Today’s reflection on a year in reading, her second, is by Hope Coulter(@hopester99), whom I’m lucky to call a colleague. A fiction writer and poet, Hope directs the Hendrix-Murphy Foundation at Hendrix College.
Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week and next. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).
I tend to read erratically, not methodically, and my favorite books of a given year are always an eclectic list. For 2021 this was more the case than usual. I’m at a loss to discern any overall theme, what my college professors would call an organizing principle, in my reading life of the past twelve months. I seemed to bounce between serious works that might help me make sense of the grim circumstances overtaking the globe and marvelous, much-needed diversions from the same.
In nonfiction, one stand-out read was Barack Obama’s Promised Land. America’s 44th President is simply a terrific writer, with an ear for the rhythms of language and an eye for telling detail. This memoir tacks back and forth between two main narrative lines, one a chronicle of the administration’s initiatives and setbacks and the other—thankfully—the more personal side of life in the White House. The latter sections, relating everything from travel and cultural thrills to trying to find some kind of normalcy as the First Family, were merciful oases after long slogs through the housing crisis, the auto bailout, and never-ending Congressional acrimony, which kindled angst that not even Obama’s elegant telling could dispel. This book doesn’t touch the greatness of his earlier memoir, Dreams from my Father. Still, it wowed me, and I flagged many passages about race and democracy as keepers.
Slight but strong, and thoroughly entertaining, was The Actor’s Life: A Survival Guide by Jenna Fischer (aka Pam from the U.S. version of The Office). It’s fresh, unaffected, and utterly absorbing—fun reading not just for aspiring actors or anyone interested in an inside view of Hollywood, but for creative artists of any type who have to cope with rejection, ignominy, and professional jealousy. Along with a frank account of her own loopy path to success and some behind-the-scenes stories from The Office, Fischer gives practical tips on how to persevere.
In the surprising-oldie category of nonfiction, I stumbled upon Isabella Bird’s A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, an Englishwoman’s account of her 1873 travels through the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. What a woman! What adventures! Bird was tough as nails, a skilled equestrian who dismissed injury, privation, and subfreezing conditions with less complaint than most of us bestow on two seconds’ delay in our Netflix buffering. [Ed. – But it’s so fucking irritating, Hope!] The edition that I read provided zilcho context to her prose—no editor’s note, no prologue, no afterward, no jacket copy—and the utter absence of context made me somehow enjoy her acquaintance even more. Bird is an efficient narrator who knows what to skip over or leave out and what to leave in, and a good describer, if one excuses a bit of 19th-century excess when her sunset rhapsodies go a bit over the top.
Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century absorbed me from start to finish. I had not appreciated the extent of the nomadic van culture that has swelled since the 2008 economic collapse, and was struck by so many slices of that experience that are portrayed here, from jobs in national parks and Amazon warehouses, to ad hoc communities that have sprung up around this culture, to the Earthship vision that is gaining attention as the climate worsens. The movie starring Frances McDormand was based on this, and while I admired her performance, I’m not sure I could have made much sense of the movie if I hadn’t already read the book.
I enjoyed Edwidge Danticat’s The Art of Death: Telling the Final Story, another in Graywolf’s fine series of craft books commissioned from current writers; but then I’m a Danticat fan and love pretty much everything she writes. [Ed. – Hmm, that seems a bit backhanded…]
My final nonfiction standout was Gene Lyons’s Widow’s Web, which I reread last year for the first time since its publication in 1993. [Ed. – Arkansas, represent!] A riveting true crime story, it also exposes a fascinating picture of Arkansas politics of that era: jockeying police and sheriff’s departments, ambitious prosecutors and defense attorneys, criminal lowlifes, and, yes, venal liars, evildoers, and demagogues. This time around I was more aware of the challenge Lyons faced in figuring out how to pace, frame, and sequence all the byzantine storylines (I remember running into him frequently in the late 1980s in the aisles of the then-Safeway in Little Rock’s Hillcrest neighborhood, and hearing him air the difficulties of his process while my ice cream melted in my cart). This book proved as zesty and trenchantly told as I remembered from my first reading nearly thirty years ago. (Gene, if you read this, I don’t begrudge the ice cream.)
Segueing into fiction, let me lift up Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies, which dazzled me at first, though my enthusiasm cooled some as the chapters wore on. Memoir, novel, autofiction? Who cares? I liked the hero less by the end of the book; but then again one has to admire a writer honest enough to present an obviously autobiographical self on the page warts and all, allowing readers like me to sit back and make judgments about them. As one more take on the migrant search for identity—arrivees simultaneously attracted by American ideals and repelled by the failure to live them out—it was a fine read. Two more terrific novels about migration that I read last year are The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri and The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota. I also reread some of Mohsin Hamid’s work in connection with his April visit to my campus: How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is a wonderful read; and Exit West remains one of my top-tier favorite novels, debonair, quietly funny, and bearing much significance for our time.
Other memorable novels from the past year: Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone(1947), a story of Nazi resistance that’s just as grim as the title suggests [Ed. – God I love that book]; Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, a post-pandemic apocalypse novel, dark fun and strangely prescient of our current plague, although published in 2014; and Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William—not as good as her Olive Kitteridge novels, in my opinion, but still enjoyable.
Thanks to Our Fearless Blogmeister [Ed. – Please, call me OFB], I read Arnold Bennett’s Old Wives’ Tales (bad title, good book) for an online group-discussion experience that he co-led with Rohan Maitzen last summer. I enjoyed it for two main reasons. First, if you like 19th-century fiction at all you probably have a soft spot for description, and Bennett is a top-notch describer: he serves up well-chosen, well-rendered detail of both the mundane and the weird, affording us the sheer pleasure of learning how things were in certain times and places. Second, there are the character arcs. One advantage of getting older is the ability to see more and more of the complete trajectories of the lives transpiring around you. Sometimes this is surprising (who would think she would ever have become XYZ?) and sometimes it’s droll because so completely predictable (of course that person would turn out ABC, they were just the same way in kindergarten). Either way, long observance of the crooks and bends and straightaways of other people’s fates, not to mention one’s own, is something I value in fiction as well as real life. Bennett chronicles the lives of the two protagonist sisters and their circles with this sort of long-view verisimilitude. In his effort to represent entire lives, wielding omissions and foreshortenings and jumps in perspective, it seemed he was feeling his way toward modernism.
Audiobooks, for me, are reserved for dog walks (this pairing helps keep my dog and me well exercised, and my commutes are long enough that listening in the car would gulp up the chapters way too fast). [Ed. – Too fast? These words seem to be English, but I do not recognize them.] In March I finished Troubled Blood, the fifth in the Cormoran Strike series by Robert Galbraith, aka J. K. Rowling. If you admire the Harry Potter series and want to see Rowling’s talents applied to adult material, check these out: for plot, wit, and rich evocations of contemporary Britain, they’re unbeatable. (If you don’t admire the Harry Potter series, well… just… oh, go talk to someone about Proust instead.) [Ed. – It’s me, she means me.] Robert Glenister, who reads the audio version, is on a par with Jim Dale, Grammy-winning reader of the HP series. [Ed. – Glenister makes the Strike books a thousand times better, IMO; I loved them, but I confess the worse Rowling gets, the less taste I have for anything she touches.]
What do you call the fear of running out of something good to read? Bibliolackaphobia? or maybe it’s not a phobia but an addictive behavior. At any rate, I was afflicted with a fresh bout of this particular anxiety around Thanksgiving, and desperately downloaded as many books as I could from the library as an antidote. Out of this batch there were a few passable reads, several that deserved the Dorothy Parker treatment (“not a book to be tossed aside lightly—it should be thrown with great force”), and one absolute delight: Hilma Wolitzer’s new collection, Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket. The stories span a number of years, from 1966 to 2020. In their understatedness, their quizzical humor, their recurrent portraiture of New York women in different roles, they are reminiscent of, say, Grace Paley, and I became a Wolitzer fan by the time I was a few pages in.
In the last and most moving story, “The Great Escape,” the protagonist mentions a book she’s eager to discuss with her book club. The title didn’t ring a bell, but because I liked the sensibility of the collection so much I looked up this novel and ordered it, too, from the library. It was Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, which became my final great discovery of the year. The novel concerns a post-World War I Kansas City housewife, a woman whose life is circumscribed by wealth, enforced idleness, and the rigid values of her social set; who senses something lacking from her life that she cannot even express. It’s told in very short chapters that refrain from plot contrivance or heavy-handedness and are often funny, in an oblique, Lydia Davis sort of way. [Ed. – I’m listening…] There are sharp observations about race and feminism, and stirrings of change on the horizon, but at every point the novel resists collapsing into the artifice of having a theme or Social Meaning. (It was made into a movie starring real-life wife and husband Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman, but of course the book’s artistry and restraint were savaged when they went through the sausage-grinder of screenplay adaptation. So if you’ve seen the movie don’t hold it against the novel.) I can’t think of another instance when I’ve sought out a book based on the recommendation of a fictional character, but this one turned out so well that I might have to consult other made-up people for their tips.
Meanwhile, you real people out there are serving quite well too. Thank you for your guest columns and your comments, and thanks, Dorian, for inviting me to chime in. I’m humbled by the opportunity. [Ed. – Nonsense, the pleasure is all ours!]
That Isabella Bird is an easy one to recommend. Everyone likes it.
I have doubts that 19th century fiction has more description than 20th century fiction.
Bird’s been on my radar a while. Pretty sure she also was in Canada.
Guess it depends which 20th C fiction. And which 19th.
Oh yes, a completely unsubstantiated and unsubstantiable observation! Glad it piqued your interest.
Ha, nicely parried!
Such an enjoyable blog from start to finish. I’ll definitely follow Hope Coulter on Twitter. I was touched that she mentioned Isabella Bird. A dear friend and mentor who has since passed away wrote a biography of Bird – A Curious Life for Lady. (It earned my friend royalties long after they stopped coming from elsewhere.) I was generally charmed by the blog, and the precise way it touched on each title. In short, thank you!
Thanks to you in turn, Jennifer. I’m glad you liked the post, and I’ll look for your friend’s biography of Bird.
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