Tim Winton

My Reading Year: Best of 2014

I wondered as the year began—my first as a full-time writer—if I would have much time to read, if I could afford the time away from writing. One hundred and thirteen books later, I no longer wonder. The more I write, the more reading has become essential to my writing, as I chronicled earlier this year: If You Don't Have Time to Read.  

This has been the most astonishing and revelatory year of reading for this writer, ever. A year which saw me read my first Virginia Woolf and Sherman Alexie and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; discover Francesca Marciano, Rene Denfeld, and Leanne O'Sullivan; and be rewarded again by Tim Winton, Colm Tóibín, Niall Williams, and Margaret Atwood. So many books touched me, tore me open, provided delight, and a very few that just didn't connect. It happens.

 

Some stats: Female/Male Authors: 57/56; Memoir: 11; Poetry: 4 (oh, my reading goal for 2015 is to triple this!); Writing Craft: 6; Religion/Philosophy: 7; Young Adult: 5; Food/Wine: 1; Mystery/Suspense: 7; History/Reference: 6; Essays: 3. The rest, sixty-three if I did my math correctly, would be literary fiction, including seven short story collections.

 

I've pasted excerpts from my Goodreads reviews in the list below.10885357_10203486144010376_5329045514422083153_n

 

NON-FICTION

This was the Year of the Memoir for me and three very different memoirs stand out:

 

Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr (2013)

Food is one of the most vibrant reflections of culture, and when cultural trends shift, shed and shake, those who influence our taste buds must shift with it, or be pushed back to the dark corners of the kitchen cabinets with the jello molds and fondue pots. Provence, 1970 shows how some of our greatest food icons reconciled their beliefs in the superiority of all things French with the inevitable change in American tastes.

 

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff (2014)

At its tender heart, My Salinger Year is a coming of age tale of a writer and an ode to being young and sort-of single in New York, living in an unheated apartment in Williamsburg and taking the subway to Madison Avenue to speak in plummy, tweedy tones with other underpaid literati. It is a gloriously, unabashedly nostalgic memoir and utterly charming.

 

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch (2011)

This isn't for everyone. Some will read and be exasperated or disgusted or disbelieving. I get that. I get that chaos and promiscuity and addiction are ugly and life is too short to waste reading about someone else's tragedy and self-destructive behavior. But something about this story—the goddamn gorgeous language, the raw power of its brutality—gave me so much comfort and solace. In Yuknavitch's word embrace, I felt the magic of self-acceptance and self-love, and the crazy-wonderful beauty of life.

 

FICTION

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)

Race in America is an uncomfortable subject, mostly for white Americans. We still don't know where to look or what to do with our hands. We fidget and prevaricate. We, like blond-haired, blue-eyed, wealthy, liberal Kimberley in Americanah, use euphemisms like "beautiful" when we refer to black women so that everyone will know that not only are we not racist, but we think blacks are particularly worthy of our praise. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reflects our beliefs and behaviors back on us, illuminating our silliness and our masquerades, our ignorance and our misguided, but earnest attempts to understand the impossible: what it's like to be something other than white in this race-anxious society.

 

Life Drawing by Robin Black (2014)

Perfidy in marriage is a tried and true theme. Perhaps even time-worn. Oh, but not in Robin Black's hands. Her craft is brilliant. In a year when I have read some massive tomes (e.g. The Luminaries, Goldfinch, Americanah), Black's sheer economy of word and image is powerful and refreshing. Yet there is nothing spare in her syntax. Her sentences are gorgeous:

The day is thinning into darkness, the light evaporating, so the fat, green midsummer trees not fifty feet away seem to be receding, excusing themselves from the scene.

and

Bill and I had been tender with each other in the way only lovers with stolen time can sustain. Even in parting, gentle, gentle, gentle, like the tedious people who must unwrap every present slowly, leaving the paper entirely intact.

 

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld (2014)

There are few writers who can wrest hope from the pit of horror with such eloquence. I think of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, who chronicled their Holocaust experiences, or Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison showing us the wretchedness of slavery and Jim Crow. These writers compel us to bear witness to humanity's darkest hours with beautiful language. With the same poignant but unsentimental style, Rene Denfeld applies a tender, humane voice to the hopelessness of prison and death row. She pries open our nightmares, releasing mystical creatures as symbols that help us understand our complex, real fears.

 

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014)

Anthony Doerr’s prose is lovely. It pirouettes with grace on the fine line between lush and lyrical, flirting with magical realism, but never leaving solid ground. The imagination it takes to bring a reader into the head of a blind child learning to navigate her world so that we see, feel, smell, and hear as she does is breathtaking. The ability to evoke empathy without tumbling into sentimentality is admirable. The weaving together of so many scientific and historical details so that the reader is spellbound instead of belabored is nothing short of brilliant.

 

Redeployment by Phil Klay (2014)

These are masterfully crafted stories of war. Phil Klay walks in the footsteps of Tim O’Brien, Ernest Hemingway, and Wilfred Owen before him, but with a vision all his own. What elevates these stories above voyeurism and shock value is his pitch perfect writing. Klay's ear for dialogue, his eye for detail—offering just enough poetry in his prose to seduce, but not to saturate—and the immediacy and emotion of his characters’ voices reveal the power this young writer wields with his pen.

 

The Other Language by Francesca Marciano (2014)

As a reader and writer for whom place is nearly as important as character, I was delighted to find that Marciano speaks my language. From her native Rome to a haute couture boutique in Venice, from an old bakery turned House Beautiful in Puglia, to post-colonial Kenya, a remote village in Greece, central India, or to New York City, Marciano shows us how place defines character, and how travel strips us of our inhibitions and sometimes, our conscience.

 

Cailleach: The Hag of Beara by Leanne O'Sullivan (2009)

This slim volume of sensuous poetry takes the supernatural myths behind the Hag's many lives and distills them to human form, presenting a woman in love, not with gods from the sea, but with a humble fisherman. O'Sullivan's images are full of longing of the body and mind, emotional resonance woven with sensual pleasures.

 

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín (2014)

As readers, we often gravitate toward lives played out on a grander scale—adventures, dalliances, crimes, and misdemeanors far more colorful than our own. But reader, if you haven’t experienced the transcendent storytelling of Ireland’s Colm Tóibín, you may not know what it’s like to feel the earth tilt with the most subtle of emotional tremors.

 

History of the Rain by Niall Williams (2014)

This is a book to savor, slowly and delicately. It pokes gentle, meta, self-mocking fun at the conventions of novel structure. If you are a reader who expects tidy packages of chronological storytelling, plot points, and story arcs, give this a try. You might be surprised what beauty can be woven outside the confines of the Fiction 101 blogosphere. And read with a notebook by your side, because you'll want to make note of each volume Ruth references in her vast library—it's a primer on Western literature's greatest works of poetry and prose. Tissues would be good, too. I reckon you won't make it through this with dry eyes.

 

Eyrie by Tim Winton (2014)

Eyrie is a vertiginous wobble through lives disintegrated by the slow acid drip of despair and addiction, held together by the thinnest strands of determination, survival, and devotion. Winton, like Cormac McCarthy, Louise Erdrich, Colm Toibin, Edna O'Brien, is a writer-poet. His prose has such density and texture; it is sensual and viscous. Australian vernacular is particularly rich, to the point of cloying, and Winton uses it to demonstrate the sharp class divides in this country that we think of as a model of social egalitarianism.

 

My last full read of the year was  Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. I'm still haven't found the words to describe it, either as a book or as a reading experience, so I won't even try. I'll just keep reading.

 

Happy New Year to All!

 

 

Book Review: Short Stories: Tim Winton, Julie Orringer

Two short story collections, two very different reactions. The Turning: StoriesThe Turning: Stories by Tim Winton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This collection of seventeen stories, set in the fictional Western Australia whaling town of Angelus, shows ordinary people searching for redemption in their broken, mismatched, violent and tedious lives. Tim Winton, with raw and beautiful prose, asks you not to flinch or to forgive but to witness these characters and their choices, and to draw your own conclusions about the future of their souls.

Nine of these stories focus on the Lang family. In no chronological order, we see the turmoil that besets the Langs, mostly through the eyes of Vic, as an adolescent, a young man, a father and husband. By shifting chronology, narrative voice and character perspective, Winton gives us a 360 view of a community, a family and a man.

Other stories intertwine, as well. The gut-twisting The Turning show us characters as adults- the broken bully Max Leaper and his wife, Raelene, who is searching for a way out of herself. We then encounter Max and his brother as boys in Sand and again as adults in Family, where redemption arrives in a flash of copper hide and gnashing teeth.

It's difficult to recommend individual stories, particularly when so much is to be gained from reading the sum. Each moved me, though the longer stories, such as Boner McPharlin's Moll; Small Mercies; Long, Clear View and Commission resonated more deeply because of greater character development.

Tim Winton, in novel and in short story, writes about families. Neither politics nor history lessons interest him. Winton writes to show the extraordinary within the most ordinary. He has a particular brilliance with the perspectives of children, capturing their wisdom and sensitivity and showing them at play and in pain, with tenderness and clarity.

The writing in this collection is more personal than Cloudstreet, his epic family tale, and is completely absent of the mysticism that shimmers at the edges of The Riders and Cloudstreet. It is natural, flowing and flawless.

View all my reviews How to Breathe UnderwaterHow to Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Orringer writes with confidence, but without much passion. These nine stories are perfectly constructed, and the author has a keen ear for natural dialogue, but with few exceptions, I was not moved by the characters or their dilemmas.

In each, whether the voice is first or third person (even, in the case of Note to Sixth-Grade Self, second person), the protagonist is a young girl or a coming of age adolescent. Each faces a significant loss- either of a loved one or of innocence. Very high marks to Pilgrims, a subtle homage to Lord of the Flies, and Note to Sixth-Grade Self; these stories spill out the inherent, almost innocent cruelty of children. Shrugs to Stars of Motown Shining Bright and The Smoothest Way Is Full of Stones, both centered on characters discovering and exploring their sexual selves, and When She Is Old and I Am Famous, which was entertaining but empty.

Less than the themes, which did not always resonate with me, was Orringer's writing. It's very modern and linear, clean and sharp. I admire this, but there was no place to escape and rest for a moment. The Isabel Fish and Care came very close, as the characters slipped quietly into depression or a drug-induced high. But those weren't places where I wanted to linger.

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Book Review: Cloudstreet, Tim Winton

CloudstreetCloudstreet by Tim Winton My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tim Winton is a most spiritual writer. It's shameful in a world of bloated, overachieving prose that screams to the top of best-selling lists that someone as connected to the forces of nature and the foibles of man should be so little known.

Cloudstreet chronicles the aching, bitter, crude, and sweet fortunes of two Australian families, the Lambs and the Pickles, from 1944-64. Brought together by need, greed, tragedy and a mysterious Other, the families' stories collide and spring away over the years. They live in the same rotting mansion, separated by thin walls and different ambitions. The families' regard for each other alternates between disgust and wonder, passion and forgiveness as their children and their backwater state of Western Australia grow up and away.

Winton tells the classic tale of messy, intolerable families- how each is a unique disaster and a treasure. But this is no ordinary familial saga. Winton's writing is in a class of its own. He is fearless -- calmly and confidently taking the reader from literal, linear storytelling to a subtle state of magical realism.

This is an unforgettable book, both for its content and its style. I was struck by the universality of his themes and the recognizable nature of his characters. These working class families would be at home in Appalachia, the timber forests of Oregon, the fishing villages of the north Atlantic Coast. Mr. Winton must be a national treasure in Australia. We'd do well to show him a larger welcome mat here in North America.

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