Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Anne Cohen (@aecnyc). Anne is a lifelong reader (preferably stretched out on couch or bed), retired lawyer, and former reporter. She lives in New York City with part of her family and two dogs and is firmly convinced that Book Twitter saved her from homicidal behavior in 2021.
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).
Most beautifully-written book: Transit of Venusby Shirley Hazzard was the most exquisitely-written novel I read in 2021 but also one of the most frustrating. It was as if the plot and the characters were unworthy of the prose.
Am trying avoid spoilers, but the coyness of the last page infuriated me and even drove me to the internet for clarification. “WTF” endings don’t bother me; reader and narrator of The Sense of an Ending share the same information and deluded memories and are equally gobsmacked at the conclusion, and Kate Atkinson, whose A God in Ruins had a similarly tricksy ending, is a master of showing but not telling. Although the language was gorgeous, the last paragraph of Transit felt cheap.
(You still should read it.)
Second most beautifully-written book: Daddy’s Gone A’Hunting written by Penelope Mortimer and published in 1958 was also the most frightening book I read this year. Daddy is the story of Ruth, an upper-middle-class woman in her late 30’s trying to navigate the potential termination of her college-age daughter’s pregnancy (whose pre-marital conception was the impetus for Ruth’s own marriage).
The scary part was not just the ordinary shivers of recognition present in most good novels about families. Perhaps it is a function of my age and gender—Daddy and I were both born in the middle of the baby boom—but I was horrified by the sight of Ruth, already feeling old at 38!, being shamed as she searched for a physician who might be willing to terminate the pregnancy on behalf of her clueless and nasty daughter.
This year, I also read Mortimer’s biography of the Queen Mother, which is not scary, and her first volume of memoirs, About Time, which has as a central character her impious cleric father. (Maybe read it as a double feature with Priestdaddy.) I recently located a copy of her second volume, About Time Too, and it’s on my TBR stack.
Other wonderful fiction: Cathedral, by Ben Hopkins, hasn’t gotten as much attention as it deserves. I can’t get into The Constant Nymph, but Margaret Kennedy’s The Feast was enormous fun, beautifully written, and (spoiler alert) the right people survive; I also enjoyed her contemporaneous account of the early days of World War II, Where Stands a Winged Sentry, a country companion of sorts to a similar book about London read last year, Chelsea Concerto, by Frances Flavell. Daisy and The Six made me laugh when I was sick.
Lolly Willowes entranced me [Ed. – Paging Frances Evangelista!], as did both Scenes From Childhood, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s memoir and her collected letters. (Have not yet finished The Corner that Held Them or Summer Will Show.)
Also read and liked Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker, The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins, A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr and several pieces of fiction by Tove Jansson. I was thrilled by parts of Gerard Reve’s The Evenings and wondered when other sections would end, which may have been the sensation the author intended.
Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour offered an instructive counterpoint to Transit: annoying characters, obsessive conduct, and an ending that made me want to go back to the beginning, but without feeling as if I’d been snookered along the way.
Not fiction but an elegant presentation of how an interesting woman’s actual life was commandeered by fiction and biography: The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith by Diane Johnson.
Biggest project of the year: Diaries and letters have always fascinated me and taken up significant space shelf. Their proportion in my reading diet has increased over the last 22 months, as I’m comforted by the notion that their authors didn’t know what was going to happen to them any more than we do now. [Ed. – Nicely put!]
Someone who was often wrong about the future was Henry “Chips” Channon, an American-born writer, pal of the rich, royal and merely titled from his late teens onward, member of the British Parliament, and from 1938 to 1941 a senior cabinet aide in the Foreign Office. The first two volumes (total 2000+ pages) of his unexpurgated diaries were published in 2021 and edited brilliantly by Simon Hefner, whose dazzling footnotes include some tart asides and everyone’s courtesy titles.
“Chips” knew everyone, and everyone appears in the diaries. He was a wrong-headed bigot, a sniveling acolyte of Neville Chamberlain, a toady to almost anyone with a royal title, and a nasty, insecure, self-important snob, who occasionally recognized his reputation as a well-connected lightweight.
What makes the diaries worth £35 each plus postage to the States is the astonishing range of Channon’s access and the detail of his descriptions— his failing marriage to a rich and titled woman, who left him for a horse dealer; events, including his dinner for Edward VIII, and Mrs. Simpson a month before the abdication; his crushes on a series of other well-connected men and his schemes to marry them off to “suitable” women; changes in society during the war, including his mother-in-law (“the richest woman in England”) doing without a cook; and the perfidy of his enemies of the moment. [Ed. – Ok, that sounds really good.]
My fascination with these books is more than historical. As someone who annually orders but doesn’t always use a big Smythson daybook, I’m reluctantly moved by dogged if not heroic maintenance of a diary for decades and even more by the willingness to write down so much of one’s deepest and often foolish feelings in real time.
A year for letters:Love From Nancy: The Letters of Nancy Mitford; The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh; Letters from Tove [Jansson]; Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner; Letters of E.B. White; and A Whole World: Letters From James Merrill.
Not surprisingly, there were many connections among Channon, Mitford and Waugh, who lived in a small world they thought was the whole.
But other connections were less expected—the Merrill letters were terrific, and not just because his frequently-mentioned mother and daughter Connecticut neighbors were novelist Grace Zaring Stone and Eleanor Stone Perenyi, author of both More Was Lost [Ed. – A long-time EMJ favourite!] and Green Thoughts: A Writer in The Garden, which I’d consulted only days before about dahlias.
The best connection came when I was alternating books—Hermione Lee’s biography of Willa Cather and the E. B. White letters—and suddenly realized the same “character” appeared in both: Cather’s good friend Elizabeth Sargent was also White’s sister-in-law Elsie, older sister of New Yorker editor and garden writer Katherine White. [Ed. — !]
Mysteries: Spine for spine, I probably read mysteries more than other category and can inhale a whole series of 10-15 books in a week. (Hey, I’m retired and read fast.) [Ed. – Goals!] This year, in addition to rereading half a dozen of Simenon’s Maigret books and the first few chapters of Busman’s Honeymoon, and adding to my list of books by E. C. R. Lorac, John Rhode, and Patricia Wentworth, I was introduced to Jane Haddam’s Gregor Demarkian, Craig Rice’s John Malone and pals, Delano Ames’s Jane and Dagobert Brown, and Elizabeth Daly’s Henry Gamadge.
Of these my favorite was probably the last, not for the quality of the story or the story-telling, but for the flavor of New York City in the early 1940s and the depiction of people for whom the world had changed since the turn of the century. Part of my attraction to mysteries, and especially those of the “Golden Age,” is the way they incidentally reflect the details of their time, whether clothes, food, manners, or relationships.
Audiobooks: I’m not snobbish about the idea of audiobooks but I’m picky about both the sound of the voice generally and the rightness of it for a specific work. These are obviously very subjective criteria; most people were probably thrilled by Patti Smith’s reading of Just Kids but I ripped off my headphones during the foreword.
I read quickly, sometimes too quickly (see possible explanation for my reaction to Transit of Venus), and so have been fascinated by my reaction to hearing books I’ve previously read. Listening to The Age of Innocence made me much more aware of Wharton’s humor and devastating nuance.
Some books—like The Thursday Murder Club—can be aural candy, perfect for walking the dogs; this is not a put down, at least from me. It’s also when I listen to the Backlisted podcast, whose fingerprints are all over this list.
What I Didn’t/Haven’t Finished: There are mystery tropes I can’t abide (especially the protagonist as suspect), and if one of those sneaks by my “blurb” filter, I’ll let it go. [Ed. – Almost as bad as “investigator’s loved one in danger”…]
Books not finished in 2021 but still open are Hamnet (and I loved I AM I AM I AM), as well as Klara and the Sun, Our Spoons Came From Woolworth’s, Shuggie Bain, and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. I couldn’t get into Adam Thorpe’s 1921, which broke my heart, because his work is so varied and usually so very good.
Best reading experience: Not the “best” book or the most interesting or important—but an almost out-of-body moment late one night propped up in bed with the five-book Percy Jackson series, which I’m reading along with an 11-year-old friend.
The apartment was quiet. Maybe it was Percy’s adolescent demi-god angst, but for a sudden moment, I was in my childhood bedroom, trying not to wake up my sister and hearing my father’s voice at the door, telling me to go to sleep. Sam died almost 25 years ago, and it was nice to have him back for that instant.
I’ll soon 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 ninth post is by Catherine Eaton (@sparrowpost), who blogs at sparrowpost.com. Catherine Eaton is a writer and editor living near Chicago with her partner, two cats, and six houseplants..
Even now in January of 2021, it’s hard to make sense of everything that happened in March when it was finally recognized that COVID was here. Life suddenly became much stranger and far more difficult. Grocery shopping had always been my time to linger over and admire fresh fruits and vegetables, pick out a few that looked good, and then head on over to the soup aisle. Suddenly and without any sort of mental preparation, that old slow life was gone. It became intensely draining and plain difficult to navigate the store. Everyone who shopped was afraid and they tried to soothe this fear by buying everything in sight.
Small, little pieces of the old life kept dissolving: I was glad when my library closed to protect the patrons but at the same time, it meant no library. I hadn’t realized how much I depended on them, not only books, but for a safe and quiet place to relax and read.
The library soon sent out an email, telling me not to return the books I had checked out, so I put them in a small stack in the living room. The three books became a symbol of life before the pandemic: The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, Optic Nerve by María Gainza, and Isolde by Irina Odoevtseva. I read through the stack slowly and they became worlds where I could find space to breathe, places unaffected by the pandemic.
Books have always been a refuge for me, but in this last year my appreciation deepened. I read not just for entertainment but also to examine the craftsmanship in each book, and I was not let down. Studying story development, character arcs, and sentence structures became for me an act of sanity.
I read more books in 2020 than I have in other years; the list below includes some of my favorites.
I read The Wind in the Willows first. I had tried reading it a few times over the years without much luck but this time I reveled in it. My copy had the illustrations by Inga Moore, which are warm and homey. The story is set in the river and woods, and centers on three animals living there, Ratty, Mole, and Toad. They have adventures, get into messes, but everything works out in the end.
From that point on, I realized that reading children’s books let me find a small measure of peace during the pandemic. I joined a friend’s book club and we read The Secret Garden together. I had read it as a teenager, but now as an adult I was surprised to find how much I admired Frances Hodgson Burnett’s craft. She knew how to set a scene, weave an enticing mystery, and create bad-tempered yet sympathetic characters.
Later in the summer, I picked up another book I read as a teenager, Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery. The novel chronicles the early life of Emily Murray, a budding author and fiercely independent soul. I highly recommend it and the next books that subsequently follow, Emily Climbs and Emily’s Quest. Emily’s fight to write and be true to herself has inspired many writers, including Carol Shields, Alice Munro, and Margaret Atwood.
The next library book I read was Optic Nerve by María Gainza, one of my favorite reads of the year. Each chapter is a complete story of its own and centers on a different painting. The narrator contemplates art and painters, her family and child, and the anxiety of living in the present day.
One of the great pleasures is how flawlessly Gainza weaves the narrator’s daily life with her contemplation on art. The moments set in art museums were especially poignant to me as the Art Institute in Chicago was closed and I was struggling with the deep desire to see artwork in-person, a source of delight and comfort that had suddenly been whisked away.
Another novel that struggles to make sense of an ever-changing world is Renee Gladman’s Event Factory. The narrator, a “linguist traveler,” visits city of Ravicka. She struggles to learn the local language and communicate with those around her. The city ebbs and flows around her, streets shifting while she walks, and a noxious yellow fog (that the citizens refuse to acknowledge) slowly envelops everything. Event Factory, bewildering yet familiar, felt like the diary of a fellow passenger during the early days of the pandemic. Another poignant similarity with the present is how Ravickan time does not move linearly which affects the art of narration:
To say that though—that I have not been on my own very long—would mean that I have been following a linear path…this linearity could only form if there had been no events in between. I am saying things have happened that have not been reported, and it is in virtue of those missing things that I was here. Had I spoken of them, at this point of the story, I would be elsewhere.
Czelaw Milosz’s autobiography, Native Realm, is another tale of rapidly shifting worlds, set during the first half of the 20th century. Beginning with his birth in present-day Lithuania, Milosz follows his family’s fortunes as they traveled through Russia, and then to Poland, arriving there shortly after WWI. He recounts learning Russian and Polish, the teachers and friends that influenced him as he came of age before WWII, and the writing endeavors that he undertook while somehow miraculously surviving WWII. His autobiography is not just a record of family, learning, and friends, but it is also a delicate tracing of the life of the mind and how he arrived to the ideas and thoughts that underpin his work.
I was unable to finish Native Realm before it was due back to the library, and after I returned it COVID hit. It wasn’t until months later that I was able to check it out again, and surprisingly enough, I hadn’t lost any of the threads. When I finished Native Realm and returned to Milosz’s poetry, his concepts shown clear and bright in a way they hadn’t before. I highly recommend this book to anyone who would like deeper insight into Milosz’s poetry and life.
The Book of Delights by Ross Gay was another library book I was separated from in the early days of the pandemic. Like Native Realm, I had read about half of it when it was due back. I returned it, COVID struck, and I did not see it again until June. I thought the long pause might affect my enjoyment of it but that wasn’t the case at all. The book is collection of essays on the small joys that Gay encounters over the course of a year, and when the book returned to me in the summer, I had a deeper appreciation of his insights into our difficult world.
In many ways, Gay’s deep belief in the beauty of a life well-observed became a touchstone during this last year. Watching a downy woodpecker climb the sugar maple outside my window became a way to enter the present when it was otherwise unendurable. Enjoying good food, connecting with friends, and reading excellent books became ways to go forward and with gratitude. Since then, I’ve been slowly reading Gay’s poetry in his Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude and it feels like a continuation of the thoughts running through his essays. We are lucky to have Gay writing to us.
Another bright light in a grim year was Girl, Women, Other by Bernadine Evaristo. It won the Booker Prize back in 2019 and immediately sold out everywhere. I patiently waited until one day when my local bookstore had a stack of copies sitting on the front desk, and nabbed one. Looking back, I’m grateful I grabbed a copy before the pandemic hit because it was the read I needed later on. The novel concerns a large group of women, each section told from a different viewpoint. Their lives and years weave in and out of each other’s; each woman is splendidly alive and Evaristo’s playfulness with punctuation and sentence structure creates a vivacity and immediacy I hadn’t encountered before in a novel.
After Girl, Woman, Other, I picked up Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki. Set in Athens before WWII, it centers on three sisters’ lives over three summers. While their days seem quiet on the outside, the sisters live passionate and dramatic internal lives. They struggle to understand those around them (including animals and nature) and the direction their adult lives will take.
The lavender bloomed. It happened suddenly, one morning. The evening before we had stroked the buds, which were still green and hard. We had begged them to open that night, and the next day from the window we saw six bushy rows of purple playing with the sun and hundreds of white newborn butterflies fluttering around, chasing each other, making love, only to die the same night.
Maria began to cry. She went and embraced the stems, burying herself in their aroma.
The sisters find their way, each one in a way that suits only her. Some readers have struggled with this book, but I wish there were more novels like it. Liberaki’s lush descriptions of nature and the sisters’ inner lives left me wanting to read more of her work.
The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives by Diane Johnson is about a real woman who challenged her role in life and sought to carve out her own path as a British woman in the mid-1800’s. Mary Ellen Peacock Meredith was the first wife of the writer George Meredith; after eight years of marriage she left him for the painter Henry Wallis. Not much is known about her life (aside from Meredith’s massive grudge against her) but Johnson has taken what remains and woven it into a story, part factual and part fiction. Mary Ellen was a writer in her own right, an exhilarating conversationalist, and a gourmet cook. She was considered an outcast after fleeing her husband but of course she didn’t view herself that way. She had many plans for herself and her children but unfortunately died at age 40 from kidney disease. With sensitivity and sympathy, Johnson recreates her life and those that surrounded her; what emerges are living beings, forgotten by time but worthy of being considered. I first came across the book after listening to a delightful conversation between Diane Johnson and NYRB Classics editor Edwin Frank and I highly recommend their talk.
Isolde by Irina Odoyevtseva was the last library book from my small pre-pandemic stack. First published in 1929, I read the new Pushkin Press edition, translated by Brian Karentyck. At the heart of Isolde is the beautiful Liza, a young teenager and White émigré from Russia. She crosses path with Cromwell, a wealthy British boy, while vacationing in Biarritz. The pair might as well be protagonists from a F. Scott Fitzgerald novel as they race around in cars, bounce through dance halls, and swim out in the ocean. He names her Isolde after the doomed, legendary queen and from that moment on, there’s no doubt where the novel is headed.
Liza is a woman without a country and though she has a brother and mother, she is essentially abandoned due to their self-centeredness and desperation. As I read the book my sense of foreboding climbed higher and higher and when I finished the last page I heaved a heavy sigh. I won’t forget Isolde or Odoyevtseva for a long time. Odoyevtseva achieves a level of loneliness, separation, danger, and impending disaster that Fitzgerald’s writing aspired to.
A King Alone by Jean Giono will also stay with me for a while. I don’t want to give anything away but it’s one of the more shocking novels I’ve read in some time. The tale is set high up in the Alps and the opening description of a beech tree drew me in:
It’s on the side of the road, exactly at the hairpin bend. There’s a beech tree there; I’m sure there’s none more magnificent anywhere. It’s the Apollo Citharoedus of beech trees. There cannot possibly be another beech, anywhere at all, with skin so smooth and so beautiful a color, a more flawless build, more perfect proportions, with such nobility, grace, and eternal youth. Definitely ‘Apollo’ is what you say the instant you catch sight of it, and you say it again and again for as long as you look at it. What is extraordinary is that it’s both beautiful and so simple. No question about it: it knows itself and judges itself.
A series of puzzling and frightening disappearances occur in a nearby village, and a police captain is called in to sort out the mess. Langlois arrives in the dead of winter and begins the hunt. The narrative shifts between different viewpoints (though never Langlois’s) and the result is a tracking of Langlois himself as he travels through the mountain ranges, surrounding towns, and the village itself, searching for the abductor. Nature is a strong presence throughout, a main character watching and overshadowing the human dramas enacted within it. After reading A King Alone, I’m looking forward to reading more of Giono’s novels and discovering his poetics.
There’s no way I could go through my best reads of 2020 list without mentioning War and Peace. A Public Space announced their readalong of War and Peace in early March with Yiyun Li leading the daily discussion. I was drawn to the idea of reading an epic novel during an epic time and I picked up Anthony Briggs’s translation. I kept up with the daily readings for the first third of the novel but then fell behind. Tolstoy’s ruminations on the Napoleonic Wars and the causes of war in general slowed my speed but I was determined to see the book through. And I’m glad I did because while Tolstoy’s theories and beliefs about war have somewhat dimmed in my mind, the lives of Pierre, Natasha, and Andrei, along with a huge cast of family members and servants, have not. It’s a novel well worth reading during this time.
The final three books hold a special place in my heart: I read them in the fall and each created a sanctuary before and during the US elections (which was and is a terrifying time). It was hard to know which way my country would go and I needed the reassuring cadences of these master writers to help me through the nerve-wracking days.
The first is Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks. I hadn’t known that Brooks wrote a novel until a friend mentioned it in a passing conversation and I knew I had to find this book. I ordered it from the library in early March before the pandemic struck and it eventually arrived in the fall. I was so happy to see it. It felt like the continuation of an earlier life.
The novel is broken into thirty-four vignettes, concerning the life of Maud Martha; they often read like prose poems. Each vignette follows Maud Martha as she deals with the difficulties of family, growing up, falling in love, contemplating beauty, raising a family, and racism.
One of my favorite chapters centers around her struggle over whether to kill a mouse that’s been invading her kitchen and taking off with morsels of food. She envisions the mouse’s huge family and its on-going struggle to feed so many children. In the end, she can’t set out poison and they go on living together. There is a special sweetness in the book that focuses on everyday joys despite the senseless cruelty of racism and other struggles in life. It’s a short read and I sighed deeply when I read the last page. I would have been happy to read more about Maud Martha’s daily life and her ongoing views of the world.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark came into my life a month before the election. A Public Space was doing another read along, this time on Spark’s book, and while I was reading through the book, I was working on a class assignment to map a novel. Since I was already half way through the novel and completely caught up in it, I decided to make a map of it. I was curious how Spark dealt with time, the revelation of mysteries, and different points of view.
While I was mapping, it became clear that Spark flashes forward in time only when she’s revealing important information. She divulges tragedies and betrayals early on but saves the “how” for the end. Her story centers on an Edinburgh schoolteacher, Miss Jean Brodie, and the student that eventually betrays her.
Spark in the New Yorker: “Well, suspense isn’t just holding it back from the reader. Suspense is created even more by telling people what’s going to happen. Because they want to know how. Wanting to know what happened is not so strong as wanting to know how.”
There’s a clean, crisp assertiveness to Sparks’ prose that I quickly became addicted to. It’s not surprising that she began her writing career as a poet. The New York Times critic Parul Seghal notes that, “[Spark] loves reminding us that every word—this phrase, that comma—was brought together by human hands, for your pleasure.”
During the election itself, I turned to The Makioka Sistersby Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. The four sisters are from a well-to-do Osaka family, but by the time the novel opens, the family’s heyday has passed and their fortunes are in slow decay.
The original Japanese title, Sasameyuki (細雪), means lightly falling snow and is a poetical allusion to lightly falling cherry blossoms in the spring. It contains the word “yuki,” which refers to the third sister, Yukiko, and suggests that she is the focus of the novel. Much of the story revolves around the family’s quest to find her a suitable husband.
The novel spans 1936 to 1941 and throughout there’s a heavy contemplation of past. This isn’t surprising, as the past (along with decline and decay) is among of Tanizaki’s great themes and permeates his work.
The past lingers in the Makiokas’ clothes, homes, thoughts, and traditions but it performs a balancing act with Western culture that continues to encroach on more traditional lifestyles. The sisters wear light Western clothes on the hottest days of the summer and resume wearing kimonos when the heat passes. They watch Greta Garbo in a film one night and attend the Kabuki theater to see a favorite performer on the next. They learn French, practice the koto and shamisen, visit the cherry trees blooming in Kyoto and Nara, and get their hair done every week at the salon. Amid family squabbles and health issues, they survey and survive everything the decade throws at them which includes a great flood, typhoon winds, and a world war.
Newspaper installations of The Makioka Sisters began appearing during the height of WWII, but the censor board pulled it, denouncing it for its “feminine character.” That didn’t stop Tanizaki from continuing his novel and in 1944, he published the first section and gave copies to friends. The complete novel came out after the war, was heralded as a great achievement, and has been read ever since.
While I haven’t lived through a war, the current pandemic has given me a more immediate understanding of what can happen when everyone’s lives are drastically and suddenly changed. Tanizaki’s fortitude in writing about four sisters throughout WWII, not even stopping when the government forbade his work from being published, speaks to me deeply.
A few honorable mentions:
Most people read Madame Bovary in high school but since I missed high school (long story), I missed the book as well. Despite knowing the storyline, the novel drew me along and by the end, there was no doubt in my mind that, had she had lived today, Emma would have been a wildly popular Instagram influencer.
Mathilda by Mary Shelley is a typical Romantic novel, full of long passages about feelings and nature. There’s also the usual shocking subject matter–in this case, incest and suicide. Shelley wrote this after Frankenstein and as a former Goth, I enjoyed every moment of it.
The Maytrees by Annie Dillard follows the lives of Toby and Lou Maytree, from courtship to old age. They live in Provincetown, MA, and the sea and its moods permeates their lives. As always, Dillard’s writing on nature is both beautiful and brutal.
It’s been an extremely difficult year, but books have helped make it a little more bearable. Here’s to another year of good book reading, discovering new and old authors, and taking care of one another. May this new year be better than the last.