This is not a typo — I was going to post about the books I read in 2015 but realized I’ve fallen out of the habit, and haven’t actually done a roundup since 2012! Here are the books of 2013:
- 31 Dec 2013: The Yacoubian Building, Alaa Al Aswany.
- 17 Dec 2013: The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton.
- 29 Nov 2013: Infinitesimal, Amir Alexander.
- 19 Nov 2013: The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, Simon Singh.
- 2 Nov 2013: The Panic Virus, Seth Mnookin.
- 29 Oct 2013: Taipei, Tao Lin.
- 22 Oct 2013: The Twelve, Justin Cronin.
- 7 Oct 2013: Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, Martin Gardner.
- 15 Sep 2013: The More You Ignore Me, Travis Nichols.
- 11 Sep 2013: Undiluted Hocus-Pocus: The Autobiography of Martin Gardner.
- 1 Sep 2013: Joyland, Stephen King.
- 27 Aug 2013: The Ninjas, Jane Yeh.
- 20 Aug 2013: Time of the Great Freeze, Robert Silverberg.
- 11 Aug 2013: The Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka.
- 29 Jul 2013: Lexicon, Max Barry.
- 20 Jul 2013: Forty-One False Starts, Janet Malcolm.
- 12 Jul 2013: Thinking in Numbers, Daniel Tammet.
- 10 Jul 2013: Boundaries, T.M. Wright.
- 26 Jun 2013: Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, by Carl Wilson.
- 15 Jun 2013: Goslings, J.D. Beresford.
- 1 Jun 2013: You, Austin Grossman.
- 25 May 2013: The Night Land, William Hope Hodgson.
- 10 May 2013: 20th Anniversary Report of the Harvard-Radcliffe Class of 1993
- 5 May 2013: The Vanishers, Heidi Julavits.
- 17 Apr 2013: Belmont, Stephen Burt.
- 10 Apr 2013: Among Others, Jo Walton.
- 2 Apr 2013: Math on Trial, by Leila Schneps and Coralie Colmez
- 25 Mar 2013: The Fun Parts, Sam Lipsyte.
- 14 Mar 2013: Mathematical Apocrypha, Steven Krantz.
- 7 Mar 2013: The Magic Circle, Jenny Davidson.
- 2 Mar 2013: Snow, Adam Roberts.
- 24 Feb 2013: A Hologram for the King, Dave Eggers.
- 9 Feb 2013: The Wind Through the Keyhole, Stephen King.
- 8 Feb 2013: The Life and Opinions of a College Class, the Harvard Class of 1926.
- 15 Jan 2013: When the Tripods Came, John Christopher.
34 books. 21 fiction, 11 non-fiction, 2 books of poetry (note to self: at some point read a book of poems by a poet I don’t personally know.) Of the novels, 8 were SF/fantasy.
Best of the year: Impossible to choose between The Custom of the Country and Forty-One False Starts.
Wharton often writes about the drive to acquire money and status, which she presents not as a means to meet other basic human needs (food, security, companionship) but as a basic need in itself, and pretty near the base of the pyramid. Sometimes the particular situation is a little dated (as in the concern with divorce in Age of Innocence) but Custom of the Country, which is about a New York deformed by a sudden influx of new, uncivilized wealth absorbing everything around it, couldn’t be more topical.
Janet Malcolm is of course the best essayist alive. Forty-One False Starts is a collection of pieces, mostly from the New Yorker I think, mostly new to me. The title track is amazing: just as it says, it’s 41 possible openings to an essay, each one abandoned as Malcolm tries to start again. (Or maybe as Malcolm pretends to start again; was the collage her plan all along? That would certainly make them “false starts” in the literal sense of the words.) The same anecdotes appear in multiple sections, from multiple points of view, or rather, from the same point of view, Malcolm’s, which always seems to be viewing from everywhere at once. Here’s the first paragraph from false start 3 (which is just two paragraphs long):
All during my encounter with the artist David Salle—he and I met for interviews in his studio, on White Street, over a period of two years—I was acutely conscious of his money. Even when I got to know him and like him, I couldn’t dispel the disapproving, lefty, puritanical feeling that would somehow be triggered each time we met, whether it was by the sight of the assistant sitting at a sort of hair-salon receptionist’s station outside the studio door; or by the expensive furniture of a fifties corporate style in the upstairs loft, where he lives; or by the mineral water he would bring out during our talks and pour into white paper cups, which promptly lost their takeout-counter humbleness and assumed the hauteur of the objects in the Design Collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
“assumed the hauteur” I love. The capitals of Design Collection and Museum of Modern Art I love. And there’s the presence of money in New York and the anxiety it stirs into the world of for-lack-of-a-better-word “culture”, just as in Wharton. And Wharton is in Forty-One False Starts, too, in Malcolm’s essay “The Woman Who Hated Women”. In fact, I’m pretty sure it was that essay that spurred me to start reading Wharton again, which I’ve been doing on and off ever since. Malcolm writes:
There are no bad men in Wharton’s fiction. There are weak men and there are foolish men and there are vulgar New Rich men, but no man ever deliberately causes harm to another person; that role is exclusively reserved for women.
As for The Custom of the Country:
With Undine Spragg, the antiheroine of ”The Custom of the Country” (1913), Wharton takes her cold dislike of women to a height of venomousness previously unknown in American letters, and probably never surpassed. Undine’s face is lovely, but her soul is as dingy as Gerty Farish’s flat. Ralph Marvell, one of her unfortunate husbands, reflects on “the bareness of the small half-lit place in which his wife’s spirit fluttered.”
I hate to disagree with Janet Malcolm. But I disagree! Back in 2013 I had a very well-worked out theory of this book, in which Undine Spragg was not particularly a villain, but rather the character who was best able to adapt to the new customs and the new country. The men are weak, as Malcolm says, but indulgence of weakness can be a way of deliberately causing harm. For every one of Undine’s “can’t believe she did/said that” moments in the book, there’s an analogous crime committed by one of the other characters, but expressed with more gentility. Anyway, I’ve forgotten all my examples. But it was a good theory, I promise! I will admit that, having now read Ethan Frome, I can’t deny that there’s some extent to which Wharton experiences femaleness as a kind of horror. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on with Undine Spragg. (I also disagree with Roxane Gay about May Welland, who I totally think is meant by Wharton to be sympathizable-with but not likable compared with Countess Oleska, whose side I think Age of Innocence 100% takes, if it takes anyone’s. Maybe more on this in the 2015 post.)
Others I should have blogged about: I read Taipei because I was curious about Tao Lin, who some people think is a prankster masquerading as a fiction writer and other people think is really a fiction writer. It’s the latter. I mean, look at this map:
He’s clearly somebody who sees himself in the tradition of experimental English-language fiction (Grace Paley! Barthelme! Stephen Dixon! James freaking Purdy!) and I thought Taipei reflected that. It was way more Barthelme than it was weird Twitter. I had a good worked-out theory for this one, too, which I also forgot to blog. Negative space: it was a novel about a poet who is never seen writing or reading or performing poetry; i.e. a novel which places the experience of not-producing-poetry at the center of the poetic project. Also there was something about the emphasis on Apple products and the relationship with China, where they’re produced — i.e. the novel is intently focused on use of Apple products while hiding the production of Apple projects, just as it’s intently focused on poetry while hiding the production of poetry. But I was more into this interpretation before the novel actually goes to Taipei. (And yes I know Taipei is not in the PRC; I felt willing to fudge the geography.)
Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science: from 1956, but, like Custom of the Country, almost painfully topical. People don’t believe in orgone therapy anymore but the anti-scientific style in American culture is as healthy as ever. Let’s Talk About Love: the best book in existence about the problem of the “guilty pleasure,” or of art being “so bad it’s good,” or the basic difficulty of criticism of living culture: is the critic’s job to tell you what to like and why to like it, or to understand why the people who like it like it? (“Neither” is an OK answer here but let’s face it, these are the two leading candidates, unless “dispassionately analyze the class position of the work and the material circumstances of its production” still counts.)