Tuesday, January 6, 2015

2014 reading notes, with some annual favorites

I had two goals for my reading in 2014: to read more books by women, and to make my reading feel less like work and more like pleasure by backing off from my obsession with "getting through" so many titles in a week, year, month, etc. I succeeded on both counts, though in the former case not as well as I originally hoped. Of 132 books read in 2014 (down from 159 in 2013), 70 were by women (up from 63 in 2013). That's both a minor increase in raw totals and a decent proportional one, but as I originally planned to read mostly books by women in 2014, it does seem I got a bit sidetracked.

Rather than picking an arbitrary number or schedule of best books for the year, I'm going to mention a few titles I especially liked, with a focus on those I think could use some extra attention: I really liked the Alice Munro stories I read this year, for example, but I hardly think anyone needs further recommendation of her work.

Melanie Lamaga, The Evolution of Reptilian Handbags and Other Stories. This collection, which I reviewed in February, belongs to the same general class of literary fantasy as work by Kelly Link, Karen Russell, George Saunders, Aimee Bender, and Alissa Nutting, but like all those writers Lamaga has a voice of her own that makes classification of dubious value. Lamaga's surrealism is at it best less superficially whimsical than that of the above-mentioned writers: she cuts right to the heart of the issues with which they're all concerned. Hers is a magic perhaps less structurally audacious, but no less perfectly stylized and haunting.

Mary Gentle, Ash: A Secret History. This mammoth novel is something I would recommend to readers of A Song of Ice and Fire who enjoy that series not for its elaborate fictional world or its violent plot twists but for its exploration of gender issues, its resemblance to historical fiction, and its air of subtle yet eerie magic. To say too much about the plot is to spoil its gradual unfurling; to identify the book's ultimate genre would be a major revelation, although there's no harm in saying that it manages at once to suggest fantasy, science fiction, and alternate history. The plot isn't superficially twisty, but the revelations are very well-paced in both the main narrative and a contemporary frame story to keep the reader involved for all 500,000+ words. The ending isn't quite as impressive as what has preceded it-- as is so often the case, explanations are less satisfying than mysteries, and the final moments of the main plot have an air of anti-climax-- but the total effect is not to be missed.

Violet Kupersmith, The Frangipani Hotel. This collection of literary ghost stories, which I reviewed on Amazon in March, does something not many writers can by satisfying both as "pure" literary fiction and as a set of spine-tinglers. Like the best ghost stories-- I think of Glen Hirshberg, and in a slightly different vein of Robert Aickman and Reggie Oliver-- they're suffused with a profound melancholy that perfectly complements the icy terror of the ghosts themselves, and they offer many angles through which to consider Vietnam, the United States, and the tangle of their shared history.

Jacob Bacharach, The Bend of the World. This first novel, which I reviewed in May, is a sharp, fast-paced, and funny variation on the contemporary coming-of-age motif. Or something like that. Really, I just typed that, and I don't know what it quite means, except that I liked the book. It's the kind of language you find in blurbs, creating the appearance of specificity because a big thumbs-up sign would give the game away. My review may be better, though I remember writing it in the kind of white heat of impressed-ness that usually produces something deeply embarrassing in hindsight. Anyway, read The Bend of the World.

Alissa Nutting, Tampa. You may notice that my very favorite books tend to be those which are very funny but also very dark, so it's no surprise I admired this laugh-out-loud hilarious account of a sociopathic woman's seduction of a teenage student. It's not a funny subject, and that's why the book has to be funny: confronting what Celeste Price is and what she does without humor would make for an unbearably unpleasant experience. The real triumph of Tampa, though, is that it explores its subject fully without descending into one of the many types of banality that threaten: narrative (no unlikely or melodramatic plot twists), thematic (no finger-wagging about how bad Celeste is, as if we needed to be told), or psychological (no contrived explanation for why Celeste behaves the way she does). It just looks honestly at what teacher/student affairs entail, and the way our society fails to grasp their meaning when facile assumptions about gender get in the way.

Jo Walton, Farthing/Ha'penny/Half a Crown and Ian R. MacLeod, The Summer Isles. These two alternate history dealing with fascism in mid-century Britain make for an interesting set of contrasts. Walton's Small Change trilogy, modeled on classic British detective fiction, is extraordinarily compelling, turning the light social comedy of such novels on its head by setting it against the backdrop of a Britain increasingly tied to, and turning into, Nazi Germany. MacLeod's novel, in which an Allied defeat in World War I sees Britain descend into depression, fascism, and antisemitism, has a subdued but haunting air of tragedy, and is perhaps the more insightful about how fascism and other authoritarian movements build up their popular appeal.

Edward St Aubyn, Never Mind/Bad News/Some Hope/Mother's Milk/At Last. These five short novels are linked by Patrick Melrose, a fictionalized version of their author, and by their darkly witty account of monstrous selfishness among the British upper classes. St Aubyn is quite good at conveying the horrors of being trapped inside one's own dysfunctional mind without also reproducing its tedium, and he makes even the most horrifying figures (like the father who sexually abused him) comprehensible without softening or excusing their behavior. The finest of the novels are Never Mind and Mother's Milk, both of which offer particularly excellent descriptions of a child's mentality without unnecessary dumbing-down of language or insight. Perhaps the weakest is Bad News, in which Patrick's drug-fueled response to his father's death is insufficiently balanced by exploration of other characters. Much coverage of the Melrose novels has inevitably focused on their autobiographical elements, but it is precisely in their escape from the tyranny of the self that they are most rewarding.

Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem. This is the first novel by China's most prominent science-fiction writer to be translated into English, and while the translation either reproduces or introduces an awkward note in the prose, the blending of eerie sense-of-wonder sci-fi concepts with an exploration of the psychological consequences of repression makes it a must-read for those interested in seeing greater diversity in SF publications. I reviewed the book on Amazon in October.

Nicholas Bourbaki, If. This novel, which I reviewed just a couple weeks ago, uses the form of children's choose-your-path novels to explore how the choices of an upper-middle-class young American can and cannot change his destiny and personality. The gimmick helps to make the book compelling reading, as does Bourbaki's gift for psychologically intense experimental prose, but what makes it memorable is its insight into how people can change and yet stay profoundly the same.

So that was 2014. I have no particular reading goals for 2015, though I do want to keep rough parity between books by men and books by women, and make more of an effort to explore SFF and related work by non-white, non-Western writers.