This Week In My Classes: Regrouping

Waterhouse (Lady)We have had more storms since the last time I posted but happily no more storm days, so we are still on schedule … for now! (In fact, things are looking pretty nice–by January standards–for the rest of the week, especially considering that we’ve been having some days with wind chills in the -20 range.)

In 19th-Century Fiction, it did seem a bit rushed at the beginning of our classes on Austen because of the hour we’d lost, but by our last discussion of Pride and Prejudice, it seemed to me that we had done a good job with the novel. You never address every detail in class, of course: the goal has to be to develop a kind of interpretive map, with central cruxes and questions suggesting possible directions through the text. That way students can consider examples we didn’t explicitly talk about as parts of the patterns we’ve been considering and think for themselves about how they fit–or don’t!

new-austenI really did enjoy rereading the novel this time, especially the reliably hilarious as well as deliciously subversive final encounter between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine. One thing we spent a fair amount of time on in class is the way Austen manipulates us into liking or disliking characters, only, much of the time, to undercut or at least complicate our “first impressions” so that we realize we are vulnerable to the same interpretive mistakes as the characters. In this respect I think even Mr Collins gets a bit of a reprieve from our initial distaste. Not only is his offer to Lizzie actually quite honorable, despite also being laughable, considering he has no obligation to make up to the Bennet sisters for the future loss of their home, but at Hunsford we see that while he is still absurd, he treats Charlotte well and has made it possible for her to live a dignified life. I don’t think there’s any backtracking on Lady Catherine, though: she remains an antagonist to that bitterly delightful end:

“I take no leave of you, Miss Bennet. I send no compliments to your mother. You deserve no such attention. I am most seriously displeased.”

In her absolute consistency I think she shows both Austen’s brilliance and her limitations. Austen manages to keep Lady Catherine entertaining and provocative without ever making her three dimensional, but if you compare her characterization to, say, Mr. Bulstrode’s in Middlemarch, you realize how much more interesting it actually is to have your worst character be someone so fully developed that your judgment has to sit in awkward company with your understanding. The moral tests are much easier to pass in Pride and Prejudice.

beardsleyIn British Literature After 1800 we are still reading poetry and I am still struggling with “how to balance attention to context and content with attention to form,” as I put it in my last post. After a somewhat sputtering discussion on Friday–which was largely my fault, as I did way too much lecturing, partly as a wrongheaded reaction to my anxiety about how class discussions had been going!–I spent a lot of time on the weekend reading blog posts and articles about improving student discussions (such as this one) and decide that my best strategy given all the variables at play (class size and composition, the nature of the readings, the already established set of course requirements, etc.) was to provide more prompts to guide them during their reading outside of class. The result of this was that I spent several hours preparing study questions for each of this week’s little clusters of poems, starting with our “Victorian medievalism” cluster (Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” “The Epic,” and “Morte d’Arthur”) on Monday. My hope was that the questions would bring them to the room better prepared to try out answers to my leading questions in class, rather than my simply hoping they would be able to generate ideas on the spot.

Lady (Waterhouse)This is hardly a radical strategy, including for me. I do often (and did this term) provide study questions for the novels in my 19th-Century Fiction classes, for example, to help students organize their observations as they read the long books–to know what, of all the many details flooding past them, to really pay attention to. But I also find it pretty easy to ask questions in 19th-Century Fiction that will get at least some answers, and usually lots of them, because we always have plot and character as starting points, from which we can level up to questions about form and theme. Maybe because I don’t teach poetry often, I underestimated the difference it makes to be working on, not just poetry, but poetry much of which is in a somewhat archaic diction. My impression (though I may be mistaken) is that many of the students are struggling with the literal meaning of the poems–their basic paraphraseable content. Perhaps, too, the variety in our reading list that keeps things interesting for me (and is to some extent necessitated by the survey format) is making things harder for them because each poet is so different and thus makes different demands on our attention as readers. With that in mind, in the study questions I came up with I tried to make the assigned poems more legible for them, combining questions about theme with prompts to consider form, and making some connections across the poems.


So far, however, even with these questions provided to them in advance, I feel like I am struggling to find the right questions to raise in class that will launch a good conversation–the poetry equivalent of leading off a fiction class with “OK, so which characters do you like or dislike so far and why?” (which is a sure-fire way to get people talking, and almost equally sure to lead after a while to much more subtle and important questions). There are some people talking, which is great, and actually today, in our class on “Victorian Poetry of Faith and Doubt,” there was good participation about the general issue of what religion means to or provides for people in their everyday lives, and thus what people might feel they have lost or want to fight for when their faith is challenged. When it came time to see what our poets were saying or doing about that, though, it got much quieter again. I am not used to “Dover Beach” sparking so little (evident) interest! Well, all I can really do is keep trying different things–and hope that they are just quiet, not bored, confused, or (worst of all!) not actually doing the reading. If nobody can make the case for the Duchess’s innocence in Friday’s class on Browning, that will be a bad sign.

One of the poems we read for today is Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur,” which (atheist though I am) I always find extraordinarily beautiful and moving. I really liked the slide I made for it, so for no better reasons than that, here it is!

English 2002 Faith and Doubt (Winter 2020)

This Week In My Classes: P&P and Poems

new-austenWe are well into Pride and Prejudice in 19th-Century Fiction this week and I have to say that while my reservations about teaching a novel that is so intractably popular remain (and I have seen some of the same symptoms of dealing with a ‘fan favorite’ in class discussions as in the past), overall I think it’s going well. I am certainly enjoying the novel, and the energy in the classroom seems very good: participation is robust for so early in the course, which may of course be a side-effect of that same level of pre-existing comfort that sometimes makes the novel hard for students to approach critically.

I am continuing the effort I’ve been focused on in recent years to wean myself from my lecture notes, and that too is helped by my own familiarity with the novel and the questions I want us to gnaw on collectively. Looking at the fairly detailed notes I have used before, I see that the price (if that’s the right word) of loosening my grip is giving up the more careful “laying out of interpretations” that I used to do, which I always thought of as usefully modeling the construction of literary arguments and the use of literary evidence. Our more free-wheeling discussions–though never, I hope, simply unfocused or scattered–do not necessarily “add up” in the same elegant way that is possible if I’m really controlling the pace and flow of information. The benefit, however, is having the students generate more of the material and then see (as I do my best to organize and shape it on the fly) that they know how to proceed towards those kinds of conclusions themselves. The other thing I’m trying to remember to do is explain the process of our class time in a way that connects it to the process for their assignments–this is something that I realized some years ago that I was taking for granted but needed to make explicit. A key point about process I make over and over is that students often try (as I see it) to skip steps when they begin work on an essay assignment: often when they come to see me I realize that having chosen their topic, they think their next step is to come up with a thesis statement and then work back through the novel to figure out how to support it. As I point out, that’s backwards: a good thesis is much more likely to emerge from their rereading, thinking about, and doing some open-ended writing about the novel with their topic in mind. Their method accounts for why we so often see the best version of an argument in the conclusion, rather than the introduction, of student papers–because that’s the point at which they have actually worked through their ideas and examples closely enough to realize what they want to say. pride-and-prejudice-penguin

minor point of concern about how the popularity of Pride and Prejudice might affect the rest of the course is that in a show of hands yesterday it looked like nearly half of the students have decided to write their first essay on it (they get to choose among our first four novels for this assignment). That might be as much about wanting to get the essay done early, before they are busier with their other courses. Whatever the reason, though, it’s a much larger proportion of the class than usually does any one novel, never mind the first one of the term. I really hope it doesn’t mean they will be less engaged with our next books, especially Waverley. They will have to write short tests on all of them, which is one of the coercive elements I build into the course requirements in the interests of sustaining everyone’s attention. Of course, I always hope that our books and conversations will keep everyone’s attention because the novels are great and the discussions are interesting! But I’m not naive enough to think those intrinsic qualities will be enough to coax everyone along.

broadviewIn British Literature After 1800 we are skipping briskly through our small sample of Romantic poets. The rapid pace is at once the blessing and the curse of a survey course with a mandate to span more than 200 years of writing in multiple genres: we don’t spend long enough in any one place to go into a great deal of depth, which means we also don’t spend long enough on any one topic to get tired of it. I enjoy the variety myself, including the chance to talk about genres and examples that don’t come up in the courses I teach more often–such as Romantic poetry! In fact, because the introductory courses I’ve taught for the last several years have been either Introduction to Prose and Fiction or Pulp Fiction, I’ve spend hardly any time on poetry at all except for Close Reading, and the last time I taught that was Fall 2017. So I’m having fun, but also feeling a bit wobbly about how to balance attention to context and content with attention to form.williamwordsworth1

This problem wasn’t helped by last week’s snow storm, which cost us a class meeting. Because I didn’t want to cut back time on specific poets any more than the survey format already requires, I decided to sacrifice the class I’d set aside to talk about poetic form, including scansion. I’ve been trying to make up for this by integrating discussion of poetic form into our other classes, which of course I was going to do anyway but not starting from scratch. The students have a varying degree of experience with things like scansion: some of them are clearly at home with it, and with talking about poetic devices and forms, while others have looked bemused, frustrated, or completely blank when asked to think or talk about these aspects of our readings. Well, all we can do is keep moving along: I hope that with repetition and coaching from me and practice from them, we will all get more comfortable. For yesterday’s class I decided to do more of the talking myself than I had on Monday because on Monday it seemed to me a lot of them were still very uncertain about what it meant to discuss the relationship between form and meaning in poetry: it’s a bit harder (in my experience, anyway) to teach this through open-ended discussion with poetry than with fiction, where you always have the option of starting with “easy” things like plot and character as a way of opening up thematic and structural issues. I also point out that those of them who feel completely at sea need to put in some time: our readings so far have been quite short, which may be deceptive in terms of the amount of work it requires to read them well.

We’ve read some Wordsworth, some Shelley, and some Keats so far. Tomorrow we’re doing a small cluster of poems by Felicia Hemans and EBB on women and poetry, and then next week we’re on to the Victorians–some Tennyson, some Browning, and a cluster on faith and doubt including some Arnold and Hopkins and some excerpts from In Memoriam. Fun! I hope they think so too.


“Memories Crowded In”: William Boyd, Love Is Blind


Brodie looked around. It had been years since he had last stood here and the place looked the same–only the season and the weather were different. The same couldn’t be said for him, he realized, thinking about all that had occurred in his life since his last poisonous exchange with Malkey, here on this driveway. Perhaps the garden was more unkempt; the lawn was tufty and weedy under the conifers and the monkey-puzzle trees. yet, now he was here, memories crowded in–it seemed as if he’d been here last week, not over six years ago. You may leave home, but home never leaves you, he thought darkly.

By the end, William Boyd’s Love Is Blind turns out to be more like Any Human Heart than I thought at first. Any Human Heart (which I found plodding at first but, eventually, deeply moving) takes us through the whole course of its protagonist Logan Montstuart’s life, never ascribing greater meaning to it or making it representative of anything besides his own unsteady march from beginning to end:

He has no great epiphanies. He just keeps on living, one way or another, sometimes better, sometimes worse, in comfort and in poverty, in sickness and in health. He makes and loses friends and lovers; he has good ideas and bad ones, successes and failures.

In a general way, Logan’s story is all of our stories, of course, but Boyd resists the literary lure of the Bildungsroman or any other form that would make it more philosophically meaningful. heart

Love Is Blind is also strangely plodding for a novel full of incident, both historical and personal. Boyd’s approach is structurally very literal: one thing after another, lots of exposition, few stylistic flourishes–though there are some really nice descriptive passages and plenty of piano-tuning neepery. It doesn’t follow its hero, Brodie Moncur, for very long–less than a decade–both because it starts in his adult life and because that life is cut short by the tuberculosis that plagues him for most of the years it covers. For momentum, it relies on two interconnected stories: Brodie’s love for the Russian singer Lika Blum and his enmity  with her jealous husband, Malachi Kilbarron. The love story unfolds as Brodie makes his way to Paris and then to St. Petersburg doing his work as a piano tuner; after a climactic turning point, it unravels as the lovers try and fail to elude Malachi’s relentless pursuit. Like Logan’s, Brodie’s death is his novel’s finale, and the feeling it gave me was a similar sense of poignancy that it should all (that it always does) come to exactly this, an ending, a negation.

boydOne distinctive aspect of Love Is Blind is its preoccupation with music. I expected this to bring a more transcendent dimension to the novel–life may be flat, but melody elevates it, or something. Brodie’s own relationship to music is mostly mechanical, though: while he works for a piano virtuoso, his job is weighting the keys and perfecting the piano’s pitch, not rhapsodizing over the results, and the pianist himself is elated at his own skill but conveys no spiritual and hardly any emotional connection to the music he produces. I found this disappointing; it made me think again about other novels about music that made me more excited about it, such as Frank Conroy’s Body and Soul or (my frequent touchstone for this) Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Disturbances in the Field. If I had believed in the love story more, that would have made up for the relatively emotional flatness of this aspect, but Brodie’s passion for Lika never felt vibrant or meaningful to me–I never felt for them or yearned for them.

Love Is Blind kept me interested, but I was never enraptured with it, or gripped the way I was with, say, Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Freeto pick another historical novel for comparison. Miller uses historical detail differently, more delicately. I don’t mind exposition, even in really large doses, and I quite enjoyed the fin-de-siecle voyage Boyd took me on, from Edinburgh to Paris to Nice to St. Petersburg to Biarritz to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands–this last location seeming to me quite arbitrary, thematically (though maybe I’m missing something, since Boyd frames the rest of the novel with it) but interesting nonetheless. Overall, I thought the novel was fine: well conceived, competently executed, solid. Unlike Any Human Heart, though, I don’t expect it will stay with me long after reading.

This Week In My Classes: Not Again!

SnowBirdGiven the cyclical nature of the academic life as well as the recurrence of texts and topics in the classes I teach most often, there are lots of things I might be saying “Not again!” about! This week, however, the particularly irksome repetition is the disruption to the start of term thanks to a big storm–not a hurricane, like the fall term, but a snow storm. Once again, classes had barely begun (in both of mine, we missed our second scheduled meeting) which means not just that I’ve had to scramble to reorganize their schedules, but that we haven’t had a chance yet to establish a rapport and a routine.

I always feel very exposed during the first few class meetings: it’s hard not to be conscious that a lot of students are judging you in a hurry as they decide whether yours is a class they want to stay in. It is impossible to know, of course, quite what they see when they look at me, or, for that matter, what they want or expect to see and how or why, as a result, I might or might not be it. My goal is to be as clear and positive as possible about my vision for the course and also as authentic as possible: after all this time, I am who I am, and I am the teacher I am, too. I know I can’t be all things to all people! Still, although I am in my third decade of teaching at Dalhousie, I always get nervous; as the wise narrator says in Middlemarch, “behind the big mask and the speaking-trumpet, there must always be our poor little eyes peeping as usual and our timorous lips more or less under anxious control.” Every class that goes by eases my anxiety a little, which is why a disruption so early in the term is so unwelcome.

daffodilsSo what, besides calming my nerves (and perhaps theirs as well), is on the agenda for our remaining classes this week? Well, in British Literature After 1800 Friday will be our (deferred) Wordsworth day. In my opening lecture on Monday I emphasized the arbitrariness of literary periods and the challenges of telling coherent stories based on chronology, the way a survey course is set up to do. But I also stressed the value of knowing when things were written, both because putting them in order is useful for understanding the way literary conversations and influences unfold, with writers often responding or reacting to or resisting each other, and because historical contexts can be crucial to recognizing meaning. My illustrative text for this point was Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud,” which (as I told them) is the first poem I ever memorized, as a child. It was perfectly intelligible to me then, and it is still a charming and accessible poem to readers who know nothing at all about what we now call ‘Romanticism.’ Without historical context, it seems anything but radical–and yet Wordsworth in his day (at least, in his early days) was considered literally revolutionary. His poetry “is one of the innovations of the time,” William Hazlitt wrote in “The Spirit of the Age”;

It partakes of, and is carried along with, the revolutionary movement of our age: the political changes of the day were the model on which he formed and conducted his poetical experiments.

In Friday’s class we’ll talk about all of this in more detail, with the Preface to Lyrical Ballads to fill in Wordsworth’s own point of view and “Tintern Abbey” as our richer representative sample.

pride-and-prejudice-penguinIn 19th-Century Fiction it’s time for Pride and Prejudice, though I’ll start with an abbreviated version of the lecture I would have given on Wednesday on the history of the 19th-century novel. It has been several years since I’ve taught Pride and Prejudice (see here for why) but rereading it this week I have been enjoying it as much as always. Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about whether I wanted to teach it in some different way, and with that in mind I’ve been reading a range of sources on, for instance, Jane Austen and empire or Jane Austen and “the abolitionist turn” (which is the title of a very interesting essay by Patricia Matthew).  I also listened to this fascinating and, I think, really useful discussion on the podcast Bonnets At Dawn (including an interview with Dr. Matthew) about Mansfield Park in particular but also, more generally, about questions of race and empire in the Austen classroom.

moonstone-oupThere’s no doubt that if I were teaching Mansfield Park these questions would be a big part of our discussion, as they are when I teach The Moonstone. I haven’t so far arrived at any ideas about how — or, to some extent, why — we would take up this specific line of inquiry in our work on Pride and Prejudice. Perhaps I am too prone to let the novels I assign set their own terms for our analysis–to rely on their overt topical engagements more than what they leave out or obscure–but this particular novel doesn’t seem to be about race and empire, even though its characters live in a world where these things (while never, I think, explicitly mentioned) matter a lot. Beyond acknowledging that fact, which in itself is worth doing, I’m not sure where to go with it. It is disturbing, though, to know that the alt-right enjoys (their version of) her novels; I think the author of that linked essay is correct that the novels actually do not fit the narrative they are being coopted to serve, but one thing we might consider as we work through the novel is what makes it vulnerable to that particular kind of (mis)reading and political appropriation.

Reading in the New Year: Love and Death

love-letteringRing out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

As anticipated, my first two books of 2020 were Kate Clayborn’s Love Lettering and Tana French’s The Witch Elm. They could hardly be more different, but of their kinds, they are both, I think, excellent.

Love Lettering has many of the same qualities that have made Clayborn’s previous books–the ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ trilogy–my favorite contemporary romance series. Interestingly (to me, anyway!), these are qualities that actually dulled the books’ impact at first. Clayborn gives her characters a lot of specificity, both in their personalities and in their activities. This means a lot of backstory and also a lot of neepery (which, as I’ve figured out, is one of my favorite things). In Beginner’s Luck, for instance, one of the protagonists, Kit, is a lab technician, which I suppose might sound a bit dry, but Clayborn does a good job conveying the interest and satisfaction she finds in her job, as well as explaining the scientific work she is also involved in. In the same novel, the other lead character, Ben, helps out at his father’s salvage business–again, maybe not the first thing you’d think of as a romantic setting, but I really enjoy the details about the bits and pieces of lights and fixtures and furniture and their restoration. All this stuff isn’t just background, though: Clayborn is really deft at assembling elements that both further her story and work symbolically within it. In Beginner’s Luck, Ben is puttering away at re-assembling an elaborate chandelier: by the end of the novel it’s clear that putting things back together is what both he and Kit are struggling to do, in their different ways.

luckThe first time I read Beginner’s Luck I felt that there was so much going on that it got a bit distracting. Maybe this has something to do with my expectations for romance: though there is a lot of emotional intensity in Clayborn’s novels, the central relationship is embedded in a lot of what seemed like padding. It turns out, though, that for me anyway this is exactly what makes her books fun to reread, as more of the novels’ patterns–the connections between their parts–become clearer over time. At the same time, it’s the emotional intensity that means I give a pass to what might otherwise bother me about them, which is that the love story relies (more so in the second and third books in the trilogy than the first) on an initial set-up that seems, if you think about it hard at all, pretty contrived or unlikely. This is especially true of Luck of the Draw, which has nonetheless turned out to be my favorite of the trilogy. luck-of-draw

It is also definitely true of Love Lettering, where the relationship between the main characters, Meg and Reid, depends on his implausibly accepting an invitation that I can’t quite imagine anyone actually extending to a virtual stranger. However! Once they get started, their slow-growing friendship plays out in a beautifully nuanced way, their uneasy unfamiliarity teetering bit by bit into trust, pleasure, and of course, ultimately, love. Here too there’s a lot going on in context and character development, especially around Meg’s work doing hand lettering. Clayborn gives us a lot of detail about that work, but it never feels like she’s doing the dreaded “info-dump”: instead, Meg’s interest, her vocation, permeates her first-person narration. She sees lettering everywhere, both literally and when people talk to her–or when she and Reid kiss for the first time:

He shifts, lets his lips rest softly against my cheekbone, and instead of pressing them there, he rubs them back and forth once, as light as a strand of my own hair in the wind, and I see that word, too, drawn in the same pink that’s the color of my natural blush, the pink I turn when I’m warm or embarrassed or aroused. The t, the w, the o, all of them a heavily sloped italic. All of them on the way to somewhere.

It’s a kind of sensual synesthesia that is also elicited for her in a more aesthetic and intellectual way by her relationship with New York–which the novel is also a love letter to, as Meg and Reid’s romance unfolds as they explore the streets in search of inspiration in its billboards, awnings, and facades. Love Lettering turns out to be a novel all about reading signs, literal but also metaphorical and personal; this concept ties together its various subplots, as does the characters’ related struggle to express themselves clearly–to signal their own meaning. My only complaint about the novel is that the ending, which includes a long-deferred revelation about Reid, seemed both a bit rushed and a bit out of sync with the mood or style of the rest of the book. That revelation is also the reason we don’t get the alternating points of view Clayborn used in all three of her previous books. I liked Meg a lot, but it felt a bit odd for a romance to be so completely one-sided. Now that I know everything, however, I will be able to infer a lot more about what is really going on with Reid when I reread it, which I am bound to do before long.

witch-elm The Witch Elm has been written about a lot elsewhere; of the reviews I’ve read, I think Laura Miller’s in Slate comes closest to what I thought about it. I know some people have found it too long or too purposeless, for its first half at least, and so not particularly gripping. Maureen Corrigan in the Washington Post concludes her actually fairly positive review a bit crushingly: “I’d say that without any “bang, bang” for hundreds of pages, “The Witch Elm” becomes “boring, boring.” I definitely did not find it boring! Toby’s voice worked for me from the start, though having read Tana French before I knew better than to take him completely at face value. I liked the patient progress of the story through the initial harrowing attack on Toby to the muted Gothic atmosphere of the Ivy House. Once the skull turned up I had (unusually, for me!) lots of theories about how it got there and who was implicated–and French teased me with plenty of hints and possibilities that fit and then contradicted each of them. Toby’s wavering sense of self brought layers to the novel, both philosophical and psychological. “They’re unsettled and they’re frightened,” Uncle Hugo says about the people who hire him to research their genealogies after unexpected DNA results; “They’re afraid that they’re not who they always thought they were, and they want me to find them reassurance. And we both know it might not turn out that way.” That’s Toby’s situation too, eventually, trying to figure out the truth about himself when other people’s accounts of him don’t square with his own. For him too, the result may not be reassuring–but what French conveys so well is that his very craving for stability, for confirmation, for certainty about his own identity, is itself a potent destructive force.

My only quibble with The Witch Elm is that the story about the skull in the tree eventually comes out in a really dull way (narratively speaking – the facts are plenty shocking): Toby just gets told it all in a long and inadequately motivated ‘reveal’ scene. I expected the case to be ‘solved’ in some more subtle and artful way. I realize that the novel is not, really, centered on that whodunit aspect but is actually about Toby–who he is, what he has done or not done, what has enabled him to live and think and ignore and forget the way he has. Still, that bit fell flat for me. Things took another dramatic turn soon after, though, and the novel’s denouement overall was very satisfactory.

So there we are: two new books for the new year, both good ones. What’s next? Well, for one, Pride and Prejudice, which I start with my 19th-century fiction class on Friday.




2019: My Year In Reading

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

The Best Books I Read in 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Books That Were Also Very Good

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Some Books That Were Perfectly Fine

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

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

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

Some Books I Expected To Be Better

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

A Few New or Renewed 19th-Century Friends


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

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

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

love-letteringThe End!

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

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




2019: My Year in Teaching

broadview2019 began with a lot of thinking about teaching, because I was on sabbatical for the first half of the year and that meant the great luxury of time away from teaching itself. Sometimes in the past the result has been a whole new class. This time it was about ways to refresh the reading lists for classes I teach in regular rotation: 19th-Century Fiction, Women & Detective Fiction, and British Literature Since 1800, with some thought given also to mixing things up in Pulp Fiction.

In the end I did not make a lot of changes, though it wasn’t for want of ideas. More often than seems reasonable books I thought would work really well turned out to be unavailable–Andrea Levy’s Small Island, for instance, for the Brit Lit survey, or Vera Caspary’s Laura. None of the Victorian novels I (re)read inspired me to replace tried and true favorites on my syllabus, though I may reconsider Wuthering Heights for next year’s iteration of the Dickens-to-Hardy class. I’m not sorry I read Kim or Dombey and Sonand in fact thinking about Kim did encourage me to include a Kipling story in the Brit Lit survey (“The Man Who Would Be King”) as part of an effort to address questions of empire and colonialism more directly than my reading list had in the past.

remains-coverI finally settled on Great Expectations and The Remains of the Day for the representative Victorian and 20th-century novels in the survey course, partly because I love them both and feel confident about teaching them and partly because along with Three Guineas (which will be a new teaching text for me), I could imagine a range of thematic continuities within this set of readings that would work well for final essay assignments–ideas of class and social mobility; social insiders and outsiders, deference, domination, and political power; the relationship between money, privilege, and moral freedom; art and language as vehicles for advocacy or subversion; social order, resistance, and fascism. We’ll see how it goes!

Women & Detective Fiction had the most new titles: In A Lonely PlaceBlanche on the Lam, and The Break. I thought they were all good additions: they brought both different styles and different voices into our readings and discussions, they raised pressing questions about women and crime, about the sometimes problematic intersections of gender, race, and class in women’s crime fiction, and along with our other readings they helped us generate a lot of ideas about the relationship between criminal justice (or legal forms of justice) and social justice.

the-breakOne of the questions I struggled with as I finalized my book order was whether The Break was properly addressed as ‘crime fiction’. We ended up discussing this issue a few times in class. We came back every time to ways in which, while the novel is not structured like a conventional whodunit, its structure can be read (especially in the context of our other novels) as a deliberate subversion of those expectations: the novel operates both as an implicit critique of the detective form (with its tendency to identify single crimes, specific suspects, and clearly demarcated criminals) as reductive, and as a model of a different way to think about wrongdoing that is part of a complicated history and pattern of historical and social problems not really amenable to being “solved.” While many of our novelists directed our attention to social or political problems beyond the scope of the crimes at their centers, Neely and Vermette both made those problems much more than context. Both Blanche on the Lam and The Break also notably resist feel-good resolutions: one thing the class especially liked about Blanche herself is that she is not interested in playing out anyone’s fantasy of restoration or reconciliation, and though the ending of The Break is more uplifting in tone than Neely’s conclusion, it too is about healing and persistence within the family, on their own terms, not using them and their ongoing trauma as a device for reconciliation.

The-Big-SleepI thought Women & Detective Fiction went well. I feel less satisfied about Pulp Fiction, mostly because I found the change from 90 (which already felt too big) to 120 students pushed the class past a tipping point for the kind of pedagogy I want to and tried to practice. Part of the problem was just logistical: much as I believe in the value of doing lots of small-stakes exercises to maintain engagement and give frequent opportunities for writing and feedback, I don’t think I can continue with some of my habitual versions of this (such as regular reading journals). The thing about scaling up class sizes is that while the regulations for Writing Requirement classes mean that we have TAs for every 30 students, in practice this only means that we hold steady in terms of the number of finished essays we mark. Everything else remains the responsibility of the professor, from recording attendance and marking exams to handling accommodations and plagiarism cases. As a result there’s no question that larger classes (despite superficially maintaining that 30:1 ratio) are more work for the instructor. (Also, despite my best efforts to address the issue in more effective ways, subbing in The Big Sleep for The Maltese Falcon, while a nice change for me, did not dramatically decrease the rate of plagiarism for those assignments–I guess there’s something about noir that subverts morality!)

escher12The worst part of the increase in class size for me is that I don’t like teaching (especially teaching first-year students) in a large lecture hall. This is not just about my personal comfort–in fact, I am reasonably confident when giving formal lectures, which have the advantage, from a purely self-interested perspective, of ruling out the unexpected! But my preferred teaching style is interactive, because the back and forth between us reflects the way I think we actually learn to do (and improve) the kind of analysis central to literary studies (through coduction). I continued to incorporate discussion into our class meetings, but inevitably only a fraction of such a large class participates–and to my frustration and sometimes visible annoyance, many of their classmates clearly tuned out or, worse, started packing up, when these engaged students were talking. Because there’s no hope that class sizes will go down any time soon, I’m going to have to give more thought to overcoming these challenges so that next year’s intro class goes better.


It’s not that Pulp Fiction went badly overall: enough students showed interest in and satisfaction with the course that I know I reached a lot of them, even if unfortunately I couldn’t see their faces very well from the front of the room. I just think I can do something better, though I’m not sure what or how. If you have ideas or strategies that work for you in (specifically writing) classes of around 100, I’d love to know. One good thing is that next year I am taking a break from Pulp Fiction and teaching “Literature: How It Works”–a more standard kind of introductory course that will relieve me of the sense that I am arguing with myself about the canon (and losing). I will probably approach this class more or less as I did “Introduction to Prose and Fiction” (which it sort of replaces in our curriculum)–only with some poetry too! Book orders for the fall will be due uncomfortably soon in the new year, so you can look forward (?) to ruminations about that before too much longer.

Overall, then, it was an okay term, made better by the time I’d put in during my sabbatical. Even if I didn’t end up making big changes to my reading lists, my choices were more deliberate because I’d considered alternatives. While there’s a risk of things getting stale if you repeat yourself, there’s something to be said for the confidence and pedagogical freedom that comes with really knowing your material–and it can backfire, too, if you change a lot all at once. I felt lucky to have just two courses: for various reasons including ongoing difficulty sleeping, I didn’t always feel as on top of things as I usually do, including sometimes getting a bit overwhelmed with the logistics and the paperwork (something else that is affected a lot by class size).

waverleyAnd now, on to next term. It is finally time to actually teach the Brit Lit survey and see how my decisions work out (including which readings to include in the nice custom reading Broadview Press put together for us); I’m especially looking forward to covering some poetry, which I rarely get to do. My other course this winter is 19th-Century Fiction from Austen to Dickens: this year’s books are Pride and PrejudiceWaverley (look at that handsome new edition!), The Tenant of Wildfell HallMary Barton, and Hard Times. I’m actually eager to get started: both are small-ish classes (around 35) and I know there will be at least some familiar faces in both as well.