Saturday, December 20, 2014

Favorites of 2014: Books

Fiction

Elizabeth Gaskell, Wives and Daughters and Cranford

Perhaps the books I've most enjoyed over the past twelve months are by a writer who bridges the disparate worlds and sensibilities of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë: Elizabeth Gaskell.

Wives and Daughters is Gaskell's greatest achievement: it follows the fortunes of Molly Gibson, a young woman whose widowed father makes a sudden decision to remarry and discovers the painful truth of the proverb about repenting at leisure. With its close observation of the social world of a small English village and its touching portrait of the shy, sensitive and steadfast Molly, Wives and Daughters bears comparison to the work of Austen, Brontë, and George Eliot—that is to say, to some of the greatest novels ever written.

Cranford is a warm and affectionate portrait of the kind of small town in which Gaskell herself grew up. The interconnected stories about the spinsters and widows who rule Cranford society are narrated by a younger woman, Mary Smith, and describe the varying responses of the Cranford ladies to the rapidly changing mores and modes of life of the Victorian era. If you have never read Gaskell it is the perfect place to start.

Read the full post: Bridging Austen and Brontë: Elizabeth Gaskell

Charlotte Brontë, Villette

Based on Brontë's experiences during her two years spent at a boarding school in Belgium, Villette tells the story of the ill-fated loves of its quiet heroine, Lucy Snowe. Despite her name, Lucy is only outwardly cool; inwardly she is warmly passionate. But the constraints which forbid her to express her feelings openly, as men in her society are allowed to, lead to desperate unhappiness—which must, like her love, remain concealed.

Read the full post: "Hunger, rebellion, and rage": Charlotte Bronte's Villette

Fanny Burney, Cecilia

Cecilia is a young woman trying to make her way through the hypocrisies, trivialities and unwritten constraints of the social world. Burney's heroines, like those of her admirer Jane Austen, are not always unblemished paragons of virtue and good sense, but instead experience uncertainty and occasionally make mistakes. Burney's books also share the same kind of clear-eyed view of the allurements and perils of the marriage market that distinguishes Austen's novels. And if one of the pleasures of reading Burney is to be immersed in the social mores of the distant 18th century, another (as it is with Austen) is to discover just how contemporary her characters can seem.

Read the full posts: Jane Austen and Cecilia: A personal connection?" and Jane Austen's favorite novelist: Fanny Burney

Biggest Disappointment: David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks

David Mitchell is brilliant at creating narrators with distinct and highly individual voices. That focus on character is what drove his best novel to date, Cloud Atlas (2004). The Bone Clocks (Random House, 2014) starts promisingly as the story of a convincingly-voiced teenaged girl, Holly Sykes, who is running away from home after a fight with her mother. But it quickly bogs down in a science fiction/fantasy plot in which its human characters are pawns in a supernatural war between two factions of immortal beings, the Anchorites (evil) and the Horologists (good). There's talk about "the Dusk Chapel of the Blind Cathar" and "the Psychosoterica of the Shaded Way," but it's not meant as parody—at least, I don't think so. A big chunk of the novel is taken up with the final confrontation, in which the Horologist narrator says things like "I pour psychovoltage into a neurobolas and kinetic it at our assailants." The fantasy plot ultimately renders the actions and fates of the novel's mortal characters mere background. Not many novels can leave me indifferent to the fate of humanity, but The Bone Clocks managed it.

Second Biggest Disappointment: Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

I was an early fan of Haruki Murakami's, discovering him at the time A Wild Sheep Chase was first issued in the U.S. (1989), and then seeking out his earlier novels in their Japanese English-language editions. But lately I've begun to wonder whether I wasn't really a fan of his early translator, Alfred Birnbaum. Murakami's most recent novels have been translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, seemingly in haste, because they are full of stylistic awkwardnesses (one of the things that made his last novel, 1Q84, my Biggest disappointment of 2012).

But clunky translation could be forgiven if Colorless Tsukuru were otherwise compelling; unfortunately it revisits territory covered too often before by Murakami and other writers. An emotionally withdrawn protagonist approaching middle age renews his acquaintance with each of his former friends from college to try to understand why years ago he had been abruptly ostracized from the group. There are a half-hearted invocations of many Murakami tropes: a dreamlike alternate reality, Western music (classical and jazz), a central story that involves the unraveling of a mystery. But Colorless Tsukuru lacks the conviction, originality and imaginative energy of Murakami's better work.

Nonfiction

Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë

Elizabeth Gaskell knew Charlotte Brontë personally, and her friendship with Charlotte gives this biography an intimacy that is rarely achieved between biographer and subject. And while it's fascinating to learn of the real-life people and events that were transmuted into Charlotte Brontë's fiction, the chief interest in Gaskell's biography, at least for me, is its liberal quotation from Charlotte's letters. In particular, Gaskell was given access to Charlotte's extensive correspondence with her former school friend Ellen Nussey. Charlotte's letters are frank, open, and sometimes painfully revealing, as when she wrote to Ellen, "Don't deceive yourself by imagining I have a bit of real goodness about me....I am not like you. If you knew my thoughts, the dreams that absorb me, and the fiery imagination that at times eats me up, and makes me feel society, as it is, wretchedly insipid, you would pity and I daresay despise me."

Read the full post: "I am not like you": Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë

Rebecca Mead, My Life in Middlemarch

My Life in Middlemarch (Crown, 2014) is a record of the changing meanings that George Eliot's Middlemarch has held for Mead as she has reread it over the course of her life. It's also a concise and highly compelling biography of Eliot, a description of the creation and reception of Middlemarch, and a frank and moving account of Mead's life and experience as it has been reflected in and informed by the novel. My Life in Middlemarch is essential reading for lovers of Eliot's great novel, but also for those, like Mead (and myself), for whom books have been a crucial element of their "self-fashioning."

Read the full post: My Life in Middlemarch

Fanny Burney: Journals and Letters

On her 15th birthday, Fanny Burney, conscious of her father's (and her society's) disapproval of women authors, burned every scrap of her writing: poems, plays, stories, and a full-length novel. But nine months later she picked up her pen again and began writing a journal that she dedicated to Nobody:
…to whom dare I reveal…my own hopes, fears, reflections & dislikes?—Nobody!

To Nobody, then, will I write my Journal! since To Nobody can I be wholly unreserved—to Nobody can I reveal every thought, every wish of my Heart, with the most unlimited confidence, the most unremitting sincerity to the end of my Life!
Burney indeed kept the journal until the end of her life as a record of her thoughts, feelings and sensations. It was also a record of her keen observations of the literary and aristocratic worlds into which she was unwillingly thrust by the success of her first novel, Evelina. Burney's fame brought her into intimate contact with figures such as Samuel Johnson, Hester Thrale, and Queen Charlotte, in the service of whom the shy, sensitive Burney spent five miserable years as the Second Keeper of the Robes.

In the 19th century the posthumous publication of her journals eclipsed her novels. But it's not just the famous people she knew or the compelling story of her life (a late-blooming love, forced exile with her French husband during the Napoleonic Wars, her horrifying experience of a mastectomy without anaesthesia) that made her journal so popular; it is her forthright, perceptive and deeply appealing voice. In essence, the publication of the journals made Fanny Burney her own greatest character.

Biggest disappointment: Morrissey, Autobiography

Morrissey was the lead singer and lyricist for The Smiths, whose "Hatful of Hollow" album gave expression to certain inchoate feelings of loss, regret, and lack of direction in my post-collegiate 20s. Johnny Marr's crystalline guitar was the perfect accompaniment to Morrissey's arch, funny, and bitterly true lyrics: "I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour, but heaven knows I'm miserable now / I was looking for a job and then I found a job, and heaven knows I'm miserable now."

In the first half of Autobiography, Morrissey writes compellingly of his youthful feelings of loneliness and desperation, his struggles to escape the dead-end future planned for him by a routinized and soul-crushing school system, and his conviction that there must be a way to stop being an observer, a fan, and take an active part in the world of pop music that was his lifeline: "I am suddenly full of sweeping ideas that even I can barely grasp, and although penniless, I am choked by the belief that something must happen. It is not enough just to 'be'....I cannot continue as a member of the audience. If only I could forget myself I might achieve" (p. 116).

Shortly afterwards Morrissey met Marr, and The Smiths were born. But after five years and four albums (plus compilations like "Hatful of Hollow"), The Smiths broke up acrimoniously. Morrissey's substantial success as a solo artist over the past quarter century has not, apparently, healed those wounds, and the second half of Autobiography devolves into score-settling, l'esprit de l'escalier, name-dropping, lengthy passages that sound like excerpts from his tour diary, and a 40-page-long blow-by-blow recounting of a royalties lawsuit brought by The Smith's former drummer Mike Joyce.

Perhaps the last word should be left to Morrissey and Marr in better days:

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