Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen 2017

No, my "middlebrow vacation" from blogging is not over. In fact, Andy and I will be on our real holiday vacation in Washington DC shortly. But I couldn't resist the temptation for one more Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen list. It was a great year of reading, and my blog vacation in the past few weeks has led me to some exciting new reads, including four contemporary novels that I have to mention even if they're technically "off topic".

Two of these might well be of interest to readers of this blog, even if they (like me) don't often read contemporary fiction. I couldn't put down RACHEL KADISH's The Weight of Ink, vividly set in London just before and during the plague of 1665, as well as in the early 2000s, when two scholars are making an astonishing discovery about a Jewish scribe working in the earlier time. Kadish is brilliant with her descriptions of the London of the time, and I felt I'd had a chance to travel back in time and experience a walk across the old bustling, smelly London Bridge with its ramshackle tumble of shops. Definitely recommended for fans of historical fiction, as well as for fans of A. S. Byatt's Possession.

That discovery led me (via Amazon's "Customers who bought this item also bought" feature) to SARAH PERRY's amazing second novel, The Essex Serpent, which offers a similarly atmospheric and compelling version of 19th century England (and also evoked, for me, an earlier novel—John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman). I loved this one even more, and recommended it to a co-worker who was similarly sold. I think many of you would enjoy it.

But the two biggest standouts of my sparse contemporary reading this year were, surprisingly, books by men, both of which harkened back to my days of reading slightly edgier, more experimental fiction. GEORGE SAUNDERS's Lincoln in the Bardo, which happily won this year's Booker (though at the same time I am still ambivalent about Yanks being allowed to win it at all), reminded me of both Mark Twain and Samuel Beckett, and I don't think there could be many books about which that's true. I've never been teary-eyed on one page and laughing maniacally on the next so many times in the course of one book, so if you're open to unconventional storytelling with a powerful historical bent, give it a try.

And finally, I geared myself up for all the trauma and beauty that is COLSON WHITEHEAD's The Underground Railroad and was fair blown away. Not for the squeamish, to be sure, but ultimately exhilarating and uplifting.

I've also started two other contemporary mystery series as a result of recommendations. People have been telling me to read LOUISE PENNY for ages, and I now have and am hooked. I've finished the first two in the series, Still Life and Dead Cold, and the third, The Cruelest Month, will accompany me on my flight to DC. And I read C. J. SANSOM's Dissolution as a result of an intriguing review in The Scribbler an issue or two back, and I've never learned so much about a period of British history and had so much fun at the same time.

But I'm not including any of these I my dozen. Per tradition, it's limited to books that fit the main focus of this blog, and for those that I've reviewed here, I'm linking to my review. So without further ado:

12) Monica Redlich, Five Farthings (1939)

In many ways an ordinary enough family adventure story, but oh my! As a travelogue of London just before WWII, particularly focused on churches and historic buildings, it was one of the two best wish-fulfillment fantasies I came across this year—see #3 below for the other.

11) Christianna Brand, Suddenly at His Residence (1946)

One of several books here that I never got round to discussing, but I had a great time with it, and surely there can't be many mysteries whose climax is punctuated by a doodlebug bombing.

10) Isabel Cameron, The But and Ben (1948)

My biggest regret of the year is not getting round to discussing Isabel Cameron. Something like an even cozier, Scottish version of Miss Read—cheerful, sentimental, and placidly (and not too intrusively) informed by Cameron's own Christian beliefs—she was one of the happiest discoveries of my bookshopping raids in Edinburgh last year. She is better known as the author of a series of tales about "The Doctor", which apparently sold more than a million copies, but it was her four Glen Craigan novels that proved irresistible to me. The But and Ben and its three sequels—Tattered Tartan (1950), Heather Mixture (1952), and The Kirk of the Corrie (1956)—trace the arrival and gradual settling-in of a young woman doctor in a close-knit Highlands community. They seem ripe for rediscovery, and they're actually not impossible to find at reasonable prices…

9) Verily Anderson, Our Square (1957)

Sadly the last of Verily Anderson's six wonderful memoirs that I hadn't read, but now I can go back and start re-reading them. This one tells of the early days of her hectic married life, in all of her usual incomparable and hilarious style.

8) Winifred Lear, The Causeway (1948)

One of the oddest and yet most satisfying of the novels I read this year. Sadly, Lear wrote only two novels, and her second, Shady Cloister (1950), set in a girls' school, didn't quite live up to its promise for me. But this one, even months after reading it and with my notoriously bad memory for plots, comes vividly back to mind, and the fact that it makes interesting use of wartime realities just adds to the mix.

7) Stella Gibbons, The Swiss Summer (1951)
6) Stella Gibbons, A Pink Front Door (1959)
5) Stella Gibbons, The Snow-Woman (1969)

The biggest chunk of my reading during my blog vacation has involved obsessively tracking down and reading several of the Stella Gibbons novels that weren't reprinted in the past few years by Vintage. It started innocently enough, when I finally picked up The Yellow Houses, the last of Gibbons's novels to finally be published. I didn't absolutely love that one, as I did the other "lost" novel, Pure Juliet, but Houses was enough to send me on a Gibbons bender, and these are the three standouts so far. Gibbons's nephew, Reggie Oliver, in his rather anemic bio of her, dismisses Swiss Summer as dull and little more than a travelogue about attractive characters spending a summer in the Alps, but that description might well make fans (like me) of Enchanted April and similarly quiet novels with wodnerful settings sit up and take notice. A Pink Front Door is also surprisingly cozy for a Gibbons novel, dealing with a young wife who attempts to solve everyone's problems, to the dismay of her father and husband. I enjoyed both a lot, but it was The Snow-Woman, the second to last of Gibbons's novels to be published in her lifetime, that made me feel more than ever that she's a kindred spirit. The story of a bitter—even, initially, rather unlikeable—woman in her seventies, who visits old friends in France, then returns to her quiet life to discover the "snow" of her years of bitterness melting away, it's a lovely, perceptive novel that deserves to be more readily available. Happily, Gibbons wrote quite a number of novels, so I still have several more left to track down…

4) Rumer Godden, China Court (1961)

I also re-read The Greengage Summer this year and was so tempted to add it to this list, but decided to limit myself to new discoveries from this year. I thought I'd already read all the very best of Rumer Godden's books and was only filling in some of her lesser works, but this one gives all my other favorites a run for their money. Which is best: China Court? Greengage Summer? Episode of Sparrows? In This House of Brede? Or her marvelous memoirs? I can't choose, so it's fortunate I read all those others in previous years.

3) Mabel Esther Allan, Changes for the Challoners (1955)

Possibly my favorite of all the MEA books I've read so far (and I must be up to 25 or 30 now), and the perfect wish-fulfillment fantasy for me. Who wouldn't want to move to Allan's fictional version of Chester, make new friends, and search for lost Roman ruins?

2) Hilda Hewett, So Early One Morning (1948)

An author that Shirley at The Scribbler and I both came across for the first time this year. This was my particular favorite of Hewett's work—a funny, charming, and and ahead-of-its-time portrayal of a 13-year-old aspiring actress's first love. Hewett turned out to be a wildly uneven author, though I also tracked down Shirley's discovery, Kaleidoscope (1947), set near the end of WWII, and enjoyed it tremendously as well. But So Early One Morning is the one I'll want to re-read and savor the most.

1) Marjorie Mack (later Marjorie Dixon), The Red Centaur (1939)

There was really no question what my favorite novel of the year would be, though Mack, too, proved to be an uneven writer (see my disappointment in her one other adult novel, Velveteen Jacket, here). Red Centaur focuses on 8-year-old Laurel Maude's observations (and misunderstandings) of the adult dramas around her during one glorious summer in Brittany. It reminded me of the best of Rumer Godden's The Greengage Summer and Pamela Frankau's A Wreath for the Enemy, two of my all-time favorites.

And that was my year of reading. What were your favorites of the year?
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