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.

Top 10 books I read in 2012: The Captive and the Fugitive (#2)

The Captive & The Fugitive (In Search of Lost Time, #5-6)

The Captive and The Fugitive

MARCEL PROUST
Modern Library, 1999; 957 pages. Translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin; revised by D.J. Enright.

This year marked my fifth consecutive summer of Proust. I read The Captive and The Fugitive (which Modern Library combines into what it calls vol. 5). The Captive was initially published in 1923 and The Fugitive came out two years later, but since they are the shortest installments of In Search of Lost Time, many publishers have included them in one volume. As always, these books were the perfect way to begin my summer.

The Captive and The Fugitive involve the narrator and Albertine, his live-in girlfriend, and their increasingly rocky relationship, which is conducted almost entirely within the confines of his mother’s flat. Begging the question: Is she the captive? Is he? Their relationship is simultaneously irritating and engrossing. True to form, Proust keeps your loyalties in flux between the narrator and Albertine. Who really deserves our sympathy and attention?

If I had to say, I believe the books primarily concern this question: How is it that people can persist in our minds and memories differently from how we actually knew them, how they actually present themselves in reality? The implications of this question are amplified when Albertine supposedly dies in a riding accident. Now the narrator must determine whether he loved her at all in the first place. What form will his grief and enduring jealousy take? (Well, they will take about 900 pages of self-reflection and doubt, but that’s to be expected.)

These books seemed to include more reflection and a more ready expression of aphorism and interpersonal philosophy than previous volumes. The books were also much darker and reflective than the earlier, lighter society tomes. A sampling:

Don’t bear grudges or judge people.

For one thing the knowledge would have brought me more rapidly to the idea that we ought never to bear a grudge against people, ought never to judge them by some memory of an unkind action, for we do not know all the good that, at other moments, their hearts may have sincerely desired and realized. And thus, even simply from the point of view of prediction, one is mistaken. For doubtless the evil aspect which we have noted once and for all will recur; but the heart is richer than that, has many other aspects which will recur also in the same person and which we refuse to acknowledge because of his earlier bad behavior.

We are all entirely self-absorbed.

The bonds between ourselves and another person exist only in our minds. Memory as it grows fainter loosens them, and notwithstanding the illusion by which we want to be duped and with which, out of love, friendship, politeness, deference, duty, we dupe other people, we exist alone. Man is the creature who cannot escape from himself, who knows other people only in himself, and when he asserts the contrary, he is lying.

Memory mixes everything up in the end.

After a certain age our memories are so intertwined with one another that what we are thinking of, the book we are reading, scarcely matters anymore. We have put something of ourselves everywhere, everything is fertile, everything is dangerous, and we can make discoveries no less precious than in Pascal’s Pensees in an advertisement for soap.

As always, you won’t find a better or more thorough exploration of love, memory, desire, and internal conflict than you will in Proust. He has never disappointed me yet. I almost dread next summer, because I will read the last volume. Say it isn’t so! I will say, however, that this enormous novel’s influence on me has been so profound that I doubt I will ever really be done with Proust.

And this is why we don’t bear grudges

Click for source.

For one thing the knowledge would have brought me more rapidly to the idea that we ought never to bear a grudge against people, ought never to judge them by some memory of an unkind action, for we do not know all the good that, at other moments, their hearts may have sincerely desired and realized. And thus, even simply from the point of view of prediction, one is mistaken. For doubtless the evil aspect which we have noted once and for all will recur; but the heart is richer than that, has many other aspects which will recur also in the same person and which we refuse to acknowledge because of his earlier bad behavior.

— Marcel Proust, The Captive and The Fugitive, vols. 5 and 6 of À la recherche du temps perdu

Happy weekend, everyone! I am looking forward to mine very much.

Top 10 Books I Read in 2011: Sodom and Gomorrah (#2)

Sodom and Gomorrah.

#2: SODOM AND GOMORRAH, Marcel Proust.

Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great novels. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.

It is easy to get lost in Proust. He writes sentences so long and lush that you have to come up for air halfway through. His narrator’s imagination is so tangled and intricate that just a page over, you can easily forget what he started talking about in the first place. Often, the conversations are rendered in such a way that you feel like you were dropped in the middle of a party, with no reference to what anyone is discussing; you’re the loner at the cool kids’ table. And the absence of any linear plot whatsoever is just another bump in the road for your tired brain.

So, why do I keep reading this monstrosity? (This is my fourth year of reading a volume of In Search of Lost Time during the summer; I read Sodom and Gomorrah while we celebrated our first anniversary at the beach, and while it didn’t exactly make for easy beach reading, its depth and thickness filled up my long, lazy days.) Quite simply, I keep returning because I haven’t found any other author who can expand my mind like Proust can. He forces you to think differently about people, to give them the benefit of the doubt even when they don’t deserve it, and to observe every wink, every movement, every quip, believing that they are small windows into the depths of the human heart.

Marcel Proust.

It is fruitless to try to describe the narrative flow of this story, but on the most basic level, it is a bildungsroman, perhaps more obviously than the other volumes are. In Sodom and Gomorrah, the shades are finally drawn from our young narrator’s eyes. The book begins with a scandalously voyeuristic vignette, in which we find the narrator spying on the Baron de Charlus and his tailor, Jupien, while they make love in a courtyard. More than ever before, Proust allows his narrator to explore the period’s complex social relationship with homosexuality, which permits the upper class to both ignore and flaunt gayness to varying degrees, and to examine his own sexual identity. While the narrator continues to pout, flop around, and toy with the emotions of his girlfriend, Albertine, there is an awakening in his consciousness that we have not seen before.

Alongside these personal revelations, the narrator is also realizing that the upper class, the people he has so desperately tried to join, are not as glorious as he once thought them. He recognizes the polite film wrapped around their coded, hierarchical speech:

I was beginning to learn the exact value of the language, spoken or mute, of aristocratic affability, an affability that is happy to shed balm upon the sense of inferiority in those persons towards whom it is directed, though not to the point of dispelling that sense, for in that case it would no longer have any reason to exist. “But you are our equal, if not our superior,” the Guermantes seemed, in all their actions, to be saying; and they said it in the most courteous fashion imaginable, to be loved, admired, but not to be believed; that one should discern the fictitious character of this affability was what they called being well-bred; to suppose it to be genuine, a sign of ill-breeding.

The affected personas and artificial bearings of the rich come clear to him; their displays of noblesse oblige no longer charm him. Around these epiphanies, the narrator’s beloved grandmother dies, he attempts to get engaged to his girlfriend, friends betray him, and the entire upper-class is seemingly engaged in the Dreyfus Affair. It may sound like a lot of action, but Proust is capable enough to draw out all these events into a dull roar, blurring time so that our narrator’s psyche may step out in front.

In Sodom and Gomorrah, we find a narrator thoroughly possessed by his Author, who pulls the strings to move him toward adult development and social aptitude. Proust uses all of his tricks here. No character can escape his all-seeing, all-knowing eye. On a practical level, I took more pleasure from this than I did from The Guermantes Way, the previous volume. Now we find the narrator more completely realized, more in possession of his own thoughts and motives. He is still petulant and spoiled, still too conscious of rank at times, but he is a few steps closer to the goal of wholeness and contentment.

As with the others, it is a beautiful, tangled, and complicated novel, but it is worth every meticulous word.

Top 10 nonfiction books of 2011

While I’m preparing my more in-depth reviews of the top 10 fiction books I read in 2011, I thought I’d give you my list of the top 10 nonfiction books I read in 2011. One of my reading goals this year was to read more nonfiction, and I think I more or less accomplished that aim. Here are some brief thoughts on the 10 best of them.

Out of Africa

10. Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen

What a life! This classic memoir is crazy and makes you wish you had been around to hang out with Dinesen, aka Karen Blixen, on her coffee farm in Kenya. Her stories from her pioneering life there are so outlandish that they are occasionally unbelievable. Who keeps young lions as pets? Who hosts a dance-off between warring tribes in their backyard? Who starts a romance with a dashing Brit who later dies in a tragic accident? Isak Dinesen does. And she is well worth your time. She also wrote the book in her second language, which is incredible, because she is damn good with the pen. (I still haven’t seen the movie. It’s definitely on my list now!)

Nothing to Envy

9. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick

North Korea holds our fascination like 1984 or Blade Runner did. I don’t have the energy to plumb why we are forever compelled by stories about dystopian societies run by Big Brothers, but we are, and that’s a fact. North Korea is doubly mesmerizing to us because it is real. This isn’t just a story. And yet Barbara Demick, former Seoul bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, brings us North Korea through stories. She writes about the intimate lives and experiences of six North Korean citizens, all of whom later escape to South Korea (which is how she was able to tell their stories). I knew a little about North Korea, but this book absolutely floored me. There is so much I didn’t know and there is probably so much that we still don’t know about this dark, deeply sad country.

We Wish to Inform You...

8. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, Philip Gourevitch

Scott, a young philosopher, gave me this book when he moved to go to graduate school. It’s been sitting on my shelf since then, for about five years now. I think I put it off because, really, when are you ever in the mood to read about the Rwandan genocide? But I’m glad that I finally read it. This is a powerful and well-narrated account of the Hutu atrocities in Rwanda and its stories will stick with you long after you’ve finished it. Gourevitch is simultaneously objective and sincere, presenting the facts with a journalist’s attention to accuracy and detail and yet pausing to consider the trajectory of humanity, ethical responsibility, and the darkness of the human heart.

How Proust Can Change Your Life

7. How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not A Novel, Alain de Botton

Having now read four volumes of In Search of Lost Time, I was already convinced of de Botton’s title by the time I picked this little book up. This is a delightful journey through the life, work, and idiosyncrasies of Marcel Proust, one of the world’s greatest writers and students of human nature. De Botton is funny and genuine and actually helpful in this book, part biography, part self-help manual. Even if you haven’t read part of Proust’s monolithic novel, this is a book that will be a steady guide to Proust’s life and invaluable contributions to the human experience.

Animals Make Us Human

6. Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals, Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson

If there was one book I read this year that said everything I’ve wanted to say, it was this one. My general personality can be summed up in one line, borrowed from Isabella Rossellini–Animals distract me. This book, by the famed animal researcher and scientist Temple Grandin and her assistant, Catherine Johnson, captured my deeply held feelings about animals and our considerable responsibility to them as humans. People sometimes make you feel ashamed for caring so deeply about animals. I’ve experienced a lot of guilt myself for volunteering my time at the SPCA. But this book instead highlighted the charge we have as “higher” beings to care for the “lower” ones. Grandin’s thorough and engaging research emphasizes that at the end of the day, creating the best life for animals means listening to and watching them and adapting ourselves to meet their needs. Above all else, gentleness is called for. All animals are far more sensitive than we think, and this is an idea that you won’t be able to get out of your head if you read this book.

Eating Animals

5. Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer

I dare you to read this book and continue to eat chicken afterward. Or any meat, for that matter. While Foer isn’t my favorite novelist, he is a skilled writer and this is a skillful account of his journey into vegetarianism, spurred by the birth of his son. Compounding years of research, Foer covers every major meat source for the American public–and will make you never want to eat factory-farmed meat again. The topic of food is rife with emotion, horror, and ethical balance, and Foer carefully plays on all of these topics in Eating Animals. Regardless of what you think about vegetarianism, this is a book that I think everyone should read, if only to think a little more carefully about the powerful decisions we make whenever we put something into our mouths.

Dog Years

4. Dog Years, Mark Doty

Yes, I know, it’s got “dog” in the title and dogs on the cover, but this is the best memoir I’ve read all year. Mark Doty is a celebrated American poet and this is his beautiful and sad story about navigating grief. Doty writes about the years between the loss of his partner, Wally, who died of AIDS, and the subsequent gain and loss of a dog, Beau. The memoir is about all of the difficult, dark issues of grief and comfort, of solitude and community–and about the more complicated issue of how dogs can offer us something that no humans can. Doty writes with heartbreaking honesty and skill. He is not sappy. He is not self-indulgent. He is humble and honest and every line of his prose speaks with sincerity and strength. It is a book for the brokenhearted and for those who will one day be brokenhearted, because, as Doty gently reminds us, no one escapes.

New Seeds of Contemplation

3. New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton

Ah, Merton, it is good to return to you, the mystical forefather of modern Christian contemplative thought. I read Merton when I was a teenager, but my father-in-law reintroduced him to me via Merton’s edited collection, The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers, which is the most profoundly affecting volume on the humility of the spiritual life I’ve ever read. This book, which is actually one of Merton’s older books, is a journey into the life of a contemplative. Merton strips away all of the pride and self-importance from the increasingly rare Christian discipline and makes you think that maybe, just maybe, you can enter in to such peace and fluid communication with the divine, too. But you won’t get there by trying. Merton constantly reminds us that it is by grace alone that we are able to do anything, even contemplation itself.

Moonwalking with Einstein

2. Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer

I couldn’t stop talking about this book after I read it and I think it’s the book that I’ve recommended to the most people this year. Joshua Foer, younger brother to Jonathan Safran Foer (mentioned above), got an assignment from Slate to cover the U.S. Memory Championships. (This is a real thing that happens.) People gather to exhibit feats of memory, like repeating back two stacks of shuffled cards in order or citing the 600th digit of pi or memorizing a poem in five minutes. Foer assumed this event was for savants, but then he met a competitor who told him, “Train with me for a year, and in one year, you will be the next U.S. memory champion.” Foer laughed at him, saying he couldn’t remember a shopping list or his girlfriend’s birthday. But he took him up on the challenge and began training. Then, a year later, Joshua Foer is crowned the U.S. memory champion. This is that story, but even more broadly, it is a story about the history of the human relationship with memory and an encouraging polemic that our brains are much more powerful than we can even begin to know.

Half the Sky

1. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

This book simultaneously ripped my heart out and made me passionate to ACT. I have not read a book all year that made me sob like this book did; I had to put it down in numerous places and then proceed to totally lose it for 10 minutes. How could I sit here and read this in the safety of my home? A college-educated woman with a job who did not live in daily threat of rape and violence? Of social injustice and inequality? How was it fair? It’s not. It’s not fair at all. But by the end of this book, I felt that there was hope, that the plight of women and girls around the world could actually improve. Unlike many books about the world’s grave injustices, Half the Sky does not unnecessarily dwell on the hopelessness of the situation and the towering challenges that face women around the world today. Rather, this book explains the extent of the problems women face worldwide, and then shows hopeful examples of local women changing their communities for the better. It doesn’t talk about what rich Americans can do to swoop in, presumptuously thinking they can fix another country’s problems. Rather, the book focuses on what we can do to empower women in their own communities to change the way that women are treated. Small steps, but they’re on a path of greater justice and equality for the countless marginalized women and girls worldwide.

Honorable Mentions

For the Love of a Dog, Patricia McConnell
The Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls
The Art Instinct, Denis Dutton

20 essential authors

A few weeks ago, when Windy and Mike were visiting, and Tracy was staying at our house, the women were lingering in our apartment, talking about books. Windy and Tracy asked me for my recommendations of the essential authors who need to be read in the Western canon. Quite a question. I didn’t have a good answer–I mumbled something about Joyce and Woolf and Shakespeare–but I’m going to try to prepare one now.

For Windy and Tracy:

My List of 20 Essential Authors in the Western Canon

20. Toni Morrison

Morrison’s novels have always completely enchanted me. I feel she is channeling something similar to Virginia Woolf, an intimation confirmed when I found out she wrote her master’s thesis on Woolf and Faulkner. Nothing escapes her notice. Her characters are raw. Her characters’ experiences are so far removed from my own, and yet Morrison’s undeniable talent lies in the fact that she makes all of her people extremely close. You care for them like family. My favorites: Beloved and Sula. To read: A Mercy, Tar Baby, The Bluest Eye.

19. Emily Brontë/Charlotte Brontë

Maybe it’s not fair to include both of them under one point, but they both wrote one important novel each, and they’re sisters, so, sorry, Ellis and Currer Bell. The Brontës are still so shocking to me. They prove the power of the imagination and the ascension of the artist’s soul above demeaning material and cultural circumstances. How did two sheltered women in the mid-19th century write such dark, powerful novels? Wuthering Heights is one of the most upsetting novels I’ve ever read and yet I cannot deny that it is a masterpiece. Jane Eyre is beautiful and moving. Both need to be read.

18. John Steinbeck

This man can write a NOVEL. If you’ve ever been through an American high school, I’m sure you know that by now. If you didn’t like Steinbeck when you were 15, try him again. He doesn’t write for children. My favorites: East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath.

17. Ernest Hemingway

I like to say that Hemingway is the only “macho” writer I’ve ever liked. He writes about drunken brawls, war, hunting, and bullfighting. His writing style is be the polar opposite of Virginia Woolf’s. And yet. I like him. I even love some of his novels. This is because Hemingway doesn’t succumb to the common path of many male writers strung up with their machismo. He doesn’t write women who are tired, sexy stereotypes and he lets his tough guys cry. Hemingway writes like a real man–not one who is trying to prove that he is. My favorites: A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, his short stories.

16. Eudora Welty

In basic description, she may be difficult to distinguish from Flannery O’Connor: Both native Southern women who wrote collections of compelling short stories. I was first introduced to Welty when I was quite young. Our family friend, Dave, who is a writer, gave me a collection of her complete short stories. I started reading them when I was about 12 or 13 and have been enchanted by her and her world ever since. Another writer I’ll always return to.

15. William Faulkner

By all accounts, I should be in love with William Faulkner. He’s a modernist and he’s Southern. I love both of those genres. But I confess that I’ve never loved one of his novels. This could be because I’ve only read two (The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!). But he’s consistently called one of the greatest writers ever to have lived (or THE greatest writer ever to have lived, if you’re this lit blog). This to say, I think Faulkner is important because everyone says he is important. Lame, I know. But I’m not giving up on him yet. Next up: Light in August, which should be arriving by post any day now.

14. Emily Dickinson

Who has ever written such short and such profoundly beautiful lines? No one can match Dickinson in this regard. One of my most prized books on my shelf is my giant anthology of her complete works. You can read just about any page and leave with your mind inspired and your heart illuminated.

13. Homer

Obligatory inclusion for the Father of Western Literature. Blah blah blah. I can never really make it through “The Odyssey,” but he has to be on this list somewhere.

12. Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard has a ravenously curious mind. I also think she’s read almost every book that was ever written. The amount of information that this woman KNOWS is simply astounding–and yet she writes with simple, direct humility. I have never read one of her novels, but her most famous books have made a sizable impression on my heart. One of the worthiest living American writers today. My favorites: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, For the Time Being. To read: Teaching a Stone to Talk, The Writing Life, her novels.

11. Jane Austen

I don’t tell people that I like Jane Austen now, because her reputation has been ruined by Hollywood. Thanks to silly films, most people write Austen off as a writer of fluffy, feel-good “chick lit.” Yes, there’s always a marriage at the end, but this is a classic trope of comedy she borrowed from Shakespeare; give the woman a break. She’s supremely intelligent, witty, and funny. Her characters evade stereotype. Her novels endure. I wish Austen could be seen for what she really was: A gifted artist who permanently affected the trajectory of the English novel–and got her reputation ruined by Hollywood. My favorites: Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility.

10. George Eliot

I like to think of her as the female, British version of Tolstoy, if that makes any sense. Like Tolstoy, she created full-fledged universes in her novels and never wrote on a small scale. Virginia Woolf once said of Middlemarch, “It is one of the few novels written for grown-up people.” I think it is a wonderful description and one that fittingly applies. It’s still one of my all-time favorites.

9. T.S. Eliot

Clearly, I have a thing for the modernists. “The Waste Land” will probably have a similar effect as Ulysses; so dense it’s barely comprehensible without a guide. While that will stand as his great contribution, I think his truly wonderful work lies in The Four Quartets. And “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” will always have my heart.

8. James Joyce

I say that I read Ulysses last year, but I don’t know if I can say that. I looked at all of the words in Ulysses–and there are a LOT of them–but I’m not sure how much of it I really understood. I was using Allusions in Ulysses (UNC Press) as a guide the whole time, and that was a huge help, but it was still an arduous task. If you’re not a native Dubliner, Roman Catholic, and fluent in Latin and classic mythology–basically if you’re not Joyce–a lot of Ulysses will be incomprehensible without the help of a guide. Still. Most people say it’s the greatest novel ever written. It certainly changed the face of modern literature in a way that no other book did. My favorite: Dubliners (collection of short stories), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. To read: Ulysses, again.

7. Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy is probably the best at creating an entire world within the pages of his (usually long) books. He won’t let you escape the figurative boundaries he has created for you. But, as it is in my case, one is usually more than content to stay, to learn about these rich, realistic characters and their challenges. Essentially, he’s famous for a reason. He should be read. My favorites: Anna Karenina, Resurrection, and The Kreutzer Sonata. To read: His letters and essays.

6. Flannery O’Connor

O’Connor is second in my book for master of the short story form, close on the heels of Anton Chekhov. She writes with conviction and wry humor. She always tells it like she sees it. My favorites: “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” stands out, as does her other most famous one, “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” But all of them are good. To read: Brad Gooch’s recent biography of her, Flannery

5. Vladimir Nabokov

“Genius” is a word too liberally rendered to authors, but it has never been misapplied in Vladimir Nabokov’s case. He wrote one of (if not THE) greatest novels, Lolita–and he wrote it in English, his fourth language. His mind is enchanted by language. He makes up words. He creates characters so externally appalling and so internally sympathetic that one’s moral compass is thrown entirely off kilter. He’ll make your skin crawl, but you’ll keep returning to him. Because he’s the best. My favorites: Lolita and Pale Fire. To read: Most of his other novels; Speak, Memory, and Lectures on Russian Literature.

4. Anton Chekhov

I believe Chekhov is the greatest short story writer who ever lived, and I’d pick a fight with anyone who disagreed. Just read four or five of his stories and you’ll fall under his spell. His plays are equally incredible, and probably more famous. Chekhov was a noble-hearted country doctor who started writing later in his career. His glimpses into the souls of people are inspiring and chilling. My favorites: The Cherry Orchard (play), The Duel (novella), Grief (short story). To read: His memoir and his letters.

3. Marcel Proust

I’m currently reading Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, although his thesis is not something that I need to be convinced of; I already believe it’s true. For the past four summers now, I have read a volume of his epic novel, In Search of Lost Time (aka Remembrance of Things Past). It’s an arduous task. I only read a volume a year, because I think it takes me a full year to recover from it. Nothing escapes Proust’s notice. The whole world is infinitely fascinating to him; all people worth describing; all memories worth mining. Proust captures the beauty and complexity of humanity in a dazzling, astonishing way. How can it be? He writes about rich people orbiting around each other at parties. And yet he writes about all of humankind. My favorite volumes, so far: Swann’s Way and Sodom and Gomorrah. To read: The final three volumes!

2. Virginia Woolf

It’s no secret that this woman is my hero. I spent a year and a half re-reading all of her novels and essays and then I wrote a sprawling, 130-page love letter to her, in the form of a mismanaged and somewhat poorly executed undergraduate thesis. I could talk about her all day long; consider that your warning. Woolf does something to me that no other writer does. I think all readers have a writer who affects them in this way. When I read her novels, I feel perfectly understood, completely reached–and yet constantly drawn in and mystified. She refashioned the novel in a way that no one else did or has done since. I will return to her for the rest of my life and I’d encourage all readers to do the same. My favorites: To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, The Waves, A Room of One’s Own. To read: Her extensive letters and the rest of her diaries.

1. William Shakespeare

The man invented most of our commonly used phrases and puns. That alone should get him some quality read-time. Aside from that, he just has to be read, thoroughly, for his influence on English literature extends beyond what anyone else accomplished. Yes, the language can be dense sometimes, but with a good annotated copy and a Shakespeare dictionary–and the willingness to read aloud to yourself–he’s a guaranteed great time. He’s merry and bawdy and the greatest wit you’ll ever meet. My favorites: King Lear, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, and Richard III. Still to be read: Julius Caesar and about five or six other plays.

Who would be on your list? Who do you think I’m missing?

Top 10 Books of 2010: #2

The Museum of Innocence

#2: THE MUSEUM OF INNOCENCE, by Orhan Pamuk

The Turkish Proust! This is how I keep describing Pamuk to myself and to other people when they ask who he is. Proust and Pamuk don’t really have that much in common, really. One is a long-dead Frenchman, the other, a very alive Turk; one writes monolithic odes to childhood, the other, properly modern novels on a variety of themes. So, why do I keep calling him the Turkish Proust? I don’t know. It’s just this… pervasive sense that I get from reading Pamuk’s novels; I believe that he and Proust share deep sensibilities.

I mean, how can they not? Read this paragraph from Pamuk on the pain of true love, from the perspective of his melancholy narrator, Kemal, and just try to tell me it doesn’t sound like Proust:

The pains of true love reside at the heart of our existence; they catch hold of our most vulnerable point, rooting themselves deeper than the root of any other pain, and branching to every part of our bodies and our lives. For the hopelessly in love, the pain can be triggered by anything, whether as profound as the death of a father or as mundane as a piece of bad luck, like losing a key; such elemental pain can be flamed by any sort of spark. People whose lives have, like mine, been turned upside down by love can become convinced that all other problems will be resolved once the pain of love is gone, but in ignoring these problems they only allow them to fester.

I mean, don’t you see it, too? So Marcel.

The English translation of The Museum of Innocence came out in 2009 and people started talking about it. I had heard Pamuk’s name before (he won the Nobel Prize in 2006 for Istanbul) but didn’t know much about him. I picked this 600-page tome up from the library when it was still relatively new and had no idea what to expect.

I like coming to novels with this perspective of blankness, of utter ignorance. I refuse to read dust jackets and forewords and simply jump right in. The Museum of Innocence lends itself well to this type of approach. I think if I had known what it was going to be about, I might not have attempted it. But to prevent you from that same reaction, this is what I will say about it: It is a massive book, but a very beautiful one. (I did, after all, think it was the second-best book I read in 2010.)

The story follows one unlucky lover, Kemal, for many years as he more or less unsuccessfully woos his distant cousin, Füsun. Nothing is accomplished. Kemal begins to obsessively collect trinkets and love paraphernalia from his few, precious moments with his beloved and starts to file them away in an empty apartment, which, naturally, becomes the Museum of Innocence. Years pass. Füsun gets engaged, but not to Kemal. Kemal starts hanging around her family, hoping for some chance to win her back. Upon closing the final page, you may get the sense the novel is just 600 pages of emotional turmoil with a few mild climaxes and little resolution.

So, why read it? Here are two reasons:

1.) Pamuk writes with more skill than you or I could ever hope to have. Therefore, when you read The Museum of Innocence, you may simply enjoy the pleasures of a masterful novel. I don’t know a word of Turkish, but if Pamuk is even half as good in Turkish as he is in English, we have a brilliant author on our hands.

2.) But even more than that, it is always beneficial to read about Real Life. Woolf said that good fiction must be attached to reality at the corners, like the edges of a spider web. Not many novels accomplish this today. Most are difficult to believe, with characters–like Oskar Schell–who seem like nothing more than pure fantasy. We cannot recognize anything of the world we actually know in them.

This is why I stand behind The Museum of Innocence. Pamuk refuses to give us a fairytale. Because that’s how life is. The prince doesn’t always win the princess. And maybe the princess isn’t trying to be won after all. We don’t live in some rosy-edged bubble that obeys the predictable laws of the romantic comedy universe. Thankfully, Pamuk realizes this, too, and refuses to stoop to Nicholas Sparks’s level.

And beneath the simple futility of it all, the story holds together with the thin beat of hope. Because even though life rarely pans out the way we want it to, we still believe in our coming triumph. This is the motivating force for our downtrodden, love-weary narrator. After he remarks that an afternoon spent with Füsun was the “happiest moment of [his] life,” he qualifies that statement with this observation, which captures the spirit of this novel so well:

In fact no one recognizes the happiest moment of their lives as they are living it. It may well be that, in a moment of joy, one might sincerely believe that they are living that golden instant “now,” even having lived such a moment before, but whatever they say, in one part of their hearts they still believe in the certainty of a happier moment to come. Because how could anyone, and particularly anyone who is still young, carry on with the belief that everything could only get worse: If a person is happy enough to think he has reached the happiest moment of his life, he will be hopeful enough to believe his future will be just as beautiful, more so.

Pamuk will tease you–and Kemal–with hope throughout The Museum of Innocence. He immerses you in Kemal’s universe as you begin to realize that it is all very real and very beautiful.

Top 10 Books of 2010: #3

The Guermantes Way

#3: THE GUERMANTES WAY, by Marcel Proust

For the next few weeks, I’ll be thinking back through the books I read in 2010 and ranking my favorites in a top 10 list. Today, I’ll be dreamily recalling #3, the third volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, English title: The Guermantes Way.

For the past three summers, I’ve committed to reading a volume of Marcel Proust’s magnum opus, À la recherche du temps perdu (English translations call it either In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past). This past summer, I read number 3: The Guermantes Way. I find that a year is the ideal amount of time to take a breather from Proust. By the time the summer rolled around, I was very eager to embark on this 900-page volume of lavish detail, seemingly inane social niceties, and a lush bouquet of memories.

By volume three, our nameless narrator–whom most critics call “Marcel,” because of the intended similarities to an autobiographical monster–has become a young man. He has continued his delicate, self-conscious obsession with Albertine, a girl he met at the beach in the second volume. But Marcel is growing up. And he is beginning to realize that finding his place in upper-class French society may be more important than anything right now.

This volume is perhaps a more complete “coming of age” book than the previous two. Here we find the narrator finally breaking into the tightly guarded upper ring of society and we share his victory. But we also come to share his disillusionment as he realizes that the Duchesse de Guermantes, Madame de Villeparisis, Monsieur Charlus, and the other exalted characters of this long-desired, elite universe are simply, well, human.

For me, a great deal of the brilliance of The Guermantes Way was wrapped up in a narrative phenomenon that I am going to call simultaneous acquisition. Instead of gaining insight before the narrator, we gain vision along with him. We make realizations at the same moment and, therefore, the power of those realizations is far more powerful to us than if we had been omniscient readers. But the narrator’s vision is not perfect, and this is something Proust will not let us forget. Even a recently lucid young man still moves in society with a film over his eyes:

At any rate I realized the impossibility of obtaining any direct and certain knowledge of whether Francoise loved or hated me. And thus it was she who first gave me the idea that a person does not, as I had imagined, stand motionless and clear before our eyes with his merits, his defects, his plans, his intentions with regard to ourselves (like a garden at which we gaze through a railing with all its borders spread out before us), but is a shadow which we can never penetrate, of which there can be no such thing as direct knowledge, with respect to which we form countless beliefs, based upon words and sometimes actions, neither of which can give us anything but inadequate and as it proves contradictory information—a shadow behind which we can alternately imagine, with equal justification, that there burns the flame of hatred and love.

Despite 900 pages of fabulous detail and elegantly constructed conversations, Proust wants us to remember that we can never truly have “direct knowledge” about other people. It is a necessary realization for our dreamy narrator and yet we worry about him. When you reach the final page and exhale deeply, you cannot help but maintain a sense of fear for what circumstances will befall the young protagonist. For once your dreams have crumbled, to whom do you turn? I guess I’ll just have to wait and find out this summer, when I take on the ominously titled volume four, Sodom and Gomorrah.

I have to be honest. I recall this vague plot outline with great difficulty (and a little Googling for the character names). After 900 pages of Proust’s gloriously elaborate and exhausting prose, one’s brain is awash in sensation but incapable of maintaining any concrete detail or action. At least, that seems to be consistently true for me when I read Proust. So, why do I keep coming back, year after year?

I don’t have a simple answer for you. All I can say is that, every summer, Proust gives me a new pair of eyes.

Proust on love

Within a budding (apple) grove, Moses Cone, May 2008.

When we are in love, our love is too big a thing for us to be able altogether to contain it within ourselves. It radiates towards the loved one, finds there a surface which arrests it, forcing it to return to its starting-point, and it is this repercussion of our own feeling which we call the other’s feelings and which charms us more then than on its outward journey because we do not recognize it as having originated in ourselves.

Within a Budding Grove, Marcel Proust, translation by Moncrieff, revised by Enright.