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From Phyllida's Desk

Two Best Books I Read This Year--or Ever!

I'm a reluctant member of Goodreads and other amateur book reviewing and rating sites, including Amazon. Maybe it's my age, although I think it's more about temperament. One of the best things about graduating from college (English major) was never having to write a research paper again, or a "book report." And that's what these sites feel like to me: a class assignment. It's not enough to read the material; I also have to write a well-crafted essay, summarizing the plot without spoiling it, and totting up the book's merits and faults, in a logical and reasoned argument.

It took me literally decades to want to read literature again. I was sometimes ashamed of the popular and entertaining works of fiction I enjoyed during my twenties and thirties--and forties--but at least they didn't require a review. They were honest genre fiction ("trashy novels") and nobody else needed to know my opinion of them.

Finally, my tastes have changed, as far as reading goes. I joined a book club several years ago, specifically to read works of literary fiction that I might not have found or chosen on my own. I still dislike reviewing. But we live in the cloud now, an age of sharing, of posting and recommending. And I realized, after finishing the second of the two books I will mention here (and yes, I'm going to make you read this entire damn entry before revealing them) that by some extraordinary confluence of events, I had read two books this year that blew me away, that I had to rank, not just among the best books I had read recently, but ever.

For as long as I have been aware of them, the ratings-and-review sites have bothered me. We give a book one to five stars, depending on how much or how little we liked it, but we can't help conflating this personal experience with a judgment of the book's quality. I didn't like it, I give it one star, it's a bad book. I loved it, I give it four or five stars, it's a good book. Yet there are one-star "reviews" on Amazon because the Kindle edition has formatting flaws or the paperback ordered through Prime didn't arrive in two days. When a book wins a major award its ratings often go down because lots of people unfamiliar with the author's work read it only because it won a prize, and discover it to be, in the classic phrase, "disappointing."

Of course, very often we do enjoy a book that is well written, worthy of four or five stars and a thoughtful review. And lord knows we've all read, or tried to, something that just seemed typed, not actually crafted for elegance of prose or skill in storytelling.

What changes most of all is us. We are not the same readers in middle age that we were as children or young adults, even if the books themselves have necessarily retained the same words in the same order as when they were published. All of which is my way of saying that I doubt I would have enjoyed these two books thirty years ago, even if they had existed. I would not have picked them out as my favorites, although I might have recognized them as being "good"--brilliantly written and stunning in their originality.

But now, this year, here they were and here I was, and I need to mark the occasion. Still, I can't recommend them universally. Some people won't like them, can't like them. It doesn't make the books any less than great (in my opinion), but it doesn't make you or any other reader "bad." Tastes are different.

All I can say is that these books moved me and spoke to me in a way that I was ready for now, and as very few books have. They share some similarities: settings in remote Pacific islands and themes of rape: by individuals and by society; the destruction of one culture by another; the darkness in human nature that is a constant threat to our love and compassion. Especially in Yanagihara's work, there is the unanswerable question of moral and cultural relativism.

And, what makes these books resonate with me but will turn others away: the authors' disturbing talent for creating unreliable narrators and unlikable characters while never failing to engage our interest and sympathy.

First: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell (2004):


Second: The People in the Trees, the debut novel of Hanya Yanagihara (2013):


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