Books Read in 2019: Four-Star Fiction


Middlemarch by George Eliot. Synopsis from Goodreads:
 Taking place in the years leading up to the First Reform Bill of 1832, Middlemarch explores nearly every subject of concern to modern life: art, religion, science, politics, self, society, human relationships. Among her characters are some of the most remarkable portraits in English literature: Dorothea Brooke, the heroine, idealistic but naive; Rosamond Vincy, beautiful and egoistic: Edward Casaubon, the dry-as-dust scholar: Tertius Lydgate, the brilliant but morally-flawed physician: the passionate artist Will Ladislaw: and Fred Vincey and Mary Garth, childhood sweethearts whose charming courtship is one of the many humorous elements in the novel's rich comic vein. 

I had only read The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, in school. I didn't love it, exactly, but I liked it. I had resolved to tackle a couple of dense classics last year, and this one, widely regarded as one of the best novels in English, was the second one I read. I would be lying if I said I was instantly captivated - I went into it thinking of it as a sort of work, and I was working pretty hard for the first little bit. I've said before that I have a pretty modern sensibility as far as fiction goes, which I feel a little self-conscious about - I don't rapturously reread Pride and Prejudice every year, I loved the first few chapters of Moby Dick but the rest of it made me want to hurl myself to a watery death, I couldn't finish Ulysses. I tend to roll my eyes a little if the word "languid" is used a lot (it's used many, many times in Middlemarch), if many people say things "coldly", and if women tend to go "tripping" over to answer the door or summon a servant. I do love The Great Gatsby and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and I adored reading Virginia Woolf's diaries. But the books I reread, the books that speak to me the most, tend to be modern, and fantastical somehow. That's fine, but if I consider myself a dedicated reader, I feel like I need to dip my toes into the well of the classics every now and then. 

I was reading it on my Kindle, and I had as a goal that I would read at least three percent every day. At first I was checking my progress constantly, which was fairly demoralizing because of its great length - it took many pages to get to three percent. There were long descriptions of manor houses, fields, forests and I think maybe granges - what is a grange anyway? Oh, a country house with farm building attached, that makes sense. THEN, I stumbled on this little gem: "Sane people did what their neighbours did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them." Nice one, Mary Ann. 
Dorothea, basically the female lead, is intelligent enough for her age (around twenty), but so idealistic and self-abnegating that she can't help but be a little annoying. She is of the opinion that "a really delightful marriage must be that where your husband was a sort of father, and could teach you even Hebrew, if you wished it" (ew), and accordingly she marries a cold fish some thirty years older than she is, instead of young, lusty Sir James who is sure that a "man's mind has always the advantage of being masculine...and even his ignorance is of a sounder quality". No sweat, James decides to marry Dorothea's younger sister Celia, whose opinion on marriage is pretty well summed up by her saying "Oh, Mrs. Cadwallader, I don't think it can be nice to marry a man with a great soul" (Preach, Sister).

Then there's poor Tertius Lydgate who marries Rosamond Vincy, thinking that they're in love enough that not having a lot of money will not matter. Poor, poor, stupid Tertius Lydgate. Lydgate is a doctor who wants to bring sounder scientific practices to treating the residents of Middlemarch, rather than giving them unproven and expensive medicines. Trouble is, unproven and expensive medicines are The Way Things Are Done, so this doesn't fly so well for Lydgate. There is talk of the "well known 'fac'" that he cuts up bodies, and various other things that basically add up to fake news. By this point I am quite enjoying Eliot's easy prose with its judicious sprinkling of what can only be termed snark. There is a lot of very clear-eyed musing about how money makes it easier to be "good", and about how difficult the lack of money makes all aspects of life: one character muses that It’s rather a strong check to one’s self-complacency to find how much of one’s right doing depends on not being in want of money”.

Will Ladislaw is Mr. Casaubon's younger, hotter cousin, who meets Dorothea on her honeymoon and shortly inspires great regret over her marriage in both of them. Dorothea, of course, is too noble to do anything but suffer in silence, but Casaubon catches on anyway and makes sure that if she marries Will after he kicks the bucket she will be disinherited. Then, naturally, he dies, and Dorothea and Will flounce about being heartbroken and virtuous. My favourite quote regarding this period is: "Will did not know what to say, since it would not be useful for him to embrace her slippers, and tell her that he would die for her". And also, from the wedding art tour in Italy: "under Will's tutelage, Dorothea felt that she was getting quite new notions as to the significance of Madonnas seated under inexplicable canopied thrones with the simple country as a background, and of saints with architectural models in their hands, or knives accidentally wedged in their skulls."

Then there's Mary Garth, my favourite character, the no-nonsense, down-to-earth nurse to a very unpleasant rich man, who is constantly described as 'plain', possibly because she doesn't kiss everyone's ass. When Rosamond asks her what she's been doing lately, she replies "I? Oh, minding the house -- pouring out syrup -- pretending to be amiable and contented -- learning to have a bad opinion of everybody." When Fred, who she's known since childhood and does love, causes her father to lose a fairly big sum of money, he feels terrible and begs her to forgive him, whereupon she points out that her forgiving him wouldn't really improve anything for anyone, it would just make him feel better, and that selfish people always think their own feelings are more important than other people's actual importance. This is the man she loves and will eventually marry, and he actually does get his ass in gear after this, which is kind of awesome.

Anyway, Mary and Fred get married and Fred has to work at an actual job, Dorothea and Will get married and live in blissful poverty, and Rosamond and Tertius I think live unhappily ever after, and George Eliot is freaking funnier than I ever knew, and Middlemarch is quite wonderful. I'm just going to jam in the rest of my favourite quotes here because I'm tired of working up transitions and I'm not getting marked on this.

"He had also reasons, deep rather than ostensible, for being satisfied with his own appearance. To superficial observers his chin had too vanishing an aspect, looking as if it were being gradually reabsorbed. And it did indeed cause him some difficulty about the fit of his satin stocks, for which chins were at that time useful."

"'I know the sort', said Mr. Hawley: 'some emissary. He'll begin with flourishing about the Rights of Man and end with murdering a wench. That's the style.'"

Rosamond, while Will was waxing rhapsodic about Dorothea: "She had no sense of chill"

"SHE HAD NO SENSE OF CHILL". Okay, the full quote is "She had no sense of chill resolute repulsion, of reticent self-justification such as she had known under Lydgate's most stormy displeasure. But still. George Eliot said Dorothea had zero chill, and I am HERE for it. 

Finally, for some impenetrable purpose, I highlighted "'oh, take a bit of jelly, my dear' said Mrs. Vincy to Fred. Huh.

A Wall of Light (Tel Aviv Trilogy #3) by Edeet Ravel. Synopsis by Goodreads: “I am Sonya Vronsky, professor of mathematics at Tel Aviv University, and this is the story of a day in late August. On this remarkable day I kissed a student, pursued a lover, found my father, and left my brother.” So begins A Wall of Light, a novel which chronicles a single day in the life of Sonya, a thirty-two-year-old deaf woman about to break out of her predictable routine.
Sonya lives in Tel Aviv with her protective half-brother, Kostya; their household has dwindled from five to two. Anna, their mother, is now in a nursing home and Noah, Kostya’s son, is living in Berlin. Kostya, wracked with guilt for the tragedies that have befallen Sonya, also grapples with the memory of his wife, Iris, a lawyer murdered in the course of a dangerous investigation seventeen years earlier.
As we move through Sonya’s day, Noah and Anna narrate their stories as well. Noah’s journal entries cover the years 1980-1993, and Anna’s letters to Andrei, her married lover in Russia, are written in 1957, after Anna has emigrated to Israel to build a new life for herself and her son, Kostya. While Sonya’s story moves rapidly through the events of a single day, Noah and Anna’s voices take the reader back in time, filling in the circumstances that have led Sonya to this pivotal moment.
We learn that Sonya has already endured two catastrophes. At age twelve, a medical mishap leaves her deaf, and at eighteen, while studying at university in Beersheba, Sonya is assaulted by two hoodlums. Throughout the novel, Sonya’s experiences, instigated by both human error and human evil, are echoed by the larger, political violence that haunts modern Israel.
While Noah’s and Anna’s voices shed light on Sonya’s journey, they also provide insights into the political and cultural fabric of Israel from the mid 1950s to the present. Noah’s journal entries, starting with his tenth birthday and ending shortly after his army service, map his coming of age. We see him wrestling with his sexual identity and first sexual encounters, the fallout from his mother’s leftist politics, and his own conscription to the army. Anna’s secret letters to Andrei offer an outsider’s perspective on the new Israeli state.
The remarkable events of Sonya’s day are set in motion when her brother gives her an antihistamine. Overcome with sleepiness, she dismisses her morning class early, asking only one student, Matar, to stay behind. She wants to understand what lies behind his unusual expression. He answers that he has been involved in war crimes, and surprises Sonya by kissing her.
Sonya feels that she has been roused from a long slumber and as the novel progresses we see the ways in which her awakened desire shapes her choices. She decides to take a taxi home from the university and impulsively invites the taxi driver inside and seduces him. He complies, but when she tells him she’s deaf, he flees in confusion. Sonya is convinced that she has fallen in love with him, and decides to pursue him. She solicits her brother’s help and sets out to find her lover.
Sonya’s search gains in intensity and purpose as she travels to East Jerusalem. There she encounters the walls that prevent Palestinians from moving freely through the West Bank. After an Alice in Wonderland-like journey past numerous obstacles, Sonya finally makes it to her lover’s house. This second encounter leads Sonya to a central revelation: the identity of her father.
As this day of awakened desire and dispelled secrets closes, Sonya is able to step out from under the protective wing of her brother into a life that reflects both the ambiguity and uncertainty of contemporary Israel and her own personal possibilities.

I adore Edeet Ravel's writing. It reminds me a bit of Miriam Toews, just in the way that she touches on the darkest of subjects with a somehow light and even humorous tone. This story is bizarre in many ways, but I was completely on board, mostly because Sonya is so open and hopeful. This is the third of Ravel's books that I've read. I haven't read the first two books in this trilogy because the library didn't have them, but I didn't feel like I'd missed anything. I love the way various aspects of Israeli life are woven inconspicuously into the narrative - sometimes when you want to visit someone you might have to figure out how to get over a wall. 

Lost and Wanted by Nell Freudenberger. Synopsis from Goodreads: 'In the first few months after Charlie died, I began hearing from her much more frequently
Helen Clapp is a physics professor. She doesn't believe in pseudo-science, or time travel and especially not in ghosts. So when she gets a missed call from Charlie, her closest friend from university with whom she hasn't spoken in over a year, Helen thinks there must be some mistake. Because Charlie died two days ago.
Then when her young son, Jack, claims to have seen Charlie in their house just the other day, Helen begins to have doubts.
Through the grief of the husband and daughter Charlie left behind, Helen is drawn into the orbit of Charlie's world, slotting in the missing pieces of her friend's past. And, as she delves into the web of their shared history, Helen finds herself entangled in the forgotten threads of her own life.
Lost and Wanted is a searing novel from one of America's most exciting writers about the knottiness of female friendship, the forces which fuse us together and those which drive us apart.

I remember, years ago, when I still thought I might pursue writing as a career, seeing Nell Freudenberger touted as an up-and-coming Next Big Thing. She was young and beautiful and talented and I think I read an article by someone who hated her, but I just felt wistful and a little envious and couldn't bring myself to read the story she was suddenly famous for. Fast forward many years, I have gotten over myself and I came across this ebook from the library and decided to see if I felt like the fuss was merited. Basically, I do. This wasn't the kind of thing I usually read, but I enjoyed reading it very much. The fact that she had to learn the science she wrote about is really impressive, because I felt like she wrote about it like someone who had years of familiarity. The family relationship dynamics were also well drawn. The story didn't quite go where I thought it was going, and sometimes I can't recover from that, but in this case it felt completely agreeable that it just went somewhere else. I really should track down the story from the article. 

Sunburn by Laura Lippman. Synopsis from Goodreads: One is playing a long game. But which one?
They meet at a local tavern in the small town of Belleville, Delaware. Polly is set on heading west. Adam says he’s also passing through.
Yet she stays and he stays—drawn to this mysterious redhead whose quiet stillness both unnerves and excites him. Over the course of a punishing summer, Polly and Adam abandon themselves to a steamy, inexorable affair. Still, each holds something back from the other—dangerous, even lethal, secrets that begin to accumulate as autumn approaches, feeding the growing doubts they conceal.
Then someone dies. Was it an accident, or part of a plan? By now, Adam and Polly are so ensnared in each other’s lives and lies that neither one knows how to get away—or even if they want to. Is their love strong enough to withstand the truth, or will it ultimately destroy them?
Something—or someone—has to give.
Which one will it be?

I love Laura Lippman. This is not my favourite of her books, mostly because the sort-of noir kind of mystery where you know most things up front and the point isn't the mystery but the motivations behind it isn't my favourite kind of mystery (I'm too shallow, maybe). It's still a really good example of its kind, with incredibly complex characters and really good writing. I would recommend most of her Tess Monaghan series or Every Secret Thing or To the Power of Three first, just based on my own preference.

Gold by Chris Cleave. Synopsis from Goodreads: Building on the tradition of Little Bee, Chris Cleave again writes with elegance, humor, and passion about friendship, marriage, parenthood, tragedy, and redemption.
Gold is the story of Zoe and Kate, world-class athletes who have been friends and rivals since their first day of Elite training. They've loved, fought, betrayed, forgiven, consoled, gloried, and grown up together. Now on the eve of London 2012, their last Olympics, both women will be tested to their physical and emotional limits. They must confront each other and their own mortality to decide, when lives are at stake: What would you sacrifice for the people you love, if it meant giving up the thing that was most important to you in the world?

I read Little Bee and it was incendiary. This was less so. "Building on the tradition of Little Bee" is a frankly incomprehensible statement. This was a well-written account of the incredible drive and self-punishing lengths it takes to maintain Olympic-level excellence, as well as some insight into how childhood trauma plays out in adulthood and leads to dysfunctional relationships. It's a little too neat, a little too Hollywood, even a little Lifetime movie-ish, maybe, especially compared to Little Bee. But I still really liked it. Sometimes that's how it goes. 

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman. Synopsis from Goodreads: The only child of a single mother, Nina has her life just as she wants it: a job in a bookstore, a kick-butt trivia team, a world-class planner and a cat named Phil. If she sometimes suspects there might be more to life than reading, she just shrugs and picks up a new book.
When the father Nina never knew existed suddenly dies, leaving behind innumerable sisters, brothers, nieces, and nephews, Nina is horrified. They all live close by! They're all—or mostly all—excited to meet her! She'll have to Speak. To. Strangers. It's a disaster! And as if that wasn't enough, Tom, her trivia nemesis, has turned out to be cute, funny, and deeply interested in getting to know her. Doesn't he realize what a terrible idea that is?
Nina considers her options.
1. Completely change her name and appearance. (Too drastic, plus she likes her hair.)
2. Flee to a deserted island. (Hard pass, see: coffee).
3. Hide in a corner of her apartment and rock back and forth. (Already doing it.)
It's time for Nina to come out of her comfortable shell, but she isn't convinced real life could ever live up to fiction. It's going to take a brand-new family, a persistent suitor, and the combined effects of ice cream and trivia to make her turn her own fresh page.

This was recommended to me by Kerry (HI KERRY) over lunch at Lone Star. I put it on hold at the library, and was promised that I would have access to it in sixteen short weeks. But then in the darkest dark of November, when I really, really needed a good book to convince me that I wouldn't actually work myself into unconsciousness and oblivion trying to prepare the perfect Christmas, lo and behold, this came available as a short-term loan. I LOVED THIS BOOK. I have an unattractive knee-jerk snobbery towards anything that could be called Romance or Chick Lit. It's dumb. It annoys me when people are biased against mystery or sci fi and fantasy, because basically a book is a book is a book, and I like books that are well written with well developed characters, clever writing, snappy dialogue, well drawn relationships and plots where either something happens or nothing happens in an interesting way. That should be possible in any genre. Nina Hill is a wonderful character, extremely relatable to anyone who sometimes feels like books are a better bet than an adventurous life (hello). The setting is detailed and lovely, the relationships are deep and wonderful, and the device of the daily mood boards works really well. The cast of characters is large and quirky in the best way, and people who start off as 'bad guys' are allowed room for growth, which is one of the very best things in a book, and always surprises and delights me. I would be lying if I said the romance wasn't a tiny bit formulaic, but the writing is good enough that it's okay. 

Wait Til You See Me Dance by Deb Olin Unferth. Synopsis from GoodreadsFor more than ten years, Deb Olin Unferth has been publishing startlingly askew, wickedly comic, cutting-edge fiction in magazines such as Granta, Harper’s MagazineMcSweeney’sNOON, and The Paris Review. Her stories are revered by some of the best American writers of our day, but until now there has been no stand-alone collection of her short fiction.
Wait Till You See Me Dance consists of several extraordinary longer stories as well as a selection of intoxicating very short stories. In the chilling “The First Full Thought of Her Life,” a shooter gets in position while a young girl climbs a sand dune. In “Voltaire Night,” students compete to tell a story about the worst thing that ever happened to them. In “Stay Where You Are,” two oblivious travelers in Central America are kidnapped by a gunman they assume to be an insurgent—but the gunman has his own problems.
An Unferth story lures you in with a voice that seems amiable and lighthearted, but it swerves in sudden and surprising ways that reveal, in terrifying clarity, the rage, despair, and profound mournfulness that have taken up residence at the heart of the American dream. These stories often take place in an exaggerated or heightened reality, a quality that is reminiscent of the work of Donald Barthelme, Lorrie Moore, and George Saunders, but in Unferth’s unforgettable collection she carves out territory that is entirely her own.

I bought this with a gift card as part of my effort to read and support more female authors. It's not often that I buy a pure fiction short story collection unless it's by Lorrie Moore, but this was amply worth it, although I have to take issue with the assertion that she "lures you in with a voice that seems amiable and lighthearted". Rage, despair and profound mournfulness is pretty accurate, though. There's a fine line between stories that allow messiness and uncertainty to take the place of closure, and stories that just take the lazy way out. For the most part, these stories, even the very short ones, fall on the right side of that line. Much of the title story, and its resonances of a sad, stifled, yearning existence with notes of bizarre hopefulness, is seared into my brain. 


Ernie said…
Wow - I now cannot wait to read the Bookish Nina book. I might have to skip Middlemarch for fear that I would need to reread many lines to get what they are talking about. I love that you admit to avoiding the one author because you hoped to be a writer yourself and you were kind of like “Too much hype.” I am on the same page as you as far as romance books. Ugh. I am currently reading ‘Next Year in Havana’ by Chanel Cleeton (my ipad is dying to autocorrect her last name to Cheetos, which is killing me). This book was assigned by my book club that I must joined last year. I have enjoyed all of the books so far, but this one - NO!!!! I cannot wait for it to end. It is supposed to be historical fiction which I usually enjoy - but I know it is more focused on a romance that is so contrived I want to puke. The library only had it in large print so it tricks me into believing it is really lengthy and I fear that it will never end. I am in Dallas with Coach while he teaches a class - getting to see friends today but wishing I had better reading while I hang at the hotel. Oh well, there is always napping.
I put most of those in my list except the last one as it’s not available at the library. Worth a purchase? Sounds like it might be and I have an indigo gift card...oh, and Nina has been on my list for a long time, I think I’m 67 in the queue now. It’s taking a while but I like that, it’s exciting when the hold comes in. I am SURE I read Wall if Light back in the early 2000s when I was in a book club...maybe worth a second read as I can’t remember it. Wait, do I OWN it? Perhaps should check the shelves.
I have never read Middlemarch but now it’s clear that I must! I like to read classics every so often though it’s quite often that I find myself wondering why is this a classic? Who has selected THIS book as being worthy of standing the test of time? But Middlemarch sounds like my jam. I am a person who rereads Pride and Prejudice every couple of years as I greatly enjoy Austen’s commentary on the ridiculousness of her contemporaries (particularly in Persuasion that I find I like a little more as the years pass). I think Elliot sounds like she was of a mind with Austen which is appealing to me.
StephLove said…
I honestly liked Ulysses, but I'm with you on Moby Dick, so painfully tedious...
StephLove said…
p.s. If you're up for more Eliot, try Daniel Deronda.
Magpie said…
I believe I have some things to add to my list.

Also, "George Eliot said Dorothea had zero chill, and I am HERE for it." YES.

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