..actually, since the last time I did a “best books I read” so this will include some books I read in late 2014. Once again, none of these books were published this year, so it doesn’t really matter. I’ve had pretty bad luck this year with books, and the good books I’ve read were mostly either children’s books, or things where I already knew and liked other books by the authors. Many books that I expected to really like disappointed me, from Knut Hamsun to Ayn Rand to Maya Angelou to Lyudmila Ulitskaya to Raymond Chandler to David Foster Wallace to Stanislaw Lem to Ursula Le Guin. Hoping for a better 2016, in this regard.
Moominpappa at Sea (Tove Jansson, 1965) This is a magical book. There are no evil characters in it, but there are no simplistically good ones, either. That is, everyone is basically good, but they all have very real character problems. Take Moominpappa, whose intentions are good, but whose extreme need to feel needed makes him put himself and all his family into a lot of trouble. Or Moomintroll, who is kind and sensitive but easily seduced by the artistic and the “cool” to the point where he can be cruel without noticing it. Basically, the moomins are almost too realistic. And so to read a warm, loving story about them is just wonderful.
Eastern Approaches (Fitzroy Maclean, 1949) Apparently a part of the inspiration for James Bond, Fitzroy Maclean led a supremely interesting life in the 30’s and 40’s. First, he was an ambassadorial attaché in Moscow, witnessing the show trials, and travelling surreptitiously to Central Asia, closed to foreigners at the time. He then joined up with a regiment of parachuters in North Africa, and finally acted as the liaison between England and Tito in World War II Yugoslavia. This book details these derring-do-filled exploits. Through it all, Maclean displays the British colonial stiff-upper-lip-ism that’s totally dead as a culture now, and I think was already mostly dead then. Not that stiff-upper-lip-ism is without its problems. When confronted with something unexpected, it very often involves acting like a dick. I’m pretty sure if we had to interact with Sir Fitzroy, we would think him insufferable. But luckily, we don’t have to interact with him. We just get to read his book. Reading T.’s version, held together by duct tape, singed by fire and eaten by mould somehow adds to the experience of adventure.
Верный Руслан (Faithful Ruslan, Georgij Vladimov, 1962-1979) A story told from the point of view of a GULAG guard dog that finds itself without a purpose or a master when the labour camp is closed. The book’s portrayal of the camp cost Vladimov his membership in the Union of Soviet Writers, and the manuscript had to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in the West. This is a short book that makes its point incredibly forcefully. And it’s also one where you often feel uncomfortable about yourself, because it’s impossible not to identify with the dog. The cruel, vicious, ignorant, loyal and noble dog. It’s one of two books that I remember that has ever made me cry.
A Bend in the River (V.S. Naipaul, 1979) One of the purposes of literature is to let us transcend ourselves and our environment. Another is to feed our curiosity about the wider world. And so I find myself more and more drawn to stories set in places that I know little to nothing about. That way, even if the plot or characters or style disappoint, I can still get something out of it. I gave this book to my dad, thinking he shared my sentiment. Apparently he doesn’t at all – and yet he loved this book, it was that good. It’s the story of an Indian-African who leaves the East African coast to live in a Central African town among the upheavals of independence and war. A fascinating glimpse into a world I know nothing about, it is also more universal than that. It seems to me a very sober and deep book about colonialism and post-colonial societies.
Gantenbein (Max Frisch, 1964) I think this is one of those books where different people, or even the same person reading at different times in their life, may get something totally different out of it. The most direct interpretation of this book as an ironic look at life probably really appeals to teenagers and this guy M. I met once who was adamant that “Fight Club” is the best movie ever. So initially I was annoyed at this book. It seemed way too cynical to view life as this interplay of manipulation. To view people as concerned with appearances not just above, but to the exclusion of, everything else. And then to have the smug, cunning author creating and putting together these people seemingly just out of hatred for humankind. But then you realize there is more to it. The narrator is recreating a tragedy in his own life, and playing out the mind games that we all play with ourselves – reviewing and altering conversations, reactions, inner thoughts. And when we do this, we indeed play a manipulation game – the alterations are a game even if the original isn’t, because we’re trying out different moves and seeing what effect they might have. And Frisch writes up this game as a novel, showing that this is really a process of creation and storytelling. Thus my interpretation of Gantenbein is that it’s making an argument. It’s saying that the search for a narrative, rather than human interaction itself, is the deeply cynical process.
The Golden Compass (Phillip Pullman, 1995) A world that’s simultaneously nostalgic and totally foreign, with high adventure, cool names, armoured bears, witches and the Far North. A heroine that you identify with very strongly. Writing that’s suitable for kids but rich and ornate and careful and good at capturing inner lives. And, in a time when that word gets thrown around a lot unjustifiably, actually pretty subversive. I liked the continuation of the trilogy much less.
La famosa invasione degli orsi in Sicilia (The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily, Dino Buzzati, 1945) Written in a style of a storyteller rather than a writer, frequently breaking into rhyme mid-story, just because it can be done. A kind and strange fairy tale that, like much of Buzzati for adults, is inventive and bizarre, but also sad and wistful and about lost innocence. I probably missed a lot, since it’s in Italian, but the story is great, and the pictures (also by Buzzati) – including feasting bears, a ghost dance and pig balloons – are a wonderful treat.
Novelty (John Crowley, 1989) A compilation that contains two short stories that I didn’t like, and two novellas that I did (“In Blue” and “Great Work of Time”). Great Work of Time in particular is a joy to read, and is both nostalgic and inventive in a way that is hard to achieve (although the Golden Compass also achieves a similar effect). It’s a sci-fi fantasy that concerns a secret society created to right the wrongs of history. It should also be recommended to everyone who participated in the great “Would you go back in time to kill Hitler” debate of 2015.
Eiger Dreams (Jon Krakauer, 1992) Before I read this book, I thought it would be a good book to give to teenage or tween-age me to get me excited about mountains sooner, and thus become a cooler person. This assessment was totally correct. So I learned no meta-lessons from reading this book. But that’s OK, because it was really enjoyable and got me excited about mountains. My favourite essay may be the one about Chamonix and the show-offy Frenchmen: “You did not solo and you did not fly? Did you not find the experience – ‘ow you say in English – banal?” Get it for your 12 year old precocious niece/nephew. They’ll get excited about mountains and become a cooler person. They’ll thank you later.
Little Virtues (Natalia Ginzburg, 1962) Reading Natalia Ginzburg’s fiction, you soon realize that she is very wise. In a previous books roundup, I mentioned about one of her books that it is the book that I think is most like life. So it stands to reason that her non-fiction would also be filled with wisdom and an understanding of life. And it is. I wouldn’t say this is as good as Family, but it’s just as crisp, and often just as wise. The title essay, about how to raise children, may be seen as preaching to the converted by some, but for me is one of those where you get immense enjoyment out of reading a writer who is a kindred spirit.
Одесские рассказы/Конармия (Odessa Stories/Red Cavalry, Isaac Babel, 1920-1937) The Odessa stories are, for the most part, hilarious comic grotesques of crooks among Odessa jewry. Red Cavalry is a a much more savage grotesque depicting the Russian Civil War. It can be hard to take, with young men barely out of school committing horrible violence with total sangfroid and no care for human life. Separating it from other savage books is Babel’s beautiful style, putting in highly lyrical interludes of scenery and poetic images. It seems equally jarring and yet equally welcome in both the comic grotesques and the murderous ones. Part of the power of reading these short stories together is that they are talking about the same world, only a few years apart. The connection is made in “Froim Grach” – one of the last of the Odessa Stories, where you see the old corrupt silly world making way for the new merciless, rigid world that was to come.
All the Strange Hours (Loren Eiseley, 1975) These are the memoirs of anthropologist and science writer Loren Eiseley. Written in a lurching, poetic style, it can be a little disorienting at first. Unlike how I assume most other biographies work, the moments that matter to Eiseley are not ones that would matter to wikipedia. We meet no famous people, witness no historical events, and it’s pretty hard to ascertain even Eiseley’s profession. And yet this is how remembering your life probably feels. What makes the book stand out is the almost prophetic tone in which it’s written. And that tone seems to reflect how Eiseley experiences his life, whether it’s losing his hearing for half a year, or even just meeting a cat. The most interesting to me is the first part, which is mostly about being a drifter riding trains during the Great Depression. But all of it is interesting and all of it is worth reading. And throughout it all, you feel a great longing for a world gone by.