Re-reading is a great way to check in on who I have become. I’ll pick up a book I remember adoring a quarter of a century ago to find myself either irritated by stylistic indulgence I once found so deep or enraptured by complex sentences I once struggled to parse. This year’s re-reading was more an affirmation that my predilections lie on a continuum. I spent a few weeks back in the world of Denis Johnson and found myself especially re-loving Angels and his smart, canny essays in the collection Seek. Carson McCullers’s hard, heartbreaking, cuttingly precise The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Reflections in a Golden Eye were sneaky roundhouse punches once more. They flattened me. And then there was the double-take: I picked up the re-issue of Judith Rossner’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar that I remembered only as a titillating morality tale and a cultural catch phrase that embodied the retrograde idea that date rape is the woman’s fault. But reading it this time, I discovered a chillingly astute portrait of a sharp-edged, confused young woman wrestling with her libidinal yearnings in the wake of the sexual revolution. Goodbar is lurid to be sure, but it gets under the skin of its protagonist as well as any novel I admire and it unsettled me because of its nervy emotional accuracy, and precisely because of its queasy sexual politics. It makes readers question their knee-jerk impulse to distance themselves from the protagonist’s wreckage by blaming her. Somehow I missed all that when I was a sex obsessed fifteen year old trolling for the dirty parts.
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I had a good reading year, mostly because of my favorite book. Seek by Denis Johnson wasn’t my favorite, but it was powerful, and it made me want to get a motorcycle. Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis made me want to be smarter. Michael Frayn’s The Human Touch was stimulating in almost every line.
I found an old copy of Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter and couldn’t put it down (except twice when I fell asleep—some bits are dull). It tells the story of a young woman awakening to her father’s and her own radicalism in contemporary South Africa. I thought about Gordimer later when I was reading Amis; Gordimer’s just as stylish as Amis, I think, but she doesn’t play the show-off, at least not here.
For short stories, Floodmarkers by Nic Brown was wonderful: naughty and covert. Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned was better than the hype—when does that happen?—riveting and powerfully anti-horseshit.
But my favorite of the year was Middlemarch. I loved it. The story doesn’t stop opening, there’s limitless room for consciousness. Eliot sustains her inquisition, loves gossip, and rewards patience—the perfect novel. Same pleasures as the best of Jane Austen, but with a much bigger payoff. I still think about it all the time.