This was my year of Nancy Mitford and Elizabeth Bowen, or the year of savage, brilliant, and vastly underrated female writers. I’m appalled to say I had never read either until this year; I tried to make up for my lost decades by reading furiously and fully, from their first books to their last. It in the end, however, it was impossible to read all that they wrote, because they were prolific, and because life was difficult this year and I ran out of steam. Well -- also, I found that both women wrote books I loved and some I frankly disliked. (This is fine! A book’s impact has as much to do with where the reader is in her life as it does with the innate qualities of the work; and if I have a bad breakup with a book, the author and I can still be pals). My favorite by Mitford was her fifth novel, The Pursuit of Love. My edition put some kind of accelerator on the feminist flames because it has “Love” in the title and the loopiest picture of a bride on the cover, and I did the automatic discounting thing we do -- even people in the business who should know better -- when faced with frilly, condescending covers of books by women. Gah. I don’t know if I hate more the idea that we have been conditioned to associate feminine with frothy, or the covers themselves, which actively dissuade a large swath of humanity from picking up such a worthy book in the first place. And, my lord, is this novel worthy. The story of an upper-class British family, particularly that of a sensitive free-spirit named Linda, was so slyly hilarious that I was smitten by the first paragraph; but it wasn’t until a few pages in, and the narrator describes her Uncle Matthew sending out the hounds on a child hunt -- in which the children of the family take the place of hares and try to outrun four slavering bloodhounds, to the horror of the neighbors -- that I knew this book would be a friend for life. Of all the gorgeous Elizabeth Bowen books I read (and here I’ll give a shout-out to To The North and The Death of the Heart), my favorite is her second, The Last September, because I think it’s her most deeply felt and affecting work. It is such a deft and humorous and ferocious novel that I marvel that Bowen was only about thirty when she wrote it. Bowen, like the book’s main character, Lois, was the child of a large Anglo-Irish estate, and the book is set at a lightly fictionalized version of the house in 1920, at the cusp of the Irish Civil War. The tremendous pressure that politics bears on the estate is seen mostly aslant; all of the family's visitors, though their days are full of dance-parties and tennis matches, are oddly brittle in their effort to ignore the tension around them. Bowen pulls off a terrific high-wire act that left me breathless — and nostalgic for a lost world that I'd only really known in Bowen's pages -- by the end. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Each year I read more books than I can possibly review -- here are 5 of the finest and most memorable of that bunch. They are worth your money, your time, and your attention. Charles of the Desert: A Life in Verse by William Woolfitt. A book of poems that fictionalizes the life of Trappist monk Charles de Foucauld. Beautiful verse, full of pieces like “The Pangs of Wanting:” “I deliver my body to the church, / though I cannot imagine what penance might relieve / these pangs of wanting.” Later: “I take first communion...My tongue licks up the bread: a whisper / of paper on my teeth...His torn body in my stomach, / his blood in my spit, I almost vomit; I almost sing.” More collections about God like this one would be very welcomed. The Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson. Robinson is the type of writer who makes me want to slow down, sit down, and calm down. A taste of Robinson’s Calvinism with a side of subordinate clauses does good for my Catholic sense (which is superstitious and supernatural). She makes me think. And realize my inadequacies: “We can never know what it is we only think we know, or what we know truly, intuitively, and cannot prove. Our circumstance is itself a very profound mystery.” The Multitude by Hannah Faith Notess. For fans of the mystical and mysterious. A little Emily Dickinson, some Denise Levertov, and a touch of Anne Sexton. Loved poems like “Philippians:” “I used to forget my Greek New Testament on purpose, / so the future seminarians would share with me. / They smelled like sweat and prayer / and oatmeal cookies, and trying too hard / to get God to love them.” A gifted poet delivers lines like these: “How many times / has the thing I wanted stayed hidden from me, / obscured by my longing?” The People of the Broken Neck by Silas Dent Zobal. A searing debut novel: terse sentences juxtaposed with ambiguous, surreal descriptions of violence and the after-effects of trauma. The story of Iraq veteran Dominick Clarke Sawyer, a former Army Ranger whose “deep mysterious ache of love for [his children] hurt like something huge he’d swallowed.” Hallucinating and harried, he is being hunted by an FBI agent -- first in central Pennsylvania, and then on the road. A literary thriller somewhere between Phil Klay and Dennis Lehane. Bringing Back the Bones: New and Selected Poems by Gary Fincke. My mentor at Susquehanna University, but someone whose work I would have flocked toward anyway. Poems like “The Sorrows” capture atmospheric moments of lament: Sunday afternoons, women stay in the kitchen where they “sighed and rustled” while listing their sorrows and respective cures -- worlds away from the men in the “lamp-lit living room,” who listened still, “nodding at the nostrums offered by the tongues / of the unseen / As if the sorrows were soothed by the lost dialect / of the soul / Which whispered to the enormous ache of the imminent." A handful of these poems break me, including “Specificity,” an elegy for the poet Len Roberts, that ends after a memorial service: I sit with my wife who orders a glass of Chambord for a small, expensive pleasure in a well-decorated room, the possibility of happiness surprising us in the way hummingbirds do, stuck in the air, just now, outside this window, attracted to the joy of sweetness despite the clear foreshadowing of their tiny, sprinting hearts. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
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Laura Miller is a journalist and critic. She is a cofounder of Salon.com, where she is currently a staff writer, and is the editor of The Salon.com Readers Guide to Contemporary Authors. A regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review, her work has also appeared in the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, Time, and other publications. She lives in New York. You can read more about her and her new book The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia at www.magiciansbook.com.I review books for a living, so reading anything that's not new is a luxury (in time) that I could seldom afford - until I began downloading audiobooks to my iPod. This year, I did all my holiday baking to Anthony Trollope's delectable Barchester Towers, read by Simon Vance. The ironic, discursive authorial voice so deplored by modernists, the novel's frank, almost metafictional discussion of its own merits and likely reception by various types of readers - I gobbled it all up with as much gusto as I licked the batter off my spoon. Apparently there is no fancy experimental "trick" that hasn't already been tried by someone writing for a general audience a couple hundred years ago. None of these inexcusable devices made the scheming of Mr. Slope, the seductions of Signora Neroni (who is carried everywhere on a small sofa) or that sublime battle-axe, Mrs. Proudie, anything less than perfectly believable and almost physically painful to part with at the end. Everything about Trollope is so, so wrong according to the dictates of one or another austere literary critic, so why does it feel so, so right?More from A Year in Reading 2008
"One hears, in the news, that one new fad after another is sweeping the academy. World literature, digital humanities, book history, cognitive science. Perhaps everyone will just watch TV (there are twenty-seven panels on The Wire, and at least a paper, I recall, on Rizzoli and Isles, a TNT show)...The elephant in the room, or the one that has left the room a while ago (but whose stinking presence everyone still inhales deeply or holds their nose after), is Theory." N + 1 reviews MLA 2013.
The recently awarded international Man Booker prize (given to Ismail Kadare of Albania) inspired critic John Carey to announce in the Guardian: "If you speak Spanish or French or Italian or German or any of a dozen other languages, and walk into your local bookstore, you will ... find what is being imagined in China, what stories are being told in Korea, how the novel is being reinvented in Spain and the Scandinavian countries. But if you live in England you will find no such abundance." The same is true of the US, so I was happy to see that the Guardian had some experts put together a list of "10 overseas writers we should be reading." As a supplement to the Guardian's list, here are some of the books by these authors that appear to be available here in the StatesHarry Mulisch - Netherlands - The Discovery of Heaven, The Assault, Sigfried, The ProcedureStefan Heym - Germany - The Wandering Jew, The King David ReportCees Nooteboom - Netherlands - The Following Story, Roads to Santiago: A Modern-Day Pilgrimage Through Spain, Rituals, All Souls Day, In the Dutch MountainsMarcel Benabou - Morocco - Jacob, Menahem, and Mimoun: A Family Epic, Dump This Book While You Still Can!, Why I Have Not Written Any of My BooksHalldor Laxness - Iceland - Under the Glacier, Independent People, Iceland's Bell, Paradise Reclaimed, World Light, The Fish Can SingJuan Goytisolo - Spain - State of Siege, The Marx Family Saga, Marks of Identity, Juan the Landless, Landscapes of War: From Sarajevo to Chechnya, The Garden of SecretsJaan Kross - Estonia - Professor Martens' Departure, Czar's MadmanMarie Darrieussecq - France - Pig Tales: A Novel of Lust and Transformation, My Phantom Husband, Undercurrents, Breathing UnderwaterShen Congwen - China - Imperfect ParadiseDubravka Ugresic - Croatia - The Culture of Lies: Antipolitical Essays, Lend Me Your Character, Thank You for Not Reading: Essays on Literary Trivia, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, In the Jaws of LifeLooks like an interesting, eclectic list. I'm intrigued by Ugresic in particular. For more Man Booker International Prize coverage check out the Literary Saloon.