Maybe my favorite way to assess my year is by reviewing the books I read over the last 365 days.
Here are some highlights. I’m only posting a few each day since I’m too lazy to complete them all at once. Please, send feedback. Tell me I’m wrong. Offer your thoughts on the books. Tell me what books got you through the year and why?
WINNER — Why Didn’t I Recognize This Author’s Genius Sooner: Sally Rooney. I’d read “Conversations With Friends” when it came out in 2017 and thought it was OK, pretty good. But it fell on fallow ground. I was busy, preoccupied, and I quickly forgot every word. But her name kept snagging my attention in reviews and profiles, leading me, finally, to download “Beautiful World Where Are You?”
Wow, I loved it! Then I went back and read “Normal People.” More wow! Terrific! By the time I re-read “Conversations With Friends,” I was conducting a simultaneous proselytizing campaign, buttonholing people with the zeal of the newly converted clutching a sweaty handful of Chick bible tracts. “Excuse me, sir? Have you met our Lady and Savior, Sally Rooney?”
Here is a writer with straightforward plots and refreshingly complex and intricate characters. Her people are injured and scared and clever and witty. They have erudite conversations about capitalism and social responsibility and how they should be spending their time while climate change sends the planet to hell. They have ideals. They use humor to keep even lovers at a distance, then ricochet woozily through their choices, trying to find solace in relationships they’ve made fragile and weird. They have fierce friendships, stunning, honest friendships. And sometimes, they betray those bonds. They have sex, very specific and female POV sex. In fact, Rooney’s descriptions of sex strike me as important, noteworthy – perhaps the truest and most vulnerable version of sex from the viewpoint of a woman that I’ve yet encountered (although Selin in Elif Batuman’s “Either/Or,” with her painful trysts and trials, certainly belongs in a long-needed reassessment of ideas about female sex and intimacy.) Her approach is a bracing turn from endless male POV and cartoonish orgasmic fantasies.
But it is, in the end, her people make her stories what they are. Each so familiar. Each so flawed. Each a world of her (or his) own.
WINNER — I Can Never Get Those Hours Back Again: Jackson’s Dilemma, Iris Murdock. I should give the old girl a break on this one. It was her last novel – her 26th— before she died in 1999, and she was already in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, at least one analysis suggests. A team from the University College of London compared this novel it to her earlier works and found that her vocabulary was impoverished. Such fussy analysis can only be achieved via computer. Even careful readers won’t notice the sunset of vocabulary. I didn’t. I was too busy trying to find the plot and logic, any logic. The story kicks off with a broken engagement – the bride scarpers just before the wedding bash. Much handwringing and weeping ensues. In the meantime, Jackson, the mysterious manservant/former homeless guy, laboriously works magic — doing what? It’s never clear. All the while, he makes efficient and tasty meals and cares for a gentleman’s household. The gentleman resents him, is rude to him and relies on him. Such a dilemma! Much mystery here to ponder: Who is Jackson? Where did he learn to cook like this? Why is he helping these rich snobs? Why did he show up one bleak day to help a man unlock his door and thus, change his life and the lives of everyone around him? Why is Iris Murdock making him drag us to an improbable happily ever after? I can’t tell you why. And I no longer care.
Ok, more tomorrow.
You didn’t tell me you had a blog! I have not read Sally Rooney but have to look for her now. Sad about Iris Murdoch but where was her editor? I find myself wondering that a lot, lately. Today there was a Fresh Air interview with Robert Gottleib, editor of, among others, Catch 22 and Cato’s massive work on LBJ. Terry Gross asked him if, while they were talking, he was editing her and he said he was constantly editing himself. I don’t think he actually answered her question.
I’ll have to listen to that interview. I’m a big fan of the LBJ bios and hope every day that I’ll hear the final one is on its way. Poor Iris. I often wonder why editors don’t protect writers from themselves.