Out of the forty books I started reading in 2018,
And these are the top six:
1. Naomi Alderman: The Lessons (2010)
I expected this novel to be an entertaining, casual read. I definitely didn’t expect to include it among my favorite books, but I have to. There was so much I could relate to that reading it felt like therapy. The narrator, James, starts his studies at Oxford University, but contrary to what he expects, it doesn’t turn out to be the time of his life. He feels lonely and inadequate. I love the way James’s disillusionment with the institution is portrayed, especially when he dwells on how its beauty deceives. It reminds me of the disastrous time I started studying general linguistics at Universität Leipzig – the beauty of the building and its surroundings had played a larger role in my decision-making than it should have. I quit after the first semester and have never regretted it. Unlike me, James perseveres. After the first term, he is rescued from the depths of depression by a girl who introduces him to new friends. But even then, the narrative doesn’t turn into an idealized picture of college life. I kept expecting the novel to start boring me (especially after the characters leave university) and it kept me enthralled until the very end. I never got tired of or alienated from James and was astonished how many different themes the author managed to pack into one novel and yet explore them all so insightfully. I am looking forward to reading the novel again, this time marking all the passages I loved most, because during my first reading, I didn’t have time for it – I was dying to know what would happen next. On top of everything else, there were many hilarious moments that made me laugh out loud.
It makes me angry that nearly every reviewer compares The Lessons to other books, these comparisons often illustrating its supposed unoriginality. I haven’t read all of the books that I’ve heard The Lessons compared to, but in those that I have read I can perceive only the most superficial of similarities. I suspect that, by this name-dropping in their reviews, the reviewers just want to show off how well-read they are.
A comment from the author: “I was a bit pissed off that so many novels about Oxford talk about the beauty and the glamour and the glittering prizes, but not about the vast amount of work and how everyone seems to be having breakdowns all the time.”
If I had time, I would translate this novel into Czech.
2. George Eliot: Middlemarch (1871)
A wonderful portrayal of intricate relationships in a provincial English town in the 19th century, with great psychological insights into various characters’ thinking and feeling. This novel might look daunting because of its great length and great number of characters, and I was rather discouraged myself at first, but the effort invested into orienting oneself in it definitely pays off. All of the characters’ individual stories were so compelling that while listening to the continuation of one, I was impatient to hear the continuation of another, but when the focus did switch, I was sorry that the one I just listened to wasn’t continued further! As is typical in 19th century fiction, all the stories are neatly intertwined, with no loose ends, but it is truly amazing how the author managed to weave this huge bundle together and still make sure it made perfect sense.
Because of the endless supply of public domain audiobooks on LibriVox, I have listened to a great deal of 19th century English fiction and this is one of the best novels that there are. For any Austen-haters out there, I’d like to point out that this book isn’t just about romantic relationships and marriages, but also about self-realization in one’s profession (and many other things as well). The story of Doctor Lydgate is especially interesting.
My favorite quote, which makes me feel less guilty about feeling happy when so much in this world is wrong:
[Dorothea:] “I should like to make life beautiful—I mean everybody’s life. And then all this immense expense of art, that seems somehow to lie outside life and make it no better for the world, pains one. It spoils my enjoyment of anything when I am made to think that most people are shut out from it.”
[Will:] “I call that the fanaticism of sympathy. You might say the same of landscape, of poetry, of all refinement. If you carried it out you ought to be miserable in your own goodness, and turn evil that you might have no advantage over others. The best piety is to enjoy—when you can. You are doing the most then to save the earth’s character as an agreeable planet. And enjoyment radiates. It is of no use to try and take care of all the world; that is being taken care of when you feel delight—in art or in anything else. Would you turn all the youth of the world into a tragic chorus, wailing and moralizing over misery? I suspect that you have some false belief in the virtues of misery, and want to make your life a martyrdom.”
3. Ellen Ullman: The Bug (2003)
My husband was looking for a novel about programming that wouldn’t be just a crappy sci-fi and he found this one. We both loved it. He, as a programmer, says that it captures perfectly what being a programmer means. I, as a non-programmer, had no trouble understanding the technological storyline, as all the tech bits were well explained (at times to unnecessary length, I found, so even someone with very basic knowledge of computers should get it). There was also a storyline about relationships which my husband wasn’t that excited about but which I found entertaining and refreshing, despite its predictability (I am aware that our reactions are also rather predictable, considering our respective genders). It was, in any case, necessary to anchor the story in reality (no man is an island, ha ha).
As the title suggests, the novel tells the story of a programmer, Ethan, who encounters a bug in the program he’s working on (the story takes place in the 1980s). Ethan doesn’t take the bug at all seriously at first, but as time passes, deadlines loom ahead of him and he is still no nearer finding the bug, let alone solving it, the bug assumes sinister, symbolical significance. Ethan begins to question his own abilities and his life in general.
My favorite quote, which reminds me that I should be less self-centered: “Failure? You feel like a failure? Look, kid. It’s not about you. Who the hell really cares about you? The failure is in the system, and the fear should be not for your ego but for the people who’ll use the system. Think about them. Be afraid for them. Forget about yourself for a while and then you’ll find it, then you’ll fix your bug. Not because you’re ashamed, but because people might be in danger and you have to.”
If I had time, I would translate this novel into Czech.
4. Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence (1920)
I have to admit that when I started listening to this one, it seemed to be yet another comedy of manners and I just wasn’t in the mood for one. So after the first few tracks, I took a break. I continued eleven weeks later, luckily from the very point where the story starts to be interesting. It turned out to be different from the other comedies of manners I’ve read, and ended quite sadly. The protagonist, Newland Archer, is engaged to a girl who embodies old New York society (the titular age of innocence), but he falls in love with her cousin, who represents Europe and the changes that are coming over American society at that time (the 1870s). Newland’s conflicting feelings are well portrayed: his reverence for old traditions and values on the one hand, his yearning for freedom and change on the other.
My favorite quote: [W]hen she enquired how he meant to spend his afternoon, he had answered paradoxically: “Oh, I think for a change I’ll just save it instead of spending it—”
5. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Purple Hibiscus (2003)
My husband has taken to borrowing my iPod and listening to audiobooks I’ve had stored there for years without listening to them. I feel irrationally jealous of these inanimate, digital objects (I discovered them!) and feel the urge to listen to everything he listens to. But at least I finally get to listening to all these things I downloaded ages ago. Purple Hibiscus is one of them. It tells the story of a fifteen-year-old Nigerian girl, Kambili, whose father is a devoted Catholic, determined to instil the principles of his faith into his children whatever it costs, drawing inspiration from practices he himself experienced as a child brought up by white missionaries. Kambili and her brother are used to their lives, but when they spend some time in their aunt’s family, the contrast is so striking that they start to question their father’s authority. Nigeria’s unstable political situation serves as a background to the story and provides the author with intriguing paradoxes: Can a tyrant receive a human rights award?
My husband, after finishing the novel, declared that it had the most epic ending he’s ever read (or, as in this case, heard).
6. Richard Yates: A Good School (1978)
Stories of boys attending a prep school and their teachers, with no central story (although one of the characters – obviously modeled on the author himself – serves as a kind of main protagonist). The relationships among the male characters and the feelings they experience (often irrational and out of proportion) are normally associated with girls – the stereotype is that friendships between boys are uncomplicated. So it was satisfying to read a book written by a man about boys who behave and feel “like girls”.
What shocked and disgusted me at first, but later intrigued me, was scenes where sexuality was abused in bullying: a group of boys ganged up on an outsider and one of them perfomed a hand job on the victim, trying to make him come. What a sophisticated way to humiliate someone! I had no idea such things happened, but am pretty sure the author drew on experience.
And then there were some books I enjoyed immensely but am reluctant to include in my best-of list: The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, Lethal White by J. K. Rowling alias Robert Galbraith, and The Secret History by Donna Tartt. The entertainment–depth ratio was rather unbalanced. The chief effect they had on me was that they caught my attention at the time – they were so suspenseful I couldn’t stop listening to them – but I don’t think they gave me something really meaningful. I know that they were supposed to send some message(s) as well – especially the last one, The Secret History. But I probably didn’t get it. I listened to The Secret History because so many reviewers on Goodreads compared The Lessons to it, but the connection eludes me. It read more like a crime novel than a realistic story I could relate to. Perhaps I need some distance – I finished it only the day before yesterday.
I regret I didn’t compile such a best-of at the end of each year! Here’s a poor attempt to put together my favorites from previous years (in alphabetical order according to author), but as I go further back ín time, it’s more and more difficult to remember how individual books affected me at the time.
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah
- Ted Chiang: Stories of Your Life and Others, What’s Expected of Us and Others (short story collections)
- Dave Eggers: The Circle (another reminder that you shouldn’t judge a book by its film adaptation!)
- Tony Kushner: Angels in America (though I didn’t read this one – I saw the amazing performance by National Theatre Live broadcast from Lyttelton Theatre, London)
- Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant
- Ian McEwan: The Children Act
- Colm Tóibín: Brooklyn
- Frances Burney: Cecilia
- J. M. Coetzee: Disgrace
- Zoë Heller: Notes on a Scandal
- Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day
- Jean Rhys: Wide Sargasso Sea
- Richard Yates: Revolutionary Road
Full list of books read 2012–2018
Green is for books read whole; red is for books I didn’t read whole (either unfinished or skimmed through). I started keeping this list shortly after I started studying literature at university, so a lot of the stuff I read between 2012 and 2015 was compulsory reading for classes. Apart from books, there’s also individual short stories and theater performances. There’s no indication of whether I liked a book or not and, frankly, there are some items in that list I can’t remember anything about. That’s why I want to keep a proper reading journal from now on (probably a combination of digital and analog).