Most memorable: The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen; 1Q84, Haruki Murakami
2011, for me, was indubitably the year of Jonathan Franzen, launched with The Corrections, the first book I read in 2011 as well as the first Franzen I read. It took me about a week to complete — a week of doing the bare minimum of coursework and required school reading — and, by the end, I was drained and rather blue because The Corrections isn’t exactly happy, cheery, uplifting reading. Then I read How to be Alone and The Discomfort Zone (love the cover art) then, a few months later, Freedom then, a few months after that, The Twenty-Seventh City. Now, all I’ve left is Strong Motion, and how sad that thought makes me!
(Favourite Franzen is still The Corrections, though. Freedom spawned a few weeks of thought and discussion, but I found myself unable to talk about Freedom without references back to The Corrections. I still refer back to The Corrections; I don’t read much American literature; but I dare say Franzen does a brilliant job at capturing a sector of American suburbia in his writing.)
I’ve been anticipating 1Q84 since it was first published in Japan in 2009, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s long — 925 pages — and meandering, and it’s by no means a perfect novel (the dialogue between Aomame and Ayumi is awkward, awkward, awkward, so disconcertingly so that I wonder if something were lost in translation because the other dialogue doesn’t read so stiffly) — but the thing with Murakami is that he’s a writer you read in big picture, ignoring the thought that the novel might be better serviced had it been a good two-, three-hundred pages shorter.
There seems to be something so wrong about entertaining even such thoughts because this slow burn is something Murakami does so well. There were parts, yes, where I wished he would hurry on with it, but I only carry vague memories of such wishes because they were never so loud that I wanted to stop reading. More memorable, I suppose, is the squeamishness that came hand-in-hand with the novel’s larger thematic elements, none of which I really want to dive into because I loved the surprise elements that came with diving in this novel without a single idea as to what it was about.
A new ritual: rereading Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go every year. It still gets me every single time.
Most monumental/regretful finish: The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath
This took me over three years to complete — intentional, really, because I wanted this to last a long, long time — so take my with it I did, picking it up every so often to read more, highlight some more, write down some more passages, all the while taking detours to read biographies, Letters Home, and some of Plath’s (and Ted Hughes’) poetry. (Loving Birthday Letters thus far — they bleed of Hughes’ love for Plath.)
But all good things, like everything else, must come to an end, and I have finally finished my first read of Plath’s journals. I anticipate that this is a book I’ll continue to come back to time and time again; my worn out paperback will travel with me everywhere I go; and her journals have only really whetted my interest and curiosity about everything Sylvia Plath — inevitable, really, because the aftermath of her suicide is something I find personally fascinating, that need by people to place reasons and assign blame because nothing can be left unexplained or unreasoned, because someone has to bear responsibility.
Anyway, this was an interesting read, partly because there’s a lot that she writes that I empathise with — her fears, her aspirations, her struggles as a writer, a woman, a mother, a wife, her battles with sinus colds, her insecurity. Sylvia Plath wasn’t a perfect human being because no one is, and I rather dislike that about her following — that cut-throat need to build her up as more than she was — because Sylvia Plath was flawed, and her work is powerful and strong because she was flawed.
A long time finishing: The History of Love, Nicole Krauss
It took me over three years to finish this, too, which isn’t a negative comment as to how I feel about this novel. If I didn’t much care for it, I’d have dropped it instead of coming back to it continuously, and Nicole Krauss is indubitably my favourite contemporary woman author — and she’s American! My favourite by her is still Man Walks Into a Room, which I read two years after I started The History of Love, because The History of Love, sometimes, felt bogged down by its voice. I could only read it in phases, in little pockets stolen here and there; it’s so saturated in emotion that my palate couldn’t take it in large mouthfuls (much like French cuisine); but I’d say this really is a testament to Krauss’ immense skill and ability.
The ending was a slow burn like Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go — a slow, wonderful burn that sapped me of tears because it just so perfectly tied up the novel.
Biggest disappointment: The Tiger’s Wife, Téa Obreht
Téa Obreht has all the makings of a good novelist. She’s young — my age — with a strong sense of language and story, and The Tiger’s Wife has the makings of a good novel — if you could break story-telling down to a formula, which you can’t without rendering it a series of cliches, and I’m rather tempted to say that, yes, The Tiger’s Wife toes that line. (The Telegraph actually says it has fallen past that line.)
My main problem with the novel is that I couldn’t figure out what The Tiger’s Wife was. I’m not typically a stickler for genre and don’t find it necessary to pigeon-hole novels into specific categories because a good story is a good story, pure and simple, but it’s a problem when questioning the -ism of a novel displaces you from a novel — and that was my main sticking point with The Tiger’s Wife. It tried to be magical realism but fell short in the same way it tried to be realism, and this lack of commitment placed a limit on the novel — because it was neither this nor that, all the various story threads collapsed in a messy tangle.
My other problem was actually with the writing itself. Obreht has potential — she does — but The Tiger’s Wife I felt could have used more revision, more tightening of language, more creative language. As a narrative, it was almost bland and dangerously so, and, in the end, the novel read like a draft, a skeleton even, that could have been pretty enchanting had it been more thoroughly fleshed out and given a proper direction — and, honestly, it’s a novel that made me wonder if it would’ve gotten half the praise it has had it not been the début novel of so young an author.
Least Favourite: Middlesex, Jeffrey Euginedes
I’ve written briefly about this novel before — or more like mentioned it and how much I disliked it — and I suppose it deserves its dues because I still haven’t been able to let go of how much I disliked it. I don’t know what it is; I just feel like it betrayed me because I love The Virgin Suicides so — but, simultaneously, I’m also confused because there was nothing technically wrong with Middlesex: it’s well-written, well-charted, well-narrated. In short, all the pieces are there, and yet …?
My problem, honestly, was that the novel held me at arm’s length. It kept its distance from me personally, blocking all the ways in which I could fall into it and love it and treasure it like I do The Virgin Suicides, almost like it was aware that it was too good for me, and it’s a pity, really, because Euginedes is definitely a skilled writer. But, maybe, this just goes to show that there’s nothing formulaic about writing, that no writer is perfect (I mean, look at McEwan’s Solar — beautifully written [because when does McEwan write something that isn’t beautifully penned?] with an interesting enough story and interesting enough characters — but the sum of all the parts was a rather dull novel), that not everyone is going to like the same book (which just goes to prove my argument that there’s no need to be ashamed for not having read someone/something).
Of course, though, my dislike of this novel wasn’t great enough to deter me from picking up The Marriage Plot, which I hope will fare better, more positively in my book. Euginedes is skilled and interesting enough that my dislike of one novel isn’t going to put me off the rest of his work; he’s definitely one of the more interesting writers writing today — or so I opine.
Favourite: The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje
I. Loved. This. Novel. — and how do you measure this? I’ve got it in paperback and as an iBook. And am looking for a hardback copy. And am reading it for the second time in two months. If that isn’t love, I don’t know what is.
Ondaatje’s language is absolutely masterful; the words drip beautifully — seriously, so beautifully — and languidly off the page; and, when read out loud (read this book out loud!), they slide off your tongue. It’s been a while since I’ve read a novel that had me in such thralls over its language, but The English Patient doesn’t excel only in its technical form — the narrative is tightly woven and sweeping and romantic without falling prey to the usual saccharine or melodramatic traps of romantic endeavours. There’s an aching sense of loss written into the entire novel, and, in so many ways, this is the sort of novel I aspire to write because it’s just so magnificent and successful in the story it sets out to tell and how it determines to tell it.
The problem with a novel like this is that all of Ondaatje’s other books fall under high, high, high expectations. It’s rather kept me from diving into the rest of his back list, but, then again, Atonement set the bar high for Ian McEwan, and McEwan’s back list managed to raise that bar even higher (ugh, Enduring Love and The Comfort of Strangers are so perfect, I want to weep in despair).