Wednesday, December 18, 2013

2013: Five Books, Four Seasons

In 2013, I took a new job in Burlington, VT which required me to ride the bus into town each morning. This increased my reading time considerably -- as in 1-2 hours every day -- which allowed me the freedom to read more widely than in previous years. Anyway, here are some of the past year's highlights, paired with the season in which I read them.

Winter 2012-2013.
Richard Gavin - At Fear's Altar

Novella "The Eldritch Faith" closes out Richard Gavin's remarkable fourth collection. It's a deeply moving story of terror and yearning that creates within its 100-odd pages a new vocabulary of image and symbol by which to discuss the numinous, "the darkly splendid realm" of Gavin's imagination. Gavin's prose style reminds me a bit of Machen's The Hill of Dreams but reformulated for the Twenty-First Century, which is to say, it's gorgeous. And don't miss the other stories in the collection either. "Chapel in the Reeds" makes for one hell of an opener while "King Him" is one of the most disturbing stories I read this year (and yes, that is a compliment).

Spring 2013.
L.P. Hartley - The Go-Between

I read a total of six L.P. Hartley novels in 2013, all of which were concerned in large or small part with the vicissitudes of boyhood and adolescence. Of these The Go-Between is probably the best known, and even if you have not heard of it, you have certainly heard the opening lines: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." Written when Hartley was in his late fifties, the novel is set in the summer of 1900 on the eve of a new century, one which seems to offer great promise. Similarly, our narrator is a boy on the cusp of young adulthood.  There is a clear parallel here -- i.e. our shared history vs our own private pasts -- and it's plain enough from the beginning how this story has to end. Nonetheless the novel retains a shattering power, while its exploration of boyhood, that foreign country, has not been equaled.

Summer 2013.
J.L. Carr - A Month in the Country

Carr was fifty-one when his first novel appeared in 1963 and nearly seventy by the time A Month in the Country propelled him to unexpected fame. Carr was always something of an eccentric -- a former headmaster turned mapmaker, publisher, amateur stone-carver, church preservationist, and stove-fancier -- and his fiction is likewise difficult to categorize. Some of his novels are grimly serious (such as A Season in Sinji) while others are purely comic (such as The Harpole Report) while still others land somewhere in between, like A Month in the Country, which is simultaneously a tribute to a single glorious summer and bittersweet meditation on nostalgia and art, what is lost and what remains.

Autumn 2013.
Isak Dinesen - Seven Gothic Tales

2013 was the year in which I finally committed myself to reading Dinesen's work, reading Out of Africa, Shadows on the Grass, and Seven Gothic Tales back to back this fall. The latter volume is one of the finest collections of short fiction I have come across: seven stories which in their subtlety, restraint, and sense of the mysterious surpass even the finest efforts of her contemporaries. All seven tales are equally strong, but "The Supper at Elisnore" is my favorite, a ghost story like no other with its bleakly comic tone and ruminations on loss, faith, and the lure of the forbidden.

Winter 2013-2014.
Charles Palliser - Rustication

It's no secret, I suppose, that Palliser is my favorite contemporary writer, and with Rustication he returns with his first novel in 13 years. In contrast with The Quincunx or The Unburied, Rustication is a slim and wonderfully readable novel of some 300 pages that nonetheless contains within it all of the mystery and complexity of Palliser's longer works. It is also unquestionably the darkest of his books, surpassing even The Sensationist in this respect: a maddeningly complex Gothic novel and murder mystery that repays multiple readings. Case in point: I read Rustication three times during the months of November and December and my understanding of the events it depicts changed dramatically with every reading.

Other Noteworthy Reads:

Hair Side, Flesh Side by Helen Marshall, Never Bet the Devil by Orrin Grey, Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay, Eustace & Hilda by LP Hartley, Asta's Book by Barbara Vine, Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier, The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation by MT Anderson, The Battle of Pollocks Crossing by JL Carr