Brief thoughts on some of the books I read this year:
Dare Me by Megan Abbott (2013)
I had the fortune to discover this author this year. Abbott does crime fiction with a literary flair. Her novels are gorgeously written, dark, and suspenseful. In Dare Me, a cheerleader is caught between loyalties–a new coach or her best friend. It was great to see a book that dealt with the darkness of teenage girls, especially pretty ones, who are often thought to be as shiny on the inside as they are on the outside.
The End of Everything by Megan Abbott (2011)
Narrated by a child whose friend is kidnapped, the real excitement occurs when the narrator takes investigation into her own hands. The novel is nicely written and suspenseful. It also explores the subjectivity of memory.
Bury Me Deep by Megan Abbott (2009)
Darkness to the max: A girl kills her roommates and transports their bodies in a travel trunk.
I saw the author at a book event for her latest novel, The Fever. She had a great story about how she chose the cover for the book (it’s rare for an author to have power over this). It is a rotated image of a girl levitating, which somehow makes it even more terrifying. This was an pleasantly creepy novel about an outbreak of mass psychogenic illness.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (1998)
I am seriously obsessed with this book and read it almost every year. Toru Okada loses first his cat and then his wife. He wanders around and meets a lot of strange people in his efforts to find them. This book feels like a sad and mysterious dream that only a certain kind of loner would understand.
I adore this short, simple, underrated novel. It’s about a guy who is in love with a girl from his childhood. Like him, she is a loner, and she also has a lame leg. Rather than marring her beauty, this flaw is what comes to define her beauty for him. In adulthood, he is disappointed to learn that she has had surgery to fix it. What an amazing, beautiful way to write about love.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami (1985)
This is a novel with two alternating stories that turn out to be related in the end. I found the fantastical “End of the World” section compelling, but was somewhat less interested in the “science fiction” aspects of “Hard-Boiled Wonderland.”
Intuition by Allegra Goodman (2007)
How is Allegra Goodman so amazing? Her first short story collection came out on the day she graduated from college and she has been publishing a steady string of novels ever since. And why on earth is she not more famous? She has had 2 stories in BASS, and both of them are excellent. Her writing is effortless, her subjects always timely and interesting. This particular book is about scientists studying cancer and how much subjectivity is involved. It also deals with the fascinating topic of scientific fraud.
Intuition has a strong sense of story that is so lacking in a lot of contemporary literature. The confident voice of the first few pages reassured me that I would actually come to care about these people, that stuff would actually happen, and that maybe this would resemble a coherent piece of fiction instead of a collection of non-events.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)
Since starting my job two years ago, it has become a lot harder to find the time and energy to focus on the good old heavy-hitters. But thank goodness I finally made the effort to read Moby-Dick. It is so amazing. The greatest. The pinnacle. It feels stupid and pointless to even try to describe it.
Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace (2005)
No one would contest David Foster Wallace’s sheer brilliance and creativity. But there is something uniquely nihilistic about his work that makes it quite stressful to read–and I say that as someone who usually enjoys depressing things. Honestly, I dislike reading him.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992)
I finally read Donna Tartt this year, and she instantly became one of my favorites. The Secret History is the complete package. Interesting sentences and unusual words, fantastic descriptions, a cast of quirky, fascinating characters, and an actual, super-dramatic plot, a rarity in contemporary literature. Full disclosure: I have read this book four times this year.
The Little Friend by Donna Tartt (2002)
I have to say this one puzzled me. Set in Mississippi, it alternately follows a twelve-year-old girl and a family of drug addicts. While some passages about Harriet were absorbing and well-observed, I never understood the juxtaposition of Harriet and Danny Ratliff, especially during that strange battle scene in the water tower. Also, I know this isn’t very cool and postmodern of me, but I hate it when books don’t tie up major loose ends. I hate that feeling I get when I’m reading and there aren’t that many pages left and I start to think, hey, that (insert major problem here) isn’t going to get solved, is it? I feel cheated.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013)
Absolutely loved it. Voice is one of the hardest things to pinpoint, but as soon as I opened this book I felt assured that Donna Tartt has it. Every single page was interesting, whether it concerned the aftermath of the terrorist attack in the museum, Theo’s grief, life in Las Vegas, or the antique furniture store.
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (2012)
This is such an impressive novel. Not only has Adam Johnson done lots of fascinating research on North Korea, he somehow manages to make this a story about individuals who are struggling to love and survive in a brutal totalitarian country. He is able to give his subjects humanity, something that gets lost in all the news stories on the prison camps and the crazy dictators.
A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin (2014)
Ha Jin’s latest novel is about a Chinese spy who ends up living in Virginia. The novel alternates between a chronological telling of his life and the present-day research of his daughter. It was interesting to see a fictionalized portrayal of Chinese-American relations in the period following the China’s Communist Revolution.
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (1811)
Although I admire the blinding perfection of Jane Austen’s writing, she has never been one of my favorites, for all of those ridiculous, idiosyncratic reasons that make reading so fun. As a bit of a loner, I’m just not that into stories about parties and getting married. To me, Sense and Sensibility felt like a lesser version of Pride and Prejudice.
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (1817)
It was kind of a relief to read something by Jane Austen that wasn’t incredibly perfect and intimidating. Northanger Abbey had Jane Austen’s usual astute social observations, but was perhaps a little too heavy-handed in the satirical aspect.
This is the novel Northanger Abbey makes fun of. It is a melodramatic adventure about a heroine who, through much misfortune, ends up imprisoned in her evil uncle’s castle. Overly melodramatic and unbelievable at times, it is still entertaining. Also, I just find it impressive that a woman at the time wrote a novel this long and became popular because of it.
The Romance of the Forest by Ann Radcliffe (1791)
Read like a more condensed version of Mysteries of Udolpho.
The Monk by Matthew Lewis (1795)
This starts out as an amusing gothic novel about a monk’s fall from grace into sin, but eventually the story travels to the realm of utter depravity.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (2012)
Two teenagers with cancer fall in love. As a fictional subject, terminal illness is fraught with danger. “Cancer novels” are susceptible to maudlin sentimentality and idealized suffering. John Green avoided this trap. Hazel’s voice is funny and realistic, and never shies away from describing the real, uncomfortable details of cancer.
1984 by George Orwell (1949)
I finally re-read this dystopian classic for the first time since high school. As a piece of fiction, it is deeply flawed. But I don’t care that it’s not great novel, because as far as social commentary goes, it is brilliant. Orwell deserves his fame just for coining the terms groupthink and thoughtcrime alone.
Best American Short Stories 2013 by various authors
Speaking of groupthink, last year’s BASS struck me as being unduly motivated by politics. Many stories in the collection were blatant appeals to trendy liberal pieties. BASS 2008 remains my favorite year in the series.
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell (1960)
When I revisited this childhood favorite, I was shocked at how violent it was. Within the first few chapters, several men in Karana’s family are killed, and her little brother is killed and eaten by wild dogs. I didn’t remember any of that. The story of how she survives on the island afterwards remains just as compelling as it was to my much younger self.
Zelda: A Biography by Nancy Milford (1970)
I read this biography because there have been several recent Zelda novels that try to reclaim her as a “feminist icon.” Spoiler alert: she is not a feminist icon, or any kind of icon, except maybe one for party girls who hit their prime at age 18.
The Bear Came Over the Mountain by Alice Munro (1999)
Technically more of a long short story/short novella. Whatever it is, who cares? Alice Munro is always amazing, and this story about love in a nursing home just blew me away. You have to read it, you absolutely have to.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (2014)
One of the most stereotypical academic novels I’ve recently read. It follows several bland characters who are defined primarily by race, gender, and sexual orientation. Yet another rehashing of the left’s unhealthy obsession with identity politics.
A Separate Peace by John Knowles (1959)
I disliked this book in high school, and read it again to see if my opinion would change. Nope. I find the plot hard to believe, especially the mock courtroom scene. Finny’s death seems unlikely and much too convenient. And Gene feels like a cardboard cut-out narrator.
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)
Oh goodness, this one never gets old. You can read it again and again and love Charlotte Perkins Gilman more every single time. A classic tale of insanity.