Here are the best books I read this year. I actually read a book put out this year for once! But it didn’t make the list. To be honest I only read two books which stood out as being amazing (Ted Chiang’s and Ludmila Petrushevskaya’s stories) and everything else was pretty good (things you see here) to terrible (Ground Up, Chonkin). Kind of a shame.
The Middle Passage (V.S. Naipaul, 1962) So despite what I said when I was praising Edith Templeton’s book last year, it turns out there is a lot you can read in 50 year old travelogues that is still relevant to today. As long as the book is written by V.S. Naipaul. I already quoted the amazing passage on how the history of slavery pervades everything in Surinam. There is a lot more like that. Reading this book was fascinating and revelatory, but it was also depressing, because Naipaul’s worldview is so relentlessly grim. He paints the world as an endless parade of shameful and horrible structures. But even when the curmudgeonliness is comically overboard, such as his one-sentence opinion on Antigua: “Glad as I was to leave Martinique, I was inexpressibly saddened to land in Antigua”, I was never not interested.
Too Like the Lightning (Ada Palmer, 2016) Historian of the Enlightenment Ada Palmer writes an almost historical-seeming sci-fi novel about a political power struggle in a future where… gender is sort of eliminated (except not really), and violence is sort of eliminated (except not really). Instead, the elite manipulate violence and gender to their power-hungry ends. It’s based on really cool and intricate and well-thought-through worldbuilding, and then that world is populated by people who are variously boring or insufferably unpleasant. I ended up fascinated while reading, and then struggling to explain or justify that fascination. One thing that maybe explains it is the possibility of creating new teams and classifications. A great thing about Harry Potter, for example, is the houses: people like sorting themselves and everyone else into houses. In Too Like The Lightning, the world is split into seven nations, and figuring out which nation you and your friends and acquaintances would belong to is lots of fun. You should read it so we can compare our judgments.
Свой круг (Among Friends, Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, 1970s) Just wow, this story is amazing. It is the best thing I’ve read this year. It really is extremely short, but despite the length, it manages to fit in several extremely sharp reversals in tone, subject matter, the reader’s sympathies and relations to the characters. It is by turns absurd, funny, tragic. And, like the narrator, it is completely, frighteningly self-assured. I am now reading a bunch of Petrushevskaya flash fiction, which you will probably see in the 2018 version of this post, but for now, let me recommend this story, which you can read in translation at The Baffler through the link above.
Пушкинский Дом (Pushkin House, Andrei Bitov, 1989) This is a book whose author, main character, setting, plot, overarching theme, and even method of writing and genre can be described by one phrase: “the Soviet Intelligentsia”. It is “Soviet Intelligentsia: the novel”. Although even to call it a novel is stretching it. As I mentioned, Soviet intelligentsia is the genre, as well. Even though it deliberately avoids allusions to anything above a high school curriculum, it has the unashamed intellectualism that I like about the Soviet intelligentsia. It has people getting drunk and talking with sudden inspiration about Pushkin, it has philosophy and a dissection of academic studies of literature. But it also has all the bad traits of Soviet intelligentsia, the vacillation and the moral cowardice. As a result, it’s a frustrating read, because if you are actually trying to say something, having the ability to be frank and forthright is useful. And most of all, it has the complicated relationship with non-intelligentsia characters and classes. It showcases, and reflects, that simultaneous combination of smug superiority, fawning desire to be liked, and the creeping sense that non-intelligentsia people are somehow more “real”. It’s largely about this mindset, but it also has this mindset embedded in it. And yet Bitov is always interesting to read because no matter what overarching goal he is driving at, along the way he makes extremely acute observations. For me, the central one in this book is about being hurt in relationships. How a person who has been hurt can feel in the right hurting others because they see themselves in permanent victim mode (I’m only giving back what she did to me, and that to a much lesser extent!). But then you’re not actually paying it back, you’re paying it forward, hurting new people carelessly, and continuing the chain of misery, each “innocent victim” making new “innocent victims” in turn. This has the ring of tragic truth to it.
The Dark Forest (Liu Cixin, 2008) The Dark Forest is the sequel to the Three Body Problem, taking place in a world completely changed by the revelations in that first book. Compared to the Three Body Problem, it’s more thrilling in the sense that it’s got a lot more of the structure of a thriller. That means that the several disparate components of the storyline each have an exciting payoff moment. It makes for some gripping reading, particularly the reveals in the “Natural Selection” storyline and Wallbreaker #1. My main complaint is that the book ends up treading water for some time to get there. Until you get to the payoffs, you have narratives plodding along that seem to not be getting anywhere. When you see that all that work was setup, it’s pretty gratifying, but I would still rank it below Three Body Problem. There’s another issue that I have with how the book is resolved, but that’s hard to talk about without massive spoilers.
Алмазный мой венец (My Diamond Crown, Valentin Kataev, 1978) Having known all manner of giants of Russian literature in his youth (Mayakovsky, Esenin, Pasternak, Mandelshtam, Bulgakov, Babel, Zoschenko all figure prominently, among others), of course Kataev has enough material for a captivating memoir. But Kataev is adamant that this is not a memoir! (he hates memoirs!). It’s a novel. So he gives all the poets fake names, but easily guessable fake names (he also gives their books’ real titles, quotes their actual poetry, etc.) He also claims that the novel is written in “mauvist” style (from mauvais, french for bad). I don’t know why he has this mania of protecting himself from potential criticisms of his book. I wanted to yell to him: just don’t protect yourself! Either we’re going to like your book, or we’re not. Either it’s good, or it isn’t. No amount of protesting that you’re not actually setting out to make it good is going to make us judge the book by a different set of criteria! I suppose it’s also a way to get away with telling stories that aren’t true. But at the remove of 100 years, the characters have passed into legend. So for the modern reader, the distinction is not really that important. And although Kataev doesn’t appear from the book to be that great a person, and also despite the fact that none of the specific stories are all that memorable, he gives sketches of the greats which allow you to imagine real people rather than just portraits and title pages on books of poetry, and all in an immensely readable, heart-to-heart with the reader way. But most of all he describes what it was like living as a writer in those days, and I enjoyed it a great deal.
La Tour de Babylone (Stories of Your Life and Others, Ted Chiang, 2002) There is fantastic variety in Ted Chiang’s stories, so it’s hard to generalize. He can do deadpan dark humour (Hell is the Absence of God) or stylized sci-fi in historical settings (Seventy-Two Letters, The Merchant at the Alchemist’s Gate), but the best stories are where Ted Chiang takes a piece of near-future technology and works through the social ramifications. This is a genre many writers attempt and are almost uniformly very bad at. Ted Chiang succeeds because he makes it about human relationships. And he sees that technological advance isn’t uniformly good, or uniformly evil, or even “neutral in itself, it’s all in how it’s used” or whatever. Rather, technological advance brings about small-scale reordering of society, where some people end up winning out, and others losing out. So rather than technoutopianism or paranoid polemic, stories like “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” or “Liking What You See: a Documentary” are about small human events, and how their power is shifted by technology. This is the second-best thing I read this year.