The Blue Flower: A Novel

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We’ve covered the Atlantic series By Heart a number of times before. It features notable authors writing about their favorite passages. In the latest edition, Mary-Beth Hughes picks out a paragraph from Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, about a poet who’s trying to cope with grief. Sample quote: “Reading Fitzgerald, I felt it was possible to write as I’d experienced dancing.”

A Year in Reading: Michelle Huneven

This year, for research, I read a lot of bad science (a textbook on Eugenics, anyone?); for pleasure, my habits were scattershot, although I turned to many old favorites, often in audiobook form.

After seeing it in drafts over several years, I finally read my friend Mona Simpson’s brilliant, highly entertaining Casebook between covers, with charming illustrations.

A year ago, my excellent husband had Hermione Lee’s Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life shipped to me from England when it was published there; that led me to reread The Blue Flower, Gate of Angels, and The Beginning of Spring.

I listen to audiobooks throughout the day, as I garden and cook, clean the kitchen and drive, and I have a contemporary child’s delight in listening to my favorites as often as I please. I keep Juliet Stevenson’s version of Persuasion on a pretty much permanent loop, but after reading Anna Keesey’s marvelous essay, “Simple Girl: the Improbable Solace of Mansfield Park” in the Los Angeles Review of Books, I moved on to Stevenson’s audiobook of that Jane Austen. (I also read Keesey’s lovely historical novel set in Eastern Oregon Little Century.) I then re-listened to Amanda Root reading Jane Eyre, but am presently back to Juliet Stevenson and her stunning reading of To the Lighthouse.

I admired Carlene Bauer’s intelligent and deft Frances and Bernard, an epistolary novel based on an imagined passion between Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell that dealt with so much of great interest to me: religious identity, passionate love [with the wrong person], and the ongoing struggle for women of doing one’s work.

I enjoyed Christopher Bollas’s peripatetic novel, Dark at the End of the Tunnel, a series of intense conversations a psychoanalyst has with his patients, friends, and wife. That primed me to pick up Becoming Freud by Adam Phillips, whose epigrammatic style is always invigorating and thought-provoking; in this short biography, he focuses on Freud’s Jewishness and early career, when he was formulating his great theories about children and families as he himself was having and raising kids.

Partly because so many people recommended Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree in their reading lists last year, I read it this year and found it, chapter by chapter, continuously revelatory and incredibly moving.

More from A Year in Reading 2014

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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A Year in Reading: Jayne Anne Phillips

I’ve loved a lot of books this year, relatively recent discoveries I’ve finally had time to dive into, or books I’ve re-read, like Jo Ann Beard’s In Zanesville, Barry Gifford’s The Roy Stories, Christa Parravani’s haunting memoir, Her. Reviewing a new biography of Stephen Crane (Paul Sorrentino’s Stephen Crane: A Life of Fire) sent me back to Crane’s poetry (“Because it is bitter/ and because it is my heart”) and prose. The Red Badge of Courage and his gorgeous stories remain immortal. The pulsing synesthesia that marked his writing emanates, controlled and rhythmic, in every graph.

I’ve needed books this year, as the world and the Republic shudder and seem to devolve. Books can be visionary arcs of narration that soar beyond our time, even by penetrating the past. Alchemy and transformation are on my mind: the magic of character, the wonder of the sentence on the page, the spiritual ascendance of books that bear witness. James Agee’s A Death In The Family, with its searing gaze into the heart of identity, remains my Bible. My pantheon includes They Came Like Swallows, by William Maxwell, Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” William Kotzwinkle’s Swimmer in The Secret Sea, and Irene McKinney’s collected poems, Unthinkable. I love her single volumes: Vivid Companion, tightly bound as a silken correspondence, and her posthumous, Have You Had Enough Darkness Yet? Each of these books moves through death as though it were a mere worm hole in a celestial galaxy; each decodes a personal survival that made writing the work a necessity for the writer. History, personal or national, may tell us the facts, but literature tells us the story, and stories are immortal. Poetry is full of story. Louise Gluck’s Faithful And Virtuous Night is its own soaring novel; Brenda Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda imagines an adjacent constellation; “rows of ghosts come forth to sing” in Rigoberto Gonzalez’s Unpeopled Eden. Poems can break character into glittering shards and let us see it whole: Adrian Matejka’s The Big Smoke “sees” bigger-than-life boxer Jack Johnson; Van Jordan’s M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A imagines the life of 13-year-old MacNolia Cox, the first African American contestant in a ’30s-era national spelling bee, disqualified by Southern judges with an unofficial word: “nemesis.” If character is destiny, memorize Leonard Gardner’s masterpiece, Fat City: a perfect novel about “allegiance to fate” in late-’50s Stockton, Calif. If you’re a reader who looks askance at the writer of the moment, don’t let that wariness warn you off Penelope Fitzgerald, suddenly awarded the attention we wish she’d had when she was nearly destitute, raising three children in a drafty houseboat on the Thames. She saw it all through to The Blue Flower, her own masterpiece, a book I read every year for sheer pleasure, with depthless thanks.

More from A Year in Reading 2014

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 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.

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