Friday, November 29, 2013

Books of 2013

I've become rather fond of this time of the year...the crispness of late autumn weather is in the air...turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie are about to be served...and the first "best of" lists of the year come out, most notably the "100 Notable Books of 2013" by The New York Times, as selected by the editors of the NYT Book Review. bklynbiblio readers may recall that I've been using this annual list to recap some of my own particular reads over the course of the year (e.g. 2012 back to 2008). As in the past, their list is divided into 50 fiction/poetry and 50 non-fiction books. And as I've also written in the past, I rarely if ever find myself reading anything on the list the same year that it's published. Surprisingly, though, this year I can make a "notable" exception! I was excited to pick up Amy Tan's latest novel, The Valley of Amazement, on the day it was released a few weeks ago, and even more delighted that it made the NYT list for this year. It's the book I'm reading right now too, so it's a convergence of my interests coming together rather nicely, I must say. The novel recounts the passing decades of an American courtesan and her mixed-race daughter living in Shanghai in the early 1900s. My taste for Tan's books have varied. I liked The Joy Luck Club and I rave to this day about The Hundred Secret Senses, but her others haven't been as engaging, in my opinion. However, this one so far is capturing my attention very quickly.

There isn't much on the NYT list in non-fiction that is of interest to me this year, although I do like the idea of a biography by Jill Lepore (Book of Ages) about Benjamin Franklin's sister Jane, a mother of 12 who kept on a lifetime correspondence with her famous colonial brother. On the fiction side of things, I already had on my wish list a few of the novels that have made it onto the NYT list (I guess I have good taste?!): The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (art-related coming-of-age book), The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (19th-century New Zealand; this also won the prestigious Booker Prize), and David Leavitt's The Two Hotel Francforts (gay love affair between two married men in 1940s Lisbon).

Compared to the last couple of years, my number of books read since last year's post on this topic is down from 29 to 20. I will claim it's because I've had a leaner year due to my dissertation, move, and new job. In the world of art history, I read Elizabeth Prettejohn's The Modernity of Ancient Sculpture (2012), an interesting theoretical take on how classicism has been misappropriated as anti-modern and why that needs to change (I have a review on the book coming out soon). I've also read a few exhibition catalogs on the life and art of Florine Stettheimer (1871-1944), the New York-based modernist painter whose work is still little known outside America. This is more related to my work life at Columbia now; I'll be posting about Stettheimer in the months to come.

My fiction reads over the past year began during last year's post when I was reading Richard Mason's History of a Pleasure Seeker (2011), which was interesting and a fast read, but not as enthralling as I had hoped. I also read Toni Morrison's Home (2012) while I was in San Francisco this summer; that book had been on the NYT 2012 list. I can't say it was among my favorites she's written, but Morrison is more about the way she writes then the storyline at times. Among my other fiction reads were A. S. Byatt's A Biographer's Tale (2001), F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise (1920), John Knowles' A Separate Peace (1959), and a few mysteries by Ruth Rendell and Agatha Christie. However, the two great fiction reads for me this year was a collection of short stories by Anton Chekhov (1890s)--truly a brilliant short-story writer--and George Eliot's masterpiece Middlemarch (serialized 1871-72; book 1874). I cannot believe I had not read Eliot's novel beforehand, and my friend MT insisted on changing that when she gave me the book as a thank-you gift. I can't say Eliot's book was as entertaining of a Victorian novel as, say, Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now (1875), but Eliot's novel is one of the most through-oriented I've ever read. It secretly masks as a feminist novel but concentrates on the roles men and women expect one another to play in society. Even more challenging, it questions the measurement of success, through monetary means, corruption, or intellectual prowess, and makes you sympathize with even the characters you're not particularly fond of. And then, just when you think it might never happen because of its crucial emphasis on the mind, a romantic twist that you hoped for is finally achieved, and you suddenly realize that the greatest moments in life sometimes are the ones that are the least important to the world at large. Middlemarch has one of the most beautifully written, poignant endings; the last two paragraphs simply made me cry. The book is a masterpiece because it explores the mind, the heart, and the soul, and forces you to confront for yourself which of these are most important to you, the reader, after all.

No comments: