When did I last make a Best Reads of list? I honestly can’t remember. Apparently I’m making one this year, which feels somewhat like a victory against my indolence. Nah, that’s too harsh. I’ve simply gotten out of the habit and I’m struggling to get back to regular blogging. I could make any number of excuses but you’ve heard them before, so let’s skip it.
It was a decent reading year, overall. I used Goodreads to record most of my reads, which worked out to be around 35 I’m able to name. Of those, three fell into the Did Not Finish pile I chucked aside as useless. Two of those three were book group reads, or books recommended by a group I didn’t wind up joining. I followed along from home, telling myself I’d go to the meetings if I liked the books. Well, funny story, in addition to those DNF titles there were three others I finished but very reluctantly. That’s a whopping five, which makes them a bit shit when it comes to picking books. Call me silly, but seems to me the books are an integral part of a book group – hence the name.
Another four were online book group read-alongs – via Facebook and the now-defunct online Literati site, which sent me an email a week ago abruptly announcing that’s it, they’ve packed up shop. My guess is other members like myself got fed up their celebrity book group “leaders” never posted a damn thing during the discussions, which left us all paying money for books we read on our own. That’s fine, I like books. What I don’t like is the promise name-brand authors are going to share their personal favorites then chat with you about them, only to find out they’re basically just hand-selling.
Ah well. That’s more books I’ll choose for myself in 2023.
This year’s Booker Prize list engaged me and I read five of the longlisted novels, then became angry my top two favorites (The Colony and Case Study) didn’t win. Adding insult to injury, two books I was very meh about (Oh! William and The Trees) advanced to the shortlist. They always manage to piss me off somehow, yet still I return. To be fair, they’ve introduced me to loads of great reads.
I bought the book that did win the prize, which wasn’t published in the States until after the prize had been awarded so I couldn’t have read it before, anyway. It has potential. The premise is great and the first few pages are promising. I’ll talk about it once I’ve gotten to it, update to come.
Non-fiction reads in the biography category were both about male writers and written by females: Myself and the Other Fellow: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson by Claire Harman and Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit, both stellar. The RLS was inspired by a planned return trip to Scotland, though that odyssey was shifted to Ireland, but at least now I’m better-equipped for next time I go – tentatively planned for late 2023. I do highly recommend the Solnit title, too, if you have even the slightest interest in George Orwell. Fascinating how she structured that book, telling some of her own story then thoroughly examining Orwell the man, rather than Orwell the author.
My one completed book about books (most of these I don’t read straight through but I took this one on a retreat), Classics for Pleasure by Michael Dirda, is also a recommend. Many of the books he writes about I’ve already read but that makes his essays no less enjoyable.
Enough preamble. Let’s get to my list – in no particular order:
” Always when I play back my father’s voice,” Maria says, “it is with a professional rasp, it goes as it lays, don’t do it the hard way. My father advised me that life itself was a crap game: it was one of two lessons I learned as a child. The other was that overturning a rock was apt to reveal a rattlesnake. As lessons go those two seem to hold up, but not to apply. “– Play It As It Lays
Joan Didion died in 2021, arguably the finest American essayist ever. Her writing was often politically and socially charged, classified as “new journalism” along with writers like Tom Wolfe, whose Bonfire of the Vanities I read and enjoyed decades ago. Her minimalist prose was a sort of homage to Hemingway, whose essays she hand copied to study his style. Because her writing was so journalistic, she’s a writer who seems to polarize readers. I adore her.
Play It As It Lays was one of the first books I read in 2022. It’s gritty and realistic, grim but not without purpose. It reflects the time and place in which it was written and set: 1970s Hollywood. I shouldn’t have liked it, much less been blown away. I have little interest in either the 70s or Hollywood but it transcends its subjects.
It was all about the writing; it cuts like glass.
“What happens in a room lingers there invisibly, all deeds, all words, always. Not seen, not heard, except by some, and even then imperfectly. In this very room both birth and death have taken place. Long ago, maybe, but the blood is still visible on certain days, when time wears thin.”– The Promise
Speaking of the Bookers, The Promise was the 2021 winner. It is spectacular.
The story of a family falling apart in South Africa of the apartheid years, it revolves around the youngest member of the family, Amor, who’s almost a mystic or sage. Even though she moves away from them and distances herself, she’s always a presence. The book is tragic and beautiful. I loved it and vowed to read more by Galgut.
“She was lonely. Who isn’t lonely, I’d like to know? And that includes people who do have someone but just haven’t noticed.”– The Door
Such an odd book! And that’s exactly why I loved it. With elements of magical realism and a distinctly dark tone, the story is about an older woman who basically takes ownership of a couple and asserts herself into their lives until she becomes essential. She gains power over them, but not in a truly sinister way. Yes, she controls them but without malice.
I love darkly psychological books. I say that all the time, and The Door is a prime example.
“Bless me, Father, said Francis, for I pushed the Englishman off the cliff. One Hail Mary, said Micheál. Bless me, Father, for I have pushed the Frenchman off the cliff. One Our Father. Two Hail Marys.”– The Colony
I said my best reads are in no particular order, but that’s not entirely true. I’m realizing now The Colony is my absolute favorite read this year. My impulse is just to yell it’s fucking brilliant, pick it up. Because it is fucking brilliant. Pick it up.
It’s about a tiny, insular island that’s home to the last pure Irish speakers living in the traditional way – that is, trying very hard to survive by fishing and trading skilled labor for food and other essentials from mainland Ireland. Because they need the money, they allow a couple visitors at a time to stay in their ruggedly beautiful community. In the story, both summer visitors are men: one a linguist who’s a perennial visitor, on the island to study and write about them, the other an artist, an older man who believes himself a more brilliant painter than he is, and whose motives are ultimately devastatingly selfish.
Magee alternates the story of the island with chapters about the brutality of The Troubles, relating bloody attacks between the unionists and the nationalists in Northern Ireland going on at the same time the islanders are realizing the inevitability their lifestyle is no longer sustainable. The effect is breathtaking. This book hasn’t left my head.
“Karen, her elbows folded on the deck-rail, wanted to share with someone her pleasure in being alone: this is the paradox of any happy solitude.”– The House in Paris
Finally, I made time for Elizabeth Bowen and she smashed all expectations. I’m not sure she’s like Virginia Woolf but I love her writing for similar reasons. Her prose style is very modern, her themes including breaking away from Victorian values and running madly into the 20th century. As an Anglo-Irish writer, much of this book examines a tug of war between her homeland of Ireland – seen as somewhat provinicial – and a more modern life outside its borders.
Because Bowen doesn’t feel completely comfortable in either world, the theme of house and home is very prominent. It’s almost gothic the way she writes about houses, as if they are sentient. Actually, it is gothic how she describes the moods of houses and their ability to warp life within them.
In addition to her novels, she’s known for accomplished ghost stories. I haven’t read hese yet. I hope to in 2023.
If there’s a common thread in these five books, it’s atmospheric quality. I like a good plot – which all these have – but I’m more impressed by authors able to flex their skills manipulating the reader to feel, to really resonate with the prose. I don’t need to like characters. In fact, brilliant writers are capable of making the reader viscerally revile the characters while riveting with a plot that drags them through the muck.
Now that is my kind of book.
All these works could be called brooding and dark; there’s nothing sunny and happy here. I’m not a depressed person anymore but I maintain an interest in realism over relentlessly cheerful writing. There are exceptions, when I’m in the mood for it, but truly good comic writing demands the same mastery as the darker stuff. Books that don’t challenge my mind are incredibly dull and I don’t have time to waste on dull things.
I may finish another book or two in 2022 but I’m confident nothing can dislodge these five. Here’s to more stellar reading in 2023 that pushes my boundaries and shoves me out of my comfort zone.
I hope the same for you, too. Cheers.