Life After Life: I’m a Kate Atkinson groupie and I love her recent spate of crime novels, but was so glad when she came back to playing with time and family and gnarled old fate in “Life After Life.” Maybe it’s the groupie in me talking, but I feel that Atkinson so rarely gets the kind of ecstatic praise she truly deserves. I think people don’t quite allow themselves to understand how truly brilliant, how landscape-altering her writing is, because it’s commercially successful and hits all of the right notes and has a robust plot. Atkinson walks along the raggedy edge and dips her toes into the sublime. “Life After Life” is a novel of starts and stops on the surface – but the closer you look at it, the more you see that this is the kind of book that takes the idea that the universe is “elegant” and applies it to the novel and wins.
The Passage and The Twelve: Thanks to an agent friend in NY, I fell in love with Justin Cronin this year. His apocalyptic vampire trilogy is fantastic so far, and I can’t wait for the final book. Cronin doesn’t just get horror – he gets people. He gets what it means to bring a child into a terrible, terrible world. I’m a parent – and Cronin hits me where it hurts. He reminds me of the idea that the apocalypse is not some single event fixed in time – rather, its a narrative told and re-told every time an innocent is killed. There is nothing escapist about his writing – the “escapist” label is actually one I truly despise, particularly when it gets slapped onto genuine works of art that grapple with the issues we face every day by utilizing an imaginative set of devices. There is a brilliant paradox at the heart of “The Passage” and “The Twelve,” the idea that a single life is nothing – and everything.
Children of Dust: The dude who blogs under the name Ali Eteraz is someone I consider an online friend – though while I’ve always been a fan of his wonderful writing, there was that performative aspect to it that made me feel resigned to the fact that I’m never going to see him fully. Forget about Russia being a mystery wrapped in an enigma – Eteraz totally has that notion beat. Well, his memoir “Children of Dust,” which came out a few years ago, doesn’t make me feel any closer to “the real Ali Eteraz” – and that doesn’t matter, because I discovered Amir in its pages (Ali Eteraz is a pseudonym, in case you are wondering). I still don’t think the memoir genre exists so that we can cozy up to the author – but damn, I felt close to Amir. And I loved “Children of Dust” for its cleverness, it’s humor, the longing contained within its pages, the philosophical debate the memoir has with itself. There are brilliant snapshots of Pakistan, the States, the Arabian desert. There is much sadness and joy and masks getting ripped off and new masks showing through – and the kind of artistic daring that people in the West rarely associate with Islam (which is a huge oversight, incidentally).
The Silent Land: Although this book also has the kind of robust plot structure I am a fan of, what it reveals in the end isn’t nearly as important as the way in which it portrays marriage and the transience of physical existence. This is the kind of writing that I would compare to a symphony that features this second track, this gentle murmur about death and dying and atoms coming apart and love being the only thing there is.