Tales of the times

By JON GARELICK  |  December 20, 2006

ETGAR KERET: Deadpan surrealism from Tel Aviv.
5.Louise Glück | Averno | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | “Always nights I feel the ocean, biting at my life,” Louis Glück wrote in Firstborn (1968), her first volume of poetry. Ever since then, mortality has haunted her work, sex and death bound together. In Averno, she revisits the myth of Persephone, in whose story sex and death became one. Averno feels made from experience, as though Glück had gone down to the underworld herself to confirm what we all know to be true.

6. Seamus Heaney | District and Circle | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | “District” suggests the place where Heaney’s imagination has jurisdiction and holds sway. This book, meanwhile, keeps “circling” back to his childhood, his love of things, to Wordsworth, to the Tollund Man, and, in the last poem, to the signal event in his youth, the accidental death of his younger brother. His concerns may be local, but his poems reverberate at large, far from home.

7.Edna O’brien | The Light Of Evening | Houghton Mifflin | Edna O’Brien’s most autobiographical novel yet depicts the struggle between a mother and daughter to sever the unbearable bond — the “blood feud, blood knot, blood memory” — that conjoins them and the love and guilt that makes total separation impossible. She sets her story in her mother country, Ireland, saturating it with both the poetry and the malarkey of her mother tongue. She’s mastered a compact stream-of-consciousness that’s a distillate of her influences — moments as violently lyrical as Faulkner and more than one outright homage to Joyce. She does them proud.

8.George Pelecanos |The Night Gardener | Little, Brown | An ace plotter who rigorously avoids the clichés of noir, Pelecanos creates multi-strand narratives that narrow the space between his characters so that by the end of the book he’s put them and us in a tense, tight corner. In The Night Gardener, a police detective faces the possibility that a serial killer who terrorized Washington when he was a rookie is back and killing again. In the process of evoking inner-city DC life, Pelecanos also takes on the largely abandoned roles of novelist as muckraker and social critic.

9.Thomas Pynchon | Against the Day | Penguin Press | Undaunted in the past by the big questions, Pynchon here addresses (in addition to the elusive quality of light) time travel, multiple universes, the death struggle between anarchism and capitalism, the dance of order and chaos. Heavy going? Not for the Chums of Chance, the quintet of aeronautical adventurers navigating the airship Inconvenience through the trouble spots of world history, some real, all fanciful, from the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 to the aftermath of World War I. Whereas Beckett’s works grew inexorably shorter as he confronted the intransigence of meaninglessness, Pynchon’s proliferate with Joycean abandon.

10. Sarah Waters | The Night Watch | Riverhead | Set in London during and immediately after World War II, Waters’s short-listed Booker Prize nominee studies the intersecting lives of characters who survive the Blitz to find themselves stranded by the peace. Kay, a former “night watch” ambulance driver, is emotionally wasted, unable to move on after a betrayal that was a kind of death. She moves among characters — lesbians and homosexuals at various stages of being out, and a straight adulterer — who are trapped by the past in a society desperate to forget.

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