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…