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Check It Out

Courier Article by Pam Locker
Sunday, January 16, 2005

Fiction Choices Represent Some of "Best" Reading

After poring over the year-end best books lists, I came to the conclusion that I was woefully behind in my fiction reading. There was no remedy but to spend some time over the holidays catching up. These titles have all appeared on various "best" lists, including that of the venerable "New York Times Book Review."

Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler (Alfred A. Knopf).

I've read practically every book Tyler has ever written. She is a wise, witty, and sympathetic chronicler of human behavior. Her latest follows Michael and Pauline from their hurried WW II romance, through marriage, child rearing, career building, divorce, death, and more. Often laugh-out-loud funny.

The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco).

Oates is another author who I follow. The Falls is a sprawling novel that explores politics, religion, and class through a plot based on the Love Canal incident, where neighborhoods and schools were built on top of a failed New York canal that had been filled in with industrial hazardous waste. Lawyer Dirk Burnaby and his wife Ariah are somewhat quirky, but sympathetic, characters who love and live passionately.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

In Robinson's first fiction since the award winning Housekeeping in 1981, she uses the device of a novel to record all her hard-earned and wise observations about living a good life. Seventy-six year old John Ames, a Gilead, Iowa, preacher as well as the son and grandson of preachers, is dying, so he writes down an account of himself and his "begats" to leave to his young son. Slow-moving but worth the effort.

I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

This best-selling 688- page opus by the journalist turned novelist (who has a Yale PhD in American Studies) is a rollicking read that's not meant for the faint-hearted. It chronicles in scatological detail the harrowing freshman year of an innocent scholarship student at a fictitious elite Eastern university. Wolfe, the father of two college-aged children, started researching this book in 1998 and claims it's a pretty realistic depiction of the ongoing drunken orgy that seems an integral part of contemporary college life. Food for thought.

Inner Circle by T. C. Boyle (Viking).

If you have seen or are planning to see the Golden Globe nominated movie Kinsey, you must read this deliciously clever novel. Although the movie and book aren't connected, they both deal in graphic detail with the controversial Indiana University zoology professor Alfred A. Kinsey and his Institute for Sex Research. Inner Circle has more depth than the movie and focuses on Kinsey's questionable impact on his associates and their wives as they explore new frontiers.

The Master by Colm Toibin (Scribner).

Toibin obviously steeped himself in every word penned by Henry James – as well as everything ever written about him – before composing this work. Since James, the nineteenth century scion of a wealthy East coast intellectual family, spent his adult life in the great capitals of Europe, this novel is textured with rich characters and even richer backgrounds. It's a good introduction to the author of Portrait of a Lady, Daisy Miller, and other classic novels.

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin).

What if Nazi supporter and isolationist Charles A. Lindbergh had defeated FDR by a landslide in the Presidential election of 1940? Would America have cut off supplies and equipment to the Allies and begun an effort to deal with its own Jewish citizens? Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Roth explores this scary alternative reality through the eyes of a Newark family.

The Runaway by Alice Munro (Alfred A. Knopf).

Canadian author Alice Munro's short stories have earned numerous awards and, indeed, she is considered a master of the genre. In this, her eleventh collection, she continues to explore the lives of women beset by chance and circumstance. The title story is the first of three that follow the major happenings in the existence of a girl named Juliet. One ends this collection with a sense of the ultimate smallness of all our lives.

Snow by Orhan Pamuk (Alfred A. Knopf).

Here's another novel that questions one's ultimate importance. Turkish novelist Pamuk slowly unfolds this atmospheric tale during a blizzard that even further secludes the already isolated Russian border town of Kars. When aspiring poet Ka returns from political exile in Frankfort for his mother's funeral, he gets caught up in a web of political and religious turmoil. We feel Ka's emotions as he attempts to gain some happiness and worth in this challenging world.

Pam Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.