The best books of 2016, meaning that I read.
1. Among recent books, Christopher Logue’s War Music, the English poet’s from-the-foundation anachronistic reconstruction of The Iliad. The renovation has been ongoing since the 1950s, but is now complete, by the sad reason of Logue’s death in 2011. A sample, which begins with Zeus talking to his daughter Athena, and suddenly shifts:
And giving her a kiss, He said:
‘Child, I am God,
Please do not bother me with practicalities.’
Hector and Agamemnon. Slope sees slope.
Drivers conducting underbody maintenance. (p. 123)
Funny, brutal, tough, with armies that “Moved out, moved on, and fell in love with war again” (82). Quite likely gibberish without a pretty decent knowledge of Homer. That the book is a fragment only roots it more firmly in its epic tradition.
2. I completed a re-read – mostly “re-” – of Anton Chekov’s short stories in the thirteen-volume Constance Garnett translation. Paying some non-neurotic, I hope, attention to chronology, I was mostly past the earlier, shorter, simpler stories; however good that stuff can be, this year it was “The Steppe” (1888) and “Ward No. 6” (1892) and so on, ending last week with “Peasants” (1897), “The Lady with the Dog” (1899), and “In the Ravine” (1900), examples of the greatest fiction ever written.
I guess the plays will have to wait for next year’s list.
3. This was the year I took Oscar Wilde seriously, reading his short fiction, novel, plays, a volume of criticism, and a 1,200 page book of letters – not everything he wrote, but a lot, and with the exception of The Importance of Being Earnest, which even Wilde saw as a freak, none of these books were as interesting on their own as they were together. The meta-story of Wilde as artist, prisoner, and exile was a great story.
I had a similar experience with Mark Twain, where even some pretty trivial pieces became more interesting as part of the Mark Twain story. And then once in a while he writes a masterpiece, just to keep my attention.
4. The most famous books I read for the first time were The Return of the Native and Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Bostonians and What Maisie Knew, Pudd’nhead Wilson and Life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles, and to get away from English, Nana and La Regenta (famous in Spain, anyways – many thanks to everyone who gave a shot at the readalong).
None of these are among my favorites, exactly, but finally, finally.
5. Similarly, I finally read The Education of Henry Adams – “greedily devoured it, without understanding a single consecutive page” (Ch. 31), as Adams says about his own reading. This would have been the perfect book with which to close out a 19th century book blog, but I did not know enough to plan that well. Maybe I’ll write about this book next year.
6. As for poetry, I spent the year cramming poems of the 1910s (and earlier, and sometimes later) down my gullet like I was a goose fattening my own liver. Stefan George, Stephen Crane, Walter de la Mare, Ezra Pound, G. K. Chesterton, T. S. Eliot, H. D., Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Isaac Rosenberg, Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas, and many more. Four books by Edwin Arlington Robinson. Four books by Vachel Lindsay. So much great, good, bad, crazy poetry. Welcome to Modernism. The movement from poet to poet and from year to year was as exciting as almost anything an individual poet was doing. Finishing one book, however good, I moved to another. I wanted to see what happened next. I still do.
There is no way my poetry-liver is absorbing these poems well. I feel like an undergraduate again, tearing through the poetry section of my Norton Anthology of American Literature – what is this – what is this? Absolutely terrific fun.
Wuthering Expectations will be on a holiday break for a couple of weeks, and back in early January for more good books.