Okay guys, I had to restrict this list to books that I haven’t already blogged about. It was the only way to reduce it to manageable size. So these are not the most “surprisingly good” books I’ve read this year. They’re simply the most “surprisingly good” books that I haven’t already written about. I chose ten books, so hopefully I’ll post about five today and five tomorrow.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe — Okay, yeah, the goodness of this book should not have surprised me. It’s one of the classics of English literature. It gets taught in school and everything. But somehow, I’d categorized this Nigerian village novel alongside the Indian village novel and, let me tell you, the latter can often be a pretty mopey bunch of books: they’re just sooo full of tragedy. And I guess TFA is full of tragedy too, but the thing that no one tells you is that it’s also hilarious. At its core, this is a comedic novel. It’s more Dickens than it is Faulkner. And it’s legitimately laugh out loud funny. At times, it almost seemed like a fantasy novel, since it’s a novel that takes seriously the beliefs of its characters. They come together and enact their rituals and propitiate their gods, and there is never that little sneer that so often pervades colonialist novels–the sneer that says, “Oh, they enacted their silly little traditions”. It was one of the best novels that I read this year (also surprising was its length–you can finish this one in an afternoon!)
A Provincial Celebrity In Paris by Honore De Balzac — I really like Emile Zola, who was very influenced by Balzac, but I never gave much thought to HB. What I like in Zola is the social critique, but I felt like maybe there wasn’t so much of that in Balzac. This is the second Balzac novel I’d read, and I’d already realized that Balzac has a very antiquated style: everything is a lecture. Either the characters are lecturing you or the narrator is lecturing you. For god’s sake, he’ll go on for ten pages about how they went about making paper from wood-pulp and rags. But I really enjoyed this novel. It’s a send-up of literary society in 1830s Paris. You see newspapermen and poets and novelists and playwrights and society people all fighting against each other and using their tools in quite unsavory ways in order to make or destroy reputations. There was just something about it that was very fun.
The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books And The People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman — I read this one after a recommendation from a friend. It’s basically a collection of literary essays by a comparative literature graduate student (I think she was a PhD candidate at Stanford) where she makes fun of the silliness of academia and of her own life in particular. The first essay, by far the best, is about organizing an Isaac Babel conference where the author’s legitimate and illegitimate daughters come in and snipe at each other. Meanwhile, the essay weaves in all these facts about Babel’s life and about Batuman’s personal life. It’s a melange of awesomeness. The longest essay is an extended description of a summer studying in Samarkand (the capital of Uzbekistan), which is a destination apparently chosen by Batuman just because there was money available. I just…I don’t know…there’s really no way to describe this book. It shouldn’t work, but it does. If you love Russian literature and/or hijinks, then you will love this book.
Pyongyang: A Journey In North Korea by Guy DeLisle — Okay, so, like everyone else with an internet connection, I’m kind of obsessed with North Korea. It’s just the weirdest place on Earth. It combines the messianism of Nazi Germany with the advanced bureacratization of the Soviet Union and leavens in some of the decadence of the late Roman Empire. Well, I mean, let’s just take this graphic novel for example. A French animation company has outsourced some of its drawing to North Korea. Because of some obscure government initiative, there’s a working animation studio in a country where like half the people are starving to death. This graphic novel was written by a French animator who was sent to help the North Korean studio get off the ground. It’s such a strange, lonely comic. The narrator walks around in a solitary bubble. He’s accompanied everywhere by political officers. He lives on an entire island that’s been set aside solely to entertain and house foreigners. He glimpses North Korean life through windows and knows that there are a million secrets he’ll never uncover (like where all the elderly and disabled people went, or whether the North Koreans really do love their leader). It was a beautiful, startling, and darkly humorous book.
Mill On The Floss by George Eliot — I read two Eliot books this year: Mill On The Floss and Middlemarch. I loved them both, but I was surprised by how much more I liked this one than Middlemarch. I felt like Middlemarch was somehow…incomplete or unrealized. It started to hint at all these themes but it sometimes failed to get there in the end. Whereas Mill On The Floss felt perfect. It’s basically an autobiographical novel about a young girl from an impoverished home who’s trying to find some use for her abilities. Eventually, she falls into disgrace and is rejected by her family. Of course it’s a Victorian novel so roughly a zillion things are happening at once, and there’s some hella funny stuff, too, like the slow downfall of the girl’s family because her father is simply unable to keep himself from suing people, but mostly it’s this very lonely book, about a girl who’s trying to grow up and to realize her talents. It also has a completely insane ending that, weirdly, kind of works.