Monday, December 23, 2013

Favorites of 2013: Books

Nonfiction

Tim Kreider, We Learn Nothing (2012): Somehow I'd remained unaware of Tim Kreider until this year. Kreider is a cartoonist and a writer on film, books, and, as in this collection, his own life. As I wrote in my post on We Learn Nothing, "each of his insightful (and often darkly hilarious) essays is about how a rueful, observant and reflective single man in early middle age assesses the passage of time, with its gains (experience, an occasional glimmering of wisdom, and a tenuous emotional maturity) and losses (passion, heedlessness, and many loved ones)."

Fiction

In chronological order:

Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin (1823-1833): "Alexander Pushkin has roughly the same stature in Russian literature that Shakespeare does in English, and Eugene Onegin (1823-1833) is his greatest work," I wrote on my first encounter with this masterpiece in Charles Johnston's faithful, readable and elegant translation. And Pushkin's novel in verse has been an inspiration to many other artists, including Tchaikovsky, Nabokov, and more recently Vikram Seth.

Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone (1868): T. S. Eliot called it "the first, the longest and the best of modern English detective novels." The first and last of Eliot's claims for this unruly novel are doubtful, but as I wrote in my post on The Moonstone,  "Collins' novel remains compelling, less for the implausible solution of the mystery than for what it reveals about its author's unconventional life and unusual attitudes" towards opium use, mixed-race parentage, same-sex affection, and anti-imperialism.

Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca (1938). The producer David O. Selznick wrote in a memo to the director Alfred Hitchcock that "every woman who has read it has adored the girl and has understood her psychology, has cringed with embarrassment for her, yet has understood exactly what was going through her mind." In my post on Rebecca I wrote that I would expand Selznick's observation to include "anyone who has ever felt the awkwardness of entering a social situation governed by unstated rules that everyone else seems to know instinctively—and that's pretty much all of us." My post, by the way, includes a defense of Hitchcock's version, which I've come to feel is among his best films.

Phillip Pullman, The Sally Lockhart Mysteries (1985-1994): While these young-adult novels set in late Victorian England "are firmly grounded in the grim realities of 19th-century capitalism and imperialism, they are also ripping yarns featuring criminal masterminds, powerful industrial magnates, international spies, and other fiendishly evil nemeses" for Pullman's intrepid heroine. As I wrote in my post on the series, though, due to its high level of violence and frankness about sex be prepared for some interesting questions if you give these books to a young person.

The novels of Javier Marías may be the subject of a full-length post in the near future. Many of his books are structured like mysteries, but mysteries in which there is no clear solution. Marías is more interested in the dark undercurrents in everyday lives, and the way his narrators try to navigate among uncertainties and doubts, than in neat conclusions. His style may take a bit of getting used to; most of his books are written in a way that approximates how we actually think and speak, that is, with hesitations and reconsiderations and digressions, with one thought leading into the next rather than emerging as perfectly formed and discrete ideas. With their chains of stream-of-consicousness clauses, his sentences must be difficult to translate, and Margaret Jull Costa, his regular translator, generally does an excellent job (although her occasional use of British slang may feel somewhat jarring for American readers).

Perhaps a good place to start is with his latest novel, The Infatuations (Knopf, 2013). A man is murdered on the street in an apparently random act of violence. But then it turns out that perhaps the violence wasn't so random; and then, that the murdered man may have been harboring a secret. As the narrator María explores further, the motives and culpability of the man's wife, his best friend, the mentally disturbed murderer, and the victim himself become ever murkier. The only clarity is that, when it comes to the human heart, nothing can be certain.

Biggest disappointment

Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland (Knopf, 2013). Lahiri's second novel is on many critics' best-of lists this year. But I felt that in most of this book Lahiri has taken the writing-program dictum "show, don't tell" to a blank, affectless extreme. And in those few moments in the book when she is not following one clipped, terse, surface-skimming sentence with another, she produces instead jarringly mixed metaphors and thuddingly obvious symbols:

Around Bela her mother had never pretended. She had transmitted an unhappiness that was steady, an ambient signal that was fixed. It was transmitted without words. And yet Bela was aware of it, as one is aware of a mountain. Immovable, insurmountable...

When her mother had left Rhode Island, she'd taken her unhappiness with her, no longer sharing it, leaving Bela with a lack of access to that signal instead. What had seemed impossible had taken place. The mountain was gone. In its place was a heavy stone, like certain stones embedded deep when she dug  on the beach, in the sand. Too large to unearth, its surface partly visible, but its contours unknown.

She taught herself to ignore it, to walk away. And yet the hole remained her hollow point of origin, the cold crosshairs of her existence.

She returned to it now. At last the sand gave way, and she was able to pry out what was buried, to raise it from its enclosure. For a moment she felt its dimensions, its heft in her hands. She felt the strain it sent through her body, before hurling it once and for all into the sea.
Perhaps Lahiri should be given credit for attempting something a bit different stylistically than her usual well-crafted short stories, but as this passage shows, the writing is in places shockingly clunky. As a result, The Lowland narrowly beat out Vikram Seth's slack, overlong and sloppily written A Suitable Boy (1993) as the biggest disappointment of 2013.

More favorites: Classic Bollywood, Contemporary Bollywood, Movies

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