Alas, 2013! I knew him well, Horatio. I haven't posted all my reviews, and I won't be able to until I'm back in Brooklyn in January, but I did reach 50 once again--six out of seven years now. Here are my ten favorites from this year of reading.
10.) The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty -- This was a tough slot. I might have easily put Herta Muller's The Appointment here or Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance. I'm going with The Optimist's Daughter because it continues to mystify me. What begins as a story of an adult woman dealing with the death of her father and her acrimonious stepmother changes several times over until it's something stranger and less easy to categorize.
9.) Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow -- This is one of three Africa books I read this year (including No Longer at Ease and Out of Africa) and it's certainly the one that has the least to do with Africa as it really exists. Bellow's Africa is an elaborate fantasy, but its message about the difficulty of living life fully is powerful and real.
8.) Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card -- This was the year that Card's political conservatism caught up with him, as the Ender's Game movie forced to light some of the ugly and controversial things he's had to say about homosexuality in the past. The thing that amazes me is that the Card who has said these things seems like a man who has never read Speaker for the Dead, much less wrote it. The main idea of Speaker, like Ender's Game, is that it is impossible to truly understand anyone and not love them. In this sequel Ender, disgraced but unknown, travels the universe "speaking" for the dead, as well as hoping to avert the destruction of another alien species by communicating exactly that kind of understanding. Why is Card capable of imagining sympathy for pig-like aliens but not for homosexuals?
7.) Gilead by Marilynne Robinson -- I think I prefer Robinson's first novel, Housekeeping, but I will say that I think this book is more human and more sympathetic. I'm not sure I've ever read a more honest and sympathetic portrayal of religion in human life. And Robinson's prose, of course, is better than anyone else living.
6.) The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath -- Knowing that Sylvia Plath's novel about a young woman's mental unraveling is pretty much autobiographical makes it an even more affecting read. The way that the narrator, Esther Greenwood, moves from the typical anxieties of young adulthood to paralyzing depression is chilling--and sobering.
5.) The Lost Estate by Alain-Fournier -- I'll say it: Better than The Great Gatsby.
4.) The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay -- Macaulay milks a lot of laughter out of the sight of her fellow Britons running around Turkey writing their "Turkey books," yet she's constantly aware that The Towers of Trebizond is exactly that: too wrapped up in itself to really say or even notice anything significant about Turkey. Few other books I've read have been as consistently funny and deeply sad.
3.) Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes -- What is there left to say about Don Quixote? It's our greatest book about friendship, and our greatest book about imagination. Modern literature owes more to Cervantes than anybody, Shakespeare (probably) not excepted.
2.) The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg -- My top two books this year are both from a class I took on the novel in the Romantic period. Both are exceedingly strange. The Private Memoirs are the story of a Puritan fanatic in Scotland who falls under the influence of his doppelganger, who convinces him to kill people for God. Things do not go well for him. I almost made this #1.
1.) The Monk by Matthew Lewis -- I think anyone who doesn't read literature written before fifty years ago because it's antiquated or stuffy ought to read The Monk. It's got it all: Evil priests, Satanic pacts, forcible rape, infant corpses, dismemberment by demon, etc., etc. This was my favorite book of the year because it was awesome.
That's a wrap! As always, we're constantly looking for more contributors to our blog. If you'd like to challenge yourself to read and write about fifty books in 2014, shoot me an e-mail at misterchilton at gmail dot com.