At the end of each year, lately, I compile several different best-of lists. This one’s my favorite because, for the most part, it’s all pleasure reading.
The Complete Works of Janet Malcolm. Obviously, “The Journalist and the Murderer”, which I reread a couple of times in 2014, but taken together as a whole, from “Diana and Nikon” all the way through “Forty-One False Starts”, Malcolm’s body of work has the knack of being more current with the passage of time than it was when the books were first published.
The Complete Essays of Cynthia Ozick. Well, not quite: I’m saving “The Din in the Head” till 2015 because I burned through her first four collections — “Art and Ardor”, “Metaphor and Memory”, “Fame and Folly”, and “Quarrel & Quandary” — alarmingly fast. There are few fiction writers who are equally masterful critics and essayists, and it was a revelation to be in Ozick’s literary company as she tore authors a new one, with respect (her comments on Truman Capote are permanently seared into my brain) or when she praised them to the hilt, even if I did want to say “genug shoyn on Henry James”! But I get it. And even though I didn’t read it in 2014 it doesn’t hurt to recommend The Puttermesser Papers, her 1998 collection of linked novellas. A number of my friends read it this year and were suitably blown away.
The Tall Dark Man (1955), Anne Chamberlain. I’d never heard of this book until researcher extraordinaire Robert Nedelkoff tipped me off, and I’m so glad for that. It was, for me, a true one-sitting read, one of unrelenting suspense and a 13-year-old girl in danger partly because her perpetual penchant for fantasy — read, making up terrible lies about people — put her in a position never to be believed, and reliant on no one but herself. I wish the ending was better, but everything leading up was so good that I forgave it. More here.
So Big (1924), Edna Ferber. Ferber was once one of America’s most widely read novelists, whose works were habitually adapted for the movies or the stage (“Show Boat” and “Cimarron” the best known.) “So Big” won the Pulitzer and it’s obvious to me as to why: the depth and scope of the novel, just about 250 pages, is staggering. Here is ambition, struggle, envy, can-do-spirit, and the rise and fall of the American Dream, all on the shoulders of one very brave, tough, complicated woman. This, my first read of Ferber, made me jot down notes for an essay I can’t write till I read the rest of her books.
The Bird’s Nest (1954), Shirley Jackson. Penguin finally reissued those other novels Jackson wrote. Of course “Haunting of Hill House” and “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” are brilliant, but I wanted to stick up for one of her lesser-known books, especially this one, on the fractured psyche of a young woman named Elizabeth and a plotline that predated “Three Faces of Eve” and “Sybil” by quite a bit and without the needless melodrama. Also “Bird’s Nest” could be quite funny at times; I laughed aloud at the antics of at least one of Elizabeth’s alters.
The Evil Wish (1963), Jean Potts. I read Potts’ entire backlist as part of my ongoing research into 20th Century domestic suspense, and while she was consistently good, this was the standout, about two spinster sisters under the thumb of their meglomaniac doctor father who, when they learn he’s going to marry his secretary and throw them out of their ancestral home, scheme to do away with him. Then he dies before they can carry out the plot, but the seeds of suspicion are so strong and so deep it destroys them anyway.
Death of an Intruder (1954), Nedra Tyre. I’m still baffled why no publisher has reissued Tyre’s novels. There aren’t many, they are superbly written and paced, and are distinct enough from one another. This, the last of her work I read, is my favorite of the moment. How could I not be enthralled by the passive-aggressive battle between a middle-aged woman who just wants to be left alone to her house and to her books and the houseguest who simply refuses to leave, takes over the house, and reveals the rage simmering over decades? And the ending was quite unexpected, and horrifying at that.
Beware of Pity (1939), Stefan Zweig. A nice young man asks a disabled young woman to dance and everything turns into an utter, living hell as faux pas cascade upon another and everyone is miserable. It’s brilliant, as is Zweig in general (George Prochnik’s biography “The Impossible Exile”, published earlier this year, is also excellent.)
An Unquiet Mind (1995), Kay Redfield Jamison. I read this after a traumatic event in order to understand how someone’s mind worked. And it helped, but most of all I felt how difficult it was for Jamison herself to understand how her mind worked even as she surrounded herself, wrote about, and taught case studies of like-minded people.
I And My True Love (1953), Helen MacInnes. Probably the most domestic suspense-y of MacInnes’s novels, which explains why it’s my favorite. Much more about her life and work in this piece for the NYTBR.
A Naked Singularity (2008), Sergio de la Pava. Maddening, outsized, utterly maximalist, unquestionably brilliant. I remember the rapturous reviews from when it was reissued in 2012, but in hindsight, those did not seem to be enough. It certainly seems to me to be one of the great 21st century novels; we’ll see if time proves me right.