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Quite the World, Isn't It?

A couple of my favorite books from the past year

Well, since so many other folks are posting lists of their favorite books from the past year, I figured I might as well join in. Unfortunately, I haven't read that many new books this year since my nose has been buried deeply in Detroit history for my own book project. So this is a short list. In fact, I'm limiting it to two books, one a novel and the other an essay collection.

The novel is Jon Clinch's The Kings of the Earth, a book I found myself contemplating long after my review ran in the Los Angeles Times. An excerpt from that piece:
The power of "Kings of the Earth" lies in the intricacies of the relationships among the Proctors; neighbor and childhood friend Preston, who serves as something of a guardian angel; the drug-dealing nephew and the police. Clinch is canny enough to move his characters through their own understated lives, hinting where he needs to as he skirts the obvious, and refusing to overlay a sense of morality on their actions. The reader is the jury.

And Clinch knows his territory, both psychologically and geographically, as in this snowless winter scene:

"The drive from town was one hill after another and the view from the top was always the same. Muted shades of brown and gray. Shorn fields encroaching on wind-ravaged farmhouses, not so much as a chained dog visible. A countryside full of that same old homegrown desolation…. They climbed the last hill to the farm and saw smoke coming not just from the chimney but from a big fire in the yard. Wind yanked at the smoke, and they turned up the dirt lane and went toward the fire."

The landscape informs the story as much as the internal terrain of the characters does, giving "Kings of the Earth" a grounding that is missing from many modern novels. We know the events that lie behind Clinch's novel were real, and that the novel is not. But the realism here is no less, with writing so vibrant that you feel the bite of a northern wind, smell the rankness of dissipated lives and experience the heart-tug of watching tenuous lives play out their last inches of thread.
The other book that stood out for me was Elif Batuman's highly enjoyable The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, a look at just what the title says. But like all great essay collections, the power here lies in the voice. From my review for the Cleveland Plain-Dealer:
If you're honest with yourself, you'll admit that when you hear "Russian literature," you think of college classes you wish you'd cut - and books that can seem as long as a Siberian winter.

But in this delightful debut, Elif Batuman makes you look at Russian literature from a fresh perspective, using an unusual blend of memoir and travelogue as she delves into the lives and personalities of such Russian literary giants as Isaac Babel, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy.

Many of the chapters are extensions of pieces Batuman first wrote for The New Yorker and n+1 and range geographically from Palo Alto, Calif., where Batuman managed to lose one of Babel's daughters at the local airport, to Uzbekistan, where Batuman spent a few months studying Uzbek.

In a sense, the details of Batuman's essays are less significant than the tone. She cruises through minor crises with an air of detached amusement, eye focused on the little absurdities that make travel -- and people -- fun.
So there you have it, my favorites of the year, though I should also mention my friend Bryan Gruley's second mystery, The Hanging Tree, which does just what you want a mystery to do -- creates a world in which you get to rummage around for a while. So now you have some ideas for what to do with all those gift cards you got for the holidays.
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