2013 - End of Year Book Review
“Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life." - Mark Twain
When sitting down to review my reads for the year, and compiling my list, themes generally present themselves - and you'd have to be coconuts not to think on them for a moment, or perhaps speak of them. Past themes have been "The year of the Woman" and "The year of Nonfiction Awesomeness". This year a subtler theme presented itself: Patience. Many of the books I read this year celebrated, bemoaned, contemplated, taught, or required patience. This was a thread that shot through my nonliterary year as well. Running my business, moving, loosing my beloved Nana, and getting a 2month old puppy back in April all brought ample opportunities to traverse the path of patience, to practice it. Patience is an unusual beast. Practicing it often feels like practicing setting yourself on fire. Be still, don't mind that it's consuming your flesh...la dee da. Tricky business. However patience, once engaged and strengthened is an amazing tool, and opens doors to new perspectives and experiences.
One real delight for me this year has been the strong showing of my favorite author's newer works (Murakami, Tartt, Pamuk, King). Nothing is worse than having one of your tried and true scribblers deliver you a big fat disappointment (think The Lacuna), and Donna Tartt's latest in particular was an absolute delight, living up to her previous two (which would both be in my top ten of all time). This year my bottom 10 contain 7 books that were simply really poorly written nonfiction works. I didn't have any real bomb this year, nothing I could really point to as the worst - the bottom 4 being somewhat interchangeable in terribleness.
Some unusual highlights this year include more poetry and philosophy works than ever before, with 4 of my top 20 falling into those categories. We have 18 nonfiction and 36 fiction works this year, for a total of 54 books. Gender lines fall: 33 male authors and 21 female. No audio books, which is the first time in a long while I've failed to listen to any. I had 4 books by Ursula K. Le Guin in her Earthsea cycle, and I had 7 books (1 short story collection (standing at #4), 1 autobiography (coming in at #16), and 5 novels) by one of my favorites, Jeanette Winterson. I also read 4 book pertaining to dog training. It was a really cool year.
1-25 are all really great books, 26-44 are good books, and 45-54 are pretty poor.
1. 1Q84, Haruki Murakami
This epic novel is really a simple love story. A man, Tengo, who teaches math and writes, and a woman, Aomame, who works as an assassin, make up two of the three point of view characters. They were class mates as children and spend much of the book searching for each other, with a melancholy longing that is one of Murakami's most remarkable gifts. Their individual histories; plus their involvement in an alternate reality (1Q84 refers to an alternate 1984, the year the book takes place), a manuscript called "Air Chrysalis", and a couple of cults, make up the complex backdrop. The book is masterfully written, the characters are engrossing, and the magical elements are intoxicating. Uncanny mysteries haunt the novel, and it's slow pace allows feelings to build gradually to scenes of incredible suspense. This book was an absolute pleasure to read, the kind of book you can fall into completely, disappearing from your own life as easily as Aomame climbed down a ladder into another world.
2. The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk
The book is an homage to first love, the first love in this case being sustained for an entire lifetime, culminating in a tragic, beautiful and haunting collection of objects. This love affair, between Kemal and Fusun, like so many love affairs before, wounds and destroys the lives of those closest to it. Kemal, the golden boy of his wealthy family living in Istanbul in the late 70s falls for Fusun, a very young and not very wealthy distant cousin. Some of the things that really drew me into this story were the ideas of first loves, the insanity of them (it never once, as the years flip by, occurs to Kemal that his love, Fusun, may be ordinary) brought into horrifying detail in being extended throughout Kemal's entire life. Love is dangerous, and ridiculous, and it makes no sense, and nothing shows that more intensely than watching someone fight with it, and lose. Like all of Pamuk's books, Istanbul plays as much of a role as any of the main characters, and it is a complicated and dark one at that. The book is long and relentlessly sad, creating an oddly strong and brave character out of a man driven by pathetic obsession to a point so far beyond the normal experience that he becomes somehow holy. An incredible novel.
3. Ariel: The Restored Edition, Sylvia Plath
This re release of Ariel, Plath's earth shattering final collection of poetry, is as close to perfection as words on a page can come. This edition is an attempt to present the poems as she intended them to be published. I don't read, or study, poetry very often, and have often thought it simply isn't for me, but a couple of collections (Pablo Neruda comes to mind, along with Poe) have blown holes in my consciousness the size and depth of which is incomprehensible. They change you the way great art, ecstatic dance, or falling in love changes you. I picked Ariel: The Restored Edition up after reading a biography of Plath's early years (before Ted) which you will find coming in at #24. Another side note, while reading this collection I was listening to Sigur Ros, and the song Flugufrelsarinn happened to be playing while I absorbed the poem "The Moon and the Yew Tree". I have never been the same.
4. The World and Other Places: Stories, Jeanette Winterson
Many of you may remember Jeanette's Sexing the Cherry appearing on 2012's list at #5, and The Passion showing up at #1 on 2011's list. This year finds The World and Other Places, a collection of 17 short stories at #4. This collection is mind bogglingly good, and like all Jeanette's work it mixes fantasy, insanity, sexuality, perversion, beauty and innocence, and refines it into something with a purity that makes your breath catch in your throat and your heart bleed. For instance, "In the space between chaos and shape there was another chance." or "I dreamed I was a single moment in a single day." or "Nothing has an unlikely property. It is heavy." or "Let me leaf through you before I read you aloud." or "She found the whole world could be contained in one place because that place was herself." or "When I hold you in this night soaked bed it is courage for the day I seek." I mean come on - where did this woman come from! I read 7 books by Jeanette Winterson (a British writer who has my vote for greatest living author in the entire world) this year, including her autobiography which you'll find at #16.
5. The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
Donna Tartt is a bit of a hero in Thibeautown. Her two previous novels have shaped me as a human being, and are among the finest books I've ever had the pleasure of reading and rereading, and rereading. For the past 10 years or so people have been saying she was going to publish again. I stopped believing them back in 2005 or so and had decided to peaceably keep rereading her gems (The Secret History and The Little Friend) - I mean really, she could only screw it up. But I was wrong, because she is a hero, and she has done it again in 2013. Theo's life changes forever one morning in an art museum when suddenly a bomb goes off. The book is ambitious and spirals from a tightly wound center from which it explodes (literally) into the oft dark adventures of a boy who has lost something he values, something he loves, something irreplaceable. There are many points where Theo feels tainted, or poisoned, by secrets, and by loss, and by ideas of things never being ok again. Loss and sorrow of the sort that color our lives, that secretly steer our destinies for a time. Because maybe it isn't about the painting at all.
6. The Art of Living, Epictetus
7. A Naked Singularity, Sergio De La Pava
8. White Teeth, Zadie Smith
9. Of Human Bondage, W. Somerset Maugham
10. Tehanu, Ursula K. Le Guin
11. The Upanishads, Anonymous
12. Lighthouse Keeping, Jeanette Winterson
13. Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry
14. The Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell
15. A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity, William Copperwathe
16. Why be Happy When you can be Normal, Jeanette Winterson
17. How to be Your Dog's Best Friend, The Monk's of New Skete
18. Upon the Sweeping Flood and Other Stories, Joyce Carol Oates
19. The Wind Through the Keyhole, Stephen King
20. The Enigma of Arrival, V. S. Naipaul
21. The Tombs of Atuan, Ursula K. Le Guin
22. Joyland, Stephen King
23. Gut Symmetries, Jeanette Winterson
24. Mad Girl's Love Song, Andrew Wilson
25. The Powerbook, Jeanette Winterson
26. Your Dog is Your Mirror, Kevin Behan
27. Jim Henson: The Biography, Brian Jay Jones
28. Weight, Jeanette Winterson
29. The Farthest Shore, Ursula K. Le Guin
30. A Thirst for Death - A Hunger to Live, Robert A. Creamer
31. Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, David Sedaris
32. Confessions of a Falling Woman, Debra Dean
33. And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie
34. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Laurence Stern
35. The Art of Raising a Puppy, The Monks of New Skete
36. Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote, Truman Capote
37. The Stone Gods, Jeanette Winterson
38. Candy Girl, Diablo Cody
39. The Law of Dreams, Peter Behrens
40. A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
41. The Moon and Sixpence, W. Somerset Maugham
42. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell
43. Horns, Joe Hill
44. Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh
45. The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan
46. After Nature, W. G. Sebald
47. French Women Don't Get Fat, Mireille Guiliano
48. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Other Tales, Robert Louis Stevenson
49. An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World, Pankaj Mishra
50. Them, Joyce Carol Oates
51. The Wisdom of Yoga: A Seeker's Guide to Extraordinary Living, Stephen Cope
52. Fit For Life, Harvey Diamond
53. Angst: Origins of Anxiety and Depression, Jeffrey P. Kahn
54. The Genuis of Dogs: How Dogs are Smarter Than You Think, Brian Hare