Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Year in Books, 2013 edition

Highlights in reading, in order of appearance, hit-and-run style:

1. Muriel Spark The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: Jean Brodie is an amazing creation, and the novel's dense looping structure was a delight to behold. I will read more of Ms Sparks' novels as they fall into my hands. A Far Cry From Kensington was good, but it was no Brodie. Still, I'll keep an eye out, and we have Memento Mori on the shelf already.
2. James Joyce Finnegans Wake: I tried to read this a few years ago and only managed 100 pages. This time around I stopped fighting against Joyce's language and just let it carry me along. Finnegans Wake is a beautiful and dazzling failure but even as a failure it remains a great work of art: unknowable, mythical, yet wholly human; funny and puzzling and finally moving. The Anna chapter that closes the book still makes me weepy if I think about it. I also sometimes shake my fist at the ghost of Joyce because in a way I can't quite describe, I have been estranged from fiction ever since reading this novel.
3. Leonardo Sciascia The Day of the Owl: Sciascia's novels of crime and justice in Sicily break the mold for detective fiction. This book showed me how to free myself from the restrictions of genre conventions, and was the lifeline that pulled me through the drafting of The Hanging Man (see below). Sciascia writes brief, dense books where heroes do not save the world, for the world is not there to be saved.
4. John Ruskin The Seven Lamps of Architecture: Great stuff, sometimes even about architecture. Sometimes full of lunacy. I am looking for more Ruskin but have had, surprisingly, a difficult time finding it around here. For now I'll have to be satisfied with the (extremely) abridged Stones of Venice I picked up at Magus Used Books last week.
5. Anton Chekhov: This year I finished up the 13-volume Tales of Chekhov set of 300+ stories translated by the beloved Constance Garnett. In 2014 I will begin reading the set again, starting with the first volume. I'm also reading Chekhov in other translations, mostly because Garnett did not translate all of Chekhov's stories. I cannot begin to say how important Chekhov is to me as a reader and a writer. Very, that's how much. Lots, too. Heaps, etc. I have however not yet finished my long-term project of reading all of Shakespeare's plays. I've read most of them. Those English history plays languish on the shelf. But I started in on "Richard II" last night, so there, Mr Shakespeare.

The living author who I'm most pleased to have discovered this year is Marly Youmans, who wrote Thaliad and A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage. I'm looking forward to reading more from young Ms Youmans. She has an impressive catalogue.

These are most of the books I read in 2013 (I'm not listing nonfiction titles I'm plundering as research for my own marginal novels):

Muriel Spark The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
William Shakespeare Pericles
Joan Aiken The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
Graham Greene Brighton Rock
Eduard Mörike Mozart's Journey to Prague
Ivan Turgenev A Lear of the Steppes and Other Stories
Yukio MishimaThe Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea
Kingsley Amis Lucky Jim
Miguel de Cervantes The Dialogue of the Dogs
Anton Chekhov Tales of Chekhov, Volume Nine
Michael Sims (ed.) The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime
Voltaire Candide
Michelle Davidson-Argyle Out of Tune
Franz Kafka Amerika
Arthur Quiller-Couch On The Art of Writing
Anton Chekhov Tales of Chekhov, Volume Ten
Nikolai Gogol Dead Souls
Chandler Klang Smith Goldenland Past Dark
Vladimir Nabokov Mary
Marly Youmans Thaliad
Aristotle Poetics
James Joyce Finnegans Wake
Anne Gallagher The Earl's Engagement
Leonardo Sciascia The Day of the Owl
Anton Chekhov Tales of Chekhov, Volume Eleven
Anton Chekhov Tales of Chekhov, Volume Twelve
Sarah Jewett The Country of the Pointed Firs
Maurice Dakobra The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars
Andre Gide The Counterfeiters
Albert Camus The Plague
Vladimir Nabokov Lectures On Literature
Flannery O'Connor A Good Man is Hard to Find and other Stories
Mary Shelley Frankenstein
Leonardo Sciascia To Each His Own
Artistotle Ethics
Agatha Christie Appointment With Death
Muriel Spark A Far Cry From Kensington
Anton Chekhov The Undisovered Chekhov
Gustav Meyrink The Golem
Miranda July No One Belongs Here More Than You
Graham Greene Stamboul Train
Anzia Yezierska Bread Givers
James Boswell The Life of Samuel Johnson
Gao Xingjian Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather
Howard P Lovecraft The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories
John Ruskin The Seven Lamps of Architecture
Marly Youmans A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage
John Ruskin Lectures on Architecture and Painting
Anton Chekhov Tales of Chekhov, Volume 13
Vladimir Odoevsky Two Days in the Life of the Terrestrial Globe
Robert Louis Stevenson The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and other stories
Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt The Most Beautiful Book in the World
Charles Dickens Oliver Twist
Flannery O'Connor The Violent Bear it Away
Jack London The Sea-Wolf

Writing 2013 was rather a mixed bag. My debut novel, The Astrologer, was published on March 1st by Rhemalda Publishing. In September, my book went out of print when Rhemalda Publishing went out of business. So there was that. I have since wasted many hours seeking a new agent and/or a new publisher. No good news on either front yet, although I have received a handful of polite rejection notices to assist me in my ongoing battle against the sin of pride. Mostly, you know, the submissions process is just a big vacuum into which one shouts as loudly as one can. Not even an echo is heard.

I wrote a new book this year, a sort of detective novel that ignores the conventions of the mystery genre. Very soon a revised draft of that will be in the hands of three eager readers. I'm already onto another project, revisions to the novel Mona in the Desert. I expect great things from this little book. Not a book deal, but other, greater things you could not possibly understand. I am also laying the groundwork for the drafting of Melville Hart's Atlas Of, which will be sad and beautiful and, hopefully, baffling and maddening. We shall see.

Richard December 31, 2013 at 11:01 AM
Nice to see you single out the Spark and the Sciascia titles, Scott. Great choices. Hope to make more time for more from both of them and some time for Chekhov and Joyce next year. Ruskin will probably have to wait to get added into the mix through no fault of his own. Anyway, Happy New Year to you and continued productive reading and writing times in 2014.

scott g.f.bailey December 31, 2013 at 11:20 AM
Richard, I enjoyed your 21 golazos post; I had no idea you read The Ambassadors this year! What a book that is. Your essay on it is quite fine, too. In 2014 I'll read more James and I also have a copy of Bernhard's Concrete sitting right in front of me.

marly youmans December 31, 2013 at 2:38 PM
Young? That's what I call excessive buttering-up!
But thank you, Scott! Your good opinion is much appreciated.

scott g.f.bailey December 31, 2013 at 2:52 PM
You are but 8 1/2 years older than me, and I am still young.

R.T. December 31, 2013 at 3:14 PM
Isn't Pericles the most wonderfully flawed but splendidly interesting play?
When Shakespeare takes over the work at about the half-way point (pushing the other writer aside), the play comes alive in the most spectacular ways.

marly youmans December 31, 2013 at 4:11 PM
Excellent! Wrote you a proper thanks-with-link on the blog and am thinking about how I ought to read some more Muriel Spark.
Now, back to tapas and champagne...

Anne Gallagher January 1, 2014 at 6:07 AM
I am quite flattered to be included in your list. A very small fish in a very literary pond.

Davin Malasarn January 2, 2014 at 9:36 AM
Happy New Year, Scott. I enjoy reading your annual recap posts, so thank you! The excerpts you posted on Seven Lamps of Architecture earlier were fascinating. I'm looking forward to reading that book on my own. I'm also eager to read The Hanging Man if I get to. I hope 2014 is a year of ongoing writing success and publication clarity!

scott g.f.bailey January 2, 2014 at 9:43 AM
Davin, thanks and Happy New Year to you! I hope you read the Ruskin; it's a great book even if you don't care about architecture, but what he says about light and dark will probably interest you as a painter. You will have a copy of The Hanging Man as soon as I fix some typos, etc. I wish you and Peanut and TN all the best for this coming year!

Michelle D. Argyle January 4, 2014 at 5:43 PM
I'm impressed. :)

scott g.f.bailey January 5, 2014 at 1:28 PM
Michelle, two of your books will be on my 2014 list!

seraillon January 7, 2014 at 2:43 PM
Scott - what a fantastic and enviable list, on which I count a whole bevy of writers I've already planned to read this year - Chekhov, Ruskin, Meyrink, Lucky Jim, my every-ten-years re-read of The Plague, plus Eric Emmanuel Schmitt and Joan Aiken - and many other writers I look forward to discovering. And with luck I'll get to The Astrologer too, finally. I'm eager to see what you'll tackle this year.

scott g.f.bailey January 7, 2014 at 3:12 PM
Your own list was pretty good for 2013, I must say. All those desert books, for one thing, and a healthy mix of Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese literature. And Jules Verne! Who reads Verne these days? I will be poaching from your 2013 list in 2014.
I warn you that the Emmanuel Schmitt struck me as over-rated; sort of feel-good stuff for people who like pretty prose and not much else.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

the most fortunate and enviable circumstance that can possibly befall a human being

Mighty Reader and I have decided to have another Dickens readalong, this time with Oliver Twist. I have never read this one; Mighty Reader has. She warns me that it is much closer to the David Lean film than to the musical "Oliver!" we just saw. Which is fine.

This was Dickens' first proper novel (I am led to believe, by the critic who introduces my edition of Oliver Twist, that Pickwick Papers and the "Sketches of Boz" stories are not novels; I have read neither, so I don't know.) It will be interesting to compare it, both in terms of style and technique, with his later works. Mighty Reader and I read Our Mutual Friend last year, if you remember. Even if you don't.

The book starts strong:

Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse was born; on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events; the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.

For a long time after it was ushered into this world of sorrow and trouble, by the parish surgeon, it remained a matter of considerable doubt whether the child would survive to bear any name at all; in which case it is somewhat more than probable that these memoirs would never have appeared; or, if they had, that being comprised within a couple of pages, they would have possessed the inestimable merit of being the most concise and faithful specimen of biography, extant in the literature of any age or country.

Although I am not disposed to maintain that the being born in a workhouse, is in itself the most fortunate and enviable circumstance that can possibly befall a human being, I do mean to say that in this particular instance, it was the best thing for Oliver Twist that could by possibility have occurred. The fact is, that there was considerable difficulty in inducing Oliver to take upon himself the office of respiration,--a troublesome practice, but one which custom has rendered necessary to our easy existence; and for some time he lay gasping on a little flock mattress, rather unequally poised between this world and the next: the balance being decidedly in favour of the latter. Now, if, during this brief period, Oliver had been surrounded by careful grandmothers, anxious aunts, experienced nurses, and doctors of profound wisdom, he would most inevitably and indubitably have been killed in no time. There being nobody by, however, but a pauper old woman, who was rendered rather misty by an unwonted allowance of beer; and a parish surgeon who did such matters by contract; Oliver and Nature fought out the point between them.

That's good stuff. Even with the jokes, this is all about death. Look at the vocabulary:

the item of mortality
sorrow and trouble

The all-about-deathness continues as the chapter develops. And what's this "rather unequally poised between this world and the next" business? Oliver spends most of the novel unequally poised between worlds, yes?