With 2019 (and the 2010s overall, for that matter), just two days away from ending, I felt that this week’s blog post would be an appropriate time to review some of the great and not-so-great moments for me when it came to reading classic novels, especially for this blog. With that in mind, I’ll look at the highlights and lowlights for literature this past year:
Highlight: A Confederacy of Dunces. As I wrote back in October of this year, this novel is a wonderful blend of hilarity and satire mixed in with great period touches that make 1960s New Orleans come alive. Ignatius Reilly may be the biggest buffoon to grace American literature, but he’s also something of an anti-hero, underdog, and, of course, hot dog connoisseur (witness his reference to a hot dog cart owner as a “mogul of frankfurters”). I don’t often find too much humor in the classic novels I dust off, so I’m so glad I discovered this one.
Lowlight: Rabbit, Run. Okay, just as a disclaimer, when I call something a lowlight in this post, it doesn’t mean it was awful. I would be fine with rereading Rabbit, Run or starting in on the three other books in John Updike’s tetralogy. By “lowlight,” I mean that the book just didn’t live up to my expectations or it didn’t seem to me to earn its status as a “classic novel.” I read Rabbit, Run back in February, and I found Rabbit Angstrom to be nowhere near as compelling a protagonist as I’d hoped he would be. At times, I really wanted to feel something for him—rooting for him, anger at his behavior, sorrow for his life falling apart, anything. But I couldn’t muster much.
Highlight: Dandelion Wine. What a joy it was to read this short novel (novella?) by Ray Bradbury. Since I read it in the middle of summer, it was perfect timing, too, because Dandelion Wine is the ultimate summer novel. It’s both nostalgic and realistic, dreamy and down-to-earth. The descriptions of the world, especially nature, here rival those you’d find in a Willa Cather novel. Bradbury’s use of an episodic structure is a brilliant choice because it frames the novel like an overarching memory—not perfect, but vivid and lively. Want to make a plan for summer vacation? Put this novel on your calendar.
Lowlight: The Name of the Rose. The long, long, lo-o-o-o-o-n-g passages of dense text. The bewildering debates on theology. The weirdest library layout I’ve ever come across, and I don’t even care that much. My apologies for Umberto Eco fans reading this, but The Name of the Rose just wasn’t that fun of a read for me. I blogged about it this past summer, and since then, my opinion of it has waned. Yes, it’s about as difficult a read as you can find, so if you want to challenge yourself as a reader, I highly recommend this title. Otherwise, I can’t say too much good about it.
Highlight: One Hundred Years of Solitude. I tend to shy away from “If you haven’t done X, you haven’t lived” hyperbolic statements . . . key word there being “tend” to. In this case, I might go so far as to say if you haven’t read (or at least attempted) One Hundred Years of Solitude, you haven’t really read. Enough said.
Lowlight: Nostromo. It’s sitting at 3 stars on my Goodreads shelf, but that may soon be downgraded. It has a wonderful setting (the fictional Latin American country of Costaguana) and some memorable characters, but I thinking back, Joseph Conrad’s prose just wasn’t my favorite. Like Eco, Conrad goes for dense, descriptive text that makes me long for Hemingway’s style.
Highlight: A Farewell to Arms. Speaking of Hemingway! This is the one classic novel that made cry in all of 2019. That ending—I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it. Yes, I’ve roasted Hemingway in this blog for some things like how bare-bones he can be, not to mention repetitive with his themes of war and bravery, but I forgive him a thousand times over just for this novel.
Honorable mention highlights: The Color Purple; I, Claudius; Cat’s Cradle; A Passage to India.
Finally . . .
The brightest highlight of them all: Housekeeping. Short, powerful, packed, loose, despairing, enigmatic, and a few other bajillion concepts all crammed into 200 or so pages. This book will surprise you in the best sense of the word. Marilynne Robinson’s prose will wallop you, if her haunting characters, eerie setting, and wonderful manipulation of tone don’t already. Housekeeping has more substance to it than I’ve read in novels three or four times its length. If you’re like me and have boring New Year’s Eve plans, do yourself a favor and spend the day reading this novel so you can end 2019 in the best way I know how.