January 05, 2012

The Books of 2011

In 2011, I promised I would only read books recommended to me by friends and family. It was a challenge to read some books that I've been avoiding, as well as to go outside my comfort zone of charming British novels by writers of faith. Let's see how I did:

Best Reread: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. (This was the only exception I took to the "recommended reading" rule  though, of course, when I first read this it was because my parents had recommended it to me.) After reading it every year, sometimes twice a year, I took a 4 year break on Brideshead. I went back to it this year and it was as beautiful and provoking as ever. This time, I found Lady Marchmain more sympathetic than in the past. And Charles, who has always struck me as profoundly passive, seemed more a man of action  or perhaps it is better to say, I saw his action more. But...Five Word Synopsis: I still love Julia best.

Hippest: Death Comes to Pemberley, written by master mystery novelist P. D. James, was a bit of a disappointment, though I will still recommend it to any Austen/Mystery lovers. She writes in the elegant, restrained style of Austen's time period, and rigorously follows the customs of the day in her storytelling.  But her story fails to captivate, largely because the characters we are most anxious to see (Darcy and Elizabeth) are unable to act nor investigate in the murder.  (The murder takes place on the grounds of Pemberley, and as such, Darcy, one of three magistrates, cannot investigate.)  Most of the story is told through narratives (ala Willoughby's confession to Eleanor in Sense and Sensibility) or comes out on the witness stand in the trial.  Not terribly exciting reading, that. Still, James' understanding of Austen's characters is fine, and comes out in the work. Plus, she's just a delightful writer. I just wish she would have loosened up a bit. Five Word Synopsis: Shades of Pemberley are polluted.

Silliest: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson: Can I just make a little complaint? Why can't anyone write with elegance and delicacy anymore? Major Pettigrew took book-lovers by storm last year and ended up on a lot of best of 2010 reading lists, as well as the NY Times Bestseller List. It's the story of an retired fuddy-duddy Major, who falls in love with an elegant Pakistani widow/shopkeeper. Their romance shakes up the entire town, predictably. The romance itself is fairly charming, though cliched at times. But the writing had little pluck and no elegance, and the secondary and tertiary characters bordered on caricatures: the hip son who thinks only of money, the narrow-minded country-club members. About the highest praise I can give it is, it'd make a nice little film in the Last Chance Harvey vein. Five Word Synopsis: Soon: a Major Motion Picture! 

Longest: The Journal of Katherine Mansfield.  This probably wasn't really the longest, but goodness gracious it felt like it. It was torture. She is clearly manic  one day she would love everything about England    the green grass, the cozy fires  the next she would long for the sunshine of France.  And while in France she would complain about how un-English they all were.  However: as R pointed out: "It's a very intimate glimpse into how a writer jots down and begins to form or re-form characters, situations, or fleeting moments."  Those bits were indeed brilliant (the woman could write!) and I wish I cared more about her person to have allowed these little bits of glory to shine for me. I don't want to give the impression that these bits are few and far between; they are on every page. There's just a lot of silly melodrama, too. (And yes, I know she suffered a lot because of her illness. I still have little patience for fuss.) I will also admit, she has a really stunning dialogue about the value of suffering. It struck me because it seemed so out of character  and yet she did submit all her suffering to her art, and that is a courageous thing indeed. Five Word Synopsis: Read with her short stories.

Most Inspiring: The Light of the World an interview of Pope Benedict XVI by Peter Seewald. Look. No one is surprised that I love Pope Benedict--but this interview is really incredible. I was sitting in the room with them, listening, learning, loving his humility, his generosity, his perception, his prudence, his faith. He also really opened my eyes to the hugeness of living the faith in the world  talking about Christian persecution in China, the vibrancy of the faith in South America.  We complain so often about the state of the Church based on the state of the Church in America. But we are so lucky; we are not persecuted for our faith. And we have a lot to aspire to, as well, using the Latin American Church's vivacity and enthusiasm as a guide. Five Word Synopsis: So glad he's my/our Pope!

Most Thought-proving: The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch.  Every time we get together for book-club, someone invariably says "I don't know about you guys, but I still think about The Sea, The Sea on a weekly basis." Five Word Synopsis: Compelling and powerful Booker winner.

Still Haven't Read: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. This was going to be the great book of 2011. It was why I decided to read only books recommended to me. It's my mom's favorite novel, and I do love the story  a lot, actually. But, until I find somewhere other to read for two hours a day besides the metro,  I'll shelf this one.  Five Word Synopsis: You're just too heavy, Tolstoy.

Just Plain Best: In this House of Brede by Rumer Godden.  I realize, looking back, that I never actually wrote a review of In This House of Brede  I simply quoted it at length. It is a rich, thoughtful, funny, gracious novel. From what I know of Religious Life and the Cloister, it accurately portrays the life in a Benedictine convent; it also grapples with modernity and the Church's response to modernity; and it portrays a rich variety of very full, beautifully realized characters. But this just begins to scratch the surface of the book. Ultimately it deals with the trial and joy of uniting your will to God's. There is nothing more beautiful. Five Word Synopsis: Live in the stillness of Brede.

The book I couldn't finish: The Spire by William Golding. J recommended this to me after he completed reading the entire William Golding oeuvre. And then he apologized for recommending it. I have never seen a more evil yet small man as the protagonist, the Abbot Jocelin, who abuses his power as abbot to build a huge spire for the church, against the better judgement of all around him.  It is a brilliant and terrifying meditation on the will: how dangerous, how controlling, how evil the will of one man can be when he uses everything  everything  to attain one goal. I had to read The Spire in small doses. It is like Chinese Water Torture  so little happens, so much is said, we are so enclosed in the mind of Jocelin, that it is agony to read more than a few pages at a time. J assures me that I can skip to the end and see the inevitable conclusion, but I haven't quite had the courage to do so yet. (What a difference reading this and In This House of Brede. Were I a literature professor, I would read the two together. Luckily, I am not.) Five Word Synopsis: Stones don't sing with joy.

How did I do overall in my goal to read only books recommended to me?  Well enough, I suppose.  There are lots of books still on the list that I haven't gotten to; some that I'll never get to, sadly. But I stuck to it.  Luckily, whenever I wanted to cheat I could fall back on Margery Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, Laurie Colwin, and Penelope Fitzgerald  I have blanket recommendations from R and MMT and Miss Hale for those authors. But this was one of the most diverse reading years I've had in a long time. I went out of my comfort zone, challenged by the tastes and insight of my friends and family. And I read a lot of books with unpleasant characters, and books that I would never finish if it weren't for my resolution. This affirms my understanding that while I like happy books, I also enjoy being challenged by a text. And this year, I was certainly challenged.

Here are all my 2011 reading posts:
Reading for 2011
Spring Update
Summer Update
Some thoughts on Mystery
Barbara Pym + The Phantom Tollbooth
Best Picture Books of 2011

(If anyone knows the source/artist of the painting above, please let me know. I love it, but have no idea where it came from.)


  1. I know some people love P.D. James, but I have yet to get beyond the first few chapters of a P.D. James mystery. Actually, I take that back, I think I did read one once. It was pretty forgettable, and I think that's because I can't deal with the style. It's all about STYLE for me at this point, whatever the genre! Thank you for this post, though, as I'm interested to read several of your superlatives now, including The Sea, The Sea

  2. Cordelia is still my favorite.

    I'll have to check out the House of Brede.