Jane Gardam: The Man in the Wooden Hat
Although I very much enjoyed Jane Gardam's Old Filth, which told the story of a marriage of old English expats from the perspective of the husband, it took me a long time to get to the sequel, The Man in the Wooden Hat, which tells the story of the same marriage from the perspective of the wife. It does an excellent job of artfully reminding us that a marriage need not be perfect to be good.
Mary Renault: The Charioteer
I picked up The Charioteer, the first of Mary Renault's novels I've read, assuming, based on her reputation and the title that it would be one of her historical novels set in ancient Greece or Rome. It is not. It is, instead, an examination of gay life during World War II that is almost Jamesian in its obliquity. This seems appropriate in that, it becomes clear, gay people had in those day to be terribly oblique about who they were. Renault, who lived with a female companion, is sympathetic, but it is interesting to note that she promulgates some of the accepted wisdom of her time with regard to homosexuality, giving the protagonist, for example, an absent father and a domineering mother. I wonder what bromides about homosexuality and everything else that are being put about today we will chuckle at tomorrow.
Don DeLillo: Point Omega
Reading late DeLillo of late, I was slightly less than completely satisfied with Falling Man (see below), but was entirely enraptured with Point Omega. Here are the hypnotic sentences, the world as complex as life, and a formal shape that can make his books so compelling, so beautiful. I think of American novelists of DeLillo's generation, and when the others have fallen away, it's clear to me that it is DeLillo and Pynchon to whom we will always be eager to return.
John Berger: From A to X: A Story in Letters
John Berger is our best—our only really good?—engaged novelist. The issues explored in his novels always transcend, even as they include, day-to-day politics and are never trivialized or sentimentalized. The art in his novels is never buried beneath agitprop. His epistolary novel, From A to X, is the latest in a line of wonders. His late style glows.
Erle Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Stuttering Bishop
Erle Stanley Gardiner's Perry Mason books seem to have been among Guy Davenport's favorite diversions, and that was enough to motivate me to buy the five on offer at a junk shop in a small California town. I was not disappointed with the earliest written from that stack, and experienced a bit of unearned nostalgia for a time when drivers seemed to routinely stock their cars with pints of whisky.
Don DeLillo: Falling Man: A Novel
Every DeLillo novel is a gift, and considering the austerity and intelligence that characterizes DeLillo's vision of our time one might have expected his 9/11 novel to be the 9/11 novel. It isn't, I don't think, in part because of the cypher of a character around whom the novel turns, a cypher who is never quite satisfyingly ambiguous or illuminating. Still, as with every DeLillo novel there are sentences, paragraphs, that make one's jaw drop.
Mark Haddon: A Spot of Bother
(by the 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, however, and the gore sometimes made it a queasy read, but mostly it was a whole 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. (*****)
Crispin Sartwell: Obscenity, Anarchy, Reality
It’s philosophy, and philosophy is hard, and I’m not even sure that everything he says is true. But it’s written with a swagger and raw personal honesty, and I found it as enlightening as opaque, as useful as baffling. Actually I first read it 10 years ago and I got a lot more from it this time. I expect to return again to this take-no-prisoners, balls-to-the-wall pursuit of the elusive truth of life and death. (****)
Dolores Payás: Drink Time!: In the Company of Patrick Leigh Fermor
Charming, intimate memoir of the great PLF in the last few years of his life in his Greek villa above the sparkling Mediterranian, written by his Spanish translator. Though facing the infirmities of age, and struggling with the third volume of his Constantinople trilogy, he never let those interfere with the pleasures of life: booze, books, laughter, conversation, dancing, food, and friendships. (***)
Alice Munro: Dear Life: Stories
A wonderful collection of stories, each impeccably wrought. The everyday settings are vivid, as are the troubled voices they hide. The language is scintillating: I often paused after reading a sentence to marvel at its aptness. The volume ends with some autobiographical fragments, also written in fine style. Alice Munro: a master at work. (****)