WRAP UP SEASON 2016: The ten books I liked best this year

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This year’s been a good one for reading. I started it out as part of the jury for an award, which consumed my reading for the first few months. Then I got kind of depressed and couldn’t really read anything: I just had no taste for books anymore. But somehow Proust was the only thing I could still enjoy, so I read all of In Search of Lost Time, and it was amazing! Even better than the first time! Whereas during my first read, I’d sometimes needed to fight my way through the books, with this one that only rarely occurred (except during the fifth and sixth volumes, where there’s a distinct sense of repetition). I’ve posted about Proust at length on this blog, so I won’t discuss it too much here. This time I had more interest in his descriptions of walks and subtle psychological states, but to me the series is still, at its core, a novel of manners. This about the complex relationships of a very tiny segment of society: the highly-fashionable people of Paris, and the social climbers who want to be part of that set. The novel starts on the edges, by showing you Swann, who’s an interloper who made his way into the center of society. Then it circles back around and nibbles its way around the edges. In the second book, Marcel lives in an apartment bloc owned by the leader of fashionable society, the Duke and Duchesse de Guermantes. He attempts to know them and is rebuffed. But he gets in through a side door because of his grandmother’s friendship with a distant relative, the Mme de Villeparisis. Who in turn introduces him to a scion of the house: Robert de Saint Loup.

And so he spends three books circling through these characters, showing them to us in all their complicated relations with each other. Then he turns everything on its head, introducing the passage of time. Suddenly the Fauborg St. Germain we know begins to change. People who were on the outskirts are now working their way into the center. The catalyst is the Dreyfus Affair, which tore apart French society for reasons I still can’t quite understand. Somehow support for Dreyfus became identified with opposition to the nobility and the church and all things traditional, and the Fauborg, in order to shore itself up, starts admitting certain people, so long as they are very anti-Dreyfus.

Then the wheel turns again, and we’re suddenly after the Dreyfus affair, but things are different. The Duke and Duchesse de Guermantes are sadly changed. Mme de Villeparisis is dead. Robert de Saint Loup is fallen. Swann’s widow, who everyone once decried as a prostitute, is at the top of the social heap. And the terrible bourgeois, Mme Verdurin, runs her own highly fashionable salon.

The whole work is an attempt to span time. To catch it, and make us understand its passing in ways we wouldn’t otherwise: not just as the aging of individual people, but also as the destruction and construction of entire systems of relation.

Okay, I said I wasn’t going to talk about it, and then I did, for five hundred words. Sigh.

This year I also read a lot of Anthony Trollope. I read all the novels in his Palliser series. Each one is easily 300-400k long, so that makes something like two million words of it. And the series is so fucking good! It’s all about people falling in and out of love in 19th century Britain (like all Trollope novels), but these people are also Members of Parliament, and Cabinet Secretaries, and, sometimes, Prime Ministers.

In this series, Trollope is at his most realistic. He shows us what can happen to people: the ways they can be twisted and destroyed. He shows us the ways that character matters, not just in national affairs, but especially when it comes to those we are closest to. And you don’t come out with easy answers. In one book, he’ll seem to say one thing is right (you should always cleave to your husband, for instance), and in another book you’ll have a situation wherein that’s absolutely the wrong thing to do.

The first novel in the series is fantastic, but it’s not for everyone. Three years ago, I got a hundred pages into it, and then threw it away because I was so bored. This time I was riveted throughout. The political element doesn’t get introduced until halfway through the volume, so wait for it. The best books, though, are the fifth and sixth. Here everything starts to pay off. You have these two characters, Plantagenet Palliser and his wife, Lady Glencora, and it’s such a delight to see them grow up and change. Neither is perfect. Neither is quite a hero. Plantagenet is too stern and unwavering (he becomes Prime Minister and then messes everything up). And his wife really doesn’t have very good judgement (even as a matron and mother of adult children, she’s getting into weird and poorly-thought-out schemes). But they’re both strong-willed and good-hearted. Highly recommend.

The absolute best book I read this year was Emma Cline’s The Girls. The language in the book is fantastic. Few authors are truly able to create novel combinations of words. Cline actually manages to put things in such a way that you’re like: A) That’s beautiful; and B) I can now see this thing in a new light. Not to mention the story itself is pretty good! I mean it’s a little sensationalistic for my tastes; I didn’t love the whole Manson murders aspect. But I liked the bildungsroman hidden inside, and I think the ending is perfect. I can’t recommend this book enough. It ought to win the Pulitzer Prize. The only other writer who I can compare Cline to, on a sentence by sentence level, is Virginia Woolf. She’s that good.

Otherwise, I have the usual grab bag of books I loved. The latest on my list was added only yesterday. Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan is her earliest complete work. It wasn’t even published during her lifetime. It’s also fantastic, and, in my opinion, significantly better than a couple of her novels. You’ve never read a Jane Austen character like Lady Susan: she’s an amoral schemer who sort of gets away with her schemes! And the whole thing is told in letters too, so you can see her sly asides right alongside the confusion of the people she’s trying to fool. You can read this book in like two hours, and you should.

For the last few months my friend and fellow writer Erin Summerill has been sending me romance novel recommendations, and I have faithfully read all of them. Most are or were initially self-published, and most are mega-bestsellers. The best of the lot, in my opinion, is also the creepiest: On The Island, by Tracy Garvis-Graves, is about a thirty year old woman stranded on an island, after a plane crash, with her sixteen year old pupil. Yeah. They don’t hook up until after he turns nineteen, but that’s still pretty sketchy!

And yet despite all of that, the book is so visceral. The struggle to survive is so immediate that you forget about the age stuff. These are just two different people trying to stay alive for another day. And the age gap serves an important purpose: it keeps them apart. Without it, they would’ve hooked up on day two: the sexual tension is that deep and simmering.

Umm, what else…I read East of Eden. And it was a very good book, but also a little…perplexing. This is the kind of book that hooks you and keeps you reading, but when you look back on it six months later, you’re like, “Why?”

Oh, The Caine Mutiny! Herman Wouk is one of those writers, like Margaret Mitchell, who were hailed as literary in their own day (his book won the Pulitzer Prize) but now seem to only be real by average people who’re looking for good books (i.e. not critics). The Caine Mutiny is unbelievably complex, though. It does the interesting trick of actually showing you, within the narrative, the situation in which the titular mutiny arose, and then making you see that mutiny in a completely different way when it gets picked apart in the courthouse scenes. In the end, it makes you see how multi-faceted reality is. And in the end you’re left wondering, “Were they right to mutiny? Was Captain Queeg really incompetent?” You’re never quite sure.

I also read Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar and Youngblood Hawke and found them both to be extremely worthwhile.

Oh wait! The Girls was NOT the best book I read this year. As I look at my notes, I realize that the best book was actually Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. This is also a book with questionable sexual and racial politics. It’s about a fifteen year old French girl, a colonial in French Indo-China, who has an affair with a Chinese man who’s in his thirties. The book is short and amazing. The narration loops around on itself, threading forward, through World War II and into the narrator’s current life, and then going back into her girlhood. And it’s about a girl coming into her sexual power. Which sounds terrible, I know, but it’s about how double-edged that is. She’s now seen as a sexual being, and that’s enticing to her in some way, but it’s also dangerous. Agh, I explain it all better in my original blog entry about the book.

The only novel on my best-of-the-year list that I haven’t yet mentioned is Henry James’s The Bostonians. It’s really good, but it’s also Henry James, and you have to like that sort of thing. It’s early Henry James though, so it actually does kind of tell a straightforward story! It’s one of his political novels (don’t snicker, he was very political). I thought the novel, particularly the ending, was both brutal and very true.

Okay, so that’s my short-list. If I had to recommend five books you should seriously consider trying to read, they would be, in order: The LoverThe Girls, Lady SusanThe Caine Mutiny, On The Island, and the first Palliser novel Can You Forgive Her?

 

 

Read a ‘lyrical’ novel that didn’t utterly bore me!

The-Lover-by-Marguerite-Duras-Book-Cover.jpgActually the title of this post is a bit of an understatement. On the plane back from Maine, I read Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, which is a French novel from the 80s that I’ve been meaning to read to for awhile, and it was legitimately one of the best novels I have ever read in my life, and quite possibly the best novel I’ve so far read this year.

This is one of those novels that sounds both uninteresting and possibly skeevy when you describe it. The book is about a fifteen year old white girl in colonial Vietnam, in the 30s, who has an affair with a very wealthy thirtysomething Chinese man. The book is about this girl’s sexual awakening: her realization that as a woman she has a power that both enlarges and reduces her. And it’s just very…complex. Because she is a colonizer. In this land in which she has lived for her whole life, but which isn’t really hers, the color of her skin makes her in some way ineluctably superior to this much-older man.

And yet she’s also a child, and there’s something very unsavory about the way this man uses his wealth to take up with her and to turn her into an object for his passions. But then you also don’t want to condemn him, because if you do you feel like you’re falling into this trap of fearing the yellow peril, and projecting upon this somewhat-hapless individual that image of a scary Asian man who lures nubile white girls into sexual slavery in order to sate his lust.

It all feeds upon itself, so many layers of power and powerlessness, and you can never quite figure out who wants what or who is oppressing whom. This isn’t Lolita. For one thing, the story is being told by the girl (it’s apparently based on a very real affair that Duras herself had when she was a girl in Indochina), and the girl refuses to blame the man for the affair. No, it’s not even a question of blame. It’s that she doesn’t feel reduced by the affair. Instead it marks for her the moment at which she began to live for herself.

And yet, and yet, and yet, you as the reader cry out for her that there is something here which is not right.

The novel realizes this. The affair is only one part of it. The other part is the story of this family: a widowed mother, her daughter, and her two sons. The story of their barren plantation. The story of an elder brother who is an opium addict and a thief. The story of a younger brother who never quite seems to collect himself and come alive. A story about a mother who falls into deep despairs in which she can’t speak or think, much less take care of her children. It’s a story about a terrible loneliness. And the book continues long after the affair. It’s a book told out of order, with a narrative voice that projects far forward into the girl’s life after she’s lost touch with the man and moved to Paris. Despite its short length, you feel like you’re being given so much.

The girl in this story does have some agency. She’s not fully being taken advantage of. But she was also led to this place out of reaction to terrible circumstances. And that’s something the novel does not look away from. This is a book that sees all of the ambiguities of the situation it’s posing.

And it’s also a book that is so beautiful. It’s very short, perhaps less than thirty thousand words, and it’s written in small sections. The point of view changes, shifting from first to third, and the tense also shifts, sliding from present to past to imperfect, and none of it feels like a mistake. There’s so much energy in the writing. And the wobbliness in the telling is part of its artifice, because you can see, right there in the structure, that there aren’t easy answers here. You can see that sometimes the girl is alienated from herself and sometimes she is not. Sometimes she is reliving these moments as she tells them, and sometimes she is looking back upon them from a great height.

So much ‘lyrical’ writing is simply fakery. It’s authors who’ve been told that good writers search for fresh ways of saying the same old thing, so they explode their descriptions, expanding upon them for paragraphs, in the hope that if they write for long enough and use big long strange words, then they’ll get credit for originality. And it’s all such a pointless exercise, because the mind skips right over it.

And then, once in awhile, an author actually manages to it. Take, for instance this passage from The Lover:

I can’t really remember the days. The light of the sun blurred and annihilated all color. But the nights, I remember them. The blue was more distant than the sky, beyond all depths, covering the bounds of the world. The sky, for me, was the stretch of pure brilliance crossing the blue, that cold coalescence beyond all color.

It’s like…yeah, I can see it. I can actually see that sky, in the way that I’ve never been able to see it before in any other work. Of course this is a work in translation, but there’s still some unique cadence here that makes the work feel so alive.

She’s sparing in her lyricism. You don’t get pages upon pages of this stuff. Maybe a page here or there. But every thought, every description, and every line of dialogue, has the same clear gaze.

I love this book. Read it.