Monday, December 19, 2016


One of the great, if less heralded, discoveries of the literary world of Twitter and blogging is that, yes, those of us who read all the time are also always reading in all times. For every new novel being championed, there's someone out there ready to chat about diving back into Trollope, or just discovering P. G. Wodehouse. And, because there's little cachet in keeping up with the non-new, encountering company on the journey always feels extra special: you're there because you want to be there. This year more than ever, as the news insisted on being bad, the past between pages exerted a powerful pull.

Which brings me to my year-end list, such as it is. As usual, it's all hither and yon, disorganized and atemporal. There are new books here, certainly, but, as in any given year, the majority of what I read was by authors long dead, and they deserve a place, too. It's also incomplete, I'm sure. I read many, many very good books this year, books that surprised me or taught me things or opened new ways of thinking. They're not all here, probably because I didn't happen to spy them as I scanned my bookshelves tonight, but they were appreciated as I read them, and I'm sure they'll surface again, as good books do.

Herewith, some of the books that defined my year.


Autumn: An Anthology of the Changing Seasons, edited by Melissa Harrison
This is the first I read of a series of four little paperback anthologies from the UK that bring together contemporary nature writers--of which that isle has plenty right now--and older works. The selections are short, making it a perfect bedside or morning coffee book. Perhaps the latter is better, because like all good nature writing the book leaves you more alert to the world you inhabit; as you step out the door on the all-too-routine walk to the office, a reminder that nature is never routine can be a blessing. (And now that winter is here, I've just started delving into that one, more as solace, perhaps, than in celebration.)

Silver Ley, by Adrian Bell
Having grown up in a farm family in a rural community, I've always been extremely skeptical of people who talk of going back to the land. What I always see ahead of them is shock at the labor and isolation, followed by failure in the face of the uneasy relationship between nature and commerce. This memoir, published in 1931 and brought back by Slightly Foxed, won me over despite. A young man from a genteel family of some modest means takes over a farm, along with the position in the town that accompanies it. It goes better than my dire predictions, but that's not the point. Rather, this is a quiet book about coming to terms with who you are, what you can do, and what you want from life and the people around you. It's beautiful and quietly sad.

Terms and Conditions, by Ysenda Maxtone Graham
I have come to trust the editors at Slightly Foxed to the degree that I now simply pick up whatever is new from them whenever I'm in London, regardless of author or subject. Terms and Conditions was my reward: a new history, rooted in countless interviews, of life at English girls' boarding schools from the 1940s to the 1970s, it is hilarious and shocking and strange and occasionally sad. Any reader who grew up pining to be shipped off to a glamorous boarding school or any Anglophile who simply can't ever get enough of the weirdness of the English will likely enjoy it. I recommend reading it in public or at family gatherings, because the looks people give when you reply to their questions about what you're reading are priceless.

William Morris, by Fiona MacCarthy
This is a classic of doorstop biography, and it earns its length and detail by presenting a compelling, complicated, largely admirable William Morris firmly ensconced in his historical, political, and cultural moment. This is one of those books that you're brought to by a thread from elsewhere--in my case, from Penelope Fitzgerald's book on his close friend Edward Burne-Jones and A. S. Byatt's short book on Morris--and that then sends you off in a dozen new directions. Thanks to MacCarthy, I feel I understand the Arts and Crafts movement like I never have, in all its ambitions, good intentions, and contradictions. This is the kind of book that makes me speak of biographers with awe.

Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies, by Alexandra Harris
I wrote a bit about this book for Open Letters Monthly already. Suffice it to say that I read it in March and find it still, nine months later, affecting my reading--yesterday, in the face of below-zero temperatures, it sent me to the Anglo-Saxon poets and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Harris offers far more than simply a run through the history of writing on the weather--instead, we feel we understand how the weather actually infuses English literature, all but inextricable from it. And Harris is splendid company: authoritative and confident yet welcoming, and consistently reliable in zeroing in on the most interesting parts of a story. It's a landmark.

Henry James, by Leon Edel
This really is just a lead in to . . .


This year was dominated for me by Henry James. I read some new books that I liked very much (Elizabeth McKenzie's off-kilter The Portable VeblenMegan Abbott's fierce, obsessional You Will Know Me; Nina Stibbe's wonderfully comic Paradise Lodge, to take just three), but from the moment I dove into Edel's biography in February, I couldn't get James out of my mind. The James we meet in Edel's book is powerfully alive, and once I'd made his acquaintance I couldn't resist delving more deeply than before into his letters, masterpieces of the form, and then into his fiction--reading some previously unread novels, re-reading others, and recently embarking on what will be a long straight read-through of all his stories. This was the year that I finally knew I would eventually read all of Henry James.

Amid all this, I was proud to discover in Google Books The Henry James Year Book, a 1911 page-a-day book of James quotes that I was able to get republished by the University of Chicago Press as The Daily Henry James. It's been a source of consistent joy ever since, and a spur to continue every day to think about and engage with this man of great heart and great loneliness whose audacity in fiction was matched only by his caution in life. Few other writers draw my interest so powerfully to both their work and their lives--perhaps, in fact, only Virginia Woolf, who, like James, rarely put a paragraph to paper, fiction or nonfiction, public or private, that doesn't reward attention.

As the holidays approach, and I endeavor to replace frustration and tension and worry with the relative simplicity of gratitude, I'm grateful to these authors. They've been good company this year.

I'll leave you with a pleasingly dire quote from a letter James sent on January 1, 1893:
The year's end is a terrible thing, and the year's beginning is a worse.
And you? What did you read in 2016?

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Elsewhere . . .

In recent weeks, when I've mostly been failing to write in this space, I have at least made a couple of contributions to Open Letters Monthly. The first was a sheer pleasure to prepare for and write: a review of Ruth Jackson's excellent new biography of Shirley Jackson, the writing of which gave me an excuse to re-read the Jackson books I'd read before and dig up all the ones I hadn't.

One thing that's always surprised me about Jackson is that people have had trouble reconciling the light, loving manner of her family memoirs and the darkness of her other fiction. And perhaps I would have, too, fifty years ago, when boundaries between genres were more rigidly policed, preventing serious fiction and the light diversions of women's magazines from ever polluting each another. Seen from our vantage, however, the two styles are clearly kin: humor is shot through both--rarely do even Jackson's most frightening novels fail to have moments of black comedy--and they share an appreciation of oddity and an attention to language, and in particular its rhythms.

At the same time, though, there is a distinct difference in prose style, one that I didn't have room to get into in my review. Take a look at this, from early in one of Jackson's creepiest, least explicable stories, "The Man in the Woods":
The cat had joined him shortly after her entered the forest, emerging from between the trees in a quick, shadowy movement that surprised Christopher at first and then, oddly, comforted him, and the cat had stayed beside him, moving closer to Christopher as the trees pressed insistently closer to them both, trotting along in the casual acceptance of human company that cats exhibit when they are frightened. Christopher, when he stopped once to rest, sitting on a large stone at the edge of the road, had rubbed the cat's ears and pulled the cat's tail affectionately, and had said, "Where are we going, fellow? Any ideas?", and the cat had closed his eyes meaningfully and opened them again.
You can find pleasantly showy passages throughout Jackson's writing; this one is fairly sedate, but it serves my purpose. The sentences are long and fluid, clause following on clause as cause on effect, and an aphoristic phrase ("the casual acceptance of human company that cats exhibit") is thrown in with the air of an afterthought.

Now look at this, chosen all but at random from Raising Demons, Jackson's second volume of family memoir:
Usually, whenever Beekman drove, Sally wanted to come too. And whenever Sally came, Jannie thought she had better come along. And when Beekman and Sally and Jannie came, Laurie figured that we might just sop in at a movie or some such, and if we did he wanted to be along. As a result, whenever I went shopping in the new car, everyone came except my husband, who could not, for a long time, look at the new car without telling me how we were going bankrupt in style. One Saturday morning I almost got off without Beekman, who was learning from Sally how to cut out paper dolls, but before I was out of the driveway they were calling to me to wait a minute, and by the time I finally tuned the car and headed off toward the big supermarkets I had all four of them with me, Sally accompanied by her dolls Susan and David and Patpuss, all dressed entirely in cleansing tissue, and carrying--though I did not know it when she got into the car--a pocketbook containing four pennies and a shilling stolen from her father's coin collection.
Oh, how it builds! As each child is added, the sentences get longer and longer, trailing more impedimenta in their wake. Whereas the sentences in the previous passage were long, but explicit in their structure, these pretend to embody chaos: they just go. The book is like that throughout, written as if in the rush of conversation with children and the confusions of parenting, a hard task of writing made to look casually effortless. If you're looking for light entertainment this holiday season, you could do far worse than Raising Demons and Life Among the Savages.

The other bit I wrote for OLM was much less involved: a brief note on my year in reading, focused on Alexandra Harris's wonderful Weatherland: Writers and Artists under English Skies. "English summers take their identity from the stretches of grey on either side," writes Harris. In the depths of a gray and dark Chicago winter, I feel strong kinship. If you're looking for a holiday gift for a bookish Anglophile, your shopping may be done.