Friday, January 9, 2015

Best Books for Grown-Ups 2014

If you saw my post last week, you know that I mostly read young adult books, but I did read some great fiction for grown-ups last year. Here are my top-five favorites:

5. Swamplandia! – Karen Russell

The Bigtree alligator wrestling dynasty is in decline — think Buddenbrooks set in the Florida Everglades — and Swamplandia!, their island home and gator-wrestling theme park, is swiftly being encroached upon by a sophisticated competitor known as the World of Darkness.

Ava, a resourceful but terrified twelve year old, must manage seventy gators and the vast, inscrutable landscape of her own grief. Her mother, Swamplandia!’s legendary headliner, has just died; her sister is having an affair with a ghost called the Dredgeman; her brother has secretly defected to the World of Darkness in a last-ditch effort to keep their sinking family afloat; and her father, Chief Bigtree, is AWOL. To save her family, Ava must journey on her own to a perilous part of the swamp called the Underworld, a harrowing odyssey from which she emerges a true heroine.
Review:  A family of alligator wrestlers goes on a quest to save their island theme park and themselves. Chief Bigtree, the father, is delusional about the future of the park. Ossie, the older sister, needs to get to the underworld to marry a ghost. Kiwi, the older brother, is trying to survive on the mainland. Ava, the younger sister, is left alone in the swamp with the creepy Birdman.

This book started weird and ended terrifying. It was definitely a strange story. The setting was one of the most vivid settings I've ever read. The setting had its own backstory. The characters were complex, unusual, and interesting. My favorite character was Kiwi. I loved his horrible name and huge ego. The plot was crazy and unexpected: I didn't see that ending coming. The writing was beautiful and quirky.

My only complaint was the pacing. It felt like it took me forever to get through the book. The story floundered in places and didn't feel like it was going anywhere. I was just reading for Kiwi and the author's amazing writing. Those things weren't really enough to keep me going, and several times I considered putting the book down and reading something else. The ending also felt slightly rushed.

This story makes you think about the murky space between the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood. I'm glad that I didn't give up on it. Despite its pacing, this was a wonderful, dark, and messy book.

4. Olive Kitteridge – Elizabeth Strout

In a voice more powerful and compassionate than ever before, New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Strout binds together thirteen rich, luminous narratives into a book with the heft of a novel, through the presence of one larger-than-life, unforgettable character: Olive Kitteridge. 
At the edge of the continent, Crosby, Maine, may seem like nowhere, but seen through this brilliant writer’s eyes, it’s in essence the whole world, and the lives that are lived there are filled with all of the grand human drama–desire, despair, jealousy, hope, and love.

At times stern, at other times patient, at times perceptive, at other times in sad denial, Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher, deplores the changes in her little town and in the world at large, but she doesn’t always recognize the changes in those around her: a lounge musician haunted by a past romance; a former student who has lost the will to live; Olive’s own adult child, who feels tyrannized by her irrational sensitivities; and Henry, who finds his loyalty to his marriage both a blessing and a curse.

As the townspeople grapple with their problems, mild and dire, Olive is brought to a deeper understanding of herself and her life–sometimes painfully, but always with ruthless honesty. Olive Kitteridge offers profound insights into the human condition–its conflicts, its tragedies and joys, and the endurance it requires.
Review: This collection of linked short stories centers around Olive Kitteridge, a retired math teacher and the mother of a grown son. The stories examine Olive from every angle. She is the main character in some of them and briefly mentioned in others, but they all show the impact that one woman can have in a small town.

Olive is a complex and fascinating character. She is big, loud, blunt, and opinionated. She is self-centered, abusive, judgmental, unkind, and manipulative. She refuses to apologize for her mistakes. She eavesdrops and talks behind people's backs. Many of her students were afraid of her. She is independent, strong, funny, and in control. She is amazingly perceptive and willing to help anyone who needs it. She loves her husband and son fiercely. She is a very realistic human.

Like most short story collections, I did get bored with a few of the stories. I also felt like a few of them went over my head. The author was saying something deep that I wasn't quite getting. However, the majority of the stories are brilliant. This book is entertaining and beautifully written. 

The stand-out stories for me are "Pharmacy," "A Little Burst," "A Different Road," "Ship In A Bottle," and "Security."

In "Pharmacy," Olive's husband develops a crush on the plain and unassuming (completely opposite of Olive) young woman who works for him in his pharmacy.

In "A Little Burst," Olive's only son gets married to a woman who Olive does not like, and she finds small ways to make the woman's life difficult.

In "A Different Road," Olive and her husband are held hostage in a hospital bathroom by a gunman, but the argument that they have while trapped in the bathroom is the most traumatizing part of the experience. I love the humor in this story. It's tied with "Security" as my favorite in the collection.

In "Ship In A Bottle," an eleven-year-old girl knows where her older sister (one of Olive's former students) has gone, but she doesn't tell her crazy mother.

In "Security," Olive goes to visit her son for the first time in years and ends up causing trouble in the airport security line.

I have to warn you that many of the stories in this collection are depressing. The characters' emotions are raw and realistic. But, if you don't mind that, this is a great collection.

3. Close Range: Wyoming Stories – Annie Proulx

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning and bestselling author of The Shipping News and Accordion Crimes comes one of the most celebrated short story collections of our time.
Annie Proulx's masterful language and fierce love of Wyoming are evident in these breathtaking tales of loneliness, quick violence, and the wrong kinds of love. Each of the stunning portraits in Close Range reveals characters fiercely wrought with precision and grace. 
These are stories of desperation and unlikely elation, set in a landscape both stark and magnificent -- by an author writing at the peak of her craft.
Review:  These stories are realistic, gritty, beautiful, and amazing. Having grown up in Colorado, I was familiar with the setting of this book, but I've never seen it described this well. Annie Proulx has a gift for using language precisely. I can see why she has won so many literary prizes.

All of these stories are about tough Wyoming ranchers. None of the characters are likable, but most of them are fascinating because of their flaws. The most well-known stories in the collection are "The Half-Skinned Steer," which was featured in the anthology Best American Short Stories of the Century, and "Brokeback Mountain," which became a movie.

"Brokeback Mountain" is the strongest story in the collection. I also liked "The Mud Below" because it seemed more straightforward and less sparsely-written than the other stories. I liked the humor in "The Blood Bay." I had a hard time picking favorite stories because I liked them all. This is one of the best short story collections I've read in a long time.

2. Different Seasons – Stephen King

A collection of four novellas by the bestselling master, three of which became the basis for the hit films Stand by Me, The Shawshank Redemption, and Apt Pupil. So varied in tone that you have to compare King to Twain, Poe-with a generous dash of Philip Roth and Will Rogers thrown in. -Los Angeles Times
Review: This book contains four of King's most famous novellas: "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," "Apt Pupil," "The Body," and "The Breathing Method." Most people are familiar with these stories because all but "The Breathing Method" became movies. My favorite story was "Apt Pupil." The tension was amazing. I flew through it. I had to find out what happened next. My second favorite story was "The Body" because the young characters are more realistic than the young characters in many other books. I also love the movie "Stand By Me," which was based on "The Body." My least favorite story was "The Breathing Method." It felt like it took a long time to get going, but the end was great (and bloody). Overall, I think that some of King's best writing is in these novellas.

1. The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood

The Blind Assassin opens with these simple, resonant words: "Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge." They are spoken by Iris, whose terse account of her sister's death in 1945 is followed by an inquest report proclaiming the death accidental. But just as the reader expects to settle into Laura’s story, Atwood introduces a novel-within-a-novel. Entitled The Blind Assassin, it is a science fiction story told by two unnamed lovers who meet in dingy backstreet rooms. When we return to Iris, it is through a 1947 newspaper article announcing the discovery of a sailboat carrying the dead body of her husband, a distinguished industrialist. Brilliantly weaving together such seemingly disparate elements, Atwood creates a world of astonishing vision and unforgettable impact.
Review: Ten days after the end of World War II, Iris's sister, Laura, drove Iris's car off a bridge. Now, fifty years later, Iris is telling the story of what really happened to Laura.  
I don't know why it took me so long to get around to reading this book. I've read almost all of Margaret Atwood's books, and this one is now one of my favorites. This book totally deserves its Booker Prize. Only a massively talented author could write a book with a structure this intricate. Margaret Atwood also develops characters better than any other author I've ever read. This book is long (643 pages), but it felt as if the plot moved faster than the plots in some of Atwood's other books. I really enjoyed it.

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