It’s time again to look back over my year in books and blogging. It was a good reading year overall, I think, with a number of real stand-outs and hardly any duds. Interestingly, it doesn’t look as if my sabbatical led to a great deal more reading than usual — for which I blame our mind-numbing, soul-destroying winter and our kitchen renovation, which (in their different ways) ate up a lot of whatever energy I had left after putting in my time on my research and writing projects. But reading “about as much as usual” isn’t too shabby, especially when so much of it is so good.
I already identified Nicola Griffith’s Hild as my best reading experience of 2015 in our “Year in Reading” feature at Open Letters Monthly; I wrote about it at more length here. What lingers with me the most about this extraordinary novel is not its historical world-building (though given that I compared Griffith’s achievement in this respect to Dorothy Dunnett’s, you know how impressed I was!) but Hild herself: her characterization struck me as profoundly feminist, though nothing about her or her novel could ever be pointed to as didactic or even overtly political.
Other recent fiction I’m especially glad to have read
I read two other excellent novels featuring memorably complex, questing female protagonists — novels that were otherwise very different in both voice and context: Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman, and Miral al-Tahawy’s Brooklyn Heights. Much as I liked An Unnecessary Woman, it’s the quieter, but also more quietly moving, Brooklyn Heights that I find I still think about: it is particularly evocative about the wintry bleakness of loneliness, and about the ways exploring physical space can also be a way of exploring and maybe even expressing who we are.
Like many other readers (though certainly not all), I loved Anthony Doerr’s elegant, fairy-tale-like World War II novel All the Light We Cannot See. And, a bit to my own surprise, I really liked Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, another critical favorite. I found the melodramatic conclusion somewhat over-plotted, but among all the new books I read this year it’s the one I keep thinking about teaching: I think it might go over very well in an intro class, perhaps juxtaposed with The Road. Students would find it engaging, and it would give us plenty to think and talk about.
“Enjoy” isn’t quite the right word for the experience of reading Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles, but I thought The Orphan Master’s Son was so extraordinary that I was eager to try it, and I’m glad I did: the stories in the collection are strange and bleak and funny and full of surprises — all without being flashy or overtly experimental.
Not strictly speaking “recent” but out recently in new editions are the two novels I read by Barbara Comyns: The Vet’s Daughter, and Our Spoons Came From Woolworths. There’s something a bit off about both of them, but in a good way: I always enjoy puzzling over fiction that doesn’t fit any of my own preconceived notions, and I’m looking forward to reading her equally odd-looking Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead.
Critical darlings that disappointed
Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is definitely in this category: it left me thoroughly underwhelmed. I was moderately more whelmed with the final volume in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels — but I never caught “Ferrante Fever,” and frankly, by the time I’d finished with The Story of the Lost Child, I had had quite enough of the whole phenomenon, which I have long suspected is as much about what (a certain population of) readers and critics are looking for from women writers as it does with the books themselves. (All reading, of course, is a complex interplay of text and context, including the reader’s personal complexes and desires, but sometimes things seem to tip particularly sharply in one direction or the other.) I was unmoved by Andre Alexis’s Giller Prize winner Fifteen Dogs, and I abhorred The Girl on the Train, which I wrote about for OLM’s always- entertaining “bestsellers” feature.
Classics and old favorites I happily revisited
The Victorian novel I had the most fun rereading this year was Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, which has more artful restraint but also more breadth than North and South (which is the novel of hers I know and like the best). I also really enjoyed rereading George Eliot’s “Janet’s Repentance,” which contributed a lot to my thinking about her treatment of religion and religious characters.
Some of the most fun I had blogging all year was with my two posts on Busman’s Honeymoon, one laying out the reasons I have always loved it, the other laying out all the reasons to be wary of it. It’s so important, I think, to acknowledge that these two kinds of responses can co-exist, that we can learn to critique without having to discard. Head and heart, as Sayers might say, must work together. Sometimes, of course, our perception of a book’s flaws may become so acute that our love cannot survive (I think that has happened to me with Gone with the Wind) — but I think it would be worse if we allowed our love to blind us to a work’s problems, or to drive us to deny them.
Another old favorite I greatly enjoyed both rereading and writing about was Margaret Campbell Barnes’s My Lady of Cleves – this is not historical fiction the way Hilary Mantel achieves it (or Nicola Griffith or Dorothy Dunnett either) but personal drama lovingly furnished with tapestries and eel pies.
Novel kinds of reading
I made my first self-conscious foray into graphic fiction this year, reading both Maus and Persepolis, and also Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics — which taught me a lot about how to read this kind of book better. I don’t feel I quite “got” it, but it felt like progress to see what “it” might be like if I did. And I started listening to more books, which I enjoyed when I could find the right match between book, narrator, and opportunity.
This year I tried (again) and failed (again) to fall in love with Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series. It makes me feel like such a bad Canadian that I can’t get past her stilted writing! But I’m going to stop trying, because I read enough series as it is, and I started at least three this year that I’d like to continue with: Maurizio de Giovanni’s Commissario Ricciardi series, Arnaldur Indridason’s outstanding Inspector Erlendur novels, and Steve Burrows’s birding mysteries.
Although I didn’t usually blog about them, I read — or at least started — quite a lot of romance novels this year. (As I have mentioned before, I tend to feel less committed to finishing these if I don’t like them right away, partly because I get most of them from the library, but also because I don’t have high expectations that persistence will pay off, as romances tend to be more consistent than transformative — which is a good thing if you like what you’re getting, of course). Among them, only new one really stood out, and that was Julie James’s Suddenly One Summer. I have quite enjoyed most of James’s other novels, particularly Practice Makes Perfect (which would make an excellent Hollywood rom-com, if anyone’s interested in doing the screenplay): her characters are smart, her dialogue is snappy, and things get pretty sexy with her heroes and heroines (who are always, annoyingly, extraordinarily good-looking). I’ve heard her books described as “brittle,” though, and I can see why; also, some of them tend towards “romantic suspense,” and I don’t particularly love “woman in jeopardy” plots. I liked Suddenly One Summer a lot, though. It’s quieter than her other ones, and rather than turning on fast plotting and sparks flying, it is about two people patiently building trust and finding love. The heroine is a divorce lawyer who suffers from debilitating anxiety attacks; she is always at work splitting families up, but bringing a family together for once helps her find new courage herself. For me, this one’s a keeper!
Two works of non-fiction that I read this year resonated powerfully with me for personal reasons: Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal (which is the present we should all probably have given someone we love this Christmas, but also probably shouldn’t, because it’s not very comfortable reading) and Emily White’s Lonely. Somewhat less anxiety-inducing, often sad, sometimes funny, and always thought-provoking was Kerry Clare’s wonderful collection The ‘M’ Word, which explores many facets of motherhood, most of them quite unlike the more sentimental cliches our culture surrounds us with.
I’m still working my way through The Portrait of a Lady, which is not a book I can concentrate on easily with the hum of family activity in the background. The two posts I’ve written on it so far do show that I’m making progress, though, not just on moving through the pages but on coming to terms with James’s style, which initially irritated me but now (mostly) just interests me.
The inevitable meta-blogging
My interest in blogging about blogging has gone down over time, but I did pause to reflect on how things were looking for “intelligent bloggy bookchat by scholars,” as John Holbo once optimistically championed, and then to add some afterthoughts based on my own further reflections and the responses I got.
Blogging my teaching
I kept up my series ‘This Week In My Classes,” which now (after so many years in which I often teach the same classes, albeit in different variations) has become less a chronicle of what we read or talked about and more an occasion to reflect on broader issues about pedagogy, such as what it’s like to be a beginner or how, as teachers, we can learn to let go. I still find this exercise useful, and I’m always gratified when other people tell me that they appreciate it too. I’m reasonably certain that there is no one right way to do any of the things that professors do in or out of the classroom: this is at once the best and the worst thing about this part of our job! It’s impossible to be complacent: we can only get more confident about trying things and seeing how they go, knowing that we can always tweak them next time.
Most of my published writing appeared, as usual, here and at Open Letters Monthly — where, in addition to the pieces already mentioned, I reviewed Kate Atkinson’s very good but also very annoying A God in Ruins, Diana Souhami’s 100% annoying Gwendolen, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s initially empowering but ultimately (you guessed it) profoundly annoying Big Magic. But an essay I wrote on faith and fellowship in Middlemarch appeared in Berfrois, and my review of Samantha Walton’s Guilty But Insane appeared in the TLS: these are both publications I was very happy about.
Books I’m especially looking forward to reading in 2016
So many! But near the top of the pile is Emma (not just because everyone’s reading it for its 200th birthday, but partly because all the interesting things they are saying about it are inspiring), along with Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. My Christmas books include Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work, Jane Smiley’s Some Luck, and Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, all very tempting. I’ve got Alaa Al Aswany’s The Automobile Club of Egypt waiting as well, and somehow I’m certain more titles will accumulate as the year goes on.
Thank you to everyone who read and commented at Novel Readings this year!
I always enjoy reading your blog, and I find your year end blog particularly interesting. I think what I find interesting is that I appreciate how you analyze books despite the fact that I don’t read many of the same books you do–and my year in reading would look quite different than yours. I don’t like historical fiction though I tried to read Hilary Mantel’s books, and I could only read the first page of Wolf Hall before I knew it was not for me. I would rather read history than historical fiction, I have realized. I also wasn’t a fan of Station Eleven. It got so much buzz, but once again, I could only read a few pages. And then I have tried for years to read Dorothy Sayers before giving up! But like you, I was not a fan at all of The Goldfinch, and I have no desire to read the Neapolitan novels despite all the buzz surrounding them. I have also tried to get into A Little Life because of all the buzz around that book, but I can only read a few pages before getting bored!
My favorite reads this year were Middlemarch (a reread); Buddenbrooks; The Portrait of a Lady (a reread that I am finishing up); Outline; Bobcat and Other Stories (the rare short story collection I have enjoyed); and Reading Dante From Here to Eternity (I love the Divine Comedy, and I thought Prue Shaw’s book about the poem was fantastic).
In the new year I am looking forward to reading Mansfield Park; Daniel Deronda; Wuthering Heights; and Doctor Faustus or The Sleepwalkers. I also have a bunch of history I want to read because I am a fan of ancient history. And I am going to make an effort to read more essays. I especially enjoy the essays of Marilynne Robinson though I know there is a divided opinion about her.
Thanks for taking the time to write your blog. I always read your blog even if I don’t comment! Finally, I hope you enjoy House of Mirth if you have never read it before. Edith Wharton is one of my favorite authors, and I loved House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, and The Custom of the Country when I read each one.
Thanks for writing the blog: it’s always worth reading. In the coming year I hope to read at least two books you’ve brought to my attention in the past year: Our Spoons Came from Woolworths and The Pursuit of Love.
Happy New Year to you, Rohan, and to the readers of your blog.
Hild is on my must-read list for next year. I love what you wrote about it.
“It’s so important, I think, to acknowledge that these two kinds of responses can co-exist, that we can learn to critique without having to discard.” Yes, absolutely, and I so value the fact that you always do this. Thank you for another year of thoughtful writing that is always a pleasure to read.
‘Hild’ is sitting on my shelves right this minute after reading your earlier comments. I am so bound up in Sayers at the moment, however, that I’m not certain when I shall get round to it. It is something of a commitment!
For some reason I haven’t yet caught up with the Doerr, but your praise makes me realise that this is another that had better find its way onto the shelf fairly quickly.
I’m glad you enjoyed ‘Station Eleven’. I had no expectation that this would appeal to me but it turned out to be my book of 2014.
Everyone at this end sends you all their love and best wishes for 2016. Your friends from the sofa insist that they are staying up to see the New Year in but I bet they are snoring long before the fireworks start.
Hild is on my shelves and has been for quite a while now. I was glad to hear you liked it so much. I do hope you like Who Was Changed — it’s my favorite Comyns so far (out of three I’ve read). It’s definitely … odd in a good way!
Your blog has added many books and authors to my list of books I’d like to read, both the one in my head and the one on my computer. Even when I’m not particularly interested in a book or in reading it, your discussion of it is always enlightening. Your students are lucky to have you!
Happy New Year, and best wishes for the forthcoming term, in every way, including that it snow lightly and remain as warm as possible given where you live.
Btw, I would have read Hild by now (also rec’d by an author whose opinion I also respect a great deal) were it not for the fact that when I got to the library (an adjacent one, not my town library) from which I was going to borrow it I discovered I had lost the card giving me lending privileges at all the libraries in the county. *sigh* Going to my town’s woefully inadequate library (which is where I know I last had it, so I may have left it or lost it there months ago) and replacing that is on my list of things to do this week.
Ok, I’ve had Hild on my book pile since it was published and haven’t managed to read it yet. Since it made you book of the year I think I need to move it up the pile! Happy New Year! I hope 2016 is off to a good start!