10 best books I read this winter

Winter is a time for burying yourself under a faux-fur blanket by the fireplace and disappearing into books while your German shepherds whine for attention. Here are the 10 best things I read this winter.

The Complete Stories

01. The Complete Stories, Clarice Lispector

The marvelous strangeness of Clarice Lispector is a never-ending delight. I read her Complete Stories with deliberate patience, taking a full month, savoring and pondering each one. The delicious sorcery of Lispector is that she changes you. I found my actual decision-making patterns being shifted by her own incantatory, all-encompassing logic. In the excruciating darkness of the world, during which I still felt weighed down by the election, I read Lispector and thought, At least we still have this.

The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories

02. The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories, Joy Williams

No, I didn’t just love this because there’s a German shepherd on the cover. I’m utterly smitten with Joy Williams and with this collection of stories, which are incredibly strange and gorgeously written. The Visiting Privilege is dense with delights, with characters who are at once familiar and foreign.

War and Peace

03. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

I devoted myself to re-reading War and Peace over the winter, and it was the perfect thing. It was my first time with Pevear and Volokhonsky’s celebrated translation, and it was as purely enjoyable as everyone says it is. It is immensely readable and spiritually nourishing. We may never have a genius like Tolstoy again. What a pleasure it is to live in a world where art like this exists and can be returned to again and again.

The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq

04. The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq, George Packer

If there’s only one book you read about America’s involvement in Iraq, it should probably be this one. George Packer writes an impressively incisive and concise history of America’s disastrous occupation of Iraq under the George W. Bush administration and presents all of the complexity of this grand failure with clarity and tact. Packer is a gift, and in these days of the Trump regime, we could all do more to study the mistakes presidents have made—and will continue to make—in the days to come.

A Streetcar Named Desire

05. A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams

This is the third time I’ve read this play, but every time feels like the first time. Don’t care if that sounds cliché; it’s true. It kills me every time. It’s a superbly readable play, a play that seems to be intended to be read, and I recommend it to everyone.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again:  Essays and Arguments

06. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace

Here is a saying worthy of all to be received: Read DFW avidly. And then do not read him, for five or six years. And then read him again. The pleasures are manifold in this collection of essays.

Giovanni's Room

07. Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin

A heartbreaking and beautifully told little novel of a star-crossed couple in Paris. I’m always grateful to be reminded of James Baldwin’s extraordinary gifts with each encounter. He has such range and impressive economy of language.

Is There No Place on Earth for Me?

08. Is There No Place on Earth for Me?, Susan Sheehan

They don’t make journalism like this anymore. In this incredibly researched and riveting book, Susan Sheehan follows a woman with schizophrenia for the better part of two years. It’s a gripping and heart-rending portrayal and calls into question most of our commonly held assumptions about mental illness and psychiatric care.

Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style

09. Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, Virginia Tufte

Guion got to hear Lydia Davis, Queen of my Heart, speak at UVA this fall. In the lecture, she said that she loved to refer to Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences when she wrote or when she felt stuck, if merely to be reminded of the extraordinary variety of English and all the innumerable ways one can put a sentence together. I studied and devoured this delightful and useful book. I keep it on a shelf at work and turn to it in moments of crisis.

Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

10. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Audre Lorde

A powerful and extremely relevant collection of essays and lectures from Audre Lorde. It is galvanizing and exciting to read her work back to back in this fashion; I had only ever read snippets and quotes before. And I am neither the first nor the last to say this, but Lorde is an essential member of the American feminist canon. It’s a good time to shut up and listen to her.

It’s going to be a beautiful spring for books, too. What have you read recently that you enjoyed?

Books for lounging in the sun

Henderson the Rain King

10 books:

  • Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellow
  • On Love, Alain de Botton
  • Can’t and Won’t, Lydia Davis
  • Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard
  • Light in August, William Faulkner
  • The Essential Haiku, ed. Robert Hass
  • Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Vladimir Nabokov
  • Nine Stories, J.D. Salinger
  • Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams
  • The Waves, Virginia Woolf

The Waves

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 2011: The Sheltering Sky (#9)

The Sheltering Sky.

#9: THE SHELTERING SKY, by Paul Bowles.

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.

I hesitate to put this book on this list, because then you might read it and think I’m a psychopath. (This is a similar fear to writing rave reviews of Nabokov, with the danger being that you might think I was a pervert.) This brings up the distinction between the “morality” of art and one’s separate consumption of it, but that’s another theoretical discussion for another time.

This is a very, very dark book. (In fact, it is on a Goodreads list titled “The Darkest Books of All Time.”) My best guess is that 75 percent of you would hate it, so I am not going to use the word “recommend” here, but I am going to tell you why I liked it and why I thought it was worth a damn.

The Sheltering Sky is the debut novel by American expatriate Paul Bowles, who lived in Morocco, where this story is set. American couple Port and Kit Moresby travel through the Sahara, accompanied by their friend, Tunner. On the surface, the book seems like it would be just another Hemingway-esque tale of blundering, drinking, profligate American tourists (a la The Sun Also Rises) bumbling their way through a vast and complex foreign land. But that would be too easy for Bowles. This novel is like a much darker and more lyrical Hemingway, but I don’t even know if that’s a fair comparison. It is more like someone dropped Hemingway characters into the middle of a Moroccan nightmare and left them there to die.

As the group’s travel plans begin to fall apart, the characters and the narrative also begin to unravel. The darkness of the book comes over one suddenly, as a great shadow. “It all started off so well and even funny!” you think, naively, as you continue to read. “Surely things will turn out in the end.” But things do not turn out in the end. Sunny resolution is for children’s novels, apparently, because Bowles has written a story that somehow plumbs the depths of the human condition and the hopelessness of escape.

Sounds fun, right? And yet it was an incredible book. It is difficult for me to explain this. Thankfully, I don’t have to hunt for the right words, because the brilliant Tennessee Williams already did. He published a short review of The Sheltering Sky in the New York Times on 4 December 1949, the year the novel came out, “An Allegory of Man and His Sahara.” In it, he expresses what I have vainly tried to express about the deep, eternal appeal of this dark book:

There is a curiously double level to this novel. The surface is enthralling as narrative. It is impressive as writing. But above that surface is the aura that I spoke of, intangible and powerful, bringing to mind one of those clouds that you have seen in summer, close to the horizon and dark in color and now and then silently pulsing with interior flashes of fire. And that is the surface of the novel that has filled me with such excitement.

It is exciting to read and it is frightening at the same time. Williams has many delightful and encouraging things to say about Bowles as an artist and as a writer. Then he ends his review with this bomb, which I find to be as fitting a way as any to end my own:

I suspect that a good many people will read this book and be enthralled by it without once suspecting that it contains a mirror of what is most terrifying and cryptic within the Sahara of moral nihilism, into which the race of man now seems to be wandering blindly.