End of the Year Reading and Bill's Best Books for 2012

My Christmas-week reading this year included a couple of novels and a provocative memoir by one of my favorite novelists.

Sweet Tooth is by Ian McEwan. I enjoyed his earlier book, Atonement, a few years ago so when the e-book edition of Sweet Tooth became available through my local library I downloaded a copy.

“Serena Frome” is the daughter of an English bishop who finds herself in college in the 1970s studying math, which gives her no real satisfaction. Her true love is books, from the classics to trash fiction (a woman after my own heart!)

A torrid affair with a well-known civil official ends with his death but not before he has arranged for Serena to work with the British Secret Service, whose ranks are (grudgingly) beginning to open to women. For her first “real” assignment she is assigned to convince a promising young writer “Tom Haley,” to accept funding from a fake foundation established by MI5 as a propaganda arm. Serena and Tom fall into a complicated relationship that is plagued by secrecy. The novel is less about espionage than about literature and imagination.

Ian McEwan is a wonderful writer whose complex and often-troubled characters get under your skin. You can’t quite like them but neither can you turn your back on them.

The novelist A.M. Homes was new to me but I now want to go back and read everything she has written. May We Be Forgiven is her latest book. I suppose it could be classified as a domestic tragicomedy. At its center are two brothers, Harry and George Silva. George is a wealthy businessman who is hospitalized after causing a fatal automobile accident. Harry, by contrast, is an historian teaching as an adjunct faculty member who specializes in the study of Richard Nixon. Nixon is a real and constant presence in Harry’s life. While George is in the hospital, Harry moves into George’s home to support George’s wife, Jane and their two children. Harry and Jane have a brief affair. George is released from (or breaks out of) the hospital, goes home, and kills Jane with a lamp. To avoid murder charges, George is institutionalized in a private mental hospital. Harry becomes the parent for two precocious pre-teens, Nate and Ashley.

May We Be Forgiven is a very funny, audacious book. I grew up with John Cheever and John Updike as chroniclers of suburban life. Homes explores similar terrain in a different time. Reading the book I was reminded of John Irving’s The World According to Garp, though Homes is a more empathetic writer. May We Be Forgiven is a fun read, but it is also a novel of redemption. It is my book of the year in fiction.

I am a huge fan of the American novelist Richard Russo, who writes about gritty small towns in the Northeast. He calls his latest book, Elsewhere, a memoir and it is that. We savor his often-moving accounts of Richard’s childhood years in Gloversville, New York, his move to Arizona for higher education and his years as a teacher in Illinois and Maine (at Colby College, my alma mater, though long after I was gone!) and his success as a novelist. At the heart of the book, however, are Gloversville and Russo’s mother, Kate. Gloversville was once a major player in the American leather industry. The leather industry is now largely gone, but the town remains. Richard and his mother share a love-hate relationship with their hometown. They are driven to get away from it while never escaping the fact it continues to shape them long after they have left. Russo’s fictional hometowns of Mohawk, Empire Falls, and Thomaston are in many ways his coming to terms with Gloversville. Kate, Russo’s mother, is a troubled and rather tragic character. Through most of the memoir we are introduced to Kate as a self-centered, difficult person. Toward the end we understand her as the victim of severe mental illness. Russo shows a lot of bravery in revealing his own reactions to his growing sense of how troubled his mother’s life was.

Earlier this year I wrote about another memoir, Townie, by Andre Dubus III (http://www.psr.edu/blog/09-12-2012/summer-reading-2012). The Dubus and Russo volumes, taken together, are windows into a certain segment of the American soul circa 2013.

My non-fiction books of the year for 2012 are Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power (see link in previous paragraph for my review) and Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs (published in 2011, but I didn’t get to it until this year. Here’s the link: http://www.psr.edu/blog/05-08-2012/spring-reading-steve-jobs-walter-isaa... I loved both of these books and find myself thinking about them months after I’ve read them.

It’s a new year. Happy reading!