Adam Ash

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Monday, December 26, 2005

Bookplanet: John Leonard's best novels of the year

Best Literary Fiction of 2005:

1 ‘The March’ by E. L. Doctorow
(Random House) In reimagining Sherman’s Civil War march to the sea as a tubular, tentacled, all-consuming dragon-serpent, Doctorow assumes the prophetic role of the nineteenth-century writers he so admires (Emerson, Melville, Whitman, Poe) to write an alternate creation myth for the Republic. Among infantry, nurses, shutterbugs, profiteers, and 25,000 freed slaves, we find not only prototypes of coming attractions in Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Toni Morrison (as well as the young surgeon in Doctorow’s Waterworks and the senior of the Coalhouse Walker Jr. we will meet in Ragtime) but also an elegy for and a bone-scan of an opportunity tragically lost. The fluidity of this second American revolution -- of free agency, class mobility, and self-invention, of black slave girls passing for white drummer boys -- was strangled in its crib after Reconstruction.

2 ‘Pearl’ by Mary Gordon
(Pantheon) On Christmas Day 1998, 50-year-old Maria Meyers, a supervisor of day-care centers in upper Manhattan and a Zabar’s of fierce opinion on almost every imaginable topic, is informed by the State Department that her daughter, Pearl, who went to Trinity College to study the Irish language, has refused drink for six days and declared her intention to die in Dublin, chained to the American Embassy flagpole. Maria is on the next flight. What follows is another of Gordon’s fearless inquiries into the hydra-headed nature of truth -- about history, religion, politics, justice, violence, and martyrdom; about the death wish, yes, but also, of course, mother love.

3 ‘The Writing on the Wall’ by Lynn Sharon Schwartz
(Counterpoint) After the attack on the World Trade Center, Renata, a linguist at the New York Public Library, is suddenly asked by the Feds to add Arabic to her other exotic languages (Bliondan, Etinoi), even as she tries to cope with a crazy mother, an importunate lover, a teenage mute, a dead twin, and the child she thinks she lost on a merry-go-round. As starkly elegant as the Chinese calligraphy Renata practices -- and superior to the 9/11 fictions of both Ian McEwan and Jonathan Safran Foer in its melding of psychological and geopolitical dream worlds.
-- John Leonard


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