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It Was A (Very) Good Year

The Year-End Literary Review

In my opinion, this was a good to very good year to be a reader; not as good as 2010 in terms of its offerings, and hopefully not as good as what’s to come in 2012.   Let’s look at some of the highlights and lowlights of 2011.

The rise (and fall?) of the e-reader

The e-book readers offered by Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Sony began to finally take off in terms of general acceptance.   Even a Luddite such as I am picked up a Nook Color tablet, as the issue of glare seemed to have been resolved with the fine screen manufactured by LG.   But just as e-readers were taking flight, the reading public received some very disturbing year-end news (“…rising e-book prices causing sticker shock.”).

It seems that publishers are about to kill their golden goose by raising the prices on e-books to levels that will match or exceed the print versions.   Yes, it appears to be a replay of what happened with the recording industry…  Music CDs first appeared with reasonable prices of $9.99 and then shot up to double that and more; and the industry then wondered what happened to their sales figures.   Duh.

Fine biographies

It was a good time for biographies, the two most notable being Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and Robert Redford by Michael Feeney Callan.   Both were examples of treating famous people as more than living legends – turning them into three-dimensional figures with true strengths and weaknesses.   Callan’s book is such a fascinating portrait of the actor that you’ll want to see every film mentioned in it.

Intriguing debuts

It’s always fun to discover new writers at the start of their career, and both Proof of Heaven by Mary Curran Hackett and The Violets of March by Sarah Jio were engaging life and love-affirming debut novels.   Kudos!

Mixed memories

It was a mixed front when it came to personal memoirs.   Christina Haag produced a singular New York Times Bestseller with Come to the Edge: A Love Story, her entertainingly nostalgic account of the five years she spent as the girlfriend of John F. Kennedy, Jr.   If you’ve missed this one, it will be released in trade paper form in January – with a cover that’s sure to capture the female reader’s eye!   (Some will remember that JFK, Jr. was once named “The Sexiest Man Alive” by People magazine.)

A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates might have been a groundbreaking account of what happens to a wife after her husband dies suddenly.   But it was preceded four years earlier by Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.   Oates’s account unfortunately read like a note-for-note  cover of Didion’s earlier account.   Oates and Didion are, no doubt, two of our best writers but only one of them could assemble a uniquely first tragic memoir.

A troubling trend

2011 was the year in which a few fictional works were introduced that I wound up calling “plotless novels.”   These were books whose plots generally centered around an ensemble cast of characters, occupying only a few days in time; time in which nothing noteworthy seemed to occur.   Reading one of these novels is like, paraphrasing Jerry Seinfeld, perusing “a story about nothing.”   A few misguided or mischievous critics made them popular by praising them as being clever.   Well, they were clever in getting a few unfortunate readers to pay money for a book without a beginning, middle or ending.

Hurry up, already

Another parallel troubling trend had to do with novels that took 90 or 100 pages to get to the beginning of the story.   Any story that takes that long to get started is, trust me, not going to end well.

Good and very good, but not necessarily great

While there were some good and very good works to read this year, it’s hard to think of standouts like we had in 2009 (Her Fearful Symmetry by Anne Niffenegger) or 2010 (American Music by Jane Mendelsohn, Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott, The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris).   One novel that did receive plenty of attention was The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, which the average reader seemed to find either brilliant or meandering and tedious.   One hundred and sixty-eight readers posted their reviews on Amazon and these love it or hate it views balanced out to an average 3-star (of 5) rating.

Give me someone to love

Some were troubled by Eugenides’ novel because of the lack of likeable characters, a critique to which I can relate.   If an author does not give me a single character that I can identify with, trying to finish a novel seems pointless.   Why invest the time reading a story if you simply don’t care what happens to the characters the writer’s created?

In summary

This year was filled with unrealized potential.   Let’s hope for a bit more excitement in the publishing world in 2012!

Joseph Arellano

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The Power of Love

One Day: A Novel by David Nicholls (Vintage Contemporaries, $14.95, 448 pages)

Twenty years.   Two people.   ONE DAY

“(She was) unable to recall a time when she felt happier.”

“…he is more or less where he wants to be…  Everything will be fine, just as long as nothing ever changes.”

Sometimes we need to wait until the right time to read a particular book.   I received a review copy of this novel, which had already become the #1 bestselling book in England and throughout most of Europe, in early 2010 (it was released in trade paper form in the U.S. on June 15, 2010).   But it didn’t strike me as something that urgently needed to be read…  That is, until I read that Anne Hathaway had agreed to play the female lead in the upcoming film version, with Jim Sturgess as the male lead.   Knowing that Hathaway has a skill for finding great scripts, I felt that the time had come.

This is the story of two people, Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew, who meet cute on their graduation night (called “university graduation” in England) and spend the entire evening together.   They plan to commence a sexual relationship the next day; a plan which is forsaken due to some unexpected circumstances – something unexplained until the later pages of the story.   So, instead, they vow to be friends.   Dexter is to become Emma’s true male friend, but not boyfriend.

Nicholls tells the story, a very remarkable love story, by having us look in on the happenings of Emma’s and Dexter’s lives on the same date – July 15th – of each year.   The story begins on July 15, 1988, and concludes on July 15, 2007.   No spoiler alert is needed here, as no details will be revealed about what occurs to Emma and Dexter over the decades.   Let’s just say that the reader will be surprised.

I don’t want to play coy, so I will state that this is likely the best pure love story that I have read – it’s a tale that tugs at our heartstrings even while it makes us laugh.   And it will definitely bring tears prior to its dramatic and life-affirming ending.   It’s all the more remarkable that Nicholls, a man, writes with such a huge heart about life and love.

What can be revealed is that Emma and Dexter, despite their class differences (Dexter was born wealthy, Emma lower-middle class), know that they would be perfect for each other…  Maybe.   But each one faces too many temptations in the form of other people, and each thinks that the other wants different things out of life.   So despite their vow to be close forever, they begin to slide away from each other as they encounter life’s often not-so-gentle surprises.

“Everyone likes me.   It’s my curse.”

A few cautions…  Please disregard those who compare One Day to When Harry Met Sally (“Can a man and woman be best friends?”).   One Day is more adult and serious, and English humor is quite distinct from American humor; to me, it is, thankfully, more subtle.   That comparison caused me to hold off on reading this novel, which was unfortunate.   And if Dexter’s personality, early on, sounds a bit like Dudley Moore’s over-the-top character in the film Arthur, don’t worry, it will pass.   Dexter matures with age.

“…I can barely hear the compilation tape you made me which I like a lot incidentally except for that jangly indie stuff because after all I’m not a GIRL.”

There are many references to period music in the telling, which is both positive and not so positive.   (Emma can spend an entire day making the right mix tape.)   References to songs like “Tainted Love” make one smile; however, the numerous references to Madonna’s music wind up becoming painful in their datedness.

This is a novel that is stunning – so much so that on finishing it, I was both eager and fearful of reading it again one day.   (My response was to purchase the unabridged audiobook version, so that it’s there on the shelf if and when the urge strikes me to revisit it.)   This is simply a great story about two people who must decide which is better or worse:  the fear of confronting happiness, or the fear of never actually encountering it.   The message it delivers is a gift.   Please consider taking it.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Big, absorbing, smart, fantastically readable.”   Nick Hornby   “A totally brilliant book…  Every reader will fall in love with it.”   Tony Parsons   “A wonderful, wonderful book: wise, funny, perceptive, compassionate…”   The Times (London)

One of the most hilarious and emotionally riveting love stories you’ll ever encounter.”   People

Note:  The film version of One Day will be released on August 19, 2011.

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