Back by popular demand, here's my reading list for the past year.
First, the statistics:
48 books total
- 15 by women, 32 by men, 1 anthology
- Format: 2 audiobooks, 7 e-books, the rest in paper
- Genre: 9 non-fiction or essays; 9 poetry books; 30 fiction, plays, sagas, misc.
The asterisks in the list indicate e-books. The links go to my reviews on Goodreads, most of which also appeared here on the blog.
Standouts? I very much liked this years Booker Prize winner, Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending, and particularly enjoyed listening to it as an audiobook. The seemingly simple story, told in first-person, eventually reveals an unreliable narrator whose version of events made me call into question my own memory, and think back hard about events in my own life. Barnes isn't someone I would read for his literary style, per se, but this is a masterful novel.
It's no secret that I love Teju Cole's Open City. Even though he's my close friend and the book is partially dedicated to me -- an honor that continues to stun and humble me -- I definitely think this was the best book I read this year, for its originality, the lyricism of its prose, and the risks it takes. Many illustrious reviewers have agreed with me, so my objectivity can't be entirely suspect!
As usual with me, there's a bit of a geographical focus, this time on Iceland. Somehow I had never read either the novels of Halldor Laxness or the Sagas of Icelanders, and I'm very glad that gap was closed this year before we went to Iceland; the trip was immeasurably enriched by their writing.
There were also a lot of British novels set in the early 20th century. It was odd to read A.S. Byatt at the same approximate time as Virginia Woolf, and two young-people's books by Frances Hodgson Burnett as well. I loved The Secret Garden, which turned 100 this year, just as much as when I was a girl. Byatt irritates me; I find the books overwritten, overly long, and self-indulgent, and that was especially apparent reading them next to Woolf's beautiful, spare, carefully-constructed prose. Byatt's stories kept pulling me along nevertheless; they won't endure as literature but she's a good storyteller. Woolf is in a class by herself, often painful to read, but in many ways a kindred soul. I'm glad I'm a happier and far less public person.
This year's shock quality award goes to César Aira's How I Became a Nun, with second place to Rawi Hage for De Niro's Game.
In keeping with the year's Nordic theme, I also really liked the uncategorizable Broken, by Karin Fossum.
Quirkiness and condensation are trademarks of Lydia Davis. I'd recommend her Collected Stories as inspiration for any writer.
For sheer lyricism, I loved experiencing The English Patient as an audio book - but I'm crazy about Ondaatje's writing anyway. I could hardly wait to get back to it during the time I was listening to this book, and was bereft when it ended. For similar reasons, I loved John Berger's To the Wedding.
The worst book on this list, hands down, was Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Grey. It had its moments, but...my God. I've never seen a book take such a disastrous turn and then fall apart the way that one does!
Particular poetry favorites were Seamus Heaney's Human Chain, The Throne of Psyche by Marly Youmans, The Book of Ystwyth -- works by six poets (including Dave Bonta and Marly Youmans) in response to the art of Clive Hicks-Jenkins, and Dale Favier's chapbook, Opening the World.
I liked all the non-fiction titles listed (if I don't enjoy a non-fiction book I generally don't finish it.) The last and the first look like they may be my favorites; John Hales' book about the Athenian navy was absolutely fascinating, and Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, by Tamim Ansary, seems, after 90 pages, to be an emminently readable and timely look at, well, just what its title says.
I'll be looking forward to hearing what you have to say!
CASSANDRA'S 2011 BOOK LIST (click for lists from previous years) *=ebooks
Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, Tamim Ansary (current)
Middlemarch, George Eliot (current)*
Letters from Iceland, W.H.Auden and Louis MacNeice
Fight the Wild Island, Ted Edwards
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera
The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes (audio book read by Richard Morant)
The Wide, Wide World, Susan Bogert Warner
Vatnsdœla saga, from The Sagas of Icelanders
Egil's Saga, from The Sagas of Icelanders
Opening the World, Dale Favier (poetry chapbook)
The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje (audio book)
Open City, Teju Cole (rereading)
The Book of Ystwyth, six poets on the art of Clive Hicks-Jenkins
Ice and Gaywings, Ken Pobo (poetry chapbook)
The End of the Affair, Graham Greene
Triplicity, Kristin McHenry (poetry chapbook)
Paper Covers Rock, Chella Courington (poetry chapbook)
The Picture of Dorian Grey, Oscar Wilde*
Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf*
I Stand Here Shredding Documents, Kristin Berkey Abbott (poetry chapbook)
Possession, A.S. Byatt
The Years, Virginia Woolf*
The Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett*
The Throne of Psyche, Marly Youmans
Far From the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy. Adaptation for the stage by Mark Healy.
The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett (reread on its centennial)*
The Children's Book, A.S. Byatt
Errata, George Steiner
Dark and Like a Web, Nic Sebastian* (poetry chapbook)
De Niro's Game, Rawi Hage
How I Became a Nun, César Aira
The Death of Tragedy, George Steiner
Phédre, Jean Baptiste Racine
Broken, Karin Fossum
The Redbreast, Jo Nesbo
The Sign of Jonas, Thomas Merton (rereading)
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Lydia Davis
To the Wedding, John Berger
The Jewel Box Garden, Thomas Hobb
Under the Glacier, Halldor Laxness
The Stone Raft, José Saramago
Home is Where We Meet, John Berger (rereading)
Human Chain, Seamus Heaney
Val/Orson, Marly Youmans
Independent People, Halldor Laxness
Open City, Teju Cole
Lords of the Sea: Athenian Naval Power in the 5th century, John Hales
The British certainly know how to create drama. Our Christmas dinner, at the home of friends who generously invited us to share their traditional family gathering, ended with these two spectacular desserts: an English trifle, of liquor-soaked spongecake, strawberry jam, custard, and whipped cream; and a flaming Christmas pudding, which is a sort of steamed fruitcake, usually containing suet, over which brandy is poured and set aflame. Marvelous! And neither exactly trifling on the caloric front, but absolutely delicious.
Over dinner we talked about family holiday traditions. Their family always set up their tree and opened presents the night before, ate lamb for dinner, ended the meal with the desserts shown above, and took their tree down after the 12 days, at Epiphany. Mine set up their tree a week or two in advance, ate roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, had fruitcake and cookies for Christmas dessert and took the tree down on New Year's Day, if not before. I've attended (and usually sung at) a midnight service on the 24th almost every year of my life... J., the son of a minister and immigrant parents, was hard-pressed to remember any family traditions at all except that they opened their presents the night before.
I felt bound by tradition for a long time, and gradually relinquished -- partly by choice, partly by necessity -- the ones I'd grown up with not only for some new ones of our own devising, but more generally a free attitude of doing whatever feels right (and convenient) in a given year. I've found that pretty liberating. At the same time I sometimes miss the long holiday table filled with family members in my grandparents' house, which would always be decorated with particular objects and marked by tradition.
That Christmas Day discussion made me think about families, and individuals, and where we all fall on the spectrum of loving/being bound by tradition, or free-forming our way through life, especially those aspects of life that are usually marked by ritual or form of some sort. Some of us find a great deal of comfort and pleasure in tradition and repetition, while the same things makes others of us downright squirrelly. It's interesting. And some of us start out one way and change, either becoming more flexible and experimental, or more settled into patterns -- sometimes not necessarily because of our own desires, but because new generations of children and grandchildren demand or push us in one direction or the other. I say all of this not as a judgement of any particular way being "right," which of course it isn't, just as observations that traditions and ritual -- or the lack thereof -- play a larger part in our lives than we might acknowledge, and our changing attitudes toward them throughout life have a good deal to tell us.
Solstice. At 7 am, I rise in near-darkness and go into the front room. I open the louvered blinds, and peer out, to the south, at an overcast, dim morning. The weak and greyish light reminds me of the day three months ago when we landed in Reykjavik, where it is now dark all day long. Here, inside the room with me, is a green spruce tree, bare except for hundreds of sparkling tiny lights that have been glowing all night long. I close my eyes and smell its fragrance, and open them to see again its incongruous beauty.
Yesterday, though, was clear, and in the early morning I watched the sun itself trace a low arc behind the trees. I left the house at 1 pm, wanting to do my shopping in the brightest part of the day, but even so, walking down boulevard St-Denis, I could only feel a faint warmth on my face. It’s no wonder we in the north feel bereft now, forgotten.
In spite of science, all my life I’ve thought of the sun as the wanderer. He begins to leaves us in August, becoming as neglectful as a distracted lover, and travels south to where he is right now – Patagonia perhaps – standing on a mountain peak gazing toward Antarctica. Later today he’ll slowly come down the path he climbed, pack his things, and once again turn his face toward the north.
Northern pagan people spent these weeks in anticipation, and celebrated the solstice with joy. Because the sun seems to stand still at solstice, the Roman astronomers waited for a few days before definitively declaring its return journey; therefore they placed the date of Christ’s birth on December 25. The clever placement of Christmas, a few days past solstice, conflated the new religion with the existing festival.
Oriens, the Latin word for East, also became the morning star – Venus when seen at dawn — the dayspring, dawn of heaven, even the rising sun itself, and these became epithets for Christ. For weeks we’ve been singing O Dayspring from on high appear, and calling on the brightest and best of the sons of the morning to dawn on our darkness and send us his aid. Christ died and left us, goes the theology, but he returns at Christmas to renew us, and will eventually come again to reign.
I’ve been even less enthusiastic than usual about Advent this year. Anticipation, yes; bringing life and light inside our cold, dark homes, yes — but focusing on my own unpreparedness, forgetfulness, sins and weaknesses, no. Only western Christianity would create a penitential season at a time when people are already depressed and starved for light. But I’m not a pagan, for all my love of the natural world, and my awareness of the way its rhythm beats in my heart, and always has.
What do I believe then, what do I believe? Not in Christ’s return, except metaphorically. I believe in now, and so, I think, did he. I know from experience that times of obscurity are often followed by insight, darkness by light, and that the two are necessary for each other, but that wisdom comes from being observant to this very moment: the weak light, the clarity of ice. Today that paper-thin edge of duality — that single but two-sided coin — turns its face, but neither one is better than the other. I believe in long journeys, the persistence of love, and the value of endurance: my face in the stinging cold, my feet that want to slip on the ice but find their balance, the sun’s eventual return.
We just got back from a trip to visit my father in central New York State, where we helped him celebrate his 87th birthday. He continues to be completely independent, extremely active, and in remarkably good shape and spirits, for which I'm very grateful. (I sure hope I've inherited all of those genes!)
While there I took advantage of the snowlessness to take a walk in the woods and along the outlet from the lake into the Chenango River, where I took some photographs of different kinds of activities than the busy-ness of the holiday season.
Keeping with our Icelandic (and food-related) theme of late, I think you will marvel at this piece from today's Guardian: a video of a drive and then a hike on Eyjafjallajökull volcano: 'Where Satan goes backpacking.' I want to do this...(Thanks to J. for pointing this out to me!) Be sure to watch through to the end.)
Edition 12 of the Language/Place blog carnival has just been posted, by Linda Evans Hofke of Lindguistics, this month's host. And it's delicious: a dinner-party full of mouth-watering delights. I'm very happy that Linda included my recent post about eating in Iceland, but hope you'll go and take a culinary and literary tour through many other blog posts as well, all on the ever-intriguing, ever-beautiful topic of Food.
Of special note to regular Cassandra readers: Mark Twain, Italy and Tabasco sauce come together in a piece set at Lake Como, by Parmanu; and Jean Morris remembers a long-ago meal in the mountains of France in Repas d'un midi lointain. Both are beautiful pieces of writing I remember from when I first read them.
And in Food Slurs: an e-Flection on Multicultural Mockings, Dorothee Lang, an international traveller who writes from Southern Germany, and Eric Wrisley, in Ohio, discuss the world of racist epithets based on food.
Great stuff, go read and enjoy!
I know I've been a bit scarce around here, and the reason is that I've been busy for the past couple of months on a new body of work (both writing and art) about place and identity, inspired in part by Iceland. Where that project will end up is not clear, but I'm steadily working on it and will, from time to time, share some bits here. Meanwhile, regular blogging will continue!
Here is the latest piece. I'm putting it aside for now but plan to make some changes on the right-hand central side. These charcoal drawings are fairly large, about 30" x 22", and they look quite different in person; reducing them changes the feeling and impact a lot -- the actual drawing is approximately lifesize. Originally I thought I'd be doing drawings as preparations for prints, but I like these on their own, too, and the process of working on them, in silence and solitude, gives rise to thoughts and insights that I don't think would happen without going through the practice of drawing.
Lichens, Moss, Lava. Charcoal on acrylic-prepared paper. 30 x 22". 12/08/2011. Click for larger view
If you'd like to see a slideshow of the drawing as it progressed, here's a link on Flickr.
And here's something I wrote, during the drawing process:
I’ve been working on a new charcoal drawing. Lichens, moss, lava. And a succulent plant something like sedum, with stiff pod-like leaves tightly clustered around flexible stalks. The drawing is large, like the first one, but this time I’m working on a painted ground of loosely applied, thin acrylic, toned with Hooker’s green, Naples yellow, and a bit of quinachridone red to a slightly greenish cream.
It’s the same problem I’ve returned to again and again in art: the representation of multiple, complex botanical forms. Here they are scrambling over yet another complicated shape — the deeply pitted lava. The advantage of working in black and white is that the forms take precedence, which is what I want. The disadvantage is the sheer complexity of the scene, but without the differentiation nature gives through color. In real life, the sedum is a brilliant viridian against the steely grey rocks, while the late-season moss encompasses every shade from olive-green to white. Color aids our eyes and brain: this is plant, this is rock, this is lichen – the latter of which appears, not entirely inaccurately, to be a life-form somewhat in-between the two.
Since my childhood I’ve been fascinated by the beauty of small, intricate groups of cohabiting plants one sometimes comes upon in the wild, created around a tree trunk, a fallen log, or an outcrop of rock not by any hand but nature’s. I tried, back then, to make my own, bringing child-size mosses, lichens, small wildflowers and seedling evergreens to the deep hollows formed between the roots of the beech trees on the side of our yard. I tended these miniature secret gardens year after year, populating them at times with a small doll or two and enjoying the unplanned visits by beetles and other insects, but never quite believing in elves or fairies. When, long afterward, as an adult wandering in the woods, I would come upon a verdant growth of moss covering a rounded tree stump like a velvet bustier, delicately adorned by clusters of tiny spores waving on thin stalks, the darker leaves of wintergreen, and, perhaps, the tiny crimson hats of British-soldier lichen, I would be suddenly reminded of those childhood gardens and at the same time inspired by a silent, awestruck wonder at such perfection, wrought so effortlessly by nature and imitated with such painstaking care not only by imaginative children but by master gardeners. For it’s not only the grand scenes — the fiord and river, the mountain peaks, the endless waves approaching from a distant horizon — that bring me to that sense of wonder and stillness, but also the microcosm, the world at our feet.
I thought of that while drawing today, this sense of zooming out and zooming in. The lichens lay pure and white against the rocks, the largest barely bigger than two hands, a blankness in the center of much greater visual complexity. But such is a glacier, too: a strange expanse of whiteness that seems, in its very silence, to call out to the stillness within us and find an echo.