It’s that time of year when people like to look back on the months past and evaluate how it’s been. What better time to briefly consider some of the books I’ve read this year?
1. Finishing Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Bird by Bird is definitely my favorite book about writing I’ve ever read. It’s easy to take in in small bits at a time, giving both good advice and interesting anecdotes. When I was finding it difficult to begin the first bit of my novel, when I was feeling paralyzed by anxiety, I used her “one inch picture frame” technique. She advises to keep a small picture frame on your desk. When you’re having trouble getting started with writing, imagine what you can see in a small frame like it—and fill it. It gives you a smaller space to focus on, and even if you don’t write much more than that, it’s a starting point to build on later. Sometimes, once you fill your mental one inch frame, you can keep going. I would recommend reading the whole book itself, but you can also find a list of quotes from it places online like here.
I plan to reread Bird by Bird in the future, maybe even this year as I need encouragement while finishing my book.
2. Rereading The Probable Future by Alice Hoffman
My decision to reread The Probable Future by Alice Hoffman was pure indulgence during an autumn trip to Amelia Island with my family, but it reminded me of how much I like Hoffman’s writing style. Some of her books can tend towards the contemporary fiction I really don’t like—the kind of novels that lean too heavily on a flashy plot but seem to have been quickly written, which are primarily coughed up by writers that push out new books every few months at times. However that is the exception and not the rule for Hoffman, and The Probable Future is one of my favorites by her. It has a subtle and natural beauty to it, like much of her writing. For example, many creative writing classes and tips advise not to start a story with a description of weather, but when Hoffman does this in The Probable Future, I almost didn’t notice. The description was woven into backstory, and resurfaces throughout the novel, necessary in giving context and atmosphere to the family on which the story focuses.
Gone Girl was a nice surprise. I usually like to wait a little while for the hoopla to die down about popular contemporary fiction, just to see if the excitement is well founded. I decided pretty quickly to get a copy of Flynn’s book primarily because it’s a thriller, and some who had read parts of my novel-in-progress compared it to that genre. The novel employs a narrative told by two protagonists, man and wife Amy and Nick Dunne, and though they weave a twisting story, the real intrigue for me was in their relationship. One of the book’s strengths was how Flynn’s writing persuaded me, as the reader, to feel a certain way about the protagonists, then in a brief space of page completed flipped that. The story itself fizzled out a little towards the end, but it seems like a more natural way to round out the novel, and it fit pretty well with Nick Dunne’s need to be liked.
It is the power play between the male and female protagonist that makes Flynn’s novel really compelling, and she has attracted a lot of attention for her representation of the wife. So between the female character stereotypes of the motherly/virginal/good, whore/femme fatale/bad, and strong/independent, where does Flynn’s Amy Dunne fit? And why is Flynn being accused of misogyny in her writing of Amy? I think Amy’s character is more complex than these archetypes, but I’d have to write a whole other blog post to really get into that.
I’ll probably read another of Flynn’s books at some point in the future.
Of the books I’ve read this year, The Shadow of the Wind would probably have to be my favorite. Considering how I ended 2012 with a new overall favorite, The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, I’m not really sure how Zafón’s novel matches up. When I visited Barter Books in Alnwick (a favorite secondhand book store in a converted railway station) with my parents last summer, I recognized the title as a past bestseller, and when I found out it concerned a secret library known as The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, I was hooked.
At first it was really slow reading, to the point that I considered abandoning it, but I always ended up picking it up again. I think part of this was due to the style in which it was written, and I have to wonder if it’s because the book was translated from Spanish. Most contemporary fiction originally written in English seems to have a certain distance or dryness to its description in comparison. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, I know I write within this style, but the more ornate descriptiveness of writers like Zafón is something a reader must get accustomed to if they aren’t already. The only time I can remember reading something with a similar style was when I started Shahriar Mandanipour’s Censoring an Iranian Love Story.
The further I got through The Shadow of the Wind, the more I was drawn in to the story, to the point that by the end I was literally having trouble putting the book down. I got the prequel for my birthday, The Angel’s Game, and I’m getting through this one pretty slowly. With a protagonist who is an author, The Angel’s Game strikes close to home with its ruthless comments on the ego and struggle of writers, but they are so accurate it’s hard to argue. I have no doubt my next year of reading holds the following two books Zafón wrote in the series, especially the most recent one, which is supposed to be about the beginning of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.
Honorable mentions: The Boy Who Could See Demons by Carolyn Jess-Cooke, Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro, and rereading Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris
Have you read any of these, and what did you think? What were your favorite books that you read this year?