2013 in literary review! This is long. I also proceeded in the order in which I read these books, instead of trying to make some sort of arbitrary order … Also, there are more quotes in here than in previous years (here are 2011 and 2012).
First Book Read in 2013: Alice Munro, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
Wrote in my book journal: “Munro is less about writing/prose than she is about a certain tone/mood she captures. […] Munro is so fabulous at creating a whole, lived-in world, even in the frame of a short story.”
Favourite stories were “Family Furnishings,” “Nettles,” and “What Is Remembered.”
It seemed to her that this was the first time ever that she had participated in a kiss that was an event in itself. The whole story, all by itself. A tender prologue, an efficient pressure, a wholehearted probing and receiving, a lingering thanks, and a drawing away satisfied.
“Floating Bridge” (84)
One of My Favourite Passages Was From Murakami’s South of the Border, West of the Sun:
Yukiko, I love you very much. I loved you from the first day I met you, and I still feel the same. If I hadn’t met you, my life would have been unbearable. For that I am grateful beyond words. Yet here I am, hurting you. Because I’m a selfish, worthless human being. For no apparent reason, I hurt the people around me and end up hurting myself. Ruining someone else’s life and my own. Not because I like to. But that’s how it ends up. (207)
I blogged about this earlier this year, and to quote myself (har): “This is such a great summation of what it means to be human, I think. We don’t mean to hurt people or do wrong, but it can’t be helped because we’re human. We’re imperfect and sinful and selfish, hopeless, worthless, &c, and the most we can do is the best we can — all we can do is try and recognize that we will fail, but, then, we get up and try again — so, in the end, I did appreciate Hajime’s struggle throughout the novel and how he came out from it.”
(I generally enjoyed this book; it felt more solid and less other-worldly than his other books.)
Author of the Year: Banana Yoshimoto
2013 was the year I read Banana Yoshimoto. I wanted to finish all her books (that have been translated into English) this year, but I’m still working on Amrita, so, unfortunately, I can’t say I quite accomplished that goal, but I got pretty damn close! Amrita is surprisingly long (for Yoshimoto), and, because it’s my last of her books, I’m taking it a little slower. Or, you know, I’ve picked up three other books while reading Amrita, so …
Yoshimoto reminds me a lot of Murakami, in that I don’t necessarily find myself that engrossed in their stories/worlds/characters but I’m intrigued enough to keep reading. And, clearly, I’ve been intrigued enough by Yoshimoto to plow through her backlist, so I’d say that probably says enough in an of itself?
(Favourite Banana Yoshimoto: Goodbye Tsugumi
I really enjoyed the dynamic between the narrator and Tsugumi in this, and Tsugumi, particularly, cracked me up, her and her digging a hole especially, and I liked the little bits of thoughtful wisdom placed throughout the book. In general, Goodbye Tsugumi felt very warm and tangible and genuine to me, and, in turn, I felt warm and comforted by it. That’s generally one thing I love about books personally — they give back as much as I invest into them.
Each one of us continues to carry the heart of each self we’ve ever been, of every stage along the way, and a chaos of everything good and rotten. And we have to carry this weight all alone, through each day that we live. We try to be as nice as we can to the people we love, but we alone support the weight of ourselves. (39)
My second favourite Banana Yoshimoto would be The Lake.)
(Favourite Quote from a Banana Yoshimoto is from “Helix” in Lizard:
“Even when I have crushes on other men, I always see you in the curve of their eyebrows.” (64)
I think that is so bloody fantastic.)
Biggest Disappointment: Elizabeth Winder, Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953
This could have been great. Seriously. The author had a lot of interviews to cull from, and, had it been written better (or maybe even researched better? I can’t tell), this could have been pretty damn awesome. Instead, we got a very superficial, surface-skimming book with a lot of quotations and stated facts, and that was that.
I did like this, though:
What strange anxiety did this all trigger in Sylvia? The precarious nature of her own happiness, the instability of character, persona, identity, even affection. The instability of identity — how we are seen only one dimension at a time. Cryilly saw a kindred bluestocking. Laurie Glazer saw a cultivated beauty. Ann Burnside saw a caviar-stuffing barbarian. How we are labeled for our glamour — or lack of it. That French perfumes were far more important than she even imagined (and Sylvia never doubted their importance). That if you stand still for a moment the world keeps moving, that sometimes no head will turn despite shiny hair and freshly applied lipstick. That many of your peers will want less than you, and that you will envy them for that. (203)
Least Enjoyable: Haruki Murakami, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
I read this for a Murakami book club, and, while I hated the book, it made for a fun book club discussion because we were polarized — half of us loved the book while the other half hated it; there wasn’t any sort of middle ground. For me, I think part of it was that the book wasn’t really one thing or another — it was surreal but not? Or maybe the dream-like world segments were too convoluted? Although the real world stuff was just as convoluted? Maybe I just didn’t Get It?
But, I did love this passage:
“No. Think it over carefully. This is very important because to believe something, whatever it might be, is the doing of the mind. Do you follow? When you say you believe, you allow the possibility of disappointment. And from disappointment or betrayal, there may come despair. Such is the way of the mind.” (351)
In the end, I’ve learned this year that neither surrealism nor magic realism does anything for me — they tend to annoy me, rather.
Quote in Defense of Stories (Because This Is Currently a Sore Subject For Me)
Now, the significance of stories is this. While many stories are often no more than entertainment, narratives are actually so fundamental to how we think that they determine how we understand to live life itself. The term “worldview,” from the German word Welternschauung, means the comprehensive perspective from which we interpret all of reality. But a worldview is not merely a set of philosophical bullet points. It is essentially a master narrative, a fundamental story about (a) what human life in the world should be like, (b) what has knocked it off balance, and (c) what can be done to make it right.
Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor (157)
And, In Relation, an Obligatory Quote from One of Franzen’s
“But Kafka’s about your life!” Avery said. “Not to take anything away from your admiration of Rilke, but I’ll tell you right now, Kafka’s a lot more about your life than Rilke is. Kafka was like us. All of these writers, they were human beings trying to make sense of their lives. But Kafka about all! Kafka was afraid of death, he had problems with sex, he had problems with women, he had problems with his job, he had problems with his parents. And he was writing fiction to try to figure these things out. that’s what his books are about. Actual living human beings trying to make sense of death and the modern world and the mess of their lives.”
Jonathan Franzen, The Discomfort Zone (140-1)
(I thoroughly enjoy Franzen’s non-fiction voice. Part of it is that I feel like his non-fiction voice reads very much like him himself, which, okay, duh, sounds like an obvious thing, but a lot of times there’s a disconnect between a writer and his/her voice, even in non-fiction. Franzen’s funny, too, or I just have a bizarre sense of humor [you know, it really could be that], but I like his general sort of crankiness and wryness and self-awareness.)
Most Sometimes-There-Is-A-Proper-Time-And-Place-For-Books: Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot
Eugenides is 2 for 3 in my book! I first picked up The Marriage Plot when it was first published in 2011, but I couldn’t get past the first 20-some pages because I was in university then, studying comparative literature and surrounded by the same character types depicted in the beginning of the novel. I picked it up in paperback earlier this year, though, when I was in law school and miserable and unhappy, and, damn, was it a comfort to my soul.
The thing that stood out to me most about The Marriage Plot, though, was how much love Eugenides had for his characters, especially Leonard, and I felt a lot of warmth/love while reading it. The ending was good, too — not so tightly closed or neatly knotted together but rather realistic and hopeful?
Favourite Overall: Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings
I picked The Interestings up on a whim and started reading it on a particularly humid Wednesday in August, ignoring any and all other responsibilities I had because it was too goddamn humid to do anything but read. I didn’t expect to love it, but I did — I head-over-heels loved it.
It’s rare (in my opinion) to find good books about friendship and, particularly, about friendship in an ensemble way, but The Interestings did so deftly, weaving together these six lives and carrying this friendship through time, which, also, is impressive — but I’d say that what I liked most about The Interestings was that the characters felt thoroughly real to me. They felt like people to me, people I could know, could come across, and they lived lives that were actual, full lives — these people, these friends, were fleshed out, traveling the trajectories of their individual and, also, entwined lives, and I, as the reader, was there along for the ride.
This passage, in particular, gets me in the heart every single fucking time:
Once, a few years earlier, Jules had gone to see a play at Ash’s theater, and afterward, during the “talkback,” when the audience asked questions of the playwright and of Ash, who’d directed the production, a woman stood up and said, “This one is for Ms. Wolf. My daughter wants to be a director too. She’s applying to graduate school in directing, but I know very well that there are no jobs, and that she’s probably only going to have her dreams dashed. Shouldn’t I encourage her to do something else, to find some other field she can get into before too much time goes by?” And Ask had said to that mother, “Well, if she’s thinking about going into directing, she has to really, really want it. That’s the first thing. Because if she doesn’t, then there’s no point in putting herself through all of this, because it’s incredibly hard and dispiriting. But if she does really, really want it, and if she seems to have a talent for it, then I think you should tell her, ‘That’s wonderful.’ Because the truth is, the world will probably whittle your daughter down. But a mother never should.” (460)
Also, I’m still a little in love with Ethan Figman.
Non-fiction of 2013: Boris Kachka, Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
I’m such a sucker for anything related to publishing.
However, while I really, really loved what this book was about, I kind of really, really didn’t care for the writing. For one, it drove me crazy that Kachka wasn’t consistent with the names — like, he kept hopping between “Roger” and “Straus” and “Straus Jr,” so I was bloody confused from time-to-time exactly which Straus he was referring to. For another, the writing just seemed really uneven — it wasn’t bad, per se, just … uneven … and it didn’t necessarily detract that much from the reading, but, honestly, I couldn’t not enjoy Hothouse because it was the story of a great publishing house.
My favourite passage from it:
It may have been Straus who, by sheer force of his charm and quickness managed to preserve the company that arguably set the intellectual tone of postwar America.But it was Giroux and Robbins and Vursell and many other underpaid strivers who advised him on what to publish, how to promote it, how to translate it and sell it properly abroad — who, in short, made the company worth preserving.They worked in gloves in the winter when the heat broke down; they jerry-rigged the paper towel roll in the ladies’ room with an oversized dinner fork; they repaired their own desks and bought their own pencils and made sacrifices in their lives that well-born Roger W. Straus, Jr., would never have to make, all for the freedom to publish what they loved, and little else. (09)
Favourite Poem Because, Yes, Sometimes, I Read Poems, Too: Ted Hughes, “The Offers,” Howls and Whispers
Ted Hughes is one of two poets from whom I’ve read fairly extensively (the other poet being T.S. Eliot). I always say I’m going to read more poetry, but the truth is that I probably won’t ever — I used to love poetry when I was young, but my love for poetry died a swift and permanent death early on.
The last few lines are my absolute favourite:
Even in my dreams, our house was in ruins.
But suddenly — the third time — you were there.
Younger than I had ever known you. You
As if new made, half a wild roe, half
A flawless thing, priceless, facetted
Like a cobalt jewel. You came behind me
(At my helpless moment, as I lowered
A testing foot into the running bath)
And spoke — peremptory, as a familiar voice
Will startle out of a river’s uproar, urgent,
Close: ‘This is the last. This one. This time
Don’t fail me.’
Fun Fact: Ted Hughes is distantly related to John Farrar of FSG!
Last Book Read in 2013: Aleksandar Hemon, The Book of My Lives
Read it. I’d have more to say about this, but I finished it on 2013 December 31, and I’m still processing it in my head. But read it. I highly recommend it.
Going Into 2014 Reading:
- Chang-rae Lee, The Surrendered
- Naoki Higashida, The Reason I Jump
- Diane Middlebrook, Her Husband: Hughes and Plath — A Marriage
Looking Forward to in 2014:
- Chang-rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea (Riverhead, 2014 January 7)
- Lydia Davis, Can’t and Won’t (FSG, 2014 April 8)
- Shin Kyung-sook, I’ll Be Right There (Other Press, 2014 May 6)
- Gong Ji-young, Our Happy Time (Atria Books/Marble Arch Press, 2014 July 1)
- Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (Random House, 2014 August 12)