Buoyed by heady success — I’ve set up my first blog and made THREE posts; decided to participate in the Back to the Classics 2019 Challenge; and read 150 pages in a Henry James novel (one of my challenge books) that I haven’t thought about for at least thirty years — my ambition now knows no limits! After so many, many accomplishments I gave myself a well-earned little break, which I’ve spent busily (and happily) clicking around on various websites, reading postings and book reviews and perusing end of year lists (don’t you love end of year lists? For me, they’re one of the nicest things about early January. If you like a somewhat British flavor to your reading, the Guardian’s book section has some pretty good ones for 2018, as well as a preview of 2019 releases). In the course of my cyber wanderings I’ve discovered the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge (hosted by Adam at roofbeamreader) which I can’t resist. The idea underlying the challenge is elegant in its simplicity: in the upcoming year read twelve books from your TBR pile. The only requirement, as I understand it, is that each book must have been on your shelf or on your TBR list for at least one year (hence the book’s publication must predate January 1, 2018). The challenge has a certain amount of, ahem, “slack” built into it, as you may also include two alternates to read if you just can’t make it through one or two of your twelve initial selections. Although twelve (or even fourteen) books wouldn’t be missed from my mountain of neglected reads (see photo at beginning of post; this isn’t even a fraction of my unread books), even the longest journey must begin somewhere, right? Since I generally read around 50-60 books even in a slow reading year, I decided I wouldn’t be totally foolhardy to take on two challenges provided I was careful to select TBR books that complemented my Back to the Classics reads, i.e., post-1900 novels that were relatively uncomplicated stylistically (I’m enjoying my Henry James but I certainly couldn’t finish twenty-four books written in his style in one year). So–imagine a big blast of trumpets here, a Jeremiah Clark kind of thing (this music’s so great it’s worth enduring a few seconds of ads to hear it) and a couple of banners furling in the breeze (if you’re reading this, you do realize I’m joking, right?) to accompany the announcement of my favored fourteen:
Somerset Maugham, Cakes and Ale. Maugham is one of those writers, very popular back in the day, who’ve fallen out of favor in more recent times. Contemporary readers in a certain mood may be missing something here, as Maugham tells great stories albeit in a pretty traditional way. I became hooked on Maugham back in high school, when I read Of Human Bondage, his most famous novel. A few years ago I noticed his work, or some of it, was being reissued and in some very attractive paperbacks, so I couldn’t be expected to resist, could I? Of the four novels (all unread) on my shelf, I’ve selected this one, which I always meant to read. The story is about a biographer who’s being pressured by a very proper widow (his subject’s second wife) to downplay the influence of wife number one from his account of a distinguished deceased. Aside from curiosity about whether Maugham’s magic still works for me, I’ve always been interested in the nature of biography (a genre I tend to distrust) and the pressures experienced by a biographer, who frequently needs to combine accuracy with tact (for another fictional treatment on this theme, see Penelope Lively’s great novel, According to Mark. I’ve actually read that one).
Alice Greenway, White Ghost Girls. The story of two young American sisters living in Hong Kong while their war correspondent father is in Vietnam, this debut novel won the Los Angeles Times award for First Fiction and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. I bought it shortly after it was published in 2000 and in the years since then have admired its artistic cover and those neat foldover interior flap things several times, without reading a word of the novel. Could 2019 actually be the year I venture into the book’s interior?
Kate O’Brien, The Last of Summer. Set in Ireland in 1939, this Virago Modern Classic centers on a type of homecoming for French actress Angèle Maury, who returns to her dead father’s Irish birthplace in search of her roots. I love Virago books (their little half-eaten apple logo is just so cool) but unfortunately I tend to buy more of them than I read. Virago first published this one in 1990; I’ve had my copy for at least a decade. (Sidenote: if you look at this book on Amazon, ignore its three star rating. The one negative review comes from a moron who got his titles confused and didn’t realize he had posted his review in the wrong place. His two-star rating unfairly lowers the book’s average).
Fernanda Eberstadt, Low Tide. A debut novel, first published in 1985; I’ve had my second-hand copy for at least five years. A tale of two decadent, privileged and perverse young people (their names, Jem and Jezebel, sort of clue you in on this), set in New York, Oxford, London and Mexico — well, you know by now how susceptible I am, so how could I resist a contemporary novel with a character named Jezebel? My plan was to start with Eberstadt’s first novel before moving on to her next book, which is the one I really wanted to read! I’m sticking to my plan; novel number two, called Rat (its eponymous protagonist is described a “bold rousing heroine for our times”) will just have to wait.
Esther Freud, Summer at Gaglow. After reading Esther Freud’s semi-autobiographical novel Hideous Kinky, I went on a real Esther Freud kick; this ended when I became absorbed with reading about her famous artist father Lucien and his various dysfunctional families and looking at his very compelling work. As a result, I never got around to reading Summer, a multi-generational tale that weaves through time to tell the story of a present-day Jewish family living in London and their ancestral estate in East Prussia, which was lost after WWII. This was first published in 1999 (I’ve had my copy since 2011) and has as many frequent flyer miles as I do; as it’s accompanied me on many, many trips over the years as a backup read. Despite good intentions, however, I’ve just never gotten around to it.
L.J. Davis, A Meaningful Life. A would-be novelist ditches his deadly dull job as editor of a plumbing magazine to seek redemption in real estate; the result is described as a black comedy with touches of Patricia Highsmith. This was first published in the 1970s and reissued as a NYRB classic in 2009, with a beautiful cover and heavy, acid free paper. Obviously, I’ve been more into the book’s aesthetics than in actually reading it, but I vow that 2019 is the year this will change!
Margaret Kennedy, The Constant Nymph. This is another Virago modern classic (told you I was better at buying than reading them) and Kennedy’s best known work; wildly popular in the 1920s, it fell out of print until rescued by Virago in the 1980s (I’ve had my copy for a number of years). The story centers on a love triangle involving the young daughter of a disreputable expatriate English composer (she’s the “nymph” of the title), her beautiful older cousin and a talented young composer who’s involved with both women.
Alan Hollinghurst, The Swimming Pool Library. I’ve read Hollinghurst’s two most recent novels (The Sparsholt Affair & The Stranger’s Child) and liked both well enough to acquire most of his backlist. Guess how many of these I’ve read? If you answer “zero,” you’d be correct. The Swimming Pool Library’s tale of gay life before AIDs may or may not be dated (I’m optimistic I’ll find out in 2019) but regardless of topicality Hollinghurst is a beautiful and sensitive stylist who should be worth any effort involved in reading the novel. This is Hollinghurst’s debut novel (published in 1989); I can’t believe I’ve had my (unread) copy since 2011!
Dorothy Baker, Cassandra at the Wedding. For years, I’ve been dying to read this tale of a neurotic graduate student who goes off the rails when her identical twin gets married, but I somehow never got around to it (I use this phrase so much I should probably have an acronym. SNGATI, maybe?) My copy is one of those gorgeous NYRB classic reissues, which I’ve had for several years.
Tom Drury, The Driftless Area. The “driftless area” of the title is the American midwest, the scene of what the reviews describe as a “neonoir heist drama.” I’m not quite sure how I ended up with this book, which I’ve had since 2013; I probably saw it was a New York Times’ Editors’ Choice and thought it might be an interesting change of pace. I SNGATI (“somehow never got around to it”), which explains its presence on this list.
Anne Peile, Repeat It Today with Tears. Peile is a British writer whose first (and, to my knowledge, only) novel appeared in 2011, which is when I bought my copy. This tale of a forbidden sexual relationship received a very favorable review in The Guardian, which described it as a “beautiful book,” filled with “evocative” writing and “strong and beguiling” characters. I have my fingers crossed that I wasn’t led astray.
Jane Gardam, Old Filth. Despite its acclaim as a masterpiece, I’ve never been able to get on with this book, nor (with apologies to all those Gardam fans out there) with this author in general. Still, the overwhelming consensus of this book’s high quality has made me pretty stubborn about giving it another try. Old Filth (“Filth” is an acronym for “failed in London, try Hong Kong”) is the tale of the emotionally repressed barrister Sir Edward Feathers, a “raj” orphan born in Malaya and sent back to Britain by his parents to be given a proper English upbringing. Feathers is an eighty-year old widower when the novel opens, living alone in England; his story is told in a series of reminiscences and flashbacks and encompasses much of the Empire’s 20th century history in the Far East. Old Filth is the first volume of a trilogy; the second (The Man in the Wooden Hat) is told from the point of view of Betty, Old Filth’s wife and the concluding volume (Last Friends) centers their mutual story on Terence Veneering, Old Filth’s professional rival and Betty’s lover. The entire trilogy sounds very intriguing and I’m hoping that my 2019 attempt to read at least the first volume will “take!”
ALTERNATES: Although I’m rationally (I hope) optimistic about reading my list (many of the entries were chosen with “readability” in mind) I’m not totally blind to experience. Since my path is strewn with unfinished projects I’m quite relieved at being able to add the two alternates the TBR Pile Challenge allows. These are:
Pagan Kennedy, Spinsters. I don’t know much about this author except that she has a great name and, according to Wiki, was “a pioneer of the 1990s zine movement.” This book appealed to me because it has a great visually appealing cover (see how totally honest I’m being) and its tale of two middle-aged and sheltered sisters taking a road trip in the America of the 1960s sounded intriguing, to say the least.
Linda Grant, We Had It So Good. I’ve read one previous novel by Linda Grant (Upstairs at the Party) and while not overwhelmed, I liked it well enough to try another. I’ve had this novel since it was published in 2011 without once reading more than the opening paragraph. The opening sounded just fine (and was interesting even), but this novel has always lost out to other, more compelling (at the time) books. Grant is a skilled writer, however, and the story sounds interesting, recounting as it does the life and times of an American-English couple and their extended circle of friends, who come of age in the 1970s. Although I had a few doubts about its selection, the book’s inclusion as an alternate was settled when Pooh-Bear approved my choice (Pooh-Bear is only her ordinary name; she has a fancier one that I’m withholding for security’s sake; only Pooh-Bear herself, of course, knows her secret name. I apologize to any T.S. Eliot fans.)
Well, this is my list — which I’m finalizing much later than most participants but still in time to meet the TBR Pile Challenge’s January 15 deadline. If you happen by, I’d welcome your thoughts on any of my picks. Now it’s time for me to get back to reading!