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.

10 Best Fiction Books I Read in 2014

And again, I have to say that this was a very difficult, painful list to make. It seemed cruel, not to rank everything in the top 10 for this past year. But I have made my choices. And I stand by them.

1. The Stories of Paul Bowles

The Stories of Paul Bowles

How do you talk about something that left you consistently gasping for air? I was introduced to Paul Bowles in 2011 with his novel The Sheltering Sky (which ranked on my Top 10 list for that year). For all his brilliance, he is under-read and gravely underappreciated; when I found this copy of his stories at a local bookstore, I snatched it up and proceeded to devour it with unflagging fervor. It’s a thick, dazzling, astonishing collection of stories about human nature, particularly its darker and weirder representatives. Many stories involve Morocco, where Bowles lived for most of his adult life. Most, if not all, stories hinge on a complicated, compelling character, perfectly animated by Bowles’s vivid, incisive prose. And all of the stories will render you a bit breathless.

2. Alexis, Marguerite Yourcenar

Alexis

Marguerite Yourcenar is the heavy-hitter that hardly anyone talks about. She was a total genius (first woman to be inducted into the Académie française), and I think it’s criminal that we aren’t talking about her all of the time. This unbelievable little novel, for instance, was her first. She wrote it when she was a mere 24 years old, in 1928 (published in 1929). And this is Alexis: A confessional letter from a gay man to his ex-wife, about his childhood, internal struggles, hopes, and fraught ambitions. And it is so gorgeous and riveting. I can’t get over it. There are shades of Proust here too (the insightful inner examinations of a frequently ill, shy gay man who is extremely intelligent), but the short of it is that Alexis is incredible and worth every minute.

3. Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov

Pale Fire

This is the second time I’ve read Pale Fire, but it’s so good that it would be a crime not to rank it so highly in this roundup. I read it again for church book club (promoted to the list because of my gushing recommendation), and everyone hated it because the narrator was “creepy” and “unlikable.” I felt like all I could say was, “Well, naturally. But that’s entirely, utterly missing everything. Just everything.” (I didn’t say that, but I wanted to.) The novel is deliriously funny and wickedly sincere and plays tricks on you from the beginning to the end. Here we have a delusional professor (or is he?), a masterful poem, a fake Slavic kingdom, a murder mystery, an allusive treasure trove. You cannot ask for much more, but if you did, Nabokov would give it to you on a silver platter.

4. The Forsyte Saga, John Galsworthy

The Forsyte Saga

I decided to read the enormous Forsyte Saga because a visiting preacher raved about it, noting how underappreciated Galsworthy is, and structured his sermon around the novel’s story of grace and redemption.* John Galsworthy was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1932, primarily for this book. The Nobel committee usually gives the prize for a lifetime of work, but in their decision, they specifically noted that Galsworthy deserved the prize “for his distinguished art of narration which takes its highest form in The Forsyte Saga.”

Well said, committee, and I agree with your judgment. Accordingly, I’m fascinated by the fact that hardly anyone has read this book. Or by the fact that no one really talks about it. One factor could be the length (my edition topped out around 960 pages). Yes, it’s not as brilliant as Tolstoy, who can write 960 pages and never be accused of having taken excessive liberties, but The Forsyte Saga is brilliant by degrees and should be read much more than it is.

I love sprawling family dramas, and the Forsytes are an excellent subject. All of the familiar themes of the English upper class are here — money! Class! Preventing unsavory marriages! Gossip! Hating on the less fortunate! Art! Wit! — but Galsworthy presents them with a fresh, engaging, and sometimes unpredictable style.

As Galsworthy intended, Soames Forsyte is particularly fascinating. Soames is deeply unlikable to everyone who knows him, even (especially?) to his own family. As readers, we follow him quite closely and receive his inner monologues with regularity, and we have no good reason to like him either. So Soames is such an interesting and therefore perfect choice for a complex, distasteful protagonist.

All in all, this is a splendidly written novel. There are some moments of real beauty here. And enough interludes to make you pause, lift your head, and think deeply about your own extended family.

*Upon finishing the novel, I realized that the visiting preacher just watched the BBC miniseries version and didn’t actually read the book, because the miniseries deviates grossly from the text and fabricates an entirely new ending. Shock! Brief indignation! But. I’m still obviously very glad I read it. So, no harm done.

5. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

2014 is the year I discovered Lydia Davis and had my life subsequently changed by her. In my reading life, the mark of a very special book is one that forces me to slow down and savor every line. I’m usually speeding through books at a voracious (if often uncomprehending) pace, but not so with this collection, which includes all of the stories from Break It Down (1986) to her penultimate collection, Varieties of Disturbance (2007). As I’ve mentioned before, something about Lydia Davis sticks with me, long after I’ve read the last little story, and echoes in my mind throughout my day. She isn’t easily forgotten, and I love her for that. If you need someone to shake you by the shoulders and tell you to READ LYDIA DAVIS, give me a ring. I’ll come over.

6. Can’t and Won’t, Lydia Davis

Can't and Won't: Stories

I wasn’t kidding. 2014 was the Year of Lydia Davis. This is her most recent collection, and it’s highly recommended to anyone who has eyes capable of interpreting text.

Here is the titular story, in is entirety:

I was recently denied a writing prize because, they said, I was lazy. What they meant by lazy was that I used too many contractions: for instance, I would not write out in full the words cannot and will not, but instead contracted them to can’t and won’t.

7. Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellow

Henderson the Rain King

“Hell, we’ll never get away from rhythm, Romilayu. I wish my dead days would quit bothering me and leave me alone. The bad stuff keeps coming back, and it’s the worst rhythm there is. The repetition of a man’s bad self, that’s the worst suffering that’s ever been known.”

I wasn’t sure about Saul Bellow, but Henderson convinced me completely of his brilliance.

Henderson is the perfect narrator: flawed, humorous, fascinating. His continual refrain — “I want, I want, I want” — rings throughout the book and echoes a bit in all of us as we read his story. It’s a quest, an archetypal journey of rebirth, and at the same time, a journey into the darkest part of the self: the hidden psychosis that lurks beneath the surface.

8. Light Years, James Salter

Light Years

What can you do with prose like this except bow down?

The book was in her lap; she had read no further. The power to change one’s life comes from a paragraph, a lone remark. The lines that penetrate us are slender, like the flukes that live in river water and enter the bodies of swimmers. She was excited, filled with strength. The polished sentences had arrived, it seemed, like so many other things, at just the right time. How can we imagine what our lives should be without the illumination of the lives of others?

This is a novel about a dreamily disintegrating marriage. It sounds odd to say that a marriage could fall apart in a “dreamy” way, but this is an odd novel, and I think that’s exactly what happened here. Viri and Nedra live in the countryside outside of New York City with their daughters, Franca and Danny, and they might all love each other. Or they might not. Salter’s style is lush and impressionistic and everyone seems very beautiful and very confused but not quite devastated. There are no dramatic scenes; everything happens quietly. There is a pony in the grass at dawn; light reflected off wine goblets; half-finished art projects on the kitchen table; loose conversations with quasi-intellectuals at night; oblique moments of love-making. I was completely entranced by this book, mainly because of Salter’s gorgeous prose, but even now, I’m not entirely sure what to say about it. Except that it was lovely and strange.

9. Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah

Three-quarters through Americanah, a character says, “You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country.”

And yet I think that is what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has accomplished with this book. This is a large, beautiful novel with engaging, complex characters. Adichie is constantly reminding the reader of the promises and pitfalls embedded in the American cultural landscape — pitfalls especially if you happen to be black.

Ifemelu moves from Nigeria to the United States to pursue a university education and hopefully, better job prospects. The novel moves back and forth between Ifemelu’s past (girlhood in Nigeria to young adulthood in the United States) and present, as she prepares to return home to Nigeria — for good.

Even though I am a white, non-immigrant, US-born citizen, I never felt boxed out or uninvited to the conversation that is going on in Americanah. The characters are accessible, complicated, delightfully human; they held my rapt attention throughout this large and yet swift-moving novel.

Through the medium of Ifemelu’s blog about being a non-American black in America, Adichie expresses cogent, relevant arguments about the complexities of racism in America, exposing just how little progress we’ve made, even when we pat ourselves on the back for our sense of having overcome, for achieving civil rights, for electing a black man president, for parroting the line that white conservatives enjoy, that “racism is over.” It’s far, far from over. Americanah is that strong — and readable and compelling — reminder: Racism, unfortunately, is alive and well in America. So, round of applause for Adichie, for teaching us something about ourselves that we are always unwilling to learn.

10. The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's Son

It is rare to find a book like this: a thriller — an adventure novel, in a sense — that also happens to be extremely well written. It’s a story of murder and intrigue — salted with delicious dark humor — in North Korea, where Adam Johnson actually spent some time working and doing research for this novel, which was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize. Recommended for its energy, precision, and probing action.

Honorable Mentions

  1. Lila, Marilynne Robinson
  2. Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner
  3. Cloudsplitter, Russell Banks
  4. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, David Foster Wallace
  5. A Haunted House and Other Short Stories, Virginia Woolf
  6. The Patrick Melrose Novels, Edward St. Aubyn
  7. The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel
  8. What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank, Nathan Englander
  9. Go Down, Moses, William Faulkner
  10. Fools, Joan Silber
  11. Battleborn, Claire Vaye Watkins
  12. Transparent Things, Vladimir Nabokov
  13. Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
  14. The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
  15. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
  16. Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel
  17. Out, Natsuo Kirino
  18. Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson

What were your favorite novels you read in 2014?

Previously…
Top 10 Poetry Books I Read in 2014
Top 10 Nonfiction Books I Read in 2014

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

Best book I read in February

Talking about the best book I read this month.

Laughter in the Dark

Laughter in the Dark

By Vladimir Nabokov
Vintage, 1989; 304 pages.

To be honest, I wasn’t enamored with many of the books I read in February. A lot of them just seemed to drag on and on. But Laughter in the Dark didn’t. Here, Nabokov is sharp, incisive, and spare. He does not waste words in this little volume, which was initially written in Russian. (*Little factoid: The novel was first published in English under the title Camera Obscura. Nabokov was so disgusted with the quality of the translation that he translated it himself in 1938 under the title Laughter in the Dark, which is what we English speakers read today.)

Albinus, an upstanding and rather dull middle-aged man in Berlin, is tired of his marriage. But not that tired. His quiet wife, Elizabeth, has not wronged him in any way; she is not demanding or difficult. But he’s bored. And so his fancy alights upon a young woman (a very young woman, per Nabokov’s tastes), Margot. Margot is also bored, but her boredom manifests itself in flights of mischievous and destructive immaturity. Their resulting affair is a disaster. I won’t say more about the plot, except that it was somehow darkly refreshing to read of an extramarital affair that made its participants seem so deeply silly and baseless and sad.

This novel, more than the others I have read by Nabokov, struck me as his idea of a parable. The story is simply told and unembellished, although it bears the imprint of its author in the various delightful asides and clever descriptions of people and their motives. I don’t think Nabokov would approve of labeling Laughter in the Dark with an overarching moral, but it’s a charming, dark little story. It’s the weakest of his novels that I have read, but saying that means it’s probably better than at least half of the books on my shelves. Nabokov’s raw talent can never really be dimmed, even by such a simple, direct, short narrative.

(*Another little factoid: Dave Eggers designed this book cover. What has the man not had his hands in? I do like it, though. I think it’s appropriate.)

Top 10 nonfiction books I read in 2012

One of my goals this year was to read more nonfiction, spread out across a broad range of disciplines. Here are my top 10 favorite nonfiction books I read in 2012, starting with my favorite.

Lit: A Memoir

1: Lit, Mary Karr

Mary Karr gets drunk, gets sober, and finds God — all against her best intentions and expectations. She is funny, clever, and heartbreakingly honest; essentially, everything we want out of a memoir. We want it to be lurid. We want it to fulfill every voyeuristic hope that we hold. But we don’t always expect memoirs to be so beautifully written or so incisively honest. Karr writes with disarming humility and power. This is a memoir for everyone and I recommend it wholeheartedly. I didn’t want to put it down for a second. (Buy)

The Emperor of All Maladies

2: The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddartha Mukherjee

This book is the complete history of the most well-known killer of people: Cancer. Siddhartha Mukherjee is a decorated cancer researcher, but you wouldn’t expect him to also be a gifted historian and storyteller. The Emperor of All Maladies is the most engaging scientific narrative I have ever read. It is supremely readable and clear, even for a non-science background layperson like myself. Mukherjee tells the important story of the mysterious, elusive disease that will reach us all, sooner or later. This is an important book that begs to be read and reckoned with. (Buy)

The Second Sex

3: The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir

One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.

In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir provided us with the complete word on what women are and how they could be. This book, an essential text of feminist philosophy and the genesis of second-wave feminism, is extremely long and it is not for the faint of heart. Beauvoir starts at the beginning, and I mean the beginning — we are talking amoeba communities and frog mating practices. From there, she launches into a dizzying array of topics and disciplines and histories, exploring all of the reasons why women are the way they are and why the progress toward gender equality has been so slow and hindered. I was impressed by her humor and by the perpetual relevance of this book. This is not out of date. Women are still lagging behind men in many of the same areas (notably the workplace) that they were in 1949. But Beauvoir gives us hope, even if it is a mere glimmer, that the “curse” of womanhood may no longer rest on our heads. (Buy)

Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet

4: Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet, Jennifer Homans

It is remarkable to me that, until this book, ballet did not have a consummate history. So along came Jennifer Homans, NYU professor, dance critic, and former professional dancer. Apollo’s Angels contains the complete story of ballet, through its various phases and transformations, and is written in a beautiful, sincere style. History books are often hard for me to read, but this one was thoroughly enjoyable. Homans is a skilled and careful writer and she treats her subjects with keen attention. This book will give you more information about ballet than you probably need, but it is so delightful and inspiring that I would recommend it to anyone. (Buy)

Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years

5: Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, Diarmaid MacCulloch

I will already admit that this is a book that I need to reread. Clocking in at 1,184 pages, this is a SERIOUS TOME. As it should be, I suppose, regarding its ambitious scope: A complete history of Christianity. Oxford Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch’s history is a remarkable achievement. I can’t imagine ever knowing so much about one topic. Yeah, I read the whole thing, but I feel like I only skimmed the surface of his vast knowledge. This is the book to read — to tackle, more accurately — for the complete, definitive introduction to church history. I’ve been a Christian for most of my life and I didn’t know half of the things he talked about in this book. I’d say it’s essential reading for most Christians. It’s good to know where you came from. (Buy)

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

6: The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas G. Carr

Nicholas G. Carr’s short, incisive survey of Internet history and its corresponding neuroscientific research is quietly terrifying. I almost expected it to be scarier. But here I am, typing my thoughts into a blog, on the Internet, so I guess it didn’t scare me as much as I had hoped. It did reinforce, however, my desire to spend less and less time on the World Wide Web. I have certainly felt the sense that he describes, the truly great horror, that the more time we spend online, the less human we become. I feel better about myself when I’m not online: Clearer, simpler, happier. Living unplugged is a rapidly diminishing lifestyle, but I’d like to pursue it, to the best of my ability. This book will reinvigorate that desire — to sit outside, to read a thick novel, to think in a deeper, clearer way than the Internet allows. (Buy)

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood

7: The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, James Gleick

Why do we, as human beings, so deeply desire to know, to catalog, to archive? James Gleick examines a range of familiar scientific innovations, corresponding mathematics, and the resulting cultural implications. We live in the supposed “Information Age,” but what does that mean? And how did we get here? He writes beautifully and this is an incredibly engaging account, even if most of it was over my head. The Information is a relevant, scientific memoir of our civilization’s undying passion to record, remember, transmit. (Buy)

The Liar's Club

8: The Liars’ Club, Mary Karr

Yes, this was the year that made me a Mary Karr fan. I have never read a sadder childhood nor a purer memoir. After I devoured and loved Lit, I thought it would be a good idea to backtrack and read Karr’s first memoir, The Liars’ Club, the story of her violent, traumatic, and yet humorously heartbreaking childhood in Texas and Colorado. It certainly does not disappoint. At times, I found myself getting confused by its parallels with The Glass Castle (Jeannette Wells’ very similar-sounding memoir of her own girlhood among destructive, poor, alcoholic parents — both Wells and Karr have mothers who are constantly drunk painters, for example. BUT Karr did it first. And better, if you can make tragic childhood memoirs a competition. Wells came out with her memoir 10 years after this book was published). Anyhow. Read it. Love it. Feel like you might have a chance at being even a mildly decent parent, because at least you’re not these people. I liked Lit better as a whole, but this, wow, equally great. (Buy)

Speak, Memory

9: Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov

Another memoir, I know, but this is one of the greatest writers who has ever lived, waxing on and off about his childhood and life. We weave between his lush, florid descriptions of familial interaction; a parade of names; a barrage of places and vivid memories. The flow of his language almost makes us feel as if we were chasing butterflies alongside him. And then there is the sudden and beautiful insertion of “you” 200 pages in, referring to his wife, Vera, his only audience, the only one who matters. Oh, Nabokov! Always leaving me breathless. (Buy)

Flaubert and Madame Bovary

10: Flaubert and Madame Bovary, Francis Steegmuller

A perfectly written and extremely readable double-biography of Gustave Flaubert and his fictional alter ego, Madame Bovary. This was the ideal companion for my re-reading of Lydia Davis’ new translation of Madame Bovary this past year, and I recommend it heartily to anyone with even a passing interest in Flaubert, French literature, or the process of writing a great novel. Well done, Steegmuller. (Buy)

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Running in the Family, Michael Ondaatje
On Lies, Secrets, and Silence
, Adrienne Rich
On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals, Turid Rugaas

Coming soon: Top 10 works of fiction I read this year.

Behind the ecstasy is something else

Source: House Beautiful.

“I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip. And the highest enjoyment of timelessness–in a landscape selected at random–is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern–to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.”

— Vladimir Nabokov, in Speak, Memory

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

Thanks for all of the kind comments and feedback! I was honored to have been Freshly Pressed yesterday!

And now, we’re off for another weekend jaunt home, to celebrate at a wedding with Guion’s old friends. Have a peaceful weekend, everyone.

Boy fights and lifelong obsessions

Levi and Bo. Can you tell who is who? Neither can we.

Watching dogs play is one of my favorite things to do. On Saturday, Celeste and I let golden twins Bo and Levi loose in Liz’s backyard and hilarious romping ensued. I kept saying “boy fights!” as their behavior just made me think of this. Observing Bo and Levi was very much like watching four-year-old boy children wrestle and play, get irritated with each other, cease all motion, and then start up again five seconds later. For those who share my love of boy fights/dogs playing, a more complete slideshow is on the ol’ dog blog.

In a related note, seeing Uggie on stage was the most exciting part of the Oscars for me.

I am finally reading Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak, Memory, and I’ve started the chapter where he describes the genesis of his deep obsession with butterflies. His fascination with and desire for lepidoptera began when he was very young. As a little boy, he was chided for “spoiling walks” by disappearing into the brush with his net, chasing after a fleeting colorful wing. When he was six or seven, he wept pitifully when his hefty governess sat down on a tray of his recent captures, crushing them to indistinguishable, ashy bits. Nabokov did not grow out of this mania for pretty winged insects. His research and scientific contributions to the field are still being discussed today.

I’m not sure why all of this surprised me, that Nabokov’s love of butterflies began when he was a boy and marked the duration of his life. It makes sense that our most passionate obsessions are formed and solidified when we are children. I think of Grace, who was fervently attuned to fashion even when she was a tiny thing. (She once wore a 101 Dalmatians bathing suit, a tutu, and crocodile-skin cowboy boots to church. My mother was tired of doing battle with her over what she wore and so the miniature fashionista had her day.) Today, Grace is still very much involved with the art of wearing clothes. Or there’s Kelsey, whose favorite game as a child was playing office or playing with her “work ‘tuff.” Kelsey still loves organizing, planning, and achieving in that wonderfully efficient and self-created work environment. (Good for her.) Sam, to my father’s great relief and joy, was fixated with sports, particularly any sports involving a ball, since he was a baby.

Me? Well, of course it has always been animals, mainly dogs, and reading. (I didn’t have invisible friends, like some children; I had invisible animals, which I somewhat creepily called “spirit pets.” I named them all and tore their photos out of National Geographics and encyclopedias and plastered them on the wall next to my bed.) There are some things we don’t ever grow out of and lately, I like remembering that.

Tuesday Snax

What's better than an Aussie puppy?
Huck, Jodi and Michael's latest addition. Me? Not jealous at all...

It’s been way too busy around here lately. But I got to meet Huck, the Aussie, on Sunday, and he was a dream. A fuzzy, razor-sharp-toothed dream. (I’d forgotten how much puppies, like babies, want to put everything in their mouths.) He belongs to Jodi and Michael, who brought him home just a week ago. When I stood up to reluctantly leave, he laid down on top of my boots and looked up at me. KILLING ME, PUPPY. KILLING ME. It took all my willpower not to pick him up, stuff him in my purse, and make a run for it.

Belated snax:

Best Photos of the Year 2011. So powerful. Warning: Some are violent/graphic/upsetting. But they’re all incredible. Especially #46! If you don’t see any other photo, at least get to #46. (Reuters)

“Pale Fire,” The Poem: Does It Stand Alone As a Masterpiece? It’s nice to have other people suss out the answers for you. Something I’ve been wondering since I read Pale Fire… (The New Yorker)

Unremembered Celebrity Couples. This is pretty interesting. Who knew that Brad Pitt and Thandie Newton were a thing? Ashton Kutcher and January Jones?? (Retronaut)

Hate Actually. Snarky critic makes some good points about why “Love Actually” isn’t such a great film after all. (The Hairpin)

Printable Holiday Gift Tags: All Free! Get on this. This is what I’ve been using for all of my presents this year. (How About Orange)

Inside the Sketchbooks of the World’s Greatest Type Designers. In another life, this would have been my vocation. (The Atlantic)

Come Together. All I’m thinking is: Why didn’t we have this brilliant idea for our Christmas card? (Awkward Family Photos)

Monday Snax

Another busy weekend in North Carolina: Guion backed Daniel Levi Goans at his CD release show in Greensboro, and I was in Charlotte/Davidson, hanging out with my fam and celebrating with Eva and Peter.

Grace was Eva and Peter’s wedding photographer and has just put up some of her amazing photos from their “first look” on the railroad tracks. Check it out.

Quick selection of photos below:

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We took Ally out for a (belated) birthday brunch at The Egg.
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The beautiful, happy bride gets dressed.
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Eva and Peter get hitched! At the Green Rice Gallery in Charlotte.
The cutest child EVER
Thumbnail from phone picture from a home video. Proof that Sam was the cutest child ever to live.

Snax!

“Cruel,” by St. Vincent. New favorite song (I’m OBSESSED) and album. I can’t wait for her concert here in October! This music video is also totally crazy and creepy. (The Fox Is Black)

The Psychologist. Why novelist Vladimir Nabokov may have actually been the greatest psychologist of his time. (The American Scholar)

The Writer’s Voice. A reflection on the experience of hearing a great writer read his or her own work–with links! Listen to the dulcet tones of Flannery O’Connor, W.B. Yeats, Philip Larkin, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, and J.M. Coetzee. (The Book Bench, The New Yorker)

Al Gore’s Excellent Timing. You know all this apocalyptic weather we’ve been having lately? Al Gore chimes in on a reason, and it’s not the Second Coming. These statistics are chilling… or should I say warming? (The Atlantic)

Bookish Illustrations. Lizzy Stewart’s solemn and wonderful sketched book covers for beloved classics. (Wolf Eyebrows)

Meg Gleason: Personalized Stationery. Love these cards, especially the last one in the set of photos. (Design Work Life)

Farm Life. What an idyllic childhood Courtney must have had… Jealous! (Radiate)

Your Wild Horses. Wild, white horses, galloping in the surf? Of course these photos are going to be amazing. (Eye Poetry)

Got a Girl Crush On: Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken. Did this really happen?? Has anyone seen this movie? (Got a Girl Crush)

Pen on Paper: A Defense of Writing. Yet another article about why handwriting matters, this time from The Curator. (The Curator)

Chat History. A true and heartbreaking romance, rendered in Gchat. (Good)

The Dark Side of the Placebo Effect: When Intense Belief Kills. Apparently, if you believe too hard, you can die. (The Atlantic)

Dr. Neubronner’s Miniature Pigeon Camera, 1903. Um, awesome. (How to Be a Retronaut)

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?