It’s always hard for me to choose the best book I’ve read in any given year, since I read constantly, if slowly, like a tortoise. This past year I’ve read mostly novels, although I often read history, biography, lay science, memoir, and poetry, as well. As the season wanes, I like to look back over my list, however paltry it may be (the tortoise effect). This year’s included Matthew Kneale’s wonderful historical novel English Passengers; Kazuo Ishiguro’s quite perfect The Remains of the Day; Lampedusa’s masterful tale of fading aristocracy, The Leopard; Giles Waterfield’s eerie story of war in Europe, The Long Afternoon; a fabulous work of history, The Discovery of France, by Graham Robb; and Jane Austen’s Emma (how did I miss this one during my previous forty-three years?).
But the book that really marks 2009 for me is one I probably should have read long before and will probably read at least once again, life permitting: A Tale of Two Cities by, of course, Charles Dickens.
A Tale of Two Cities is one of those books so famous that it has come to seem more title than actual book, like Frankenstein, Dracula, Moby Dick, War and Peace. Wikipedia tells us that it is the “most printed original English book.” It contains one of the three or four most famous first lines in the English language: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” I remember that when I was about thirteen, my father was talking about first lines and he said, “What if you reversed that? ‘It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.’ Doesn’t work at all, does it?” And my uncle, also literary, liked to quote the last line of the book, in a mock-epic voice: “It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done…” Clearly, it was high time for me to find out what lay between those two galloping old warhorses.
A Tale of Two Cities contains all the hallmarks of the Victorian tearjerker: it is sentimental, cloyingly pious, full of terribly convenient and eventually predictable coincidences, laden with long sentences, self-sacrificing Angel-in-the-House female leads, political caricatures, and grotesque minor characters. I was riveted from the first–or, perhaps, the second–sentence–and I wept over the last.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much about the story, in case you’ve waited as long as I to read it, because the plot is so intricately suspenseful that almost anything I describe about it will give too much away.
Suffice it to say that it is not only an extraordinary piece of storytelling but also a remarkable piece of historical fiction–eighty years after the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, Dickens imagined not simply the large machineries of social injustice and mob fury but also the very essence of everyday life under duress, the things that make history real to a reader–the rough wool fabric of a red cap, the color of the mud on a man’s shoes, the staring eyes of a stone figure on a chateau wall, the murdering women with blood on their skirt hems going home to their Paris quarter to feed the children, the tree from which a guillotine was made. Please do not wait as long as I did.
For the ultimate experience, hear it as I did, too: as a Recorded Books AudioBook (available at your public library), read by the incomparable Frank Muller (originally a Shakespearian stage actor).
Dickens was made to be read aloud, by fireplace and coal stove, lantern and gaslight, and A Tale of Two Cities is even better in this form than on the printed page.
I have a soft spot for literary adventure tales. It’s why, for example, I’m a big fan of certain of T.C. Boyle’s novels and also why Alvaro Mutis’ The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll is on my personal best novel shortlist. So it was with great pleasure this summer that I finally read Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers, a book I suspected I might enjoy when I first heard about it several years ago.
Kneale pairs two plots that by the book’s final quarter have converged. One plot centers on the swift and brutal demise of Tasmania’s indigenous people upon contact with English colonists in the early 1800s. The other follows an expedition, around the same time, led by pastor and geology enthusiast Reverend Geoffrey Wilson whose research has led him to believe that the Garden of Eden lies in Tasmania. It’s a volatile mix, involving Manx smugglers; eugenicists; prison colonies; long ocean voyages; short chapters in the maritime literary tradition of Moby Dick; clever narrative devices like diary entries, scientific notes, and inventive use of dialect; and ample humor. It’s the sort of book that has you running for atlases and encyclopedias to try to learn by what alchemy the author has turned history into such invigorating fiction.
One of my favorite magazines, which I now finally subscribe to thanks to a surplus of frequent flier miles, is The Week. It’s done in the “digest” format, taking the week’s news, events, and cultural goings on from hundreds of sources – newspapers, magazines, etc. – and distilling it down to about 45 pages. It’s a great way to fill in the small gaps left by my other two standbys, the New Yorker and The Economist.One of my favorite features in The Week is called “The Book List,” (not available online) in which the magazine asks a notable person to recommend a handful of books. This week’s featured recommender was Lionel Shriver, whose new book The Post-Birthday World comes out soon. Her list of six books caught my eye because it includes two of my favorite books, Atonement by Ian McEwan and Paris Trout by Pete Dexter, as well as a book recently read and enjoyed by Mrs. Millions, Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers (which I hope to read soon, too). So, naturally, I was curious to see what else Shriver was recommending since our tastes seem to be aligned.As it turns out, rounding out her list are two more books I’ve wanted to read and a third I’ve never heard of. The first two are The Age of Innocence and Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. The third book – new to me – is As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann.
The lovely Mrs. Millions decided that she really ought to be keeping better track of what she reads, especially since she reads so much these days. Hamstrung by various reading obligations and by my harebrained scheme for selecting what to read next, I don’t always get to read the books I want to read right away. Instead I hand them over to Mrs. Millions. Unlike me, she didn’t burden herself with literature classes in college, nor has she tried to make a career out of writing and reading, so she reads purely for fun, a fact that makes me a little jealous sometimes. Perhaps she’ll share her thoughts on some of the books she reads, as she has done here on one or two occasions, but probably not as that would take some of the fun out of the reading. Mrs. Millions’ reading list will live way down near the bottom of the far right column, but so you don’t have to go to the trouble of scrolling down, here’s what she’s been reading lately:English Passengers by Matthew KnealeLooking for a Ship by John McPheeThe Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullersThe Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le CarreWhite Earth by Andrew McGahanCrossing California by Adam Langer
I’ve had gift cards for some chain stores lying around for months now – gifts from Christmas and my birthday – and yesterday I decided to use them. It was strange though, despite having quite a bit of free money at my disposal, I found it very difficult to buy myself books. Over the last several years I’ve grown so accustomed to buying books very cheaply that I couldn’t rationalize paying full price, even with the gift card. I felt pretty bad about it, too. I know that authors get their paychecks when we buy their books new, but they don’t see any of my money if I buy a book at a used bookstore or a yardsale. I also feel bad because most independent bookstores can’t afford to mark their books down, and even the chain stores only put a handful of titles on sale, but I know that Amazon will have the book I want at 30 percent off, or more. After thinking about it for a while, I decided to get mad at the publishers. Why does a book have to be a luxury good? I won’t pretend to know the economics of bookselling, though I know that it requires many people – all of whom need to be compensated – to put out a book, but does it really make sense to charge 25 bucks or more for a new book? There are probably a lot of people who occupy a grey area as book customers. They enjoy reading but not enough to spend 25 bucks on it or even the 15 they now want for a paperback. Instead they buy a magazine or see a movie or go out to lunch, all equally entertaining in their minds. I don’t know where the money gets squeezed out of the book creation and selling process, but if books get cheaper people will read more and I won’t stand with my nose pressed up to the window of the bookstore staring at new releases that are beyond my means.Nonetheless with all this cash in hand, I had to buy something, so instead of spending it all on handful of paperbacks or a smaller handful of hardcovers, I decided to buy a truly expensive book, this time for Mrs. Millions who deserves such things. I bought Modern House Three, a Phaidon architecture book of considerable heft filled with glossy pictures of space age homes (she’s an architect). I got a couple of books for myself, too, a couple of novels I’ve been curious about for a long time: Donald Antrim’s The Verificationist and English Passengers by Matthew Kneale. I actually still have some more left on these cards, so maybe I’ll take another stab at the whole chain bookstore thing soon.
Matthew Kneale won the Whitbread Book of the Year award in 2001 for his maritime historical novel English Passengers. Now Kneale has a collection of stories out that takes a more contemporary look at traveling. Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance is about the complexities of exploring today’s world. A review in The Scotsman says that Kneale’s “‘small crimes’ are usually ones of hypocrisy from Europeans traveling in developing countries – well-intentioned souls suddenly confronted with the unpleasant realities of life among the picturesque peasants.” Here’s an excerpt from the book and here’s a little essay by Kneale about some of his more harrowing moments on the road.As Hotel Rwanda helped raise the profile of genocide in Africa, a soon to be released British novel uses a similar, fictionalized tragedy as its backdrop. Andrew Miller’s The Optimists is the story of Clem Glass, a photojournalist who returns home from Africa unable to come to terms with what he has witnessed there. A review in The Times discusses the difficulties in embarking on such a novel: “The novelist has to mediate a political event more skillfully than a journalist and the tension between subject and mediator is what should be driving the story. In The Optimists there is more awkwardness than tension.” At the Meet the Author Web site (which is filled with video interviews with authors) Miller discusses what he was trying to accomplish with the novel. Update: a review in the Guardian.James Salter has a collection of short stories coming out in April called Last Night. Publishers Weekly says, “The reserved, elegiac nature of Salter’s prose and his mannered, well-bred characters lend the collection a distanced tone, but at their best these are stirring stories, worthy additions to a formidable body of work.” That formidable body of work, by the way, includes a previous collection of stories that won a PEN/Faulkner Award in 1989, Dusk and Other Stories. For another taste of Salter, here’s his recent reminiscence of food in France from the New York Times. And here’s a story from the new book.