Happy New Year! My Favorite Books of the Year

You wonder, What’s next?  She has already listed her Favorite New Books of 2018 and written about her Year in Reading.

Well, here is a list of my Favorite Old, Older, and Very Old Books of the Year.

1.  East of Eden by John Steinbeck.  I have never been a fan of Steinbeck–too much The Pearl and Grapes of Wrath in school–but  I fell in love with East of Eden, one of the best novels I’ve read in my life.   The fascinating characters are from two very different families, the wealthy Trasks, whose father made a fortune but tormented his two sons and two wives, and the Hamiltons, an impoverished but happy family living on a poor farm: Samuel Hamilton, an  inventor, his strict but fair wife, Liza,  and nine children.    Both families struggle against the horrified knowledge of sociopaths and murderers, especially the unhappy Adam Trask, who must work especially hard to overcome the misery of his murderous wife’s deceptions.  In many ways it’s a modern Genesis, with a frightening take on Adam and Eve.  The description at Goodreads says:  “Set in the rich farmland of California’s Salinas Valley, this sprawling and often brutal novel follows the intertwined destinies of two families—the Trasks and the Hamiltons—whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel.”

2.  Maureen Howard’s The Rags of Time, an American woman’s Ulysses, and the last in Howard’s quartet of novels on the seasons.  There are many references to Howard’s memoir, Facts of Life. Her double, Mimi, an 80-year-old writer , reflects on American history, personal history, and  the design of Central Park.  She and her husband also muse on the new take on American holidays like Columbus Day.  Some of the chapters retell Columbus’s stories: Mimi has done research in Italy and even quotes from Columbus’s journals.  In addition to writing about historical characters, Howard interweaves stories of characters from the first three novels in the quartet.  A difficult novel, but absolutely gorgeous.

3. The 27th Kingdom by Alice Thomas Ellis.  Ellis’s extraordinary novel was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1982.  Set in Chelsea in 1954, this witty, whimsical novel opens with the bohemian heroine, Aunt Irene (pronounced Irina and known by all as “Aunt Irene”), reading a letter from her sister, the Mother Superior of a convent, asking her to take in a postulant who doesn’t quite fit in with the nuns.   A heterogeneous group of characters surround Aunt Irene.  There is her nephew, Kyril, a gorgeous but nasty young man she has indulged from childhood; Mrs. Mason, the spiteful cleaning woman who is the wife of an abusive alcoholic; shrewd, savvy working-class Mrs. O’Connor and her son Victor, who deals shadily in beautiful objects whose provenance is doubtful; and Mr. Sirocco, the mousy lodger who simply won’t leave. He is one of Kyril’s friends, perhaps a former lover.  And then  the magical Valentine, who has disturbed the Mother Superior, arrives.

4.  Procopius’s The Secret History reads just like a novel. Best-known as the author of two histories which celebrate the achievements of the eastern Roman emperor Justinian, Procopius did a complete reversal in this gossipy little book. Was this page-turner in the literary form of a Greek invective an articulation of what he really thought, or was it written because he changed his mind? The translator of the Penguin edition, Peter Sarris, explores the possibilities.  He  writes in the introduction, “…Procopius comes across as an extraordinarily creative author who was able to take the inherited literary forms of antiquity and rearrange, recombine and reappropriate them in ways that look novel.”

5.  Charles Dickens’s Bleak House.  What can I say?  It is one of my favorite novels ever.  I posted about it here.

6.  Jean Stafford’s The Catherine Wheel.  She won the Pulitzer Prize for her Collected Stories in 1970, but my favorite is The Catherine Wheel.   Brace yourself: the heroine of The Catherine Wheel is a well-bred spinster, with more than a  dash of Miss Havisham and Cousin Bette in her personality.  And Katharine has a secret:  she is having an affair with her cousin Maeve’s husband, John Shipley, the man she has loved since her teens. And all these years she has been furious that he preferred the insipidity of  Maeve to her brilliance.  The effect on John’s children, who stay with her every summer, is chilling.  As complicated as a book by Henry James.

7.  Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done? is one of those novels which critics name-drop but no common reader ever reads. I was utterly entranced by this complex political novel about radicals who experiment with co-ops and free love. The Russian politics reminded me of America in the 1960s and ’70s.

8.  Queen of Hearts by Susan Richards Shreve.  What can I say?  It’s one of my favorite books. If Scheherazade were cast as the heroine of a contemporary novel, she might be a lot like Francesca Woodbine, the pop singer with second sight who stars in Susan Richards Shreve’s enchanting novel.  But Francesca is no ordinary pop singer. It takes an artist as intuitive as she to penetrate “the secret lives of ordinary people.” Thwarted composers, teenage Don Juans, would-be snake charmers, and lion tamers range the streets of her seemingly humdrum hometown in the guise of housewives, sexy boys, harmless booksellers, and cat lovers. In her songs, Francesca unveils their hidden passions and crimes.  Like her fortuneteller grandmother, Francesca is reported to have second sight, yet her insights are equally rooted in her own violent secrets. A fantastic novel!  Out-of-print, though.

9.  The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett.  Bennett’s masterpiece centers on two sisters, Constance, who inherits the family drapery shop in Bursely, one of Bennett’s “Five Towns” and Sophia, who moves to Paris and first runs a boarding house and then a hotel.  It begins in the 1860s, and follows the lives of the Baines sisters from their teens till death.  Bennett brilliantly divides the book into four different chronological tales, beginning with the sisters’ roots in Book I,  called “Mrs. Baines” (who is their mother); Book II, “Constance,” and Book III, “Sophia,” detail  their work and relationships through middle age;  and Book IV, “What Life Is,” their old age and deaths.

10.  An After-Dinner’s Sleep by Stanley Middleton.  Middleton won the Booker Prize for The Holiday in 1974.  His remarkable 1986 novel, An After-Dinner’s Sleep, is compelling in a buttoned-up Anita Brookner fashion. The protagonist, Alistair Murray, a 65-year-old widower, has a lot of time on his hands.  He loves music and plays Bach on the piano, reads widely, and takes long walks.  He is a retired Director of Education who was once a powerful man in the Midlands. Now he must shape his days by routine activities.  And he is sitting alone one night when Eleanor Franks, with whom he had a brief sexual affair years ago, shows up at his house.  You’ll want to read on about their surprising on-again, off-again friendship.

And now on to a new year of reading…

Why You Don’t Want to Know People in the News

You don’t want to know the people in the headlines:  people are not the heroes or villains you read about in the news.

This year I recognized the name of a former student.   There she was in a photograph dramatically accusing someone of sexual harassment.  I said with disbelief to my husband, “Is that Bunny?”*  Sure enough, it was.

Her accusation was plausible, and I felt compassion. l remembered her as a genial girl, a bright, if not brilliant, student. From the little I knew of the students’ social lives– English teachers, appalled by their essays, gossiped about their precociousness and promiscuity–the incident she described could have happened.

In my own school days I would have avoided Bunny, though. Popular girls could be kind one day, vicious the next.   And Bunny needed attention.  She needed to be the center of attention.

One day Bunny came up after class and accused a new student of cheating.  The new girl was smart in a quiet way, and her grades were good. I told Bunny she was mistaken.  I’d sat on my desk and had a clear view of the front of the room where the new girl sat, eyes on her test.   But Bunny reported her to the administration.  I  assured the principal and the counselor that the girl had not cheated. I called the girl’s mother and said she had not cheated.   Yet she was called in front of some student council to be sentenced—to what I don’t know. But I had forgotten the incident entirely until I read the news about Bunny.

What am I to think all these years later? Bunny is an adult now.  Doubtless she has endured sadness and grief. And carried away by the #metoo movement, she probably did not anticipate negative news coverage.

When you have even a slight acquaintance with someone, you realize he or she is not the hero or villain you read about. It’s complicated. It’s difficult to know what direction his or her life has taken.  It’s just a story.  And after a while nobody really cares.

*I have changed her name.

What Makes a Good Reading Year?

Has it been a good reading year?
Yes, I would say so.
Has it been a good year? No, it has been terrible.
Here’s what we know:  a good year and a good reading year are not often synchronous.

The months go by so fast! I hate to turn the pages of the calendar.  I wish we’d had more golden reading days in August. Couldn’t we  shorten December and transfer the days back? And wouldn’t it be more fun to celebrate the New Year on the Summer Solstice?  Why January?

I am always restless on New Year’s Day.   The only entertainment option, since we see all the independent films over Christmas, is to go to the office supply superstore and fill our cart with Planners, storage boxes, file folders, and calculators. But the reading in 2018 got off to a fun start.  The first book I finished was Laura Lee Smith’s The Ice House, a compulsively readable novel (now in paperback) about a likable small-town couple who have a literal “meltdown” when their ice factory in Florida is investigated by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration).  Smith is  a bit like Richard Russo, only lighter.

I enjoyed my January reading, but it was not striking.   Fast forward to the beginning of March and my reading life accelerated. During a wintry trip to London I was confined to the hotel room for long hours: there were only two or three inches of snow, but no one  in London had a shovel! And I didn’t have boots.  The British Library and Trafalgar Square were cordoned off like a crime scene.

Snow falls in Trafalgar Square in London, February 28, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

I idled in coffeehouses and museums. And then I read and read.  When I wasn’t fending off addicts—one banged on my door in the middle of the night at the cheap hotel in an iffy neighborhood, so I had to move—I read Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day, The London Scene, A Common Reader, and On Being Ill; Rumer Godden’s Kingfishers Catch Fire, Susan Hill’s Jacob’s Room Is Full of Books, and Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. Good God! That’s a reading record.  The snow melted on the last day of the trip—of course.

Back home, I binged on Russian literature.  I devoured Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done?, one of those novels which critics name-drop but no common reader ever reads. I was utterly entranced by this complex political novel about radicals who experiment with co-ops and free love.  (You can read my post about it at Mirabile Dictu.)  The politics reminded me of America in the 1960s and ’70s.

From Chernyshevsky I moved on to  Dostoevsky’s The Demons, the only novel I’ve ever enjoyed by Dostoevsky.  Dostoevsky loathed Turgenev, and in this fast-paced novel about the residents of a provincial town infiltrated by nihilists, he makes scathing references to Turgenev’s work.   Dostoesky’s demonic nihilists are nothing like Bazarov in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.

In late spring I began to reread Horace in the original Latin, and though his best work is incomparably gorgeous, this reading confirmed my opinion that he is a pompous misogynist.  You haven’t lived till you’ve read him on middle-aged women who sweat and stink, and make him impotent.  As for his obsequiousness to Augustus, he is a Roman Uriah Heep.  And when he writes in Ode 3.30, “I have made a monument more lasting than bronze,” it makes me miss Catullus, who humorously, if not sincerely,  refers to his own poems as nugae, nonsense or trifles.

And then I reread Ovid, a far more daring poet than Horace, and the one you’d prefer to talk to at a party. He was  banished from Rome (which I like to pronounce  banish-ud!) because of carmen et error, a poem and an error.  If you haven’t read Ovid, I recommend Metamorphoses.

The summer sped by with a binge on  P. G. Wodehouse, Trollope, Elizabeth von Arnim, Steinbeck, Olivia Manning, and Patricia Moyes. The fall was devoted to Stanley Middleton, Kristin Lavransdatter, Queen Lucia, Bleak House, and Maureen Howard’s The Rags of Time. I am pretending I didn’t read Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit!

I also read a 1979 book,  Reinventing Anarchy:  What Are Anarchists Thinking Now?, in memory of a friend I knew in my counter-culture teens. She and her parents moved away and lived in a collective; I was invited to go along, but I declined.   Reinventing Anarchy did help me remember the idealism of those times.

Overall, it has been a rich reading year. You can read most of my 2018  posts  at Mirabile Dictu, my blog of six years, but, as you know if you’re here, I recently moved to Thornfield Hall.  With the exception of Martin Chuzzlewit, I have enjoyed most of the books I’ve read this year. I hope your reading year has been as happy.

Five Fab Fave Books of 2018

The secret of losing yourself in a great book is to get off the internet, I learned this year.  Revamp your blog, spend less time online, and you’ll find yourself reading the way you did before you clicked from webpage to webpage.

And so I am sharing my Top Five NEW Books of 2018 early, because I won’t finish any more new books this year.   Those of you who know me will be surprised to learn I actually read more than five new books!  Next week I’ll post a list of the other Top Five, that is, Old and Older Books.  Yup, there will be Dickens.

Five Fab Fave Books of 2018

1. Conscience by Alice Mattison.  Told from three perspectives, this complex lefty novel explores the ramifications of reading and rereading a novel based on the life of a friend.   Olive Grossman, a feminist biographer, has agreed to write the  introduction to a new  paperback edition of Bright Morning of Pain,  a novel written by a friend and  based on the life of her best friend, Helen, an anti-war activist who became a terrorist.  Although Olive’s husband has not read the book, it has been a source of contention in their marriage.  The consequences of his finally reading Bright Morning of Pain are surprising.

2. Deborah Eisenberg’s Your Duck is My Duck is a wry, witty, crisply-written collection of six short stories.  Against a setting of political instability and climate change, the eclectic characters attempt to find balance.  An artist questions the fabric of society; doting immigrant aunts fabricate a family history  to cover up traumatic roots; a spoiled young man  steals $10,000 from his father, the CEO of a corporation which ruthlessly poisoned the environment;  and a group of aged actors have been misrepresented in a celebrity memoir.  Every sentence is perfect.

3. Booker Prize-winner Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls is a retelling of the Iliad from a woman’s point of view.  The narrator, Briseis, a former princess, is Achilles’ “prize,” i.e., slave. She observes that Achilles is not a “golden, shining” hero to the women in the camp; instead, he is known as “the butcher.”  Briseis  muses, “What will they make of us, the people of those unimaginably distant times? One thing I do know: they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery.”

4.  Rena Rossner’s  The Sisters of the Winter Wood is a brilliant retelling of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, partly told in verse.   Two half-sisters, Liba and Layla, left alone in their house in the wood while their parents travel to their grandfather’s deathbed, learn they have shape-shifting abilities:  Liba can become a bear, Layla a swan.  Rossner’s mimicry of Rossetti’s style and content is fascinating:  she alternates chapters from the two sisters’ perspectives,  Liba’s in prose, Layla’s in poetry.  And Rossetti’s and Rossner’s goblin fruit-sellers are equally seductive.

5. THE BOOK I COULDN’T PUT DOWN:  Jean Thompson’s A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl.  Set in a midwestern university town, this well-written page-turner is  the story of three generations of women who struggle to make a place for themselves.  Evelyn, a historian, gave up working on her  Ph.D. after she got pregnant and unhappily married an older professor with rigid ideas.  Her daughter Laura graduated from the university but never left town. She  balances her job in communications with caring for a dysfunctional family–her alcoholic husband and drug-addicted musician son constantly fight–and, as the book opens, for her dying mother as well.  Laura’s daughter Grace, a college graduate who majored in English,now works at the a food co-op, desperately trying to distance herself from her family.

Have you read any of these? Do recommend your own faves!

Let Nothing You Dismay!

My new mantra!

We powered through Christmas.  Now we can relax and forget it.  I plan to spend the rest of the week bingeing on the Outlander series.

The house smells of burned butter, a scent emitted while I made Shrimp Scampi for the Christmas feast. I can’t say I’m much of a chef, but I blame this tragedy on our electric stove. The burners heat up so fast it’s like trying to control a racecar in downtown Oskaloosa.

While the shrimp was sauteing, I couldn’t find the lemon. “Can you help?” My husband has a sixth sense for hunting and gathering.  The lemon was behind the Harry and David box of pears. Everything came together, sort of, just in time. And so the carol was written: “God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay.”

I’m just glad we didn’t have a breakdown.

Honestly, I haven’t had a stress-free Christmas since 1969. My grandmother kept everything together, possibly because she was the only one who could cook.  When she was a young farm wife, she cooked three meals a day for the hired hands.  On Christmas she prepared turkey, ham, three kinds of potatoes, green beans, dressing, homemade noodles, pie…. but her culinary secrets died with her.

My mother was a fan of frozen foods and eating out. She cried at the table the year the frozen turkey breast was underdone.… and everybody got a little dysfunctional.  I wept the year I opened the refrigerator only to find that my husband had bought, instead of a whole turkey breast from Whole Foods, a lone turkey breast in a shrink-wrapped package.

And those were mild Christmases, not tragic.

There was the year my cousin, a middle-class librarian, went manic and did “performance art” in her yard. The police came and hauled her away in cuffs in the locked back seat of a black-and-white to the county mental hospital.  It was traumatic for her, but she was a routine Christmas mental case to the police.  She needed  meds, and she was released the next day.

And the moral is: Don’t do performance art in your yard!

After this relatively excellent Christmas, I still feel a bit melancholy.  And so I turned to this article in Psychology Today.

So many of us have an idealized version of what the holidays should be like and are very disappointed when they don’t live up to those expectations. Try to be realistic. Remember, nobody has a perfect holiday or perfect family.

Yes, it will never be 1969 again.  But every time Christmas comes around, I expect perfection.

Happy Christmas!  And let’s hope I can find my Gabaldon books, or the DVDs.  What escape reading do you recommend????!!!!!

Books and Coffee in Oskaloosa, Iowa

The Book Vault

Now that my husband is out of his sling, we occasionally explore picturesque small towns on the weekend.  And so we went to Oskaloosa, Iowa, where the Book Vault is the cornerstone of Christmas shopping.

We had been looking for a copy of  Richard Powers’s The Overstory.  Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, it is an ecological novel that centers on trees.  Oddly, this well-reviewed book is sold out at the Bookworm in Omaha, Prairie Lights in Iowa City, Barnes and Noble in Des Moines, Iowa City, and Cedar Rapids, and Amazon and barnesandnoble.com.

Lo and behold! The Book Vault had the book.

“It’s the last copy in the midwest,” we told the three women behind the counter.

The Book Vault really is one of the loveliest bookstores I’ve been to.  Located in a 19th-century bank building, it has three floors, an illuminated stained glass ceiling,  period light fixtures, a balcony, and two vaults full of books.  The store was founded by librarians Nancy Simpson and Julie Hansen in 2005.  It is owned by The Musco Corporation, a sports lighting company headquartered in Oskaloosa, which has also generously contributed money to the small local Quaker-founded university.

The Book Vault has a marvelous selection of literary fiction and nonfiction.  Honestly, you can find all the latest books there.  (The good ones, not the junk.). There is also a cookbook section and test kitchen in the back.

But we weren’t finished yet.  Next door is Smokey Row, a  coffeehouse and restaurant.  This is by far the nicest of the four Smokey Rows (the others are in Pella, Pleasantville, and Des Moines).  The one in Oskaloosa is by far the least hectic, and the coffee is excellent.

You can also buy Smokey Row mugs.  Yup.  All your shopping can be done in Oskaloosa (population 11,463, according to the 2010 Census).

 

The Blogging Scene in the Marketing Age

I’ve had at least six blogs, and deleted two of them.  I don’t remember the title of the first.  Blogging was THE trend in the early twenty-first century. It was an amateur effort, in the best possible way, in the true sense of the Latin origin,  amare, to love, and amator, lover.

It didn’t last.  It couldn’t.  The cowgirls and anarchists faded from the scene.  Publishing companies co-opted bloggers.  Blogging turned from a labor of love into a publisher’s marketing opportunity.  The naive bloggers became shills.

Mind you, there are many sophisticated bloggers.  My personal “circle” of bloggers, such as it is, prefers books published before this century, and  distinguishes between reviews and marketing.

But I miss the early blogs, which were an “alternative” to the media. I don’t see that anymore.  Remember when writers and editors of book reviews attacked bloggers for ruining criticism?  The review publications have terminated the blogs they established in imitation of saucy blogs, because the  new bloggers’ second- and third-rate imitations of their criticism provide no competition.  (And, yes, there are some brilliant bloggers, as I’ve said before.)

Overall, I haven’t seen so much brown-nosing in years.

Where do we go from here?  Words are disappearing faster than I can turn a page.