As the year known as 2018 finally draws to a close, it’s time for me to look back and announce to the world my favorite books of the year. Just like last year, I’ll start by talking about the outstanding fiction I read over the course of the year. Later, I’ll follow it up with another post dedicated to my favorite nonfiction. Of course, this year just like in previous ones, it doesn’t matter when the books were published. All that matters is they’re excellent.
The bad news is I didn’t read a lot of fiction this year. As a result, there’s only six books on my list. The good news is I read some great stuff. So, in no specific order of preference here’s my favorite fiction from 2018.
As for declaring an overall winner, it wasn’t easy since all six are fantastic. In the end, City of Thieves narrowly edged out The Little Book my favorite. As high as my expectations were for this novel, I was not disappointed.
And a diverse collection of novels indeed. With The Gustav Sonata set in Switzerland, City of Thieves Russia and The Little Book Austria the armchair traveler in me was duly satisfied. So also was my inner historian, with all of them but The Senator’s Wife set wholly or partially during World War II or, in the case of The Little Book fin de siècle Vienna. Lastly, just like last year several of the above-mentioned titles are first time novels. Hats off to these authors for their outstanding inaugural efforts.
It’s been 10 years since I heard Sue Miller, the author of the novel The Senator’s Wife interviewed on NPR. As Miller and program host Linda Wertheimer discussed the novel, much to my surprise I found myself intrigued. So intrigued was I that I vowed to read The Senator’s Wife someday. Well, after all those years I’m happy to say a few weeks ago I borrowed a copy from my public library. After waiting so long to read, naturally I was afraid I’d experience a let-down. But alas, there was none since The Senator’s Wife did not disappoint me.
After a newly married couple purchase one half of a double town house in New England the two of them discover their neighbor, a retired age woman with a stately demeanor is the wife of a former US Senator. While the two households share identical floor plans, their respective inhabitants live in completely different worlds. Nathan, a young political science professor is married to Meri, a reporter for a local NPR station. While not exactly honeymooners, their marriage is fresh and on an uncertain yet hopeful trajectory. Next door is Delia, aloof at first but soon becomes a mother figure to Meri. Beneath Delia’s calm facade however lie a lifetime of painful wounds thanks to her senator husband’s years of infidelities.
I credit Sue Miller for taking what could have been an average novel at best with a ho-hum storyline and turning it into something greater. I consider The Senator’s Wife one of this year’s pleasant surprises and could very well make my year-end Best Fiction List.
Some of you might remember from an earlier post that appeared last September in which I spotlighted a half-dozen books borrowed from my public library. On of those books happened to be Aharon Appelfeld’s 2017 novel The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping. In that post, I claimed I’d never read anything by Appelfeld. Later, after I remembered I’d read one of Appelfeld’s earlier novels specifically his Badenheim 1939. But alas, as much as I wanted to read it The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping, I had return it a few weeks later ignored and unread. But after reading awhile back in the New York Times Appelfeld passed away I once again borrowed a copy from my public library. Unlike last time, this time I managed to read it.
The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping is an odd kind of novel. World War II has come to an end and Erwin, a young Holocaust survivor from Eastern Europe has been brought to a displaced persons camp in Naples. He remembers little of his journey across Europe since he’s been asleep the whole time, carried along by his fellow survivors. Eventually, he makes his way to British-ruled Palestine where after statehood he’s absorbed into the Israeli army. During a military operation he’s gravely wounded in his legs which earns him a long recovery period and a series of medical procedures designed to get him walking once again. While convalescing Erwin begins flexing his young literary muscles by deepening his understanding of Hebrew, his new language in hopes of becoming the writer his father always dreamed to be.
If I place Badenheim 1939 side by side with Appelfeld’s final novel The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping they form a pair of bookends encapsulating modern Judaism. Badenheim 1939 depicts the beginnings of the Holocaust, which would lead to the destruction of much of European Jewish Civilization. In The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping Jewish civilization is painfully reborn, not in Europe but in Israel. If that’s the case then perhaps it’s only appropriate The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping was Appelfeld’s last novel.
When I spied Stuart Rojstaczer 2014 novel The Mathematician’s Shiva first the title caught my eye. After that, it was its cool cover art. In the end however, it was it the premise that sold me. It’s horrible enough Alexander “Sasha” Karnokovitch has to deal with the recent death of his mother Rachela, a famous Polish émigré mathematician and professor at the University of Wisconsin. But when word gets out she’s possibly solved the million-dollar, Navier-Stokes Millennium Prize problem (imagine the Nobel Prize for mathematics) mathematicians from around the world descend upon the late Rachela’s home, hoping against hope she left notes proving she solved it as opposed to taking its secrets to the grave. So much for a quiet, dignified, private Shiva with family in frigid Madison, Wisconsin.
The Mathematician’s Shiva is another of 2018’s pleasant surprises. It’s funny in a dark, train wreck kind of way. Just because a family might be highly educated and accomplished, it doesn’t automatically mean it’s happy. If Tolstoy taught us taught anything, it’s that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. And the Karnokovitchs are no exception.
I gotta hand it to Rojstaczer, he’s written a heck of a debut novel. No wonder it won a half-dozen or so awards including National Jewish Book Award for Outstanding Debut Fiction. There’s a strong likelihood you’ll see it included in my year-end Best Fiction List in a couple of weeks.
Filed under Fiction, Judaica
I’ve been wanting to read David Benioff’s 2008 novel City of Thieves since it came out in paperback, but just never got around to it. Promoted as a staff recommendation at Powell’s Books, I’ve walked by copies of it several times only to purchase something else. Then not long ago, I noticed it was available through my public library. So with much gusto I borrowed a copy. The danger is there’s frequently a let-down whenever you read a book you’ve been wanting to read for years. However, I’m happy to report with City of Thieves there was no let-down. So much did I enjoy Benioff’s novel there’s a strong likelihood it’s the best novel I’ve read all year.
It’s World War II and city of Leningrad is besieged by the Germans and their Finnish allies. As supplies of food and fuel run out the city’s residents succumb one by one to hunger and cold. One evening Lev Beniov, a local teenager accused of looting finds himself sharing a jail cell with Kolya Vlasov, a young Red Army soldier charged with desertion. Fully expecting to be shot for their crimes they’re taken to meet Colonel Grechko, the commanding NKVD officer. His daughter is getting married in a few days and the mother of the bride believes it’s bad luck to celebrate the girl’s wedding without a wedding cake. So, with the city starving to death Lev and Kolya are given a choice: come back before the wedding with a dozen eggs for his daughter’s cake or be executed. With their lives on the line the two embark on a desperate search for the needed eggs and encounter a host of dangers including cannibals, enemy soldiers and desperate Russians.
City of Thieves is a great novel. Not only can Benioff flat-out write he’s a hell of storyteller. (No wonder he’s co-creator and show runner of the HBO series Game of Thrones.) Reading it I experienced a spectrum of emotions from humor to sadness to anger. Like I mentioned at the beginning, don’t be surprised if City of Thieves is declared my favorite novel of 2018. Please consider it highly recommended.
I’m a big fan of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. In case you didn’t know, the challenge inspires readers to “read books by European authors or books set in European countries (no matter where the author comes from).” In addition, “each book must be by a different author and set in a different country.” Thanks to this enforced variety, participants end up reading books by authors and/or set in countries from across Europe. Of course while it’s easy to read books about or set in places like the United Kingdom, Germany or Russia other countries can be a bit more challenging. So, if you think it’s tough to find books set in or about Belarus, Monaco or Vatican City try Belgium. So far Jonathan Coe’s rather enjoyable 2014 novel Expo 58 is the only one I’ve found so far. That is until I finally got around to reading Tracy Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn. Set during the late 15th century with the action alternating between Paris and Brussels this is a novel I could apply towards Rose City Reader’s challenge. After stumbling across a well-worn copy at my local public library I decided to give it a try, hoping I’d enjoy it as much as did Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring.
Just like Girl With a Pearl Earring, the story revolves around famous artwork, in this case it’s a collection of tapestries commissioned by Jean Le Viste, a social-climbing Parisian nobleman. Acting as middleman between Le Viste and the Brussels-based weavers is Nicolas, a roguish artist with a penchant for seducing young women. Supporting characters include Le Viste’s beautiful young daughter Claude, his matrimonially unsatisfied and religiously zealous wife Genevieve and a small family of tapestry weavers in Brussels. Again, just like with Girl With a Pearl Earring, brief interactions between these characters produce a permanent and profound impact in the art that’s ultimately created.
With Girl With a Pearl Earring such a tough act to follow, I wasn’t surprised I didn’t enjoy The Lady and the Unicorn as much as I did her earlier novel. But still, it was a relatively fast paced and entertaining read. If nothing else it served as a book set in Belgium I could apply towards the European Reading Challenge.
Back in 2014 I reviewed Martin Fletcher’s novel Jacob’s Oath. Set in 1945 during the weeks following Germany’s surrender it told the story of two young Jewish lovers in Heidelberg as they struggled repair their horribly shattered lives and together move forward. The novel was a big hit with me, so much so it ended up making my year-end Best Fiction List. Enjoying Fletcher’s novel as much as I did I vowed to read his earlier novel The List should the opportunity ever arise. ‘
Lo and behold, one Saturday afternoon while meandering through the shelves at my local public library what did I find but a copy of The List. In the mood for a little fiction I decided to give The List a shot, hoping I’d enjoy it as much as I did Jacob’s Oath. In the end, while I enjoyed Fletcher’s later novel Jacob’s Oath more, I found The List a satisfying read.
Published in 2011 and just like The List it’s also the story of a pair of Holocaust survivors during the aftermath of WWII. This time it’s Georg and Edith, a young married couple from Vienna who’ve found refuge in London. While thankful to have escaped the Nazis, nevertheless their struggle to move forward with their lives hasn’t been easy. While Georg seeks employment and Edith deals with a difficult pregnancy, both nervously await word from the Continent that some or even any of their relatives survived the Nazi onslaught. Meanwhile, Georg and Edith along with the rest of Britain’s Jewish refugee community must contend with the rising tide of anti-Semitism, fueled not only by the belief such refugees are taking away both jobs and housing from native Britons but also anger over British soldiers killed and wounded by Jewish fighters in Palestine.
Like I said earlier, even though I liked Jacob’s Oath more, The List still delivered the goods and didn’t leave me disappointed. (However, I did see a major plot twist coming a mile away, but that’s OK. It’s rare I can detect these things in advance.) Who knows, I might even give his latest novel Promised Land a shot.