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December 27, 2017


Beth, I've read two of Knausgaard struggles and while everything you say about his writing is accurate, but I got so fed up with him I wanted to throw my Kindle out of the window. I didn't, needless to say, but I won't be reading the rest of his struggling. What it reminds me of, speaking in art terms, is one of those hyper-realist painters like Chuck Close, for instance. Every freaking detail is there right down to nose hairs, but why? What's the point of this obsessive detailing? I suppose one could say that such meticulous embroidery shows a praiseworthy kind of dedication but it can also be an irritating compulsiveness. Like watching paint dry.
But I'm not a good judge of writing and there are many things I don't like which are considered masterpieces (Proust,for example).So my opinion is truly irrelevant.

On the contrary, Natalie, I think your opinion is absolutely valid and relevant -- and shared by many. It's probably not a surprise that Proust is one of Knausgaard's favorite writers. Not mine, though.

I've been reading through the Knaussgarard novels for a couple of years now, currently waiting for Book 6 to be translated. I'm fascinated by what he does stylistically at the level of the sentence and paragraph, as well as by what he's doing with the structure (and purpose?) of the novel -- and the congruence of that with what Ferrante, another generation, a completely different socio-geographical milieu, another gender, is doing, playing at the edges of fiction and autobiography, the one flaunting the connection, the other veiling it. I get very irritated with the man and his ego, regularly, but there's no question at all that he's doing/has done something very important -- and that he engages, somehow makes the quotidian (although his quotidian is so very different than mine) illuminating.
I've been surprised to see how much my husband has been engaged by these, how much he's found speaks directly to him despite very different personalities, ages, circumstances.
Not sure that I'll ever have the will to read the books again, but there is so much to discover in looking at the structure, I think, the loops, recurrences (often with interesting discrepancies). . . Right now, though, rather than taking on his season's, I'm reading Ali Smith's Autumn. And suspecting that I won't get 'round to posting my booklist for 2017 until we're nearly a month into 2018. . .

Knausgaard - is the reader divide an introvert/extravert thing, I wonder? My tolerance for large male egos isn't high, but my overwhelming impression isn't that his is exceptionally large, more that a big part of his world is his inner world...

What a great list, Beth. Oh, your're reading Perez-Reverte - zoomed through several of his novels and loved them a few years ago! And I love Modiano. Must read Claire-Louise Bennett's Pond! And, OMG, I so hated Cicero at school - wonder if I'd find anything in him now?

Ugh, I really need to be more careful proof-reading in the age of auto-correct -- that should be "rather than taking on his seasons. . . .

Beth, as I've said before I often read with half an eye to how my choice will stack up publicly here (for better and worse!).
Our only common point this year is 'Blind Spot', a book that was interesting and occasionally delightful in its individual images and text, but more powerful in the accretion of echoes and themes, and eventually profoundly satisfying. I haven't read many hefty works this year (although 'Varieties of Religious Experience' was not trivial), my main thread being the English works of Nabokov. I'm still not sure what I think: 'Pnin' and 'Pale Fire' remarkable; I couldn't handle 'Ada, or Ardor' at all. Favourites? 'The Thing Itself' by Adam Roberts is genius SF, and 'Gilead' and 'I Capture the Castle' are justifiable classics. 'Footnotes' is a worth a read for all runners. Virginia Woolf lingered on and in October we visited St Ives, to see Talland House and the lighthouse of 'To the Lighthouse'.
Best wishes, as ever, and thanks for continuing to write here and share your art with us. A still point in a turbulent online world.

A Sense of Direction, Gideon Lewis-Kraus First Bite, Bee Wilson
The Marches, Rory Stewart
The Thing Itself, Adam Roberts
On Silbury Hill, Adam Thorpe
And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, John Berger
The Pacific, and other stories, Mark Helprin
Hey Harry, Hey Matilda, Rachel Hulin
The Towers of Trebizond, Rose Macaulay
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey
Understanding a Photograph, John Berger
The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James
Judas, Amos Oz
The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch
Aleppo, Philip Mansel
The Reader on the 6.27, Jean-Paul Didierlaurent
Montaigne, Stefan Zweig
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
The Book of the Green Man, Ronald Johnson
Selected Letters, Virginia Woolf
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot
Pnin, Vladimir Nabokov
Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, Paul Kingsnorth
Real England: Battle Against the Bland, Paul Kingsnorth
Virginia Woolf, Alexandra Harris
In Sunlight and In Shadow, Mark Helprin
My Sky Blue Trades, Sven Birkerts
Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov
The Real-Town Murders, Adam Roberts
Children and Other Wild Animals, Brian Doyle
Footnotes, Vybarr Cregan-Reid
In the Days of Rain, Rebecca Stott
A Burglar’s Guide to the City, Geoff Manaugh
Music, Andrew Gant
Sourdough, Robin Sloan
The Year of Reading Dangerously, Andy Miller
Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov
Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
A Life of One’s Own, Marion Milner
I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith
How to Think, Alan Jacobs
A Boy at the Hogarth Press & A Parcel of Time, Richard Kennedy
Ice Mountain, Dave Bonta
Blind Spot, Teju Cole
A Musician’s Journey Through Life and Death, Paul Robertson
The Kreutzer Sonata, Leo Tolstoy
The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper

PS And hello Jean; I still miss Tasting Rhubarb!

Toril Moi has written an essay (https://thepointmag.com/2017/criticism/describing-my-struggle-knausgaard) that has the resonance of insight about 'My Struggle'. Of course, not having read more than a few paragraphs of Knausgaard's work, I don't know whether Moi's essay rings true, but it's enough to make me interested — as does your own commentary.
I might give it a go, and I can probably bring myself to accept his (or the translator's?) irritating run-on sentences.

Pete, I can't thank you enough for pointing me toward Toril Moi's article on Knausgaard. She has crystallized exactly how I feel about the books, and why I think they are important -- because they are about a life dedicated to paying attention -- but also what Knausgaard is struggling against as he tries to achieve this witness to one man's life in the medium of writing. The passage about the Constable painting was critical for me - I even copied it out into my journal at the time - because it represented much of what I feel about art, realism, and post-modern art criticism. Like Karl Ove, though, I am struggling toward a new way of expressing what is real that is not merely simple representation. And I think this is part of what made me so sympathetic to what he expresses, and to what is going on all the time in his head as he goes about his life. Thank you.

I continue to buy books faster than I can read them,okay a lot faster than I can read them.If I were to list them I face two problems as I do every year. One, sometimes I can't remember whether I read a particular book this year or last.Secondly I do a lot of reading at a second house in a secluded village on Vancouver Island. The books remain there so I forget some of what I read while there.
In 2017 I grew to like the novels of Alan Furst set in pre war 1930s Europe. I probably read 5 or 6 of them this year. Another quilty pleasure are the novels of Norwegian Jo Nesbo. Presently dipping into 'Consolations: the solace, nourishment and underlying meaning of every day words' by David Whyte, 'The Written Word : the power of stories to shape people, history and civilization' by Martin Puchner,and starting a book I got at Christmas 'The earth is weeping: the epic story of the Indian wars for the American West' an interest of mine, by Peter Cozzens
My favourite mountaineering writer David Roberts was well enough from an ongoing desperate fight against throat cancer to attend Banff this past November where in an hour and half interview on stage Roberts was not sure he had the stamina for it, he mesmerized a packed Max Bell theatre with stories of the climbing and writing life: how he came to change his mind about risk,twice breaking down speaking about those who kept him alive during the one on one with Cancer.
Peripheral to this topic I attended a writing workshop in San Miguel de Allende,Mexico where,to become a better writer I was encouraged to see my world more clearly but more importantly I was taught to ask "who are you? and where are you going?" And to the extent I could aline my writing with my authentic self and my honesty in that quest I could write something worthwhile

I've read Toril Moi's terrific essay too (oh my, a name from a far-off past in the UK women's movement of the 70s and 80s - she's my age and lived here then) and found it both deeply thought-provoking, and heartwarming that, unlike some feminist critics, she loves Karl Ove Knausgaard's work.

Pete, I'm pretty sure the English is true to Knausgaard - Don Bartlett is a very fine translator.

and hello Huw! :-)

Jean, I agree, I don't think Knausgaard's ego is that big, and I think readers who say so aren't really getting what he's doing, or who he is. I hated Cicero, Caesar, and all of the Roman authors I read earlier in life, so it was interesting to go back and read him now. The Treatise on Old Age is the main thing I read, and it wasn't boring, and had quite a bit of wisdom in it, but nothing I found revelatory.

Frances and Jean, do read the Toril Moi article that Pete links to in his comment. I'd love to hear what you think!

Huw, glad to see you here once again, Happy New Year! What a terrific and extensive list! Not too much overlap with mine except in terms of authors we both like - I haven't read Virginia Wolff's letters but would like to, and you've gone through some Berger I haven't yet read, for instance. I read the William James many years ago and found it rather hard going. Haven't read either Pnin or Pale Fire, and should. Right now I'm curious what you thought of My Sky Blue Trades by Sven Birkerts -- I just read an essay of his on Derek Walcott at LitHub that I thought was very well written. Thanks so much for keeping and sharing your list, I always look forward to seeing it, and as I read I often think of what you and a few other list-keeping readers may be enjoying -- or not -- over the course of a year.

I have read fewer books this year than any other in my life since I could read. I was immersed in trying to understand my native country (USA), what happened in the past 16 months, what is happening now. So I read a great deal of editorials, essays, commentary. This probably did me limited good.

Currently I'm reading Lewis Hyde's "The Gift" at the request of a friend.

Beth, we have Teju Cole's Blind Spot in common; it always seems as if we share a book a year. But I can chime in with other commenters: I, too, don't enjoy Proust, and I, too, can recommend Pale Fire.

My only new novel this year was Doctor Zhivago -- so rich. Looking at this year's list (now on my blog), I feel as if I dropped everything for politics and political theory, with the notable exception of my fourth read through the Aubrey-Maturin series as a major diversion.

Cole's review of the Walcott anthology got the volume onto my "wish list"; your words here have gotten me to purchase it.

Beth, Sven Birkerts is a fine essayist and I would absolutely recommend his collections 'Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age' and 'The Other Walk' over 'My Sky Blue Trades' which is a - well-written but perhaps less interesting - memoir. And do read Woolf's letters (I wonder what an interleaved reading of her diaries and letters would have revealed).
I read a lot this year in reaction to political ructions.

Peter, I've just looked at the list on your blog and it's fascinating. Are there any political books that you would particularly recommend to a non-US reader?

Huw, my second reading of your list led me update my own list to include Bonta's Ice Mountain: I had forgotten that I had read it this past summer.

Your last comment to Beth makes me wonder: which of the books on your list were in reaction to political ructions? I don't see any overtly political works on your list unless I'm missing something. But sometimes a work on another subject or in another genre hits me with a political roundhouse; recent readings of Macbeth and The Tempest have done that. Or perhaps your political readings this year haven't been in books. Or perhaps your readings have been, as you say, in reaction to politics -- as a way to distance yourself, to cope or to gain perspective.

I can't think of a question I'd enjoy answering more. I have no training in political theory; to call myself an autodidact on the subject would be too flattering. But it interests me. I assume that you are more interested in books that may help a non-US reader to understand current US politics than you are about political books that may have a more worldwide application. Of course, Hamilton in Federalist No. 1 and Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address suggest that America's true mission is mankind's mission, so maybe it's all the same.

I like the more prophetic political books, left and right -- that is, those that apply theory to the authors' present in ways that transcend the then-current polemical "frameworks." A good recent summary of such books is found in the footnotes of a fascinating, recent book: Philip Gorski's American Covenant. Gorski's book itself takes the reader through U.S. history from the Mayflower Compact through just before last year's election in terms of such authors' political writings. Such "prophetic" books include those by Voegelin, Hannah Arendt, James Baldwin (his essay anthologies), Reinhold Niebuhr, Harry Jaffa, John Courtney Murray, and Marshall Berman. (Re non-US readers, so many of these writers weren't born in America or were marginalized because of their race or religion.) Thanks so much for asking.

Peter, it's been the latter: reading as a way to distance myself from the current political fractures. Rory Stewart's 'The Marches' provided some much-needed perspective on the history of 'middle Britain', and 'On Silbury Hill' delved into deep time, both what is lost and incomprehensible, and what endures. And a good measure of light relief: the sheer joy of 'I Capture the Castle' and the magic of 'The Dark is Rising'!

America's true mission being mankind's mission? There's a topic! I'm not even sure it's the mission of the countries that birthed it. But of course that vision is a crucial part of the world today, and perhaps I should seek to understand it more deeply. You seem taken by Voegelin; is he hard work (I'm not afraid of effort, but have not the facility for more abstruse philosophy) and is there a sensible place to start?

So many books--that is, your 2017 list does not overlap with mine at all! Sounds like a interesting year in words... Happy New Year!

Huw, I'm glad to have your thoughts on some good, non-political reading. Thanks much. Voegelin is extremely hard work for me. He has a way of juggling too many variables -- too many terms I'm not at all clear about -- in many of his paragraphs. I started to index him, particularly his definitions that come long after some extensive use, so I think I know his lexicon now. I can see why he has few followers. But he was the right writer at the right time for me. I think my path into Voegelin was one of (relatively) less resistance -- Lilla's chapter on Voegelin in his Shipwrecked Mind book, then Anamnesis, then the intro in The Ecumenic Age, then a good book about Voegelin's thought. But I might suggest instead taking in Hanna Arendt's On Revolution or Niebuhr's The Irony of the American History, each of which has, in its own way, a spiritual approach to political theory as does Voegelin's work. Both books focus on America's "mission," too, though neither is very flattering of the U.S. (especially Niebuhr). With Arendt particularly I feel challenged but not overwhelmed following her fascinating mind at work. Her footnotes are often well worth the trip.

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Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.