Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Wuthering Expectations Best Books of 2013 - or, another year of sideways reading

How I love the end of the year book lists.  I read, or at least look at, dozens of them.  I would read all of the books on those lists if I were not already reading other books from other lists.

The Wuthering Expectations Best Books of 2013 are probably as follows.

1.  There is always a ringer.  This year it is Genesis, and the narrative parts of Exodus and Deuteronomy.  I did not write about it.  The Norton Critical Edition of  the King James Bible, edited by Herbert Marks, is a masterpiece of the form (the form of the critical edition).

2.  The Selected Poems of Catullus, tr. Horace Gregory and the Selections from the Canzoniere of Petrarch, tr. Mark Musa, were also especially good and went unmentioned.

3.  As did the so-called adult novels of Tove Jansson, the three published by NYRB:  The Summer Book (1972), The True Deceiver (1982), and Fair Play (1989).  The first one, about a grandmother and granddaughter and how they spend their summer, plays a dirty trick.  The child’s mother has recently died.  This fact is mentioned just once, early in the novel.  Jansson can be not just subtle but almost sly.

Every one of the novels has something interesting to say about creativity, aside from whatever else the book might be about.  Jansson was an artist, and a child of artists, so she explores artists.

2014 is the Jansson centennial, so I have jumped the gun.  More on Tove Jansson next year.  Here, I will just say that I thought all of these novels were excellent.  The Moomin books are good, too.

4.  While on the subject of unmentioned NYRB books, The Hall of Uselessness (2013), an essay collection by Australo-Belgian classical Chinese specialist Simon Leys, was superb.  And collection that begins with a section on “Quixotism” is likely to appeal to a book blogger.  Maybe I will write more about this one, too, after the holiday.

5.  I did not write about Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, either, although I did manage a note about “Bartleby the Scrivener.”

6.  I reread some Theodor Storm novellas for my trip to his home in HusumImmensee, Paul the Puppeteer, “Journey to a Hallig” – they were even deeper than I remembered.  Sebaldists, Krasznahorkaians, seriously, track down “Journey to a Hallig.”

7.  For many novels, especially long ones, I want to break them apart, so I can include Part I of Oblomov, Part I of The Idiot, the best parts of Buddenbrooks – I mean the sister’s story, and then Hans’s part at the end – and anything in Zola’s Belly of Paris that had to do with food.  The symphony of cheeses, passages like that.

8.  Georg Trakl’s poems, and Rainer Maria Rilke’s two volumes of New Poems, fresh discoveries for me, even though I had read the Rilke before.

9.  Book blogging is always better with company.  Karl Kraus and Louisa May Alcott, somewhat different writers, were improved by being read with Caravana de Recuerdos and Dolce Bellezza.

10.  Adalbert Stifter’s Indian Summer is the trickiest book to put on a list like this.  In many ways it is a bad book – flat, dull, plotless, characterless, neurotic – yet so rich.  I had to learn how to read it, and I think I did.  Rohan Maitzen recently wrote that “[t]here’s always a slightly sideways quality to Tom’s readings.”  For this novel, sideways is the only way in.  What looks like an entrance is a fake, just painted to look like a door.

What I am really doing here is listing books that have at least some portion that I learned how to read.  Maybe later I can learn to read more parts of them.

I seem to have forgotten The Hunting of the Snark, Fathers and Sons, Kim, at the very least.


  1. Do you happen to know what 'Journey to a Hallig' is called in German? I have no idea which story you're referring to...

    1. You can read the original here:

      It is called "Eine Halligfahrt", a Hallig is some kind of island.

      Btw, you can find many of his works here:

  2. Some kind of island! A very special, strange kind of island, peculiar to the mudflats off the North Sea coast of Schleswig-Holstein.

    The translator sure changed the English title, didn't he Tony? Unrecognizable.

    Storm's brand of doom is certainly different than Krasznahorkai's et. al., but it is right there if you look for it.

    1. Most of my Storm knowledge comes from German Wikipedia, alas, and that one is conspicuous by its absence on the page ;) However, I have found an online text, and having done something faintly unethical, I'll be reading it in due course...

    2. The English translator, Denis Jackson, deserves great credit for sorting it from the big pile of Storm stories.

      Although it does make we wonder what other goodies are in there. Meine Frau says: a lot.

    3. The German vesions that I linked are perfectly legal btw, you only need to understand German ;)

  3. What a wonderful year of reading you have had and I have enjoyed following along! I do hope you write about Jansson. I read Summer Book a few years ago and it is definitely subtle and almost sly. And even after a few years, there are bits of the book that will pop into my head. I am intrigued by what you say of The Hall of Uselessness. I will have to look that one up at the library.

  4. What joy in reading your blog this year, and what an acute case of list envy contracted from the above. I too hope you'll write more about Jansson, and also Simon Leys, please. I've been dipping in and out of his essays for the past few years. Among French sinophiles I've been lucky to know, Leys is a towering figure. I think you'd also find superb the book that supplied him his pseudonym: Victor Segalen's René Leys - which made my "Best of 2012" list.

  5. Thank you for another wonderful year of blogging. Your constantly insightful posts are much admired and appreciated.

    That much being said, I hope you're happy, thanks to your recommendation of Leys' book, B and N is now $11.50 richer with my money. Being a big Don Quixote fan, I couldn't resist. Here's a little something from that other big Don Quixote fan, W. B. Yeats:

    "I met an old man out fishing a year ago who said to me 'Don Quixote and Odysseus are always near to me;' that is true for me also, for even Hamlet and Lear and Oedipus are more cloudy... I thought Tolstoi's War and Peace the greatest story I had ever read, and yet it has gone from me; even Lancelot, ever a shadow, is more visible in my memory that all its substance."

  6. I guess the year worked out all right.

    Leys is completely convincing on Segalen - Stefanie, the essay on Victor Segalen would be a good choice to "test" the collection. The essay is a well-told story in its own right.

    I first thought the Leys book was just a collection of NYRB essays, but there are only a few of those. What is most remarkable is the coherence of his interests, how the specialization in Chinese subjects gradually leads back to French and Belgian writers and beyond.

    Maybe I will write more about Leys today. $11.50, what a bargain.

    How funny, I share that pair of characters with Yeats and that fisherman. Odysseus has been a companion since childhood, although as I read more I have become more impressed by all of the different versions of the character. The same is true for Quixote, really - how fun to watch the character turn into Parson Adams, Mr. Pickwick, and King Charles Kinbote.

  7. I love how Genesis (and parts of Exodus and Deuteronomy) topped your list. I need to find a copy of this Norton Critical Edition, as I so love the King James. I read NIV, and the ASV, and even the Holman Standard, but nothing is as poetic (and rings as true to my ear) as the KJV.

    It was a great pleasure to read with you, Tom, and I can't tell you how I look forward to Great Expectations together. Perhaps the end of January to post? Right now, any peaceful time to read seems impossible! xo

  8. It is worth looking at the Norton just to read the introductions. And then the supporting material is stunning.

    This would be a good one to ask your library to buy. It will get some use.

    The end of January sounds good - likely - for Great Expectations.

    1. My library? Have you seen my library?! There would be no room amongst all the Danielle Steele novels. Except for more Nora Roberts.

      However, I did purchase a paperback edition from Amazon after I was here earlier. Just wish I could have bought it in genuine calfskin...

  9. Another fascinating and widely varied year! Pretty much the only one here that I've read is The Summer Book: sly indeed! I'd like to read the Moomin books.

    I hope it was clear that my 'sideways' comment was wholly appreciative! Sometimes I think that the down side of being an English teacher is that I tend to look books right in the face in order to then introduce them to other people. There are lots of angles that can be missed, or at least not dwelt in, that way.

    Best wishes for 2014! I gather there is a Great Expectations event coming -- I'll look forward to reading the results.

  10. I read Great Expectations in 2012, so it's more or less fresh in my mind, or something. I am not at all sure what I was just about to say. Oh, here it is: another successful year on Wuthering Expectations, and I join the others who thank you for writing about books and writers and readers and whatever else catches your fancy here.

  11. Appreciative - even better, you comment was accurate! There are some risks to sideways, but I will leave that for another time.

    Great Expectations should be a lot of fun. It must be eighteen years since I read it, maybe more.

    Perhaps, Bellezza, there is a sad librarian just waiting for someone to request a decent book. Has she given up hope? Will a last-minute request for purchase make this the best Christmas ever?

    I have always been blessed with good libraries.

    Thanks for all the nice thoughts.

  12. Thanks for the Kraus shout-out, Tom, and Merry Xmas and happy New Year to you and the Amateur Reader (Tom) family. Reading Kraus, Walter Benjamin on Kraus, and you on Kraus was one of (three of?) the highlights of my reading year, so I'll be reading more Kraus in 2014 if my procrastinatory tendencies don't get in the way. In any event, thanks for another year of stellar work here on your blog. Cheers!

  13. It was great year for Kraus, in spite of the efforts of certain big shots.

  14. I have both The Summer Book and The True Deceiver unread, I hope to get to them in 2014. Probably The True Deceiver first, as it's a wintery book. I tried The Summer Book a couple of years ago, but as you said, it's subtle. I probably wasn't in the right frame of mind and should try again.

    And I totally agree about The Belly of Paris! It's not my favorite Zola novel, but it was my first, and the descriptions of food really stood out for me. I read the Kurlansky translation which I found excellent.

  15. Yes, The True Deceiver could easily have been titled The Winter Book. It is cold.

    I should try to read one of the better Zola novels sometime, Nana or Germinal. See how he can put a whole book together rather than be brilliant in passages.