Every year, the “Best Books of the Year” lists become less reliable. Yes, they make good Christmas shopping lists—what to give Aunt Betty in What Cheer, Iowa, is a problem—but publishing the lists before Black Friday is just giving in. The daily critics used to be so classy that their “Best of” list did not appear until a week or two after Black Friday. I am not sure this is still the case—Pamela Paul, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, has enfolded them into her operation.
Needless to say, the New York Times’ “Top 10” is not for me, because I read older books. But I did expect to find Tess Hadley’s masterpiece, Late in the Day, and possibly Ludmilla Ulitskay’s Jacob’s Ladder, among the New York Times “100 Notable Books”—and instead found Cathleen Schine’s bubbly chick lit novel, The Grammarians, and Jennifer Weiner’s Mrs. Everything.
O tempora! O mores!
I had better luck with “The Best Books of the Year” at the Washington Post. Tessa Hadley made the list, and Schine and Weiner did not. Actually, the reviews at the Washington Post are usually brilliant. The reviewers have distinctive voices.
And I enjoyed the “Best of” at the TLS: several critics write about their favorite reading of the year, so it is more than a list. I always scribble down a few of the titles, but do giggle over some of the more pompous ones that are not in my field.
Shields’s style is deceptively simple. She breezily treats family problems and spiritual aches within the context of a domestic comedy. The likable narrator, Charleen, a poet and part-time assistant editor at a botanical journal, is depressed about the impact of divorce on her family life. Her husband left her and their fifteen-year-old son to live in a commune and raise organic food five years ago. Meanwhile she is dating an orthodontist—whom her friends think very unhip—and corresponding with a man whose philosophical essay on grass (not marijuana) was rejected by the botanical journal. And now she must go to her 70-year-old mother’s wedding—and that will be a trial, because her mother never liked her or her older sister, Judith, a biographer (who is the narrator of Small Ceremonies). Resonant, riveting, and often humorous!