Saturday, December 2, 2017

Best Rereads 2017

 December having arrived, I'll list my best reads of the past year. Last year I did an immense amount of rereading of old favorites. This year I have focused primarily on reading new books. However, in the blog entry, I list the five works that made it to the top of my reread list.


Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy: The last time I read it I was in high school. What I now appreciate in Tolstoy is his ability to describe the layers of conflicting feelings people experience. Characters are never flat. In a matter of moments they can run through a complex series of emotions. Karenin can wish his estranged wife dead, then be overwhelmed with joy that she is alive, then want to punish her, then want to forgive her, all in the course of a few minutes. Anna can be the most generous and giving of people, but also jealous and petty at the same time. Vronsky can both love Anna and yet be restless for a fuller life. People's privates selves are also impacted over and over again by the larger community in which they live. Tolstoy, too, is unafraid to describe a milieu in all the detail it requires: his description of a Moscow club was extraordinary and evoked for me how that world felt.

Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson: I read it for the first time last year and reread it this year. This time I understood more fully that it is a novel about how the past--the dead--haunt us, and the different ways, none entirely satisfying, that we cope with their invisible presence.

This year's Jane Austen reread: While Persuasion and Emma are still much on my mind, my pick for 2017is Mansfield Park. I delved deeply into it as a result of writing a paper for the journal Rhizomes on the many islands that, surprisingly enough, appear in this novel set in Northamptonshire, a landlocked county in the Midlands east of Birmingham and west of Cambridge.  Beyond writing the paper, however, I was able to delve into what Katie Halsey speaks of as
‘spectral texts’ — literary works that hover in the margins of the novel, not always directly acknowledged, but always reflecting or refracting some of Mansfield Park’s central concerns about ethics and morality

For example, Crabbe's Tales, a book mentioned in the novel, in part XIV, "The Confidant," could describe Fanny:

Now Anna’s station frequent terrors wrought,
In one whose looks were with such meaning fraught,
For on a Lady, as an humble friend,
It was her painful office to attend  ...
She veil’d her troubles in a mask of ease,
And show’d her pleasure was a power to please.
   Such were the damsel’s duties: she was poor -
Above a servant, but with service more:
Past time she view’d, the passing time to cheat,
But nothing found to make the present sweet:
With pensive soul she read life’s future page,
And saw dependent, poor, repining age.

Then,  in the same part of Cowper's The Task where Fanny quotes "ye fallen avenues! Once more I mourn/Your fate unmerited ..." we find, also appropriate to Sotherton or, for that matter, Mansfield Park:
We tread the wilderness, whose well-roll’d walks,
With curvature of slow and easy sweep—
Deception innocent—give ample space
To narrow bounds.
But this is all the subject for a future blog.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie: While the writing is not exquisite (it does, however, reflect the mind of a less-than-exemplary narrator), Christie's skill at eliding a crucial detail is unsurpassed. Christie as student of Jane Austen hovers all over this mystery. See

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy: It's not a perfect book. It was a chapter of my master's thesis, about which I remember just about nothing except that I was very interested in Hardy's references to Poussin. The novel has an odd, but powerful quality, at once realistic in its rendering of detail and fanciful in its concept. It is perhaps more indebted to narrative painting than the novel genre.

My next post will cover my top choices for newly read fiction and biography in 2017.


  1. I have a hard time remembering what I read inside a given year. One problem is I often do not read a book straight through -- especially book-length essays, even biographies. But to cite those I remember there are those that I nowadays have such a different outlook and understanding it was almost as if I never read the book before: George Eliot's "Janet's Repentance" is one about the abuse of women and how a community is utterly complicit, not only overlooks but downright allows; another is that it simply deepened my original bonding response: Graham Swift's Last Orders on grief and death and ghostly presences, only from a religious atheistic point of view. Austen's Persuasion and Northanger Abbey yet again and again the strengthening, irony, but less comfort. Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall; it has so many layers and discussing it with a class and having to present it taught me more. I'll have lots of new ones that I loved.

  2. Ellen, I try to jot down what I read, but I do leave things off, and I do have the problem too of jumping in and out of books--I am thinking of also doing a blog on the best individual essays and/or book chapters I read this year, but then I would have to search them out. I also reread books very differently, especially if I haven't read them in decades. I have to say both Far from the Madding Crowd and AK seem entirely different to me this time, as if they were different novels.

    1. Rereading I like your phrase of spectral texts, only for me these are the texts about ghost, presences in these texts not literally there, deeply present psychologically through memory. I've long been attracted to these; now more than ever.

  3. Your mention of Robinson's Housekeeping reminds me of an interesting essay I found a while back. It is a discussion of readings of the novel that see it as a story of liberation in contrast to one about the devastating effects of trauma, although the author also saw it as belonging to latter category. I had no idea that there were such readings of the former kind as I too saw the narrative as very much focused on trauma. Interesting that such diverse variations can proliferate.

  4. Hi Elaine.
    Interesting. I suppose the older sister gets and then the other two burn the house, which is the past, down, and leave. It seems a harsh liberation, but perhaps they are free.