Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 in brief

At the end of December I always do a quick skim back through the whole year's blog posts, mostly to get the book list together (anything named here is something I wholeheartedly recommend, though not all genres appeal equally to all readers - but we are living in a great age of light reading!) but also to get some sense of patterns: patterns to be repeated, patterns to be avoided.

I am always struck by how much of my life doesn't make it onto the blog, and also by how familiar the pattern of overwork, travel, fatigue and respiratory infection seems to be. Only serious resolution for 2015: live life in a way that doesn't get me sick so often!

I do also think I should read fewer novels and more nonfiction, but I don't want to be too penitential about it either, so we will see how that shakes out (I read the last issue of the NYRB last night before going to bed, as my Kindle needed recharging; it is certainly better than reading schlock, but I am not sure it is necessarily better than reading good fiction, so really what I mean is to get more narrative nonfiction, biography, science writing etc. and see if I can tempt myself more regularly in that direction so that I can pre-filter the good stuff from the pap and find something else to occupy my idle hours).

2014 was a good year in many respects. I taught a couple of graduate seminars I've taught before (one on culture, one on fiction of the 1790s) and I spent a huge amount of time and energy developing a new lecture course, Literary Texts, Critical Methods, the one course we require of all English majors. I loved almost everything about teaching that class, but I was especially taken with the nineteenth-century Americans: William Wells Brown's Clotel, Melville, Dickinson. Alternate self is clearly writing on Melville one universe over.

Books that especially spoke to me as I was teaching them (randomly recalled): Boswell and Johnson on the Hebrides; Inchbald's A Simple Story and Godwin's Caleb Williams, two seriously underrated novels; Endgame! An accident of proximity (last fiction, first play) caused me to realize the uncanny similarities between Billy Budd and The Importance of Being Earnest.

I spent a good deal of my reading and thinking time in the spring serving on a committee that advises the Provost on tenure cases throughout the entire university (we're coming up on the busy season for that again). As their tenure is now a matter of public record, I can say that two books I particularly enjoyed out of dozens I read for that charge were Shamus Khan's Privilege and Gray Tuttle's Tibetan Buddhists and the Making of Modern China.

I wrote four tenure letters for eighteenth-century scholars at other universities (this is at least two more than I should do) and a seemingly endless stream of letters of recommendation. I have mixed feelings about being a gatekeeper, but there is no getting around it.

I had three amazing work trips, to Israel, Dublin and Paris respectively. In Paris I served as a member of the thesis jury for a doctoral dissertation: it was at once completely familiar (I must have done this twenty times by now) and wonderfully strange! (The thesis was extremely good.)

The saddest thing I wrote was the obituary for Brent's father.

In January I was finishing up the index for my little book on style, which came out in June (I think it found quite a few readers, but I am afraid that it essentially sank without a trace otherwise: here was one particularly fun review, but I increasingly realize I am not cut out for the publicity end of the book business - I like writing 'em, not hawking 'em, especially not if they are written by me!); between syllabus-writing, minor publicity, revising an article that I first wrote an incredibly long time ago and aforementioned tenure letters, I didn't get any major work done over the summer, but that was OK, as I wanted a bit of a breather before I plunged into next books.

2014 was also the year I came to realize (it dawns on me very strongly now and again) that though I tend to think of my own writing as my real work and everything else as part of a complex and rewarding but fundamentally external set of obligations, my teaching is also my real work, and might in the end be the thing I do that makes me feel proudest! (Writing, as everyone knows, being more conducive to grinding sense of imperfections and ongoing striving rather than any simple sense of achievement and satisfaction.)

(On a related note, 2015 is going to be a year of starting new books rather than finishing ongoing ones - this is enjoyable, they always glow with promise when the words are not even quite yet on the paper!)

Best thing I heard in a theater: The Death of Klinghoffer. Other best thing I heard in a theatre: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, with Neil Patrick Harris in the lead! (Close third: Britten's Curlew River, with the sublime Ian Bostridge. Also: Storm Large.)

Now for a selectively granular record of a rather frivolous year of reading (consider this a list of strong recommendations, with apologies for anything I've accidentally excluded)....

Best book I'd never heard of, courtesy of Marina H.: Delphine de Vigan, Nothing Holds Back the Night.

Favorite "book I somehow never read, or never read since early childhood": Kipling, Kim (and follow-up thoughts on the literature of counter-insurgency courtesy of my friend Joey - was reading Kipling stories all fall on the subway, they are uneven but the standard is incredibly high).

Other favorite "literary" fiction (yes, I know these categories are all slightly fraught): Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun; Knausgaard, vol. 3; Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation; Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests; Teju Cole, Every Day Is For The Thief. Kiese Laymon's Long Division properly belongs here, I think, rather than with the YA books below, though much of the contemporary fiction I most enjoy and admire can't readily be put under any single rubric.

Some older British fiction I just now caughtup with: Elizabeth Jane Howard's Cazalet Chronicles (too sameish, I think, and rather depressing, but the scene in which Hilly gets home after having all her teeth extracted is unforgettable); Jane Gardam's Old Filth trilogy (superb); Margaret Drabble, The Realms of Gold.

Crime: Megan Abbott, The Fever; Tana French, The Secret Place; Robert Galbraith, The Silkworm; Bill Loefhelm's "Devil" series (three installments so far); Warren Ellis, Crooked Little Vein; Anthony Neil Smith, Yellow Medicine (this guy is a slightly undersung genius); Tom Bouman, Dry Bones in the Valley; Harry Bingham, The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths (#3 in series); Stav Sherez, Eleven Days and A Dark Redemption; Karin Slaughter, Cop Town; Oliver Harris, The Hollow Man and Deep Shelter; Robert Hudson, The Dazzle (1930s pastiche); Deborah Coates, Strange Country (that might be the only one on this list that has fantastical elements, but there is definite bleed between this and subsequent categories).

Thrillers of excellence: Deon Meyer, Cobra; Terry Hayes, I am Pilgrim; Taylor Stevens, The Catch and The Vessel; Patrick Lee, Runner.

Vaguely science-fictional or fantastic, including alternate history (my heart is really with this category most of all - I have slightly sworn off fiction-writing, but here is where I would be if I were anywhere!): William Gibson, The Peripheral; Jo Walton, My Real Children; Max Gladstone's Craft books; Tim Powers, Declare; Peter Higgins, Wolfhound Century and Truth and Fear; Ned Beauman, The Teleportation Accident; Martin Millar, The Anxiety of Kalix the Werewolf (it is beyond words for me to say how much I love this series!); Ben Winter, World of Trouble (almost too sad); Dave Hutchinson, Europe in Autumn; Ben Aaronovitch, Broken Houses; Paul Cornell, The Severed Streets; Charles Stross, The Apocalypse Codex (and reread of entire delightful Laundry series to prepare); Lev Grossman, The Magician's Land; Lauren Beukes, Broken Monsters; James S. A. Corey, book 4 of the Expanse; Daniel Price, The Flight of the Silvers (hungry for next installment of this one - pernicious age of trilogies and series fiction!); Laini Taylor's final installment in the Daughters of Smoke and Bone series; all novels by Daryl Gregory.

I will happily read whatever Seanan McGuire publishes under any name, but I especially enjoyed her Mira Grant Newsflash installment titled The Day the Dead Came to Show and Tell, with the proviso that if my mother had been that classroom teacher, she would have managed to get a higher proportion of the children safely out of the building! (It is part of the point of the story that the teacher is relatively inexperienced, so really it's not a fair comparison.)

Favorite reread (along with much Eva Ibbotson, Diana Wynne Jones and Victoria Clayton): Mary Stewart's Merlin books.

YA: Gwenda Bond, Girl on a Wire; Garth Nix, Clariel; Marcus Guillory, Red Now and Laters (this gets award for most mouth-watering title, but it is a very good genre-busting book too, and probably should go under literary fiction as well).

Best literary book about cycling: Paul Fournel, Need for the Bike. But I also enjoyed the repellent Willy Voet's Breaking the Chain, on performance-enhancing drugs in cycling.

Finally, my recommendations from a rather funny assortment of nonfiction: two excellent and completely different essay collections (both belong on best-of-year lists), Leslie Jamison's The Empathy Exams and Kiese Laymon's How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America; Jesmyn Ward, Men We Reaped; Alice Goffman, On the Run (a book I wish I had written myself); Rebecca Mead, My Life in Middlemarch; Ari Shavit, My Promised Land; Judy Melineck and T. J. Marshall, Working Stiff; and last but not least, a ringer from eighteenth-century studies (my review is forthcoming in Biography), Julia Allen's Swimming with Dr. Johnson and Mrs. Thrale.

Best wishes for 2015!


  1. I see I have omitted Elizabeth Wein from this list, arghhhhh!

    1. Perhaps you should edit the post with an update rather than only putting something in the comments....

  2. At risk of testing your Resolutions for Reading in 2015, you might enjoy Adrian Mckinty's Sean Duffy trilogy. It's a scarily convincing portrait of Belfast during the Troubles of the 80s in the guise of a crime thriller. First and third book particularly recommended.

    Michael Jacobs

  3. Thanks! I think I have only read his standalone "Fifty Grand," perhaps one of the others - this is a good thought. I don't object to reading GOOD light reading, just to pap!

  4. Now that you have read Kim (love!) you might try Quest for Kim, which would tie into the "read more non-fiction" side of things....I enjoyed it, and learned things, both of which are good.

  5. So glad you liked my book! Fun to hear even a little bit about the mystical process...