Publications ranging from the New York Times to the Plumbers' Pipeline are offering us their candidates for the best books of 2008, so I decided to ante up a list as well. I don't tag these the Best Books of
2008; merely as the best books of my 2008. No particular ranking.
Claire Tomalin's SAMUEL PEPYS: THE UNEQUALlED SELF. Now, if you've read any part of the famous Diary by this 17th century eccentric, you're probably saying, "What's left to write about?" Pepys recorded the smallest details of his life, including much more than most readers care to know about such matters as his bowels, bladder, and boudoir behavior. Why a biography by someone else? Well, for one thing, because a cool, ojective but intently interested eye can tell us so much more of the fascinating story. (We all see our own lives, as Twain said, through a glass eye darkly.) And because if you read only the Diary, you are apt to think of Pepys as nothing more than a minor clerk of old Londontown who, sexually speaking, had eyes much bigger than his. . . well, never mind that. Actually, Pepys was a rather major figure of his day, and is still studied by, of all things, Naval historians (the battleship buffs, not the belly-button brigade). In sum: a rich view of a full-throttle life through a wide-angle lens.
Claire Tomalin's JANE AUSTEN; A LIFE. Here we have just the opposite problem from the Pepys' life story: although Austen wrote reams of letters, few have survived
the burnings of dim-bulb kinfolk who kindled when they should have scrapbooked. But scholar Tomalin, with the fervor of an unmedicated obsessive-compulsive, has woven the remaining threads into a thorough and thoroughly readable tapestry. A lot of nonsense and sentimental twaddle has circulated about Jane Austen as her popularity has grown with the decades and her novels been revamped as vehicles for various actorettes of the moment. This writer sees the great novelist with a clear and unsentimental but admiring eye. Having now read three or four of Tomlinson's biographies, I can only conclude that the historian has an intellect as keen as Jane Austen's and a style worthy of her subject.
While we're on British soil, so to speak, one of my great favorites this year is THE UNCOMMON READER, by Alan Bennett. Bennett is England's leading contemporary writer--that's not an opinion; it's a ranking, by sales and popularity and awards and height and whatever else can be measured. He's written The History Boys (six Tony awards), The Madness of King George, Prick Up Your Ears, A Private Function, Beyond the Fringe. . . . Anyway, THE UNCOMMON READER would make the dandiest Christmas present imaginable for the truly devoted readers among your circle. It's quite short--readable in an hour--and it is fiction. And it is about Queen Elizabeth II. To tell you any more would be to ruin the fun. And it is fun--and full of insight. I hope against hope that the BBC or "Masterpiece" or whoever will make us all a wonderful plum pudding for next Christmas by filming this gem--featuring Maggie Smith, or Helen Mirren (the third time would be charming), or Bennett's longtime friend and star of many of his short plays, Patricia Routledge. (Yes, yes, Hyacinth Bucket and let's forget that.)
All right; let's leave the Brits to entertain themselves and come to a very American book: CHARLES SCHULZ AND PEANUTS, by David Michaelis. Everything about Charles Schulz seems movingly American, from his birth in Minnesota to immigrant parents, to his love of baseball, his engrained work ethic, and his huge worldwide success coupled with his lifelong sense of personal failure. Now, let me be frank here: I prefer biographies and memoirs above almost all other genres at this point in my life; but some may find that this book tells them more about Charles Schulz than they want to know; (it's almost 600 pages.) Michaelis gives us great detail about the cartoonist's early life, and puts a Freudian slant on much of his later angst, which he also paints with a full brush. Moreover, Michaelis gives us a rich selection of carefully chosen Peanuts cartoons; I was astonished at how three or four panels could illuminate a whole thread of Shultz' life. At the very end of his life, having written his own name on a piece of paper, and speaking of himself, he said, "That poor kid--he never even got a chance to kick the football. What a dirty trick. . . ."
You were a good man, Charlie Shultz, but you never got to know it.
All right; that's a start. Stay tuned--and let me know what you are reading.