This year I continued my exploration of the literary. I read 34 books, the same as last year (missing my goal of 40 by a fair amount) and only two of those could be called genre. Of those 34, most were brilliant, some extremely so, and very few were bland or uninteresting. I don’t think I could call any of them bad.
I’m going to break them into a few categories: dishonorable mentions, which stood out as less than enjoyable, honorable mentions, which stood out as great, my top three of the year, one of which I will call the best, and then a list of the rest and some thoughts about them.
I know it is oddly arbitrary to be ranking books against each other based only on when I happened to read them… but let’s do it anyway! Here are the books I read this year and what I thought of them.
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald This one had me yawning. I didn’t understand the appeal. Possibly some of my distaste was caused by the terrible, narcolepsy-inducing narrator, but I found it incredibly hard to care about. Perhaps I’m in the wrong time and place for it to resonate. I might try again later in life, but for now, it was a big miss.
The Third Policeman, by Flann Obrien – I didn’t get the humor or the point of this one. I think part of what was going on went over my head until the end, so I didn’t appreciate a lot of it. To me it came across as a lot of random things that were supposed to be funny just by virtue of their randomness. Was not for me.
The Castle, by Franz Kafka – The first Kafka story that I haven’t enjoyed. This one went on and on and most times nothing was happening, and no one was learning or doing anything. I think I understand the point, like in The Trial, of endless, meaningless bureaucracy, but it was not engaging. It was also unfinished, and not in the way that The Trial was unfinished. This one just cuts off in the middle of a conversation. Boring, tiring, and unsatisfying.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman Some decent prose at times and some memorable imagery, but overall it made no sense and was annoyingly trite, and the character did not change or learn anything. I found it to be a waste of time.
The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway My second attempt at enjoying Hemingway. I liked For Whom the Bell Tolls better. This one had some good points toward the end, but mostly I was bored and distracted. I think these books are just not for me.
The Stranger, by Albert Camus The character in this book is just so perfectly empty that I couldn’t look away. A selfish, self-absorbed, feelingless being, yet somehow, I identified with him quite a lot. The end of this one really affected me. I felt sick and cold and anxious, but at the same time so fascinated and absorbed. A very memorable character and story, and one that I might want to read again someday. I thought about this book for a long time after finishing it.
Satantango, by László Krasznahorkai A nonstop deluge of rain pulls you along through the mud and alcohol and death on these pages. I’ve not read something like this before, and it had quite an effect on my own writing. Interesting, dark, funny, sad, and beautiful all at once. A top discovery for the year and one I’m sure I’ll read again someday.
Forty Stories by Anton Chekhov Gem after gem. This collection had me saying ‘wow’ non-stop and marveling at how well he could capture a feeling, an idea, a character in so few words. The most enjoyable aspect of all, though, was that he knew exactly when to stop, and there were no twists. I wish I could read 40 more.
Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado I can’t remember the last time I read a new (not just to me) author that I loved so much. Consistently lovely prose. Dark, disturbing but also inspiring. Odd, unusual, and unexpected. I found myself highlighting quite a bit in this one. It rides the edge of literary and genre in a deliciously interesting way. Recommended to anyone bored of the same old tropes but still unwilling to give up the fantastical. Or to any fan of short stories in general.
Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges When one talks about short stories, or speculative fiction, Borges’ name must be at the top of either list. Many of his stories could end up on this list on their own, but when put together in such a collection the effect is even more overwhelming. Brilliant, creative, unique, surreal. He explores the quirks of our world and existence by imagining them in fantastical ways, yet never loses focus on the human element.
The Emigrants, by W.G. Sebald This book triggered a bit of a crisis of confidence in me when I realized I’ll never create anything even close to Sebald’s books. It’s simply not possible for someone like me to create this kind of art. Like Vertigo and Rings of Saturn, this book is about memory, but seems to be more about willfully forgetting terrible events. Or choosing to forget wistful times you can no longer enjoy. It is the first of his I’ve read that was clearly about the holocaust (the others were only so beneath the surface.) Painful, nostalgic, bittersweet, sad, unbelievably good.
And now, my top three books of the year based solely on how much I enjoyed them. Here they are, in reverse order:
The Last Samurai, by Helen Dewitt The most relentlessly engaging and unputdownable book I read this year. It grabs you by the brain and heart simultaneously and won’t let go. I’m shocked I only heard of this book this year, and will be forcing it on certain kinds of people for the rest of my days. If you enjoy languages, music, math, or knowledge for the sake of knowledge, you might just be crazy for this one.
Vertigo, by W.G. Sebald Mind-alteringly good. The subtlest manipulator of words I’ve yet encountered, Sebald has done with this book what I never even considered could be possible with words. Startling, shocking, surprising, frightening, upsetting, sad, and so much more. I will never forget this one and the effect it had on me. I’ll never think of mind, memory, and my own personal memories in the same way again. I recommend it to everyone, just to see if it works the same way on them.
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino My favorite read of the year. Not only did this book completely blow me away with its innovative structure and way of telling the story, but it was packed full of mind-expanding ideas, and humorous human moments. Even with its intentional lack of plot, I couldn’t put it down. While Last Samurai was more engaging, and Vertigo was more emotional, this one combined the two in a way that pushed it high above the rest. If on a Winter’s Night had it all. The minute I finished I wanted to start reading it again. A must read (or at least attempt to read! Check out the sample on Amazon and see if it interests you!) for everyone who cares about books.
The rest of the books I read this year. Most of them were great, but just didn’t make it into any of the above categories.
The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck This one took my socialist leanings and put a magnifying glass over them. It helped me understand the ‘hick’ southerner stereotype and its origins. It made me want to smash capitalism.
Queen, King, Knave, by Vladimir Nabokov Hilarious, and one that I feel I’ll have to read again to get the full effect. I’ve not yet read a Nabokov that I didn’t love, but this one did not stick with me as much as some of his others. A joy to read.
My Name is Red, by Orhan Pamuk Intensely interesting subject matter, and memorable characters and structure. However, writing this now nearly a year later I can’t remember who killed who, or why… goes to show you how little plot matters to me!
Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco I loved about 1/3 of this book. The rest was so jam packed with historical trivia that it took me two months to read and is probably single handedly the reason I’m not meeting my Goodreads goal this year. I ended up skimming about 30% of it.
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner Quite an enjoyable read. I loved how much was said in what was not said. Every character had a unique voice and way of looking at things, but they were all clearly a family with certain things in common… the end was the most perfect sum up of the entire book in just one scene. Very good, and thinking about it reminds me that I need to try more Faulkner next year.
Out by Christine Brooke-Rose – I loved a lot of the prose in this one, very interesting and beautiful descriptions, and I enjoyed the oddness and the effort I had to put into figuring out what was going on. However, it was an effort. This was a difficult one to parse and it took me a while to finish. I’m still not entirely sure what was going on, yet somehow it never bothered me during the read. It was somewhat tiring in the end, though.
The Plague, by Albert Camus – I loved the Stranger so much that I picked up this one immediately after. I did not enjoy it as much. The style seemed drastically different. It was less focused on character and more about the overall events. I liked the thoughts on death and how life goes on despite the horror around us. But it was so drawn back that it was hard to identify with the characters until near the end.
The Luzhin Defense, by Vladimir Nabokov Another wonderful story by Nabokov. I really enjoyed the character in this one, and his disconnect from other people and reality. It was very identifiable for me. This story captured another side of obsession. An involuntary, inescapable side that draws you in whether you want to get away from it or not. A dark, and memorable ending.
The Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad – The depths of human depravity put out on display. This was depressing at times, terrible at others. It showed the endless potential for human greed, and that greed and lust for power can have no end and no maximum. It was not exactly enjoyable to read, but it was very well done.
Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent – The story of a woman sentenced to death, and her last days living with a family of strangers before her execution. The story leaves out much of the woman’s feelings about her impending death and instead focuses on what I found least interesting of all: the story of what happened, and how she came to be sentenced to death. There are some interesting thoughts on perceptions, and how people end up being defined by one event in their lives, but I felt much potential was left out of this one.
Perfume: The story of a Murderer, by Patrick Suskind – Another story about an empty character, but unlike The Stranger, this character does have a passion and a goal, and despite myself I did identify with him in some ways. This book also is unusual in that it focuses so much on scent, a very underutilized sense in writing. Laugh out loud humorous at times. An interesting, easy read that I’d recommend to most people.
Resurrection, by Leo Tolstoy – I enjoyed many parts of this book, though it wasn’t very memorable. I think mostly I enjoyed the message, even though that’s probably just because I agreed with it. Others may find it preachy.
How Fiction Works, by James Wood: Wonderfully engaging, I couldn’t put it down. My only nonfiction book of the year but it was easier to read than some of the fictional ones. Extremely intriguing and gave me so many ideas of what books to read next. Recommended to anyone who is interested in the workings of fiction.
The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver Amazingly distinct character voices, and a gripping story that went more places than I thought it would. Gave me a dose of history that I never got in school and has inspired me to look more into world events outside my doorstep. Highly enjoyable, emotional, and educational at once.
I, Claudius, by Robert Graves – An interesting look at Roman history from a point of view you don’t get in history books. This is fictional, but gave me more of an idea of what the political world was like back then than I ever got from school. It reminded me, in a lot of ways, of our current political situation. An enjoyable book, but not terribly engaging.
Pnin, by Vladimir Nabokov – Nabokov’s most cheerful book, and most lovable character. I did not find this one to be as intriguing or surprising as many of his other books are, but it was, as always, a joy to read and made me smile throughout. Bittersweet at times, but overall heartwarming. And of course, endless lovely prose to highlight to your heart’s content.
Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol My first Gogol experience, and I was enthralled with his characters. They were humorous, vivid, and identifiable. Not quite a favorite of the Russian classics. I was not bothered by the unfinishedness of it.
The Handmaids Tale, by Margaret Atwood I did not much enjoy the prose in this, or the character, but the story and world were interesting, and it held up well. I guess not much has changed in 30 years. Sad.
The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler My first journey into the detective genre since Murder on the Orient Express, and it exceeded my very low expectations by not being completely racist and misogynist. It was written quite well, with vividly drawn characters and decent prose. Engaging, but rather empty in the end.
Farewell, My Lovely, by Raymond Chandler Grabbed this one cause I needed another book and didn’t have time to shop around. It was pretty much the same. Slightly more racist. It satisfied on a basic level, some good bits of prose and some entertaining action, but I’m probably done now.
That’s all for now folks! What were your favorite books of the year?