Top 10 books I read in 2013

And here are the top 10 best books I read in 2013 (comprising novels, short stories, poetry, and plays).

1. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina

This is my second time with Anna Karenina but my first time with Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s lauded translation — and my first time to read this novel as an adult. I was pleased to discover that I love this novel as much now as I did when I first read it, when I was probably 16 or 17. And I feel that I love it in a deeper, sincerer way now. Because this is not a novel about an adulterous woman or about rich Russian people from the mid-19th-century. No. This is a novel about what it’s like to be human. That’s why it will never wither or fade, and that’s why I will always love it.

2. Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

Infinite Jest

This book broke me. After I finished it, closing the back cover on the 1,079th page, I felt like weeping — and like running away. I didn’t read any fiction for months after I finished Infinite Jest. In a creepy way, it was almost as if the film of its title produced a similar effect on me as a reader as it did on its fictional viewers: I was so completely engrossed by the pleasure and complexity of Infinite Jest that I was dead to everything else thereafter. I don’t really know what to say about it, except two things: 1) This is a book for people in their twenties, and it could be utterly meaningless to you if you’re not, and 2) This is one of the most important novels I’ve ever read.

I won’t say anything more, except to close with the words of John Jeremiah Sullivan, writing about David Foster Wallace in GQ:

When they say that he was a generational writer, that he “spoke for a generation,” there’s a sense in which it’s almost scientifically true. Everything we know about the way literature gets made suggests there’s some connection between the individual talent and the society that produces it, the social organism. Cultures extrude geniuses the way a beehive will make a new queen when its old one dies, and it’s possible now to see Wallace as one of those. I remember well enough to know it’s not a trick of hindsight, hearing about and reading Infinite Jest for the first time, as a 20-year-old, and the immediate sense of: This is it. One of us is going to try it. The “it” being all of it, to capture the sensation of being alive in a fractured superpower at the end of the twentieth century. Someone had come along with an intellect potentially strong enough to mirror the spectacle and a moral seriousness deep enough to want to in the first place. About none of his contemporaries—even those who in terms of ability could compete with him—can one say that they risked as great a failure as Wallace did.

It’s important. And I think I will still consider Infinite Jest important, even when I’m no longer young and have neither the spirit nor the energy to re-read it.

3. The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner

The Sound and the Fury

2013 was a year of re-reading greats for me, because this was my second visit with The Sound and the Fury. I first read it as a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill, and I rushed through it and ended up deciding that I just couldn’t ever get into Faulkner. Then, last year, Absalom, Absalom! changed my life and the way I looked at literature, and I became a Faulkner fan. And so I decided a reattempt of The Sound and the Fury was in order. Faulkner wrote, in a later introduction to the novel, that he was always writing “to escape and to indict” the South and that in The Sound and the Fury, he felt that he had finally accomplished both. Quentin’s section was still my favorite, but this time around, I was especially struck by the women in the novel. Faulkner is sensitive to them, and shows you how horribly, horribly trapped they are, and how their lives are shown such scant mercy. It’s moving and dark and beautiful, and I am thankful that I returned to it.

4. Time Regained, by Marcel Proust

Time Regained (In Search of Lost Time, #7)

2013 was also an important year in reading for me, because this was the year that I finished my beloved In Search of Lost Time. It’s hard to believe I’ve been reading Proust for six years now and hard to believe that he has passed from my life — but never completely. Because once you’ve gotten into Proust, he never really leaves you. His words and descriptions and incomparable insights haunt your life — your real life, your life with dirty cereal bowls and Twitter and road rage — like a joyful specter. I did actually cry when I finished Time Regained, because I am very emotional about books, one, and two, because Proust had become a companion, an annual visitor I looked forward to every summer. But enough of that. I’ll let Proust tell you what this 6,000-page novel was about:

And then a new light, less dazzling, no doubt, than that other illumination which had made me perceive that the work of art was the sole means of rediscovering Lost Time, shone suddenly within me. And I understood that all these materials for a work of literature were simply my past life; I understood that they had come to me, in frivolous pleasures, in indolence, in tenderness, in unhappiness, and that I had stored them up without divining the purpose for which they were destined or even their continued existence any more than a seed does when it forms within itself a reserve of all the nutritious substances from which it will feed a plant. Like the seed, I should be able to die once the plant had developed and I began to perceive that I had lived for the sake of the plant without knowing it, without ever realising that my life needed to come into contact with those books which I had wanted to write and for which, when in the past I had sat down at my table to begin, I had been unable to find a subject. And thus my whole life up to the present day might and yet might not have been summed up under the title: A Vocation.

And what a good and true and inspiring vocation, indeed. I’ll always love you, Marcel.

5. Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar

Memoirs of Hadrian

I begin to discern the profile of my death.

I’m flabbergasted by this novel — mainly that more people don’t talk about it or haven’t read it. Marguerite Yourcenar spent nearly 30 years writing this quiet masterpiece. It is serious, pitch perfect, and exquisitely researched. The Emperor Hadrian is nearing death, and here he reflects on his life, his accomplishments, and all that he has seen and learned in a letter of sorts to his successor. Her writing! Oh, it is gorgeous. Like this passage from Hadrian:

Keep one’s own shadow out of the picture; leave the mirror clean of the mist of one’s own breath; take only what is most essential and durable in us, in the emotions aroused by the senses or in the operations of the mind, as our point of contact with those men who, like us, nibbled olives and drank wine, or gummed their fingers with honey, who fought bitter winds and blinding rain, or in summer sought the plane tree’s shade; who took their pleasures, thought their own thoughts, grew old, and died.

I particularly enjoyed the appendices, especially Yourcenar’s collection of notes and asides from while she was writing and organizing the book. As Yourcenar writes about the novel and the challenge of good historical fiction (in a subtle compliment to herself for her laborious work), “Whatever one does, one always rebuilds the monument in his own way. But it is already something gained to have used only the original stones.”

6. Tenth of December, by George Saunders

Tenth of December

People are not kidding when they talk about how wonderful George Saunders is. This collection of short stories is the first thing I’d read from him (aside from a totally amazing/obscene rip on Ayn Rand in the New Yorker; I love anything that mercilessly mocks Rand), and it just blew me away. The stories are deeply funny and weird, and each one is wholly unlike the next. In some ways, Saunders made me think of a modern Mark Twain, but somehow a touch darker and touch closer to the specific strangeness that permeates all of our lives. It’s so good. I want to re-read these stories all over again right now.

7. Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky

Suite Francaise

Irène Némirovsky died at Auschwitz before she could finish this novel, but the book that she left us is beautiful. In general, I dislike war novels, but this book is about people — not war. Suite Française does not dwell on the violence and trauma of war but rather on the lives of the people who had to endure such violence and trauma in their daily lives. The book is filled with complex, engaging characters who deal with WWII in their own ways during the German occupation of Paris. It’s gorgeously written and enchanting. I hope to revisit it in the years to come.

8. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, by Tennessee Williams

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

You have to read this play. You just have to. Even if you’ve seen the excellent film adaptation with Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor. You have to read it. Tennessee Williams is an incomparable master, and one of the few playwrights whose work is as deeply enjoyable to read as it is to see performed. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is thrilling to read, and it sizzles with heat, emotional treachery, and complexity. It’s heart-rending and complicated in all of the right ways. You put it down and still wonder, With whom does my allegiance lie?

9. The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Idiot

God knows what’s locked away in these drunken and weak hearts.

During my summer Colorado, I went hiking with a guy who was reading The Idiot. On our lunch break on an icy boulder, he read aloud to my friend Sonya and me, and I remember saying, “This is surprisingly hilarious.” And it is. I finally got around to reading The Idiot this year, my second book of 2013 that was translated by the great Pevear and Volokhonsky. In his introduction to the novel, Pevear writes: “The Idiot is built on that eschatological sense of time. It is the desolate time of Holy Saturday, when Christ is buried, the disciples are scattered — and worse than that — abandoned.” Yes, it is a dark book, maybe one of Dostoyevsky’s darkest, and it is also a funny book. Dostoyevsky wonders what it would be like if we knew a person who was as pure of heart, noble, and good as Jesus Christ. How would he live in the modern world? How would we regard him? Like Prince Myshkin, we would probably just call him an Idiot.

10. The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton

The Complete Poems

These are not poems for the faint of heart. Anne Sexton is the real deal. I went through this phase last year in which her name kept popping up everywhere, and I felt that I finally had to commit and get to know her, and so I went and bought her complete works. I appreciated reading this giant volume, as it provided a fuller picture of the artist and her transformation over time. The anger and darkness grow as the years pass, but Sexton never loses her focus and courage. And for that she is remembered and cherished.

Honorable Mentions

  1. On Love, Alain de Botton
  2. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
  3. The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov
  4. The Aleph and Other Stories, Jorge Luis Borges
  5. The Chaneysville Incident, David Bradley
  6. Totem, Gregory Pardlo
  7. Written on the Body, Jeanette Winterson
  8. Eugénie Grandet, Honoré de Balzac
  9. The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith
  10. The Housekeeper and the Professor, Yoko Ogawa
  11. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov
  12. Laughter in the Dark, Vladimir Nabokov

Previously: The top 10 nonfiction books I read in 2013.

What about you? What were your favorite books you read this year? I’m always looking for hearty recommendations.

Babies and such

This past weekend, Kathryn and I went to visit Catherine and her sweet new baby, Auden.

Visiting baby Auden

Visiting baby Auden

We had such a lovely visit and were so excited to finally meet the little nugget! It’s still surreal to see Catherine as a mom, this dear friend from years past, with whom I used to roll around in the grass with on the quad and steal food from the dining hall. And now here she is, a graceful, competent mother.

Visiting baby Auden

Visiting baby Auden

As you can see, Auden is a complete doll. Can’t wait to see them all again soon!

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Last night, we had the fabulous Meredith Perdue, Michael Cain, and Orvis over for dinner. Meredith, as you may recall, was our super-gifted wedding photographer, and we are HUGE fans. Dinner conversation was lively and fun, and the dogs were full of adorable antics.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

After being ruined for all fiction by Infinite Jest, I have finally found my reading stride again, happily resurrected by the cheering power of Anna Karenina. It has been years since I read it, and I am enjoying Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation immensely. So funny, so witty, so readable! Preliminary thoughts: Vronsky is not as villainous as I remembered him, at least not yet. Tolstoy can write women fairly and completely, without the masculine censure that so often creeps into 19th-century narratives by male authors (lookin’ at you, Dickens). Anna is just so human and real. Anyone who judges her should take a good, hard look at themselves first.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Looking forward to a weekend at home to do chores, acquire houseplants, and walk the dog. Pleasant sigh.

Tuesday thoughts

Crocus are coming up
Crocus in our yard. Also, what is the plural of “crocus”? Crocuses? Croci?

I have been thinking about:

Divinity and distance

Lately, I feel like God is very far away from me. Or that I am far away from God. I can’t quite tell which it is. I don’t like feeling this way, but I am not sure how to find a way out of it. Instead, I keep telling myself, “God does not want to let go of you.” This is actually something that Jonathan once told me.

Nonfiction

Since finishing Infinite Jest, I’ve felt a little “broken,” reading-wise, and suddenly, I only have an appetite for nonfiction. I am reading photo-filled, potentially frivolous books about fashion, personal style, and a history of the (demise of the) luxury goods industry; another dog book; and a how-to guide on copperplate calligraphy (a birthday gift from my excellent in-laws). I have never felt this way before — utterly uninterested in fiction. It makes me nervous. But I am planning on re-reading Anna Karenina* soon, so I am hoping that will reinvigorate me.

*Side note: Grace, Guion, Sam, and I watched Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina on Saturday night. Tom Stoppard’s hand in the screenplay and in the overall creative direction (filmed almost entirely within a theater or on a stage) was appreciated, but I finished the film feeling that a.) my dislike of Keira Knightley will never die, and b.) this is not a novel that should ever, ever be made into a movie. I know it’s been done before (like five or six times, all terribly), but really. Leave Anna alone. Read the novel.

Ballet

I continue to be terrible at ballet. I am now taking a second ballet class, the follow-up intermediate level, and I am taking it with Celeste. Yes, the I-took-ballet-for-18-years Celeste. She is beautiful to watch in class, and I had hopes that she would distract everyone else on how plainly terrible I am. This class is about 10 times harder than the prior one, and I do not seem to have improved at all. When we all filed out after our first session, our instructor was congratulating everyone, telling them how impressed she was, etc. And then she looked at me, and said, with a sweet and sympathetic smile, “Don’t give up! You’re so close. I just hope you don’t quit the class.”

And here I was naïvely thinking that no one noticed how terrible I am.

No matter. It’s fun, and I like it. It’s been a nice exercise in subtle humiliation, to stick with something that I have so little natural aptitude for.

Top 10 books I’d want on a desert island

Screenshot from "LOST."

The ol’ desert island conundrum! Ten books is pretty lavish. If my husband and a dog were a given, here are the top 10 books I’d request that Charles Widmore send me on the island:

  1. The Bible. Naturally.
  2. In Search of Lost Time–all of it! You could read it for the rest of your life. (Marcel Proust)
  3. Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy).
  4. To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf). It will always be new to me.
  5. Complete short stories of Anton Chekhov. Meditations on the human spirit when I am isolated from humans?
  6. Complete works of Shakespeare. We could perform on the beach!
  7. Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace). I haven’t read it yet, but I know it’s a magnificent tome, so it suits the other members of this list.
  8. Middlemarch (George Eliot).
  9. The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen).
  10. East of Eden (John Steinbeck).

You?

Monday Snax

Quiet Sunday
Sunday at home, with all the new books on the shelves.

SUCH a peaceful and pleasant weekend! On Saturday, I went to the annual library book sale at Gordon Avenue and was soon joined by Celeste, Sarah, and Laura. I’ve been to a lot of book sales in my day, but let me tell you: This one takes the cake. High-quality, just about brand new books in every imaginable genre for a few dollars? This is my version of heaven. I walked away with 32 beautiful new books and paid a mere $30 for all of them. Sunday morning at the SPCA and then an afternoon lazing around the house due to a pulled hamstring from overly rambunctious pups. We watched The Fellowship of the Ring and we are not going to apologize for it. (I forgot how LONG that movie is…)

Snax:

My Parents Were Home Schooling Anarchists. A piece in the New York Times by Margaret Heidenry about what it was like to grow up as a homeschooler before it was legal. It’s like The Glass Castle from a homeschooling-centric perspective. Extremely fascinating! It’s so interesting how much the homeschooling movement has changed. When my parents decided to homeschool in 1988, it still wasn’t legal in many states, but in 1993, it was legal in all 50. Since then, it’s a rising trend, although the dominion has shifted from free-thinking bohemians to very conservative evangelicals. (New York Times)

The Piano Lesson. A memory from Jared Nigro about his piano teacher and an unexpected gift of mercy. (The Hairpin)

Women in War, Women in Peace. A plea to stop thinking about war as a male-only circumstance. Men start wars and men fight them, but we never think about the women left at home to pick up the pieces. (The Atlantic)

Democrats, Republicans Have Mirror-Image Views. Just more proof that politics are pointless. (The Atlantic)

Black Cat Auditions in Hollywood, 1961. There were a lot of eager women trying to make their black cats into movie stars in 1961, apparently. Very entertaining series of photos. I feel like training a cat to act would be akin to training a fish to sing. (Retronaut)

How To Name Your First Novel. A helpful series of formulas for naming that novel you’ve been working on. (NPR)

Collection of Rejected Titles for Classic Books. Would you have read The Great Gatsby if it had been titled Trimalchio in West Egg? Yeah. I didn’t think so. Good saves from editors and publishers alike, who usually picked the better title for the soon-to-be classic. (Flavorwire)

The Pleasures and Perils of Re-Reading. These days, I don’t make time for re-reading anything, which is something of a shame. I’ll probably start re-reading in my middle age. Right now, there’s too much still to be read. I do miss the distinct pleasure of returning to a beloved book, however. I bought the lovely and widely acclaimed Pevear/Volonkhosky translation of Anna Karenina at the aforementioned book sale, however, and I may have to return to that soon… (The Millions)

Great Painter: Elizabeth Peyton. Cate reviews Peyton’s work, which I really love. Had never heard of her before, but I’m glad I have now! (The Charlotte)

An Afternoon with Theresa di Scianni. This looks like such a peaceful, pleasant place to live. (Petits Papiers)

Says the Hummer in the Land of the Hybrid. A mother’s reflection on having four kids when having four kids is not especially chic or socially acceptable. I thought of this in relation to my own mother, toting the four of us around in “inconvenient” places. (Girl’s Gone Child)

Misty Manley: Fake Anything Designs. Hot ham water! Night cheese! (Design Work Life)

Beat the Winter Hair Blues. My hair gets kind of gross and limp in the winter. Good tips, especially if you’re prone to splurging on hair care products (which I’m not). (She Lets Her Hair Down)

What Do French Women Have That We Don’t? A lot, apparently. When it comes to fashion, style, and beauty, don’t we all just want to be French deep down? (HiP Paris)