2013: A Year in Reading
This is probably my last post for this year (unless the blogging gods send their blessings) and my 80th overall. A nice round number would be a nice way to end this year in blogging (although a nice round number + 1 would be arguably better). Anyway, 2013 is almost at an end and sometimes it feels like time went by in a whirlwind and then it sometimes felt like it went by at a crawl. Temporal anomalies aside, it was one hell of a reading year where I explored new genres; read really good books; read some bad ones; and found new authors to like. I also finished reading 70 books (some graphic novels excluded) surpassing my reading challenge of 60 books. All in all, 2013 was a good year for reading.
Since I love making lists, I will pepper this recap with lists of the favorite (and a not so-favorite) reads that I have this year. I want to separate the novels from the novellas, the short story collections, and the graphic novels because I believe that they all have differences in length, styles, and execution (and also because I want to cram as many books as I can in this recap). Let’s start with the novels:
Best Novels of 2013 (arranged by reading order):
- Any Human Heart by William Boyd – A book that details a protagonist’s life from childhood to adulthood is already halfway into endearing itself to my heart. William Boyd has created, with his deft hand, one of the more interesting protagonists that I’ve come across in my life. Out of all the books I’ve read this year, this is the one that I will recommend to everyone.
- The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster – Auster was my favorite author last year because of my introduction to his novel, Man in the Dark. For 2013, although he no longer is my favorite this year, he still remains at the top and that is because of this postmodern masterpiece.
- The End of the Affair by Graham Greene – Greene is an enigma to me before this book because my only exposure to him was his story in The Ecco Book of Christmas Stories which, although well-written, did not stick to my mind. With The End of the Affair, I am now determined to read his works. That’s how powerful this novel is.
- The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov – A Russian masterpiece about the Devil’s visit to Moscow where he wreaks havoc. This plot is told in conjunction with Bulgakov’s revisionist account of Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and burial through the eyes of Pontius Pilate. The two plots combine to tell a well-told satire of the Soviet-era.
- The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides – The tale of the Lisbon sisters and their (spoilers) suicide is one filled with suburban despair. The way the book chronicles the Lisbon’s experience, from the first suicide to the last, is filled with harrowing details. This is a book that one cannot easily forget.
- Ghostwritten by David Mitchell – Mitchell’s debut, if anything can be taken from it, shows that he is a very capable writer who can juggle multiple story lines without losing track of the overall narrative. Ghostwritten, an episodic novel about different people whose lives are interlinked, is a great read and gives a reader a glimpse at the future Mitchell who will achieve a more accomplished style in the same vein as Ghostwritten with his masterpiece, Cloud Atlas.
- Hunger by Knut Hamsun – A meditation on the writer as an impoverished man, this autobiographical work by Hamsun is an outstanding example of the psychological novel. It presents the main character and his irrationality sometimes in a humorous manner and sometimes in pitiful manner. This story about the decay of the human mind and the descent into madness of the protagonist is a great read.
- The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera – A challenge to Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence, this book posits that humans have one life to live where everything that happens will never happen again. Philosophy aside, the story about four people during the Prague Spring gives an intimate look into the significance that we lend to love.
- The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – Before reading this, I always considered Chabon to be a competent writer. Reading Kavalier and Clay just cemented that fact with the way that he has written this homage to the Golden Era of Comics. Not only that, he has already written one of the best books about the Holocaust that I’ve ever read.
- Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov – For a novel with a pedophile for its protagonist, Lolita is a very good read and that is because of the way that Nabokov has written the novel. He masks sexual perversion in stylistic prose and even comes close in achieving sympathy for his protagonist. For the writing style and for its very interesting protagonist, this book deserves acclaim.
- Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay – My experience with high fantasy is restricted to JRR Tolkien and GRR Martin so, when I picked up this book for our book club, I did not expect to be blown away. After finishing Tigana, well, I was blown away by the story, the characters, and the world. Enough said.
- Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem – For something that is billed as a postmodern detective story, it is kind of weird for the detective story to take the backseat to an element which makes Motherless Brooklyn such an interesting read. The element that I’m talking about is its unique protagonist who tells the story in his POV. What makes Lionel Essrog, the narrator-protagonist, interesting is that he has Tourette’s and reading how he narrates the story, along with the competent detective tale, makes this one for the ages.
- Stoner by John Williams – It is a testament to Stoner’s power that it was heralded as the Waterstone’s Book of the Year 48 years after it was published. This novel about William Stoner and his life is one of the best novels that I have ever read in my life.
Best Short Story Collections of 2013 (arranged by reading order):
- Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges – Borges is an architect of the imagination. His best stories are those that are seemingly without plot and concentrates instead on the world or on the characters. His works are philosophical and ruminative without being difficult and it provides a glimpse into what’s possible in the world of the short story. Favorite stories: “Funes the Memorius”; “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”
- My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead ed. by Jeffrey Eugenides – A very beautiful collection of love stories from different authors spanning decades (the cover says from Chekhov to Munro). The stories here are very varied but all has a central theme which is love but what’s more is that, in my opinion, all of the selections were good to great, not a bad egg among the stories. Favorite stories: “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner; “The Dead” by James Joyce; “A Bear Came Over The Mountain” by Alice Munro; “Spring in Fialta” by Vladimir Nabokov
- Object Lessons: The Art of the Short Story ed. by The Paris Review – One of the best anthologies out there and made for either those who aspire writing short stories or those who just wants to know what makes a great short story tick. The 20 stories on this anthology were chosen specifically by twenty other writers who are, in The Paris Review’s eyes, masters of the craft themselves. Favorite stories: “Why Don’t You Dance” by Raymond Carver; “Bangkok” by James Salter; “The Palace Thief” by Ethan Canin; “The Pelican Song” by Mary Beth Hughes.
- Short Cuts by Raymond Carver – Raymond Carver is consistently being hailed as a master of short fiction and one of my friends swears by the power of Carver’s stories. After reading Short Cuts, I can say that Carver is indeed a master and his stories have power. Favorite stories: “So Much Water So Close To Home”; “A Small, Good Thing”; “Neighbors”; “Tell The Women We’re Going”
- Dance of The Happy Shades/Who Do You Think You Are? by Alice Munro – These collections cemented my admiration for Munro. Before this, I only read her works in anthologies but reading not only one but two collection of hers showed me her true genius and how she can take something as mundane as life in Canadian small towns and turn it into great stories. Favorite stories: “Boys and Girls”; “Thanks for the Ride”; “The Office”; “Who Do You Think You Are”; “Half a Grapefruit”
- Pastoralia by George Saunders – It was worth buying this book from a different continent across the Pacific because the stories in this collection are so good. Saunder’s use of language is inventive and often results in humorous sentences. But, beneath all the humor, lies the true message of Saunder’s stories which warns us of a life lived in greed, violence, and ignorance. Favorite stories: “Pastoralia”; “Winky”; “Sea Oak”
- Manila Noir ed. by Jessica Hagedorn – Manila, with its grimy streets; corrupt policemen; hardcore criminals; and maze-like alleys, is a city that oozes noir. With this anthology, Manila is finally depicted as a hardboiled city and the result is an excellent assortment of noir stories. Favorite stories: “A Human Right” by Rosario Cruz-Lucero; “Satan Has Already Bought U” by Lourd de Veyra; “Norma from Norman” by Jonas Vitman;
- Monstress by Lysley Tenorio – As far as debut collections go, this one was great. Tenorio is a Filipino-American writer and he infuses his stories with elements taken from the Philippines but he strikes the perfect balance between being universal and being local in such a way that a Filipino reader will recognize the Filipino flavor while not alienating the non-Filipino reader. Favorite stories: “Monstress”, “Felix Starro”; “The Brothers”; “Help”
- Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser – Millhauser, like Borges, is an architect of the imagination. Also like Borges, he places more importance on the characters and on the world rather than on the plot. The result is something that is both like and unlike the works of Borges. The comparison is high praise but let me tell you that he is more than such comparisons. Favorite stories: “Dangerous Laughter”; “In The Reign of Harad IV”; “History of a Disturbance”; “A Precursor to the Cinema”
- A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li – Why is it that stories rooted on a writer’s nationality is almost always heartbreaking? This collection by Yiyun Li, who hails from China, has very well-written and very heartbreaking stories. Favorite stories: “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers”; “Immortality”; “The Princess of Nebraska”
Best Novellas of 2013 (arranged by reading order):
- Journey Into The Past by Stefan Zweig – Zweig has impressed me with his novella, Chess, last year and I had high expectations for Journey Into The Past. I must say that, although Chess was a better novella, Journey Into The Past was still a very good read that details the psychological underpinnings of love that was gained and lost through the eyes of two lovers who meet again after being separated for years.
- Tales of Belkin by Alexander Pushkin – Five interconnected stories which have been collected by the scholar Ivan Belkin provides a detailed portrayal in Tsarist Russia. As proof of how good this novella is, it is the namesake of the Belkin Prize, an award given to the best novella published in Russia for a given year.
- May Day by F. Scott Fitzgerald – More of a political commentary as opposed to the social commentary that Fitzgerald is known for, May Day is his tale about America’s class system and the political atmosphere that preceded the May Day riots in New York at the end of the First World War. An engrossing read that captured my attention from start to finish.
- Porcupine by Julian Barnes – Porcupine is the tale of a deposed dictator on trial for crimes that he committed against his country. However, as the trial progresses, it becomes evident that the dictator won’t go down without a fight as he points out the hypocrisy of the current regime. Filled with complex characters, this is an engrossing read.
- Fatal Eggs by Mikhail Bulgakov – A very funny combination of the political satire and the science fiction genre, this tale of an experiment gone wrong is filled with references on the incompetence and poor leadership of the Soviet bureaucracy. This was a very good follow-up to The Master and Margarita.
Best Graphic Novels of 2013 (arranged randomly):
- Sandman by Neil Gaiman – After putting off reading Sandman for months now, I decided that this would be a great year to start especially since I already have a tablet for reading graphic novels and I was not disappointed by my decision because Sandman, with its tales rooted both in mythology an in some original ideas by Gaiman, is an awesome read.
- The Works of Jason by John Arne Sæterøy – John Arne Sæterøy or Jason, as he is more commonly known, is a master of the art of the graphic novel. Jason’s stories are usually quiet and without dialogue for several panels, sometimes relying on the silences and on the expressions of his anthropomorphic characters. Some of his works are rooted in classic literature such as The Three Musketeers (The Last Musketeer), Frankenstein(You Can’t Get There From Here), or those of The Lost Generation (The Left Bank Gang) but his greatest work, in my opinion, is his totally original Hey, Wait…
- Chew by John Layman – A funny and violent comic about a FDA agent, Tony Chu, who has the power of getting the memories or psychic impression of anything that he eats. Tony uses his powers to solve crime in a world where the sale and consumption of bird meats, particularly chicken, are illegal. Chew is an amusing read and the story is not a pushover either.
- Elmer by Gerry Alanguilan – For graphic novel with anthropomorphic chickens for its protagonist, this is actually very dark and violent. It’s about chickens suddenly gaining sentience and the world erupting into chaos over this resulting in the massacre of chickens en masse and the chickens organizing to gain recognition as a sentient being with rights. My description does not do it justice but it is really a well-written tale about the fight for justice in the face of persecution.
- Fables by Bill Willingham – Taking the famous stories from fairy tales of our childhood and giving them a gritty reboot is a tricky task but it’s a task that Bill Willingham does wonderfully. The Big Bad Wolf turned into a private detective; Snow White as a hard-as-nails leader; and Cinderella as a super-spy are few of the characters that Willingham re-imagines in this ongoing series where the world of the fairy tales crossed over into our world.
Another good reason for celebrating this year in reading is the fact I didn’t really read anything that I hated. World War Z, with its clunky execution, came close but it was still a fun read so I can let it pass. I also read two excellent poetry collections this year (Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg and Twenty Love Poems and A Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda) and both, although coming from different schools of poetry, were magnificent reads. I should also mention David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water, the published edition of his commencement speech to Kenyon College about living a sympathetic life, because it is an eye-opener and I have been trying (and failing) to live by Wallace’s words ever since getting my hands on a copy.
I look forward to another awesome year of reading this 2014.