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Top 10 Reads of 2009

It's the end of the year, and the end of the decade. Everyone's making a list: bloggers, colleagues, newspapers, radio shows. And I have always been a fan of lists. So here goes; one more to add to the pile of lists made at the end of the year. Here are the books I most enjoyed reading in 2009, though only a few were actually published in 2009.



In no particular order:

1. The Children's Book - A.S. Byatt (2009)
A worthy successor to Possession, this novel is a lush, opulent tale spanning the transition from the dawn of the golden new century to the ravages of World War I and modernity. Though The Children’s Book has a long list of dramatis personae, at the center is Olive Wellwood, an E. Nesbitt-like writer of children’s books, and a bohemian mother of a large brood of children. Byatt pays tribute to the zeitgeist of the age by including everything: German fairy tales, wooden puppetry, exhibitions, art and pottery, socialism and free love. Her characters explore contemporary…

One More Scandalnavian

When I began working at the bookstore, there was a Scandinavian fiction display near the information desk. Having never read any at the time, I went to look at the books and saw that nearly every book recommendation was by a co-worker, Adam W. This storehouse of Scandinavian literature – he’s read Par Lagerkvist and Knut Hamsun and others – was the first person to recommend Norwegian Nobel Prize Winner Sigrid Undset to me, specifically Gunnar’s Daughter. I have yet to read Gunnar’s Daughter, but I’ve enjoyed reading her medieval trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter (1920-22) – all 1124 pages.



Kristin Lavransdatter is a novel of tensions – between Christianity and the waning paganism, between this world and the next, between the head and the heart, duty and desire, wildness and piety.

The intense human experiences that make up a life – birth, love, sex, marriage, friendship, war, death – are recurrent. We are as violent, as exuberant, and as mundane as ancient characters in the Bible and in …

Scandinavian Winters

No sign of snow yet.

Our family’s Scandinavian roots are something which emerged from the closet every second year around Christmas when we flew north to Minnesota for two months. My father’s side of the family, the Edwalls, is a celebratory, gregarious clan which will take any excuse for a feast, or a game day, always ready to pull up a chair or begin a new tradition. Legend has it that my great-grandfather Nathaniel, or perhaps even his father, got off the boat in America and was ordered by the immigrations official to change his name as there were already too many Olsens in the country. So we became Edwalls: Baptists, teetotalers, loggers, woodworkers, musicians, missionaries. Tall, fair-skinned blond and redheads appeared in my generation, the brown hair and brown eyes and brown skin being my mother’s singular gift to my brothers and me.

Our Swedish-ness manifests in only two very distinct traditions: Santa Lucia on December 13th and The Lefse Song. Santa Lucia is the most sacre…

Say it isn't Snow

Do you ever feel that looking at the weather report is cheating?

Lately, I've felt guilty whenever checking to see what's coming; it's like looking into a crystal ball; it is seeing into the future and playing with fate. I do understand that if one is getting married or going to hike to the top of Mount Ranier, one wants to be certain that conditions are favourable. On the other hand, the majority of people looking at the weather (in my ignorant opinion) are doing it because it's convenient, because it's something they do everyday, because it's on the news or the radio or their computer screen.

It seems as though you are attempting to control the future, so that when it rains mid-day (as it inevitably will), you can open the umbrella you clairvoyant-ishly brought with you, and turn to the person next to you and say "I saw this coming."

Without weather reports, without knowing what the skies will bring, we are at the mercy of the outdoors. A co-worker,…

More Moomins

A friend once said that the thing she loved about Japan was that the Japanese loved every season, and made a great effort to celebrate holidays and seasons with specific rituals. As a person who enjoys holidays, and who finds meaning participating in the ritual of the Christian year, I feel a kinship with the Japanese. As humans, we respond to the larger, uncontrollable mysteries of life with stories, with food, with a renewed sense of connection to each other and to the world around us.

It is easy, with the early darkness and the frost on our windshields and the necessity of coats and thicker socks, to complain about the dying of the year and the coming of winter.

Here is a must-read this time of year: Tove Jansson’s Moominvalley in November. Where her other Moomin books have been characterized by happy bohemianism and quirky, midsummer adventures, this book is not afraid to deal with the stark and empty season that comes once a year.

It is raining steadily upon the tall dark trees. D…

Tribute to the Past

As I may have mentioned before, we read very little in high school: one novel a year, one play, four poems and a few short stories. I’ve blamed my slow literary education on this very weak introduction, but as I’ve begun to remember the quality of the short stories we read, I’ve realized they aren’t bad - one by Italo Calvino, another by Roald Dahl. I am beginning to think my head was submerged in something all through high school.

We read Lord of the Flies in Matric, senior year. I remember that. Ralph standing on his head. Jack. Piggy. The Conch. The dead parachutist stuck in the tree tops, his parachute eerily billowing around him. Junior year we read a book by South African writer Richard Rive called ‘Buckingham Palace’, District Six. By the end of the term, after our essays and multiple choice tests, we were all heartily sick of Buckingham Palace, but recently I’ve been feeling nostalgic and hoping to get a hold of a copy. It’s out of print (of course) and I can’t imagine what Sea…

La Vie Francaise

I have been bitten by a Frog.

I suppose it's been dormant ever since three days in Paris nearly six years ago, revived briefly by watching Amelie, and by those Berlitz language tapes I still have in my car.

Kristin and I finally watched Kristin Scott Thomas in Philippe Claudel's Il y a longtemps que j'aime, or I've Loved you for So Long, after being tantalized by previews of women with tear-stained faces yelling "pourQUOI" very loudly at each other. We do this sometimes when feeling particularly emotive.

Juliette (Scott Thomas) emerges from fifteen years in prison. Her sister Lea, years younger than Juliette, is thrilled to have her long-absent sister back, but Juliette's bleakness is ghostly in comparison to Lea's shy delight and full life.



It was worth the wait. We sat on the edge of our seats, completely absorbed in the unimportant daily conversations that occur against the backdrop of this significant sometimes unmentioned past, while characters gra…

That Old Homesick Feeling

I may be biased, but I think South African history is one of the most fascinating I have had the opportunity of learning. Learning the Groot Trek year after year got old, but that was much preferable to the annual onslaught of Holocaust videos.

There, at the point of the world, the stormy nexus of Indian and Atlantic oceans, the Portuguese adventurers Bartolomeu Diaz, Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan rounded the tip. The Dutch sent South Africa's own Columbus, Jan van Riebeeck, in 1652 to establish a trading station for the Dutch East India Company. The French Huguenots settled in the seventeenth century, leaving a lush valley of vineyards and chocolatiers. The British arrive in 1812 to annex the Cape to the Empire, sowing the seeds of the Boer War, which was to introduce the first concentration camps. Bloodshed and diamonds, covered wagons and massacres, and endless exploitation.

History may be a treasure trove on her own - but sometimes the story is only ever as good as the t…

The Elephant in the Room

In one week, two things that become ironic side-by-side. Today, I received a copy by the director of Harvard’s library Robert Darnton’s apologia, the Case for Books. The other is that our bookstore has become one of the six bookstores in the nation [sic] to have received an espresso book machine. This enables us to print, for a low cost, any book in the public domain and bind it within minutes (300 pages in 4 minutes). The panels are clear so that you can see the cogs working. (I assume; I haven’t actually seen it run yet.)

There’s an espresso book machine at the Harvard Book Store named Paige M. Gutenborg (the opening was attended by Robert Darnton), one in Vermont, at several at libraries around the country. And there’s one at Third Place Books, north of Seattle.

Of course, this development chilled me to the bone. What will happen to the industries? What will happen to the book? Are we shooting ourselves in the foot? Could it make bookstores obsolete? (Probably not) But Time will Tel…

Discovery

Virginia Woolf and James Joyce are writers who are widely credited for having introduced and developed the “stream of consciousness” literary technique, which sacrifices traditional grammar, punctuation and syntax in the attempt to chronicle the natural flow and organic development of ideas and sensations, the scattered impressions the mind collects from moment to moment.

But before Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and the Waves, before Ulysses and just after the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957) began to publish volumes of her magnum opus, what would amount to life-long project, a thirteen novel sequence called Pilgrimage.

Richardson, who experimented with the “interior monologue,” is the largely un-credited creator of “stream of consciousness”, though she disliked that phrase and parodied it as “shroud of consciousness. Virginia Woolf attributes Richardson with the invention of “what we might call the psychological sentence of the feminine …

Before Bed

I find that the best, most luxurious time of the day to read is just before I go to sleep. The house is quiet, the dishwasher might be running, the candles are lit, and everything is solemn and flickering and drowsy. There's a brown chair that is tucked into the corner between my mammoth desk and my bed, and when you sit down there's no getting up. A pillow for your back, a blanket for the legs you can prop up on the foot of the bed.

Some nights I read Rebecca Fraser's Story of Britain, a chronological history. (So far I've just passed the Battle of Hastings, which I've always enjoyed because of the family legend that we're descended on my mother's side from a Norman knight, St. Clair, who came over with William in 1066, and from a Viking. I have a few more opinions about Vikings, those destroyers of architecture, churches, monasteries, schools, villages, literacy, farms, crops, flocks, herds, and households - but that can wait.)

And other nights I read fro…

Half the World is Called Thomas

At last, I have finished Hilary Mantel’s Man-Booker winner this morning! For readers of Philippa Gregory and other historical romances, Wolf Hall might seem like it can offer no new thrills. The turbulence of sixteenth century England is old news thanks to the current mania for Tudors. The cast of characters we meet is familiar: dangerously intemperate Henry VIII; the woefully deposed Queen Katherine of Aragon; her successor, the cat-like Anne Boleyn; the doomed churchmen Wolsey and More (and Cranmer and Latimer)…

But there is a new star on the horizon and Mantel gives him a meaty role. When I saw the novel was Tudorian in theme and I had heard it was about a Thomas, I thought it was Thomas More, Catholic saint and writer of Utopia (as in “The Prince has read Utopia”). Wendy, the events manager at the bookstore scoffed, “It’s Thomas Cromwell!”
“Don’t you mean Thomas More?” I frowned. “Cromwell’s first name was Oliver. And he wasn’t alive yet.”
“No, the King killed Thomas More.”
“I think …

It Came

Scribbles

I've kept a journal ever since I was in third grade, or Standard One as it was called in George. These diaries included such salacious content as: what I was wearing that day, the time I made toasted cheese all by myself, and long-standing feelings for various boys with bowl haircuts. That's the bad thing about writing in a journal, isn't it? You can't get away from the stupid things you did, or said, or the things you wanted so badly to happen.

Throughout high school, college and now into my semi-professional life, I've accumulated a pile of mismatched journals: gifts from birthdays and Christmases and graduations. Picked up in airports and museums and gift shops and grocery stores and hand me downs. They are on a shelf in my cupboard, in the corner. Shameful and exuberant and badly written and smudged, with terrible poetry in every volume.

I was given my first Moleskine journal two Christmases ago and I started it June 19, 2009, the day after I graduated, while my…

Status Anxiety

While I continue through some of the Great Books - Sir Thomas Malory's Morte D'Arthur at the moment - I admit frequent disheartening twinges. There are just too many. They are just too long. I have started too late. (But this way, I've heard, madness lies...)

I found an excellent article care of Arts & Letters this morning on the role of the Great Books fad in American Middlebrow Culture. I recognize this sort of status anxiety, but the writer of the article enables other middlebrow strivers who adhere to the American myth of betterment through self-education to feel known and vindicated.

Feeling Wolfish

As you might know by now, the winner of the Man-Booker Prize this year was Hilary Mantel with Wolf Hall. You can read more about the winner and her novel here.

Mantel was this year's favorite and still won - unlike last year's favorite, Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, which got the shaft. I was oscillating between Mantel and A.S. Byatt's Children's Book, which was released in the U.S. on the day the Man-Booker was announced. It would have been a triumph for Byatt. But then again, she'd won it already and perhaps one swimming pool (bought with her prize money for Possession) is enough.

Wolf Hall will be released in the U.S. this coming Tuesday, October 13th, and I have my copy winging on its way.

I put up a Man-Booker Prize table at the bookstore to draw more attention to literature presently published and recognized in the UK and to celebrate this month's award. Mostly consisting of various English memorabilia. Here are the pictures:



Very proud of the hangi…

A Nip in the Air

It is finally October, which is one of the best months of the year. I am thrilled that autumn has arrived! Kristin says that I say this every time the seasons pass and that I am addicted to the change of the seasons. She may be right. I know I was ecstatic when the spring came this year. But autumn and I have a love affair: the rain is falling and the gutters gurgling; it is the perfect weather for candles, for huddling together, for soup, for bedroom slippers and plaid pajama pants, for crocheting hats and afghans, for excavating the scarves and sweaters from their long exile. And the pumpkin latte! (The best, best thing about the autumnal season.)

Let us celebrate this new season with a poem: (Forgive it for being another Philip Larkin so soon. It’s just the first verse.)

“And now the leaves suddenly lose strength.
Decaying towers stand still, lurid, lanes-long,
And seen from landing windows, or the length
Of gardens, rubricate afternoons. New strong
Rain-bearing night-winds come: then
Le…

It's that time of year again...

The Friends of the Seattle Public Library Book Sale! - this year attended by me and my friend Laura (who visited this blog earlier as Bellatrix Lestrange). We woke early and arrived at the Magnusson Park hangar at the ungodly hour of eight on a Saturday morning, but kept each other occupied with strategic planning and other stories.



To my utter surprise, I remained within my budget (I can say no after all!) and financed by a birthday gift from my brothers, I found many treats:

The Brontes Went to Woolworths - Rachel Ferguson (This title always makes me think "The Brontosaurus went to Woolworths." I have no idea why. I never think of Jane Eyre as being written by Charlotte Brontosaurus. Complete mystery. At any rate, this is being reprinted by Bloomsbury and available in the US next March.)

Monday or Tuesday - Virginia Woolf (Lovely slim volume published by Hesperus - though sadly underlined in some places...)

Days of Abandonment - Elsa Ferrente (Published by Europa. I have bee…

Annus Mirabilis

On Saturday, I rang up a purchase which came to $19.63. The customer said: "Oh, that must have been a good year for somebody."

To which I invariably - could not help but ask if she'd read Larkin's poem, and when she did not reply I found that to my horror I was launching into the first verse:

"Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP."

And anyway, it slipped out and I mashed it up and swapped some of the lines around but the general effect was realized and instead of grinning at me (like I was hoping she would), she pursed her lips and turned all her attention to her check book.

"Well," she said after an uncomfortable pause, "it was a good year for somebody."

And then we rushed on to talk about the death of J.F.K for whom 1963 was not a good year. I've learned my lesson. I must not recite at the cashier's desk. And I will have to…

Ernest & Elizabeth

Two books read this week, with very different voices: Hemingway's Farewell to Arms and Elizabeth Taylor's Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (a sneaky-but-worth-it swerve from the Great Books...)

Again, like Madame Bovary, I knew the ending of Farewell to Arms by osmosis. But - one reads books not only for the conclusion of a plot, but for the enjoyment of the atmosphere the author creates and Hemingway’s voice is so unique.

A Farewell to Arms is the story of an American ambulance driver for the Italian army during the First World War and who falls in love with a British nurse, Catherine. I’m not sure how autobiographic it is – since Hemingway drove ambulances for the Italian army during the First World War. In true Hemingway fashion there is much understatement, there are scenes of drinking camaraderie and the hero’s canoodling with the nurse which leads to a pregnancy regulated by sound medical advice such as: “Do you think I ought to drink another beer? The doctor said I was ra…

Madame Bovary, c'est moi!

In reading Flaubert's Madame Bovary, I occasionally came to such a feeling of eerie self-recognition in the character of Emma Bovary, that I felt as though I was reading the journals I wrote as a teenager. Frightening and unflattering thought. Sadly, if I had read this as a teenager, I don't think I would have made it all the way through, and I'm not sure I would have been self-aware enough to see my reflection in Emma Bovary's compulsions. But we learn our lessons.

I finished late Friday night, feeling myself starting to sneeze and the cold start to settle, but I couldn't leave it hanging. And still I needed to read on, to the very last death bed scene (because we know that death is imminent. We feel from the beginning, like Anna Karenina, that Emma is doomed.)

Emma Bovary is the desperately unhappy wife of a provincial bourgeois doctor. She thought marriage would be exciting, but it's not. Each anticipated stage of her life is accompanied by the dull monotony …

Quotable Morgan

While reading E.M. Forster's memoir of the time he spent in India as a young man, The Hill of Devi, as a companion to his novel Passage to India, I came across this magnificent line in one of his 1921 letters home and I had to share it:

“Religion approaches, to me in a very tangible form, as I have been hit on the head by an iron bar belonging to a sacred swing.”

Cads and Virgins

I have always been wary of epistolary novels. I have no idea why; I love receiving letters, and reading through my grandparents' love letters in early August occupied me for hours. Perhaps because I've always felt that the device was too heavy-handed, and weighs the story down. It's for this reason that I've delayed on reading Laclos' Les Liasons Dangereuses, that scandalous French novel found even in Marie Antoinette's library in an unmarked binding, filmed in the 90's (Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer), and reincarnated for teenagers as Cruel Intentions (Ryan Philippe, Reese Witherspoon).

But I have broken the soil! Evelina was a delightful read despite being epistolary. Burney uses the device without artifice, revealing letters from a variety of characters to round out the narrative.



("The Music Party" by Rolland Trinquesse, 1774)

Evelina Anville is a beautiful, innocent and virtuous country girl, out to see London and the Big Wi…

Collectible Penguins

It is a truth locally acknowledged that a young woman in possession of continuous overdrafts must be in want of MORE BOOKS.

That being said, I have recently developed quite a crush on Penguin's Celebration series:



Something about the bold, simple design draws my eyes. This morning on a early bookstore jaunt, I wanted a Penguins Celebrations edition of Claire Tomalin's biography of Jane Austen but (that being sold out) found a book on the Classical World instead.

Penguin has a great team of designers. My friend and co-worker Erin obsessively collects Penguin Deluxe editions with their colorful covers, snarky cartoon biographies, French flaps and rough-cut pages:



And then the box of postcards with 100 different Penguin jackets! I wish I could look inside to drool even more, but alas, I have yet to find a way.



It combines two of my favourite things: postcards and books. What better combination? On second thought, Penguin also has these book bags:



Mmmmm.

Women to Note

Right now, one of the only things to coax me into the car and into the late afternoon traffic rush is the promise of Imogen Heap playing through the stereo, slipping out through the window and into the sunlight. I've been a fan of Imogen's since (like everyone else) I first heard her lush "Hide and Seek" from heard her solo album, and last summer I bought the album she produced as a part of the band Frou Frou. Her newest album, Ellipse, was released on August 25th and kindly given to me by Patrick. I am always half skeptical listening to a new Imogen Heap song since there cannot be much more she can do. I was wrong.

From the persuasive pulsation of the first song “First Train Home” propelling you into her unique blend of electronica and lyricism, to the humorous oddity of a woman confronting the evasive woman in the mirror in “Bad Body Double,” the pared down, eerily synthesized chirping social commentary in “Little Bird,” and the quiet but soaring intimacy of “Betwe…

The Man of the Hour

Apparently, there is a finite number of books one can expect to read in one's lifetime, provided that one lives to seventy or eighty. This makes reading seem entirely pointless. There isn't enough time to read every good book out there, or even the guilty pleasure books - and what about re-readings? And the fact that literature is constantly, endlessly being produced? "The whole world is swarming with commentaries; of authors there is a great dearth" wrote Montaigne in the sixteenth century; how much more true is this today?

I have found the solution to this dilemma. Being James Wood. Acknowledged as the best critic of his generation by Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, and others, Wood is which the Harvard Crimson writes "criticizes with purpose and insight." He writes essays, he writes books, writes book reviews, is on staff for the New Yorker and a professor at Harvard. I'm sure he travels. As a friend said, Wood can go anywhere - anywhere in the world. He …

Conversations at the Register

I sold a woman Machiavelli's Art of War today. Though a maths teacher, she had recently taken a seminar recently on Machiavelli and developed a fascination. I confessed that I had never read the Prince, and she said that she hadn't read it until very recently either.

"Isn't it modeled on Cesar Borgia?" I asked, remembering also that the familiar picture of Jesus was based on Cesare Borgia's handsome, degenerate face (learned from Gregory Maguire's Mirror Mirror).

She said that it was, and brightened a little. In a flurry of educating she told me the Prince was a treatise sent to Lorenzo de Medici as a job application, that she found Machiavelli realistic rather than cynical. "When he says 'armored'" she said enthusiastically, "he means prepared..." She compared 21st century North America to 15th century Italy, suggested that Obama had certainly read the Prince, and that it is as timely a read now as it was in it's original c…

I've Heard Proust Can Change Your Life

For the past month I've been reading Swann's Way, the first book in the seven volume cycle that makes up Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, or the Remembrance of Things Past. Proust is a literary catch-word. If you toss a reference to Proust into a milieu, chances are your companions will either contest what you have (glibly) said, or agree for form's sake. A well-timed mention of this literateur elevates conversation, and endows one with the appearance of cosmopolitanism, erudition, and initiation into the Great Mysteries. (This is observation, not opinion.) Truthfully, I decided I must read Proust when Max Medina gave Lorelei Gilmore a copy of Swann's Way on Gilmore Girls. And I think Rory (my pace-setter, my bookly challenger)had already read it. The book has sat on my shelf for at least six months waiting for the exact hallowed moment when I felt sufficiently intelligent enough to read it. It seems that this was the fated week in which to finish Swa…

(Oh no)

A quote from wikipedia for the word bibliophilia:

"Bibliophilia is not to be confused with bibliomania, an obsessive-compulsive disorder involving the collecting of books to the point where social relations or health are damaged, and in which the mere fact that an object is a book is sufficient for it to be collected or loved."

And bibliomania is
"...characterized by purchasing multiple copies of the same book and edition and the accumulation of the same book and edition and the accumulation of books beyond possible capacity of use or enjoyment..."

The School of Hard Knocks

It is my current hope to go to graduate school for English literature next year: a certain school in a certain place, both a goal and an insurmountable challenge. Having been out of college for a year already, and having graduated as a music major, I am rusty.



Trying to compensate, I googled “books every english major has read” but have had a difficult time finding a list that suggests what every (generalized) English major should have read by the time of (undergraduate) graduation. As a person who attended a high school whose meager syllabus prescribed the study of one novel, one play and four poems a year, and who could only scrape enough college literature credits for a minor, I feel woefully behind. Most American kids got a head start in AP English (seriously – who are those freaks who read Ulysses in high school?). American high schools may have their weaknesses, but a strong and ambitious push to read literature consistently is not one of them.

There are gaps, and I fear that wh…