Happiness, Like Water, by Chinelo Okparanta -- I was delighted to see her new story in The New Yorker a few weeks ago; I’d hate to see such a fine writer overlooked amid the clamors of splashier books. This collection knocked me out because the stories are quiet and understated and lucid and gather up their power almost without the reader realizing it, then they break your heart, just like that. Such subtle and open and strong writing. Go Down, Moses, by William Faulkner -- That this is world class writing is news to no one, but I read this book straight through for the first time as a novel, rather than as stories printed in various collections. Taken as a single, coherent work, the book’s power and vision are as incredible as any of his other masterpieces. All of the previously impenetrable (to me, anyway) genealogical material in “The Bear,” for example, makes earthquaking sense in context of the rest of the book; it’s like the geneologies in the Bible that trace every person back to Adam and Eve, which is to say bind every person together in one family. It’s just like a book Moses would have written, in fact. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
The two novels that struck me most this year were Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs and Nikolai Leskov’s The Enchanted Wanderer. Both are small masterpieces of great aesthetic and cosmological elegance, told in deceptively anecdotal styles. Both are episodic and both wear their sophistication lightly. The Country of Pointed the Pointed Firs is set in Dunnett’s Landing, a coastal village in Maine, which is a kind of outpost at the edge of this world, a kind of staging for not only ocean journeys but also final journeys. The characters are isolated and mostly live alone with their own “poor insistent human nature[s].” Being solitary, the characters take delight in reunions and fellowship, and practice tact informed by the old idea of I and Thou. There is a deeply moving current in the book that one’s own humanity is confirmed and preserved to the extent that one bears witness to and respects the integrity of the humanity of others. The Enchanted Wanderer is absurd and profound and hair-raising. It follows the wanderings of Ivan, a half-wild, half-holy peasant suspended between the realms of pagan and Christian Russia. The tension in the story is generated by his swings between these extremes. He flees through steppes and woods and cities, among imps and mesmerists and Gypsies and Tartars and angels and demons. As he makes his way he tells and retells his story to almost everyone he meets, and in this manner they are all gathered up into the story, too, which he then takes along with him to the next station, the next telling. It is a soulful and humane cosmic comedy. More from a Year in Reading 2010 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions