Well, here we are again, at the annual time for lists and compilations and review. I am just back from yet another trip to the U.S., about which more later, but before the year ends I wanted to share my list of books read in 2013. My reading took a nosedive in the fall, as we got so consumed with work and time became shorter and shorter, but before that I had been on quite a reading binge. The two themes for this year were the novels of Hermann Hesse (I'm about halfway through them, reading chronologically), books about Mexico, and books about Ireland or by Irish authors. So here's the list, with a few comments along the way. Happy reading to all of you, in 2014!
Links go to my reviews. * indicates books read as e-books, ** were audiobooks. My top picks indicated with !!!
Flaubert's Parrot, Julian Barnes (in progress) I loved "Sense of an Ending" but am having a hard time with this one.
Steppenwolf, Hermann Hesse I'll write a blog post later, when I finish the novels, but for now just say that reading the writer's entire output chronologically, when most of the books are somewhat autobiographical, has been fascinating, illuminating, and poignant. I first read the famous titles when I was in college, but they're quite different when read as an adult. Hesse writes mostly about the struggle of creative people to live authentically, giving themselves to their work, and the difficulties this presents in their relationships. For him, creativity and spirituality go hand in hand, but as a child of overly-strict highly-religious parents he was appalled and repelled by the typical Protestant Christian rules and doctrine. His novels mirror Hesse's lifelong quest for authenticity, peace, and understanding of his own spirit and creativity.
!!! The Saints of Streets, Luisa Igloria A wonderful book by a poet well-known to readers of Dave Bonta's Via Negativa -- highly recommended.
Lifelines, Philip Booth
Selected Early Poems, Charles Simic
!!! Falling Upward, a Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Fr. Richard Rohr** I found this book inspiring, original, and helpful. Rohr is so intelligent and so no-nonsense about spirituality, and this particular book discussed the development of a mature approach to religion in the second half of life, free of dogma and the images and ideas about "God" that were presented in our childhood and which drive so many of us away from organized religion. He divides life into two haves, the first being about acquisition, belonging, and building up a secure sense of personal identity, and the second about a gradual letting-go of that need to understand, control, and shore-up who we are. Most people, he sadly admit, never leave this first half of life. For those who do, the second half is a process of becoming what he calls "elders": people of genuine insight and wisdom who do not divide people, but have become wise and gentle guides who can hold everything in balance.
!!! Gorgon Times, Roderick Robinson* An absolutely delightful, true, and entertaining novel about Thatcher-era Britain by a frequent commenter to this blog. The characters are keenly observed and skillfully drawn, and the author makes us care about them. I'm especially impressed with how Roderick writes his female characters; his portraits are believable, and full of amusement and real appreciation that comes across in numerous details. In addition to his excellent descriptive writing, the dialogue is smart, witty, sharp, entertaining, and always rings true: it's a trap for most writers but Robinson handles it far better than many well-known authors. Highly recommended, and available for download for a low price. Read it!
Gate of Angels, Penelope Fitzgerald A good book about British manners, but light. I read Gorgon Times just after this, and preferred it immensely.
Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald Justifiably famous.
Klingsor's Last Summer (with Klein and Wagner and A Child's Heart) Hermann Hesse
Peter Camenzind, Hermann Hesse
Rosshalde, Hermann Hesse*
Season of Migration to the North, Tayeb Salih A classic middle eastern novel; recommended.
Gertrude, Hermann Hesse*
Demian, Hermann Hesse
!!! Narcissus and Goldmund, Hermann Hesse* The novel that began my project; this is one of his later ones, and one of the best. My favorite of the classic novels I read this year.
Ami Underground: Drawings from the NY Subway, Ami Plasse Terrific drawings by one of the urban sketchers I follow. Bought as a present for Manhattanite friend.
Drape, Drape, Hisako Sato Fascinating book by a Japanese designer about how to make clothes using the draping process rather than cut patterns.
The Beaded Edge, Midori Nishida Another book by a Japanese author, but it's actually about oya, the Turkish needlecraft method of making crocheted and beaded edgings for scarves and clothing. I bought it to make the edging for a scarf this past August, and am hoping to try some of the other designs.
Pitch Dark, Renata Adler Entertaining, but the pace and style of this book felt self-indulgent and annoying to me, as if she were trying to show how brilliant she is. Not my cup of tea, but some people do find her writing brilliant. It's a pretty good story, but I could never get over how annoyed I was by the way the characters acted, as well as always being aware of the writing itself.
Confusion, Stefan Zweig A strange small book that I liked quite a lot, about a young man who becomes obssessed with admiration for an older professor -- and the professor's young wife.
!!! John Singer Sargent Watercolors, Erica E. Hirshler & Teresa A. Carbone The catalogue for the Sargeant show (Brooklyn, Boston) contains a number of excellent essays about the painter's techniques and life; extremely illuminating to me as a watercolorist.
The Granta Book of Irish Short Stories. Excellent anthology.
The Empty Family, Colm Toibin A book of stories, also about families and relationships, set in Ireland and a coastal village near Barcelona. Often dark and rather pessimistic, but brilliantly written. I liked it very much.
Brooklyn, Colm Toibin My first Toibin novel; the story of a young Irish woman who comes to New York and works in a department store in the early part of the 20th century; a novel about family relationships and expectations, and women's choices at the time.
The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz, 1957-1987 Obviously haven't read them all, but have enjoyed my forays into Paz's work. Reading a bilingual edition; I don't really know Spanish but enjoy reading the poems out loud, and have been surprised by how much I can understand.
The Cat's Table, Michael Ondaatje. Ondaatje is one of my favorite authors. This is not at the top of my list of his work, but it's a very good book, a coming-of-age novel about a child's long sea voyage and the adults he observes.
Imperium, Ryszard Kapusinski. Excellent political/sociological travelogue by a master writer-journalist about his journeys through the former Soviet Union.
The next six titles are all books I read before, during, or after our trip to Mexico City. I won't describe them all here; some are novels, some travel books, some historical novels, and all combined to give me a much greater sense of this complex country than I ever had before. I plan to continue reading Mexican literature and non-fiction; I was embarrassed to realize how little I actually knew about this neighbor and its complex, rich history.
Mogador, Alberto Ruy Sanchez
A Rosario Castellanos Reader, Maureen Ahern and others, translators
!!! Bolero, Angeles Mastretta
!!! First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century, David Lida. The best of the attempts to "explain" Mexico City that I have read. Honest, unflinching, personal.
The Orange Tree, Carlos Fuentes
The Traveler's Companion to Mexican Literature, C.M.Mayo, ed.
The Life of Pi, Yann Martel ** I listened to Martel's Booker-Prize winning novel as an audio book, and enjoyed it immensely, as well as being touched by the story. Don't particularly want to see the movie; I'd rather keep my own mental images, I think.
The Beloved Returns, Thomas Mann. I love Thomas Mann and have read nearly everythign else; this is a lesser book which may be why it is not well-known. The story of the return of Lotte, once loved by Goethe, to see the great man when they are both old.
Mission to Paris, Alan Furst. See my review on Goodreads.
The Sea, John Banville. If I had needed convincing, this book showed me why I can't stand John Banville's writing...or perhaps it is Banville himself. Many others disagree.
Himalaya Poems, Ko Un. An amazing set of poems by a Korean poet who should be much more known in the west than he is. Recommended by T.C.
!!! White Egrets, Derek Walcott. My favorite-book-of-the-year award goes to Wolcott's elegeic collection, set mostly in the Caribbean; it is simply beautiful, emotional, poignant, using the English language with such skill, intelligence and simplicity that I found myself setting the book down repeatedly to stare into space, filled with admiration and gratitude.
Word into Silence, John Main, OSB A book on contemplation by the late Montreal monk.
!!! Istanbul Passage, Joseph Kanon ** See my review on Goodreads; the most riveting book I've read this year, listened to as an audiobook. An international espionage novel that transcends the genre.
So -- 43 books in all; 6 books of poetry, 2 books on spirituality, 27 novels, the remainder non-fiction, including four books on art, sewing, and needlework. A pretty typical mix for me, I suppose! As for the dire predictions of recent years that the printed book is dead, I read that The Strand Bookstore actually had its best year ever in 2013, and e-book sales, while strong, have not decimated the print book market. My own reading seems to be bearing that out; while I love having books to read on my tablet and phone, and do read magazines and journals that way, I still like holding real books in my hands. I don't buy as many as I used to, but I still buy some (often as used books), and I frequent the library and am happy when friends lend me titles and often do the same.
Happy reading in 2014: and please send me your own list and favorites for 2013!