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December 31, 2012


Of course, in your role as publisher, you have read many more... I'm glad to have a novel on the list!

How are you liking Gilead? It took me a while to get into it when I first read it: I think I expected it to be more like Housekeeping, which wasn't a fair comparison. But once I let go my expectations and allowed it to be its own book, I loved it...and I enjoyed it even more when I re-read it a year or so later.

I'm glad you've convinced yourself it's not a T.V., and are able to enjoy watching it.

I just read Gilead flat out in a couple of days, and loved it. I read a review of it years ago and wanted to read it ever since but lost the review and couldn't remember the title! Somehow something reminded me and I tracked it. It was the bit about how in eternity this world will be Troy, the ballad they sing in the streets, that was quoted which stuck in my mind.

I do enjoy other people's reading reviews like this, though they tend to make me feel a little lacking!

Happy New Year Beth!

I looked back and re-read your appreciations of Artist and U (they were worth re-reading) and was amused to find a modern-day equivalent of "This correspondence must now cease - Ed." There can't be many bloggers who have to invoke that device as a means of holding back a never-ending tsunami of opinion on Joyce. Normally I would have read the announcement about a TV in the bedroom with gloom but I'll concede you this one: how else would you fit everything in? And it would be churlish of me to nag at someone who is helping the embattled BBC keep Murdoch and Associated Newspapers at bay.

I liked (for all the wrong reasons) this extract: "ambitious, long trilogy contains page after page of descriptive prose that simply failed to capture me." The fact that you identified it as descriptive prose doomed it immediately. A bit like "fine" writing. Both often relate to writers who'd be better off doing self-published essays.

Given he died in 2012, I can't remember you mentioning Gore Vidal at all. A writer whose essays read well twenty or thirty years after the impulse that triggered them has become obscure. And yet he was so terribly proud of those sweatily researched historical novels which were so "authentic" that they lacked all animation. I don't know why I'm mentioning this; you hardly need any gee-ing up.

Marly, of course "Thaliad" is on the list too but that began before 2012!

Lorianne, Lucy: I liked Gilead very much and read it, like Lucy did, in a couple of days. I've heard interviews with Marilynne Robinson on the radio, and she really irked me -- I found her argumentative and irritatingly sure of herself. But in a written interview in the Paris Review she seemed less so...anyway, that impression kept me from reading "Gilead" until now. But I could hardly put it down. I felt she drew the characters and place convincingly, I liked the pace and gradual unfolding of the story, and I liked the preacher. Lorianne -- should I read "Housekeeping?" How is it different? And I gather the newest book, "Home," carries on with some of the characters from "Gilead."

Mike: Right!

Roderick: well, we live in a small urban condo with basically two rooms, and didn't want the big screen in the living room. Not much choice! I wanted to banish it for the first few months, but now I'm used to it. As for Gore Vidal, he is a favorite of mine. If he's not on the master list it's because I read most of his books before 2004; like you I think he is a master essayist, and though I enjoyed the novels, especially "Burr," I think the essays outshine them by a wide margin. I seem to have mentioned him in this post on Mailer http://www.cassandrapages.com/the_cassandra_pages/2007/11/norman-mailer.html. He came to Dartmouth to speak once and I went to hear him and wasn't disappointed - he was even better in person than on the page. A good writer to re-visit; thanks. Do you have favorite books of his?

Beth, you should definitely read Housekeeping: it's one of my all-time favorite novels! But I'd recommend that you read Home first, as it tells the exact same story as Gilead, but from Glory Boughton's perspective. I wrote a lengthy review of it here: it stands alone as a great novel in its own right, but it's even richer if you are familiar with Rev. Ames' version of the story. Housekeeping, on the other hand, is completely different, so I'd save it for last.

I can understand your initial reaction to Robinson: what you say pretty much describes my reaction to her nonfiction essays. I read her latest essay collection, When I Was a Child I Read Books, when it first came out, and although I liked her opening essay on Whitman and democracy, the other pieces left me cold. In retrospect, I think it was a mistake to try to read the book straight through: her essays are basically sermons, so the quality of seeming "argumentative and irritatingly sure of herself" quickly grew old. I think sermon-like essays work best in small doses: there's a reason why preachers only deliver ONE sermon a week, rather than an entire collection of them.

Lorianne, if there were a "LIKE" button here I'd click it for your comment! Thanks for the recommendation, and I'm glad I'm not the only one who felt that way about Robinson's way of expressing her opinions. Oddly, though the book had a preacher at its center, I didn't find him irritating at all - maybe because he inhabited his own doubts so fully.

Dear Beth,

Thanks for your list, although it always puts my reading in the shade; I start the year with fine intentions which - in retrospect - don't come to much. At the encouragement of a friend I started Swann's Way but didn't have the patience. So well done on Ulysses!

My favourites this year were A Room with a View (just because), How to Drink (surprisingly entertaining and useful), The Old Ways, The Master and Margarita, A Field Guide to Getting Lost and Mike and Psmith (again, just because).

A Room with a View, E.M.Forster
A Week at the Airport, Alain de Botton
The Making of a Chef, Michael Ruhlman
The Hydrogen Sonata, Iain M Banks
Garlic and Sapphires, Ruth Reichl
Findings, Kathlenn Jamie
Riddance, Anthony Wilson
How to Drink, Victoria Moore
Harpole & Foxberrow General Publishers, J.L. Carr
Twelve Days of Christmas, Trisha Ashely
The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane
Introducing Happiness, Will Buckingham
Charlotte Street, Danny Wallace
The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov
The Book of the Bivvy, Ronald Turnbull
Mike and Psmith, P.G. Wodehouse
The Possessed, Eli Batuman
A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit
The Accidental Pilgrim, Maggi Dawn
Rogue Male, Geoffrey Household
Giving it Up, Maggi Dawn
A Season in Sinji, J.L. Carr
Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton
Blood Against the Snows: The Tragic Story of Nepal's Royal Dynasty, Jonathan Gregson
How I Won the Yellow Jumper, Ned Boulting
Ode to Tools, Dave Bonta
Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, John Wood
50 Literature Idea You Really Need to Know, John Sutherland
Racing Through the Dark, David Millar

Wow, what's not to love about this marvelous and quite eclectic list? I'm fascinated and a bit envious of the amount of non-fiction you read - always my weakness - of these titles I think I've only read 2! What did you think of the Bulgakov? Thanks a lot for sharing your list.

I never think I read enough non-fiction or expand on my normal tastes, so thanks for the kind words! The Master and Margarita was excellent - a 'proper' classic - and very satisfying. You might enjoy the Solnit. It's my second time reading it; the other re-reads (always an interesting list) are the Forster and Wodehouse. Something particularly comforting about them.

I recently bought 'The Tiger's Wife' as i had read a piece by Tea Obreht in a travel anthology i think and i liked it.Based on your comments i am moving the book to the 'to read' pile.I read mostly non-fiction but i enjoyed 'Night train to Lisbon' by Pascal Mercier and I read 'Every man dies alone' by Hans Fallada because stories about German anti Nazi resistance during the war interests me.Read 'Gilead' a couple of years ago and enjoyed it but actually like her two books of essays,one of which was mentioned in the comments maybe better.I find them difficult reads,perhaps what critics mean when they say something is 'densely argued' another possibility,less appealing, is that i am not as smart as i like to think i am.But they strike me sticks poking the eye of our post christian times.Finally I had to read Bleak House in a university English course long,long ago and i have forgotten everything about it except its opening which i remember admiring.The mud and the ubiquitous fog of the Chancery Court.Admired it but ignored it too as i went into the Law anyway.You listed 'Saga of the people of Laxardal' thats a recounting of the old Icelandic legends?

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Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.