Monday, December 26, 2016

Books of 2016

I'm a little late writing this annual post. Although the 100 Notable Books of 2016 came out from in New York Times a few weeks ago, I've been incredibly busy (including a London trip), so I've only now had a chance to catch up on my blogging about this and other things. Running through their annual list, there are a few novels that definitely caught my eye. I've heard a number of positive things about The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and it has also made it onto the NYT top 5 books of the year list, so that is going onto my Amazon Wish List. From the 100 list I've also added the 2016 novels The Life-Writer by David Constantine, Nutshell by Ian McEwan, and Elizabeth Strout's My Name Is Lucy Barton. I have never read anything by these authors before, so I'm not sure if these will be good "firsts" for me to read or not, but these all seem like things I would want to read. In non-fiction I've added Simon Schama's The Face of Britain: A History of the Nation Through Its Portraits (which was associated with a 2015-16 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London, which unfortunately I missed), and Richard Tomb's The English and Their History. As if my Anglophilia weren't obvious enough, I should mention at this point that after the 100 list came out, there was a review for Julia Baird's new biography of Queen Victoria, which I immediately put on my list. Imagine my pleasant surprise with I received it as a Christmas gift from my godchildren, the AEOBs (THANK YOU!!!).

Every year around Thanksgiving I read a major work of literature. Last year, as I was writing about the Books of 2015, I was reading Anna Karenina, which was an incredible book. I think what surprised me most about that novel was that the story of Levin and Kitty actually felt more engaging than that of Anna and Vronsky, not just because of their love story but also because of the social reforms and anxieties Levin goes through to understand his purpose in life. This year I'm reading the book you see above: Henry James's Portrait of a Lady [1881]. So far it's interesting, but it's no Anna Karenina or Middlemarch.

This past year I read 37 books. My longer commute to & from work each day since I moved to Jersey City has definitely given me more time to read on the subway (assuming I actually can get the book out of my bag and read, as sometimes the trains are just too crowded). Among the noteworthy art history books that I read this year, the following stand out: Landscape and Western Art by Malcolm Andrews [1999], a good introductory survey to the history and stylistic developments of landscape painting; Susan Sontag's On Photography [1977], which admittedly now seems a bit dated but still has some interesting ideas; and a few of the short, focused-topic art books published by the National Gallery in London, such as A Closer Look: Techniques of Painting by Jo Kirby [2011], which are excellent overviews with great detail images. In the art-biography realm, I read a few noteworthy things this year, including the book you see here on Romaine Brooks by Cassandra Langer [2015], an excellent story of the lesbian modernist painter, and a journalistic-style biography of Anthony Blunt by Miranda Carter [2001], a man who was Head of the Courtauld Institute and Keeper of the Royal Collection, had tea with the Queen Mother one day, then was exchanging government secrets as a Soviet spy another day, and later in the evening having sex with a tradesman lover, all while writing his latest book on Poussin--quite a life story!

Wrapping up highlights of fiction reads this year, in addition to Anna Karenina my favorite novels included: Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins [2015], her sequel to Life After Life which I loved, although this time the story is about Teddy and not his sister Ursula, and it takes some interesting turns as the story(ies) unfold; The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins [2015], which was a great page-turner (note: I have not yet seen the movie); and the autistic-mystery story The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon [2003], that was admittedly tedious after a while but captured so well the mindset of the boy's state of mind--I even made AA read it, and he agreed with me. I also did read this year All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr [2014], which was on the 2014 list; while the story and writing were quite good, I really could not stand the two-page chapters, which I felt broke up the overarching storyline too much and felt choppy then overall.

Finally, I cannot close this post without mentioning that I read (for the third time) Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own [1929]. This is a great, classic essay not just about being a woman in history and literature, but about how a writer, any writer, needs a room of one's own to read, to write.  I am fortunate that I do have a room of my own to do this very thing, but ironically this evening I am writing this post at the dining room table, where a candle is lit beside my laptop, illuminating my peripheral vision with its tall flame and infiltrating my nostrils with its sweet scent of winter spice. On the other side of me is the dishwasher running, the sound of the rushing water soothing me as I write this post. Perhaps the Room of One's Own sometimes can just be the space which you make for yourself, in which to find the peace of mind you need in order to write.

No comments: