For most working people, reading means stockpiling books for a few good weekends, or clearing away some evening hours each week and giving the night over to focusing weary workaday eyes on the page. So when I ask myself which five new works of fiction did I enjoy the most during this past year, I make "enjoy" the operative word. Reading shouldn't be work; it should be pleasure, even as it teaches us something about ourselves or about the world of history and time. (In fact, I enjoyed a sixth book so much that I sneaked it in here where only five should be.) Here's my list:
Lavinia, by Ursula K. Le Guin, hardcover, 288 pages
Ursula Le Guin's Lavinia dramatizes the events leading up to the founding of Rome, mainly through the story of the title character, an 18-year-old virgin princess whose fabled betrothal to the defeated Trojan warrior Aeneas is mentioned in Virgil's Aeneid. (In fact, it was Le Guin's reading of Virgil that gave birth to this novel, and its pages are haunted by the ghost of the great Latin poet.)
Since escaping from his fallen home city of Troy, Aeneas has put behind him the deep (literally) dying love of Queen Dido of Carthage, and is about to make landfall with his small fleet of ships in order to found a new city. Those readers familiar with the Aeneid already know this background, but for those who haven't read the epic, the briefing the ghost of Virgil gives to Lavinia in these pages serves that purpose. The ghostly recap is a neat trick — one of many that show off the great talent of Le Guin, who has come up through the ranks of genre fiction and now — in a journey she began years ago — takes her place in the mainstream.
World Made By Hand, James Kunstler, hardcover, 336 pages
James Kunstler's World Made By Hand is set a few decades along into the 21st century in Union Grove, N.Y., a hamlet not very far north of Albany. Terrorist bombs have destroyed a number of major cities, and the oil supply has run out. But as Robert Earle, the narrating protagonist of the book, points out, it doesn't do anyone any good to look back at all they have lost. A former software company executive turned carpenter, Earle has somehow come to terms with the loss of his family to illness and despair and with the disaster that America has become. He even enjoys the world without electricity and gasoline: "The tranquility was pleasing," he tells us, "despite what it signified about what had happened to our society."
But things don't remain tranquil for long: Earle finds himself a witness to a murder and takes a dangerous trip on horseback down to Albany (which Earle describes as having become once again "a frontier town") to search for some missing Union Grove boatmen. That in the end, Kunstler's brilliant, cautionary fiction convinces us that this brave new world is at least as unpredictably pleasing as our own — well, that is quite a creation in itself.
The Wasted Vigil, by Nadeem Aslam, hardcover, 336 pages
Afghanistan after Sept. 11 is the setting for The Wasted Vigil, by award-winning Pakistani-born British writer Nadeem Aslam. A number of fascinating characters gather in a villa in the countryside near a town currently being fought over by two warlords: Marcus, a widowed, one-handed British physician who, for decades, attended to the needs of the local population; David, a pensive former CIA agent; Lara, a Russian woman determined to find news of her late brother; and, finally, Casa, an Islamic fanatic passing as a casualty of war.
Aslam's vision of contemporary Afghanistan is enlightening, if given to pessimism. David, the ex-spook, meditates on the subject: "What did they, the Americans, really know about such parts of the world, of the layer upon layer of savagery that made them up? They had arrived in these places without realizing how fragile were the defenses that most people had erected against cruelty and degradation here. Conducting a life with the light of a firefly ..." Aslam's light shines brightly, but the misery, hypocrisy, fear and hopelessness it reveals was almost more than I could take. This novel makes The Kite Runner seem like a Hallmark greeting card.
Wolf Totem, by Jiang Rong (translated by Howard Goldblatt), hardcover, 544 pages
When Jiang Rong's first novel was initially published in China in 2004, it became an immediate best-seller, with over 2 million copies in print. Recently, Wolf Totem won the 2007 Man Asia Prize for fiction.
You don't have to read very far to discover why this book has made such a splash: Just before the Cultural Revolution, a young agricultural student from Beijing named Chen Zhen travels to Inner Mongolia — a dense world of horses, sheep, grass, snow and wolves — to learn the ropes of grassland farming. Soon thereafter, he begins to speculate about the wisdom of China's attempts to bureaucratize this ancient nomadic culture.
Before it's over, Rong's novel becomes a passionate eulogy to this once ferocious and far-flung way of life, at the center of which is the lupine predator of the grasslands. The book has its longueurs (particularly a section about Chen Zhen's raising of a wolf cub), but for the most part, the novel brilliantly executes its story, and we watch with horror as the larger Chinese culture encroaches on this muscle-tough — but ecologically fragile — 2,000-year-old way of life. Five hundred bloody and instructive pages later, you just want to stand up and howl.
Lost in Uttar Pradesh, by Evan Connell, hardcover, 384 pages
Best known as the author of Mrs. Bridge (a book made into the popular film starring Paul Newman), Kansas City, Mo., native Evan Connell has also produced a shelf full of varied and unusual short stories. His collection of stories, Lost in Uttar Pradesh, belies the tension between the author's memories of his Midwestern home-ground and his longing for more exotic lands. "There's a town called Ronda," Connell writes, "that is built along a precipice ... and ... when he looked over the edge he could feel his face growing damp. He was puzzled because the sky was blue. Then he realized that spray was blowing up the cliff from the river. It was so quiet, he said, that all he heard was wind through the barranca and he was gazing down at two soaring hawks ..." In passages such as this, Connell takes us all traveling.
Shadow Country, by Peter Matthiessen, hardcover, 912 pages
Peter Matthiessen's Shadow Country, which won the 2008 National Book Award for fiction, is a revised, condensed (and retitled) version of a trilogy the author published in the 1990s. The novel takes place in the early 20th century on the western Florida frontier, which Matthiessen explores in all of its watery, mythological and intensely psychological glory. The focus is on the life and legend of Everglades farmer and outlaw E.J. Watson, a character certainly large and dangerous enough to fill the book's 900 pages. As the novel opens, a gathering of men wait for Watson, ready to take the law into their own hands. Pick up this book and open it, and you'll be taking up some grand winter reading into your own hands.