Tuesday, April 1, 2014

STL #115: The Year Reading, 2013

It's taken me a while to get back to this. So as I learned last time, I read a whole heck of a lot of books last year. Here is a an attempt at a list of the ten best. I made it by jotting down all possibilities and then starring all that jumped out as being a cut above the rest. That wound up being 10, so here you go.

1. We Have Always Lived At the Castle by Shirley Jackson. There's no doubt in my mind that this was the best book I read this year. Merricat is an unforgettable narrative voice and the scenes depicting mob mentality are chilling and unsurpassed. It lead me directly to Jackson's Haunting of Hill House, which is just a bit off this mark but also an astonishingly insightful narrative in (more pronounced) genre trappings.
3. Desperate Characters by Paula Fox. The second great discovery of the year. I read it in a single sitting one rainy Saturday morning. Though I wasn't there, it seems a cuttingly accurate portrayal of New York in the 70s. It's a story of breakdown on many levels--physical vandalism to social entropy to marital indifference.
4. The Counterfeiters by Hugh Kenner. From two compelling new voices (to me) to an old favorite. Kenner writes with a world-embracing confidence. The perspective of this study of Swift, Buster Keaton, and sundry others is remarkably contemporary.

5. Building Stories by Chris Ware.  The flaws of Ware are, as ever, equally his virtues. His style is cold and at times precious, but that's an unavoidable function of his aesthetic. While the appearance and perspective is classic Ware, the innovative packaging of the 14 separate components of the box labeled "Building Stories" represents something new--relinquishing something of his past demand for control to the participation of the readers.
6.  Borges Collected Fictions. It's odd to put the work of one of my favorite writers in this second rank. I might have made that statement about Ware as well--but perhaps it is the familiarity with both that led me too it. Or maybe, for Borges, it is the sheer whelm of reading so many of these short pieces (concurrently with the nonfiction). The best of the stories should be read in isolation, to allow them to resonate.
7. Little, Big by John Berger. To be honest, I don't think I was an adequate reader for this book. The prose is lovely and dense, and the plot intricate. I think it deserves more careful attention, than I gave it--it is a long journey in short steps that took me quite a while to finish. I hope to read this again sometime, though. 
8. The Score by Richard Stark. This is a proxy for the first six books of the Parker series that I read in succession. While I've adored the Parker novels I had been able to find, this sequence finally became available via ebook from my local library. I'm on The Seventh (the title), which I keep checking for, through The Sour Lemon Score and then I'll pick it up again with Deadly Edge

9. Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammet. Great book. What else is there to say? Let the Op speak: “I haven't laughed so much over anything since the hogs ate my kid brother.”  Or, more descriptive of the book: "This damned burg's getting me. If I don't get away soon I'll be going blood-simple like the natives.” 
10.  Dune by Frank Herbert. I reread this after many years. I had a vivid memory of the ecological specifics of the desert people and not much else. You see this cited again and again as a prime exemplar of world-building, which is certainly justified. The least talented stylist on this list by a country mile, which makes me wonder--what science fiction or fantasy writer has the best quotient of world-building facility and stylistic acumen? Is the apparent disparity real? If not, what is the reason for it?