Monday, December 24, 2012

Favorite Reads of 2012

A Suitable Boy
Vikram Seth brings post-partition India to life in all its many layers in this journey through two years in the lives of four families.  Seth made me care about every one of the dozens of characters and story lines.  Possibly my favorite of 2012. 

In the First Circle
By Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  Two privileged groups of people--the Soviet upper class of diplomats and generals, and the "upper class" of gulag prisoners (those with scientific or technical skills)--are trapped in the first circle of the Soviet hell. 

Casting the Runes
M. R. James is my new favorite writer of ghost stories.  These have so much to love:  cozy nineteenth-century British settings, scholarly main characters, and ghosts from antiquity.  

The Life of Irene Nemirovsky
By Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt.  A very, very engrossing look at the tragic life of one of my favorite authors.

Julius Caesar
The first of Shakespeare's histories that I've read since high school.  I was pleasantly surprised to find it moving and suspenseful.

An Artist of the Floating World
By Kazuo Ishiguro.  A subtly and delicately fascinating novel of memory, propaganda, and self-justification in postwar Japan.  I've got more by this extremely interesting author on my TBR list. 

Die Verwandlung
Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis.  This was the most difficult book I've attempted to read in German--it makes this list because I got through it! 

Bloodlands--Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
Timothy Snyder's history of the the area of eastern Europe in which the Nazis and the Soviets between them deliberately murdered fourteen million people between 1933 and 1945. 

Twilight and Moonbeam Alley
By Stefan Zweig.  Loved these stories by an author I've just discovered.  Moody and old-European in a style that's reminiscent of Isak Dinesen.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
By Anne Bronte.  Shocking-for-its-time depiction of an intolerable marriage from the woman's point of view.  Harrowing to read, the book is a passionate plea for women's right to self-determination.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
By David Mitchell.  Page-turning and thought-provoking historical fiction.  

Tess of the D'Urbervilles
Thomas Hardy's incredibly moving tragedy.  I had to stop reading this one halfway through and catch my breath before going on.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Mount TBR Challenge

As I have a TBR list of 78 books at the moment (click on TBR List at the top of the blog to see it), and as I expect 2013 to be quite a bit busier than 2012 was, I'd resolved not to join any new challenges, and just continue with the Classics Club.  But... here's a challenge that fits in with that resolution.  Bev at My Reader's Block proposes that we read mainly from our own TBR piles, and choose from the following levels:

Pike's Peak:  Read 12 books from your TBR pile/s
Mount Blanc:  Read 24 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Vancouver:  Read 36 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Ararat:  Read 48 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Kilimanjaro:  Read 60 books from your TBR pile/s
El Toro:  Read 75 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Everest:  Read 100 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Olympus(Mars):  Read 150+ books from your TBR pile/s

I'm not committing to more than Pike's Peak (12 books) at this point, although I hope I'll read more from my TBR list than that.  I'm also not deciding in advance which ones I will read, keeping this as easy as possible. 

Quick Look: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Set on the artificial island of Dejima, a Dutch trading post just off the coast of Japan around 1800, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is hard to categorize.  While it has elements of historical fiction, adventure, romance, mystery, and fantasy, it is none of those exclusively.  What it is is a page-turner with an appealing main character, and prose that is thoughtful and often haunting. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Just Finished: Tess of the D'Urbervilles

During a 2011 trip to England, I visited Stonehenge.  From the headphones they give to tourists, I learned two things I did not previously know:  that it's now believed to be an ancient calendar, and that Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles contains a scene describing a sunrise there.  The recorded voice quoted part of the scene:
The band of silver paleness along the eastern horizon made even the distant parts of the Great Plain appear dark and near;  and the whole enormous landscape bore that impress of reserve, taciturnity, and hesitation which is usual just before day.  The eastward pillars and their architraves stood up blackly against the light, and the great flame-shaped Sun-stone beyond them;  and the Stone of Sacrifice midway.  Presently the night wind died out, and the quivering little pools in the cup-like hollows of the stones lay still.  

So of course I bought the book, and of course I didn't read it.  Until now, as it's on my Classics Club list.

Tess is one of the more affecting books I've ever read--I actually stopped reading it for a couple of weeks, because I  was getting so emotionally involved, and I didn't want to face the next disaster looming on Tess' horizon.  Why was I more moved by her than by, say, Helen in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, who was equally blameless and equally unfortunate?

Maybe it's because Helen was more of a device than a woman--Anne Bronte made her almost impossibly saintly, clearsighted, and resolute, probably to further her feminist message.  Tess, on the other hand, while both intelligent and good, comes off as rather hapless, and at key points in her life, makes tragically bad decisions.  Her character is more complex, and felt more affectingly human to me.

Another reason is probably that Hardy, like Dickens, found England's lowest classes of people as interesting as the highest.  He has an upper-class character spend time among farm laborers, and discover 
...beings of many minds, beings infinite in difference, some happy, many serene, a few depressed, one here and there bright even to genius, some stupid, others wanton, others austere;  some mutely Miltonic, some potentially Cromwellian;  into men who had private views of each other, as he had of his friends;  who could applaud or condemn each other, amuse or sadden themselves by the contemplation of each other's foibles or vices;  men every one of whom walked in his own individual way the road to dusty death.  
 A feminist message can be found in Tess as well as in Wildfell Hall.  Most of Tess' misfortunes are caused by men's selfishness, and Hardy even titles one section of Tess "The Woman Pays."  Both books illustrate the plight of women in Victorian England--creatures with virtually no rights, held by men to standards that the men themselves did not meet.  This line, near the end of the book, in which Tess and her estranged husband are reunited, devastated me:
They stood fixed, their baffled hearts looking out of their eyes with a joylessness pitiful to see.  
 As great a novel as Wildfell Hall is, Tess is the one that caused me genuine grief.

Classics Club