Seattle Times book editor Mary Ann Gwinn shares a list of “exquisite, moving, challenging novels that never quite achieved liftoff in terms of reader attention and critical acclaim” but perch firmly on her “best” list.
I’ve been the book editor at this newspaper for 18 years, and I’ve gotten accustomed to the rhythms of publishing. The industry lines up its plans for its “big” books early. They get advance copies out months ahead of time, they line up author readings and appearances, they position ad campaigns, they bend the ears of willing booksellers. If they are lucky, positive reviews and sales follow. By Thanksgiving, it’s mostly over.
Usually I scramble to stay on top of this wave, but this fall I did something different — I took a couple of months off and devoted some of it to reading novels. I discovered some hidden gems — exquisite, moving, challenging novels that never quite achieved liftoff in terms of reader attention and critical acclaim.
Here is my list of hidden gems. Some address the biggest challenges fate can throw at humans. Some are quiet tales of heroism. They are all among my favorite books of this year, or any year:
“Miss Jane” by Brad Watson (Norton). In early 20th-century Mississippi, a baby girl is born with a genital birth defect that means a lifetime of incontinence and virtual certainty that she will never have intercourse, or marry. What does Jane do? She survives and she abides — her condition both isolates and strengthens her.
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Watson tells this story with such tenderness, sensitivity and grace, at times I just wanted to weep. A cast of supporting characters — Miss Jane’s physician, her befuddled and hard-pressed parents, her tough-as-nails sister — enrich a story I would never have guessed could make such a beautiful novel. A writing teacher at the University of Wyoming, Watson says he based it on the life of one of his great aunts, and went through 30 drafts to get it right. He did.
“Imagine Me Gone” by Adam Haslett(Little, Brown). This novel attracted admiring reviews when it came out this fall, but it deserves a wider audience because of the power of its writing and because of its subject — the effect of mental illness on a family, specifically, a depressed father’s suicide and its aftermath.
Haslett creates an unforgettable ensemble: John, the tormented father; Margaret, the stoic and long-suffering mother; and the kids — Celia, the practical social worker who tries to keep the family on course; Alec, a sensitive, idealistic and ambitious journalist.
But the storm swirls around the older brother — Michael, a brilliant, erratic mess, who has inherited his father’s torments. Haslett’s portrayal of Michael as he spirals out of control, and of his family’s dogged attempts to help him break out of his obsessive behavior, will ring with crystalline clarity for anyone whose family has grappled with serious mental illness.
The New York Times said of Haslett’s family portrayal: “We feel precisely what they feel — the frustration, the protectiveness, the hope and fear and, yes, the obligation.” This book is tragic, no question — but it’s also poignant, tender and funny.
“News of the World” by Paulette Jiles(Morrow). This book was a National Book Award finalist, so it’s gotten its share of acclaim, but I have to mention it because 1. It might be the best story I read this year and 2. It’s set in Texas, and I want to encourage all my blue-state friends to read it anyway.
Jiles picks up a character from a previous novel — Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a veteran of three wars, from the War of 1812 to the Civil War. Kidd makes his way in the world by reading newspapers out loud to frontier dwellers eager for news and distraction (Kidd is interested in the news; his listeners are more interested in distraction).
Then he is enlisted to return a 10-year-old white girl to her family. Johanna, who was captured by the Kiowas as a very young girl, has been living with them for so long she can remember only fragments of her former life. Her re-kidnapping has triggered a 19th-century version of PTSD.
It’s the winter of 1870, and post Civil-War politics are fractious and acid on the Texas frontier. Kidd and Johanna make their way through a violent, unpredictable land, and reading about the bond they form to survive was one of my great reading pleasures of this year. This is both an adventure story and a love story, but it’s the writing that lifts it above the everyday — Jiles is a poet, and she makes every word in this 213-page book count.
“Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings” by Stephen O’Connor (Viking). I have written about this book before, so I won’t belabor the issue, but this book is an extraordinary work of imagination — it re-creates the tormented relationship between Thomas Jefferson and the enslaved Sally Hemings, his common-law wife, using every literary form, including essay, magical realism and Hemings’ imagined diary (Hemings was in all probability illiterate). The result is an unforgettable study of denial, the abuse of power and the immense moral bankruptcy of slavery.
O’ Connor took big risks in telling this story in this fashion — my counterpart at The Washington Post, Ron Charles, called the book “a colossal postmodern novel that’s often baffling, possibly offensive and frequently bizarre….. But what a dazzling experience this book is for the intrepid reader.”