2017: My Year in Reading

The year isn’t quite over, but while things are quiet around here it seems like a good time to take stock of my year in reading. If a book gets me really fired up between now and New Year’s, believe me, you’ll hear about it!

Like 2016, 2017 included a fair amount of “assigned” reading, but (also as in 2016) this meant I discovered some titles and authors I would otherwise have missed. I’m most glad to have been introduced to Sarah Moss’s intense, cerebral historical fiction. I wrote about her novels Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children for Numero Cinq. I very much enjoyed Gillian Best’s The Last Wave, which I reviewed for Canadian Notes & Queries, and I found Adam Sternbergh’s “taut conceptual thriller” The Blinds both smart and engrossing.

Books of the Year

The highlight of my reading year was rereading the entirety of Dorothy Dunnett’s The Lymond Chronicles in preparation for the feature I wrote on them for the TLS. What a luxury it was to have an excuse to put everything else aside and immerse myself in them again–it was hard for anything else I read to compare! The essay is behind their paywall but if you want a sense of what I said you can listen to me talk about Dunnett on the TLS podcast, which (once I got over being nervous) was a lot of fun to be part of.

an-odyssey-coverThe best of my new reading this year was Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey, which I loved–and which has prompted me (very belatedly, I know) to secure a copy of The Odyssey to read in 2018. I so admire Mendelsohn’s gift for weaving together different narrative strands into a compelling and unified whole, something he also did in The Lost (which topped my “best of” list when I read it in 2009 and still holds its place as one of the best books I’ve ever read): while some writers who meander make me impatient, he always kept me engrossed as he worked through related ideas about family, pedagogy, journeys (real and metaphorical), and Homer’s epic itself.

Second best, though mostly because I haven’t finished it yet, was John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga. It took me a while to get drawn into The Man of Property but by the end I was thoroughly absorbed in and impressed by it; I really loved its immediate sequel, the novella Indian Summer of a Forsyte. One of my top reading goals for 2018 is to finish the next two novels.

Other Highlights

Katherena Vermette’s harrowing and thought-provoking The Break, which uses one terrible incident as a device to explore systemic problems that strain our capacity to imagine what achieving a just outcome would require.

Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone, an engrossing story about a family riven by mental illness that is also a meditation on whether it is possible to right the wrongs of the past–personally but also nationally.

Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War, which I found “rich in charm and humanity and, ultimately, pathos.”

Kathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk, which I enjoyed for its own sake and because in her independence, wit, and love of language, Lillian reminded me of my grandmother.

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer , “a stinging satire, of American hypocrisy and self-delusion in particular but also of pomp and corruption and ideological posturing on all sides.”

Elizabeth Taylor’s A View of the Harbour, which is a subtle and sharp and meticulous portrait of a flagging community.

Two particularly good book club choices: Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes, both of which I thought were wonderfully sly and artful.

In the Middle

A number of books I read were fine but not as thrilling as I expected from the hype or my own previous experience with the author. I enjoyed but wasn’t bowled over by Ann Patchett’s  Commonwealthfor instance; Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing With Feathers was touching but too formally precious for my taste; Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread was vintage Tyler, which isn’t a bad thing but is also not an exciting thing; Marilynne Robinson’s much-lauded Housekeeping resonated with me much less than Gilead had; Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent was promising but, for me, never quite delivered. I started and didn’t finish a fair number of romance novels–but I found a few new ones that seem like keepers. My reading in that genre always seems a lot more hit or miss than in other genres; I think that may be a function of just how many there are to choose from.

Low Points

There really weren’t many this year, which is interesting in itself. I didn’t read anything that riled me up the way, say, Nutshell did last year; the worst books I read were mostly in the “meh” category. The one I liked least was The Stepford Wives, which I read with my book club: I wasn’t convinced it’s a satire about sexism rather than just underhandedly sexist, and even if it is satire, it’s pretty heavy-handed. For different reasons, maybe not good ones, I really struggled with Antonio Pennacchi’s The Mussolini Canal, even though, as I wrote in my post about it, it is great material.

Looking Ahead

Last December, flush from the success (at least from my perspective) of my first reading of Moby-Dick, I said 2017 might be the year I finally tried Ulysses. It wasn’t, but maybe 2018 will be. First, though, I’d like to read The Odyssey: I am woefully undereducated in the ancient classics, and between Mendelsohn’s new book and all the talk about Emily Wilson’s new translation I have been feeling the lack even more than usual. (I don’t have Wilson’s version: I traded a colleague in the Classics Department a nice Oxford edition of Middlemarch for his spare copy of the Fitzgerald translation. That’s fine with me: this one has stood the test of time, after all, and if I get really engaged, I can always follow up with Wilson’s and appreciate how untraditional it is.) As already mentioned, I’d also like to complete The Forsyte Saga. Otherwise, I have no particularly lofty goals: just a lot of books I’m looking forward to reading. I got a nice stack of them for Christmas, including Suzette Mayr’s Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, Martin Seay’s The Mirror Thief, and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold–which I’ve already started and am liking a lot. I have a couple of ideas for the gift card I got to Bookmark, including Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, but I should probably read more of what I already have before I decide what else I want! Nearest to hand, though, is Katherine Ashenburg’s Sofie and Cecilia, which I agreed to review for Quill & Quire–and the deadline is nearly upon me, so in the short term, that had better be my priority.

All in all, I think 2017 was a pretty good reading year: not as prolific as some, but steady and without catastrophes. And that’s just my not-for-classes reading: any year that also includes Bleak HouseCranford, and Middlemarch has got to count as a good one!

Happy New Year!

It’s time to ring out 2016 here at Novel Readings. Here’s some of what I have to look forward to in 2017 — and thus some of what you are likely to read about here:


Thanks as always to everyone who came by to read and, especially, to everyone who left a comment here or chatted with me on Twitter. As I approach my 10th anniversary as a blogger, I continue to be cheered and motivated by all the other readers I’ve gotten to know this way and by the good conversations we have. Best wishes for the new year! See you in January.

2016: My Year in Writing

2016 was an odd year for me as a writer. On the one hand, I wrote a lot of literary criticism, for a wider range of venues than ever before. This experience was challenging, educational, exhilarating, and occasionally frustrating: in some cases, I had to write shorter and faster than I ever had before, and in others I had to find an angle on books or writers that weren’t immediately congenial or intelligible to my critical sensibilities. I also had to work with new editors and adapt to their different styles and priorities. Overall, I’m very proud of the results.

On the other hand, I also got the clear message from my employer (and many colleagues) that this is not the kind of writing they value, and that if I hope to advance professionally, I’d be better off giving it up, scrambling back into the ivory tower and devoting myself to a very different model of literary criticism. I actually wrote thousands of words in 2016 trying to turn this judgment around — attempting to persuade people on campus (none of them, ironically, actually literary critics of any kind) to recognize my essays and reviews, and the other elements of my diverse portfolio of projects and publications, as worthwhile contributions to my academic discipline. Of all the writing I did this year, this was the least pleasant, and ultimately the least rewarding.

Where does this leave me? Well, mostly it leaves me wondering how much more writing about literature I could have done in 2016 if I hadn’t wasted so much time (and, perhaps even more relevant, so much angst and energy) on a futile quest to change academic priorities — even if it did initially seem as if I was just urging everyone to live up to their oft-stated commitment to outreach, public engagement, and innovation. It certainly hasn’t persuaded me to do as I was told: I’m not against academics doing specialized research leading to peer-reviewed publications in academic venues, but I strongly believe enough academics in my field are doing this already and that it is both right and imperative that universities loosen their grip and encourage, support, and even reward faculty who do other kinds of work as appropriate to their disciplines.


Institutional issues aside, I feel as if I made a lot of progress as a writer this year. Book reviews are not the be-all and end-all of my writing ambitions: I would particularly like to write more, longer, better, wider-ranging essays. I wasn’t able to do much of that this year, but the reviewing I’m doing is both honing my skills and helping me build up my credibility (one interesting and humbling thing about writing outside the academy is that my formal credentials and my academic c.v. mean very little “out here,” where authority is something you have to earn in other ways). I hope that in 2017 I will keep moving forward — both as a reviewer and as an essayist. This includes hoping that I make more progress compiling my existing essays on George Eliot into a book: now that I’ve self-published one e-book, I feel emboldened about doing another.

There’s a complete list of my publications under the ‘Other Writing’ tab above. Here I’ll just mention a few from 2016 that stand out to me, for one reason or another.

At Open Letters, I was particularly pleased with “Our Editions, Our Selves,” which was ostensibly a review of the lovely new Penguin Deluxe Classics edition of Middlemarch but which also gave me a chance to ruminate about my personal history with my favorite novel. Writing this review of Mary Balogh’s Only Beloved brought me some comfort and joy, and it was also my first attempt to write something thoughtful about romance fiction.

At The Quarterly Conversation, I wrote about David Constantine’s The Life-Writer and In Another Country, which I already mentioned in my previous post as some of the best reading I did in 2016. Because Constantine was new to me, and because his fiction is so elegant, I was a bit intimidated when I started working on the review, but in the end I felt that I had found something interesting to say and said it pretty well.

I published four reviews in the Times Literary Supplement in 2016. My favorite was of Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder — to me, anyway, this little piece reassured me that I am starting to be more at home in shorter reviews, that I can still sound like myself in a more compressed form. (I think my forthcoming review of Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First is actually better, though; it will be out in January, I expect.) I was proud of my only longer piece in the TLS (so far), which discussed three recent scholarly books on Victorian women’s writing: this was not as much fun to do, but (again, to me, anyway) it seemed like a good example of my academic expertise being used in the service of a wider public.

I was very happy to write about Maurizio de Giovanni’s Bastards of Pizzofalcone novels for 3:AM Magazine: these were two of many good examples of crime fiction I read and/or reviewed in 2016. And I also appreciated the reviewing opportunities I got from Quill and Quire, including two neo-Victorian novels (Smoke and By Gaslight) that, again, let me draw on my academic background a little while nudging me out of my comfort zone.

Overall, then, on my own terms 2016 was a productive year for me as a writer and a critic. A key goal for me in 2017 is to stop seeking validation on other people’s terms!

2016: My Year in Reading

van-gogh-still-life-french-novels2016 has been a somewhat unusual reading year for me because quite a few of the books I read were ‘assigned’ for reviews — or else were books I chose not entirely because I wanted to read them but because they looked like books I could pitch for reviews. Although at times I ended up feeling a bit stifled as a result, because it felt as if reading obligations were crowding out reading pleasures, at other times it meant a thrill of discovery, as a book or author I wouldn’t otherwise have read turned out to be wonderful. This was also a sign that as a writer I was being pushed in new directions and, as a result, learning new skills and finding (I hope) new strengths — about which, more in my next post on my year in writing!

Looking back on 2016, here are some of the books that stand out.

moby-dick-penguinBook of the Year: Moby-Dick. Really, how could it not be? I’m not saying I read it particularly well, but hey — it was my first time! And I read it with a great deal more pleasure than I expected, and also a sense of expanding horizons. Yes, it’s about whales, the way War and Peace is about Russia — it’s not only about so much more but it just does so much more that’s surprising and amazing and, yes, occasionally tedious, or just plain baffling. I was just reading an earnest article about the importance of revising and revising and revising to perfect every last word: though I don’t actually know what Melville’s own writing process was, it seems to me that this is the kind of well-intentioned advice for novelists about their “craft” that yields books as impeccable but somehow lifeless as Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena while guaranteeing us no more fearless Moby-Dick-like masterpieces.


Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth and Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady. Together with Daniel Deronda, these make a remarkable trilogy of variations on a theme. Each of them features a young woman of great intelligence and high spirits hemmed in on every side by social and personal contexts that deny her suitable outlets for her energy. My love-hate relationship with James’s prose continues; Wharton, on the other hand, proved much more congenial, and I’ve got The Custom of the Country on my list of books to read in 2017.

Other Highlights:

L132AInspired in part by The Portrait of a Lady, I finally read  Colm Tóibín’s The Master — and loved it. I’d put it off because I was so underwhelmed with Brooklyn (an impression that was basically confirmed when, inspired by The Master, I reread it), but The Master is artful and tender and brilliant. I expect it’s even better to a true Jamesian, who would get all the subtle allusions and nuances, but it’s a sign of Tóibín’s skill that even a James-skeptic like myself could become totally absorbed in his character.

I loved David Ebershoff’s The Danish Girl. Above all, it is a story about the kind of love and acceptance we all dream of, but it’s also about art and beauty and identity, about how we see ourselves and each other.

A friend recommended Kent Haruf’s Plainsong and I’m so glad she did: I ended up reading three of his novels and being touched and impressed by all of them. I think Plainsong is the best (most complex, most ambitious) of them, but my personal favorite was Our Souls At Night: something about its evocation of loneliness, and the delicacy with which it explores the possibility of overcoming it, really spoke to me.

constantineAnother author I discovered thanks to a prompt from someone else was David Constantine: Scott Esposito asked me to review The Life-Writer and In Another Country for The Quarterly Conversation, and as he predicted I was really impressed. Constantine is a writer’s writer, meticulous and nuanced, but like Alice Munro he embeds both plot twists and emotional surprises into his understated but beautiful prose.

I read Andrea Levy’s Small Island soon after the U.S. election, and it turned out to be unexpectedly timely and somewhat comforting in the tenderness with which it shows disparate people doing their best to live together.

With an eye to my upcoming ‘pulp fiction’ class, I dipped into westerns, a genre I previously knew almost nothing about. I sampled quite a few but the only ones I read attentively all the way through were Charles Portis’s True Grit and Elmore Leonard’s Valdez is Coming. I enjoyed them both thoroughly, but I can’t really see myself reading many more westerns for my own pleasure: reading about them will probably do. Lonesome Dove, maybe? And speaking of genre fiction, I read some good new crime novels this year too, including Phonse Jessome’s gritty Halifax noir Disposable Souls and Maurizio de Giovanni’s Bastards of Pizzofalcone books.

dutton-margaretFinally, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals was an absolute tonic as this rather depressing year drew to its close. And one more last-minute success was Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First, which turned out to be a small, glittering jewel of a novel. (My review will be out in the TLS early in 2017.)

Low Points:

This is 100% about a failure on my part, and also my own disappointment — with myself, though also (however irrationally) with the novel: I tried and failed to read To the Lighthouse. I did read it, in the sense of turning every page, but I could not seem to find the novel I knew was in there somewhere, waiting to transform me. I will try again, after a decent interval.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Ineligible made me swear off Austen pastiches forever. And I vehemently disliked Dinitia Smith’s The Honeymoon, which I reviewed for the TLS. I saw another novel about George Eliot in the bookstore not long ago and shuddered away from it: though it would be nice to be pleasantly surprised, I have yet to read a really good example of this particular species.

Ian McEwan’s Nutshell was the worst book I may ever have read by an author I fervently admire.

Not Reading, Exactly, But:

buffyI finished my first full viewing of both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel this year. I’ve been rewatching both shows intermittently ever since, which tells you a lot about how interested I got in them. It also indicates something that those who’d seen both series before already knew: both reward rewatching (which is a kind of reading, really) more than many television shows: they reveal layers and connections and themes that aren’t always obvious at first when you’re caught up in the immediate drama. Even when I found the particulars absurd, which did occasionally happen (maybe more for me than for people who are more at home in fantasy as a genre), I never stopped caring about the characters, and now that I’ve seen how all the story arcs turn out, I’m finding myself even more emotionally involved with them.

My 2017 TBR List:

There are a lot of books I look forward to reading in 2017, including (as already mentioned), more Edith Wharton. I have David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife standing by, along with volumes 2 and 3 in Jane Smiley’s “Last 100 Years” trilogy. In the same stack is Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, partly because of my questions about My Name Is Lucy Barton and minimalism in fiction, and partly just because; Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing With Feathers is there too, and Sarah Moss’s Body of Light, and China Mieville’s The City and the City. My success with Moby-Dick has had me wondering if I should stop being scared of Ulysses and give it a try in 2017. Part of what’s exciting about a new year, though, is not knowing yet what great books lie in wait that I haven’t even thought of reading yet!

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.

hildBook 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.

doerrLike 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

lostchildDonna 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

understanding-comicsI made my first self-conscious foray into graphic fiction this year, reading both Maus and Persepolis, and also Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics — which taught me a lot about how to read this kind of book better. I don’t feel I quite “got” it, but it felt like progress to see what “it” might be like if I did. And I started listening to more books, which I enjoyed when I could find the right match between book, narrator, and opportunity.


This year I tried (again) and failed (again) to fall in love with Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series. It makes me feel like such a bad Canadian that I can’t get past her stilted writing! But I’m going to stop trying, because I read enough series as it is, and I started at least three this year that I’d like to continue with: Maurizio de Giovanni’s Commissario Ricciardi series, Arnaldur Indridason’s outstanding Inspector Erlendur novels, and Steve Burrows’s birding mysteries.


juliejamesAlthough 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

mwordTwo 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

godinruinsMost 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!

Novel Readings 2014

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable Non-Fiction

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

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

The Low Point

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

Happy New Year!

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

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



2014: My Year in Writing

IMG_2655There’s still time to get a bit more reading done in 2014, but as with last year, I don’t expect to finish any more writing projects before January, so I thought I’d do another year-end round-up of my essays and reviews.

It’s not as long a list as last year — how did I manage to do so many pieces for Open Letters in 2013? — but I also looked back on some of those pieces with a bit of regret, since I didn’t think all of the books I reviewed were worth the effort I put into them. Thinking about that, and then reflecting on this year’s output, it becomes clear to me that being a busy book reviewer is not really what I’m interested in. I do like writing about books (obviously!), but if I dared to articulate my real ambition, it would be to become a good literary essayist — to do the kind of criticism that is not (or at least not necessarily or incessantly) dedicated to keeping up with, or evaluating, the latest thing. “Most books aren’t very good,” a sage friend and experienced reviewer once said to me. Blogging gives me the freedom not just to read what I want but to write about it however I want, which often means not walking through the patient steps of summary and analysis you find in a good standard review but meandering through ideas and associations I find interesting. Essays should probably be more purposeful than that, but they too are free from some of the obligations of reviewing, especially the obligation to put a lot of effort into talking about books that “aren’t very good.” I’m still going to write reviews! I have two books on my desk right now that I’ll be writing up in the next month or so. But other things will be higher priorities.

mylifeinmiddlemarchFor Open Letters this year I did write one review of a new book, Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch. I approached it with skepticism but ended up both enjoying and admiring it. It is not the kind of book I want to write, and its success therefore made me uneasy, but at the same time, it’s nice to know that I haven’t been scooped, and maybe (just maybe!) the friendly attention she drew to a great novel that for many people comes across as intimidating will soften readers up for a different kind of book about its author. I also contributed to our monthly ‘Title Menu’ feature, with a list of “8 more George Eliot novels” — not more novels by George Eliot, but novels about or inspired by her, from Deborah Weisgall’s The World Before Her (which I wrote up in more detail here) to Edith Skom’s The George Eliot Murders. If I concluded that really, you’d be better off rereading Middlemarch than reading any of these others — well, what did you expect?

My next piece for Open Letters was about K. M. Peyton’s Pennington series. I have wanted to write about these books for some time, because I think they are wonderful — I like them even better than her Flambards series (though that is wonderful too). I was working on it when a heated debate broke out in the online book world about the value – or shame – of grown-ups reading “young adult” fiction. I didn’t want my essay to be a polemical screed on one side or the other, but I felt (and said in its conclusion) that it made my case implicitly, which is that what matters is not the label on the book but how well it stands up to thoughtful attention over time. I suppose that was too temperate a stance for the piece to be of much interest to the people who were fighting so noisily about this — plus they would have had to read the whole essay about the books to reach that conclusion, and that really isn’t how these things play out online. Still, it would be nice if once in a while all my bleakest beliefs about the way click-bait runs the internet weren’t confirmed at my expense! I’m happy about the essay itself, though, which I thought was pretty convincing about the merits of the Pennington books. Maybe I should send it to NYRB Classics as part of a pitch for them to do a nice set of reissues.

my-brilliant-friend-ferranteMy last full-scale Open Letters piece of 2014 was another failure as click-bait, despite being pretty topical, but, again,  it was something I was pretty pleased with just for itself. We do a semi-regular feature called “Peer Review” which surveys and comments on the critical reception of a particular book or author, and after reading my way through the first three of Elena Ferrante’s much-acclaimed Neapolitan novels (My Brilliant FriendThe Story of a New Name, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay) I decided that she (or they) would be an excellent candidate for this treatment — as, indeed, I found! The essay ran just as the third book was being released in North America; the novel has received a significant amount of critical attention pretty much entirely consistent with the outlines I gave. I remain somewhat baffled at the effusive praise Ferrante gets, and convinced that it is about what she stands for as much as it is about how or what she actually writes. Maybe the fourth book (if I read it) will persuade me that it all adds up to something spectacular.

I also wrote a few things that were published elsewhere this year. I was pleased to be asked to contribute two essays on George Eliot to the British Library’s new “Discovering Literature” site: “Realism and Research in Adam Bede” and “The Mill on the Floss as bildungsroman.” It’s a great site for exploring, as the essays are set up to showcase digitized materials from the British Library’s collection (such as the manuscript of Adam Bede or the letter from Eliot’s brother Isaac congratulating her on her marriage).

southridingI also wrote an essay on Winifred Holtby and Virginia Woolf that came out in 3:AM Magazine; it’s nice to have some tangible results from all my work on the Somerville novelists, and in fact I have another such result, a short piece on “10 Reasons to Love Vera Brittain,” coming out in the new year at For Books’ Sake — technically I guess it “counts” for 2015, but I did write it in 2014!

Another result from earlier work was my participation in the Atlantic‘s Twitter book club “1 Book 140” when they opted to give Middlemarch a try. It was really gratifying to get a generous shout-out to my “Middlemarch for Book Clubs” site and then to be asked to do a Q&A about Middlemarch with the scintillating Stephen Burt: I think he and I could have talked much longer, and I hope one of these days we can sit down and chat in person (about Middlemarch or anything else). Another stimulating conversational opportunity was being interviewed about “a critic’s role” by Matt Jakubowski for the series he’s running at his blog truce.

As always, the largest quantity of writing (and I hope, not the lowest quality of writing!) that I did in 2014 was here at Novel Readings. My traditional look back at my year in reading is coming up, so I’ll just highlight a few posts that weren’t about books.

I continued my series on ‘This Week In My Classes’; along with reporting on routine business I found myself reflecting on why students might find me intimidating, and on beginning my twentieth year of teaching at Dalhousie. I wondered what makes a novel “teachable”; and I asked how I could get out of my own way when teaching a novel I’ve got as many thoughts and plans about as Middlemarch. I didn’t write much about general academic issues, mostly because not much has changed about what I see or how I feel about it. Despite frequent resolutions to do otherwise, I couldn’t quite stop myself from brooding about how things add up, or about how my attempts to redefine my work as a critic have turned out so far, or  from wondering how much the ugly word ‘blog’ affects assumptions about this not-quite-academic activity. Self-consciousness and constant self-evaluation are just too deeply ingrained, I think, after all these years in an academic environment where keeping tabs on ourselves and others is a way of life.

Of all the posts I wrote in 2014, my farewell to critic, blogger, and great Twitter conversationalist D. G. Myers is the most heartfelt. He had a profoundly unsentimental approach to his own illness and impending death, but it’s impossible not to mourn for someone who was such a vigorous, challenging part of so many conversations I’ve been in over the past few years.