Monday, December 16, 2019

A quiet year: reads of 2019

In what turned out to be a gentle year of book reading, I primarily read quiet novels, but I also was fortunate to enjoy some non-fiction permeated with passion. It was an odd reading period: I discovered many very good books, but few outstanding books.

I have moved away this year from a "best books" framework to write instead about those that most interested me. Though not a time of many shattering or transformative reads, much of what I encountered was deeply satisfying.


Joel Edward GoraAmerica's Unholy Ghosts: The Racist Roots of Our Faith and Politics
This was the stand-out book of the year for me. Writing with a passion that is too often absent from contemporary nonfiction, Gora traces the deep strain of racism in Locke and Hobbes that has permeated the American consciousness and allowed racism to live alongside notions of freedom and equality. Gora shows how the philosophies of Hobbes and Locke reduced earlier and broader notions of freedom as social justice to the much narrower idea of freedom as property rights. Under Locke and Hobbes social freedom means that everyone else has to keep their hands off other people's property, and both thinkers were, at the very least, nebulous on the idea of other races as human beings with the same rights to autonomy as white males.  With Adam Smith, the other figure Gora covers, the case is more complex. Smith, though often reduced to a distorted stereotype as the "libertarian" who invented the concept of the "invisible hand," was, in fact, pushing back hard against the idea of defining social justice as property rights and, in fact, vehemently advocated for a redistribution of wealth to help the needy, grounding this in moral truth.
    The devil is in the details, and I don't have time to trace out Gora's arguments, but he shows how the ideologies of Locke and Hobbes have come down to us in the present day to create a citizenry that he calls "rational, sentimental, and hard-hearted."  Gora urges us to "rethink and rewrite our relationships and the rules of the game" daring to condemn present-day cruelties as policies that need to be exorcised. 

Eleanor Fitzsimmons: The Lives and Loves of Edith Nesbitt
The last biography of children's author and Fabian Edith Nesbitt before this was written in 2000, 19 years ago, so it was time for a new biography. This one is solid and crammed with details that make Nesbitt's life and times come alive. Nesbitt was a mix of forward thinking socialist and sentimental Victorian, and definitely a person who could never transcend her condescending sense of superiority of her educated middle class over the working class, but she did work to help those "beneath" her. A textbook case of one of Virginia Woolf's female authors who could not rise to greatness because she was so busy churning out prose to pay the bills, Nesbitt was a fount of energy and activity. I have happy memories of various vignettes--Nesbitt walking  in her hallmark Liberty print dresses with no corset (shocking) or selling flowers from her front yard to make ends meet during the hyper-inflation of World War I. I put this book on my list for the sheer enjoyment of reading it.

Helen Prejean: Souls on Fire 
Prejean is famous as the author of Dead Man Walking, and a longtime advocate of abolishing the death penalty. She's also a nun, and this memoir fascinates because she had the astonishing good fortune to bridge a time of immense shift in Roman Catholic Church history. When she started as a young sister in a convent in the late 1950s, the Church still ran as it had for a thousand years, with a debilitating harshness --a few years later, everything changed entirely as the Vatican reforms came through and affirmation, openness, and freedom took on new power. Prejean is fascinating, too, in her own right, not just the writer of a bestselling anti-death penalty book but as a person with the skills and intelligence to rise high (for a woman) in the Church hierarchy. It is seldom that a person straddles change so wholly and can write about it so interestingly

Catherine Meeks and Nibs Stroupe: Passionate for Justice: Ida B. Wells As Prophet for Our Times 
Meeks and Stroupe's book is a biography of Ida Wells, a journalist who tracked down, documented, and wrote compelling against lynching, a black rights activist, and a suffragist who experienced racism at the hands of white feminists in her period. Not only is it instructive to read about her life, but the memoir/dialogues on racism by white southern male Stroupe and black southern woman Meeks are deeply moving.

Hilary DavidsonDress in the Age of Jane Austen
Davidson's book was another solid read. She discusses fashion in Austen's life and novels through ever more widely radiating circles of society, from fashion's meaning in the home, in the local community, in the nation, and, finally, in a globalized world.  The book is full of beautiful and appropriate illustrations and shows a solid knowledge of Austen's work, both fiction and life writing.


E.M. Forster: Where Angels Fear to Tread
Continuing an E.M. Forster trend, I read and delighted in the 1905 Where Angels Fear to Tread.  A comedy about who should raise an Anglo-Italian infant son, I found it, like Howard's End, and A Room with a View,  a beacon call for  kindness, compassion, and generosity over stifling conformity and judgment.

I have yet to see a filmed version of Where Angels Fear to Tread, but this is a still.

Katherine Burdekin: Swastika Night
A book that has been on my to-read list, Katherine Burdekin's Swastika Night, finally floated to the top. Written in 1937 under the pen name Murray Constantine, it's the first novel to depict a world in which the Nazis have won the war. In this case, 700 years into their 1,000 year Reich, women have been debased to near animals, and Hitler has been elevated to a seven-foot tall blond Norse God. This is not a well-written book from a literary standpoint, but an important book for our times-- not only as the first alternative history on World War II (which had not even begun with Burdekin published the novel), but for the way Burdekin understands and parodies the Nazi ethos, especially its deep-seated misogyny. For more on this novel see: and

Barbara Pym:  The Sweet Dove Died
 I first learned of Pym in 1982 as a young thing when she was in the first throes of her revival. I heard of her as like Jane Austen, and I quickly added her to my reading list. Only a mere 36 years later-- in 2018-- I read my first Pym novel, Quartet in Autumn, as well as her autobiography.
     This year, I read  three more Pym novels, from Jane and Prudence to Excellent Women to The Sweet Dove Died.  I enjoyed all three for their stories, their wit and pathos, and probably most for their precise evocation of the life of a British woman of a particular class in a particular period of history. One of the beating valves at  he heart of humane literature is an attention the lived details or texture of domestic life. Pym tells us what her characters eat for dinner, how they manage sharing a bathroom with tenants from the floor below, what flowers they arrange in a vase, or when they take a water bottle to bed at night.
   I found The Sweet Dove Died an excellent companion piece to Elizabeth Taylor's The Soul of Kindness. Both novels focus on a narcissistic woman arranging her life to be physically beautiful, as if by donning the right outward garments, they could fill the inner emptiness, but Pym's protagonist, being older and more sexually complicated, has greater pathos and nuance.

Phillip K. Dick: The Man in the High Castle
If not world class literature, this is a fine companion piece to Swatiska Night as an alternative history novel in which the Germans and Japanese have won World War II. In this case, they divide the U.S. so that the eastern two thirds is absorbed in the Nazi Reich, the Japanese control the west coast and a small neutral zone running through the Rockies provides a buffer between the two states. Like Swastika Night, it relies on the alternative history concept to carry the story.
    The book provides a good segue into The Man in the High Castle miniseries. Roger and I watched the fourth and final season in late November. Even more recently, I have done what I almost never do, which is to rewatch the series a second time (I am in the midst of season two now, rewatching with Roger), and I am more impressed than ever with it, particularly the drenching sadness that permeates the lives of characters caught in societies designed at every turn to thwart their deepest humanity. Particularly impressive is Juliana Crane, played by Alexa Davalos, a character who perhaps struggles more than any other to retain her humanity in bleak circumstances.
   The miniseries premiered in January, 2015,  a time when nobody was imagining a Trump presidency or the rise of neo-Fascism in the U.S., which makes the series all the more interesting: although firmly against Nazism and other totalitarianisms, its evocations of a genocidal, misogynist, and frozen white 1950s style American society could be a blueprint for what white supremacists want to implement. But on a deeper level, it expresses a sadness that is palpable in real life about the reality of  living in worlds of thwarted possibility.

Juliana, a gentle soul, leads a troubled life in a world where the Nazis won

Elena Ferrante: My Brilliant Friend
In another pairing of book and mini-series, I read Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend as a result of the very fine filmed version which made by 2018 best filmed media list. Ferrante's book moved me deeply as I read it. Like The Man in the High Castle, it reflects the sadness of lives marked by the lack of possibilities. How, both series ask, do we build lives in the few crevices that are left for freedom, love, and creativity?

Reading Little Women.

Two other novels that jump out from the year's reading are Jean Rhys Wide Sargasso Sea, another book I read after 'only' having it on my list for 30-odd years, and Trollope's The Way we Live Now.

Woolf reading:
I continued with my intense study of Woolf this year, reading both novels, primary sources, and secondary sources. Two standouts are as follows:

Leonard Woolf: The Village in the Jungle: This is in many ways a remarkable book about villagers in Sri Lanka which tells the story entirely from their point of view. Woolf, however, in both this book and his other published novel, The Wise Virgins, does a lot of "mansplaining" and convenient arranging about how women feel and think, which I have to imagine helped fuel Virginia's breakthrough to a radically subjective way of novel writing that deliberately does not purport to tell us what to think. It is difficult not to read Night and Day as a companion piece to The Wise Virgins. Both have an overheated romantic quality, and both are ultimately, if well written, failed novels. Woolf's frustrations with formal conventionalities of Night and Day did, however,  help lead her to her stream-of-consciousness break-through, and if the weakest and most disappointing of her novels, it is still a Woolf novel, so replete with strengths. 

Virginia Woolf: The Partigers: This is a fragment and draft of The Years. Despite its limitations, I appreciated Woolf's effort to alternate a chapter of fiction with a chapter of explanatory prose about the feminist core of the fiction. I wish Woolf had not abandoned this experiment.

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