In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende

A story of three lives joined together by chance–and an overly unlikely adventure involving trying to dispose of a dead body, older people falling in love, digestive issues, and fear of deportation. I’m not sure I quite bought the plot of the present story, but we also got the highly engaging histories of the three characters, and that was where the book was at its best. The portraits were lovely, the lives–all three of them–difficult and sad without being overly grim.

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

Part historical novel, part noirish thriller, part coming of age story. I imagine Anna Kerrigan will stay with me, with her work as a diver at the naval yard, and perhaps I’ll also remember her profoundly disabled sister, Lydia. There were a lot of interesting pieces here, but for me, ultimately, they didn’t quite hang together tightly enough. One character appeared and disappeared too conveniently. The details in the research were at times laid on a bit too thick. Still, it was well written and on the whole interesting and enjoyable.

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

I liked the idea of this collection. And I liked some of the essays, especially the title piece. But a few things bothered me. A lot of it felt derivative–she told us what Susan Sontag thinks about a fair number of things. Then maybe I should just be reading the Sontag? And so, so many of the pieces are self-referential. They include the phrase “this essay.” Jamison is at her best when she is just describing experience, not telling us what she means to be saying about it, or telling us what other people have thought about it. I wish she’d done more of that.

Outside is the Ocean by Matthew Lansburgh

I think this is a story collection, not a novel, even though these 15 stories are all about the same family and revolve pretty tightly around the relationship between Heike, an emotionally unstable German woman, and her gay son, Stuart. They’re engaging and well written, and,even though their actions are sometimes extreme, the characters are eminently believable. The pieces stand alone as individual stories, and they cohere through layering, more than through progression. (Is that the difference between a novel in stories and a themed or linked collection?) Either way, they’re wonderful stories.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Entertaining enough–but there was a lot going on and no center of gravity. Characters who ultimately don’t seem that important get point-of-view sections, and in the end I didn’t truly care about any one character because it was so diffuse. I also had the sense that the book came from ideas, both plot ideas and capital-I Ideas, rather than from an investigation of what makes people feel and act the way they do.

Between Mia (Pearl’s mother), the vagabond photographer, and the Chinese mother abandoning a baby that’s adopted by a fancy white family, to abortion, to arson — it just felt like a lot of action and not much depth. Plus, Mrs. Richardson, maybe the best candidate for center of gravity, was largely unlikeable, in the way that I felt theĀ authorĀ fully understood her and had contempt for her.

So–not a bad book. Maybe this is all it aspired to be.

Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss

I wanted to like this–but in the end it was too conceptual for me. I had the feeling throughout that concept was more important to the author than character, and that just isn’t what I want in a novel. There were two separate strands: Epstein, in the third person, and Nicole, in the first. They seemed like they were going to meet, but they never did, running instead on parallel tracks throughout. The Epstein sections were much more engaging–but even there, I never really lost the sense that the author was using this book to work out some personal stuff.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (re-read)

So much of this book is so harrowing–such anxiety–yet I take immense pleasure in it. It’s incredibly detailed, relentlessly suspenseful, richly imagined, and deeply dark (though not without its spots of light). Its structure is more or less straightforward–it only jumps back and forth a little–and it really just reads like a good old fashioned story, still one of my favorites, and definitely deserving of its Pulitzer.