My year in reading: 2013

2013 books

Goodreads has kindly made a beautiful graphic showing the books I read this year. There are 32, but that includes a Granta and a few other random things. So 30ish. Towards the end of the year, I really wanted to have read 30 books, but now that I look at it, they look like so much less than I would have liked.

Anyway, the books I enjoyed reading this year:

  • Stoner by John Edward Williams (review here) – an amazingly well executed novel
  • Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (Books 1 and 2) (review here) – I enjoyed the flow and style
  • A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (review here) – I liked the tone and mood of the book

There were a few other books that influenced me more than made me just “enjoy” them. The key ones of these:

  • Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson (review here) – I thought about this book and its vast spaces all year
  • Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter (review here) – where has she been all my life?
  • The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit (review here) – I am now obsessed with her

Socially important books, if not perfectly executed:

  • The Circle by Dave Eggers (review here)
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (review here)

Best book I got for free from NetGalley:

  • Definitely The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit.

Books I carried around in my bag but didn’t really read enough of to review:

  • The Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara
  • John Ashbery’s new book of poetry
  • A book of poetry by Edna St. Vincent Millay
  • Bird Cloud by Annie Proulx

 

Would love to hear your favourite books this year – these categories or any others.

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Last Review of 2013! The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace

It clearly isn’t 2013, but I think that this is the last book I have been meaning to review from 2013. I got really far behind, it seems. Don’t want to do that again – I have spent like 4 hours writing about these books, and it would be much more enjoyable to just do 1 at a time.

broom of the system (wallace)

So I have been saving this one for last: The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace. I have been saving it because I didn’t know – still don’t, really – what to write. This was DFW’s first book, and it was his thesis. It centres on the main character’s fear that she is a linguistic construct rather than a real human:

“No, she simply felt — at times, mind you, not all the time, but at sharp and distinct intuitive moments — as if she had no real existence, except for what she said and did and perceived and et cetera, and that these were, it seemed at such times, not really under he control. There was nothing pure.” (67)

And:

“LENORE: But not necessarily even a person, is the thing. The telling makes its own reasons. Gramma says any telling automatically becomes a kind of system, that controls everybody involved.” (122)

It is ambitious but not perfectly executed. There are, probably, some autobiographical moments, which tell you a lot about DFW:

“That is, it occurs to me now in force that in college things were never, not ever, at no single point, simply all right. Things were never just OK. I was never just getting by. Never. I can remember I was always horribly afraid. …” (207)

There are other bits about time and aging, particularly this which I liked:

“‘That as people age, accumulate more and more private experience, their sense of history tightens, narrows, becomes more personal? So that to the extent that they remember events of social importance, they remember only for example “where they were” when such-and-such occurred. Et cetera et cetera. Objective events and data become naturally more and more subjectively colored.” (369)

What I liked about it is that you can see so many different ways of thinking coming out in this first novel – things that will reappear in his more developed books later (e.g. Infinite Jest). (I don’t really know what I’ll give it on Goodreads. Probably a 3? But it is a strong 3/3.5.)

Stoner by John Edward Williams

stoner (williams)

This is not really a review, but it is a placeholder. Basically, Stoner by John Edward Williams is excellent and you should read it. It is more or less a perfect novel (although there are some potential feminist critiques of the way the wife is portrayed), but overall really well executed and lovely story.

But you’ll know that already because everyone else has been talking about this book all year.

Review: My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Books 1 and 2)

my struggle 1 death my struggle 2 man

I’m doing a combined review of these two books because it is logical and because I am running out of steam writing so many book reviews today.

I really like Knausgaard’s writing style (or as it comes out in translation – one never knows I guess). I like the clarity of his thinking and his assessment of his life. I read both books fairly quickly – probably the first one more quickly than the second. The first book, A Death in the Family, is about Knausgaard’s father’s death, and his memories of growing up. There is a quietness and gravity in his writing that I really enjoyed. The book is excellent at capturing the feeling of being from somewhere and not understanding that place, and yet also knowing it incredibly well. I really loved the first one. I folded down too many pages to really fully quote them all here. Here are a couple quotes I liked from the first one:

“For nostalgia is not only shameless, it is also treacherous. What does anyone in their twenties really get out of a longing for their childhood years? For their own youth? It was like an illness.” (181)

“Our minds are flooded with images of places we have never been, yet still know, people we have never met, yet still know and in accordance with which we, to a considerable extent, live our lives. The feeling this gives, that the world is small, tightly enclosed around itself, without openings to anywhere else, is almost incestuous, and although I know this to be deeply untrue, since actually we know nothing about anything, still I could not escape it.” (198)

By the end of the second book, A Man in Love, I am just not sure if I liked Knausgaard as a person – or the person he is portraying in the book (I have just seen that this is ostensibly a novel, although it seems to be heavily autobiographical… although I haven’t read a lot about him yet). I enjoyed this second book less – partly because it is about subject matter that is more distant from my life (being a man with a pregnant wife and then children), and partly because the guy sounds like a completely selfish jerk by the end of the book. I think that if this same tone – almost petulant – had been adopted throughout, I may not have finished these books. But that is also a sort of power: an ability to change narrative tone and style subtly and over time, where you feel like you are inside his relationship and literally feeling it deteriorate. There is something important about that process. But I’d say it’s not as enjoyable.

Still, I turned down a lot of pages and enjoyed this one as well… and read it fairly quickly. Some favourites:

“What a stupid, bloody idiotic country this was [Sweden]. … Oh, they were confusing food with the mind, they thought they could eat their way to being better human beings without understanding that food is one thing and the notions food evokes another.” (26)

“Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change nappies but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it, and always had done. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts.” (60)

So overall, I really liked them – and I will probably give them both a 4 on Goodreads. I am not sure they are “important”, but they are certainly good literature and worth reading. I’m looking forward to the third book.

Review(ish): Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson

wittgensteins mistress (markson)

I love this book, but it is pretty difficult to write about it. My husband read it, and hated it, so it’s certainly not for everyone. Plus, David Foster Wallace has already written everything I want to say about this book, I think, in the afterword to the edition I read. Really, though, it is so good in terms of experimentation. Mostly I just want to find some people who have read this book, so that I can talk to them.

The basic premise of the book is that it is told by a woman who is – or believes herself to be – the last human on earth. It makes an eery mental picture – this woman going around the world in abandoned cars. There are no dead people; all the people simply vanished.

Anyway, so I have some thoughts on this book, in lieu of a real review:

  1. In one part in London, there’s a part where a car rolls down a hill and it is empty. I love this image, and I would love to have a crowd-sourced film version of this book – from footage taken by people around the world on those rare early summer mornings, at say 5 a.m., when everyone is asleep and you feel that you’re the only person alive, and it feels invigorating and strange.
  2. I love the rhythm of this book and its deep creepiness and insanity, although I realise those are probably key things that people dislike about this book at points.
  3. I don’t know much about Wittgenstein, or many of the other cultural references that are made in the book. But I want to know more.
  4. I frequently found myself think about this book this year, although I read it almost 8 month ago now. It is a powerful thought experiment.
  5. I thought about buying another Markson book when I was in a bookshop in San Francisco, but I didn’t really get into the style as much or the experimentation. I would love to hear more about his writing if anyone knows more?

This doesn’t do the book justice. Someone else read it and talk to me about it!

 

Quotes (a random sampling – I liked lots of it):

“Doubtless I had not even realized that anything had changed, for some time.
For some time I have been watching the sun go down every evening without anxiety, is perhaps what I finally one evening remembered to think.
Or, the eternal silence of these infinite spaces no longer makes me feel like Pascal.” (84)

“Or perhaps it is only the past itself, which is always smaller than one had believed.
I do wish that that last sentence had some meaning, since it certainly came close to impressing me for a moment.
There is a great deal of sadness in the Iliad in either case, incidentally.” (126)

“Although what I have basically been doing about the rain is ignoring it, to tell the truth.
How I do that is by walking in it.
I did not fail to notice that those last two sentences must certainly look like a contradiction, by the way.
Even if they are no such thing.
One can very agreeably ignore a rain by walking in it.
In fact it is when one allows a rain to prevent one from walking in it that one is failing to ignore it.” (184)

Review: Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter

pale horse pale rider (porter)

Why did it take me so long to read Katherine Anne Porter? She is a Texan and a great writer, and there aren’t that many of those, particularly women. I have only read three of her stories, contained in this book, but I have that wonderful feeling that she and I are going to get along well, and I will need to collect some more of her books.

So the three stories in this volume are “Old Mortality”, “Noon Wine” and “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”. I read them fairly quickly and while travelling for Christmas, so I will probably want to re-read. Each is really different in tone and subject matter, which immediately shows a diversity in her writing that is impressive. The subject matter is fairly racy for the time (it was originally published in 1939): some discussion of female morality, a murder and some anti-war sentiment (presumably WWI). I found her voice to be unique – there was a tempo or strength of writing that felt different from other writers. Her stories are strong, steady and appropriately pitched, told from the perspective of a variety of characters (third-person narration but focused on young women and old men at various points).

“Old Mortality” is about the stories we are told as children about our elders, and how we romanticise these fairy tales and take away lessons that are, in many cases, basically irrelevant. The story starts with this, which tells you basically the point of view and romanticisation that was going on:

“Their hearts and imaginations were captivated by their past, a past in which worldly considerations had played a very minor role. Their stories were almost always love stories against a bright blank heavenly blue sky.” (6)

By the end, the two young women come across “Cousin Eva”, who had always been a cautionary tale for them as children: she was ugly, and a feminist, and so she was an old maid. One shouldn’t end up like that, they were told. They meet her on the way to a funeral (the background to the funeral is also important but I don’t want to get too much into plot), and she tries to explain how silly and romantic their ideas are.

“‘It was just sex,’ [Cousin Eva] said in despair; ‘their minds dwealt on nothing else. They didn’t call it that, it was all smothered under pretty names, but that’s all it was, sex. … None of them had, and they didn’t want to have, anything else to think about, and they didn’t really know anything about that, so they simply fester inside–they festered–‘

Miranda found herself deliberately watching a long procession of living corpses, festering women stepping gaily towards the charnel house, their corruption concealed under laces and flowers, their dead faces lifted smiling, and thought quite coldly, ‘Of course it was not like that.'” (63)

And finally, there is a kind of epiphany at the end, but an ambiguous one:

“She resented, slowly and deeply and in profound silence, the presence of these aliens who lectured and admonished her, who loved her with bitterness and denied her the right to look at the world with her own eyes, who demanded that she accept their version of life and yet could not tell her the truth, not in the smallest thing.” (67-8)

It’s a powerful story for anyone who has been raised in a repressive, patriarchal society – in my case, the South.

The second story, “Noon Wine”, was probably my least favourite, so I won’t write much about that. It is still evocative and subtle but more ambiguous and I found the plot the least strong of the three.

The last story, “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”, is a powerful one about a young female newspaper reported who meets a man before he goes to war – she knows he will die and she hates the war. There is a lot of cynicism in this story about world politics – in a way that sort of surprised me (I think we tend to think that cynicism about wars is a new thing, but clearly not). But there is also a lot of hope and innocence in the story as well – this knowledge in youth that you will go through something important and world-changing in falling in love, and that it will leave you ravaged. In this case, influenza coincides with everything and almost literally kills her, which adds to the drama of the story. So there are a lot of layers, but it is beautiful, insightful and sad. A quote about her life so far, to give an idea:

“‘There’s nothing to tell, after all, if it ends now, for all this time I was getting ready for something that was going to happen later, when the time came. So now it’s nothing much.’

‘But it must have been worth having until now, wasn’t it?’ he asked seriously as if it were something important to know.

‘Not if this is all,’ she repeated obstinately.

Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

the circle (eggers)

I read this book about 2 months ago, so again – like all these catching-up reviews – this is going to be a short review. Basically, I liked The Circle and think it is an important book. I am going to give it 4 stars on Goodreads because I think it is the most adept portrayal of the privacy issues and what it’s like to be alive and dealing with these things now, and what it’s like to work in a contemporary corporation. It is maybe not even a 4-star book; the writing and plot devices are so clumsy, obvious or predictable. But that said, it still gets what it is like to be alive now, which is an important factor.

I liked The Circle a lot more than I thought I would, but I haven’t read any of Eggers since You Shall Know Our Velocity, which I also liked. I think since then, I have read about Eggers, rather than actually reading Eggers, and he is sort of annoying to read about. He has a particular literary persona that is a bit tedious and self-aggrandizing at times, and I think that if I had read about this book, I wouldn’t have read it.

The things I liked about this book:

  • It manages to be a little bit ambiguous about which side of the overall online/social-media-controls-the-world debate. It sort of imagines what a world would be like that is not that huge of a stretch beyond what we already have, and it imagines the objections to that, and it doesn’t really come down on a side. When I was reading it, I thought it was more critical of this online culture, but the ending makes you think, “Well, what is the big conspiracy? Maybe there isn’t one? So why object?” It is not that ambiguous – there’s are really heavy-handed allusions to sharks etc. But there is some ambiguity – or maybe a failure to articulate what the point of objecting is – and I like that. In balance, it comes across as if arguing that internetizing-the-world could cause something bad to happen … not that something bad is happening. (That said, this book is fairly obviously pre-Snowden, and it is hard to imagine anyone writing a book this neutral now.)
  • I found the book quite effective at depicting and combining the culture of a corporate and the way the things we do online are pointless. The corporate culture (the way it makes you feel like you want to do things that please others, even when you’re never really sure why that is) was particularly good. The whole sending smiles/frowns thing was great, and the way people use it to replace real action (sending frowns to military dictatorships, and then fearing the consequences). When I read things, like this article about Lululemon, I think about this book. I couldn’t use Pinterest or Facebook for a while because of the depictions. The futility of liking and pinning things was so obvious. But of course I did go back to social media.
 What I didn’t like:
  • I sort of think that the ending is stupid, but I am not sure.
  • The sex scenes were really badly written.

What I think is interesting:

  •  I recently read the new Pynchon book (reviewed here) and I have a soft spot for Pynchon. That aside, it is interesting to see the contrast between these two books – both are about the internet (and apparently Franzen is throwing his hat in the ring, as it were, about the internet as well), but for Pynchon, the internet (as created by DARPA) was always corrupted by power and corrupting, whereas for Eggers, there is this idea of benevolent geeks who might get co-opted. I think that is interesting.
  • I am obsessed with tunnels (did you know this?) and I like the weird tunnels that are in both this and Pynchon. In this book, the tunnel is just somewhere near where Ty ends up living/working. They’re more sinister in Pynchon.

 

Quotes:

I didn’t mark quotes this time, so I don’t remember which ones I liked. Which is a shame, but I really loved this one: “How do we get the inevitable sooner?” It is a good slogan for the book and the mindset.