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Reflections on the puddle of life

2013 in books

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It’s been another busy reading year, and an interesting one as they generally are. I had two reading goals this year: to read more books written by women, and to read more non-fiction. The first goal I have met with ease, with 65% of my reading by female writers. My second goal has proven more of a challenge and though I have read a few non-fiction books, not nearly as many as I had planned. It is a goal I will carry forward into my next reading year. Of course I have been doing a lot of factual reading for my studies, but those aren’t included in the list here.

There have been some stand-out writers in 2013. Helen DeWitt was a real discovery; she has written only 2 books – The Last Samurai and the controversial (but brilliant) Lightning Rods. Her writing is intelligent, broad in scope, wacky and witty. If I could recommend only one writer from 2013, it would definitely be her. I hope she writes more. The Booker nominee list provided an interesting crop (no pun intended). Harvest by Jim Crace, the odds-on favourite, largely left me cold but there were compensations with A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, which was marvellous, the fresh-voiced We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulaweyo and a worth winner in Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. Another brilliant discovery was A M Homes’s This Book Will Save Your Life, which truly I think it could. It is a sweet, funny, sad and magical book which leaves you with a rare feeling of goodwill. I’m looking forward to reading more of Homes’s work in 2014.

I spent a goodly part of my reading time exploring mythologies, mainly the reworking of myths through the Canongate myths series. I found myself falling in love with the Norse mythology and I highly recommend Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Book of Norse myths which give a wonderful overview of this world. I am still reading the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda and somehow I think it is a world I will return to often. Hopefully I will find time to pick up the Icelandic sagas again next year.

I was very pleased to discover some up-and-coming future great writers to watch out for including:
Nicola Barker: so far I have read only one of her books – Darkmans – an odd, kind of harsh but strangely compelling book which really stuck in my head. She won’t be to everyone’s taste, but she is definitely innovative and different.
Deborah Levy: Levy’s writing is compact and diamond-sharp. I highly recommend Swimming Home.
Helen Oyeyemi: Mr Fox is a book I will attempt to re-read in 2014. It is punchy, odd and intensely creative. I am not sure I entirely understood it, but it fascinated me. A definite talent, clever and engaging.

And I also discovered, or perhaps reminded myself of, some lesser-known greats:
Tove Jansson: really everyone should read Jansson, she was marvellous. For children there are the Moomintrolls (okay, and for adults to) and for adults wonderful books like The Summer Book, Fair Play and The True Deceiver. Jansson writes directly and with economy and a sense of marvel and wonder in the world that is inspirational.
Marlen Haushofer: I doubt many people have heard of Marlen Haushofer. I came across her by an accident of Twitter and was very happy to have done so. So far I have read only one of her books, The Wall, but it is a great one. Simultaneously terrifying, sad and yet life-affirming, The Wall tells of a women who is trapped in a valley behind an invisible wall. All the world outside appears to be dead. A survival story, but also an exploration of identity.
Marilynne Robinson: can this women write a bad word? She has written few books but there’s not a dud amongst them. This year I read Gilead, a love letter from a dying man to his son. I am not a Christian, but if Christianity was practiced with the kind of wonder, open-heartedness, non-judgementalism and reverence as conveyed in this book I would be. Who wouldn’t? I am hoping to re-read Housekeeping next year, just to remind myself how marvellous the written word can be.

Right now I’m a bit exhausted with reading (perhaps not too surprisingly, I read 69 books in 2013), but despite this I do already have a few reading goals for 2014. I want to continue to include more non-fiction in my reading. Actually I read a lot of non-fiction but rarely entire books and often with a specific learning need in mind, which is why they rarely make the list. That I will seek to change, if only by a little, in 2014. I will continue to read more books written by female writers. There are many amazing female writers out there and it is a matter of intense intellectual laziness that more people do not read them. There are so many things I can say on this subject, but that is perhaps for another day, though I would ask all the readers here to ask of themselves honestly this question: do you read safely or do you read broadly? I think I am moving away from the former to the latter, and my life is enriched immeasurably by it. Perhaps if only one person makes a similar move, then my work here will be done.

My key reading goal for 2014 is re-reading. Rarely do I have time in my reading schedule to go back to a book I’ve read before, and I feel that I am missing a richness of experience by not doing so. That is something I will rectify in 2014.

So, without any further delay, here is my reading list for 2013 (in order of rating).

The Last Samurai - Helen DeWitt 10/5
Lightning Rods - Helen DeWitt - 8/5
Gilead - Marilynn Robinson 5/5
The Wall - Marlen Haushofer 5/5
A Tale For The Time Being - Ruth Ozeki 5/5
This Book Will Save Your Life - A M Homes 5/5
The Goldfinch - Donna Tartt 5/5
Siddhartha - Herman Hesse (rr) 5/5
The Fault in Our Stars - John Green 5/5
The Luminaries - Eleanor Catton 4.75/5
Fair Play - Tove Jansson 4.5/5
The Comforters - Muriel Spark 4.5/5
The Good Terrorist - Doris Lessing 4.5/5
Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte 4.5/5
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Muriel Spark 4.5/5
Weight - Jeanette Winterson. 4.5/5
The Woman Upstairs - Claire Messud 4.5/5
Mr Fox - Helen Oyeyemi 4.5/5
Mao II - Don DeLillo 4.5/5
The Childhood of Jesus - J M Coetzee 4.5/5
The Song of Achilles - Madeline Miller 4.5/5
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter - Colleen McCullers 4.5/5
We Need New Names - Noviolet Bulaweyo 4.5/5
Swimming Home - Deborah Levy 4.5/5
Their Eyes Were Watching God - Zora Neale Hurston 4.5/5
The Goddess Chronicle - Natsuo Kirino 4.5/5
Almost Innocent - Sheila Bosworth 4.5/5
Visit from the Goon Squad - Jennifer Egan 4.5/5
The Dark is Rising - Susan Cooper 4.5/5
Youth - J M Coetzee 4.25/5
The Penelopiad - Margaret Atwood 4.25/5
Darkmans - Nicola Barker 4/5
Uzumaki (graphic novel) - Junji Ito 4/5
State of Wonder - Ann Patchett 4/5
The Fire Gospel - Michael Faber 4/5
Beasts - Joyce Carol Oates 4/5
Ragnarok The End of the Gods - A S Byatt 4/5
Baba Yaga Laid an Egg - Dubravka Ugrešić 4/5
Orphans of Eldorado - Milton Hatoum 4/5
The Forgotten Waltz - Anne Enright 4/5
The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon 4/5
Cutter and Bone - Newton Thornburg 4/5
White is for Witching - Helen Oyeyemi 4/5
Harvest - Jim Crace 4/5
The Testament of Mary - Colm Toíbín 4/5
The Lowland - Jhumpa Lahiri 4/5
Dracula - Bram Stoker 4/5
A Novel Bookstore - Lawrence Cossé 3.75/5
Bonjour Tristesse - Françoise Sagan 3.75/5
Where Three Roads Meet - Salley Vickers 3.75/5
Binu and the Great Wall - Su Tong 3.75/5
The Driver's Seat - Muriel Spark 3.75/5
The Purple Shroud - Stella Duffy 3.75/5
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson 3.5/5
Silence - Shusaku Endo 3.5/5
American Gods - Neil Gaiman 3.5/5
Beautiful Mutants - Deborah Levy 3.5/5
Chéri - Colette 3.5/5
The Helmet of Horror - Victor Pelevin 3.5/5
The Monk - Matthew Lewis 3.5/5
Strange Weather in Tokyo - Hiromi Kawakami 3.5/5
The Tales of Beedle the Bard - J. K. Rowling 3.5/5
Swann's Way - Marcel Proust 3/5
The Ocean at the End of the Lane - Neil Gaiman 3/5

The Penguin Book of Norse Myths - Kevin Crossley-Holland 5/5
Gorillas in the Mist - Dian Fossey 4.75/5
Lean In - Sheryl Sandberg 4.5/5
A Short History of Myth - Karen Armstrong 4.5/5
Silent Spring - Rachel Carson 4/5

Books I abandoned
Snowball Earth – Gabrielle Walker
The Year of the Flood - Margaret Atwood
The Master & Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov


  1. qimissung's Avatar
    Hi Fifth! I love reading your year-end blog about the books you've read. This is a very ambitious list, and I think you shouldn't be so hard on yourself about only-only!-reading five non-fiction books this year. I think that's plenty. They take longer to absorb, I think.

    Anyway, I enjoyed sharing some books with you this year and I love hearing about the books you're reading as we go along throughout the year. Here's to happy reading in 2014!
    Updated 01-03-2014 at 01:24 AM by qimissung
  2. Virgil's Avatar
    My goodness Fifth, I don't know how you do it. That's way more than one per week. I just wish I could do that. I exceeded what I normally read myself, though this year I had a lot fewer novels. Not participating in Lit Net allows me to pursue my interests, or, perhaps more accurately, better keep to my goals. I'll post mine as I write up something to go with it.
  3. TheFifthElement's Avatar
    Thanks for your comments both. Qimi 5 is better than I usually manage, but still not much. I think I can do more (but less fiction, not more of both). Actually I have started the year reading a non-fiction book so I'm off to a good start. I think my problem has been that I've been trying to read both a fiction and non-fiction book, and that doesn't work for me. I need to read one or the other. Will you be posting a list? I love to read your thoughts on what you've read too. I think you absorb books in far more detail than I do.

    Virgil I do get a lot of time to read on my train journeys to/from work which is a 50 minute run each way. Outside of that I read very little. Like you, I'm spending less time on the internet which has had a positive effect on hitting my personal goals. I look forward to reading your list. You always have some interesting observations on what you've read. Hope you and yours had a lovely Christmas and New Year.
  4. qimissung's Avatar
    I've read "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," "The Fault in Our Stars," "Almost Innocent," (love that title) "Cutter and Bone" (there's also a very good movie that was made from this; I'm sure you could find it on Netflix or some such, if you were interested), "Dracula," (a particular favorite) and "Cherie."

    A most excellent list, Fifth. I kind of wish I had your ability to plunge headlong into reading, but mostly I wish I'd quit wasting time on the internet and just get to it. I don't think the time I spend here is a waste; it's just a few minutes here and there, but with my stupid smartphone I can while away several hours. Sometimes it's OK; I've read a number of good articles, but a lot of time I'm just wasting my time. That and TV. Well, my goal is to quit being hard on myself so I'll stop now.

    Thank you, Fifth, for your kind words. Maybe that's true. I'm not sure I'll post a list because even though you kindly gave me instructions a year ago I still haven't done anything about my blog. I kind of wish both of you would come around a teensy bit more. You guys and The Comedian. Oh well. I know you're all really busy, so it's OK. Back to reading. (Did you all notice I managed to use the word 'kind' three times in one paragraph? A record, n'est-ce pas?)

    Also, why do you want to read more non-fiction? It's fine by me, truly, but I have never liked reading non-fiction books. Non-fiction articles, yes, I can do that, and quite enjoy it, but I feel tremendous impatience with non-fiction books. I feel like saying, "Yes, yes, just get on with it" every time.
    Updated 01-03-2014 at 01:42 AM by qimissung
  5. TheFifthElement's Avatar
    He he he Qimi, you are very kind You only need to be kinder to yourself. It is not 'wasting' time on the internet if you're happy doing it. What I realised, for myself, was that it was only making me angry. It is part of why I am less active on the forums, as I tended to fall into arguments which were destructive and really about nothing at all. I do miss a lot of the good members here, however.

    Why do I want to read more non-fiction? Hmm. Well I think that I spend an awful lot of time reading and I think that if I just devoted a small amount of that time to reading something factual, I might learn something. Or expand my horizons at least. It is all part of wanting to read more broadly. Also, I was thinking about your comment about 'plunging headlong' into reading and, yes, I think you're right that's what I do. But then I have also decided that my reading goal for this year will include reading less. I know that probably sounds bizarre, but I realise that I devour books, I gobble them down like there's no tomorrow and I don't, by that method, actually give myself the best reading experience. I need to slow down, to absorb, to read and re-read, to allow the message of the book to seep into my soul. More than anything I am coming to realise that I need to focus on quality of experience not just quantity. I haven't got the balance right.