A Year in Reading: John Williams

December 11, 2010 | 7 books mentioned 2 2 min read


It was mostly a year of some pleasant foothills in my reading life, and just one great peak. Best of the foothills first:

covercoverI recently finished The Killer of Little Shepherds by Douglas Starr, which tells the parallel stories of Joseph Vacher, a serial killer in late-19th-century France, and Alexandre Lacassagne, a criminologist at the same time and (roughly) place. Their lives didn’t intersect quite as neatly as you might expect, but Starr’s telling is both gripping and smart.

Nearly 10 years ago, I read and fell for The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall, so I was eager to read his follow-up, The Lonely Polygamist. It didn’t disappoint. Udall is an unabashedly old-fashioned storyteller in the mold of John Irving, and he makes the wise decision to tell the story of a family with one husband, four wives, and 28 children by focusing on three characters: Golden, the title character; Trish, the fourth and most reluctant, independent, and lonely wife; and Rusty, a 12-year-old boy whose adolescent troubles are drowned out by the family’s din.

I continued a recent Nabokov kick with The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, which I greatly enjoyed, and I read my first novel by Thomas Bernhard, The Loser, which made me want to read more.

coverThe great peak was Father and Son by Edmund Gosse, published in 1907. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever read. Edmund was the son of Philip Gosse, a naturalist and fervent Christian who resisted the ideas of Darwin. Edmund’s memoir — which I learned about in A.N. Wilson’s God’s Funeral, about the various ways in which Victorians lost their faith — tells of his upbringing and his eventual rejection of his father’s beliefs. In many ways, it’s a simple story, but the telling, both funny and profound, is brilliant. By the middle of the book, I was bracketing about every other paragraph. I’m sure I’ll read it again in its entirety someday. 

More from a Year in Reading 2010

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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is the founding editor of The Second Pass, an online book review. His work as a freelance writer has appeared in Slate, Stop Smiling, the Barnes & Noble Review, and other publications. He maintains (with decreased frequency) the blog A Special Way of Being Afraid.


  1. Father and Son is a wonderful book, unlike anything else I know, and Gosse is a fascinating and sort of sad figure himself. He turns up almost everywhere in accounts of the literary world of late Victorian and Edwardian England; he was a great friend and champion of Thomas Hardy, and Claire Tomalin, in her biography of Hardy, calls him the self-appointed “fixer of the London literary world,” knowing and working with everyone and dedicating himself to “living the literary life more seriously than anyone else has ever done.”

    The younger generation, however (including Waugh, who wrote as acerbically of him as of almost anyone), regarded him as almost a joke, a hanger-on and glad-hander of little talent. Michael Newton, the editor of the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Father and Son, perhaps put it best: “That pitiful thing, the unsmiling public man. He was the official representative of letters; a tame author. . . . He had crucified poetry on the cross of respectability. No one believes a laureate will write a good poem, and Gosse was the laureate of belle lettres.”

    Yet he wrote Father and Son. Would that we all had some achievement so great and lasting to point to.

    {And now to go read The Killer of Little Shepherds, which is sitting atop my piano patiently right now.)

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