Friday, November 13, 2015

Knopf 100--Day 26: This Is It! We Hit 100!

Whoa! We've made it to the end! I'll post the complete list tomorrow, but here are the last four picks of our Knopf 100, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Alfred A. Knopf. Despite Gianna's habit of choosing books I'd already selected, we're concluding this list knowing that there are pooty loads of excellent books that could have made this list. It's been a challenge, an adventure, and a daunting task.

97. Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson, originally published in 1993. When we first discussed this project, Gianna and I both immediately thought about Written on the Body as a perfect pick...and then proceeded not to pick it for 25 days for fear of stepping on each other's toes. This is a novel with a narrator who is never named nor assigned a gender. The narrator is caught up in an intense love affair with a married woman, and the book weaves around and within that relationship. Winterson's fluid wordplay makes it a remarkable read, but her gender play makes Written on the Body a masterpiece. We both love this book fiercely.

98. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, originally published in 2013. Jhumpa Lahiri has written four published books thus far (the fifth comes out in the spring of 2016), all of which have been terrific. She is a powerful and thoughtful writer whose work explores the idea of being an outsider within the society surrounding her characters. In The Lowland, a National Book Award and Man Booker Prize finalist, two brothers lead totally different lives. One finds love but is a revolutionary, stirring up trouble in the turbulent 60's. The other is the obedient son, immigrating to America. Between them, though, is the woman they both love, who is haunted by her past.

99. The News from Spain by Joan Wickersham, originally published in 2012. It kills me that The News from Spain isn't better known. If you take one "I've never even heard of that" book away from this list, let it be this one. This is a collection of seven short stories all relating to the theme of love--parent and child, husband and wife, friends, caregivers. All seven stories are titled "The News from Spain," and together they perform like a literary concert around the love theme. One that sticks in my memory involves a cantankerous old woman sparring with her in-home caretaker. Her hurts from the past are revealed, but also the love between two people thrust into a relationship because of a job. It's tender and heartbreaking, and Wickersham's writing is on a level with masters like Alice Munro.

100. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, originally published in 2014. How could I not include Station Eleven when I raved about it for months last year? Truth be told, I'd been holding it for the end for awhile, but then in the process of creating these posts and looking for books to feature, it had slipped my mind. Fortunately a friend following the blog reminded me yesterday. I would have hated myself if it had been excluded. Station Eleven is the novel that proves a book can be "literary" without being dull, that it can be "post-apocalyptic" within being a novel of despair. There are several narrative threads blending together in this book, all in some way connected to an actor who dies onstage during a production of King Lear. That same night, a mutant flu virus wipes out most of the world's population. Much of the book is set twenty years down the line from that point and follows a troupe of traveling performers. They move from settlement to settlement playing orchestral music and performing Shakespeare's plays, and their motto is "because survival is insufficient." I love that Emily St. John Mandel manages to talk about loss and all the things we take for granted in our modern lives, but also offers hope that culture--art, music, theater, words--live on and are what makes us human. On that note, this is an ideal book to round out our list.

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