Today’s reflection on her year in reading, her second annual contribution, is by NancyKay Shapiro (@NancyKayShapiro). NancyKay lives in New York, and reads a whole shit-ton.
Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week and into next. It’s a stellar lineup. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).
The notorious year, the second of the Big Pandemic here in New York City, was, for me, the year I really settled into the idea of being retired from my freelance ad biz career (which I’d declared at the beginning of ’20 in a wishful fingers-crossed kind of way), found other things to do than work, got my elderly mom vaccinated twice, myself vaccinated three times, counted lots of blessings, lost said elderly mom at age 89 (not to Covid), and busied myself then grieving and dealing with her estate.
I read or listened to 84 books. Looking back over the list, I find that very little has stuck with me with especial vividness, probably because there was a flatness to my emotional life for most of the year, and then, when Mom passed in early September, the whole emotional tenor changed, and everything leading up to the day of her death seemed like a decade rather than a handful of days and weeks ago.
So, having said that, let’s see which books I want to recommend from those 84.
The first book I read in 2021 was The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt, which I only picked up because of Book Twitter, and which I hated and kept telling Dorian I was going to chuck, because it seemed to be about an overly academically precocious child and an overly clever but useless-at-life mother. I thought I saw where it was going and that was to an ever-more annoying place. I would have chucked it if not for his encouragement, and I only appreciated it when I got to the last fourth or so of the text and could see what the whole thing was amounting to. [Ed. – Let this be a lesson to you all.] In the end I was glad I’d read it, breaking a habit I have of not persevering with books that, a hundred pages in, aren’t giving me much reading pleasure. The pleasure was retroactive.
Rob Sheffield, the music critic, wrote a book called Dreaming The Beatles: A Love Story of One Band and The Whole World. I’m a lifelong fan, but hadn’t thought about them much in recent years; this book delighted me because it wasn’t so much a band bio as a story of how the Beatles are perceived, and adored, across time, by their admirers. Lots of fun, gave me some new perspectives on these old favorites that sent me back to the music; a sprightly winter time read.
Quenching my desire to read dark books about grim and squalid Northern British things was Alma Cogan, a novel by Gordon Burn, in which he writes a fictional autobiography of Cogan, a singer popular in England in the 50s and early 60s, whose career was steamrollered by rock’n’roll, and who died young. In this novel she doesn’t die young, and she spills all the tea. Great and ghastly.
No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood really lit me up when I was reading it. It had an air of sui generis-icity about it that was exciting; its emotional roller-coaster effects were earned. Lockwood is very clever in the good ways of being clever, and this novel, which starts out being about online-ness, ends up being about emotions of great tenderness and subtlety. Full of surprise. A must. Just read it without reading anything about it first.
Over the summer I got into the way of wanting short stories by Anton Chekhov and William Trevor, and read great gobs of them, in the form of The Portable Chekhov and Trevor’s Collected Stories. I feel, looking back, as if I sat through hundreds of hand-wringing playlets, each story totally absorbing, a world in itself in a way that even the best novels are not, because you’re not reading them in a single sitting.
Also over the summer I had an urge to reread John O’Hara, and revisited Butterfield 8, Appointment in Samara, and 10 North Frederick. O’Hara’s merciless dissection of the manners and mores of upper-class Americans in the late 19th and 20th century is a genre unto itself for me. I can’t get enough of his snobs and tragically unself-aware nobs, all floating in cold martinis.
A wonderful discovery was the Chinese writer Eileen Chang, whose books are reprinted by the wonderful New York Review Books. I read Little Reunions for a class at the Center For Fiction, then went on to Love In A Fallen City. She writes about romance and family life in Hong Kong and Shanghai in the mid 20th century, with the political restrictions of these places hidden beneath the carefully articulated actions and thoughts of her heroines.
At the end of 2021 I listened to the audio of a new biography of poet Sylvia Plath, Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark, an exhaustive but never exhausting account of the accomplishments and anxieties of Plath’s amazing life, which lasted just 30 years. I’m always fascinated by the lives of writers. Plath was, though a genius, also exemplary of all the things society puts in the way of young women—the pressures to be pretty, nice, quiet, maternal, agreeable, nurturing. This bio impressed me afresh with her struggle to be both a great artist and a successful woman, by the standards of mid-century America and Britain.
Finally, my least-liked—really, flat-out disliked, book of 2021: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. The first novel by him I’ve read, and it’ll be the last. I only finished it because I’d been taught by The Last Samurai that things might turn around in the final third, but in this case, not so much. I know a few people who adore him and this book, but I can’t see it. [Ed. – I did not recommend this book, just FYI.]
Other stand-out books I read:
- Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan
- Piranesi by Susannah Clarke
- Broken Greek: A Story of Chip Shops and Pop Songs by Pete Paphides
- Odd Girl Out by Elizabeth Jane Howard
- Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
- Alec by William DiCanzio
- How To Hide An Empire by Daniel Immerwahr
- Bosnian Chronicle by Ivo Andric
- Life of a Klansman: A Family History In White Supremacy by Edward Ball
- Box Hill by Adam Mars-Jones
Every book I’ve read since 2008: https://bit.ly/3njPjah
Oh wow, there are so many other great books by Murakami!
NK will of course answer for herself, but for me, well, he was so important to me in my 20s, but I just can’t imagine going back.
This is cue for me to say: Drop Murakami, read Murasaki.
I first read Murakami when I was about 15, & read a lot of his books. Then I realised that they were all the same: each book has a male narrator or main character who reads books, loves cats, has no TV, listens to vinyls, loves jazz, loves sex but struggles in relationships with women, etc. etc. All the characters sound the same, even a security guard philosophises. As I became older & read more, I also realised that Murakami’s not that deep or profound.
Japan has many writers who are so much greater, like Murasaki Shikibu, Soseki, Akutagawa…
I was older than you when I figured it out, Di (but I’m also a straight guy, so pretty much the target audience), but yeah I can’t revisit these books, I don;t think…
Haha I didn’t think about target audience.
I hope Murakami introduced Western people to Japanese literature & led to other writers though.
I think in many cases he really did.
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Thank you for reading my work and for listing ALEC among your favorites.
I only just caught up with this blog. Wonderful. I’m glad not to be alone in discovering William Trevor ‘late in the day’. It may even be appropriate somehow. Endless love for Patricia Lockwood, but I will wait a long time before I ever read that novel because I’m chicken and can’t handle the effect it may have. Give me Lockwood reviewing in the LRB any day. Many thanks for the pleasure of having discovered Nancy Kay Shapiro’s reading.
NK is great, isn’t she?
Chicken how, Jenny? Like too close to home?
Indeed. A story for some other day. I thought I ought to mention that I couldn’t find the Nancy Kay Shapiro post on your Twitter feed. I have followed Nancy there because it’s clear she’s delightful and I hope you won’t mind my checking with you if her post was shared there? Thank you!
It’s there, but a long way back (January 11)… I don’t mind at all, though. If I had the energy I would tweet reminders…
Oh good, thank you Dorian!