It’s astonishing how few books I read as a graduate student. I did a tremendous amount of reading, but it was mostly unpublished fiction by classmates, students, and applicants to the MFA program. I’ve read about 30 books this year, 2/3 of them since I graduated in May. While not that many for me historically, that’s a three year high. Here are my favorites.
Arcadia by Tom Stoppard. Every once in a long while you read a book that immediately becomes a part of your personal canon, something you know from the first encounter that you’ll be returning to and finding new depths in for the rest of your life. Borges was like that for me, and Catch-22, Octavia Butler, Kelly Link, Ted Chiang, and now Arcadia. I was already a fan of Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which I read in high school. I’d been meaning to read Arcadia for years. I even bought a copy once, but it disappeared. (I think an ex stole it.) Over and over it was recommended by people as something I would like, and I finally got around this year to buying a new copy.
It’s incredible. It has all of my favorite things: clever formalism; patterns that repeat across different scales; nonlinear narrative; fractal mathematics; intellectual humor; and critique of gender roles in social, scientific, and literary regimes. It’s funny, suspenseful, heartbreaking. The best play I’ve ever read. The very first time I have an opportunity to see it produced, I will. In the meantime, the day I read it I got online and bought enough copies to throw an Arcadia reading party. I can’t give a higher recommendation than that.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. I was already a fan of Karen Joy Fowler’s work, from her short stories and her novel The Jane Austen Book Club. But her latest novel is in a different league. It’s utterly gorgeous, full of brilliant sentences that add up to an equally brilliant whole. While reading it I was frequently moved to read passages aloud to myself, just to feel the music in the prose. I’ve sold several people the book just by reciting the preface and letting the beauty of the language win them over. It’s convenient that that works, because there’s not really any way to talk about the plot without spoilers that will dramatically change the reading experience. But if that isn’t a concern to you, then you could check out this glowing review by Barbara Kingsolver in the New York Times. For my part, I’ll just say that this year I read Pulitzer Prize winners, Nobel prize winners, bestsellers, and cult classics, but this was my favorite novel that I read in 2013.
Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine. The previous was my favorite novel of the year, but this was my favorite work of nonfiction. (So it was a good year for books with bright yellow covers.) If this were just a thorough takedown of biological essentialism, whether historical or modern, it would probably be enough to earn a place on this list. But Cordelia Fine has done more than that. She’s not just taken on the heroic task of going through all the recent books claiming inherent neurological differences between men and women, and tracked down all of the references to assess their legitimacy, but she’s done it with humor. The book is written in delightfully dry tones of academic snark. So, for example, while critiquing the way that Barbara and Allan Pease use scientific studies in their execrably-titled book Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps, she observes that of the studies referenced in the Pease’s claim that their “emotion maps” are based on fMRI research, only one of them was a brain study conducted after the academic use of fMRI. And of that she writes, “It might also be worth mentioning that it was a postmortem study. Possibly Sandra Witelson really did present her samples of dead brain tissue with emotionally charged images–but if she did, it’s not mentioned in the published report.” As they say in the ivory tower, oh SNAP!
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki (deluxe edition box set). This was a graduation gift to myself, something I’d been meaning to read for years. I’m a great fan of Miyazaki’s movies, of which the film adaptation of this manga was the first for which he served as both writer and director. The movie version is glorious, and you should watch it if you haven’t, but the manga is a much larger and more intricate story. This is partly because he had only written/drawn the first two years of the manga when he made the movie, and wouldn’t finish it for another decade. The politics, world building, and characterizations are rich, and the artwork predictably incredible. (This oversized edition is worth it for the greater detail in the artwork alone.) The story does at times have a bit of a formless, sprawling feel to it. That could be because it was Miyazaki’s first (and last) long form manga work. But that hardly matters, as the expansiveness of the world is one of the distinct pleasures on offer here.
The Man Who Fell To Earth by Walter Tevis. (My copy had a different cover that I can’t find good image of. This seems to be the edition in print right now.) For a while this year I was running a science fiction movie club, and picking movies for it was an excellent excuse to watch some classic films that I’d never managed to get around to. One of those was Nick Roeg’s adaptation of The Man Who Fell To Earth starring David Bowie as an alien, which I’d been putting off until after I read the novel. Now that I’ve read/seen both, it’s the book I think I might be going back to. That’s not a knock against the movie, but Tevis’s novel was a startling work of bleak loveliness. If there is such a thing as a page turner consisting entirely of chilly, elegiac portraits of loneliness, this is it. (If you’ve seen the movie but not read the book, which seems likely to be the case for many, know that the book has a lot more tipsy rumination on the impossibility of ever really connecting with other people, and a lot less of David Bowie’s penis.)
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. (This one isn’t the cover that my copy had either, but I wish it was, because this cover is way better. Mine was a couple of bicycles leaning up against a stone wall.) This is a novel that had been recommended by many people, and the recommendations were often things like, “This book is amazing but also it made me break down crying in public.” So, naturally, I waited until it was dark and cold and miserable outside to read it. The book is made up of a pair of linked epistolary narratives, with an unreliability-powered plot that’s so ostentatiously clever that, in my edition, the cover text touts its cleverness. That alone would make it worth reading. But this book is also that rare creature: a rollicking wartime adventure that is centered on a friendship between two women. It’s set primarily in Nazi-occupied France, full of espionage, aeronautics, and harrowing scenes of painful bravery. Even prepared as I was for an emotionally wrenching experience, the climax was shocking and the denouement deeply affecting. Read it, but not at a time when you’re feeling fragile.