Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 21, 2018

My 2018 Book Report

December is the time to look back on the year’s accomplishments prior to setting out on the next year’s path. I’ll review a few highlights from this year’s reading. I invite your comments if you know these books. At the bottom of this post you’ll find links to other books I wrote about this year.

Here are what I consider some reading highlights of 2018.

The Twenty-Seventh City (1988) and The Corrections (2001), Jonathan Franzen

Franzen stands squarely in the midstream of the American literary novel. I read The Corrections when it appeared, but I’ve set myself the task of reading his work from the start of his career. I began with The Twenty-Seventh City, his first novel. I recommend it. Inventive, challenging and fun — if your idea of fun is life-threatening irony.

The Accidental (2005) and Autumn (2016), Ali Smith

Readers of contemporary English novels should embrace Ali Smith. She’s extraordinarily inventive in her manipulation of point of view and character development. I recommend The Accidental, in particular. I’m always fascinated by how authors use point of view, and The Accidental is a masters’ class in POV.

The Little Stranger (2009), Sarah Waters

This book has recently been adapted for the screen. I encourage you to read the book before seeing whatever might’ve been done to convert it to a screenplay. It’s a ghost story of a particularly sophisticated nature — an accomplished piece of limited point of view perspective that draws enormous drama from our lack of confidence that our narrator is letting us know just what is really happening.

I cannot believe it’s possible to recreate the interior monologue of a novel onscreen. Many have tried; none have succeeded. The Little Stranger is a fearfully powerful exercise in writing about the limits of what a person can know and understand about themselves and the world around them.

Wildlife (1990) and Canada (2012), Richard Ford

Having only discovered Mr. Ford’s work two years ago, I’m now a devotee. One of the most accomplished writers of the American idiom, Ford writes tellingly, perceptively about how people react to the exigencies of life. I met him through his trilogy: The Sportswriter, Independence Day and The Lay of the Land, but these two books expanded my appreciation of his mastery of the storytelling craft.

Paintings in Proust (2008), Eric Karpeles

This book, given to me by friends who know I consider Marcel Proust’s A la recherche de temps perdu to be the greatest work of 20th century fiction, was a revelation.

Mr. Karpeles’ book describes more than 200 paintings Proust referenced in his massive novel. I remember reading about them, but I didn’t notice them as a prevailing theme of Proust’s — an error this book corrects. Karpeles places them in the context of Proust’s work.

The book reproduces 206 of the paintings Proust references — occasionally, similar works by the same artist. Paintings in Proust adds one more of the “lenses” through which one can view Proust’s imposing masterpiece, along with language, style, point of view, character, plot, setting and theme. If your library has this book, I recommend you check it out and read it in stages, one book of A la recherche at a time. One more inducement to read the towering masterpiece of 20th century literature.

White Teeth (2000), Zadie Smith

Ms. Smith may be the most accomplished master of the novel now writing in English. How she knows the things she writes about I cannot account for. What we know about the characters and their lives in her work continuously evolves, revealing layer upon layer of deeper and deeper significance, and we are left at the end still wondering how much more we do not know. She gives us cause to care about these people she creates — something I think is important — but she is ruthless with them, and demands they stand up and act like human beings. How human they are is a testament to her vision. Rewarding.

Mrs. Dalloway (1925), Virginia Woolf

I’m on a journey to read all of Ms. Woolf’s novels. In this, her second, she embraced the stream-of-consciousness narrative approach she helped pioneer, shifting point of view between several characters, with Clarissa Dalloway at the core. This book is a master class in character development and point of view, and sets the novel on its 20th-century course to discover what narrative point of view can achieve, building on the work of her near-contemporaries, Henry James, Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce and Proust.

My Antonia (1918), Willa Cather

Every single thing about this book could cause it to be shelved in the “workmanlike-but-unmemorable” portion of your library unless you pay careful attention as you read. Once you do pay attention, you’ll discover one of the great prose stylists.

If you do not know Ms. Cather’s work, I encourage you to explore it. I read her earlier book, O, Pioneers (1913), last year, and was enthralled. Here, five years later, she demonstrates further mastery of the novel, and you will not be disappointed in her storytelling, scene-setting, characters or the power of her language. Highly recommended: a master of the art.

Other works from 2018

In June, I posted a year-to-date progress report at this link. Books I described there included:

The Sense of an Ending, Brian Fagan (2011); Not Without Laughter, Langston Hughes (1930); How Late it Was, How Late, James Kelman (1994); Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig (1974); The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, James Hogg (1824); My Brilliant Friend (2012) and The Story of a New Name (2013), Elena Ferrante; The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton (1920); The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf (1915)

I wrote two articles about books that particularly impressed me during my 2018 reading:

Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and The Iliad and The Odyssey by the Greek poet, Homer.

What are you reading? What should we be reading? Please leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2018

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Responses

  1. Thanks for all the insights on these books. I may have mentioned before that I like the way you explain what is wonderful about a book, especially one which I have read and enjoyed but am not sure what exactly made it such a pleasure to read.
    In my reading this year I liked Zadie Smith’s “Swing Time” equal to or possibly even more than “White Teeth”. And thanks for recommending Ali Smith as both “Autumn” and “Winter” were great reads.
    Maybe Adam Johnson was my favorite find of the year as both “The Orphan Master’s Son” and “Fortune Smiles” delivered the goods.
    Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout” was lucid and hilarious.
    “Purity”, well, Jonathan Franzen is doing everything right in my opinion and I sure hope he keeps writing. Michael Chabon is a favorite and both “Moonglow” and “Wonder Boys” emphasized the point this year.
    Too many to go on. It was a great year of reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much. A number of those I look forward to reading.

      Like

  2. How in the world did you happen to come across My Antonia? I was forced to read it in high school. It made exactly the unmemorable impression you describe.

    Unfortunately, like most of the great works of literature I read then and in college, I was too young, ignorant, and inexperienced to truly appreciate them.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Right now, I’m in the middle of three books: Edna Ferber’s Giant, David Ferry’s translation of The Epistles of Horace, and a re-read of Tom Wolfe’s Mauve Gloves and Madmen, Clutter & Vine.

    I first read Wolfe’s Mau-mauing the Flack Catchers when I was working in East Oakland in the 70s, and it gave me a taste for his work. I’ve had a hard time putting down the Horace; I can’t judge the translation, but it reads beautifully, and is surprisingly entertaining. As for Ferber, I came to Giant via Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, but more about that later.

    I was especially intrigued by your mention of Paintings in Proust. That’s one that goes on my 2019 list, for sure. I’ve not made it all the way through A la recherche de temps perdu and probably never will, but I do circle around it from time to time. Maybe Karpeles’s book will re-inspire me.

    As for non-fiction, I have one to occupy me for the whole of the coming year: James Mauseth’s Botany: An Introduction to Plant Biology. It’s a college text with online supplements. Sometimes, the returns for internet search terms just don’t do the trick.

    Liked by 1 person


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