Winter Reading List

Though there may be a publishing hiatus over the holidays, that shouldn't keep a true bibliophile from feasting on plenty of literary leftovers.

The holiday (publishing) hiatus did not much change my reading habits other than two glorious days spent in total horizontal bibliophilic repose. I was able to read Louisianan writer Tim Gautreaux’s new opus, The Missing (Knopf), which doesn’t quite rise to the level of his gripping The Clearing, but close. Set in the late 1920s, a New Orleans department-store floorwalker with heavy personal baggage is fired when a young girl is kidnapped from the store on his watch. The store’s owner suggests he might have his job back if he can find the toddler, setting in motion a rich internal and external journey.

Amy Koppleman (A Mouthful of Air) can write, and if you like stories about smart, disaffected, and disconnected middle-class women struggling with family issues and such, I Smile Back (Two Dollar Radio) is for you.

Having been impressed with Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker (which was a 2007 Pulitzer finalist) and owning all of his books, I dipped into his 2000 novel Plowing the Dark (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), which features an odd commingling of plotlines—a pack of computer experts employed by a seemingly hip (cool, whatever) software company work at constructing a virtual environment that contains all the images ever imagined or created. A Chicagoan fleeing a desperate romance takes a job teaching English in Beirut during one of the civil wars. You can guess what happens to him. I found the software creation interludes tedious.

If you read anything or watch anything (where people opine), Roberto Bolaño is the new literary it-boy of 2008 (and promises to be of 2009, as more of his work becomes posthumously published in English). 2666 (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) seems to be his magnum opus, and put simply it’s an amazing work of literature and an amazing read. My only reservation arises from the fourth chapter/section, “The Part About the Crimes.” Bolaño recounts a long list of unsolved murders of hundreds of women in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico (near the Texas border in the Sonoran Desert); 250 pages of incidents of human depravity and Bolaño managed to keep me interested. For a very fine account of Bolaño (without the complication of a review of 2666) read Francisco Goldman’s insights.

Matt Wieland suggested Benjamin Markovits’s subtle and finely wrought A Quiet Adjustment (Norton) continues the author’s use of Lord Byron’s biography as a platform for his fictive urges—in this case, teenager Annabelle turns aside countless suitors and fixes her sights on the newly famous Byron (just on the heels of the publication of his celebrated Childe Harold).

At the time of his 1942 suicide Stefan Zweig was one of the most well-regarded writers in the world; John Fowles fulminates: “Even ‘famous writer’ understates the prodigious reputation he enjoyed in the last decade or so of his life, when he was arguably the most widely read and translated serious author in the world.” The short story The Royal Game (Harmony), the last he wrote—about a very unusual chess game and its players—is a short lesson in why, as is Letter From an Unknown Woman.

Rodes Fishburne debuts with Going to See the Elephant (Delacorte Press), a novel about Slater Brown, a young man who arrives in San Francisco to become a world-famous writer, in pursuit of which he takes a job with a lackluster weekly and proceeds, with echoes of Voltaire’s Candide, to achieve fame. Fishburne is clearly fond of San Francisco and if I could have summoned up some interest in Slater I might have enjoyed this effort more. (The phrase in the title, by the way, once implied the search for fame and fortune.)

Melville House has a series entitled The Art of the Novella (What’s a novella you ask? A short novel or a long story—Jim Harrison writes novellas—is the best I can do.) The series includes some classics (Melville, Tolstoi), some moderns (Steve Stern, Imre Kertez, Gilbert Adair), and now Alejandro Zambra, who elliptically lays out a story of young love that has echoes of the above cited Roberto Bolaño. Published in Chile in 2006, Bonsai won Chile’s major literary prize.
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