It’s hard to know when to write these year-end posts: there’s always a chance that a book I read in the very final days of the year will be a real game changer! It’s a quiet snowy day today, though, perfect for a little blogging, so I’ll go ahead and write up my regular overview of highs and lows of my reading year and give any late entries their own posts.
Best of the Year
This year it’s a tie: I thought both Lincoln in the Bardo and Every Man Dies Alone were extraordinary, though in very different ways. Lincoln in the Bardo is “a bravura display of narrative ingenuity” that somehow also ends up being moving and profound–about love, loss, life, death, and history. Every Man Dies Alone is much more conventionally told, but it too focuses on intensely personal stories to raise deep questions about how we can live a moral life, especially in the midst of injustice and suffering.
I read more books by Sarah Moss this year; the best of them were The Tidal Zone and Ghost Wall. I so admire the intelligence of her novels, which all start from intellectually ambitious concepts and embody them in credible and dramatic personal scenarios. I continued my belated reading of John Le Carré with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Honourable Schoolboy. Only the former was really a highlight, but even a second-tier Le Carré novel is still pretty great. Smiley’s People is high up on my list of books to read in 2019. Kathy Page’s Dear Evelyn took a familiar concept–the story of a marriage interwoven with the story of an era of great change and drama–and made something fresh, intimate, and quietly devastating out of it. Finally, though I thought Amor Towles “flirted with disaster” in A Gentleman of Moscow, for me “two things kept it from becoming irritating and allowed it instead to be both lovely and sad.”
I read quite a few books this year that I thought were near misses: good, even very good, but slightly dissatisfying, for one reason or another. Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs was harrowing but “a bit miscellaneous.” I was “interested … but not really captivated” by Irene Némirovsky’s Suite Française. Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am was a book I found hard to put down, gripped as I was by her near-death experiences, and I loved the way she writes, but at the same time I finished the book thinking “that she, and we, ought to learn more from all those near misses, or that she should have done more to earn our attention to them than just surviving or enduring.” I liked Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach a lot, though I didn’t think it really lived up to the hype around it. I enjoyed Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, in spite of its ‘spots of commonness.’ Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire was an intriguing premise and mostly well executed, but ended, I thought, “in melodrama, not moral revelation.” I wished Hannah Kent’s The Good People had come with “a side of exposition” to deal with the clash of worldviews it depicts but does not analyze.
Disappointments and Outright Duds
I read a couple of critical darlings that did not quite work for me, though both Ali Smith’s Autumn and Rachel Cusk’s Outline gave me a lot to think about–Cusk especially, whose next book, Transit, I do still want to read. (I am not particularly interested in Smith’s Winter.) For different and admittedly idiosyncratic reasons I did not much enjoy Alistair MacLeod’s acclaimed No Great Mischief . Kate Atkinson’s Transcription was a good read but not much else, and N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season did not win me over to SFF–though I learned a lot about the genre from the attempt, and from the discussions that followed. Though it kept my attention with its harrowing storyline, Octavia Butler’s Kindred ultimately seemed formally uninteresting and heavy-handed; some members of my reading group commented during our discussion that it read to them like young adult fiction, and I don’t altogether disagree.
Speaking of my book club, we were unanimous in our dislike of Joanna Rakoff’s A Fortunate Age, a novel which for me (ironically) was tedious especially because of its excessive exposition, “dense paragraphs of stuff that just didn’t seem worth taking more time over.” The books I liked least this year, though, were Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me and Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, which has the unhappy distinction of being my Worst Read of 2018.
2018 was a good year for reading and writing about Trollope. In February I reread Doctor Thorne and found it a wonderful time out from the depression and chaos of the news. In April I reread P. D. James’s Death in Holy Orders; her intertextual allusions to Barchester Towers prompted some comparisons between James and Trollope as moralists that did not exactly redound to her credit. Then over the summer I reread He Knew He Was Right for an essay I published in the TLS on ‘Reading Trollope in the Age of Trump’:
Louis is ultimately the scapegoat for a systemic problem, one that Trollope suggests cannot be adequately dealt with through individual sympathy or decency – one that cannot be fixed, though it may be better understood, by reading. Like the conclusion of Hard Times, which calls Dickens’s readers to account for whether “such things shall be” in the future, the ending of He Knew He Was Right demands a political reckoning from us. “One does not become angry with a madman”, Trollope acknowledges, “but while a man has power in his hands over others, and when he misuses that power grossly and cruelly, who is there that will not be angry?” Who indeed.
I took a drawing class in the spring. A book that gave me some of the courage I needed to try it was Lynda Barry’s remarkable treatise on creativity / pedagogical self-help book, Syllabus; a book that prompted me to think more about art and what it means to be “An Artist” (or, in my case, “A Writer”) was Nell Painter’s Old in Art School.
These are not all the books I read in 2018, but anyone reading this post is likely to have read about the others over the year anyway!
As for my reading in 2019, I have (as always) high hopes and many plans. In addition to the books I’ve already named here as ones I will surely get to, I received some treats from my wish list for Christmas, including Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea and Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. I have started Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey, and after that I may try the Iliad.
I also intend to catch up on or reread a number of Victorian novels, with an eye to refreshing my standard repertoire for the 19th-century fiction classes I teach every year. Maybe 2019 will be the year I finally read the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace, which has been ripening on my shelves for a few years now–or maybe I will be emboldened enough by having finally read the Odyssey to give Ulysses a try. I have learned, though, not to make too many definite plans or promises about my future reading, not just because it can leave you feeling guilty when you shouldn’t but because the best reading is often unexpected and serendipitous!