I did a good amount of reading in 2013, though early on I was concerned that Proust would take up most of my time. Turns out, when you read a hundred or so pages a week over a full year, it's not so overwhelming as you would imagine -- though certainly it's rather consuming and has prompted many a meditation on memory. More on that, though, later.
Out of the 137 books I read, about 70 percent were written by women, a data point I'm always interested in looking at. I read more than in either 2012 or 2011, and I’d hazard that I’ve read with more diversity, with regard to subject, authors’ backgrounds, and so on. I turned 30 this year, one of those milestone years, and so I’m not surprised that the themes that most resonated with me were of time, memory, and journeys physical and spiritual. So let’s commence the full rundown with the books that have really stuck with me and move on from there, shall we?
The best of everything
Perhaps it is a sense of experimentation and playfulness of language that unifies this set, or maybe it is the writers’ strength and the daring that I found so compelling. Regardless, I was blown away by these women’s work:
The Assumption of the Rogues & Rascals, Elizabeth Smart. Smart’s book looks at what is left when love is long gone, and it admittedly meanders here and there a bit -- and all for the best, because what is there that love does not touch? Her words on writing shine bright and true: “A pen is a furious weapon. But it needs a rage of will. Everything physical dies but you can send a mad look to the end of time. You can manipulate the bright distracting forever-escaping moment.” All you have to do is pick the pen up.
Speedboat, Renata Adler. I read and enjoyed both Speedboat and Pitch Dark, which are having a renaissance with the NYRB reissues. There are too many lovely little moments to recount, and so here, too, let’s have Adler give us some writing counsel: “Please don’t go. Writing is always, in part, bending somebody’s ear. As reading is. In the matter of commas. In the matter of question marks. In the matter of tenses.”
Stream of Life, Clarice Lispector. Lispector, too, is a revelation; another of her books, The Passion According to G.H., well deserves a spot on my list of favorites for 2013. Such immediacy in her sentences, such a rush to capture what is rather than what could or will be: “I write you as a rough sketch before painting. I see words. What I speak is pure present, and this book is a straight line in space. It’s always present time, and the shutter of a camera opens and immediately closes …” Reading Stream of Life felt at times like watching students create figure studies as a model shifts through poses; we capture what we can while we can and then we move on.
The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit. Solnit masterfully blends personal narrative and scholarly erudition, both in this book and A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which I also loved. The Faraway Nearby focuses on the theme of storytelling, but it’s wedded with a discussion of her mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, a topic close to heart as my grandmother slowly succumbed to the same affliction. On one of my last trips to California to visit her, Solnit’s story prompted me to consider my own: “What’s your story? It’s all in the telling. Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of travelling from here to there.”
On losing and finding time
Reading installments of Proust's In Search of Lost Time made me mark time this year in a particular way, and I must admit that there were weeks when I grew impatient and raced through the rambling descriptions of the social niceties (and nasties) of turn-of-the-century French life. However, these were matched by weeks of rapture at his language, times when I was so fully engaged that it was hard to stop myself from reading ahead.
I suspect that Proust “changes” somewhat on rereading; for me, what was most poignant was the Narrator’s relationship with his grandmother, and that is likely colored by the happenings in my personal life. So pointed were the words on grief that I can hardly recount them without experiencing anew those feelings of fresh loss, and so instead I’ll highlight a few of my other favorite passages, apart from the more familiar pieces from Swann’s Way on the madeleine and the pink hawthorns and all those familiar things.
From Within a Budding Grove, on the work of an artist:
We may talk for a lifetime without doing more than indefinitely repeat the vacuity of a minute, whereas the march of thought in the solitary work of artistic creation proceeds in depth, in the only direction that is not closed to us, along which we are free to advance -- though with more effort, it is true -- towards a goal of truth.
From The Guermantes Way, on the changeable nature of people and social dynamics:
Words do not change their meaning as much in centuries as names do for us in the space of a few years. Our memories and our hearts are not large enough to be able to remain faithful. We have not room enough, in our present mental field, to keep the dead there as well as the living. We are obliged to build on top of what has gone before and is brought to light only by a chance excavation …
From The Captive, on life's journey:
The only true voyage ... would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is …
From The Fugitive, on ignorance:
... what I had believed to be nothing to me was simply my entire life. How ignorant one is of oneself.
And on fragmentation:
A great weakness no doubt for a person, to consist merely of a collection of moments; a great strength also: he is a product of memory, and our memory of a moment is not informed of everything that has happened since; this moment which it has recorded endures still, lives still, and with it the person whose form is outlined in it.
I should choose a reading project akin to this for 2014, but I have yet to be inspired; maybe the first few volumes of Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle would be an appropriate challenge. We’ll see. Suggestions?
Keep it snappy
Several short story collections I read were rather memorable:
Tenth of December, George Saunders. Although nearly every story in this collection was top notch, it is the shortest that I remember best: I am haunted by the odd “Sticks,” a quick tale of a man who commemorates important days by decorating a metal pole, a lonely ceremony in good times and bad.
Battleborn, Claire Vaye Watkins. Watkins’s stories are mind-blowingly good and evoke a West that is more recognizable to me in its faded glory than near any other account I’ve read.
The Color Master, Aimee Bender. Best taken in small doses, Bender’s off-kilter worlds are still some of the most interesting being summoned in the short form.
I read a surprising amount of nonfiction this year, whether personal essays, pop-psych hits, or broader histories. Some of the best:
The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell. Fussell discusses the way World War I shaped art and culture, serving as a natural complement to the Proust I read.
Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson. Just as fascinating as the course of Winterson’s life are her thoughts on the power of literature to give you the world when what’s before you looks like a fallow field.
Where I Was From, Joan Didion. I envy Didion’s ability to detach, as she does when she speaks of boxing up old photographs and letters, putting them in a closet, because, of course, “There is no real way to deal with everything we lose."
The Zodiac Arch, Freya Stark. “Himyar the Lizard” is easily one of my favorite short stories of the year, and just thinking of Freya feeding the titular lizard his flowers rouses my sentimental side.
Manifestoes of Surrealism, Andre Breton. Certain of Breton’s pieces in this collection are too polemical, but I rather admire many of the experiments of the Surrealists and see myself remaking some of their projects, like poetry out of found objects -- such as newspaper headlines, rearranged for artistic effect.
Anarchism is Not Enough, Laura Riding. Riding’s puzzling, elliptical prose begs for another read; her sentences are a provocation, a challenge I’d like to take on again.
The Assassin from Apricot City: Reportage from Turkey, Witold Szablowski. Inspired essays on little-told facets of a city and a country I’ll soon visit.
You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination, Katharine Harmon. This book, focused on artistic mappings of personal journeys, political divisions, and other psychic space, was a pitch-perfect gift that served as inspiration for an end-of-year project, creating a triptych of collages to map my experience of New York.
I continued to dip into YA, finally reading Francesca Lia Block’s entire Weetzie Bat series, about which I have some complex feelings that ought perhaps to be summarized elsewhere; I also plowed through The Book of Blood and Shadow (Robin Wasserman), It's Kind of a Funny Story (Ned Vizzini, a talent lost too soon), the classic Understood Betsy (Dorothy Canfield), and Looking for Alaska and An Abundance of Katherines (John Green). I also reread Roald Dahl’s Matilda in anticipation of seeing the Broadway musical adaptation of it, and I fell in love anew with the sassy, whipsmart protagonist.
Based on a real story
For a period, I happened again and again upon books that fictionalized actual events or people, including Fever (Mary Beth Keane), the story of Typhoid Mary; Mary Coin (Marisa Silver), loosely based on Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” photograph; Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald (Therese Anne Fowler), on F. Scott’s doomed wife; Dora (Lidia Yuknavitch), which reimagines a famous Freudian case study; and Schroder (Amity Gaige), a take-off on the Clark Rockefeller imposter debacle.
Dark and dastardly deeds
More than a couple of my picks this year fit into the crime/thriller rubric. A few -- like Elizabeth Hand’s Black Light, Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon, Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls, Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching, and Victor LaValle’s Lucretia and the Kroons -- looked at the particular troubling of young women, some of whom dabble in the dark arts. Alissa Nutting’s searing Tampa is an unsettling read that looks at a middle-school teacher who preys on her students; Neil Gaiman considers a broader universe of good and evil in American Gods. Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley is clever and fast moving, while Norah C. James’s strange Sleeveless Errand tells a tale of a woman at loose ends who elects to end it all. In Blood in the Parlor, Dorothy Dunbar wittily recalls inventive murders from days gone by, and in The Lifted Veil, George Eliot veers Gothic, with mixed success. My most exciting discovery in the genre, though, might be Sara Gran; I read three of her books -- Come Closer, Dope, and Claire Dewitt and the City of the Dead -- all of which were delightful.
Other books I couldn't put down
The following don’t quite fit into any of the above categories, but they’re still worth mentioning. A number of books followed memorable families: for instance, Ghana Must Go (Taiye Selasi), Silver Sparrow (Tayari Jones), The Residue Years (Mitchell S. Jackson), Where'd You Go, Bernadette? (Maria Semple), May We Be Forgiven (A.M. Homes), and Winner of the National Book Award (Jincy Willett). The latter three also benefit from being, at turns, laugh-out-loud funny. The broadly conceived theme of “women finding themselves” is varied and well represented by The Flamethrowers (Rachel Kushner), The Interestings (Meg Wolitzer), Life After Life (Kate Atkinson), The Vanishers (Heidi Julavits), We Need New Names (NoViolet Bulawayo), The Faster I Walk The Smaller I Am (Kjersti A. Skomsvold), The Woman Upstairs (Claire Messud), and Zazen (Vanessa Veselka). Under the “oldies but goodies” heading goes Nella Larsen’s Passing and Djuna Barnes’s evocative Nightwood. Moving across the globe, Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire offers a snapshot of rising Asia, and Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena takes us to Chechnya in wartime. And finally, of course, I read Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, just like every other lover of literary fiction in 2013. It was good. (Should I rave more here? Imagine me raving!)
For previous years' recaps, see the following: