Best Literary Fiction of 2018

We’re continuing the countdown! This is a competitive category this year, and the award goes to a debut author as well:

Ohio

A Line Made By Walking, by Sara Baume***

I was gob-smacked by this author’s last book, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, and when I saw she had another book out—one set in Ireland, one of my favorite settings—I immediately requested a DRC. Thank you to Net Galley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for letting me read it free in exchange for this honest review. The book is for sale now.

ALineMadeByWalkingHad I no obligation to the publisher, I might be tempted to write a rare one-word review: bleak. Our protagonist is grieving the death of her beloved grandmother, and the dog died too. She’s stuck in a place she can’t get out of mentally, but since she is an artist, she takes her ennui and lets it guide her through art, and the narrative follows a pattern in which each grim thought leads her to a different art theme mentally. The story is told in the first person, and so we follow her miserable wandering thoughts from one grim topic to another, and then at some point each train of thought ends with “Works about [ fill in noun here: beds, rabbits…whatever].”

“The world is wrong, and I am too small to fix it, too self-absorbed.”

Yup.

I continued reading because it seemed to me that her earlier book started out depressing and it took some time to warm up, but then once it took off I was in love with it. I waited for this to happen here. And waited. At the 16% mark, she notes that getting drunk provides her with a “heightened sense of despair” the next day, and my notes my notes say “Fuck me.”

The protagonist tells us of an instance when she follows her very elderly landlady down a set of steps and pretends this is her usual pace also, and my notes say, “What the hell else you gonna do? Tell her to move her butt? Give her a shove to help her along?”

Each time I have one of these magic moments, I know it’s time to read something else for a while and come back to this story with fresh eyes. This is why it took me so long to read and review. Had I not bailed at 68% and peeked at the end for some sign of redemption, it would have gone even more slowly. Our protagonist has family members that want to help, but she is not interested. Instead, we notice dead animals; we notice garbage. We notice mold and other ugly things, but we can’t get up and deal with them because we are depressed and going to continue sitting here, lying here, not seeking change and wallowing.

In fairness, the word smithery here is strong in places, and I like the figurative language. However, for me the double-whammy of perpetually depressed prose followed, every now and then, by reflections about art and art history, a subject that makes my eyes glaze over, is a powerful repellent, and I am never able to engage; perhaps by now, you suspected as much.

So the third star is here because I know there are readers that have a great love of art, and if you are one of them, your experience with this novel may be completely different from mine. I wanted to tell the protagonist to take her meds and shut up, but there may be some truly redemptive aspect of the art discussion that makes the rest of it flow beautifully for art lovers.

For most readers, I can’t recommend this novel, and if you take it up anyway, put the sharps in another room and lock up your pills and firearms. Seriously. But for those with an affinity for art and art history, this book should be considered.

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, by Yiyun Li**

dearfriendfrommylifei  It’s an honor to be invited to review any book by Random House and Net Galley, and so when the email came, I accepted without hesitation; I thank them for thinking of me and wish I could honestly recommend this one. Others have referred to this memoir, whose title is taken from a quote by Katharine Mansfield, as “exquisite, intimate, and lyrical”, and the author has won awards for her novels. I looked carefully to see if I could locate the genius in this book, but it eluded me completely.

The intimacy of the work is surely apparent. In essence, this is a mental health memoir, and the author writes of her fight with depression, her multiple suicide attempts and hospitalizations, of the expectation of others that she should continue to live when she didn’t want to. It’s brave writing, although mental health battles are now a fairly mainstream topic, but I am unable to find anything tangible to engage my interest.

My only real pleasure is in discovering that Li is already a successful writer; had it been a debut, I would have been scared silly. After all, if I say I don’t like the book, will the writer harm herself? What if I simply dodge the whole thing and let it get lost in the shuffle; will it happen then as well? But in seeing that this is someone with an established career and a wall full of accolades, probably the displeasure of one humble blogger won’t create a great deal of trauma.

The whole thing is bleak. The writer reminds us repeatedly that her life is private, that no one has the right to know any of its details and all I can think is, so what are we doing here, exactly?

Those that have read and enjoyed Li’s novels may find more to hang their hats on than I have found. All I know is that it is painful to read, has no beginning, middle or end that I can find, and is devoid of the literary qualities that can sometimes make a sad book enjoyable. I can’t recommend it.

The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, by George Prochnik ****

 theimpossibleexile If you’re looking for a real-life horror story, this one is for you. It is the story of Stefan Zweig, a writer and collector of original musical scores, very well known in Vienna and throughout Europe prior to the rise of the Third Reich. It’s also a Holocaust survivor’s story, to a degree. When one surveys it objectively, his fate seems so much more sanguine than so many others who were unable to escape, or who suffered terrible physical and material misfortune before doing so. And yet it isn’t. Zweig makes it out of Vienna in time…and yet, he doesn’t.

My thanks go to Net Galley for the ARC.

Prochnik is an able writer, and he balances Zweig’s perspective with world events well in most instances; it is a highly literate, well documented biography. It is hard to rate a book like this, because while the writer is proficient, I finished the book not knowing why Zweig’s story was important. The man cut himself off from political resistance, and while he initially helped other Jews who needed to escape, eventually he was so overwhelmed by their need that he not only turned them away, but spoke of them in contempt as “schnorrers” (Yiddish which literally means ‘beggars’) who had not had the prescience to get out in time.

At one point, he is said to have thrown one giant party in order to discharge all of his social obligations in one extravagant evening. He supposedly embraced “all classes”, but the single “working class poet” is the only member of the working class ever mentioned as a guest or friend, and the poetry arguably inches that man toward the intelligentsia and professional crowd that Zweig embraced, when he was embracing anyone.

Depression and mental illness were not understood well in that time, and that had to be the key to his terrible end, which otherwise seems so unnecessary. Without it, the reader may have a difficult time sympathizing with a man who was able to travel the world after his escape and afford servants upon his arrival. I had a hard time liking this protagonist.

Before reading The Impossible Exile, I had never heard of Zweig, but I have read hundreds of biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs, and often they are by or about strangers (or both). Often I find myself seeking out the protagonist’s work after I have read about them, because they have endeared themselves to me as I read their stories. Not so with Zweig. But again, those who have spent any amount of time with a depressed individual know that depression doesn’t merely imbue sorrow; depressives are often angry, moody, or appear lazy when they just won’t get out of bed. Thus, I can understand his difficult nature to that degree (and Prochnik also recognizes it).

My recommendation, then, is for a niche audience only. If you are interested specifically in Stefan Zweig, read Prochnik’s book; I cannot imagine the subject in better hands. If you seek a wide cross section of Holocaust refugee stories, this one is likely atypical enough that it should be included.

If you are looking for a story in which a survivor rises triumphant against adversity, or dedicates himself to helping others after a narrow escape, this is not your story. It is instead, almost unbearably tragic.

Billy Bathgate, by EL Doctorow *****

I have to admit, E.L. Doctorow is one of those writers whose work is a sure fire hit for me. I love historical fiction, and I admire great word-smithery. Doctorow is skilled with both.

This one is a period piece, a look at a hard time and the ugly risks that some folks took from desperation and perhaps a misplaced idea of what greatness might look like. To be sure, the government wasn’t exactly setting a good example; those who searched for less-than-conventional means were, in my view, right to reject the American Dream as a lot of smoke and mist. But organized crime is another form of corruption. Doctorow shows that pretty well too.

All told, it isn’t the moral I seek in a book like this, so much as a good story. Doctorow is a master storyteller, and the reader will always get his or her money’s worth.

I buy a lot of books used, but for this man, I pay full cover price and am glad it’s available. A treasure.

Lucky Us, by Amy Bloom *****

This story is a winner. I defy anyone to read it and not love it! I was fortunate enough to read my copy free of charge from Net Galley, but sooner or later I will have to pony up and pay for Bloom’s work, because having read this little gem, I will follow her anywhere.

The setting is the Depression Era through the end of the second world war; the story takes place all over the United States, from the midwest to California to New York. The protagonist, Eve, and her sister, Iris are girls (and then women) who are what social workers euphemistically call people who have fallen through the safety net–not that much of one existed back then. Their father and Evie’s mother are almost more liabilities than assets, and from almost the get go, they are on their own.

A large cast of secondary but engaging characters weaves its way through the sisters’ adventures, but each is so believable, so palpable that there is never the slightest danger that the reader will mix one up with another, anymore than you might inadvertently mix up your own family and friends. These flawed but fascinating characters often do things that startle us, leave one’s jaw hanging (“Oh no, you DIDN’T just do that!) yet their behaviors are always consistent with what they have said and done before. Just as with a ne’er-do-well relative, I found myself sometimes grimly nodding and saying, “You know, it doesn’t surprise me a bit.”

Eve and Iris see others betray them and commit every possible venial sin and perhaps a few mortal ones into the bargain, and indeed, they themselves become charlatans, thieves, snake oil salesmen (of a sort) in order to survive. All of this is depicted with such a winning narrative, changing perspectives and yet never the overall truth.

In most circumstances, Eve is set apart in her effort, when possible, to do the right thing, and by her loyalty to those she loves best.

Ultimately of course, it is not the storyline or the setting that sets this story apart from whatever other fiction has recently been released. It is the voice, Bloom’s sassy, ironic, and sometimes devilishly understated narrative that hooks the reader, leaves us unable to let go till the last page is turned.

Bloom is an award winner for other work, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if she receives another for this. If I were to compare her work with anyone’s, it would be Fannie Flagg, because of the character development and the whimsy.

In the end,I realized she does not mean the title to be entirely ironic. We are indeed lucky to have even flawed and difficult people in our lives. Loneliness is the ultimate cause of sorrow. Bloom convinced me that I am lucky too. What a wonderful message, and from a truly gifted writer! I can’t wait to read the rest of her work.