Sunday, December 10, 2023

Best books 2023

Best fiction:

Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather. This was not my first time reading this book, but as is often the case with books revisited after decades, it was as if I were reading it for the first time. A poignant account of the relationship between Bishop Latour and his vicar Joseph Vaillant, it follows them as  missionaries to New Mexico and other parts of the far west. Even when far apart, the two lonely men are united by their inseparable bond. Somewhat Don Quixote-like, the two mimic the dreamy ivory tower mentality of Quixote (Latour) and the shrewd pragmatism of Sancho Panzo (Vaillant) as they pursue planting the faith. Woven in their story are vignettes about the west, including a tale of vigilante justice. Cather is prescient in this novel about the need to preserve the environment, compelling in her nature descriptions, and sensitive to the indigenous culture of the southwest. By happenstance, I read the book almost in tandem with Benjamin Taylor's new biography of Cather, Chasing Bright Medusas. More than other works of Cather's Archbishop seems to support Taylor's thesis that Cather was an "anti-modernist," dreaming of the ideal. 

The Appeal, Janice Hallett. After a recommendation from my Jane Austenite friend Constance, I listened to this epistolary mystery on CD.  Based on a series of e-mail exchanges, it centers on Issy Beck, a socially challenged nurse trying desperately to get "in" in her new village community. Her avenue is to participate in a production of Arthur Miller's All My Children, staged by the village's leading wealthy family, the Haywards. A scheme to extricate the patriarch Mr. Hayward from debt through a  fundraising drive for his granddaughter Poppy's fake cancer is exposed by a person who ends up dead. Issy's annoying attempts to ingratiate herself as well as her neediness are well conveyed in the reading.  The book has many twists, including an imaginary character, secret pasts, some question as to "who (really! done it"  and if the murder actually took place at all.  As an additional treat,  family politics and personalities in an English village evoke Jane Austen.

A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki. The story of Ruth, a middle-aged writer living with her husband in an isolated village in British Columbia and Nao, a teenaged Japanese girl, come together when Nao's Hello Kitty lunchbox washes up on the shore of Ruth's island home with a diary inside. Ruth and the reader learn of Nao's rough transition back to life in Japan after growing up in California, including her father's depression and suicide attempt, and the bullying she endures at school, culminating in a fake funeral for her. She gains wisdom from her 104 year old Buddhist nun grandmother Jiko but is also groomed into becoming an underage prostitute during her time in a Japanese cafe. Interspersed with comments on ecological devastation caused by climate change, Buddhist teachings, and questions about time, reality, and the nature of suffering and truth, this complex book is read beautifully by Ozeki herself. 

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt,  I'd resisted reading this book for a long time, but this fall a sudden urge to do so overcame me. I thought it would be like Susan Vreeland's The Girl in Hyacinth Blue, a series of stories about a fictitious Vermeer painting as it changes hands over the centuries, but it was a very different beast. Although named for a real painting, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, it is not about the painting, which functions largely as a plot device or, if you will, a missing phallus, the symbol of desire, regret, yearning, absence, and entrapment. Hovering somewhere between a tour de force with dramatic plot twists and a piece of literature exploring meaning, the novel is page turner with surprises that come to seem inevitable after the fact. It is a mix of fantasy tropes--a terrorist explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an effete wealthy family, a magical, European-type antique furniture restoration shop in Greenwich Village, drugs, criminals, and an otherworldly red-headed dream girl-- tropes that somehow all hang together as conjured by the less-than-reliable narrator, Theo Decker. The best character in this novel is the Ukranian Boris, a teenager Theo meets and becomes close friends as they cope with survival in a deserted Las Vegas subdivision. 

The Devil's Treasure, Mary Gaitskill. I first encountered Mary Gaitskill in an anthology in which writers commented on their favorite work of literature: 2017's Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, edited by Joe Fansler. I was impressed with Gaitskill's essay on Anna Karenina, which focused on the "true" Anna who comes to life in a near-death childbirth scene, an Anna existing beneath the socially constructed adulterous Anna. I then found her short story "Mirrorball," about a young woman's soul killing (or soul cracking) sexual encounter. I was thus happy when chance brought The Devil's Treasure to me. The book is a mixture of long passages from Gaitskill's novels, with some memoir and some of her own thoughts on her writing. I put it in the fiction category because of its inclusion of long passages of her fiction, which comprise the bulk of the book. Gaitskill is relentless in looking at the harshness below the facades of everyday life--at looking at truth. Because the excerpts seemed so true, the book energized and inspired me, though at the same time I was glad of the "slant" of not having to read her novels in their entirety. I need however, I think, to think about why her writing seems so true to me, and why that, on some level, repels me. I think, on this subject of the true, of the many 19th century writers who adored Dickens as a truth teller when today his novels read as so picaresque, so literary rather than authentic, though he did look at the harshness of poverty, inequality, and cruelty in a way other novelists did not. I wonder if Gaitskill will seem, if read at all, true to another generation which did not grow up beside her? 

The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, Lorraine Hansberry. This play, worthy of John Le Carre, explores the disillusionment of early 1960s Bohemian radical Sidney Brustein, who agrees to lend his weight to backing a political candidate who in the end turns out to be worthless and corrupt. In addition to the main plot, I liked its depiction of the plight of intelligent women in the early 60s, even in Bohemian circles, and the "slice of life" period piece quality of the work. I have read several bios of Hansberry, and sadly, the misogynist times she lived in taught her to focus on male protagonists, making Walter the center of Raisin in the Sun instead of his mother, which was her original intent, and here focusing on Sidney, when the true center of the play should be, imo, his wife. Fortunately for us, writers like Jane Austen were not as impressionable, despite some of the dubious "advice" they received. And yet, at the same time, Hansberry was brilliant in her critique of male writers, such as the French existentials.

Best non-fiction reading of 2023

Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury, Alison Light. I loved this book. In it, Light focuses her research on the servants who surrounded Virginia Woolf, while also rotating to other members of Bloomsbury. As far as possible she unearths their pasts before they came to Bloomsbury, and as far as she can, follows them to the end of their lives. Nellie (often misspelled Nelly by Woolf) Boxall, for example, outlived Woolf by several decades, and bought a townhouse from her brother after she retired, installing indoor plumbing and purchasing the first television on the block. In treating the servants not only in relation to Woolf, but as people with stories worthy of being told independent of their famous employers, Light fleshes out these figures as real people. The book is extremely well researched and well written, and it was a treat for me to be able to read it this summer in France.  I have a particular penchant for books that carry on a story beyond its arbitrary end point, such as the defeat of Germany in World War II, often a hard stop, or Woolf's death by suicide, another abrupt ending. Lives, in reality, go on past what we define as the endpoints.

On another aside, as I read of Woolf servants raised in orphanages or poor houses and put out to service, I was reminded of the "biography" of Miss Marple I read not long ago. Living in a status incongruous position similar to the Woolfs ("poor as rats" for their social class) Miss Marple also takes "girls" out of the orphanages, a cheap way to get the help that maintains her in her social class. She trains the girls in proper housekeeping until they inevitably leave her, and then she starts over. Light criticizes the Woolfs for not treating their servants better, for instance, by not installing indoor plumbing in their "grace and favor" housing when they did so in their own home, but these issues are complicated. 

An Autobiography: My Life and Work, by Booker T Washington. One tends to recoil from Booker T. Washington, so often seen as the servile Uncle Tom figure  eager for white approval. This 1900 book offers a different if not entirely contradictory perspective. Washington, who gained his freedom at age 8 or 9, is a fine writer. He shares vivid memories of his early life as a slave in southwest Virginia, sleeping on the dirt floor of shack that was freezing in the winter, getting only the roughest clothing, fed sporadically, though lucky in being the son of the plantations's cook. He also writes compelling of his young post-freedom life living and working, still a child, in a salt and then a coal mine in West Virgina, poor but  now allowed to get an education and filled with ambition to get ahead. When he manages to propel himself to his first boarding school, he has never slept on a bed with sheets, brushed his teeth, or used dishes and silverware. As he runs the Tuskagee School, he is determined that his charges attain such dignities, despite severe scarcities or resources, and insists that they learn practical crafts and skills in addition to academic education. 

Tragically, he was a good hearted man who believed that by working hard, saving money, and living soberly, Blacks could accumulate wealth and earn the respect of whites in such a way that they would be seen and treated as equals. His life and accommodationist tactics, cringey now, were based on a belief in human goodness. He never anticipated that many whites, especially in the South, were never going to accept Blacks as equals, no matter what. He believed --or wanted to believe--that by 1900 the period of lynchings was over. It didn't occur to him that if Blacks achieved some wealth and independence, whites would comes and burn down their towns, as they did, then refuse to lend them money to rebuild. In a nutshell, he denied human evil. Reading his story, however, I felt some sympathy for him--he couldn't know how badly his tactics would backfire because there was no "him" before him to show him the folly of his ways. 

It's Me, O Lord, Rockwell Kent. Since Covid started, and I became obsessed with tracking down a  book which turned out to be edited by him, I have had a bizarre fascination with Kent, bizarre because I have such mixed feelings about his art and life. The book in question was 100 World Masterpieces, a coffee table tome of glossy plates of Western art that my brother and I would pore over  before we could even read. As it happened, Roger and I were in Mexico as Covid restrictions appeared, and as he tried to rearrange our flights home, I looked at the ocean  through windows that had no glass, which brought back to me with sudden clarity the Renaissance paintings in World Masterpieces book in which Mary holds court with the baby Jesus in rooms with windows without glass.

When I found the art book, I was taken with Rockwell's cheeky take-downs of museums and high art, his avowals that he would not have chosen some of the paintings in the book, his quotations from Blake, and general unapologetic siding with the common man. This year, heading to Maine, where he had a house on Monhegan Island, I discovered his autobiography. It is a dense and overwritten, and he pokes fun at himself--his title in fact is a joke, as in "Oh God, not me!" But the fascination lies in his self depiction. Writing in 1955, he composed a book no man would ever write today. Anathletic, high-energy, self assured young person, he turned socialist and vegetarian at young age, and never wavered at openly expressing his opinions. Tall, blond, strong, male, the world was his oyster. His father died when he was young, and he grew up a poor relation--but in very privileged circumstances. His physical feats as a young man--working, say from  4 am to 11 am on rough seas rowing a lobstering boat, then climbing the hills of Monhegan island for an afternoon of painting, followed by an evening of singing and socializing--were amazing. He married, as he blatantly explained, for regular sex, and promptly felt entitled to have an affair when his wife didn't want sex right away after the birth of their first child. He pursued actresses and showgirls, and not surprisingly, found himself divorced.  His second wife got a court order while they were married to keep him away when she sojourned six months of the year on the other side of the country. He told the much younger woman who eventually became his third wife that he would marry her if she agreed to worship him. She initially fled but succumbed to his pursuit. When he found out that he was advertised as editor of 100 World Masterpiece when he had not agreed to take the job, he reacted with rage and demanded $10,000 for the job--which he got, an enormous sum in 1939. 

Odyssey of a Wandering Mind, Jennifer Horne. This is a biography of Sara Mayfield, a friend of Zelda Fitzgerald and HL Mencken. Born in privileged Southern circumstances and almost certainly a lesbian, Sara led the life of a wealthy woman until her erratic behavior caused her mother and older brother to commit her to the state insane asylum. There for 17 years, she emerged to write well-received biographies of both Zelda and Mencken. The book indicts a system that allowed relatives to essentially imprison a woman who arguably did little more than live outside of Southern female norms. Well-written and mercifully free of autobiographical interludes or outrage, it lets Maysfield fascinating story stand on its own.

Shakespeare in Bloomsbury, Margaret Garber. A (seemingly) exhaustive and well written account of how thoroughly Shakespeare's works and words were imbedded in the minds and psyches of the Bloomsbury people. Garber teases out references to Shakespeare in letters, diaries, and fiction. Even obscure allusions seemed so obvious to Bloomsburyites that the source didn't need to be mentioned.

Mrs. Orwell's Invisible Life, Anna Funder. This biography of Orwell's often forgotten first wife is marred by Funder's outrage, as if she is the first person in history to notice how routinely notice how women have been edited from the lives of great men (I will note that I wrote a book on the subject). Her insertions of her own life story are also unnecessary. Nevertheless the book is valuable in outlining the ordeals to which Orwell subjected his wife, and his expectation that she be secretary, servant (including cleaning the outhouse)  and muse to him, while devaluing her as a person. Orwell would almost certainly have concurred with Funder's assessment that he was no saint (beyond his treatment of his wife, it is hard not to he repelled by the way he would pounce on and kiss unsuspecting women fully on the mouth when he strongly suspected he had TB). He was not far different from other men of his time in his treatment of women (see Rockwell Kent above), but this is all the same a story that needs to be told and a book well worth reading.