The Last Reads of 2013: Sierra Leone, Canada, Maine, Venezuela, Morocco (and Illinois and London)

ATWIB 2013I have decided to close out 2013 at this point, rather than read like a fiend to the end. For one thing it’s my anniversary, and holing up with books til midnight seems a little antisocial. Also, there isn’t a prayer of attaining any of the goals I set for the year, and I comfort myself that I did accomplish some other things in my real life instead this year, like leaping back into my academic career, and moving my family to the great state of Texas, where I’ve settled in to a life I truly love.

Here’s a rundown of the books I read at the end, most in actual paper form, since I have a break from my 100 mile each way commute between semesters.

For Sierra Leone, a 1001 list item:
The Heart of the MatterThe Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

They had been corrupted by money, and he had been corrupted by sentiment. Sentiment was the more dangerous, because you couldn’t name its price. A man open to bribes was to be relied upon below a certain figure, but sentiment might uncoil in the heart at a name, a photograph, even a smell remembered.

It seemed to Scobie that life was immeasurably long. Couldn’t the test of man have been carried out in fewer years? Couldn’t we have committed our first major sin at seven, have ruined ourselves for love or hate at ten, have clutched at redemption on a fifteen-year-old deathbed?

When he was young, he had thought love had something to do with understanding, but with age he knew that no human being understood another. Love was the wish to understand, and presently with constant failure the wish died, and love died too perhaps or changed into this painful affection, loyalty, pity…

Excerpts from The Heart of the Matter

This was my first Graham Greene, and it helped me understand why he is described as a distinctly Catholic author. His characters face the same challenges in love and life in general that characters in other novels face, but they are confronted as well by the specific moral and existential questions that come with particular Catholic theology. These principles of Catholicism are, in a sense, a character in the novel.

In The Heart of the Matter, a policeman in what is probably Sierra Leone during the Second World War is tempted by corruption, a young widow who comes to the city, and the potential to cover up his actions or reveal them. He is faced with the conundrum of whether to confess to the local priest, truly repent, or take the sacrament in an unabsolved state. He makes his choices trying to weigh disappointing God or the people around him. His moral dilemmas take a distinct form because of the nature of the faith he has adopted.

I found the book somewhat slow, but also, particularly once the theological themes emerged, quite moving and interesting. It is a book that will stay with me.

My “I” book was Insurgent, the second in the YA trilogy by Veronica Roth I started earlier in the year:

Insurgent (Divergent, #2)Insurgent by Veronica Roth
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It was a fun read in a dystopian future Chicago, but I can’t get up much enthusiasm to write a review. Books like this are sort of brain candy for me. I whip through them, enjoy them at the time, but then I read some of the other things which truly move me, and I almost regret the time I spent. Usually not quite, but that is why I don’t string a lot of these books together when I am reading. I need the meat and fruit and cheese and veggies of literature or I just end up with a bit of a stomach ache. That said, grab it for a beach read or a bit of an escape if you are sick in bed, or some similar moment.

J was a book I have been looking forward to reading since I heard about it in an episode of This American Life on NPR. It also takes place in Illinois, and it’s nonfiction, so it also did me no good on my 1001 books quest, but it is a fabulous book, and I recommend it on audio, with the author narrating.

The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome, and One Man's Quest to Be a Better HusbandThe Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome, and One Man’s Quest to Be a Better Husband by David Finch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fabulous. Funny, smart, educational. Every couple could benefit from reading/listening to this book by a man who makes improving his marriage one of his “special interests” after being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (which ironically has just disappeared as a diagnosis in the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual put out by the American Psychiatric Association). If you have a kid on the autism spectrum, or with the new Social Communication Disorder which has replaced a piece of the Aspergers Diagnosis, you will also probably find the book a Godsend. But really, I can’t imagine anyone who would not enjoy the trials and tribulations of this couple as they navigate their marriage. The wife is an amazing woman, and David Finch is an inspiration and a comic genius. Do it on audio, so you can hear Finch narrate!

K was an Orwell which I mistakenly believed before reading it would be about an old warplane of some sort. Turns out an aspidistra is a plant you can’t kill. This is a good thing for brown-thumbed me to learn, as it may be the plant of my future.

Keep the Aspidistra FlyingKeep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Comstocks, as Gordon knew them, were a peculiarly dull, shabby, dead-alive, ineffectual family. They lacked vitality to an extent that was surprising. That waa Gran’pa Comstock’s doing, of course. By the time when he died all his children were grown up and some of the were middle-aged, and he had long ago succeeded in crushing out of them any spirit they might ever have possessed. He had lain upon them as a garden roller lies upon daisies, and there was no chance of their flattened personalities ever expanding again. One and all they turned out listless, gutless, unsuccessful sort of people. None of the boys had proper professions, because Gran’pa Comstock had been at the greatest pains to drive all of them into professions for which they were totally unsuited. Only one of them–John, Gordon’s father–had even braved Gran’pa Comstock to the extent of getting married during the latter’s lifetime. It was impossible to imagine any of them making any sort of mark in the world, or creating anything, or destroying anything, or being happy or vividly unhappy, or fully alive, or even earning a decent income. They just drifted along in an atmosphere of semi-genteel failure. They were one of those depressing families, so common among the middle-middle classes in which nothing ever happens.

Despite passages such as the one above, which I thoroughly enjoyed, my overall reaction to Keep the Aspidistra Flying was “EH.” I usually really love George Orwell, but this one didn’t really do it for me. The protagonist wants to reject a culture based on money, but in doing so, he becomes obsessed with it. His life is a mess, he’s broke, and he spends a ton of time thinking about money and despising anything connected to it. It’s a satire, but it doesn’t really have the edge that would make it work for me. Getting through it was more of a commitment than a pleasure. Was it a bad book? Definitely not. But was it deserving of its place on the 1001 list? Not in my opinion (from what I have read, Orwell would agree, to his credit!).

L was my Canada book, and took place on the streets of Montreal. It was short-listed for the Orange Prize the year it was published, which is what put it on my radar.

Lullabies for Little CriminalsLullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you want to get a child to love you, then you should just go and hide in the closet for three or four hours. They get down on their knees and pray for you to return. That child will turn you into God. Lonely children probably wrote the Bible.
If Jules was the type of person all the time that he was in Xavier’s eyes, then things would be okay for him. Then again, if I was the type of person all the time that I was in Xavier’s eyes, I think I’d also be okay. Wouldn’t that be a nice life? Xavier wasn’t put on earth to witness the bad things like Jules and I were. He had been put here to notice lovely things, things that God had created and no one had any complaints about . Leaves turning red in autumn. How when the tide goes out, the shells are left on the shore. I was put here–Jules and I were both put here–to see sadder things. We had to stand in the rain and explain why the world was a lovely place.

This is a selection of the wisdom of Baby, a girl growing up on the streets of Montreal with her heroin addicted father. Her mother died when she was a baby, but she doesn’t have much luck getting more information than that from her father. Baby is very bright, and pretty resilient, but she is also pretty young, and we watch her try to navigate a pretty rough set of circumstances with all the wisdom of a 12 year old with pretty slim parenting behind her.

This is quite a novel, moving without being overdone, bleak but in some way upbeat. It is a testament to the precious nature of childhood wherever it is found.

M took me to Germany and Venezuela, but I’m counting it for Venezuela. This was another 1001 Books list selection.

Measuring the WorldMeasuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel ended up earning more stars than I would have guessed early on. It was slow at the beginning, but then I started to get really hooked midway through. It is about the lives of two men who were remarkable scholars and explorers in their own ways in the Germany of the mid 19th century. Neither of them were easy men to deal with. Both were exceedingly bright, and remarkably lacking in social skills and patience for others who were less bright (which was pretty much everyone). The two men were the explorer and naturalist Von Humboldt and the mathematician and astronomer Gauss. The tale alternates between the life stories of the two, with some brief sections bringing the two men together late in their lives. Measuring the World is full of colorful scenes that illustrate the men’s brilliance and curiosity about the laws of nature and equally remarkable ineptitude in dealing with those around them. I wish I could tell you how the book eventually hooked me, but I’m not sure when and how it happened. I think I just finally got attached enough to the men and their eccentricities to want to see it through.

N took me back into the work of Cuban-born Italian author Italo Calvino. I absolutely loved his If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, but some of his other works haven’t really done it for me, so I approached The Nonexistent Knight and The Cloven Viscount with a bit of trepidation. I shouldn’t have worried. These were enchanting little novellas set in the age of chivalry. In combination with a third novella not included in my edition, they make up Our Ancestors, which is a 1001 books selection. I used this one for Morocco.

The Nonexistent Knight & The Cloven ViscountThe Nonexistent Knight & The Cloven Viscount by Italo Calvino
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

World conditions were still confused in the era when this took place. It was not rare then to find names and thoughts and forms and institutions that corresponded to nothing in existence. But at the same time the world was polluted with objects and capacities and persons who lacked any name or distinguishing mark. It was a period when the will and determination to exist, to leave a trace, to rub up against all that existed, was not wholly used since there were many who did nothing about it–from poverty or ignorance or simply from finding things bearable as they were–and so a certain amount was lost into the void. Maybe too there came a point when this diluted will and consciousness of self was condensed, turned to sediment, as imperceptible watery particles condense into banks of clouds; and then maybe this sediment merged by chance or instinct, with some name or family or military rank or duties or regulations, above all in an empty armor, for in times when armor was necessary even for a man who existed, how much f themore was it for one who didn’t. Thus it was that Agilulf of the Guildivern had begun to act and acquire glory for himself.

When I love Italo Calvino, I really love him. It is for the witty way that he plays with narrative, the playful way he can dip in and out of reality. This book was nice taste of what I like about him. It combines two novellas which, along with a third story not included in this edition, make up the collection Our Ancestors: The Cloven Viscount, The Baron in the Trees, The Non-Existent Knight. The first, from which the above excerpt is taken, tells of a knight who is simply an empty suit of armor. He’s a very perfect and successful suit of armor, but he can’t eat or sleep or do anything a normal knight could do. And when he finds that his knighthood may rest on an error, so that his rank and accomplishments may not be real either, he is sent into a rather understandable identity crisis which leads to a major quest. Some of the scenes in this novella could easily be source material for some of the vignettes in Monty Python’s Holy Grail (it’s been too long since I’ve read Arthurian legend to know if some of them go back that far). The second novella is about a Viscount who is cut in two in a battle. The half people can find is stitched up on the field by battle surgeons and returns home, but turns out to be quite nasty and evil. Later, the other half, which is all good, but in some ways equally problematic, shows up as well, having survived after all. This is an amusing meditation on the different sides of each of us, and what it might be like if either existed, unbalanced and alone. I look forward to reading the third novel in the set, which I have under separate cover, waiting on my shelves.

And I finally said “Uncle” after finishing a Pulitzer-winning set of short stories set in tiny Crosby, Maine, which was my “O” read. It was a great portrait of small town life, and of the various characters who make up such a world.

Olive KitteridgeOlive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

That morning Rebecca Brown stole a magazine, even though Rebecca was not, ordinarily, the type of person who stole things, Ordinarily, Rebecca wouldn’t take the soap from a motel bathroom on Route 1; she’d never even think to take the towels. It was the way she had been raised. In truth, Rebecca had been raised not to do a lot of things, and she’d done a great many of them anyway, except for stealing–she had never done that. But in the bleak white of a doctor’s office in the town of Maisy Mills, Rebecca stole a magazine. There was a story in it that she wanted to finish, and she thought: This is only a doctor’s office, and only a magazine, so really this is no big deal.

So begins one of the many short stories in this is a wonderful collection that captures the life of a small coastal Maine town, and the complicated lives that are lived out in such out of the way places. The central character is the somewhat acerbic Olive Kitteridge, a retired teacher, mother to a son, and wife to a gentle and patient pharmacist. In some stories, the passions and conflicts are hers, in others she is a character just mentioned in passing. The beauty of the collection is in the focused detail of each story, and the complicated human struggles that are contained in them. I am coming to really appreciate the short story as a literary form. The Pulitzer committee seems to do a really good job of finding marvelous collections and rewarding the authors for their fabulous work. This is the third set of winning short stories that I have really enjoyed.

So this brings me to my final progress report for the year. It isn’t what I’d hoped, but it is also not entirely shabby. There have been some marvelous books this year, and I will finish up some of the unfinished work of the challenges in 2014!

Final 2013 Progress report:

Around the World (goal: 52 total including at least 6 in each of 6 different regions) 35
Asia/Mideast: 6 (Israel, China, Afghanistan, Japan, Iran, Pakistan)
Africa: 5 (Madagascar, Libya, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Morocco)
Europe: 6 (England/UK, Ireland, Monaco, Poland, Spain, Italy)
Caribbean/Central America/North America: 6 (US, Cuba, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Canada)
Oceania: 3 (Fiji, Marshall Islands, Australia)
South America: 2 (Brazil, Venezuela)
Extra: 7 (Scotland, Greece, Holland, India, Serbia, France, Austria)

FAILED. Goal for next year: 17 more countries, including one more from Africa, 3 from Oceania, and 4 from South America.

Around the US (goal: 50 states, DC, and PR): 24 (AZ, CA, CO, DC, GA, HI, IA, IL, IN, KS, LA, MA, ME, MI, MN, MO, MS, ND, NM, NJ, NY, PA, RI, WV)

FAILED. Goal for next year: Finish off AK, AL, AR, CT, DE, FL, ID, KY, MD, MT, NB, NC, NV, NH, OH, OK, OR, PR, SC, SC, TN, TX, UT, VA, VT, WA, WI, WY

1001 Books (goal 52): 27

FAILED: Goal for next year: 52. I’m not willing to skimp so much on the list next year.

A to Z challenge (must be completed in order–26 author last names A to Z then 26 titles A to Z–strategy is all!): 41
Authors: Auster, Beinart, Chandler, Donovan, Eugenides, Faulkner, Grau, Hosseini, Ishiguro, Joyce, King, Lewis, Murakami, Nasar, Ondaatje, Preston and Childs, Quinn, Rushdie, Scott, Trevor, Updike, Vonnegut, Wouk, Xingjian, Young, Zola YEA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Books: All Aunt Hagar’s Children, Big Rock Candy Mountain, Cutting for Stone, Divergent, Elizabeth Costello, Funeral in Blue, Gone Girl, Heart of the Matter, Insurgent, Journal of Best Practices, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Lullabies for Little Criminals, Measuring the World, The Nonexistent Knight and the Cloven Viscount, Olive Kitteridge

SUCCEEDED: I would have liked to get through the alphabet twice, but I did a full author alphabet, and more than half of the title alphabet, and had fun doing it.


About Beth Parks Aronson

I am Associate Professor of Psychology at Lamar University. Previously, I was a psychologist in private practice in Jenkintown, PA where I specialized in anxiety disorders and working with people living with chronic and life-threatening illnesses. I am a little addicted to good literature. Ok, a lot addicted.
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