In which I unveil the theme for my upcoming year’s reading

I’m in Mumbai right now. Both of my parents grew up here, so it’s kind of the motherland. I’m also still reading Les Miserables. As such, I have no recent books to blog about, so I will instead post scattered thoughts

  • I just renewed my membership in SFWA. I know that when I first qualified for it, I blogged about how I wasn’t sure if it was worth the money, but I think I’ve gotten my $80 worth. It was through SFWA that I got to participate in the Baltimore Book Festival and get profiled by the Baltimore Sun and meet Cat Rambo and Sarah Pinsker and a bunch of cool Baltimore Science Fiction Society guys. And there’ve been a few other interesting opportunities, like the SFWA banquet in New York, that I had to pass up the first time around but will definitely avail myself of in the coming year.
  • I’ve been seeing a bunch of awards recommendation posts lately, and I have to say: I don’t know how anyone manages to vote in the best-novel category. I’ve read exactly three novels that were originally published in 2011: John Scalzi’s Redshirts, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, and Ben H. Winters’ The Last Policeman. And, while I enjoyed all of them, I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable nominating any of them for an award—I literally have no idea what books came out in the last year. How many people have actually read more than twenty novels that came out in the last year?
  • Also, why would you want to read so many recent novels? I guess there’s something to be said for being in touch with the zeitgeist, but I can’t help but feel like that would entail reading a lot of mediocre novels.
  • My Daily SF story: “We Planted the Sad Child, and Watched”) is one of 256 stories on Tangent Online’s recommendations for stories published in 2012.
  • I see so much buzz for N.K. Jemisin and Saladin Ahmed’s novels and I am sure that all of it is well-deserved…but I have no desire to read them. It really is just a prejudice against the format. I don’t think I can ever again read another fantasy trilogy.
  • For that matter, I actually don’t think I’ve read a published secondary-world fantasy novel in years. I guess maybe Nabokov’s Ada? But…er…that doesn’t really count, does it? Nowadays I tend to avoid anything with swords in it. I don’t know why that is: until well into my twenties, I read tons of that stuff. Oh well, I’m sure I’ll get back into it eventually.
  • Normally, I give myself a theme for each year, to guide my reading. In 2010, it was Russian Literature. In 2011, it was Proust. And in 2012, it was the Victorians. This year, I considered reading the Modernists but…in the end…I decided to stick with 19th century literature for another year. Sorry everyone, there’s just so much of it and I like it so much. There’s still tons of Trollope, Eliot, Dickens, Zola, Flaubert, Balzac, Hugo, and Dostoyevsky that I haven’t read. And, honestly, Modernism doesn’t excite me. I am sure I will love it someday, but someday is not today…
  • Other themes I considered:
    • The Ancients – Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, etc.
    • The 18th century – Tristram Shandy, Tom Jones, The Life of Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift
    • Eastern Classical Novels – The Story of the Stone, Journey To The West, Romance of the Three Kingdoms (I kind of already made a big start on this one by reading The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book)
    • Medieval and Renaissance Literature – Montaigne’s Essays, Pascal’s Pensees, Beowulf, The Song of Roland, The Canterbury Tales, etc.
  • But no, I am sticking with the 19th century. Sometimes you just got to go with what makes you happy.
  • I especially want to read more Eliot. The more I think about them, the more Middlemarch and the Mill On The Floss grow in my mind. Those were two truly excellent reading experiences. She doesn’t have the bagginess of so many Victorians: pretty much every page was good. Are any of her other books similarly interesting? I am thinking of reading Daniel Deronda.
In addition to being one of the English language's top novelists, George Eliot was also a total badass--all the movies that've been made about Jane Austen's (rather tepid) personal life should instead be about about GE. She is an inspiration to late-bloomers everywhere.
In addition to being one of the English language’s top novelists, George Eliot was also a total badass–all the movies that’ve been made about Jane Austen’s (rather tepid) personal life should instead be about about GE. She is an inspiration to late-bloomers everywhere.

Predictably Good Books (that I read in 2012), Part One

I feel like there’s no way to say “Pride and Prejudice was really good” without somehow indicating that you know it’s supposed to be good and that you’re not surprised it’s good. And that’s why this entry is titled “Predictably good books.”

_PnPPride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – I love Jane Austen. Before reading P&P, I’d read literally every other Jane Austen novel. But I had a mental block about the big P because it was the very first assigned-reading class (I was supposed to read it way back in 10th grade) that I just gave up on reading (beginning a long association with Cliff Notes). I really can’t say why I found this to be soooo boring when I was 16. But at age 26, I can tell you that this book is the bomb. It’s the only novel of hers, other than Emma, that’s reliably funny. Aside from the main triangle (Elizabeth Bennett, George Wickham, and Mr. Darcy) everyone in this book is hilarious, from the Liz’s overserious suitor Mr. Collins to her silly and clueless parents. And the book is well-plotted, too. The structure is interesting and interesting things happen. I don’t think there is anything about this novel that is not perfect. Well, except for Liz Bennett’s priggishness. Seriously, Jane Austen, I don’t understand why you hate dancing and joking around and having fun so much. Not since Mansfield Park (where the main character throws a huge fit because her cousins are putting on a play in their living room) have I been so mystified about what an Austen character’s problem is. Seriously, why is she down on her parents and her sisters? I guess that’s the curse of creating delightful comic characters—no one will believe you when you try to tell people that they are actually terrible and immoral people.

_SSSilent Spring by Rachel Carson – Yet another book I was supposed to read for class (during my junior year of college I took an English course called Visions of Ecology where we were assigned a ton of SF novels…the course probably would’ve been better if I’d actually done the reading…) But anyway, this is a really masterful document. Of course, you probably all know that this is a long tract about how pesticide spraying is killing tons of animals and probably causing cancer and stuff too. But, aside from the wonderfully ominous language, the interesting thing is how it’s structured. It doesn’t start off at the beginning, like most nonfiction books, by telling you, “This is the case I’m going to make.” And it doesn’t go from specific to general and then back to specific again. Instead, it’s this free-flowing impressionist mass of detail—die-offs and sprayings and extinctions are listed by the dozens—that are grouped in chapters according to some very intuitive progression. It’s a page-turner.

_MMMiddlemarch by George Eliot – This is a tome. I read it in Madrid and it took me a solid week. But it wasn’t difficult to get through. Each page is delightful. It doesn’t have the super-tedious stretches or the absurd plot elements that I’ve come to expect from Victorian novels, just page after page of good solid observation (and slightly outsized characters). Structurally, this novel kind of resembles Anna Karenina in that it’s about three pairs of lovers and contains one love triangle. The main love story, where Dorothea suffers through a marriage to the tedious priest Mr. Causubon was (while still interesting!) not the most fun part of the book. The other two plots, where Doctor Lydgate slowly has to sacrifice his intellectual ambitions in order to please his wife and where the feckless ne’er-do-well Fred Vincy has to shape up so he can marry his childhood sweetheart Mary Garth were, for me, the heart of the story. But there’s just so much stuff in here! It’s kind of amazing. For instance, it’s treatment of politics (all the characters have some interest in politics, and the capstone of one of its books is a very rough Parliamentary campaign) is one of the best I’ve seen (although it helps to do some Wikipedia reading so you know what bills and such they’re talking about). It’s kind of unbelievable how good this book is. I kind of want to reread it now.

_wwcwWhy We Can’t Wait by Martin Luther King, Jr – This is King’s account of the Birmingham Bus Boycott. It’s a wonderful document—a whole book written in that morally powerful voice that Kind perfected. The centerpiece of the book is King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and a fairly large portion of the book is dedicated to taking down the black and white moderates who are urging him to wait and to proceed slowly in his crusade for justice. Personally, I love this kind of squabbling, especially when it’s set as such a historical remove that I can imagine myself on the right side.

_TBSThe Blind Side by Michael Lewis – I feel like I’ve mentioned this one a few times in the last few weeks. It’s Michael Lewis book about Michael Oher, an NFL tackle who came from a very rough background and was adopted by a white family whose mother was later portrayed by Sandra Bullock in the Oscar-winning film of the same name, etc. etc. This was the most purely enjoyable reading experiences that I had this year. There was nothing difficult about this book. It was the perfect mix of narrative and analysis. It’s like Malcolm Gladwell meets Tobias Wolff. The story of the movie The Blind Side actually forms maybe only about one third to one half of the book (and it’s much more fleshed out in the book, too, of course, especially since it contains much more of Michael Oher’s own voice and own story). The rest of the book is about the changes in the game of football that made someone like Michael Oher into such a valuable property. Now, I don’t know anything about football and I don’t really care about football at all, and I still loved this book. Sports are driven by numbers and economics in a way that’s different from almost every other field of human endeavor. And I love reading about that.

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.