‘Tis the season for it, so here are my lists of my best and worst novel-reading experiences of 2007. I’ve written about almost all of them here at least a little, so I’ve included links to my original posts. As always, I’d welcome comments from other readers.
Novels I’m most glad I read, mostly because of the richness of the aesthetic, emotional, and/or intellectual experience, but sometimes because of new ideas or connections that emerged for my teaching or research:
- Ahdaf Soueif, In the Eye of the Sun. I’m very excited about exploring how this novel, often described as “the Egyptian Middlemarch,” complicates, extends, or revises George Eliot’s themes, especially her theories of sympathy and morality. Obviously one major component of this critical project will be thinking about how the particular historical and political contexts of Soueif’s novel matter to the purportedly universal moral prescriptions of Eliot’s.
- Vikram Seth, An Equal Music. I found this novel tremendously engrossing, particularly in its evocation of the intellectual demands of music.
- Sarah Waters, The Night Watch. This novel is near the top of my list of books I hope to re-read in the near future. I thought its backwards chronology was formally and thematically innovative but it also meant that re-reading will (I think) be quite a different experience than reading for the first time.
- Elizabeth von Armin, The Enchanted April. Lovely.
- Margaret Oliphant, Miss Marjoribanks and Hester. Just think, there are 85 more. I didn’t actually think either of these was a great novel–nothing very striking aesthetically or formally–but both were genuinely interesting, appealing to both the scholar and the reader in me.
- Anthony Trollope, He Knew He Was Right. it just kept on going and going, and after a while, I didn’t want it to stop. Like the Oliphant novels, HKHWR doesn’t do anything particularly striking with form, but its many parts are managed and balanced beautifully, and like other great multiplot novels, it contains multitudes.
- Monica Ali, Brick Lane. It seemed flat at first, but it drew me in and made me think.
- Eugenides, Middlesex. Parts of it are tremendous, moving, exhilirating–but in the end it seemed unfocused to me, especially because the hermaphrodite aspect seemed thematically irrelevant, like a gimmick. Maybe I just haven’t thought it through enough.
- Carol Shields, Unless. I was more moved by and involved in this novel when I re-read it this year than when I first read it (note to me: make more time for re-reading in 2008).
Novels for which my great expectations were most disappointed:
- Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach. This time his technical skill did not win me over.
- Zadie Smith, On Beauty. Maybe I need to read Howard’s End to really “connect” with it–but it’s hard to see how doing so would quiet my objections.
- Elizabeth George, What Came Before He Shot Her. I feel about this as some of Dickens’s contemporaries felt about his novels–leave this kind of stuff to the actual experts, rather than writing up a sociology or criminology treatise in the guise of fiction.
- Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides. Ick.
- Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights. The critic in me knows better, but the reader in me really doesn’t like this novel.
Books I’m most excited about reading or re-reading in 2008:
- Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy. This was high up on my Christmas wish list and I’m so glad I got it (thanks, Dave!). But how am I ever going to read it when I can barely lift it?
- A. S. Byatt, A Whistling Woman. Another one from my wish list (thanks, EB!). I might re-read the first three in the series first so that I can appreciate it fully.
- Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. I thought The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay was a lot of fun; Chabon’s a good story-teller, and I love the premise of this one.
- W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz.
- Dickens, Our Mutual Friend. I last read this in 1988; the posts on it at The Valve piqued my interest again.
- Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway. I keep trying; for some reason, I’m simultaneously convinced that this will be one of my great reading experiences and completely unable to get past page 1. I’ve read most of Francine Prose’s Mrs. Dalloway Reader with interest and pleasure, but still can’t seem to get on with the original. My theory (OK, excuse) is that Woolf’s style demands a kind of micro-concentration that I am (a) not trained for, since I’m most practised at the big baggy books, and (b) unable to apply because my ‘voluntary’ reading (i.e. not for school) goes on either when the children are milling around or late at night, when things are quiet but I’m tired and rely on some momentum in the plot to carry me along…
- Mitchell, Gone with the Wind. I keep coming back to this novel when I think about issues with historical fiction, as well as problems with identification and sympathy. Write-ups of Rhett Butler’s People also got me thinking about it again. My problem with this one is that the novel is so intimately familiar, even though I have not read it all the way through for about a decade, that I have a hard time focusing on the words on the page.
- Graham Swift, Waterland.
- Lloyd Jones, Mister Pip.
- Laila Lalami, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits.
- V. S. Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas.
- Irene Nemirovsky, Suite Francaise.
Actually, the “want to read” list could just keep growing, so I’ll just stop there, especially since my interests and priorities always shift around a lot as I actually move from book to book.