Dear Reader: I'm not going to waste your time with a smarmy introduction about the wonderful/awful/whatever state of the book industry, nor pretend that I've read even 1 percent of the new books published this year. Let's just get on with it. Here are my favorite books of the year, so far. I hope you'll check them out.
Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky (Knopf).
The release in translation of Irene Nemirovsky's novel about the German occupation of France is one of the publishing events of the year. Suite Francaise was a European book industry sensation in 2004, for the story of how the book came to be published, as well as the power of the author's prose. Nemirovsky, a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant who converted to Catholicism, was a best-selling author in 1930s France. While she and her family were fleeing Paris in 1940, mere hours ahead of the German army, she began writing what she planned to be a five-novel "suite." Suite Francaise comprises the first two parts of the planned work. Within days of finishing the second volume, in 1942, she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where she died at age 39. Her two daughters were given her manuscript, written in tiny handwriting in order to save hard-to-find paper. Thinking it contained only notes that would be personally painful to read, they left it unread until almost 60 years later.
Although Suite Francaise essentially comprises two unpolished drafts, the book overflows with surges of lyrical writing and intensely focused, dispassionate observations worthy of Chekhov. The book begins with "Storm in June," in which a diverse cast of Parisians joins thousands of other compatriots in the chaotic evacuation of the city. Nemirovsky is masterful. She evinces intimate emotions while bringing to life a panorama of human action under great stress, including an older couple's selfless compassion for other refugees, a self-important artist's hypocrisy and desperate cowardice, some refugees turning to God, others turning into animals, and on and on.
The second section, "Dolce," is set a year later in a farming village under occupation, where residents come to terms in different ways with the fact that life continues despite the Germans. Nemirovsky builds the small human dramas and interactions of villagers into another portrait of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Her writing is just as clear-headed and observant as in "Storm in July," and filled with empathy for everyone suffering from the war, even German soldiers. Nemirovsky's accomplishment, writing in the midst of the fire, so to speak -- under immense pressure and constant threat -- was nothing short of miraculous. It's also a reminder of the depths of what was lost through Nazi barbarism.
Strange Piece of Paradise by Terri Jentz (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
In summer 1977, author Terri Jentz and her Yale roommate took off from the west coast on a cross-country bicycle trip. As they camped in Oregon, a man deliberately ran over the women's tent with his truck, attacked them with an axe, and then drove off into the desert. Both women survived, although Jentz came away with a badly gashed arm and her friend suffered serious head injuries. No one was ever arrested for the attempted murders.
Fifteen years later, Jentz realized the attack had wrecked her psyche, splitting her life into before-&-after-attack segments, and leaving her restless and fearful. This book is the story of her return to the scene of the crime to find the attacker, mend her wounded psyche and put her life together again.
Reviewers use the word "masterpiece" too freely these days, but Jentz's book is the real thing. Out of her search, she created a surprising work of reporting that is thorough, insightful and unforgettable. In lyrical, probing prose, Jentz details her encounters with witnesses who saw her leaving the state park after the attack, and recounts conversations with other nearby townfolk who, it turns out, had also been deeply affected by the attack in their own ways. She discovers that the police had conducted a feeble, indifferent investigation and had quickly dropped the case. Gradually, Jentz learns about a number of shocking murders that took place in Oregon around the time of her ordeal -- and about a local cowboy with a violent streak whom several locals had always assumed was her attacker.
Rather than reveal more of Jentz's story, I'll simply repeat that it's a remarkably well told and chilling tale. She's a brave writer who stares wide-eyed into the fire of violence, trying to catch sight of the reasons for it, its effect on entire communities, and whether revisiting it can heal one of its victims.
Eat The Document by Dana Spiotta (Scribner).
California writer Dana Spiotta's taut, satirical second novel revolves around Mary Whitaker and Bobby DeSoto, two counterculture radicals who are forced to live separate, secret lives on the run after one of their early-'70s protest actions goes dreadfully wrong. Spiotta tells Mary's life saga through jumps between present and past, serving up a scathingly funny but empathetic portrait of 1960s counterculture's evolution through its '70s smorgasbord of identity experimentation. Gradually, though, after decades of living a lie -- or rather, various lies at different times and places -- Mary's own identity becomes so jumbled, it's essentially lost, even to her. The one thing that makes her feel alive anymore is her relationship with her 15-year-old son Jason, a '60s pop culture obsessive who shares her passion for the Beach Boys, and who is desperate to learn more about his secretive mom's past.
Spiotta uses her fractured narrative style beautifully, building tension as she careens between Mary and Jason's stories and those of Bobby, now called Nash, who runs an alternative bookstore in present-day Seattle. Nash becomes a kind of anarchistic sage for a large group of young people who, while opposing all things corporate and commercial, embody the contradictions, self-delusions and nitpicky purism of current American "alternative" culture.
The heart of Eat The Document dwells in Spiotta's deep, keenly observed comparisons of the two eras' countercultures and their uses of music, technology and language. Spiotta has pulled off a difficult feat. She's crafted a highly readable, character-driven novel that also manages to raise serious questions about identity, personal purpose and action's consequences. In the end, she offers an inventive portrait of three decades of life as lived in the cracks of America's façade -- both a cautionary tale and an optimistic nod to the culture of rebellion, despite its vulnerability to being appropriated and sold by the very culture it opposes.
The Scarlet Thread by Doris Betts (currently out of print).
One of my favorite books of the past year was an accidental find of an inexplicably out of print novel by NC author Doris Betts (Souls Raised From the Dead, Heading West, Beasts of the Southern Wild). I picked up The Scarlet Thread, Betts' second novel, published in 1964, at a library sale. I was unfamiliar with it, but quickly found myself bowled over by her story of a small-town NC Piedmont family in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, whose lives and community are thrown into upheaval by the arrival of a cotton mill. Betts creates full-blooded characters, her scene setting is clear as a pre-industrial Southern creek, and her handling of tragedy is adept and profound albeit a bit melodramatic in spots. Betts weaves together the stories of a culture upended by industrialization, and those of family members, whose differing approaches to life are thrown into high relief by their reactions to the mill. FYI, used copies of The Scarlet Thread are available on the Internet at prices from $1 to $50.