December 27, 2008

Novel Readings 2008

One of the best features of blogging is turning out to be the record it provides of my reading experiences. 2008 doesn't seem to have been my most rewarding year of novel reading (being on sabbatical for part of last year accounted, in part, for the greater number and variety of books I went through in 2007), but there have certainly been highlights. Some of my most stimulating reading in 2008 was re-reading, and some was non-fiction. Here's my look back at 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. Ann Patchett, Bel Canto. Without a doubt, this was my favourite new novel of the year: exquisite, finely tuned art about the beauty, value, and fragility of art.
  2. Olivia Manning, The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy. Though the prose throughout these books is consistently, almost perversely, flat, I found the series consistently interesting, especially in its depiction of ordinary, flawed, but mostly likable people trying to organize meaningful lives for themselves amidst the constantly unfolding chaos and danger of war. The understated style comes to seem appropriate for characters who are never really dramatic, always on the periphery of the 'real' action and yet, of course, always the protagonists of their own stories.
  3. George Eliot, Adam Bede. I hadn't read Adam Bede in a couple of years and have never paid it as much attention as my favourite George Eliot novels. When it emerged as the front-runner for our summer reading group at The Valve, I was uncertain how things would go, if relieved to be on somewhat familiar territory. In the end, I gained a greater appreciation of the uneven beauties and oddities of the novel. I also found it constantly stimulating seeing how other readers responded to it and learning from the range of approaches and expertise that inflected their readings. Of the many memorable passages, this is the one that I find has echoed in my mind since we wrapped things up:
    "It would be a poor result of all our anguish and our wrestling, if we won nothing but our old selves at the end of it--if we could return to the same blind loves, the same self-confident blame, the same light thoughts of human suffering, the same frivolous gossip over blighted human lives, the same feeble sense of that Unknown towards which we have sent forth irrepressible cries in our loneliness. Let us rather be thankful that our sorrow lives in us as an indestructible force, only changing its form, as forces do, and passing from pain into sympathy--the one poor word which includes all our best insight and our best love."
  4. James Wood, How Fiction Works. Though my assessment of this much-hyped book from today's most talked-about literary critic was not altogether positive, Wood is certainly an inspiration to anyone who would like to see the gap between academic and public criticism bridged without false populism.
  5. Ronan McDonald, The Death of the Critic. Like How Fiction Works, The Death of the Critic stood out in my reading year more because of the conversations it generated than because of its intrinsic merits. I'm still thinking about the emphasis McDonald (and others) places on evaluation as the key to critical relevance, and I'm still inclined to think that people's everyday reading practices have at least as much to do with ethics (broadly construed, as Booth does in The Company We Keep). Eventually I hope to make this case--and, further, the case for ethical criticism as a useful framework for public criticism--in a careful way.
  6. The Reader. I've been so happy to discover this excellent publication from The Reader Organization. I first came across it through this article on Scott and have since read several back issues and both of the issues made available as PDFs for download. I've been promised that a two-year subscription is part of my Christmas haul this year, and I really look forward to keeping up with its stimulating blend of intelligent but accessible literary analysis, readers' reports, and new fiction and poetry.
  7. Vanity Fair and Bleak House. The enormous pleasure and challenge of teaching both of these books in the same class nearly compensates for an academic year in which I am not teaching Middlemarch even once (I'll have to make up for that in 2009-10).
  8. The Wire. OK, it's not a novel...but it was certainly one of the most enthralling narrative experiences of my year, and in its social and thematic ambition and its attempt to convey the connections between multiple layers of a complex socio-economic world and a sprawling cast of characters, it has much in common with the 19th-century 'condition of England' novels.
  9. Two recent additions I haven't had time to write up properly: Kate Atkinson's Case Histories and One Good Turn. I first read the former on the way home from a trip to Sydney. I'm not a happy flier and I was fairly well medicated, which must be why I didn't appreciate it much at the time and wantonly gave it away on landing. After hearing a number of people speak very highly of both of Atkinson's mysteries, I got One Good Turn from the library last week and enjoyed it so much that I picked up a new copy of Case Histories, which I just finished reading and found thoroughly impressive.
Books I could have done without (happily, a shorter list than last year's):
  1. Inger Ash Wolfe, The Calling. There's a good book--even a good series--to be had from the materials in this creepy thing. Maybe the sequel will abandon the cheap thrills in favour of intelligent plotting and character development.
  2. Paul Auster, City of Glass. Actually, I wasn't sure which list to put this one one. I hated it and yet I thought it was very smart, and I'll be teaching it in April. Wish me luck!
Books I'm most looking forward to reading in 2009:
  1. Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy. Yes, this was on my books to read in 2008 list too. I don't blame the novel at all for my failure to get through it; I was enjoying it, but other things intruded and my attention wandered.
  2. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace. My Christmas wish list this year reflected a certain impatience with hot new books that rather disappointed; War and Peace is one of those Great Classics that I have read only once (years ago, trying to look smart) and have often thought I should read properly. Now I have it in a highly praised new translation and I'm excited to get started.
  3. John Galsworth, The Forsyte Saga. This is another from my wish list. I've never read it, but it looks like just the kind of thing I'll enjoy.
  4. Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited. See above.
  5. Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca. I read this many times in my youth, but it was part of our family library and since I moved away from home I've never owned my own copy. Now I do!
  6. Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep. For someone who teaches a course on detective fiction, this one is probably my "Humiliation" winner. I'm tiring a bit of The Maltese Falcon, so I figure it's time I tried the other obvious one.
Not directly related to reading novels but of much significance to Novel Readings in 2008 was the invitation I received to become a contributor to The Valve. It has been invigorating, if sometimes intimidating, to share my posts with a wider audience and to participate in the lively exchanges that go on among the diverse community of readers and thinkers that write and comment there.

I have no bold new plans for Novel Readings in 2009 except to keep it up. Thanks to everyone who came here to read or comment!


praymont said...

Yes, Chandler's Big Sleep is good, and it supports allusions to the Big Lebowski.

Sarah said...

Kate Atkinson's third novel When will there be good news? is easily as good as its two predecessors, so I'd recommend it.

After reading Blogging the Canon's posts on Vanity Fair, I hope to re-read it in '09, as I've been reminded of how much fun it is. I found The Forsyte Saga a surprisingly good sprawling family saga, so if you find the time I hope you enjoy it.

I've never read War and Peace but would like to in '09. I've also somehow avoided Waugh and most Chandler (though not The Big Sleep), so look forward to your thoughts which might inspire me to give them a try.

Bookphilia said...

I've found a copy of Bel Canto in the bookstore and am putting it aside to read, based on your glowing review. Hopefully no one will want to buy it before I can get to it.

Happy New Year!

Rohan Maitzen said...

Paul: I'm looking forward to it. I have a feeling, with classes about to begin (and grad admissions too) that I won't be able to read much that isn't assigned for a while, but eventually...

Sarah: I'll have to wait for the new Atkinson to come out in paperback, but I'm definitely going to read it. I'm glad to hear your recommendation on The Forsyte Saga. It does look like a good read--sprawling family sagas are just the thing for long winter nights! Have fun with Vanity Fair.

DQ: I hope you like Bel Canto. A couple of people I know did not respond to it nearly as positively as I did. I think a lot may depend on how you read it (one of them couldn't get past the feeling that it was unrealistic, for instance). Good luck with the new store! If I'm ever out your way, I'll drop in and buy a book (or two or three).

JRussell said...

Happy New Year!
My vague memory of The Forsyte Saga is that it was surprisingly captivating and addictive. I wonder how I would feel now, many years later?! As for Waugh, you're in for a treat. I'll watch out for your comments on both of these.

Rohan Maitzen said...

Hi, JRussell. OK, I think that settles it. I'm going to skip my classes for a while (hey, my students do it all the time) and read Galsworthy and Waugh. I'm sure I'll be the better for it!