Monday, January 9, 2017

Best Books of 2016

In the order I read them.

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Agota Kristof.  The Notebook.  The Proof.  The Third Lie.
Written in French by a Hungarian writer who fled to Switzerland in 1956, this trilogy takes place in a unnamed country in Eastern Europe (that feels very like Hungary) and is set before, during, and after the fall of Communism.  A stark parable, reminiscent of Kafka, it tells the enigmatic story of twin brothers who live on the border--geographical and psychological between--between truth and lies, proof and negation.  Haunting and evocative; a really best book.

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Alaine Polcz.  One Woman in the War.
This memoir, by a psychologist whose post-war work dealt with ill and dying children, tells the story of a young woman of  Transylvania and her first (devastatingly bad) marriage during World War II.  Writing of her life between 1944 and 1945, Polcz describes how she was forced to leave her home in Kolsovar (now Cluj Romania) when Transylvania was given back to the Romanians, became a refugee in Hungary, and lived through the brutal Soviet invasion in Budapest.  This is an unexpected, illuminating, but extremely passionate survival story about story of World War II.  (

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Edna O'Brien.  The Little Red Chairs.
A haunting novel that begins in Ireland and then moves The Hague.  The story of an Irish woman who unwittingly falls in love with a war crimminal and mass murderer, it deals with communal and personal guilt.  Based on Radovan Karadizic, the Butcher of Bosnia, the title alludes to the 20th anniversary memorial to the Siege of Sarajevo:  11,541 empty red chairs which commemorate the lives of the victims.  More than 600 of the chairs are little, for the children who were killed.. 

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Elena Ferrante.  My Brilliant Friend.  Plus The Story of a New Name.  Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Lost Child.  Also by Elena Ferrante.  These four books, sometimes called the Neopolitan Books, narrate the story of two friends from a lower-class neighborhood in Naples between the 1950s and the present.  The nature of the friendship is a complex combination of rivalry, distrust, love, and dependence. Meeting in the elementary school, the girls paths divide when one, the narrator also named Elena, goes to high school and eventually to university, while the other named Leni, stays in the neighborhood which she spends her life fighting.  They were  published a couple of years apart, one to the other.  I read them all in a row (trying to catch up with my book group who had progressed to the fourth).  Reading them straight like that might not have been the best strategy, because they are very intimate and very intense.  They are very highly regarded and, even though I occasionally got tired of Elena's voice or of the high intensity of the women's relationshhip, I recommend them as an innovative and deeply felt story about women's lives.


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Julian Barnes.  The Noise of Time.  I wrote about this book here.  A collection of three moments in the life of the Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich.   Not a biography but a fictional reflection on the relation of music and history.

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Svetlana Alexievich.  Secondhand Time.
Comprised of interviews with ordinary Russians between 1991 and 2012, this extraordinary books narrates Russia after Communism.  The stories are strange, unexpected, tragic, and compelling,  Oral history as great Russian literature.

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Magda Szabo  Iza's Ballad.  Another book by the great Hungarian author who also wrote The Door.  About a mother whose life is defined by her family and her village, and a daughter who has become a physician and moved to Budapest.  Iza brings her mother to the city in order to save her after the father and husband dies, but their deep misunderstanding of the other's nature makes the move a disaster.  A deeply felt and beautifully written novel about understanding and the inability to love.

#novels
#BestBooksOf2016

Monday, January 2, 2017