Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 25, 2020

My 2019 Book Report

I look back on the year’s accomplishments prior to setting out on the next year’s path. I’ll review a few highlights from last year’s reading. I invite your comments if you know these books. 

Here are what I consider some reading highlights of 2019. 

Writer and novelist of eminent degree, Graham Greene, separated his work into two classifications. He knew perfectly well that he intended some of his work to stand up against the strictest tests of what could be called “literature.” Others, he knew, were lightweights in the canon, and he called those, including his Travels With My Aunt, “entertainments.” An extremely useful term. In 2019, I reread one of his most serious efforts, The End of the Affair. An absolutely heart-rending depiction of a relationship. Still, I hope Mr. Greene will let me by with a reference to “entertainments.”

Entertainments

If we cannot read for “entertainment,” let us simply give up the chase and watch television.

My 2019 reading was replete with entertainments. I read two books in the prolific and irrepressible Alexander McCall Smith’s ongoing series of the “Ladies Number One Detective Agency,” and who can resist? Not I.

Unlooked-for, out of the blue, a spinoff from the inimitable P.G. Wodehouse’s memorable series of stories about Bertie Wooster and his “man,” Jeeves: Jeeves and the King of Clubs, by Ben Schott. Admirably done, and who will ever tire of having Jeeves pull Bertie out of various scrapes, legal, personal or matrimonial?

In The Tale Teller, longtime best-seller Tony Hillerman, who wrote indelibly memorable tales set in Arizona and New Mexico, has been succeeded by his daughter, Anne Hillerman, carrying the stories forward, now focused on Bernadette Manuelito, continuing her father’s introduction of the remarkable Joe Leaphorn, one of the great fiction heroes of modern popular literature. I went back and reread Mr. Hillerman’s The First Eagle, but Ms. Hillerman now has the helm and leads us on.

Not Just For Kids

Never underestimate the worth of books written for the “young adult” or “preteen” audience. Some excellent writing. Jacqueline Kelly has created Calpurnia Tate, who grows up in early 20th-century Texas. I read the first of a sequence of books about young Calpurnia, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, and invite you to discover her world.

Nonfiction!

I read very little nonfiction or biography. Candace Millard got me, though, with her telling of Theodore Roosevelt’s expedition through the wilderness of Brazil in River of Doubt. Had Jack London, alive at the time, been on the trip, he’d have done no better at describing the harrowing adventures.

The indomitable writer and researcher, Barbara Tuchman, wrote a book about the onset of World War One, The Guns of August. How we got to the point of war, related decades later. Worth reading.

More Serious

Susan Orlean, who made her mark with The Orchid Thief, wrote a book called The Library Book. It’s about the devastating fire that engulfed and nearly destroyed the massive Los Angeles Central Library in 1986. It’s a piece of impressive reportage, and simply brilliant writing. Your library has it. Check it out. And thank a librarian.

A number of contemporary writers keep us on our toes. I’m on a tear, catching up with the American writer, Robert Coover, whose History of the Brunists caught me. The Scot, Ali Smith, has the next in what is obviously a year-long trilogy, Winter, and she is not to be missed.

Yes, friends, I went back, as I always will. I re-read Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day. Metafiction defined. The real and the unreal co-exist in Mr. Pynchon’s universe. Do not start there. If you’ve never read Pynchon’s stuff, start with The Crying of Lot 49, and decide if you’re ready for Gravity’s Rainbow. Only then should you tackle Against the Day.

Forward, into the past

The bulk of my 2019 reading was not on any best-seller list. Nor will it ever be. Much of it was a best-seller, back around 1250 or so. One of the most popular and most-copied manuscripts of the Medieval era. A series of tales by a man named Chretien des Troyes, attached to the court of Marie de France, daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, were all the rage back then. He was writing in what we now call “Old French,” which bears some resemblance to what you learned in French class in high school, but not all that much.

Chretien’s tale of Percival centers around the knight’s quest for the holy grail. His encounter with the Fisher King in the grail castle is one of the central moment in western literature. Not everything goes well. Do not go looking for the grail on your own. It’s only revealed by an act of grace, and it requires a life of devotion to be granted some grace.

Later, another courtier, this time in Germany, Godfrey von Strassburg, recast Chretien’s tale, added some elements and wrote it in stunning German verses that beggar translation. Percival, Gawain and other Arthurian celebrities also show up in the Welsh Mabinogion, and that also took up some of my time.

Throughout 2019, in translations from Welsh, Middle German and Old French, as well as the original Middle English in a few cases, I followed the adventures and hijinks of Percival, Gawain and other knights as they made their way across the landscape of 13th-century Europe.  An extremely different world from ours. Sir Percival, also known as Parzival and other names, according to a variety of storytellers, had a long run as one of the stars of 12th, 13th and 14th century poetry.

His story begins, according to Chretien, in an absolutely hilarious fashion. His father was a distinguished knight who’d gone on a crusade to the Holy Land, but met with bad luck and died there. Percival’s mother, a princess of the realm, determined to keep her son from suffering the same fate, retreated to a humble cottage in the forest of Wales, and raised her son in complete ignorance of the world of knights and chivalry. Percival, though, through sheer luck, encounters a troop of armor-clad knights and follows them to Camelot, where he simply insists to King Arthur that he, this untried stripling from the forest, should be made a knight of the round table.

And then we’re off. He becomes best friends with the most noble and revered knight of all, Sir Gawain, they have endlessly harrowing adventures, and that’s 13th-century literature.

Also in 2019, I wrote a tribute to the Australian writer, poet and media critic, Clive James, who died in October. I talk about his stunningly memorable book, Cultural Amnesia.

What was your favorite book of 2019? What do you look forward to reading in 2020? Leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2020


Responses

  1. An interesting selection. I’m an avid reader of Alexander McCall Smith but not of his No.1 series. For me it’s his 44 Scotland Street and Isabel Dalhousie books that I can’t get enough of. Hope you’re having a good weekend Brad. Marion

    Liked by 2 people

    • Marion,
      Happy lunar new year.
      There are two big fans of Bertie and 44 Scotland Street in this house. We’ve never gotten started on the Dalhousie series, but it’s inevitable that we’ll eventually dive in.
      Thank you for commenting. I’m ‘way behind on keeping up with your restless feet … Moscow? Wow. I’ll come visit the site. Best regards, Brad

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I see several 2019 favorites of mine on the list. Heartful and meticulously researched, Susan Orleans’ The Library Book is a master class in writing engaging nonfiction. Cheers also to the new Jeeves story and latest Leaphorn mystery with its focus on Bernie Manuelito — Schott and Hillerman were both impressive in emulating their predecessor’s voice and keeping those wonderful writers alive. I’m still happily working my way through Cultural Amnesia — thanks so much for the recommendation!

    Liked by 1 person

    • One of the best things in life is having book recommendations from other readers whose judgment one values. To you, I owe The Library Book, Jeeves and the King of Clubs, and several others. Read on!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I read a lot in 2019 more than I did in years. I must say I enjoyed reading most of the books I read. I reread most of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels during my time in flight and a multitude of books I read the complete Dark materials by David Pullman as I wanted to know what the fuss was about and the original Dracula novel. I also read Stephen Fry’s Mythos which was fun and a good brush up on greek mythology. I also read a few novels by David Abercromie somewhat of a prodigy in the Fantasy Genre because of the way he builds his charcters and the way het twists the plot. I defenetly would recomend ‘The first law trilogy if you want to experience it yourself.

    Another great read in the same genre I would say is The name of the wind and The wise man’s fear by Patrick Rotfuss. which wa great fun to read it is Fantasy but not and then it is again. I can not quite explain it but it was funny exiting and more. Last but not least as we speak I finally got round to the Millenium trilogy by Stieg Larson and am finishing the last volume somewhere this week. I liked the first one. The second one was a bit slugish and confusing and the one I am reading now is a bit over the top on character backgrounds but its a fun story and reads quite fast. All in all I can not say I had an absolute favourite.

    On the list for 2020 is the Dinner a best seller by the Dutch author Herman Köch which is also available in English and then who knows. I’ve also picked up writing again and am pursuing the posibilities to actually write and publish novel. But that is for the near future.
    Also I started blog about my writing (https://watikzeggenwil.wordpress.com/) google makes a fair translation I saw so if you are interested.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I had to smile at your comment about your reading preferences. I rarely read fiction: non-fiction, biographies, collections of letters, and journals are my preference.

    When I came across a review of The Library Book on another site, I was surprised I’d never heard of it, and thought to mention it to you. No need, I see. Your response makes me even more determined to read it. I’ve Delved into a number of books by John McPhee this year; The Pine Barrens stirred in me a desire to go to New Jersey, which I couldn’t have predicted.

    I enjoyed this general comment you made, particularly: “If we cannot read for ‘entertainment,’ let us simply give up the chase and watch television.” It reminded me of this passage from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life:

    “Why would anyone read a book instead of watching big people move on a screen? Because a book can be literature. In my view, the more literary the book — the more purely verbal, crafted sentence by sentence, the more imaginative, reasoned, and deep — the more likely people are to read it.

    The people who read are the people who like literature, after all, whatever that might be. They like, or require, what books alone have. If they want to see films that evening, they will find films. If they do not like to read, they will not. People who read are not too lazy to flip on the television; they prefer books. I cannot imagine a sorrier pursuit than struggling for years to write a book that attempts to appeal to people who do not read in the first place.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. All brilliantly stated. There’s a theme there to be developed, along the lines of, “It’s a poor author who writes for people who don’t read” (although the numbers of both categories of people are legion).
      Frank Zappa once said that rock journalism is, “People who can’t write, doing interviews with people who can’t think, in order to prepare articles for people who can’t read.”
      I’ve never read Mr. McPhee. I’ll put him on the list. Read on!

      Liked by 1 person

      • You haven’t read McPhee? Oh, my. I was introduced to him when a chapter from his book The Control of Nature was reprinted in The New Yorker and elsewhere during the Mississippi flood of a few years ago; it was the chapter called “Atchafalaya.” You can read it here.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Also: his book Draft No. 4 on the writing process sits on my desk. One of my favorite articles about him is this one.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you.

        Like

  5. I’m not a great fan of biographies, but I became caught up with “James Cook – The Story Behind the Man who Mapped the World” by Peter FitzSimons.

    FitzSimmons’ claim to notoriety is as a Rugby International (football player), but he has developed into good journalist and he certainly knows how to tell an engrossing tale. I had read an earlier book he wrote on Australian troops on the Western front during the Great War… a very difficult subject which he managed to make a compelling read.

    Captain Cook is somewhat unique in that he is highly revered is so any different nations. The scope of his travels and his abilities really is the stuff of legends, but long ocean voyages in a Whitby Cat between the exciting “discovery” bits is not the sort of material that normally makes compelling reading. FitzSimons manages to make nearly everything about Cook a good tale. Even though I knew the basic story well, I kept wanting to read “just a bit longer” to see what was going to happen next.

    ISBN: 9780733641275
    Number Of Pages: 528

    Liked by 1 person

    • As I think about this, I hardly “know” anything about Cook, although he’s such a seminal figure. I’ll look into Mr. FitzSimmons’ book. Thanks

      Like


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