It's chilly. There's snow on the ground. Christmas is almost here. It's ALMOST too late to shop. We're cozily hanging out at home.
A few days ago I compiled my Best of 2010 list, strictly culled from new and recent books. That isn't quite representative of me, though. Because I also read a lot of "old" books, I've selected 11 "Best" Classics, Old Books, & Cult Classics of the year, complete with blurbs from my absurd book journal.
1. Home Life, Home Life Two, & Home Life Three by Alice Thomas Ellis. A novelist, mother, editor, friend of writers and artists, and a conservative Catholic, Ellis wrote brilliant domestic comedy about state-of-emergency plumbing in Chelsea and personal hygiene in a cold house in Wales. In Home Life Two, she muses on the absurdity of bank cards and credit cards (money is faster); building on to her house; struggles with faulty dishwashers; and the ridiculous prevalence of love in the lyrics of pop music. She also wryly catalogues the eccentricities of her family: the laconic husband (referred to as Someone), four sons (who like bad pop music and leave dangerous, ominous-smelling camping equipment around) , “the daughter” (12 and incomprehensible), and a sensible live-in housekeeper/nanny/friend, Janet.
2. Dangerous Ages by Rose Macaulay. I spent several refreshing hours reading Dangerous Ages, an overlooked novel that perhaps is best appreciated in middle age. This gently humorous, sometimes very painful examination of three generations of women charts the sad sense of loss as choices narrow for women in middle- and old age, contrasted with the confidence and sense of immortality of youth. Despite the fact that some of the characters are unlikable, I feel sympathetic to their very different plights. Macaulay’s writing here is plain, less perfect than in her award-winning novel, The Towers of Trezibond, but her ideas are first-rate.
3. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot. Eliot is my latest passion. The Mill on the Floss is a luminous tragicomedy, a page-turner, and a masterpiece. Really, I can hardly put it down. Book Second, “School Time,” is Eliot’s fascinating account of Tom’s classical education with the smug Rev. Walter Stelling, an unimaginative materialist and social-climber to whom Mr. Tulliver sends Tom because he wants him to become a professional, perhaps an engineer. Alas, this system of education does not suit outdoorsy Tom, who scarcely understands that Latin is a language or why he is to learn Euclid’s geometry. It is Maggie who perks up over the language during a visit, and Philip Wakem, a crippled pupil who arrives after Tom’s first term, who helps Tom to learn enough to justify the education. Absolutely absorbing, and very, very sad when Mr. Tulliver loses all his money to Philip’s father.
4. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles has the empire-questioning pessimism that somehow makes the "future" seem like the past. Not only is it good science fiction, but the experience of reading is like time travel to the 1950s and 60s. Bradbury writes about Americans landing on Mars and being trapped by illusion and disillusionment: a crew of Americans who land on Mars is dismissed as psychotic by Martians who are used to lunatics projecting visual and sensory hallucinations; others land on Mars and encounter their dead relatives walking about in what seem to be their midwestern hometowns; and a lone astronaut rebels against American colonization of Mars.
5. Tam Lin by Pamela Dean. I love science fiction and fantasy. One of my favorites is Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, a charming, humorous, all-ages classic that deserves a wider audience. Janet, the intellectual heroine, adores reading and spends four years studying English at a small college. Romance and friendship overlap with the supernatural. Classics majors are all considered crazy, a ghost throws books out the windows, some Shakespearean actors turn out to have a very strange background, and Janet regularly discusses literature and philosophy with her friends. These discussions are very exciting, by the way. They’ll make you want reread all of Shakespeare and Keats and read several books you've never read. Tam Lin, a Scottish ballad, is woven into the novel.
6. Homer's Daughter by Robert Graves. Best known for I, Claudius, Graves is one of those writers who could not write badly. In his feminist novel, Homer's Daughter, The Odyssey is not the work of Homer, but of Nausicaa, an intellectual princess known to us as rescuer of the shipwrecked Odysseus in Book VI of The Odyssey. She has listened all her life to bards’ poems about Odysseus’ homecoming. Nausciaa reshapes the narrative to accommodate her own experiences and to invigorate the characters of women like Penelope.
7. David Copperfield by Dickens. It’s 727 pages of delight. The narrator, as everyone knows, begins, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” Of course David does turn out to be the hero of his own life, but since he’s such a charming, intelligent observer of people, he draws unforgettable characters, like Peggotty, the kind, loyal, hard-working servant who throws her apron over her head when she laughs at her suitor, Barkis; Mr. Micawber, who is always in debt..., and more.
8. The Vera Wright Trilogy by Elizabeth Jolley. Jolley, an award-winning Australian writer whose work was briefly feted in the U.S. in the '80s and early '90s, was praised by Robert Coover, Peter Ackroyd, and Frederich Busch. Persea has reissued the award-winning trilogy and what a pleasure it is to find these stunning novels, My Father's Moon, Cabin Fever, and The Georges' WifeJolley's style is Virginia-Woolf-meets-D.-H.-Lawrence, a poetic yet blunt stream-of-consciousness mixed with erotic strangeness and lies.
9. Forty Plus and Fancy Free by Emily Kimbrough. I love humor writing, and Emily Kimbrough's travel adventures are hilarious. When her employer, CBS Radio, agrees to give her time off if she will also cover the Coronation in England, she and her friend Sophy recruit three other widow-grandmothers for a trip to Italy. Kimbrough insists that she and Sophy must take Italian lessons at the Berlitz school. I burst out laughing over her account of her linguistic incompetence. They are supposed to learn words from pictures on the wall and cards, but she mixes up “table” with “ceiling.” There is not a single English word in their textbook....
10. The Second Coming by Walker Percy. In this funny, beautifully written existentialist novel, Will Barrett is the anti-hero, a middle-aged lawyer who has retired early in New York and moved back to North Carolina to play golf and…what? He isn’t sure. He is hallucinating on the golf course, falling down repeatedly, blacking out, and having flashbacks to his childhood. Death is on his mind, and no wonder. His wife has died, and he is living alone. What is the meaning of life? What is God? Why are non-believers just as obnoxious as believers? And more...
11. An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott. An Old-Fashioned Girl is my favorite book by Louisa May Alcott. I know: everyone prefers Little Women, but An Old-Fashioned Girl holds up surprisingly well. I love Polly, the main character, a country girl with a sense of humor and a sensible attitude who spends the first half of the book on an extended visit to her sophisticated city friend. Far from a fashion plate, this brisk, charming heroine has inner resources and more skills than her friend, Fanny, who is sometimes ashamed of Polly's childish quality and simple clothes.