Best Reading in 2012: Nonfiction, and my best reading experience of the year

December 23, 2012 at 11:30 pm (Art, Best of 2012, books, Crime)

naplesde      Naples Declared, A Walk Around the Bay. I’m grateful to  Benjamin Taylor for this in depth look at the colorful and at times, awful history of this fascinating, unique, and under-appreciated city. My sojourn there in 2009 remains a vivid memory.

1peking  edarkness

1carriage  Mrs-Robinsons-Disgrace1

**Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, by Paul French;  *People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo – and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up; by Richard Lloyd Parry; and Murder in the First-Class Carriage: The First Victorian Railway Killing, by Kate Colquhoun. It was a good year for true crime narratives, especially historical ones. Kate Summerscale made a notable contribution to this genre in 2008 with The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher.    Summerscale’s latest is Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady. The book does not center on a crime;  rather, it’s the story of a hapless woman’s tangled love life and marital misadventures,  all of which occur in the context of a rigid, highly judgmental society.

It occurs to me that the above description of Isabella Robinson could likewise apply to Florence Bravo, the equally hapless protagonist of James Ruddick’s book Death at the Priory: Sex, Love, and Murder in Victorian England. I first heard of Florence Bravo while watching a set of DVD’s called A Most Mysterious Murder, in which Julian Fellowes presents five of Britain’s most notorious unsolved killings from the past. At the conclusion of each segment, he states his own theory of what actually happened at the crime scene. Each episode is meticulously enacted. The production values are what we’ve come to expect from the BBC:  beautifully appointed interiors and superbly costumed actors.

I came upon A Most Mysterious Murder at  the library, quite by accident – I believe I was looking for Midsomer Murders at the time. At any rate, this is a first rate production, conceived, written and narrated by Fellowes in 2004. I’m at a loss as to why it’s not better known, especially now that Sir Julian himself is rather a hot property, thanks to the huge success of his creation, Downton Abbey.  054961882793

I found Death at the Priory while researching Florence Bravo. It’s a tight little page turner, highly recommended. (And isn’t that what you’d expect, given the book’s subtitle?)

Two books on current affairs captured my interest this year. In Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation, James Howard Kunstler bewails the state of – well, pretty much everything. Although his primary concern is the profligate use of energy, which he sees as a  finite resource, shale gas and shale oil notwithstanding, he also excoriates the financial system, land use, misplaced faith in technology, and a host of other collective missteps. At times he reminded me of a trope often seen in New Yorker cartoons.  end-is-near-cartoon8Some of Kunstler’s rants seem a bit over the top; nevertheless, the book is  both entertaining and thought provoking.

Kunstler began his career as a gadfly in 1993 with The Road To Nowhere, a blistering criticism of suburbia, strips malls,  and the idiocy of overdevelopment. I learned a great deal from that book. In Too Much Magic, Kunstler returns to this theme with a vengeance,  denouncing suburbia as “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world” (author’s italics). He goes on, with almost gleeful outrage:

There’s no way to calculate exactly how much money we misspent building the far-flung housing tracts, strip malls, big box ensembles, office parks, muffler shop outparcels, giant centralized schools with gold-plated sports facilities, countless roadways of all sizes, vast water, sewer, and electric systems, and all the other accessories and furnishings of that development pattern, but anybody can tell it was an awful lot. And it came out of the richest society in the history of the world.

I think there is much truth in this observation:

As the geographical spaces rapidly filled in with ever more subdivisions and strip malls, even the scraps of undeveloped landscape were erased as casual play areas. Boys especially were prevented from the adventures of roaming and discovery that are so crucial to their development as sovereign personalities. They could not easily venture beyond the obstacles of the six-lane connector boulevards; even if they did, what was there to discover besides the parking lots and other bewildering subdivisions of identical houses?

Well, you get the idea. This spare tome is fairly bursting with similar pronouncements. You may not agree with all of Kunstler’s assertions, but they’ll stimulate your thinking nonetheless. As you can see, they stimulated mine:  Too-much-Magic-Cover-XL  (I love the phrase “sovereign personalities.”)

What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, by Michael J. Sandel. Sandel examines the extent to which various transactions  have been monetized. This book was a real eye opener for me, starting with the introduction:

There are some things money can’t buy, but these days, not many. Today, almost everything is up for sale. Here are a few examples:

• A prison cell upgrade: $ 82 per night. In Santa Ana, California, and some other cities, nonviolent offenders can pay for better accommodations— a clean, quiet jail cell, away from the cells for nonpaying prisoners. …
• The services of an Indian surrogate mother to carry a pregnancy: $ 6,250. Western couples seeking surrogates increasingly outsource the job to India, where the practice is legal and the price is less than one-third the going rate in the United States. …
• The right to shoot an endangered black rhino: $ 150,000. South Africa has begun letting ranchers sell hunters the right to kill a limited number of rhinos, to give the ranchers an incentive to raise and protect the endangered species….

Sandel also enumerates some new and unusual ways to earn money:

• Rent out space on your forehead (or elsewhere on your body) to display commercial advertising: $ 777. Air New Zealand hired thirty people to shave their heads and wear temporary tattoos with the slogan “Need a change? Head down to New Zealand…”
• Stand in line overnight on Capitol Hill to hold a place for a lobbyist who wants to attend a congressional hearing: $ 15– $ 20 per hour. The lobbyists pay line-standing companies, who hire homeless people and others to queue up….

Sandel’s book is a hugely provocative and very accessible. And like James Howard Kunstler, he makes you laugh from time to time as he expounds on the vagaries of human nature. But Sandel is less judgmental than Kunstler, in that he sets the facts before you, examines them from various angles, and lets you the reader draw your own conclusions.  whatmoneycantbuy1

This was an excellent year for books about  great artists and their families and associates.

Velasquez and The Surrender of Breda: The Making of a Masterpiece, by  Anthony Bailey. Bailey had his work cut out for him in tracing the movements of the elusive Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez. As the jacket copy states: “Though his professional career as court painter is fairly well documented, letters and accounts about how he felt, thought, and lived are nearly nonexistent.”  ( The court, by the way, was that of King Philip IV of Spain, 1605-1665). Bailey met a similar challenge, very successfully in my view, in Vermeer: A View of Delft1278350

effie   Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais, by Suzanne Fagence Cooper. The film based on the lives of these fascinating and gifted individuals is slated to open in the UK in May of next year. Among the performers featured in Effie are Dakota Fanning (in the title role), Greg Wise, Emma Thompson, Robbie Coltrane,  Derek Jacobi,and David Suchet. Emma Thompson wrote the screenplay; if it’s anything like the stellar work she did with Sense and Sensibility, it ought to be outstanding.

**The Last Pre-Raphaelite , by Fiona MacCarthy. This book produced the kind of total immersion reading experience that I treasure. MacCarthy brings an entire world to life, and what an amazing world it was, fairly bursting with prodigiously gifted – and in some cases, wildly eccentric – artists and writers.  the-last-pre-raphaelite2

*included in the New York Times list of 100 Notable  Books of 2012

**included in the Washington Post list of  50 Notable Works of Nonfiction for 2012


Finally, there is Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, by Michael Gorra. When I first read a review of this book, I knew I wanted to read it. I also knew that I’d get much more out of  it if I reread Portrait of a Lady first. Now, having done both, I can say with confidence that this is the right way: first, Portrait of a Lady; then, Michael Gorra’s biography of the writer and his first real masterpiece.

Henry James does not need my praise, but I do want to say that this time around, Portrait of a Lady was superb: riveting, suspenseful, filled with beautiful imagery and fascinating characters. I was completely drawn into the world so vividly created by one of America’s greatest writers.

Toward the novel’s denouement, there is a scene between Gilbert Osmond and Isabel Archer that made me so upset, I had to put the book down. I wanted  Gilbert Osmond to materialize before me at that very moment, so that I could pummel him with my fists. I was seething! It took the entire length of the novel – some 550 pages – to invigorate this situation and make these characters live for me. It was worth every page, every word. Not long after this scene, there is another so heartbreaking, it’s hard to bear. Michael Gorra simply says: “I cannot read this scene without tears.”

Excerpt from Portrait of a Lady:

The lamps were on brackets, at intervals, and if the light was imperfect it was genial. It fell upon the vague squares of rich colour and on the faded gilding of heavy frames; it made a sheen on the polished floor of the gallery. Ralph took a candlestick and moved about, pointing out the things he liked; Isabel, inclining to one picture after another, indulged in little exclamations and murmurs. She was evidently a judge; she had a natural taste; he was struck with that. She took a candlestick herself and held it slowly here and there; she lifted it high, and as she did so he found himself pausing in the middle of the place and bending his eyes much less upon the pictures than on her presence. He lost nothing, in truth, by these wandering glances, for she was better worth looking at than most works of art. She was undeniably spare, and ponderably light, and proveably tall; when people had wished to distinguish her from the other two Miss Archers they had always called her the willowy one. Her hair, which was dark even to blackness, had been an object of envy to many women; her light grey eyes, a little too firm perhaps in her graver moments, had an enchanting range of concession. They walked slowly up one side of the gallery and down the other, and then she said: ‘Well, now I know more than I did when I began!”

Excerpt from Portrait of a Novel; Michael Gorra writes about the death of Henry James’s mother:

He believed it impossible to describe “all that has gone down into the grave with her. She was our life, she was the house, she was the keystone of the arch. She held us together, and without her we are scattered reeds. She was patience, she was wisdom, she was exquisite maternity.” Yet in that loss he also felt himself possessed by a memory so powerful that it amounted to a sense of her presence, and he could not believe that death alone might bring an end to her love. Her being was immanent still. Henry James had nothing like an orthodox religious faith; no child of his father did, or could. But as William would write about the belief in an unseen world in his Varieties of Religious Experience and test the claims of psychics in a way that grew steadily less skeptical, so with the years the novelist defined his own sense of the numinous in a series of extraordinary ghost stories. The dead may exist only in the psychology of the living; that doesn’t make them any less real.

I don’t have enough superlatives at my command to praise Portrait of a Novel. It brought me back to my English major days in the 1960s, to the work of great literary critics like I.A. Richards, Northrop Frye, M.H. Abrams, Walter Jackson Bate, and F.R. Leavis. I am somewhat dismayed that Michael Gorra’s book has not made any of the “Best of 2012” lists that I’ve so far seen. Has literary criticism, even of this caliber, become so marginalized in our culture, even among the cognoscenti? I want to shout it from the rooftops: This book is a triumph!


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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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Best Reading in 2012: Crime fiction, with an acknowledgement of the pleasures of being a Usual Suspect in good standing

December 16, 2012 at 7:30 pm (Best of 2012, books, Mystery fiction)

237564949065146519_LRZbbUnO_c  nationalist

uncommonappeal  the-dead-witness-a-connoisseurs-collection-of-victorian-detective-stories

deadmansgrip  zita

It’s that time once more and so I’ll weigh in, along with everyone else, with my choices for the best books of the year. While the titles I’ll be naming are largely new, several older titles and classics also gave me  reading pleasure in 2012. I’m putting it all  in the mix. A more precise term for what I’m attempting here is ‘Best Reading Experiences of the year,’ rather than ‘Best Books.’

As in years past, crime fiction looms large on my list. For me, this genre remains a reliable source of memorable characters, vivid settings, and great stories. So, I’ll start there:

Undercover – Bill James

Death of a Nationalist – Rebecca Pawel

The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds – Alexander McCall Smith.  I love the Isabel Dalhousie series.  These books have everything I look for in mystery fiction and in novels in general. Fascinating characters find themselves in strange and intriguing situations, and it all happens with the precise yet dreamily evoked city of Edinburgh as the backdrop. McCall Smith pours out his love for Scotland, its artists, writers and philosophers, without ever becoming maudlin or repetitive. All this is delivered up to the reader in flawless prose spiced with a gentle wit.

The Dead Witness: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Detective Stories– Michael Sims, ed. What a juicy compendium this is! I’m making my way through it slowly, savoring each literary morsel. Some favorites so far: ‘The Diary of Ann Rodway’ by Wilkie Collins , ‘The Little Old Man of Batignolles’  by Emile Gaboriau, and ‘The Dead Witness; or, The Bush Waterhole’ by Mary Fortune, aka W.W. Sims’s inclusion of the opening chapter of A Study in Scarlet made me realize that I’d never read this work, in which Arthur Conan Doyle unleashed Sherlock Holmes on unsuspecting but soon to be voracious readers all over the world. I was surprised and delighted by this initial depiction of the soon to be Great Detective; he seems almost childlike in his enthusiasm for chemistry and other pursuits. And of course this is where you’ll find  the oft-quoted line, delivered by Holmes to an astonished Watson: “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”

The Gaboriau story was yet  another wonderful surprise. I’ll definitely be seeking out other works by this author, in particular Monsieur Lecoq. In A Guide  to Classic Mystery and Detection, Michael E. Grost observes:

Émile Gaboriau’s Monsieur Lecoq (1868) is so clearly a detective novel in the modern sense that it takes one’s breath away. Here is clearly a major point of coalescence of the genre.

Editor Michael Sims favors the reader with in depth profiles of each of the authors whose works are featured in this fine collection. His brief recounting of the life of Mary Fortune (aka W.W.) is particularly poignant. Sims identifies ‘The Dead Witness’ as “the first known detective story written by a woman.” As such, it’s an appropriate choice as the title for this anthology.

Defending Jacob – William Landay

Involuntary Witness – Gianrico Carofiglio

The Terrorists – Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. Twice in the past few weeks, when I have been subbing at the library’s Central Branch, customers have come in asking for books in the Martin Beck series and wanting to talk about them. This delights me no end. These seminal novels in the history of crime fiction seem well on their way to achieving classic status, if they’re not there already.

Cop To Corpse – Peter Lovesey. The pinnacle of perfection in the police procedural subgenre. I’ll be leading a discussion of this novel for the Usual Suspects next summer.

Before the Poison – Peter Robinson

The Pale Horse – Agatha Christie.

Paradise City – Archer Mayor. I didn’t have time to blog about it, but I do want to recommend this latest offering in Archer Mayor’s superb Joe Gunther series.

Kill My Darling – Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

The Hanging Wood – Martin Edwards

The St. Zita Society – Ruth Rendell

A Fatal Inversion – Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine. Yes, all right; this writer can do no wrong in my book. That said, The St. Zita Society, while very entertaining, is not especially profound. A Fatal Inversion, however, struck me as being very deep indeed….

Death Comes to Pemberley – P.D. James. I’m including this title largely for sentimental reasons: I’ve a long standing admiration for James, but I would not rank this novel among her best. I remain a loyal fan of the Adam Dalgliesh series, of which my favorite is A Certain Justice.

A Cold Day for Murder – Dana Stabenow

The Fear Index – Robert Harris. A gee golly wow of a thriller that nevertheless should win some kind of award for sheer inventiveness coupled with fiendish complexity. Ditto the next title:

All Cry Chaos – Leonard Rosen’s novel has some of the same challenges and virtues of The Fear Index,  but the humanity of its central figure and the personal catastrophe that befalls him make it a somewhat more accessible work.

I’d Know You Anywhere – Laura Lippman. I remember feeling somewhat dubious concerning this novel, thinking it would be similar to What the Dead Know and probably not as good. To my surprise, I liked it even more than Lippman’s prize-winning riff on the still unsolved disappearance of the Lyon sisters.

The Altered Case – Peter Turnbull

Dead Man’s Grip – Peter James

Boundary Waters – William Kent Krueger. I haven’t finished it yet, but I wanted to include it here anyway. It puzzles me why Krueger and Archer Mayor, both terrific writers of regional American crime fiction, are not better known and appreciated.

caught-by-harlan-coben1  corpselovesey

208682  jacob

boundary   sjowall1

I’m reading Boundary Waters for our next Usual Suspects discussion, and I’d like to take a minute to express my gratitude to this wonderful group of mystery lovers. This past Tuesday evening, we held our end of your summit, an event which I always enjoy. Pauline does a great deal of preparation for this meeting, writing up each of our discussions, comparing our selections for this year with those we made last year, and formulating questions for us to consider. Here are several of them:

Which books made for the best discussions? Why was this the case?
How much did the setting matter in the books we read? Did we read any books where the setting was as important as an actual character, and therefore vital to the story?
Is it a bonus to read and discuss books that introduce us to new information, e.g. period, location? If so, which books in 2012 met those criteria?
How important is characterization in the books you read, or was the plot more important?
What are you looking for in your ‘ideal’ mystery? Did any of our 2012 choices approach that goal?

I credit Usual Suspects with providing me with quality reading in crime fiction this year. Here’s the list down of our 2012 selections:

I’d Know You Anywhere – Laura Lippman
The Mystery of Edwin Drood – Charles Dickens
Crocodile on the Sandbank – Elizabeth Peters
A Cold Day for Murder – Dana Stabenow
The Poisoner’s Handbook – Deborah Blum
The Pale Horse – Agatha Christie (my selection)
Caught – Harlan Coben
The Terrorists – Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
The Crossing Places – Elly Griffiths
Death of a Nationalist – Rebecca Pawel

At our end of year session, we always vote for favorite title. I was pleasantly surprised by the group’s choice of The Poisoner’s Handbook. I read this riveting account of “Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York” when it came out in 2010. I’d allotted only a few hours for reviewing it before our discussion, and I was immediately sorry that I didn’t have time to reread it from scratch.  poisonersh

The second part of the meeting was given over to the recommendation of titles, one per Suspect. Here’s that list:

Call the Midwife – Jennifer Worth
Burial at Sea – Charles Finch
The Fear Index – Robert Harris
The Dead Witness: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Detective Stories –  Michael Sims, Editor
The Golden Box – Frances Crane
The Ice Princess – Camilla Lackberg
Room – Emma Donoghue
Defending Jacob – William Landay
Broken English: An Amish Country Mystery (Ohio Amish Mysteries) – P. L. Gaus
Billy Boyle – James R. Benn

So: my favorite crime fiction title for 2012? As always, that’s a tough call. I’d have to say just for sheer inventiveness, gorgeous writing, and evocation of an almost suffocating sense of dread that only mounts as the narrative progresses,  Barbara Vine’s A Fatal Inversion has the edge. I would love to discuss this book, but it’s out of print and not owned by the local library. (I read it on my Kindle.) For  the record, there are two other novels that I’d dearly love to discuss, but they present the same difficulty of access as the Barbara Vine title: The Piper on the Mountain by Ellis Peters and An Air That Kills by Andrew Taylor.


air  piper

Author Gallery

Gianrico Carofiglio

Gianrico Carofiglio

William Landay

William Landay

Peter Turnbull

Peter Turnbull

Baroness James of Holland Park  (P.D. James)

Baroness James of Holland Park (P.D. James)

Peter Lovesey

Peter Lovesey

Archer Mayor

Archer Mayor

William Kent Krueger

William Kent Krueger

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