Novel Readings

Novel Readings 2014

I didn’t realize what a good reading year 2014 was until I started going back through my blog posts. I think the slump I fell into in the late fall unfairly cast its shadow back over the rest of the year!

Book of the Year: The high point of my reading in 2014 would have to be Dorothy Dunnett’s King Hereafter. It wasn’t the easiest book to get through, but I was completely engrossed by the end. It doesn’t have the grand melodrama of the Lymond books I have loved so long, but it has both an intellectual reach and an emotional depth that are rare to find together. Dunnett has the special gift (shared by A. S. Byatt and Hilary Mantel) of making her historical research abundantly manifest without wearing us down with it.

Other novels I’m especially glad to have read and written about:

Another Dunnett novel is high up on this list: I finally read Niccolo Rising, and while it did not sweep me away the way King Hereafter did, my trust in Dunnett (and in the many readers who have recommended this series — some of whom regard it even more highly than the Lymond chronicles!) helped me press on through what seemed like a slow beginning (one I had in fact tried two or three times before, only to stall) — until this time I eventually found I was thoroughly interested in how things were developing. I’ve got the next two  lined up to read in 2015.

I relished both novels I read this year by Daphne du Maurier. I can’t imagine that romantic suspense gets any better than Jamaica Inn (which was a selection for both of my book clubs), and My Cousin Rachel is more subtle but every bit as deliciously twisty.

Also twisty, if not altogether delicious: Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games. I didn’t end up loving it, but I loved parts of it, and since I’ve owned it for ages it feels very good to have read it at long (long) last.

One novel I did love – in a headlong, romantic, uncharacteristically uncritical way – was Mark Helprin’s In Sunlight and In Shadow. It’s such a heartfelt book I think you have to hang up your cynicism at the door or not even bother. If you can accept it on its own terms, though, it’s just a really, really beautiful book. And yet I’m still hesitant about reading Winter’s Tale . . .

The year’s most strange and memorable book for me was Lady Chatterley’s LoverI still hardly know what I think about this book! But for sheer provocation (mental, not sensual – it’s a weirdly unsexy book, if you ask me), it had no real competition.

Another book that really made me think, but that I enjoyed much more, was Howards End. Like Lady Chatterley, this book made me feel both confused and frustrated at times as I tried to figure out what its different aspects meant or added up to. Unlike Lady Chatterley, however, Howards End is one I look forward to revisiting, for another chance to make sense of it but also just to appreciate it again.

Sometimes the whole is more than the sum of its parts: that’s what I concluded as I read Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder and Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair in close proximity. They are books in conversation with each other, and while neither of them is likely to become a personal favorite of mine, both on their own and together they really made me think — about fiction, about characters, about love, about religion.

I really liked Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. And then, almost as much as I enjoyed the book, if in a different way, I appreciated the conversation it started, first in my head then in the comments to my post, about why we like some books and not others, or why others don’t like books we love and vice versa.

Finally, I made my belated acquaintance with Brother Cadfael this year, with the first of Ellis Peters’s medieval mysteries, A Morbid Taste for Bones. I was fortunate enough to inherit the complete run of the series; I’m hoarding the rest for the dreary snow-bound days I know are sure to come this winter. What could be more comforting when a blizzard rages than hot chocolate, biscuits, and books this deft and smart?

Memorable Non-Fiction

I read a lot more fiction than non-fiction, but I read three stunning and memorable works of non-fiction in 2014: Sonali Deraniyagala’s heartbreaking Wave, Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, and Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes. All deal with unspeakable tragedies, but all do so with such intelligence and care that the results, though rarely uplifting in any simple way, are remarkably beautiful, and sometimes even hopeful.

Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch also deserves a mention here. As some of you know, I approached it with skepticism, because I am wary of criticism that subordinates works of great literature to our own petty private lives. I didn’t much like the New Yorker essay that was Mead’s trial balloon for this project, but the book won me over with its lovely writing, tender reminiscences, and thoughtful attention to Middlemarch as a book that changes and grows with its readers.

The Low Point

The only book I actively disliked this year was Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment. I can’t say for sure that it’s a bad novel, but it is certainly a very unpleasant one, and I’ll say just one more time (in 2014, anyway) that I think people effuse about Ferrante because she offers them something they are looking for from a woman writer, not because her novels are self-evidently brilliant. Is The Days of Abandonment “honest,” as critics keep insisting? Perhaps, though what that means applied to a work of fiction I’m not really sure. But the harsh truth it’s taken to trade in isn’t the whole truth, and just because something is or feels raw doesn’t necessarily mean it’s artistic.

Happy New Year!

Thank you as always to everyone who read and commented on Novel Readings in 2014. Special thanks as well to the many bloggers and tweeters who have engaged, interested, and encouraged me this year — it is such a pleasure knowing you all and talking about books (and so much else) with you every day.

Some of the books I’m looking forward to reading in 2015: