The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt. I was really fascinated by this book. The basic premise is that there is a woman, Harriet Burden, who was the wife of a famous art collector and who, after her husband’s death, sets out to be an artist. Yet she gains fame by using male artists as proxies. She creates the art, but they say it is theirs. So the fame isn’t exactly hers, since it doesn’t come out until years later that she is behind it. Obviously, the book is a meditation on gender and the art world, but it’s not a simplistic political fable. For one, the novel really explores what it is to be an artist. Also, it shows the effects of Burden’s plan on the male artists she collaborates with as well as on herself. The novel is told from multiple voices, which is something Hustvedt’s husband, Paul Auster, seems unable to do (but I love his work, anyway). On a personal note, Burden’s son, Ethan Lord, reminded me a lot of my wife’s brother when he was younger.
This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki. I think this has become one of my favorite graphic novels of all time, not just of the year. Jillian Tamaki’s art work is gorgeous. Not only does it capture setting and character beautifully, it does so with expressive brushstrokes. It’s a perfect combination of clear content and artful form. The story is incredibly well put together, also. There are so many places in the book where things could have gotten heavy-handed, but by making the narrator a young woman, Mariko Tamaki avoids that. So a lot of heavy plot threads exist around the main character that she is barely aware of, but that comment on the main narrative and create a thematic web. In the end, this is a book that explores the narratives about being a woman, especially about being a mother and a sexual being, and how those narratives get reinforced and the effects of that on real people. This is just an incredible book.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. You probably know Shirley Jackson because you got to read her short story “The Lottery” in high school. I saw the 1963 film of this a few years ago and enjoyed it. I had heard the novel was good, the classic haunted house story. And I was impressed by it. Jackson does a great job of setting up her main character, Eleanor. Her motivations are clear and we feel sorry for her without succumbing to pity. The other stand out in this book is the dialogue. The four main characters often engage in witty banter which is entertaining in itself, but takes on even more meaning when you realize that they do this to avoid giving in to their own mounting fear. The book ends a bit abruptly, but it’s an unsettling and, at times, delightfully disorienting read. And I think the fact that I keep mistakenly calling the book “Hell House” is exactly what Jackson intended.
Gast by Carol Swain. This is a quiet book and I can see it getting overlooked, which is a crime. Describing the plot would do this book a disservice, because it is so quiet. There is hardly any dialogue here. Mostly, we follow the main character, Helen, as she explores her new home and becomes more and more interested in the man who lived on the property next door. Helen is observant and willing to look at small details, and Swain puts us into this state through her composition and pacing. Like I said about This One Summer, this story could get too heavy-handed, but it stays at the level of lived experience and everything seems real and believable. There are no forced epiphanies here, just the slow understanding of another person’s humanity. It’s a beautiful book.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker. I had never read this before. I had seen the film when I was in high school, but never got around to the book. I love Walker’s essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” and so I decided to finally read this. I didn’t think I was going to like it at first. The point of view being through an uneducated woman’s letters felt too claustrophobic to me. Yet this woman, Celie, is full of observations and philosophies. And her life is claustrophobic at first. That’s the whole point. This book gets at the suffering of life, but also the joys. It really takes you from the pits to the heights. I did find the changes in some characters too easy by the end. In my experience, most people don’t seem to really learn from their lives. And there was a bit too much philosophizing as to the meaning of it all. Still, this is a really great book. It’s nice to read something so well-written and fulfilling.
Just as a coda, here are some links back to artists who I discovered on-line this year: here and here.