Favorite reading in Literary Fiction and Nonfiction for the year 2011

December 21, 2011 at 2:47 pm (Best of 2011, books)

This how Jonathan Yardley’s column on his year in reading opens: “Once again this holiday season year-end review begins with the confession that my year didn’t include many memorable works of fiction.” He then asserts rather plaintively that “I still love novels, but fewer and fewer contemporary novelists (American ones especially) appeal to me….”

My sentiments exactly, I regret to say.

Like Jonathan Yardley, I’ve been reading the fiction of years past and enjoying it greatly. To wit: Guy de Maupassant is not an author I’ve thought very much about. His short story “The Necklace” was frequently included in the literature textbooks of my school days, and frankly I never thought much of it. As I recall, it had the kind of trick ending one usually associates with O. Henry. But about a year ago, I read a Maupassant tale called “Looking Back.” In it, a woman, Madame La Comptesse, has the sole care of her of her orphaned grandchildren. Their priest, Abbe Mauduit, is visiting. The children are put to bed, but not before saying a tender good night to the priest. The priest and the grandmother talk about their respective lives. The story ends. It is all of six pages in length, and yet an entire  world is created therein. (Stories like this astound me; I’ve written about John Updike‘s “The Music School” in a similar vein.)

In The Art of Time in Fiction, Joan Silber writes with admiration about Une Vie (A Life), a novel written in 1883 by Guy de Maupassant. I got it (from Amazon). I read it. I loved it. Ah, Jeanne de Lamare, pauvre petite! That such a life, begun with such careful parental cosseting and fervent hope for happiness, should unfold with so much pain and heartbreak! More to come on this luminous story of an ardent young woman’s romantic aspirations.

I shall most certainly be reading Une Vie once again, before long….

  Effie Briest (1896) was yet another revelatory reading experience. Not only had I never heard of this novel, but its author Theodor Fontane, was also unknown to me. Born in 1819 in Brandenburg, Fontane was the descendant of French Huguenots who had relocated to that part of Germany. He enjoyed a certain success as a novelist during the second half of the nineteenth century. The introduction to the Penguin edition pictured here proclaims that “Fontane’s sensitive portrayals of women’s lives in late nineteenth century society was unsurpassed in European literature.” This seems to me to overstate the case somewhat (see Une Vie, for instance), but Effi Briest is a marvelous, fully realized creation. While this novel does not have quite the emotional impact of Maupassant’s,  it does present a vibrant picture of the times and of life among the minor gentry of Germany. And Fontane’s writing sparkles with unexpected flashes of wit.

Effi Briest has been made into a German language film more than once. I’m thinking the 1974 version directed by Rainer Werner Fassbender is the one to get. 

Guy de Maupassant

Theodor Fontane

I learned about Effi Briest from The Rough Guide to Classic Novels. I’ve long had the intention of blogging about this singular little reference work. I started the post some months ago but have never gotten around to finishing it. Ergo, I’m going to insert what I’ve written so far right here:

This is one of the most appealing reference works of its kind that I’ve come across. (And I came across it quite by accident, in the library.) It is not organized chronologically or by country of origin, but rather by subject and theme. The chapters are as follows:

Love, romance and sex
Rites of passage
Heroes and anti-heroes
Making it
War, violence and conflict
A sense of place
Incredible worlds
Horror and mystery
Crime and punishment
Comedy and satire

So far I haven’t gone beyond the first chapter. “Love, romance and sex” is comprised of short essays – long annotations? – on twenty-nine novels. There’s actually more suggested reading than that number would indicate, since each entry is followed by a suggestion as to “Where to go next.” The selections are international in scope. When a work is written in a language other than English, Simon Mason notes a preferred translation. Brief paragraphs on topics such as romanticism and magic realism are scattered throughout the book. These have their own table of contents and are thus easy to find.


Herewith, my choices for 2011:


A Life (Une Vie)  – Guy de Maupassant
Effi Briest – Theodor Fontane
The Empty FamilyColm Toibin
The Painted Veil W. Somerset Maugham
State of Wonder – Ann Patchett
The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes
The Professor’s House – Willa Cather
Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

(I’m currently rereading The Professor’s House for a book club, and I’m even more entranced by it the second time around – or is it the third…?)


How To Live, or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer – Sarah Bakewell
“Los Angeles Against the Mountains” in The Control of Nature by John McPhee
The Great Divorce – Ilyon Woo
The Greater Journey – David McCullough
The Fatal Gift of Beauty – Nina Burleigh
Destiny of the Republic – Candice Millard
On Conan Doyle – Michael Dirda

(I’ve not done The Greater Journey justice in this space. What a marvelous book this is! I plan to revisit it via audiobook.)

A recent article in the New York Times brought the welcome news that this holiday season has seen a resurgence in book sales.This uptick has been helped by the especially rich offerings in nonfiction:

“This year so far, it’s been the year of nonfiction,” said Peter Aaron, owner of the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, citing “The Beauty and the Sorrow,” a history of World War I by Peter Englund, and “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, an exploration of thinking and intuition. “What’s extraordinary about the books that are out there is that they’ve been so well written and such a pleasure to read. Maybe people have an appetite for nonfiction right now, just for some sort of grounding in reality.”

Or for the opposite reason: to escape into a completely absorbing story, one that is strange and  vivid and all the more remarkable for being true. (And this is an apt description of the book I am reading right now: Robert K. Massie’s magisterial biography, Catherine the Great.)

[To see my picks for Favorite Crime Fiction for 2011, click here.]

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