Posts Tagged ‘A Little Life’

bookwrapComing  up with a year-end list of favorite books is a piece of cake for me. They’re the same books I’ve been wrapping up as presents for my favorite people. Fa la la la!

One is my 2014 top book — Emily St. John Mandel’s beautifully written Station Eleven, now out in paperback. A dystopian novel, for sure, but also a hopeful one. I gave it 5 stars — “amazing” –on Goodreads, something I rarely do. This year, for example, my only 5-star rating went to Hanya Yanagihara’s  novel A Little Life, which was both tragic and triumphant in its depiction of friendship over time, the ways in which the past impinges on the present. Dark and immersive, it was often as hard to read as it was to put down. I first read it as a digital galley, so I’m giving it to myself for Christmas. (Last year, I gave myself Station Eleven).

littlelifeAs to what books I’m giving to others, one of my friends from Maryland gets Anne Tyler’s latest Baltimore novel, A Spool of Blue Thread. Gently comic, it recounts the story of the Whitshank family, whose members charm and exasperate with their mild eccentricities as they negotiate domestic life. Tyler has such a gift for illuminating ordinary lives so they seem extraordinary.

I’m giving J. Ryan Stradal’s wonderful first novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest to a friend who knows her way around a kitchen and also appreciates fine fiction. It’s about young chef Eva Thorvald, and “about” is the operative word. Each chapter reads like a short story told from the perspective of someone linked to Eva, including her chef spoolfather, a high school boyfriend, a jealous member of her supper club, and a woman whose peanut butter bars are snubbed by foodies but not by Eva. A few delicious-sounding recipes are included but it’s the words you’ll devour. I did.

Another friend who’s already read Stradal’s novel is going to get The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra, who wrote A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon. This collection of interwoven stories is just as lyrical and poignant. It begins in the 1930s with a Russian artist working as  a censor under Stalin, who becomes obsessed with a painting of a prima ballerina. The ballerina appears in a later story, while others feature soldiers, prisoners, brothers connected by places or Kitchensphotographs, families and memories, and one particular painting. The book came out in October, but I’m just getting to it. I can’t read everything, you know, which is why I always read other year-end lists, looking for what I might want to read next. Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, which is a favorite of many, including President Obama, is next on my list.

Back to wrapping. The magical fairy tale of a novel, Uprooted by Naomi Norvik, will go to a fantasy fan, and I’ll also tell her about Sarah Prineas’ Ash & Bramble, another once-upon-a-time retelling I read recently. Erin Bow’s The Scorpion Rules is the first in a series called Prisoners of Peace, and will appeal to readers of The Hunger Games and Divergent.

tsaruprootedI read so many good mysteries and thrillers this year that I could wrap into the New Year. Terrific new series entries from Laura Lippman, Walter Mosley, James Lee Burke, Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky, plus stand-alones from Karin Slaughter and Paula Hawkins. I began the year with Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train and I’m ending it on another high note with Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May and the Burning Man, both funny and timely.

And time to wrap this up. Oh, so many books, so little time. Wishing you book-filled holidays. Fa la la la–la la la!

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littlelifeOh, my. I can’t remember when I last read a book so immersive as A Little Life (Doubleday, digital galley), the kind that makes you oblivious to the world around you because the story becomes your reality.  Hanya Yanagihara’s beautifully written second novel is both tragic and triumphant in its depiction of friendship over time, the way in which the past impinges on the present. Unafraid of the dark, it can be as hard to read as it is to put down.

Four culturally diverse college roommates relocate to New York City after graduation to pursue their separate ambitions while still sustaining their bonds. J.B. is the Haitian-American artist who finds success painting portraits of his friends. Malcolm, the bi-racial son of wealthy professionals, searches for love and happiness as an architect. Willem, kind and compassionate since his boyhood on a Montana ranch, works as a waiter until his talents as an actor are recognized. Then there’s enigmatic Jude, who begins his brilliant ascent as an attorney, and who has never talked about his past nor the trauma that left him physically disabled. Willem, with whom he shares a shabby apartment, is both flattered and perplexed when he overhears Jude saying he tells Willem everything because it just isn’t true.

“In more generous, wondering moments, he imagined Jude as a magician whose sole trick was concealment, but every year, he got better and better at it, so now he only had to bring one wing of the silken cape he wore before his eyes and he would become instantly invisible, even to those who knew him best.”

Skilled at deflecting personal questions and setting boundaries, Jude eventually can’t hide all his secrets, the demons haunting him. He wears long sleeves — always — because he cuts himself, although those scars aren’t nearly as deep as the ones on his back, or the burn mark on his hand. Jude’s horrific childhood of physical and sexual abuse is gradually revealed in heart-wrenching bits and pieces, much in the way memory works. His doctor, Andy, knows some things, and his mentor, Harold, knows others. Willem, whose feelings for Jude intensify over time, witnesses his bouts of extreme pain, the nights when he forsakes bed for the solace of a razor blade. More and more, A Little Life is about Jude, and the love and loyalty he inspires among his friends who struggle to help him.

As a reviewer, I can tell you there are things wrong with this book. At 700-plus pages, it is overly long and sometimes repetitious. Female characters get short shrift; one of the four friends practically disappears from the narrative. On occasion, the perspective shifts abruptly, and time passes with little reference to outside events. I also can tell you, how as a reader, none of this mattered. I love this book.

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