I’ve reached the end of the year, and I’ve been so shamefully bad about blogging for the past several months that, as a punishment to myself (not to you!), I will not be doing the usual year-end round of bibliographing charts. Perhaps they will be a birthday present to myself in a couple months.
For now, instead, I will devote the end of the year to two things: a list (as part of the same punishment), and several posts on some of the best things I’ve been reading recently: the works of Jane Gardam.
Today, the list. These are, subjectively and somewhat arbitrarily, the 10 best things I read this year, in no particular order.
- The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño. Several years late reading this one, but it was well worth it (and thanks to Richard for another excellent readalong experience). Roberto Bolaño, where have you been all my life?
- Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. Before reading Fellow-Townsmen, a pleasant little novella, earlier this year, my only previous experience with Hardy had been Tess of the d’Urbervilles, mere mention of which is still enough to raise my blood pressure over a decade after reading it. But Far from the Madding Crowd gave me the heart to give Hardy another go, which he seems to mostly deserve.
- Adam Bede by George Eliot. Middlemarch may be the “better” book, but again, Adam Bede was a heart-opener of sorts. In this case I had had fond memories of Eliot’s masterwork, but beginning with her first novel helped pave the way for a deeper understanding of Middlemarch when I re-read it a few weeks later. And it’s an excellent story in its own right.
- What Happened to Sophie Wilder by Christopher Beha. Someone said not long ago on Twitter that we may have reached our quota on raves about this book by now, but I’m not so sure. Expect more in future, though I’ll spare you for now—except to say: read it!
- Crusoe’s Daughter by Jane Gardam. I’m going to try to keep mum on Gardam until I’m really ready to talk about her. Except…
- Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam. …I read so many good books by her this year. Read them all!
- All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. My first McCarthy, and not my last, this was a beautiful book. Bleak and beautiful.
- Wuthering Heights the Emily Brontë. This just can’t help being on a winning list in any year I happen to read it. I’ve lost count of re-reads at this point but it never fails to completely absorb—and reveal more secrets.
- Pastors and Masters by Ivy Compton-Burnett. This was a relatively “light” book, airy and fast and witty and not exactly earnest. But it was a completely turn-on to Compton-Burnett, and I like my light and airy with a bite.
- Plain Tales from the Hills by Rudyard Kipling. My current Raj obsession is not the only reason I loved this early Kipling; he is simply a master storyteller, and I love stories. His humor, both light and black, is just the kind I enjoy most, and he may not be what you think he is at all.
This was a strange year for me, aside from writing less. I seem to have read far more contemporary—or almost-contemporary—fiction than usual. In my top 10 (really top 11) above, I have no fewer than three novels by a single woman—and those contemporary as well. And my top-10 list is more than half written by women.
In some cases, the books I read by my favorite writers simply weren’t my favorite books. This year’s Conrad and Stevenson were just not their best. And Jane Gardam really was a discovery of the kind readers like me wait years for—finally, someone still writing who I really, really care to read! The same goes for Cormac McCarthy and Alyson Hagy, though I’m less driven toward those two.
And I left out from this list a few Latin American works that I truly enjoyed, aside from the Bolaño: Juan Rulfo, Julio Cortázar, and Machado de Assis will all get more attention in future, though Cortázar is not quite to my taste. Good, most assuredly, but not quite to my taste. I also had an interesting time reading a couple novels of the Iraq War, Fobbit and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, both of which I hope to write about in a larger context relatively soon.
Before I look too gushy, let me also list the worst of the year—the airing of grievances!
- War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. If you’re new here, you may not know that I hate Tolstoy. Or that I still read thousand-page novels by people I hate. Here’s just a little bit of why.
- The Distracted Preacher by Thomas Hardy. Hardy had me, he finally had me, with The Madding Crowd, but then he lost me once again (though not permanently).
- The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. I think I liked this novel the first time I read it, many years ago, although now I have a hard time conceiving why. Like Tolstoy, I see Greene here toying with his characters. If all goes well, I’ll have much more on that at some point.
- Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. It feels unfair to put this on a list with the other three, because it doesn’t really rise to their level. It was actually enjoyable to read, for the most part. But if I do write about this one, expect it to be complainy.
Earlier this week, BookRiot posted my first official contribution to their site, an examination of What Happened to Sophie Wilder and its relation to Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. Please check it out if you haven’t and let me know what you think! There will be more to come every couple weeks—and on my quest to pair classics with contemporary literature, I’ll surely need some really excellent contemporary literature recommendations.
Don’t worry, bibliographing will not suffer. At least not more than it already has! I’ve got some good stuff coming your way now that I’ve broken out of Pastors and Masters a bit, and I’m still looking to do an Ivy Compton-Burnett group read at some point in the next few months.
I just wanted to give a quick thank you to anyone who voted for me in BookRiot‘s START HERE write-in contest. Thanks to you, Melville will be assured an entry in the book they’re developing!
If, that is, they manage to raise the rest of the funding to produce it. There are only five days left to reach the Kickstarter target and fully fund the project. If you like the the project, do consider helping to make it happen—because if you don’t, it might not. The prizes are pretty cool, too.
Thanks again to all who voted. If my post impressed that many people, I’m hoping it might also help someone get started loving Melville!
This is a post I’ve put off writing for weeks, because I haven’t been able to organize my thoughts or do the research I would like to do. On top of that, I’ve been thwarted by lost files twice just tonight! But I will persevere with my “bleg,” because it’s the only way I think I can get this thing off the ground—with help from my very wise and well-read readers.
Oldtimers may recall that the second-ever bibliographing project was on maritime literature, which is still a great interest to me. And a lot of maritime literature concerns work—as Tom discusses in his post on Kipling’s Captains Courageous (which I must now read), “Harvey overcomes his petulance and joins the crew, where he does honest work, acquires practical skills (knots, for example), overcomes his class prejudices, and learns to appreciate useful work.” It makes sense, after all: a novel set on shipboard, with most of the characters as crewmembers, is bound to involve work, since that is, in fact, what they’re doing all the time—salting fish, furling sails, “the ordinary life of cod fisherman off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.”
Meanwhile, I have found work to be one of the more profoundly unsatisfying aspects of most contemporary fiction I read. Here is where I am frustrated with myself and hesitant to go forward: I don’t want to be trying to prove out a hypothesis, but exploring the fiction of work. But I do have a hypothesis, and I’ll come clean. I suspect, on very little evidence of course (since the project has not really started!), that the professionalization of writing (especially of novel-writing) has diluted the presence of work in fiction, and what’s more, has denuded it of its variety. To some extent, this is a variant on the old complaint about “program fiction.” If writers are “writers” (and yes, I know many struggle and need to have day jobs to actually support themselves), if they go from BA to MFA to novel-writing, and if this is the new normal, and their peers all do the same, how much variety of experience outside a few professions are we now drawing on in contemporary fiction?
I say “contemporary fiction”; I admit that I am largely thinking of a current New York–based literary scene that does, however, seem to dominate American letters at the moment. Not every character in these books is a writer, though they are often noted for their writer-narrators. But there is a fairly small circle of professions that are “acceptable,” for lack of a better term, in contemporary fiction: writers, designers, journalists, perhaps lawyers and doctors, maybe a chef or two, professors, professors, professors, writers, writers…a “creative class,” if you will.
I find myself feeling suffocated by this from time to time, and I’ve complained about it before. D.G. Myers put a big part of the problem well nearly a year ago:
American writers have rarely failed to mention their characters’ jobs or professions, but have almost never dramatized the work they are said to do. The drama occurs in the characters’ off hours. In last year’s Freedom, Jonathan Franzen puts his on-again-off-again rocker Richard Katz (Patty Berglund’s adulterous lover) to work “building urban rooftop decks,” but though you supposedly hear him hammering and sawing, you never actually see him ripping a board with a table saw or deciding which side of the board should face down. You never learn what materials he uses. He performs manual labor to distinguish him from Patty’s office-bound husband Walter, a lawyer for a non-profit, and to infuse a faded red T-shirt with his smell, so that Patty can spend the day in the shirt that he wore.
Even the lawyer, an “acceptable” occupation—we never find out what he actually does. We learn the area in which he becomes an activist, but what he does most days? Not so much.
There’s an admittedly personal element for me in all this, which makes me dislike writing this post even more than the general disorganization of my thoughts. I am, as it happens, a member of this “creative class,” but I’m also someone who has experienced (and continues to experience) the alienation of class mobility. I’m a first-generation college graduate, as well as a first-generation American (on one side, and, even more unusually, from a majority-white, Anglophone country). Happy as I may be with my own life, it never seems as circumscribed to me as I often find the lives of seemingly similar characters in these class-homogeneous novels. More things fall into my “acceptable” circle, which is not to say I could write about them without doing research—but when even many white-collar jobs, like, say, engineering, seem to be outside the scope of much contemporary fiction, I can’t help feeling that things seem small. This is one reason I often turn to more “regional” fiction; it seems to have a wider scope.
But, as I said, I want to explore this, not just pursue my own prejudices. One place to begin is another D.G. Myers post, a shockingly old one now. But I’m hoping for more suggestions. Nonfiction as well as fiction. I find myself instinctively uninterested in the sort of “office novel” about the absurdity of cubicle life, but perhaps I am wrong in that assessment. I’m not looking to find any sort of Great American Novel of Labor, or anything like that, but for more examples like the one Myers gave in Literary Commentary, of Philip Roth’s to-me-lovely description of glove-making in American Pastoral. For representations of classes beyond the creative and professional. I tweeted, I think, about this once, and I don’t remember exactly what I asked about, but I specified that I wanted to stay away from immigrant-oriented fiction. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, by any means, but seems to me like it would introduce many more elements into the mix, elements of cultural assimilation that aren’t as important to this particular project. But there are some thematic similarities—the cultural mobility and resultant alienation of immigrants could be very similar to the alienation of class mobility, the idea that you are no longer among “your people,” and must find a new way to navigate the world that your family was only somewhat able to prepare you for.
Again, the most frustrating thing for me here has been research; I do not know how to go about finding the kind of fiction I am looking for. Well, I should cut this ramble off now, I suppose, as it’s gotten plenty rambly. I’ll still be thinking about this, and looking for lists and suggestions elsewhere, but, dear readers, what do you think? Of the project, and some possible inclusions in it? The bibliographing Work Project has been dying to get out of my head and into some books (and into the blog); is it a worthwhile one? Are there closer ways I could focus? And what should I read?
I’ll keep this short and sweet, if disappointing (at least for me). I’m going to be putting bibliographing on hiatus indefinitely. I hope to be back before too long, and that in the meantime I will at least be more of a presence on the blogs of all my wonderful readers. And don’t be too surprised if you see a post here or there—I’m not exactly the best at sticking to any kind of resolution, especially not difficult ones.
And now, I’m off to read Mardi. To Ravavai!
You’ve got to give the people what they want, at least once in a while, and today that means giving you charts!
The first chart today is one of the most shocking, I think. Compare to last year—the scale is different, but in 2011 I read much more from the second half of the nineteenth century, more from the twentieth century overall, and what seems almost like a record amount from this century (though I suppose it’s not).
On to country of origin. The US and UK have flip-flopped since last year, and my tail is two countries shorter. Where last year I had just one or two books from most of that long tail, though, this year gets a little bit deeper for a few of them at least. Do I wish some of the non-Anglo totals were higher? I do, but I wouldn’t give up many of those US or UK titles to make it so. I just want more.
Author gender was another real shocker for me this year. Last year I speculated on whether the Laura Ingalls Wilder books would finally tip the scales further toward women (if not actually in their favor). The opposite seems to have happened—the men got a greater share than ever, with 62 out of 85 books (one title was an anthology with authors of both genders).
Again, it’s not something I worry about (although I do look forward to following Michelle’s new life as a flashlight and have gotten some [hopefully] good female-author suggestions from my readers this year), but I am surprised that I’ve actually become more skewed than I already was.
I’ve got one chart this year that I haven’t done before, with my reading broken down into literary “forms.” This might not be as subjective as my next, signature chart, but it still is—both in terms of creating the categories and then determining what falls where. But I’m sure you can live with that. The novel is the clear winner, but I was pleased to see it accounted for just barely half of titles. Novellas really held their own thanks to Frances’s Melville House challenge, and there was a fair amount of short story reading even with those shorter works already in the mix (the short stories category includes short story collections, not individual stories, which I need a better way to keep track of).
There’s no question that, once again, I need more nonfiction in this mix, but I was very pleased to see poetry and drama make reasonable appearances. More of this, please!
And now, for the themes. If you don’t understand the categories, well, I would direct you to their first mention, but of course I never really explain them much. Each title has at most one category (nonfiction titles often do not have an appropriate category). And there are certainly some changes here!
Gardening has taken a major hit, with Men & Women enjoying a nice resurgence. Grail Quests also came up from behind, but Sex & Death made a nice showing in a tie for second place. Dreaming may always be last, but it will never be missing.
I think next year I’d like to see Men & Women, Dreaming and Gardening take the top three, but some of my favorite books of the year have been about Sex & Death—all of Ubu, for one thing (of course).
Also, a minigame: how do y’all think the four Nabokov novels played out in theme-terms? I’ll give one hint: two categories account for all of them.
This morning’s post on May Day made nine novellas I have written about thus far, putting me at “passionate” in Melville House’s challenge schema. Honestly, nine seems so paltry! I’ll be a little disappointed if I don’t end up at “unstoppable.” Here’s a rundown of what I’ve posted on so far:
I’m preparing this post in advance, so I suppose I run some risk of missing a late entry to the Unstructured Clarel Readalong, but let’s be real…
It’s the end of September, and that means it’s time for a wrap-up post for the Unstructured Clarel Readalong!
A readalong for two, but an excellent one, and I thank all my readers for their interest and support. I promise more such insanity in future.
I expect blogging to be somewhat light for the next several weeks. Now that I’ve finished wrestling with Melville—for now, for now—and am reading at whim I won’t have quite as much to say. Plus, I’ll be busy with a few other things. For one, I’ll be getting ready, both at home and at work, for another vacation, this one with wider appeal than the last: I’m going to Yellowstone! (I’m super excited about this; the East Coaster in me gets super excited about seeing the West.) Also unlike last time, I think I’ll be taking a “blogcation” (ugh, what a horrid word) during the trip itself, so it will be especially quiet around here for a week or so. Oh, and I’m already having book-packing stress. Will I even want/have time to read? At night, right? Anyway.
So far in my reading at whim I’ve gone through two not just contemporary but actually brand-new novels, and I have one more on the way to me shortly (Jean-Christophe Valtat’s Aurorarama). But now I have turned back to the classics and to my first work by Sir Walter Scott, The Bride of Lammermoor. Pretty sure Amateur Reader recommended that to me as a good starting point a while back and that’s how it ended up in my house. How much do you love the Scotch maiden complete with tartan shawl on the cover of the latest Oxford World’s Classics edition?
I haven’t actually told Frances yet, and I’m still afraid to commit, but I think I’m going to join her Madame Bovary readalong in October. Largely because I have never read Flaubert. (I said that loudly instead of whispering, even though I wanted to, because the first step in reading dehumiliation is admitting you have a problem.) So hopefully we’ll be remedying that soon. Her schedule does seem awfully doable.
Last, I’m really going back and forth on whether to do another seminar at the Newberry Library this fall. A year ago I was thrilled with my class on German Romantic fairy tales, then the one spring offering I liked got cancelled and in summer I spaced and missed registration. I’m feeling much busier this fall than I was a year ago, but there are several awesome-looking classes available. Literature and Humor in Buenos Aires, Dombey and Son (which, ahem, I still haven’t finished…), the Victorian business, Paradise Lost, Emily Dickinson… I don’t know, what should I do? Maybe the Emily Dickinson, because it’s short, and because poetry seems like something it would be good to have help with. Maybe.
Although there are a couple things I really meant to read that I didn’t, I’ve decided it’s time to call an end to the epistolary literature project. After nearly eleven months, I’ve done what I’m going to do, for a while at least. I think it was mostly a good run:
As with all projects, I’m finishing with a longer list than I began with. Also typically, I’m ready to do other things for a while.