2013 was an interesting year (are they ever not?). 2012 was very much about new beginnings, fresh starts–moving to England, starting an MA program, thinking of myself as “a writer” who dedicated significant portions of my daily time to writing for the first time in my life. 2013 was more about Keeping Calm and Carrying On. But Things Definitely Happened. I walked in Spain for 10 days. I adopted a cat (!!!). I ran a half-marathon. I co-taught a class. I started work on a book. I got accepted to a PhD program. I think 2014 will be more about following through, and actually finishing. I’ve already signed up for the Edinburgh marathon on May 25th. What else will happen? What other adventures await? Will I survive my Saturn Return? Irregardless, ready or not, here we freaking go. La dee freaking dah. As my man P.K. Dick writes in Galactic Pot-Healer, “I’m not much, but I’m all I have.”
This year I also read quite a bit. As of today I’ve officially beat 2009 (82 recorded books), my most fruitful year of reading since I began this blog, thanks to all those long commutes on the Max out to Hillsboro.
What’s also good about this year in reading is that for whatever reason, I feel like I read a lot of amazing books this year. Here are the ones that stand out to me the most:
A Naked Singularity (Sergio de la Pava)
Definitely the best book I read this year. Might even be one of the best books I’ve ever read, or maybe I’m still basking in the post-read glow. I devoured all 800 pages of this in 3 days, a epic binge akin to the time I watched the entire first season of The Wire, sick as a dog in bed in Ecuador.
I love huge, epic, ambitious, sprawling books like this. Books that want to do, say, show everything. Books like Infinite Jest, 2666. In this one, we get digressions on:
- the effect of media on society
- the nature of evil
- the nature of ambition
- the Honeymooners
- a day-in-the-life depiction of being a public defender in New York City
- the War on Drugs
- how to make the perfect empanada
- how to commit the Perfect Crime
- the death row system in Alabama
This book is like a legal/criminal thriller for David Foster Wallace or Paul Auster fans. We even get a delicious reference to Moby Dick via an incredibly creepy character named La Ballena (the Whale). The first 40-60 pages of this is brilliant, some of the most effective characterization done through dialogue that I’ve ever read. I think that’s what I loved most about this book–the dialogue, and how there was so much that HAPPENED. This book was damn entertaining to read! Dialogue is great, you know? So are event-filled plots.
What I also loved most about this book was its anger and passion–I can’t speak for Mr. De La Pava (though it’s worth noting that he, like his narrator, also works as a New York public defender), but this book is FUCKING PISSED about the current racist oppressive state of society, especially in regards to the War on Drugs and jailing policies. I love that shit. Bring on the passion, bring on the pissed-offness. That’s what art is for. What’s even more incredible to me is the story behind this book: seven years to write, rejected 88 times by agents, eventually self-published and rescued from internet obscurity by crusading internet bloggers. What an inspiration. What a novel. I will definitely be on the lookout De La Pava’s next works for years to come. Best of all (saving the best for last) …. he’s Colombian!!! VIVA COLOMBIA!!! VIVA LA LITERATURA!!!!
All Dogs Are Blue (Rodrigo de Souza Leao)
I’ve never read anything like this before. It is literally the voice of madness, sitting on a page. It’s hard to write about this book without commenting that the author himself was schizophrenic, wrote the manuscript while institutionalized, and committed suicide before the book was published. I’ve read so many memoirs that try to approximate the experience of addiction, of madness, but they always do so from a certain point of distance–as in I went through this, but I recovered. I’m better now. Things are different, things have changed. In this book… forget it. You’re right in the thick of it. You’re wading through the paranoia, the conviction that you’ve swallowed a chip that is monitoring your actions. You’re hanging out with your imaginary friends, Rimbaud and Baudelaire. You’re watching your father cry because of how you trashed the family living room. Gaining weight from your medication. It helps that the book is so short (I believe less than 100 pages)–I doubt as a reader you could take much more of its intensity.
I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to read a book with an extremely strong narrative voice, and who is interested in themes & depictions of ‘madness’. I also feel like the entire book is worth reading for the last chapter alone–wow, do we get teleported UFO-style to some seriously ballsy shit here. Not since Juan Pablo Villalobo’s Quesadillas have I felt like a book has thrown all traditional narrative caution to the wind, shoved attentiveness to ‘literary realism’ into the Fargo woodchipper. This book was seriously written by someone with nothing left to lose. All art should be this risky.
May We Be Forgiven (A.M. Homes)
This book is seriously some of the darkest shit I’ve read in my life. I have a pretty bleak sense of humor, but boy, did I feel bad laughing at some parts in this. It is a picaresque nightmare of one horrifying hilarious event after another happening to our hapless narrator. I love A.M. Homes when she is like this–when she’s hanging out in the “vagina pink” room with a crack-smoking couple in Music For Torching, for example, or with the cancer-afflicted doctor in her short story “Do Not Disturb”. In the first 50 pages, we get an adulterous affair, a bloody car accident, a brutal murder and a family member on trial. Essentially, Everything Falls Apart and Changes. At that point you literally look up from your warm snug place on the couch and are all like….. WHERE ON EARTH can we go from here? And the answer is, a lot of places. None of which we expect. The secret files that contain Nixon’s attempts at short stories, for example. A lesbian affair between a teacher and her student. Patrolling Internet sex date sites. A do-good trip to South Africa. A missing dead girl. Even if the black humor is not your cup of tea, I find it hard to believe you could read this book and be bored.
What really carries this book, though, is not its episodic unpredictability, but rather the emotional relationship between the characters, most tellingly between the narrator and the children he becomes responsible for. It helps that the children are PEOPLE–they are not cartoony or cutesy. They are extremely well-developed as characters (again, through dialogue–DIALOGUE IS KEY!), and ultimately the way their relationship developed with the narrator is what really made me want to keep reading. It almost reminded me of Anne Tyler’s Saint Maybe at times. Ultimately, this is an extremely commendable, risky piece of writing that balances the bleakest darkest shit of humanity with Little Miss Sunshine sincerity, a complicated balancing act that Homes successfully pulls of. There’s so much that could have gone wrong here, so much that could have been trite or twee or turned into overkill, but somehow, magically, Homes makes it all work.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Murakami)
Honestly, this may have to be my pick for the book that influenced me the most this year. I love self-help books, and this one is like a three-in-one deal. You get super zen, sparsely-written Murakami advice not only about running, but also about writing, and conversely about Life In General. What’s not to love? The one maybe teeny tiny bad this about it is that while at the same time it inspires you, it also runs the risk of making you feel super undisciplined and lazy. It could be a lot worse, though–thanks to Murakami’s simplistic, unpretentious writing style, he makes it sound extremely doable. It’s almost like you’re hearing the voice of an extremely calm, soft-spoken therapist, who encourages you to eat lots of fish and vegetables, go to bed early and not drink too much.
Hypothermia (Alvaro Enrigue)
Definitely wins the prize for book I wish I’d written. Go read my glowing review of it on Litro! Thanks to my gushing Enrigue ended up following the review editor on Twitter.
What other books did I love this year? Well, there was Olive Kitteridge and Hawthorn & Child, White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin by Michael W. Clune (which I hope to give its own post when I get back to England…), Bring Up the Bodies and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantell (I almost never read historical fiction, and I know nothing of English history that isn’t vaguely represented in Game of Thrones, but irregardless I loved this books. Almost as good as Sacred Hunger, another book I really need to reread), The Armies by Evelio Rosero and The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (unforgettable depictions of Colombian violence), Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf (Virginia FTW!), The Question of Bruno by Aleksander Hemon (probably my favorite author I’ve discovered this year; he really deserves his own post), The Art of Political Murder by Francisco Goldman (brilliant obsessive detective non-fiction), Death of a Suicide by David Vann (brutal and unforgettable Borgesian fictional memoir).
I also read a lot of Philip K. Dick short stories this year. Bless him. I could probably read nothing but Philip K. Dick the rest of my life and die a pretty happy girl. Not totally, 100% completely satisfied (I’d need some Faulkner-Garcia Marquez-Borges-Bolaño goodness to round things out), but pretty well-sated. My favs: “The Last of the Masters” (a robot-as-Jesus in a post-apocalyptic wasteland overrun by anarchists? How could I NOT like this?!), “The Father Thing” (a creepy horror story I am unlikely to forget anytime soon–it’s about every kid’s worst nightmare, your parents being replaced by impostors), “The Golden Man” (Dick’s version of X-Men, with kinky sex and a fun twist ending–too bad it apparently got turned into a shitty Nick Cage movie)… I better stop there or else I’m just going to go on and on.