At the year’s end, we enjoy examining book stats. We log titles and authors in our book journal, though little beyond that. I also review one of Balzac’s lesser-known novels, A Daughter of Eve, which was last translated in the 1890s. I wonder: shouldn’t a publisher recruit new translators and reissue new editions of Balzac’s neglected books?
I exhale with relief as I cross Christmas off the calendar. Is it really over? I feel like Ripley at the end of Alien – out of the shower and starting to relax only to discover the alien is lurking in the space capsule. Have I completed all the Christmas rites? Or is there some nagging monstrous detail…?
We added a new tradition, reading aloud from American Christmas Stories, a new Library of America anthology. (We especially enjoyed pieces by Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley.) Our Christmas walk also had “literary” allusions – sort of.
If I had come of age in the twenty-first century, my taste in literature would be vastly different. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, many critically-acclaimed books were quite short (200-275 pages): among my favorite writers were Raymond Carver, Laurie Colwin, Marian Thurm, John Updike, Richard Ford, Anita Brookner, Rachel Ingalls, Penelope Lively, Elizabeth Tallent, Deborah Eisenberg, and early Margaret Drabble. This century, there is a tendency toward maximalism.
This year, for the sake of sanity, I have divided my Top 10 Books of the Year list into two categories, “New Books” and “Classics.” The selections range from the first century B.C. to 2021. Something for everybody!
In Joyce Carol Oates’s introduction to Dolores Hitchens’s classic mystery, The Cat Saw Murder, she explains that this strange little novel was the inspiration for the best-selling cat mysteries you find by the dozen in bookstores. The first of Hitchens’ 12-book Cat series, it was written under the name D. B. Olsen and published in 1939.
In addition to a review of The Cat Who Saw Murder, I speculate on the effect of December publication dates on books.
We love the holiday lights and decorations, but Christmas is a time for lowered expectations. If you bake a brilliant pie, someone will ask for Cool Whip. (“Will ice cream do?”) If you give quirky gifts, the recipients will trade like stockbrokers.
Now we limit gifts to one book per person. We have become expert at choosing books for the dour and difficult, the crotchety curmudgeons, irascible CEOs, restless recluses, vainglorious narcissists, and even the hep-cats, by which I mean the cats.
The following books should be available at your local bookstore. Nothing too far out here – something for everybody – unless they are attendees of Renaissance Fairs or WorldCon, in which case you are entirely on your own. I would also appreciate your recommendations, please!
During this time of plague, fear, lockdown, masks, and tragic death, we have tried to find solace in the classics. In 2020 and 2021, many people read War and Peace, according to numerous articles about reading habits in lockdown.
This brilliant, breathtaking novel is a conventional narrative on the surface, an elaborate story of high society and military life in Russia during the Napoleonic wars, but is also a precursor of modernism, interwoven with lectures and rants about the oversimplified nature of the history of war.
Twentieth-century liberals were more tolerant than the progressives of this century. In the 1990s, when Monica Lewinsky, a 22-year-old intern, gave Clinton a blow job in the White House, none of us Democrats really cared. Two consenting adults having oral sex – yes, it was tacky, and we felt bad for Hillary, but Monica seemed out of her mind or wilier than anyone would have guessed – she kept the dress with the semen stains!
But what I remember most clearly was the zealous attempt of independent counsel Kenneth Starr to subpoena Lewinsky’s bookstore records. He wanted to confirm that Monica Lewinsky had purchased a copy of Nicholson Baker’s Vox, a novel about phone sex, and given the book to Clinton.