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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2011: Best Reading in Crime Fiction

December 9, 2011 at 4:30 pm (Best of 2011, books, Mystery fiction)

It’s that time of year again….         

Here is my favorite crime fiction for the year 2011, in no particular order:

Endless Night, Five Little Pigs – Agatha Christie
Willful Behavior -Donna Leon
The Deadly Percheron – John Franklin Bardin
Stagestruck – Peter Lovesey
Body Line – Cynthia Harrod-Eagles
Savages – Don Winslow
In a Dark House – Crombie
Dissolution – Sansom
The Anatomy of Ghosts –  Andrew  Taylor
An Air That Kills – Andrew Taylor
The Mortal Sickness – Andrew Taylor
Midwinter of the Spirit – Rickman
Thirteen Hours – Deon Meyer
Bury Your Dead – Louise Penny
Appointed To Die – Kate Charles
Dead Simple – Peter James
Disturbing the Dead – Parshall
Double Indemnity – James M. Cain
From Doon with Death, The Vault, An Unkindness of Ravens – Rendell
The Troubled Man – Henning Mankell
The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party – Alexander McCall Smith
Keeper of Lost Causes – Jussi Adler-Olsen
Temporary Perfections – Gianrico Carofiglio
Hotbed – Bill James
Black Diamond – Martin Walker
Tag Man – Archer Mayor
Rebecca – Daphne DuMaurier
Midnight Fugue – Reginald Hill
Deliver Us From Evil – Peter Turnbull


Yes, it’s an absurdly long list. I tried pulling out my absolute favorites, but the effort proved so frustrating that I gave it up. I do, however, have some general comments to offer:

In the earlier part of the year, my reading of crime fiction was largely dictated by the upcoming trip to England. I wanted to concentrate not only on the specific titles suggested by the tour leaders but also on works by other authors scheduled to appear at Crimefest. The result was some outstanding reading, featuring a return to some authors I already knew and liked, and the chance to get to know some great new ones – Deon Meyer and Don Winslow – as well. I enjoyed Dead Simple, the first in the Roy Grace series written by Peter James, and I’m surprised this author has not gotten a bigger push from his publishers in this country, where he is not well known. (No sooner had I written this than I saw an ad in the November 27th New York Times Book Review for Dead Man’s Grip, the latest Roy Grace novel.)

Crimefest-related reading once again confirmed for me that Andrew Taylor is a stellar artist in this genre (or in any fiction genre). I reread An Air That Kills and liked it even more this time around. I then read the second novel in the Lydmouth series, The Mortal Sickness – also excellent. And of course, The Anatomy of Ghosts was terrific.

Reading the classics of crime fiction continues to be richly rewarding. Having come late to an appreciation of the works of Agatha Christie, I continue my delighted perusal of her oeuvre. (Thanks are due here to the distinguished Christie scholar John Curran, whose second book Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making, has recently come out here.) I’ve long loved the classic noir film version of Double Indemnity; reading the novel proved exceptionally gratifying. The same progression, with the same result, obtains for Daphne DuMaurier’s classic tale of suspense, Rebecca. At Crimefest, Peter Guttridge sang the praises of The Deadly Percheron. This was a great recommendation; in my view, John Franklin Bardin’s 1946 small masterpiece should also be ranked among the classics of the genre.

After the trip, I read largely for my own pleasure, with periodic prompting from the Usual Suspects Mystery Discussion Group. That excellent convocation of crime fiction enthusiasts is having its end of year summit on Tuesday of next week. We’ve been asked to bring one book to share, possibly two if time permits. Hah! So far I am torn between The Troubled Man, The Keeper of Lost Causes, Temporary Perfections, Hotbed, Tag Man, Black Diamond, Deliver Us From Evil, and Michael Dirda’s enlightening commentary On Conan Doyle. What can I say? For this reader, the year has concluded in a blaze of great mysteries.

As for next year, I’ll continue to track down short stories featuring Gordianus the Finder, Steven Saylor’s ancient Roman protagonist. I’m looking forward to reading Reginald Hill’s nonseries magnum opus, The Woodcutter. A mystery loving librarian friend insists that A Trick of the Light, the latest Armand Gamache novel by Louse Penny, is even better than Bury Your Dead. (Can such a thing be possible?) Speaking of getting better and better, I anticipate with great pleasure The Forgotten Affairs of Youth,  the latest installment in the saga of the brainy, passionate, and never boring Isabel Dalhousie, coming of course from the pen of that brilliant polymath, Alexander McCall Smith. And having been utterly entranced by Temporary Perfections, I’ll be on the lookout for other novels by Gianrico Carofiglio.

  Finally, like many a lover of British crime fiction, I’m greatly intrigued by the new P.D. James, Death Comes To Pemberley. Yes, that is the self same Pemberley of Pride and Prejudice. The novel’s action takes place six years after the marriage of Darcy and Elizabeth. This is a fascinating departure for Baroness James of Holland Park – I confess I’m champing at the bit!

In yesterday’s Washington Post, Michael Dirda declared Death Comes to Pemberley to be ”   a solidly entertaining period mystery and a major treat for any fan of Jane Austen.” Dirda’s review begins thus:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a restless reader in possession of a quiet evening must be in want of a mystery.

For this long time subscriber to the Washington Post, it’s been a privilege to immerse myself in the literary ruminations of Michael Dirda: scholar, critic, and intellectual in the best sense of the word.


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