Monthly Archives: December 2009

The best of 2009

Well, it’s New Year’s Eve now, so I guess it’s time to do my final wrapping-up post and list my favorite reads of the year. As always, this list is not about books published in 2009, although one or two from this year may appear here, but it’s about what I liked best and what stands out most in everything I read regardless of when it was published. Links are to my post on the book.

First, the stand-out books in fiction, the absolutely top-notch, amazingly wonderful books:

  1. David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest.
  2. Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist.
  3. Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone.
  4. Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night.

Then other novels I really, really liked:

  1. Bernard Malamud, The Assistant.
  2. Ann Patchett, Bel Canto.
  3. Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog.
  4. Patrick Hamilton, The Slaves of Solitude.

And now some great nonfiction:

  1. Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions.
  2. Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father.
  3. Anne Fadiman, At Large and at Small.

And one quirky, odd book I really liked: David Cecil, The Stricken Deer, a biography of William Cowper from 1930.

Happy New Year everyone!

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2009 by the numbers

I think it’s time to take a mathematical look back at this year’s reading. I’m anticipating finishing a book I’m in the middle of right now; I’m going to count it in this year’s numbers because I’ll most likely finish it by December 31st, or I will have read most of it in 2009 so it should count for this year anyway.

Books read: 69 (plus 6 audio books, which I’m not including in the numbers below)

Fiction (of any genre or length): 52

Nonfiction: 16

Poetry: 1

Short story collections: 1

Essay collections: 4

Nonfiction books about books, reading, and writers: 8

Female authors: 34

Male authors: 34

Multiple authors, men and women: 1

Books in translation: 5 (France [2], Austria [2], Mexico)

Books by authors from England: 29 and Scotland: 1

Books by authors from Ireland: 2

Books by Americans: 29

Books by Canadians: 1 (L.M. Montgomery)

Books by Russians: 1 (Nabokov, written in English)

Books from the 19th century: 7

Books from the 20th century:  41 (first half: 18; second half: 23)

Books from the 21st century: 21

Books re-read: 3

Books by authors I’d never read before: 42

So there it is. I usually read more books from pre-19C times, but I didn’t this year, although I did read a bunch of essays by Montaigne. I have read only 700 pages of the 1,200-page complete essays, so I can’t count that one. And as usual, unfortunately, I haven’t read many books in translation, although I am up one from last year (but down from the year before where I read 15). I swear I don’t try to get the gender ratio so evenly balanced; it just worked out that way. I didn’t try to get the balance between English and American authors so even either.

I think I have a decent amount of variety in my reading, but I’d like to have even more — more poetry, more books in translation, more short stories, more books from earlier times.

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First Lines Meme

Today I thought I would do the first lines meme I’ve seen recently at Melanie’s and Kate’s. The idea is to post the first line from each month’s first post as a way to wrap up the year. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do this post at first because when I’ve looked over my posts in years past, I’ve been struck at the generally boring way my posts begin. But this year doesn’t seem so bad. So here goes:

January: I’m writing this New Year’s resolutions post three days late and having just spent the morning sleeping in until 11:00 because I was out late last night at a surprise birthday party eating way too much sugar and having lots of fun.

February: I just began Claire Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austen, and so far it’s been great fun to read.

March: I had a lovely snow day today — well, except for the snow — in which I did a lot of nothing: some reading, some email writing, some napping, some gazing out the window.

April: What stands out most to me about Stefan Zweig’s novel from the 1930s, The Post-Office Girl, is rage.

May: Barbara Pym’s novel An Academic Question turned out to be an interesting read for unexpected reasons.

June: I think I may be a new Patrick Hamilton fan.

July: I posted my thoughts on Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature the other day, and now I thought would share some interesting bits from the book.

August: Zhiv commented recently that I should try to get over the guilt I feel about buying books, and when fellow bloggers, particularly ones as kind and encouraging as Zhiv, offer good advice, I generally try to follow it.

September: I’m SO close to finishing Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone that I will have no trouble finishing it tonight before I drop off to sleep.

October: It’ll be a quiet Friday night here, as I’m not quite ready to post on the latest book I’ve finished — Cornell Woolrich’s The Black Angel — and there’s not much else to report on, and I’d really rather get reading ASAP.

November: Yesterday, Hobgoblin, She Knits, Suitcase of Courage, and I had a most wonderful day: we went on a literary pilgrimage up to Walden Pond and Concord to see the place where so many great American writers lived.

December: It’s December 1st, which means it’s time to plan what books I want to read for Emily’s TBR challenge.

These lines give a little taste of what my reading was like last year, and they also say something about my habit of taking time to work up to the point I want to make in my posts, often telling a little something about my life before getting on to the books. I suppose that’s not such a bad habit.

Anybody else want to try this meme?

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Home Again

Hobgoblin and I returned home today, and our trip turned out to be the kind that’s perfect for recovering from a busy semester. I spent most of my time curled up in a chair right next to the wood stove in my parents’ dining room/family room either reading or working on crossword puzzles. In fact, I didn’t set one foot outdoors for a solid two days, and although I’ve become the kind of person who likes being outdoors, that kind of sloth is exactly what I wanted. When I finally stirred out of my chair, it was to go see the Sherlock Holmes movie (silly, fun, good if you don’t take it seriously). The next day I went with seven other family members to hang out in a bookstore and have lunch. And that is everything I did. Oh, I also got to babysit my one-year-old niece, who is utterly adorable. As always, though, I was happy to hand her back to her mother once the crying began.

I finished one book, Maureen Corrigan’s Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading (which is the perfect book to read during a family holiday, in fact — it sends just the right message, if that is the message you want to send), and I came home with a bunch more. Hobgoblin came through for me and gave me Nicholson Baker’s new novel The Anthologist. I dropped enough hints about wanting this book that even the densest person could have figured it out, and Hobgoblin is anything but dense. I’ll be reading it next, and I’m SO looking forward to it.

Hobgoblin also gave me Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook, which is something I’ve been wanting to read for a long time. I’m a bit intimidated by the length and seriousness of the book, but that’s what draws me to it too. It seems like it will be a good book for summer when I have enough time to dig into it.

I also received P.D. James’s Talking About Detective Fiction and Joyce Cary’s Herself Surprised as Christmas gifts from a friend, but I already wrote about those.

And then there are the books I brought home from the family bookstore excursion. First there is John D’Agata’s anthology The Lost Origins of the Essay. I’m on a mission to collect every good essay anthology out there, apparently, and this one looks great. The back cover says it’s “an anthology in the service of a wonderful idea: that the essay has been encumbered by its obligation to tell us the facts. It prefers the delicacy of Montaigne’s ‘What do I know?’ to the assertive ‘I know’ of information culture.” It sounds like a concept I can get behind.

And then I picked up Lee Gutkind’s essay anthology The Best Creative Nonfiction, Volume I, which I’ve seen in stores before (there are three volumes now) but never felt ready to buy. I’ve read Gutkind’s anthology In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction and liked it, and as I understand it, the three follow-up creative nonfiction volumes are an attempt to collect pieces from lesser-known publications and blogs. I’m guessing it’s meant as competition to the Best American Essay series, perhaps trying to be edgier and less mainstream. I’m willing to give it a try.

And finally I couldn’t resist Dierdre Le Faye’s Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels, which is a gorgeous book with lots of color photos. It gives biographical and cultural background on Austen and her times and then looks at each novel and discusses its context. I’m planning to see the exhibit on Austen at the Morgan Library in a couple weeks, and this seemed like the perfect book to get in honor of the occasion.

So that was my holiday; I hope everyone enjoyed their time over the last week, and I hope to be back soon with some year-end wrapping up.

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Time for a holiday break

So tomorrow Hobgoblin, Muttboy, and I will head out to western New York state to visit family and celebrate Christmas. Keep your fingers crossed that we will encounter no blizzards or the infamous Rochester lake-effect snow! I am now off to pack and to decide what books to take with me. I need to find something short because I have this feeling that I may have some new books I’ll be dying to read when Friday gets here…

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Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley

Charlotte Brontë’s novel Shirley was a bit of a rough read for me. I liked it in places, but in others it felt slow and unfocused. It had an entirely different feel than Jane Eyre and Villette; it was less intense, less gripping. Shirley herself didn’t appear for a good 150 pages (out of the 600 or so pages in my edition), and when she did appear, she livened things up quite a lot, but even afterward the novel’s pacing still felt off. What is most interesting about the novel is the issues it deals with, especially the “woman question” and issues of industrialization, but it’s not a book to read for an exciting plot.

The novel’s opening is odd — and thereby sets the tone for the rest of the novel. It describes three rather foolish curates who are spending the evening drinking and talking and teasing each other. These three characters turn out to be minor, though; they appear later in the novel, but only occasionally. Soon they get interrupted and one of them is sent on a mission that is much closer to the novel’s central plot — a mill owner is under threat of violence because local workers fear that his new machinery, just about to be delivered, will take away their jobs. The curate is supposed to help guard the mill. This opening is typical of how the entire novel tends to work — things happen, but the build-up to the action takes a while and it follows such a winding path that I was left feeling bewildered about what I was supposed to be paying attention to.

In addition to the mill owner, Robert Moore, we soon meet Caroline Helstone, a young woman in love with Robert. When Caroline’s guardian — her uncle — becomes angry with Robert and forbids Caroline to see him anymore, she feels she no longer has any interest in life and her health begins to decline. This sounds kind of pathetic, but Caroline’s life is very lonely and it feels purposeless. Her uncle is distant and unsympathetic, and she longs for the ability men have to get a job and to do some productive work. The only possibility she knows is available for women is to be a governess, and she tries to become one, although everyone around her refuses to help.

It’s at this point that Shirley arrives. She is Caroline’s age, roughly, and is an energetic, lively young heiress. Her presence livens up the neighborhood, and it also livens up the book. She is a welcome and much-needed friend for Caroline, but unfortunately, Caroline suspects that there is a romance about to begin between Shirley and Robert, and she becomes jealous and her health fades even further.

At this point I’ll stop describing the plot; unfortunately the back cover of my edition (Penguin) mentions some details that come up very late in the book and spoil a good bit of what suspense there is. It’s bad enough when an introductory essay gives away the plot, but much worse when the back cover does — because who can resist reading the back cover?

At any rate, part of the interest of the novel comes from how this love triangle will work itself out, and also of great interest is Shirley herself. She is regularly described in masculine terms; “Shirley” was a man’s name, first of all, and she likes to make a joke that she is a gentleman:

Business! Really the word makes me conscious I am indeed no longer a girl, but quite a woman and something more. I am an esquire: Shirley Keeldar, Esquire, ought to be my style and title. They gave me a man’s name; I hold a man’s position: it is enough to inspire me with a touch of manhood … You must choose me for your churchwarden, Mr. Helstone, the next time you elect new ones; they ought to make me a magistrate and a captain of yeomanry: Tony Lumpkin’s mother was a colonel, and his aunt a justice of the peace — why shouldn’t I be?

Caroline is much more retiring and ladylike than Shirley, but the two agree that women’s options in life are woefully limited and they chafe against the male characters who refuse to take them seriously because of their gender.

The other issue the novel takes up is technology and industrialization, and this is largely Robert’s story; he is in debt and is struggling to make his mill profitable enough to clear his name, but there are several obstacles against him, including the threat of violence from Luddite protesters and the fact that England is at war, which is disrupting commerce. Shirley isn’t anti-industrialization; Robert’s struggles are portrayed sympathetically, and the technological changes seem inevitable. What matters, ultimately, is whether Robert’s heart is in the right place; he has some lessons about charity and generosity he needs to learn.

I’m glad I read this novel because I was curious about what it was like, and I’d like to read all the Brontë novels eventually (I’ve read Jane Eyre, Villette, Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and now Shirley, which leaves me The Professor and Agnes Grey, unless I am missing something), but in spite of some of the interesting issues it deals with, it’s my least favorite so far.

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The Yellow Room

Mary Roberts Rinehart’s novel The Yellow Room was the latest selection for my mystery book group, and we were supposed to meet this evening at Bloodroot, which advertises itself as a feminist vegetarian restaurant and bookstore. It’s the site where the idea for the mystery group began, so it was the perfect place to hold a meeting. But the weather forecast for this evening called for lots of snow, and we cancelled. (The snow has yet to arrive, though, and it appears as though the weather forecasters may have gotten things wrong. Still, the backroads of Connecticut are narrow, hilly, and winding, and I didn’t want to take my chances.)

It appears from conversations I’ve had, emails I’ve gotten, and Emily’s post on the book that our meeting would probably have turned into a lively conversation about how bad the book is. I can sum up my assessment best by saying that as I neared the end, I didn’t care in the least who the murderer was. That’s a sure sign of a bad mystery novel if there is one, right? I was just eager for the thing to be over so I could move on to something else.

It’s been over a week since I finished the novel and the details are already beginning to fade (another bad sign); what sticks in my mind is the awkward way Rinehart moved her characters around. It seemed like they kept making the same movements from room to room, kept taking the same walks over and over again, and kept repeating the same conversations, covering a little new ground now and then to move the plot along, but not enough to make things exciting. It was wearying. I also found the characters either stereotypical, dull, or completely unbelievable. There’s a romance between two central characters, and maybe this is my fault for being a sloppy reader, but it took me a long time to catch on that this was happening, and when I did catch on, I found it completely contrived and silly. I didn’t understand why he cared about her and even more so why she cared about him.

So what is the story about? A young woman, Carol, travels to Maine to ready the family’s summer home for her brother who is on leave from the war (the novel was published in 1945), and one of the servants finds a woman’s dead body in the closet. This is the sort of thing that never happens in that small coastal Maine town, and the local police force doesn’t seem to be up for the job. Fortunately a neighbor, Jerry Dane, knows just what to do, and he conducts his own investigation, while at the same time recovering from his war injuries and wooing Carol.

The one interesting thing about the book is the way in which it is a product of its time; it’s one of those books that feels very dated, and it’s interesting to think about what makes it so. The class situation is largely at fault; Carol’s family is wealthy and spoiled, and it’s amusing to read about her awful sister who is socially ambitious and utterly heartless, and her horrible brother who is a womanizer who can’t accept that his “youthful exploits” might have some serious consequences. The novel shows how awful these people are, but there’s no sense that Rinehart is critiquing the class differences or the social system that created them. The servants are stereotyped figures, either unreliable and flighty or fiercely loyal, and I had a hard time caring that poor Carol had to manage with so few of them.

So I’m not interested in reading more Mary Roberts Rinehart, even though I did buy an edition that contains two other of her novels in addition to The Yellow Room. Fortunately, I only spent $4.50 on those three novels, so I don’t mind leaving the other two unread.

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