Here are the best books I’ve read this year. As usually happens, none of them were written this year, so it doesn’t really matter.
Nothing is True and Everything is Possible (Peter Pomerantsev, 2014) — Pomerantsev is an Englishman of Russian roots who worked as a documentary filmmaker for TNT, a Russian state-owned TV channel. This book is a memoir of his time there, with all the parties, politicians, gangsters, supermodels, prostitutes, suicides and intellectuals. It’s wildly entertaining. I think it also gets at the monumental cynicism of Russian life, and how basically everyone is in some way compromised. I remember reading DFW’s essays and thinking “you know, he’s a really good writer, but he seems like a totally insufferable person”. It only later dawned on me that that was a conscious choice in the writing. Now I have more faith in the authorial voice. Pomerantsev is a masterful writer, but makes himself sound like not a particularly good person. I think this is part of the book’s message: you can’t be a part of that wild world and yet somehow stay above it.
The Buried Giant (Kazuo Ishiguro, 2015) — The fundamental asymmetry of the universe is that things are much easier to break than to mend. This is also super true about human relationships — as Shishkin has written, люди ругаются на полную, а мирятся напололвину (people fight wholly, and make-up halfway). Maybe in a world where the arrow of time points the other way, getting people to fight is hard, and getting them to reconcile is easy; it’d be a nice world, but that’s not the world we live in. The Buried Giant is about this fact, transposed onto the world of the Arthurian legend. It’s a book that’s beautifully written and beautifully formatted and extremely sad. It’s obvious in some ways — Sir Gawain is irritatingly ridiculous, and I think V. is right that rarely is there a book for adults where the moral questions are so direct and straightforward — which is not to say easy. But it’s also interestingly understated in some ways, like the Buried Giant itself.
The Three Body Problem (Liu Cixin, 2007) — Having worked in science academia, I’m always a sucker for well-written fiction set in that world. I’ve only ever seen that in the “Soviet academic setting” of Grekova or even the Strugatsky brothers. Luckily, Liu Cixin went ahead and wrote a Chinese version. Of course, he also did a lot more. History of Communist China and dying alien races intent on conquest. Miniaturized dimensions and computer games. Antihumanism and hard boiled cop. His book is awesome and captivating throughout. Especially suggested to people who either like Neal Stephenson, or like the Neal Stephenson type book but just don’t buy the specific vision Stephenson is selling. My only complaint: I was waiting for a love triangle for the entire duration of the damn book and there was nothing. What the hell do the words “Three Body Problem” even mean to you, Liu Cixin?
The Surprise of Cremona (Edith Templeton, 1954) — I bought this book in a 90’s reissue edition, which is notable for two reasons. For one, it’s bizarre there would be a reissue of a travelogue of Northern Italy in the 50’s by a random conservative Englishwoman of no especial renown. For the second, I read the introduction, and it makes that exact point: that it’s weird that they’d be reissuing this book, and it’s not really clear why anyone would think that’s a good idea, and in any case, it really doesn’t seem like there’s much Templeton can teach you, either about the locales she visits, or about life in general. With an introduction like that, who needs [whatever the opposite of an introduction is]. And it’s true. Because tourism is very different now than it was in the fifties, and social mores are too, neither the facts nor the opinions in this book are all that captivating. But Templeton is just so damn witty that I loved every page even when I couldn’t care at all about the sights or disagreed with everything she was saying.
Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman, 1959) — a lot of people I’ve talked to about this book say that their biggest impression is the huge emotional impact. And it’s undeniable. Shtrum’s mother’s letter, Sonya Levinton in the concentration camp, the kapo chapter, are among the most emotionally powerful things I’ve read. But for me, it almost gets lost in the scope of the book. It’s true that that immense scope also makes it a little didactic at times. But what that gives back is a more complete picture. Because my parents and their friends are mostly Soviet big-city intellectuals, most of the literature that they suggest to me is written by and about Soviet big-city intellectuals. To read Grossman is to look at War through the eyes of — it feels like hundreds of — people of different outlooks, social classes, etc. Through it all, you have Grossman’s authorial voice reminding you subtly which outlooks are “correct” and which aren’t — and that’s a little annoying. But if that’s the price to get that experience, then it’s totally worth it.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson, 1962) – What happens when I read Shirley Jackson is that I remember times when I felt very strong emotions that I’m now embarrassed about. With “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”, it was my first time being jealous. I was on the dacha, and Sveta, the girl whose parents were renting the dacha from us (and who was thus effectively my babysitter) just met Arkasha, the guy from the dacha across. And now he was being included in our games. And it was just wrong. Since then I’ve felt jealousy, but it was never this pure in its selfishness. When I’m jealous now, it’s full of self-doubt and maybe even self-hatred. Then, it was righteous. I wanted Arkasha gone, and for Sveta to see the certainty that we should band together against this intruder. Merricat Blackwood, the supposedly 18-year old protagonist of We Have Always Lived in the Castle is like an embodiment of a similar burning childlike strength of feeling and self-righteousness. She is a whirlwind.
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (Wells Tower, 2009) — We all know that “everyone’s a hero in their own story”. This is a book of stories that take vignettes of everyday life and apply that idea. It’s a book of empathy for characters that are not particularly sympathetic. And all of it is drawn in fine detail, affecting, and funny. None of it is as funny as the title story, though, which is from the point of view of a reluctant conscript in a viking raid on Lindisfarne, and is just full of this sweet oafishness and lyrical beauty.
The Northern Caves (Rob Nost, 2015, link) — One part discourse on the feeling of inherent cosmic wrongness of the world, one part warmhearted nostalgic sendup of phpBB fandom communities. Does that sound like a natural pairing to you? Not to me, but maybe that’s why it feels all the more satisfying when it works. This year was the first year I read any books online, and while a couple of them were on sketchy Russian websites with flashing ads, there was also “The Northern Caves”. I was really happy that I read it online, in its native environment. I would not want a print version of phpBB forums. I spent a lot of time on such forums and I appreciated how true-to-life The Northern Caves read. It captured both the obsession-detachment divide of fandom, and the cadence of bulletin board conversation. This is really where technology for reading can have an advantage. As more of our interpersonal interactions happen online, there are worthwhile things to do with the format of the book that can only be done online. And everyone knows that in theory, but this is the first book I’ve read where that was attempted in a successful and non-gimmicky manner.
Neuromancer (William Gibson, 1984) — This is the only book I’ve ever read that I’d describe as sexy or even as stylish. True, it’s a bunch of gobbledygook about hackers by a guy who may or may not have ever seen a computer at the time. And it’s got a frustrating meathead protagonist surrounded by basically a random assortment of odds and ends. But man does it look cool and does it have some really fucking sweet shades and flashy knife-like appendages. I heard of it as the book that started cyberpunk. I’m not sure how universally that claim is accepted. But if it did, there’s a reason. Even though the Neuromancer world would be terrible to live in, everyone wants to visit cause it’s just so hot.