Monday, December 22, 2014

The Wuthering Expectations Best Books of 2014 - yes, best, dang it

Best books I happened to read, but not favorite reads, since I do not know what a “read” is.  Some people use the word as an inelegant variation on “book”; others use it to mean something else.  Maybe someone will leave a comment explaining what, exactly.

1. Bleak House, Charles Dickens.  Covered recently, so no additional comment except: among the greatest novels.  Also a favorite.  I read Great Expectations this year, too, another good one, read this time alongside Dolce Bellezza.

2.  Henrik Ibsen, the sequence of plays from Brand (1867) through When We Dead Awaken (1899).  They are substantially more meaningful read as a group; said meaning is substantially different than when the plays are taken individually.  A Doll House and The Wild Duck, for example, almost upend themselves.  I take Brand – Geoffrey Hill’s version, at least – Peer Gynt, Hedda Gabler, and The Master Builder as the best individual plays, but having read them in bulk, I doubt that distinction is worth much.

3.  August Strindberg, first as angry anti-Ibsen Ibsenite – The Father (1887), Miss Julie (1888) – and later as theatrical visionary, in The Ghost Sonata (1907) in particular, with The Dance of Death (1900) as the perfect balance of the two modes.  These are useful examples of great books that are not among my favorites.  As if my prejudices and errors are of any interest.  Who cares.

4.  Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda (13th century), particularly the stories of the Norse gods and heroes.  Thor drinking the ocean, that kind of thing.  Alongside Snorri, the complementary parts of the Poetic Edda (10th through 13th century).

5.  Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin (1825-32), masterful in every direction, read at the urging of the Tanglewood blog.

6.  Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground (1864), especially as combined with a bad yet rich book, Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done? (1863), especially further combined with the readers joining in to help me out  - XIX век, Howling Frog, and Scott G. F. Bailey.

7.  Similarly, Knut Hamsun’s concentrated Hunger (1890) is the one I take as his best book, better than Mysteries (1892) or Pan (1894), but what help I got from many other readers – Pykk kept working on Hamsun, always finding more surprises.

8. Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (1814).  We’re all sick of this book by now, I know. I won't even link.

9.  Robert Browning, The Ring and the Book (1868-9).  Please see Scott Bailey improve on my work.

10.  Tirso de Molina, The Trickster of Seville (1630).  The origin of Don Juan, this time read along with Caravana de Recuerdos and Simpler Pastimes.

I believe I see a theme emerge.  Read with some company once in a while, right?  It will be a real challenge to come up with a readalong idea as ridiculous as What Is To Be Done?  The next one I am doing is with Simpler Pastimes again, Pinocchio in January.

The best books I read that were actually first published in 2014 were Peter Cole’s The Invention of Influence (please see here) and Jeffery Renard Allen’s Song of the Shank (also on The Little Professor’s favorites list), a complex Faulknerian alternate history about a real person, Blind Tom the child prodigy pianist, who was an international celebrity as a slave, which is insane.  Allen’s novel tells the story in a screwy order, refuses to identify points of view, inverts actual places and events in a way that resembles magical realism a bit but resembles Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972) a lot more, and is generally exhausting and in some places dull and others unpleasant.  Whatever a good read is, it is not this book.  I feel lucky to have come across it.


  1. For your amusement, here's another list of ten, from James Branch Cabell's "Straws and Prayer-Books." Curious!:

    Here, in any event, are the ten "established" authors endowed with "cults" whose masterpieces once appeared to me the most violently uninteresting and ill-written: Jane Austen, George Borrow, Miguel de Cervantes, Henry James, Herman Melville, George Meredith, Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Love Peacock, François Rabelais, and Walt Whitman.

  2. That is amusing, and curious. It would not be too hard to come up with my own list, modified, as above, by "once," and another list replacing "once" with "still."

    I have been revising my ideas about James in public, for some reason. I guess that is one use of book blogs, to publicize ignorance.

    Poor George Borrow! But I am not sure that Peacock and even Meredith are too far behind him on the path to oblivion.

    I should try Cabell sometime. I value a number of books written by people who valued his books.

  3. Well, in context he makes it clear that he still dislikes all of them. He makes a slight exception for Peacock, who "had not ever annoyed me with the relentless and deep tedium of the others."

    Cabell can be charming. The novels I've read are rather similar; and his double entendres now come across as coy, rather than daring. He was an odd one.

    1. Cabell was a kook. I read the Jurgen novels as a teen, and was totally baffled by them (and mildly amused at the double entendres, of course). I read Hamlet Had an Uncle a couple of years ago, and it was pretty good. He wrote a lot of science fiction, didn't he? I haven't read any of that.

    2. I don't know of any science fiction. The ones I read were fantasy, with mythical beings and whatnot, played for allegory and satire. Enjoyable, but I must admit I prefer some of the writers on his hate list.

    3. Cabbel Branch's Jurgen is a very, very odd novel. In fact I think most fantasy novels from that time were: Lud-in-the-mist is indescribable, perhaps proto-psychedelic.

  4. I do not know how you're going to find anything as cool as Chernyshevsky for a future readalong, but I'll look forward to it.

    A "read," in the way that I think about it, is the book's unputdownability factor. It has entirely to do with how enjoyable it is. If I say something is a great read, I carried it around the house to read and neglected other duties in favor of it.

  5. I never thought I would find a readalong to equal Alfred Jarry, so I am hopeful.

    Unputdownability - on the train in Italy I overheard a pair of college women, foreign exchange students, discuss their favorite books, and it seemed that the only measure of quality was unputdownability, and then the impulse to immediately download the next book in the series. Of course every book mentioned was in a series. Of course not a single book mentioned was Italian. Heaven forbid a college student learn something about - anyways.

    It was the aesthetic effect of a computer game. One more turn, just one more turn, just one more turn, ah - it's 4 a.m.!

    Certainly a kind of enjoyment.

    Yesterday I read only 25 pages of George Eliot and 10 pages of Walt Whitman but over 100 pages of an Alan Glynn mystery not because the mystery was more enjoyable, but because it was easier.

    1. The Ubu plays were great, a lovely discovery, another connective thread in the world of literature. Rakhmetov is certainly a Palcontent.

      The Pinocchio link above is broken, or points not where you intend, I think.

  6. From your list I've only read the plays of Ibsen and Strindberg so far. Plays are great reads. Not necessarily easier but page-turning nonetheless.

  7. Pinocchio link is fixed - thank you very much. That book ought to be a lot of nightmarish fun.

    Papa Ubu is a sort of mythic figure. Strange that in all of human history only Jarry could see him so clearly.

    Rise - do I ever agree. From whence comes this idea that plays are not meant to be read? They're printed, ain't they? Even the craziest Strindberg plays - or especially the craziest - had a strong "what will possibly happen next" momentum.

  8. Christ, you gave me a fright; when I read best books of 2014 I thought you had literally read books from 2014. It's good to know everything's still normal at Wuthering Expectations :)

    Damn it, you read so many authors I want to read more - Dostoevsky, Austen, Pushkin - but never do, getting caught up in other stuff.

  9. I read so much from 2014. Two novels, three books of poems. A book about the history and culture of Syria. So many books.

    Maybe someday I will do a year - or 6 months - or 6 days - of reading nothing but current releases. "Well, that was mediocre" is a phrase I will copy and paste again and again. How do people stand it?

  10. I bet you could get six days' worth of recommendations from a few other blogs. Or no. Maybe you couldn't, now that I come to consider.

  11. _Bleak House_ will be one of my re-reads in the coming year at my new blog. It is simply too good not to be on everyone's once-a-year list for closer-readings. I'll be chatting about it, and -- when I do -- I look forward to your reactions. BTW, if it is not too late, Happy Holidays from your cantankerous old curmudgeon on the Redneck Riviera.

  12. I may also attempt to fit a reread of Bleak House into 2015 but I don't have a very good record of completing my resolutions. I also have to read Eugene Onegin which has been on my must read list for the longest time (since the eighties!).

  13. Happy New Year! I've been catching up on blog reading (finally), to find your always enjoyable end-of-year posts. Group reading does seem to make for the best reading, or at least I seem to do better with that added bit of responsibility to fellow readers. Although The Trickster of Seville wasn't a favorite; I blame translation woes. (It did improve my Spanish, however.) I'm looking forward to Pinocchio, or at least the English translation as I've been dipping into the Italian. Your comment intrigues me, though--"nightmarish fun"? That's something to look forward to…

  14. How fun to read these comments after avoiding the internet for so long. Thanks for writing them.

    If I spent more time with contemporary books, I would depend almost entirely on book blogs and a handful of reviewers, although it was the latter who told me about Cole and Song of the Shank. Get with it, book bloggers. Although the Allen novel might be unbloggable. Faulkner might be unbloggable.

    Bleak House, by contrast, is ideally bloggable. Or so I found it. A great inclusion on a once-a-year list, or, in my case, once-a-decade.

    Séamus, Pushkin, yes, "must," yes!

    Pinocchio has some scenes that I remember as essentially dream sequences, nightmares, even though in the novel they "actually" "happen." I hope I am not mis-remembering the novel too badly, since I am so looking forward to it.

    1. Tom, regarding Bleak House, consider this:

      This may be a case of a fool rushing in where others have already been treading more wisely. But, so it goes.

    2. I read "Pinocchio" years ago, but I remember many nightmarish sequences. The little puppet had a rough time of it. Well, I'll try to read along, in Italian, since I'd like to reread it.

      Pinocchio has had some fine illustrators, too. I'm particularly fond of Tony Sarg, Roland Topor, and Benito Jacovitti, but there are many.

    3. Doug, terrific that you'll be reading along. The number and quality of the illustrators is overwhelming. Salvador Bartolozzi is another great one, even if his Pinocho is not the real thing.

      RT - that sounds no more foolish than the general idea of writing on a book blog. The more Bleak House, the better.

    4. Those Bartolozzi illustrations are wonderful. "Pinocho" looks intriguing...

    5. Maybe I should redecorate the blog with some Pinocchio or Pinocho images.