Best fiction I read in 2018

Transcendent short story collections and novels by non-Americans led the way for me in 2018.

In Transit

1: In Transit, Mavis Gallant

Unreal. I found myself utterly enamored with these gorgeously rendered stories. Each story stands alone, wholly independent from its predecessors, and Mavis Gallant manages this effortless style, creating characters that are at once entirely like us and fully alien. I’m ashamed that this was the first time I had read her, and I’m now committed to consuming everything else she published. (Amazon)

Ninety-Nine Stories of God

2: Ninety-Nine Stories of God, Joy Williams

The brilliant, incandescent, strange, and illuminating Joy Williams tries her hand at microfiction, and the results are perfectly odd and wonderfully thought-provoking. (If you love Lydia Davis, as I do, you’ll love this collection, which can be read in a few hours.) It is almost not fiction; it is so close to prose poetry that these tiny stories demand several readings.

(Yes, the cover has four German shepherds on it; no, that’s not the only reason I loved it.) (Amazon)

A Heart So White

3: A Heart So White, Javier Marías

Dreamy and beautiful in all the right ways. A Heart So White is an exploration of memory and all the secrets we try to keep from those closest to us. Marías has a delightful, rambling, Proustian style, which I imagine the translator took pains to preserve (as he worked with Marías to finalize this), and although it sometimes makes the mind wander, it’s a deep pleasure all the way through. Looking forward to reading more from him. (Amazon)

Thérèse Desqueyroux

4: Thérèse Desqueyroux, François Mauriac

I felt totally astonished by this novel. Thérèse is such a voracious antihero, an absolute treasure to encounter on the page. I promise you haven’t met anyone else quite like her. (Amazon)

Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings

 

5: Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, Jorge Luis Borges

There is some nonfiction in here, but it’s the stories that really stick with you. This collection made me realize, perhaps more than this other work, that Borges really was one of a kind. His intellect is astounding; his passion for history, literature, philosophy, metaphysics is boundless. I do not think I am intelligent enough to have grasped everything here, but I loved the experience, from start to finish. (Amazon)

Spring Snow

6: Spring Snow, Yukio Mishima

I was caught completely off-guard by the beauty of this novel, tracking Japan at the turn of the century, when Japanese tradition is breached by Western influences. I had read Mishima before, but I didn’t know he could be like this. It’s a lovely, fluid translation from Michael Gallagher, which often seems so hard to achieve when Japanese migrates to English, but this translation preserves so much stylistic facility and power.

The fraught friendship (laced with some desire) between Honda and Kiyoaki, and the latter’s fateful passion for Satoko, are deeply memorable, as well as the wealth of visual images and metaphor that strike the mind so powerfully. Overwhelmed by this, in a thoroughly pleasing way, and I finished it quite excited to complete the rest of the Sea of Fertility tetralogy. (Amazon)

Midnight's Children

7: Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

I read this novel for the second time this year, for my book club, and it was thoroughly delightful and mesmerizing to encounter again. Rushdie handles the madness of this narrative with ease. It’s also just a lot of fun, which I don’t think gets mentioned enough when this hefty novel is discussed. (Amazon)

Collected Stories

8: Collected Stories of William Faulkner

So many stories! So many finely spun narratives from one of the very best America ever had. (Amazon)

Florida

9: Florida, Lauren Groff

Pervasively ominous, beautifully written stories that deal with snakes and storms and (often) the travails of motherhood and marriage. I harbor no fondness for Florida, and this collection underscores much of what I dislike and distrust about the state, but the swampy oppressiveness of the land contributes to the magic of this collection. (Amazon)

King, Queen, Knave

10: King, Queen, Knave, Vladimir Nabokov

I rely on a yearly dose of Nabokov for a stylistic pick-me-up, a requisite lyrical jolt. This novel is particularly fun and tightly focused. It is neither ambitious nor serious, and I think this is why I enjoyed it so much. (Amazon)

Honorable mentions

  1. Near to the Wild Heart, Clarice Lispector
  2. The Night in Question, Tobias Wolff
  3. The Church of Solitude, Grazia Deledda
  4. The Perfect Nanny, Leïla Slimani
  5. The Death of the Heart, Elizabeth Bowen
  6. Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado
  7. White People, Allan Gurganus

Previously: The best poetry and the best nonfiction I read in 2018.

Best fiction I read in 2017

As far as fiction is concerned, 2017 was a year of returning to authors I now consider to be old favorites (or, at the very least, I was refreshing my opinions of those previously encountered). I read slowly and sometimes fitfully this year, but I was especially grateful for these top 10 highlights from my year in fiction.

The Rings of Saturn

1: The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald

Sleeper hit of 2017! I’m surprised by myself, picking this as my favorite, but there it stands. I read Austerlitz some years back and found it inscrutable and frustrating, but this brilliant, dreamy novel hit me in all the right ways late in the year. It is an exquisite pleasure to wander around history and the English countryside with W.G. Sebald. I feel grateful, to have encountered a mind like his. The Rings of Saturn is so fragmented and yet it all holds together in this ineffable way. The perfect novel for an unusual year. (Amazon)

The Complete Stories

2: The Complete Stories, Clarice Lispector

My obsession with the weird, beautiful, mind-bending prose of Clarice Lispector knows no rational bounds. Her marvelous strangeness is a never-ending delight. I read these stories with deliberate slowness, taking a full month, savoring and pondering each one. I loved the common threads (a simple object or a stray glance hurtling a character into existential distress; chickens, dogs, and horses, but never cats; a woman ready to do something dramatic with her life and then she just goes home). I found my actual decision-making patterns being shifted by her own incantatory logic. In all the excruciating darkness of the world, at least we still have these stories; at least we still have Lispector. (Amazon)

The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories

3: The Visiting Privilege, Joy Williams

No, I didn’t love it just because it has a German shepherd on the cover. Marvelously strange, gorgeously written. I am smitten with Joy Williams. This is a dense and delightful collection of her stories, old and new, and it contains manifold and unexpected pleasures. Her characters are at once familiar and foreign, transforming between sentences, subverting human behavioral conventions. And, of course, I loved the prevalence of dogs throughout. Color me a mega-fan. (Amazon)

Lincoln in the Bardo

4: Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders

Moving and strange and humorous all at once. I was initially surprised at how experimental it was but found myself really enjoying the unusual form as I kept going. It reads extremely fast, too. Saunders seems to be able to capture this deep sense of pathos throughout, even amid rather ridiculous flights of style/character. (Amazon)

My Struggle: Book 5

5: My Struggle, Book 5, Karl Ove Knausgaard

Perpetually riveting, in all the same mysterious ways that the prior installments have been. This might be my second-favorite volume of My Struggle, after Book 1. They’re always in my top 10, in whatever year I encounter a volume. His plain prose has a mystically addictive property. I cannot describe it. (Amazon)

The Big Rock Candy Mountain

6: The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wallace Stegner

A large, moving, and human novel about a star-crossed American family around the turn of the century who just can’t seem to catch a break. Wallace Stegner understands so much about the American spirit, in both its ambition and lightness—and its violence and darkness. His characters are an absolute joy and as memorable as real people. I enjoy him so much that I wonder if I should feel guilty about it. (Amazon)

The Sportswriter

7: The Sportswriter, Richard Ford

Fine, I admit it freely: I’m a total sucker for Cheeveresque novels about mopey white men in the suburbs. (Amazon)

Giovanni's Room

8: Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin

A heartbreaking and beautifully told little novel of a fated couple in Paris. Baldwin has such range and impressive economy of language. I am grateful to be reminded of his gifts with each encounter. (Amazon)

The Question of Bruno

9: The Question of Bruno, Aleksandar Hemon

Marvelous, inventive prose; dark stories with a comedic edge. It’s almost impossible to believe that he moved to Chicago with a marginal grasp of English and then, a few years later, published a work with this much style and sophistication in his newly learned language. (Amazon)

The Afterlives

10: The Afterlives, Thomas Pierce

Thomas Pierce brings all the components of a good story to the table: humor, empathy, and ingenuity. I lapped up this creative and touching novel, flying through it as I was flying home over the Pacific Ocean. Jim and Annie build a life together and wander through a future that does not feel too far away from us now. The future of American fiction, honestly, feels brighter to me, knowing that it is buoyed by writers like Pierce. (Amazon)

Honorable mentions

  1. A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin
  2. The Lost Daughter, Elena Ferrante
  3. Ways to Disappear, Idra Novey
  4. Bear, Marian Engel
  5. 10:04, Ben Lerner
  6. The Progress of Love, Alice Munro
  7. Small Island, Andrea Levy
  8. The Street, Ann Petry
  9. Collected Stories of John O’Hara
  10. Exit West, Mohsin Hamid
  11. Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

Previously: Best poetry I read in 2017 and best nonfiction I read in 2017. All Best Books lists are here.

Best fiction I read in 2016

And here, at last, is the best fiction I read in 2016.

The Passion According to G.H.

1. The Passion According to G.H., Clarice Lispector

Utterly wild, incantatory, and absorbing. I was wholly drawn into G.H.’s vision, even when I didn’t totally understand it. The translation is beautiful and smooth, even with Clarice Lispector’s unusual grammar and style. There is something eerie and almost superhuman about her prose. It is a sincerely engrossing and magical novel about a rich sculptor who finds a cockroach on the floor and is thus ushered into a world-altering vision of herself, time, and the divine. Color me a Lispector fan. I’m desperately eager to read everything else. (First up in 2017: The Collected Stories of Clarice Lispector.)

The Days of Abandonment

2. The Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante

Now that I have read all of Elena Ferrante’s published fiction, I’ll declare this as the darkest and most frightening novel among them (and yet the ending, ah, it is nice). Sheesh. She plumbs the depths of domestic discord and a jilted wife’s unraveling in this slim and horrific narrative. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned and all that jazz: Ferrante really knows how to turn up the volume on that platitude. The banal terror of The Days of Abandonment brought to mind David Lynch, in Ferrante’s creation of a world that is so scary precisely because it is still tied to the mundane. It’s an everyday life full of domestic horror. (And, naturally, as the mother of two German shepherds, I was very drawn into and grieved by her extensive portrait of Otto, the shepherd who belongs to the narrator. I did read in Frantumaglia that Ferrante herself has had German shepherds, and I feel extremely gratified to know this.)

Blow-Up and Other Stories

3. Blow-Up and Other Stories, Julio Cortázar

I felt totally unhinged by these breathtaking, wild little stories. Not sure why I waited so long to read Julio Cortázar. The language is so beautiful (immense credit to the translator, Paul Blackburn), and the stories themselves are so strangely suspenseful and lush and lyrical all at once; I have no idea how he does it. There is a playful absurdity that ripples through the shorter stories, which were my favorite, and Cortázar shows himself to be a stylist with remarkable versatility (he made me think of George Saunders, whose stories I love for the same reason, in that they all seem as if they could have been written by 10 very different writers). Really tremendous collection with a lot of staying power.

The Friendly Persuasion

4. The Friendly Persuasion, Jessamyn West

Terribly beautiful and sweet without ever dipping into sanctimony or saccharine stereotypes. Every chapter, or story, was so enchanting and gorgeously written. I was so startled by the excellence of West’s style, especially because I have never really heard others praise it before, and I found it so deeply praiseworthy. Eliza and Jess are complex, lovable, and generous characters, and I look forward to sharing this book with others, as it was shared with me. The Friendly Persuasion is simple and good enough to delight children and yet deep enough to please even the most high-minded adult.

The Wallcreeper

5. The Wallcreeper, Nell Zink

What delights the strange, variegated brilliance of Nell Zink has to offer! I think she’s a genius, and I delight in the fact that so many other people don’t. I chewed through this tiny, bizarre novel in about a day, and I felt disappointed when it ended. I can grasp how The Wallcreeper could be frustrating, if a traditional narrative and likable, formally relatable characters are important to you. But Zink forces you into a separate realm, where people seem to be somehow more and less human all at once.

As her correspondent (and long-distance patron) Jonathan Franzen says, “Her work insistently raises the possibility that the world is larger and stranger than the world you think you know.” I can’t decide if I liked this or Mislaid more; they both contain manifold pleasures. Zink writes in a way that does not give a fig for my opinion or yours. As she reminds us in her choice of an epigraph for this novel: “I kill where I please because it is all mine” (Ted Hughes). She won’t let you forget it.

The Leopard

6. The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

A meandering family story overlaid with lush prose is perpetually my favorite thing. Sometimes the threads fall apart too soon; sometimes Tomasi, the last Prince of Lampedusa, does not know when to rein himself in, but the overabundance of the novel is absolutely one of its primary pleasures.

Fates and Furies

7. Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff

People seem to either love or hate this novel. “Love” may be a strong word for it on my end, but I was entirely seduced by the prose. I have strong memories of the immersive reading experience it gave me; I tore through it in January. I remember reading it in huge gulps, perched on the edge of a bed. Lauren Groff writes in this dreamy, fragmented way that makes me swoon (I am such a sucker for stylists), and Lotto and Mathilde are wholly enthralling. Mathilde, in particular, is a creepy gem of a character. Very absorbing, even if it might not entirely hold together.

The Association of Small Bombs

8. The Association of Small Bombs, Karan Mahajan

This is an active novel. Karan Mahajan provides a lively portrait of young men and their families in Delhi and the aftermath of a bombing in a market. It is fast paced and yet sensitive and compelling on an emotional level, which is always a hard balance to strike. And yet Mahajan does it effortlessly.

My Struggle: Book 4

9. My Struggle, Book 4, Karl Ove Knausgaard

I read this during our summer in London and have memories of reading it alone, at our circular dining table, during the week Guion was on tour in Germany. It is an account of the 18-year-old Karl Ove, who haphazardly teaches at a little school in a fishing village in northern Norway, becomes a semi-functional alcoholic, and pines desperately (mostly unsuccessfully, despite his pretty face) after girls. Again, I’m not sure why I find these novels so compulsively readable, because they are fundamentally dull on the surface, but Knausgaard is brilliant and fresh and I can’t look away. I liked this better than Book 3 but less than Books 1 and 2.

Troubling Love

10. Troubling Love, Elena Ferrante

Can never get enough Ferrante. The main character, Delia, investigates her mother’s sudden, somewhat lurid death and uncovers, uncomfortably, her mother’s hidden life and loves. This is Ferrante’s first novel, and it sets the stage, thematically, for all of the issues she later explores with such depth and acuity in the Neapolitan novels: domestic violence, the vulgarities of Naples, troubled maternal relationships, and the vacillating but intense connections between family and friends. It is less captivating than the novels about Elena and Lila, but it is still excellent and strong and different and deserving to be read.

Editor’s Note: I have also made a strategic decision to no longer list or rank books I’ve re-read in the past year. So even though I re-read Mrs. Dalloway (for the fifth time, apparently), Swann’s Way, and Persuasion in 2016, they do not appear in the list. Even though they belong in the top 10 of every conceivable list.

Honorable Mentions

  1. The Way We Live Now, Anthony Trollope
  2. Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  3. Loving, Henry Green
  4. What We Talk about When We Talk about Love, Raymond Carver
  5. Pond, Claire-Louise Bennett
  6. The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco
  7. Hunger, Knut Hamsun
  8. Some Prefer Nettles, Junichiro Tanizaki
  9. Bleak House, Charles Dickens
  10. The End of the Story, Lydia Davis
  11. The Seagull, Anton Chekhov
  12. CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, George Saunders
  13. Notable American Women, Ben Marcus
  14. Collected Stories, Katherine Anne Porter
  15. The Course of Love, Alain de Botton
  16. Summer, Edith Wharton

Previously: Best poetry I read in 2016 / Best nonfiction I read in 2016

10 under-read novels

A list of 10 novels that everyone should read that no one ever really talks about.

Memoirs of Hadrian

  1. Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar. “I begin to discern the profile of my death.” So, certain extremely well-read people of my acquaintance (e.g., James) knew about Yourcenar, but I had never before heard a professor or fellow English major mention this French woman’s absolute genius. Her convincing embodiment of the Emperor Hadrian and her breathtakingly beautiful prose make this novel an essential member of the Western canon.
  2. The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles. Everyone should read Paul Bowles. Everyone! He’s like a darker, deeper, richer Hemingway, and this is a novel that will get into your head and refuse to get out. It’s unbearably creepy and wonderful.
  3. The Man Who Loved Children, Christina Stead. Jonathan Franzen, whom I love, despite the fact that most people don’t, has always mentioned this novel as one of his favorites, so I felt that I had to read it. This novel also appears on Francine Prose’s list of Books to Be Read Immediately. Stead, an Australian, wrote this strange and utterly engrossing novel about a large, savagely dysfunctional family in the 1940s, and it has unfairly faded into obscurity. Also ought to be read.
  4. The Makioka Sisters, Junichiro Tanizaki. I had the pleasure of reading this large novel while in Tokyo, and I fell in love with it. Tanizaki could resemble a Japanese Tolstoy, and there are moments of humanity, depth, and insight in this novel that aren’t to be missed.
  5. Appointment in Samarra, John O’Hara. When I was a teenager and beginning my foray in to “real” literature, my neighbor Dave, a gifted writer and author, told me I should read Appointment in Samarra and lent me his copy. I was suspicious, having never heard of it before, but this book blew me away, particularly because I’d never heard anyone else mention it before. It’s a forgotten American tragedy that deserves to be read. Moral of the story? Trust your talented neighbor’s recommendations.
  6. I, Claudius, Robert Graves. Reminiscent of Memoirs of Hadrian, this is another beautifully written book from the perspective of a Roman hero.
  7. Cousin Bette, Honore de Balzac. I adore Balzac! More people should adore Balzac! He’s certainly not forgotten, but perhaps his fame has faded? Unfairly so. No one writes about money and what it does to people like Balzac. Also loved Eugenie Grandet and Pere Goriot.
  8. Resurrection, Leo Tolstoy. Anna Karenina and War and Peace are, deservedly, on everyone’s lists of greatest novels, so much so that Tolstoy’s other brilliant books are easily ignored. Like Resurrection. I mean, whoa. Naturally, this book is mind-blowing, because it’s Tolstoy. This was his last major novel, and it includes remarkable reflections on justice, social mores, and redemption.
  9. Tinkers, Paul Harding. This is the most recent book on the list, and it won the Pulitzer in 2010, so it’s perhaps not forgotten or neglected, but I still don’t think many people read it (also, it gets shockingly low reviews on Goodreads, which rankles me). And that’s a shame, because this is a gorgeous little novel, defying convention and structure, about time, family, death, and the things that we leave behind. (It’s also the first novel that Guion has read in many years, and he loved it. So that’s a strong recommendation.)
  10. A Sentimental Education, Gustave Flaubert. Easily overshadowed by the masterpiece Madame Bovary, this novel is great in its own right and also should not be ignored. A classic bildungsroman!

Sentimental Education

Honorable Mentions

The Makioka Sisters

What neglected masterpieces would you add to the list?

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.

That which you do not know

Close Range: Wyoming Stories.

I recently started Annie Proulx’s collection of short stories, Close Range: Wyoming Stories (which includes the story “Brokeback Mountain,” famous because Ang Lee adapted into a film). I have loved Proulx since I read The Shipping News a few years ago and was excited to begin this collection. I’m only 60 pages in, but it’s been wonderful so far.

Here’s what it’s making me think about:

Annie Proulx comes from a different universe, as far as I’m concerned. She lives on a 640-acre ranch in Wyoming. These stories are about Wyoming people: Ranchers, weathered wives, wannabe bull-riders. I don’t know the first thing about life in Wyoming, but Close Range makes me feel like I do.

This collection stands in contrast to another set of short stories I read a few weeks ago, I Sailed with Magellan, by Stuart Dybek. I Sailed with Magellan is focused on the trials and tribulations of boys growing up on Chicago’s South Side. That’s another universe I don’t know anything about. I’ve never been an immigrant boy fighting my way through life in downtown Chicago. Neither have I been an aspiring bull-rider in Wyoming. But Proulx succeeds in something that Dybek does not: She manages to make her universe accessible to people who have never seen it, who have never known it. Dybek, while also a gifted writer, drops some kind of veil between his characters and their stories and his readers. I couldn’t get close enough to Dybek’s characters to really know them.

The distinction has been puzzling me ever since. What is it that Proulx does to make her universe accessible that Dybek does not? The best I can get at an answer is that Proulx’s characters seem to have more globalized, relatable flaws and desires. Dybek’s boys are very localized; they have Chicago problems with Chicago answers. Proulx’s people live in the vast, empty planet of the Wyoming plains, but their problems are our problems, too. In “The Half-Skinned Steer,” we recognize the self-sufficient old man who thinks he can make it on his own. We know Diamond Felts and his experience of the conflicting tug between freedom and protection in “The Mud Below.” We have seen them all before.

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

This is not related to my thoughts, but this passage is from Annie Proulx’s 2009 Paris Review interview. I love her description of the joy and arduousness of writing, as if it were like manual labor:

There is difficulty involved in going from the basic sentence that’s headed in the right direction to making a fine sentence. But it’s a joyous task. It’s hard, but it’s joyous. Being raised rural, I think work is its own satisfaction. It’s not seen as onerous, or a dreadful fate. It’s like building a mill or a bridge or sewing a fine garment or chopping wood—there’s a pleasure in constructing something that really works.

My favorite morally bankrupt characters

I don’t like overly sunny novels. I can’t stand to read about ridiculously virtuous characters. As a child, I hated Nancy Drew (“Nancy tossed her blond hair over her shoulder and called, ‘Ned! Wait for me,’ as she jumped into his shiny red convertible…”) and flatly rejected those utterly dreadful books for Christian girls, like Elsie Dinsmore and The Basket of Flowers. Barf. Even when I was little, I formed the strong opinion that saints and angels make for really tedious and boring literature.

I like reading books with complex characters, with fictional people who have both virtue AND vice, people whose stories don’t always get that shiny, happy ending. I like to read about real life. This is why I shun most of Dickens, most of the Victorians, and most fantasy literature. I don’t think it’s wrong or terrible; it’s just not my thing.

That being said, I tend to enjoy a lot of books with unhappy endings and messy characters. Here are some of my favorite morally bankrupt characters.

SCARLETT O’HARA
Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

Scarlett is the pretty poster child for morally bankrupt characters. I had seen the movie many years before I got around to reading Mitchell’s novel, and when I did, the full force of Scarlett’s personality hit me even stronger than it did on film. Mitchell managed to make someone wicked and admirable at the same time. Scarlett is selfish, manipulative, and conniving — and yet we are pulling for her the whole time. Regardless of the unpleasant racial controversies of this book, I think it is hard to deny the genius of a writer who can create a character as complex and multifaceted as this one.

BAZAROV
Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev

Bazarov is a snob. He’s like those kids who go off to grad school and become unbearably pretentious about… everything. Turgenev uses Bazarov as a standard for the young Nihilists of his Russia, the men of reason and science, rejecting all tradition and forms of authority. Bazarov fits his archetype neatly — he’s absurdly arrogant and vain — and yet, we feel for him. He gets his heart broken, even though he won’t admit it. He has a magnetic effect on people, even though no one wants to admit to actually liking him. Bazarov reminds me that people that I am quick to write off with a certain label are never that simple — and always deserving of more time and mercy.

PATTY BERGLUND
Freedom, Jonathan Franzen

Patty Berglund isn’t exactly “morally bankrupt;” rather, she doesn’t seem to know where her morals stand exactly. This might be the hallmark of Franzen’s characters (from what I can glean from the cast of people in The Corrections and Freedom, both of which I unashamedly love). Patty represents, to me, the best of what Franzen can do. She is made so real in the pages of this novel that you finish it feeling that she is your best friend, that well-loved person  In my opinion, she makes the entire novel. She is downcast and confused, but she is painfully honest and reflective about her life and its variegated failures. If we could all be as truthful with ourselves as Patty Berglund, we could learn a tremendous amount about life.

MR. HENRY WILCOX
Howards End, E.M. Forster

Mr. Wilcox is a crueler version of Jack Donaghy: He’s rich, controlling silver fox who lives by conservative business morals and generally gets whatever he wants. Including the novel’s heroine, Margaret Schlegel. Margaret is not so easily bought, however, and her goodness eventually softens Mr. Wilcox — but not before he has been brutal, demanding, and insensitive toward practically every character. Still. You like him. He doesn’t back down. And even this crusty old miser has a soft spot.

RASKOLNIKOV
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky

He murdered his old landlady with an axe for no good reason! Pinnacle of morally bankrupt. But the novel is about his SOUL. And it’s a great one. So, this book is always worth reading. (My father, by the way, still has not fulfilled his end of our challenge. He sent me a text that said: “I used to love naps. Now I hate them. Because I have to read Crime and Punishment.”)

MRS. RAMSAY
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

OK, so “morally bankrupt” is also far too strong a description for Mrs. Ramsay, but she’s no angel. The central character of my all-time favorite novel, Mrs. Ramsay is usually an overbearing, controlling matriarch. She sets up people who don’t necessarily want to be set up. She insists on domestic tranquility, even when emotions may need to be forcibly expressed. But I will always love Mrs. Ramsay, mainly because she is one of the deepest and most intricately drawn characters I have ever met. She chooses to live by the way of grace–and she lives well, in spite of herself.

How about you? Any quasi-villains or just ignoble characters you love reading about?

“The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get”

Flannery O’Connor takes down Ayn Rand.

Thank God for Flannery O’Connor. This is for Patrick, Dad, Dave, Alan Greenspan, and all the college freshmen who swear that “OMG, Atlas Shrugged changed my LIFE.” No, it didn’t. You just haven’t read real novels yet.

I hope you don’t have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re: fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.

— Flannery O’Connor, talking about writing well here.