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
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!