Giuseppe di Lampedusa: The Leopard
A self-aware Sicilian prince, the Leopard of the title, in the time of Garibaldi observes the world he has known crumble. Occasionally sad, occasionally furious, he watches for the most part with detachment; his creator, the author, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, views the Prince with humor and affection as he ambles through his life. There is no great action in the book, but Di Lampedusa makes the characters who surround the prince--Sicilians and Northerners, new men and old--human. His compassion for his characters, however flawed they are, reminds one, though the milieu couldn't be more different, of the greatest of all humanist artists, Yasujiro Ozu.
Edmund Crispin: Holy Disorders: Gervase Fen #2
I guess a novel published in the mid-1940s still qualifies as a Golden Age mystery, and thus legitimately partakes of the cleverness and silliness that characterize that category. One unusual aspect of Edmund Crispin's Gervase Fen books is that the title character, though typically eccentric and erudite, is also entirely unappealing. Indeed one becomes much more interested in characters who appear in this novel, Holy Disorders, but will not return in the rest of the series, because, well, they can't. I'd better stop here before giving anything away, because solving the puzzle is a big part of the attraction of novels of this sort, and advance knowledge would spoil the fun.
George Steiner: Errata: An Examined Life
I've always admired polymaths, and George Steiner definitely falls into that category. He berates himself, near the end of his memoir, Errata, for having spread himself too thin, for not having devoted his career to one or two of the big ideas he has written books about before moving on to other things. For me, though, it's precisely his breadth that fascinates, and it is no surprise that the thing he appears least interested in is himself. He devotes very little of this memoir to what he did when and why, but a lot to what he has thought about, studied, and learned. True, there are one or two chapters that begin with sentences like, "During the war years the French Lycée in Manhattan was a cauldron," but most of open with propositions such as: "It is plausible to suppose that the period since August 1914 has been, notably in Europe and Russia, from Madrid to Moscow, from Sicily to the Arctic Circle, the most bestial in recorded history," and proceed from those beginnings in essayistic fashion. Because Steiner is a great mind it is a pleasure to follow his thinking about music, war, place, God, and other topics. I hope that there is still a place in intellectual life for scholars who, like Steiner, decline to devote themselves to a narrow specialty.
Virgil: The Aeneid
Having no Latin and no Greek I don't know how accurate and faithful Robert Fitzgerald's translations are, but I do know, having read his Iliad and Odyssey, and now his Aeneid, that his versions are my Homer, my Virgil. The rhythm of the sentences, the vocabulary, the images that startle just as much as I'm sure they did in Greek and Latin keep one turning pages, hungry for the next delightful turn of event, turn of phrase. There were moments, reading the Aeneid, where I tired a bit of the nation-building agenda that seems to drive it, but these objections were quickly sloughed off and forgotten. So grand is the work that, as with all successful political art, it quickly rises above parochial concerns. I suppose I should look at some of the newer translations of the classics, but I don't suppose I ever will.
Michael Lewis: The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine
I saw the movie "The Big Short" before reading the book. I enjoyed it a great deal, not least for the way the director found artful ways to insert the necessary info-dumps about highly esoteric financial shenanigans that, along with some of the few people who saw past the smoke and mirrors, were the subject of the film. The info-dumps were well done, but at the end of the movie I was still shaking my head trying to figure out what had actually happened. I thought reading the book might help with that, and it did. Now I understand. Sort of. Not really. But what I did grasp is that except for a handful of people, and including the people running Wall Street, nobody else understood what was going on either. The Big Short, however, both book and movie, are as much about the odd and interesting people tossing the millions around as about finance,and that ensures that both book and movie are always engaging.
Zoë Heller: What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal: A Novel
A teacher in London has an affair with one of her students. Her "friend" writes about this teacher. Zoë Heller tells these stories, and in so doing gives us a master class in how to write in the voice of an unreliable—in this case even sinister—narrator. Because this narrator is observant, cynical, and acerbic Heller is also able to use this voice to offer telling observations on subjects ranging from education to bourgeois bohemianism. This novel, along with Heller's The Believers, which I read late last year, convince me that she is one of our best novelists writing realist novels about life in our times.
Giedra Radvilavičiūtė: Those Whom I Would Like to Meet Again (Lithuanian Literature)
It's still early in the year, but this is the best book I've read so far, because the author, Giedra Radvilavičiūtė (don't make me type that twice) does something that—although one thinks of Montaigne (if he had written fiction)—seems entirely fresh. Each of the stories in this volume is a mix of autobiography, essay, and story where one form drifts into the next in a way that looks formless, but is nothing short of brilliant. The stories are funny and wistful, and contain sentences that make one stop and shake one's head in admiration (or chuckle out loud). This book is part of Dalkey Archive's Lithuanian Literature Series. So original is the author's style that I can't imagine it is representative, but if it were I would certainly want to read more of the nation's literature.
Artemis Cooper: Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure
Patrick Leigh Fermor: adventurer, lover, polyglot, grecophile, author, both bon vivant and frequenter of dive bars, at home with aristocrat and peasant, a person of courage, loyalty, and with an extraordinary gift for friendship. His eventful life is given a splendid and honest telling here. (***)
Jennifer Egan: A Visit from the Goon Squad
At first, the chapters came on like short stories about overlapping characters. Then it was annoying that these tour-de-force fragments seemed so arbitrary and hard to piece together. It finally coalesced into a novel--albeit one dashed to pieces--with characters I grew to love. After finishing, I’ve started right back at the beginning, to glean information about them that I missed first time around. It is an irritating book, but written with such verve, passion, inventiveness and skill that all is forgiven and then some. My favorite novel since "Atonement" maybe. (*****)
Jhumpa Lahiri: The Namesake
A story of an immigrant experience, of growing up, of relationships, told in a relentless present tense. It took me awhile to be wholly interested in the characters, but the straightforward, detailed telling gradually drew me in. (***)
Mark Haddon: A Spot of Bother
(author of the amazing “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.”) This, about a UK middle-class family from multiple perspectives, is so light it practically reads itself. The psychological insights and sharp, amusing observations kept my interest. I'm not good with blood, so the gore sometimes made it a queasy read, but mostly it was a lot of fun. (***)
Marilynne Robinson: Gilead: A Novel
A dying pastor in the US Midwest in the 1950s writes a memoir to his young son. A triumph of voice. Novels are related to humanity’s burgeoning empathy. This extended mine. Haunting and affecting. (*****)
J.L. Carr: A Month in the Country
1920. A damaged WWI survivor is commissioned to uncover a mural in a Yorkshire village church. This is a glorious evocation of rural life in a summer of days gone by. It's about being young, rejection, love, and the hell of surviving a senseless, stupid war. It's also a bit of a mystery: one that reaches an extraordinary 600 years into the past. (***)
David Mitchell: Slade House
David Mitchell is a master of plot, storytelling, character, voice, setting, and bringing a period to life. His latest—a short, supernatural thriller set in a gray UK town--is a compelling, amusing tale of fiendish cleverness and surprise. Mitchell has to pay the rent, and if this is the kind of nonsense he wants to write, it’s fine by me. Reading him is sheer pleasure, and I’ll follow him anywhere. (*****)