A favorite movie of my adolescent years was The Time Machine. I saw it again and again, and the special effects—state-of-the-art at the time, cheesy now—are still etched in my memory. How exciting to watch the time traveler step into his machine, a kind of overstuffed Victorian armchair set inside an ornate sleigh, and push the lever forward. A candle burned out in an instant, a garden snail shot across the windowsill, suns and moons sped across the sky, leaves budded, snow fell, faster and faster and faster, year after year into the future. I was enthralled. I was enchanted.
Little did I dream this would be such a perfect analogy of adult life.
Some years ago, while considering ideas for my next blog post, I thought I might compile a list of the books I had read during the previous year—not only to keep a record for myself (tending, as I do, to forget things), but to share my bookish enthusiasms and perhaps offer a few recommendations to anyone who might be interested. Then, before I knew it, another list came along, and then another, and now, in what seems the blink of an eye, it is four years later, and I am putting together yet another list of books read during the improbable year just passed. I don't think it is coincidental that the best new novels I read this year have all dealt, more or less, with questions of the past and the future, how the two interconnect, and what impact one has on the other.
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Among my favorites was Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings, an exuberant novel that is often hilarious, occasionally tender, and sometimes really sad. It chronicles the lives of a group of friends from their teenaged years through the complicated realities of middle age. As they weave together and split apart, the decades they pass through (details include Nixon's resignation, the Moonies, Wall Street's follies, 9/11) are vividly drawn—especially if, like mine, your own life was connected by these same reference points. But it is the friends themselves (self-styled "The Interestings") who are so richly captured in these pages. After I had finished this novel, it took me the longest time to shake loose of them and stop wondering what they were getting up to in their lives without me.
I started The Black House, by Peter May, on my wife's recommendation, expecting nothing more than a good mystery novel with an exotic setting. It turned out to be much deeper and more involving than that. The mystery element is a strong one. Two grisly but very similar murders, one in Edinburgh the other on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, bring Scottish detective Fin Macleod, originally from Lewis, back to the home and the people he left years ago. Here, in this bleak landscape, his own past becomes a palpable presence, haunted by ghosts and tinged with regrets. He learns how one mistake can alter a lifetime. The twin strands of the plot, involving Macleod's tainted past and the mysteries of the present, come together in a thrilling climax.
The impact of the past on the present plays an especially important role in The Right-Hand Shore, by Christopher Tilghman. This novel, one of my favorites not only of this year but of any year, begins in the aftermath of the Civil War and traces three generations of a family inhabiting Mason's Retreat, a vast property on the Eastern shore of Maryland. While the family tries to come to terms with the horrors of its slave-owning past, their former slaves, now farm workers and servants in the mansion, try to adjust to the ambiguities of their new freedom. Each episode is as sharply honed as lived experience. Boyhood friends get caught up in the turbulent racial waters. An interracial love story is both gripping and exhilirating, joyous and terrifying. The obsessive attempt to turn the plantation into a huge peach orchard is as riveting as any thriller; whether the peaches blossom or rot becomes the pivot on which the characters' lives and perhaps society itself will rise or fall. This majestic book carried me along on its strong current of poetry, wit, and drama for days, and just writing about it now I can immediately recapture its spell.
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I am sometimes wary of movies adapted from books that I haven't read yet, for fear they will somehow subtly color my impressions. For the longest time I had wanted to read Claire Tomalin's The Invisible Woman: The Story of Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan, and I thought it was important to get to it before the movie version was released in December.
No matter what the historical period, men in their fifth decade are sometimes seized by wayward impulses. For Charles Dickens, that impulse took the form of an eighteen year-old actress. His motivations were a mixture of the pure and the carnal, saturated by guilt, complicated by a compulsion for secrecy, and all wrapped up in hypocritical Victorian notions of women and respectability. I still haven't seen the film, but I found the book surprisingly, engrossingly readable. The reconstruction of Ellen Ternan's life, an existence carefully and systematically hidden from view in the hopes of keeping Dickens's public reputation unblemished, is as engrossing as a detective story.
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Starting at the end of 2012 and continuing throughout 2013, I immersed myself in the life and work of Edith Wharton in preparation for the talk I was about to give (to be repeated on March 14). Wharton wrote upwards of forty books, and of her fiction I've now read roughly ninety percent. This leaves me a way to go before I can become a Wharton completist; but so far I haven't encountered any novel, novella, or short story that wasn't, on some level, well worth the reading. Of how many writers can that truly be said? During my talk, people who hadn't read any Wharton wanted me to recommend a starting place. There are three acknowledged masterpieces: The House of Mirth (1905), The Custom of the Country (1913), and The Age of Innocence (1920). These are indispensable works and none should be skipped, but a good plan would be to read them in the order in which they were written. (I leave out the equally fine novellas Ethan Frome and Summer because they are so atypical of her work.) A big surprise for me was The Children (1928), the story of a bachelor who, left in charge of a group of precocious children, becomes uncomfortably smitten with the eldest sister. This struck me as one of Wharton's funniest and most charming novels, satirical but sweet--until a chill wind blows through at the end. The critics dismissed it, but it was extremely popular and became one of her biggest sellers. The critics were wrong.
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Although my taste in novels tends towards Edith Wharton (as well as Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters), I am also a great admirer of the crime novelist, James Lee Burke. This probably reflects a disturbing split in my personality. Sentence for sentence, Burke is the best literary stylist in the genre, but his lyrical evocations of the natural world are underscored by nightmarish violence. The crimes are perpetrated by morally bankrupt villains who are almost operatic in their repulsiveness—yet who somehow ring horribly true. Dave Robicheaux is the New Orleans cop who seems to have battled alcoholism to an uneasy standoff. His best friend and partner, Clete Purcell, is Robicheaux's walking id, a good man who succumbs easily to all appetites and impulses—drink, food, women—but is prepared to do whatever it takes to see that right is done. An increasingly important character is Robicheaux's adopted daughter, Alafair, whom we have watched growing up throughout the series, becoming first a lawyer and then a successful crime novelist. That James Lee Burke also has a daughter named Alafair who became first a lawyer and then a successful crime novelist adds a meta-fictional level to the novels, which now seem to be a curious sort of love letter to the writer's own daughter. This year I read his two most recent novels (Creole Belle and Light of the World) in rapid succession. They seemed fable-like in their stark, almost biblical confrontations between good and evil. There are old truths in these stories, and nobody tells them better than James Lee Burke.
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In the early part of the year, I alternated my reading of Edith Wharton with the detective novels of Susan Hill. Maybe these were not as mutually exclusive as I might at first have supposed. If you still make a distinction between the "literary novel" and the "crime novel," Susan Hill's work is where the two intersect. She has written a number of mainstream stories and novels and has a considerable reputation in England. She has also written a famous ghost story, The Woman in Black, which is still the longest-running play in London as well as a recent movie. She wrote a best-selling sequel to Rebecca called Mrs. de Winter. And, so far, she has written seven novels about Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler of Lafferton CID. The plots are fast paced, the crimes are as disturbing as they make them, but what makes Susan Hill's mysteries so unique is that they are primarily character-driven. She can paint a full-blown personality in a few strokes, whether it is Serrailler himself, his family or colleagues, as well as all the suspects, criminals, and victims who engage his time and attention. You will care desperately about these people.
Now, although these books can be read out of sequence, I recommend approaching them as I did, in the order they first appeared, starting with The Various Haunts of Men. More than the characters in most crime series, these people keep evolving. The events in one book will change lives in the next. The more you read, the more deeply invested you become.
Her latest novel, The Soul of Discretion, is due out this year. I don't know how I can stand to wait.
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The quirkiest book I read this year—as well as the most purely entertaining—was Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes From the House that Herring Built. It concerns the famous appetizing store (specializing in fish, as opposed to a "deli" which also offers meat) that has been operating on Houston Street, a few blocks from my old neighborhood, for upwards of a hundred years. It is a story of old New York and its early immigrant population, about family connections through generations, and about the joys of food. Mark Russ Federman, who until a few years ago was the store's owner and manager, is a great story teller. Reading him is like being with an old friend who can beguile you for hours with his stories. My only problem is that I could never read more than a few pages at a time without being plagued by fantasies of smoked fish and bialys.
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Living With Shakespeare was an engrossing collection of essays from those who direct and act in Shakespearean productions. Their effect was to stoke my always-simmering enthusiasm for Shakespeare. Not only did I want to experience Shakespeare once again, but I wanted to consume him whole. It's been a long time since I read all the plays, but I thought 2014 would be a good year to plunge back into Shakespeare's teeming universe. Over the holidays, I got a head start with two of the jollier comedies, Twelfth Night and As You Like It. (Other comedies, like Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well contain hardly a scrap of humor, and would be unsettling enough to undo anybody's Christmas spirit.) Sometimes I side with theater people who believe Shakespeare is best served on the stage. Other times I side with academics who believe Shakespeare's scope, language, and characters can only be experienced fully on the page. Whichever form my exposure to Shakespeare takes, it always reaches a point where something uncanny starts to happen; a veil lifts, and the Elizabethan world of these plays, written more than four hundred years ago, in language which at first glance seems barely comprehensible, becomes very much my world today, striking in its immediacy.
Time may go speeding ahead like a runaway locomotive, but nothing remains more timeless than Shakespeare's plays.
January: Summer, Edith Wharton; The Various Haunts of Men, Susan Hill; The Bradbury Chronicles, Sam Weller; The Pure in Heart, Susan Hill; Old New York, Edith Wharton; The Risk of Darkness, Susan Hill; The Mother's Recompense, Edith Wharton
February: The Vows of Silence, Susan Hill; A Backward Glance, Edith Wharton; Watching the Dark, Peter Robinson
March: The Stories of Ray Bradbury; A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton, Cynthia Griffin Wolf; The Shadows in the Street, Susan Hill; Dear Life, Alice Munro; Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
April: The New York Stories of Edith Wharton; The Right-Hand Shore, Christopher Tilghman; Renoir, My Father, Jean Renoir; The Betrayal of Trust, Susan Hill
May: The Reef, Edith Wharton; A Question of Identity, Susan Hill; Walks With Men, Ann Beattie; Married Love, Tessa Hadley; I Can't Complain, Elinor Lipman; Roman Fever, Edith Wharton; Swimming Home, Deborah Levy
June: Sanctuary, Edith Wharton; Living With Shakespeare; Gallows View, Peter Robinson; A Dedicated Man, Peter Robinson
July: The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer; The View From Penthouse B, Elinor Lipman
August: Collected Stories 1891-1910, Edith Wharton; My Dear Governess: The Letters of Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann; The Children, Edith Wharton; No Gifts From Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton, Shari Benstock; Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes From the House that Herring Built, Mark Russ Federman
September: The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud; Twilight Sleep, Edith Wharton; Creole Belle, James Lee Burke; Last Friends, Jane Gardam
October: The End of the Point, Elizabeth Garver; Light of the World, James Lee Burke; Glimpses of the Moon, Edith Wharton; A Treacherous Paradise, Henning Mankell
Novermber: The Black House, Peter May; The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens; The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, Alexander McCall Smith
December: Collected Stories 1911-1937, Edith Wharton; The Virgin in the Ice, Ellis Peters; A Morbid Taste For Bones, Ellis Peters; One Corpse Too Many, Ellis Peters; Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare; As You Like It, William Shakespeare; Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare