Best of 2002













The Clarinet Polka by Keith Maillard (Thomas Allen)

I fell in love with this book, and it is no wonder, as it radiates heart and a warm, irresistible sense of life. This is the seventh novel in Maillard's acclaimed series set in the fictional steel town of Raysburg, West Virginia. It hops and jumps with energy and exuberance, not to mention a certain hell-for-leather intensity. Just listen to what happens when our narrator, 25-year-old Jimmy Koprowski, dances the polka: "The minute I start to move, I feel this tremendous energy go surging through me like four million volts, and I'm just swept right up into the whole shebang. ... The drive kicks in again, and the ladies fall right in with us, and now we've got all four of us right together going, STOMP-ah diddle-diddle, STOMP-ah diddle-diddle..." It's the summer of 1969, and Jimmy has just come home to his Polish-American parents and his musically gifted sister Linda in South Raysburg after four years in the U. S. Air Force (and no, he didn't go to Vietnam, but endured his share of trauma in Guam). For Jimmy, drinking prodigious quantities of alcohol is about as natural as breathing, and to hell with the consequences. Enter Connie, a deeply-troubled (not to mention married) young woman who virtually tears Jimmy's clothes off the first time they meet. This encounter leads to a prolonged, ripsnorting affair that gradually snowballs into disaster. If Connie represents the wild woman, Jimmy's shy sister Linda is the other kind, the steadying influence. When she decides to organize an all-girl polka band to honor her Polish heritage, Janice Dluwiecki enters the picture and steals Jimmy's heart. Janice is a radiant 15-year-old clarinet prodigy whose parents were badly scarred by their experiences during the Second World War. The truth is that they have sealed their searing experiences away in an airtight vault. What happens when that vault blows open makes for compelling, even riveting reading as Jimmy's cocky narrative plunges into a grave exploration of an emotional minefield. Janice leads him deep into even riskier areas, not just human love but the realm of the spirit. Though Jimmy careens from one hair-raising emotional mess to another, I couldn't help caring deeply about him, a tribute to Maillard's skill and heart. In the end, love wins out over the corrosive forces of war, but only because it must. And somehow, against all odds, the dance goes on. -- Margaret Gunning

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber (Canongate)

The Year of Our Lord Two-Thousand-and-Two will go down in history as the year when readers of contemporary fiction developed a new set of muscles. Call it the Lugging Around 20-Pound Doorstops Biceps. This was the year that modern novelists bulked up and delivered tomes worthy of propping open even the heaviest of doors: Umberto Eco, Baudolino (528 pages); Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (544 pages); Donna Tartt, The Little Friend (480 pages); Stephen L. Carter, The Emperor of Ocean Park (672 pages); Kevin Baker, Paradise Alley (688 pages); David Ebershoff, Pasadena (507 pages). Not only did we have eyestrain, we had armstrain. One can only be thankful David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon decided to take the year off. While many trees nobly sacrificed their lives so that others may read, I'm most thankful for the pulp devoted to Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White, his bold, beautiful and, yes, big book of Dickensian proportions and intelligence. The multilayered story of prostitution, madness and religion in Victorian-era London requires plenty of time and attention to properly absorb -- not an easy task in today's short-attention-span culture, nor for those with weak triceps. But the 848 pages fly by at breathtaking speed as Faber weaves an intoxicating tale of Sugar, the prostitute with a brain of gold; William Rackham, the industrialist who tries to buy her; and Agnes, William's mad wife who's been sequestered in her bedroom for nearly six years. It's a small circle of characters embedded in a sprawling panorama of muck-filled streets, perfume factories, chilly dining rooms and rumpled-sheet bedrooms. There are no subplots to distract us from the business at hand -- everything is cobwebbed to the central triangle of Sugar, William and Agnes. Full of smart writing and unforgettable characters, this is a novel with staying power. In a year of big fiction, The Crimson Petal and the White carried the most weight. -- David Abrams

Crow Lake by Mary Lawson (Knopf Canada)

Mary Lawson is one of those "overnight sensations" who plugged away at her craft unheralded for some 20 years. This makes the runaway success of her heartbreakingly beautiful first novel Crow Lake even more significant, not to mention well-deserved. The opening paragraph is a stunner: "My great-grandmother Morrison fixed a book rest to her spinning wheel so that she could read while she was spinning, or so the story goes. And one Saturday evening she became to absorbed in her book that when she looked up, she found that it was half past midnight and she had spun for half an hour on the Sabbath day. Back then, that counted as a major sin." This passage tells us volumes about the Morrison clan, their unquenchable passion for learning squashed down hard by an iron sense of duty. But it reveals even more about our narrator, 26-year-old Kate, who reflects back on her anguished childhood from the seemingly safe vantage-point of worldly success as a professor of invertebrate biology. Four hundred miles away from the tiny northern community she grew up in, the adult Kate has supposedly won the ultimate Morrison prize: she is educated, she has escaped rural impoverishment and isolation, and she is making her way by her wits. But with all her apparent advantages, Kate is anything but free. The past has a stranglehold on her so life-choking that it has left her almost unable to feel. In a sense, Crow Lake is the story of how an emotionally-repressed woman learns to take the risk of loving: a well-worn theme that Lawson washes clean of all cliché and made startlingly fresh and new. -- Margaret Gunning

Flesh Tones by M.J. Rose (Ballantine Books)

The only reason you haven't heard more about this author and her books is that her publishers clearly don't know what to do with her. Flesh Tones was marketed straight to the mainstream: not precisely romance, but not crime fiction, either. The reality is, with its creative use of timeline, it's intelligent subject matter and author M.J. Rose's elegant prose, Flesh Tones is simply a more literate book than what is most often expected in genre fiction. And there is nothing here that smacks of formula. More than a half year after I read it, strands of Genny Haviland's story still resonate with me. It's a lovely book, inaccurately represented by its cover. -- Linda Richards

The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys (HarperCollins)

There is a Secret Garden quality to Helen Humphreys' third novel. Not only in the subject matter, but in the enduring and elegant quality of the prose. The Lost Garden takes place during W.W.II in rural Britain where horticulturist Gwen Davis has left the horrors of the Blitz to head up a Land Girls operation -- growing vegetables for the war effort -- on an abandoned estate. Gwen is not entirely comfortable in the company of other living humans, but she adores the writing of Virginia Woolf and she dotes on the work of Ellen Willmott, author of The Genus Rosa, an encyclopedic work on the family of the rose, so large and heavy, its weight almost echoes that of a human. On the estate Gwen discovers an intricate but hidden garden and she becomes obsessed with reclaiming the garden itself along with the stories she feels sure are hidden there. The Lost Garden is an almost impossibly beautiful book. The characters are sharply drawn, the story compelling, touching and unforgettable. -- Linda Richards

Making A Stone of the Heart by Cynthia Flood (Key Porter Books)

There is a raw power to Making A Stone of the Heart, despite the book's slender proportions. This combined with a somewhat surreal storyline set against Flood's poetic prose almost guaranteed that Flood wouldn't walk away with any of the awards she was nominated for. And she didn't. While Making A Stone of the Heart might not be immediately accessible for the casual reader, it's worth the journey. Set in Western Canada between the beginning and end of the 20th century, Flood tells her story with imagination, clarity and startling economy. With a few bold strokes, Flood can achieve what it can take other authors whole chapters to accomplish. Largely overlooked by the literati in 2002, Making A Stone of the Heart was nonetheless one of the year's great literary accomplishments. -- Linda Richards

Pipsqueak by Brian M. Wiprud (iUniverse)

Hot on the heels of last year's cult classic, Sleep With the Fishes, comes Wiprud's second zany novel, about a memorable collection of oddballs, all of whom want to get their mitts on a silly stuffed squirrel. Garth Carson, a professional taxidermist and supplier of mounted critters to TV and film crews, first spots "Pipsqueak -- the nutty nut" in a roadside antiques shop, only to have the offending animal "stolen" by the mysterious "Cola-Woman," who seems to be the store's clerk. In the ensuing fracas, she shoots another would-be squirrel-napper ... and the chase after this weird trophy begins. Carson wants Pipsqueak for sentimental reasons: The animal features strongly in his memory as the host of a long-ago children's show, which broadcast low-budget cartoons. Also vying for ownership, though, is Carson's brother, Nicholas, the sort of black-sheep sibling that people avoid like a dose of typhoid. To further muddy the waters of this outrageous escapade, Wiprud throws in a violent cult and a government mind-control conspiracy. The characters then circle like vultures in pursuit of their kitschy quarry, which may actually have value well beyond the sentimental. This novel is highly recommended for readers who like quirky capers, or who simply remember sitting in front of TV cartoons for hours, never understanding the concept of the OFF button. -- Ali Karim

Saints of Big Harbour by Lynn Coady (Doubleday Canada)

Lynn Coady has a phenomenal talent for stripping the veils off human frailty while still maintaining a certain tender understanding and delicious humor. In Saints of Big Harbour she is at the top of her game, revealing the many dangers, toils and snares of the Nova Scotia subculture with her unique mixture of sharp-eyed accuracy and heart. The nerve center of the novel is first-person narrator Guy Boucher, an awkward, Holden Caulfield-like adolescent trying to grow up without the guidance of a father. Guy is just the nucleus of a whole constellation of characters, all of whom suffer from some kind of fundamental brokenness. He lives with his mother Marianne, well-meaning but exhausted, who scrapes by on welfare checks and whatever she can make from baby-sitting. Then there is Uncle Isadore, held together by the crazy-glue of alcohol and self-aggrandizing bluster. The teenaged characters are even more vivid: Corinne Fortune, a pretty, popular yet cruel young woman whom Guy worships, and Pam Cormorant, her shy, chubby and terminally-marginalized best friend. Seldom have the dynamics of adolescence been more skillfully laid bare. But that's not all: this is a writer with intimate knowledge of the most destructive patterns in human experience. It's all here: the booze, the chronic unemployment in which men become psychologically unglued, the writhing tentacles of Catholic guilt, the fleeting hope of escape through education in the big city. Though Coady now lives on the opposite coast, Cape Breton has taken up residence in her skull, where it will likely live forever -- something of a burden for her, perhaps, but a great boon to those of us who love exceptional writing. -- Margaret Gunning

Speaks the Nightbird by Robert McCammon (River City Publishing)

Back in the late 1970s and into the early 90s, when the genre of horror fiction was booming, another author held equal footing with Stephen King on the bookshelves: Robert McCammon. But his most recent three novels have moved away from that genre (just as the genre itself is collapsing). Many critics cite McCammon's coming-of-age novel, Boy's Life, as a masterpiece and a turning point for this American wordsmith. So it was a shock to have him mysteriously "vanish" for 10 years after that. Speaks the Nightbird finally ends his silence. It's a meticulously researched historical mystery set in the fictional South Carolina town of Fount Royal at the turn of the 16th century. The plot centers on the "witch trail" of Rachel Howarth, a mixed-race beauty of partly Portuguese heritage, who is accused of murdering both the town clergyman and her husband. Isaac Woodward, an infirm magistrate, and his assistant-apprentice, Matthew Corbett, are sent to look into the case after several previous investigators disappeared. The pair are soon captured by criminals and held in a seedy inn run by brigands, but they escape with only their lives and a Portuguese coin. Reaching Fount Royal at last, they find its mayor desperately trying to keep the town alive, amid damp weather, disease and the fleeing of residents afraid to live in the vicinity of a witch. The mayor believes that only by destroying Rachel can he save his community. While Speaks the Nightbird shares a theme with Arthur Miller's 1953 play, The Crucible, McCammon adds a few unexpected twists and bumps along the way. The result is a masterful novel, with immense historical detail and conscientiously defined characters occupying its 670 pages. It's good to see McCammon back in the game. -- Ali Karim

Tepper Isn't Going Out by Calvin Trillin (Random House)

Murray Tepper, is a pretty normal, mild-mannered, even-keeled sort of fellow. Except for one thing: he likes to park. You can almost imagine him saying "I like to park," in the manner that Peter Sellers' character in the film Being There says "I like to watch." And Tepper's parking habits are what get him into trouble. Even though he has a perfectly fine -- and paid for -- slot in a parking garage near his Manhattan apartment, he has taken to looking for a spot on the street just to park for an hour or two. While he reads the paper. Which, of course, annoys the hell out of his fellow New Yorkers, who have been circling like buzzards for a parking spot and would like him to move his vehicle ASAP if he doesn't really need the space. Other drivers are always pulling up next to Tepper's dark blue Chevy Malibu, rolling down their windows and beeping their horns in a perfunctory fashion to get his attention before asking the same question: "Are you going out?" After a while, Tepper's strange hobby gets noticed by the wrong people, brouhahas ensue, and the next thing you know he's trying to fight City Hall and a remarkably Giuliani-like mayor. This book made me laugh out loud so many times that I lost count. And that's not bad for what Trillin himself calls "the first parking novel." A rollicking good tale about parking? In the Big Apple? Getouttahere. -- Pamela Patterson

Three Daughters: A Novel by Letty Cottin Pogrebin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

It all begins with an accident. Shoshanna, a control freak and the youngest of the Wasserman sisters, watches her organized life unravel when her Filofax takes a header on the freeway. The accident causes her to take stock of her life and, indirectly, to look closely at her relationship with her family and especially her two sisters and their father. Author Letty Cottin Pogrebin was one of the cofounders of Ms. magazine and is the author of seven works of non-fiction, including Getting Over Getting Older and Deborah, Golda, and Me: Being Female and Jewish in America. Cottin Pogrebin's interests and expertise have informed Three Daughters, the author's first novel. While her characters deal with issues relating to their religion, their gender and their age, Three Daughters is never preachy. It is a lovely and intelligent book, filled with the fully formed thoughts of a mature writer. -- Sienna Powers

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