Best Reading in 2012: Contemporary Fiction and Classics

December 21, 2012 at 2:42 pm (Best of 2012, books)

First, the classics:

76553_2650391  I remain amazed by how readable the novels of Guy de Maupassant are. Bel-Ami lacked the pathos of Une Vie, mainly because the lead character is a good deal less sympathetic. Still, I enjoyed this saga of an unabashed social climber / seducer making his way ruthlessly to the top of the pecking order in late nineteenth century Paris. (Click here for a French language site devoted to the life and work of Guy de Maupassant.)

Goethe‘s Elective Affinities and The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens were a greater challenge. I made my way with all due slowness through both of them. I expected to be challenged by Goethe’s depiction of mores and manners in early nineteenth century Germany, but I didn’t expected Drood to be tough going as well. Nevertheless, perseverance was rewarding in both cases.

elective-affinities  l


ladyportrait2  (I’ll be writing more about Henry James and Portrait of a Lady in a later post.)


The Dog Who Came In From the Cold  and A Conspiracy of Friends by Alexander McCall Smith. My discovery of the Corduroy Mansions series must rank as one of the most gratifying I’ve made in a long time. These novels are not really mysteries, except in the sense of probing the mystery that ever constitutes the nature of our fellow human beings. But wait – to specify “humans” is limiting, since the series features two important nonhuman characters: a resourceful canine named Freddie de la Hay and a yeti named – well, if recollection serves, he’s just called ‘Yeti.’ I’ve been listening to Simon Prebble’s narration of these books. Prebble’s dramatization (in A Conspiracy of Friends) of a conversation between a literary agent (Barbara Ragg) and the alleged yeti is priceless.  The_Dog_Who_Came_in_from_the_Cold_A_Corduroy_Mansions_Novel-70401  consipiracy

Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman is heartbreaking. I long to discuss it with someone. I’ve proposed it as a selection to several book groups, several times, but there have been no takers. I am not surprised, and I wouldn’t even suggest it now, with everyone’s heart freshly broken by what just happened in Connecticut. Still, Francisco Goldman’s grief is personal and powerful and deserves to be acknowledged.  say-her-name-cover_855014c

derbyday21   tumblr_m2lf38E2Ts1qaouh8o1_400  Of the three works of fiction cited by Jonathan Yardley as his 2012 favorites, two were on my list as well: Derby Day by D.J. Taylor and History of a Pleasure Seeker by Richard Mason. (It would not surprise me to discover that I read them both because of  this excellent critic’s reviews in the Washington Post.) In his article, Yardley adds: “It gives me no particular pleasure to report that all three of the books I’ve chosen are (a) by men and (b) by men who live in Britain.” Richard Mason’s situation is a bit more complex than is herein indicated. He was born in South Africa (in 1978); he moved with his family to Britain when he was ten years old. Having subsequently attended Eton and Oxford, Mason has gone to become a successful novelist (and philanthropist). He is currently living in New York City.

So at this point, I’m wondering: Is there anything this gifted, attractive young man can’t do?

The audiobook version of History of a Pleasure Seeker is read by Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame. Click here to listen to an excerpt.

Yardley’s third fiction favorite is Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan. I’m most eager to read this.  McEwan has written  some of my favorite novels in recent years, although I did not care for Solar (2010).

My last three choices:

the-london-train-tessa-hadley-500x500     The London Train by Tessa Hadley

13093000  The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger. I was skeptical about this choice by one of the book clubs I frequent, but I ended by  being pleasantly surprised by this empathetic tale of a young woman from Bangladesh who comes to America – specifically, to Rochester New York, ancestral homeland of my husband! – in order to marry a man she has met online. Freudenberger’s writing  and subject matter put me in mind of Jhumpa Lahiri.

Dear Life: Stories by Alice Munro. Thank you, God, for Alice Munro! Here’s yet another stellar collection of her meticulously crafted tales.

Author Gallery

Francisco Goldman

Francisco Goldman


Alice Munro

Tessa Hadley

Tessa Hadley

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe  1749-1832

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 1749-1832

Guy de Maupassant  1850-1893

Guy de Maupassant 1850-1893

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