Novel Readings 2020

“2020 will begin on a high note,” I wrote at the end of 2019’s “Year in Reading” post. As far as reading goes, at least, I wasn’t wrong: the books I was so looking forward to were Kate Clayborn’s Love Lettering and Tana French’s The Witch Elm, and I enjoyed them both thoroughly.

It hardly needs saying that 2020 turned out to be anything but a good year overall. Was it a good reading year? I wish I could say that I turned the relentless isolation of the pandemic into an opportunity to read deeply and voraciously. I feel perhaps unduly ashamed of how difficult I often found it to concentrate, of how often I gathered promising stacks of unread books from my shelves determined to make my way through them only to reject them one by one — usually for no good reason except that in the moment, they just didn’t appeal — and put them back where they came from. Maybe it was the long hours I put into learning about and then laboring over online teaching; maybe it was the suppressed but constant struggle to keep at bay the worst fears and feelings about the pandemic; maybe, also, it’s not embarrassing but understandable to be uneasy and distracted in the midst of a global crisis, and so to fall back more often than you’d like into the passive forgetfulness offered by television. 

And yet, looking back over my posts for 2020, though they are far fewer than usual (blogging, not just about books but about anything, also became harder this year, from screen fatigue and because of the way time kept seeming to pass without actually passing, if that makes sense), I find that I did read a lot of good books, ones that held my attention, that delighted or moved or provoked me in all the best ways. I also read — or at any rate finished — fewer books that really disappointed me, probably because I was less likely this year to press on with something I wasn’t engaged by. Of course, a number of books that I read were in the middle, in that largest zone that stretches from “not really my thing” to “good but not great.”

In a tradition that stretches back to 2007, the year I began Novel Readings, here’s my look back at the best, the worst, and some of the rest of my 2020 reading.

The Best Books I Read In 2020 

Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Remains of the Dead  was the last book my book club read before our meetings went virtual; I think our dinner out to discuss it was also my last pre-lockdown social event! When will we six (sometimes seven) meet again?! This fall was our 10th anniversary, so it seems particularly sad that we haven’t been able to get together in person: Zoom just isn’t the same. We all loved Drive Your Plow — rare unanimity. The novel is extraordinary: strange, intense, compelling, and morally serious without ever being didactic:

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is about someone who reacts to the perception of universal suffering by seeking justice, not sympathy. The surprise of the novel is that someone so odd, crusty, and uncompromising turns out to be so appealing. I enjoyed her abrasiveness, her frankness about her aches and pains, her determination to live on her own terms … the punishment fits the crime in a morally and philosophically satisfying way.

I was mesmerized by Miriam Toews’s Women Talking — I’m glad I overcame my initial skepticism to give it a try. I found it “at once ruthlessly specific (what should these women, who have been abused, tortured, raped, silenced, rendered extraneous to the meaning of ther own community, do?) and almost shockingly expansive: what should (or can) we all do, once we recognize how deep and entangling the world’s systemic injustices are?”

It seems inevitable in retrospect, but that shouldn’t diminish the extraordinary fact that Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light is as brilliant as the first two novels in the trilogy. I thought it was not quite as good as Bring Up the Bodies, but that’s such a high bar that the comparison doesn’t really reflect badly on it. The last 100 pages or so of The Mirror and the Light are particularly remarkable, not least because I read them knowing exactly what was going to happen and yet was utterly gripped. “It is hard to mourn a man like Cromwell,” even Mantel’s version of him, but the series is so good that “she has made it impossible not to miss him now that he’s gone.” What will Mantel do next? I would love to read her novel about Elizabeth I, if she would ever write one.

I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Maggie O’Farrell, but Hamnet and Judith exceeded my expectations:

In her author’s note, O’Farrell explains just how little we know about the real Hamnet, and also tells us that the central event of her novel, Hamnet’s sudden death from the bubonic plague, is a fiction: “it is not known why Hamnet Shakespeare died.” From this slight material O’Farrell develops a novel that is a delicate combination of historical recreation and literary excavation, of intimately portrayed human lives and undercurrents of meaning that flow almost unnoticed towards Shakespeare’s tragic drama.

One thin silver lining of our locked-down world is the movement of many interesting cultural events online: I really enjoyed “attending” O’Farrell’s Hay Festival interview.

Kathleen Rooney’s Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey was a delight, though by that I don’t mean to imply that it is a slight or easy nbook. Out of a very unlikely premise (and the risk factor is actually one of the things I appreciated most about the novel), Rooney created something that is at once grim, tender, and morally consequential.

Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Mr. Fortune’s Maggot was one of the long-unread books I plucked from my shelves and actually read, and I’m so glad I did: I absolutely loved it. I can’t think of another book I’ve read that is quite like it:

It is sad and strange and funny and touching; it is about faith, and the loss of faith, and about love and the loss of love, or sacrifice in the name of love. It is wryly satirical about missionary zeal and imperialism and cultural arrogance; it takes a small man and uses him to tell a much larger story about freeing ourselves from the things we believe in and the harm they can do. 

Steven Price’s Lampedusa also exceeded my expectations, joining “Colm Toibin’s The Master on my very short list of books about other authors that really succeed in conveying what it might have been like to be that other consciousness, to write that other novel.”

Turning to non-fiction, Clare Hunter’s Threads of Life  is “a marvelous, inspiring, touching, and extremely wide-ranging account of the myriad ways needle crafts of all kinds have mattered and made meaning throughout history.” I enjoyed it both for the story she tells and for the connections between it and my own work on needlework in the context of Victorian historiography.

Like Mr Fortune’s Maggot, Margaret Drabble’s The Pattern in the Carpet had malingered on my shelves for some time; the meditative comfort I have found in jigsaw puzzles since our stay-at-home protocols began inspired me to take another look, and it turned out to have found its moment:

It is a wonderfully digressive book that manages, by the end, to say some profound things about how we pass our time. It began, she explains, as what she intended as a gift book about jigsaws, the kind of thing you’d buy in a museum gift shop. In the end it is part memoir; part history of a wide range of puzzles and games and arts and crafts; part  reflection on (and this will sound pompous, but in the book it really isn’t) the human condition, including especially aging and death.

Last but not least, I was both gripped and impressed by Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing:

Say Nothing is not just a gripping work of historical reconstruction and exploration, it is also a morally weighty book. Like good fiction, it insists over and over on the complexity of its topics and its people. It has no heroes and, surprisingly, not really any villains either, because those categories rely on absolute perspectives that are simply not sustainable.

Other Books I Liked A Lot

I expected to like Sarah Moss’s new novel Summerwater, which I reviewed for the Dublin Review of Books (one of a sadly small number of writing projects I accomplished in 2020). I did like it, though I did not love it: it is a lot like Ghost Wall in scope and subject, and equally terse and intelligent, but I would like to see Moss do something more expansive, and also less emotionally reticent. Still, a “lesser” novel by Moss is still better than a lot of other books, and as with Ghost Wall, I also think this is one that gets bigger and better the more you think about it

The novel has the tense atmosphere of a thriller and clues to its eventual crisis are deftly deployed throughout, but its multiple layers mean that the most important revelations are less about what ultimately happens then about how the novel asks us to interpret it. How can we live together in a world being reshaped by the weather? What expectations should we bring to communities no longer defined by the artificial borders of nationalism? What really makes a good neighbour?

William Trevor’s Love and Summer was very good – not as good as The Story of Lucy Gault, for me anyway, but good enough (and so beautifully written) that it solidified Trevor’s place on my list of writers to read more of. 

Elizabeth von Armin’s sharply funny Father was a real treat and deserved a post of its own, which it didn’t get. I highly recommend it for fans of Barbara Pym, Angela Thirkell, or the Mapp and Lucia books.

 I thoroughly enjoyed Amy Jones’s comic family novel We’re All In This Together, which I thought had “the intimacy and precision of an Anne Tyler novel but is done in bolder colours, with stronger contrasts and, especially, deeper shadows.”

I also enjoyed Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting, though in the end I couldn’t escape the feeling that its premise was less an urgent reason to group its subjects together than an ingenious device for doing so and then marketing the results. Still, 

it’s an elegantly constructed and well-written introduction to five remarkable women–the imagist poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle); classicist Jane Harrison; historian Eileen Power; Dorothy L. Sayers; and Virginia Woolf. Starting from the very literal connection that all of them at one time … lived in Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square, Wade explores other commonalities between them, especially their conviction that “real freedom entails the ability to live on one’s own terms, not to allow one’s identity to be proscribed or limited by anyone else.”

Square Haunting made me long to be back in Bloomsbury, where for some reason I have always felt strangely exhilarated and also very at home, as if I can be more myself there than elsewhere.

I found Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel engrossing: it is interesting and highly readable. Yet somehow I couldn’t quite make sense of it all: “I wasn’t 100% sure why all of its specific ingredients belonged together in this particular novel: I couldn’t quite discern the underlying thematic unity, the meaning of it all.” That left me dissatisfied, though it also raised questions for me about what I look for when I’m reading, and why.

Books I Expected to Be Better 

My book club really enjoyed Helene Tursten’s An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good, so we chose Detective Inspector Huss to read next. I didn’t like it, though she’s a good character and the novel had a lot of interesting aspects. Maybe it was a poor translation?

Sandra Newman’s The Heavens had been on my reading radar for a long time: I proposed it to the TLS for a review, in fact, and they turned it down. Now that I’ve read it, I’m relieved, as “I just couldn’t sort out my thematic and conceptual confusions well enough to feel satisfied with the novel as a whole” — though, I concluded, “it is quite possible that the fault lies not with The Heavens but with me.”

My Least-Liked Book of 2020

I know how much Dorian likes the Bernie Gunther books, and he writes so convincingly about them that I decided to try the first one, March VioletsBernie and I (or Kerr and I) did not get along:

While I find Philip Marlowe’s misogyny disturbing, I give Chandler credit for showing the price Marlowe pays for it, in his embittered isolation, while Bernie Gunther’s sexism (“Her breasts were like the rear ends of a pair of dray horses at the end of a long hard day”) serves only to show off Kerr’s own hard-boiled credentials. (“There’s only one thing that unnerves me more than the company of an ugly woman in the evening, and that’s the company of the same ugly woman the following morning.”)

Maybe the later books improve, and there’s no doubt that it’s a great concept for a series and that this one is well executed in other ways. With so many other books to choose from, though, I’m unlikely to try Kerr again any time soon.

My Biggest 2020 Reading Project

My one larger writing project for 2020 was a feature article for the TLS in honor of P. D. James’s centenary. I thought rereading all of her Adam Dalgliesh novels, which took up a lot of my summer, would be more fun than it was. They are all very good, but they are good in particular and strikingly similar ways — ways I ultimately found limited, or limiting, as I explain in the essay.

Ring Out the Old, Ring In the New

Overall, that’s really not a bad year’s reading, especially for an otherwise pretty bad year! It proves that — gloomy, difficult, and uncertain as other things might be — a good book is still a good book and worth celebrating. As for 2021, well, it feels foolhardy to express much optimism about it in other respects, but I’m excited about the first book I have lined up, Rónán Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul. I got Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart and Anne Enright’s The Gathering as Christmas gifts (thank you!), and I’ve got Edna O’Brien’s Girl and Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom on their way thanks to Boxing Day sales. The next book lined up for my book club, also, is Elsa Morante’s enticing Arturo’s Island. We aren’t able to ring in the new year with much confidence or enthusiasm, but it is both comforting and cheering to have these books to look forward to.

2019: My Year In Reading

melmoth-coverFor some reason I had it in mind that 2019 had not been a very good reading year for me. Then I went back through my blog posts and discovered that, while there isn’t really one stand-out “best of the year” the way there sometimes is, there have been plenty of reading highlights, and hardly any outright duds. (That in itself is a good enough reason to keep blogging, if you ask me.) According to my book math, that means that overall 2019 has actually been a better than average reading year! Here’s a look back at some of its greatest hits, some also-rans, a few minor disappointments, and some failures (maybe mine, maybe the books’).

The Best Books I Read in 2019

Sarah Perry’s Melmoth was definitely one of my favorite reads of the year, a perfect balance of propulsive suspense and philosophical gravitas. I found it “a thoroughly entertaining novel of ideas.”

smiley-people-1John Le Carré’s Smiley’s People was less fun, I suppose, but it was a moving and thoroughly satisfying conclusion to the saga of Smiley and his longtime adversary Karla. At once triumphant and mournful, it leaves us with the lingering dissatisfaction of knowing that “some wars can only be won by losing, by giving up your allegiance to the very thing you are fighting for.”

Anna Burns’s brilliant Milkman  may be a historical novel about the Troubles but–in part through its idiosyncratic narration, which gives the story an allegorical cast–Burns ensures that that “we aren’t left with any comfortable sense that the kind of trouble they were about, or that the novel is about, is safely in the past, or only in Ireland.”

milkmanAndrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free was a slow burn but (like Melmoth, but in a much quieter register) it effectively combines taut suspense with deeper reflections about “the kinds of choices we all have to make in our lives about where to go and why, and … what we hope to find if we ever get there.”

lucy-gaultWilliam Trevor’s The Story of Lucy Gault quietly but powerfully “settles us into the day-to-day possibilities of grace without insisting that a life without more than that is a failure”; both Trevor’s beautiful prose and Lucy’s usettling story convinced me that this is an author I want to read much more of.

wolf-borderSarah Hall’s The Wolf Border was another book that made me want to read more of the author’s back catalog. It has the same “cerebral energy” that appeals to me in Sarah Moss’s fiction; “it’s a novel that is clearly motivated by ideas but it isn’t overwhelmed by them.”

Vera Caspary’s Laura turned out to be that unexpected thing for me–a noir novel I thoroughly enjoyed: “it has as much literary flair as anything I’ve read by Hammett or Chandler, and it pulls off its tricks without glamorizing violence (as Hammett especially often seems to) and with a woman at its center who is herself, not just an object for male fantasy.”

Other Books That Were Also Very Good

drummer-girl3Reading John Le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl, I missed Smiley–not just the man but what he brought to his books–for all their melancholy, “there’s something lovable as well as admirable about Smiley, something comforting, even, in what he stands for (and fights for).” Still, Charlie turned out to be, if not admirable, at least interesting and sympathetic–“torn to pieces,” as Le Carré said, “by the battle between two peoples who both have justice on their side.”

I really liked Rachel Malik’s Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves, a “reticent and unassuming” novel about two equally unassuming women who want only “to live quietly and honestly, and together.”

220px-Miss_Boston_and_Miss_HargreavesI found Emma Healey’s Elizabeth Is Missing immediately gripping and ultimately very poignant. In different hands Maud’s voice or story could have felt contrived or manipulative, but while Elizabeth Is Missing “is certainly a clever book, … it is never clever at Maud’s expense.”


Lissa Evans was a happy discovery for me in 2019, largely thanks to Dorian‘s recommendations. I enjoyed all three of her novels that I read, but especially Crooked Heart, which for some reason I did not write up here!

grant-c0verJessica Grant’s Come, Thou Tortoise was an unexpectedly delightful treat–it looks twee, but it turns out to be a comic novel suffused with tenderness (and, as a slightly disdainful review by Lucy Ellmann indicates, the anti-Ducks, Newburyport, about my experience of which see below). I can imagine rereading Come, Thou Tortoise regularly, just for the fun of it–and also because I know I didn’t pick up on all the novel’s twists and tricks the first time through.

I loved George Saunders’s “Tenth of December.” No, I didn’t format that incorrectly: I mean the story, not the collection, because it was the only one in the book “that seemed to me clearly written by the author of Lincoln in the Bardo.”

van-esI really admired–and was ultimately quite moved by–the careful self-effacement of Bart Van Es’s The Cut Out Girl. His family history project has broader significance as “part of the larger responsibility we all have not to look away, and then to reflect on the meaning of what we have seen.”

Some Books That Were Perfectly Fine

magpieI had fun reading Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders and The Word Is Murder (which, I agree with Dorian, is better than Magpie), but I think that might be enough Horowitz for me (except for rewatching Foyle’s War, which I am very keen to do). I admire his ingenuity and envy his brio and productivity, but I missed the sense of heft–of moral depth and complexity–that I get from the crime writers I like best.

Tessa Hadley’s Late In the Day was one of several highly polished, conspicuously competent novels I’ve read in the last few years that left me wanting more–more risk-taking? more energy? Or maybe wanting less–I find it hard to get excited about novels so well-crafted that I’m aware at every moment of the author crafting it. That’s why Melmoth (for one) was a favorite of mine this year and Late In the Day (good as it is) wasn’t. Ditto Joan Silber’s Improvement–also smart, well written, and (as I read it, anyway) a bit soulless.

akinMy review of Emma Donoghue’s Akin will be in Canadian Notes and Queries in the new year. I enjoyed reading it quite a bit: even though I found it somewhat contrived, Donoghue is a good enough storyteller to carry me along. It made me think, though, about why The Wonder was (I thought) so much better–not just fine but genuinely good. Maybe Donoghue (like Ann Patchett?) should write fewer novels, so that her ideas for each one have longer to deepen?

Some Books I Expected To Be Better

whippleI absolutely love the idea of Persephone Books, and it is thrilling in principle to see so many publishers devoting themselves now to bringing back “lost classics.” Dorothy Whipple’s Someone At A Distance did not, however, convince me that she has been unduly neglected. It was OK–but it rather reinforced than subverted Carmen Callil’s insistence that Virago’s books not dip below “the Whipple line.” That said, while Elizabeth Jenkins’s The Tortoise and the Hare (published by Virago) is (in my opinion, of course) a better novel, is it a much better novel? I called it a “small gem,” so I guess I think the answer is yes.


I had high hopes for Tea Obreht’s Inland–I’m not sure why, in retrospect, as I did not really love The Tiger’s Wife. Obreht does a lot of things really well in Inland, but I didn’t think they added up to as much as they could have, especially as an intervention into the Western as a novel.

I also had high expectations for Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, which has been very widely and effusively praised. I found it “a very readable novel, perfectly pitched and crafted to provoke discussion about Celestial’s choice,” but for me “the whole was, somehow, less than the sum of its parts.”

Some Books I Found Especially Challenging (In A Good Way)

oup-the-yearsI am not a very good reader of Virginia Woolf’s fiction, and The Years was actually harder for me to make sense of than To the Lighthouse. On the other hand, I found my struggle with it very productive intellectually: for once I felt that I understood something of what Woolf was trying to do, which I read quite a bit about in her diaries and in the original version of The Pargiters, and I was fascinated by thinking about it in the contexts that Woolf’s comments made relevant. My reading of The Years so far has confirmed for me that Woolf was right to call it a failure–but I think it is an interesting, even a revealing, failure, which is a point I plan to come back to in 2020.


2019 was the year I finally read The Odyssey. I read it in Emily Wilson’s lauded translation–and in retrospect I’m not sure if that was the best or the worst choice for me. It was very crisp, fast-moving, and graphic–“nothing, in her version, really gets in the way of the story-telling”–but was it epic?

Some Books I Found Especially Challenging (In A Bad Way)


Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport may be as brilliant as everyone says it is: I won’t know until or unless I finish it! I waded through the first 100 pages and hated it–not every minute of it, but that unevenness was part of the problem for me. Every time I started to fall into the propulsive rhythm of its stream-of-consciousness narration, the narrator would trip into random word associations that completely broke up any developing logic or momentum for me. More than the novel’s (nominally) unbroken single sentence–which, as others have commented, simply substitutes the narrative tic “the fact that” for conventional punctuation–the unbroken single paragraph also proved an obstacle because it offers no visual cues to one’s reading at all. If I dared to look up from the page, I had a hopeless time finding my place on it again, which meant a lot of frustrated rereading.

Both of these complaints of course say as much or more about me as a reader as about Ducks, Newburyport as a book. Still, I find it both funny and frustrating to hear people suggest any negative reactions are somehow about a woman “daring” to write a long or difficult book–or a long book about domestic details. You can be (as I am) all for those things and still find a particular book inaccessible or unappealing. I think for me the stumbling block is that I don’t go to fiction to find the chaos of everyday life reproduced: I go to fiction to find it shaped into something artful. Maybe Ellmann does that–as I said, I can’t be sure unless I read the whole thing. Will I finish it in 2020? Maybe.


I also did not finish Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends. Boring!

I did manage to finish rereading Wuthering HeightsI still don’t like it.

A Few New or Renewed 19th-Century Friends


Dombey and Son has long been at the top of my list of “Dickens novels I should probably read instead of just rereading Bleak House.” It is good–but not as good as Bleak House.

I found Rudyard Kipling’s Kim was a strange, entertaining, and baffling novel. I’m glad I finally read it, but I can’t imagine teaching it.

Rereading New Grub Street confirmed that it is at once a very good novel with lots of relevant themes, especially about literary value and the literary marketplace–and that if I’m going to assign anything by Gissing, I’ll stick with The Odd Women. Everything about New Grub Street just seemed too obvious, somehow: what would we interpret about it?

love-letteringThe End!

And that’s it–not everything I read in 2019, of course, but the books that, for better and for worse, seem most worthy of note. I feel as if I learned a lot from my reading this year and also, more often than I’d remembered until I did this review, had a lot of fun. I’m not sure what accounts for the misimpression that 2019 was a bit of a reading slump. Maybe it’s because often, by whatever chance, I read the very best book of the year at the very end of the year, and that creates a retrospective glow that was missing this time.

That said, I’m about to read two very different books I’ve been really looking forward to: Kate Clayborn’s Love Lettering and Tana French’s The Witch Elm. Unless my hopes are thoroughly dashed (which I really don’t expect they will be), this means 2020 will begin on a high note!




2019: My Year in Writing

oshaughnessyI am trying not to feel dissatisfied with the writing I did in 2019. For one thing, I deliberately took a step back from a certain kind of ‘productivity’ in order to develop ideas about what I hope will turn into some worthwhile projects. This kind of “fallow” time is rare and valuable and I think it is important not to accept the quantitative logic about “output” that treats it as unproductive. I had hoped to publish an essay about George Eliot in honor of her bicentenary, but in the end that pitch went nowhere; on the bright side, I was pleased to be given a bit more room than usual in the TLS for my review of Kathy O’Shaughnessy’s In Love With George Eliot, which could thus incorporate (albeit still briefly!) some of my broader ideas about how we think about Eliot today.

norrisIn any case, as it turned out, all of my publications in 2019 were reviews. For Quill & Quire, I wrote about Antanas Sileika’s Provisionally Yours (in March) and Laurie Glenn Norris’s Found Drowned (in June). For the TLS, I reviewed Tessa Hadley’s Late In the Day (in January), Joan Silber’s Improvement (in April), Jessica Howell’s Malaria and Victorian Fictions of Empire (in June), and Evelyn Toyton’s Inheritance (in November), in addition to O’Shaughnessy’s novel (also in November). I have one more review done and forthcoming in January (Emma Donoghue’s Akin, for Canadian Notes & Queries) and one more in progress, also forthcoming after Christmas (Marjorie Celona’s How A Woman Becomes A Lake, for Quill & Quire). Finally, I wrote a review of Tea Obreht’s Inland on spec; by the time I knew the publication I wrote it for did not want it, it was too late for any of the other editors I contacted about it to be interested. (Note to me: writing reviews on spec is a bad investment of time, energy, and angst!)

ghost-wallThis isn’t really a bad run of reading and writing: there wasn’t any point in 2019 when I didn’t have a review underway in addition to whatever other work I was doing. I think one reason I nonetheless feel disappointed about what I have to show for 2019 is that although many of these books engaged and interested me, none of them excited me the way that, for example, Ghost Wall and Dear Evelyn did in 2018. While there is always some satisfaction in figuring out what to say about a new book (I sometimes think of it as contributing to the ‘contemporary reception’ section of some future ‘critical heritage’ volume!), some books offer more literary or intellectual rewards than others. This year’s list had no dreadful lows, but it also (for me) had no dramatic highs. In this respect, the books I read “just” for myself were a better bunch. (Stay tuned for my regular ‘Best of Novel Readings’ round-up about them!)

Cover2I did publish one more substantial thing this year: Widening the Skirts of Light, my collection of (non-academic) essays about George Eliot. It was a hard but (I still think) sensible decision to self-publish them. I wanted to create something a bit more stable and lasting from all that work than links to online publications that sometimes seem discouragingly impermanent; doing this also helped me with my plan to refocus my energy on different material by providing some sense of closure about that run of writing. The e-book has sold over 1100 copies on Amazon (for those who avoid Amazon, it’s also available on Kobo, or you can just let me know you’re interested and I’ll happily email you the file in the format of your choice). That’s a pretty tiny number, but when I consider what a niche topic it is, how few copies sell of most academic books, and how little sustained effort I have put into publicizing the collection, I’m actually pleased and surprised that it has found even that many readers. I know it is not a publication that will earn me any professional credit, but it made me happy to hear myself described as its author when I was interviewed about George Eliot on CBC: it represents writing and thinking I am proud of.

I consider my blog posts publications too, though of a different sort than the others I’ve tallied up here. Because of my sabbatical in the first part of 2019, I wrote quite a few ruminations on pedagogical and research goals, and as always I wrote (though not as often as I once did) about my teaching when I went back to it in the fall and about my reading throughout the year. There’s more to be said about all of these things so they’ll get their own posts. For now, though, it’s useful for me to see what 2019 looked like for me as a writer–and to think about how I can make 2020 a year that I look back on with more satisfaction.

2018: My Year in Reading

Lincoln-BardoIt’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.

Other Highlights


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.”

Also Noteworthy

shamsieI 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

cusk-outline-coverI 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 Eileenwhich has the unhappy distinction of being my Worst Read of 2018.

Trollope Cluster


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.

Drawing Cluster

barry-syllabusI 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. odyssey-wilson

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!

Year-End Reflections: Plans and Plateaus

Tree 2018I’m not quite ready for my traditional posts about what I’ve read and written in the past year: for one thing, I often read at least one really great book between Christmas and New Year’s, when the holiday bustle has ended and the book-shaped packages under the tree have revealed their secrets! (In fact, I’m currently reading Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey, which seems a likely contender for any “best of 2018” list.) That doesn’t mean, though, that I’m not looking back over 2018 and ahead to 2019, trying to figure out where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’d like to be going.

Taking stock in this way is particularly relevant for me this year because as of January 1, 2019 I will be on a half-year sabbatical, which means instead of being caught up in the routine busyness of the new teaching term I will have the luxury of time to think and write, to consider and then advance my own priorities as a scholar and a critic–and as a teacher, since one of the most valuable things about a term off from actually teaching is a chance to reconsider reading lists and pedagogical approaches without an imminent deadline for book orders making the usual into the inevitable. (In another post, in part with the goal of making myself accountable, I will be drawing up a reading list to help me refresh, rethink, or reinvent some of my standard course offerings.)

cassatI do have a sabbatical plan–you have to submit one as part of your application–and also some existing deadlines I need to meet, so I’m not heading into the new year entirely aimless. Still, the precise form my work on that plan will take is really up to me, and figuring that out will be my first and possibly hardest task. A crucial context for me is what I did on and then after my previous sabbatical, in Winter 2015. Over that winter I threw myself into writing what I hoped (and perhaps still do hope) would become a book of “crossover” essays about George Eliot. I wrote a lot of material, and then towards the end of the term I peeled off two parts that I eventually published as self-contained essays. (I did not really appreciate at that point how bad it might be for the book I was imagining to publish a lot of its intended content first.) By and large I enjoyed doing that writing: I felt very motivated and productive, and across my sabbatical my confidence in my overall portfolio grew–which is why I decided, at its end, that I was ready to apply for promotion. This administrative project, too, was initially exhilarating: I had done so much (I thought), in so many different forms, since my first promotion, and the result was (I thought) a body of work I was rightly proud of, some of it well within the usual academic boundaries, but a lot of the more recent work reaching across them or representing my principled resistance to them.

Well, we all know how that turned out…and since the 18-month saga of arguments and counterarguments, appeals and, ultimately, rejection ended, I have struggled to regain the buoyancy that had led me to what in retrospect seems like a terrible error in judgment. I have been gradually (if unevenly) reconciling myself to the change in my professional outlook and I have found renewed pride in what I have accomplished since the university handed down its verdict against me. Now that I’m not seeking institutional validation any more, though (which of course is wonderfully liberating in some ways), I face the rather more existential question of what it is that I really do want from my work–what am I writing for?

Dunnett-New-CoverIn the last couple of years the kind of writing I’ve been doing has, more and more, been book reviews. I like doing this: I enjoy the variety of books and the challenge of finding a way in, and while it can be frustrating trying to say something that I think is insightful and convincing in what is often a pretty tight word limit, that too has its gratifications. I am starting to feel, however, as if I am on kind of a plateau where this work is concerned. I could probably keep puttering along doing a regular string of reviews indefinitely now that I have proven myself reliable to a couple of editors at different places. Is this what I want? Is this enough? Looking over some of my old reviews for Open Letters Monthly, which were a minimum of 2000 words and often more, I envied their roominess, and even more, I envied the greater freedom I felt in the writing, which is partly from having the space but also from the confidence my co-editors gave me in my ideas. I would like the chance to stretch like that again–but who will give me that kind of room to play and both trust and help me to use it well? The closest I’ve come so far outside of OLM is my TLS piece on Dorothy Dunnett: I was and am so thrilled that the editor I proposed it to took me up on it. (I’m sorry that this, like most of my TLS reviews, is behind their paywall; if anyone ever really wants to read one of them but can’t subscribe, just let me know.) On my sabbatical, one thing I want to do is think about what other opportunities like that I might reach for.

escher12The other question is whether I want–or in some sense need–to stop working (only) in small increments and re-commit myself to a book project, and if so, of what kind? If an essay collection of the kind I have long been playing around with is a non-starter unless I self-publish it (which I might yet do), is there another kind of book I would feel was worth the long-term single-minded effort to produce? I have long objected to the academic fixation on “a book” as a necessary form. I suspect, now, that there is a similar bias in non-academic publishing, or at any rate that one way to get off the kind of plateau I am on is to publish a book of my own which might (at any rate, it seems to have, for others) give me increased visibility and credibility as a critic. I resist that implicit pressure too: I think it’s a good thing to have practising critics who are one step removed from the immediate business of publishing. How long, I wonder, or in what venues, do you have to write reviews before you are perceived as having any stature as a critic, though? How is that kind of professional credit or reputation earned? Do I care? I guess so, or I wouldn’t be wondering! But should I? Is it possible, even if it might in theory be desirable, not to eventually start thinking about going further, doing more, being more?

So: these are some of the things on my mind as 2018 yields to 2019! I’m not sure how I will answer these questions; indeed, one of my plans for January is precisely not to try to answer them but to reread my archive of essays and reviews (and blog posts) and try to understand and evaluate it–not with a judgmental eye on my past but with an eye out for what aspects of it I especially want to bring with me as I move ahead. I’m hoping I will learn something from that exercise, about both my writing and myself.

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!