Rohan Maitzen

Novel Readings 2013

2013 has had fewer thrills for me than 2012, which was an especially exhilarating reading year. To be fair, though, it’s hard to follow up a year that included The Once and Future KingBring Up the BodiesAnna Karenina, and Madame Bovary, along with The Paper Garden – which still resonates with me as a particularly special book. 2013 has certainly been a varied year, though, and its reading pleasures sometimes came from unexpected sources. Here’s my traditional look back.

Book of the Year: It’s a tie this time between two very different books: David Copperfield and The Orphan Master’s Son. Of all the books I read in 2013, these are the only ones that proved irresistible, that absorbed me entirely and reminded me how exciting it is to lose track of reality because you are in the world of a great artist — one whose own commitment to the story he’s telling is equaled by the craft with which he tells it.

Other books I’m particularly glad I read and wrote about this year:

Georgette Heyer: The Grand Sophy Now that I’ve read more of Heyer’s novels, I wouldn’t actually point to The Grand Sophy as my favorite (right now I would probably name Devil’s CubVenetia, or Black Sheep – or would it be Cotillion?) but The Grand Sophy was a breakthrough for me: I had had trouble appreciating Heyer, but for some reason, with this one everything clicked into place and now I’m having all kinds of fun catching up on the others. I still find the openings of Heyer’s novels stilted, but now I trust that if I keep reading, I will enjoy wit, elegant plotting, and happy endings (even if they are more romantic than sexy).

Elizabeth Taylor, Angel. This is another one that I’m glad to have read not just for its own merits (though what a strange, compelling book it is) but for the introduction it gave me to its author. I’ve now read three more of Taylor’s novels: A Game of Hide and Seek, Palladian and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (which, as I read it on vacation, I never wrote up “properly” even though it is my favorite Taylor so far).

L. M. Montgomery, The Blue Castle.  What a treat it was to return to this long-ago favorite, which may, as it turns out, have been the first romance I ever read.

May Sarton, Plant Dreaming Deep and Journal of a Solitude. I loved Sarton’s memoirs of her life alone — the first one especially, with its more tranquil spirit and embrace of introspection, but its gloomier counterpart as well.

Susan Kress, Feminist in a Tenured Position. For the first time, my Women & Detective Fiction seminar (starting next week!) won’t include Death in a Tenured Position; I’m especially sorry because this excellent biography of Carolyn Heilbrun added so much to my understanding of her life and work.

All of Dick Francis! That was fun, and not as repetitive as you might predict. My top 10.

Harrison Solow, Felicity and Barbara PymI had a much greater appreciation of Pym’s novels after reading this witty commentary on them, and on how and why we read today.

Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows  and This Real Night. West’s novels are as intellectually demanding and epigrammatic as her non-fiction, but she also proved able to move me to tears.

Books I wasn’t especially enthusiastic about:

Robert Hellenga, The Sixteen PleasuresI didn’t even change my mind when the author quoted The New Yorker at me: imagine that.

Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy.

Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things.

Other notable literary / bookish posts:

Is Cormac McCarthy A Terrible Writer? It was a perfectly sincere question, and one that I believe is genuinely challenging to answer. The discussion that followed in the comments helped me keep thinking through how to ask and answer this kind of evaluative question, both generally and about McCarthy in particular. I went on to read No Country for Old Men; despite its getting high praise from readers I much admire, however, I haven’t yet had the courage to tackle Blood Meridian. Maybe I’ll do that as I prepare to teach The Road again this term.

Writing About George Eliot: An Inventory and Why Do I Like George Eliot So Very Much? These posts were both helpful ways for me to take stock of my work to date as I continue trying to conceptualize The Book that I swear is going to start taking a more concrete form in 2014. I did launch my Middlemarch for Book Clubs site, so that’s one definite thing accomplished!

Books I’m especially looking forward to reading in 2014:

Wilkie Collins, No Name and Armadale. I haven’t been reading much Victorian literature outside of work lately, but I’d like to get back into it, and I can’t believe that either of these will feel much like work! I’d also like to reread Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, and it’s about time I took another look at Scenes of Clerical Life too.

Elias Khoury, Gate of the Sun. This is one of the books in my very enticing Christmas pile — which I’ve made a good start on already (I’ve finished both The Franchise Affair and Miss Pym Disposes).

Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. I know, I know – but I actually am reading it now … again, or still.

John Galsworthy, The Forsyte Saga. I’ve had this on my shelf for some time; Jenny’s posts about it at Shelf Love have moved it up in my mental TBR pile.

The rest of the Raj Quartet. Like Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, this was on my list last year too, as is Time of Gifts. They got displaced by other books I wanted to read more, at least in the moment, but I haven’t forgotten them.

Next up, though, will be Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, which by a remarkable coincidence is the January selection for both of my book clubs.

Thank you as always to everyone who has read and commented on Novel Readings over the past year, and thanks also to the many excellent bloggers and tweeters who do so much to keep my life with books interesting and fresh. Happy New Year!