Alan Mattli: My 2015 in Books

Buchhaim

This post is part of a series of posts in which students of the English Seminar present their favourite books they have read in 2015. The lists are not restricted to books that were published this year. If you want to participate as well, send your list to zest.editor@gmail.com.

Today’s list comes to you from Alan Mattli.

After reading 40 books in 2014, I’ve decided to try to go for 50 in 2015 – and, thanks in no small part to participating in the “7 in 7 Readathon” and Penguin Books launching their lovely series of “Little Black” classics”, I was actually able to achieve that goal, even if I secretly hoped to read beyond the number I set myself. But there’s always next year. With this year now over and roughly 11,500 pages read (thank you, Goodreads), it’s time to look back at my very favourite reads among those 50. Five of those excellent books, ordered by author names, I will comment on in a bit more detail.

The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

“I pray silently: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. I don’t know what it means, but it sounds right, and it will have to do, because I don’t know what else I can say to God. Not right now. Not, as they used to say, at this juncture. The scratched writing on my cupboard wall floats before me, left by an unknown woman, with the face of Moira. I saw her go out, to the ambulance, on a stretcher, carried by two Angels.”

I read two dystopias by Margaret Atwood in 2015; the more science-fiction-oriented Oryx and Crake and this one, set in a near future where the United States has turned into an oppressive Christian theocracy operating on the basis of the Old Testament, where women are stripped of their rights. While both books more than inspired me to venture further into the Atwood bibliography, The Handmaid’s Tale deserves to be given the spotlight here – because, on the one hand, it strikes me as the perfect point of entry into the Canadian writer’s work, and because, on the other hand, it is a deeply affecting piece of feminist literature. With the help of its multi-layered chronology, and without ever being on-the-nose about it, the novel engagingly imagines the development of a society that pathologically undervalues and belittles women into a misogynist dictatorship. Plus, Atwood’s beautiful prose is on full display here, expertly mixing the opaque and the readable. Harrowing, intelligent, and filled with ruminations on gender, identity, and storytelling, The Handmaid’s Tale really is essential reading.

Der Zauberberg

Der Zauberberg by Thomas Mann

“Ein einfacher junger Mensch reiste im Hochsommer von Hamburg, seiner Vaterstadt, nach Davos-Platz im Graubündischen. Er fuhr auf Besuch für drei Wochen.“

Back in high school, when the time came to choose our personal readings for the German matura, our teacher used to threaten us with this book: “if you don’t submit your picks on time”, she’d say, “I’ll just assign you Keller’s Der grüne Heinrich or Mann’s Zauberberg.” It worked: nobody was forced to spend one thousand pages alongside young Hans Castorp in the vacuum of the Berghof sanatorium near Davos. This summer, however, I took part in a buddy read of Der Zauberberg – and you know what? I loved it. When you spend two months on this book – which means reading a manageable 20 or so pages per day –, you cannot help but get lost in the maelstrom that is Mann’s opus magnum. It becomes a part of your life for a time; you feel the weirdly comforting stasis that Hans – who must be one of “high” literature’s most hilarious numbskulls – experiences; the people he meets in the Berghof become your own treasured acquaintances (or pet peeves). Der Zauberberg is a fascinating, often supremely funny anti-bildungsroman, whose characters discuss everything from philosophy, religion, and politics to deck chairs and fish sauce (seriously) without anything ever really changing about their surroundings or situations. Truly, this is a book where the journey is the reward – even though the final chapter is up there with the most deeply affecting passages I have ever read.

Die Stadt der Träumenden Bücher

Die Stadt der Träumenden Bücher by Walter Moers

“Bin schwarz, aus Holz und stets verschlossen / Seitdem mit Stein sie mich beschossen / In mir ruh’n tausend trübe Linsen / Seitdem mein Haupt ging in die Binsen / Dagegen helfen keine Pillen: / Ich bin ein Schrank voll ungeputzter Brillen.”

In 2014, I was initiated into the wonderful world of Zamonien after reading Die 13½ Leben des Käpt’n Blaubär – recommended reading for anyone who would like to gain some sort of overview over Moers’ boundlessly imaginative creation. This year, I continued my expedition into the heart of this strange, human-free continent by reading what is considered by many to be the best entry into the “franchise” to date. Die Stadt der Träumenden Bücher is presented as the first chapter of Hildegunst von Mythenmetz’s memoirs, the unquestioned master of Zamonian literature. In this story, however, he’s just an inexperienced adolescent dinosaur – a mere 77 years old – trying to find the author of a perfect manuscript in the book-crazy town of Buchhaim. If you love reading, there’s no reason not to pick up this book, which, as all of Moers’ books, comes with amazing illustrations. Not only is Die Stadt der Träumenden Bücher set in every bibliophile’s dream (all-night book cafés! endless second-hand bookshops!), but it’s also jam-packed with references (mostly in anagram form – am I right, Ojahnn Golgo van Fontheweg?), hilarious moments, enthralling episodes, and tells an enormously captivating story of mystery, betrayal, and a deadly labyrinth made of literature.

The Crying of Lot 49

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

“The fifth act, entirely an anticlimax, is taken up by the bloodbath Gennaro visits on the court of Squamuglia. Every mode of violent death available to Renaissance man, including a lye pit, land mines, a trained falcon with envenom’d talons, is employed. It plays, as Metzger remarked later, like a Road Runner cartoon in blank verse.”

I’ve been fascinated by Thomas Pynchon and the enigma that surrounds him for a while now – at the very least since I listened to the Simpsons audio commentary where the writers talk about booking the reclusive cult author for a cameo. So I was excited, if a little anxious, when I read Pynchon’s shortest book, 1966’s The Crying of Lot 49, for Professor Martin Heusser’s Postmodernism class in the 2015 spring semester. It’s not an impossible read by any stretch, but it’s a bit of a challenge nonetheless, as it does contain many of Pynchon’s trademark idiosyncrasies – an arcane plot that keeps piling on mysteries and ambiguities instead of resolutions, an inordinate number of curiously named characters (Randolph Driblette, Mike Fallopian, and Genghis Cohen, to name just three), and a ridiculously broad array of often very specific references. But I loved the wicked sense of humour that shines through at every turn, the tendency of the narrator to take elaborate, sometimes even profound detours, and the playful way in which Pynchon mixes the paranoia of the main protagonist – who may or may not stumble upon a conspiracy involving an underground postal system – with the strange absurdity of it all. It’s an exemplary, and comparatively accessible, postmodern text that serves as an ideal introduction to the weird genius of Pynchon. (I’ve since read his stoner detective novel Inherent Vice as well – also quite readable –, which I also warmly recommend.)

Nemesis

Nemesis by Philip Roth

“His conception of God was of an omnipotent being who was a union not of three persons in one God-head, as in Christianity, but of two – a sick fuck and an evil genius.”

I realise that the classic start to reading Roth is to pick up either The Human Stain or American Pastoral, but I just happened to stumble upon this book – since deemed by Roth to be his last – when it freshly came out, back in 2012. The synopsis – a P.E. teacher struggles to manage a Newark playground during a polio epidemic in the sweltering summer of 1944 – strangely appealed to me, but for some reason, I didn’t actually read it until this year. I’m very glad that I have, because it is exactly what the plot summary on the back made me hope for: Roth, eloquently yet straightforwardly, reconstructs the time and place of his childhood, telling an arresting story of rationality and duty in the face of communal fear. He truly makes you feel the polio-driving heat of the sun, the creeping dread as one child after the other falls prey to the disease, the deceptive sense of relief when the protagonist leaves the city for a day or two. You wouldn’t think that such a book could turn into a meditation on spirituality and guilt, but, in a brilliant, somewhat metafictional quasi-epilogue, Roth does exactly that, addressing questions of religion and memory in a magisterially subdued way. Nemesis probably won’t go down in history as this author’s major work, but it did give me the nudge I maybe needed to truly start exploring his work.

Bookshelf 2

…and just a few more

Oryx and Crake

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood – both a brilliant dystopia and a captivating piece of post-apocalyptic literature.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory_Fantastic Mr. Fox

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl – hands down the best children’s books I read in 2015, as witty as they are magical.

White Noise

White Noise by Don DeLillo – more postmodern brilliance, as multi-faceted as it is absurdly entertaining.

The Call of Cthulhu

The Call of Cthulhu by H. P. Lovecraft – “just” a short story, but what a short story! All problematic aspects of Lovecraft aside, this is fantastically written and eerily atmospheric.

A Storm of Swords

A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin – part three of the Song of Ice and Fire series delivers another thousand-odd pages of bloody power games that are more intricate and shocking than ever.

The Road

The Road by Cormac McCarthy – bleak, minimalist, and relentless, this book finds strange beauty in the horror of a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon – another stepping stone towards finally reading Against the Day and Gravity’s Rainbow; weird, confounding, convoluted, but outrageously funny above all.

The Diaries of Adam and Eve

The Diaries of Adam and Eve by Mark Twain – it’s as funny as you’d expect sly scriptural criticism by Twain to be, but there’s also an affectingly human dimension to this comic tale.

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