June 9, 2002
If it's summer, it must be time for way too many summer reading lists. Here's mine. Some are new books, some are old. All are books I enjoyed discovering in the past year.
1. "Bel Canto" by Ann Patchett. In an unnamed South American country seeking business investment, a Japanese CEO is invited to the vice president's home to hear an opera singer from Chicago. Revolutionaries raid the party. The partygoers wind up stuck with the terrorists for four months. The only language they all share is music. Unlike most novels that seem so ready to be movies, this one also takes you inside its complex characters. The writing's clear and gorgeous. The wit and heartache are light and sharp. Winner of the 2002 PEN/Faulkner award.
2. "Atonement" by Ian McEwan. A finalist for the 2001 Booker Prize, this quasi-mystery drops you into a web of beautiful young characters in an English manor in the mid-1930s, then transports you through World War II and on. It's an entertaining story of love and war that on a deeper level addresses the tricks of storytelling and memory: How do we shape and reshape the stories of our lives to find purpose and redemption?
3. "The Power and the Glory" by Graham Greene. You want a novel about atonement? In a Mexican state in the 1930s, the Catholic Church has been outlawed. The last priest--the whiskey priest--is on the run from the firing squad. Greene's 1940 classic, as gripping as a modern thriller, is a generous yet merciless portrayal of humans and their church. Everyone is flawed--the priests, the people who loathe them, the people who want them to be saints--but courage sometimes flickers even in the cynical, corrupted soul.
4. "Personal Injuries" by Scott Turow. His best book since "Presumed Innocent." A womanizing rogue lawyer named Robbie Feaver. A female FBI agent. Corrupt judges. Spies. Snow. Sound like Chicago? This novel by Chicago's most writerly lawyer certainly makes you feel as if you've peeked inside the city's courtrooms and backrooms. The fun and fascination of this book lie not only in the insider's details, good plot and engaging characters but in Turow's elegant, sometimes surprising, ruminations on marriage, sex, law, friendship and truth.
5. "The Corrections" by Jonathan Franzen. The book that Oprah axed after the author dissed her book club. A mother wants her three grown kids home for one last Christmas before Dad descends permanently into dementia. The story that swirls around her wish is proof that Midwesterners can be as neurotic as anybody else. Some of the sex scenes seem juvenile, as well as pointlessly voyeuristic. But with uncannily sharp details, the book captures some essence of middlebrow white America, showing how family members shape and warp each other and still manage to care.
6. "Look at Me" by Jennifer Egan. Charlotte, a fading Manhattan model, is returning to Rockford, Ill., the tedious site of her childhood, when she has a car accident. Her face has to be surgically reconstructed. At worst a suspenseful soap opera, Egan's intricately plotted novel sometimes veers into the didactic. But it flashes with astonishing sentences and perceptions, and it evokes pop culture at least as well as "The Corrections." It was written before Sept. 11, but, eerily, one central character is a foreign terrorist who has remade himself to seem American, the embodiment of everything he wants to annihilate.
7. "Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage" by Alice Munro. Munro can create a novel's complexity within each of her short stories. She writes mostly about women in the grips of all the things named in the title, and she does it without the sentimentality and cloying cleverness that mars so much fiction by women about women. She excels at the unexpected ending.
8. "A Time to be Born" by Dawn Powell. Powell is enjoying a renaissance, and this frank, funny 1942 novel proves that New York was a hotbed for women long before "Sex and the City." The book's cover describes the characters as "a self-involved newspaper publisher and his scheming, novelist wife," but it's also the story of young Midwestern women making their way through New York men, jobs and bars. Set in 1939, it feels as modern as HBO.
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