Here’s the second installment in my look back at some of the ups and downs, highs and lows, bests and worsts of my personal 2013 reading year.
Yesterday I picked out 10 books which pleased me. These weren’t necessarily the “best” things I read, but they left me with a sincere sense of pleasure.
Today I think I will highlight 10 books (or maybe one or two more) which surprised me by confounding my preconceived expectations in some way. Most of these choices have already been reviewed on the blog, but there are several which I didn’t get around to, so I’ll see if I can link some more detailed discussions when I get to those.
Without further ado, here is the 2013 Round-Up Part 2, of 10+ Most Unexpected Reads. Still to come, 2013 Round-Up Parts 3 and 4, Most Disappointing and Personal Favourites.
MOST UNEXPECTED READS 2013
In order of publication.
by Christopher Morley ~ 1922
Gissing lived alone (except for his Japanese butler) in a little house in the country, in that woodland suburb region called the Canine Estates. He lived comfortably and thoughtfully, as bachelors often do. He came of a respectable family, who had always conducted themselves calmly and without too much argument. They had bequeathed him just enough income to live on cheerfully, without display but without having to do addition and subtraction at the end of the month and then tear up the paper lest Fuji (the butler) should see it.
Here we have a decently prosperous, almost middle-aged bachelor, one Gissing, whose private income is just sufficient to allow him a life of leisure, with a country house staffed by a manservant, and scope for mild entertainment and some local travelling. But comfortable though his life is, Gissing is occasionally disturbed by vague yet compelling yearnings to see and understand his purpose in the world. What’s it all about, and what should we do with it, this thing called “Life”? What’s over the next horizon, “where the blue begins”?
Well, nothing here to raise any eyebrows, and certainly nothing to put this on the Most Unexpected list, except for the twist, which is that this is the world as we know it, but it is peopled entirely with anthropomorphized dogs. They walk on two legs, wear clothes, drive motorcars, dwell in houses, but the canine instinct continually makes itself known. Aromas madden these creatures; they occasionally tear off their clothes and run madly through the countryside, to return apologetically to their dwellings when the mood passes. They snap and snarl when taunted, and the pack instinct is strongly present, as Gissing finds to his discomfort when he falls afoul of the status quo and is hunted by a ravening group of his peers.
It’s beyond weird, this whole conceit, but it works surprisingly well, and Morley is obviously enjoying himself thoroughly the whole way through this very odd book. Where the Blue Begins was a bestseller in its time, and was produced in numerous editions. And yes, this is the Christopher Morley of The Haunted Bookshop and Parnassus on Wheels, and if I was expecting something along those lines when I first picked up Where the Blue Begins, I was soon shaken out of my complacency.
by Edith Wharton ~ 1922
Susy and Nick, bona-fide beautiful people, live by their wits as hangers-on among the idle rich. Susy gets by on her charming personality alone, while Nick is an aspiring writer, but the last thing either wants is a moneyless marriage, so when they find that they have fallen in love with each other, the relationship seems a non-starter from the beginning. Until Susy comes up with a clever plan to seize at least a year of happiness together before they must part to seek wealthier partners.
A playful and frivolous departure for the generally serious Edith Wharton, and one which I mostly enjoyed, especially in the early chapters where Susy dances precariously on the knife blade of dazzling her more dull-witted but well-heeled sponsors into paying for her honeymoon. Susy is the Jazz Age Lily Bart, though her eventual fate is kinder, as befits this much lighter production by an American literary icon.
by Julia Strachey ~ 1932
An unexpectedly dark, very short, hard-to-analyze novella which got a lot of attention in the blogosphere earlier this year, due to the recent release of a padded-out film version of the story. The humour which many reviewers identified is definitely there, but I found much pathos as well, though it was of the twisted sort, where one is not quite sure if the author is sneering a bit at her readers for being taken in by the obvious and missing the hidden implications. Confusing response? Well, if so, it fits this odd little book perfectly well.
Dolly Thatcham is getting married in a few hours, and upon meeting her in the opening pages of the book we take a deep breath and hold it for the duration. This book is strung out with tension. Something is going to happen. Something more than a mere marriage ceremony, the veiled implication teases us.
It was as if the drawing-room reappeared in the mirror as a familiar room in a dream reappears, ghostly, significant, and wiped free of all signs of humdrum and trivial existence. Two crossed books lying flat, the round top of a table, a carved lizard’s head on a clock, the sofa-top and its arms, shone in the grey light from the sky outside; everything else was in shadow. The transparent ferns that stood massed in the window showed up very brightly and looked fearful. They seemed to have come alive, so to speak. They looked to have just that moment reared up their long backs, arched their jagged and serrated bodies menacingly, twisted and knotted themselves tightly about each other and darted out long forked and ribboning tongues from one to the other; and all as if under some terrible compulsion … they brought to mind travellers’ descriptions of the jungles in the Congo, – of the silent struggles and strangulations that vegetable life there consists in it seems.
To complete the picture, Dolly’s white face, with its thick and heavily curled back lips, above her black speckled wool frock, glimmered palely in front of the ferns, like a phosphorescent orchid blooming alone there in the twilit swamp.
For five or six minutes, the pale and luminous orchid remained stationary, in the centre of the mirror’s dark surface. The strange thing was the way the eyes kept ceaselessly roaming, shifting, ranging, round and round the room. Round and round again … this looked queer – the face so passive and remote seeming, and the eyes so restless.
The light perhaps caught the mirrored eyes at a peculiar angle, and this might have caused them to glitter so uncomfortably, it seemed even so wildly – irresponsibly, – like the glittering eyes of a sick woman who is exhausted, yet feverish.
This is indeed a bride with a back story.
by Rose Macaulay ~ 1956
‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.
No doubt many of you are familiar with this quotation of the first line in this iconic and deeply strange fiction. Presented by publishers and numerous reviewers as a light and humorous travel tale, I found that it was no such thing, though there was certainly some humour and more than a little travel involved.
It took me a very long time – weeks – to work my way through The Towers of Trebizond, because I found it exhausting in what it asked of me as a reader to process. But this in no way put me off; it actually intrigued me and made me more and more eager to come to grips with what the author was doing here.
The narrator, Laurie, of ambiguous gender until the very end of the story, is accompanying an aunt and an Anglican priest on a visit to Turkey, with the joint aims of converting Muslims to Christianity (Father Chantry-Pigg), studying the living conditions of the local female populace (Aunt Dot), and writing a travel book (Laurie). Part way through the trip, Father Chantry-Pigg and Aunt Dot disappear, apparently into Soviet Russia, leaving Laurie stranded in more ways than one.
A Billy Graham Crusade and a group of apocalypse-anticipating Seventh-Day Adventists heading for Mount Ararat add an element of farce to the saga, as does Laurie’s acquisition of an ape which Laurie attempts to lead into a more highly evolved human form, at one point attempting to teach it to drive a car, with the expected results.
The internet is crowded with marvelous reviews of this fantastical tale, and I hesitate to choose one for you, so I will leave it up to you to investigate further. Worth reading, but keep your mind open. This is not at all what it at first seems to be.
by Patricia Highsmith ~ 1983
A tense, noir, almost-thriller; a can’t-look-away, exceedingly uncomfortable depiction of a dysfunctional family and its twisted disintegration after two of its members embrace an arcane strain of Christian fundamentalism. None of the characters are particularly likeable or completely faultless, including the pseudo-hero Arthur, eldest son of the family in question, who is the closest thing to a chief protagonist in this tense tale.
Despite its date of publication, it seems to be set in the 1950s, and has a decidedly vintage feel to it. This is the first Patricia Highsmith book I’ve ever read, though I’ve seen several of the movie adaptations of her work, Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, and of course the Venetian-set Talented Mr. Ripley, so the dark psychological elements in this were somewhat expected, though the way this one progressed was completely unpredictable to me, hence its inclusion on this list.
by Monica Dickens ~ 1988
This was one of the last novels of the prolific Monica Dickens, who died in 1992 at the age of 77. Her first book, the best-selling and still in print One Pair of Hands, was published in 1939, and it was followed by at least thirty more, some of which are classics of middlebrow fiction. All of her books are compulsively readable, and Dear Doctor Lily is no exception. I couldn’t look away, much as I occasionally wished to. Its frequent bleakness rather disturbed me; the author definitely has the gloves off here in her vivid descriptions of two very different marriages.
Two English girls meet on a flight to America in the early 1960s. Ida is heading to an American G.I.’s family home; she is going to be married, and her expectations are high that her life will be better than it was in England, even if she has a few inner qualms about her prospective spouse and his true devotion to her. Lily is destined to go a very different direction. She is about to meet the man who will become her lover; her far-off future holds a deeply happy marriage, though she has no inkling of that as yet, just as Ida has no foreboding of her own future abuse at the hands of her brutal spouse, and her desperately squalid future.
This book is all about random encounters, and the inconceivable vagaries of the hand of fate. Rather appropriate from a writer in her seventh decade, come to think of it – Monica Dickens paid attention her whole life to what was going on around her, and Dear Doctor Lily showcases the result of such keenly discriminating observation.
And though I’d love to link a proper review, I couldn’t find much online beyond the sketchiest of references, so you’ll have to take my word for it that this is a must-read for the Monica Dickens enthusiast, but that it’s definitely not a comfort read. Glimmers of hope and bits of personal redemption keep it out of the totally depressing category, and the writing is, as ever, stellar.
by Catherine Gildiner ~ 2009
This was a grand year for memoirs, and this one was outstanding and highly unexpected in the direction it went. Toronto psychologist Catherine Gildiner looks back at her adolescence in Buffalo, New York in the 1960s, and her subsequent troubled relationship with a volatile poet and civil rights movement protestor. Outspoken and funny and tragic and compulsively readable. A follow-up to the also-bestselling Too Close to the Falls, which you may already be familiar with, and which is now on my own Must-Read list.
by Lisa Moore ~ 2010
This well researched and absolutely heart-rending historical fiction about Newfoundland’s 1982 Ocean Ranger disaster won this year’s annual C.B.C. Radio Canada Reads contest, and, in my opinion, deserves every bit of praise it got.
February is based on a true Canadian tragedy. On Valentine’s night in 1982, out on the Atlantic Ocean off Newfoundland, the oil drilling rig Ocean Ranger capsized and sank during a violent storm. All eighty-four men on board the rig died in the frigid waters, some apparently within hailing distance of a vessel which was unable to rescue them. The families of the dead learned of the disaster from news accounts on the radio; the oil company made no attempt to notify them. February’s main character Helen O’Mara loses her husband Cal that night. She has three young children and is pregnant with a fourth. Life for all of them becomes indelibly marked by their loss in ways both immediate and not always obvious until many years later.
I generally avoid books which are this desperately emotional, but February surprised me by its enjoyability. Maybe it was the pugnaciously regional voice of the fictional Helen, with its plethora of to-the-point and very funny “Newfie”-isms, or perhaps it was the appealing interviews with the author I was lucky enough to catch on the radio during the Canada Reads debates, but I’m very glad I gave it a chance.
by Tim Bowling ~ 2010
Is it ever right to steal a book? Tim Bowling, Canadian poet, browsing a university library collection, stumbles upon a copy of poet Wallace Steven’s Ideas of Order, signed on the flyleaf by yet another poet, Weldon Kees, who disappeared mysteriously one day in 1955, with evidence suggesting his suicide by jumping of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
Tim Bowling allows his collector’s lust to suggest certain possibilities to him. Would anyone even notice if he “liberated” such a poet’s treasure from its dusty obscurity in the stacks? In the process or worrying this ethical dilemma out, Bowling spins out a book-length ramble about not only Stevens and Kees, but his own personal life.
This book is nothing if not rambling, and it does go on and on and on, and I absolutely hated Bowling’s final decision regarding the book, which I cannot share here, as it is the whole point of working through this thing. It made me grumpy for days, and still offends me to think about it. But I’m glad I sought this literary oddity out, and I’ll be reading it again, and deep down inside I was pleased to have been challenged by my disagreement with certain of Bowling’s opinions. Forgive the cliché, but this one was absolutely thought-provoking.
by Patrick deWitt ~ 2011
I was a little bit leery about this one to begin with. I’d heard all the hype, and seen it on the Big!New!Books! displays in the mall chain bookstores, and I looked at it from a distance and was all snooty, ’cause I don’t do Westerns or cowboy books, and this screamed that from twenty feet away. But then I heard an excerpt read out loud on the C.B.C., and the very next week one of my friendly used book dealers gave me a pristine copy as a bonus to my substantial purchase. Obviously it was meant to be.
Two brothers, Charlie and Eli Sisters, are employed as hit men in the Gold Rush-era “Old West”. Their quest to end the life of one Hermann Kermit Warm leads to many complications and moral examinations, mostly by narrator Eli. Macabre, cold-blooded and unexpectedly, surrealistically funny. Kudos to the author for the ending; it went a different direction than I’d expected, in a very good way. Loved it. Absolutely brilliant. (But not for the squeamish!)
Here’s a fine review, one of many out there: Tipping My Fedora: The Sisters Brothers
Bonus Choice # 11
Caitlin Moran Lets It All Hang Out
by Caitlin Moran ~ 2011
by Caitlin Moran ~ 2012
Swimming into my awareness early in 2013 was British pop culture critic and memoirist Caitlin Moran. Nothing could have prepared me for her, she’s very much of the “have to experience it for yourself” variety of writer. Mostly I enjoyed my hectic time with Ms. Moran; occasionally she completely freaked me out. She always surprised me, though, both by her vividly expressed opinions, her eager willingness to share the most intimate details of her life, and by the excellent quality of her more serious pieces.
How to Be a Woman ~ Absolutely loved some of it; a few bits appalled me. This writer has no self-edit function! Which makes this high speed, profane, too-much-information rant on the business of being female both deeply engaging and just a bit worrisome to those of us functioning on a less high speed plane of “normal”. Very good, and I enjoyed it. But there are episodes and opinions here and there that triggered the “ick!” response! And she swears. A lot.
Moranthology ~ Caitlin Moran looks back at her childhood and adolescence and skewers her younger self as brutally as she does the pop stars she profiles in this outspoken and slashingly funny collection of articles.