Book Review:
Two decades of favorites

Dee's list of top novels/short stories over 20 years

Dee Wilson, 2022

I don't claim the following list are the best novels/ short stories of the past 20 years; I don't read enough novels to make that kind of sweeping claim. Still, I don't read many good novels, much less great ones despite reading a fair amount of fiction.  It's a tough genre, and most novelists with big reputations fail more than they succeed. When I'm ready to reread a novel/story collection because I keep thinking about it, the book gets on my list:  

 

  • A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, a novel I avoided reading for years due to the title, which I mistakenly thought indicated rampant violence.  The "goon squad" is decay and death. This is one of the few novels I regard as inspired, far beyond intelligent. The last page of the novel is worth reading several times as Egan points to a mysterious sound which is a physical embodiment of the sacred. This sound is not fictional, which Egan understands.  

  • The Locals by Jonathan Dee, a much underrated novelist. This novel is about a billionaire's takeover of a failing small community in the Northeast. It is possibly the best novel I've ever read re social resentment. The first 50 pages are hard to get through, but from that point the novel soars into greatness. 

  • The Olive Kittredge novels and Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout, one of the few American writers who deserves to be called wise. Strout's main characters are cranky, difficult women with insight; and she is a discerning observer of social manners. Her interlinked stories resonate like great music. 

  • The Infinities by John Banville, which is about the interference of Olympian gods in the lives of the family of a dying physicist.  Banville's gods copulate with humans, and are frequently mischief makers, but they have divided purposes and different ways of helping or hurting humans.  Banville is sometimes described by critics as "cold," though I do not view this characteristic as a deficit in novelists. 

  • Aunt Hagar's Children by E.P. Jones, a great short story writer, about African American characters who live in Washington D.C.  Jones' range of characters and themes, and the complexity of his moral vision, are extraordinary.  

  • Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart, about a young child growing up with an alcoholic mother in Scotland. This was a painful book for me to read as I grew up with an alcoholic parent, but the writing is so terrific I frequently reread pages and sections. Stuart has unlimited talent, but whether he can escape the power of his own personal story remains to be seen. 

  • Olav Audunsson: Vows by Sigrid Undset, written in the early 1900s by one of the world's greatest novelists; translated by Tina Nunnally in 2020, the first book in a trilogy re 13th century Denmark, is one of the most intense novels I've ever read. It is a fascinating account of social mores in the Middle Ages in Northern Europe, and a great novel regarding the psychology of moral development in any age.  

  • Deacon King Kong by James McBride is a comic novel about an elderly church deacon in New York City who shoots a drug dealer in the head and then forgets his action, with surprising consequences. McBride is street smart, academic smart, and occasionally inspired and even wise, an unusual combination of cognitive and emotional strengths. This novel was pure pleasure to read. McBride is the author of a great memoir, The Color of Water, about his Jewish mother (Polish heritage) and African American father(s) and siblings. McBride's fiction varies greatly in quality, but at his best he's tremendous. 

  • Subdivision by J. Robert Lennon, a metaphysical mystery about a young woman with fading memories who takes up residence in a bed and breakfast run by two former judges, both named Clara, one compassionate, the other judgmental in a weird little town. Lennon has written the best crafted, most ingenious and philosophically interesting account of the bardo, i.e., the passage from death to rebirth I've ever come across. I read this novel, then reread it with underlining and read a couple of chapters a third time. This short novel is an American classic, to date virtually ignored, but destined to be discovered in future years. This is another inspired book, a rare species of novel.     
     

-- Dee Wilson

 

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