Recent Reading Roundup

The-Life-Writer-207x325It has been a while since I’ve posted, and also a while since I posted a reading roundup! The two things are related: because I haven’t been posting often, it might seem as if I haven’t been reading much, but I have — it’s just that much of my recent reading has been for reviews, which means it feels redundant to post about it, or else it has been light reading I don’t have much to say about. Or, in a couple of cases, it has been books that deserve more to say than I’ve got in me, or that I hoped to have a lot to say about but that came up short. These are the rare converging conditions that are just right for a roundup post!

Books that I’ve read for reviews include: David Constantine’s The Life-Writer and In Another Country, both exceptionally good (my review will be in The Quarterly Conversation in the fall); Ami McKay’s The Witches of New York, which I thought was just okay (my review will be in Quill & Quire in November); Yasmine el Rashidi’s Chronicle of a Last Summer, which is understated and thought-provoking (my review will be in The Kenyon Review Online at some future date); and Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words, which I found fascinating, evocative, and just a bit odd (my review will be in the September issue of Open Letters). Today I’m settling in with Maurizio de Giovanni’s The Bastards of Pizzofalcone, which, along with its sequel, Darkness for the Bastards of Pizzofalcone, I’ll be writing about for 3:AM Magazine. (I also recently read an academic book with an eye to reviewing it for 3:AM but I decided in the end not to review it, because although it is almost certainly a good book of its kind, it turned out to be of a kind I have little tolerance for these days, and I didn’t want to take that somewhat personal frustration out on its author.)

knox-trulyMy light reading has included some good contemporary romances: Ruthie Knox’s Truly, which I really enjoyed, and two of Molly O’Keefe’s ‘Boys of Bishop’ novels — Between the Sheets and Never Been Kissed. O’Keefe’s are just a tiny bit too angst-ridden to become real favorites of mine: I like my romance with a bit more comedy and a lot less suffering. But both of these authors write well and create convincing characters, and Truly had some really excellent “neepery” about urban bee-keeping. I’ve started several historical romances but tired of them all before the half-way point — including Julia Quinn’s Because of Miss Bridgerton and a forthcoming Mary Balogh, Someone to Love. Not too long ago I read Sarah MacLean’s The Rogue Not Taken, and I did really like that; I think it’s just that for me right now, I’ve had enough of that particular flavor and none of the ones I tried seemed novel enough. I also just finished Sue Grafton’s X, which some of you may have seen me griping about on Twitter. When I say “finished” I mean that once I realized it wasn’t going to pick up, I skipped along hastily until I finally reached its big climactic scene, about 5 pages before the last of its nearly 500. Grafton assembles her pieces competently, and Kinsey’s still a pretty good character, but that book was way too long to be so completely lacking in interest or suspense.

mementoA book that deserves better than I can give it is Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, which I finished without ever quite being converted to it. Another read, another time, and probably my experience of it will be different. It was interesting to me, though, that I began it with much higher expectations than I began Moby-Dick, but it was Moby-Dick I found thrilling. Maybe I’m not quite the reader (or the person) that I thought I was. And a book I hoped to love and have a lot to say about was Christy Ann Conlin’s The Memento. It looked perfect for me, and individual moments or sentences often struck me as really good, but as a whole the book never quite grabbed me — not the way a ghost story, especially, really ought to.

I think that about catches me up, on my reading at least. Usually another regular feature here is more discussion of teaching-related business, but of course classes aren’t in session right now, and the work-related business I’ve been preoccupied with is my promotion application, which I can’t really talk about in any detail. Last week I did, however, finish what is almost certainly the very last written submission I will make about it (and that’s another 6000 words I’ve labored over in the last little while!). My fall course outlines are drafted, though, and it won’t be long now before “This Week In My Classes” begins its exciting 10th season. 🙂

P.S. If that David Constantine cover looks familiar, it’s because its design is basically the same as the cover for Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch.

Weekend Catch-Up: Reading, Thinking, Watching

IMG_3152Where does the time go? It seems like I only just finished reading The Danish Girl, but here it’s almost a whole week later and I haven’t written another word here.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading. In fact, in among the other business of the week (which included the department’s traditional “May marks meeting” and a stint at the M.A. Colloquium, another yearly event at which our current crop of M.A. students present their thesis projects) I actually spent many hours reading Steven Price’s forthcoming neo-Victorian novel By Gaslight (no small job, as it is 700+ pages). But since I am going to be reviewing it (for Quill & Quire), I won’t be blogging about it. I also started reading Curtis Sittenfeld’s Pride and Prejudice rewrite, Eligible, but that too is for a review (for Open Letters Monthly) — so again, no blogging!

12860696I have also been reading, in dribs and drabs, the critical books I’ve collected about romance fiction and Westerns, taking some first steps towards prepping for next winter’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ class. I have been enjoying the new ideas and frameworks raised by these materials, and they have started a lot of things turning around in my head. But since I haven’t been working on them in a very concentrated way this week I haven’t felt I had anything in particular to say. I’m sure I will! And I have also been kicking around, in a very preliminary way, how I might organize the course, and especially the readings. I am puzzling, for instance, about whether it would work to assign only full-length novels in a first-year course. I have taught many different incarnations of our introductory classes, but every one has included some blend of short and long readings. Short ones, of course, have many advantages when you’re working with beginning students: they can get the whole thing read reasonably quickly and you can begin to practice the analytical skills you want them to learn with material they can easily manage. Then you can build up to longer texts. In some of the genres we’ll cover (detective fiction, for instance) it is easy enough to find good short options, but this seems harder to do with romance. (I found one that I think might work quite well — Liz Fielding’s “Secret Wedding,” which is cleverly metafictional about romance conventions — but it seems to be available only in a Kindle edition, and I’m currently stumped about whether that rules it out as a required reading.) I’ve also been thinking about starting with some Victorian ‘pulp,’ specifically Lady Audley’s Secret — but I’m worried that they might bog down in it, especially if it’s the first thing we read. You can look forward to (or dread, I guess) many more updates as my thinking about this course develops. And, as always, I will welcome input!

The other thing I’ve been doing is working my way through the final seasons of Buffy, mostly while doing my morning runs on the treadmill (putting a TV on the wall right in front of it was a very good idea!). I have just three episodes to go now in Season 7, and — and here’s something I never thought I’d say, back when I struggled through the first few episodes — I am going to be very sorry when I’m done! I realize I can watch it all again, but at this point I’m still very caught up in the whole “OMG what will happen next?!” experience. And, I should say, I really do not know what is going to happen as the series ends, so please don’t tell me! (It’s probably some kind of miracle that I have avoided basically all spoilers about the show for all these years.) I’ll probably try to write a bit about the show when I’ve finished it — though I wonder why, in a way, when it’s old news to almost everyone else.

And that catches me up! Next week I hope to settle into more of a routine, something that’s always harder once classes get out and the to-do list becomes so much more amorphous.

P.S. The daffodils in the picture are in the Public Gardens: finally, signs of spring are busting out all over.

Weekend Miscellany: Reading and Watching

SweetDisorderIt’s a busy time at work, with papers and midterms piling up a bit, so it’s still a bit quiet over here at Novel Readings.

I have been doing some extra-curricular reading, but the serious stuff has been for reviews, which I don’t usually anticipate with commentary here. I’ve been filling in the interstices with some light reading, mostly romances. I’ve been trying out some more recent “historicals” to see if I can find more writers among the many, many there are to chose from that I can reliably enjoy. I have had pretty mixed success with historicals up to now: a lot of them seem really thin and formulaic, and only a few authors so far (notably Cecilia Grant and, sometimes, Loretta Chase) have become personal favorites. I read Rose Lerner’s Sweet Disorder and quite liked it (I’d read her In For  a Penny before, and liked it too). Then, encouraged by having mostly liked My American Duchess, I also read another of Eloisa James’s, Any Duchess Will Do, and I enjoyed it as well, enough that I’ll probably keep poking around in her vast back catalog. Both of these books, however, did add to my sense that, for me, the pacing, or maybe the balance, is off in a lot of modern romance novels: when the hero and heroine have sex fairly early on, instead of as the culmination of their developing relationship, the book becomes (again, for me) too much about their lusty goings-on and the romantic tension is lost. Other forms of angst are typically introduced, something to tear them apart before they can finally have it all, but I usually find that angsty part tedious and the final resolution belated. This is one reason I often skim the last third of these books: the fun part seems to be over before then. In contrast, I just reread Heyer’s Venetia and it seemed to me perfectly balanced: just sexy enough, just tense and surprising enough, and just charming enough to be thoroughly satisfying.

longviewThe “literary” book I’ve been reading “for fun” is Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Long View, which I bought after my book club read and enjoyed The Beautiful Visit and, in the same week, Hilary Mantel coincidentally published a persuasive essay about Howard in which she singled out The Long View as exceptional. It is very good of its kind, I think, and yet I am bogged down about half way through it because right now that “kind” feels claustrophobic. It’s an emotionally intense, scrupulously nuanced examination of an unhappy marriage — well, it’s unhappy when the novel begins, but because of the novel’s ingenious backwards-chronological structure, the relationship is building towards happier beginnings. Howard’s prose is wonderful and the psychological, social, and sexual complications of the couple’s life together are exquisitely, if painfully, drawn, but the novel feels airless to me: it doesn’t seem to be offering me any sense of the broader view of their life — of its impersonal contexts. The novel feels too personal, too minute, and it makes me restless for a narrative, or a narrator, that looks around and draws connections between these small complicated lives and the bigger world they’re set in. I may be missing ways in which Howard’s subtleties do exactly that, and of course since I’m not finished the novel yet, I can’t say whether things change in it, either. But my boredom (shocking! but true) with the novel got me thinking about the books that have really excited me lately and they have tended to be books with wider scope, often (though not always) historical: Dunnett’s King Hereafter, Nicola Griffith’s Hild, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. Is it because I already live a narrowly personal existence (and spend enough time scrutinizing the complex nuances of marriage on my own behalf) that right now I want fiction that does something, goes somewhere, else? Or maybe it’s just that when I’m busy and distracted, I lack the patience for novels that are all about the finely-wrought sentence and the emotional minutiae of daily life.

happy-valleyAlso, when I’m busy and distracted, the lure of television is very strong! And, conveniently, Netflix recently dropped two tempting series — the fourth season of House of Cards and the second season of Happy Valley — both of which we’ve now seen. In retrospect, I’m actually kind of sorry I watched House of Cards. After the third season, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see any more of it, and this season will almost certainly be my last. The show is just so unpleasant: the people are loathsome; the acting is … well, it has its moments, but mostly it’s uninspiring; the plot is absurd; and the show overall is so cynical, not just about the world it depicts but also, I think, about what its viewers want or will tolerate. I did admire the color palette and cinematography, but otherwise, it’s a show that made me feel bad about myself for wanting to see what would happen next. Happy Valley, in context, though very grim in its own way, is brilliantly acted and tells stories about richly human individuals trying to bring some sense and order into their lives, with a protagonist whose anger and toughness are offset by compassion and a strong, if often thwarted, desire for justice. Even the crimes, horrific as they are, come out of contexts that are believable and morally complicated. It’s also almost absurdly refreshing to see women play prominent roles without having to look like stick insects and wear ridiculous stiletto heels.

OK, that gets me about caught up! Now, back to the next book I’ll be reviewing, if I can just get it all read, and then to Hard Times, which I start with my 19th-century fiction class tomorrow. Now there’s a classic that still has something to say “for these times.”

Amis and Spenser and Scandal, Oh My!

amisIt seems like too long since I wrote a detailed, thoughtful book post. Sadly, that’s not about to change! My activities for the past week or so have just been too miscellaneous, including my reading. I can’t really blame Joseph Anton, as I mostly turn to that late in the evening when I might otherwise be watching TV. I am starting to wonder how much longer I will persist with it, though, because I’m starting to feel a bit bogged down in it. After all these hours we’re barely a year past the fatwa: much as the whole situation engages and enrages me, there’s a fair bit of repetition in the day-to-day details, and I’m not sure if there are any more big twists to come. (I feel petty for saying that! I don’t mean to underestimate the outrage and personal devastation involved. But there’s definitely a blow-by-blow quality to the account of it all at this point.)

The slump in my extra-curricular reading is really more a function of being generally busy, though. It’s a point in the term when a lot is going on at once, and when marking essays takes over what would otherwise be class prep time, which in turn moves class prep into what would be reading time. We also had some things to do for family and fun last week: a chamber music concert on Wednesday, the fundraising “Coffee House” and auction at Maddie’s school on Friday, and then the Christmas craft fair on Saturday, which Maddie now accompanies me to. Considering what hermits we mostly are, this seemed like a lot of social activity in a hurry!

To top it all off, my book group met yesterday to discuss Kingsley Amis’s Ending Up. What a nasty little book it is! But it’s pretty funny, which is of course a particularly uncomfortable combination. We had chosen it as our follow-up to Elegy for Iris but for me at least Elegy for Iris (though infinitely sadder, because, after all, it’s not fiction) was a much more humane book. Ending Up did prompt some intense discussion, but less of the book (which none of us particularly liked) and more of the general topics of aging and death. Ending Up certainly does not indulge in any sentiment about either!

I was startled to realize that as of this month my book club has been meeting for five years! Our membership has shifted around a bit since our first session on Morley Callaghan’s Such Is My Beloved, but not by much, and I think we have developed a good personal rapport as well as a satisfying standard of discussion. A lot of my initial skepticism about book clubs has been worn away by the experience, mostly because we are all enthusiastic readers and everyone is committed to actually talking about the books: our meetings have never been just excuses for socializing. I have come to really enjoy hearing such a range of opinions and observations about everything we read. I do still feel frustrated sometimes by the scattershot nature of the discussion. I’m reminded every time, in fact, just how much managerial work goes into even the most wide-ranging seminar discussion, where questions are usually pursued to specific examples and at least provisional conclusions before a change of topics. Nobody’s in charge at our book club meetings, and it would be terrible for the overall dynamic if anybody were. For me in particular, too, it’s been a good thing to practice not being in control and going with the flow! We just have to give each other room, and bring things up again if we are still puzzling over them. I often write the books up here, too, which gives me a chance to put my own thoughts in better order.

15dogsNobody wanted to read more Kingsley Amis, and in fact none of the threads we followed from Ending Up (our usual method for picking our next book) took us to a choice we could agree on. (I’m a bit sorry nobody seconded me on Elizabeth Jane Howard — I might try her on my own anyway.) So we’re taking a bit of a leap outside the box and reading Andre Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs for our next meeting. It strikes me as the kind of book that could go horribly wrong if the philosophy is too facile — plus I’ve always been more of a cat person! But what’s a book club for if not to push me outside my comfort zone sometimes.

I also managed to read two Spenser novels this weekend. They go so fast! The first was Cheap Shot — the first I’ve read by Ace Atkins, who took over the series when Robert B. Parker died. I was dubious going into it, and once in a while I thought there was a line that lacked the usual Parker pith, but generally I was impressed at how smoothly it went, and at how little difference I detected when I followed it up with Sixkill, one of Parker’s own last offerings. I can’t decide if that reflects well or badly on either author. To be so imitable suggests, perhaps, that Parker was more style than substance, and there’s no doubt that both his plots and his prose are extremely … consistent. I have always thought his formula supports a lot of really interesting and subversive ideas, though. I’ve written about him once or twice here before and have often been tempted to give him the full Dick Francis treatment. One of these days …

Finally, I have been watching Scandal, which is really very bad but addictive in the way that high melodrama and ridiculous conspiracies can be. The overacting! The gratuitous blood-splattering torture scenes with drill bits! The astonishingly cynical perspective on politics and politicians! It makes me yearn for The West Wing, which I may have to watch all over again just to counteract the horrors of Scandal with some fast-talking (if slick) idealism. I miss Josh and Toby! I miss MI-5 too, which was similarly absurd in many respects but both tidier in its plots and much better acted. Compared to ScandalMI-5 looks almost subtle! But Scandal is a perfect treadmill show, and it’s not bad for Friday nights, either, when I’ve had enough of taking things seriously.

Things may be picking up on the bookish front. Ending Up reminded me of Amsterdam, which I read way back in the days Before Blogging and so barely remember — so I’ve started rereading that. It’s quick enough, but also smart enough, that there may well be a proper blog post in it. In the meantime, it feels good to clear away all these miscellaneous pieces that have been cluttering up my head.

Weekend Miscellany: Atkinson, Chase, Wallander

godinruinsI haven’t been a very diligent blogger lately! Well, I did write up another ‘This Week In My Sabbatical’ post on Thursday, but it was so dull I deleted it without posting. The gist of it was that I have been writing more stuff (quite a bit of it, which is good, at least), and doing some reading, but there really didn’t seem to be much to say about any of it, and who wants more moping from me about how difficult it gets for me when my schedule is so amorphous (and it isn’t even summer yet!) or more angst-ridden second thoughts about the state of my career?

Actually, one of the things I read was Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, and there is plenty to say about that — but I’m going to write up a “proper” review for Open Letters Monthly, so I don’t want to say much about it here. Is it silly to worry about “spoilers” for a review? That’s not exactly the concern, but duplication is. I will just say, then, that I read the book with absolutely rapt attention and, eventually, helpless tears, but that nonetheless I ended up feeling extremely frustrated, not so much with the novel itself but with Atkinson as a novelist, which may, I suppose, be a distinction without a difference.

I was so impressed with so much of A God in Ruins, though, that I’ve taking Case Histories off my shelf for a reread. I don’t think I’ve read it since I first got it, which was not long after it came out in 2004. I remember thinking it was very good, and I’ve read all the subsequent Jackson Brodie books, but I’ve never really considered them as options for my mystery class. Since I’m not teaching it until the winter term, I have a bit of time to consider tweaking the reading list (again!). It’s easier to switch up older books from the classic subgenres than to find recent books that have a tempting balance of innovation and thematic complexity. (Two recent contenders were Finding Nouf and The Unquiet Dead, but neither quite convinced me.) I’ll report back! And as always, if you have suggestions, let me know. Another option I’ve been thinking about is including a “literary” crime novel (Alias Grace, for instance), since one of our ongoing topics in the class is precisely the validity and/or usefulness of the whole notion of “genre” vs. “literary” fiction, or to add Paul Auster’s City of Glass back to the list — but its postmodern posturing was getting on my nerves the last time I assigned it, so maybe not. Someone recently recommend Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn to me: thoughts on that one? Should I give it a try?

hellionI’ve been reading some romance novels in between other things. One of them was Loretta Chase’s The Last Hellion — which I didn’t really like. Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels was one of the first historical romances recommended to me back when I was taking my tentative (and skeptical) first steps into the genre. I thought it was ludicrous! But I’ve come a long way since then, and now it is among my favorites, though I still find the prose a bit too purple for my taste at times, and the last 25% of it doesn’t interest me very much. (I’ve mentioned before, I think, that I often don’t like or don’t even read the conclusions of romance novels — once the tension goes out of them, my inner cynic kicks in, or something.) Chase’s Mr. Impossible has become even more of a favorite. But something about The Last Hellion just didn’t work for me. The hero was uncomfortably aggressive in his advances, the story around the central romance seemed unnecessarily contrived, the heroine was too beautiful — which has become a bit of an ongoing annoyance. As an antidote, I returned to Judith Ivory’s The Proposition, which I remembered having a heroine who for once was not conventionally beautiful. What a relief! And the story is fun: it’s basically Pygmalion meets Dirty Dancing.

For our evening TV, my husband and I have started watching the Wallander adaptations starring Kenneth Branagh. I didn’t get along very well with Wallander in the books (though to be fair I haven’t read many of them). The show is no less grim, but everyone who told me how good the adaptations are was right. In particular, I think they are among the most beautifully filmed TV shows I’ve ever watched: stills from many of the scenes would look wonderful mounted and framed, though they are a bit stark or melancholy — which of course is appropriate for the series. Branagh is superb, as well: the show is as much (maybe more) a character study as a crime drama, and without his charisma it would be too dreary to bear, but he pulls it off. We’ve only watched the first three installments (we’re taking a break to watch Season 3 of Homeland, about which I am pretty ambivalent) but I expect we’ll come back to it. I’m excited that Netflix Canada (which is pretty badly stocked compared to the American version) has just added Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries! We ran a good essay on the series at OLM a while back that piqued my interest, and having now watched the first episode, it definitely seems like good fun, if that isn’t too perverse a thing to say about murder!

Weekend Miscellany: Good Reading and Common Pursuits

gaudyAlex in Leeds has started on a new relationship . . . with Peter Wimsey. We all know where this leads – to Gaudy Night, which means punting fantasies and a new appreciation for academic robes of the same size. It has actually been years since I’ve read any of the early Wimsey novels, because I like him so much better once Harriet gets involved. Steve wrote up The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club recently too, but despite these encouraging posts I’m still not very tempted. Maybe I will reread The Nine Tailors soon, if only to make up for having recently given Edmund Wilson the benefit of the doubt on the larger issues.

Tom has started on the Palliser series at Wuthering Expectations and as usual he’s mixing it up, including pressing on the popular idea that Trollope is a “comfort” read:

It has taken me a while, but I am beginning to think of Trollope as a great satirist, mild compared to Jonathan Swift or Evelyn Waugh, but at times as fierce as his mentor William Thackeray.  Or Jane Austen, another writer with fangs and claws who is most frequently read for comfort, available by means of ignoring substantial portions of her writing.

 At The Little Professor, Miriam Burstein reviews Derby Day, a neo-Victorian novel I’d never heard of which is not “Dickensian” (for once) but “Thackerayan,” quite literally in that it reworks Vanity Fair:

this is a novel in which there is room both for Amelia and for Becky Sharp, in which the way of duty yields its successes but so, too, does the way of pure self-interest.

 At Tales from the Reading Room, litlove offers a persuasively positive report on Curtis Sittenfeld’s Sisterland:

In this brilliant portrait of uneasy motherhood, Sittenfeld never lets us forget that anxiety and vigilance go hand in hand, and that each magnifies and reinforces the other, a cultural curse on those who are responsible for the young.

 Sarah Emsley can’t wait any longer to get the anniversary celebrations for Mansfield Park underway:

I think the key to understanding Mansfield Park is that it’s a tragedy, rather than a comedy. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that not many people choose it as a favourite from among Austen’s novels. (Natasha Duquette, who’s writing a guest post on part of Chapter 27 – in which Fanny “had all the heroism of principle” – is an exception. Is there anyone else out there whose favourite Austen novel is Mansfield Park? I would love to hear from you!)

JamaicaInnAt Slaves of Golconda you can read the collected posts on Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, which inspired the most unanimity I’ve seen among readers for a while. I think the reason is the magical balance du Maurier finds between what we now often divide artificially into “literary” and “genre” fiction. The novel is a corker of a read (or at least I thought so – at least one GoodReads reviewer declared it “so so so so so boring,” and another called it a “rancid mess,” so really, what do I know?! YMMV!) but it has more than plot to offer. A lot of our interest went to the heroine, Mary Yellan, who is, as Teresa says in her post, “the kind of heroine many women want to see in novels.”

At A Commonplace Blog, D. G. Myers responds to comments on his earlier post “Academe Quits Me.” His key point there, which I think he’s right has been misinterpreted by some of his respondents, is that “where there is no common body of knowledge, no common disciplinary conceptions, there is nothing that is indispensable.” This is not a lament for the demise of a stable canon, as he explains more fully in the follow-up post, but an observation about one of the practical consequences of the way in which our ‘discipline’ has expanded and thus, inevitably, fragmented or dispersed. We do so many (interesting, worthwhile, intellectually challenging) things that it’s become nearly impossible to point to which ones are fundamental. In some ways this is very exciting (like our world, we are large and contain multitudes!), but in other ways, I think he’s right that (especially when resources are scarce) it has made us strangely vulnerable. As he says, “there is no shimmering and comprehensive surface of knowledge in which any gaps might appear” and as a result any particular area of expertise may be perceived as dispensable.

These comments resonated with me because in my own department, we have suffered (and seem poised to suffer further) losses to our full-time complement, and one of the grounds on which we can supposedly petition for replacements (if only there were some prospect of making any appointments) is ‘program integrity’ – but even internally we can’t agree on what that means any more. It may be that we are dealing with the messiness of a transition from one way of organizing our “common pursuit,” around ideas of coverage (literary historical, generic, regional), to another that thinks more about reading strategies, skills, and contexts — from what to read to how to read. We do a lot of both kinds of things in my department now, but the program (the requirements for the major, for instance) has for a long time been organized around the coverage model (ideas of what to cover have, of course, changed and expanded a great deal in recent decades). I’m not sure this is the right way to describe what’s going on, but I found his posts thought-provoking precisely because they articulated something of the confusion I’ve been feeling over our curriculum and have prompted me to keep thinking about how exactly we might — in principle or strategically — redefine that common pursuit.

Weekend Miscellany: Bests and Worsts and Turgenev and Middlemarch and More!

As usual, the bloggers I follow have been putting up all kinds of good posts recently. Here’s a sampling!

At stevereads, the annual Best and Worst of the year extravaganza is in full flood. Lists already offered including Best History, Best Romance, Best Biography, Best Collected Letters, Best Reprints, Best Debut Fiction … and there’s more, and more to come. The range is extraordinary, the judgments vigorously pronounced, and the curmudgeonly digressions about the state of the (book) world today just add to the fun. Nobody I know or have ever known reads more, or more passionately, than Steve.

At Wuthering Expectations, Tom is reading Turgenev:

Turgenev may not have known what to do with the hero of Fathers and Sons once he created him, fleshed him out, and showed him from all sides.  So he killed him off, by disease.  Discerning critics have found this end unsatisfying in that it is arbitrary, too easy.  In a sense, yes.  But the next to last chapter, Bazarov’s death is so good that I do not care.

Vladimir Nabokov, judging by his notes in Lectures of Russian Literature, apparently taught this chapter simply by reading large parts of it aloud to his class.

The funny thing is that there is hardly a sentence in it that I would pull out as particularly good.  The quality is a question of urgency, of small movement, of the right amount of attention given to a scene before a quick cut to the next.  And of course the stakes are high.

There’s always a slightly sideways quality to Tom’s readings, by which I don’t mean they aren’t illuminating or interesting but rather the opposite. He finds his own way into every book he reads. I have never read Fathers and Sons or indeed most of the non-British literature he reads, so whatever he says about these books is inevitably fresh to me, but I always especially like it when he takes on Victorian novels or novelists that I think I already know well and makes me look and think again about how they do what they do.

At Tales from the Reading Room, litlove has a much more positive reaction to The Signature of All Things than I did:

This was altogether a much more convincing and and enjoyable riposte to the 19th century novel than Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, and I think Elizabeth Gilbert has pulled off something quite special here.

I notice Gilbert’s novel made Steve’s 2013 ‘Honor Roll’ for fiction too. Geez, with friends like this … but in fact, this is all evidence that the real method of criticism is not finite declarations but coduction. In reading each other’s views, we test and reevaluate our own, and the goal cannot be some ultimate right reading, but only our most thoughtful, attentive, well-articulated ones.

At Shelf Love, Jenny has completed her posts on Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga. “Such enjoyable books,” she concludes; “If you’ve been considering these, do take them down from your shelf and join me in reading them!” I have indeed been considering them, and I have a handsome Oxford edition that I got for Christmas or perhaps a birthday not that long ago. They sound so good I did indeed take it off my shelf … but then I remembered that I’ve been vowing to finish Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, before the winter term begins if I possibly can, and I’m confident that I can’t do both. I think I will hold The Forsyte Saga in reserve for my February break!

At The Little Professor, Miriam writes on Charles Palliser’s Rustication. I’ve never read The Quincunx, but Danielle at A Work in Progress has just finished it and is ambivalent. I think Rustication might be more my style: Miriam describes it as in the tradition of the sensation novel. I stopped reading before she gave away the big plot twist, in case I do get around to it!

Ana at Things Mean A Lot has been doing year-end posts as well, and this one on Favourite Picture Books made me feel all happy and nostalgic. I really must get a copy of Frederick. One consequence of moving away from my family home is that my family doesn’t have any of our old children’s books!

Among many interesting recent posts at Thinking in Fragments, this one on Laura Wilson’s The Riot stands out because I too am always looking for good new crime writing. Alex writes so convincingly about it that I went immediately to see if I could get my hands on the first in the series … but no luck at the library or any of our local bookstores! I’ll have to order it in — or add it to my wish list.

At Read React Review, Jessica posted her thoughts about Georgette Heyer’s Sylvester, which was also one of the first of Heyer’s novels I read. I didn’t like it at all then, but I reread it after I’d learned to enjoy Heyer and liked it much better.

Finally, 2013 really does start to seem like the Year of Middlemarch. Of course the most spectacular event was the launch of Middlemarch for Book Clubs! OK, maybe not spectacular. But at least I did get it built, and some day they will come! (I’m still working on how to make that happen.) But at The Toast they are leadingMiddlemarch read-along in preparation for the launch of Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch in the new year. Too Fond is also doing a read-along. And at The Millions, Adelle Waldmann highlights Middlemarch for their Year in Reading feature. (Weirdly (for me), I did not teach Middlemarch in any course in 2013. This is shocking! I’ve been thinking of assigning it for the Dickens to Hardy course in Fall 2014 … but right now I’m feeling anxious about students’ ability to keep up with the amount of reading I typically assign, and I’d hate to be dragging them through it. I’ll be thinking about this as book orders come due after Christmas.)