December 31, 2014

A [Literary] Year in Review

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It's been so long since I last posted here at Scribbles, it seems strange to come back.  In fact I've pulled up Blogger several times since finishing my last exam a couple weeks ago, trying to write some kind of update.  The updates, however, can really be boiled down to a few highlights.

five months of schoolwork

four courses finished

three final exams

two new nieces

and a partridge in a pear tree

On this the last day of 2014 it would be appropriate to say something about the year gone by and the year to come, but the year gone by has been insane and the year to come is anyone's guess, so instead I will follow Elizabeth Rose's lead with a 2014 book-list.  It hasn't been a very "big" year, comparatively speaking; Goodreads says I only read about 20 books, and although that isn't counting a few I read for classes but didn't add to my account, it still leaves me far behind 2013 (37 books) and out of sight of 2012 (56 books).  Nor did I have many "discoveries," at least not in terms of books-likely-to-become-favorites.  Still, the year had its literary moments.

I read a number of large books, so my pages read was not much so very low compared to last year.  I began by finishing The Man in the Iron Mask, though I read most of it in December 2013.  It was my second Dumas, and I didn't find it as well-crafted a story as The Count of Monte Cristo: the characters were not as compelling to me, and the plot was somewhat iffy.  Mostly the plot was D'Artagnan, I think.  "How to Be Awesome and Talk Sass to the King [Without Getting One's Head Chopped Off] - A Guide in 800 Pages." 

The more I look back, the more I think it must have somehow been a French year. I followed up The Man in the Iron Mask with Mary Stewart's Nine Coaches Waiting, a mystery whose charm for me lay more in its masterful, beautiful prose than in its characters or plot; Daphne du Maurier's The Glass-Blowers, a depressing and honest, though fictional, tale of the author's French ancestors; and The Black Count, a biography of the novelist Alexandre Dumas' father.  That's a surprising amount of French-ness for me.  I didn't really mean to: it just happened.  It might explain a lot about 2014, actually...

After having it sit on my shelf for quite a while and be recommended to me by a friend, I finally took up Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (I persist in saying "Nor-ELL" as opposed to "NOR-ul," even though I suspect the English, who don't like to pronounce any syllables if they can help it, would go with the latter).  I was right in my suspicion: it is dark.  I was troubled, less by the magic or any particular scene of violence than by the overall atmosphere: everything felt grey, as though covered in fog.  Without in any way meaning to imply that Susanna Clarke was trying to write like Dickens (Dickensian as the plot structure and huge cast are, it would be demeaning to Clarke's marked skill, and just plain wrong, to accuse her of imitation) - without implying that, the novel felt to me like many of the darker scenes in a Dickens adaptation.  Little Dorrit springs to mind.  It weighed me down and disturbed me viscerally and I don't think I will be rereading it any time soon.  On the other hand, it is the only novel of 2014 I could give five stars to.  It's unique, masterful, clever, subtle, funny, even brilliant.  In fact I think it would be unfair to not give it five stars. 

perhaps you should just try it yourself

To keep myself sane, I read more fluffy books than I probably should have: Georgette Heyer's Regency Buck made a nice companion to Jonathan Strange, and a couple Wodehouse collections lightened the atmosphere while I was reading other, longer, more serious books for school.  I also read Miss Buncle's Book, which was cute, but not quite as winsome as I had hoped: I was turned off by a few of the characters...and I admit, I do get tired of the writer-stereotypes.  Even when they're being perpetuated by another writer.  I'm sorry, Elisabeth!

I got in a few other classics or semi-classics, including Rabble in Arms by Kenneth Roberts (does that recommendation make up for my ambiguous opinion of Miss Buncle's Book, Elisabeth?); The Moonstone by that Victorian melodramatic, Carolyn Keene Wilkie Collins; and the sentimental horror story Frankenstein.  It's really a wonder that the Romantics ever got anything accomplished in the midst of all their traveling and finding themselves and ill-timed swooning.  ...Possibly I'm not taking this seriously enough.

History was my single largest genre in 2014, though that isn't really saying much.  Most were for classes, but I did not sell them back to the bookstore at the end of their respective semesters!  Of those, I think I most enjoyed Divided By Faith (an examination of conflict, toleration, and the religious dynamics of post-Reformation Europe) and The Grand Strategy of Philip II (even if Philip is judging you overtly from the cover.  Seriously.  Take a look.  It's freaky.).  Just last week I finally finished plugging through Robert Massie's Dreadnought: hurray!  Even taking its size into consideration, five months is an absurd amount of time - and those are five months of actually reading it, not merely having it sit on my bedside table pretending to be read.  Don't judge it by that, though.  Massie is a first-class writer.  He reminds me - if I needed the reminder - that history is fascinating and funny, too.

I read my first Virginia Woolf this year (To the Lighthouse, which hasn't yet made it onto Goodreads).  I also had to start a new shelf just for "Other" books so that I would have somewhere to put the graphic novel Watchmen and the crazy literary/experimental/contemporary/post-post-modern Cloud Atlas.  This is what happens when you take a literature course, apparently. 

you have to read strange things
and learn to get something out of them.

books of 2014

4% : 5 stars  //  22% : 2 stars or less  //  22% : history  //  55% : new authors

 what have you folks been reading?

6 comments:

  1. You have a perfect right to be ambiguous over Miss Buncle's Book if you like. :) I admit, a few of the characters irritated me a bit too, but I personally found the writer-stereotypes amusing enough to compensate for that. Incidentally, I read the sequel (which has somewhat less to do with writing) this year and I think I may actually have liked it a little better!

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    1. I saw there was a sequel, but wasn't sure whether it was the same, better, or not as good: it's so hard to guess with sequels. I did find Miss Buncle's Book humorous at several points, and some of the characters (e.g., Mrs Featherstone-Hogg) were a riot; it just didn't wholly win me over. I am glad you recommended it, though, as it provided a nice read when I was looking for something light.

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  2. I am so irritated that my copy of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was lost. I'm afraid that the moment I read your assessment of the novel, I felt compelled to read it: that gloomy, always-twilight atmosphere is something I want to achieve for my rewrite: like Arthur Rackham in writing. I can at least borrow your copy. One day. When I'm closer to working on that rewrite.

    Once again, you have plugged away, and actually have something to show for your pains. I did manage to finish Practical Religion this year, but The Tulip is consigned to 2015, and none of the other books I have read this year required true grit to execute; even The Last of the Mohicans was read mostly in 2014. Well - here's to 2015 er whatnot.

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    Replies
    1. I have two copies of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell now - I picked up a hardback after struggling all the way through the hard-to-read paperback copy. You can borrow the hardback when you're ready for it.

      Arthur Rackham. Perfect description. Even the scattered illustrations in the book are, if I remember correctly (it's across the house and I'm too lazy to check), rather Rackham in style.

      At least you did manage to read Practical Religion. As I was writing this post, it occurred to me, with some annoyance, that the only comparable book I read was John Byl's The Divine Challenge - and even that is more philosophy/ethics than practical theology. Ho hum. 2015.

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  3. Oh! A friend just convinced me to read JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR NORRELL. I sincerely hope that this is a good idea :D.

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    1. I'll be interested to read your thoughts if/when you do, Suzannah. I think it's fantastically written, and handles magic in a far deeper, more complex, thought-provoking way than most. The alternate history is pretty great, too.

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meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
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Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
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Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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