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!

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!

 

Novel Readings 2010

My turn! Here’s my traditional look back at the highs and lows of my reading and blogging year.

Book of the Year:

Hands down, and entirely to my delighted surprise, since I had no particular expectations going into it, my favourite book of the year was Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. I raved about this book in my original post, and I’d like to emphatically repeat what I said there:

If you ever read a book, or were a child, or read a book to a child–if your childhood was shaped in any way by the books you read–then you should buy this book and read it immediately.

I don’t usually do this, but I feel strongly enough to provide a link straight to Amazon so you don’t waste any time getting your own copy. Mine was a gift, and for that, many, many thanks to the amazing Steve Donoghue of stevereads, book-giver extraordinaire.

More books I’m particularly glad I read:

After featuring it three times running on my ‘most looking forward to’ list and making at least one false start, I did finally read Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (it took two posts to cover it, here and here). I enjoyed it thoroughly, proving my long-held theory that sometimes books simply have to ripen a while on the shelf before the reading experience can be perfectly tasty. “Would I read A Suitable Girl?” I asked, rhetorically, I thought; “You bet I would.” Imagine my pleasure in learning that just such a book is forthcoming!

Lynne Sharon Schwartz’sLeaving Brooklyn proved every bit as rich and satisfying a read as my long-time favourite Disturbances in the Field, though in quite a different style and register. It’s a coming-of-age story, “an intensely personal but also profoundly commonplace experience, movingly represented in a book by a woman, about a woman, that [I concluded my original review] I think deserves to be called ‘important.'” It would have been my ‘book of the year’ if it hadn’t been edged out by Dear Genius–but that’s OK, because Dear Genius is a book that advocates for all other books!

Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety took longer to grip me than Wolf Hall, but once I was well into it, it really wouldn’t let me go, even though there was absolutely nobody in it to like or even (except sort of theoretically) to root for. A bit like A. S. Byatt, Mantel is resolutely severe, not only towards her characters, but also towards her readers, giving them little comfort or even encouragement as they press on:

if, as I recently suggested, reading Ian McEwan’s prose is like getting acupuncture to your brain, I found reading A Place of Greater Safety akin to walking barefoot across a stretch of gravel towards a graveyard: you aren’t particularly enjoying the experience, but it has its own vividness and particularity, and there’s a morbid fascination in the direction you know you’re headed.

Even at the end–the guillotine for pretty much everyone, as we know it will inevitably be–she avoids what I called “tumbril sentimentality” of the Tale of Two Cities variety (I can’t imagine Oprah ever assigning this novel to her followers). Impressed as I was by Wolf Hall, I read several other novels from Mantel’s back catalogue this year and was repeatedly startled by her range of styles and interests (not one, not even A Place of Greater Safety, really fits the marketing tag ‘by the author of Wolf Hall‘ as they are all simply too dissimilar). The other that resonated most deeply with me was The Giant, O’Brien. Fludd was under the tree for me this year, so there will be at least one more Mantel novel in 2011.

Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop. I found this “a gem of a book: spare but revealing, quirky but unsentimental” (hmm, I’m noticing a trend away from sentimentality this year–even A Suitable Boy, though full of sentiment, does not ultimately cater to our more wistful or wishful emotions).  I’m glad finally to have begun my relationship with Fitzgerald; I’ve been meaning to read The Blue Flower for years and I look forward to doing so in 2011.

Elizabeth Hardwick, A View of My Own. When I grow up, I want to be Elizabeth Hardwick. Well, OK, not exactly, but I envy her the force and confidence of her critical voice. Even when I disagree with her, I really want to talk to her about what she says. I was particularly interested in her essay “George Eliot’s Husband,” which sets a high standard for biographical thinking not met at all by a particular more recent attempt to write about my favourite novelist–Hardwick says more worthwhile things in a few pages than that author comes up with in a couple hundred.

A. S. Byatt, The Children’s Book. Another tough-minded, unsentimental novel, as expansive in its own way as A Suitable Boy or A Place of Greater Safety. I called it “history as information management,” and I meant that as a tribute of a sort. Byatt is an accomplished novelist; while Seth’s abundance (though I loved it) occasionally seemed cluttered, Byatt’s somehow has a tautness to it. If Mantel writes historical fiction that defies conventional expectations of the genre, Byatt does the same with the ‘sweeping family saga.’

Laila Lalami, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. I called this “a quietly harrowing account of hopes turned back and diminished,” and concluded that “hope is a dangerous pursuit, not just because of the risks of the pursuit itself, but because sometimes the chance you take brings you only further away from what you really wanted.”

Morley Callaghan, Such is My Beloved. This book, a classic of Canadian modernism, took me out of my comfort zone as a reader; talking about it with the new book group I belong to took me out of my comfort zone in other ways–but salutary ones! I ended up finding some kinship between Father Dowling and a couple of Victorian protagonists who founder, similarly, on the mismatch between their most strongly felt principles and the pragmatic realities of their world. But Callaghan’s setting, contexts, and language are not Victorian at all.

May Sarton, The Small Room. In the end I didn’t love this novel, but it interested me enormously, as did the conversation it generated on (and around) the Slaves of Golconda reading group. Its central themes certainly struck a chord with my ongoing anxieties about my professional work and the public discourse around higher education:

So much about the discourse of education today seems to disregard the value of that connection to the whole person–it’s all about outcomes and measures and productivity and, of course, jobs after graduation. Is that really what we want? We as teachers? or as parents? as students? If Lucy’s view seems dangerously personal, the current obsession with students as consumers seems dangerously limited and limiting. If we can’t ever hope to teach students as people, or to be people ourselves when we teach, who will ever, in the end, actually learn anything worth knowing?

Daphne du Maurier, Frenchman’s Creek. Dare I say that they don’t write pulp fiction like they used to? Purple prose, absolutely, but as I said in my original post, it’s ‘royal purple, richest velvet.’ I haven’t worked my way through the rest of the du Maurier collection on my shelf, but what’s a sabbatical for, if not to catch up on books you otherwise have no excuse at all for reading?

Books that disappointed, for one reason or another:

Happily, once again there weren’t very many of these. Leading the pack is certainly Brenda Maddox’s George Eliot in Love, which I reviewed for Open Letters Monthly. Here’s the money quote:

I wasn’t just disappointed in George Eliot in Love—by the time I finished it I was equal parts astonished and enraged. The book is not just George Eliot ‘lite’–it is superficial, prurient, and at times simply offensive. Maddox comes across as naively underqualified for her task: her good intentions are as painfully evident as the bad judgment and limited expertise she displays throughout. Focusing persistently on the pettiest details of Eliot’s biography, Maddox strips her of both dignity and intellectual substance and leaves us with an impoverished version that belies Elizabeth Hardwick’s confidence (expressed in her marvelous essay “George Eliot’s Husband”) that it was impossible to make this accomplished woman “look foolish and small.”

I was pleased (though hardly surprised!) that George Eliot in Love also won a spot in the ‘Worst Nonfiction, 2010‘ smackdown at stevereads: “Maddox should chronicle Paris Hilton next and leave the deep end of the pool to the grown-ups.” Ha! Between us we perhaps give the lie to the old saw about the only thing worse than not being talked about.

I was underwhelmed by Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas:

I really wish that, having grabbed people’s attention, Menand would have seized the opportunity, not to lob another petty grenade at his struggling colleagues but to insist that we not concede too much to either the rhetoric or the pressures of the marketplace. Surely an English professor who is also a public intellectual is uniquely positioned to make the case for, not against, the rest of us.

For quite different reasons, Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures was also distinctly unremarkable: “The subject of the book is intrinsically interesting, but if a novelist can’t do any better than this, we might as well read non-fiction, or, better yet, poetry”–the salient example of the latter being, of course, In Memoriam A.H.H.

I think my expectations were just too high for David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. I really enjoyed reading some parts of it, but I don’t ordinarily seek out work in some of the genres he plays with (notably, science ficton) and I was frustrated by the way so many different kinds of storytelling were shoehorned into one book–even though Mitchell is dazzlingly smart (too conspicuously so, I sometimes thought) about the unifying threads. My conclusion after reading it was “after a while I found I was more aware of  his virtuosity and the ingenuity of the nesting narratives than I was actually engaged in them.”

The best of the not-entirely-satisfying collection is Ian McEwan’s Solar. I’d rather read an imperfect novel by Ian McEwan than any novel by probably the majority of other contemporary writers. I actually couldn’t quite decide which category to put Solar in, it’s so nearly excellent–but in the end, I decided McEwan set too high a standard for himself with Atonement and (for me, at least) Saturday, so for failing to live up to it, here he is down here.  A bit of my original post:

Of course it is not a universal prescription for excellence that a novel satisfy both heart and head, but that’s what I want, that’s what I think takes a novel from good to great, and Solar seems quite content to leave my heart untouched. I think this is a missed opportunity for a novelist with McEwan’s gifts. Why not set against the shabby opportunism of the protagonist (who is both brilliantly drawn and wholly unsympathetic) either some idealism not undermined by the general attitude of cynicism that permeates the novel–even if only to show it up as ineffectual against the absurd realities of political and scientific institutions–or some unembodied but evocative commitment to the beauties of the planet Michael Beard only pretends to cherish? Bleak House is an unforgettable critique of the stupidities of a system that serves, at most, only those who constitute it, because we see beyond it, unrealized, an idea of human flourishing, of love and justice, worth yearning for. Thus we find the yammering of innumerable lawyers both comic and tragic. Where is Miss Flite, or Lady Dedlock, never mind Jo the crossing sweeper, in McEwan’s universe?

Books I’m most looking forward to reading in 2011:

There are too many to enumerate, really, including all the treasures delivered for Christmas from my lovely family, but here are a few titles, if only to motivate me as the new year gets underway.

  1. Tolstoy, War and Peace. This is the new Suitable Boy: it will be on this TBR list until I get it read! Surely being on sabbatical, if only for half  the year, will remove most of the standard excuses.
  2. Flaubert, Madame Bovary. Yes, the new Lydia Davis translation. I’ve begun this, but it got pushed aside during the Great Cough and Cold of late 2010.
  3. Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children. I’ve been curious about this since reading about it in Hardwick’s A View of My Own.
  4. Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter. This one is another object lesson in why you should never “purge” your book collection, no matter how often you move or how many times someone close to you mutters baleful warnings about running out of space. I owned this trilogy as a girl, never got around to reading it, purged it, and now–older and wiser–rejoice to have found a nice Penguin edition in a local bookstore.
  5. A delicious stack of old Virago Modern Classics, including novels by Margaret Kennedy, Antonia White, Rebecca West, and many others.
  6. Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games. I’ve owned this for a couple of years without reading it–I think its time has come.
  7. Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai. The discussion at Conversational Reading piqued my interest about this novel, which I’ve owned for many years without reading (note again the value of the ‘ripening on the shelf’ theory to justify these habits!).
  8. Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory. This is the next book up for the book group that read Such is My Beloved. I read it many years ago but Greene is an author I haven’t done anything with since turning ‘pro,’ and I’m finally, belatedly, interested.
  9. Colm Toibin, The Master and Brooklyn.
  10. Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf. I’ve made some progress on this one, helped by an excursion into Woolf’s letters and diaries. I’d like to finish it in 2011!

I observe that not one of these is a work of literary history or criticism! There’s some chance that being on sabbatical will also give me a chance to recover some energy for that kind of reading! Certainly I will be doing some of it, as I am working (still!) on at least one academic paper which I hope to get into publishable form by the end of my leave.

Other Novel Readings highlights:

In 2008 I noted the invitation to contribute to The Valve as an important development in my blogging life. 2010 saw my farewell to The Valve, following on a resolution to “Get On With It!“–whatever, exactly, “it” is. The biggest development in 2010, congruent with this shift in emphasis, was the invitation from the fine folks at Open Letters Monthly, first to move Novel Readings to its new home, and then to join their editorial team. Both steps have been good ones for me, helping to sustain my blogging energy, bringing me into contact with all kinds of interesting writers and readers, even providing an excellent excuse for a trip to New York. Under the influence of these developments I increased my contributions to Open Letters, taking advantage of the flexibility and outstanding editorial input the magazine offers to write some more pieces on Victorian literature (Felix Holt and Vanity Fair), a couple of reviews (in addition to George Eliot in Love, I reviewed Claire Harman’s Jane’s Fame) and an essay on Gone with the Wind that took me a little outside my usual 19th-century ‘beat’ but reflected  my ongoing interest in ethical criticism–and my desire to write in a more personal voice. The Gone with the Wind essay earned me a link from Arts & Letters Daily, which helped me believe that I do have something interesting and even valuable to say as a critic–something that I have rarely felt in my almost 20 years as a practising academic critic. Looking ahead to 2011, I hope I can continue to build my confidence as a writer and critic, keep discovering what I have to say and saying it as well as I possibly can, in my own voice.

To everyone who reads and comments here at Novel Readings, and to all of you who keep up your own wonderfully thoughtful, diverse, and stimulating book blogs, thank you, and Happy New Year.

Novel Readings 2009

It’s time for my annual review of the highs and lows of my reading year.

Books I’m most glad I read, either for the intrinsic richness of the aesthetic, affective, or intellectual experience they offered, for the conversations they generated, or for the ideas and connections they offered for my teaching and research:

1. Daniel Mendelsohn, The Lost. This book made by far the strongest impression on me of any I read this year. Devastating though it is, it also manages to be surprising, suspenseful, and sometimes even comical. Mendelsohn manages to be self-reflexive about his research and writing, about his own assumptions and limitations, without ever compromising his dedication to reaching after the truth of the story he is telling or his respect for the suffering of those whose story it really is. It’s a remarkable accomplishment.

2. Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk. I ended up enjoying this novel as much for the way it implicitly chastised me for my own assumptions (about fiction, about families) as for the story it told. I’m happy to say that Santa (OK, my mom) sent me Sugar Street and Palace of Desire for Christmas, so I’ll be reading–and, I expect, writing about–Mahfouz again in 2010.

3. Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns. Although (as I say also in my original review) I don’t think this is actually a great novel by literary standards, and in retrospect I feel my own emotional reaction to it was the result of some heavy-handed narrative and ideological manipulation (pain! suffering! injustice! misogyny!), it’s impossible to ignore the very real pain, suffering, injustice, and misogyny of the world it fictionalizes.

4. Mahbod Seraji, Rooftops of Tehran. Unlike A Thousand Splendid Suns, Rooftops of Tehran is not a sensational or particularly populist treatment of its material. It reaches across cultural differences to tell a story of yearning and love, emphasizing feelings that are universal, if differently embodied or characterized based on circumstances. At times a bit heavy-handedly pedagogical, it still avoids the trap of what I am now thinking about as ‘moral tourism’: it isn’t an Iran packaged for mass consumption and political ends, but something more inward-looking and sincere.

5. Charlotte Bronte, Villette. This year’s choice for our summer reading project at The Valve, Bronte’s perverse exploration of thwarted desire, religious conflict, surveillance, and narrative unreliability offers all kinds of fun and surprises, especially for those who think the Victorians were all naive realists. (D’oh! But there really are people who think that. In my experience, many of them are specialists in late 20th-century fiction whose favourite straw man looks a lot like Trollope, but doesn’t have his metafictional savvy.)

6. Ian Colford, Evidence. Understated, even insidious, these stories leave their mark on your consciousness, like inky thumbprints.

7. Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway. It seems somehow significant that I quoted from this novel instead of writing much about it. It’s not that there aren’t ideas in it, or that its form and technique isn’t inviting to criticism, but for me this was a reading experience that was very much about easing up my critical grip (which seemed to be deforming my reading) and savouring the tactile quality of the language. My feelings about this book were also much affected by my thoughts about a special student, Samantha Li; I only wish I had read it before it was too late to talk to her about it.

8. William Boyd, Any Human Heart. Dear students: The main character in this book is not at all “relatable.” Guess what–that doesn’t matter! You don’t have to like him (though by the end I was fond of him after all, as you are of someone you’ve known their whole life). You just have to go along, feeling the pulses of his idiosyncratic life and personality. He has no special insight, into himself or any larger contexts; he isn’t even especially charismatic. But, as George Eliot points out in Adam Bede, most of the people around us are nothing special–we need to adapt our aesthetic to that reality, and it turns out to be a surprisingly moving experience.

9. Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall. Wolf Hall surprised me by not resembling any other historical fiction I’ve read. For one thing, there is almost no exposition. Mantel’s trick of referring to Cromwell throughout as “he,” though it does create the occasional awkwardness, also creates an oddly intimate atmosphere: we are with him, in close proximity, as if standing by his shoulder, but there’s a little separation remaining. First-person narration would have overcome it, but then I think the novel would have felt more artificial, and the emotions would have had to run higher–a mistake in a novel remarkable for its restraint (yes, even at 650 pages, it feels tightly controlled). And the language: it is crafted with the precision of Ian McEwan’s prose, but with a higher sheen of poetic possibility. Here’s a little bit that describes and exemplifies the novel’s characteristically taut balance of eloquence and repression:

There’s a feeling of power in reserve, a power that drives right through the bone, like the shiver you sense in the shaft of an axe when you take it into your hand. You can strike, or you can not strike, and if you choose to hold back the blow, you can still feel inside you the resonance of the omitted thing.

The central conflict is not Henry VIII against God, or fate, or his wives, for denying him a son, or Anne against Katherine, or any of the other stock melodramas of Tudor fiction (and television), but Cromwell, the self-made man, the accountant, the bureaucrat, the statesman, the pragmatist, the modern man, against extremism, privilege, waste, indulgence–and especially against Thomas More, who delights in torturing heretics and seeks a pointless (to him, a martyr’s) death.

10. Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil. Is it wrong to make something so beautiful out of material so terrible? Is terrorism really analogous to vandalism? Both obliterate the beauty (realized or potential) and the creativity of humanity.

This year I’ll skip over the list of low points. There weren’t many, happily–most of the other books I read were in the OK – to – mediocre range, which only irks me when they win awards.

In last year’s post I noted the expansion of my blogging horizons that came with the invitation to write for The Valve. This year I have been pleased to contribute to Open Letters: I’m glad they made room for my piece on Trollope among their many astute and engaging essays and reviews, and I’ve got a little thing on Felix Holt appearing in their January 2010 issue, so stay tuned for that.

Looking ahead, I’m anticipating an unusually busy term coming up, with three classes including one all-new one and some new kinds of assignments. Still, I hope to have time to keep up my usual series on teaching, and also to fit in some reading for myself. Looking over my year-end posts for 2007 and 2008, it is notable how such ‘pleasure’ reading feeds into my research and teaching (the leading example being Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun, which went from being just another book I’d read to the lynchpin of a reconceptualized research program). Perhaps something I read in 2010 will end up turning me in another new direction, or adding in some other unanticipated way to my life. But in any case here are some of the books I’m most looking forwarding to reading or re-reading:

  1. Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger. It’s great to feel so confident that a book will be both extremely smart and extremely entertaining.
  2. Hilary Mantel, A Place of Great Safety. Speaking of confidence, Wolf Hall gave me confidence in Mantel as both a stylist and a historical novelist.
  3. Naguib Mahfouz, Sugar Street and The Palace of Desire.
  4. Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf.
  5. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead.
  6. War and Peace. Somehow, it didn’t get read in 2009, but I’m sure it will be there for me when I’m ready for it.
  7. Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy. I’m going to keep putting this on my TBR list until I actually read it.
  8. Dickens, Our Mutual Friend. I haven’t read this since my undergraduate Victorian fiction class in 1989. Once every twenty years seems like a minimum for what I remember as one of the best of Dickens.
  9. George Eliot, Romola. I’ve assigned this for my graduate seminar on George Eliot this term. It was a tough call between it and Felix Holt, but Romola has been on the back burner the longest. When it is good, it is very, very, very good. When it is bad, characters say things like ‘You are as welcome as the cheese to the macaroni.’
  10. Audrey Niffenegger, Her Fearful Symmetry. All appearances (and movie adaptations) to the contrary, The Time Traveller’s Wife is a gritty, suspenseful, intellectual romance. Sure, you have to accept a wacky premise, but for me at least, it was worked through with surprising toughness. So I’m game to see how Niffenegger follows it up.
  11. David Mitchell, Black Swan Green. Because you told me to!