What were you reading 10 years ago? Has it held up?
I looked at my 2009 journal to find out.
Stats: I read 174 books that year, but only 23 new books. And I must confess that I have forgotten most of the 23, which does not necessarily mean they were bad. But it might mean that.
Here are Five Memorable and Five Forgotten Books of 2009.
FIVE BOOKS THAT MADE AN IMPRESSION
1 The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, this brilliant, rich novel is loosely based on the life of Victorian writer E. Nesbit and her circle. The heroine, Olive Wellwood, a Fabian socialist and a popular writer of children’s books, supports her husband and family by writing. Byatt interweaves the story of this bohemian family with the history of the arts and crafts movement, Victorian fairy tales, socialism, and Olive’s tales.
2 Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem. So weird, so good! I wrote in 2009: The Great Gatsby meets Petronius’s Satyricon in a New York stuck in perpetual winter. Narrated by Chase Insteadman, a wealthy former child star whose astronaut girlfriend is lost in space (their romance is famous), lives off residuals from his ‘80s sitcom and is celebrated for his charm. When Perkus Tooth, a former pop culture critic for Rolling Stone, takes a shine to Chase, the world becomes increasingly more fantastic. Chase’s hilarious observations about Perkus’s discovery of eBay as the result of an acupuncture session are typically over the top (Perkus has an epiphany about beauty as he gazes at a vase in a photo on the acupuncturist’s wall and decides to buy one for himself.)
3 Counting the Stars by Helen Dunmore. This stunning, lyrical novel tells the story of the Roman poet Catullus and his affair with Clodia, whom he calls Lesbia in his poems (a reference to the Greek poet Sappho, not lesbianism). The Orange Prize-winning Dunmore was an extraordinary writer, but this book was never published in the U.S.
4 Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer. In 2009 I scribbled: Dyer’s entertaining novel is divided into two parts, one set in Venice, the other in Varanasi. Jeff Atman, a middle-aged freelance writer, hopes never to have to churn out a “think” piece about art again, but he needs the money. (All freelance writers will understand this.) In Venice he has an affair with a gorgeous, witty woman who works at an art gallery: they seem to be the witty Nick and Nora of the peripheral art world. The second part, set in Varanasi, gives the freelance writer a chance to escape himself as he becomes immersed in the culture of India.
5 Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. This entrancing popular novel is about one of my favorite subjects, witches. The narrative shifts back and forth in time between the present and the Salem witch trials. The heroine, Connie, a graduate student at Harvard, is cleaning out her late grandmother’s house near Salem when she discovers key and a piece of parchment with a name on it: Deliverance Dane. Who was Deliverance Dane? You will find out.
BOOKS I BARELY REMEMBER.
1 The Spy Game by Georgina Harding. I remember NOTHING about this book. I wrote in my journal, “A luminous novel about identity, childhood, and history, centered on the imagination of two English children whose German immigrant mother dies in 1961.” I liked it at the time.
2 The Walking People by Mary Beth Keane. Something Irish? Indeed it seems to be. I moderately enjoyed this novel about an Irish immigrant family , but remember nothing about it.
3 A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert. The New York Times called this novel “wickedly smart.” I enjoyed it back then, but it did not stick with me. The Goodreads description says: “The novel opens in England in 1915, at the deathbed of Dorothy Townsend, a suffragist and one of the first women to integrate Cambridge University. Her decision to starve herself for the cause informs and echoes in the later, overlapping narratives of her descendants.” It certainly sounds like something I’d like!
4 Love All by Elizabeth Jane Howard. I loved Howard’s novels when I binge-read them in the ’90s, but was very disappointed in this late novel by the author of the Cazelet Chronicles. Perhaps I’d be disappointed in Howard’s other books if I reread them now.
5 Drood by Dan Simmons. I love Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood, so of course I had to read Dan Simmons’s Drood. Told from the point-of-view of Wilkie Collins, who is madly jealous of his best friend Charles Dickens, it is a borderline novel of sensation, and it is much too long. Another book that did not stick with me.
I’m so glad I keep a book journal. It gives me a perspective on decades of the history of the popular novel.