In an attempt to make manageable a year of sprawling, unconnected reading (because you do not want to read the title of every poem and short story and article and half of a book I read), I present you with: things -- not magazines -- that I read cover to cover since my post-apartment post in February of last year.
Bleak House – Charles Dickens Based on how much Amy loves this work, I expected to like it. I didn’t expect to be so thoroughly in love with Esther. Or so worried about her; someone so generous and capable, yet so self-deprecating, is apt to guide herself away from the road to contentment, believing herself infinitely less worthy of happiness than she actually is. On a completely different note, from the moment he entered the novel, I wanted to shoot Skimpole. I love that Dickens’s characters compel such visceral reactions. Five years later, Uriah Heep still makes me squirm (I’m serious – mention his name and I convulse). It had been some time since I picked up a Dickens novel, and I forgot how much I smile at his grand sentences, his magnificent, joyful, magical English, his evocative descriptive passages, his controlled oratory infused with playfulness – and criticism – his broadly sketched but vivid characters, each with his attribute – Mr. Boythorn and his bird, Mr. George’s march, Vholes, black-gloved and buttoned up. I think everyone needs at least some Dickens in their year.
One of Ours – Willa Cather
Scenes from Clerical Life – George Eliot
Adam Bede – George Eliot This novel brought my “George Eliot works read during Peace Corps” count to 3 (4 if you count my Peace Corps preparation period reading of Silas Marner). Middlemarch is still my favorite for a number of reasons. Among them is my great affection for Dorothea, the limits of her self-knowledge, her devotion to work, her attempts to throw herself beyond herself, her cuteness – burying herself into the study of geography of Asia Minor in order to subdue her restless mind. I have a special affinity for that act, which reminds me of myself, turning to the memorization of Chinese characters as therapy whenever life gets too complicated. Anyway, Adam Bede is a lovely novel, and one that got under my skin. George Eliot’s concern for psychology and devotion to the close examination of human nature is evident – the novel is remarkably, uniformly populated with mostly good, albeit flawed and occasionally floundering, individuals. Eliot presents to the reader a fair share of human folly, generously portrayed. Throughout my reading of her works, I have been fascinated and moved by her forgiving treatment of our well-meaning but confused and bumbling, prejudiced, limited selves. Human life is somehow smaller, no grand trajectory, just daily struggles to make ourselves, each so different, at home in the world. At the same time, out of the sympathy for our fellow creatures that she inspires, the reader finds that humanity is all the more deserving of love, flawed but trying its hardest in a difficult world.
Autobiography of a Face – Lucy Grealy Bob and Judy sent this to me after they read my thoughts on Truth and Beauty. After reading Lucy’s voice in the letters Ann Patchett excerpts in her memoir, it was interesting to watch Lucy apply the same analytic eye to her past, an adult creating meaning out of her childhood experience. Now that I think about it, that tendency belies the poet in the memoirist. A poetic mindset applied to prose – the impulse to examine details and extract larger significance. This quality, for me, reveals Lucy as a remarkable individual; it is testament to her strength that she took such a lesson from illness. Sickness and pain seem so meaningless. And after the ravages of treatment and recovery, survival – of mind, personality, passion – is a whole new struggle, asking the intellectually and emotionally alive to make sense out of the senseless. I remember that, more than the story, I was struck by how the author emerges from illness triumphant, not because she survived, but because she came out with a mind alive to the world. Turning that mind onto sickness itself is a staggering achievement. The account shows us a thinking person engaged in carefully, feelingly charting an experience. The result is smart writing of great rhythm and beauty.
The 6 Barsetshire books – Trollope The series ranges across Barshetshire county, and each book is part courtship novel, part examination of church politics and personalities, and part social satire. The series, taken as a whole, is a portrait of the life – richly complex, joyous, heart-breaking – of an entire county and the individuals who populate it… all the while skewering government, journalism and Dickens, to name just a few. Trollope accurately illustrates the experience of human life in community, which is stitched together rather like a quilt – each story vitally important to those immediately concerned, but just a piece in the whole – and the reader can imagine characters continuing their lives even as they move out of the central frame. Every time I look back, I am increasingly astonished with the breadth of the books: a map of the patterns of interactions, ambitions, affections, and personalities that make up Barsetshire life. As it accomplishes this bird's-eye view, the series simultaneously manages close-ups of particular events and characters – who are all very well-wrought, idiosyncratic and as comprehensively depicted as the county. From the first, Trollope struck me for his linguistic precision, his prose straightforward and elegant. Among all the stories and individuals, it was poor, beleaguered Mr. Harding who was the heart of the series (for me, at least) and it was for him I kept reading, hoping with every novel to spend just a few pages with him. He is a person who deserves the world, a good man who is forced to question all he has and, worse, himself. He is profoundly concerned with the justice of his actions, delights in what is left as age and circumstance strip him bare, but, though unable to ignore wisps of longing for what is gone, accepts both the loss and the longing with grace. The world would be better if we were more like Mr. Harding. At the same time, if we were, I don’t know how we would survive – at least in Trollope’s world. Though not considered “the best” novel in the series, I liked The Warden – the first book and all about Mr. Harding. Side note: I believe that, had I been born a boy in post-Reformation England, I would have made a very good clergyman in the Church of England (I’m not entirely sure that this says much good about me…wouldn’t it be better to recognize Caleb Garth in oneself?), and so Trollope’s focus on the very human clergy fascinates me (See, what did I tell you? Man’s relationship to God and God’s creation. Subcategory: men of God.).
The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton
The Transit of Venus – Shirley Hazzard
Enter Jeeves – P.G. Wodehouse If you haven’t read tales of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, please go read as many as you can get your hands on. As soon as possible. That’s all I have to say. Bertie and Jeeves are perfectly paired and perfectly posed to perform for the reader – polished and gleaming. I can’t remember when I laughed so hard. At this writing, I can imagine few pleasures to match spending an early spring afternoon with P.G. Wodehouse’s prose.
The Leopard – Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa I don’t know if I read this at an ideal point in the year, but even as I sat straight up in a strange bed night after night, awakened by visions of slow decay under the bright Sicilian sun, I recognized the work as particularly brilliant. Perhaps because it is so evocative. I can only imagine how lush the Italian must be. At times the English recalls overripe fruit, death scented just under the autumn sweetness. At other moments, I recall blinding light and aridity, the sense of dry bones draped in sumptuous fabric. I was left with the impression of Sicilian light and heat, the inevitability of excess’s slow disintegration in that climate. I remember sense, not story, the tragedy of watching your life disappear, aware but powerless – even if you’re a leopard. A novel that simultaneously seems a beautiful painting, illustrating life’s bleak truth. One to re-read.
Ivanov – Chekhov
Mrs. Warren’s Profession – Shaw
Man and Superman – Shaw
Major Barbara – Shaw
Jitney – August Wilson
Lost in Translation – Nichole Mones
A Cup of Light – Nichole Mones
The Keepers of the House – Shirley Ann Grau This book keeps coming back, haunting me, rising in my memory in the most unlikely moments. As concerned as it is with ghosts, the past, stories, remembering as a way of living, etc., I suppose my reaction is only fitting. I am particularly interested in the listed themes, so I found much food for thought in the book. For all of you not convinced by my poor, self-centered review… it won a Pulitzer! And deserved it. Read it if you get the chance. I hope to read it again.
The Quiet American – Graham Greene
The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe
The Devil in the White City – Erik Larson
Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood
Life Before Man – Margaret Atwood
Rasselas – Samuel Johnson
Walking Zero – Chet Raymo Look! Actual non-fiction! Essentially traces changes in human understanding of space and time – from the Earth-centered conception of creation to our modern belief in a universe almost unfathomably large and mostly empty, from the human-centered teaching about the arc of time in reference to the divine to a geologic frame that cites evidence of millions of years before us and implies eons untold in front of us. Raymo takes the reader through the history of major discoveries about space and time and man’s place in it all – Copernicus, Bruno, Galileo, Darwin, etc – and cogently explains the how and why. I most enjoyed the first sections, the first about man’s attempts to map the Earth and the second about the series of discoveries revealing Earth’s position in space. A lot of interesting information, presented with good examples and analogies – this man is obviously a teacher – that sometimes lead to random lectures about the function of architecture and what constitutes poetry. I could have done without his obvious contempt for religion as nothing more than man’s childish compulsion to cling to a comforting fiction – the self-centered universe. Raymo is allowed to believe what he wants and perfectly free to attempt to convince us of the same, but it is inappropriate to be so insultingly dismissive. I think. Religious tradition does deserve respect.
Raymo delights in the casting aside of “local assertions of centrality,” which extends to Earth-centered thinking, but every now and again this tendency (not necessarily of his particularly, but of the scientific community as a whole) strikes me as disturbing – and a bit ridiculous. When discussing means of measurement – meters and seconds – he notes that distance is no longer measured against a standard physical object – a platinum bar in France – and time no longer measured by reference to the rotations of the Earth. Instead, “the meter has been defined as the distance traveled by light in a vacuum during a time interval of precisely 1/299,792,428 second” and the second as “the duration of 9,192,631,770 vibrations” of a particular atom at a particular temperature. He almost exultantly concludes that “the new definitions make no reference to the Earth at all.” This is puzzling to me, and Raymo’s approval disquieting. Are we really headed to a place where an absurdly high number of atomic ticks are more important to measuring human life than how long it takes the Earth to move around the sun? In themselves, both definitions are equally arbitrary, I suppose, but the latter is so much more than itself; it is light and dark, summer and winter, all the thoughts and sensations connected to the ever-revolving, ever-renewing world. The new means of measurement are calculated to match existing standards, and, separate from their earthly antecedents, are completely arbitrary and meaningless. I understand the scientific need for the most consistent measurement possible and that, presumably, the speed of light and the vibrations of atoms are stable – more so than the speed of the earth or platinum. But… surely measurements of Earthly phenomena can and should refer back to the Earth. Our lives happen on Earth. What is wrong with using our home to measure our experience at home? How is a “cosmic” frame of reference helpful? It seems simply self-congratulatory – scientists patting themselves on the back for being so high-minded, capable of relinquishing the “local”… the Earth. But for what purpose? Which of us feels the progress of a day in the vibrations of atoms? Or measures the height of our growing children in the speed of light in a vacuum? Is precision more important than meaning? Aren’t measurements in place to make sense of the world we interact with? We can’t escape our human mind. We experience life in earthly terms. We will always understand our world through a human lens – a light-year is far, an atom small.
Perhaps this is also what bothers me about Raymo’s condemnation of religion as childish and self-centered. We are, to some degree, self-centered (especially if “self-centered” is defined as being preoccupied with Earthly matters). We can’t make meaning of our lives from the abyss of space and time. Friends, children, society… all of it focused around us, around men. All of the knowledge science offers about the unimaginable vastness of the cosmos is exciting, but that’s not where we live. By all means, we need to learn to consider things outside of our borders – beyond ourselves, our families, our countries, our species, and maybe even our planet – but at the end of the day, we step away from the wide open world and back into the circle of friends, family, co-workers, clients, etc, who share our lives. I believe that the lesson should not be “Grow up!” but something more along the lines of “think cosmically, act locally.”
Їжачок та Соловейко – Юля Мітченко and Юрій Ярмиш A kid’s book. Yep. That’s all I managed in Ukrainian all year. Cute. And now I know the Ukrainian for ‘hedgehog’ and ‘nightingale’ and ‘pine tree.’
Homeless Bird – Gloria Whelan
Biting the Wax Tadpole – Elizabeth Little
Everyday Drinking – Kingsley Amis Yay for fun! “The distilled Kingsley Amis” is liable to leave you hankering for all the unrefined material the editor sifted through in order to present its essence to the reader. A mixture of quizzes, recipes, ‘General Principles’ of drink and drink preparation, anecdotes, and articles (from ‘The Hangover’ to ‘The Mean Sod’s Guide’), the collection is a delightful mix of writings on all things alcoholic. Sort of… a really good cocktail party. Actually, I don’t believe that such a pleasant cocktail party could ever exist in real life – regular conversation is occasionally dull. Amis is as an engaging host as could be wished – a witty, commonsensical, unstinting (I’m so glad to find someone else as riled as I am by stinginess of food and drink… and someone able to deliver his censure with infinitely more bite and simultaneous charm than I ever manage) and knowledgeable champion of the common tippler, even though he himself could hardly be called such. I think I need to learn more about alcohol so I can appreciate the quizzes that make up the final section of the book.
Mere Christianity – C.S. Lewis I have tremendous respect CS Lewis’s Christianity. It is intelligent and reasoned. It’s also very, very tough. You want to believe it and dread believing it because it’s complex and it’s hard. It is an act of will against ‘ourselves’ and submission to the divine. It says that there is something very wrong with the world and insists that God requires us to do difficult things – put aside personal security, opinion, and self-regard and accept either the master or the judge. As I read his argument, I think that Christianity may just be true, but it is most certainly not pleasant. Not that pleasure is vilified. On the contrary, CS Lewis makes sure to point out that that there is to be much rejoicing in an ideal Christian society and that God “likes matter. He invented it.” There is a balance, but it is not found in exactly the way we would like. Though his instruction is hard, CS Lewis possesses a charitable, humane Christianity, acknowledging our limitations, hesitations, and struggles – his included – and asks the reader to show “a real desire to believe all the good you can of others.” The world is “a good world that has gone wrong, but still retains the memory of what it ought to have been.” That memory and our ability to tap into it and make it more tangible with our every action – in ourselves and in society – is the book’s comfort. On a semi-related note, it is clear that CS Lewis has read his Dante and Milton (and much, much more, but those are the two I most clearly identify). I love Dante. I’m much more likely to listen to a Christian writer who does too.
The Assistant – Bernard Malamud
Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance – Gyles Brandreth This was one of my least favorites this year. I found it poorly written and predictable, but it was sort of fun from a ‘fan-fiction meets murder-mystery’ point of view. Oscar Wilde the detective! Oscar Wilde meets Sir Arthur Conan Doyle! Actually, more of Conan Doyle and less of Brandreth’s Watson character would have made the novel better. Only really worth reading to enjoy the gimmick. Go read The Eyre Affair instead.
Cannery Row – Steinbeck I really liked this a lot. Of the works of his that I’ve read, it might be my favorite.
Of Mice and Men – Steinbeck I can’t believe I’d never read this before this year. I was astounded by how like a play this read. Each chapter was a ‘scene’ set in a single location – carefully set at the beginning, recalling dramatists’ detailed stage directions – in which the plot was propelled forward through dialogue, characters had their entrances and exits, and noises from events outside floated in the windows.
The Robber Bridegroom – Eudora Welty
Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen
Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman
Lake Wobegon Days – Garrison Keillor I have a great desire to read bits of this book aloud. Especially the Memorial Day, perils of January, and tomatoes and the comparatively meager pleasure of obedience passages, and most of the School chapter. Stories are meant to be told, and we all know that Garrison Keillor has a particularly acute ear for the music in English. The tales of boyhood and grand fantasies, the small town and its many inhabitants are very funny, very full of love, and, in a profound way, very true to both the humility and the greatness of experience.
Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
The Awakening – Kate Chopin Thank you to Paula (and probably Melissa Frazier) for teaching me things that made me capable of seeing the precise end of this novel before page …twenty-five, probably. An SLC education at work! There was really no other way for this story to go.
The Once and Future King – T.H. White I realize now that this is the only Arthur novel I’ve ever read. I was really only introduced to Arthur in Comedy and Romance, and coming at White from the Malory was an education in 'the novel' as a particular genre of prose. White has obviously loved and digested the Malory. He has illustrated the characters in much more detail, created psychological interiority, linked the sprawling tales to create a linear story line that steadily tracks Arthur’s rise and fall. The Malory is a sea of knights and battles and quests and events. Malory illustrates an entire world of chivalry…the scope, purpose, grandeur and tragedy of Arthur’s work. Poignant moments amid the formulaic language evoke the real humanity in the characters, but White explores those moments in much greater detail. He really does an excellent job of shaping Malory's effusive outpouring of plot. You get explanation along with events. It’s definitely more accessible – I mean… we are used to reading novels. But comparing them (people often ask me which I like better) is difficult because they are each doing their own work with the myth. It seems that White is concerned with the men and the story of Arthur, whereas Malory sets before us the teeming world of knights and their deeds.
I love Arthur. One thing that White has done is created an utterly endearing home for Arthur as Wart. The lovable, bumbling characters fade to make way for Arthur’s round table and the brilliant competence of his might-for-right fighters, and Arthur becomes more and more alone as his system collapses on itself despite all his efforts… and his entire life looks like a failure, questions of war and justice uselessly spinning around in his tired head. Only we can see the nobility in what is well-meant. Which is very emotionally affecting. I’m actually sitting here tearing as I think about it. White spends pages talking about what Arthur accomplished, but the work Arthur does fades in comparison to the reader’s feelings for Arthur and Guenever and Lancelot. I think.
Jewel – Bret Lott
Middle Ground – Margaret Drabble
Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers
In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
Pure Drivel – Steve Martin
And, to supplement, New Yorkers and other magazines, short stories, articles in Chinese, and various anthologized poems. I think I’ve done relatively well, considering my resources. I can’t decide, though, if the relative lack of non-fiction in favor of novels is a reflection of my general taste or of my circumstances. I think if I had my druthers and a good English library in town, I would have had a few more nonfiction works on the list, but I’m not entirely certain. There will be many years and time enough to find out, I suppose.
Currently working on: Essays of EB White (Yes, still. I’m savoring!), Ovid’s Metamorphoses (It’s about time I read all of this), Eliot’s The Mill and the Floss (officially at 4!). Intending to start serious, regimented study of modern literature and poetry in English, which I stubbornly avoided in college. Really. Sometime soon.
Note: Since writing, I have finished The Mill and the Floss. I have stuff to say. Give me some time to work it all out…