This year I had two very different reading projects: Elizabeth Jane Howard’s five-volume, nearly 3,000-page Cazalet Chronicles, and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series—now twenty-seven volumes and counting.
Howard’s novels take place during World War II and the years after. They follow the Cazalets, an upper-middle-class family who made their money, and then lost a good deal of it, in timber. They’re novels of and about domesticity: meals are cooked, beds are made, parties are thrown, dishes are washed. They unfold slowly—they’re as much about time as they are about anything else—and they’re plainly, exactingly written. By contrast, Child’s novels center on an ex-military cop who wanders around the United States, somehow always finding himself framed for, or embroiled in, a crime that he has to punch and kick and headbutt his way out of. A typical sentence from Howard: “There came to be a tacit censorship of what they talked about.” A typical passage from Child: “The damn bullet didn't even make it into your chest. Your pectoral muscle is so thick and so dense it stopped it dead.”
I finished the Cazalet Chronicles in November; I’m on my eleventh Reacher novel now. Spending time with the Cazalets is like having a nice, leisurely tea. The fare doesn’t seem that impressive at first. But then the tea warms you up and the finger food proves tasty and you don’t want to be anywhere else. Spending time with Reacher is like chugging a large coffee with two extra shots of espresso that’s also been laced with cocaine. It gives you quite the jolt if it doesn’t kill you. (In The Enemy, we learn that Reacher started drinking coffee at the age of four. In adulthood, his “need for caffeine makes heroin addiction look like an amusing little take-it-or-leave it sideline.”)
We come to books for different reasons. Here are some of my favorites from 2022: books that scratched one readerly itch or another; books that I didn’t get a chance to write on and want to recommend.
Darryl Pinckney, Come Back in September: A Literary Education on West Sixty-Seventh Street, Manhattan (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $32, 432 pp.)
This might be the best book that I read all year. A portrait of the critic as a young man, Come Back in September describes Pinckney’s decades-long, complicated relationship with Elizabeth Hardwick. First, Hardwick was his professor. Then, she was his friend. Always, she was his model for what a life devoted to literature might and should be. “We’d ventured into an education of sympathies,” he writes. Pinckney does too many things well to list here. He’s a superb chronicler of the New York City scene in the 1970s and 1980s; he’s a terrific gossip and a memorable portraitist of artists, writers, and intellectuals. I won’t forget the image of William Empson showing up to Hardwick’s apartment “with chewing gum stuck in both ears.” Why? Well, “he’d tried to block out student noise in the dormitory at Kenyon College…But then he couldn’t get the gum out.” Late in the book, Pinckney remembers one of Hardwick’s many aphorisms: “Style is more than personality.… It is your character.” Come Back in September, in style and character, is pure elegance.
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