Friday, December 16, 2016

Please do not bother me with practicalities - The Wuthering Expectations Best Books of 2016 - falling in love with war again

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.


  1. Fabulous list, Tom! I agree with you about Logue. It seems impossible for someone without knowledge of the Iliad and the Trojan Saga to understand War Music. Enjoy your holiday!

  2. Have a wonderful break and look forward to reading you in the new year!


  3. I don't know all the books of your list but I've read some of them.

    Merry Christmas and enjoy your holiday


  4. Thanks for these nice notes. Good holidays to all of you, too.

  5. Thanks for sharing another year of your amazing reading. I don't comment much here but I follow avidly and I love how casual and offhandedly you can be. So little *fuss*. I really admire that. I spend a lot of time with undergraduates and I can tell you almost none of them tear through anthologies, Norton or otherwise, the way you seem to have. Best wishes for 2017! Is this the year we finally get to Justus Drugstore?

  6. I turn bound pages; I look at the ink patterns on the pages for however long.

    Those Norton's were eye-openers. I'll likely write something about that later this year.

    Justus Drugstore, this year - yes, that's a good idea. Let's remember this in the spring.

  7. Thanks for another year of heroic reading. I wish I had the time and the eyesight. I once did. I must do a bit of immersing myself in Wilde. I haven't really done so in decades apart from the odd dip. It's mainly been the children's stories, which make me cry and disconcert the children (me crying more than the stories). Enjoy your holiday break!

  8. Well, you're back in the rock star business.

    Wilde's fairy tales are astoundingly sad.

  9. I will never have time for it all, but I am constantly telling myself, "Oh, I should find that book, and that one too," when I read your blog. Which is my version of a compliment and a thanks. You do truly inspiring work, day after day, as both writer and reader.

  10. Why thanks. We all read what we read and come back to compare notes.

  11. Merry Christmas, (Tom). May Casa AR(T) be filled to overflowing with blessings this season.

  12. I found Chekhov's The Steppes conveyed a sense of the vast Russian open spaces that reminded me of stories of the American prairies of the19th century. My sentimental favorite remains his "The Bet". I would love to see your reactions to the work of Nathaniel West, in 2017. His whole body of work is under 1000 pages.

  13. Also the American prairies of the 21st century! A lot of it has not changed that much.

    West is a great suggestion, long overdue.

  14. Merry Christmas

    FYI . . . My blogging is going in a different direction at a different address:

    Please join me there.

  15. Merry Christmas, and thanks for all you've done this year. More of that in 2017, and all the best in the new year.