Elizabeth McCracken is currently a fellow at the Radcliffe Center for Advanced Study. Her most recent book is An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination.
I read plenty of terrific books this year, but two stick out in my head:
For some reason it took me 100 approaches to The Maytrees before I finally got off the first page; now I can say that it’s one of my favorite books of all time. (About 20 years ago, I had the same exact experience with Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.) The Maytrees is not about much, but at the same time it’s about everything: domestic love, parental love, human beings in houses, houses in the natural world, the passage of time, memory, illness, drink, death, art. I don’t want to summarize the book because it defies summarization, and because one of the pleasures of the book is how surprisingly it’s shaped on every level, phrase to sentence to chapter. I’m not selling it very well, I’m afraid. Let me add: the book is about a group of people who meet in Provincetown after the War, and that Annie Dillard accomplishes that rare thing: portraits of genuinely eccentric people who are not sweet, or picturesque, or naive savants, but weighty, complicated human beings.
I just finished Red House: Being a Mostly Accurate Account of New England’s Oldest Continuously Lived-in House, by Sarah Messer. Full disclosure: I know Sarah. I’d met her before this fall, but this year we have offices in the same building and I started the book out of politeness and with that usual fear: what if I don’t like the book as much as I like the person? Oh my heavens I loved this book. Red House, like The Maytrees, also defies description – part memoir, part history, written by a poet and fiction writer, built in some places out of old documents, Red House is the story of a 17th century house in Marshfield, Massachusetts, the family who built it and lived there till the 1960s, and the author’s family, who bought the house from the builder’s descendents. It’s about loving the myths of the place you live, and the siren pull of impractical architecture. The book itself feels like the house, rooms added onto rooms, fascinating objects and observations pulled out of walls, layers of history and wallpaper and quotidian ghosts. it’s a book that feels as weighty as an artifact, and as beautiful as life. It’s also just exceptionally smart.