Novel Readings

Novel Readings 2015

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.

Book of the Year

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.

Mysteries

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.

Romances

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!

Memorable non-fiction

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 LonelySomewhat 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.

Unfinished business

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.

Appearing elsewhere

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!