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Best Reads of 2013 December 31, 2013

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Books.

Reading a book: happiness, like peeling an apple, warming a slice of pizza, chewing a sweet piece of gum, seeing a shooting star a second before it disappears, entering a library, breathing that familiar smell of dust, sitting in a corner, admiring the silence, looking up a word, looking out the window, going down an endless flight of stairs with no sense of hurry, finding a place to sit, lying down on the grass, resting your gaze on the sky, seeing the clouds move, closing your eyes, losing it, recovering, finally losing it.

Following are the finest books I read in the past year.


45. EVERYMAN, Philip Roth, 2006

“Religion was a lie that he had recognized early in life, and he found all religions offensive, considered their superstitious folderol meaningless, childish, couldn’t understand the complete unadultness—the baby talk and the righteousness and the sheep, the avid believers. No hocus-pocus about death and God or obsolete fantasies of heaven for him. There was only our bodies, born to live and die on terms decided by the bodies that had lived and died before us. If he could be said to have located a philosophical niche for himself, that was it—he’d come upon it early and intuitively, and however elemental, that was the whole of it.”


Nathan Englander, 2012

“They were all heroes to us, every single one of Russia’s oppressed. We’d seen Gulag on cable television, and learned that for escapes across vast snowy tundras, two prisoners would invite a third to join, so that they could eat him along the way. We were moved by this as boys, and fantasized about sacrifice, wondering which of our classmates we’d devour.”


43. MONKEY GRIP, Helen Garner, 1977

“At last,” he said, “I’ve found someone who fucks soft.”


42. SELECTED STORIES, Adolfo Bioy Casares
Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine, 1994

“Getting off at College Station, he had the impression that people were staring at him. He was going to continue on his way but then thought that to imagine people were looking at him strangely was in itself a symptom of insanity.”


41. A BREATH OF LIFE (PULSATIONS), Clarice Lispector, 1978
Translated by Johnny Lorenz, 2012

“Last night I had a dream within a dream. I dreamed that I was calmly watching actors working on a stage. And through a door that was not locked men came in with machine guns and killed all the actors. I began to cry: I didn’t want them to be dead. So the actors got up off the ground and said: we aren’t dead in real life, just as actors, the massacre was part of the show. Then I dreamed such a good dream: I dreamed this: in life we are actors in an absurd play written by an absurd God. We are all participants in this theater: in truth we never shall die when death happens. We only die as actors. Could that be eternity?”


40. ALMOST NO MEMORY, Lydia Davis, 1997

“An outburst of anger near the road, a refusal to speak on the path, a silence in the pine woods, a silence across the old railroad bridge, an attempt to be friendly in the water, a refusal to end the argument on the flat stones, a cry of anger on the steep bank of dirt, a weeping among the bushes.”


39. CRONOPIOS AND FAMAS, Juilo Cortázar, 1962
Translated by Paul Blackburn, 1969

“It happened that a gentleman dropped his glasses on the floor, which, when they hit the tiles, made a terrible noise. The gentleman stoops down to pick them up, very dejected, as the lenses are very expensive, but he discovers with astonishment that by some miracle he hasn’t broken them.

“Now this gentleman feels profoundly thankful and understands that what has happened amounts to a friendly warning, in such a way that he walks down to an optician’s shop and immediately acquires a leather glasses case, padded and double-protected, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of, etc. An hour later the case falls, and stooping down to recover it without any great anxiety, he discovers that the glasses are in smithereens. It takes this gentleman a while to understand that the designs of Providence are inscrutable, and that in reality the miracle has just now occurred.”


38. SELECTED STORIES, Robert Walser
Translated by Christopher Middleton and others, 1982

“I am thrilled to be writing a report on such a delicate subject as trousers, and thus to be licensed to plunge into meditation upon them; even as I write, a desirous grin, I can feel it, is spreading over my face.”


37. DARK HOURS, Conchitina Cruz, 2005

“I missed the train right away. I despised the return to the road, the chaos of buses, the cops on the lookout for bribes. We became believers in the rule of elimination: every place became a potential target; the safest spots were those that had already been bombed. We ignored the warnings and kissed on the steps to the train.”


36. THE DUEL, Anton Chekhov, 1891
Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, 2004

“Trust me, I won’t deceive you, and I won’t conceal a single truth from the eyes of your soul. Listen to me, then, dearest. . . God marks great sinners, and you have been marked. Remember, your dresses have always been awful!”


35. ÁGUA VIVA, Clarice Lispector, 1973
Translated by Stefan Tobler, 2012

“. . . suddenly I saw him and he was such an extraordinarily handsome and virile man that I felt a joy of creation. Not that I wanted him for myself just as I don’t want for myself the boy I saw with the hair of an archangel running after a ball. I just wanted to look. The man looked at me for an instant and smiled calmly: he knew how beautiful he was and I know that he knew that I didn’t want him for myself. He smiled because he felt no threat at all. Because beings exceptional in any way are subject to more dangers than your average person. I crossed the street and took a taxi. The breeze made the hairs on my neck stand up. And I was so happy that I huddled in the corner of the taxi out of fear because happiness hurts. And all that caused by having seen the handsome man. I still didn’t want him for myself—what I like are people who are a little ugly and at the same time harmonious, but he somehow had given me a lot with his smile of camaraderie among people who understand each other. I didn’t understand any of this.”


34. TRAIN DREAMS, Denis Johnson, 2011

“All his life Robert Grainier would remember vividly the burned valley at sundown, the most dreamlike business he’d ever witnessed waking—the brilliant pastels of the last light overhead, some clouds high and white, catching daylight from beyond the valley, others ribbed and gray and pink, the lowest of them rubbing the peaks of Bussard and Queen mountains; and beneath this wondrous sky the black valley, utterly still, the train moving through it making a great noise but unable to wake this dead world.”


33. MONSIEUR PAIN, Roberto Bolaño, 1999
Translated by Chris Andrews, 2010

“This is the strangest bribe I’ve ever heard of,” I murmured. Of course they didn’t understand.


Bohumil Hrabal, 1964
Translated by Michael Henry Heim, 1995

“. . .my cousin was a twin and real card, he was christened Vincek and his brother was christened Ludvíček, and when they were a year old their mother was bathing them in a tub and popped out to see a neighbor, and when she got back half an hour later one of them had drowned, and they were so much alike nobody could tell which one, Ludvíček or Vincek, so they flipped a coin, heads for Ludvíček, tails for Vincek, and it came up Ludvíček, but when my cousin Vincek grew up he began to wonder—and he had plenty of time for it, he was always out of a job—he began to wonder who really did drown, whether the person walking around on Earth wasn’t really Ludvíček, and he, Vincek, was up in heaven, which led him to drink and to wander along the water’s edge and go in swimming, testing the waters, so to speak, till at last he drowned, by way of proof that he hadn’t been the one to drown back then. . .”


31. PEDRO PÁRAMO, Juan Rulfo, 1955
Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, 1994

“I had expected to see the town of my mother’s memories, of her nostalgia—nostalgia laced with sighs. She had lived her lifetime sighing about Comala, about going back. But she never had. Now I had come in her place. I was seeing things through her eyes, as she had seen them. She had given me her eyes to see.”


30. THE LOVER, Marguerite Duras, 1984
Translated by Barbara Bray, 1985

“One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place a man came up to me. He introduced himself and said, ‘I’ve known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you’re more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.”


Gabriel García Márquez
Translated by Gregory Rabassa, 1978

“We had been seeing each other for several years. Sometimes, when we were already together, somebody would drop a spoon outside and we would wake up. Little by little we’d been coming to understand that our friendship was subordinated to things, to the simplest of happenings. Our meetings always ended that way, with the fall of a spoon early in the morning.”



“A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.”


27. ON THE YANKEE STATION, William Boyd, 1981

“People, it seems, want to give me things—for some reason known only to them. No matter what I do or how I behave, unprompted and unsought the gifts come. And they will keep on coming. Naked photos, cold pizza, their girls, their wives, their breasts to see, even their grief. I feel a growing confidence about my stay in Nice. It will be all right now, I feel sure. It will work out. I think about all the gifts that lie waiting for me. I think about the Swedish girls at the Centre. I think about spring and the days when the sun will be out. . .”


26. THE MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH, Michael Chabon, 1988

“When I remember that dizzy summer, that dull, stupid, lovely, dire summer, it seems that in those days I ate my lunches, smelled another’s skin, noticed a shade of yellow, even simply sat, with greater lust and hopefulness—and that I lusted with greater faith, hoped with greater abandon. The people I loved were celebrities, surrounded by rumor and fanfare; the places I sat with them, movie lots and monuments. No doubt all of this is not true remembrance but the ruinous work of nostalgia, which obliterates the past, and no doubt, as usual, I have exaggerated everything.”


25. THE RAIN BEFORE IT FALLS, Jonathan Coe, 2007

“There is nothing one can say, I suppose, about happiness that has no flaws, no blemishes, no fault lines: none, that is, except the certain knowledge that it will have to come to an end.”


24. A VERY EASY DEATH, Simone de Beauvoir, 1964
Translated by Patrick O’Brian, 1965

“I did not particularly want to see Maman again before her death; but I could not bear the idea that she should not see me again.”


23. THE OPTIMIST’S DAUGHTER, Eudora Welty, 1972

“The mystery in how little we know of other people is no greater than the mystery of how much, Laurel thought.”


22. THE APPLE IN THE DARK, Clarice Lispector, 1961
Translated by Gregory Rabassa, 1967

“ … ‘I am I!’ she begged Him, not as a privilege, but to make it easier for Him to grant the tremendous exception. ‘Oh God, let me always have a body!’ The tears were running down her still happy face which, startled, had not had time to change its expression. ‘My God,’ she finally confessed, feeling that with it she was confessing a great sin—‘I never want to see You! She felt horror for God and His sweetness and His stability and His perfume; she felt horror for the birds that He had sent as messenger of peace. ‘I don’t want to die because I don’t understand death!’ the girl said to God. ‘Please don’t judge me so superior to the point that You will send me death! I don’t deserve it! Sneer at me because I am inferior, any life is enough for me! And I’m not intelligent, I was always backward in school, why give me so much importance now, then? It’s enough to put me aside and forget about me, who am I to die! Only privileged people should die! Whom are You asking the truth from! You can give it to anyone who asks for it!’”


21. THE DAY OF THE OWL, Leonardo Sciascia, 1961
Translated by Archibald Colquhoun and Arthur Oliver, 1963

“Truth is at the bottom of a well: look into it and you see the sun or the moon; but if you throw yourself in, there’s no more sun or moon: just truth.”


20. BY NIGHT IN CHILE, Roberto Bolaño, 2000
Translated by Chris Andrews, 2003

“One has a moral obligation to take responsibility for one’s actions, and that includes one’s words and silences, yes, one’s silences, because silences rise to heaven too, and God hears them, and only God understands and judges them, so one must be very careful with one’s silences.”


19. LIFE & TIMES OF MICHAEL K, J. M. Coetzee, 1983

“He is like a stone, a pebble that, having lain around quietly minding its own business since the dawn of time, is now suddenly picked up and tossed randomly from hand to hand. A hard little stone, barely aware of its surroundings, enveloped in itself and its interior life. He passes through these institutions and camps and hospitals and God knows what else like a stone. Through the intestines of war. An unbearing, unborn creature.”


18. THE INVENTION OF MOREL, Adolfo Bioy Casares, 1940
Translated by Ruth L. C. Simms, 1964

So I was dead! The thought delighted me, (I felt proud, I felt as if I were a character in a novel!)


      17.  LET US COMPARE MYTHOLOGIES, Leonard Cohen, 1956

In his black armour
the house-fly marched the field
of Freia’s sleeping thighs,
undisturbed by the soft hand
which vaguely moved
to end his exercise.

And it ruined my day—
this fly which never planned
to charm her or to please
should walk boldly on that ground
I tried so hard
to lay my trembling knees.


16. THE FAT MAN IN HISTORY, Peter Carey, 1993

“I don’t believe in god,” my father said. “Humanity is god. Humanity is the only god I know. If humanity doesn’t need something it will disappear. People who are not loved will disappear. Everything that is not loved will disappear from the face of the earth. We only exist through the love of others and that’s what it’s all about.”


15. NIGHT, Elie Wiesel, 1958
Translated by Marion Wiesel, 2006

“I pinched myself: Was I still alive? Was I awake? How was it possible that men, women, and children were being burned and that the world kept silent? No. All this could not be real. A nightmare perhaps . . . Soon I would wake up with a start, my heart pounding, and find that I was back in the room of my childhood, with my books . . .”


14. THE DREAM OF HEROES, Adolfo Bioy Casares, 1954
Translated by Diana Thorold, 1987

“As Gauna was getting ready to go out that same evening, just as it was beginning to get dark, there was a downpour of rain. He waited in the entrance hall for it to stop, and he noticed how all the usual colours of the neighbourhood—the green of the trees, lighter in the case of the eucalyptus whose leaves were quivering beyond the waste ground in the distance, darker in the case of the paradise trees on the pavements, the browns and greys of the doors and windows, the white of the houses, the ochre of the draper’s on the corner, the red of the posters still vainly announcing the sale of plots of land, the blue of the glass sign opposite—all these had taken on the boundless intensity of living things, as if some frenzied exaltation had reached them from the depths of the earth.”


13. ROGUE MALE, Geoffrey Household, 1939

“I distrust patriotism; the reasonable man can find little in these days that is worth dying for. But dying against—there’s enough iniquity in Europe to carry the most urbane or decadent into battle.”


Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine, 2005

“There were several weeks—it’s so hard to be precise with happiness—when everything made us laugh.”



“All that I want now is to live out my life in ease in a familiar world, to die in my own bed and be followed to the grave by old friends.”


10. CHESS, Stefan Zweig, 1942
Translated by Anthea Bell, 2006

“I had always realized that such a unique, brilliant game must create its own matadors, but how difficult and indeed impossible it is to imagine the life of an intellectually active human being whose world is reduced entirely to the narrow one-way traffic between black and white, who seeks the triumphs of his life in the mere movement to and fro, forward and back of thirty-two chessmen, someone to whom a new opening, moving knight rather than pawn, is a great deed, and his little corner of immortality is tucked away in a book about chess—a human being, an intellectual human being who constantly bends the entire force of his mind on the ridiculous task of forcing a wooden king into the corner of a wooden board, and does it without going mad!”


9. NEAR TO THE WILD HEART, Clarice Lispector, 1943
Translated by Alison Entrekin, 2012

“. . .goodness makes me want to be sick. Goodness was lukewarm and light. It smelled of raw meat kept for too long. Without entirely rotting in spite of everything. It was freshened up from time to time, seasoned a little, enough to keep it a piece of lukewarm, quiet meat.”


8. THE SPARE ROOM, Helen Garner, 2008

“The most beautiful things,” he remarked to her in a German-tinged drawl, “happen secretly and privately.”


7. CIVILWARLAND IN BAD DECLINE, George Saunders, 1996

“The fight started when I accused her of flirting with our neighbor Len Kobb by bending low on purpose. I was angry and implied that she couldn’t keep her boobs in her top to save her life. If I could see her one last time I’d say: Thanks very much for dying at the worst possible moment and leaving me holding the bag of guilt. I’d say: if you had to die, couldn’t you have done it when we were getting along?”


6. BERLIN STORIES, Robert Walser
Translated by Susan Bernofsky, 2012

“I am poor, and I am steeling myself for even more poverty,” I wrote, as I recall, to delightful Auguste, who had been my sweet little lady friend, “and you will probably never again respond to a letter containing such doleful confessions. I understand you womenfolk; you are only lovely, good, and kind to those who visibly enjoy good fortune in this world. Penury, indigence, and misfortune repulse you. Forgive the anguish that is not ashamed to write such things. What am I capable of offering you when I am scarcely able to keep my own head above water? Clearly things are over between us, no?, for you will surely find it excellent to shun me. This I can understand. And I as well am joyfully taking leave of you today, because now it is time for me to invest what strength I possess in fighting an all too unlovely struggle for survival. Oh, all those rose scenes, that divine, gay exuberance you bestowed on me, that laughter! I shall always be prepared to think back on a happiness whose mischievous originator you were. Let me kiss you once more in thought, tenderly, as if we were still entitled to dally thus. No doubt you have already begun to forget me. And so adieu forever.”


5. UNREASONABLE HOURS, Julio Cortázar, 1983
Translated by Alberto Manguel, 1995

“… Mecha’s hands climbing softly to her waist, sliding upwards to join at her breast, the body shaking in a spasm because now her ears could maybe hear the multiplying sirens, the knocking on the door that made the whole house tremble, the commanding shouts and the crunch of the wood breaking, and then the spray of the machine-gun, the screams of Mrs Luisa, the lurch of the pack of bodies bursting in, everything as if timed for Mecha’s awakening, everything on schedule for the nightmare to end and for Mecha to return to reality at last, to the beauty of life.”


4. DISGRACE, J. M. Coetzee, 1999

“What the dog will not be able to work out (not in a month of Sundays! he thinks), what his nose will not tell him, is how one can enter what seems to be an ordinary room and never come out again. Something happens in this room, something unmentionable: here the soul is yanked out of the body; briefly it hangs about in the air, twisting and contorting; then it is sucked away and is gone. It will be beyond him, this room that is not a room but a hole where one leaks out of existence.”


3. THE TRIAL, Franz Kafka, 1925
Translated by Breon Mitchell, 1998

“No,” said the priest, “you don’t have to consider everything true, you just have to consider it necessary.” “A depressing opinion,” said K. “Lies are made into a universal system.”


2. 2666, Roberto Bolaño, 2004
Translated by Natasha Wimmer, 2008

“Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”


1. THE PASSION ACCORDING TO G.H., Clarice Lispector, 1964
Translated by Idra Novey, 2012

“And if we foresee it, it’s also because we feel uneasily used by God, we feel uneasily that we are being used with an intense and uninterrupted pleasure—moreover our salvation for now has been that of at least being used, we are not useless, we are intensely taken advantage of by God; body and soul and life are for just that: for the interchange and ecstasy of someone. Uneasy, we feel that we are being used every instant—but that awakens within us the uneasy desire to use as well.

“And He not only allows us, but He needs to be used, being used is a way of being understood.”



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