whim: an odd or capricious notion or desire; a sudden or freakish fancy

Thursday, January 2, 2014

2013 in retrospect: overview and books

Rather than feeling the typical celebratory, forward-thinking attitude that a new year brings, I find myself feeling reflective. I find myself wanting to look back before I look forward (perhaps this is inspired by Charles Lamb's marvelous essay, "New Year's Eve," which you should absolutely read if you haven't already).

2013 was a big year for me, in more ways than one. It was thrilling, fulfilling, frustrating, and depressing in turn. I experienced some of my highest highs and lowest lows, and I think it would be wrong of me to close the door on everything I experienced without some recorded meditation. So, I've decided to devote the month of January to looking back at 2013. Usually, the beginning of January is spent making goals; instead, I want to spend January internalizing the previous year, and then I will move forward at the beginning of February with resolutions and the like. My only goal for January is to blog. I start teaching at SUU next week (still haven't written a syllabus), and I expect that the first month of teaching will be busy, finding my way around and getting used to a new campus, new students, and mostly getting back into a teaching mode. BUT I'd like to blog my way through, here a little and there a little, despite being busy.

Anyway, my first item of reflection is books. I read around fifty books in 2013 (a number that I'd like to increase this year, but I'll make that goal later), some of them fantastic and life altering, others disappointing and dull. Here are my favorites:

Best Books I Read in 2013 (in no particular order):

1. At Large and at Small: Familiar Essays, Anne Fadiman: This collection embodies so much of what I love about essays: they meander, reflect, inform and transform. She inspects ordinary topics and makes them fascinating. She is also witty and so much more intelligent than I could ever be.

2. The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver: This book broke my heart, then broke it again and again. It was tragic and haunting and beautiful all at the same time. Oh, and Kingsolver's prose is TO DIE FOR GORGEOUS.

3. The Fault in Our Stars, John Green: There are so many YA books that are absolute trash (I suppose that's true of most genres), but I love a good YA novel. I wept in this book. Shamelessly.

4. The Mysterious Benedict Society, Trenton Lee Stewart (the second YA novel on this list): You know the feeling of reading a book with ideas and characters that are utterly tired and predictable? Like a painfully derivative RomCom? This book was the exact opposite, and it was refreshing. The concept, plot, and characters of this novel are unique and fresh, and it was so much fun to read. The second book in the series is less successful, but still fun, and I have yet to read the third.

5. Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), Jerome K. Jerome: Hilarious. Jerome's essays are delightful, so much so that I was apprehensive about reading his fiction (I didn't want to be disappointed), but this book was laughoutloud funny from the very first page.

6. Hyperbole and a Half, Allie Brosh: Some may not see the purpose of buying the book, because most of the chapters also appear on Allie's blog, but after reading it, I did not regret buying it one bit. I laughed (harder and more frequently than I did in #5) because it is so darn funny, and I cried because parts of it are so fetching tragic. Allie Brosh is relatable and outlandish and incredibly talented.

7. Things That Are, Amy Leach: This collection of essays makes the natural world seem magical and fantastical. I had the privilege of hearing Leach read from this book and also workshopping one of my essays with her, and it was wonderful. Check out her bluegrass readings online, and you will see how delightful and quirky she is. Love love love.

8. Moby Dick, Herman Melville: This novel is a dream. I love essays, and I love fiction, and this book manages to be both. I took my merry time reading it because I didn't want to rush––I wanted to relish in Melville's seductive prose. I admit, at times I wanted more narrative, but in the end, I was won over. Take a gander at mobydickbigread.com, and listen to Tilda Swinton's reading of Chapter One and Benedict Cumberbatch's reading of Chapter 58.

9. Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys: Jane Eyre is one of my all-time favorites, so it's surprising that I hadn't heard about Wide Sargasso Sea before this year. I love how fragmented and imaginative this novel is, and I love the idea of fleshing out a character that is so little explored in the original text. I'm looking forward to reading Jane Eyre again to see how this book affects my reading of it.

10: Birdology, Sy Montgomery: A collection of personal essays about Montgomery's interactions with birds. What could be more delightful? Both informative and charming. Read it.

11. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald: I reveled in how deliciously depressing this book is. Give me a great melancholy book with doomed characters and I'm a happy girl (weird, I know––don't judge).

BONUS: Most Disappointing Books I Read in 2013:

1. The Haunted Mesa, Louis L'Amour: I really REALLY did not want this book to turn sci-fi/fantasy halfway through. I wanted it to stay a creepy ghost story steeped in Native American legend and myth, not a gateway to a different dimension. I felt like it was such a cop-out. Blech.

2. Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson: I feel blasphemous putting RL Stevenson anywhere near a Most Disappointing list, because I love his essays with all my heart, and I love Treasure Island. But this book just did not do it for me. I was bored through the entire second half. Maybe I wasn't in the mood?

3. Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness, Willard Spiegelman: I really wanted this book to be great. That title! Taking pleasure in the ordinary! It sounded so wonderful. But I found Spiegelman's essays dull and a bit lackluster. Also, as a narrator he came off as pompous and a bit too self-satisfied. Alas.

(Note: I really love even numbers, and I am uncomfortable with the fact that both of my lists end in odd numbers. Should I indulge in my obsessive compulsive tendencies and add one more book to each list? Yes, yes I should. Without further ado:

Another Best Book:

12. Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons: Witty, charming, cheeky.

Another Disappointing Book:

4. A Study in Scarlet, Arthur Conan Doyle: What's with the weird Utah tangent? Seemed so out of place. I love Doyle's other Sherlock stories, but this one wasn't his best.

The end.)