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!