Monday, January 11, 2016

The Best Books of 2015

From Rob Stove:
The year 2015 was the first in over three decades where I did not review a single new book. Indeed the sole book review of mine published during 2015—dealing with the short-lived British composer Constant Lambert, and included in The American Conservative’s July-August issue—was written in 2014. Every other volume I read this year had been issued earlier than that. These three warrant noting: 

The Politics of Plainchant in Fin-de-Siècle France (2013), by British musicologist Katharine Ellis. No one should be deterred by the less-than-alluring title. Dr. Ellis has supplied an excellently researched, riveting, sometimes alarming account of how an obscure French pamphleteer named Augustin Pécoul appointed himself crusader on behalf of Gregorian chant expert Dom Joseph Pothier, and how Pécoul interpreted this brief as licensing him to calumniate every other Gregorian chant expert, above all Dom Pothier’s fellow Solesmes monk Dom André Mocquereau. This is unabashed micro-history here, with plentiful and fascinating ancillary information about printers’ unions, secret diplomatic missives, Franco-German hostilities (focused on Regensburg’s chant editions), intellectual property concepts circa 1900, and political intrigue at the highest levels in Paris and Rome. Though Pécoul died in 1916, he represents a type of male familiar now from the purportedly Catholic blogosphere: fluent, vitriolic, obsessive, borderline-deranged, pseudonym-addicted, conspiratorial, and—for all his ostentatious displays of erudition—trapped at the empathetic level of Pinkie in Brighton Rock

Zuleika Dobson (1911), by Sir Max Beerbohm. It is extraordinary how often, before returning to a classic which one happened upon in youth, one has remained deaf to the classic’s tone. Having recollected Zuleika Dobson as an instance of what P.G. Wodehouse called “musical comedy without the music” (a musical comedy based on the novel did actually appear in 1957), I dug it out in 2015 and found myself newly shaken by how sad, as well as how funny, it is. In 1911, Beerbohm’s climactic scene of upper-class British manhood committing collective suicide must have seemed a real hoot. Within the decade a frighteningly large proportion of upper-class British manhood had done just that, in the mud and blood of Flanders fields. Beerbohm’s prose—much more inclined to simple declarative sentences than its author’s reputation for ornate dandyism would suggest—still sparkles. Yet it is (to quote an Agatha Christie title) sparkling cyanide.   (Read more.)

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