When I became a librarian in my early twenties, people startled me by making confession that they did not read enough. Surprised as to why I should be told that, I quickly replied, ‘Neither do I.’ I don’t hear confessions any more, but I still flagellate myself that I do not read all that I intend to read. Worse, because I quit employment in 2000 in order to devote more time to reading and writing, I now worry that I will not live long enough to read everything I intended. Often, I joke with people that I have caught up to the 12th century.
In order to read more, I long ago gave up ephemeral activities. I was never interested in sports, not even as a spectator, I stopped watching commercial television, I skip most sections of the daily newspaper, but never the feature articles. Decades ago, I taught myself that if I start a book and it fails to grab me, I am free to quit it. Because of this choice, most of the books I read rate high with me.
I always have something to read with me, the expression in our family being, ‘You never know when you’re going to be caught in a flood.’ So, we carry our flood books. Because of some specific project, I research and read task-fulfilling stuff almost all the time, but when it comes to reading books generally, I fail my own expectations. Most of the books that I read to the finish are ones that I intend to read on an emerging priority basis or that I read in those hours, often between 2 and 4 a.m. When I cannot sleep, I regard tossing and turning as too wasteful. Because I am in a book club, I read a number of books that I would not otherwise choose.
Books Read in 2008 (listed chronologically).
Note: The ratings given follow the book club’s: 5-best; 4-top 20%, 3-middling, 2-less than average, 1-bottom. BC – Book Club selections. SF – Stratford Festival plays. YA-Title written for teenage or younger readers.
Amy Ephron, One Sunday Morning (2005). BC Though compared to Edith Wharton sendups on the social elites of 19th century New York society, I found this brief novel shallow, stupid, and boring. 1
Penelope Lively, The Photograph (2003). Gift* A landscape historian finds a picture of his deceased wife holding hands with her sister’s husband. He does not rest until he discovers what was going on. This quest starts a chain reaction among all those involved. Excellent treatment of character and manners. 4
Diane Lee Wilson, I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade (1998). YA A young Mongol girl, fascinated with riding and horses, impersonates a boy and by chance is trusted with carrying a secret message to the great Kublai Khan in China. A well done historical. 4
Brian Aldiss, The Dark Light Years (1964). Though I had read the short story that spawned this science fiction novella, the story intrigued me all over again. Aldiss is profound in contrasting human assumptions with alien existence. 5
Ayn Rand, ...Answers (2005). Since Rand’s death, her executors have resurrected a number of unintended books from recordings made of her speaking off the cuff. This one organizes by topic her responses from question and answer sessions following formal speeches. Though Rand was an early influence on my life, and although some of her answers are stimulating, many show her as extreme, violent, merely opinionated, and irritated. I take this collection as revelatory in its chance randomness but lacking in sufficient context. Valuable to students of Rand but cannot be rated.
Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum (2005). BC Though Erdrich is a noted Minnesota author, this book is the first of hers I have finished, so I take that as a sign that it is easier. An authentic native drum so captivates an appraiser of antiquities that she steals it from the estate. The magic of the drum haunts her until it brings its own return to its place of origin. A beautiful story that crosses half the U.S., generations, and peoples also, thereby, fascinates. 4
Alfred Duggan, Growing Up in Thirteenth Century England (1962). YA Duggan treats a microcosm of Edward I’s time by profiles of the teenage children in three upper class families. Perhaps this makes sense since these had the most options, but I would have liked to see something more bourgeois. A clear picture of feudalism emerges, most of it comparatively grim. 4
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Heat and Dust (1975). BC An English woman in colonial India finds her life suffocating and to escape it spends more and more time in the palace of the local prince to disastrous results. I had expected more, but the story turned very flat. 2 Another novel with a similar theme, The Holder of the World (1993), by Bharati Mukherjee, I found far superior because of its meaningful merit and evocative movement. Give that one a 4.5.
George Bernard Shaw, Caesar and Cleopatra (1900). SF Though straying from the historical, Shaw’s comedy of the aging Caesar mentoring the teenage Cleopatra is a joyous romp of satire in the face of puritan traditions and illuminates the true worth of magistracy. 5
Lope de Vega, Fuente Ovejuna (1619). SF Previously unknown to me, the prolific maker of Spanish classical drama, regarded in Spain as second to Cervantes in their literature, was a later contemporary of Shakespeare. In this play, the residents of the village “Sheep’s Well,” rise against their vicious feudal overlord and kill him. All face death until the clement understanding of Ferdinand and Isabella reprieve them. As insightful to the time of its setting and time of its writing as any Shakespeare drama. 4
William Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost (1598). SF Of interest to me is how Shakespeare’s minor plays, some of them very neglected, are so fascinatingly wonderful. LLL is a courtly piece in which the King of Navarre and three of his fellows swear off women in order to devote themselves to study. Then arrive the Princess of France and three of her women. As the principals match up, the women test of the seriousness of the men’s interest and find them faithless. A messenger intrudes with the report of the King of France’s death; the Princess is now Queen, contrary to all history. So the play abruptly ends with this conceit of loss, though they men are set tests for a year and a day, upon which the women shall return to see what is proved. Yes, a slight story, most elegantly told with a hilariously silly subplot. For Shakespeare, this is a 3, overall in literature a 4.
Euripides, Trojan Women (415 BCE). SF Along with Euripides’ Medea, this is one of the most gripping and terrible tragedies I know, not excelled after 2,425 years. The women of Troy, soon to be sent into slavery, and the anguished Helen each have their say bringing the play step by step closer to grief until Hecuba, widowed of King Priam, and bereft of all her sons faces the final disaster. 5!
William Shakespeare, All’s Well that Ends Well (1623). SF As one of the “problem plays,” the problem here is that Bertram refuses to recognize his marriage to Helena so that she must win him by obtaining his ring and bearing his child when he deserts her. Most interesting is that Helena and the other women are heroic while Bertram is a cad. Another 3, 4.
Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). BC Do you know of Mr. Rochester, the brooding master of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre? Rhys wrote a prequel of Rochester’s earlier life and his wife’s origins in the slave-holding Caribbean. She is the crazy woman who burns down the hall at the end of Jane Eyre. Now you know why. Though a slender novel in size, WSS is profound as an artistic deconstruction of the pretense (or naïveté) of imperial fiction. 4
Vince Starrett, Life of Sherlock Holmes (1933). In a series of chapter sketches, Starrett treats Holmes and Watson analytically as though these characters had real lives, and thereby explains away the inconsistencies in their stories. Entertaining even if you are not a Baker Street Irregular. 4
Kiran Desai, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard (1998). The young son of a middle class Indian family is a disappointment to them. He has a low-level postal job and no ambition. Suddenly he goes off on his own to live in a tree in an abandoned orchard. His joyful solitude lasts until the neighborhood discovers him as a “holy man” and his notoriety spreads. Chaos follows. Desai has a wonderful way of writing with subtlety of connotation and verve of expression. This one was a great delight and I must explore more of her books. 4
Ursula K. LeGuin, Lavinia (2008). LeGuin has been among my favorite authors for 30 years. In her mature writing through this period, she blends exquisite prose, inventive situations, and depth of portrayal that always succeeds. In Lavinia she takes a slight reference near the end of the Aeneid to Aeneas’ Latin wife and builds a whole, marvelous story around her that is visionary, feminist, culturally significant, and artistically satisfying in the finest sense. A 5 once again.
Steven Saylor, Roma (2008). I came to Saylor through his early books on Gordianus the Finder, an early version of detective, who at first appealed to me as an industrious man able to step outside his illusions. His grunt work for Cicero in various cases, though critical of that articulate Roman, illuminate society in the years of the “great men” Sulla, Pompey and Caesar. Though Roma’s subtitle is the novel of ancient Rome, it is not so much a novel as an episodic series of stories and novellas that dramatize key episodes from the city’s prehistoric location to Augustus’ foundation of empire. The novelistic elements are two – two family histories that weave in and out of the major events and the evolution of Rome itself as a polity and culture. Though containing enough pettiness among the characters to wear me down, Saylor always vaults his homework into tensions that reveal as they intrigue. 4
Nancy Freedman, Sappho: the tenth muse (1998). Though Sappho’s poetry exists in scraps and a vaporous mystery surrounds her life, numerous books seek to make her into a whole person. This novel is one that I owned for several years before I got around to reading it. Freedman, new to me, writes with elegance and power and consistently uses metaphor and simile as no one I have read before. My only complaint was the heavy doses of eroticism and subsequent jealousy among characters that detracted from Sappho as a poet, feminist, and intellectual of her day. I wanted to believe that Sappho invented the concept of romantic love, a woman far in advance of her time and place. 4
Penelope Lively, Consequences (2007) Gift* Lively takes refreshing approaches in her various novels. This one tells the story of three generations of women through the 20th century. Each – mother, daughter, granddaughter – must seek her own path and relationships and thereby exercise both will and choice among the chance opportunities that life and history deal out. What a beautifully conceived and executed book of verity and significance! 4
*My friend, Cy Chauvin, and I have exchanged books at holiday times for several years. Because we share many of the same interests, including appreciation of the novel of manners, several of Cy’s gifts have been Lively books in this genre where she excels.
© 2009 by Roger Sween.