Sunday, December 12, 2010

Favorites of 2010: Books

A continuation of my Favorites of 2010: Movies and television. As before, my favorites were first encountered this year, but not necessarily produced this year.


2010 was for me the Year of the Victorian Novel. For the first time I discovered the pleasures of curling up in an overstuffed armchair with overstuffed 19th-century fiction.

Favorite novel: George Eliot, Middlemarch (1871-72)

In my earlier full-length post on the "three love problems" of Middlemarch I wrote, "its characters are so fully realized that readers will recognize in them their neighbors, relatives and friends—and especially, parts of themselves that usually remain unacknowledged." Eliot writes with an almost painful psychological acuity and unsparingly dissects the emotional dynamics of love and marriage.

Runners-up: (tie)

The novels of Anthony Trollope: The Way We Live Now (1875), Can You Forgive Her? (1865), The Small House at Allington (1864), He Knew He Was Right (1869)

Trollope perhaps has a more conventional view of the roles of men and women than does George Eliot. And it's difficult to decide if the prejudices and conventionality of his upper-class characters are entirely their own, or whether they're not shared to a lesser or greater extent by the author. But if in Middlemarch George Eliot peoples a provincial village with richly drawn characters, Trollope manages to people the entire city of London and several surrounding towns. The only thing more astonishing than the sheer volume of his output—in the decade between The Small House at Allington and The Way We Live Now he wrote 18 other fat novels, plus short stories, essays, plays, travel sketches, and a school textbook (!)—is its uniformly high quality. His female characters are especially vivid, and Trollope makes their dilemmas keenly felt: there are women who love men unworthy of them (Lily Dale in The Small House at Allington, Marie Melmotte in The Way We Live Now, and Lady Glencora in Can You Forgive Her?), women who face family opposition to the men they love (Hetta Carbury in The Way We Live Now, Dorothy Stanbury and Nora Rowley in He Knew He Was Right), women trapped in difficult marriages (Lady Glencora, and Emily Trevelyan in He Knew He Was Right), and women who find no outlet for their intelligence and their passionate desire to make a difference in the world (Alice Vavasor in Can You Forgive Her?). Trollope's fictional world is almost Tolstoyan in the complexity and richness of its characters.

The late novels of Machado de Assis: Dom Casmurro (1899) and Memorial de Aires (Counselor Aires' Memoirs, 1908)

Six months ago I wrote a post on Dom Casmurro; after The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas I think it's Machado's strongest novel. But I have a special affection as well for his last book, Memorial de Aires, translated by Helen Caldwell as Counselor Ayres' Memorial (University of California Press, 1982). In a series of diary entries we follow Aires' observations of the slowly blossoming romance of a beautiful (and somewhat reluctant) young widow, and his elegiac reflections on love and the passing of youth. The final passages of this slim story beautifully crystallize Aires' melancholy acceptance of time's erosive power on memory and the emotions. The book is a masterpiece in miniature.

Favorite non-fiction book: (tie)

Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (Penguin, 2009)

I posted about Zadie Smith's "smart, insightful and beautifully written" essays earlier this year. "Dead Man Laughing" affectingly describes the death of her father and their shared love of British comedy, while "Middlemarch and Everybody" inspired me to pick up Eliot's wonderful novel for the first time. Changing My Mind is now out in paperback.

Patti Smith, Just Kids (Ecco, 2010)

In the summer of 1967 the 20-year-old Patti Smith arrived in New York City with $32 and a battered copy of Rimbaud's Illuminations in her pocket. By chance she encountered Robert Mapplethorpe, and the two began a romantic and artistic partnership that transformed both of their lives. Just Kids is written in an autodidact's style which is direct, genuine, unsentimental, at times incantory, and like her music, utterly compelling. The book won the 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction and is now out in paperback.

Next time: Music


  1. Another Victorian author you might consider adding to your Victorian writers' lists is Elizabeth Gaskell. Her Cranford is also peopled with characters in whom "readers will recognize... their neighbors, relatives and friends—and especially, parts of themselves that usually remain unacknowledged", though I prefer North And South with it's almost socialistic theme.

    I've never read Trollope, but from the TV adaptation of He Knew He Was Right, his writing appeared to have generous leavening of humor that helped get over the more conventional and/or grimmer bits.

  2. Bollyviewer, many thanks for the Elizabeth Gaskell recommendations. A socialistic theme? I'm putting North and South (and Cranford) on my reading list immediately--and I notice that they've both been made into highly regarded BBC adaptations.

    Trollope's saving grace is his humor, which can at times be savage (in The Way We Live Now, for example) and at others more straightforward (the Cheeseacre-Bellfield episodes in Can You Forgive Her?). Otherwise, his portrait of an English society filled with greed, mendacity, and a concern with appearance over substance might be grim (and all too familiar) indeed...