia’s Far East, the Kamchatka Peninsula knifes between the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean. It is a 1250km-long blade serrated by volcanic mountains, honed razor-sharp by unrelenting cold, empty tundras, bears, wolves, and a history of violent encounters between Kamchatka’s indigenous people and mainland white Russians eager to plunder its vast natural resources.

Julia Phillips chooses this perilous landscape as the setting for her mesmerizing, fierce debut, Disappearing Earth. The story opens benignly enough, on a warm summer day at the edge of a bay in the territory’s only metropolis, Petropavlovsk. Sisters Alyona and Sophia Golosovskaya, eleven and eight, are left alone to play while their mother writes feel-good propaganda for a post-Soviet state newspaper.

Then a man arrives in an improbably polished black sedan and the little girls are vanished.

What follows is a kaleidoscopic literary thriller that tracks the year following the Golosovskaya sisters’ disappearance, each chapter a shift of perspective of a Kamchatkan woman, reflecting the cultural complexities in this strange and treacherous place.

Girl

Girl by Edna O'Brien

Girl by Edna O’Brien

This is as harrowing and haunting a book I have read since 2009 and Uwem Akpan’s short story collection Say You’re One of Them, set throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Edna O’Brien’s Girl is the nominally fictional horror story of young girls enslaved by Boko Haram, the Islamic terrorist group that still holds sway in northeastern Nigeria.

Between Shades of Gray

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Vivid and heartbreaking, Between Shades of Gray tells the story of a Lithuanian family disappeared into Siberia in 1941, as Stalin demolished the independent states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Although slotted into the YA genre, this is engrossing reading for adults. Ruth Sepetys combines meticulous research with excellent storytelling to bring history’s forgotten episodes to life. Outstanding historical fiction and a must-read for those with a particular interest in WWII. Highly recommended.

This Is Happiness

This Is Happiness by Niall Williams
The perfect antidote for the rush and anxiety of modern life and the superficiality of our connectedness, This Is Happiness reminds us of what it means to live fully, deeply, in the present, to experience our environment on its terms, without distraction. Narrated by Noe (short for Noel) Crowe as an old man looking back nearly sixty year to the summer his grandparent’s village of Faha, in Co. Clare, was hooked up to the electrical grid, This Is Happiness is a sumptuous, sublime and softly rendered tale of love, memory, grief and family.

 

American Dirt

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins 

I wrote this in response to another reader’s statement that the criticism of American Dirt amounts to censorship. I find this notion so appalling that I responded with the following, but realized I didn’t need to bomb her feed with my opinion. I could bomb my own 🙂

Oh, as an author, it makes me so sad to see anyone conflate accountability with censorship. This author received a seven-figure advance, a massive marketing campaign, (bolstered ironically by the controversy); this book will be, is, widely read; it’s currently topping a number of best-selling lists, including The New York Times’s. No publishing runs were cancelled, this book is featured prominently in bookstores across the country. Please, please reconsider your take on “censorship”…. Read more….

Book Review: Wild Decembers, Edna O’Brien

Wild DecembersWild Decembers by Edna O’Brien

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Edna O’Brien’s prose reads like poetry. She conjures images from the mists of Irish mountains and the thick skin of peat bogs, her characters appearing wraith-like in a land of ancient legends and living superstitions. Her style lends a sense of timelessness to her stories and their settings and characters. With a few tweaks of detail, Wild Decembers could be set in late 19th century or pre-World War II Ireland as easily as the end of the 20th century.

O’Brien’s affinity for lyricism can distance the reader from the flesh and blood reality of her plot, but her skill with dialogue and the gut-wrenching dilemmas into which she plunges her characters ensure that the reader’s heart will be caught firmly in her drama.

Wild Decembers is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions: star-crossed lovers separated by an ancient land dispute. At the heart of the conflict are two men who could be as close as brothers, yet who cling stubbornly to blurred maps and barbed wire, destroying with madness and violence all that they most love. O’Brien shows the lunacy of lust and the dark tunnels of depression with spare and sharp detail- there are disturbing scenes that will be long to leave my mind, all the more devastating because of their subtlety.

I deeply admire O’Brien’s use of language and her skill at stripping prose to its most primitive, most powerful effect.

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