Back when I wrote out my list of quotes, I kind of thought it’d be just a part of a 2013 retrospective, where I’d tell you about movies I saw, books I read, places I went, post-graduate degrees I received, all that kind of stuff. It turned out to be too hard to do. But I still want to write a book review kind of post, so instead of telling you about all of the books, how about just talking about the best ones. I know that halfway through the next year isn’t really a good time to be doing end-of-year lists, but… uhh… I don’t have any counterargument to that, actually. In any case, since I didn’t read any books that came out in 2013, the year designation is completely irrelevant.
The Silmarillion (J.R.R. Tolkien, 1977). I tried reading the Silmarillion when I was about 10, and I stopped cause it was really boring. Which made me think that I should never read it, because that was when I practically had the LotR appendix memorised, and could tell you whom Castamir the Usurper usurped, etc. So what a surprise when A. said the Silmarillion was so much better than LotR, and what a surprise when I started reading it again, after A. (a different A.) finished using it for honing his trivia skills. The Silmarillion is a book of astonishing scope and vision. It doesn’t have dialogue. It doesn’t have settings, in the way the Lord of the Rings does. It doesn’t have characters. It doesn’t have insights into life. It has a plot, but not really one anyone would care about. It doesn’t even have beautiful prose in a conventional way. Instead, it has words that sound mighty and regal and wise. It has gods and demigods and shapeshifting dogs and one-on-one battles between good and evil. It has speeches and spite carried for generations and words like hame and fane. It is more like the Iliad than it is like any fantasy book that I know. I loved it.
The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes-Owles, 2011). When I briefly worked in a movie theatre, I used to claim that the endings of movies were so bad that I would find out when the movie ended and leave five minutes in advance. My dad, a serial book non-finisher, made a similar claim about the Sense of an Ending: he feels more justified not finishing books after finishing this one, since the ending undermined the entire book. But I don’t think it’s quite the case. Tony, our narrator, is not only unreliable and unremarkable, but it’s in part his unremarkableness that makes him unreliable. When the novel takes an abrupt turn and drama comes back into retirement-age Tony’s life, you can read that as Tony straining to recapture some kind of relevance for his life. Regardless, this is a short, pithy book, that, ending or not, I will think about for a long time.
Наши (Ours, Sergei Dovlatov, 1983). My grandpa said that everyone’s life contains enough good stories for one good book. And it’s writing a second good book that is a challenge. He may have been quoting someone else. Anyway, these sketches of Dovlatov’s relatives are funny and cute, and really absorbing. They also make you feel like you should get to know your relatives better. And that maybe you should write a book.
Dreaming of Babylon (Richard Brautigan, 1977). I loaned this book to somebody back in 2007 and never got it back. Since then, I’d remembered it as my favourite Brautigan, and coming back to it I was relieved to find it wasn’t nostalgia speaking. This book is awesome. The story of a detective so down on his luck he can’t afford bullets, so sadsack his biggest worry is calling his mom and so incompetent he doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. Also, occasionally, he takes a break from detective work to fantasize about being a guy called Smith Smith who is the best baseball player in ancient Babylon. The hilarious premise is hilariously executed.
Ghostwritten (David Mitchell, 1999) A series of vignettes about people (mostly) who are in some meaningful sense “ghosts” living in an interlocked world, this book is David Mitchell showing that he can do anything. Any style, any voice, any location, be it paranoid sci-fi or Lucky Jim-style charming English rom-com, Haruki Murakami or crime caper, meditation on eternal travel or supernatural thriller. The guy is a virtuoso, and it’s awe inspiring to see him strut his stuff.
Cryptonomicon (Neal Stephenson, 1999). It’s sort of alternate history-but-not-quite that’s mostly about cryptography and world war II. It’s engagingly, cleverly written (“He’s on the third floor of a commercial building so nondescript that the most interesting observation one can make about it is that it has four stories”). It’s super inventive, it’s eloquent, without sounding pompous or overly impressed with itself, it’s funny. It has an almost Eugene Onegin-like scope: if Neal Stephenson is interested in something, it’ll be there. Its politics are rather annoying to me, and every female character – and even the male characters’ discussions of female characters – often made me cringe in frustration. Luckily, the enormous sweep of the book, how much interesting stuff there is in it to think about, philosophically, technologically, and just in terms of the staggering scope of information and topics overshadows that for me. Few reading experiences are better than getting “lost in the world” of a book, and Cryptonomicon offers as much of that as you could want. It’s weird to see that it was published the same year as “Ghostwritten” – I would have pegged “Ghostwritten” as a much later book.
Where the Jackals Howl (Amos Oz, 1965) This is so much better than every other Amos Oz book I’ve read that it’s hard to believe they’re by the same author – I wonder if maybe it’s a matter of translators? Stories that slowly build up to breaking point and then break epically. The reading equivalent of a day when you know a lightning storm will come and then the lightning storm comes.
Essais I (Montaigne, 1570) The essays are a joy to read because Montaigne constantly switches topics, digresses into outlandish questions and contradicts himself in a very entertaining manner. To a modern reader, you get the picture of a very decent person whose opinions and interests range from the very profound (on death) to the sensible but mundane (on superstition) to ones which seem crazy now but probably weren’t at the time (on how women can’t be true friends) to just completely bizarre (as when he muses on what he would do if he were hired as a defense lawyer by the human penis). You could be reading his thoughts on friendship one moment, and the next his thoughts on whether it’s reasonable to wear clothes or on whether people are unfairly prejudiced against cannibals. I was fascinated throughout.
Parkinson’s Law (C. Northcote Parkinson, 1958). The only business book I’ve ever read and also the only business book I’ve read twice, and also the only business book I ever plan on reading. It’s dry, it’s witty, it’s cutting, it’s astute. It’s hard to believe that someone with so much well-placed and precise contempt for all manner of enterprises actually was a member of society in good standing. The Law of Triviality (that when a group is tasked with spending money, the amount of discussion is inversely proportional to the amount of money involved) is particularly well-spotted and brilliantly explained.
Selected Stories (Alice Munro, 1996). I read it because Munro won the Nobel Prize, and in my mind it was totally well-deserved. Only Tolstoy and Trifonov of people I have read have a comparable rapport with how people think, and how their inner and outer lives interact, often glancingly and indirectly. And that’s even though the topic of Munro’s stories – most usually a divorced middle aged woman remembering growing up in the Ottawa Valley in one form or another – is of absolutely minimal interest to me. Despite that, the stories are completely captivating. And every story I’ve read since has been on that same level. Munro has an incredibly high standard.
Carry On, Jeeves (P.G. Wodehouse, 1925). This book is so fun to read out loud. Not many people are as funny as P.G. Wodehouse.
The Book of the New Sun (Gene Wolfe, 1980-1983). Actually four separate books, it’s a dark fantasy that follows a journeyman torturer’s life. It has a bizarre, super-intricate world, excursions into philosophy, beautiful imagery and an exquisite prose style. The style is achieved in a novel way: there are no invented words in the Book of the New Sun, though there are obviously invented things. Instead, deprecated greek and roman-rooted words for weapons, animals, structures abound, making the books feel timeless. And the atmosphere is very dark. I don’t want to say austere, because Book of the New Sun is certainly ornate, too, but this feeling of a cold, unfriendly world that’s felt through the prose. Macabre and exciting and personal and not gussied-up at all.
Журавли и карлики (Cranes and Pygmies, Leonid Yuzefovich, 2009). When I was buying this book, I was afraid it would be like “Chapaev and Void”, which I hated. The bookseller assured me that it was nothing like it. He lied completely. It is exactly like “Chapaev and Void”: the same spatiotemporal jumps from the Revolution era to the Wicked 90’s and European Russia to Mongolia. The same middling, venal characters spouting shallow philosophy. The difference is that “Cranes and Pygmies” is really really great. First, it’s the verisimilitude and attention to detail. Yuzefovich is a historian, and he really cares about Mongolia in a way Pelevin doesn’t at all. As a result you get a fascinating picture rather than something that looks like a hastily constructed set. But it’s also characters that are less put-on, and so much more interesting. It never feels like the whole thing is a vehicle for some bullshit philosophical point and/or pop-culture references. Instead, it’s a historical puzzle, a love song to Mongolia, and a novel about real people.