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).
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.
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.
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