Books I Read In 2012 That Were Surprisingly Good, Part One

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.

 

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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.

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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-guy-delisle-paperback-cover-artPyongyang: 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.

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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.

Reading literary essays

I’ve been reading a bunch of essay collections recently. I began with John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead, went on to Tom Bissell’s Magic Hours: Essays On Creators and Creation, and am currently working on Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books And The People Who Read Them.

I liked them all. How can I dislike it when an intelligent writer tries to work through a knotty problem in as simple a way as he or she possibly can? Of course, I did have my quibbles here and there. Sullivan’s book seemed a little too focused on providing colorful bits of the author’s personal experience and sometimesfailed to actually provide much insight into whatever he was writing about. This was particularly notable in one of his essays on attending a Christian rock concert, where he failed to answer what seems like the most basic question: “Why does this music excite people? Why have 100,000 people–most of them teens–come to this festival?”

Perhaps that was the point of the collection. Sullivan is willing to shine as much light on a subject as he is able, but he’s not willing to BS up some insight that he doesn’t actually possess. And, okay, that’s fine, but at some point I’m kind of going to prefer the writer who’s actually able to say anything. The David Foster Wallace style thumbsucking faux-innocence is cute enough when it actually pays homage to the basic complexity of the world, but it ceases to be cute when it is used as a way to avoid coming to a conclusion.

But that’s just a minor gripe. In general, I enjoyed the essays. Tom Bissell’s collection was particularly good (especially for aspiring writers). He had a great essay in which he categorized all the different kinds of writing books, and another in which he dissected a literary movement by a bunch of angry writing aspirants. Both were fascinating glimpses into literary culture.

Mostly, though, I just want to know how a person gets into this whole essay-writing racket? It seems awesome. I’d like to pontificate about stuff at length. Also, what exactly qualifies novelists (and aspiring novelists) to spout off about stuff? This whole form–the literary essay–seems rather odd. It’s a bunch of people who are using the literary skills acquired as fiction writers in order to write non-fiction. The result, presumably, justifies itself through its high prose quality.

It would kind of have to, right? Because if it doesn’t, there doesn’t seem to be any reason for the literary essay to exist. None of these essayists seem to have done much research on their topics. None of them seem to have any journalistic training. They don’t pretend to have much more information (or even expertise) on the topics that they write about. But the implication is that their novelistic training allows them some kind of insight that ordinary journalists don’t have.

I like that. It’s a kind of talismanic faith in the power of a writer. A novel is measured against other novels. It’s either better than other novels or worse than other novels. Literary essays, though, are measured against our own insight and our own experience. If an essay exceeds the quality of our own thinking on a topic, then it’s sublime. If not, it’s pointless. It’s like philosophy, but not quite as ambitious.

Anyways, after Batuman’s book, I am thinking of going on to Bissell’s Extra Lives or Franzen’s How To Be Alone. Anyone have any other good essay collection recommendations? I considered Jonathan Lethem’s The Ecstasy of Influence, but it was way too long for me.