KLASSEN ON BOOKS - TOP TEN 2015 - By John Klassen (Reviews)


John Klassen


TOP TEN 2015

Edward Lewis Wallant: The Pawnbroker
A novel about the tortured soul of a Holocaust survivor, now a pawnbroker in Harlem (1950s), a man who is socially and emotionally bereft, living a life for which he sees no purpose. The loss of his family in the camps appears in only a few, separate moments of reminiscence but these heighten greatly the emotional impact. Wonderful writing throughout. (Reviewed on JustOttawa in December)

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Sympathizer
At the end of the war in Vietnam, a general and members of his entourage flee to the USA where they establish new lives, but plot to return to overthrow the Communist regime. One of the general's principal aides, who also goes to the USA has, for a long time, been a Communist agent. A novel about moral ambiguity and conflict at all levels of life. (Winner of the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction)

Magda Szabó: The Door

No histrionics, no literary fireworks, just a deep plumbing of lives lived through joys and sorrows, failures and strengths. A novel about the intersection of the lives of two women who grow to love each other, but through a somewhat tortuous process because of the character of Emerence, the older one. The relationship strips away pretence, but not all individual mystery.

Herta Muller: The Land of Green Plums
The novel, partly autobiographical, is set in Romania under Ceausescu. It follows the lives of a group of students through university and into the working world. This is a novel of fear that permeates every aspect of life; a world where your best friend might be a police agent and you have to live accordingly. The prose is simple but the impact is haunting and disturbing as the novel depicts a perversion of life that is hard to comprehend unless you are one of the millions who has lived under such regimes. (The Land of the Plums won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 1998; Muller won the Nobel for Literature in 2009)

Carolina de Robertis: The Invisible Mountain
A family saga told through the lives of three generations of women reflecting the economic, social, historical development of Uruguay from the 1890s through to the 1960s. Wonderfully told, evocative descriptions of life and country. (Reviewed on JustOttawa in June)

Jenny Erpenbeck: The Old Child, The End of Days, Visitation, The Book of Words
Erpenbeck defies categorization for genre or subject-matter. Her writing has been described as, "an urge to break with the conventions of linear storytelling because it simply doesn't reflect experience." Her novels are short, but they comprise more insight of life than books of twice or three times the length.

Máirtín Ó Cadhain: The Dirty Dust
Recently translated from the Irish (with another translation coming out this year), this classic of Irish literature is told through a cast of characters who are all dead--corpses in a cemetery in an Irish village. It is a rollicking, hilarious account of prejudice, jealousy, class, ambition, envy, rivalry, vengeance and all other aspects of the human condition, replayed through memories of life with new foibles and status-seeking created after death. (Reviewed on JustOttawa in June)

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant
Not his best (that is still The Remains of the Day), but a fable through which Ishiguro explores favourite themes of memory, identity, love, relationships, and the thin veneer of civilization.

Italo Svevo: Zeno's Conscience
Zeno's 'confessions' form the structure of the novel, and deal with smoking, death of his father, marriage, his mistress, and a doomed business venture. All is told in a straight-forward narrative style with Zeno's detached and often amused or bemused analysis of life and the paradoxes of human behaviour. Svevo and James Joyce were friends and this book is considered one of the first 'modernist' novels where story or plot take second place to the parsing of consciousness. But Svevo is much more accessible than Joyce. Zeno's Conscience is a fun, often funny, perambulation through one mind and life.

John Williams: Augustus
This is a brilliant historical novel that should be read with Stoner, also by Williams. Stoner is a man who rises to professor in a small, mid-size university in the United States; Augustus, was conqueror of the known world and emperor of the Roman Empire. The scales of life are vastly different, but the two men are defined by their common humanity through the hopes and fears, happiness and sadness, successes and failures in life and relationships. These are two really exceptional novels.

Elena Ferrante: The Days of Abandonment, The Lost Daughter, My Brilliant Friend
Ferrante is very popular right now for her Neopolitan novels, a set of four books, the first of which is My Brilliant Friend. The other two listed here are earlier novels. Ferrante is ferociously insightful in creating time, place, characters, atmosphere as she dissects, in particular, female relationships: girl/girl, woman/woman, mother/daughter/children. The writing is wonderful. Ferrante is deserving of her acclaim. (The Days of Abandonment was reviewed on JustOttawa in February)


Clive James: Latest Readings, Unreliable Memoirs
Unreliable Memoirs chronicles James's childhood and university in Australia. It is frequently very funny. James has been described as perhaps the best-read man alive, but when he entered university, he knew so little about literature that he thought Ford Maddox Ford must a model of car. Latest Readings surveys a lifetime of reading that inspires to delve into new books and series, and depresses with the thought of how little reading one had done!

Kevin Birmingham: The Most Dangerous Book
A fascinating, informative, very enjoyable book about the genesis of Ulysses in its writing and publication, and in particular the fight in Britain and the USA against charges of obscenity. An eye-opener to learn just how powerful the US Postal Service was in deciding and enforcing obscenity laws.

Tim Butcher: The Trigger
Butcher retraces the life of Gavrilo Princip, the man who precipitated World War I with his assassination of Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo. Butcher visited the small mountain village where Princip was born, and followed the route he took over mountain passes to a new urban life where he became involved in Serbian national movements. The assassination was one of history's ironies in that, for an event with such momentous repercussions, it would not have happened but for the fact that Ferdinand's driver took a wrong turn on the streets. One of the great "what-ifs" in history.

Oleg Khlevniuk: Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator
Khelvniuk is a senior researcher and historian in the State Archive of the Russian Federation in Moscow. Stalin is based on meticulous research in recently-opened archives. It is not a standard biography from birth through life to death; rather Khelvniuk opens with the last hours of Stalin's life and shifts back and forth from that to critical moments and trends in Stalin's life and his consolidation of supreme power. The book is well researched, very well written, insightful and an important contribution to the study of who Stalin was, what he did to the Soviet Union, and what legacies exist.

Jozef Hen: Nowolipie Street
Hen recreates the entirely lost world of a middle class Jewish family in Warsaw in the 1920s-30s, up through the first months of German occupation and the increasingly fraught existence for Jews. A wonderful memoir powered by imagination and memory.

Florian Illies: 1913: The Year Before the Storm
This is a unique, month-by-month account of one year, 1913, in Europe. A year that we know is on the brink of WWI, but is bursting with new modernism in art, literature, music, science, psychiatry. Illies builds a picture of these movements, how they intertwined, and how the artists and creators fought and loved through it all.

Helen Macdonald: H is for Hawk
This is an intriguing and fascinating book that defies genre classification. It encompasses memoir, autobiography, history, the science of training hawks, environmentalism, sociology, psychology. The starting point is an exploration of grief and what deep loss means to a sense of self and identity. Beautifully written. (Reviewed on JustOttawa in April)

Robert Harris: An Officer and a Spy
The story of the Dreyfus Affair is well known, but Harris turns it into a gripping page-turner of conspiracy and deceit, prejudice and hatred, honour and courage.

Tags: John Klassen