My year in books

First, a confession: I don’t entirely know what books I’ve read this year. Until about April, I wasn’t writing them down and never had. But I didn’t like the way that sent reading experiences down the memory hole (I never used to forget anything, but I am fast becoming my father’s daughter — if it’s not written down, it’s gone, with rare associative exceptions — I know I was reading Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children when my father had his heart surgery, and suspect that if I read it again, it would bring back, Proust-like, the thoughts and feelings of last March).

So anyway, I started keeping a log of what I am reading, and when. It’s strangely gratifying, and allows me to get a quick sense of “my year in books,” which is terrifically important to me. You either get that instantly, or you don’t. Either way, here goes, in no particular order.

–Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White: This one had sat on my shelf for years, because I have a troubled relationship with contemporary authors who write Victorian novels. But I finally gave this one a chance, and then I could not put it down. Historically precise, but not bogged down in detail, and not full of historical mistakes and non-sequiturs as so many of these are. A London prostitute who is also a pornographer falls in love with her well-to-do John and turns into Jane Eyre, with lots of twists.

–Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation: Vowell is a terrifically talented and original public historian–at once laugh-out-loud funny and geekily obsessed with the obscure and bizarre arcana of the American experience. That’s my kind of historian, so much so that I forgave her the digressive tic by which she managed to convey, multiple times, that it was too bad George W. Bush wasn’t among the assassinated presidents whose stories she tells in this book. Focussing on Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley (because the Kennedy story is pretty well exhausted), Vowell travels around the country visiting their graves, assassination sites, and other relevant locations, such as Oneida, New York, where McKinley’s killer was once a failed member of a utopian community that advocated cross-generational, extra-marital sex but is best remembered for making silverware. Do you have Oneida forks and spoons? I do. Great, wonderful read, and the sort of book that makes you want to immerse yourself in the study of history because nothing is more fun.

Jude Morgan’s Passion: This is a gorgeously written, compulsively readable novel about the second generation of major Romantic poets–or, rather, about the women in their lives. Shelley and Byron in particular had incredibly messy, entangled, and fascinating love lives, the sort of thing that makes you say, “you can’t make this stuff up.” Couldn’t put it down.

J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country: This is a skinny little book from one of those twentieth-century English writers who have wrongfully been forgotten. It seems to be about not much — a World War I vet is hired to spend the summer in a sleepy English village removing layers of whitewash from a lost mural in the local medieval church — but it’s about everything. It has a simplicity, and an elegaic quality, that is absolutely heart-breaking.

There was a lot more reading this year, but that’s the best of it. You?

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  1. david foster says:

    I’ve been having fun with my new Kindle, which makes a lot of neglected but worthwhile books easily available, often free or for 99 cents. Some of the one’s I’ve read so far:

    –the memoirs of Fanny Kemble, a famous British actress who married an American and lived on a Georgia plantation before the Civil War.

    –”Main-Traveled Roads” and “Son of the Middle Border” by Hamlin Garland, who grew up on the frontier in Wisconsin and the Dakotas

    –”The Discovery of Freedom,” a work of political philosophy by Rose Wilder Lane (daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder) with a very Hayekian orientation; also her novel “Diverging Roads,” which although it was published in 1919 has a rather modern feel in its discussion of the relationship between the sexes

    –”The God of the Machine,” also a work of libertarian philosophy, from Isabel Paterson. Also her novel “The Golden Vanity,” which is set in the period just before and during the Depression

  2. Ali says:

    Thanks for this post, Erin. I love your posts about reading and find your choices fascinating–plus I get some book suggestions! Here were my favorites:

    The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins–won’t go into detail because I know you love this as well

    The Other Side of You by Sally Vickers–a wonderful novel about a therapist who works with a suicidal patient and treats her in an unconventional way. I shed many tears, but I couldn’t put it down

    What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt–a novel about the intersection of art and family life (as well as a bit of a thriller too), very well written, cerebral, and engrossing

    The Anti-Romantic Child by Priscilla Gilman–a memoir about a child with developmental disabilities; the author has her PhD from Yale and uses literature, especially the poetry of Wordsworth, to explore her emotions and feelings about her child; tremendously well-written, incredibly touching (I shed many tears with this book as well), and a lesson in understanding each individual as unique human being–I highly, highly recommend it

    The Rossettis in Wonderland by Dinah Roe–a biography of the entire Rossetti family; very, very interesting

    This Lovely Life by Vicki Foreman–a memoir about a woman whose twins are born prematurely, written very well and once again incredibly moving

    Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin–a biography of Samuel Pepys (we have discussed this one before); it took me a while to get started with this one, but in the end I learned so much and found it incredibly rewarding

    Happy New Year’s, Erin! And I can’t wait to check out some of your choices, especially The Crimson Petal and the White!

  3. david foster says:

    Other than the Kindle books, one noteworthy book I read last year was Stefan Zweig’s “The Post-Office Girl,” which is set in Austria shortly after WWI. (My review here.) I also read and reviewed Neal Sheehan’s “A Fiery Peace in a Cold War,” a history of the US ballistic missile programs told through the biography of the USAF general who led this effort.

    Read but have not yet reviewed Tim Wu’s “The Master Switch,” a history of the media & communications industries (telephone, radio, movies, television, Internet) with a focus on the way that government regulation has been used as a competitive weapon by players in these industries. Particularly relevant right now in view of the extremely disturbing Congressional initiatives now targeting the Internet.

  4. David says:

    Hi Erin, and Happy New Year. Glad you posted about books because I want to ask you about “Lola, California” by Edie Meidav. You posted that someone had sent it to you, and I wonder if you read it, and, if so, what you thought of it.

    I read “Snowdrops” by AD Miller, shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, and found it weak as water despite being blurbed as “…a sinister, seductive read that paints a murky moral portrait of the new capitalist Russia.” Based on this book, that portrait still waits to be painted.

    I tried “a visit from the goon squad” by Jennifer Egan, a National Book Critics Circle Award Winner, but couldn’t get past page 10 on either of two tries. Will probably try again.

    “The Hippies Who Saved Physics” by MIT’s David Kaiser might have implications for the Humanities, and how they might be saved. This 70s group (not really Hippies, but that’s beside the point) were talented physicists who were blackballed by mainstream Physics, both inside and outside the universities, because they wanted to investigate the wilder side of science: quantum entanglement, action at a distance, telepathy, time travel and the physical origins of consciousness. Being shut out of mainstream physics they formed a sort of floating academy (sometimes, literally) called the Fundamental Fysiks Group, and taught in bars, cafes and parks, and published where they could, even in throw-away, give-away newspapers. Others found private patrons and survived that way. In other words, they didn’t stop researching and teaching what they believed was important just because they couldn’t get a proper job doing it, or because they were ridiculed and blackballed. They persevered through four decades and finally forced mainstream physics to recognize them and their work, however grudgingly in some cases. Could a group of renegade Humanity majors do the same? Especially now that the Internet makes publishing as easy as typing.

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