Today’s Top Ten, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, has put me into a bit of an existential crisis as a reader. Today’s topic: our top ten most recent five-star reads. That’s easy enough to track—all I had to do was open Goodreads, and there they are. But as I was scrolling through the list and wondering why I failed to give five stars to some of the books I’ve thought about and recommended and mentioned as references in other reviews again and again, I thought about something I heard said about the Academy Awards (attributed to Matt Damon, I believe), that the Academy of Motion Pictures should wait ten years after a film’s release before it can be considered for any awards. That way, its real impact and influence can be assessed, rather than having the award being driven by hype and publicity or some other political or social circumstance that momentarily pushed the film into the foreground.
With the Tournament of Books going on right now—a tournament that always features the previous year’s most popular and critically well-received books (and a few underdogs)—this idea seems even more relevant. Yesterday one book, The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra, was knocked out of the tournament, and I saw a fair bit of tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth over that fact on Twitter. In the last couple of months it seems that everyone on Twitter or in my Goodreads feed has read this book, and almost everyone has given it five stars. I haven’t read Marra’s book myself, nor have I read the book, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, that knocked it out of the tournament, so consider me impartial. The judge for that round was Jeff VanderMeer, the author of the Southern Reach trilogy, and I did read his explanation, and here’s what I thought: he’s a writer, and maybe he’s a naturally “close” reader, so he’s going pay more attention to the mechanics of the writing, little tricks and things that the writer has employed, and judge them. I also thought he might be unaware of the hype wheel. Yes, the book has been nominated for prizes and praised by critics, but lots of books get praised by critics and nominated for prizes that don’t generate a lot of hype or love among readers and bloggers the way Marra’s book has. I’m not at all questioning the legitimacy of this love (please do not leave a lengthy defense in the comments), but I am asking: what if VanderMeer is right? What if time would have taken a little of the shine off that book anyway and Beatty’s book holds up better over time? What if it were up against a ToB winner from three years ago? (I’m too lazy to look it up.) The point is, immediacy skews our judgement in a lot of cases, and so does our peer group. It happens to all of us.
Okay, enough blathering. I give you my most recent five-star books, and some four-star books that probably deserved five stars.
Girl Waits with Gun, Amy Kopp. I gave this a very enthusiastic five stars as soon as I finished the book because I was completely charmed by its main character. I admit, though, that it took me some time to get into it, and in the beginning I wasn’t sure I was going to like it. Its possible it only deserved four stars, but only time will tell. I still highly recommend it and am looking forward to the next book in the series.
Our Endless Numbered Days, Claire Fuller. This was a book I suspected would be five stars when I was about halfway through it. It’s a beautiful but difficult book to read, and Fuller presents the reader with one of the most compelling unreliable narrators. I think this one will hold up.
Our Souls at Night, Kent Haruf. This was Haruf’s last book, he’s one of my favorite authors, and it’s a little gem of a story about two lonely people forming a very sweet and surprising love. But it isn’t Haruf’s best book by a long shot (in my opinion, it’s Plainsong or Benediction), and as stories go it’s fairly simple. I gave it five stars but would submit it’s only four stars if called on it—that fifth star is there out of sheer devotion.
Landfalls, Naomi J. Williams. I gave this one four stars, yet I find myself thinking about it, remembering scenes from it, and recommending it to everyone. I could not tell you why I knocked off a star. I’ll have to read it again to find out, but I suspect my first rating was wrong.
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell. Another one I gave four stars. Why? I read the first five sections of this book in mere days. I could not put it down. And then I got to “Sloosha’s Crossing,” and it lost me a little, and then I went on vacation so I set it down for a bit, and then I was still in Sloosha’s Crossing when I picked it back up, and I never regained that initial momentum. Again, I find myself thinking about this book all the time. It’s probably a five-star book that I screwed up reading.
M Train, Patti Smith. Five stars. I absolutely love the way she writes, but admit that this is a purely subjective five stars. It’s a much different book than Just Kids (also five stars, in my opinion), probably not as “good” in terms of literary merit, but I’m not questioning my loyalty here.
Possession, A.S. Byatt. A very solid five-star book that could probably take out a lot of contenders in the past ten years. Why do I trust my judgement on this one? Because Byatt is such a wonderful writer that she made me willingly read not just about two Victorian poets, but their poetry as well, and I enjoyed every second. A testament indeed.
My Antonia, Willa Cather. Five stars for this one, not given automatically because it’s a classic but because I love her writing and her characters the same way I loved Kent Haruf. Her characters are a part of the landscape in which they live, they are inextricable, and her prose is graceful and simple.
The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert. I gave this four stars? Why? I loved this book and never wanted it to end. Classic reader mistake: because I was annoyed with Alma for how she acted over Ambrose, and I went and blamed it on Gilbert, when in fact it’s a sign of a really good book. To be that invested in a character—that’s five stars.
Skippy Dies, Paul Murray. Five stars. Oh, this book! A classic campus novel, an interesting look at Ireland during the bubble, a coming-of-age story with tragic consequences. Published in 2010, this is another novel that I believe could knock out a lot of ToB contenders from the last couple of years.
Do you ever go back and question the ratings you’ve given to books? Do you think it would be better to wait before awards are given out? Should new books be pitted against past winners?
Have a great Tuesday!