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.

Runners-Up:

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.

Mysteries

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.

Romances

juliejamesAlthough I didn’t usually blog about them, I read — or at least started — quite a lot of romance novels this year. (As I have mentioned before, I tend to feel less committed to finishing these if I don’t like them right away, partly because I get most of them from the library, but also because I don’t have high expectations that persistence will pay off, as romances tend to be more consistent than transformative — which is a good thing if you like what you’re getting, of course). Among them, only new one really stood out, and that was Julie James’s Suddenly One Summer. I have quite enjoyed most of James’s other novels, particularly Practice Makes Perfect (which would make an excellent Hollywood rom-com, if anyone’s interested in doing the screenplay): her characters are smart, her dialogue is snappy, and things get pretty sexy with her heroes and heroines (who are always, annoyingly, extraordinarily good-looking). I’ve heard her books described as “brittle,” though, and I can see why; also, some of them tend towards “romantic suspense,” and I don’t particularly love “woman in jeopardy” plots. I liked Suddenly One Summer a lot, though. It’s quieter than her other ones, and rather than turning on fast plotting and sparks flying, it is about two people patiently building trust and finding love. The heroine is a divorce lawyer who suffers from debilitating anxiety attacks; she is always at work splitting families up, but bringing a family together for once helps her find new courage herself. For me, this one’s a keeper!

Memorable non-fiction

mwordTwo works of non-fiction that I read this year resonated powerfully with me for personal reasons: Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal (which is the present we should all probably have given someone we love this Christmas, but also probably shouldn’t, because it’s not very comfortable reading) and Emily White’s LonelySomewhat less anxiety-inducing, often sad, sometimes funny, and always thought-provoking was Kerry Clare’s wonderful collection The ‘M’ Word, which explores many facets of motherhood, most of them quite unlike the more sentimental cliches our culture surrounds us with.

Unfinished business

I’m still working my way through The Portrait of a Lady, which is not a book I can concentrate on easily with the hum of family activity in the background. The two posts I’ve written on it so far do show that I’m making progress, though, not just on moving through the pages but on coming to terms with James’s style, which initially irritated me but now (mostly) just interests me.

The inevitable meta-blogging

My interest in blogging about blogging has gone down over time, but I did pause to reflect on how things were looking for “intelligent bloggy bookchat by scholars,” as John Holbo once optimistically championed, and then to add some afterthoughts based on my own further reflections and the responses I got.

Blogging my teaching

I kept up my series ‘This Week In My Classes,” which now (after so many years in which I often teach the same classes, albeit in different variations) has become less a chronicle of what we read or talked about and more an occasion to reflect on broader issues about pedagogy, such as what it’s like to be a beginner or how, as teachers, we can learn to let go. I still find this exercise useful, and I’m always gratified when other people tell me that they appreciate it too. I’m reasonably certain that there is no one right way to do any of the things that professors do in or out of the classroom: this is at once the best and the worst thing about this part of our job! It’s impossible to be complacent: we can only get more confident about trying things and seeing how they go, knowing that we can always tweak them next time.

Appearing elsewhere

godinruinsMost of my published writing appeared, as usual, here and at Open Letters Monthly — where, in addition to the pieces already mentioned, I reviewed Kate Atkinson’s very good but also very annoying A God in Ruins, Diana Souhami’s 100% annoying Gwendolen, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s initially empowering but ultimately (you guessed it) profoundly annoying Big Magic. But an essay I wrote on faith and fellowship in Middlemarch appeared in Berfrois, and my review of Samantha Walton’s Guilty But Insane appeared in the TLS: these are both publications I was very happy about.

Books I’m especially looking forward to reading in 2016

So many! But near the top of the pile is Emma (not just because everyone’s reading it for its 200th birthday, but partly because all the interesting things they are saying about it are inspiring), along with Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. My Christmas books include Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work, Jane Smiley’s Some Luck, and Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, all very tempting. I’ve got Alaa Al Aswany’s The Automobile Club of Egypt waiting as well, and somehow I’m certain more titles will accumulate as the year goes on.

Thank you to everyone who read and commented at Novel Readings this year!

Novel Readings 2014

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

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:

2014XmasBooks

 

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:

IMG_1442

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!