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Archive for March, 2013

Best Books of the Last 14 Months: Fiction

Posted by flyingbk on 03/04/2013

Last week, I enjoyed a 200-minute phone call catching up with one of my long-time friends. Usually, when one has such a long time gabbing away on the iPhone, there is one main culprit: Just when you think you’re done talking and getting ready  to wrap up the call (i.e. “Well, keep me posted on <Recent Topic X>”), one of us asks another question and suddenly, a new topic for chatter spawns out of it. I believe this happened a few times during said phone call.

The last such question was, “What books have you read lately?” Then my friend asked me for  recommendations. I was actually surprised at all the suggestions that flowed out of me, and even more impressed at all the details I remembered about these books (yes, I just wrote that I impressed myself).

And it made me think: I should blog about this. After all, I’ve read 59 books in the last 14 months.   Some of them were just dreck, and I’m trying to be more careful about which books I select. But here are a few books I’ve read since the beginning of January 2012 that I would enthusiastically recommend for you to check out. Today’s post will cover novels.
(All links will direct you  to the Kindle version of the book. I ❤ my Kindle Paperwhite.)

1) The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. I love this novel so much that not only did I blog about it before, I actually read it twice last year. The first 100 pages or so are a bit of a slog, but they’re necessary to learn about Jun Do. The second half of the novel is just pure magic and contains a myriad of passages that I could read over and over.

Memorable excerpts: I stared at him a moment. “Did you love her?” “I still love her.” “But how?” I asked him. “How did you get her to love you back?” “Intimacy.” “Intimacy? What is that?” “It’s when two people share everything, when there are no secrets between them.” I had to laugh. “No secrets?” I asked him. “It’s not possible. We spend weeks extracting entire biographies from subjects, and always when we hook them up to the autopilot, they blurt out some crucial detail we’d missed. So getting every secret out of someone, sorry, it’s just not possible.” “No,” Ga said. “She gives you her secrets. And you give her yours.”

“There’s no need,” Ga said. “Names come and go. Names change. I don’t even have one.” “Is that true?” the girl asked. “I suppose I have a real one,” Ga said. “But I don’t know what it is. If my mother wrote it on me before she dropped me off at the orphanage, it faded away.” “Orphanage?” the girl asked. “A name isn’t a person,” Ga said. “Don’t ever remember someone by their name. To keep someone alive, you put them inside you, you put their face on your heart. Then, no matter where you are, they’re always with you because they’re a part of you.” He put his hands on their shoulders. “It’s you that matter, not your names.

2) Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. I’ve already recommended this one to a few friends because it’s a quick, breezy, hilarious read with a lot of heart packed in as well. Semple worked in the TV business (she wrote episodes of the critically acclaimed comedy Arrested Development), and her humor shines brightly throughout the whole novel. The main narrator is Bernadette’s precocious daughter Bee, but Semple also employs emails, letters, and other memos and documents. These narrative techniques give the novel a staccato-like pace that make reading it as pleasurable as eating of a bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos (read: Doritos are my favorite chip). You’ll be fascinated about the Bernadette character as you solicitously ask the question that doubles as the novel’s title.

Memorable excerpt: While we’re on the subject, please indulge me while I tell you the story of the first and last time Bee ever claimed she was bored. Bernadette and I were driving Bee and a friend, both preschoolers, to a birthday party. There was traffic. Grace said, “I’m bored.” “Yeah,” Bee mimicked, “I’m bored.” Bernadette pulled the car over, took off her seat belt, and turned around. “That’s right,” she told the girls. “You’re bored. And I’m going to let you in on a little secret about life. You think it’s boring now? Well, it only gets more boring. The sooner you learn it’s on you to make life interesting, the better off you’ll be.” “OK,” Bee said quietly. Grace burst into tears and never had a playdate with us again. It was the first and last time Bee ever said she was bored.

3) Live By Night by Dennis Lehane. A master of various types of novels (you may know him as the writer of Shutter Island, Gone Baby Gone, and Mystic River), Lehane sets this story during the infamous Prohibition era in America. The main character is Joe Coughlin, who begins as a petty thief in Boston and ends up as the Gulf Coast’s most powerful supplier of rum. There’s plenty of romance and history as the reader learns more about Coughlin’s realization of his destiny as gangster and anti-hero. Lehane is a master at telling this immersing slice of Americana, and I can’t wait to see the movie version.

Memorable excerpt: “The reality was, he liked the story of himself. Liked it better than the truth of himself. In the truth of himself, he was second-class and grubby and always out of step. He still had his Boston accent and didn’t know how to dress right, and he thought too many thoughts that most people would find “funny.” The truth of himself was a scared little boy, mislaid by his parents like reading glasses on a Sunday afternoon, treated to random kindnesses by older brothers who came without notice and departed without warning. The truth of himself was a lonely boy in an empty house, waiting for someone to knock on his bedroom door and ask if he was okay. The story of himself, on the other hand, was of a gangster prince. A man who had a full-time driver and bodyguard. A man of wealth and stature. A man for whom people abandoned their seats simply because he coveted them.”

4) Defending Jacob by William Landay. This is one of those books that when you finish it, you’re immediately hoping to find someone else who read it just so you can talk about the plot (and the ending). Andy Barber is an assistant district attorney whose life turns upside down when his son Jacob is accused of stabbing another teenager to death. As any parent would, Andy fiercely believes that his son is innocent despite the mounting evidence to the contrary. Ethical questions abound regarding parenting, hiding one’s own checkered lineage, and a possible ‘murder gene’ that makes one more violent. This one’s a page-turner; I read this in less than 36 hours.

Memorable excerpt: “But I knew— and Jonathan surely did as well— that the better strategy is to offer the jury an alternate narrative. The jurors would want to know, naturally, if Jacob did not do it, who did? We had to offer them a story to satisfy that craving. We humans are swayed more by stories than by abstract concepts like “burden of proof” or “presumed innocent.” We are pattern-seeking, storytelling animals, and have been since we began drawing on cave walls.

5) This Burns My Heart by Samuel Park. Soo-Ja Choi is an aspiring woman growing up in post-war South Korea in the 1960’s, but she becomes trapped when she marries the wrong man. Korean wives and mothers in that generation had virtually no rights, but they were marked by perseverance and unflinching sacrifice; the fierce Soo-Ja is no different. This is a beautifully written book. I read this novel right after The Orphan Master’s Son, so it was like a back-to-back Koreas kind of deal. It was fascinating to see how both North and South Korea have their own unique cultural prisons (with one nation’s being obviously much worse than the other).

Memorable excerpt: “And how is Hana?” Soo-Ja then told him all that happened. Her father looked stunned the entire time, and he kept looking out toward the hallway, where Hana was helping her grandmother pick off the ends of soybean sprouts. He stared at her with longing, as if in the telling of the story, Hana was once again lost, and once again recovered. “You should have called for me!” he cried out. “I would have taken the first train to Pusan. To think of what you went through!” “I didn’t want to worry you.” “Worrying is what a father does. Take that away from him and he has nothing to live for. How can I trust you, if you don’t reach out for me in a moment of need?” “Please, Father, after all I’ve been through, I don’t need your chiding.” “All I want in this world is to see you happy.” Oh, and what a terrible burden that is for me, thought Soo-Ja, glancing at his tired-looking eyes. “I can’t take that money. I can’t take so much from you.” Her father shook his head, and he looked terribly sad, as if disappointed in her. And then, finally, a burst of emotion came out of him. “Use me up. Use me up to the bone. Take all my strength, my energy, my will. When you let me be your father and let me worry about you, care for you, and even suffer for you, you’re not doing a favor to yourself, you’re doing a favor to me. When you need me, I am alive.” His words felt like a lasso, reaching for her, wrapping itself over her skin. “What you felt, wandering through those streets, looking for Hana, that is the same thing I feel for you. How can you not understand?” “I do. Father, I do.” “It runs in your veins, this love. It goes from me to you, and from you to your daughter. You should never worry about causing me pain. It’s the opposite that I’m afraid of. Because that pain is the love, too, and how can you separate the two?” “Yes, Father,” said Soo-Ja, wiping away her tears.

Next post: Favorite nonfiction books.

 

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