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 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 books I read this summer

The best books I read (and re-read) while living in Europe and then upon returning home.

May

Troubling Love

Troubling Love, Elena Ferrante. Creepy, sexy, unsettling; filled that Ferrante need in my life.

Up from Slavery

Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington. Gripping and yet also very sad, to think about how grieved Washington would be if he saw America in its current state.

The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature

The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James. Really fascinating and super-relevant, even today.

Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf. I cannot even begin to describe what a sincere pleasure it was to read this novel, for the fifth time, in the city of its occurrence. London! “Like the pulse of a perfect heart, life struck straight through the streets.”

My Struggle: Book 4

My Struggle, Book 4, Karl Ove Knausgaard. Teenage boys are terrible things.

Hunger

Hunger, Knut Hamsun. Read the entire thing, in a feverish terror, on an old Kindle on a runway (waiting for our plane to take off for Berlin).

The Way We Live Now

The Way We Live Now, Anthony Trollope. Apparently, not much has changed in England: Everyone is still obsessed with class.

June

The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays, James Wood. James Wood makes me feel good about myself, because he validates all of the opinions I already hold (e.g., Paul Auster is shallow and Lydia Davis, once married to Auster, is an absolute QUEEN).

Some Prefer Nettles, Junichiro Tanizaki. A small, beautifully written novel about the slow dissolution of a marriage.

Summer, Edith Wharton. In this short, under-read novel, Wharton pulls of a great trick of characterization. (I won’t tell you what it is.)

The Seagull, Anton Chekhov. Chekhov persists in perfection.

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco. While it was hard to get Sean Connery out of my head, I enjoyed this; I was surprised by how academic it was.

July

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X and Alex Haley. Fantastic portrait of a very complex and important American leader and activist. I regret it took me so long to read this one.

Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust; translation by Lydia Davis. A true delight to savor this one for the second time, in preparation for a book club discussion of it.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman. A gorgeously written and compelling portrayal of the tension between a Hmong family and Western medicine. Who is “right,” and what does that even mean in this context?

Persuasion, Jane Austen. Read for the second time. Such a mature and measured novel. Austen exhibits such impressive restraint.

In Defence of Dogs, John Bradshaw. Yeah, I was even able to read dog books while in London. This one is great.

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, Evan Osnos. China is complicated! Like we all have known for a long time. But Osnos explores a variety of issues with skill and well-researched brevity.

August

The Passion According to G.H., Clarice Lispector. Clarice Lispector wants to melt your brain. (Seriously. Prepare for a novel that will implant itself in your mind and keep feeding on you.)

The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois. Powerful and chastening, especially considering how many challenges America still has to overcome.

The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson. Magic and tremendously readable. Maggie Nelson covers a lot of ground here and holds everything with such admirable looseness.

Loving, Henry Green. A novel about people who don’t quite seem like people.

A Field Guide to American Houses, Virginia McAlester and Lee McAlester. If you have even a passing interest in domestic American architecture, this book will be a total delight.

The Association of Small Bombs, Karan Mahajan. An active and skillful novel about the intimate ramifications of terrorism.

What did you read and love this summer?

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 2011: Crossing to Safety (#5)

Crossing to Safety.

#5: CROSSING TO SAFETY, Wallace Stegner.

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.

The more I read as a child, the more my dream of being a novelist died. This seems contradictory for a born bas bleu, but the more I read about great writers’ lives, the more I came to believe that I could never be one. Or even wanted to be one, judging from the dark, harrowing lives they typically led. To be a great writer, I started recognizing, you were extremely likely to be terribly marginalized, depressed, suicidal, suffering from childhood abuse, mentally ill, hooked on drugs or women, and so on. And then you went on to write these vast, gloomy masterpieces. That’s how it was done and I resigned myself to preferring a happy, unremarkable life over a melancholy, genius one.

All this to say: I never thought I would meet a genuinely great novelist who wrote hopeful books and was also a happy, stable person. Until I met Wallace Stegner.

Crossing to Safety is the first Stegner I’ve read and it is the last novel he wrote. It was published in 1987, when he was 78 years old, which is a serious accomplishment itself, not to mention that the novel is actually wonderful. Stegner tells us a semi-autobiographical tale of the lifelong friendship between two couples, Larry and Sally Morgan and Sid and Charity Lang. Larry Morgan is our narrator, and he begins the story by telling us of his move, with his new wife, to Madison, Wisconsin, in the late 1930s for his English graduate work at the university there. The Morgans are quickly introduced to the quite different and notably wealthy Langs and a friendship blossoms between them.

Perhaps surprisingly, that is all I need to say about the plot. It is a story about friendship, devotion, communal living, and communal dying. Crossing to Safety is a simple love story, or, more accurately, a simple life story. There are no explosions, no affairs, no drug overdoses. Who wants to read a novel like this? I was pleasantly surprised that I did and marveled at Stegner’s perfect prose, his gentle observations, and his commanding grasp on this gem of a novel. Nothing escapes his attention; he leaves nothing out.

Larry Morgan himself is trying to be a novelist, and as he struggles with writing, we get this especially self-referential passage:

How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these? Where are the things that novelists seize upon and readers expect? Where is the high life, the conspicuous waste, the violence, the kinky sex, the death wish? Where are the suburban infidelities, the promiscuities, the convulsive divorces, the alcohol, the drugs, the lost weekends? Where are the hatreds, the political ambitions, the lust for power? Where are the speed, noise, ugliness, everything that makes us who we are and makes us recognize ourselves in fiction?

Morgan’s questions are the questions we imagined Stegner was asking himself as he wrote this novel. I’m so glad he was. We “recognize ourselves” in this book, despite its lack of “speed, noise, ugliness,” for it flawlessly captures and celebrates the rare joy of the realistic novel, the strong connection we feel toward characters we understand and strive to be.

Monday Snax

Dead orchard
Spooky peach trees.
Afternoon in Crozet
Guion on a Crozet farm road.

A peaceful, efficient weekend. Back to the book sale again; ran a lot of errands; Guion was on tour with Nettles, the Hill and Wood, and Camp Christopher in D.C. and Princeton.  One of the highlights of the weekend was a photo session with the incredible Kristin Moore, who took us out to Chiles Peach Orchard in Crozet for a fun afternoon among the spooky/awesome dead trees. Kristin is so sweet and encouraging and she made us feel OK about being in front of the camera, despite our overwhelming awkwardness.

My paternal grandfather passed away this weekend. He was a happy man who flew helicopters and told jokes, but I did not know him very well. It is a strange feeling, to acknowledge that you feel so empty and detached about your grandfather’s death, but my heart is heavy for my father and his siblings. They feel something for him that I never got the chance to, and for that, I am sad. Rest in peace, Papa John.

Snax with a box of clementines, which are easily the main reason winter is passable:

Faroes. Good friend Ross McDermott went on an adventure to the mystical and hidden Faroe Islands and his photographs of the trip are just incredible. It looks like such an enchanted place; I want to go! (Ross McDermott’s Flickr)

Palmetto Bluff. Meredith visits this amazing inn in South Carolina. I’m a sucker for hanging moss; it makes me want to go read a dozen Eudora Welty stories. (Meredith Perdue)

LIFE Magazine’s 20 Worst Covers. You have to respect a magazine with the ability to make fun of itself. These are pretty horrendous. (LIFE)

Our Bella, Ourselves. As a self-respecting woman with a functional brain, I have a lot of disdain for all things Twilight. But this is a very interesting perspective on Bella Swan–the weak, useless, defenseless, and indecisive “heroine”–as a mirror of her fanbase. Teen girls love these books, because they see something of themselves in Bella. Sad, but maybe true? (The Hairpin)

2011 Holiday Card Roundup, Part 4. If I were a rich woman, I would spend an unforgivable amount of money on cards like these. (Oh, So Beautiful Paper)

Calligraphy Inspiration: Kathryn Murray. So pretty and whimsical. To have such control over one’s nib! (Oh, So Beautiful Paper)

Joan Didion’s Packing List. That is very efficient, Ms. Didion. I approve. (English Muse)

Reading 1Q84: The Case for Fiction in a Busy Life. A sound and compelling argument for reading thick novels even when your life is insane. (The Millions)

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?

Monday Snax

All bears. All blood. All the time. We enjoyed a wonderful weekend visit with the Watson-Ormonds!

We had the perfect, fresh, spring weekend with Rose and Kemp. Rose and I spent our time on Saturday walking all around town and talking about Life and Other Issues while the boys brewed. We ate tons of good food together and just generally lazed around, too. It was just ideal and we hated to see them go.

Snax on a bed of eggs benedict, whatever that is:

Nettles to Play March 28 with The Welcome Wagon! Yes, that’s right, kids: my brilliant husband and his band will be opening for The Welcome Wagon on March 28 at The Haven in Charlottesville. If you’re around, do come; it’s going to be an awesome show. (Nettles)

In Which These Are the Hundred Greatest Novels. The folks at This Recording have made their definitive list of the 100 all-time greatest novels. This list contains dozens of books I’ve never even heard of, much less read. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t derive deep satisfaction that they ranked To the Lighthouse as the #8 best novel and Lolita, wow, as the #1 best novel of all time. That’s saying something. (And Ulysses was #12! How Woolf must be laughing in her grave right now.) At the very least, the list has certainly given me lots of great titles to add to my ever-growing reading list.  (This Recording)

Zooming Out: How Writers Create Our Visual Grammar. This analysis by Rob Goodman claims that great authors–he cites examples from Milton and Dickens, and closes with a few lines from Psalm 8–are responsible for the first true “cinematic jump-cuts.” The article is very well-written and fascinating. I like the notion of a “visual grammar,” of the keen and yet oft-unnoticed importance that grammar and syntax possess over our visual understanding of a narrative.  (The Millions)

A Ravishing Knockout of a Book. Novelist Gary Shteyngart talks about his favorite novel, Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, in this 2006 review from NPR. I love Shteyngart AND Turgenev, so I was naturally delighted to find this piece, which I stumbled upon while doing some preliminary research on the novel for book club. If you haven’t read it yet, let Shteyngart convince you that you need to. (NPR, All Things Considered)

Real-Life House from Up. I loved that movie; first animated film to make me sob since Bambi, and this is just great. Well done, people at National Geographic. I wonder where the house came from and who was brave enough to actually take a ride in it? Enjoy, even though this has already been around the Interwebs a few times now. This should brighten anyone’s day. (Vulture via National Geographic)

Best Rare Bird Pictures of 2010. In my experience, birds make somewhat terrible pets, but they are such beautiful creatures to watch. National Geographic has released its awards for the best photographs of rare birds from last year. The whooping crane in the air? Amazing. And the tail feathers of the last bird? Gimme a break! That’s crazy. (National Geographic)

Van Gogh Paintings as Pie Charts. I’m all about your color palette, Vincent. (WXTCHOU)

See You Never Again In My Life. One of the best notes from a runaway I’ve ever read. (Passive-Aggressive Notes)

Newt Gingrich Cheated On His Wives for America. The most hilariously absurd explanation for infidelity, maybe ever. No one takes this man seriously, right? (Daily Intel)

First Lady Michelle Obama. I really, really hope this story is true. Go Michelle! (Got a Girl Crush On)

Where Are All the Daring Women’s Heroines? The Guardian’s book blog attempts to address the discrepancy between a plethora of heroines in children’s fiction and a positive dearth of them by the time one gets to adult literature. (The Guardian Book Blog)

Trend Watch: Houses with Slides. I assume these are the homes of multi-millionaires with young children, but, hey, I kind of want a slide in my house. (Flavorwire)

Blue Eyes Are Not Actually Blue. Well. I learned something new today. I can’t tell if I feel downcast because my irises are just an optical illusion or extra cool. (Broken Secrets)