Liz McCausland’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Liz McCausland (@Liz_Mc2). Liz is an American living in Vancouver, BC, where she teaches college English, reads, herds cats, and ponders what’s next in her life.

Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).

Thomas Struth, Pergamon Museum IV, Berlin, 2001

In the fall of 2020, my marriage of 25 years ended—an event that for me was both unexpected and unwelcome. Slowly and with a lot of hard work, my grief and depression are lifting. But they’ve continued to impact my reading. Self-help. Memoirs about mental illness, therapy, divorce, and reinventing yourself. Many backlist mystery audiobooks from the library. [Ed. — What, no names?] And many, many books returned to the library unfinished or unopened because I didn’t have attention to give them. When Dorian asked me if I wanted to write a Year in Reading post for him, my first thought was “I‘ve forgotten most of what I read this year, and I certainly don’t have anything interesting to say about it.”

But then I remembered that one of the silver linings of this hard time has been my rediscovery of the joy to be found in reading with others: engaging in intense and wide-ranging discussion of texts to which everyone brings different experience and perspectives; having the sensation of minds meeting as steel meets flint, a spark of illumination blooming from the contact.

The first place I found this, unexpectedly, was a Bible Study group. That might not be true in every context, but we’re Anglicans and reason is one leg of our stool. I gained a lot of personal insights, but perhaps I’m most grateful for the feeling that my brain can still work after all. Do we need a book recommendation from this? I’ve always thought you could do worse on a desert island than the Bible, believer or not—it’s a big fat book with a little of everything in it.

The second was a long-running reading group I rejoined this summer after a decade or so away. The core members have been together since they read Foucault together as grad students in the 80s. Now they’re mostly retired college English instructors. They read widely and their discussions are vigorous. To keep up I’ve had to read with more focus than I’d mustered in some time. My favorite meeting so far involved lounging in a shady backyard on a hot July afternoon, nibbling potluck goodies and discussing Shirley Hazzard’s The Evening of the Holiday. My first Hazzard, but not my last! This month, sadly, we’ll be back on Zoom, but I’m looking forward to diving into Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. (Another first for me).

My third great experience reading with others was with students. I teach English at a community college, and because I increased my workload this fall I’ve been teaching literature (rather than just academic writing) for the first time in several years. I’d forgotten how fun reading with students can be. A classroom is a space full of flints and steels that strike sparks from each other. A space full of surprise insights. It’s not just that students interpret the readings in ways I didn’t anticipate, but that I surprise myself: as I bounce off their observations, or just ramble on, I find interpretations forming in the moment the words expressing them come out of my mouth, as if someone wiser than me were speaking through me. [Ed. – All true, so true!]

This year, I’m teaching Intro to Fiction sections designated for our Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies program, on the theme of gender and violence (and hell yes, at some points of the semester I regretted settling on such a dark theme). Here are two of my favorite surprises from Fall:

I chose Don DeLillo’s “Baader-Meinhof” because it seemed to fit the theme. I’d never read DeLillo before, thinking of him as writing “boy books” I wouldn’t enjoy (I imagine you thinking “who let her teach gender studies?”). I just skimmed it before choosing it, being, rather behind schedule at that point (“who let her teach anything?”). [Ed. – I’m so relieved to learn I’m not the only one who does this!] In the story, an unnamed man and woman meet at an exhibition of paintings showing Baader-Meinhof gang members dead in their prison cells. The man manipulates the woman into taking him back to her apartment, where, when he can’t manipulate her into sex, he masturbates on her bed while she cowers in the bathroom. [Ed. – Well, that is just about the least appealing scenario possible…]

As I started reading the story in preparation for class, I wondered if the paintings it describes are real. They are. The basic plot was familiar to students: “Oh, he’s gaslighting her.” Something similar has happened to some of them or to someone they know. But the “real life” art exhibition setting led us to new questions about this familiar scene. Richter’s paintings are based on photographs that would have been easily recognizable to Germans, but he destabilizes that familiarity, blurring the images and sometimes painting multiple versions, each slightly different. Is this, I asked my students, part of why someone would write fiction about gender violence (or about anything, come to that)? To make us look anew at something we think we understand? “Is gender violence a form of terrorism?” we wondered. At first that seemed extreme, but then we considered the ways that women’s lives are shaped by fear of it, and how we live in a culture that has largely accepted this fact as just something we have to put up with. And what’s up with the idea of forgiveness in this story? I still don’t know what I think about that, and I’m looking forward to discussing it again and seeing if we get further.

I’m currently listening to Believing, Anita Hill’s new book on gender violence, because a review I read made me think of DeLillo’s story and the questions it raises. And the best surprise was how much I enjoyed this story. I still suspect that on the whole, DeLillo isn’t my cup of tea, but I’m going to read more before I make up my mind about that.

Candida Höfer, German Library, Leipzig VI, 1997

And then there was Katharena Vermette’s novel The Break. I wrote a review for Event, so I went into teaching it thinking “I get this.” But it unfolded new riches as we read it slowly over a couple of weeks. The more we talked about it, the more there was to say. At the center of The Break is a violent sexual assault against Emily, an Indigenous teen. The novel works as a page-turning crime story in which a young Métis police officer and his racist partner try to identify the assailant. But in tension with the forward momentum of that narrative are the stories of Emily’s extended family, mostly female, and the sexual violence they have endured. To support Emily in her healing, they have to confront their own pasts and the lingering effects of trauma.

The Break has ten narrators, and to help us keep track of who was saying what, I listed the narrators of each day’s sections on the board. Once I did, we began to see patterns in their order. Emily, for instance, has a section early on, and another at the end. For most of the novel, she is silenced by trauma, and only when she can narrate the assault does she start to heal. That’s also the first time readers see its details—this is a novel that refuses to indulge a prurient interest in them, showing us only glimpses and fragments we have to piece together.

Partway through our reading, I listened to a podcast episode on the ethics of enjoying true crime, and that fed into our discussion of how we should consume stories like Vermette’s. The Break offers us two characters as reader stand-ins: there’s Tommy, the cop, who feels a “strange excitement” as he makes headway on the puzzle of the crime. But he risks pushing Emily to tell her story before she’s ready, ignoring her trauma. There’s also Stella, who witnesses the crime and who insists in the face of police skepticism that what she saw was a rape. Stella has her own experience of trauma, and her concern for the victim might be a more ethical response than Tommy’s excitement. But that trauma paralyzes Stella when she witnesses the assault, keeping her from going out to help. Perhaps we also need Tommy’s push for answers to keep the story from being stuck in pain and trauma.

We don’t discover who the assailant is until Vermette has made us feel empathy and understanding for that character. That person’s story left us wondering whether the justice system is at all up to the task of doing justice in these circumstances. What would true justice to all parties look like?  Students enriched our discussions of these questions by bringing to it ideas from courses in psychology, criminology, and legal studies.

I loved and admired The Break even more after teaching it than before—an outcome which is by no means guaranteed. I understand Dorian is teaching it this semester, and I look forward to hearing what he and his students, in a different place and bringing different experiences, bring to it. [Ed. – I am, and I’m even more excited now than I was before: I’ll be pilfering these insights shamelessly.]

Alina Stefanescu’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Alina Stefanescu (@aliner). Alina was born in Romania and lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her partner and several intense mammals. Recent books include a creative nonfiction chapbook, Ribald (Bull City Press Inch Series, Nov. 2020) and Dor, which won the Wandering Aengus Press Prize (September, 2021). She is currently working on a novel-like creature. More online at www.alinastefanescuwriter.com.

Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).

Diane Arbus, Girl in a watch cap, N.Y.C. 1965

Forget the books I reviewed for literary journals…

I’d prefer to talk about The Others—to dwell on the fact that I lost my Barbara-Comyns-virginity this year, thanks to Richard Mirabella and Kyle Winkler. I wound up in a zoom room which led to a rabbit hole—and, after climbing back into the regular world, my head included a bookshelf full of Comyns, starting with her first novel, Sisters by a River, which Emily Gould introduced as “a barely fictionalized account of her strange childhood” created to entertain and amuse her own kids while living in London and “working as a cook on a country estate to escape the Blitz.”

Comyns’s second novel, Our Spoons Came From Woolworth’s, continues to mine her life, carrying the reader through adulthood, which is to say: a series of ordinary remarkable things, including childbirth, child loss, marital drudgery, peak misogyny, and pets (from newts to foxes). Then I devoured her haunting, impeccably grotesque novel, The Vet’s Daughter. According to the 1981 Virago edition, Barbara Comyns “dreamt the idea” for this novelwhile honeymooning “in a Welsh cottage lent to her and her new husband by the Soviet agent Kim Philby in 1945.”

It was delicious. I regret nothing.

Nor do I regret the acrobatic harrow of Jennifer Fliss’s The Predatory Animal Ball; flash fiction in Fliss’s hands feels simultaneously epic and dioramic. These creature stories stayed in my head—fantastic. Also compelling for its compressive impact: Men You Don’t Know You Know by Chase Burke, a book of short fiction about masculinity. I found something gutting in Burke’s deployment of segmented narrative strategies and trivia questions to undo gender, or probe its least secure spaces.

Because catastrophe attracts me, I re-read Diane Williams’ The Collected Short Stories of Diane Williams and talked to myself about her use of interior monologue. Few writers have permission to write such irreverent viciousness about men and romantic relationships. Magda Carneci’s FEM (translated by Sean Cotter) came close, though—in a different way, in a sort of neo-confessional efflorescence that indicts masculinity from the space of the intimate whisper. Mining a vein that reminds me of Hélène Cixous, Carneci’s novel engages the social construction of femininity in first-person. It opens interesting discussions about the distance between the dominant American feminism and feminisms nurtured in different soils and continents. Claudia Sadowski-Smith’s The New Immigrant Whiteness: Race, Neoliberalism, and Post-Soviet Migration to the United States brought new perspectives on marriage, social relations, and the market for brides to a topic that continues to interest me, namely, the construction of transnational identities.

Like many pandemiacs, epistolary-fever ruined what remained of my life. The hunger for correspondence met my affinity for ghosts and queer cherubim in Letters Summer 1926: Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva, Rainer Maria Rilke, introduced by Susan Sontag. And then, after picking up my invisible shovel and digging around the names associated with the letters, I fell a little bit in love with Boris Pasternak’s sonorous memoir, Safe Travels, where I discovered Pasternak’s childhood dream of being a Scriabin, or being someone his father adored as much as he adored Scriabin. I suspect we all want to be loved a little too much—and then promptly forgiven for it.

I forgave Pasternak, but the last-page blues—that narrowing dread which signals the finitude of a book’s world, the cessation of a voyage, the reentry into everyday life—hit me hard upon finishing Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory, in Sasha Dugsdale’s lyrical, lush translation. [Ed. – “Last-page blues”: gonna steal that one.] One of my favorite books this year, and a model for how to write the untouchable past while touching every single porcelain cat in the off-limits cabinet.

Thanks to #APSTogether, I read W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants (translated by Michael Hulse), and enjoyed both the reading and the ride. The world of Machado de Assis opened wide with The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (translated by Flora Thomson DeVeaux). There is something fantastic in de Assis’s use of hindsight to undermine respectability and status—something surreal in the aspirational, posthumous voice. And the reader is prepared for it with “The Delirium,” the long, hallucinated description of riding atop the back of a swift hippopotamus, the juxtaposition of absurdity with respect, an opening into that wicked improbable. Cubas says no one else has narrated their own delusion before; certainly, no one has ever narrated the delusional as convincingly and seductively as Machado de Assis.

Cubas is looking for a way to realize a sublime idea that hopped into his head while walking—namely, the invention of “an anti-hypochondriacal plaster destined to alleviate our melancholy humanity.” In this, our narrator resembles others looking for theories that will make them rich and famous. It feels prescient for theory to be commodified as a sort of entrepreneurship-vessel for the chattering classes, an economic opportunity for leisured libidinals. One can’t help but notice a resemblance between Cubas’s aspirations and the contemporary economic muscle of self-help industry experts. We have it all, from Emily Oster’s “evidence-based, statistical parenting” (parenting by the numbers according to capitalist constructions of humanity) to the lean-in feminisms of Sheryl Sandberg and straight to the plaster face masks of the Insta-influencer scientists—to be so rich in plaster solutions and yet disoriented, miserable, and clueless. This is the American dream as it plays out in the bourgeoisie classes.

The posthumous narrative pleasures continued with Silvina Ocampo’s genre-bender, The Promise, translated by Jill Levine, a metaphysical narrative that started as her first book—and wound up being published as her last. Ocampo’s surreal, fragmented, atemporal exploration of hindsight and promises stayed glued to the underside of my eyelids. Alas, I could not wake up without writing a series of poems in response—which turned into a chapbook—which I am burying for lack of time. [Ed. – Tease! Where is your Max Brod?]

A fascination with Decadent writers and artists led me into many brocaded tunnels this year, including Haldane McFall’s Aubrey Beardsley: The Man and His Work, an old book shot through with fireworks of crackly syntax and necro-romanticism. Idyllic for those who need a new temporality, a “twelvemonth” in which to exist.

Beatrice Bracher’s Antonio (translated by Adam Morris) uses disembodied narration to probe family skeletons and narratives—the price of telling and not telling.

My addiction to Sublunary Press objects continued, and it was exciting to hear Chris Clarke describe the experience of translating Éric Chevillard’s The Posthumous Works of Thomas Pilaster during an online book launch. I also found Chevillard’s website, which is a sort of ongoing paratext in French—and I translated a little bit for myself so that I could cheer when the author reported getting his covid vaccine—”Still, no adverse effects from the vaccine. I have rarely even felt so happy.”

Choi Jin-young’s To the Warm Horizon (translated by Soje) made me think about time-signatures in prose narrative—as well as apocalypse. First published in Korea in 2017, prior to the onset of the pandemic, the novel alternates between the lives and decisions of characters fleeing an unnamed virus. This is fine vs. is this fine—Jin-Young repeatedly lays the ethical questions of the disaster over small, personal choices in the characters’ lives. The time-signature is unforgettable. As is the book.

Diane Arbus, Man in Hat, Trunks, Socks and Shoes, Coney Island, N. Y. 1960

Where to begin among the 112 poetry books I read this year? [Ed. – Exqueeze me?] Louise Labé’s Love Sonnets & Elegies (translated by Richard Sieburth) enchanted me with antiquated forms, including the poetic blazon. [Ed. — *takes notes *] But I also wondered how, and in what form, Labé actually existed. [Ed. — ?] Karen Lessing’s “preface” to this book is tremendous. Henri Michaux’s A Certain Plume (also translated by Sieburth) felt fresh and modern—it’s difficult not to imagine one’s own Plume as a writer-self, or to imagine the secret Plumes of others. Following my OBERIU fascination from last year, I wandered into the fabulous esoterica of Alexander Vvedensky’s An Invitation for Me to Think (translated by Eugene Ostashevsky and Matvei Yankelevich), and the forms that silence begets in poetry. Some silences are more ornate than others, and it was also instructive in revealing how Symbolism changed and evolved in Russia.

The Jenny Erpenback obsession—this I blame on David Naimon’s incredible podcast, which led me to every Erpenbeck ever published, including The Book of Words, which many dislike, but which I valued for how it engages family secrets. For the daughter, the secret changes the world in which one can exist, and it changes the self as known by the world. Sometimes we want answers, but other times we just want the world to continue in a way that allows us to have parents. The complexity of this book spoke to many migrant stories somehow, and it continues to derange me.

Anne Anlin Cheng’s The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief was published in 2000; I ran across it when searching, oddly, for books on melancholy of the left. Cheng argues that racial grief is not just the result of racism, but also the foundation for racial identity—and the book forms a fascinating contrapuntal subject in current discussions about diaspora, race, clinical language, and trauma. And Robert Musil’s Notebookseverywhere in my head and essays and writing this year. O, Jenny Croft and Phillip Boehm—two translators I follow closely, everything they translate—I find and devour. Other writes I read obsessively include Marguerite Yourcenar…. nevermind, nevermind. I just realized that I need to send this book list to you immediately, there is no time for me to talk about all the books I loved and read in 2021—just as there has never been enough time for me to talk about all the books I read and love. This is the curse of bibliomania. I think INXS wrote a song about it. [Ed. – This one? Or this one? Oh, you mean this one.] My lament continues.

Bryce Sears’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Bryce Sears (@BryceSears5). Bryce, one of the nicest people on Book Twitter (which is saying something), is an avid reader and writer who lives in Oakland.

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).

Paul Signac, Saint-Briac. La Garde Guérin. Opus 211, 1890

I kept up in 2021 a trend toward escapism in my reading. I’ve been on this kick about five years – a habit of reading a lot more fiction and a lot less non-fiction than I used to. I used to read a lot of history; the one piece of non-fiction I read last year was a travelogue – Kapka Kassabova’s Border. It was terrific, to my thinking, as you can see below. [Ed. – Straight up honest to God terrific, Bryce; it’s not just you!] Later, reading a few pages of its follow-up, To the Lake, I found it all a bit depressing, thinking about facts and history. It was this thing I’m dealing with. My view, I guess, is that the world is on fire. In a dozen different ways at least. So I’m voting to put it out. I’m volunteering and protesting. [Ed. – I admire you!] But also, for the sake of my own mental health, I might need more breaks from thinking about our predicament.      

Such a cheery opening! The other thing helping with my mental health is my homelife. Two years ago my wife and I bought a house in Oakland. So, we’re doing a lot of work digging up strange things in our back yard, etc. [Ed. – Uh, how strange? Like dead body strange???] We have a three-year-old son who is delightful. His interest in books has really taken off. I spend a lot of time reading with him when I’m not writing or reading books for myself.  

The Vet’s Daughter, and some other works by Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns is the writer I was most thrilled to discover this year. I was surprised. I tend to like best stories about people (to paraphrase Diane Williams in her recent interview with Merve Emre) dealing with the life we’re all stuck in. For a long time now, I haven’t tended to go in much for stories with magical or supernatural elements. If this sounds like you, too, don’t let it keep you from Comyns. Somehow, the supernatural in her stories isn’t startling (or at least I don’t find it so). It might be her prose, which is both cool and somehow scintillating. It might be the way she links the supernatural elements in her stories to the mental health of her protagonists. In The Vet’s Daughter, my favorite of the books of hers I’ve read, the supernatural in the story appears (at least as I read it) to come as a reaction the protagonist is having to a pervasive threat of violence. Which is to say it feels like a state of shock. It adds something to our sense of what the protagonist is feeling.

Or it could be my tastes are changing.

In any case, in addition to The Vet’s Daughter, the other books I read by Comyns this year are The Juniper Tree, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead. They’re all quite different from one another. I liked The Juniper Tree best, but ask me again tomorrow. Saying I like this Comyns better than this other Comyns is almost no better than saying ‘I prefer apples to oranges’.       

The Remains of the Day, and some other works by Kazuo Ishiguro

I’m not sure when I would have read Ishiguro if not for Book Twitter. Somehow, years ago, I got it into my head that I’d find his work cinematic in some off-putting way. The Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson adaptation of The Remains of the Day was so famous. Before I got around to reading that one an adaptation of Never Let Me Go came out, and it also got a big hoopla. I got the sense Ishiguro’s work must be reductive, somehow. Well, as I’m sure everyone else knew, it isn’t. The books behind these two movies are so very much better than the movies. I should have had more faith in literature.  

My first Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day, was likely the first book I finished in 2021, going by my Twitter history. And what a revelation it was. Later in the year I read An Artist of the Floating World, and Never Let Me Go. Now I have five additional, as yet unread, Ishiguros in a stack on the shelves next to me. They make me feel rich.   

Happening, and some other works by Annie Ernaux

I was a bit obsessed with Annie Ernaux in 2021. I read Happening, A Man’s Place, A Woman’s Story, and I Remain in Darkness (all translated by Tanya Leslie). I read The Possession (tr. Anna Moschovakis). Over a period of months I reread Happening, A Girl’s Story (tr. Alison L. Strayer), and Simple Passion (tr. Tanya Leslie). These are all short, auto-fictional stories that feel like memoirs.       

The confessional quality of these books is one thing that draws me to them. Another is the skepticism Ernaux displays in her writing. She tries to make clear, as she writes about events in her past, how little she knows of the women she used to be, how false it would be to pretend to walk in the shoes of these younger selves. [Ed. – Nicely put!] She goes out of her way to avoid exaggeration. And I find this humility so refreshing.    

One last word on Ernaux. My favorite work of hers is Happening. It is quite harrowing – the story of an abortion Ernaux had in 1963, when she was 23 and abortion hadn’t yet been decriminalized in France. If I could I’d have everyone in the US read this book. It strikes me we could do worse here, where many women will likely face choices soon like the ones Ernaux faced, than encourage people to understand what it was like for this particular woman – a white woman, highly educated, in 1960s France. I’m not a teacher, but I think it’d make a nice class discussion, a group of close readers considering how the situation might vary in the US for people of color, for people with less access to information of the sort Ernaux had, etc.

Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry

West Texas, where I grew up, is the part of Texas where all the worst Texas clichés come to life. The whitest, most reactionary part. I always wanted out of it. I might have become a reader in part to avoid it. Which is all by way of an excuse for not having read a western before last year. Still, I picked a great book to begin with.  

Lonesome Dove was the most absorbing book I read in 2021. It’s a big, twisty story, rich with joyful writing (I mean, it is often dark, but you can tell McMurtry enjoyed writing it). It struck me as escapist in the plainest sense of the word – it took me to a very different world from my own. The jokes worked for me. Consider the wry twist of this line that comes when Gus, the protagonist (I think, it could be Call), gives a junior partner money for a prostitute, then reminisces (in free indirect): “Best to help boys have their moment of fun, before life’s torments snatched them away.” Or this line, Gus again (he gets a lot of the best jokes), talking to Call, claiming he indulges in remorse for his mistakes so often that the pain on each indulgence isn’t “much worse than a dry shave.” Or these lines, near the climax of the story, when another character (called Pea Eye – his name is its own joke), is on the run: “His feet were swollen to twice their size, besides being cut here and there. Yet they were the only feet he had, and after dozing for an hour in the sun, he got up and hobbled on.” You can see McMurtry building out his characters with these jokes. You can see him building the world they live in, which he leans into the hardness of. One character lives with a leaky gunshot wound in his stomach. The book begins with two pigs “having a fine tug-of-war” with a rattlesnake they’ve found.

Slowly, drawn along by the humor and descriptive power of the writing, I think most readers of Lonesome Dove will find themselves hooked by its story. I did. It can worry me sometimes, the feeling I’ve been hooked. I’ve read a lot of bad writing in books after finding myself interested in a story (the writing was often bad in the beginning of these books, when I wasn’t hooked and should have given them up). Here, reading Lonesome Dove, I found myself wanting to know what would happen when the big cattle drive got underway. What would happen with Gus, who had seemed to have a pretty empty life in Lonesome Dove. I wanted to know if Newt would find out about his parentage. If Laurie would make it to San Francisco. It worried me, the sense I was getting hooked, letting my guard down. But I don’t think it should have. I read Lonesome Dove last summer. Time has passed, and now I’m flipping through it again. And already want to reread it. 

Other writers I enjoyed in 2021

Anita Brookner tops the list of writers I discovered last year, and loved, but am still just getting to know. I read Look at Me, Hotel du Lac, and Latecomers. They’re all terrific. [Ed. — “Hartmann, a voluptuary, lowered a spoonful of brown sugar crystals into his coffee cup, then placed a square of bitter chocolate on his tongue, and, while it was dissolving, lit his first cigarette.”]

Another writer I greatly enjoyed reading is Tove Jansson. I read The True Deceiver last year and The Summer Book the year before (I think). I’d really like to read Fair Play soon and her stories (and maybe the Moomin stories, too).

I reread Beckett’s Molloy last year. I read Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star. Thinking of these books gave me pause in saying Lonesome Dove was the most absorbing book I read last year. I was locked into both from the start.     

I read The Copenhagen Trilogy, the three-part memoir by Tove Ditlevsen, which is devastating. I read Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, my first Tokarczuk. And now I want to read everything she has written, or will write.

I read, as mentioned above, Kapka Kassabova’s Border last year. It is so good. I think I sold it short above calling it a travelogue. Border strikes me as meditative work. Its use of language is gorgeous. Dorian recommended this one, and I read it as a group read with Kim McNeill, Catherine Eaton, and Naguib Mechawar. I benefited greatly from their thoughts on it. The next Kassabova I’d like to read is To the Lake: a Balkan Journey of War and Peace. Just need to find the nerve. [Ed. – It’s worth it!]

I read Toni Morrison’s Jazz for the first time last year, and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Both are phenomenal. NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names is so good, and I wanted live forever in the strange mysteries of The Taiga Syndrome (tr. Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana), by Christina Rivera Garza.   

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean from a Window, 1959

I could go on – I haven’t mentioned Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon, or Grace Paley’s Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, or Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas, or Cynan Jones’s The Dig, or Andrea Bajani’s If You Kept a Record of Sins,  …, or … or …. But I have to make myself quit.

I’ve really enjoyed writing this. Thanks for reading.

Hope Coulter’s Year in Reading, 2021

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).

Alex Colville, Dog in Car, 1999

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.

Balthus, The Game of Patience, 1954

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!]

M. F. Corwin’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by M. F. Corwin, who tweets as @eudamonis. Corwin, a person of mystery, currently lives in the Pacific Northwest.

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).

Isaac Levitan, The Lake. Gray Day, 1895

M: How can one talk about one’s entire year of reading?

E: Well, that’s why you keep a list, right?

M: That’s just a list of books finished.

E: …and of course there’s more to reading than finishing books.

M: Yes. There are the books abandoned, and the reading done but not completed in the year.

E: There’s no shame in not reading to deadline.

M: Why would the end of the year be a deadline? The calendar’s arbitrary; reading’s continuous. 

E: To a point. Anyway. What books didn’t you finish last year?

M: A lot! Two that stand out are Polly Barton’s Fifty Sounds and Arsenyev’s Across the Ussuri Kray, both of which I’ve been reading slowly, because I’m not quite ready to leave them behind.

E: Why?

M: For the Barton, it’s the combination of the clever conceit of organizing a memoir around onomatopoeic vocabulary with the keen analysis of culture shock and the tenderness towards her younger self, towards all younger selves. For the Arsenyev, well, it just pushes a lot of buttons. It’s Siberia, so that’s inherently interesting, but there’s also the pairing of naturalist observation with early twentieth-century exploration and adventure after the Russo-Japanese War. It doesn’t hurt that it has some background for Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala and was translated by the guy who wrote that book on Siberian owls.

E: Did you read the owl book?

M: I tried, but the tone was too close to a Peace Corps memoir, a sort of magazine slick. Good in its way, but not what I wanted from it.

E: What other books didn’t you read last year?

M: That’s a really important question – for me at least. The books I didn’t (or don’t) read have a huge impact on the books that I choose to read and/or finish, although the relationship can be complicated.

E: What would be an example?

M: Well, I meant to reread War and Peace last year, given that I found a collection of the Oxford World Classics hardcovers of Tolstoy while looking for butter knives. [Ed. – Like, in your house?] I was planning to read his works more or less in order, and War and Peace comes surprisingly early.

E: Just to address what is clearly a side point: Are all of your book purchases failed attempts at housekeeping?

M: … hm. Probably. But, as you say, not important. I was reading Tolstoy’s early short stories and got kind of stuck on the Sevastopol stories, which were really fascinating: keen observation, a brutal eye for military matters, and the veneer of cheap morality really showing some deliberate wear. It got me wondering about the background to War and Peace; obviously as a historical novel, it’s somewhat different, but it made me want more context. I’d already been interested in reading The Life of the Archpriest Avvakum, Written by Himself, as it had been translated by Jane Ellen Harrison and Hope Mirrlees during their Russian kick (which also led to The Book of the Bear, which in turn was part of what convinced me to get around to Marian Engel’s Bear [Ed. — Oh, that sounds interesting], although they are not at all related); I had heard, perhaps erroneously, that Avvakum’s style in some ways influenced Tolstoy’s. So I read that, in a more recent translation, which I didn’t quite care for, though the introduction was very firm about its authenticity.

E: And then?

M: Well, that led me to Janet Martin’s history of medieval Russia, which is a very decent introduction and confirmed my opinion that I needed to get to know a bit more history before I could get back to Tolstoy. I picked up some books that seemed like they might be relevant (Kollman’s The Russian Empire 1450–1801 and Seton-Watson’s The Russian Empire, 1801–1917), but before I got to those I felt I really needed to know a bit more about Lithuania, because it just kept cropping up in Martin’s book. So I read a history of the Polish-Lithuanian Union and it was tremendously illuminating.

E: How so?

M: It was one of those wonderful moments when one, as a reader, has the opportunity to see how perfectly ignorant one is. [Ed. — Would that more of us thought this way!] An entire vista, previously unknown, appears with all of its possibilities. Not just an unknown vista, but an entirely unimagined one, a rich field of arguments in every footnote. It’s deeply satisfying to read something that does not confirm one’s suspicions, not least because one did not know enough to have any.

E: So did you get to the Russian history books?

M: Not yet! I mean, I could go through the same sort of scenario with other books I didn’t read: Duras, whom I keep trying to work myself up to liking [Ed. – Same! Speak truth to power!] (which led to Sara Mesa’s Four by Four, Elisa Shua Dusapin’s Winter in Sokcho, Chantal Akerman’s My Mother Laughs, and the Léger trilogy published by the Dorothy Project) or Locke’s Treatise on Human Understanding (Hamann, Gadamer’s Enigma of Health, and Toril Moi’s Revolution of the Ordinary). Sometimes when I try to rev myself up to read something I get distracted – and perhaps the distraction is more interesting than the intention. Like I was working through Shakespeare’s plays last year as well, and I rather wonder if I might not have had more fun with the project, as a project, if I had allowed myself to be distracted from it, about it, more. There’s always a pleasure, though, in rereading something familiar from high school that will stand up to (and reward) attentive rereading – like putting on a mental bathrobe that one has had forever only to find it much finer than one had remembered. The same thing kind of happened in reverse while rereading Civilization and Its Discontents: I had the uncomfortable sensation of (re)discovering the forgotten source for some of my mental furniture, which was a bit embarrassing.

E: Are these distractions always just a way of sneaking up on a reading project?

M: Sadly, no. There’s a lot of the magpie, too. Someone will mention something on Twitter, or there will be a sale from Rixdorf or Open Letter or pretty much any small or university press, and, well, I am easily distracted. Or perhaps I was just ready to be distracted. 

E: What was the best distraction you encountered last year?

M: Paul Valéry’s Dialogues and Idée Fixe, without a doubt – charming without being cloying. I picked them up at random on my first trip back to Powell’s since the start of the pandemic and, even though I had previously disliked the dialogue form, they led me to rethink my position. 

E: So, when will you be rereading War and Peace?

M: Eventually.

Isaac Levitan, Vladimir’s Road, 1892

Martin Schneider’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Martin Schneider, a freelance copyeditor (of books!) who lives in Cleveland, tweets at @wovenstrap, and used to write for Dangerous Minds. He’s part-Austrian and can occasionally can be found in that country.

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).

Charles E. Martin

The global pandemic has been very good for my reading life.

I’ve read novels my entire adult life but the raw totals in any given year might not have been very high, maybe 30 per year. When COVID-19 arrived, I had an empty work patch in my freelance schedule and I responded by attempting to read one novel per day for 30 days (!) as a way of distracting myself from the fact that I might have a hard time finding freelance work. I made it to Day 19 but some work came in, thank god, and I didn’t get to Day 30. That stretch sparked a period of high novel consumption: I read 72 novels in 2020 and 70 novels in 2021. Those are very high totals for me.

I’m grateful for the particular cluster on Twitter that orbits around Caustic Cover Critic and Damian Kelleher and of course Dorian for improving my general experience on Twitter as well as giving me inspiration for new books and a community of like-minded people, etc. I should also say a word about the Backlisted podcast as additional inspiration (obviously that also overlaps with Twitter in some ways). I appreciate the monthly bookstack photographs and other visual ephemera that Book Twitter is always providing me with.

I’m a volume whore, by which I mean I favor reading short novels so that the raw book count stays as high as possible and I don’t get stuck for a month reading Moby-Dick or whatever. [Ed. — Ah, but what a month it would be!] 275 pages already begins to seem a high total to me, my sweet spot is about 191. ABC, always be churning. [Ed. – Hahaha!]

It goes without saying that 2021 was a very good reading year for me, cycling through 70 books in a calendar year is pretty close to an ideal way for me to spend my free time.

OK, here are about 20 books I wanted to say something about, listed in chronological order except where books are joined.

Michaela Roessner, Vanishing Point

The first read of the year for me, and one of the year’s finest. Vanishing Point is hard to track down but this exemplar of heady, sinuous ’80s sci-fi is worthwhile for those who like that kind of thing. The setup has much in common with Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers — it also came first — which most likely is what drew me to seek it out. I don’t want to divulge too much about it, but I greatly enjoyed this intelligent, immersive book, and I think about it often.

Josephine Tey, The Franchise Affair

I’ve never been much enamored of The Daughter of Time, which has always seemed implausible and overbaked. This left me unprepared for the astonishing authorial control of The Franchise Affair. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a better representation of midcentury England than this book; the sheer exuberance of the jolly/obliging/diffident/snappish voices — literally, speaking voices — is tough to top. What’s the cricket equivalent of “a home run”? [Ed. – Knocked it out of the oval here, my friend: such a good book.]

Gilbert Adair, Love and Death on Long Island

Quite simply, my #1 read of 2021. I adore thinking about this book. Every page is a treat. I would urge those who like their fiction subtle and incisive to consume this immediately. Adair’s performance — and it is definitely a performance — feels thoroughly under-heralded. I had seen bits of the movie years ago and had always found the central predicament original and delicious and rich. Who can fail to relate to the sorrows/joys of being a bookish hideaway in a world that produces, almost unthinkingly, Hotpants College II?? [Ed. – Admittedly, not a patch on Hotpants I.] The ways Giles and Ronnie fail to comprehend each other are a wellspring of comedy that will never stop nourishing me. I never reread books but will likely return to this “jewel-like” 1930s-type book set in the age of the vulgar teenage sex farce (rented from the local video shop, natch); those 1980s details are decisively additive, at least for me. I sorely crave books like this but alas, strong comps are surely thin on the ground…… [Ed. – Ooh, a challenge: do your best, Team. Whatcha got for Martin?]

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

I am a fan of Whitehead’s, but I was disappointed by The Underground Railroad. It seems unusually weak for a Pulitzer winner (then again, there is The Goldfinch, oof). I appreciated the comparative tour of antebellum contexts, but the failure to develop the literalized choo-choos nagged at me. Does that metaphor explain anything to anybody? I can’t see how. It’s such a great idea but also a massive missed opportunity. This is the rare case of a book that needs another 200 pages, I think. I also worry that Whitehead has bought into the hype surrounding him. Give me another John Henry Days, man — please!

C.S. Forester, The African Queen

In 2020 I read The Good Shepherd and found it utterly compelling. Then dang if the same thing didn’t happen all over again with The African Queen. I am a little leery of the Hornblower books — I prefer the 20th century, thanks — but Forester’s way of imparting information really does it for me.

Patricia Lockwood, No One Is Talking About This

Jonathan Lethem, The Arrest

No One Is Talking About This is a relatively celebrated recent novel that I cluster together with the works of Jenny Offill and Rachel Khong, and not in a positive way. I think of all of these books as jammed with clever, postmodern witticisms/jokes that you could rearrange in any order and it wouldn’t make much difference to the narrative. That’s a little unfair to No One Is Talking About This, which Lockwood does take pains to instill with an Act I/Act II structure, but I still found it a complete failure in terms of ordinary novel-building. Meanwhile, Lethem is not much in fashion lately, especially after The Feral Detective, which did not work. I suspect there was scant interest in his stab at Post-Apocalypse, but I still found The Arrest as intelligent, engaging, and sharp as much of his stuff — I admire Chronic City particularly. His books don’t always hang together, but on the paragraph and thematic levels, Lethem seems to me the equal of anyone out there right now and, as such, under-appreciated.

Arthur Getz

Margaret Drabble, The Millstone

Oh, boy. I was more than a little surprised how conventional and bourgeois (and therefore tiresome) I found this book, which in 1965 represented such a brave “new” perspective — or did it? From the perspective of 2021 it reads as so much more aligned to Drabble’s (presumably) hated predecessors than to us. To the reader of today, I submit, so many of Rosamund’s choices are unintelligible, particularly that of concealing the existence of her child from her parents. Rosamund’s whole setup (enormous apartment, rent-free) is so contrived and refuses to serve as the societal basis for anything (as I think was intended or at least was regarded). Jerusalem the Golden, a humble tale of growth about a woman from humble origins I read and esteemed decades ago, seems the antithesis of this. Drabble really leans into her privilege here, thus undoing the point. Next! [Ed. – *popcorn gif *]

Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

The last few years I have found myself increasingly disenchanted with the MFA-influenced “well-crafted” masterpieces that dominate (say) the Tournament of Books. The writing is frequently too tidy and pristine and there’s too much overlap/groupthink in the authors. In my mind, these books are not composed by individuals; too many of the nasty, idiosyncratic details have been sanded off. An antidote to this is Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, far from a great book but I found its termite-ish perambulations entirely refreshing and (am I crazy for believing this?) an explicit callback to the shaggy-dog ways of Dickens. I do suspect that Tarantino thought of this “novelization” (a favorite form of his) as an attack on all the bloodless hifalutin volumes that get adopted by reading groups. I’m ready to sign on to this agenda; modern fiction could surely stand to ingest the unkempt, untoward essence of this book.

Elena Ferrante, The Lost Daughter

I admire the guts it took to be so unflinching about the unvirtuous aspects of shirked motherhood. The Lost Daughter dares you to dislike its protagonist, which I did not — or not very much; Ferrante works in the class signifiers to make her readers side with her heroine over the swinish, unreaderly family that intrudes on her interlude — and then forces those same readers to think about that. It’s encouraging that a writer of Ferrante’s gifts has found such widespread success.

Susanna Clarke, Piranesi

Everybody’s favorite recent puzzle box, it seems. The first half of this book constituted one of the reading high points of the year for me. Nothing wrong with the second half, to be sure, but you just can’t top the sheer blazing WTF “where is this going?” quality of this book’s setup. [Ed. – Yeah, can’t argue with that.] As with Love and Death on Long Island, I desperately want to find books with this vibe, but I doubt that any are out there (I did think of David Mitchell’s Slade House, however).

Joseph Hansen, Fadeout

One of my top reads of 2021. I learn from the internet that Hansen was a pioneer of the gay detective novel. This book introduced Dave Brandstetter, Hansen’s recurring hero of a dozen or so mysteries. The gay angle functions as the lever that furnishes Hansen’s situation/solution with complexity, but it wasn’t just that; Hansen also had the ability and the interest to write textured, complex thrillers. That’s the kind of shit I live for! This was published in 1970, but I thought it stood up dazzlingly well today.

Eugene Mihaesco

Percival Everett, Cutting Lisa

This somehow pairs with The Lost Daughter in the author seeking out, nay, embracing unpleasantness to spectacular effect. This was on my shortlist of reading experiences for the year, a strikingly original work that forthrightly countenanced negativity while resisting the impulse to pin everything on a villain. Every character has corners; every situation is layered. My first Everett, Cutting Lisa has a chewiness I associate with the finest output of the 80s, and I can’t wait to read more by him.

William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow

Katherine Anne Porter, Noon Wine

So Long, See You Tomorrow is one of those “writerly” novellas that hit me entirely the wrong way. Maxwell was a smalltown escapee who later found tenure at The New Yorker and thereby invested himself of the power to imbue these “simple midwestern people” (yuck) with meaning. If ever a narrative should have dispensed with the pretentious framing device of the events filtered through the memories of a child, it’s this one. I guess I can see why people admire this book, but for me it was just a succession of false notes. [Ed. – Ooh, fighting words!] Noon Wine reveals the falsity of Maxwell’s methods; another short novel — Porter, it seems, detested the term novella — but in this case authentically empathetic towards its figures, in contrast to Maxwell’s self-serving projections/lies. Noon Wine has the guts to put real people on the page — and real stakes.

William Lindsay Gresham, Nightmare Alley

One of the much-mentioned texts of 2021, due to the Guillermo del Toro adaptation that landed late in the year. Later on, I found it significant that Gresham is not celebrated for any other work. This book is certainly adept and not devoid of virtues, but I found it labored and tiresome, every point underlined in every paragraph, nothing allowed to breathe, as a real novelist would do it. I resorted to a new strategy: just grind through 10 pages per day until done, just to get it behind me (while starting a different novel, I seldom double dip). I should go back and finish Geek Love as an antidote (not that Dunn let things breathe, either).

Louise Erdrich, The Sentence

Simply put, I cannot think of another novel as generous-minded as this.

Other books I enjoyed:

Powers of Attorney by Louis Auchincloss

Asylum by Patrick McGrath

Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls

Trustee from the Toolroom by Nevil Shute

The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux

Figures in a Landscape by Barry England

The Small Back Room by Nigel Balchin

The Blessing by Nancy Mitford

A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie by Jean Rhys

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

Rose Under Glass by Elizabeth Berridge

The Quiet American by Graham Greene

On the Beach by Nevil Shute

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P.D. James

The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage

Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze

Amigo, Amigo by Francis Clifford

Something in Disguise by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Five Decembers by James Kestrel

A Disorder Peculiar to the Country by Ken Kalfus

Tina K.’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Tina K. (@TheEsteemedFox). When I asked Tina what I should write about her, she wrote: “Tina K. went into an existential tailspin when Dorian asked her for a short bio. “Oh my god… who am I?” She’s a freelance editor that everyone should hire, wildlife photographer, middling athlete, rapacious reader, and a silly little fool, in Hamilton, Ontario.”

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).

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? Or Theatre?

A Little Fiction

I like to switch up my reading between fiction and history, and since I can’t get enough of war as a subject and all the weird and horrific things it entails I thought I’d pump the brakes this year and do something different, maybe choose only some stuff about or related to the First and Second World Wars, but it seemed like no matter what I bought or borrowed the wars showed up anyway in the best books I read in 2021. It’s tough to avoid this topic, WWI and II still pulse hardily through our arts and history, you can’t throw a stick in a library or a bookstore without nicking a war vein, and so I was caught off guard by Rogue Male (1939) by Geoffrey Household, which turned out to be not only a WWII manhunt story but THE MOST entertaining fiction I read all year. In many years, frankly. It takes off like a rocket and doesn’t let up: you’ve got a failed assassination attempt on Hitler, you’ve got globetrotting, you’ve got the superlatively resourceful English gentleman of means and fame and disguise, you’ve got an enemy of equal cunning and fortitude, you’ve got love, loss, hiding underground like a wild animal — and bless us all, there’s a cat! — and none of it is corny, none of it cliché. The prose is clever, personal, polished, a joy to get caught up in, and for a novel with significant violence it has a way of eliding the violent act to leave you instead with its gruesome outcome. After being left for dead, the narrator says about his ordeal only, “My nails are growing back but my left eye is still pretty useless.” This is how Household treats all violence: he doesn’t walk you through it, there’s no point-aim-fire, no descriptions of knives plunging into flesh, you only see the effect of violence after the fact, which is a genius technique. There is so much technique in this novel and it THRILLS me. It boggles my mind that Geoffrey Household isn’t a… what do you call it again when a person’s name is well known by the public? 

Then there’s The Transit of Venus (1980) by Shirley Hazzard. I love Shirley Hazzard so I married her earlier this year after reading her book [Ed. – But she’s…], we’re very happy, it’s not a delusion [Ed. – But she’s…], I’m totally normal, shut up [Ed. – I’ll shut up.]. As the NY Times review of this book so aptly puts it, this novel lives in “the long shadow of World War I… [which] darkens almost every page” (which, again, I wasn’t expecting) and ends in either long-anticipated reunion or tragedy, depending on how much attention you paid to one itty bitty yet pivotal detail somewhere in the last half of the novel. (I’m a big endings person, they can make a so-so book or break a great book for me.) Put plainly, Transit is men and women with a lot of pain and complicated feelings/living situations, either chasing or running away from love, but Hazzard is one of those people you read for her great sentences — like Geoffrey Household she’s a master of technique — so the novel’s most heavenly attribute is its style, which I’ve described over and over again like an evangelist lunatic obsessive as “the perfect economy of every paragraph”. Each page has something that makes you go How tf did Hazzard just do that? as you read her doing it, and this is why Transit is so damned good. Look at this: “His hand rotated on her breast, but from force of kindly habit, absently fondling a domestic pet. On the coverlet her own hand lay open, upturned, extended to a fortune-teller. She watched him with love that was like a loss of consciousness.” And this: “His tweeds were the colour and texture of fine sand. Beige and granular, he stood on an asphalted platform in a blaze of Sunday-afternoon tedium.” (Honestly Shirley, you’re just showing off now.) She was a dark horse for me this year, and I would recommend this novel even if she weren’t my wife (which she is). [Ed. – She definitely is.]

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? Or Theatre?

A Little History

Indulging your anger is often considered unvirtuous, which is why the “restrained fury” of Primo Levi (as Ivan Kenneally [@IvanKenneally] put it to me) is so bracing and engrossing. Survivors of the Holocaust seemed to sort themselves into two groups, those who talked about their experience and those who wouldn’t, and Levi talked about it, he raged about it, with a gripping candor that you just won’t find in anyone else who writes autobiographically about the Holocaust. This year I read The Reawakening (1965) and The Periodic Table (1975), both written in Levi’s signature vignette style, both funny yet sorrowful, and unrelenting about what he endured, witnessed, and morally wrestled with until his death. The Reawakening recounts Levi’s months-long journey back to Italy immediately after his liberation from the camp, and is an excellent companion to Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of WWII (2012) if, like me, you want to know how Europeans got by in 1945 as the continent was reduced to little more than rubble and revenge. Levi’s revenge was his refusal to stay silent, whereas so many others took their revenge by doing to Germans what the Nazis had done to everyone else (and yes, that does mean camps for Germans and killing, lots of retaliatory killing). Savage Continent will give you a near-forensic accounting of revenge, and Levi, too, accounts for it in his own way in The Reawakening when, after he’s freed, he’s warned by a Polish policeman not to speak German because: 

with an eloquent gesture, passing his index and middle fingers, like a knife, between his chin and larynx… [he] add[ed] very cheerfully, Tonight all Germans kaputt… The next day we passed a long train of cattle-trucks, closed from the outside; they were going east, and from the slits one could see many human mouths gaping for air. This spectacle, strongly evocative, aroused in me a mixture of confused and contradictory feelings, which even today I have difficulty in disentangling. 

The settling of scores is appalling, but not surprising. And oh, there were scores, scores I still can’t wrap my head around after reading Sarah Helm’s Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women (2014), an insanely good history on the rise and fall of Nazi Germany from the perspective of the thousands and thousands of “useless mouths” interned and killed in Ravensbrück, where prisoners were only valued as disposable industrial slaves, medical testing “rabbits”, or for hostage diplomacy in the rare case of a French, English, or Dutch prisoners. I can’t lie: I Googled several of the Nazi guards and doctors before the book told me what happened to them after the war because I wanted the pleasure of knowing that they’d met their fate at the gallows before I read on. It’s not so hard to imagine the motivation 75+ years later for quick retribution against an enemy, especially when the foundations of European law and order were in absolute ruins, and no one, if there even was anyone, who cared to stop it was looking.

Karen Naughton’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Karen Naughton. Karen, a lifelong reader whose tastes range from popular fiction to classics across almost all genres, has a Ph.D. in British and American literature and divides her time between Texas and Maine with her husband and two dogs. She tweets @barkerforbooks.

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).

Gabriele Münter, Woman in an Armchair, Writing, 1929

In 2021, nonfiction featured prominently in my list of favorite reads. Of these, The Path to Power, Robert Caro’s first volume in his multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, stands above the rest. The work is the marriage of a master story teller with a subject who defies categorization—one of my all-time favorite biographies. I also loved discovering the writer Pam Houston, whose memoir Deep Creek inspired me with its wisdom acquired through adversity. The most memorable scene in that book involves Houston sharing with two younger women her experiences expending emotional energy on men and dating. Finally, Trent Preszler’s memoir Little and Often also impressed me. Preszler is a gay man who honors his deceased estranged father by building a canoe using hand tools his father bequeathed him. Preszler’s ability to convey affection and gratitude despite his father’s failings sets this work apart.

Three novels made my year’s best-reads list. He depiction of emotional abuse in Dorothy Whipple’s They Were Sisters is among the best I’ve read. Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Half of a Yellow Sun, set during the Nigerian civil war of the late 1960s, moved me with its deft portrayal of war’s devastations. Since Houston, Texas, where I’ve lived most of my life, is home to a large community of people of Nigerian heritage, this history fascinated me. Finally, I’ve always had success with Julia Alvarez’s books and her latest, Afterlife, did not disappoint. It investigates the boundaries between what individuals owe to themselves and to their communities.

My favorite poetry collection was Shuly Xóchitl Cawood’s Trouble Can Be So Beautiful in the Beginning. Lyrical and accessible, these poems use images of domesticity to explore themes of loneliness and connection.

Two short story collections proved memorable. Mavis Gallant’s The Cost of Living [Ed. — Canada, represent!] expertly plumbs the circuitry of domestic relationships, a category of fiction that usually works for me. Somewhat in contrast, the stories in Chris Gonzalez’s I’m Not Hungry but I Could Eat focus more on loneliness than on connection. Many have a melancholy tone, but Gonzalez peppers the narratives with such wit that the book is as humorous as it is poignant.

Taking a cue from NancyKay Shapiro’s guest post, my least favorite read of the year (surprising no one, perhaps) is Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. I read it because I like to have my own opinion about popular books. I didn’t expect to love it, but I did think it would at least be a page turner. The sexualized violence was a resounding “no” for this reader… and it was long. [Ed. — And yet you finished it! Amazing fortitude.] If you loved this book (many, many people do), no shade. It’s just not for me at this point in my reading life.

To end on a more positive note, I was able to make dents in two of my reading goals for 2021. I purposely reduced my Goodreads reading goal in order to encourage me to tackle some of the larger tomes on my TBR. In addition to the lengthy books named above, I read JR by William Gaddis and The Tale of Genji by Marusaki Shikibu and translated by Royall Tyler. I cannot say I loved either of these works, but I am glad I read them and certainly feel that they have added to my literary and cultural knowledge. My favorite novelist is Thomas Hardy. My other goal this year was to get to the novels of his I hadn’t read before. I read three: Dangerous Remedies, Under the Greenwood Tree, and The Hand of Ethelberta. Reading these in order of publication, I can trace his growth as a novelist. Of them, Ethelberta is a hidden gem. It’s in no way a perfect novel, but the characterization and fate of Ethelberta gobsmacked me. I highly encourage anyone pursuing Victorian studies to check out this novel, rich for analysis.

Ben Nicholson, June 11-49 (Cornish Landscape)

Thanks to the Twitter bookish community for inspiring much of my 2021 reading year, and thanks to Dorian for inviting me to interrupt his regular programming. [Ed. – Interruption? This is the regular programming! Thank you, Karen!]

Matt Keeley’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Matt Keeley, a marketer and freelance editor who reads too much. He lives in Massachusetts. You can find him on Twitter at @mattkeeley.

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).

Vija Celmins, Night Sky #2, 1991

My favorite of all the books I read in 2021 was John Crowley’s Little, Big. Like my favorite book from 2020, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s chronicle of medieval life The Corner That Held Them, I believe it to be a masterpiece but hesitate to recommend it widely. Crowley’s 1981 novel follows the fortunes of the Drinkwater family through the twentieth century and into a bleakly imagined twenty-first. The family is connected, Somehow (Crowley always capitalizes this word), to the fairies and to a mysterious Tale (again, capitalized) that may encompass more worlds than ours. While no one, the author included, would deny that it’s a fantasy novel, it’s far different from and much superior to most everything published in the genre since Tolkien. It’s a long, beautiful, stately, and oblique novel; I look forward to returning to it.

Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker was a surprise and felt like a gift: When he published his memoir Where Shall We Run To? in 2018, Garner was already in his mid-eighties, and he’s a slow writer. Although I read it in just a few hours, Treacle Walker is precisely as long as it needs to be. I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to Garner, but it’s a fine (apparent) capstone to his six-decade career.

I read two books by Janet Malcolm in close succession early in the year; Two Lives is about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas: their lives, their love, their art, and the mystery of their survival as Jewish lesbians in occupied France. Malcolm’s précis of Stein’s The Making of Americans is particularly wonderful; I had no idea how strange, unmannered, and unedited that pseudo-novel is. I wouldn’t want to brave its nine hundred pages of dropped plots, failed experiments, and abandoned philosophical musings, but I’m glad to know what’s in there. The other Malcolm title was Iphigenia in Forest Hills, true crime about a murder, more sad than sordid, in Queens. I don’t think either book achieves the heights of The Journalist and the Murderer, but both titles are exemplary models of craft and sympathy.

Dorothy Dunnett’s The Spring of the Ram is the second novel in the House of Niccolò series. While her books, with their dense prose, unglossed allusions, and cunningly withheld character motivations, aren’t for everyone, I’m happy to reflect that I have a whole six more books in this series to read.

I went on a minor Philip Roth kick as the pre-scandal publicity around Blake Bailey’s biography kicked into gear. The Facts and The Dying Animal were minor, but Sabbath’s Theater is a masterpiece, the most exhausting, most dyspeptic, and most sinisterly compassionate novel I read this year.

Colson Whitehead’s The Colossus of New York comprises thirteen impressionistic essays about life in New York. Although it’s a distinctly minor work by a major writer, it was a balm for me at a moment when I was missing the city I’d made my home for six pre-pandemic years.

Rachel Eisendrath’s Gallery of Clouds is a book about, among other things, Sir Philip Sidney’s mostly forgotten sixteenth-century poetry, academic life, manuscripts, Walter Benjamin, and Virginia Woolf. I admit that I remember the book’s mood more than its matter — I had to consult the book’s publicity page to recall which writers feature in it. Perhaps that’s my failure as a reader. Or, if there really is something evanescent about Gallery of Clouds, maybe that’s only appropriate for a book of wisps and reverie and free association?

The Trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by Sybille Bedford is a brief account, just under a hundred pages long, of the 1960 British lawsuit against Penguin Books, which had published the unexpurgated version of D.H. Lawrence’s novel. Bedford attended the trial; sixty years on, her account remains witty and infuriating.

Odilon Redon, Buddha, 1904

Some final thoughts and suggestions:

I think Dorian told me about the Willem Frederik Hermans novella An Untouched House, which was as good as I’d been led to believe. [Ed. – Not me, sadly. It’s still on Mount TBR. Will Matt’s recommender please step forward?] I finally got around to reading Frank Herbert’s Dune, which I’d tried and failed to read when I was eleven or so.As someone who is occasionally paid to review science fiction, it’s a relief to finally cross this off my reading list. The prose isn’t great, but the novel is more than the sum of its parts. I don’t think that The Trees, Percival Everett’s comic guignol procedural about America’s history of racism, with bonus zombies,entirely succeeds, but I now have a whole stack of other Everett novels to read. Adam Mars-Jones’s Batlava Lake is extremely funny until, on the last page, it isn’t. Anthony Doerr’s Cloud-Cuckoo Land might be too commercial for some readers of this blog, but is absolutely enthralling. [Ed. –For some maybe, but the editor is willing to try all the things.] Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan lived up to the reviewers’ unanimous praise.

Paul Wilson’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading, his second annual contribution, is by Paul Wilson (@bibliopaul). Paul lives in Colorado with his wife, two sons and lots of books. He also co-hosts The Mookse and the Gripes podcast.

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’m happy to say that coming up with a list of my favorite books read in 2021 was no easy task. For one thing, I read more books this year than I ever have before. Why? My best guess is a combination of the ongoing impacts of a quieter pandemic life, the fact that my wife and I now share our house with two teenage boys who are often doing their own things, and a conscious effort on my part to simply spend more time reading. 

Creating my list was made even more tricky by countless recommendations from so many wonderful and generous friends on Twitter and elsewhere. It’s like I have a team of top-notch curators sending me a constant stream of great books. I started with a stack of around 30 titles that could have made the list, but here are 10 favorites.  

Tomás González, Difficult Light, translated from the Spanish by Andrea Rosenberg 

This is a mesmerizing and melancholy book about time and memory. The narration often jumps across decades, sometimes within a single paragraph or even sentence, creating fascinating and often somber insights into aging and the far-reaching effects of our pasts. A quiet reflection on art, loss and family that offers yet another example of why Archipelago Books remains one of the most exciting and important publishers out there. 

I am surprised once more by how supple words are—how all by themselves, or practically by themselves, they can express the ambiguity, the changeability, the fickleness of things. And yet I long for the aroma of oils or the powdery feel of charcoal in my fingers, and I miss the pang—like the pang of love—that you feel when you sense you have touched infinity; captured an elusive light, a difficult light, with a bit of oil mixed with ground-up metals or stones.

Nathalie Léger, Suite For Barbara Loden, translated from the French by Natasha Lehrer 

Can it really be true that I hadn’t heard of Nathalie Léger before 2021? In a year filled with wonderful literary discoveries, she was one of my very favorites. I read her triptych of novels all in a row and loved each of them, but, to me, Suite for Barbara Loden was the standout.Ostensibly about the film Wanda, its creator Barbara Loden, and Léger’s attempt to write a short entry for a film encyclopedia, this book becomes a mesmerizing blend of biography, autofiction, film analysis, and Dyer-esque reflections on the slippery process of creation. 

I find myself increasingly drawn to books that are hard to pin down or define and this one certainly fits that description in all the best ways. If you’re looking for a project for 2022, I would highly recommend spending some time with Wanda and Léger. I think about them both often. 

“How difficult can it be to tell a story simply?” my mother asks again. I have to stay calm, slow down and lower my voice: what does it mean, “to tell a story simply”? … You think that you’re dealing with pure formalities, footnotes, short texts, table, prefaces, indexes or annexes—an orderly organized abundance of works that you just need to spend a morning assembling into a few sentences; a straightforward administration of language—and then somehow you end up with endless decisions to make, with abandoned hopes and collapsed hypotheses.

Jhumpa Lahiri, Whereabouts, translated from the Italian by the author

Lahiri has long been one of my very favorite writers, so when I heard she had a new book coming out, I went through the usual blend of anticipation and anxiety that precedes a highly anticipated work by a beloved author. I needn’t have worried. 

The unnamed narrator is a prickly, unmarried writer and lit professor who has lived in the same Italian city for her entire life. Through a series of episodes that take place over the course of a year, she shares her meditative and sometimes melancholy perspectives on isolation, solitude and the movement of time. Although a dramatic departure in many ways from the subject and style of Lahiri’s previous works, Whereabouts is an example of a master at the top of her game. I can’t wait to see what she does next. 

Solitude: it’s become my trade. As it requires a certain discipline, it’s a condition I try to perfect. And yet it plagues me, it weighs on me in spite of my knowing it so well.

Robert Walser, The Tanners, translated from the Swiss German by Susan Bernofsky

After years of sitting unread on my shelves, this book was becoming one of the spines my eyes unconsciously skipped over while I scanned for my next read [Ed. – that is a thing, isn’t it?]. Fortunately, my good friend Trevor (@mookse) saved it from obscurity by sharing his contagious love of Walser during our conversations this year. Tragedy averted! 

This was my first foray into Walser’s work, but it certainly won’t be my last. Reading him is like jumping into a raging river—you can fight it and become overwhelmed, or you can relax, let it carry you along and just enjoy the ride. This was the most exuberant and joyful thing I read this year. 

I must find myself a life, a new life, even if all of life consists only of an endless search for life. What is respect compared to this other thing: being happy and having satisfied the heart’s pride. Even being unhappy is better than being respected. I am unhappy despite the respect I enjoy; and so in my own eyes I don’t deserve this respect; for I consider only happiness worthy of respect. Therefore I must try whether it is possible to be happy without insisting on respect.

T. J. Clark, The Sight Of Death

I never would have discovered this gem if I hadn’t stumbled across a tweet by Lauren Groff: “I’m so broken down by isolation that I can’t get four pages into T.J. Clark’s The Sight of Death without weeping. Just—the patience and persistence and love it takes to visit the same painting day after day and see new things, better things, how the light changes, it’s so moving.”

In 2000, two paintings by Poussin were hung in a room in the Getty Museum. Clark found himself hypnotically drawn to them, returning day after day to sit quietly in the room and record his observations in a series of journals. His subtle blend of passion and patience is fascinating and contagious. I read it back in March and still think about it almost every day. Its laser focus on obsession, solitude, and time haunt me. 

I believe the distance of visual imagery from verbal discourse is the most precious thing about it. It represents one possibility of resistance in a world saturated by slogans, labels, sales pitches, little marketable meaning-motifs.

Olivia Manning, Balkan Levant Trilogies

When I think about the books that gave me the most pleasure in 2021, there’s no way I could leave Olivia Manning off the list. [Ed. – The man speaks truth.] I joined my first ever Twitter reading groups this year while making my way through her two trilogies: I had a blast, connected with many great readers, and had so much fun seeing the various historical images everyone shared and reading their reactions and insights about these wonderful books. The experience was a reminder of how art and literature foster community and conversation. 

On top of all that, Manning’s trilogies are incredibly compelling, masterfully balancing the epic scope and horror of war with the countless ways it impacts the individual lives caught up in its wake. 

For several nights, Simon was worried not only by the lack of cover but the intrusive magnificence of the Egyptian night. The stars were too many and too bright. They were like eyes: waking in mid-sleep, finding them staring down on him, he was unnerved, imagining they questioned what he was doing there. 

David Albahari, Götz and Meyer, translated from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursać

This book came very highly recommended by Mark Haber and, yes, Dorian Stuber. [Ed. – Paul, you seem to have omitted “the one and only” before my name. Imma put that back in.] I’m so grateful to them both for bringing it to my attention. An unnamed narrator seeks information about his extended family, almost all of whom were killed in gas vans near Belgrade back in 1942. During the course of his research, he comes across the names of two drivers of the truck in which his family was likely put to death: Götz and Meyer. 

The narrator becomes increasingly fixated on these men; his obsession is reflected in the convoluted way in which the story is told. The fictional lives he creates for the two men, along with the book’s increasingly unreliable narrative style, create a growing tension and make the reader less certain about which parts are true and which are invented.

How is this book not better known? I will happily join Mark and Dorian in spreading the word about this slim and haunting masterpiece. [Ed. – It really is fantastic; wrote about it a little more here.]

I must say here that it is entirely possible in the case of Götz , or possibly Meyer, that God was more present than one usually thinks, because Götz, or possibly Meyer, survived the explosion of a bomb that killed at least nine soldiers from his company, thanks only, as he often said, to God’s will, somewhere on the Eastern Front. Because of that Götz, or possibly Meyer, thanked God everyday for his goodness, especially while they were jouncing along in the truck on their way to Jajinci, while in the same truck, in the back Jews were screaming at God with their last breath, asking him why why he wasn’t there, why he wasn’t there yet, why he was never there?

William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

Like Götz and Meyer, this book concerns the fallibility of memory and the impossible task of trying to make sense of horrific and violent events from the past. 

A multigenerational story touching on myth, memory and truth, it features multiple narrators sharing their interpretations of a tragedy. Like much of Faulkner’s work, it reflects the strong cultural ideas of the American South, where the past is still an indelible part of the present that is continually being revised and rewritten through stories told and retold. 

The narrative consists almost entirely of flashbacks that shift in time and between various points of view, creating a fragmented and often disorienting experience. I know many readers have come to think of Faulkner as an academic chore that they’re happy to have left behind, but I would urge anyone who feels that way to reconsider. This is storytelling on a grand scale. A magical book. 

“We have a few old mouth-to-mouth tales, we exhume from old trunks and boxes and drawers letters without salutation or signature, in which men and women who once lived and breathed are now merely initials or nicknames out of some now incomprehensible affection which sound to us like Sanskrit or Chocktaw; we see dimly people, the people in whose living blood and seed we ourselves lay dormant and waiting, in this shadowy attenuation of time possessing now heroic proportions, performing their acts of simple passion and simple violence, impervious to time and inexplicable … They are there, yet something is missing; they are like a chemical formula exhumed along with the letters from that forgotten chest, carefully, the paper old and faded and falling to pieces, the writing faded, almost indecipherable, yet meaningful, familiar in shape and sense, the name and presence of volatile and sentient forces; you bring them together in the proportions called for, but nothing happens; you re-read, tedious and intent, poring, making sure that you have forgotten nothing, made no miscalculation; you bring them together again and again nothing happens: just the words, the symbols, the shapes themselves, shadowy inscrutable and serene, against that turgid background of a horrible and bloody mischancing of human affairs.”

Miguel De Cervantes, Don Quixote, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman

Last year’s top reads for me were Proust’s In Search Of Lost Time and Joyce’s Ulysses. Both joined a short list of the very best books I’ve ever read. I found it incredibly rewarding to engage with these masterpieces and wanted to keep that momentum going this year by reading Don Quixote. I’m happy to report that Cervantes has now taken his rightful place with Proust and Joyce on my all-time list. [Ed. – In so doing, Paul earned himself the nickname DQ, and I encourage you all to call him that.]

As Harold Bloom puts it, “This great book contains within itself all the novels that have followed in its sublime wake. Like Shakespeare, Cervantes is inescapable for all writers who have come after him. Dickens and Flaubert, Joyce and Proust reflect the narrative procedures of Cervantes, and their glories of characterisation mingle strains of Shakespeare and Cervantes. Don Quixote may not be scripture, but it so contains us that, as with Shakespeare, we cannot get out of it to achieve perspectivism. We are inside the vast book, privileged to hear the superb conversations between the knight and his squire, Sancho Panza. Sometimes we are fused with Cervantes, but more often we are invisible wanderers who accompany the sublime pair in their adventures and debacles.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.

A work I was expecting to require patience and hard work instead turned out to be a hilarious and compelling page turner, and a perfect holiday companion to close out the year. It’s amazing how modern this book is, and Edith Grossman’s stellar translation is a masterpiece of its own. As the pages flew by, I could hardly believe it was written 500 years ago. If you’re on the fence, I would urge you to give it a try. My guess is you’ll quickly find yourself immersed, impatiently awaiting the next time you can pick it up and once again take your place beside Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!

Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain, translated from the German by H.T. Lowe-Porter

Each year, when I look back over all the titles I’ve read, it’s always fascinating to see which ones stand out. I loved The Magic Mountain when I was reading it, but the intervening months solidified the enormous impression it made on me. I read most of this wintry book in our backyard hammock during the height of summer, creating some of my favorite memories of the entire year in the process. [Ed. – Love it!]

The plot is relatively straightforward: Hans Castorp is about to start a career as a shipbuilder in Hamburg, but first, he plans a short trip to a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps to visit his tubercular cousin. But as he is drawn into the strange insular world of the hospital and its strange patterns and people, he begins to subscribe to the same rituals and treatment as the patients. Meanwhile, time just keeps slipping away. 

I loved the ambiguity and the fact that I never knew exactly how to think or feel. Mann recommended that those who wished to understand it should read it twice. And even though it’s a huge book that took up a significant part of my reading year, I already find myself drawn back to it and ready to be lost again. 

Time drowns in the unmeasured monotony of space. Where uniformity reigns, movement from point to point is no longer movement; and where movement is no longer movement, there is no time.