Sunday, December 2, 2018

Favorites of 2018: Books

It's that time again, when I offer a brief survey of my favorite books, music, movies and television first experienced during the past year. To start, here are my ten favorite books read in 2018 (half fiction and half non-), plus the biggest disappointment.

Fiction (in chronological order of first publication):

Jane West: A Gossip's Story (Valancourt Books, 2016; originally published 1796)

A romantic young woman named Marianne is courted by two suitors, one manly and reserved, and other impetuous and ardent. Her preference for the ardent lover leads to misunderstanding and disappointment. Meanwhile her elder and more rational sister finds that her family's suddenly reduced circumstances have created what seems to be an unbridgeable gulf between her and the man to whom she is drawn.

A Gossip's Story would be of great interest as one of the sources that inspired Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility (1811). But as I wrote in my full-length post, "it deserves to be read in its own right for West's keen observations on human foibles as well as her frequently ironic narrative voice, which (despite the deferential advice for women) can feel very modern."

For more, please see my full-length review of A Gossip's Story.

Maria Edgeworth: Helen (Pandora Press: Mothers of the Novel, 1987; originally published 1834)

Jane Austen once wrote in a letter to her niece Anna that "I have made up my mind to like no Novels, really, but Miss Edgeworth's, Yours, and my own." Edgeworth's Helen centers on a sensitive and steadfast heroine, whose deep affection for her more worldly friend Lady Cecilia results in a series of moral crises. Helen chooses to risk her own reputation, and her future happiness, in order to protect her friend. But is Lady Cecilia deserving of Helen's sacrifice? Helen was a major influence on Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters and Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers, He Knew He Was Right and Kept in the Dark.

For more, please see my full-length review of Helen.

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis: Collected Stories (Liveright, 2018, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson; originally published 1870-1906)

I'm only a few stories into this 900-page volume, but it's already clear that it belongs on this list. Although Machado de Assis was born in Brazil as the grandson of slaves in 1839, he is a very contemporary-seeming writer. His narrators tend to be lightly ironic and self-deprecating, but can also have blind spots of which the reader gradually becomes aware. Even in his earliest stories there is an assurance, a command of effect and of the revelation of narrative detail, that is striking. Up until now Machado has been known in the English-speaking world primarily for his great novels The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas / Epitaph of a Small Winner (Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, 1881), Quincas Borba / Philosopher or Dog? (1891), Dom Casmurro (1899), and Counselor Ayres' Memorial / The Wager: Aires' Journal (Memorial de Aires, 1908). I suspect that this volume will make him equally renowned for his short fiction.

José Maria de Eça de Queiroz: The Maias (Dent: Everyman's Library, 1986, translated by Patricia McGowan Pinheiro and Ann Stevens; originally published 1888)

Eça wrote about the decadence of individuals, families, his society and his nation. His favorite technique—also Flaubert's— is to ironically undercut his characters' idealistic, romantic, or philosophical pretensions by constantly intruding the comedy of human incompetence and vanity. His masterpiece is The Maias (Os Maias, 1888), in which the punishment for the main character's lack of moral courage is to be exiled forever from deep feeling. He exemplifies Pascal's pensée that "The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries." After The Maias I recommend Eça's earlier novels The Crime of Father Amaro (O Crime do Padre Amaro, 1875-80) and Cousin Bazilio (O Primo Basílio, 1878), which are also great.

For more, please see my full-length review of The Maias.

Emil Ferris: My Favorite Thing is Monsters, Book One (Fantagraphics, 2017)

In Chicago's gritty Uptown neighborhood in the late 1960s, 10-year-old horror comics fan Karen Reyes begins to discover some of the secrets of the adults around her—and to harbor a few of her own. Rendered as Karen's sketchbook diary, My Favorite Thing is Monsters is a strikingly drawn and vividly imaginative graphic novel that is part coming-of-age story, part cancer memoir, and part murder mystery, while every page is an homage to the saving (and disturbing) power of art. Be forewarned: once you read this you will be desperate to read Book Two, which as yet has no announced release date.

For more, please see my full-length review of My Favorite Thing is Monsters.

Biggest disappointment

Frances Sheridan: Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph (Oxford University Press: World's Classics, 1995; originally published 1761)

In 18th- and 19th-century novels, as in real life, women often marry the wrong men. Eliza Haywood's Betsy Thoughtless marries the mundane Mr. Munden rather than her lover of true worth, Mr. Trueworth. Anne Brontë's Helen Graham marries the emotionally abusive and dissolute Arthur Huntingdon, and even after their separation rebuffs the impassioned declarations of her mercurial new admirer Gilbert Markham. George Eliot's Dorothea Brooke marries the dully pedantic Mr. Casaubon rather than his dashing young cousin Will Ladislaw or the crusading Dr. Lydgate. 

Like those heroines, Sheridan's Miss Sidney Bidulph sabotages her own happiness. Unlike those heroines, though, Sidney does so again and again. The author tells us from the start that the novel is intended to show "that neither prudence, foresight, nor even the best disposition that the human heart is capable of, are of themselves sufficient to defend us against the inevitable ills that sometimes are allotted, even to the best" (p. 11-12). Sidney, though, repeatedly brings those "inevitable ills" on herself through a combination of willful ignorance, hasty judgment, and needless self-sacrifice. The novel becomes a long slog to an arbitrary and unsatisfying ending. Like real life, one might say, except nothing could be more contrived than the way Sidney always somehow manages to snatch misery from the jaws of happiness. Sometimes even for an 18th-century fiction fan the destination is not worth the journey.

Nonfiction (in the order in which they were read):

Zadie Smith: Feel Free: Essays (Penguin Press, 2018)

I prefer Zadie Smith's essays to her fiction. Heresy, I know, but there you have it. Feel Free is perhaps slightly less satisfying than 2009's brilliant Changing My Mind (Penguin) because the essays in the new collection do not always seem to have arisen from her own most urgent thoughts and experiences. As one example, in 2011 she became the regular new books columnist for Harper's magazine. All of those columns are included here, and they're certainly worth reading. But it's clear that this assignment was perhaps not always particularly inspiring, and certainly (together with a new child, continuing teaching responsibilities, and her other writing) made her feel overcommitted. As she writes, "I lasted six months" (p. 251).

But Feel Free brings together many affecting and insightful essays, including one of her best, "Some Notes on Attunement." That essay explores her own changing feelings about the music of Joni Mitchell, but its even larger subject is the need, when faced with something new and strange, to "lower your defenses." These essays exemplify Smith's determination to remain open to experience and, as she has written elsewhere, "Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand—but tell it."

For my response to "Some Notes on Attunement," please see the post Attunement: Conversion experiences.

Ellen Harris: Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (Second edition, Oxford, 2018)

Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (1688?) is the greatest opera in English, but it continues to be surrounded by mysteries. The premiere of this masterpiece seems to have been performed by the students at a girls' boarding school in London, but we don't know when, we don't know who sang which roles, and we don't have an original or complete score.

Ellen Harris published the first edition of this study more than 30 years ago, and in the intervening time some fascinating new evidence has come to light. The publication of this new edition provided the impetus to explore some of the controversies that still swirl around this opera in advance of its performance by the San Francisco Girls Chorus and Voices of Music at the 2018 Berkeley Festival and Exhibition. Voices of Music co-founder David Tayler was kind enough to contribute his thoughts on the performing forces at the opera's premiere; for his conclusions please see the comments thread of the full-length post on The mysteries of Dido and Aeneas. My responses to the BFX performance of Dido can be found in the second entry of the post Why we live in cities, part 2: Exceptional musical performances.

Spike Hughes: Glyndebourne: A History of the Festival Opera (Second edition, David & Charles, 1981)

This year was our summer of Glyndebourne: in June my partner and I were able to realize our longtime dream of attending the Festival Opera. And we were also able to see David Hare's play about its founding, Moderate Soprano, which fortuitously was playing in the West End during our trip. Hughes' book, first published in 1965 and succinctly brought up to date in 1981, is a lively (though not always perfectly reliable) first-hand recounting of Glyndebourne's origins. Hughes makes it clear just how unprecedented the whole enterprise was (and remains), and just how much John Christie and Audrey Mildmay, the estate's owners, were making it up as they went along. Hughes is an entertaining writer, and his book is the starting point for every subsequent volume on Glyndebourne (and there are many). He perfectly captures the feeling of being at Glyndebourne when he writes that "the nature of Glyndebourne all along has been rather that of a private pleasure which the public may share."

To see where reality differed from the dramatic license taken in Hare's play please see the post The moderate soprano: Audrey Mildmay. For more on our experiences of Glyndebourne, including reviews of the two operas we saw there, please see the post Glyndebourne.

Edmund Gordon: The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography (Oxford University Press, 2017)

I wrote in my review that "Gordon has produced a thoughtful, thoroughly researched and well-written biography; if you are interested in Carter's writing you will find that it provides much to reflect on. But on occasion in describing connections between Carter's life and work he can be reductive, and there are other areas that he simply doesn't investigate fully—leaving as an exercise for the reader questions that perhaps he should have probed more deeply." Ultimately, though, the test of a literary biography is whether readers are inspired to discover or rediscover the subject's writing. During her tragically shortened life Angela Carter was not as highly regarded as she should have been; Gordon's biography is a major step towards bringing her the full appreciation she deserves.

For more on Gordon's biography, please see my full-length review of The Invention of Angela Carter. For my responses on re-reading four of Carter's fictional works, please see the post series Angela Carter's fiction.

Akira Kurosawa: Something Like An Autobiography (Translated by Audie Bock; Vintage, 1983)

Akira Kurosawa, of course, directed and wrote cinematic masterworks such as Rashōmon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957) and The Hidden Fortress (1958)—to mention only some of the films from a single decade of his more than 50-year career. If you come to his autobiography expecting detailed discussions of the making of those films, however, you'll largely be disappointed. Fully half of the text is devoted to his youth and young adulthood; the other half to the beginning of his film career, culminating in the unexpected success of Rashōmon. (It won the Grand Prix at the Venice Film Festival in 1951; Kurosawa did not know that it had been submitted, and in fact had just been told by his studio that it had rescinded its offer for him to make another film.)

Kurosawa offers vivid memories of growing up in a rapidly changing (and increasingly militarized) Japan. He is also strikingly honest about the aimlessness of his young adulthood, his beloved brother's suicide, and the stroke of fortune that led to his applying and being accepted for a position as assistant director at a film studio. He writes:
It was chance that led me to walk along the road to P.C.L. [Studios], and, in so doing, the road to becoming a film director, yet somehow everything that I had done prior to that seemed to point to it as an inevitability. I had dabbled eagerly in painting, literature, theater, music and other arts and stuffed my head full of all the things that come together in the art of the film. Yet I had never noticed that cinema was the one field where I would be required to make use of all I had learned. (p. 90)
Once hired, his hard work, dedication, loyalty and talent led to the chance to write and direct his own films—but then the war began, and devastation followed. It's a remarkable story; if you are at all familiar with his films (and everyone should be*), Kurosawa's autobiography is highly rewarding reading.

More Favorites of 2018: 

* Even if you think you haven't seen a Kurosawa film, you probably have: Star Wars (1977) is based in part on The Hidden Fortress, The Magnificent Seven (1960) is a remake of Seven Samurai, A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and Django (1966) rework Yojimbo (1961).

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