2012 reading review!

hoping to make this an annual thing; it helps me not only read more but also to read more thoughtfully.  2011’s review is here.

Favorite Overall:  Salman Rushdie, Joseph Anton
Ah, Joseph Anton — I don’t think I’ve outwardly emoted as much as I did whilst reading Joseph Anton.  It made me laugh, made me cry, made me sigh, and it made me long for community, specifically a literary community, but generally a community of mutual support.  It made me believe in humanity again, surprising, maybe, considering the context of the memoir, but I loved how this community of friends and authors stepped up to support Rushdie even though the threat of death was very real, even though, no, they didn’t really have to do so.  Also, I just loved the members of the security team; some of the ways in which they sought to help Rushdie out, especially where his kid was concerned, made me cry.

Rushdie does this whole community and network of people and support full justice in Joseph Anton, I think, gives it the credit it more-than-deserves, and Joseph Anton is a very personal book that didn’t feel too heavily personal.  I’d say that was most likely because it was written in the third person, and I found that enhanced my enjoyment because the telling helped the memoir.  On one level, the third person actually made it more enjoyable because it created a distance between the teller and the telling, which I think was important in a story like this.  (Or this could also just be me because I personally actually don’t enjoy memoirs that much and generally find them more indulgent narratives than not, except in the case of truly extraordinary circumstances.)

Joseph Anton, though, isn’t simply a story about an extraordinary circumstances — it’s also a well-told one.  I actually haven’t read Rushdie before, although I’ve intended to, and I loved his wit and his frank writing as well as his assurance and confidence and intelligence.  In person, he’s a very self-composed, very competent person (I saw him at the New Yorker Festival in conversation with David Remnick), and that sense of self comes across in the pages of Joseph Anton, in which, yes, he does sometimes go on the defense and justify why he did some of the things he did but does so in an entirely unapologetic way.  I also don’t remember thinking that Rushdie was trying to gloss over the mistakes he made in those years recorded in Joseph Anton or that he tried to paint himself as this glowingly heroic figure, and it was this sense of an attempt at normalcy, this sense of humanity, that drew out these strong emotions and made me laugh and cry and sigh in ways I haven’t really when reading other books and certainly never have when reading other memoirs.

Favorite Book-In-Translation:  Shin Kyung-sook, Please Look After Mom
Please Look After Mom is a great glimpse into Korean motherhood/nationhood.  It captures so amazingly the strength of Korean women as well as the culture of post-war Korea, and I was so impressed by the novel overall that the slightly lackluster ending was entirely forgivable.  (I thought that the novel could only end the way it did, but I would have gone for something less … fanciful?)  It’s not a novel you can read on the surface level, though; I think it’s more crucial in Please Look After Mom than it might be in other novels to consider why the characters act and react the way they do in a cultural/social (in this way, in post-war Korean culture) context (and I hate that word).

I actually remember thinking that many of the elements of Please Look After Mom might be lost or misunderstood by those unfamiliar with Korean culture.  Take this review for example — this reviewer reads the book on a surface level, and I actually cringed when I first read this review when I was Googling reviews after finishing the novel because the reviewer just didn’t get it and didn’t even seem to try to get it.  This other review, though, I found to be more thoughtful and, also, more respectful, and it kind of explains what I mean when I say that Please Look After Mom can’t be read on a surface level better than I can put it.

Also, I picked up Please Look After Mom and started reading it in its original Korean and loved the writing, at least on the first page because that’s as far as I got in the bookstore (had), but I’m planning on picking it up in Korean as well as more of Shin’s work.  I know she has another novel currently being translated by Knopf and slated for publication in spring, so I’m excited for that!

Most Spectacular in Terms of Voice:  Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
I’ve said this before, but I will most likely continue to say this because Ishiguro’s ability to inhabit a voice is absolutely brilliant.  I started reading The Remains of the Day in Japan and finished it off in New York City, and I was pretty much in awe through and through because, regardless of how I feel about Ishiguro’s other novels, I have yet to find myself blurring his narrators because they tend to be so complete and so fully embodied.  (Novel-wise, I was pretty ambivalent towards When We Were Orphans and A Pale View of Hills.)  

The Remains of the Day is Ishiguro in fine form, and it’s really this compact, rather sedate, and collected novel.  I’ve always admired Ishiguro’s “plainer” prose, and I describe it as “plainer” because he’s not really a fancy, elaborate writer, but I love that really, love how restrained his writing reads but how his prose is still very full and complete and rounded.  I admire it, actually, that sparseness, and it serves him well in The Remains of the Day because of the nature of Stevens (the narrator) as this collected, self-possessed butler.

Favorite Collection of Essays, Which is Really a Cheat Category Because I Very Rarely Read Collections of Essays:  Jonathan Franzen, Farther Away
I honestly didn’t expect to love Farther Away as much as I did (I liked How to be Alone, but I wasn’t jumping all over it like I was with Farther Away), but I did.  Admittedly, I think the collection started off very strong but faltered near the end — I was very lukewarm towards the last few essays and thought they could either have been placed closer to the beginning of the collection or omitted altogether because Farther Away would have been no worse off with the omission really.  The essay about Alice Munro in particular had me scratching my head, and I’d say that was my least favorite in the collection because I couldn’t quite get a handle on his tone — he sounded both genuine and also somewhat sarcastic.  On the other hand, I enjoyed his book reviews very much even if I’d never read the books he was reviewing, and all his essays about birds and the threats they face bummed me out, but I suppose that was partly the point because ignorance is bliss but awareness is not.  His general cantankerousness never ceases to amuse me, though, especially when it comes to technology, and, all in all, well, I thoroughly enjoyed this collection and am looking to pick up How to be Alone again.

I love Franzen — I’ve never been shy in loudly stating so — and his grasp of language makes me so happy.  He makes his writing read so effortlessly, which makes me imagine how much he must deliberate over every single word, and I appreciate that he makes it read so easily because that’s a skill in and of itself — and one I really do admire fully because I find that to be incredibly hard to do. 

Most Disappointing:  Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth
Oh, how sad this makes me!  Sweet Tooth was ….. mmm, how should I say this.

Immediately after I’d finished it, I’d thought, Hmm, okay, maybe the ending kind of negates my more hesitant feelings towards the rest of the novel, but, the more i thought about, the more I came to the conclusion that, no, it kind of really didn’t.  The thing is that the weakest part of the novel is the voice — I wasn’t once convinced of Serena’s voice, found it rather distancing and lacking — so, when the ending came around, I thought it was McEwan’s way of subverting a weakness, like he’d been aware of where the novel might not be so successful and had come up with this little twist to render it all right.  I think, though, that it might have worked better had Serena’s voice been more convincing, more earnest, more believable, but I was always aware that This Is McEwan’s Voice, and that just placed more distance between me and the novel.

Pity.  I was hoping for something mind-blowing to follow the beautifully written ennui that was Solar.

Faithful rereads:  Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go, and Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach, both reread twice this year.  Also reread Sum (David Eagleman) and The English Patient (Michael Ondaatje) once.

Reading Theme:  North Korea
I had a bloody awesome time reading book after book about North Korea.  Admittedly, the craze sort of petered out after I finished Nothing to Envy, but I’ve still got a book I’m working through and a few more I want to pick up in the near future, but, for now, I think the theme has read itself out.  It was fascinating, too, because I had all these preconceptions about North Korea and, in connection, North Koreans, and I think the most important thing that came from my reading craze is the humanization of North Koreans because, even If I never intended to, I found myself realizing that I’d been dehumanizing them and rendering them into these stick figure characterizations based off general blanket statements/horror stories.

I really want to say more — a lot more — about this (and have wanted to for a while), but my books are back home in NYC, and I also still have things I’m ruminating over, so we’ll just have to come back to this in the future.

Most Needed in Terms of Healing:  Tobias Wolff, Old School
I started reading Old School in Furano after I’d cried my eyes out from acute loneliness in my hostel.  I was roughly a week into Japan, and the first three days in Tokyo had been rough, and, even though Sapporo  and Asahikawa had been loads better, once I got to my hostel in Furano in the drizzle of a late afternoon, I think the strain of the first week of backpacking alone in a foreign country just slammed into me like a sledgehammer.

My only solution, obviously, was to pick up a book, and I only had Zöe (my iPad), but Old School was one of the books I’d purchased before hopping on my plane to Japan — and, seriously, it was exactly what I needed at that moment in time.

Old School is amazing — how could it not be?  It’s funny, heart-warming, and earnest, but, more importantly, it’s about literature.  It’s about authors and books and how these authors and books played a role in one man’s life, and it was just the book I needed in that moment, and it helped me get my head back together, to rearrange my itinerary so I could stay in Hokkaido longer because Hokkaido did amazing things for my heart, too.  It got me back in the proper headspace where I could think creatively again, and there are those books that are amazing not only in and of themselves but also in how they bring you together and patch you back together because of their amazingness — and Old School happened to be that book this year, and I pounced on it when I found a copy at Housing Works in September, so I’ve got a hard paper copy I can hold and pet, too!

Most I-WIsh-I-Hadn’t-Bothered:  Erin Morgernstern, The Night Circus
This was such a waste of time, sorry to say.  I was fond of the characters, and I did love the world, but, oh, the novel itself simply did not do its fantastic elements justice.  The writing itself was cliche and much too literal (I understand the need to describe fantastical worlds as that in The Night Circus, but there’s being descriptive and then there’s literally using words to describe things), and the main story itself was anticlimactic and, frankly, not all that interesting in execution, which was really regrettable because it could have been awesome.  

In my initial recap of The Night Circus, I wrote:

it was just too preoccupied with itself to bother to create the emotional/narrative connections required to get there.

I think that’s still a pretty accurate summation of how I felt about The Night Circus.  The writing was too shallow to create anything substantial, and, to be honest, I just didn’t feel like Morgernstern really cared to create a deeper narrative beyond what the world she created intrinsically offered.

The Book That Made Me Reassess My Feelings Toward the Author:  Murakami Haruki, Norwegian Wood
I’ve had a soft spot for Murakami for years, and, yes, although my fondness for Murakami hasn’t waned much, my opinions of him and his writing have changed since 1Q84.

I reread Norwegian Wood earlier this year, and it kind of extended all the thoughts 1Q84 had raised regarding Murakami (that had then been carried further by After Dark, which I read after Norwegian Wood).  Murakami is great at capturing and conveying a mood, and it’s pretty much always a mood of loneliness/aloneness.  The “always” there isn’t meant to be a bad thing actually because Murakami writes loneliness incredibly well, but reading Murakami can sometimes be a narrowing experience because I’ve come to the conclusion that Murakami speaks well to certain moments in your life, which are recurring.  This isn’t a bad thing, I don’t think, but something that I think is rather inevitable when an author writes so particularly well about a specific theme.

I don’t know.  This little blurb is a little odd because, although I’m starting to see Murakami in a different light, I’m honestly no less fond of him.  But maybe I’m also a little less in awe of him?  Or maybe that’s also not the proper way to phrase it.  Murakami, though, continues to speak to a very specific part of me, and I suppose I’ve become more aware of how sterile his novels can feel and how that isn’t necessarily a preferable thing for me, but I’ll still continue to be anticipate his next books and still pick him up when I’m in that space where I just need what Murakami can offer because only Murakami can do what Murakami does — and, yes, any author worth his/her clout will be unique in that way, but Murakami somehow elevates that by being a niche upon himself — and I really don’t think any of this is making any sense now, so I think I’ll stop and try to make better sense of it on a later date.

Most Could-Have-Been-Awesome:  Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master’s Son
The Orphan Master’s Son had potential; Johnson has potential; and, despite feeling let down by The Orphan Master’s Son, I’ll definitely be checking out Johnson’s next book because Johnson is a good writer.

The thing is that I feel like a story like The Orphan Master’s Son might have been better served in the hands of a more experienced novelist — that is, I would have loved to see what Johnson could have done with it after he had one or two novels under his belt because it was a big novel set in a specific world, and I do commend Johnson for his ambition.  (But we’ve seen the term “ambition” bandied about enough with 1Q84 and whether or not ambition is sufficient for praise.)  

I had two problems with The Orphan Master’s Son.  The first was with the voice (or multiple voices) — for one, I didn’t really find multiple voices necessary, and, for another, I spent half of the first part of the novel thinking that it was written in the first person (and thought that, you know, maybe it would have been more interesting in the first person?).  The multiple voices also were problematic in that the voices weren’t distinct enough, except for the voice of the propaganda, which was effectively executed but oftentimes felt unnecessarily lengthy.  The second problem was that the majority of the conflict/tension seemed to be sourced from the setting/situation of the novel instead of being provided for by the narrative — this, actually, was a big problem because, while, yes, the narrative wasn’t lacking in conflict, it wasn’t necessarily being driven by the desirable sort of conflict that leaves you flipping the pages in suspense.

Basically, I read The Orphan Master’s Son in one day because I knew that, if I stopped, I wouldn’t pick it up again, but I didn’t not enjoy it while I was reading even though i didn’t necessarily find it all that compelling.  To be honest, story-wise, I wonder if that might have been purely because it is set in North Korea, but, in conclusion, I did like Johnson’s writing enough to keep him on my radar.

Most Significant Accomplishment:  Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way
Oh, hell yes.  After years of making it a New Year’s Resolution to read Proust goddamnit, I’ve finally picked up Proust and read him.  Or, at the time of this posting, am reading him.  And, you know, Swann’s Way is beautiful — the language is ornate and fluid and, yes, twisted up to the point that it’s really easy to get lost in — but it’s wonderful and masterful, and, ah, I’m so happy to be reading it, not only in a sense of personal accomplishment but also simply as a reader/writer who loves word and language and …. yeah.  It’s the perfect book with which to bid adieu to 2012 and welcome 2013.

And Reading Goals for 2013:

  1. read more Proust!!!!!
  2. reread Anna Karenina.
  3. maybe, uh, get going on my Literary Wall of Shame.
  4. speaking of the above, read Nabokov.  For shame.  Seriously.
  5. read more.  like, a whole lot more.