The Year in Review: Books Read

In a perpetual effort to keep my brain from going soft, I try to read as much as I can. This was a good year for literature. It contained my final semester of college, which was one of the most rewarding, what with a course on the American short story, an independent study on Cormac McCarthy, and the completion of my senior paper. Graduation also commenced my gap year between undergraduate and graduate studies. Therefore, I’ve had much more time to read, and I’ve been just fine with that. From January first to December thirty-first, I read sixty books, and I’m not about to list all of them or describe them all. But these were the ten best.

10. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
I read through the trilogy this summer and concluded that this was really the only story I absolutely loved. The first of the three adolescent novels by Collins deals with the effect a culture of violence has on its people, specifically when children are the focal point. Her tale of a girl named Katniss who must enter the annual Hunger Games to involuntarily participate in a fight to the death with twenty-three other children smacks of post-apocalyptic fear, brutality, and a twisted naturalism that would even make Darwin’s head spin. Its anti-capitalistic depiction of the Capitol and all its money wielding the power is compelling, and Collins creates a story memorable if nothing else for its refusal to create a wholly good protagonist. For every noble deed Katniss does, she equally takes measures questionable enough to cause her to hate herself. The reader is at a loss when it comes to classifying all of it. Helplessness reigns more than anything; Katniss has her hand forced and has to do anything to survive. Should we cheer for her or be frightened by her impossible situation?

9. Maus by Art Spiegelman
I’d never even heard of this graphic novel until this past summer, so obviously I was completely unaware of how famous it is. But reading through it was such a delight (at least, as much of a delight as a tale from the Holocaust can be). Spiegelman’s historical-narrative-turned-beast-fable of his father’s experience leading up to, during, and decades after Auschwitz is uncomfortably harrowing. So much has been written about the Holocaust to where it’s amazing to encounter another tale that makes that period in history feel fresh, that makes you believe you’re encountering the knowledge of concentration camps for the first time. Spiegelman is wise, too, to join the present-day reader to the struggle by artfully depicting how the hand of the Holocaust still reaches into the here and now and exacts the physiological echoes of torture emanating from past physical atrocities. With cold lucidity, Spiegelman shows us the depravity of man and may very well play prophet at one point when a character in Maus asks whether or not it will take another Holocaust for the human race to learn.

8. In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway
While the fleshing-out of the “Lost Generation” is typically attributed to Hemingway’s novels, his first collection of short stories captures with a painful elegance the disconnect felt by the post-World War I generation. An aimlessness, search for identity, and inability to connect polarized dots dominates as the theme for many of the stories, and Hemingway poignantly captures the imminent realization that war changes everything and how the America of the past could never be fully realized for these boys who awkwardly became different men than their fathers at the European theatre.

7. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Whenever the first page of a book is a family tree, you know you’re in for a potentially confusing read. But regardless of how often you have to turn back to try and figure out who is who in the story, Márquez’s novel of grandeur never gets old. It is truly a work of fiction in every sense of that word. Crafted out of nothing, Márquez creates a world so unique you begin to believe you might be reading a mythological epic tale. With its themes of love, death, pain, joy, war, politics, and the pursuit of fulfillment screaming from its pages, Márquez touches on everything in life we encounter and/or search for as human beings. Though lathered in more than just a dollop of magic realism, he still finds a way to bring the novel around to touch the transient realm, enough to where we feel like we’ve heard some of this story before, and yet are encountering it for the first time. Márquez with his pen is a magician, and he puts on an incredibly rewarding show.

6. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Whether a novel, a novella, or neither, Cisneros creates a coming-of-age story truly original in its form. Told in a series of half-, one-, two-, or three-page vignettes, the reader receives a tale of what it means to be a young Mexican girl growing up in the American city. Told with humor and heartache, Cisneros creates a world probably foreign to most white readers, but it is a delightful one to be enveloped in nonetheless. Written with fervor, delicious imagery, and the very pulsation of jazz, Cisneros’ words could just as easily be notes on a sheet of music, requiring only the eyes of the reader to set their tune in motion. The House on Mango Street is a writer’s paradise, a delectable dessert for all time.

5. Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz
Even a Western reader can pick up Mahfouz’s first novel in his acclaimed Cairo Trilogy and still grasp what the famed Egyptian author is trying to convey. His use of a family unit (the Abd al-Jawad family) as a microcosm for all of Cairo is ingenious when one begins to realize how perfect a backdrop Mahfouz has created to flesh out the intensely layered struggle of secular progressivism entering a formerly religiously traditionalistic society. It is a read that will never disappoint. Its five hundred pages fly by like a short story, an epic full of heartbreak, comedy, hope, and loss.

4. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
In perhaps his most stripped-down novel yet, McCarthy pulls off the difficult task of writing one of his greatest novels late in his career. With sublime aplomb he crafts a troubling tale of survival in America after some unexplained cataclysm of an apocalyptic event has taken place. As a man and his son trod through ashes of the former United States, they must dodge fellow humans who have long since abandoned their humanity in favor of cannibalism so as to survive. It is McCarthy’s most optimistic work to date, as well, focusing on the anomaly that is the existence of good in world seemingly dripping in only despair and evil. The relationship between the father and son is one of the most moving in any book I’ve read. Bereft of chapter breaks, it is nearly impossible to set aside for long periods of time.

3. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
The clash of Empire and Colonized in 1960s India is the subject of Roy’s novel. She achieves something truly phenomenal with her writing. The friction between the two is written and depicted with such violence, and yet, for the majority of the novel, hardly anything is happening in a tangible way, all of it transpiring beneath the surface. Roy captures this in a trademark phrase of hers throughout the novel when she notes how the “big things” were never talked about but lurked somewhere and how only the “small things” were mentioned. This may be one of the most heart-wrenching stories I’ve ever read, but even so it can not be put down. Hefty with postcolonial themes of socio-economic disparity, identity, loss, polarized conditions, and ever-present gloom of the caste system, Roy provides a novel that is more than just words on paper. While it is set in the past, it contains intimations of a mournful elegy for the India of today and makes one wonder how far removed we are from the times described in The God of Small Things.

2. Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor
O’Connor’s gift for writing short stories is truly remarkable, and one can only wonder what artistic and literary heights she would have achieved had she not died so young. This posthumous publication includes some of her greatest, and as always she peers into the blackest parts of the human soul, whether religious or secular, and leaves ample room in each story to bring about a moment of grace. Whether such epiphanies bring good or bad, one can not say. Often death comes marching, but salvation can also visit the hazy-eyed and bring them revelation. Her characters defy labels and rarely is there ever a protagonist or antagonist clearly marked as the person containing the most nobility or integrity. Everybody has their faults, and the conflict arising from their collision makes for a wild, mucky ruckus of literary manna from heaven.

1. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
With much of its base in historicity, McCarthy’s masterpiece paints a frightening picture of man and how deep he’ll descend into the blackest parts of his soul so as to bring about progress and expansion. Rife with Nietzsche and nihilism, Blood Meridian offers plenty of intellectual meat to chew on, not the least of which is the question, “What kind of God rules over such a violent world?” McCarthy is at his lyrical best in this novel, evoking the epic, poetic, and biblical language of Melville, Shakespeare, and the King James Bible. He joins the ranks of O’Connor and Faulkner by crafting twistedly unique and bizarre characters forever seared into readers’ memories: the hairless, towering, albino Judge; a stringy-haired wearer of a necklace of human ears; and the mysterious, one-dimensional Kid who is impossible to box up with such simple words as “good” or “bad.” These aren’t John Wayne’s cowboys moving West. It’s a group of men who embody the American religion of violence, which has been sewn into our very fabric since nascent East coast landings.

If you haven’t read any of these, they just might be worth your while. Support your local bookstore or go get a library card, and may your new year be filled with many books.

Much love.

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