Another Year in Reading

2nd birthday

I started this blog back in the Spring of 2011, and I’ve decided to continue the tradition I began last year of posting about my year of reading (something that is quite popular on literary blogs and magazines) in the Spring instead of the usual December.

This has been quite the reading year, and as usual I’m a little disappointed by the numbers when I look at the final list. My lack of reading last summer is explained by the fact that I was juggling multiple jobs, which meant I spent the better part of May AND June reading Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies. The other remarkable aspect of my year in reading is that this last school year was the first in a long time during which I had no mandatory books to read for class. So all the books I read were for “pleasure,” whatever that means!

I’ve written about many of my favourite books on the blog and in other places during the year, of course, so there’s no point in repeating everything here. Instead, here’s a list of some of the books that marked my year and which I also kept mostly quiet about online.

So here it goes for a handful of books from my last year in reading, which encompasses most of 2012 and the first chunk of 2013:

  • Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart

Bowen is one of my favourite writers, and it was such a pleasure to read through one of her most well-loved books. While the novel is intensely introspective and Bowen’s narrator is a little heavy-handed in placing the right elements for the reader to understand certain things at certain moments, Portia, the 16 year old protagonist, carries this story on her shoulders like Jesus carried his cross. It’s a heartbreaking tale of loneliness and and lost innocence, told with the deftest of sensibilities.

  • David Mitchell, Black Swan Green

Again, I’d read through Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet with great pleasure, and I was looking forward to reading this novel, whose publication is bookended by these two more famous works. Black Swan Green follows the teenage years of Jason, a poet stammerer growing up in a small village in England in the 70s. The story is in turn brilliantly hilarious and excruciatingly sad. Mitchell nails the spirit of pre- and early-adolesence of boys with frightening precision, especially that deep sense that you must always check how you’re acting to make sure you’ll be judged positively. The narrative can get a little too jolty, but it only adds to the heady joyfulness of the ride.

  • Tim Parks, Italian Neighbours

I blogged tentatively about this book when I wasn’t even finished reading it, but now that I have I can officially rave about how wonderful it is (plus, the cover is really nice). In Italian Neighbours, Tim Parks remembers his year of living in a rented flat in Montecchio, a small village in Northern Italy. Don’t ask me how he does it, but by somehow exploring one topic per chapter, he also manages to provide a chronological account of that year, while introducing us to a host of unforgettable characters. Parks’ prose is pitch-perfect and his eye for cultural singularities is sharp. In fact, I enjoyed myself so obviously with this book that I ended up reading a bunch of chapters to G. before going to bed over the Christmas break; I couldn’t resist letting her in on the fun. Italian Neighbours is relaxed (in the best way), honest, touching—all the things non fiction is supposed to be.

  • Joel Dicker, L’Affaire Harry Quebert

This odd, fat French book landed in my stocking with hearty praise from french-reading critics on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s weird: a deeply American literary thriller (set in Maine and New York, with American characters and a narrator who’s a Jewish writer from Newark) written in French by a Swiss. Unfortunately, the book failed on almost every account for me. The narrator is an idiot and a prick, the murder of which his old mentor is wrongly accused is uninteresting, the earth-shattering love story between said mentor and the victim sounds awfully hollow. The book ends up sounding hollow too: the characters are so exaggerated it becomes a kind of satire of the great american novel, except it’s not a joke (at least I don’t think it is). Still, I would be curious to see this novel translated into English (if only because it’s ballsy and its setting demands it) and see what the New Yorker would think of it.

  • Seamus Heaney, Seeing Things

One of my resolutions this year was to read more poetry. Done. Heaney is a living god of words. His way of circling around an image, of sending out his lines into a beautiful tangent and then gently tugging them back to the starting point is literally breathtaking. His verbose adjectives somehow manage to convey exact meaning by piling up verbs and nouns. His voice second-guesses, questions, quotes, contemplates. It builds. This is what poetry does, man. It makes things.

  • Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red

Also part of my poetry reading resolution. I have an exaggerated affection for Carson’s translations of Euripides but I never got around to reading her poetry. In some ways, I was not disappointed; in others, I was definitely blown away. Carson reinterprets the little known ancient Greek myth of Geryon, a red monster who was killed by Herakles. She inserts her characters in a fluid world, halfway between our reality and the myth of the source material: Geryon and Herakles become lovers in a complicated, painful relationship, but Geryon remains the red, winged monster of the legend. In spite of the odd form—a prose poem in alternating short and long lines bookended by an essay and a fake interview with the ancient Greek poet who first wrote empathetically about Geryon—the book is compelling, almost compulsively readable. It’s also very moving: Geryon’s loneliness and displacement is expressed with great subtlety and harrowing honesty.

  • Art Spiegelman, Maus

After seeing a wonderful exhibit about Art Spiegelman at the Vancouver Art Gallery, I knew the time had come to finally read Maus. Wow. This is the kind of book you devour once and then return to again and again. I loved the book’s metafictional elements, its thick scratchy drawings, its fluid panel transitions, its ability to stare anything—funny or sad—right in the face and openly struggle to represent it through art. Maus is simply a masterpiece.

***

And now, onwards into a brand new year of reading! Please take a moment to reflect on your year’s favourites and share them below. 

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About Charles-Adam Foster-Simard

Reader, writer, retired book-seller, traveller, food-lover, jogger. Sometime book-blogger. I come from Montreal, but I now live in Vancouver, where I'm doing an MFA in Creative Writing at UBC. View all posts by Charles-Adam Foster-Simard

2 responses to “Another Year in Reading

  • Alex

    The children’s author, Philip Pullman introduced me to ‘Maus’ many years ago now. It was my first graphic novel and I have gone back to it many times, not only because I wanted my students to know it but also because I think it is a great piece of literature. The book that has had me thinking most deeply so far this year has been Kate Atkinson’s ‘Life After Life’. It’s also a damned good read.

  • Stefanie

    Happy blogiversary! My head, and my reading table are all full of gardening books lately but one book I especially enjoyed recently was Vasily Grossman’s An Armenian Sketchbook.

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