Sunday, December 27, 2015

Best reads of 2015

While I am still working my way through George Eliot's Middlemarch -- and hope to wrap it up in the last few days of 2015 -- I can tell right now is not going to crack my top 10 or even top 20 books read in 2015.  The plot is reasonably clever, but I do not care for Eliot's obtrusive narrative voice.  It is somewhat easier to take than in The Mill on the Floss, which I really did not care for, but I just feel that I am constantly being told what to pay attention to in each chapter and, worse, how I should think/feel about all these events.  Dickens and Trollope also share this weakness on the completely omniscient narrative voice, but somehow Eliot is continually rubbing me the wrong way.  (It doesn't help that one of the characters starts out as totally feckless and spoiled, though it appears he finally get serious about choosing a career after he is disappointed in not receiving a large inheritance from his uncle.  I just do not respond well to feckless characters, which was continually a problem when I was reading Barbara Comyns's novels.  Perhaps I also see a bit too much of Casaubon in myself -- and don't care for the novel acting as a mirror.  Not the irrational jealousy, but the unwillingness to finish large, ambitious projects, perhaps in part to avoid opening oneself up to criticism.)

At any rate, building off of my 2014 round-up post, I think I have the format down.  I list the top 5 books of the year (not counting books I re-read since those aren't precisely discoveries, and I only re-read books that already rank very highly on my personal enjoyment factor).  Then I round it off with other books that stood out among the dozens of books I read over the year.  I link where possible to the posts that have discussed these books, either in detail or just in passing.

Top five books of 2015:

Gregor von Rezzori An Ermine in Czernopol
Ivan Vladislavic The Restless Supermarket
Albert Cossery Proud Beggars
Friedrich Dürrenmatt The Physicists (saw and read this in 2015)
Bruno Schulz The Street of Crocodiles/Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (often published together in one volume)

Franz Kafka's The Trial edges out Djuna Barnes's Nightwood for the best book reread.

Honorable mention:
Andrey Platonov Happy Moscow
Tom Stoppard Travesties (saw and read this in 2015)
Barbara Comyns The Juniper Tree
Elizabeth Taylor A View of the Harbour
Molly Keane Time After Time
Jerome K. Jerome Three Men in a Boat
Angela Carter Nights at the Circus
Irène Némirovsky David Golder
Michael Ondaatje The Cat's Table
R. K. Narayan Mr Sampath: The Printer of Malgudi

The Narayan is an interesting case as I thought a few parts felt familiar, but it wasn't until this dramatic scene towards the end where one of the minor characters goes off the deep end and tears up a movie studio that I decided I had definitely reread the book.

After some internal debate, I decided to add The Cat's Table as well.  I find this a flawed novel, in the sense that Ondaatje tried too hard to overcomplicate the structure of the novel.  Frankly, it would have been so much better as either a simple story of the boy on a ship headed to England, or one step removed -- the retrospective view of this trip.  But the shifting back and forth in time was too precious and undermined what was well done.  Still, if I prune away the elaborate structure, the remaining shipboard scenes were quite entertaining.

Looking ahead, I have quite a few shorter (250 pages or less) novels coming up, which always makes me feel particularly "productive" in crossing books off my TBR pile.  Based on my current pace, in the second half of 2016, I should start hitting Tobias Smollett for the first time.  I hope I can get into the right frame of mind to read him, since he is supposed to have written quite a few "rollicking" novels.  (Sometimes the humor of the past doesn't quite translate to the present.)  At some point after this, I should get around to rereading Bell's Waiting for the End of the World (and I'll see if it has such a big impact on me this time around -- here's hoping).  The back end of the year features quite a few longer books, including Wallace's The Pale King, Murakami's 1Q84 and Thackeray's Vanity Fair.  While I suspect if I stick closely to the reading list I won't quite make it to Vanity Fair in 2016, I might rearrange it to tackle it in December, as I tend to have more time off around the holidays.  That's something to look forward to at any rate.

Best wishes to all for 2016!

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