‘Telegraph Avenue’ by Michael Chabon
Hands down, my favorite of the year. I discovered Michael Chabon at the local library through a first novel called “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.” (It’s difficult to resist a title like that.)
Over the next two decades, he’s won one Pulitzer (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”), written for young adults, contemplated the pitfalls of fatherhood, and this fall dazzled me with “Telegraph Avenue.”
The book is a sort of West Coast “Kavalier and Clay,” both structurally and thematically. It looks at our blended cultures in California – our country’s Western frontier – at the beginning of the new century and through the vinyl world of jazz and soul.
Chabon knows how to tell good stories; in fact, he relishes telling them, straightforwardly at that, even in an 11-page sentence, a sort of parrot’s-eye-view (yep, there’s a parrot) of the novel’s characters halfway through their adventures.
‘The Cat’s Table’ by Michael Ondaatje
A close second to Chabon’s novel. Michael Ondaatje’s exhilarating novel is about coming of age and then so much more. Set in the early 1950s, the novel tells of the passage taken by a very green 11-year-old who is traveling from Ceylon to London. At the “cat’s table,” a collection of “insignificants” contemplate their world very far from the Captain’s Table. It is a marvel to watch Ondaatje’s deceptively simple prose strip events down to their essential truths, only to discover that supposedly essential truths are only partial ones.
‘Ed King’ by David Guterson
The best yet from David Guterson (“Snow Falling on Cedars”), a book that is, I swear, a mesmerizing contemporary retelling of “Oedipus Rex.” It examines the destiny and desire in Sophocles’ play in wholly unexpected ways, especially as Ed King becomes a digital-world guru, and reminds us that we are in control of nothing in our lives and loves.
‘The Leopard’ by Jo Nesbo
Another taut, violent and this time remarkably sensitive crime novel from Jo Nesbo, who first came to international attention with “The Snowman.” Harry Hole (pronounced “hooley”) tracks a killer who, one by one, murders a group who all shared the same cabin on a skiing trip. The investigation will find Harry escaping an avalanche in the frozen north of Norway and negotiating a path through the corruption of steamy Rwanda. It is Dashiell Hammet on steroids, a thriller by one of the best writers working in the genre.
‘The Beginner’s Goodbye’ by Anne Tyler
Aaron, a recent widower, feels that without his admittedly ordinary marriage he simply doesn’t exist. Very movingly, he remarks about life in general: “That was one of the worst things about losing your wife, I found: your wife is the very person you want to discuss it all with.” Then, from the afterlife, his wife, Dorothy, appears to Aaron at unexpected times to talk him through his grief. If there’s an appropriate way to read this beautiful new novel from Pulitzer-Prize-winning Anne Tyler, it is surely on a quiet weekend morning that stretches into an expansive, lazy afternoon.
‘The Cove’ by Ron Rash
Ron Rash, whose relentlessly ferocious novel “Serena” cemented his reputation as one of our best American writers, returns to the Appalachia he has embraced in so many of his works, chronicling another doomed love. One day, Laurel Shelton realizes the music she hears from the cove is something other than that of its South Carolina parakeets. It is a stranger’s burnished silver flute, and it belongs to Walter, who speaks not a word. A relationship develops between Walter and Laurel, for the world of Ron Rash is a severe, lonely one and connections must be embraced, not ignored. Yet that love, even protected by the cove, may not be enough to shield Walter and Laurel from the forces of ignorance and violence.
“Lionel Asbo: State of England” by Martin Amis
In the decades since “The Rachel Papers,” Martin Amis has served as the conscience of our world. At one time, The New York Times even christened him “fiction’s angriest writer.”
That anger is still very much in evidence in “Lionel Asbo: State of England.” While he is contentedly in jail once again, the loutish Lionel wins the national lottery, and he is forced to deal with his own “legitimacy” and what that could actually mean. Yet the book is surprisingly tender as well, a kind of odious “David Copperfield” or “Great Expectations.”
OK, OK, this is an admittedly personal list. Nothing on it that might appeal to you? Maybe it’s time to take another look at your personal favorite. Isn’t there a dog-eared copy of it around the house—or on your Kindle?
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University and a regular book reviewer for the Anniston Star.