Novel Readings 2010

My turn! Here’s my traditional look back at the highs and lows of my reading and blogging year.

Book of the Year:

Hands down, and entirely to my delighted surprise, since I had no particular expectations going into it, my favourite book of the year was Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. I raved about this book in my original post, and I’d like to emphatically repeat what I said there:

If you ever read a book, or were a child, or read a book to a child–if your childhood was shaped in any way by the books you read–then you should buy this book and read it immediately.

I don’t usually do this, but I feel strongly enough to provide a link straight to Amazon so you don’t waste any time getting your own copy. Mine was a gift, and for that, many, many thanks to the amazing Steve Donoghue of stevereads, book-giver extraordinaire.

More books I’m particularly glad I read:

After featuring it three times running on my ‘most looking forward to’ list and making at least one false start, I did finally read Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (it took two posts to cover it, here and here). I enjoyed it thoroughly, proving my long-held theory that sometimes books simply have to ripen a while on the shelf before the reading experience can be perfectly tasty. “Would I read A Suitable Girl?” I asked, rhetorically, I thought; “You bet I would.” Imagine my pleasure in learning that just such a book is forthcoming!

Lynne Sharon Schwartz’sLeaving Brooklyn proved every bit as rich and satisfying a read as my long-time favourite Disturbances in the Field, though in quite a different style and register. It’s a coming-of-age story, “an intensely personal but also profoundly commonplace experience, movingly represented in a book by a woman, about a woman, that [I concluded my original review] I think deserves to be called ‘important.'” It would have been my ‘book of the year’ if it hadn’t been edged out by Dear Genius–but that’s OK, because Dear Genius is a book that advocates for all other books!

Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety took longer to grip me than Wolf Hall, but once I was well into it, it really wouldn’t let me go, even though there was absolutely nobody in it to like or even (except sort of theoretically) to root for. A bit like A. S. Byatt, Mantel is resolutely severe, not only towards her characters, but also towards her readers, giving them little comfort or even encouragement as they press on:

if, as I recently suggested, reading Ian McEwan’s prose is like getting acupuncture to your brain, I found reading A Place of Greater Safety akin to walking barefoot across a stretch of gravel towards a graveyard: you aren’t particularly enjoying the experience, but it has its own vividness and particularity, and there’s a morbid fascination in the direction you know you’re headed.

Even at the end–the guillotine for pretty much everyone, as we know it will inevitably be–she avoids what I called “tumbril sentimentality” of the Tale of Two Cities variety (I can’t imagine Oprah ever assigning this novel to her followers). Impressed as I was by Wolf Hall, I read several other novels from Mantel’s back catalogue this year and was repeatedly startled by her range of styles and interests (not one, not even A Place of Greater Safety, really fits the marketing tag ‘by the author of Wolf Hall‘ as they are all simply too dissimilar). The other that resonated most deeply with me was The Giant, O’Brien. Fludd was under the tree for me this year, so there will be at least one more Mantel novel in 2011.

Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop. I found this “a gem of a book: spare but revealing, quirky but unsentimental” (hmm, I’m noticing a trend away from sentimentality this year–even A Suitable Boy, though full of sentiment, does not ultimately cater to our more wistful or wishful emotions).  I’m glad finally to have begun my relationship with Fitzgerald; I’ve been meaning to read The Blue Flower for years and I look forward to doing so in 2011.

Elizabeth Hardwick, A View of My Own. When I grow up, I want to be Elizabeth Hardwick. Well, OK, not exactly, but I envy her the force and confidence of her critical voice. Even when I disagree with her, I really want to talk to her about what she says. I was particularly interested in her essay “George Eliot’s Husband,” which sets a high standard for biographical thinking not met at all by a particular more recent attempt to write about my favourite novelist–Hardwick says more worthwhile things in a few pages than that author comes up with in a couple hundred.

A. S. Byatt, The Children’s Book. Another tough-minded, unsentimental novel, as expansive in its own way as A Suitable Boy or A Place of Greater Safety. I called it “history as information management,” and I meant that as a tribute of a sort. Byatt is an accomplished novelist; while Seth’s abundance (though I loved it) occasionally seemed cluttered, Byatt’s somehow has a tautness to it. If Mantel writes historical fiction that defies conventional expectations of the genre, Byatt does the same with the ‘sweeping family saga.’

Laila Lalami, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. I called this “a quietly harrowing account of hopes turned back and diminished,” and concluded that “hope is a dangerous pursuit, not just because of the risks of the pursuit itself, but because sometimes the chance you take brings you only further away from what you really wanted.”

Morley Callaghan, Such is My Beloved. This book, a classic of Canadian modernism, took me out of my comfort zone as a reader; talking about it with the new book group I belong to took me out of my comfort zone in other ways–but salutary ones! I ended up finding some kinship between Father Dowling and a couple of Victorian protagonists who founder, similarly, on the mismatch between their most strongly felt principles and the pragmatic realities of their world. But Callaghan’s setting, contexts, and language are not Victorian at all.

May Sarton, The Small Room. In the end I didn’t love this novel, but it interested me enormously, as did the conversation it generated on (and around) the Slaves of Golconda reading group. Its central themes certainly struck a chord with my ongoing anxieties about my professional work and the public discourse around higher education:

So much about the discourse of education today seems to disregard the value of that connection to the whole person–it’s all about outcomes and measures and productivity and, of course, jobs after graduation. Is that really what we want? We as teachers? or as parents? as students? If Lucy’s view seems dangerously personal, the current obsession with students as consumers seems dangerously limited and limiting. If we can’t ever hope to teach students as people, or to be people ourselves when we teach, who will ever, in the end, actually learn anything worth knowing?

Daphne du Maurier, Frenchman’s Creek. Dare I say that they don’t write pulp fiction like they used to? Purple prose, absolutely, but as I said in my original post, it’s ‘royal purple, richest velvet.’ I haven’t worked my way through the rest of the du Maurier collection on my shelf, but what’s a sabbatical for, if not to catch up on books you otherwise have no excuse at all for reading?

Books that disappointed, for one reason or another:

Happily, once again there weren’t very many of these. Leading the pack is certainly Brenda Maddox’s George Eliot in Love, which I reviewed for Open Letters Monthly. Here’s the money quote:

I wasn’t just disappointed in George Eliot in Love—by the time I finished it I was equal parts astonished and enraged. The book is not just George Eliot ‘lite’–it is superficial, prurient, and at times simply offensive. Maddox comes across as naively underqualified for her task: her good intentions are as painfully evident as the bad judgment and limited expertise she displays throughout. Focusing persistently on the pettiest details of Eliot’s biography, Maddox strips her of both dignity and intellectual substance and leaves us with an impoverished version that belies Elizabeth Hardwick’s confidence (expressed in her marvelous essay “George Eliot’s Husband”) that it was impossible to make this accomplished woman “look foolish and small.”

I was pleased (though hardly surprised!) that George Eliot in Love also won a spot in the ‘Worst Nonfiction, 2010‘ smackdown at stevereads: “Maddox should chronicle Paris Hilton next and leave the deep end of the pool to the grown-ups.” Ha! Between us we perhaps give the lie to the old saw about the only thing worse than not being talked about.

I was underwhelmed by Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas:

I really wish that, having grabbed people’s attention, Menand would have seized the opportunity, not to lob another petty grenade at his struggling colleagues but to insist that we not concede too much to either the rhetoric or the pressures of the marketplace. Surely an English professor who is also a public intellectual is uniquely positioned to make the case for, not against, the rest of us.

For quite different reasons, Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures was also distinctly unremarkable: “The subject of the book is intrinsically interesting, but if a novelist can’t do any better than this, we might as well read non-fiction, or, better yet, poetry”–the salient example of the latter being, of course, In Memoriam A.H.H.

I think my expectations were just too high for David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. I really enjoyed reading some parts of it, but I don’t ordinarily seek out work in some of the genres he plays with (notably, science ficton) and I was frustrated by the way so many different kinds of storytelling were shoehorned into one book–even though Mitchell is dazzlingly smart (too conspicuously so, I sometimes thought) about the unifying threads. My conclusion after reading it was “after a while I found I was more aware of  his virtuosity and the ingenuity of the nesting narratives than I was actually engaged in them.”

The best of the not-entirely-satisfying collection is Ian McEwan’s Solar. I’d rather read an imperfect novel by Ian McEwan than any novel by probably the majority of other contemporary writers. I actually couldn’t quite decide which category to put Solar in, it’s so nearly excellent–but in the end, I decided McEwan set too high a standard for himself with Atonement and (for me, at least) Saturday, so for failing to live up to it, here he is down here.  A bit of my original post:

Of course it is not a universal prescription for excellence that a novel satisfy both heart and head, but that’s what I want, that’s what I think takes a novel from good to great, and Solar seems quite content to leave my heart untouched. I think this is a missed opportunity for a novelist with McEwan’s gifts. Why not set against the shabby opportunism of the protagonist (who is both brilliantly drawn and wholly unsympathetic) either some idealism not undermined by the general attitude of cynicism that permeates the novel–even if only to show it up as ineffectual against the absurd realities of political and scientific institutions–or some unembodied but evocative commitment to the beauties of the planet Michael Beard only pretends to cherish? Bleak House is an unforgettable critique of the stupidities of a system that serves, at most, only those who constitute it, because we see beyond it, unrealized, an idea of human flourishing, of love and justice, worth yearning for. Thus we find the yammering of innumerable lawyers both comic and tragic. Where is Miss Flite, or Lady Dedlock, never mind Jo the crossing sweeper, in McEwan’s universe?

Books I’m most looking forward to reading in 2011:

There are too many to enumerate, really, including all the treasures delivered for Christmas from my lovely family, but here are a few titles, if only to motivate me as the new year gets underway.

  1. Tolstoy, War and Peace. This is the new Suitable Boy: it will be on this TBR list until I get it read! Surely being on sabbatical, if only for half  the year, will remove most of the standard excuses.
  2. Flaubert, Madame Bovary. Yes, the new Lydia Davis translation. I’ve begun this, but it got pushed aside during the Great Cough and Cold of late 2010.
  3. Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children. I’ve been curious about this since reading about it in Hardwick’s A View of My Own.
  4. Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter. This one is another object lesson in why you should never “purge” your book collection, no matter how often you move or how many times someone close to you mutters baleful warnings about running out of space. I owned this trilogy as a girl, never got around to reading it, purged it, and now–older and wiser–rejoice to have found a nice Penguin edition in a local bookstore.
  5. A delicious stack of old Virago Modern Classics, including novels by Margaret Kennedy, Antonia White, Rebecca West, and many others.
  6. Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games. I’ve owned this for a couple of years without reading it–I think its time has come.
  7. Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai. The discussion at Conversational Reading piqued my interest about this novel, which I’ve owned for many years without reading (note again the value of the ‘ripening on the shelf’ theory to justify these habits!).
  8. Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory. This is the next book up for the book group that read Such is My Beloved. I read it many years ago but Greene is an author I haven’t done anything with since turning ‘pro,’ and I’m finally, belatedly, interested.
  9. Colm Toibin, The Master and Brooklyn.
  10. Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf. I’ve made some progress on this one, helped by an excursion into Woolf’s letters and diaries. I’d like to finish it in 2011!

I observe that not one of these is a work of literary history or criticism! There’s some chance that being on sabbatical will also give me a chance to recover some energy for that kind of reading! Certainly I will be doing some of it, as I am working (still!) on at least one academic paper which I hope to get into publishable form by the end of my leave.

Other Novel Readings highlights:

In 2008 I noted the invitation to contribute to The Valve as an important development in my blogging life. 2010 saw my farewell to The Valve, following on a resolution to “Get On With It!“–whatever, exactly, “it” is. The biggest development in 2010, congruent with this shift in emphasis, was the invitation from the fine folks at Open Letters Monthly, first to move Novel Readings to its new home, and then to join their editorial team. Both steps have been good ones for me, helping to sustain my blogging energy, bringing me into contact with all kinds of interesting writers and readers, even providing an excellent excuse for a trip to New York. Under the influence of these developments I increased my contributions to Open Letters, taking advantage of the flexibility and outstanding editorial input the magazine offers to write some more pieces on Victorian literature (Felix Holt and Vanity Fair), a couple of reviews (in addition to George Eliot in Love, I reviewed Claire Harman’s Jane’s Fame) and an essay on Gone with the Wind that took me a little outside my usual 19th-century ‘beat’ but reflected  my ongoing interest in ethical criticism–and my desire to write in a more personal voice. The Gone with the Wind essay earned me a link from Arts & Letters Daily, which helped me believe that I do have something interesting and even valuable to say as a critic–something that I have rarely felt in my almost 20 years as a practising academic critic. Looking ahead to 2011, I hope I can continue to build my confidence as a writer and critic, keep discovering what I have to say and saying it as well as I possibly can, in my own voice.

To everyone who reads and comments here at Novel Readings, and to all of you who keep up your own wonderfully thoughtful, diverse, and stimulating book blogs, thank you, and Happy New Year.

Novel Readings 2009

It’s time for my annual review of the highs and lows of my reading year.

Books I’m most glad I read, either for the intrinsic richness of the aesthetic, affective, or intellectual experience they offered, for the conversations they generated, or for the ideas and connections they offered for my teaching and research:

1. Daniel Mendelsohn, The Lost. This book made by far the strongest impression on me of any I read this year. Devastating though it is, it also manages to be surprising, suspenseful, and sometimes even comical. Mendelsohn manages to be self-reflexive about his research and writing, about his own assumptions and limitations, without ever compromising his dedication to reaching after the truth of the story he is telling or his respect for the suffering of those whose story it really is. It’s a remarkable accomplishment.

2. Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk. I ended up enjoying this novel as much for the way it implicitly chastised me for my own assumptions (about fiction, about families) as for the story it told. I’m happy to say that Santa (OK, my mom) sent me Sugar Street and Palace of Desire for Christmas, so I’ll be reading–and, I expect, writing about–Mahfouz again in 2010.

3. Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns. Although (as I say also in my original review) I don’t think this is actually a great novel by literary standards, and in retrospect I feel my own emotional reaction to it was the result of some heavy-handed narrative and ideological manipulation (pain! suffering! injustice! misogyny!), it’s impossible to ignore the very real pain, suffering, injustice, and misogyny of the world it fictionalizes.

4. Mahbod Seraji, Rooftops of Tehran. Unlike A Thousand Splendid Suns, Rooftops of Tehran is not a sensational or particularly populist treatment of its material. It reaches across cultural differences to tell a story of yearning and love, emphasizing feelings that are universal, if differently embodied or characterized based on circumstances. At times a bit heavy-handedly pedagogical, it still avoids the trap of what I am now thinking about as ‘moral tourism’: it isn’t an Iran packaged for mass consumption and political ends, but something more inward-looking and sincere.

5. Charlotte Bronte, Villette. This year’s choice for our summer reading project at The Valve, Bronte’s perverse exploration of thwarted desire, religious conflict, surveillance, and narrative unreliability offers all kinds of fun and surprises, especially for those who think the Victorians were all naive realists. (D’oh! But there really are people who think that. In my experience, many of them are specialists in late 20th-century fiction whose favourite straw man looks a lot like Trollope, but doesn’t have his metafictional savvy.)

6. Ian Colford, Evidence. Understated, even insidious, these stories leave their mark on your consciousness, like inky thumbprints.

7. Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway. It seems somehow significant that I quoted from this novel instead of writing much about it. It’s not that there aren’t ideas in it, or that its form and technique isn’t inviting to criticism, but for me this was a reading experience that was very much about easing up my critical grip (which seemed to be deforming my reading) and savouring the tactile quality of the language. My feelings about this book were also much affected by my thoughts about a special student, Samantha Li; I only wish I had read it before it was too late to talk to her about it.

8. William Boyd, Any Human Heart. Dear students: The main character in this book is not at all “relatable.” Guess what–that doesn’t matter! You don’t have to like him (though by the end I was fond of him after all, as you are of someone you’ve known their whole life). You just have to go along, feeling the pulses of his idiosyncratic life and personality. He has no special insight, into himself or any larger contexts; he isn’t even especially charismatic. But, as George Eliot points out in Adam Bede, most of the people around us are nothing special–we need to adapt our aesthetic to that reality, and it turns out to be a surprisingly moving experience.

9. Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall. Wolf Hall surprised me by not resembling any other historical fiction I’ve read. For one thing, there is almost no exposition. Mantel’s trick of referring to Cromwell throughout as “he,” though it does create the occasional awkwardness, also creates an oddly intimate atmosphere: we are with him, in close proximity, as if standing by his shoulder, but there’s a little separation remaining. First-person narration would have overcome it, but then I think the novel would have felt more artificial, and the emotions would have had to run higher–a mistake in a novel remarkable for its restraint (yes, even at 650 pages, it feels tightly controlled). And the language: it is crafted with the precision of Ian McEwan’s prose, but with a higher sheen of poetic possibility. Here’s a little bit that describes and exemplifies the novel’s characteristically taut balance of eloquence and repression:

There’s a feeling of power in reserve, a power that drives right through the bone, like the shiver you sense in the shaft of an axe when you take it into your hand. You can strike, or you can not strike, and if you choose to hold back the blow, you can still feel inside you the resonance of the omitted thing.

The central conflict is not Henry VIII against God, or fate, or his wives, for denying him a son, or Anne against Katherine, or any of the other stock melodramas of Tudor fiction (and television), but Cromwell, the self-made man, the accountant, the bureaucrat, the statesman, the pragmatist, the modern man, against extremism, privilege, waste, indulgence–and especially against Thomas More, who delights in torturing heretics and seeks a pointless (to him, a martyr’s) death.

10. Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil. Is it wrong to make something so beautiful out of material so terrible? Is terrorism really analogous to vandalism? Both obliterate the beauty (realized or potential) and the creativity of humanity.

This year I’ll skip over the list of low points. There weren’t many, happily–most of the other books I read were in the OK – to – mediocre range, which only irks me when they win awards.

In last year’s post I noted the expansion of my blogging horizons that came with the invitation to write for The Valve. This year I have been pleased to contribute to Open Letters: I’m glad they made room for my piece on Trollope among their many astute and engaging essays and reviews, and I’ve got a little thing on Felix Holt appearing in their January 2010 issue, so stay tuned for that.

Looking ahead, I’m anticipating an unusually busy term coming up, with three classes including one all-new one and some new kinds of assignments. Still, I hope to have time to keep up my usual series on teaching, and also to fit in some reading for myself. Looking over my year-end posts for 2007 and 2008, it is notable how such ‘pleasure’ reading feeds into my research and teaching (the leading example being Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun, which went from being just another book I’d read to the lynchpin of a reconceptualized research program). Perhaps something I read in 2010 will end up turning me in another new direction, or adding in some other unanticipated way to my life. But in any case here are some of the books I’m most looking forwarding to reading or re-reading:

  1. Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger. It’s great to feel so confident that a book will be both extremely smart and extremely entertaining.
  2. Hilary Mantel, A Place of Great Safety. Speaking of confidence, Wolf Hall gave me confidence in Mantel as both a stylist and a historical novelist.
  3. Naguib Mahfouz, Sugar Street and The Palace of Desire.
  4. Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf.
  5. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead.
  6. War and Peace. Somehow, it didn’t get read in 2009, but I’m sure it will be there for me when I’m ready for it.
  7. Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy. I’m going to keep putting this on my TBR list until I actually read it.
  8. Dickens, Our Mutual Friend. I haven’t read this since my undergraduate Victorian fiction class in 1989. Once every twenty years seems like a minimum for what I remember as one of the best of Dickens.
  9. George Eliot, Romola. I’ve assigned this for my graduate seminar on George Eliot this term. It was a tough call between it and Felix Holt, but Romola has been on the back burner the longest. When it is good, it is very, very, very good. When it is bad, characters say things like ‘You are as welcome as the cheese to the macaroni.’
  10. Audrey Niffenegger, Her Fearful Symmetry. All appearances (and movie adaptations) to the contrary, The Time Traveller’s Wife is a gritty, suspenseful, intellectual romance. Sure, you have to accept a wacky premise, but for me at least, it was worked through with surprising toughness. So I’m game to see how Niffenegger follows it up.
  11. David Mitchell, Black Swan Green. Because you told me to!

Reading Slumps and Other Blogging Blocks

I’ve been in a bit of a blogging slump lately. Part of it is just that it’s that crazy end-of-term time. Not only are there this term’s courses to wrap (which, thanks to a very late exam, I won’t be able to do until next week), but next term’s courses are looming, and any “extra” time I might usually take to do some posting is getting eaten up by seasonal events–with my son now in junior high, that means two holiday concerts, for instance, and then this weekend my daughter’s piano teacher held an end-of-year student recital. With family and close friends all approximately 14 days away by Canada Post, there’s also the effort (mostly cheerful, if sometimes a bit frantic) to get Christmas gifts organized and shipped off–a task I completed with one final order in to Amazon.Ca last night, hooray. Friday is the last day of school for the kids, so there’s an incentive to be well ahead on, well, everything, before the madness family fun begins. And I’m working hard on another piece for Open Letters in between marking papers and fussing with Blackboard sites.

Another significant factor in the blogging slump is that I’ve also been in a bit of a reading slump. I finished Wolf Hall a while back and thought it was surprisingly good (I know, I shouldn’t be surprised if a much-hyped award-winning book by a serious author is good, and yet … more about that later). But as more and more smart and interesting reviews came out from other sources, I got discouraged about pitching in my own two-cents worth (if I had, I think the only thing I would have emphasized that didn’t seem to get a whole lot of play is how intensely written a book it is, and how much, too, it seemed to take up an obliquely Scott-like interest in the neutrality of history, by which I mean that like Waverley, Wolf Hall evokes a moment of historical transition, particularly towards a more secular, political (dare I say, modern?) world, and makes the movement feel inevitable, avoiding either nostalgia or triumphalism, something played out on the pulses of people who manage to feel extraordinarily real–a task in which much contemporary historical fiction fails, about which, also, more in a bit). Anyway, I didn’t review it, and since Wolf Hall, I really haven’t read anything that I wanted to write about. Ian Rankin’s The Complaints was OK, well-conceived, typically well written and plotted, but nothing special. Really, by the time I finished it, I had almost forgotten it wasn’t a Rebus novel, so similar were the unifying issues and themes and also the central characters (hmm, a personally troubled cop who pushes the boundaries of his job? where have I read about that before?). Diana Abu-Jaber’s Crescent looked really enticing, but I didn’t find the central love story very convincing, the politics seemed evasive, and I got annoyed with the interspersed tale-spinning (though I realize this idea of how stories are woven together was meant to be a key idea about the book). I tried Detective Inspector Huss for the second time and still didn’t make it past Chapter Three because the writing (or at least the translation) was so wooden. And now I’m nearly finished Kate Pullinger’s The Mistress of Nothing and I’m so disappointed in it that although I think I will do a full write-up of it soon, because it is, or could have been, pertinent to the thinking I’ve been doing about Ahdaf Soueif and Anglophone representations of Egypt (but The Map of Love is so much better) I’m not looking forward to the exercise. The gist of the review will be (unless something changes in the last 20 or so pages) that the book is far too thin, the characters underdeveloped and thus their actions desperately unmotivated, and the cliches in both plot and writing deeply distressing–not least because about two days after I ordered the book (which looked so perfect for me!), it won a major literary award here in Canada.

I think I may be wrong to wait for a book I want to blog about. For some time I disciplined myself to write up everything I read, just to get the practice and to see what I had to say as a reviewer (rather than an academic). Almost always, I did find something to say, and the mental challenge as well as the writing experience was usually exhilirating. And really good books, or even really interesting books, are few and far between. So I’m going to try to get back into that habit. But in the meantime, I’m going to try to finish that little essay for Open Letters, as I promised to have it ready by tomorrow, mark as many papers on Jude the Obscure as I can bear, and try not to panic that in less than a month, I have to give some kind of a lecture on Romanticism and sound as if I know what I’m talking about. Wish me luck!

Glaring Omissions

It seems only fair that after exposing my students’ shocking ignorance of Hopkins not long ago, I should come clean about some of the many gaps in my own reading experience. I’m inspired by the frank admissions (and often compelling justifications) posted by the contributors at The Millions, including Emily Wilkinson’s disavowal of “burly man-authors” (the excerpt she includes from Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses is certainly enough to keep him on my “not reading” pile indefinitely!) and Kevin Hartnett’s admission that he has made many “false starts” with the modernists, including Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (hey, me too!).

There are always too many things to read, so one issue this kind of exercise raises for me is why a particular author or title matters as an omission. Sometimes (especially for an English professor) ignorance is the problem: you really should know about someone influential or innovative or great in a particular tradition so that you understand the genre or period well and can justify speaking on it as any kind of expert. Sometimes (for any reader) you believe your intellectual, aesthetic, or emotional life will be enriched by a particular reading experience. Sometimes you’re curious to see what the fuss is about. Sometimes you want to challenge yourself.

In my own case, I have glaring omissions that fall into all of these categories. The books I feel obligated to catch up on for professional reasons are really the least interesting to reflect on: canonical stuff I’ve just never gotten around to, partly because I do so much rereading of the big ones I routinely teach. As a Victorianist, I really should read the Dickens novels I don’t know, including Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit, and The Old Curiosity Shop. I should probably read some Thackeray besides Vanity Fair (I did read The History of Henry Esmond once, but I’ve repressed it). There are a lot of Trollope novels I haven’t read yet (I think I’ve read 18, but when you remember he wrote 47, that’s not impressive), and some Hardy (I really don’t enjoy reading Hardy, sigh). And there are all kinds of “lesser” novelists I’ve never touched, including Charlotte Yonge, George Meredith, and Disraeli (shhh, don’t tell). My concern here is almost totally about my credibility as an ‘expert’ on the 19th-century novel. I don’t in fact feel I’m missing out much as a reader–though I’d be pleased to be surprised about that. In earlier fiction, I never finished Tristram Shandy–but in my defense, I’ve read not just Pamela, but Pamela II, Clarissa, and Sir Charles Grandison. I’m curious about some of the Romantic women novelists I have read about but not read for myself–but not really curious, because I’ve read excerpts and they often strike me (as the lesser Victorian novelists do) as writing books that are more stimulating as cultural artefacts than as, well, books to read.

There are a lot of 20th-century novelists I haven’t read. My professional conscience bothers me about the modernists, but I’m morally certain I would need support to get through Ulysses, never mind Finnegan’s Wake, so my secret ambition is one day to audit my brilliant colleague Len Diepeveen‘s Joyce seminar and see how it’s done. Woolf I admire wholeheartedly as a critic and essayist, but so far as a novelist she eludes me. Unlike Joyce, however, whom I regard as an obligation, Woolf draws me personally because of what comes across as the beauty and clarity of her mind in her other writing, and because of what I’ve read about her novels and what they reach for. Also, some of the other readers I know and love best are passionately devoted to her: if she’s their friend, one day she’ll be mine too.

Moving further into the 20th century, I lose my sense of what’s an obvious omission, except perhaps Salman Rushdie. I’ve read none of his novels; I don’t expect to like them–not my kind of thing–but I might be surprised. I think Iris Murdoch is the mid-century author I’m most interested in trying, largely because what I’ve read about the philosophical reach of her approach to the novel. I feel as if I’ve read a decent amount of contemporary British fiction (Ishiguro, McEwan, Zadie Smith, and so on), but I’ll be teaching a new survey course for the department next year (Brit Lit 1800 to the Present) so no doubt, as I prepare for it, I’ll be learning about the unknown unknowns that are in fact serious gaps.

I’ve stuck to British literature so far, but in terms of my own enrichment, I think the omissions I most regret and hope to remedy are in the French and Russian novel. I have my sights set on Tolstoy at the moment: I read War and Peace long ago, but I don’t think that counts, so I am very happy to have received a handsome new edition from my Christmas wish list. The posts on Balzac at Wuthering Expectations whetted my appetite for some of that, I haven’t read Proust, and I have read no Dostoyevsky either.

As Archdeacon Grantly would say, Good Heavens! If I keep this up, they’ll probably revoke my tenure, my degree, and my driver’s license. Now I feel I’ll have to post a long list of things I have read, just to ward off criticism. (Also, I suddenly regret having spent so much time reading obscure works by mediocre 19th-century historians….speaking of which, all you smug Woolf-reading Sterne experts, how much Agnes Strickland have you read?) But if they ever read this, my students will probably feel just fine about what they haven’t gotten around to yet.

What about you, Dear Readers? Anyone want to ‘fess up? I can’t promise absolution, but given what I’ve admitted to, you know you won’t end up looking bad by comparison.

Recent Reading

I’m mostly reading for my classes right now, of course (Agatha Christie and Tennyson, an odd combination). But in the interstices I have made my way through a few things just for myself.

Some of them don’t inspire much commentary. Louise Penny’s Still Life was OK. It was good enough in parts that I can imagine the series gets better, but mostly it felt laborious–too much detail to be pure puzzle mystery, not enough depth to become actually literary. I enjoyed reading Margaret Campbell Barnes’s My Lady of Cleves for the first time in about twenty years. Once upon a time I read all of her books, and all of Jean Plaidy’s, devotedly and repeatedly, but I have a harder time than I used to making the necessary suspension of disbelief for historical fiction of this type. Scott was definitely on to something when he put his own characters in the foreground and turned historical figures into bit players. Still, it’s a sweet book, and not just, I think, because it was such a nostalgic experience going back to it. I’m sure the reissue of some of her novels (and some of Plaidy’s) in handsome new editions is a response to the conspicuous success of Philippa Gregory‘s Tudor series (and the TV show too). I was diverted by Round Robin, the second in Jennifer Chiaverini’s ‘Elm Creek Quilts‘ series, but as with the first one, I liked the concept here much better than the execution.

More thought-provoking has been my first time reading Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. I felt as if I could not quite catch the tone of this novel. It seems too sincere and poignant (sometimes, anyway) to be straight satire; there’s too much pressure put on religious beliefs and their consequences for it to be social comedy or romance of any conventional kind. I felt hampered by my inability to fall in love with either Sebastian or Julia. Was I supposed to? I think I was supposed to be charmed, then wearied, then saddened by Sebastian, and I sort of was, though the teddy bear was just too precious. But Julia? She reminded me of Sue Bridehead, another ethereal beauty prone to erratic mood swings and inconvenient fits of piety. Is this kind of pseudo-philosophical eroticized flightiness really what intellectual men find attractive in women?* (My intense dislike of Sue in most of her moods is one of many factors inhibiting my appreciation of Jude the Obscure.) But, again, discerning the novel’s tone towards her is essential here, and that’s just where I had trouble. If the satire is thorough, perhaps she and Ryder’s love for her are relics of the pre-modern world Brideshead comes to symbolize. The evocation of time and place is often lovely, nostalgic yet clear-sighted. Also, I became increasingly interested (as I’m sure I was meant to) in Ryder’s architectural paintings and how they might be related to the novel’s depiction of Brideshead. The prose is often exquisite, but I have to say it may be hard for me to forgive this little bit of self-indulgent male awfulness:

It was as though a deed of conveyance of her narrow loins had been drawn and sealed. I was making my first entry as the freeholder of a property I would enjoy and develop at leisure.


*The antidote to these irritating relationships is definitely Harriet and Peter in Gaudy Night, my own favourite “Oxford novel” and a book that really wrestles the challenge of male-female intellectual equality and its effects on romance to the ground (once, it even does so literally). And speaking of Oxford, I’m excited to report I expect to actually be in Oxford for a few days in June. What other books should I be reading to get in the right frame of mind? Also, if anyone has a great tip on a charming but affordable B&B in or near, I’d be happy to know!

Novel Readings 2008

One of the best features of blogging is turning out to be the record it provides of my reading experiences. 2008 doesn’t seem to have been my most rewarding year of novel reading (being on sabbatical for part of last year accounted, in part, for the greater number and variety of books I went through in 2007), but there have certainly been highlights. Some of my most stimulating reading in 2008 was re-reading, and some was non-fiction. Here’s my look back at the highs and lows of my reading year.

Books I’m most glad I read, either for the intrinsic richness of the aesthetic, affective, or intellectual experience they offered, for the conversations they generated, or for the ideas and connections they offered for my teaching and research:

  1. Ann Patchett, Bel Canto. Without a doubt, this was my favourite new novel of the year: exquisite, finely tuned art about the beauty, value, and fragility of art.
  2. Olivia Manning, The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy. Though the prose throughout these books is consistently, almost perversely, flat, I found the series consistently interesting, especially in its depiction of ordinary, flawed, but mostly likable people trying to organize meaningful lives for themselves amidst the constantly unfolding chaos and danger of war. The understated style comes to seem appropriate for characters who are never really dramatic, always on the periphery of the ‘real’ action and yet, of course, always the protagonists of their own stories.
  3. George Eliot, Adam Bede. I hadn’t read Adam Bede in a couple of years and have never paid it as much attention as my favourite George Eliot novels. When it emerged as the front-runner for our summer reading group at The Valve, I was uncertain how things would go, if relieved to be on somewhat familiar territory. In the end, I gained a greater appreciation of the uneven beauties and oddities of the novel. I also found it constantly stimulating seeing how other readers responded to it and learning from the range of approaches and expertise that inflected their readings. Of the many memorable passages, this is the one that I find has echoed in my mind since we wrapped things up:

    “It would be a poor result of all our anguish and our wrestling, if we won nothing but our old selves at the end of it–if we could return to the same blind loves, the same self-confident blame, the same light thoughts of human suffering, the same frivolous gossip over blighted human lives, the same feeble sense of that Unknown towards which we have sent forth irrepressible cries in our loneliness. Let us rather be thankful that our sorrow lives in us as an indestructible force, only changing its form, as forces do, and passing from pain into sympathy–the one poor word which includes all our best insight and our best love.”

  • James Wood, How Fiction Works. Though my assessment of this much-hyped book from today’s most talked-about literary critic was not altogether positive, Wood is certainly an inspiration to anyone who would like to see the gap between academic and public criticism bridged without false populism.
  • Ronan McDonald, The Death of the Critic. Like How Fiction Works, The Death of the Critic stood out in my reading year more because of the conversations it generated than because of its intrinsic merits. I’m still thinking about the emphasis McDonald (and others) places on evaluation as the key to critical relevance, and I’m still inclined to think that people’s everyday reading practices have at least as much to do with ethics (broadly construed, as Booth does in The Company We Keep). Eventually I hope to make this case–and, further, the case for ethical criticism as a useful framework for public criticism–in a careful way.
  • The Reader. I’ve been so happy to discover this excellent publication from The Reader Organization. I first came across it through this article on Scott and have since read several back issues and both of the issues made available as PDFs for download. I’ve been promised that a two-year subscription is part of my Christmas haul this year, and I really look forward to keeping up with its stimulating blend of intelligent but accessible literary analysis, readers’ reports, and new fiction and poetry.
  • Vanity Fair and Bleak House. The enormous pleasure and challenge of teaching both of these books in the same class nearly compensates for an academic year in which I am not teaching Middlemarch even once (I’ll have to make up for that in 2009-10).
  • The Wire. OK, it’s not a novel…but it was certainly one of the most enthralling narrative experiences of my year, and in its social and thematic ambition and its attempt to convey the connections between multiple layers of a complex socio-economic world and a sprawling cast of characters, it has much in common with the 19th-century ‘condition of England’ novels.
  • Two recent additions I haven’t had time to write up properly: Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories and One Good Turn. I first read the former on the way home from a trip to Sydney. I’m not a happy flier and I was fairly well medicated, which must be why I didn’t appreciate it much at the time and wantonly gave it away on landing. After hearing a number of people speak very highly of both of Atkinson’s mysteries, I got One Good Turn from the library last week and enjoyed it so much that I picked up a new copy of Case Histories, which I just finished reading and found thoroughly impressive.

Books I could have done without (happily, a shorter list than last year’s):

  1. Inger Ash Wolfe, The Calling. There’s a good book–even a good series–to be had from the materials in this creepy thing. Maybe the sequel will abandon the cheap thrills in favour of intelligent plotting and character development.
  2. Paul Auster, City of Glass. Actually, I wasn’t sure which list to put this one one. I hated it and yet I thought it was very smart, and I’ll be teaching it in April. Wish me luck!

Books I’m most looking forward to reading in 2009:

  1. Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy. Yes, this was on my books to read in 2008 list too. I don’t blame the novel at all for my failure to get through it; I was enjoying it, but other things intruded and my attention wandered.
  2. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace. My Christmas wish list this year reflected a certain impatience with hot new books that rather disappointed; War and Peace is one of those Great Classics that I have read only once (years ago, trying to look smart) and have often thought I should read properly. Now I have it in a highly praised new translation and I’m excited to get started.
  3. John Galsworth, The Forsyte Saga. This is another from my wish list. I’ve never read it, but it looks like just the kind of thing I’ll enjoy.
  4. Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited. See above.
  5. Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca. I read this many times in my youth, but it was part of our family library and since I moved away from home I’ve never owned my own copy. Now I do!
  6. Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep. For someone who teaches a course on detective fiction, this one is probably my “Humiliation” winner. I’m tiring a bit of The Maltese Falcon, so I figure it’s time I tried the other obvious one.

Not directly related to reading novels but of much significance to Novel Readings in 2008 was the invitation I received to become a contributor to The Valve. It has been invigorating, if sometimes intimidating, to share my posts with a wider audience and to participate in the lively exchanges that go on among the diverse community of readers and thinkers that write and comment there.

I have no bold new plans for Novel Readings in 2009 except to keep it up. Thanks to everyone who came here to read or comment!