Archive for January, 2014

After trying for hours to remember my wordpress password–I take pride in my memory and hate stooping to password resets–I’ve finally broken back in to this very dusty, book-cluttered attic corner of the internet.¹ The occasion:  the realization, after reblogging a Tournament of Books 2014 post to my tumblr, that I have things to say about books again! Granted, they are cranky and pretentious things; please be assured that I am at least self-aware, if not exactly repentant, of how obnoxious I am. Because I don’t like to clog that corner with too many words of my own, I undertook the arduous process of logging in here.²

Quite a lot has changed for me. I don’t particularly care to talk about it, but confessional writing is gravitational. In short:  I am catless, jobless, pennyless, thankfully not homeless or McGintyless, and rushing through a hasty 2nd bachelor’s degree in the hopes of attending grad school next fall. I read fewer books last year than probably any other in my lifetime, but I watched a lot of movies to compensate.³ Though I don’t miss working in bookselling (an armed robbery, among other things, stole the joy from it and though I tried for nearly a year I never could steal it back), I still love to read. December depression (see:  “catless,” above) struck me hard, but at least I remembered how much I love reading. As ever, books are always there for me, offering escape and surmountable challenges when everything else in the life of the mind goes askew. The release of the Tournament of Books 2014 lineup helped galvanize my finishing rate, though after a string of questionable titles from the list I am looking forward to the beautiful Balzac that NYRB sent me in the mail as my next fiction read.

Enough preamble. On to the Tournament breakdown! I have currently read nine and two different halves of the books.  As ever, I am exceptionally grumpy about the titles chosen. I must remind myself that every year always feels like the worst year ever in Tournament history, and every year I am thrilled by something that I might not otherwise have read… but having read nine and two halves of the books I am starting to think that my kneejerk hyperbole might be correct this time around? To begin with, I am having a hard time considering any book separate from an ever-present question:  “How does [insert ToB title] compare to Americanah?” The answer, so far, is overwhelmingly that they don’t. None of the books that I have read — so far! fingers crossed! — comes close to matching the wonderful blend of erudition, newness, and likeability that was Americanah. It’s a wonderful book, but it’s also an important book written by an author (I cynically suppose) that the ToB selection gods should adore just for how well she would boost their diversity bragging rights. The exclusion of Americanah is a terrible oversight, especially considering the titles that the gods of the Tournament selection saw fit to include. I feel so strongly about this that I decided to annoyingly bold the preceding sentence, and I feel so strongly about it that I have added a second sentence just to emphasize how shocked and upset I am that Adichie has no chance to take the Rooster. I’ve been shaking my fists at the selection committee all month. Most of my commentary can be reduced to a bitter mutter that eventually descends into profanity. I will try to say other things about the titles I’ve read but do keep in mind that, unless I say otherwise, every thought I have about this group of books is underpinned by this plaint, this unstated (oh, I will try not to state and overstate) outrage. The list — which I have divided into “books I have read” and “books I have not read,” with a never-before-seen special category of “book I have no intention of reading ever (O, Americanah!What injustice!)”

Books I Have Read

  1. At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón – I lie. I haven’t actually read all of this:  this is one of the abovementioned half-read titles. This book isn’t terrible or offensive (other than the fact that this is not Americanah). It is just dull. If I finish it, it will only be because I have persisted in using it as a soporific long enough to somehow creep through the whole text. The best way I can think to describe this lackluster entrant is “Bolaño Lite:”  it has similar themes and a similar po-mo feel to Bolaño but lacks the viscera, the fire, the occasional transcendent beauty, the off-putting sections, the magnetism of the best Bolaño. After pestering ToB commentariat superstar and all-around trusted reader neighbors about her opinion (which is that it never gets interesting) I feel comfortable letting this one go unfinished. When I was younger I tried to read all of the entrants but I am getting too old for that nonsense. Why bother with lesser imitations when I could just reread The Savage Detectives?  Thematic pairings:  haven’t read it yet, but maybe How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.
  2. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson – It’s been ages since I read this book (read: a year) and it made so little impression on me that I can barely remember it. If it makes the play-in I’ll take another look at it; I still have a copy. As for its chances of making the play-in:  I would think good, but I haven’t  yet read Woke Up Lonely.
  3. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton – I read this as soon as it was crowned this year’s Booker in part because it sounded like a wheelhouse novel for me but also because I knew it would thus be a ToB lock. Despite sounding like a novel I would usually love — nineteenth century historical! set in a place I know nothing about! with multiple narrators and a tricky, intricate structure! mystery! adventure! gold! opium!! — this was a struggle to get into. I chipped away a couple of pages every night for ages (read: a month) before it finally caught my attention enough to finish it up in a couple of sit down marathon reading sessions. I probably would not have finished it were it not guaranteed a spot in the ToB. I am marginally glad that I didn’t abandon it, but it’s still a book with more promise than execution. The much-admired structure is one of the largest of many problematics; it doomed the book to carry on a good 100 (or more? I shall check) pages beyond what its (rather flimsy) plot could sustain. While some of the characters were charming and/or interesting, they were unfortunately not the people at the heart of the plot:  most damningly, one of its two female characters is a whore with about the same level of personality as Bella from Twilight while the other is a one-note villain. My final summation:  there is probably a good book in here somewhere but the pretentious, gimmicky structure buried it; furthermore, I couldn’t really tell if this was trying to be an a high falutin’ Literary tome or just a good, plot-and-character-driven story and the attempt to be both makes it somewhat fuzzy as neither the quality of the writing nor the characters/plot were strong enough to make it either. A good editor and a clearer sense of the story’s identity would have elevated this book enormously. In its favor, the more I read of the other entrants the better The Luminaries looks in hindsight. I have found myself thinking back fondly to its moderately well-developed sense of place and time. Thematic pairing:  The Son — they are both massive historical fictions with multiple viewpoints and colonial themes. Of the two, I prefer The Son both personally and for the ToB.
  4. The Dinner by Herman Koch – Look, it’s not that I dislike books with unlikable protagonists. I don’t read in search of imaginary BFFs for myself — my friend-slots are well filled both by real people and by fictionals like Harriet Vane. (Harriet! Write me! Dying to hear what you and Peter have been working on. Are you still in France? Can you recommend a good translation of Dante? Please write soon — I miss you! love, your friend, Not Alice.) My problem with The Dinner is actually that the characters were not unlikable enough, or at least not in the right way. I had a glimmer that maybe Koch was trying to expose and indict underlying fascist ideals still extant in European culture. If this is the case, awesome! Great idea! More on this later. Unfortunately, this interesting notion is spoiled by the conclusion. The “and they’re all psychopaths!1!” twist at the end of a thriller is my least favourite thing in this genre. It’s so boring and expected and it has the effect of immediately leeching out any hint of moral complexity. This isn’t literature; it’s the European equivalent of a NYT bestselling mystery novel, a Michael Connelly or a Harlan Coben. I’ve read my fair share of both of these authors, but I’d never put either of them up against literary fiction. I am positive that there were better books in translation published last year and it’s a disappointment that this is what the ToB chose as the most significant. Thematic pairings: The People in the Trees since both have off-kilter narrators; of these two, I’d give it to the Yanagihara by a hair.
  5. Long Division by Kiese Laymon – This is the other half-finished book. Unlike the Alarcón, I will finish this, and soon. Holding out forming any opinions at all until I finish it. Regardless of how it turns out, this is a title whose inclusion I’m very pleased about: I hadn’t heard of it, it’s outside my usual reading path, and it is absolutely worth my time. Thematic pairing:  I really hope Laymon and McBride aren’t matched up against each other just because they both feature black teenage boys as protagonists, but I fear they might be. Even though I haven’t finished Long Division, I would still prefer it to win. My dream pairing for this book is against Eleanor & Park. I would love to see it take that flimsy YA book out early since Laymon deftly illustrates the differences between YA and adult as genres. His narrator is believable, his sentences are dynamic, he actually considers race in America instead of just pretending to, and Long Division feels rich in culture and place in a way that E&P never does. I’ll be pretty damn happy if they’re set up against each other early. It might also work well against A Tale for the Time Being because both deal with time travel or multiple universes or something.
  6. The Good Lord Bird by James McBride – I know too much about this time period to enjoy this book. That’s the only explanation I can find for my rather intense dislike. Unfunny, repetitive, poorly written (in inconsistent dialect — one of my least favourite things ever!), hateful (I will never forgive McBride’s portrayal of Frederick Douglass). I cannot believe this won the National Book Award! It is one of my most disliked books of 2013 — I would take the bafflingly popular The Flamethrowers over this win. I never had an opinion about McBride before (tried to read his memoir once and put it down quickly but without judgment) but he is dead to me now. The NBA sure is getting close to being an award I have no interest in following. It has been mightily inconsistent in recent years.
  7. The Son by Philip Meyer – As a fan of historical fiction and history, I liked this book. I feel comfortable labeling it my favourite of the Tournament’s historicals this year. Most of the details were accurate, and I was very excited to see that a good portion of its plot is about the early 20th century persecution of hispanics in Texas. I don’t know what (if anything) the notorious history books of Texas have to say about this period of our country’s past, but it isn’t nearly well-known covered in states to the north and west ,where I received my educations. This book also has the best sense of place of any that I’ve read so far, though that may just be because it beautifully describes the open skies and dusty desserts that are basically a primal part of my soul. However, as a fan of books with complex (not necessarily strong — just complex) female characters, I did not like this book. As a fan of novels with multiple narrators who are all equally well written and thought-provoking, I did not like this book. As a person who would truly like to read a fictionalized account of the details and drama surrounding the rise of the oil industry in Texas, I did not like this book. Thematic pairings:  The Luminaries, as above.
  8. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki – I would not have finished this book if I’d picked it up outside of Tournament reading. I viscerally despised Nao’s narration at first:  the sexualized, kitschy-cute Japanese schoolgirl is a disgusting trope. But as I went on I either became acclimated to her sections or they got better, because for a bit in the middle I quite enjoyed it and, like “Ruth,” worried about Nao’s fate. Unlike the multitude of goodreads reviewers, I didn’t mind the “Ruth” sections because I liked her Asperger-ish husband, “Oliver,” and his encyclopedic musings about nature. But “Ruth” is a terrible, weak character; she seems uniquely stupid, a trait that “Oliver” highlights by needing to explain everything to her. Because “Ruth” is both character and, of course, author-stand-in, this gives the book an unpleasant air:  everything is overexplained. It’s tied with The Goldfinch as containing most unnecessary thematic denouement. I like magical realism, but the effect is utterly spoiled the instant the author has various characters figure out the key to the magic and spend tens of pages explaining it to each other. I described this to my housemate as similar to a bad Murakami. “Ruth’s” lack of intelligence assumes that the reader is also unintelligent which I despise in a book. Authors! Stop overexplaining your ideas! Or if you must explain, don’t just provide a wikipedia-level summary of Schrodinger’s Cat — everyone has read that article on the great free encyclopedia. Elevate and complicate your ideas! Thematic pairing in the ToB:  The People in the Trees because they both use meta-textual structure in which one character footnotes another’s text? Life After Life, because they both deal with multiple worlds? If the former, I don’t know which book I’d give it to; both were problematic. In the latter, I guess I’d prefer Life After Life simply because it doesn’t talk down to the reader quite as much — though I think the Ozeki probably had better characters. Or maybe it could be Eleanor & Park since both books deal with bullied teenage girls? If that’s the case, A Tale for the Time Being wins easily; Nao was more distinctive than either Eleanor or Park, and the bullying was integrated into her overall story and character arc instead of just existing to add faux obstacles and to heighten the pathos and misery (and thus the feels, as the kids say) of the book. Or will it be The Lowland, which I haven’t read yet and don’t look forward to, because both are set in both Asia and America? Despite its flaws, this is one of the more interesting picks just from the multitude of potential pairings it allows.
  9. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell – YA books are not the same as adult books. It is unfair to compare children’s literature to adult because they (usually) have very different goals. I detest the trend of including YA in the ToB. Frankie Landau Banks was exceptional; she should have been a one-off. This is one of the titles I resent the most; its position should have gone to Americanah. Or to a genre book for grownups — Jenny & Kelly had the idea of pitting Stephen King against his son Joe Hill in the play-in round, a notion that I love and am now grieving because it didn’t happen. (NOS4A2 was great fun!) I do not enjoy being that sort of reader, the one who minces about looking down her nose at books. Truly, I don’t:  my bookstore days made me egalitarian. I’m glad kids are reading, and I recognize that I might have loved this book when I was 14 and bullied. However, I am going to be extremely cruel to this slight, insufficient, vaguely racist, Twilight-ish teen romance come the Tournament. Keep an eye out; I’ll be the one frothing at the mouth in the corner while everyone who remembers my thoughts on The Fault in Our Stars last year will roll their eyes and give me a wide berth. Pairings:  as above, I hope it’s Long Division and that this goes away. It’s hard to say, though; a rather ridiculous amount of these books have teen protagonists. Whatever it is, E&P is my pick for the most likely zombie. Needless to say, it shall not get my vote.
  10. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – I won’t lie:  I read this book the way that I occasionally blow through a batch of home-baked cookies:  in a gluttonous haze that lasted no longer than 24 hours. Similar to a cookie binge, it immediately left me feeling undernourished and nauseated. I may have much more to say about this one later, either in the comments or in a post of its own. Until then:  most overrated book of 2013? Most likely to do very well in the ToB? The book that brought me most fully into agreement with Francine Prose than I ever have been and may ever be? I say yes to all. Thematic pairing:  any of the ridiculous amounts of “kid protagonist”  books, yawn.
  11. The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara – This one also deserves a post of its own, if I can somehow manage to recreate the rambling, incoherent, pancake-fueled raving that I subjected my gentleman friend to the night that I finished it. I appreciate that this book was at least ambitious in its themes, but I am still unsure if it was a partial success or utter failure. The fact that I cannot decide is probably a good sign. This is one of the more interesting reads so far (if only because everything else was so dreadful). There were lots of problems, though:  plot, pacing, tone, believability, and more. Here is a goodreads review that covers just some of the issues I had with the book. I will try to organize my thoughts on it, but until then, I will only say:  I appreciate that Yanagihara tried to mimic the language and structure of scientific writing, but I don’t think she succeeded at either capturing it or parodying it convincingly. This book does not do for anthropology what Possession did for English scholars. I kind of wish this book had been written by A.S. Byatt or someone who is better at miming academic styles; I would have found “magical turtles!” a lot less insipid if they’d been dressed with more stylistic flourishes. I am not ashamed to admit one of my essential weaknesses as a reader of fiction:  provocative ideas matter more when they are presented in pretty prose. Thematic pairing:  see above. Chances:  depend on how the judge it draws feels about Nabokov, I guess.

I will do “books I have not read” later. It’s fairly easy to deduce what they are. I still somewhat hope to finish more books and to post longer responses to some of these titles, but school started last week and I’m immediately subsumed in history reading. How many articles can one person read about nationalism in a year?!

¹Every place that I occupy, whether literally or imaginatively, is dusty and book-cluttered.

²Tumblr, as silly as it is, serves as an excellent commonplace book, a digital version of the small physical books, full of borrowed words and images, that I used to make with paper and glue. Mixing in my own sentences disturbs the hermetic pleasure I get from flipping (or scrolling) through the record.

³After years of liking movies and harboring intense passion for a small handful of films, I’ve begun work on transforming myself into a cineast–I just need to make enough time to watch the 115-ish best films of all time.


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I am working on a post about this year’s Tournament of Books that really should go up ahead of this one for chronology’s sake but after looking at Jenny and Kelly read books. I determined that I need to set some reading goals for myself before the month of January is out. Last year was one of the worst reading years of my history as an omnibibliovore. I blame both the dismal publishing lineup of 2013 (I have no idea what everyone is talking about when they call it a great year for literature as I HATED almost everything I read that was published last year) and the ebbs and flows of life. Despite outside forces, a large part of the responsibility is mine:  I simply didn’t try hard enough to read as widely and voraciously as I historically do. So I have decided to follow Jenny and Kelly’s lead and make a list of 12 books that I already own, with two alternatives in case of extreme dislike and necessary abandonment, that I intend to read in 2014.

I own more books than I will probably ever read. Everyone who reads seriously or who has ever worked in a bookstore does, but in the past five years I got particularly bad about accumulating books without reading them. I am a library devotee and most of the things I read come from inter-library loan rather than my own shelves. Every year I vow that I will read largely books that I’ve already got, and every year I find myself back on Prospector randomly ordering titles instead of pulling books from my 7 (seven!!) bookcases. Hence this motivating list! I have to prove to myself that I am not a book hoarder, that I own these titles because I really will read them, before I pack them all up and carry them across the country yet again. I chose these books somewhat randomly in about ten minutes of wandering about the apartment. The lucky selections:

2014 TBR Stack

  • Death in Hamburg: Society and Politics in the Cholera Years by Richard J. Evans – This title was recommended to me by my favourite history professor last fall. While it looks like a particularly long and dense history, I have read the introduction and was charmed to find it chockablock with literary allusions. I am most excited to read this. I love history of medicine and science! I am taking a class on public health history that looks to be situated in the U.S. but this will tie in nicely and might give me fodder for papers! Also, cholera. Also, I’ve read some articles by Evans and I like his style. Downside: I can be a bit of a hypochondriac so I expect to be intensely worried about my health during the duration of this read.
  • The Age of Revolution 1789-1848 by Eric Hobsbawm – I requested Hobsbawm’s three volume history of nineteenth century Europe for Christmas because I somehow got the idea that one cannot seriously study history without having read Hobsbawm. Though the book is small, the text is very dense and tiny. This one might be tough.
  • Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss – I totally bought this book for the title and the publisher (Archipelago Books, I love you!). It is translated from German and was first published in 1931. I don’t really know what it’s about–a murdering doctor and maybe rats since there’s one on the cover?–but Archipelago wisely chose to adorn the back with a blurb from Kafka: “What an extraordinary writer he is!” I don’t think I need to say anything more to explain this selection. Don’t let me down, Franz!
  • The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead – This is one of the books in my pile that I have owned the longest without ever even trying to read. It’s been with me through two moves and three floods. I do not know why I bought it nor why I have hung on to it for so long because the description – “Sam and Henny Pollit have too many children, too little money, and too much loathing for each other. As Sam uses the children’s adoration to feed his own voracious ego, Henny watches in bleak despair, knowing the bitter reality that lies just below his mad visions.” — does nothing for me. “Dark family dramas” is a subgenre I’m mightily sick of, thanks to overrepresentation in contemporary American literature. I added this one mostly because I should make an effort to whittle down my collection and not keep traipsing around the country with boxes of the same unread books for all of my adult life. Huge downside: apparently Franzen loves this book and I worry I might love it and find myself caught in the uncomfortable cognitive dissonance of agreeing with J-Franz.
  • Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie – Americanah was hands-down the best book published in America that I read last year. It was also my first Adichie. This is the only title of hers that I own. I hope it’s as good as her latest was. Downside: has potential to be the most disappointing book if it does not match Americanah in quality.
  • Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin – Maybe this is cheating because I read the first 30-odd pages of this when I bought it. I was loving it,   but I got bogged down in busyness and let it go. I’ve been meaning to return to it for over a year; maybe if I’d done so last year 2013 wouldn’t have been so disappointing. I love the classics of Russian literature better than any other country and am always looking for contemporary Russian publications. This book tells the tale of an official who works at a Swiss immigration office; from what I recall, it has a lovely, eerie fable-like quality. Downside: the beginning was lovely and I will be shattered if the rest of the book doesn’t match up.
  • Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder – I have heard nothing but praise for this book! I bought it in a fit of wanting to learn more about 20th century Polish and Eastern European history. Between the cholera, the age of revolution, and this, I’ve set myself up for quite the depressing historical reading list, I fear. Downside: while I feel a great moral imperative to master 20th century history, I’ve got a really low emotional tolerance for reading about Nazis, and my emotional armor is already pretty battered going into 2014. This may be the book most likely to go unfinished from the lot.
  • It’s Superman! by Tom Dehaven – McGinty suggested this to me about two years ago and I still haven’t read it. I feel awful — I hate to take a book from someone and leave it languishing, particularly since everyone knows that Mr. McG has the finest of taste — but I find Superman to be the most boring comic book character maybe of all time. Nevertheless, I don’t think I could continue to live with myself (or him) if I let another year go by without reading this. Paranoid-insecure downside: maybe Mr. McG will come to hate me if I do not love this book as much as he does?
  • The Book of Khalid by Ameen Rihani – I made a pledge to myself to read more Arabic literature that I have not followed through on. This is described as Arab-American, which isn’t exactly like reading translated fiction, but I hope that it will help ease me into more literature translated from Arabic. This is an especially happy inclusion because I’ve got a dozen titles from Melville House’s Neversink Library that I fear I use more for aesthetic decoration than for reading. Though I’m excited to read a book that “play[s] with classical Arabic literary forms,” I worry that it might be lost on me since I’m still not familiar with said forms. Also: this book was apparently the inspiration for Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet so, there’s that as a downside. Even so, I’m fond of books about immigrants, and this is about “two young men from Lebanon seeking their fortune in turn-of-the-century New York.” Also, I worked hard last fall to gain a better understanding of Islamic and Middle Eastern history, and while I’m weakest on the twentieth century, perhaps now I have enough contextual knowledge to make good on that ancient goal. I might read this one first-ish.
  • The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth – This is frequently mentioned by fans of marginalized classics. I’ve been planning on reading it for years. Downside: I’m worried the translation in the copy I own might not be very good.
  • The Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich – This is the easiest history title in my stack, a book that I chose to give myself a bit of a treat and a break from all of the heavy European history. Ulrich is a highly readable and fine scholar who manages to make eras and locations that I care less about (eighteenth century America) compelling. There is no downside at all to this book. It is guaranteed to be delightful and interesting.
  • All Souls and The Dark Back of Time by Javier Marias – I’ve been meaning to read more Marias ever since I liked him so much two years ago. I am counting these two as one since the latter is a sort-of sequel to the former. If I only read All Souls I will still cheat and give myself full marks for this inclusion. The different translators for these two titles displeases me; I fear one may be better than the other, which always troubles. Still, the concept is unbeatable: a withering literary novel about Oxford, followed much later by a “Borgesian” magical-realistic autobiographical novel about the aftermath of the academic novel?! Written by an author who has proven himself to be well worth my time, too! Downside:  none. These are 100% wheelhouse novels for me. I don’t know if I’ve ever written about it before, but I adore books set at universities; it’s my favourite sub-genre of any number of uber-genres (mystery, literary fiction).
  • I and Thou by Martin Buber – I wanted to include something other than history from my nonfiction selection and I’ve had multiple copies of this book throughout the years without ever reading it. My dearest friend sent me a nice hardcover for Christmas, which reminded me of my decades-long failure to get to it. I’m slating this one in my “bedtime devotionals” reading time slot.
  • Mr. Fortune’s Maggot by Sylvia Townsend Warner – I do a pretty good job of reading selections from my NYRB collection, but this is a book I wanted to include because it’s probably the NYRB that I have owned the longest without ever reading. Even before I started hoarding these most chromatically pleasing of books, I’ve been aware of Warner. I bought a different edition of this book based on the curious title years ago when I was in college in the Bay Area, but I gave it away before I read it. NYRB classics rarely let me down, and this one, apparently about “a London-bank-clerk-turned-minister” serving as a missionary on a volcanic island in the pacific, sounds like a nice dash of something different among my other selections. Also, it’s by a woman and I realized after I’d already made the rest of the pile that my ratios are somewhat off — not something I think about overmuch as I chose books, but I do feel like I should.

So, hastily chosen and quickly written up, these are my reading goals for 2014. May it be a better year for books–and, I pray and hope, a better year in all things–than 2013 was.

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