Wanted: Harder reading for 2013

How hard is your reading?  By 'hard', I mean reading that pushes you beyond merely pleasurable entertainment, works that make you pause to savour a sentence's sheer grace or provocative power.

Mine could be more challenging. I try to choose carefully; each weekend, I scan the New York Times Book Review, and check online reviews. Sometimes I search "best of" lists for the current or preceding years or dive into the late-life reading of a classic that I missed. But my research can fail. 

Praised in the Book Review, Amber Dermont's "The Starboard Sea" was so leadenly-plotted that I jumped ship. Other well-reviewed books which didn't satisfy included Chris Pavone's "The Expats", Frank Langella's "Dropped Names" (which I chose for good dish, but Langella is neither consummate chef nor charming maitre d'), and Gillian Flynn's "Gone Girl", which was almost there.

I flogged my way through Edward St. Aubyn's three Patrick Melrose novels without pause: the delineation of pain was nearly unbearable, the writing a glittering Waterford tumbler... smashed on the floor. I bore "Alys, Always" by Harriet Lane  and "The Sense of an Ending" by the always-excellent Julian Barnes with more ease; both are idiosyncratic but stop short of St. Aubyn's unremitting abasement.

The rich, historic world of Amitav Ghosh's "River of Smoke" and "Sea of Poppies", followed by Katherine Boo's unsentimental "Behind the Beautiful Forevers", gave me my fix of India, past and present.

But last year, too many books felt insubstantial, and I have only so many reads left. When my mother was 95, I found her reading E.L. Doctorow's "The March" at her dining table because she couldn't hold the book. What an example!

My friend Michel is listening only to Beethoven these days; he says he's not wasting his time on inferior music. I'm importing his attitude to books (though not reading solely one author), declining junk food novels and pop-tart tell-alls. 

But I do want the page to turn; I shy from novels as tortuously inscrutable as "The Island of Second Sight" by Albert Vigoleis Thelen, now on Le Duc's side of the bed.

Any recommendations?

I'll tackle those after I finish Louise Erdich's "The Round House" and Alice Munro's "Dear Life", though most Munro stories will be re-reads. Anyone reading in French? Eric Dupont's "La fiancée américaine" is a must!

Are you happy with your level of reading? What's "hard" for you? Have your tastes changed?



Oooh, I read Joyce's Ulysses this summer, I just finished Richard Ellmann's biography of Joyce, and now I'm reading The Ball is Round, David Goldblatt's definitive history of soccer. I'm too old to waste time reading anything that doesn't stretch my brain to the point of real learning & growth.
Pamela said…
I have immersed myself in " the Russians"...War and Peace, The Idiot, The Possessed et al.,even the short stories of Chekhov. They satisfy like no others! Also Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy is wonderful reading.
Joan said…
Barbara Kingsolver?
Susan B said…
I try to mix it up with fiction and non-fiction (especially histories), but don't hesitate to call it quits on a book that isn't engaging me. Right now I'm reading "Natasha's Dance, A Cultural History of Russia" which requires concentration, but is fascinating. I second Joan's recommendation for just about anything by Barbara Kingsolver. Her book of essays "High Tide in Tuscon" is one that I pick up and re-read randomly when I have a few minutes.
KSL said…
I've had a real book drought this past year - nothing but unfinished reads. Have you read American Pastoral by Philip Roth? His greatest book, I think. I've heard Sweet Tooth, the new book by Ian McEwan, is very good. Next to try on my list.
Madame Là-bas said…
I still read mysteries and historical fiction for relaxation but an interesting book by Barbara Kingsolver was The Lacuna. It is in part about Trotsky's time in Mexico. If you like to read short stories and essays from the perspective of a Canadian who has spent her life abroad, try Mavis Gallant.
Marilyn R said…
Do you like mystery? Period-flavored, well-researched, intelligent characters? If so, try Imogen Robertson's series, 1780's English countryside (not provincial pap) and touches of London. there are 3 books, 4th coming later this spring. Worked thru the 1st one, the characters wouldn't let me go, so perhaps it became less work than it started out to be.
Anonymous said…
I find Ann Patchett's (author of Bel Canto) recommendations for her bookstore to be worth a look.

You can see the latest crop here:

She suggests The Antagonist by Lynn Coady, a Canadian author and also
Magical Journey, which sounded like it might interest you.

Susan said…
I read mostly nonfiction. Recently I read and thoroughly enjoyed Henry Wiencek's Master of the Mountain. This book is about Thomas Jefferson's views on slavery. The book is controversial (mostly a tempest in a teapot among scholars). It was a page turner for me. Right now, I'm reading Wiencek's book An Imperfect God (about George Washington) which was highly acclaimed by most everyone. It is a fascinating book and another page turner for me.

I've found that light weight novels never do anything for me. I did enjoy The Space Between Us.
Murphy said…
I am re-reading Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" at my son's urging. I can't believe how much I missed in it when I was younger! I also like mysteries - my current favorites are by Louise Penny.

Duchesse, did you like "Alys, Always"? I am considering it for my annual book club pick, but am concerned by the reviews on Amazon and Barnes & Noble - it seems that people either love it or hate it with nothing in-between!
frugalscholar said…
I read "hard books" for a living (love it!), but I am always looking for medium hard. Just finished Round House (liked it a lot) and Sweet Tooth (less).

I've also re-read books I haven't looked at in more than 20 yrs--like The Great Gatsby--and it IS great. A lot of the classics (Austen, Dickens, e.g.) are wasted on the young. I am going to re-read a lot in the coming years.
Susan said…
Two not hard but worthwhile memoirs for the color of colonial Africa on the cusp and during revolution are Alexandra Fuller's two short memoirs: Don't Let's Go To the Dogs Tonight and her later Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness. I enjoyed both.

I also thoroughly enjoy the writing of Michael Dirda, especially his book titled An Open Book: Chapters From a Reader's Life. I also enjoyed Dirda's Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments.

If you yearn to known more about Ancient Greece, try William Broad's magnificent (at least to me) The Oracle: The Lost Secrets and HIdden Message of Ancient Delphi. It is not a light weight book and gives much food for thought.

Nancy Milford's biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay titled Savage Beauty is a magnificent book as is Milford's biography of Zelda Fitzgerald. Both of these biographies were page turners for me.
materfamilias said…
I do enough Hard Reading that I leaven it with mysteries regularly -- never a shortage of titles. Still haven't posted last year's reading list, but there were a few I'd be happy to recommend. Many titles here among your readers' comments that I'm grabbing for 2013.
And yes, I do try to read in French, and will trust you on the Dupont. I also loved Ghosh' Indian histories and have the Beautiful Forevers on the list as well.
Just beginning Svorecky's Engineer of Human Souls at the moment, though flu/cold-cloud is getting in the way . . .
Roberta said…
I find David Mitchell thoughtful, engaging, and just post-modern enough to be stimulating. I feel the same way about Michael Chabon. From my perspective, your taste is quite rigorous and I applaud you! The older I get, the less often I want to be challenged. We all want our books to be "good", and we all interpret that quite differently.
Anonymous said…
One of the best authors I've ever read is Sarah Waters. All of her books are excellent (especially "The Night Watch"), but her most recent book, "The Little Stranger" is one of the most gripping novels I've read in a long time. (Full disclosure: I've read it six times and still find it fascinating.) Her depiction of postwar England and the decline of the old landed gentry families is one of the bleakest and shows what the families of Downton Abbey will face in their future. Is it a ghost story? Psychological fiction? The author leaves it up to you. This is one of those books that truly keeps you up all night because you just have to know what happens next. But what does happen next? That is the mystery that Waters trusts her readers to solve to their satisfaction. And it ends with one of the most haunting lines I've read since the ending of "The Great Gatsby".
Duchesse said…
Janice: History of soccer would definitely stretch me!

Pamela: Ah, the Russians! hearing Alice Murno described as "our era's Chekov" took me back to the stories. I will get Cairo Trilogy.

Joan: Read all of hers!

Pseu: My only complaint about Kingsolver is that the books don't come fast enough :)

Kathy: Have not read either and officially added to list.

Madame: Ha! Read both The Lacuna (which I liked) and all of Mavis Gallant (whom I adore)! You have divined my taste.

Marilyn R: On the list- as I loved all of Kate Atkinson's.

Anon@ 9:31: A good review site is a gift, thanks!

Susan; They sound good, and it would be new territory for me- both subject and era.

Muarhoy: I found Louise Penny not satisfying after Kate Atkinson but it may be that "hangover" effect- how one author colours another. I *liked* "Alyce, Always" for its delineation of a very certain type of villainry by a woman.

frugal: It's great to re-read classics- and also frugal. And I have to admit it amazes me how much I'd forgotten.

Susan: Thanks for reminding me I want to read Fuller's books. (And I very much liked "Are You Somebody?" by Nuala O'Faolain.)

ma: That's not an easy read in French, but it's a magical story.

Roberta: Oh, I adore David Mitchell, have read it all.

Anon@12:32: Completely new to me and must try Waters; your endorsement has intrigued me!

Kristien62 said…
I'm beginning Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose writing I enjoy. However, I, too, have found a good read hard to find in the past year or two, disappointing since I now have time to read. Will look into some of the titles from this post. Our book club is currently at a standstill.
pinkazalea said…
I read a lot for relaxation so mostly they're not too challenging. Here are several I can recommend: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer, and by Ann Patchett - State of Wonder and Bel Canto. Currently reading Change of Altitude by Anita Shreve and for mysteries, love the Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny, set near Quebec!
Duchesse said…
Kristien62: I'm happy these terrific responses are available to all readers.
PinkAzelia: I'm hard to please! Found "Rules of Civility" one of those "almost" books for me; felt written to become a chick flick.

Louise Penny, whom so many adore and recommend, leaves me less than thrilled. I need more happening in terms of setting; for example, I devoured Alan Furst's "Dark Star". His early books are terrific reads but then he defaults to formula.
Anonymous said…
Like Frugal Scholar, I find re-reading books I read years ago to be one of the great pleasures of middle age. And isn't a great book read at three different points in one's life really three different books? My favorites are the rich, unwieldy 19th century novels, full of fate and coincidence and moral struggle--Eliot, Hardy, Trollope, Tolstoy, Dickens, Flaubert. By comparison, so much contemporary fiction seems attenuated and self-absorbed that I find I'd mostly rather go back to spend more time in The Small House at Allington.

Still, I'm always anxious to see what Ian McEwan has cooked up, and I'm grateful for Alice Munro. If you like short stories, Duchesse, you might try hunting up an old collection by Frank O'Hara. His sly stories make me laugh out loud.


Anonymous said…
Interesting writing and viewpoints - Persephone Books reissues mostly women writers between the World Wars.
They have a lovely website: http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk/

I've even found some of the titles at the library.
KSL said…
Have you read "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez? My favorite book ever. In the mood to read it again actually.
Duchesse said…
C.: Oh I loved Frank O'Hara when I discovered him at 19 or so; I had to sneak it out of my parent's bookcase, it was considered rather racy. But now the stories are only 'adult' in the original sense of the word. Reading the classics is the lit equivalent of Beethoven, I guess!

Anon@ 6:40: Thank you for this unknown trove, great idea.

Kathy: Yes, I have. Though generally impatient with speculative fiction (and am mostly ignorant about fantasy and sci-fi), I enjoyed "One Hundred Years" and many of Garcia Marquez' short stories.
Susan said…
An outlier, but a deeply satisfying first novel is James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific. It was originally written under a pseudonym, and, for me, bears no relation to his later tomes which reek of group research and formula. It is a haunting group of connected stories. Michener himself could double for the narrator, a young naval officer (Michener served in the South Pacific). The amazing thing about this book is the capture of the mood and atmosphere of the early days of the war in the Pacific. I have always seen this book as a must read. It's not a long book, but a haunting one.
Karen said…
I second the suggestion someone made regarding Anthony Trollope. Make a project of the Barsetshire series -- you won't regret it!
Belle de Ville said…
Since I too feel that I only have so much time left to read, I try to opt for harder reading.

Like Pseu, I mix up my reading with fiction and non-fiction. Right now I am reading "The Happy Isles of Oceania" by Paul Theroux. While I prefer his non-fiction to his fiction, I did enjoy his last novel "The Lower River".

Next I plan to read all of Fanny Burney's books, she was brilliant.
Then I want to take on the Russians.

Still, books like "Gone Girl" are occasional guilty pleasures.

Like Pamela commented, Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy is worth reading, especially now with what is going on in Egypt.

And, I will take your advice on doing some reading in French. I need the practice.
Anonymous said…
I'll share a couple of books that I really enjoyed last year. They may not be "hard" but they're a bit uncommon: "The Swerve: How the world became modern" by Stephen Greenblatt - which is about the continuing impact of "On the Nature of Things" by Lucretius; "Paris to the Past: Travelling through French History by Train" by Ina Caro - if you love France, that is; "There But For The" by Ali Smith - kind of indescribable (by me!) but a terrific book. You might enjoy Goodreads.com as a source of possible books.

Really love your blog, btw.

JoyceP in Wisconsin
Anonymous said…
I read very little fiction, much preferring nonfiction with an historical bent. Just finished "1493" by Charles Mann. Lots of interesting stuff about what happened in the world post-Columbus. Have just started "1776" by David McCullough; quite liked his "The Greater Journey", about Americans going to France in the 18th & 19th centuries. Debating whether I have the attention span to read "Les Miserables", having now seen the movie; I do like a good long book, but it is ridiculously huge.

But the book I just finished is a children's book I read, and loved, back in elementary school. For some reason I got to thinking about it, and even though I couldn't remember either the title or the author, I somehow managed to find it on Amazon, and ordered it. It's still good! And children's books, back in the day, were a bit more challenging to read than most of the modern day books. This particular one is called "A Traveller in Time" by Alison Uttley. British children's book, no less. I used to love Rumer Godden when I was a child, too........

---Jill Ann
Hadilly said…
I think a lot about clothes, but apparently I think more about books, since this is the first time that I am chiming in.

I just read Chabon's "Telegraph Avenue" and loved it. He just writes gorgeously with elegant, funny, sly turns of phrase. That said, it is a very Californian book.

I also really enjoyed "The Buddha in the Attic" by Julie Otsuka. It's about the experience of Japanese women who came as brides in the early 1900s. She uses a narrative in the plural to beautiful and haunting effect.

If you are willing to branch out in genre, William Gibson and Neal Stephenson are both excellent science fiction writers, though I would not recommend Stephenson's most recent books "Reamde" and "Anathem". Try "Snowcrash", "The Diamond Age" and for Gibson, really anything, though "Neuromancer" or "Pattern Recognition" would be good places to start.

Vernor Vinge's "Rainbows End" has some amazing extrapolation and just zooms along.

Have you read Dorothy Dunnett's historical novels? If not, you _must_.

And, if you decide you need something light to leaven the weight, may I suggest Georgette Heyer? I just finished rereading "The Nonesuch" with great pleasure.
Unknown said…
I enjoyed "gone girl" a real cliff hanger. also like "the Paris wife" Paula McLain
Shelley said…
I've enjoyed reading biographies of women I admire eg Eleanor Roosevelt, Elizabeth I. History books, eg English Social History by GM Trevelyon or The Seven Ages of Paris by Alistair Horne. One of my biggest challenges was / is Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen. Currently am reading Anne of Green Gables for the first time. It's not particularly hard, except that I only read it while on the elliptical trainer; the challenge is in the coordination required.
barbara said…
I read the most of T.C.Boyle.
Other authors I like: Annie Proulx, A.L. Kennedy, Don Winslow, Lily Brett, Bruce Chatwin.

At this moment I'm reading Christian Kracht's "Imperium".
If it's ever translated in english, I would highly recommend it for it's language. wunderbar!
Duchesse said…
Susan: Thank you for reminding me; Read this book at 25 or so and it's magical. Time to re-read.

Karen: Yes, madam! And a benefit is I can get it for free as a download.

Hadilly: There is much here I know (have read some Chabon and Gibson) and much I don't- all I wished for when I wrote this post. So generous of you.

Belle: What an eclectic reader, I'll put that Theroux on the list since I especially liked "Dark Star Safari".

JoyceP: Greenblatt's book was excerpted in the New Yorker and I wrote a post on it here:

so you know I'll want that!

chicatanyage: Those books are fun, fast reads that I can easily devour like a yummy treat, but I want more substance- to challenge myself. And you are right, I might permit myself the treats, too.

neki desu: Done- and an author to re-read.

Shelley; Veblen still informs my thinking; love how you and others dip into children's books.

barbara: Wow, this is almost exactly my list of faves though I do not know Lily Brett. TC Boyle just turns me inside out.

I also love Jim Harrison, especially "Dalva" and "The Road Home" and his short stories.

barbara said…
Duchesse, Lily Brett is an australian writer (our age group), writing and living in NYC.
Love very much her first book "Just Like That" , "New York" and "You've gotta Have Balls". Disliked "Too Many Men".
Brett was born in Germany after WW II (her parents survived Auschwitz).
Funny, that you have the same faves!
One more author I like is Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Viktoria Berg said…
I find it very very tricky indeed to recommend books to an advanced reader. I rarely take recommendations myself, unless from a reliable source. But mixing fiction with fact is a good thing, particularly if a fiction inspires you to do your own research. If you really want a good book to have an impact, it needs time to digest. Also, as many have mentioned, the classics are proved and tested and wasted on the young. Austen did NOT write romances! Hardy, Trollope, Kundera, Coetzee, yes yes yes! And a fun mystery entertainment from time to time, like Laurie R King or Reginald Hill, something to make you laugh!
Duchesse said…
barbara: I look forward to discovering her.

Viktoria: Yes, taste is very individual. I've enjoyed many gift books, though a few were memorable because I couldn't get into them- Cynthia Ozick's "Heir to the Glimmering World" was abandoned but another book I received as a gift, Annie Dillard's "The Maytrees" is
one of my all time favourites.
diverchic said…
I just finished Simon Winchester's brilliant, witty and lengthy "documentary", The Atlantic. All about the ocean it is surprisingly gripping. Then there was "Gun, Germs and Steel - The Fates of Human Societies" by Jared Diamond, which explained among other things why you can't domesticate zebras (they bite). Then there was the latest Alexander McCall Smith Isabel Dalhousie book (for lightness) and now I am on to Bernard Cornwall's Sharp series.
Heavy reading for me is grim, sad stories which change my mood too much.
Duchesse said…
diverchic; Are all those on audiobook? I know you like those.
(Read Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs & Steel but not the three since then.)
Caryl said…
Oh, Dutchess and your commenters,

Thank you so much for all these suggestions. I am
writing them down for my 2013 reading list. At
the moment, I am rereading Wallage Stegner for
my book club. I recommend Elsa Ferrante--all her
novels in translation and also Per Peterson.
At the moment, I am reading lots of African writers
since I just returned. And during my fascination with
all things India, I devoured the many amazing fiction
and nonfiction writers from that country.
Claire R. said…

May I recommend two "sets" of books. The first is Luis Alberto Urrea's "The Hummingbird's Daughter" and its less riveting but still fine sequel "Queen of America." His "Into the Beautiful North" is also a good read.

The second is a Cold War thriller trilogy about the U.S. CIA by Olen Steinhauer, "The Tourist," "The Nearest Exit," and "An American Spy."

I am so grateful for all of these wonderful recommendations!

Luz Clara
Claire R. said…
Madame, many apologies. The Steinhauer novels I recommend are not Cold War but post-9/11 novels!

Luz Clara
Unknown said…
I read mostly nonfiction but deeply enjoyed Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake recently, and Bill Porter/Red Pine's two accounts of traveling in China, looking for hermits and translating poetry (up my alley). I'd like to reread Middlemarch, as I'm in that "what is the purpose of my life's work" phase again, and "the Russians."

A good early-40s friend aspires to be published in "women's fiction" for pay and reads all of those books with lipsticks and martini glasses on the covers, and 50 Shades of Gray and Twilight, as market research. With all due respect I'd rather cut my head off with a butter knife, but that's just me.
Unknown said…
Sometimes I'll take suggestions from others but usually focus in on US and European history.

I know, totally nerdy.

One two-volume series (3rd will be published soon) I can't re-read often enough is the The Last Lion by William Manchester about the life of Winston Churchill. The writing is superb.
Martina said…
If you like Kate Atkinson, you might like Tana French. I also loved The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and I just bought The Painted Girls.
Anonymous said…
I confess I've been reading too much chick-lit (Sophie Kinsella, etc...) but I am a student and have been craving "easy reads" to counterbalance my textbook studies. I do feel slightly embarrased though when I borrow these books from the library. I can't look the librarian in the eye! I still think a book in hand(even if it isn't very challenging) is better than choosing to watch television. One thing I have little tolerance for is the overuse of profanity in a novel. I've returned several books to the library before getting through the first chapter because of it. It reads like junk food, not very appetizing.
labergerebasque said…
I would not have missed “Tell the Wolves I’m Home”, slow to start like “Gone Girl” but written so beautifully by the "coming of age" June. Beautifully written, original storyline, incredibly moving. Rarely do I want to re-read a book…
“The Elegance of a Hedgehog” “Hunting and Gathering”
“The secret Life of Bees”…are also among favorites
I love this topic, but have been extremely busy of late (a good thing), so I haven't really felt up to tackling it. One author I have been re-reading is Primo Levi and not just "Se questo è un uomo" (If This is a Man, sometimes unfortunately titled "Survival in Auschwitz" in North American publications - when it is much more than a survival story). I've never read Levi in English, so can't guarantee the writing quality of translations.

I've been reading a lot on urbanism recently; don't think they are really hard reads, but local author Mary Soderstrom has written engaging tomes about the Green City and the Walkable City.

I'd like to expand my reading in English to serious literary writing from India and elsewhere in South Asia, becoming one of the key sources of writing in English.
LPC said…
Running to work, I'll be back, LOVED Beautiful Forevers, totally endorse Don't Lets Go To The Dogs. Not hard, per se, but beautifully, beautifully written.
Anonymous said…
I've been reading Patrick Leigh Fermor'travel memoirs. I realy enjoyed his account of his journey(mostly on foot)from the hook of Holland to Constantinople(it was 1934 and he was 19) "Between The Water and the Woods"and " A Time Of Gifts". He wrote these books when he was in his fifties based on the travel journals he kept and the letters he had written. I've just begun Mark Helprin's "In Sunlight and Shadow".
Madame Là-bas said…
You have inspired me to read more in French. I will start with Les Misérables en français. I read it 35 years ago and along with Madame Bovary,it is probably worth rereading because both novels have inspired so many plays and movies. I kept all my French classics to read in my retirement. I guess the time has come.

Duchesse said…
Madame Là-Bas: Sounds like a worthy project; you will find "La fiancée americane" rich in history and beautifully written too.

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