Monthly Archives: December 2008

Best reading experiences of 2008

Now for my last post of 2008. Thanks to everyone who visited here through the last year — I’ve greatly appreciated your company! I hope each and every one of you has a great 2009.

So, to my favorite books of the year. To be clear, this list will have nothing to do with the best books published in 2008; I read only five books from the past year, and only one of them is good enough to appear here (The Story of Edgar Sawtelle).  Undoubtedly, it was a great year for nonfiction. Nonfiction accounted for less than 30% of all the books I read, but I could easily justify a best-of list with nothing else on it.  I’ve raved so much about the books I’m about to list, that most of you will be thoroughly bored by them and are probably eager for me to move on to something else.  Still, if I’m going to write about my favorite books, these ones must appear (links are to my posts on the book):

  1. Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage.  This is a book about trying to write a book about D.H. Lawrence.  I’ve never been a Lawrence fan, but that doesn’t matter — what matters is Dyer’s brilliant, original voice.  The book rages and rambles, and I happily followed Dyer wherever he wanted to go.
  2. George Saunders, The Braindead Megaphone.  A friend gave me this book as a gift, and I’m so glad she did because otherwise I would have missed out on something wonderful.  I loved this book so much I’ve recommended it to tons of people, and in fact, I praised it so highly to Hobgoblin that he assigned it in one of his classes.  I hope the students liked it.
  3. Janet Malcolm, The Silent Woman. Malcolm is a writer I’ll read no matter whom she writes about.  This book is about the reputations of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes and the story of her researches into their lives and their biographers.  Malcolm makes fascinating material out of the way reputations are formed and biographies are written.
  4. Jenny Diski, Stranger on a Train and Skating to Antarctica.  I’ve raved about these books plenty already — no need to do it any more.
  5. David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster.  Wallace’s essayistic voice is so utterly charming and friendly, you don’t want ever the book to end, and you forgive him for being way, way smarter than you are.  He can make any subject he takes up seem like the most fascinating subject in the world.

Also really great: A.J.A. Symons’s The Quest for Corvo, Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf’s Nose, and Joan Didion’s The White Album.  It’s a little absurd to list nine books out of eighteen as being especially great, but the truth is, they all deserve to be there.

But I read more than nonfiction.  Here are some of my favorite novels:

  1. James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. This book was incredibly odd, and that’s exactly the kind of book I like.  Even better, it’s oddness has to do with religion, a combination I find irresistable.
  2. Cormac McCarthy, The Road.  I’ll never be a huge McCarthy fan and read everything he’s written, but this one was powerful and haunting and hard to forget.
  3. Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford.  This is a charming book, plain and simple.  Not a whole lot happens in it, but that doesn’t matter in the least.  It’s a book that will make you happy.
  4. David Wroblewski, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.  If Cranford makes you happy, this one will make you cry.  But it will awe you at the same time — it’s such a haunting story, so beautifully written, and so moving.
  5. Tom McCarthy, Remainder.  This one won’t make you happy and won’t make you cry — instead, it makes you think.  It’s an experimental, philosophical novel, one that makes you think about happiness, and also authenticity, self-awareness, and existence.  It’s odd and clever and fun.

Also really great: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (review to come).

Not a bad year, right?

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By the Numbers: 2008

Update: I finished another book and so have adjusted my numbers accordingly.

I’ve enjoyed analyzing my reading using some math in years past, so I can’t resist doing it again:

Books read: 63

Fiction (of any genre or length): 44

Nonfiction: 18

Poetry: 1 (although I’ve been in the middle of a second book for a long time)

Short story collections: 2

Nonfiction books about books and reading: 8

Female authors: 32

Male authors: 30 (including one writing under a female pseudonym)

Multiple authors, men and women: 1

Books in translation: 4

Books by authors from England, Scotland, or Ireland: 34

Books by Americans: 21

Books by Canadians: 3

Books by Japanese: 2

Books from the 11th century: 1 (Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book)

Books from the 14th century: 1 (Kenko’s Essays in Idleness)

Books from the 17th century: 1 (Milton’s Paradise Lost)

Books from the 19th century: 10

Books from the 20th century:  22  (first half: 8; second half: 14)

Books from the 21st century: 28

Books re-read: 4 (two of them I re-read for class and probably wouldn’t have otherwise)

Different books from authors I’d read in previous years: 11

The total number of books I read this year is in between the numbers for the last two years, which were 70 last year and 54 the year before (my previous by the numbers posts are here and here).  I think the drop in the total number from last year has mostly to do with the increase in my cycling and triathlon training.

I’m surprised I didn’t manage to read anything from the 18th century, although one of the books, Adeline Mowbray, is usually considered an 18th-century novel, even though it was published in 1804.  I’m embarrassed that I only read four books in translation.  That’s really bad. Maybe I can do better next year?  Compared to the last two years, the gender breakdown has been similar — I tend to read fairly equal numbers of men and women.  I also tend to read similar numbers of older and more recent books — I usually read around 11-12 pre-20th century books — and the same is true for the fiction/nonfiction breakdown.  It’s interesting to me that these numbers are consistent, when I don’t think about them when I’m choosing books and don’t check out how I’m doing during the year.

I don’t intend to make any reading resolutions for next year, but I might think about reading some pre-19th century books and more books in translation.

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Skating to Antarctica

Skating to Antarctica has confirmed for me that Jenny Diski is a writer I really love, one of those writers I’m incapable of being objective about and whom I will enjoy reading no matter what she writes.  I read Stranger on a Train earlier this year and loved it and this book was great too.  If I had to choose my favorite, I’d choose Stranger on a Train, although this may be for no better reason than that I prefer reading about America to Antarctica.  But both books have a similar structure and accomplish similar things: they are a mix of travel and memoir, and they tease out connections between her difficult childhood and her adult character.

I described this book to a friend, and as I was describing it, I realized that it sounds exactly like the sort of book I wouldn’t like.  I don’t normally go for reading about difficult childhoods.  While I like certain kinds of life writing, personal essays in particular, the word “memoir” makes me think of dull, self-indulgent books that are more about exorcising personal demons than creating art.  So I suppose this makes Diski’s accomplishment that much more impressive — in spite of my biases, I am ready to read about Diski’s difficult childhood in book after book.

What makes the book so good is her voice.  Diski creates a persona I can happily spend time with, no matter what she is writing about.  That voice is of the type I wrote about in an earlier post — brutally honest and not out to please.  She is who she is and you can take her or leave her.  She’s a contrarian, taking pleasure in seeing the world a little differently than everyone else, and this is an attitude I can appreciate, as long as the writer is witty and genuinely insightful, which Diski invariably is.  Done badly, this kind of attitude can be incredibly annoying, but done well, it’s delightful.

Skating to Antarctica is a book about whiteness — Diski’s desire to be surrounded by nothing but shades of white, which to her means a state of nothingness and oblivion.  She wants to get to the point where she has no tasks and obligations, where no one is making any demands on her, where there aren’t even any colors to look at.  I know this feeling, not about whiteness in particular, but about nothingness.  I feel that as long as I have things I need to do I can’t rest, and I want nothing more than days and days ahead of me with absolutely nothing going on.  Never mind that achieving this state would make me miserable (although I’m not sure this is true for Diski) and never mind the more important point that this state of nothingness is really nothing but death — I want rest and this seems like the only way to get it.

Spurred on by this feeling, Diski decides she wants to visit Antarctica, the whitest, most desolate place on earth, the place where she can get closest to her dream of nothingness.  Unfortunately for her, the only feasible way of visiting the continent is on a cruise ship, which means she has to share the experience with dozens of other people.  But since it’s the best she can do, she sets off on the trip, determined to find as much oblivion as she possibly can.

At the same time she is planning and executing her trip, however, life threatens to intrude into her dreams of peace — her daughter has decided she wants to find what happened to Diski’s long-estranged mother.  Diski has spent many years not knowing whether her mother is alive or not — and living in a state of happy ignorance.  In order to explain why it is she really, truly does not care to know whether her mother is alive or not (if you’re thinking it’s impossible not to care at all, Diski has a lot to say to you before admitting you’re right), she tells the story of her childhood, of her horribly mismatched parents, her tumultuous relationships with them, her time in and out of mental institutions, and her knack at getting kicked out of schools.

So Diski moves back and forth between her dream of escape — the whiteness of Antarctica — and the unfortunate fact that the dream is impossible to reach.  The choice is either to commit suicide, which while it was an option earlier in her life is not one now, or to stay enmeshed in the complications and obligations of life, however unwillingly.  I admire Diski for facing this vexing, impossible situation so bravely, and for writing about it so well.

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Home again, home again

So Hobgoblin, Muttboy, and I are back home after a trip to upstate New York to visit my family.  The trip was fine.  I complain about how hard it is to visit my family, but the truth is that they are totally fine and the problem is all with me.  I just read Litlove’s post about how hard it is to be sociable, especially when you are introverted and sensitive to other people’s feelings, and I recognized myself in everything she wrote.  There is just too much going on when I visit my family — too many people, too many emotions, too many memories, too much conversation, too much uncertainty.  And these days there are new people to meet all the time — new boyfriends and girlfriends (I have six siblings, all of whom are younger than I am), and I have to figure out not only what I think of them but what they think of each other and how they change the family dynamic for better or for worse.  This time around only two of my siblings could make it along with their respective boyfriends, but even though the numbers were relatively small (only eight people, including my parents, out of a possible 15 or 16, depending on whether my littlest brother is dating anyone or not), there was plenty to think about.  I’m tired.

I got a nice stack of Christmas books, though, which is the real point of this post.  First of all, a good friend sent me Bernard Malamud’s novel The Assistant. She said it was the best novel she’d read last year, and as she is one of the most discerning readers I know, I’m sure it’s good.  I read Malamud’s The Fixer quite a few years ago and enjoyed it, but this novel looks to be quite different, as it’s set in Brooklyn rather than in Russia.

On Christmas day I had a few books waiting for me under the tree; first of all, Hobgoblin gave me Claire Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austen.  I love Austen so much it’s a little ridiculous I haven’t read a biography of her yet, and after reading Tomalin’s bio of Samuel Pepys, I know she’s the one to read.  Then I got a copy of Gabriel Josipovici’s Everything Passes, which my sister found on my Book Mooch wishlist (I made sure my family knew about that list, just in case they wanted help choosing books — there are something like 170 books on that list, so there is plenty of room for surprise).  After reading Litlove’s review of the book, I’m thrilled to own a copy.  I also got an eighteenth-century novel: Charlotte Smith’s Emmeline, in a beautiful Broadview edition.  Looking at the Broadview website, I see that there are dozens if not hundreds of books I’d like to order right now.  Finally, I got a copy of Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude, which I’ve seen highly praised on blogs and which promises to be a good read.

But that’s not quite all.  My dad wanted to go to Barnes and Noble on Friday to use his gift cards, so Hobgoblin and I joined him.  I wasn’t planning on buying anything, but I knew if something struck my fancy, I wouldn’t leave the store without it.  So when I came across David Foster Wallace’s book of essays A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, I didn’t resist.  It will make a nice contribution to next year’s nonfiction reading.  It’s clear where I got my book-loving genes from — I was exhausted and ready to leave the store a good half hour before my dad made his choices.  I had to retire to the cafe to rest up while he was still happily browsing.

I’ll be back soon to write a year-end wrapping up post or two …

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I’m off!

Hobgoblin and I are leaving tomorrow to go visit my family in the Rochester, NY, area and will be gone until sometime next weekend.  I agree with what my sister said on the subject: “I’m staying until Friday or Saturday, depending on how sane I feel.”  Just because my family can drive me insane sometimes doesn’t mean I don’t love them, right?  The fun part of the trip will be waiting breathlessly by the phone to hear if my sister-in-law has had her baby yet (and to find out the gender, as she and my brother aren’t telling).  The uncertain part will be meeting my sister’s new boyfriend — he’s probably great, but who knows?  The fun-in-a-rebellious-kind-of-way part will be refusing to go to the Christmas Eve service (rebellion is easy when you come from the right kind of family).  The not-so-fun part will be the snow storm we will inevitably get caught in.  I just hope it isn’t an out-and-out blizzard, but we’ll see.

Enjoy Christmas, if that’s your thing; otherwise, have a great week!

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The White Album

I recently finished Joan Didion’s 1979 essay collection The White Album.  I surely have read some Didion essays before this, but I can’t remember any, and this is definitely the first book-length work of hers I’ve read.  It was one of those books that had been sitting around on my shelves for ages, since before I began blogging even, and I finally decided it was time.

I’m glad I did get around to it, and I’m glad I read it around the time I was reading Jenny Diski, because the two have some similarities in their writing style.  I’ve decided that I haven’t found enough female nonfiction writers like these two; perhaps this is my fault, and I simply haven’t found them, but it seems to me that I don’t often come across women writing nonfiction in their style — aggressive, blunt, prickly, scrupulously honest, and not out to please.  I put Mary McCarthy in this category too.  Virginia Woolf can write like this as well, except that she often does seem like she is out to please, that she could be much harsher if she wanted to, but she chooses to try to woo readers over to her side.  I suppose, though, that all these writers are out to please in one way or another, whether it’s obvious that they are or not.  At any rate, there is something about this style I find immensely appealing, and I have felt this way for a long time.

Does anybody else come to mind who might fit in this category?

The White Album is very much a book about the mood of the 1960s and 70s, particularly in California.  After the lengthy title essay, there are sections called “California Republic,” “Women,” “Sojourns,” and “On the Morning After the Sixties.” The essays in these sections take up a whole range of subjects, from Doris Lessing (Didion doesn’t like her fiction but admires her tenacity as a writer and thinker) to migraines, Hollywood, Los Angeles traffic control, Georgia O’Keefe, the Hoover Dam, and mall construction.  The range of topics is wide, but her style is similar throughout — direct and straightforward with relatively simple and short sentences, and brilliant at creating a mood and setting up a scene.  She tends to work by juxtaposition; in several essays she tells a series of stories not directly related but getting at a similar theme and leaving the reader to piece together all the meanings and implications.  She likes to let her stories do their own work — she lets them speak for themselves rather than rushing in to spell out the meaning herself.

The title essay works in just this way; in it, she tells a range of stories, each one working to capture the feeling of the time.  Among these stories is a personal one of her struggle with depression.  She tells part of the story herself, but she leaves some of the storytelling to a doctor’s report, which she quotes as length.  She introduces it with the words “another flash cut,” and follows it with this commentary:

The patient to whom this psychiatric report refers is me.  The tests mentioned — the Rorschach, the Thematic Apperception Test, the Sentence Completion Test and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Index — were administered privately, in the outpatient psychiatric clinic at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, in the summer of 1968, shortly after I suffered the “attack of vertigo and nausea” mentioned in the first sentence and shortly before I was named a Los Angeles Times “Woman of the Year.” By way of comment I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.

Then she moves on to tell stories about her neighborhood, about the arrest of Huey Newton, about watching The Doors recording an album, about student unrest at San Francisco State.  It’s a powerful picture, but Didion refuses to draw any conclusions about it or to bring the essay to any real closure.  In fact, the essay ends with this phrase, “writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.”  There are no pat answers or easy lessons to be drawn — instead what we have is a series of vignettes that capture a mood but don’t cohere into any overarching idea or argument.  I came away from the book remembering most of all Didion’s distinctive voice.

I recently finished Jenny Diski’s Skating to Antarctica, which is an entirely different book from Didion’s, but which left me with a powerful sense of voice as well.  I’ll write about that book soon.

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The Savage Garden

Mark Mills’s novel The Savage Garden is an entertaining comfort read, the sort of book that you don’t have to take seriously and one that can help you while away a cold winter evening (or a hot summer afternoon, or whatever).  I wrote on Litlove’s blog recently that all I ask from comfort reading is that it not annoy me with bad writing, and this one didn’t (okay, there were a couple awkward moments during the love scenes, but nothing unforgivable).

The novel tells the story of Adam Stickland who is beginning to write his thesis at Cambridge and finds himself invited to Italy to study the garden at the Villa Docci, just outside of Florence (all thesis subjects should be that easy to find! and they should all involve Italy!).  Upon arrival, he finds himself introduced to an entire cast of characters — the old Signora Docci, who is ailing but charming and flirtatious; her beautiful granddaughter Antonella, who, of course, is mysterious and captivating; their various relatives; the suspicious servant Maria; the attractive and sexually frustrated innkeeper Signora Fanelli; and assorted townspeople, each with their own uncertain past.

The novel takes place in 1958, and the town and the villa residents are still grappling with the aftermath of World War II, and especially with what happened one disastrous night as the German army retreated and violence unexpectedly broke out at the villa.  Adam learns that Signora Docci’s son Emilio was killed by the Germans under circumstances that are not quite clear.  Although the novel doesn’t read as a traditional mystery (it’s too desultory with the mystery aspects of the plot and it doesn’t have a real detective), there are two secrets at the heart of the story — one of them is the question of what exactly happened to Emilio, and the other concerns the garden Adam is set to research.  It’s a formal garden with statues of classical figures, and Adam finds it strangely unsettling.  It was created in the Renaissance by a grieving husband as a tribute to his dead wife.  Except there is more to the story, and it soon becomes Adam’s job to find out what that is.  He reads Ovid and Dante in an attempt to figure out the message the statues are meant to send, and it’s fun to watch Adam use literature to piece the clues together and solve the puzzle.

These two plots, these mysteries, keep Adam busy — when he’s not already busy pursuing Antonella or glaring at her suspiciously surly uncle or trying to manage his out-of-control artistic brother.  This book is such a fantasy — attractive, smart, insightful but not too bookish protagonist travels to Italy, meets beautiful women, solves mysteries, uncovers material for thesis, and generally has a good time.  What’s wrong with a little fantasy now and then?

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