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!

kinghereafter

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:

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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.

Novel Readings 2013

2013 has had fewer thrills for me than 2012, which was an especially exhilarating reading year. To be fair, though, it’s hard to follow up a year that included The Once and Future KingBring Up the BodiesAnna Karenina, and Madame Bovary, along with The Paper Garden – which still resonates with me as a particularly special book. 2013 has certainly been a varied year, though, and its reading pleasures sometimes came from unexpected sources. Here’s my traditional look back.

Orphan-Masters-Son-with-Pulitzer-BurstcopperfieldBook of the Year: It’s a tie this time between two very different books: David Copperfield and The Orphan Master’s Son. Of all the books I read in 2013, these are the only ones that proved irresistible, that absorbed me entirely and reminded me how exciting it is to lose track of reality because you are in the world of a great artist — one whose own commitment to the story he’s telling is equaled by the craft with which he tells it.

Other books I’m particularly glad I read and wrote about this year:

Georgette Heyer: The Grand Sophy Now that I’ve read more of Heyer’s novels, I wouldn’t actually point to The Grand Sophy as my favorite (right now I would probably name Devil’s CubVenetia, or Black Sheep – or would it be Cotillion?) but The Grand Sophy was a breakthrough for me: I had had trouble appreciating Heyer, but for some reason, with this one everything clicked into place and now I’m having all kinds of fun catching up on the others. I still find the openings of Heyer’s novels stilted, but now I trust that if I keep reading, I will enjoy wit, elegant plotting, and happy endings (even if they are more romantic than sexy).

Elizabeth Taylor, Angel. This is another one that I’m glad to have read not just for its own merits (though what a strange, compelling book it is) but for the introduction it gave me to its author. I’ve now read three more of Taylor’s novels: A Game of Hide and Seek, Palladian and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (which, as I read it on vacation, I never wrote up “properly” even though it is my favorite Taylor so far).

L. M. Montgomery, The Blue Castle.  What a treat it was to return to this long-ago favorite, which may, as it turns out, have been the first romance I ever read.

May Sarton, Plant Dreaming Deep and Journal of a Solitude. I loved Sarton’s memoirs of her life alone — the first one especially, with its more tranquil spirit and embrace of introspection, but its gloomier counterpart as well.

Susan Kress, Feminist in a Tenured Position. For the first time, my Women & Detective Fiction seminar (starting next week!) won’t include Death in a Tenured Position; I’m especially sorry because this excellent biography of Carolyn Heilbrun added so much to my understanding of her life and work.

All of Dick Francis! That was fun, and not as repetitive as you might predict. My top 10.

Harrison Solow, Felicity and Barbara PymI had a much greater appreciation of Pym’s novels after reading this witty commentary on them, and on how and why we read today.

Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows  and This Real Night. West’s novels are as intellectually demanding and epigrammatic as her non-fiction, but she also proved able to move me to tears.

pleasuresBooks I wasn’t especially enthusiastic about:

Robert Hellenga, The Sixteen PleasuresI didn’t even change my mind when the author quoted The New Yorker at me: imagine that.

Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy.

Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things.

Other notable literary / bookish posts:

Is Cormac McCarthy A Terrible Writer? It was a perfectly sincere question, and one that I believe is genuinely challenging to answer. The discussion that followed in the comments helped me keep thinking through how to ask and answer this kind of evaluative question, both generally and about McCarthy in particular. I went on to read No Country for Old Men; despite its getting high praise from readers I much admire, however, I haven’t yet had the courage to tackle Blood Meridian. Maybe I’ll do that as I prepare to teach The Road again this term.

Writing About George Eliot: An Inventory and Why Do I Like George Eliot So Very Much? These posts were both helpful ways for me to take stock of my work to date as I continue trying to conceptualize The Book that I swear is going to start taking a more concrete form in 2014. I did launch my Middlemarch for Book Clubs site, so that’s one definite thing accomplished!

HaulBooks I’m especially looking forward to reading in 2014:

Wilkie Collins, No Name and Armadale. I haven’t been reading much Victorian literature outside of work lately, but I’d like to get back into it, and I can’t believe that either of these will feel much like work! I’d also like to reread Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, and it’s about time I took another look at Scenes of Clerical Life too.

Elias Khoury, Gate of the Sun. This is one of the books in my very enticing Christmas pile — which I’ve made a good start on already (I’ve finished both The Franchise Affair and Miss Pym Disposes).

Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. I know, I know – but I actually am reading it now … again, or still.

John Galsworthy, The Forsyte Saga. I’ve had this on my shelf for some time; Jenny’s posts about it at Shelf Love have moved it up in my mental TBR pile.

The rest of the Raj Quartet. Like Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, this was on my list last year too, as is Time of Gifts. They got displaced by other books I wanted to read more, at least in the moment, but I haven’t forgotten them.

Next up, though, will be Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, which by a remarkable coincidence is the January selection for both of my book clubs.

Thank you as always to everyone who has read and commented on Novel Readings over the past year, and thanks also to the many excellent bloggers and tweeters who do so much to keep my life with books interesting and fresh. Happy New Year!

2013: My Year in Writing

I still expect to get some reading done before the end of the calendar year (especially Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which I have resolutely started over), but except for another blog post or two I have no great writing ambitions for the remainder of 2013, so I thought I’d start my annual year-end wrap-up with a look back at the essays and reviews I published in 2013.

Once again I did most of my writing for Open Letters Monthly, and once again I can only be grateful for the encouragement, support, and astute criticism I get from my co-editors. After only three years “on board,” I know I would be bereft without the freedom but also the challenges this platform offers me as a writer and thinker.

OxfordIn 2013 I wrote two more essays on George Eliot for Open Letters. I consider all of these essays part of a larger work in progress, the exact form and character of which I am still trying to figure out. In February I wrote about the ending of The Mill on the Floss, which I framed with some ideas about the concept of ‘spoilers’ but intended primarily as an investigation into how Eliot uses the trap and shock of the novel’s conclusion to provoke us into demanding alternatives. In March, I worked through some ideas about the beautiful but ruthless morality of Middlemarch; the thoughtful comments I received helped me see ways in which my argument is, not wrong, but incomplete. One thing’s clear to me when I think about a more sustained project on Eliot: these are the issues I want most to keep writing about. I wrote one more Victorian essay for Open Letters this year, a fun ‘Second Glance’ feature on Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone.

I reviewed four books for Open Letters this year (that’s a long way from Steve’s nearly 200, but for me it’s not a bad total). In some ways the time spent on these reviews — or on three of the four — was time I ended up regretting a bit, as I’m not sure the books themselves were worth the effort. That said, generally you can’t be sure what a book is worth until after you read it carefully and think about it for a while — and write about it, too, which is always a learning experience. And if I’m going to review a book, I want to bring my best attention to bear on it, even if there’s a risk it will not hold up. This was true only of the most recent one, I think, which was Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy, which I reviewed for our December issue. It really isn’t a very good book even of its kind. But writing about it did give me another opportunity to air my grievance against the tediously persistent idea that incompetence is charming while brains are, well, not. (How pleased I was to find Rebecca West making the same complaint: “can anybody who cannot grasp that the angles at the base of an isosceles triangle are equal have charm?”) The other two novels I reviewed, Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, were at least intelligent and ambitious books, and thus it was more interesting to grapple with just why I nonetheless found them unsatisfactory. I’m particularly proud of my review of Life After Life, which I think is both intellectually scrupulous and rhetorically ingenious. The other book I reviewed for Open Letters this year was Deirdre David’s biography of Olivia Manning. I have no regrets about the time spent on this book, which is smart, interesting, and thought-provoking — like Manning herself.

straightOutside of Open Letters, I successfully pitched another piece to the Los Angeles Review of Books, this time on the racing thrillers of Dick Francis (in previous years I have written for them on Sjowall and Wahloo’s ‘Story of Crime’ and on Silas Marner). I had a great time rereading the novels and thinking about how to place them in the context of debates about and revisions of gender roles in crime fiction. What should I pitch to them next summer, do you think? How about a similar Big Gulp piece on Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series?

Of course, the bulk of my writing has been here at Novel Readings. I have been feeling as if I was in a blogging slump this year, but looking back through my archives I don’t see much evidence for that, which is reassuring. Since I’m going to write another post on my year in reading, I’ll pick out here a few pieces that aren’t book reviews.

I wrote several more posts on blogging. My post on blogging and ‘intellectual curiosity’ led to some confessions about the limits of my own curiosity. l also considered how I would answer the question “should graduate students blog?” and I wrote yet another polemic on the place of blogging in criticism and scholarship (“Blogging: Accept No Substitute!“), which was rerun in a slightly abbreviated form at the LSE’s Impact blog. Also in a polemical spirit I responded to William Giraldi’s gratuitous grumblings about internet criticism: “Forget that blog is just one letter away from bog, or that the passel of burgeoning “literary” websites is largely a harvest of inanity with only the most tenuous hold on actual literature.”

As usual, I also did a lot of thinking out loud about my teaching: this year’s highlights include posts on teaching feminism, on ‘coercive pedagogy,’ on the difference between information and education, and on the challenge of emphasizing processes over products.

Finally, I wrote a lot on Twitter this year. 140 characters isn’t much at one time, but they add up. It’s a very different kind of writing than a blog, an essay, or a review, but the conversations Twitter enables and the communities it supports have become essential parts of my intellectual and social life.

Novel Readings 2012

2012 seems to have been a particularly rich and rewarding reading year – also, a particularly maddening and occasionally stultifying one. I suppose what I’m saying is that it was a reading year like any other one! As always, some books stand out, though sometimes as much for the challenge and gratification I found in writing about them, or for the conversations that my posts generated, as for the reading experience in itself. As is traditional, here’s a look back at the highlights.

peacockBook of the Year:

Molly Peacock, The Paper Garden. This book drew me to it by its physical beauty and turned out to be the right book for me at the right moment. This is the kind of serendipitous discovery that seems unlikely to happen except in a real (and well-curated) bookstore: for reasons I explain in my original post, it’s unlikely I would have deliberately sought out a book like this. I’m so glad I succumbed to its charms. My review is one of my favorite pieces of my own writing from 2012.

Other books I’m particularly glad I read or wrote about:

Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies. Well, of course. But then, it’s no small feat to follow up the brilliant Wolf Hall with something equally brilliant. I did think, as I read it, that it would have been just a teensy bit more exciting if Mantel–who is a prose virtuoso–had decided to approach each novel in her Cromwell trilogy in a different way, a different voice. But the close third-person narration is just as compelling and even more morally complex here than in the first volume, and my expectations are now sky-high for the concluding one.

T. H. White, The Once and Future King. Another surprise: I don’t “do” fantasy any more than I “do” the 18th century, and yet from the first page I loved this novel. I can’t think of another novel I’ve read recently–not just in 2012 but in several years–that had this much emotional range. For once, the adjective “Dickensian” doesn’t seem out of place, as this really is fiction written to change how you think as well as to make you laugh and cry.

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary. Along with St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels, Madame Bovary was the most thought-provoking read of 2012 for me as a critic, because it was the least congenial for me as a reader. Even while I couldn’t deny its mastery, I couldn’t help but decry its grim and limited worldview. Yes, we can all sometimes be Emma Bovary, but most of us will surely never be exclusively so self-absorbed or self-deceived. If we are, shame on us, and we need books that help us out of that moral rut even more.

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina. I’ve only just finished Anna Karenina so I’m still thinking about it. I wasn’t swept up in it, but then, limited as my experience with Tolstoy is, I guess that shouldn’t have surprised me: there’s a quality of ruthlessness in his fiction that I’d noticed before.

Edward St. Aubyn, The Patrick Melrose Novels. I abhorred and admired these novels in about equal measure. Actually, I think by the end of At Last admiration had won out, but it was a close thing.

Helen DeWitt, Lightning Rods. Another surprise. I don’t think any author except DeWitt could have pulled this off in a way I would, if not exactly enjoy, at least applaud.

Susan Messer, Grand River and Joy. I was completely absorbed by this novel set in Detroit around the time of the 1967 riot and focusing on tensions “between blacks and Jews but [also] between individual identities and group allegiances, between narrowly-defined protective self-interest and the desire to reach out and make connections.”

J. G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur. I liked this as much as I liked the first in the trilogy, Troubles. If you want to read something truly substantial about Farrell, skip my post and read Dorian Stuber’s essay on him in Open Letters.

Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front. The ultimate novel of the ‘lost generation’: “We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial–I believe we are lost.”

Books I didn’t much like:

Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea. Meh.

Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier. Hey, it’s my blog, isn’t it?

Low point of my reading year:

George Sand, Indiana. Don’t worry, George: it’s not you, it’s me! Or maybe not.

Books I’m especially looking forward to reading in 2013:

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All the ones in my Christmas loot pile, of course. But also:

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. It has been fabulous so far, and my only (lame) excuses for not having persisted are not having committed deliberately enough (I proved to myself with Anna Karenina this month that being busy with other things is no reason not to get through a doorstopper) and its weight: there’s no way you can tuck this volume in your purse for reading at odd moments.

The Singapore Grip. One more in Farrell’s Empire Trilogy, and I’m sure it will be as strange and brilliant and darkly comic as the others.

The rest of the Raj Quartet. I found The Jewel in the Crown engrossing and complex and am keen to make my way through the next volumes.

War and Peace. This has featured in this “to read” list for several years now; maybe 2013 is the year I’ll finally get it done.

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts. This is another book I picked up on my spring trip to Boston and one of the few from that expedition that I haven’t read yet. Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose is another, and that’s high on my TBR pile too.

Up next, though, will be Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which is the January book for my local book club, and then Doctor Glas, which is the next read for the Slaves of Golconda.

Notable Posts of 2012:

Finally, it seems worth noting a couple of posts that weren’t exactly reviews but that generated more excitement than is usual in this quiet corner of the internet:

Your book club wants to read Middlemarch? Great idea! I have not forgotten or abandoned the idea of creating the “Middlemarch for Book Club” site I proclaimed so boldly here. In fact, it already exists in skeletal form. I wanted to do it well, though, and thus took my time over it at first, and then I put it on the back burner and then it was the new term. One of my resolutions for 2013 is to build more of it and then start making it available in a ‘beta’ version. It’s not going to be anything too fancy: I’m just using WordPress to set it up. But if people seem to like it and find it valuable, it’s the kind of thing I might eventually seek out some funding for and try to make really good.

How to Read a Victorian Novel. I put this together as part of Molly Templeton’s call for responses to the NYTBR “How-To” issue that seemed to think women didn’t know how to do much of interest beyond cook and raise children. How does that even happen, in 2012? Where are the editors? What are they thinking, when they see a cover graphic like that? Anyway, the resulting tumblr turned into something quite amazing, and it was really energizing to be a part of it. Thanks to a couple of high-profile links to it, this is my most-read post of all time.

Thanks to everyone who read and commented on Novel Readings in 2012. Happy New Year!

2012: My Year in Writing

cassatI began my annual look back at 2012 with my small contribution to the Open Letters year-end feature. I’ll follow up soon with my regular survey of highs and lows from my reading and blogging year. But this year I thought I’d also take a moment to review the writing I’ve done this year for venues besides Novel Readings.

Most of it was for Open Letters Monthly, of course, and I continue to be grateful for the opportunity to write about whatever interests me, as well as for the challenges to write about things I might not otherwise tackle. Also, as I always tell new or prospective contributors, the editing process at OLM is one to cherish: we bring different interests and sensibilities and styles to bear on every piece, but always in the interests of making it the strongest version of itself that we can collectively manage, and I know that my pieces always end up better than they began.

My first OLM piece in 2012 was “The Quiet One: Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.” I think this is a wonderful novel – more artful, in many ways, than Jane Eyre, if without its visceral appeal. I teach it regularly and the more time I spend on it, the more I admire the unity and integrity of Anne Brontë’s accomplishment. It was a treat to write this up: it’s basically a much-elaborated version of the notes I use for lecture and class discussion.

The scariest piece I wrote in 2012 was “Abandonment, Richness, Surprise: The Criticism of Virginia Woolf,” which was my contribution to our special 5th anniversary issue. I was not initially enthusiastic about doing an entire issue on criticism, and I wasn’t at all sure I had what it took to say anything at all about Woolf as an essayist. On the first count, I was completely converted as the pieces came in. Sam Sacks on Frank Kermode, Greg Waldmann on Edmund Wilson, Steve Donoghue on Elizabeth Hardwick, John Cotter on Gore Vidal … the project brought out the best in our writers as they spoke from the heart about the people who showed them what criticism could be. As for my own piece, the faint edge of desperation I brought to the task unexpectedly gave me courage to get more outside my own head than I’m usually able to do and to write with a freedom I rarely feel. This is the 2012 publication I’m most proud of, precisely because it’s a bit riskier in voice and approach than any of the others.

The most fun piece to write, on the other hand, was definitely “All the World to Nothing: Richard III, Gender, and Genre.” As I confess in the essay, I’ve been a “Ricardian” for many years but I hadn’t found a place for that somewhat esoteric interest in my working or writing life before. Yet as I thought about the elements I wanted to include in the essay, I realized that a lot of the work I’ve done as an academic has grown out of my early passion for historical fiction, while a lot of my conceptual thinking about gender and historiography finds apt illustration in the tale of the last Yorkist king and his mostly female advocates. I have a feeling that not a lot of readers followed me down the slightly wandering path I took, but I hope those who did shared in my last gleeful “ha!” They will also understand the great excitement I have felt as this news story unfolds.

I wrote two essays on George Eliot this year, stages in a still somewhat indefinite longer project about her thought and her novels and what they might mean for us today. In the first of them, “Macaroni and Cheese: the Failure of George Eliot’s Romola”, I bypassed the essay I initially thought of writing, in which I made a case (as I did a couple of years ago for Felix Holt, the Radical) that the novel is better than is usually thought, and chose instead to think about the ways in which the novel is every bit as bad as it seems. I know that fear of failure holds me back: I find George Eliot’s failures inspiring because they teach me about reach and ambition and intellectual courage. That said, Romola actually is a fascinating and occasionally thrilling novel, so if you’ve already made your way through the others, don’t be put off by all this talk of failure!

Also for Open Letters, I reviewed The Life of George Eliot, by Nancy Henry (in our ‘annex,’ Open Letters Weekly) and Lynn Sharon Schwartz’s newest novel  Two-Part Inventions. Henry’s biography is smart, thorough, and yet somehow not as exhilarating as a life of George Eliot deserves to be, perhaps because it is that odd hybrid, a ‘critical biography.’ Still, it’s miles and miles better than Brenda Maddox’s abysmal George Eliot in Love. Schwartz is the author of two novels I admire enormously–Disturbances in the Field and Leaving Brooklyn–but I wasn’t inspired by Two-Part Inventions mostly because it seemed to me that Schwartz wasn’t either.

The second of my George Eliot essays this year, “‘Look No More Backward’: George Eliot’s Silas Marner and Atheism,” appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books (and then, rather to my surprise, in Salon). As the essay was in progress, I had second thoughts about the ‘New Atheist’ hook I’d proposed for it when I pitched it, but that is how I’d pitched it and (understandably) that’s what they wanted me to stick with, so I did. It’s not that I don’t believe what I said, but as I’d feared, that set-up was a distraction for some readers, who seem (at least from the posted comments) not to have persisted as far as my reading of Silas Marner. I have argued before that we could do worse than look to George Eliot for ideas about how to be both godless and good and this was a good experiment in making that argument in more detail and taking it to a wider public, while still doing the kind of close reading that I hope might be seen as my trademark when (if) people think of me as a critic. I have yet to muster enough courage to write a sustained essay on Middlemarch, but when I do, it may well build on this foundation.

Finally, I published one essay in a conventional academic journal this year, though somewhat ironically (given that my non-academic publishing was almost all in my supposed areas of specialization) it’s about blogging: “Scholarship 2.0: Blogging and/as Academic Practice” appeared in the Journal of Victorian Culture. This paper grew out of the conference presentation I gave at the British Association of Victorian Studies conference last summer. It was supposed to be made open access but there seems to be a hitch with the publishers: anyone denied access who wants a copy can just let me know.

So: that’s six essays and two book reviews in 2012, which is not bad for someone who has been told her ‘publication record is spotty‘! And that’s not taking into account any of my writing here on the blog, much less any of the writing I do as a matter of course for work, from lecture notes to handouts to evaluations to memos to letters. Of course, none of the writing in those last five categories really feels like writing, though it’s easy to underestimate how much creativity and ingenuity it calls for. There were some definite highlights in my blogging year, and I’ll be looking back at those in my next post. I love the complete freedom of blogging–freedom from deadlines and other external requirements, and freedom to say what’s on my mind without second-guessing myself too much. However, one of my goals for 2013 is to keep up a good pace of essays and reviews outside Novel Readings, because I still find writing for other people intimidating (and yes, I know, other people read my blog, but it feels very much like my space, so it’s just different, however irrationally). In addition to writing for Open Letters, I might have another go at pitching a piece somewhere else, just to keep pushing my boundaries. But what, and where? (Ideas welcome….) I find I’m still quite clueless about this process, and I hardly know if I’m more nervous about a pitch being turned down or accepted, but that’s just the kind of anxiety I need to get past. Maybe 2013 will be the year I figure out how to just write, without so much agonizing. On the other hand, isn’t agonizing part of what defines writing?

Novel Readings 2011

It’s time again for my ritual look back and the highs and lows of my reading year. Because I was on sabbatical for the few half of 2011, I got quite a lot of reading done–or so it seems, anyway. Since I don’t keep statistics, I can’t be sure if the quantity of books was particularly high in 2011. But the range of my reading was greater because of the greater freedom. Some of the reading I undertook solely out of personal interest turned out to be fruitful in unanticipated ways–indeed, so much so that the next time a colleague asks when I find time to “do all that reading,” I just might answer “my reading is my research.”

Book of the Year:

This one’s a tie, this year, between Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai and Vera Brittain’s  Testament of Youth (on which I wrote three different posts). It’s hard to imagine two more different books! But both are outstanding and profoundly affected me. DeWitt noted recently on her blog that The Last Samurai ” is, for the time being, well and truly out of print”–I thought so, as after I finally read my copy and was overwhelmed by its combination of heart and intellectual pyrotechnics I thought I might give some copies as gifts this season and could not find any new copies around. (She recommends buying a used copy and sending a donation via PayPal: if you don’t yet own The Last Samurai and would like a mind-bending read, do as she says!) The impact Brittain’s work has had on me is extensive, as blog readers will know. In addition to the further reading I’ve been doing about Brittain, Holtby, and their contemporaries, I’ve proposed a new seminar (to be offered in the fall!) on the ‘Somerville Novelists.’ Expect significant rereading, and also some energetic research, over the next several months.

Other Books I’m Particularly Glad I Read:

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, The Story of Crime. I am so glad I finally took the advice I had received a few times over the past couple of years and looked up this fabulous series of police procedurals. They greatly expanded my understanding and appreciation of crime fiction in general and Scandinavian crime fiction more particularly, and they are also just really great reads.

Shirley Hazzard, The Transit of Venus. This was one of the Slaves of Golconda choices for this year. It’s a dense, intense, moving novel that interested me while I was reading it but got more and more interesting as I thought about it afterwards. It’s a novel I am tempted to assign one day, in part for an excuse to work through it really carefully (including noticing the various subtle clues about its plot and conclusion that I didn’t properly process on my first reading).

Brian Moore, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. This very depressing book was one of the choices of my local book group. Absorbing and moving as it was, I admit I’m glad that after it, we broke the trend of depressing novels about drink and religion.

Elizabeth Bowen, The Heat of the Day and The Last September. The Heat of the Day was another book group selection. It was not particularly successful in that context, but I found it a difficult but mesmerizing read and was prompted to explore Bowen further. I thought The Last September was marvellous, and I’ve got The Death of the Heart in my TBR pile for 2012.

Vera Brittain, Testament of Friendship. I would have found this book compelling even if it weren’t part of my developing interest in these particular women, just for its attention to women’s friendships.

Robert Graves, I, Claudius. This was a tough one. I didn’t love reading it, exactly, and I would have found it even harder if I hadn’t cheated a little by watching the astonishing BBC adaptation first–but how else was I expected to remember who everybody was? But it’s a brilliant book.

J. G. Farrell, Troubles. This one I just thoroughly enjoyed. It’s smart, dark, devious, and intermittently hilarious. It too has added to my 2012 TBR list, as having been introduced to the peculiar genius of J. G. Farrell, now I have to read the other volumes in his Empire Trilogy.

Jennifer Crusie, Anyone But You. It’s not this book in particular that matters so much as its role in overcoming my prejudice against romance fiction. I still feel sheepish browsing the romance section at the library (the covers! must they be so tawdry? and must the books have the tacky heart stickers on them?), but opening myself up to the possibility that I might enjoy books in this genre has paid off as I’ve discovered some others I like even better.

Books I Didn’t Much Like:

Henning Mankell, Faceless Killers. This one could actually go in the “glad I read” list, on the grounds that although I really didn’t like it at all, it was part of the learning curve I was going through about Scandinavian crime fiction, and it was the comment thread on this post that reminded me I should finally try Sjöwall and Wahlöö.

Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children. Couldn’t finish it–one of only two deliberately abandoned books this year (the other was Molly Gloss’s Wild Life). But I’m keeping it (them, in fact). Books have their moments, and enough smart people (including Elizabeth Hardwick) think well enough of The Man Who Loved Children that I expect I’ll try again some other time.

Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad. Meh.

Terry Castle, The Professor. Nasty. Self-involved. Funny. An uncomfortable combination.

Colm Toibin, Brooklyn. I understand the suggestion that the narrative mimics Eilis’s own suppressed personality. It’s risky to be flat on purpose: something else needs to leak through, or else you’re just, well, flat. That’s how Brooklyn seemed to me. I have The Master, though, and look forward to reading it. If it’s style is different enough, I’ll believe the “he’s being flat on purpose” argument, though I can’t promise that it will make me like Brooklyn any better.

Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot. I already wrote 5000 words on this novel–I think that’s enough!

The Low Point:

Paula McLain, The Paris Wife.

My Year in Writing:

I wrote four pieces for Open Letters Monthly in 2011–well, five, if you count the one that won’t appear until January 1, which I just finished revising this morning. Of these, the essay on Ahdaf Soueif means the most to me, because I seized what felt to me like an important opportunity to consider Soueif’s fiction in relation to the ongoing Egyptian revolution. But I was also pleased with the review of Sara Paretsky’s Body Work, because it gave me a chance to articulate what I’ve learned from teaching about her work in my mystery classes. The other two–reviews of Marjorie Garber’s The Use and Abuse of Literature and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot–proved very difficult to write, but in the end I was glad I had thought through why both books left me so dissatisfied. I had the most fun with the new piece, probably because it brought me back to Victorian fiction (still, in spite of everything, my home turf!).

I wrote some other blog posts in 2011 that particularly stand out for me as I review my archives:

‘Baking Has Taken On a Sinister Character’: My Grandmother the Writer: This one’s a personal favorite. My grandmother was very dear to me as well as very influential, and there are many things about her and her life that I appreciate more (or at least differently) as I age.

Not Quite Cricket: Dorothy Sayers’s Murder Must Advertise: This post was such a lot of fun to write! I had been wanting to revisit Murder Must Advertise ever since a colleague got my goat by not taking it seriously at all qua novel, as if Sayers, as a “genre” writer, couldn’t possibly be doing anything interesting. (The trend continues.) As I wrote (and wrote and wrote), I found plenty interesting going on–and Murder Must Advertise isn’t even Sayers’s best novel.

SATC2: Just because it’s not a good movie doesn’t mean the appropriate response is to make fun of it, or of the women who went to see it.

Reality Check: My ‘Spotty’ Publication Record: Yes, I was venting, but in the process I think I had some important things to say about the ways standard methods of evaluating academic scholarship box us in.

Cassuto on Blog: ‘I have nothing against them, but I don’t read them either’ (and the follow-up): As I spent a lot of time in the spring and summer preparing a presentation on academic blogging, I had a lot to say about the dismissive attitude towards blogs as a form that doesn’t seem to have improved much in the past 5 years. At the very least, I think people who don’t read blogs should not pronounce on them, any more than people who have never logged on to Twitter and tried following some people who share their interests should pronounce on Twitter.

Books I’m Most Looking Forward to Reading in 2012:

Reviewing my list of books I looked forward to reading in 2011, I’m glad to report that I did in fact read a lot of them! The Last Samurai, for example, was on that list, as was The Power and the Glory, Kristin Lavransdatter, unspecified Virago classics (I read a number of them), and Brooklyn. There are some carry-forwards from that list: War and Peace and Madame Bovary, and the rest of Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf, for sure. As always, I have stacks of books around that all look enticing, but I can point to a few that I am particularly keen to get to sooner rather than later:

Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That

Paul Scott, The Raj Quartet

 Angela Thirkell, Wild Strawberries

J. G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur and The Singapore Grip

Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart

The Iliad

Naguib Mahfouz, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street

Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower

Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier, The Fountain Overflows, and Black Lamb, Grey Falcon

Judith Flanders, The Invention of Murder

Ahdaf Soueif, Cairo: My City, Our Revolution (forthcoming)

First up, though (besides the books for my classes, which start up again all too soon) will be Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, this too for my book group.

Once again I’d like to thank everyone who reads and comments here at Novel Readings. A special thanks to all of you who keep up your own engaging, diverse, and endlessly stimulating book blogs: I feel very fortunate in the community of readers and writers I have found online. Best wishes for 2012!