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?