Change your mind

Over the past few years, I keep telling myself that I am going to read less because I want to read more slowly. I continue to fail at this, but I started the year with the weighty final installment of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, in an attempt to force myself to slow down. It’s 1,200 pages long, and I’m a little over halfway done, and loving the tedium. I don’t know why I find him so addictive and riveting. He took a 300-page diversion to discuss young Hitler, and I was just rapt, every sentence, every page.

. . .

“This is what learning is, seeing that which lies outside the confines of the self. To grow older is not to understand more but to realize that there is more to understand.” — Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle (Book 6)

. . .

The faintest hints of spring lift my spirits: a few brave daffodils blooming, birds singing in small bursts, evenings that seem a little less dark. I am looking forward to being out in the world more in this spring and summer. We were so much indoors last year, in those blurry newborn months, and I crave the hot sun on my skin. I feel like we missed it last year. I’m looking forward, particularly, to taking Moses out into the garden and introducing him to our plants. I am eager to start a little herb plot and get his “help” with it.

. . .

In other news, I continue to be very much into our baby. Moses is a sunny, flirty 9-month-old now, spending most of his days pulling to stand on furniture, falling down and whining about it, and babbling to himself or anyone who will listen.

Things are so much easier now than they were in those early months, and I can confidently say that I recommend motherhood to anyone who is on the fence. Do it! Have a baby, if the Lord wills. Those first few weeks, I did feel, a little, that everything was ruined. This is no longer the case! We are so fond of our little blond boy and more than a little obsessed. He is a delightful labor, seems well worth the effort.

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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

Best fiction I read in 2015

I read a tremendous amount of five-star fiction this year, and it was a year notable for the number of authors I read for the first time. Without further ado, here are the 10* best books of fiction I read in 2015 (*with a bit of fudging).

1. The Stories of John Cheever

The Stories of John Cheever

[Insert sturdy expletive!] Maybe Cheever is all I have ever wanted in a story. I do not think I will ever be able to get over this. The pitch-perfect prose, wrapped around a bunch of sad, rich, white New Englanders, left me breathless. Yeah, it’s a narrow subject matter, on the whole, but I am incapable of denying his clear genius. Six stars.

2. The Neapolitan Novels, Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels, #1)Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (The Neapolitan Novels, #3)The Story of a New Name (The Neapolitan Novels, #2)The Story of the Lost Child (The Neapolitan Novels, #4)

Cheating, but I blazed through all four of the Neapolitan Novels (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child) this year, and I feel like they can all count as one formidable work. As I have said to many friends, I am at a loss for words when I try to explain the draw of Elena Ferrante’s power and brilliance. I can’t say what she does that is so affecting, but these novels are not to be missed. They appeal to everyone. (Yes, even men. If you can get over yourself/the intentionally bad cover art, you will not regret it.)

3. My Struggle (Books 1 and 2), Karl Ove Knausgaard

My Struggle: Book 1

My Struggle: Book 2: A Man in Love

Another cheat, but I was also seduced by Karl Ove Knausgaard and his sprawling Proustian novel My Struggle this year. It lives up to all the hype. I read books one through three this year, but the first and second were the ones that genuinely moved me.

4. A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life

As a rule, I am not someone who cries when reading, but I sobbed (I think actually sobbed) a few times while reading this novel. Good grief, Hanya Yanagihara; have mercy on us. This is an extremely dark and extremely moving novel. The characters are rich, complex, and heartbreaking. A Little Life is not for the faint of heart, but it is for all who have suffered, for all who have received (and yet wanted to reject) unconditional love. It’s a beautiful portrait of the love and grace that broken people can to extend to each other despite the horrors of life. Whew. I read all 720 pages in about two days, and upon finishing, I felt like I needed to recover from the death of friends. What a tremendous literary accomplishment.

5. Independent People, Halldór Laxness

Independent People

Where has this book been all my life? Never have I read a novel so beautifully, darkly comic and moving, all at once. Bjartur, a sheep farmer in Iceland, has determined that he will be an independent man, and rely on no one for anything. His singleness of purpose and pride bear out the action of this gorgeously written novel, as his desire for independence drives his family and his farm into despair, starvation, heartbreak, and death. Sounds fun, right? And somehow it is.

The humor is especially surprising. There are these moments of complete absurdity (everyone is talking about worms in the dogs and livestock; ghosts on the heath; the high-minded poetess who pretends to be a friend to the common farmer; trying to tell the neighbors that he found his wife dead, frozen in a pool of blood, after having given birth to a daughter, who is found barely alive under the dog, who is keeping her warm, and instead tells them stories about his sheep and asks them about the weather), and extremely dark humor, and then there’s this lyrical vein that runs through the whole thing. I can’t even begin to say what the quality is, but it’s beautiful. (It also was the perfect literary prelude to our visit to Iceland this past summer.)

6. Between the Acts, Virginia Woolf

Between the Acts

Upon my third reading of this novel, I am happy to say that the pleasures of revisiting Woolf are manifold. Years later, I still feel like I never left this novel. I read it twice in 2009 in preparation for my undergraduate thesis, and then, in 2015, I was happily astonished that it felt so fresh and memorable to me. Rereading Between the Acts felt like visiting an old friend in her garden. My undergrad marginalia in my copy was often embarrassing to reread, but I think these copious, juvenile annotations served to cement a strong recall of the themes and overall emotions of this novel. Mainly, I’ve come away with this impression: Snob as she was, Woolf noticed everybody. And here we notice ourselves in these characters, as at the end of the play, when the (literal) mirrors are held up to the audience, casting a chilling democracy over the crowd. “So that was her little game! To show us up, as we are, here and how.”

On a summer evening in the English countryside, a family and their neighborhood friends gather to put on an annual pageant that spans the history of noble Britain. As to be expected with Woolf, a multiplicity of psychological distress simmers under the social surface. Isa is the quiet center of this novel, and we live in her sad, observant mind. As with most Woolf heroines, she is a secretive poet and an unhappy wife and mother, imprisoned by the luxuries of her domestic situation. And yet she is still sympathetic and very human.

This is not her strongest novel, and it’s not the one I’d recommend to newcomers, but it has all the trappings of Woolf’s timeless appeal as a novelist: the incisive characterization, the lush prose, the beautiful meditations, the moments of playfulness.

7. The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald

The Blue Flower

If 2014 was the Year of Discovering and Falling in Love with Lydia Davis, I’m going to declare 2015 the Year of Discovering and Falling in Love with Penelope Fitzgerald. This is only the second novel I’ve read by her, but I am perpetually enchanted by her effortless style, wit, and perfect characterizations. (She also writes children very well, in a very clever, realistic manner. “The Bernhard,” the protagonist’s little brother, was a consistently hilarious character to me. Everything about him is delightful.) I am eagerly looking forward to reading everything else from her (and remain perplexed that she seems to get consistently low numbers of Goodreads stars).

In the lush and dramatic time of Goethe, we meet a young Friedrich “Fritz” von Hardenberg, later known as the German Romantic philosopher/poet Novalis. In the middle of his university education, he meets and falls desperately in love with a 12-year-old girl, Sophie von Kühn, despite the fact that she seems to have not much to recommend herself (except, according to him, being the spitting image of a woodcut of the painter Raphael). His family and friends are appalled. The young genius is so taken in by this very normal kid, who is 10 years his junior, and no one can understand the deep attraction he has for her. Fitzgerald is hilarious to me, throughout her depiction of the sincere and yet puzzling romance. A lovely little novel. It is funny and light and strangely, whimsically profound.

8. In Persuasion Nation, George Saunders

In Persuasion Nation

Brilliant and weird and funny and meticulously executed. This is such a delightful collection. Not as beloved, in my mind, as The Tenth of December, but here we have all of the characteristic blend of quasi-sci-fi American-life criticism, poignant family dramas shown from odd angles, and that biting and somehow wise wit.

9. Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively

Moon Tiger

Masterful. Claudia Hampton, a brilliant and unorthodox historian, looks back over her life and loves as she dies. I was a touch skeptical at first, by the jumpy perspectives and narration, but Penelope Lively’s unerring control won me over. I was thoroughly charmed by this short, beautiful novel and didn’t want it to end. Easily the best Booker Prize winner I’ve read.

10. Coup de Grâce, Marguerite Yourcenar

Coup de Grâce

I typically find war novels extremely dull, but in Marguerite Yourcenar’s capable hands, not even a war novel can be tedious. (And, besides, Coup de Grâce is not really a battlefield narrative but rather psychological tension in the midst of wartime.) I think I might love Yourcenar; I don’t think she can do anything wrong. This is the third novel of hers that I’ve read, and all three have been flawless.

Erick, the narrator, is a young, emotionally cold Prussian who becomes entangled with Sophie, a beautiful, serious, and tragic young woman. Sophie loves him despite his detached and even unkind nature, which gives the misogynistic Erick plenty to brood and philosophize about while the bombs are falling around them. And, oh, the ending! I won’t say a word about it, but the fact that Yourcenar says this was based on a true story makes it all the more romantically tragic and perfect.

Honorable Mentions

  1. The Death of Ivan Ilych, Leo Tolstoy
  2. The Sweet Cheat Gone, Marcel Proust
  3. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
  4. Offshore, Penelope Fitzgerald
  5. All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren
  6. 2666, Roberto Bolaño
  7. Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, May Sarton
  8. Herzog, Saul Bellow
  9. Mating, Norman Rush
  10. The Charterhouse of Parma, Stendhal
  11. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
  12. Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald
  13. The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene
  14. Mislaid, Nell Zink
  15. As We Are Now, May Sarton
  16. Thousand Cranes, Yasunari Kawabata
  17. Victory over Japan, Ellen Gilchrist
  18. Mr. Palomar, Italo Calvino
  19. We Need to Talk about Kevin, Lionel Shriver
  20. The Queen of Spades and Other Stories, Alexander Pushkin
  21. The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford
  22. The Sellout, Paul Beatty
  23. The Life and Times of Michael K, J.M. Coetzee
  24. Bastard out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison

What fiction did you read and enjoy in 2015?

The view from my window is a constant reminder

Front yard in July 2015
Daylilies in the front yard. July 2015.

“In my youth, I considered Cicero’s claim, that all a man needs to be happy is a garden and a library, utterly bourgeois, to be a truth for the boring and middle-aged, as far as possible from who I wanted to be. Perhaps because my own father was somewhat obsessed with his garden and his stamp collection. Now, being boring and middle-aged myself, I have resigned. Not only do I see the connection between literature and gardens, those small areas of cultivating the undefined and borderless, I nurture it. I read a biography on Werner Heisenberg, and it’s all there, in the garden, the atoms, the quantum leaps, the uncertainty principle. I read a book about genes and DNA, it’s all there. I read the Bible, and there’s the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day. I love that phrase, “in the cool of the day,” it awakens something in me, a feeling of depth on sunny summer days that hold a kind of eternal quality, and then the winds from the sea come rushing in the afternoon, shadows grow as the sun sinks slowly on the sky, and somewhere children are laughing. All this in the cool of the day, in the midst of life, and when it’s over, when I’m no longer here, this view will still be. This is also what I see when I look out my window, and there’s a strange comfort in that, taking notice of the world as we pass through it, the world taking no notice of us.”

— Karl Ove Knausgaard, in Windows on the World, by Matteo Pericoli

The seeing eye

Mýrdalsjökull
Mýrdalsjökull, Iceland (June 2015).

“No, when evening came and we sat down to watch a film we wanted to be entertained. And it had to be with as little effort and inconvenience as possible. It was the same with everything. I hardly read books anymore; if there was a newspaper around I would prefer to read that. And the threshold just kept rising. It was idiotic because this life gave you nothing, it only made time pass. If we saw a good film it stirred us and set things in motion, for that is how it is, the world is always the same, it is the way we view it that changes. Everyday life, which could bear down on us like a foot treading on a head, could also transport us with delight. Everything depended on the seeing eye. If the eye saw the water that was everywhere in Tarkovsky’s films, for example—which changed the world into a kind of terrarium, where everything trickled and ran, floated and drifted, where all the characters could melt away from the picture and only coffee cups on a table were left, filling slowly with the falling rain, against a background of intense, almost menacing green vegetation—yes, then the eye would also be able to see the same wild, existential depths unfold in everyday life. For we were flesh and blood, sinew and bone, around us plants and trees grew, insects buzzed, birds flew, clouds drifted, rain fell. The eye that gave meaning to the world was a constant possibility, but we almost always decided against it, at least it was like that in our lives.”

— Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Book 2