Friday, December 26, 2014

Christopher's Top Ten 2014

This is the eighth year of existence for the Fifty Books Project, and each year it gets a little easier for me to reach fifty books, I think, because I've been able to settle into a kind of rhythm that makes it automatic for me.  But every year it gets a little harder to review the books I've read on time.  This year, I left 11 books unreviewed!  And though I still plan on writing about each of them, I feel bad that three of those eleven appear on my year-end list without any review to link to.  Womp womp.  In any case, here are my favorites from 2014:

10.) Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White -- White's story of four outsiders in suburban Australia who share a vision of the divine helped cement my opinion that he's one of the most underrated and under-recognized English-language writers in the 20th century, unless you're in Australia.  White's fulsome, kitchen-sink prose illuminates the way that the divine lives just beyond the edge of what c an be expressed in words.

9.) A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark -- Slots nine through seven are all books I read late in the year and haven't gotten around to reviewing.  A Far Cry from Kensington was the best of the three Muriel Spark books I read this year because it has a warmth and depth of character that many of her books lack.  That's partly because it, like The Mandelbaum Gate, is partially autobiographical: the heroine, like Spark, writes about her experiences in the absurd world of post-war publishing.  Like Memento Mori, the plot is driven by a series of threatening phone calls, this time to a fragile Polish seamstress living in the protagonist's boarding house.  But even when she repeats herself, Spark is always original, and this is one of her very best.

8.) To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf -- I love lighthouses.  But this book really isn't about lighthouses, unless by "about lighthouses," you mean "about the deep and inexpressible needs of human expression."  It takes place over two of the Ramsay family's holidays in the Hebrides, years apart, and the only real plot point--Mrs. Ramsay's death--happens "off screen," between the two sections.  Instead, what Woolf provides is the most detailed and layered expression of what goes on in the brains of people that I've ever read.

7.) The Ponder Heart by Eudora Welty -- Last year I was surprised by the emotional depth and complexity of Welty's The Optimist's Daughter.  The Ponder Heart amplifies the comedic elements that happen at the fringes of that novel and reconfigures them into something that is both hilarious and humane.  The story revolves around Daniel Ponder, a generous and perhaps half-witted man who is put on trial for killing his younger second wife.  It lacks some of the gravitas of The Optimist's Daughter, but its humor captures the essence of the small-town South more successfully, for me.

6.) At Freddie's by Penelope Fitzgerald -- I've been trying to get Brent to read Penelope Fitzgerald for a while now, and apparently all I needed to do was to mail a book to his house.  I think At Freddie's, which depicts the lives of the students and teachers at a child's acting school in London, is my second favorite of her novels after The Blue Flower.  It didn't hurt that it reminded me of a lot of my own students.

5.) Kleinzeit by Russell Hoban -- Randy says this novel isn't "great."  I don't know that that concerns me.  I value its idiosyncrasy, and its sheer weirdness.  Hoban's choice to anthropomorphize everything in Kleinzeit's universe, like the hospital that thinks of Kleinzeit as a tasty meal, is a bizarre choice perfectly executed.  It isn't until late in the book that you realize that it's not merely a stylistic choice, but a thematic one; Kleinzeit is about the relationship between human beings and the forces in the world that seem cruel and impersonal.  Randy: Now you have to read Hoban's best book, Riddley Walker.

4.) Possession by A. S. Byatt -- I don't know if the prose of Possession can match anything that's on this list, but I guess it's the poetry that matters: Byatt's pitch-perfect, thoughtful imitations of Robert Browning and Christina Rossetti (as poets Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte) are the foundation of a moving meditation on what it means to write, and write about, literature.

3.) Paradise Lost by John Milton -- I didn't really know where to put this.  Is it too low?  Too high?  I'm not sure that I can gauge the extent to which I enjoyed Paradise Lost--in fact, I think Milton would agree that enjoying it is beside the point.  Milton wanted his epic of the fall of Adam and Eve to inspire people to be more obedient to God.  I tried to read it in that spirit, and though I wasn't always--or often--successful, recognizing the great intellectual achievement that creates that effect is extremely rewarding.

2.) The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro -- I'm a sucker for unreliable narrators: Nick Carraway, John Dowell, etc.  Ishiguro's butler Stevens is one of the absolute best, and the least reliable.  He's so wrapped up in his idea of a butler's devotion to dignity, that he cannot recognize that his employer, Lord Darlington, is a Nazi sympathizer, nor that his father is dying, nor that the maid Miss Kenton is in love with him--not even that he is in love with her!  The Remains of the Day is a deeply sad story of self-denial and self-defeat, even as it leaves a space open for redemption and new life.

1.) Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison -- Man, what a book.  Race relations in the United States have always been a mix of the terrifying and the absurd, and it takes a terrifying and absurd book to really depict them.  Ellison's unnamed narrator moves from the South to New York City, a first hand witness to the weird and sad experience of being black in America.  Ellison wrote only one other book, and from what I've heard, it never reaches the same heights as Invisible Man, as if after writing that one (nearly) perfect novel, Ellison didn't have anything left.  I get to teach this book this year, and I'm pretty excited about it.

Happy new year!  If you'd like to join us at the Fifty Books Project, you can email me at misterchilton-at-gmail-dot-com.  We'd love to have you!


Brent Waggoner said...

Good list. No "worsts" this year?

Christopher said...

I didn't read anything I thought was actually bad this year. My least favorite book was probably Ana Castillo's So Far From God.

Brittany said...

So if not worst or bad, do you have any weird awards to give out?

For example, with me it would be:
"Most Overrated Book That Took You Too Long To Finish" (winner: Lolita)
"Book You Read Just To Finish The Series" (winner: Monsters of Men) etc.
"Book that Caused the Most Havoc in Your Relationship" (winner: A Winter's Tale. I don't think Randy and I will ever recover)