At first glance, it doesn’t look like I got much reading done.
However, that’s nearly 1,000 pages of reading, and it doesn’t include some of the titles that I almost completed but didn’t quite make it across the finish line. January will probably be a much taller stack.
Last of the Amazons, Steven Pressfield
I’ve read a number of Pressfield’s books, but it had been a while since I picked one up. Previous reads included Gates of Fire, about the Battle of Thermopylae, The Afghan Campaign, which I do not remember at all but which one of my brothers insists I listened to because I lent him the same audiobook and apparently we talked about it, and his nonfiction titles The War of Art and Turning Pro, both of which I found helpful and motivating in my work and writing.
Anyways, I forgot what I was getting into with Pressfield. He draws heavily on his own experience as a marine in his military sagas, and this is no exception. I remember a passage in The War of Art where he talks about how the marines take pride in misery:
The marine corps teaches you how to be miserable. This is invaluable for an artist. Marines love to be miserable. Marines derive a perverse satisfaction in having colder chow, crappier equipment, and higher casualty rates than any outfit of dogfaces, swabjockies, or flyboys, all of whom they despise. Why? Because those candyasses don’t know how to be miserable.
This rings loud and true in Last of the Amazons. If he can find a way to describe the action with more blood, shit, gore, misery—he will.
At the same time, he paints a noble portrayal of many of the players in his story, from Theseus of Athens to Eleuthera of the Amazons, which contrasts the gritty tone of the rest of his book.
Overall I liked it, but not as much as I expected to.
All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
This book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014—and for good reason. It follows the lives of a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and a mechanically-gifted German boy, Werner, as their stories converge from the mid 1930’s through World War II. That’s compelling subject matter to start. I fell in love with almost every character, and the story itself grabbed hold and didn’t let go. It’s over 500 pages, but I finished it in half a week.
But the sheer beauty of the writing sets this novel on a tier beyond the match of ordinary writers. Here is a short excerpt, describing the moment when a young Marie-Laure meets her strange great-uncle for the first time:
For three days she does not meet her great-uncle. Then, feeling her way to the toilet on the fourth morning after their arrival, she steps on something small and hard. She crouches and locates it with her fingers.
Whorled and smooth. A sculpture of vertical folds incised by a tapering spiral. The aperture broad and oval. She whispers, “A whelk.”
One stride in front of the first shell, and she finds another. Then a third and a fourth. The trail of seashells arcs past the toilet and down a flight to the closed fifth-floor door she knows by now is his. Beyond which issues the concerted whispers of pianos playing. A voice says, “Come in.”
She expects fustiness, an elderly funk, but the room smells mildly of soap and books and dried seaweed. Not unlike Dr. Geffard’s laboratory.
“Marie-Laure.” His voice is low and soft, a piece of silk you might keep in a drawer and pull out only on rare occasions, just to feel it between your fingers. She reaches into space, and a cool bird-boned hand takes hers.
How do you write like that? Please, I need to know. I read and re-read lines in the book simply to savor the words. Some of the prose is so glorious I could weep. The sheer depth of vocabulary, and the precision with which Doerr wields it, took my breath away. I most admired his ability to switch from almost technical description (A sculpture of vertical folds incised by a tapering spiral) to metaphor (a piece os silk you might keep in a drawer and pull out only on rare occasions) within the same passage. Stunning.
I sometimes worry that I can be too effusive. I tend to like more than I dislike, but I am rarely overcome with awe as I was with this. And when you take writing of that caliber and join it to a subject and story such as this, the result fills your soul as much as it leaves you emotionally obliterated.
I would say it was the best thing I read last year, but I also finished Infinite Jest. To say I feel torn between the two should give an idea of how much I loved this book—at least for anyone who’s heard me gush about DFW for the past two years.