Reading – a year in review, 2014

2014 was a good year for reading. I discovered new authors whose work I enjoyed: C.S. Richardson, Dennis Johnson, ZZ Packer, Ali Smith, Donald Antrim, and Greg Baxter. I continued my affection for authors with whom I had already been acquainted: Richard Ford, Elena Ferrante, Ben Lerner, George Saunders, Lars Iyer, Lorrie Moore, and Colm Tóibín. I also wrote short reviews of each book I read this past year and posted them on LibraryThing, a few of which I re-posted here on this blog. I’m already looking forward to another great year of reading ahead.

Stats from my 2014 reading list:

  • 16 were borrowed from our public library
  • 18 have Canadian authors
  • 11 were chosen due to personal recommendations from friends
  • 7 are by authors who appear more than once on the 2014 list
  • 1 was being reread
  • 1 was read aloud by my wife and me
  • 15 are non-fiction
  • 0 are ebooks

Books read in 2014 (72):

  • Davis, Philip. Reading and the Reader
  • Ford, Richard. A Multitude of Sins
  • Keyes, Daniel. Flowers for Algernon
  • Birrell, Heather. Mad Hope
  • Cole, Teju. Open City
  • Evison, Jonathan. The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving
  • Curtis, Rebecca. Twenty Grand and other Tales of Love and Money
  • Boyden, Joseph. Three Day Road
  • Moore, Lorrie. Bark: Stories
  • Patchett, Ann. This is the Story of a Happy Marriage
  • Boyden, Joseph. Through Black Spruce
  • Burnside, John. Black Cat Bone
  • Welty, Eudora. One Writer’s Beginnings
  • Crummey, Michael. Under the Keel: Poems
  • Richardson, C.S. The End of the Alphabet
  • Humphreys, Helen. Coventry: A Novel
  • Saunders, George. Pastoralia: Stories
  • Eggers, Dave. The Wild Things
  • Bellow, Saul. Ravelstein
  • McLeod, Alistair. No Great Mischief
  • Saunders, George. CivilWarLand in Bad Decline
  • Richardson, C.S. The Emperor of Paris
  • Maillet, Antonine. The Tale of Don l’Orignal
  • MacLeod, Alistair. Island: The Collected Stories
  • Maillet, Antonine. Pélagie: The Return to Acadie
  • Fraile, Medardo. Things Look Different in the Light
  • Morgan, Robert J. Rise Again!: The Story of the Cape Breton Island, Book One
  • Coady, Lynn. Play the Monster Blind: Stories
  • Toltz, Steve. A Fraction of the Whole
  • Johnson, Denis. Jesus’ Son
  • Homes, A.M. The Safety of Objects
  • Fitzgerald, Penelope. At Freddie’s
  • Strout, Elizabeth. Olive Kitteridge
  • Queenan, Joe. One for the Books
  • Lee, Hermione. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life
  • Ferrante, Elena. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
  • Iyer, Lars. Wittgenstein Jr
  • Saunders, George. The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil
  • Homes, A.M. May We Be Forgiven
  • Smith, Ali. Artful
  • Munro, Alice. Who Do You Think You Are?
  • Ferrante, Elena. Troubling Love
  • Lerner, Ben. 10:04
  • Gawande, Atul. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
  • Fowler, Karen Joy. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
  • Baxter, Greg. The Apartment
  • Scheffler, Samuel; Kolodny, Niko (ed.) Death and the Afterlife
  • Horn, Dara. The World To Come
  • Browne, Renni and Dave King. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to edit yourself into print
  • Davis, Lydia. The End of the Story
  • Packer, ZZ. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere
  • Ferrante, Elena. The Lost Daughter
  • Ford, Richard. Let Me Be Frank With You
  • Tóibín, Colm. The Heather Blazing
  • Fforde, Jasper. The Eye of Zoltar
  • Lipsyte, Sam. The Ask
  • Hadley, Tessa. Married Love
  • Smith, Ali. The Accidental
  • Berger, John. Bento’s Notebook
  • Antrim, Donald. The Verificationist
  • Beckett, Bernard. Genesis
  • Bausch, Richard. Someone To Watch Over Me
  • Hadley, Tessa. Everything Will Be All Right
  • Birkerts, Sven. The Other Walk: essays
  • Barnes, Julian. Levels of Life
  • Finucan, Stephen. Foreigners
  • Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem
  • Toews, Miriam. All My Puny Sorrows
  • Antrim, Donald. Elect Mr. Robinson For A Better World
  • Smith, Ali. Girl Meets Boy
  • Galloway, Steven. The Cellist of Sarajevo
  • Beattie, Steve W. (compiler), Davidson, Craig (compiler), and Nawaz, Saleema (compliler). The Journey Prize Stories 26


Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford

Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford
“A few good words,” observes Frank Bascombe at the end of the final novella of Richard Ford’s, Let Me Be Frank With You, and “the day we have briefly shared is saved.” It summarizes Frank Bascombe’s near elegiac take on grief, death and the fear of death, and what makes life worth living. And it perfectly captures my take on Richard Ford’s latest.

For those who have followed Frank Bascombe from The Sportswriter, through Independence Day and on to The Lay of the Land, there was always one more holiday looming. The earlier novels took place, over the course of Frank’s life, at Easter, July 4th, and Thanksgiving. So it will come as no surprise that the four linked novellas, or long short stories, here mark the the last few weeks leading up to Christmas. Frank is now 68, retired, living once again in Haddam with his second wife, Sally. It is the aftermath of hurricane Sandy and the destruction that followed in its wake has peeled back the skin of The Shore. Vast amounts of real estate are destroyed, including Frank and Sally’s old house (they sold up and moved inland 8 years previous). The survivors, one way or another, are receiving grief counselling. And maybe all of us, including Frank though he denies it, are in such need. Endings are in evidence. Indeed, as Frank notes, “that things end is often the most interesting thing about them.” Frank’s end is still being postponed, though death surrounds him, suffusing even the house in which he and Sally live (due to a horrific scene that occurred there 30 years earlier), placing its determinate finger on Frank’s first wife, Ann, who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and rattling its last rasp in the form of Eddie “Ole Olive” Medley, a former friend of Frank’s from the years shortly after his divorce. Only the reassuring presence of Ezekiel Lewis and those few good words of Christmas cheer and fellowship can stem the tide. It doesn’t seem like much, but it is enough.

Ford’s Bascombe has moved on from his Permanent Period to the Next Level, which is characterized as much by letting go (of friends, real estate, cares and concerns) as by Frank’s identification with his Default Self. But of course Frank can never really hold to his stated intentions. Perhaps his true essence just keeps seeping through, as Ann might say, or maybe it is just hard for someone without an essence, as Frank would claim, to hold on to things, especially things as insubstantial themselves as intentions.

It might sound odd to describe Ford’s return to Frank Bascombe as a breath of fresh air. But fresh is exactly how this feels. A few good words, indeed. Highly recommended.

See also


10:04 by Ben Lerner

10:04 by Ben Lerner
You can’t help but be a little bit in awe of Ben Lerner’s deftness, his complex weave of images — imminent flooding that will reshape the Manhattan shoreline, the transition to fatherhood (possibly), time’s incessant beat and its echo in the past, the book he contracted to write and the book he has written — that turn in upon themselves, multiply and become something new. Frankly, you can’t help but be a little bit in awe of his vocabulary, a diction so rich and varied and sometimes abstruse that you might wonder whether he also talks this way (he does!). Some of the writing here is so measured and perfect that it constitutes a prose poem. And you will be brought to pause and think and revel, just a little bit.

The author/narrator of 10:04 is a sometimes author, not unlike Ben Lerner, who perhaps, despite his critical success as a novelist, continues to see himself as a poet, and more important to have a poet’s sensibilities or insensibilities. We follow the narrator across the course of a year from one inundating storm that wreaks havoc on the New Jersey and New York seaboard to another; bookends, if you will, that remind us of the mutability of even our seemingly most permanent cityscapes. The narrator is anxious, medically. But also existentially. He doubts himself and his comprehension, often rightly, without the surety of any fixed fulcrum from which to view change. That is a difficulty for the narrator as well as for the conceit of the novel since the oft repeated (in the novel) Hassidic story of the world to come says that, “Everything will be just as it is now, just a little different.” But what does that difference amount to if it cannot be confidently marked? Difference, on such a view, cannot be anything but perspectival, and that, inevitably, leads to the world to come being the world as it is, or was, or might yet be. To say that we have entered a liminal space would be an understatement.

Nevertheless, Lerner is able to generate an emotional bond with his reader at times that leaps across the barriers of arcane diction, post-modern anxiety about the novelistic form, and longed-for debts to prior poets. You may even experience, as the narrator does, more than one “lacrimal event,” which for the rest of us would be a tear or two.

Always worth reading, reflecting upon, then reading again. Recommended.

Wittgenstein Jr by Lars Iyer

Wittgenstein Jr by Lars Iyer
Lamentations typically have some object, some person or thing about which one is lamenting. But what would it be like to be in a state of lamentation without object, without point and possibly without end? What if, in the face of nihilism, one’s lamentations were nothing more than raindrops posing as tears? Or at least one might suspect they were. And what if the principal lamentation of “the philosopher” is whatever metaphysical impulsion it is that causes him to take on the form of “the philosopher”? This is the condition of “Wittgenstein Jr”, a don at Cambridge so labelled by his twelve disciple-like students.

This “Wittgenstein” models the original Wittgenstein more or less exactly (though these events are set in the nominal present), taking on many of Wittgenstein’s projects of logic and life, some of his mannerisms, and even, at one point, his Viennese ancestry and family history. His young disciples are undergraduates in their final year, all male, all in thrall to his curious personality. Ostensibly they are philosophy students but it is never clear what topic in philosophy they are studying with their “Wittgenstein”. And so, in the absence of concrete particulars, we are left with gnomic statements on the nature of philosophy itself, typically undercut immediately by counter statements. This “Wittgenstein” seems inordinately caught up in his own life drama. Whether he is waging war against philosophy itself or the perceived ill-will of the Cambridge dons. He is often transported into flights of rhetorical frenzy. And this begins to set him at odds with the real Wittgenstein, one of whose mantras might have been, “back to the rough ground”. Wittgenstein Jr is not Wittgenstein. And his pronouncements, though often seemingly gnomic, are not in themselves philosophy. So why do his students, some of whom seem intensely grounded, put up with his waffle?

Love. All twelve are in one way or another in love with their “Wittgenstein”. Indeed, love is the recurring theme of the story. In this modern Symposium, Wittgenstein Jr stands in for Socrates (when he is not overtly functioning as a Christ figure). However, the vicissitudes of the academic year, and the extra-curricular activities (drugs and alcohol) in which the students partake, bring about a natural wastage. Until, during the Christmas vacation, only one student remains, with whom “Wittgenstein” takes some solace, though without permanent effect.

In the end, the reader might wish for more of the wit and/or farce of Iyer’s three earlier novels, less ponderous though arguably just as profound. Or perhaps I’m just less well-disposed to fictional versions of Wittgenstein than might otherwise be the case. Certainly Iyer remains fascinating in his technique, his willingness to create a novel of ideas, and his daring to face down the weight of preconceptions that get shipped with any use of “Wittgenstein”, real or imagined, in literature. Intensely readable, momentarily thought-provoking, but perhaps not lastingly memorable.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante
Life is full of entanglements. And when two lives are as entangled as those of the protagonists of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels it becomes a moot point as to who it is that really leaves and who remains. Elena Greco has found literary success with the publication of her first novel, as well as a certain notoriety, and an enduring confidence in her power to effect change — she thinks it is positive change — in the lives of those dear to her. Her counterpart, Lila Cerullo, has found obscurity and destitution after a failed marriage, a failed love affair, and an unwanted birth. Yet, as ever, it is Lila and not Elena who seems to be in control of her own destiny. Even Elena’s marriage to a well-connected but dull academic and her new life in Florence cannot free her from the suspicion that far from escaping the mire that is her childhood neighbourhood in Naples, she is ever at risk of sinking back into petty jealousies and crude emotions that suffocated her in her youth.

The contrast between Lila and Elena is both sharper in this third novel in the series as it is more subtle. Elena is full of high politics and ideas about the class struggle, while Lila is being abused and maltreated by voracious overlords in a dismal Neapolitan factory. Elena has access to the power of the press and highly placed friends, but Lila knows that real power still lies at the sharp end of a knife. Elena is frustrated by her inability to help Lila in any meaningful way. Lila, on the other hand, desires only that Elena live the life of integrity that would somehow, in its purity, redeem Lila’s sorry and sordid present condition. But for Ferrante, all contrasts are at best momentary and reversal after reversal consistently inverts expectation and interpretation. The effect is bewildering.

At times this third novel can feel cerebral, almost passionless, as Elena self-consciously narrates the raising of her own consciousness. Have we strayed into the politics of the personal? Perhaps. But the real has its own demands and Elena’s suppression of her own passionate nature has repercussions, unlooked for but perhaps not unexpected. By the end of the novel, Elena is literally taking flight for the first time (a journey from Rome to Montpellier, in France) even as, she can’t help noticing, the floor under her feet trembles.

I remain riveted. And somewhat in awe of Ferrante’s skill at juggling huge political themes whilst rooting everything in the clinging mud of that Neapolitan neighbourhood from whence Elena and Lila sprang. Who knows what might yet flower in the remaining books in this series? I, for one, can hardly wait to read on.

See also