Sunday, December 20, 2015

The best of the year

This has, I'll admit up front, not been my best year as a blogger. In fact, in ten years of blogging, it's been easily my weakest, both in amount and quality of output. In the neverending struggle to divide the day, blogging this year lost out time and again to piano practice and work. When I do make time to turn to it, however, I still enjoy writing in this space, and I remain grateful to everyone who continues to visit. I do aim to write more, and better, posts next year; until then, I'll leave you my thanks--but also, my best-of-the-year list!

There's no real order to this list, and it's about as far from scientific as it's possible to get: I cast my eyes over my shelves, thought back through the year, and herewith is the list. I do, however, think it legitimately represents most of the highest points of my year as a reader. It's a mix, you'll see, of old and new--my day job may require me to constantly attend to the new, but outside of that I'm like all serious readers, constantly shifting between past and present, and an old book can easily alter the complexion of a reading year as much as a new one.

The Other Paris, by Luc Sante
A new book by Luc Sante is sort of like a Terence Malick film (which I've further heard compared to a dog--stay with me here): you're only going to get so many in your life, because he's not a quick worker, but when they come, they're wonderful things. The Other Paris is no exception. I've not even been to Paris, but you don't need to have: the book is so rich in description and detail that you never feel lost, and it's at the same time so much about urban life in general, the pleasures of the shaggy, un-sanitized city, that any urbanite will find echoes in their local experience. I quoted extensively from the book on Twitter as I read it, but the line that will stay with me longest isn't even in the book: it's something that Luc said at his reading at the Book Cellar. "I feel an obligation to the dead," he said. "Especially to the unmemorialized dead." The book is about what's been lost, both actual urban figures and ways of being and the potential they represent.

Imaginary Cities, by Darran Anderson
Another book about cities, and while Anderson's book has affinities with Luc Sante's work, it's distinctive: Sante's is an expedition afoot, whereas Anderson's is a journey of the mind--and, crucially, the library. It's about cities as they have been, but also as they've been imagined, through utopias or fascist dreams or capitalist redevelopment schemes; it's also about our imagined cities, how living amid so many people alters your thinking and opens up possibilities that the countryside never can. And it's full of compressed gems of thought and insight:
We begin relationships in raucous bars and clubs and end them in stations and airports.
With time, horror becomes heritage.
It's a huge, ambitious book, and it was one of the most exciting reading experiences of the year.

John Aubrey: My Life, by Ruth Scurr
I praised this book when I was a mere 100 pages into it, and it only got better. In the face of Aubrey's "tumultuarily" organized papers, and the relative lack of detailed information about his life, Ruth Scurr took the daring step of writing the book as if it were Aubrey's own journal--and she did so almost entirely using his own words, jigsawing them together with minor bits of her own integument and wrapping the whole around the skeleton of what is known of where he was and what he was doing at any given moment in his life. The result is hard to believe: it really does feel as if we're reading a book built by Aubrey, and the emotional weight Scurr generates through that device, the extent to which we empathize with Aubrey's struggles, goes beyond all but the very best biographies I've ever read. It's a masterpiece.

The Old Curiosity Shop, by Charles Dickens
This was the last unread Dickens novel for me, and I'd left it this long because it has such a bad reputation. No one can stand Little Nell. But it turns out to be quite fun, and while not an example of Dickens at his best, it offers so many of the charms that are found only in his works. It's rambling almost to the point of being a picaresque, but for the most part Dickens is able to hold it together, and the cast of characters include a number of typically unforgettable Dickensian types.

Then there are passages like this, a throwaway chapter opener:
The throng of people hurried by, in two opposite streams, with no symptom of cessation or exhaustion; intent upon their own affairs; and undisturbed in their business speculations, by the roar of carts and waggons laden with clashing wares, the slipping of horses' feet upon the wet and greasy pavement, the rattling of the rain on windows and umbrella-tops, the jostling of the more impatient passengers, and all the noise and tumult of a crowded street in the high tide of its occupation: while the two poor strangers, stunned and bewildered by the hurry they beheld but had no part in, looked mournfully on; feeling amidst the crowd a solitude which has no parallel but in the thirst of the shipwrecked mariner, who, tossed to and fro upon the billows of a mighty ocean, his red eyes blinded by looking on the water which hems him in on every side, has not one drop to cool his burning tongue.
Keeping with the urban theme: no one understood cities at that moment like Dickens, and no one, then or now, wrote prose like him. There's a reason they called him The Inimitable.

The Brother Cadfael series, by Ellis Peters
This was easily my extended reading find of the year. It's a series of twenty very cozy historical mysteries, published between 1977 and the author's death in 1995, starring a lay brother in a monastery on the border between England and Wales in the twelfth century. The basics of Cadfael's character, and the feel and tone of the series, are laid out in the opening paragraph of the first book, A Morbid Taste for Bones:
On the fine, bright morning in early May when the whole sensational affair of the Gwytherin relics may properly be considered to have begun, Brother Cadfael had been up long before Prime, pricking out cabbage seedlings before the day was aired, and his thoughts were all on birth, growth and fertility, not at all on graves and reliquaries and violent deaths, whether of saints, sinners or ordinary decent, fallible men like himself. Nothing troubled his peace but the necessity to take himself indoors for Mass, and the succeeding half-hour of chapter, which was always liable to stray over by an extra ten minutes. He grudged the time from his more congenial labours out here among the vegetables, but there was no evading his duty. He had, after all, chosen this cloistered life with his eyes open, he could not complain even of those parts of it he found unattractive, when the whole suited him very well, and gave him the kind of satisfaction he felt now, as he straightened his back and looked about him.
Mysteries, and particularly cozy mysteries, have always been designed to appeal to our sense of order--that while things will go wrong in the world, they will ultimately be put right. The Brother Cadfael books are like the Nero Wolfe books in that they offer a self-contained world that welcomes the reader back each time--but they differ from Stout's books in that the world they describe is explicitly one of removal from everyday cares. Wolfe may in his odd way be a sort of monk, but Brother Cadfael actually is one, and the contrast between the order of the Order and the disorder of the world is explicit. Cadfael, like the reader, has seen a bit of the world, and, as with us as readers, the mysteries he solves are a bit of an escape, a way of participating in lives other than the one  he's chosen. I've taken to carrying a Cadfael on any extended trip, and I've been grateful for it every time.

Doc, by Mary Doria Russell This is another novel where I just want to quote the opening, which is what sold me:
He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle. The disease took fifteen years to hollow out his lungs so completely they could no longer keep him alive. In all that time, he was allowed a single season of something like happiness.
Mary Doria Russell seems to get Doc Holliday like perhaps no one but Val Kilmer, whose portrayal of him in Tombstone is a masterpiece. Her prose is delicate and distanced and calm, but its effect is moving, even devastating: Doc Holliday emerges from wisps of truth and legend to be a real, achingly believable person. I read Doc by chance right before Russell's sequel, Epitaph, was published. In Epitaph, at the point when the Earps and Holliday started walking to the OK Corral, I had to put the book down and go for a walk before I continued. I had lived too long with Holliday and his friends to watch them walk into that life-changing, life-destroying moment without pausing first.

Everybody's Lamb, by Charles Lamb
My friend Steve Donoghue sent this to me when I expressed surprise on learning that there had been a volume of Lamb's writing with illustrations by E. H. Shepard. I'd long been a fan of Lamb, whose generosity of spirit and ability to rise--with at least a facade of lightness--above despair I found winning and admirable. But this book, which jumbles his essays, letters, articles, and miscellany under the (surely even dubious in the 1920s?) idea that this is a Lamb for all readers, is the perfect way to experience him: his voice is consistent throughout, but the varying shades of style and thought, and the shifting masks of essayist and letter writer, together gave me a sense of Lamb as a more accomplished, more varied, more exciting writer than I'd previously realized. And there are so many good lines!
We dealt about the wit, or what passes for it after midnight, jovially.

Write, and all your friends will hate you--all will suspect you. He sets himself up prima facie as something different from his brethren, and they never forgive him.

What a dead thing is a clock.

Newspapers always excite curiosity. No one ever lays one down without a feeling of disappointment.

A book reads the better which is our own, and has been so long known to us that we know the topography of its blots.
And then there are the Shepard illustrations . . .

The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins
Nearly ever year, there's a novel I buy multiple copies of to give to friends--and it's always the novel I've already lent out the most. This year, that book was Scott Hawkins's debut novel, The Library at Mount Char. I wrote about it in October a bit, but it seems to have largely passed under the radar in the general book world; I only spied it because a staffer at 57th Street Books dubbed it "the book you wanted American Gods to be."

And she's right. This book, like Gaiman's, deals with ancient knowledge and magic, and a secret other world of power that lives invisibly alongside ours, but it does so in a way that feels like an organic whole, fully thought through and understood. It's creepy and surprising and violent and dark, but also surprisingly powerful, even moving, by the end. It's an incredibly good book, and one that leaves me excitedly looking forward to what Hawkins might do next.


And that's it. You? What were your favorites this year? What will you be lending?

Thanks for reading, folks. Happy holidays.