Hope Coulter’s Year in Reading, 2020

In the next week or so I’ll be writing up my reflections on my 2020 reading year. In the meantime, I’ve solicited guest posts from friends and fellow book lovers about their own literary highlights. I’m always looking for new contributors; let me know here or on Twitter (@ds228) if you have something you want to share.

The sixth post is by Hope Coulter (@hopester99), who I’m lucky to work with. A fiction writer and poet, Hope directs the Hendrix-Murphy Foundation at Hendrix College.

2020 stole a lot of things from us. One thing it didn’t steal—the Tiffany box sitting in plain sight on the dresser, which the burglar miraculously forgot to swipe into his pillowcase—was reading. When the pandemic struck and life was suddenly curtailed to the home front, a number of factors that normally compete with reading in my waking day, such as daily commutes and shopping, disappeared. The news was one competitor for my attention that remained, but if I wrenched myself away from updates on the latest case numbers and chaos I could turn, with more time and greater relief than usual, to books. And so the weeks went by and I read: through nights where an uncanny stillness muted my neighborhood, in corners of the house (and the day) that were newly open for visitation, on dog walks with earbuds jammed in my ears.

I discovered several fiction writers last year who were new to me. Dorian had tipped me off to Paulette Jiles, whose gritty historical fiction is a delight. Mostly set in the U.S. Midsouth and West, her novels feature authentic dialogue, grainy characters, galloping plots, and accurately rendered settings (at least as far as my own knowledge of horses and birds can confirm). Her News of the World has been made into a movie starring Tom Hanks that just came out. I started with that book and followed up with Simon the Fiddler, Enemy Women, The Color of Lightning, and Stormy Weather.

Another new pleasure was Maggie O’Farrell. I ran into her memoir I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, which may be my favorite—especially with the twist that the final section puts upon the whole. While I was devouring her Instructions for a Heatwave, set in London in 1976, I happened to hear an NPR interview of O’Farrell discussing her new book, Hamnet, which came out last year to lots of accolades: it’s a fictionalization of Shakespeare’s family life. I dipped into more O’Farrell through online samples and wasn’t as taken by them as I was with these three books, but I’ll probably try again with other works of hers.

Curtis Sittenfeld is a fiction writer a friend had mentioned in the context of her novel Rodham, about Hillary Clinton. At the time I didn’t follow up. Then late one night, when I was prowling the spotty “available now” shelves of my Libby app, embarrassingly like an addict knocking on doors for a fix, I came across Sittenfeld’s Eligible. The title rang a bell, and I remembered that a favorite podcaster, Liz Craft, had also touted this author. I saw that the book was an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and inwardly rolled my eyes, because I’m often not a fan of Austen adaptations, either books or movies (why not just go back and reread the real thing?). But I was desperate for a hit, and as soon as I plunged into the sample I was hooked. Eligible was my best 2020 read for sheer fun. Set in contemporary Cincinnati, the book reimagines the Bennet family in ways that are both clever and true to our times, and its fidelity to the story of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy should please even the most stringent of Jane devotees. It’s funny, raunchy, and thoughtful—a romp with depth. I wish I could have made myself enjoy it more slowly, but I couldn’t help racing through.

After that I turned to Sittenfeld’s story collection you think it: i’ll say it, and was underwhelmed. Still hopeful of reexperiencing the Eligible high, I turned to Rodham. Again, I was suspicious: was this book going to be a polemical feminist rant? (Well, kind of.) Was it going to misrepresent Arkansas and Arkansans? (To my surprise, it didn’t.) And the big question: would it shed light on my own complicated opinions of Hillary and Bill; could it embody these two individuals persuasively and give me new insight into their relationship? (Resoundingly, no.) This book receives my Dorothy Parker “not a book to be tossed aside lightly—it should be thrown with great force” Award for 2020. The first part was curiously engrossing, if uncomfortably so, as it nailed Hillary’s voice with cringeworthy persuasiveness and dramatized details about Bill and Hillary’s dating and sex life that only they should know. (Okay, I’ll admit I haven’t read either of their enormous memoirs, and maybe Sittenfeld drew her torrid-romance imagery from their own words—but I doubt it.) The minute that fictional Hillary breaks off with fictional Bill and returns to the East Coast for a solo career, the novel becomes a huge yawn, and I couldn’t make myself finish it. The book could contribute, if tediously, to such eternal questions as the line between fiction and nonfiction, the obligations of the author, whether it’s ethical (or even a good idea aesthetically) to render first-person fiction about a still-living person… but, warning: if you want to use this novel to flog such issues, you may just end up feeling icky.

Other stand-out fiction that I read this year, on the positive side, includes Edwidge Danticat’s Everything Inside; Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow; Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again (yes! more about truculent Olive!);and Gail Honeyman’s haunting Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. I reread Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and—while waiting for the fifth in the series—re-listened to two of Robert Galbraith’s utterly satisfying Cormoran Strike books. Less happily, I buzzed through Carl Hiassen’s Squeeze Me, which is crummy even for a guilty-pleasure book, and finished off my last four books in Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series with the absent-minded “why am I doing this” of someone swallowing stale potato chips. [Ed.–What?? Who could be unmoved by the last book in the series?]

At Hendrix, where Dorian and I are colleagues, I teach only one course a semester, because I also have administrative duties. As it happened, this year I taught the same course back-to-back in spring and fall: a tutorial on Irish short stories. The rereading I did for teaching was that wonderful kind of deep, slow reading that opens window after window into the text. My selection spanned from 1894 to 2017, from folk legends recast into stories by W.B. Yeats and J.M. Synge to modern love fables by Lucy Caldwell and Sally Rooney. Along the way we read some dark jewels by James Joyce, Edna O’Brien, and Frank O’Connor; Roddy Doyle’s delicious “The Pram”; and Seumas O’Kelly’s one-hit wonder, “The Weaver’s Grave.” Discussing these works with the students was a rich experience, even in the online format that had so unexpectedly become a norm. I’ll be returning to these stories, and gladly, in future semesters.

In nonfiction, my reading year’s unexpected highlight was Mark Vanhoenacker’s Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot. As a 747 pilot for British Airways, Vanhoenacker wrote columns for a number of magazines and newspapers, including The New Yorker and The New York Times. In lyrical, exact prose he serves up a cockpit’s-eye view of what it’s like to fly these elegant machines around the globe. Much of the book is terrific description of cloud formations, land patterns, and celestial sights observed on his long flights; I plan to use it as a teaching model. There is also lots of information about the pilot life—what it’s like to cross vast time zones so routinely; how a long-distance crew prepares for flight; and how this long-distance flying affects pilots’ friendships and their outlook on the world. This book was especially good to read during a time when I longed for travel, and when its absence made me see it in a new light. In the long summer hours of 2020 as my husband and I sat on our deck, noticing the planes crossing the sky and speculating as to their destinations, Vanhoenacker’s perspective often came to mind.

Less ecstatically, 2020 prompted me to read on the troubling fronts of race and inequity. Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is a masterpiece, compellingly written and somber. It permanently shifted the way I view systemic racism in the United States. Natasha Trethewey’s memoir, Memorial Drive, is—true to her poet’s nature—much briefer, and evocative in its own way of the caste-based divide in this country. I also read Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, which gave me new understandings of the housing crisis and how deeply it’s enmeshed with other social problems. (I hope Biden and Harris have read it.)

Susan Orlean’s The Library Book has, as Rossini or somebody said about Wagner, wonderful moments and dreadful quarters of an hour. Orlean herself reads the audio version; when will authors learn that, no matter how skilled they are with the pen, they are not trained voice actors? It was only by turning the speed up to 1.5x that I managed to push through her slow, grating voice to the end. Still, the tome includes memorable anecdotes about the history of libraries and L.A. that make it worth the slog.

Early in the pandemic, The American Scholar published a list of recommended food writing from its archives. In our desperation to entertain ourselves my husband and I, like so many others, were lavishing new attention on cooking, so I thought it would be fun to try some of these cookery classics in my reading. Turned out I wasn’t in the mood for How To Cook a Wolf  by M.F.K. Fisher or The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book. James and Kay Salter’s Life Is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days had flashes of fun but, as can happen with food writing, the fussiness became downright shrill—This is how you make a martini! This and only this is what the cool people do with the chicken! By contrast, I absolutely loved Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires: the story of how she became the New York Times food editor, complete with droll—and insightful—accounts of doing restaurant reviews in disguise.

Well, I’ll stop for now. Thanks, Dorian, for giving me the chance to share. It’s an honor to step into this venue: I’ve added so many recommendations to my to-read list from books mentioned here, both in the main blog and in the guest posts and comments. If any of y’all ever come to Little Rock, post-pandemic, let’s grab a drink and fill in the gaps. I want to hear more about what you think and what’s on your nightstand. The plague will be over and the question will still be germane: Read any good books lately?

2016 Year in Reading

Considering its tumultuous and largely depressing events as well as my own poor physical and mental health at various times, I’m surprised I read as much as I did last year. But those challenges meant I needed the comfort of books more than ever.

I read 79 books in 2016: 54% were by women and 46% by men; 68% were written in English and 32% in translation.

A few words about my favourites, in no particular order:

The Best of the Best:

I wrote about (and have already linked to) my absolute favourites for Open Letters Monthly. But I can’t say enough good things about them so I’ll list them again here:

More was Lost—Eleanor Perényi

I adore this book—just thinking about it makes me smile. But I haven’t heard anyone else talking about it, and so I just want to trumpet its moving elegance over and over again. Do you like Lubitsch? Of course you do. Then you’re going to like this book. My list is stacked with New York Review Books, but this year I am most grateful to my favourite press for reissuing this little marvel, the story of an American who falls in love with a Hungarian and experiences a world that is on the point of vanishing. I wrote about it here.

Eline Vere-Louis Couperus

You can read my thoughts on this magnificent 19th century Dutch novel of female anxiety here.

The Fifth Season & The Obelisk Gate—N. K. Jemisin

2016 was the year I started reading science fiction again after a twenty or thirty year absence. I’ve a long way to go to get up to speed, but I think we’re all going to need more SF in the coming years, not as escapism but as laboratories for how to resist the coming darkness.

These two novels, the first parts of the Broken Earth Trilogy, offer an allegory for the psychic damage minorities experience every day—as if Du Bois’s double consciousness was used as the basis for an exciting and carefully detailed epic story. I hope the final volume will be out in 2017.

Best of the rest:

The Trespasser—Tana French

French made the list last year, too. For me she is the best crime writer today, period, and shows no signs of falling off with this excellent, smart novel that continues her preoccupation with friendship. What’s new is how overtly the twists of the investigation are offered as an allegory for the process of storytelling. I hope that doesn’t sound boring or airy-fairy. The book’s as gripping as all her others.

The Door—Magda Szabó

On vacation at the end of the year I had some good reading time and made my way through a number of interesting books. But the most amazing one—so great that it’s jumped on to this list—was this Hungarian novel from 1987. Szabó has this power, I don’t know how to describe it, it’s not as though her style is particularly flashy or anything. It’s the story of a woman and her housekeeper. And about the history of Hungary in the 20th Century. It’s as good on psychology as on politics. None of these things come even close to suggesting how awesome it is. All I can say is that I was just riveted. I’ve got another of her books now and hope to write about them together soon.

Three by Patrick Leigh Fermor

A Time of Gifts; Between the Woods and the Water; The Broken Road

I wrote a short appreciation of these extraordinary travel books for Open Letters Monthly back in the summer. In 1933, the eighteen-year-old Fermor set off to walk across Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. It took the rest of his life to tell the story, but what amazing books these are, so full of joy and life, and neither naïve nor knowing. Can’t think of anyone else who has captured as well as Fermor that sense of heady reinvention you sometimes feel, especially as a young person, when living abroad.

The Vegetarian—Han Kang

Wasn’t sure about this one at first—kept wanting it to be more like Atwood’s Edible Woman, which it superficially resembles—but decided to teach it later in the year and seeing my students take to it so strongly made me like it so much more. A book about a woman who just really wants to be a plant, and the people in her life who want other things for her. Han tackles this without ever letting us inside the protagonist’s head: impressive. Feel I could get a lot more from this book if I knew more (i.e. anything) about modern Korean history. Looking forward to reading Human Acts in 2017.

What Belongs to You—Garth Greenwell

Critically acclaimed for a good reason. Proustian sentences, good sex scenes, impressive ability to generate menace. Had the good fortune to hear Greenwell at the Little Rock Literary Festival: he was smart and kind. Started to write about the book and got bogged down but one day I am going to write an essay about the uncanny parallels between what happens to the narrator of this novel and to Patrick Leigh Fermor, as recounted in The Broken Road, in Varna, Bulgaria.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths—Barbara Comyns

Less bleak than Comyns’s amazing The Vet’s Daughter (on the 2015 list) but just as terrific. The wonder here is the vast tonal range of the narrator’s voice. Sometimes Sophia is naïve (“I had a kind of idea if you controlled your mind and said ‘I won’t have any babies’ very hard, they most likely wouldn’t come”) and sometimes she’s hilariously, ruefully inept (making an impromptu meal of spaghetti she finds a piece of dry cheese: “it grated so fine I thought afterwards it must have been a knife handle”). She’s also no-nonsense (she tells a man who has fallen in love with her and is masochistically kissing the bottom of her skirt, “Don’t do that. The hem is coming undone already”) and knowing (describing that same man, who for a time becomes her lover, she says, “His dark face became full of animation when he talked (I think the right word to use for his face would be mobile)”). British women writers of the mid twentieth century are still criminally underrated.

Best group reading experience:

Jean Giono’s Hill. A terrific book that speaks to us today in ways its author surely couldn’t have anticipated. My take here. Thanks to Scott for co-hosting and to Meredith, Grant, Frances, Melissa and others for reading along with.

Most revelatory experience of a book I’ve taught many times:

Lots of contenders here (Woolf, Jacob’s Room, To the Lighthouse, Three Guineas (I really love that one), Lawrence, Sons and Lovers) but the winner has to be Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness, which is one of the greatest novels about the Holocaust. Only now, on my fourth or fifth go round with this book, and thanks in large part to some stellar students who really responded to it, do I feel I’m getting the hang of this one.  I blogged about teaching it here.

Most revelatory experience of a writer I’ve taught many times:

Ida Fink. I’ve taught a few of her amazing short stories about the Holocaust before but only this year, thanks to the scholar Sara Horowitz, did I really get what Fink was up to. She didn’t write much, just two short story collections and a novel, but man, what a writer. Want to write about her in 2017.

Two books about hotels:

Grand Hotel by Vicky Baum (1929) and A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016). In my head I composed a mini-essay comparing these books, which I happened to read back to back. Both consider the transience of hotel life, though Gentleman inverts the idea by making its protagonist a nobleman in 1920s Russia who can’t quite be done away with by the new regime because of his service to the cause in the past and so is put under house arrest in Moscow’s luxurious Metropol Hotel.

Baum’s book might be better—it holds up amazingly well, and becomes a real page-turner in its last third—but I enjoyed Towles’s more. It’s sweeter and that’s what I needed in the days after the election. I kept wondering if its pleasures weren’t in fact too regressive, but the book would regularly throw little curve balls, show its self-consciousness about the difficulties of structuring a book around a seemingly perfect protagonist. And sometimes you just want a suave, kind, handsome, intelligent, well-manner character! Anyway, you should read both of these books, they are terrific. I’m unconvinced anyone will be reissuing Towles in 80 years, but that’s okay, some books we just need for today.

Best book about life during the rise of fascism:

Plenty of contenders, but Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight made a big impression on me.

Reliable pleasures:

Ellis Peters’s Cadfael books (have read the first four so far, but need to ration: important to know they are still out there for me to savour); Hans Olav Lahlum’s K2 series (the last one was a bit bloated but I’m still a fan); Denise Mina (she keeps on going from strength to strength)

Light reading winners:

Natasha Pulley, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (pleasing alternate history-steampunk-thing all about queer and non-queer friendship—very much look forward to the sequel in 2017); Joe Ide, IQ (smart and funny Sherlock update in East Long Beach. Not suspenseful, really, but totally enjoyable); Dorothy Sayers, Strong Poison (I finally met Harriet Vane! Must read the others)

Finally, although, I didn’t actually read that much Jean Rhys this year, one of the most satisfying parts of the year was contributing this post on my experiences teaching her work to students to the Jean Rhys event co-hosted by Jacqui and Eric.

Above all, my heartfelt thanks to everyone who’s visited the blog in the past year. Your comments, whether here or on Twitter or Facebook or even in person, mean so much to me. Here’s to more good reading and good talk about our reading in 2017.