As far as New Year’s resolutions go, mine didn’t turn out too badly. I had two reading resolutions in 2014: to read more Indonesian literature and to read World War I literature. I made good on my promise on the Indonesian lit front. The first book I read in 2014 was Saman by Ayu Utami, which I enjoyed so much it is included in my top reads of 2014. I reviewed Leila S. Chudori’s 9 dari Nadira on this blog. And thanks to my new job, I have the opportunity to read through a bunch of hard-to-find Indonesian short stories.
Sadly, fulfillment on both fronts of my bookish goals didn’t happen. Since 2014 was the centennial anniversary of World War I, I had planned on reading WWI fiction and poetry, supplemented with articles and history books. Failing that, I had hoped to read at least Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Ford’s Parade’s End this year. Forget it! I was intimidated by the size of Parade’s End and never got the inspiration to pick up All Quiet on the Western Front.
I started 2014 knowing absolutely nothing about World War I and I would end 2014 knowing equally nothing about World War I.
I always aim to read at least fifty books a year. Such a scheme makes for one book per week, plus an extra two weeks for chunky books –all in all, a rather laid-back schedule. But I only read little more than half my aim. I found this shocking as I used to be an inordinately fast reader. As a child and a teen, I could finish books in a matter of hours, sometimes in a day if the pace was slow. Somehow I found my reading pace snailing until it hit me earlier this year that it’s taking me weeks to finish thin books. This is ridiculous, I had thought. Some mental digging made me realize that since becoming an English major, my reading pace slowed and slowed. I suppose all that scouring for themes, motifs, symbols, and repetition made me a reader who never skipped a single word.
Consequently, I only have five books in my top reads of 2014. A pathetically minimal amount but considering the few books I read it’s really not a surprise.
- Beloved by Toni Morrison
Hands down my favorite book of the year! I think it’s the only book I would give a five out of five-star rating this year. Prior, I didn’t want to touch Morrison’s novels even with a ten-foot pole as I was too intimidated. I had heard that Morrison’s works were dense, rich in symbolism, and tackled difficult subjects. I fretted that everything would fly over my head and I would be left ill-equipped and inadequate. But I had to read it for a Contemporary Lit class so I had no choice but to plunge into it.
I’m so glad I did! Please, if Toni Morrison intimidated you the way she did me, don’t worry! Beloved is a readable novel, not at all incomprehensible. The writing style is exquisite, the storyline compelling, and everything about this novel is rich and vivid. The horrors of slavery, a mother’s love, identity and memory are the main themes in Beloved. None are easy to write about but Morrison wrote them so well. I read that some have found Beloved overly sensational but I disagree. I think Morrison framed a sensational subject –a mother killing her child, with understandable motivations and difficult questions.
On a personal level, Beloved stole my heart because it is also a Gothic ghost story in a way. The Gothic lit acolyte in me rejoiced that such a beautiful book could be written while incorporating my favorite elements.
- Don’t Look Now by Daphne du Maurier
Don’t Look Now is a collection of nine du Maurier stories spanning thirty years of her career. And no book I read this year had me so enthralled under its spell. I was so obsessed with the story “Don’t Look Now” that I missed going to the gym. I was so absorbed in “Split Second” that I didn’t even notice a friend calling for me and kicking at the chair near me. du Maurier was a plot-weaver of the highest degree and this is compulsive, page-turning reading at its finest! The stakes are always high and the tension palpable: whether it’s a murderer on the loose in Venice, birds inexplicably attacking humans, finding out your home is overrun by complete strangers, or waking up to find everyone around you has an animal’s head, all of du Maurier’s stories keeps you reading to find out what the hell is the going on.
du Maurier was also interested in the blurry line between the physical and the supernatural, ensuring that her stories were infused with a Gothic imagination. If you are a fan of Gothic literature, please, please ensure that you read du Maurier!
- Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami
I think at this point you may know that I love my short stories; Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is another short story collection. A generous one at that! There are twenty-four stories here. And by the time I got to the second story “Birthday Girl,” I was smiling, convinced that this would be one of my favorite books of the year. When I turned the final page, I was proven right.
If you have never read Murakami before, you may need to brace yourself for some talking animals and vanishing people. But if you’re a fan of realism, don’t fret! Murakami writes both surrealism and realism. I’m a fan of the realist myself and I loved twenty of the twenty-four stories. Most of the time, the talking animals and vanishing people are red herrings anyway. These stories are more about loneliness and the sadness of lovers rather than the bizarre surfaces Murakami paints over.
It’s also much more rewarding if you savor Murakami rather than trying to figure out what all these stories mean. I tried analyzing Murakami at seventeen only to glean frustrated results. Just enjoy Murakami’s style, which I find so beautiful. I wanted so much to grab whoever is nearby and read them passages from Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.
- Angel by Elizabeth Taylor
Angel is constructed like a tragic play; in five acts with a short epilogue. The novel charts the rise and fall of romance writer Angel(ica) Deverell. Angel is unquestionably one of the more odious fictional creations; she is ghastly towards her mother and the people who care about her and she refuses to accept any blame and responsibility. Elizabeth Taylor paints Angel as someone who lives in fantasy; she must be the adored one, everyone must love her, her writing is genius and the critics are all wrong despite her romances being more purple than the lavender fields of Provence.
Yet despite all this, I sympathized and even admired Angel at times. Mostly for her audacity. After finishing her first novel, she goes to the library, copies a publisher’s address from the first book she finds and sends her manuscript off. Overweening arrogance aside, there’s something to applaud when someone wholly believes in themselves.
Taylor does an incredible job in keeping us simultaneously pitying Angel and feeling repelled by her. Taylor also hits on a writer’s insecurity: that the critics are right and their writing really is that bad. I can’t be the only person to blush when reading examples of Angel’s writing. Oh, the junior high days when I thought burping contents of a thesaurus was the hallmark of good writing. Thankfully I am now cured of such delusion!
There’s a precision in Elizabeth Taylor’s writing that I greatly admire. Angel is the first and only novel of hers that I’ve read. I would very much love recommendations on where to go next with Taylor’s oeuvre.
- Saman by Ayu Utami
It is so rare when your first book of the year becomes one of your favorites. It’s rare that you can remember the contents of the book in the first place. Saman refers to the protagonist of the novel, a budding priest stationed at a rubber town in Indonesia’s Soeharto era. Several subplots run through the novel involving four women: Laila, Shakuntala, Cok, and Yasmin. Don’t bother with the subplots! The women’s plights are tepid. One of the women spend the novel fretting whether or not to sleep with her married lover. I spent the duration of her story thinking ‘This is a bad idea! Don’t do it!’ I really don’t understand how and why the women’s issues are feminist when they just seem whiny at best. Saman’s tale is really the meat of the story and it’s really why the novel made it to my top 5 list.
Saman’s story is a fascinating peek into village mysticism and village economy. The arc about government crackdown on poor farmers and land grabs by big corporations feels neutral and isn’t anger-filled but all the more horrifies the readers. This is one of those moments where a novel feels real. It’s also an eye-opener: I had thought that because Saman was so famous for telling the tale of Soeharto-era authoritarianism, it would relate to city-folk more. I had forgotten that it is the people in the villages who probably suffered most.
Saman isn’t without its flaws. Utami tries to weld together metaphorical lyricism with journalistic realism in Saman but ultimately it is the journalistic realism that wins out. Sometimes it is overwritten and the feminist commentary is a bit weak but all in all I cannot ignore the novel’s strengths. And I keep remembering bits from time to time. I already feel like rereading Saman even though it hasn’t even been a year. It is certainly memorable and has earned its place in this list.
If anyone reading this thinks there is a book I might enjoy, please don’t hesitate to recommend me!