As usual, there were some standouts in the year's (2008) reading, as well as some clunkers. Reading is such a personal experience, 'though, that I hesitate to mention the latter, since my clunker may someone else's well-oiled machine. I'm reminded of The Memory Keeper's Daughter, which I read in '07 and thoroughly, deeply disliked. It was a selection of my book club, and at least half of the group -- and we have a large group -- thought it was terrific.
I had a great time reading or re-reading several classics -- Jane Eyre, especially. I'd forgotten what a smart and strong (and feminist) character Jane is. (I was so taken with the book that I wrote about it here.) I enjoyed my sojourn into Henry James country, re-reading some novels and savoring some short stories for the first time. I went on a bit of a Henry James jag and also read a very good biography, The Mature Master, the second of two volumes on James by Sheldon Novick, and an equally good fictional version of James's literary life by David Lodge: Author, Author.
Other books that have stayed with me -- which is one way I judge a book's value, with the caveat that some of the truly bad ones also won't go away -- include When Will There Be Good News, the third book in British author Kate Atkinson's series about Jackson Brodie (wonderfully written and cleverly crafted); A Long Way Down, by Nick Hornby (as usual in Hornby's work, funny and touching at the same time, but never sentimental); Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses (a quiet, lyrical novel), Child 44, by Tom Robb Smith (a compelling thriller set in Russia during Stalin's regime), and The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, by Kate Summerscale. This last focuses on the actual murder of a child in 1860s England, and Summerscale uses her extensive research to explore the rise of the English detective and his role in English society. Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone, which I'm reading now, and which was written a few years after the case described in Summerscale's book, borrows much from that book's real-life detective.
I loved Three Junes, Julia Glass's first novel, which I came to late, after having read and enjoyed The Whole World Over a couple of years ago. I liked Willilam Gay's Twilight (no, not that Twilight), a strange, striking novel set in the Tennessee country in which the author lives; enjoyed The Accidental Masterpiece, essays on art and artists by Michael Kimmelman, and Valentines, a slim volume of poetry by Ted Kooser; and was nourished by poet Kathleen Norris's thoughtful The Cloister Walk, about her retreats in a Benedictine monastery.
Thankfully, I didn't read anything last year as unfortunate as The Memory Keeper's Daughter. Still, there were ho-hum books, the kind that take up time that could have been spent reading something one enjoys more. Among these were In the Garden of Iden, The Society of S, The Spellman Files, The Writing Diet, (a weight-loss book by Julia Cameron of Artist's Way fame) and Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance (what's with all the fuss over the years about this one?). But, as one good friend says: "If you like this kind of thing, then this is the kind of thing you'll like."
Here's to all the books yet to be explored in 2009. Happy reading.
[Photo Credit: Woman Reading by Henri Matisse]