‘Tis the season for list-making! I recently shared a fantasy smorgasbord of Christmas cookies (one down, four to go), and today I feel compelled to share a few books on my shortlist, an homage to that other, all-consuming winter pastime: curling up on the couch with a good read. From literary criticism to historical fiction to memoir to spy novel to a book lover’s self-help manual, Forrest Gump might liken my selection to a box of chocolates, as in, “you never know what you’re gonna get.” I’m cool with that — it aptly describes the pleasure I derive from bookstore browsing. Here are some of my far-flung finds:
Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece
At least once before on this blog, I have tried to put my finger on what is so doggone compelling about Henry James, going so far as to cite Zadie Smith’s insights and dignifying the ridiculously overwrought The Golden Bowl with a detailed book review. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that my desire to understand James — how he crafts such highly sympathetic, surprisingly tragic characters — is still burning. It’s a nerdy fixation, but one that evidently plagues other members of his fan club, including Michael Gorra, author of Portrait of a Novel, which I discovered in a September 2012 issue ofThe New Yorker. In essence, Gorra’s book distills James’s literary genius into an analysis of his most famous and critically acclaimed novel. Reviewer Anthony Lane is another ebullient fan, and points out the dramatic potential of a “book about a book” by emphasizing how James’s poised, understated prose somehow left “the equilibrium of [its] readers shaken,” all starting with this innocuous opening line: “‘Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.’” For obvious reasons, Lane reserves his recommendation of Portrait of a Novel — part biography, part textual analysis, part literary criticism — for those with an established attachment to Portrait of a Lady. However, he ends his review with a message for less ardent fans, saying we “need him [Henry James] more than ever,” referencing Gorra’s assertion that Portrait of a Lady’s greatest accomplishment is exposing the “limits of self-sufficiency.” Yes, I’m wholeheartedly onboard — Isabel’s misplaced trust in her own bright and promising future, with such an all-American commitment to her own destiny, is what makes the failure of her choices “shake our equilibrium” as cock-eyed, optimistic Americans. If the current state of our economy has made many people more open to the fallacy of the American dream, if TV shows like “Girls” garner accolades for depicting modern-day Isabel Archers on their hapless journeys toward self-actualization, then perhaps there’s never been a better moment to explore the coming-of-age story of the twenty-something author who called us out on our false pretenses circa 1880.
The Paris Wife
A few months ago, I spent some time perusing this 2011 historical fiction novel in a bookstore. It seemed like a light diversion, telling the story of a 28-year-old midwestern woman, Hadley Richardson, and her whirlwind relationship with Ernest Hemingway. Rich with references, it contains a glamorous cast of real-life legends — Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, in addition to Hemingway — a fabled setting — Chicago and Paris circa the roaring twenties — and the intensity of a love affair in which wife equals literary muse. According to Janet Maslin of The New York Times, The Paris Wife is addled with clichés and clumsy pastiches of the characters that populate its pages, but who really cares? I have a feeling that much like Woody Allen’s disjointed film, Midnight in Paris, this book earned its popularity for more sentimental reasons, serving as a wistful ride back in time and across the atlantic.
A Story Lately Told
I enjoy the fact that memoirs are a kind of inclusive, “bottomline” writing endeavor, concerned with honestly sharing the writer’s experience rather than word-smithing. More than other genres, the art of writing a memoir (and the pleasure of reading one) seems to be purely about the transfer of information, about illuminating the myriad layers contained in a single life. I’m drawn to Angelica Houston’s recently published memoir as a way to glimpse into pop culture history. She touches on the marital dynamics between her flamboyant, self-absorbed film director father and her young, beautiful, ballet dancer mother, her pastoral upbringing in Galway, Ireland, her power couple status vis-a-vis Jack Nicholson, even her unapologetic embracement of fashion as a source of aesthetic pleasure and self-expression. It cracks the surface of a life mostly known through images, whatever your generation.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
I’ve never read anything by acclaimed crime writer John Le Carré, but he’s been on my radar via book reviews and recommended reading lists since the publication of his 2008 novel, A Most Wanted Man. His name seems to pop up with increasing frequency, from film adaptations (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in 2011) to new works (A Delicate Truth in 2013) to the increasing relevance of espionage in our culture (the NSA, Edward Snowden, the popular TV show, Homeland, to name a few examples). Touted in Anthony Boucher’s 1964 New York Times review as “a novel of significance, while losing none of the excitement of the tale of sheer adventure,” The Spy Who Came in from the Cold seems like a good place to start within Le Carré’s formidable oeuvre. The protaganist, Alec Leamas is disillusioned with espionage work, undertaking one last assignment before quitting the field. The story doubles as a suspenseful account of his assignment and a deeper, psychological portrait of a man “permanently isolated in his deceit.” Having just finished season two of Homeland, this description sounds eerily like Carrie Mathison and Nicholas Brody, and their mutual experience of being “isolated in deceit.”
How Proust Can Change Your Life
I read de Botton’s The Art of Travel last summer, which I have written about at length on this site. After confiscating the book from my husband during our road trip down Highway 1, I quickly became smitten with de Botton’s ability to expound upon broad, timeless topics in a manner both original and unexpectedly practical. De Botton has a singular focus on essay writing, and rather impressively sticks to large, universal subjects, such as Art as Therapy, Status Anxiety, and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. If the measure of a good cook is their most basic dish, the same test applies to writers — the best ones can take on well-worn topics head-on, infusing them with flavor. The Art of Travel mustered a lot of flavor, and from what I’ve read, How Proust Can Change Your Life contains the same mixture of insight and practicality. According to de Botton’s website, the book developed out of the notion that literature is a transformational thing, a belief widely proselityzed by English teachers but rarely examined in-depth. So de Botton examines Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, characterized as “a byword for obscurity and irrelevance,” to demonstrate some of the ways in which literature can literally be a guide to real life. I have never read any of Proust’s books, which may speak to the unsubstantiated claims of English teachers, but why not start easy, with “a self-help book like few others”?
[Photos: “Turn the Pages,” Krissy.Venosdale’s photo stream via Creative Commons, and photos of the books’ front covers]