The Book Maven’s Literary Advent Calendar, 2014: Day One

December 1st, 2014 | Filed under Books, Reading, The Book Maven's Literary Advent Calendar

It gives me great pleasure to say I’m back for the second year in a row of my Literary Advent Calendar. Last year I started quietly, unsure of whether or not I’d be able to sustain the project, but here’s the full slate from 2013 in case you’d like to check back on it.

This year, I’d like to be a little more deliberate in explaining why I’m creating a Literary Advent Calendar. So many, many critics, bloggers, and media sites give Top 10 lists. You don’t need another one from me–but what you might want from me, self-proclaimed Book Maven that I am, is an idea of some books that won’t be on everyone else’s lists, books that are excellent and worthy of listdom, but for many reasons weren’t deemed The Best or The Most or The Top.

Since I don’t blog year ’round, allow me to tell you a little bit about my reading habits. I usually finish between 175-200 books each year (most years I hit the 185 mark; I’ve only gone past 200 once or twice, and those were years in which I was laid up in bed for a while). Almost all of those books are what we in the publishing business refer to as “front list,” or books released in that calendar year. I have one colleague who regularly reads 200+ books annually, and another who limits books to one per week, so I’m pretty confident that I read enough new titles to be able to make an Advent’s worth of recommendations.

So these books are not second-tier; I prefer to think of them as sleeper hits. Everyone can and will tell you how terrific All the Light We Cannot See is. Truly, it’s a wondrous novel. I’ve read it, and I promise, it’s terrific. It’s just that I’d rather tell you about a few of the wondrous novels that didn’t get the same amount of attention.

My first selection is an almost impossibly bleak yet completely compelling novel from another continent.

Eyrie: A Novel by Tim Winton

Eyrie by Tim WintonIf anyone can tell me why this masterful work from Australia’s most important contemporary novelist isn’t on all the Best of 2014 lists, I’ll eat my (inscribed) copy of Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune. I’ll wager a guess: Because it isn’t about anything that pushes our American buttons. It doesn’t involve a beautiful, mysterious locale (All the Light We Cannot See), a cultural icon (A Brief History of Seven Killings), or apocalypse (On Such a Full Sea). Winton’s study of a man on the edge is set on the edge, too: Protagonist Tom Keely lives in the port city of Fremantle, Western Australia–as far away from anything else as you can possibly get in this world, at least in terms of sea miles.

Keely teeters professionally and personally. His former high-flying career as a muckraking environmentalist is in the gutter along with his mental and physical health. Most days he can hardly drag his wrecked body and soul a few hundred yards down the street for breakfast at the local greasy spoon. However, after he encounters his former high-school flame in the elevator of his high rise, he musters up the gumption to beg for a job in that greasy spoon.

Why? Because Gemma lives in that high rise, now–along with her much-neglected grandson Kai. It seems that a renewed affair with Gemma and a paternal interest in Kai may help bring Tom Keely out of his shabby “eyrie,” and at first, the future looks not rosy but at least pinkish at the edges. Keely’s parents, inveterate Christian do-gooders who sheltered Gemma from a miserable family situation in her teens, seem to inspire in him an edge-of-the-world warrior spirit, especially as his mother in Perth still wants to coax her adult child into some semblance of a typical life.

But the complications of Gemma’s past have affected her present. No matter how hard she tries, leaving behind what Anne Tyler once called “a slipping-down kind of life” proves too difficult. Kai’s mother lounges in prison, caring little about her family, while his father’s criminal life unravels things for everyone–including Tom Keely. Unhappy families really are all different, and Winton renders the particular horrors of Tom Keely’s last attempt at honor with writing at once so beautiful and so accurate that you may find yourself rooting for these characters on the sidelines long after you’ve rationally given up hope.

 

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