2009 will be remembered as the Year of High Anxiety. That’s my bet. This country, the whole world, is tense. Ethnic conflicts popping off nearly every other day, wars continuing to grind up bodies and dollar bills. Teabaggers on the right proclaiming President Obama the new Hitler. And acolytes of Alex Jones shouting that Obama’s just the new face of the same old New World Order. Folks are in a mood. And journalists of all kinds—print, web, and cable—are reporting on that mood all day and night. What do Americans really feel about the public health care debate? “Well, they’re for a public option, but they’re soft on this public option, but one thing’s for sure…they’re nervous.” The anxiety itself has become their lead story. But, of course, a mood isn’t news. A mood isn’t a story. It’s just a context.
And yet I found myself falling victim to that same context this year. Lots of new responsibilities, making solid plans for the future and all that jibber jabber. Lots of reasons to be a little off balance. Lots of reasons to need a little help staying stable. For me that meant I read a lot of books by storytellers this year. You know what I mean. Not writers. Storytellers. I’m not disparaging one, just suggesting that different medicines treat different ills. So I’d just like to call out—and recommend!—some particularly wonderful tales that I read this year.
1) Marlon James – The Book of Night Women: Lilith is the central character of this amazing epic. Her mother dies giving birth to her and Lilith is largely left to raise herself on the Montpelier Estate. She toils through all manner of labor for years. Eventually she joins a clandestine society on the estate, the Night Women.
The Night Women are the true powers on these grounds. Not the men and certainly not the estate’s owners. The Night Women watch and they plan and very soon they will lead an uprising that will tear down the age-old structures of their oppression.
Sounds pretty cool doesn’t it? I’ve studiously avoided mentioning slavery in the description of this novel because I actually want you to pick this book up. I don’t know about you, but when I read that book takes place during slavery my defenses go up immediately. It’s going to be “serious” and “important” and “teach us something” and….oh, I’m sorry, I almost fell asleep.
Part of what makes The Book of Night Women so special is that it doesn’t flinch from the seriousness, the depravity, of the slave experience but the book also acknowledges that slaves were actually just human beings and not born saints. Thus the slaves (and slave owners) in this book are funny and flirty, vulnerable and witty, conniving and jealous. And then those complex characters are placed into an incredibly gripping narrative. What narrative? They’re going to take over Montpelier Estate and kill, kill, kill! What’s not to love?
2) Penelope Fitzgerald – The Bookshop: This isn’t a book that came out this year, but it’s a book I read this year, and I’ve been assured that counts. Besides, I’m always talking this author up when I can. Fitzgerald was an English writer who didn’t start publishing until she was 60. Her books are brief. My version of The Bookshop is only 123 pages. And yet she fits so much life, such great detail and keen observation into the slim volume that you just can’t imagine why anyone writes longer books. What the hell else could there be to say?
The Bookshop is the story of Florence Green, a woman living in a small, rural English town. Florence wants to open a bookshop. That’s it. Really. The novel is about Florence’s determination to do so and the allies and enemies she makes along the way. Chief villain being one Violet Gamart, a leading light in the tiny town, a woman quite used to having things just the way she wants them. And Violet Gamart doesn’t want no bookshop in the building Florence has purchased. She wants an Arts Centre. What possible local arts scene will there be when only about fifty people inhabit the whole damn town? (None of whom are artists.) That’s not the damn point! The point is that an Arts Centre is desired by Violet Gamart.
The Bookshop spins this rather straightforward premise into something profound and touching and quite sad. Luckily, sometimes it’s also hilarious. Fitzgerald’s book only becomes weirder as the pages pile up. There’s a reclusive wealthy neighbor who takes an interest in seeing Florence’s store flourish (and in seeing Violet denied). There’s a young girl, a child really, who takes over the running of Florence’s business because Florence, for all her aspirations, is actually a pretty lousy business person. And there’s also the poltergeist that haunts the store room.
I’m making all this sound flip, but the story is written with such care that you find yourself invested in every aspect of the bookshop’s life. I could go on about the book, but this little write up is in danger of being longer than the novel. All I can promise is that The Bookshop manages to be precise without ever turning precious. Fitzgerald is just one of my favorite writers of all time. She’s kind of a nut. To me, there can be no higher compliment.
Ben Dolnick is the author of Zoology. He lives in Brooklyn with his fiancee and their dog, and is currently at work on a second book.This has been the year of short books for me. I’ve found my concentration running aground on long ones – even great long ones (Independent People, War and Peace, The Man Who Loved Children) – and so I’ve gravitated toward books of two-hundred or even fewer pages. The best have been the novels of Penelope Fitzgerald. In the past few months I’ve read The Gate of Angels, The Bookshop, Innocence and The Beginning of Spring, and each one is a ruthlessly efficient little miracle. Her books are full of characters who reliably say the wrong thing at precisely the wrong moment, who think only of themselves, who fail and fail again – and yet they’re warm, funny, and somehow even cheering. I’ve got the rest of her novels stacked up on my bedside table.More from A Year in Reading 2007