huzzah! 2014! even though we're 18 days into the new year -- 18 days ain't that bad! all right, jumping right into it!
the one that was the overall favorite: everything i never told you, celeste ng (the penguin press, 2014)
how had it begun? like everything: with mothers and fathers. because of lydia’s mother and father, because of her mother’s and father’s mothers and fathers. because long ago, her mother had gone missing, and her father had brought her home. because more than anything, her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in. because those things had been impossible. (25)
what an incredible debut. we start with the death of sixteen-year-old lydia in 1970s ohio, and ng gracefully pulls back the layers of both the aftermath of her death and also the life leading up to her death, answering the questions of what happened, how she died, and why. ng does a masterful job of diving into lydia and her family, exploring their relationships and dynamics, the ways that family fucks us up but holds onto us at the same time, and it’s wonderfully complex, this novel, a compact story that gets you in the heart and burrows under your skin.
ng also writes about being asian-american without explicitly writing about being asian american, weaving it into her narrative and characterization without calling blaring attention to it. she writes about the prejudices against asian men, against women in the hard sciences, against interracial marriage and interracial children, and she does it deftly and beautifully and fearlessly, navigating the complicated web of family and its disappointments and secrets and fears, the ways we sometimes try to run away and disown the places we come from, only to find ourselves coming back against our will.
maybe part of me loved this because it resounded so personally for me. i read a comment from someone who didn’t like how ng wrote the parents, but the parents were so real and human to me with their burdensome expectations and their disappointments and their narrow perceptions, their inability to see how they were inflicting damage and harm on their children. and this isn’t to say that parents are the only ones who do wrong because children do, too, because children are also living human beings with expectations and disappointments and narrow perceptions — and i loved this, too, about everything i never told you, that there’s a balance to this narrative, that ng isn’t out to demonize or condemn anyone but is simply telling a story, and it’s a beautiful, heart-breaking story, described pithily by the new york times as “a novel about the burden of being the first of your kind — a burden you do not always survive.”
the ones with the “theme:” on such a full sea, chang-rae lee (riverhead, 2014); california, edan lepucki (little, brown, 2014); station eleven, emily st. john mandel (knopf, 2014)
he was the impetus, yes, the veritable without which, but not the whole story. one person or thing can never comprise that, no matter ho much one is cherished, no matter how much one is loved. a tale, like the universe, they ell us, expands ceaselessly each time you examine it, until there’s finally no telling exactly where it begins, or ends, or where it places you now. (on such a full sea, 61)
even naïveté could have a purpose. it was a survival skill, the same one that made a woman forget the pain of childbirth soon after it happened, so that she’d be willing to do it again someday. the species had to continue, didn’t it? (california, 107)
“you were the one i wanted to call,” he said, “when i got the news.”
“but why me? we haven’t spoken since the last divorce hearing.”
“you know where i’m from,” he said, and she understood what he meant by this. once we lived on an island in the ocean. once we took the ferry to go to high school, and at night the sky was brilliant in the absence of all these city lights. once we paddled canoes to the lighthouse to look at petroglyphs and fished for salmon and walked through deep forests, but all of this was completely unremarkable because everyone else we knew did these things too, and here in these lives we’ve built for ourselves, here in these hard and glittering cities, none of this would seem real if it wasn’t for you. (station eleven, 207)
okay, yes, “technically,” on such a full sea is considered dystopian and california and station eleven are post-apocalyptic, but, whatever, are we quibbling about genres here? when i was reading california, i kept thinking about on such a full sea, and, when i was reading station eleven, i thought about on such a full sea and california and how survival really isn’t sufficient, how we’re naturally drawn to community and family, how the world could go to shit and take with it all the comforts and privileges we once knew and how we can live without all that and adapt but we still need other people.
but, then, there’s the other side of it, too: how the world going to shit brings out the ugliness in people, how the will to survive reinforces the us v. theme mentality, how we need something to believe in and how charismatic cult leaders will apparently always exist and prey on young, virginal women because … because idk, yey, patriarchy? (-__-)
i liked on such a full sea for its communities, whether on the large scale of the narrative “we” or in smaller, person-to-person depictions, like quig and fan or the girls in the room, and i liked its commentary on privilege and competition and the things we’re willing to sacrifice for privilege. i liked california for its portrait of a marriage, the secrets we keep from each other, and the compromises we’re willing to make for something better. i liked station eleven for unspooling the symphony’s theme (taken from star trek), that “survival is insufficient,” because it’s true — we can’t simply sit around and survive; we need to make human connections, live lives of purpose, have some kind of hope that lets us know that life is more than this, it’s more than just us, it has meaning beyond mere existence.
and i liked reading these three books over the course of the year (on such a full sea in january, california in july, station eleven in november) because there was a fun, unintended continuity to it.
the one that haunted me: drifting house, krys lee (viking, 2012)
another time, gilho came home and found wuseong asleep, curled up on the hardwood floor without a pillow or blanket, and no yo underneath him, and when gilho woke him up, the boy looked straight at him and said, “everywhere i go, a road,” before falling immediately back to sleep. the line reminded gilho that he had, finally, lacked the courage to trust the person he had wanted to be; he walked away to recover from vertigo. when he spoke of the boy’s strangeness to soonah on the phone, she said reasonably (she was always reasonable), “why don’t you find another tenant?”
gilho could only wonder. in a country where a university degree made you respectable, the boy had dropped out because he wasn’t being taught anything. he had thespian ambitions; he raised crippled animals for fun. his idealism couldn’t last. but what might have happened if gilho had not married and scrambled to provide soonah the life that she and her parents, that everyone, expected, if he had not been so susceptible to her fear or risk, of failure, of others’ eyes, all fears that were his own? (80-1)
drifting house is a compact, intense collection about koreans and kprean-americans and a lot of the struggles that modern koreans/korean-americans face, whether it’s domestic violence or fanatic religion or goose fathers (fathers who send their wives and children to the states while they stay behind in korea and send them money) or the IMF crisis — and i’m aware that issues like domestic violence or fanatic religion aren’t unique to modern koreans/korean-americans, but lee approaches them from the korea/korean-american angle, keeping one foot impressively in korea and another in korean america.
you don’t have to know much about postwar korea to read the stories, but i think the book makes for an interesting launching point into postwar and contemporary korea. korea’s changed so much and so rapidly since the war, and lee burrows into the impact that’s had on postwar society/culture with quiet intensity. she isn’t a loud, brash writer; her prose fits with how she speaks and carries herself; and there’s a lot of darkness lurking underneath the surface of her very polished prose.
i can’t wait for her novel to come out. i hope it’s published soon. like soon soon. please?
the one that was most impressive: a silent history, eli horiwitz, matthew derby, kevin moffett (FSG originals, 2014)
my daughter was who she was not because of anything i did or didn’t do but because she was part of me and part of mel. everything that could’ve been done had already been done. by the time our kids are born, the fire is already lit. all we are doing as parents is helping them find the kindling. (theodore greene, 507)
there are 27 narrators who carry this book. 27 first-person narrators giving their “testimonies.” and, yes, this was co-authored by (or created by? I’m not quite sure how it all breaks down) 3 people, but, even so, even if you were to divide 27 first-person narrators by 3 people, that’s still 9 narrators per co-author. the voices are generally distinct and individual (admittedly, some less so than others, but the book is an overall successful attempt at multiple voices), and, together, these testimonies come together to tell a cohesive, nuanced, forward-moving story, rich with very prescient commentary about how we treat people who are different from us, how we Other them and create these us v. them distinctions like anything in life is so black and white.
the one everyone should read: men explain things to me, rebecca solnit (haymarket books, 2014)
most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being. things have gotten better, but this war won’t end in my lifetime. i’m still fighting it, for myself certainly, but also for all those younger women who have something to say, in the hope that they will get to say it. (“men explain things to me,” 10-1)
we have far more than eighty-seven thousand rapes in this country every year, but each of them is invariably portrayed as an isolated incident. we have dots so close they’re splatters melting into a stain, but hardly anyone connects them, or names that stain. in india they did. they said that this is a civil rights issue, it’s a human rights issue, it’s everyone’s problem, it’s not isolated, and it’s never going to be acceptable again. it has to change. it’s your job to change it, and mine, and ours. (“the longest war,” 38)
the new york times reported it this way: “as the impact of mr. strauss-kahn’s predicament hit home, others, including some in the news media, began to reveal accounts, long suppressed or anonymous, of what they called mr. strauss-kahn’s previously predatory behavior toward women and his aggressive sexual pursuit of them, from students and journalists to subordinates.”
in other words, he created an atmosphere that was uncomfortable or dangerous for women, which would be one thing if he were working in, say, a small office. but that a man who controls some part of the fate of the world apparently devoted his energies to generating fear, misery, and injustice around him says something about the shape of our world and the values of the nations and institutions that tolerated his behavior and that of men like him. (“worlds collide in a luxury suite,” 46-7)
and the casual sexism is always there to rein us in, too: a wall street journal editorial blaming fatherless children on mothers throws out the term “female careerism.” salon writer amanda marcotte notes, “incidentally, if you google ‘female careerism,’ you get a bunch of links, but if you google ‘male careerism,’ google asks if you really meant ‘male careers’ or even ‘male careers.’ ‘careerism’ — the pathological need to have paid employment — is an affliction that only affects women, apparently.”
then there are all the tabloids patrolling the bodies and private lives of celebrity women and finding constant fault with them for being too fat, too thin, too sexy, not sexy enough, too single, not yet breeding, missing the chance to breed, having bred but failing to nurture adequately — and always assuming that each one’s ambition is not to be a great actress or singer or voice for liberty or adventurer but a wife and mother. get back in the box, famous ladies. (the fashion and women’s magazines devote a lot of their space to telling you how to pursue those goals yourself, or how to appreciate your shortcomings in relation to them.) (“pandora’s box and the volunteer police force,” 118-9)
the one that was most beautiful: the southern reach trilogy, jeff vandermeer (FSG originals, 2014)
there’s a regret in you, a kind of day mark you’ve let become obscured. the expeditions are never told that people had lived here, worked here, got drunk here, and played music here. people who lived in mobile homes and bungalows and lighthouses. better not to think of people living here, of it being empty … and yet now you want someone to remember, to understand what was lost, even if it was little enough. (acceptance, 90)
if you want to talk about books as objects [of art], then you have to talk about the southern reach trilogy. or area x. i think i just titled it the southern reach trilogy because that’s how i think about it … but, anyway, hardcover, softcover, both are beautifully and thoughtfully designed, from the cover design to the illustrations to the layouts — and one thing i love about the paperbacks is how consistent they are. like, they even illustrated vandermeer’s author photo!
i appreciate well-designed books. i appreciate well-designed books that also have well-designed layouts even more because it’s a peeve of mine to come upon a beautiful jacket only to open the book and go, what the fuck??? i appreciate well-designed books that have managed to capture the essence of the book and convey some of its personality without being reductive or cliche or obscure. and i appreciate well-designed books all the more because i can imagine what a difficult task that must be, how much [implicit or explicit] pressure there is on the jacket because it usually is the first impression, that first look to seize a potential reader’s interest.
and i appreciate them even more in instances like this because it was the cover that made me first pick up annihilation.
(i also appreciate social media in this case, too; bravo, FSG’s twitter.)
the paperback covers for annihilation, authority, and acceptance are incredible. they capture the wildness of area x, conveying the weirdness contained in these books, but they’re also beautiful and alluring and shiny (literally). there’s an aggressive quality to the covers, too, a boldness conveyed in the lettering, and the way the illustrations wrap around the letters show how the wildness encroaches and takes over — and, okay, yes, maybe i’m sitting here over-analyzing covers, but, holy crap, these are beautifully designed books, and, no, i’m still not over them.
the one that was the non-fiction … something: without you, there is no us, suki kim (crown, 2014)
was this really conscionable? awakening my students to what was not in the regime’s program could mean death for them and those they loved. if they were to wake up and realize that the outside world was in fact not crumbling, that it was their country that was in danger of collapse, and that everything they had been taught about the great leader was bogus, would that make them happier? how would they live from that point on? awakening was a luxury available only to those in the free world. (70)
suki kim spent six months as a writer disguised as a christian disguised as a professor at PUST, pyongyang university of science and technology, and this is the book that recounts her experience there. i think it’s important (and crucial) to keep in mind that these are her experiences and her observations; this book is a memoir of her time as a professor at PUST; and, as such, it does make for an interesting read.
at the same time, though, i find the book a little shallow, maybe especially when i start thinking about it as a book about north korea. kim does succeed in “humanizing” (as the word goes) her north korean students, and there is a fair amount of affection there, but, sometimes, it feels too pitying. she pokes at her colleagues’ faith but does so without any sort of depth, with only the derisive dismissal of someone who doesn’t share that faith and looks down on it. she references a lover back home in new york, but there’s also nothing more there, almost like she just wants us to know that she has a lover, he’s back home, and, for some reason, that’s something we need to know.
kim’s been criticized for her memoir, for supposedly breaking promises with PUST by writing her book, and she’s written in response to said criticism. i don’t disagree with the heart of what she’s saying, that there is a need to humanize north koreans, that silence is what is unacceptable, that there is so much wrong going on in north korea that needs to be talked about openly and — i’d even go so far as to say — that there’s a lot of terrible representation of north koreans that’s stereotypical and/or reductive and/or lacking in empathy and understanding. and i can even understand her suspicion of the evangelical christians who funded the building of PUST and are sending in teachers and professors who could essentially be missionaries, but, to be honest, i think i’d be more convinced of her argument had she fleshed out any criticisms in her memoir. instead, she makes a few jabs at her believing colleagues, tries to draw parallels between their faith and juche ideology, but, in the end, she doesn’t say much more than that — and this, particularly, frustrated me because there’s so much there to mine, and she starts to head in that direction at one point but drops it.
in the end, i do recommend without you and find it worth a read, but do keep in mind that it’s a memoir and supplement your reading with other books like barbara demick’s incredible nothing to envy or jang jin-sung’s dear leader.
the one i enjoyed most: mr. penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore, robin sloan (FSG, 2012)
you know, i’m really starting to think the whole world is just a patchwork quilt of crazy little cults, all with their own secret spaces, their own records, their own rules. (253)
there is no immortality that is not built on friendship and work done with care. all the secrets in the world worth knowing are hiding in plain sight. it takes forty=one seconds to climb a ladder three stories tall. it’s not easy to imagine the year 3012, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. we have new capabilities now — strange powers we’re still getting used to. the mountains are a message from aldrag the wyrm-father. your life must be an open city, with all sorts of ways to wander in. (288)
mr. penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore was so much fun. the narrator (clay) finds work at a mysterious bookstore with mysterious clientele who come in to check out giant tomes written in code, and he gets drawn into a quest when the owner of the bookstore (mr. penumbra) vanishes one day. and, yes, i’m a really shitty summary writer, so don’t let that put you off — penumbra is well worth the adventure; you’ll laugh; you’ll aww; you’ll tear up; you’ll marvel at the ease with which sloan situates his novel in the world and integrates google almost as a character of its own.
and, if you (for some reason) need more incentive to read penumbra, the cover glows in the dark.
the one i didn’t finish: nobody is ever missing, catherine lacey (FSG originals, 2014)
i rarely drop books. i don’t like dropping books. i tried really hard not to drop this, especially because i’d been looking forward to it, but i just could not stand the narrator. i found her so wholly unsympathetic, and i hated being inside her head. i also couldn’t get past the prose — lacey tends toward very long, rambly paragraph-sentences, and, while i love my long, rambly paragraph-sentences, there are just too many of them in nobody is ever missing that my writing brain kept growling, edit, for fuck’s sake, EDIT.
the one i listened to: the discomfort zone, jonathan franzen (FSG [hardcover], 2006; highbridge [audio], 2006)
“but kafka’s about your life!” avery said. “not to take anything away from your admiration of rilke, but i’ll tell you right now, kafka’s a lot more about your life than rilke is. kafka was like us. all of these writers, they were human beings trying to make sense of their lives. but kafka above all! kafka was afraid of death, he had problems with sex, he had problems with women, he had problems with his job, he had problems with his parents. and he was writing fiction to try to figure these things out. that’s what this book is about. that’s what all of these books are about. actual living human being trying to make sense of death and the modern world and the mess of their lives.” (“the foreign language,” 139-40)
audiobooks, i’ve discovered, are perfect for planes. i can put on my headphones and disappear into a book without the headache that comes from reading on planes in that terrible lighting and through occasional turbulence.
the discomfort zone was fun to listen to because i’ve read it previously (twice). the material, therefore, was all familiar to me, and there were no surprises as far as content was concerned, so it was the tone, really, that made it a different experience, especially because franzen narrated it himself. it felt like a way of “reading” the book as he’d written it to be read, with the emphases in the right places and the proper tone and moods in the right places, and it was fun because it was like being read to, and i enjoy being read to. being on plane helped, too, because i couldn’t do my usual thing of doing something with my hands (i can’t just watch tv or see movies or talk on the phone; i have to be doing something else at the same time), so i could just put on my headphones and close my eyes and focus on franzen’s narration.
which wasn’t a hard thing to do. i could listen to franzen read anything, even the phone book. he has a lovely deep and throaty voice, and he’s one of those authors who reads well (not all authors read well), so i wish he’d narrate more of his work.
the one with my favorite passage: without you, there is no us, suki kim (crown, 2014)
this passage gets me in the heart every time. i’d even go so far as to say that it predisposed me kindly to the rest of the memoir:
the korean war lasted three years, with millions either dead or separated. it never really ended but instead paused in the 1953 armistice exactly where it began, with koreas on both sides of the 38th parallel. historians often refer to it as the “forgotten war,” but no korean considers it forgotten. theirs is not a culture of forgetting. the war is everywhere in today’s koreas.
there is, for example, the story of my father’s young female cousins, nursing students aged seventeen and eighteen, who disappeared during the war. decades later, in the 1970s, their mother, my father’s aunt, received a letter from north korea via japan, the only contact her daughters ever made with her, and from that moment on, she was summoned to the korean central intelligence agency every few months on suspicion of espionage until she finally left south korea for good and died in st. antonio, texas. the girls were never heard from again. and there was my uncle, my mother’s brother, who was just seventeen when he was abducted by north korean soldiers at the start of the war, in june 1950. he was never seen again. he might or might not have been taken to pyongyang, and it was this suspended state of not knowing that drove my mother’s mother nearly crazy, and my mother, and to some degree me, who inherited their sorrow.
stories such as these abound in south korea, and probably north korea, if its people were allowed to tell them. separation haunts the affected long after the actual incident. it is a perpetual act of violation. you know that the missing are there, just a few hours away, but you cannot see them or write to them or call them. it could be your mother trapped on the other side of the border. it could be your lover whom you will long for the rest of your life. it could be your child whom you cannot get to, although he calls out your name and cries himself to sleep every night. from seoul, pyongyang looms like a shadow, about 120 miles away, so close but impossible to touch. decades of such longing sicken a nation. the loss is remembered, and remember, like an illness, a heartbreak from which there is no healing, and you are left to wonder what happened to the life you were supposed to have together. for those of us raised by mothers and fathers who experienced such trauma firsthand, it is impossible not to continue this remembering. (11-2)
the one that impacted me as a writer: lila, marilynne robinson (FSG, 2014)
if you think about a human face, it can be something you don’t want to look at, so sad or so hard or so kind. it can be something you want to hide, because it pretty well shows where you’ve been and what you can expect. and anybody at all can see it, but you can’t. it just floats there in front of you. it might as well be your soul, for all you can do to protect it. what isn’t strange, when you think about it. (82)
sometimes, authors teach you things through their books, and, sometimes, it’s not really anything factual but simply a way to be. marilynne robinson was one of those authors for me this year, and, if i were to sum it up pithily, i’d put it so: marilynne robinson taught me about writing with boldness.
over the last year, i rewrote a manuscript of short stories, and i feel like robinson came along at a good time for me. i’ve been afraid to tackle specific issues in my stories, issues i wanted to write about but was afraid to for various reasons, but there’s something i found very emboldening about robinson’s books. she writes about faith and doubt and the spaces between, and she writes with generosity and graciousness and tenderness. and thoughtfulness. there’s nothing careless about her books, nothing that feels loose or arbitrary, but there’s also an ease and naturalness to her writing, something about her prose that breathes easy — and i keep saying “books” because i read her gilead books all in a row and loved the experience of immersing myself in that world with those people for a few weeks.
lila, though. LILA. every time i try to talk about this book, i end up falling silent because my thoughts turn to goo. lila, to me, at the heart of it, is a love story and not a mushy gushy one and also not one that’s only about two people falling in love but also a woman, in ways, learning to love and to be. lila spent her life on the road, always ready to run, but then she comes to gilead and meets john ames and tries to leave but finds herself staying — and there’s something so sweet and heart-aching about lila and john ames, how they fit each other but seem to have together so late in life.
there’s more to lila than a love story, but that was my strongest takeaway from it, which is kind of remarkable because love stories and i don’t tend to mesh or hew strongly. this one, though, stuck with me, maybe because there’s nothing saccharine sweet or stupidly sentimental about it. it’s a very serious love because both lila and john ames are serious people, not ones to take such a thing as courtship or marriage lightly, but there’s a sweetness there, too, especially against the backdrop of lila’s backstory, which robinson also paints with tender integrity, avoiding melodramatic or overly pitying tones — and i love that about her writing, that she doesn’t give in or give sway to sentimentality or try to manipulate her readers’ emotions — robinson writes with integrity and with boldness, and that is a gift i’m incredibly grateful for.
the first book: the surrendered, chang-rae lee (riverhead, 2010)
i was just going to leave my first, 52nd, and last books here in list form, but this passage from the surrendered is one of my favorites:
“you’ve taken pity on all of us, haven’t you?” he said, tugging her closer. “i’m talking to you now! i want you to listen to me now! before you came this place was no matter or worse than any other orphanage in this damned country. which was just fine for the kids and the aunties, and even for me. there’s enough food and a roof and no more killing, and so what else is there to want? but you’re leaving, and what do we have now? you know what i found one of your girls doing after your husband announced you were leaving?”
“just let me go —“
“it was mee-sun. she was at the well pump, drinking water straight from it like she was dying of thirst. i passed her twice before i noticed she wasn’t stopping. she was just drinking and drinking, getting her sweater soaked, and i had to pull her off it. i thought she was going to drown herself. i asked her what the hell she was doing, and she said she felt funny inside, because you weren’t going to be here anymore. for some reason she felt like she was hungry again. she said she used to do it during the war, so she wouldn’t feel so empty inside.”
“what would you have me do? don’t you think i want to take every one of them?”
“then take them!” he said, grabbing her other wrist. she resisted him and he pushed her against the shed wall without enough force that for a moment she thought he might hurt her. and if he did she wouldn’t care. she wouldn’t fight. “did you think you could come and go so easily? is this what happens in that precious brook of yours? i want to know. i thought it was about showing mercy to the helpless, to the innocent. but i think that book of yours is worthless. in fact, it’s worse than that. it’s a lie. it’s changed nothing and never will.” (429-30)
the 52nd book: the fall, albert camus (vintage, reissued 1991)
the last book: you are one of them, elliott holt (the penguin press, 2013)
the author of the year: jonathan franzen
like a wife who had died or a house that had burned, the clarity to think and the power to act were still vivd in his memory. through a window that gave onto the next work, he could still see the clarity and see the power, just out of reach, beyond the window’s thermal panes. he could see the desired outcomes, the drowning at sea, the shotgun blast, the plunge from a great height, so near to him still that he refused to believe he’d lost the opportunity to avail himself of their relief.
he wept at the injustice of his sentence. “for God’s sake, chip,” he said loudly, because he sensed that this might be his last chance to liberate himself before he lost all contact with that clarity and pose rand it was therefore crucial that chip understand exactly what he wanted. “i’m asking for your help! you’ve got to get me out of this! you have to put an end to it!”
even red-eyed, even tear-streaked, chip’s face was full of power and clarity. here was a son whom he could trust to understand him as he understood himself; and so chip’s answer, when it came, was absolute. chip’s answer told him that this was where the story ended. it ended with chip shaking his head, it ended with him saying: “i can’t, dad. i can’t.” (the corrections, 556-7)
franzen’s fun. he’s complicated, kind of contradictory in ways, incendiary in discussions oftentimes, but fully human in all his contradictions and complexity, and his writing can be polarizing, bringing out strong opinions in people, usually about the likability of his characters or how he seems to loathe them, too, or about the way he writes about women. he’s also wicked smart and well-informed and prone to oversharing, and he’s got a finger on the pulse of things, and, when i think of him, sometimes, i think of how everyone knows (or “knows”) what to think about him without actually having read him. and, then, they go into his writing already with opinions about his writing, and that just complicates things more, and sometimes that’s good but other times it’s annoying because, if i have to sit and listen to people complaining about how unlikable his characters are, i might kick something because the whole likability/unlikability thing (in general) is so goddamn overdone and annoying.
i read (or reread) all of his novels this year, though i didn’t do so in order, starting with the corrections then freedom and picking up strong motion and finally the twenty-seventh city. i also reread the discomfort zone and the essays i liked in farther away, which makes him my author of 2014, if only by the sheer amount of his work i read.
thoughts in semi-stream of conscious jumble: i liked strong motion a whole lot, loved the way he wrote about cultish religion. the ending was admittedly a little lukewarm for me but not so much that it put me off the book. the twenty-seventh city was my least favorite: the short, clipped sentences drove me a little mad; i couldn’t get behind jammu or singh or their whole conspiratorial takeover of st. louis; and i hated — h a t e d — the ending. i actually pretty much stopped reading with ten-twenty pages to go, skimming the last few pages because i was so angry at the gratuitous (it felt very gratuitous and out of fucking nowhere) turn of events. there are some really great essays in farther away, but i still think the collection tapers off at the end (i’m torn about franzen’s book reviews; his essays on other things, like the depressing plight of birds in the mediterranean, are incredible, though). (also, franzen himself narrates the first two essays in farther away, yey!) i’m not as annoyed by the first-person “autobiography” in freedom as people tend to be (i found myself more forgiving of it the second time around), and i tend to like his female characters (at least from strong motion on), like denise and renee and connie (i like connie; she deserves better than joey) — in many ways, i find them more compelling and sympathetic, while i’d like to kick the men in the ass. the corrections, i think, is his funniest book and the one for which i have the most sentimental attachment (it was the first franzen i read).
do i think he’s a perfect writer? no. but i think he tries — he tries to write thoughtful books (in this, he succeeds), and he tries to write real, full people (he generally succeeds here, too, at least with his central cast of characters; his side characters tend to suffer), and he tries to place them in real, full worlds (in this, he succeeds; i’m always astounded by how well he knows his world). and, as an author, he tries to be aware of his privilege as a white male writer, and he tries to support and help out other writers and pushes for women writers. does he always succeed? no, but i appreciate and acknowledge that he tries, that he’s aware of his position in the industry and of the clout of his name, but that he’s also aware that the best thing he can do is write the best books he can. and i appreciate that the dialogue around him is pretty multi-faceted, that he raises strong opinions in people (though i wish more of said strong opinions would be better-informed), that even the sheer amount of attention paid to him points to how male (and white) publishing is.
anyway. i’m a fan. clearly. and i’m so very excited (and also kind of wary because, erm, fabulism?) for his next novel. even if the title makes my face go :| … freedom i was okay with, but purity? :|
the publisher of the year: FSG (specifically FSG originals)
i read a lot from FSG this year (ok, FSG/picador because picador publishes much of [all of?] the paperbacks for FSG). because i’m a sucker for this kind of thing, i actually tallied it up a few weeks ago, and i think (because idk where the paper went) it broke down into something like 18 of 61 books from FSG. (knopf was second with 11.)
but we’re specifically talking about FSG originals here.
FSG originals describes itself as being “driven by voices that insist on being heard, stories that demand to be told, writers who are compelled to show us something new. they defy categorization and expectation. they are, in a word, original.” and, considering that FSG originals has brought us titles like the silent history and area x, i’d consider that an apt description.
it’s been fun to dive into the titles published through FSG originals. i’ve had a mixed bag of reactions to the titles i’ve read thus far, but i find the books to be thoughtfully designed and presented, and i appreciate a [traditional] publisher trying different ways of publishing work that might be sidelined for being “different” or “weird” or “unconventional.” FSG originals also just feels like a natural offshoot of FSG, hewing to the same qualities (good storytelling, strong writing, unique voices), so it doesn’t feel contrived, like something trying to be something else — so, all in all, i’m excited to see what new things they come out with this year and in the years to come!
the ones i’m taking into 2015:
- alex ross, the rest is noise
- marisha pessl, special topics in calamity physics
the ones i’m looking forward to in 2015:
- kazuo ishiguro, the buried giant
- rachel kushner, the strange case of rachel k
- meghan daum (ed.): selfish, shallow, and self-absorbed
- jonathan galassi, muse
- shin kyung-sook, the girl who wrote loneliness
- jonathan franzen, purity (!!!)
goals for 2015:
- read 75 books
- read/finish one book in korean every month
- blog consistently.