Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Melanie (Mel) Nicholls. Mel is a bookseller at Barnes and Noble from Georgia. You can follow her on Twitter @nichollsm86 where she often tweets about…books!
I was pleased when Dorian asked to do a write up of my 2022 reading, as I enjoyed reading the entries from last year. My reading in 2022 was mainly fiction in translation and short stories. When choosing what to read I mostly pick up books I think I’ll enjoy. And this past year I definitely succeeded! Here are some of the standouts.
January started strong with two books that are new favorites. The haunting Ganbare! Workshops on Dying is by Katarzyna Boni (tr. Mark Ordon). Boni reports on the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami in the Tōhoku region of Japan and its aftermath. She offers accounts of the effects on survivors such as learning to scuba dive to help find bodies, a gripping account of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and stories of other devastating earthquakes in Japan’s history. A heartbreaking and timely work. I followed this with the NYRB Classics edition of Edith Wharton’s ghost stories, unsettling and eerily quiet hauntings. A book I could read every year. The novel Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson and the stories in Cars on Fire by Mónica Ramón Ríos (tr. Robin Myers), continued my excellent streak of reading for the first month of the year.
In February I began the readalong of Dorothy Richardson’s thirteen book sequence Pilgrimage. I really started to click with Miriam’s journey with book three and my top reading goal in 2023 is to finish the sequence. Other highlights include the classic Passing by Nella Larsen [Ed. – GOAT!] and the absolute gem Byobu by Ida Vitale (tr. Sean Manning), two books I’m sure I’ll find new meaning in each time I read them.
In March I read another top book of 2022, Blood Feast: The Complete Short Stories of Malika Moustadraf. These stories about gender and class in society are expertly translated by Alice Guthrie. The outstanding translator’s notes make this a book I hope to study more and highly recommend. April was another strong month with the beautiful novel When I Sing, Mountains Dance by Irene Solà (tr. Mara Faye Lethem) and the terrific History of a Disappearance: The Forgotten Story of a Polish Town by Filip Springer (tr. Sean Gasper Bye). I ended this month with the masterpiece Woman Running in the Mountains by Yūko Tsushima (tr. Geraldine Harcourt) which I often think of with Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Both novels portray a woman’s yearning for freedom and Dorian’s podcast One Bright Pod has superb episodes for both books. [Ed. – Thank you! Of course, Frances and Rebecca are the really important members of the team.]
May and June were the months of absolute banger short books:
Yesterday by Juan Emar (tr. Megan McDowell)
They by Kay Dick
Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au
Spear by Nicola Griffith [Ed. – Curious to check this one out.]
An Ideal Presence by Eduardo Berti (tr. Daniel Levin Becker)
Permafrost by Eva Baltasar (tr. Julia Sanches)
Violets by Kyung-Sook Shin (tr. Anton Hur)
Pollak’s Arm by Hans von Trotha (tr. Elisabeth Lauffer)
The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century by Olga Ravn. (tr. Martin Aitken)
July’s standout is A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr, a perfect novel. [Ed. – Absolutely agree.] August is one I look forward to every year because it is Women in Translation month. I continued this year with four writers whose translated work I am slowly making my way through: Annie Ernaux, Yoko Tawada, Natalia Ginzburg, and Banana Yoshimoto. Another highlight was the collection Panics by Barbara Molinard (tr. Emma Ramada). Molinard was a close friend of Marguerite Duras and would destroy most of her writing. [Ed. – Thanks, uh, “friend”…] These bizarre and grotesque stories are a must read. Two books translated from Croatian, Call Me Esteban by Lejla Kalamujic (tr. Jennifer Zoble) and Divine Child by Tatjana Gromača (tr. Will Firth) from the new small press of translated fiction Sandorf Passage, were also excellent.
The last few months of the year offered standouts in nonfiction. I love Elaine Castillo’s debut novel America is Not the Heart and she delivers again with the essays in How to Read Now. This book, along with A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa, This Little Art by Kate Briggs, The Missing Pieces by Henri Lefebvre (tr. David L. Sweet), and Voice of the Fish by Lars Horn, left me with a new appreciation for reading, translation, writing, and art. All are books I will come back to often. Other wonders at the end of the year include some short-but-mighty translated novellas: Space Invaders by Nona Fernández (tr. Natasha Wilmer), Baron Bagge by Alexander Lernet-Holenia (trs. Richard and Clara Winston), A Woman’s Battles and Transformation by Édouard Louis (trs. Tash Aw) and Rogomelec by Leonor Fini (trs. William Kulik and Serena Shanken Skwersky). I’ll close with Nettleblack by Nat Reeves, a playful novel of queer awakening among strange crimes in a Victorian rural town.The most fun I had reading in a while, just a joy to read. [Ed. – Sounds great!] My reading has changed over the last couple of years as I have discovered more translated fiction, small press, and Book Twitter. I am excited to see where my 2023 reading will take me and to share the wonders. [Ed. – You’re welcome back next year, Mel!]
Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Brad Bigelow. Brad writes http://NeglectedBooks.com and edits the Recovered Books series for Boiler House Press.
When I finished college forty-some years ago, I started writing down every book I read in a little spiral notebook. I kept up this habit for over twenty years and then stopped for some forgotten reason. Since starting The Neglected Books Page, most of my reading has been of long-forgotten books and most of these I’ve recorded by writing about them on the site. But as time goes on, I’m falling ever further behind in this writing. And to make matters worse for the purposes of this piece, I keep no record of my non-neglected reading. So, this is a fairly unreliable review of my reading in 2022, but I hope it’s worth your time nonetheless.
(It’s a good thing I never went into marketing.) [Ed. – No kidding!]
Among my neglected reads, easily the most memorable was Charlotte Salomon’s Life or Theater? Although Salomon told her life through paintings, it operates at an unforgettable level of intensity. There are at least three narratives winding through the hundreds of paintings in this book: the psychological breakdown of her family; her own troubled emotional development; and the trauma of Germany, and of German Jews in particular, with the rise of Nazism and Hitler. As I wrote back in April, “the book is presented as an art book – large and very heavy with its hundreds of pages of full-color images. But I think this does the book as a book some disservice. For it can also be seen as a graphic novel.” And I think it would benefit from being repackaged as a graphic novel, since today’s readers are now so accustomed not just to the language of graphic novels but to the very idea of considering them as literature. [Ed. – Absolutely. Her drawings look like they come from a graphic novel, too, as your post with its generous illustrations suggests.]
Easily the most enjoyable was Madeleine Masson’s memoir, I Never Kissed Paris Goodbye.Though we know from its opening line—“It was a beautiful day in June 1940”—that this story will have a sad ending, most of Masson’s account of Paris in the 1930s is as frothy and delightful as a glass of champagne. It’s full of the infidelity, excess, and manic energy of Jean Renoir’s classic film The Rules of the Game, and highly recommended to anyone who loves that film. [Ed. – You’re trying to tell me there are people who don’t love that film? Nonsense! This book sounds excellent, BTW.]
My deepest archaeological dig of the year was locating a copy of Carola Ernst’s Silhouettes crèpusclaires, and then dusting off my French to read it, based on nothing more than a brief reference in a magazine from 1921. This modest account of the journey Ernst took in the Fall of 1914 to return a French officer blinded in an early battle of the First World War to his family is a touching portrait of a world in the midst of a radical transformation. The pair are able to travel via Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, and France thanks more than anything to a spirit of chivalry that had not yet been destroyed in the industrial machinery of the war.
Another highlight was the chance to spend several weeks with some of the many volumes of poetry penned by Raymond Souster, the bard of Toronto. Souster’s longevity and disciplined dedication to his art enabled him to amass an account of one city’s life that may be unparalleled in the 20th century. Souster lived and wrote to the age of 91, worked in the same bank for over 40 years, was married to the same woman for over 60 years, and, as their only child, cared for his parents until they died in their late nineties. Though Souster claims he never wrote any great work (“I’m not sure I’m ready for epics/there are far too many little songs/the rest have left unsung”), the body of his work is sort of an epic in itself. [Ed. – Fascinating! I’ve even lived in Toronto and have never heard of Souster.] Someone needs to go through the thousands of pages of Souster’s poetry and distill it into an autobiography along the lines of what Ruth Limmer did with Louise Bogan’s work in Journey Around My Room.
Finally, I must mention Nina Warner Hooke’s Biff and Netta trilogy: Striplings (1934); Close of Play (1936); and Own Wilderness (1938). These novels follow a half-brother and sister, Biff and Netta, from their early to mid-teens, as their already unconventional and decaying family collapses completely. The first volume received tremendous critical praise and was most commonly compared to the work of P. G. Wodehouse. Warner Hooke said she had no plans for further books at first, but when you finish the trilogy, its narrative arc seems almost predestined. She could no more leave off her story than you could get off a rollercoaster after the first drop. It is deeply strange, not solely because of its theme of incest, and deserves much closer examination than I was able to give it in my post. At 900-some pages, it’s far too long to expect anyone to ever reissue it unless some editor finds the courage to do some substantial posthumous abridgement, but it’s a work that I continue to process months after finishing it.
I tend to rely on audiobooks for my non-neglected reading. For years, I had a daily commute of over an hour each way and I racked up thousands of hours of listening, which enabled me to catch up on many classics I’d skipped. Now, my commute is just a staircase [Ed. – Bliss!], but I still get in an hour or so of listening each day. One of my projects was to go back through the works of Thornton Wilder, who is arguably both recognized and neglected. Aside from “Our Town”, most folks have only a vague notion of what he did, and even the once-ubiquitous The Bridge of San Luis Rey is not a familiar title. Wilder is the only writer to have received a Pulitzer in two genres, fiction and drama, has several volumes in the Library of America, and most of his work never falls out of print for long. I wrote about The Eighth Day, his most ambitious—and, to be honest, most flawed—novel years ago, and loved Heaven’s My Destination and Theophilus North when I first read them. This year, I went back and listened to all his novels in chronological order (an exercise I highly recommend for novelists who particularly interest you), starting with The Cabala.
The experience was both a revelation and a disappointment. I found several of the books suffered from an earnestness that became particularly apparent when considered back-to-back. On the other hand, I was astonished at the innovation of The Ides of March, his novel of Caesar’s last months. It’s a collage of fictional letters, excerpts from actual Latin texts, and even graffiti from the streets of Rome in the first century BC. Why is this book not acclaimed as a milestone in the fictional form? [Ed. – Sounds like time for a reissue?]
Aside from Wilder, most of my listening has been focused on Russian history and literature. I’ve long been fascinated by Russia, even though I’ve deliberately avoided my few opportunities to visit there. There’s something about the darkness of so much of the Russian experience that seems to reassure me that my own life really isn’t all that bad. This might be one of the reasons that I read so many books about Stalin when I was working for the two worst bosses I’ve had to suffer. I listened to two historical surveys by Orlando Figes: A People’s Tragedy, about the Russian Revolution, which occasionally bogged down in the minutiae of political infighting, and Natasha’s Dance, which I would recommend to anyone looking for a historical context to much of the Russian art, literature, and music of the last 200+ years. There were also several biographies—Alex Christofi’s Dostoevsky in Love, Alexandra Popoff’s book on Vasily Grossman, Donald Rayfield’s Chekhov—all richly illuminating. But by far the most enjoyable and impressive listen was Nabokov’s The Gift, which managed to weave so many of the threads from these other books together and remind me yet again of the fact that Nabokov worked at a level miles above so many of the 20th century’s greats.
Of the more recently-published books I’ve read, few really stand out. I found a number of the more acclaimed ones forgettable and will skip over them. Although I’ve read that it’s not the place to start, I loved Annie Ernaux’s The Years, in part because it described a world very familiar to me after 18 years of living in Belgium and working closely with many French men and women. And Gwendolyn Riley’s My Phantoms could have described some of our neighbors on the little street in Norwich where my wife and I lived for two years. [Ed. – Yikes!] I wish I could say that the books I’ve read by American writers were half as evocative, but I guess I’m still getting used to a country that’s so different from the one we left just before 9-11.
And it would be remiss of me not to mention the brightest highlight of 2022, which was the #PilgrimageTogether reading group. Starting in January, a group of us worked our way through the thirteen “chapter-volumes” of Dorothy Richardson’s masterpiece, Pilgrimage, aided by a wonderful cast of Richardson scholars who agreed to take part in our monthly discussions. I first read Pilgrimage in 2016 as part of a two-year project of reading only the work of neglected women writers (complemented by two years of only listening to audiobooks by women) and ever since have been an evangelist on its behalf. Not to denigrate Proust, but I find it astonishing that thousands of people read Remembrance of Things Past each year while Pilgrimage, which speaks directly to so many aspects of life that are still part of our everyday world today, is barely known and even less read. Like others in the group, I found Pilgrimage both so challenging and so rewarding that other books seem somehow diminished in comparison. It’s a novel I know I’ll be returning to again — and, I hope, with another group of readers. [Ed. – This is good to hear, since I regret not joining in. It would be great if you could time it with my next sabbatical, thanks.] Until then, I encourage folks to take up Pilgrimage and spend some months with Dorothy Richardson’s insistently individualistic Miriam Henderson, aided by the Reading Pilgrimage website. [Ed. – Thanks for the post, Brad, and congratulations on that site. What a resource!]
Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Nicie Panetta (@nicie_panetta). Nicie lives north of Boston with her husband, their frisky orange cat, and her lazy but lovable paint pony. She used to have some empty space on her bookshelves. That is no longer the case.
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).
Almost a year ago, I started a weekly newsletter called Frugal Chariot. I write about books that I believe have something special to say about the troubled role of humans in the non-human world. I guess you could say that the fate of the earth and all that dwell within its embrace is my subject, but that books written by humans are my vehicle. “How frugal is the Chariot/ that bears a Human soul.” Thank you, Dorian for a chance to reflect here on my reading as a whole in 2021. [Ed – The pleasure is all mine!]
From the standpoint of literary merit and depth of meaning, my favorite book on the Anthropocene, which I haven’t yet written about for the newsletter, is Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez. I ardently recommend it for the magisterial precision of his writing, for the prophetic nature of his insights, and for the great fighting heart that you can feel beating within the rather strict container of his style and tone. I did write about Lopez’s Horizonhere.
From the standpoint of environmental news you can use, I would press into your hands Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse by Dave Goulson. The author, a leading entomologist, explains carefully and without histrionics why bugs are vitally important to all life on earth, and what we do know and don’t yet know about the extent and causes of insect population declines. He also has practical suggestions for individuals and for industry and government. This is an indispensable guide for the general reader to the way that the climate and biodiversity interrelate, and it’s also full of delight and discovery.
A quick request, if I may. I would be very grateful for any suggestions that EMJ readers might have for nature, place, and climate writing (does not have to be in book form) from underrepresented geographies, marginalized communities, and Indigenous writers. [Ed. – Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves and Waubgeshig’s Moon of Crusted Snow: two novels by Indigenous Canadians, dystopian clifi that foreground indigenous ways of knowing.] I am concerned that there are not enough voices from outside the Anglosphere and outside the OECD countries getting heard. My DMs are open and my email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks in advance.
The Thing Is . . .
Because I am starting work on a climate-related place writing project [Ed. – Ooh, tease!], I have devoted much attention over the past year to treatments of the non-human, across my reading. The books that resonated most deeply for me often had a commitment to the thing-ness of things, to quiddity, to description. What follows are just a few examples of writings that I felt were exceptional on this score. Many if not most of these books came from recommendations provided by Learned Book Folks (LBFs) on Twitter, and I am so grateful.
Two Writers’ Memoirs
Last year I read nearly forty memoirs. [Ed. — !] Deborah Levy’s Autobiographical Trilogy truly knocked my socks off. How could I never have heard of this writer! Thank you to Rebecca Hussey, for sending her my way. In the first volume, Levy makes highly effective use of narrative shear: a simple question from a stranger causes the floor of the present to buckle and give way to the past. In the two subsequent volumes, she uses totems of the everyday to represent the new phase of her life that begins after the end of her long marriage: a shed for writing, a heater for the shed, an electric bike to get around, a green pair of shoes for walking in Paris.
It’s the basics: food, shelter, clothing, transportation. These objects, as they appear and reappear, create a syncopated rhythm that feels so true to the way we pass through time. Levy writes well about many things, including the closeness and strangeness of friendship, the commitments of motherhood (including the commitment to let go), the practicalities of being a writer, and most of all, what it is to be awake to life. Utterly captivating is this voyage on the inland sea of her mind:
To walk towards danger, to strike on something that might just open its mouth and roar and tip the writer over the edge was part of the adventure of language.
Another writer’s memoir that is much less well known is Blue Remembered Hills by Rosemary Sutcliff, the author of classics of historical fiction for children (including The Eagle of the Ninth). [Ed. – Just taking a moment here to remember how much that book meant to me.] Her account of growing up as an only child with chronic illness and disability is both sharp and glowing. Sutcliff’s portrait of her intense relationship with her mother is one of the best I’ve read, and the village communities of her childhood are brilliantly evoked. Heartbreak finds her, and she finds her way to a writing life. Aces. [Ed. – Sold to the man with too many books already!]
A Poet’s Playlist
Reading poetry has been a central preoccupation of my adult life. Because of my current interests and commitments, I am actually reading less poetry than I have in the past. But I did just finish Rita Dove’s Playlist for the Apocalypse, her first collection in over a decade. The book is made up of distinct groupings of poems, including an ars poetica with the poet as spring cricket, a group about American history that serves as the text for a new song cycle, A Standing Witness, and eight very flashy “angry odes.” Here’s a poem from the final, quietly personal section, Dove’s translation of perhaps the most famous German poem:
Wayfarer’s Night Song
Above the mountaintops
all is still.
Among the treetops
you can feel
barely a breath—
birds in the forest, stripped of song.
Just wait: before long
you, too, shall rest.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1776
The World Wars
A surprise. After toting things up, literature in translation accounted for nearly 40% of the books I read in 2021. I think this was due to a combustion reaction between my obsession with the period that encompasses the two world wars and the constant stream of relevant book ideas from the LBFs. [Ed. – Vowing to make this acronym take off.] Those years set the courses of my parents’ lives. My parents were born in the 1920s and died when I was young. Reading about this era keeps me in touch with them. Each of these books changed me in some small or larger way.
In poetry, I read a lot of Rilke thanks to an epistolary seminar offered by Mark Wunderlich (look for his forthcoming book on Rilke). I keep returning to Rilke’s work, in which the non-human vibrates without cease, and the moment of the poem zaps into the eternal. Prosodic whiz Don Paterson dresses the Orpheus sonnets in a new formal fabric in Orpheus: A Version of Rilke.
Enthroned one: in the ancient understanding,
You were no more than a cup with a plain rim.
But for us you are the full-blown, infinite bloom,
The wholly indefatigable thing
My parents loved the word “indefatigable.” They were activists, and it was a mark of highest esteem if they used it to characterize someone. It’s a good word to keep in your pocket. See also, “staunch.”
In fiction, Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck (translated by Susan Bernofsky) tells the story of the strange life and dumpster-filling death of a German lake house near Berlin, across the entire twentieth century. Erpenbeck is very good with lists of ordinary stuff (building materials, bath towels, regulations), inventories that are transformed into incantantions of frightening power. As we grapple with our direction as a species, stories with non-human protagonists and with plots that extend beyond the human lifespan have much to offer. Visitation is a notable example. There is also a brilliant novel about a medieval convent in East Anglia, but I read that in 2020. [Ed. – The editor cannot help but feel attacked by this reference to That Book He is Unable to Finish. YMMV.]
Natalia Ginzburg’s essays about her family’s tragic experiences in Fascist and postwar Italy, The Little Virtues (translated by Dick Davis) was also a revelation of style for me. Her tonal restraint and the apparent simplicity of her sentences make the heavy chords truly plangent when she strikes them. “And perhaps even for learning to walk in worn-out shoes, it is as well to have dry, warm feet when we are children.”
Salt Waterby Josep Pla (translated by Peter Bush) is a travelogue of his adventures on the Spanish and French coasts in the early 20th century. This book features shipwrights, bandits, taverns, sardines, and bracing quaffs that mingle caffeine with alcohol. The book, written under house arrest and a censorship regime, might be an instruction manual for those writing in a time of rising authoritarianism. There is something to be said for going rogue, or at least knowing a few rogues. Pla says it.
Most of all, the discovery of Joseph Roth thanks to the crew at the Backlisted podcast truly made my reading year. Many EMJ readers (and certainly the editor) know his work far better than I do. [Ed. – The editor is overestimated.] But What I Saw (translated by Michael Hofman), The Hotel Years(ditto), and On the End of the World (translated by Will Stone) have set a high-water mark for me as to what is possible from a journalist writing in a short form to deadline. Roth was a Galician Jew who made it to Vienna for university, served in the Austrian army in WWI, and then moved to Berlin to write for newspapers. He also wrote fiction, including Job and The Radetsky March.
What I Saw, which collects his feuilletons about Weimar Berlin, is a book not so much of vignettes, but of micro-sagas. He makes fun of skyscrapers (“We will make ourselves comfortable among the clouds . . . They will hear the clatter of typewriters and the ringing of telephones”), visits Berlin’s refugees (“Their garments were a weird and wonderful hodgepodge of uniforms. In their eyes I saw millennial sorrow”), makes regular forays to the demimonde (“Albert’s Cellar has regulars of such fixed habits that they even have their mail sent there”), and charts the collapse of the Republic with rising alarm and grief (“It is not true that a murder is just a murder”). His farewell column of 1933, written fresh from his flight into exile in Paris, is almost unbearable reading. So many observers were blind to what Roth saw, or failed to report what they saw. All the books I have mentioned here make the case for the necessity of style, and how style gives writing access to power. Roth’s work is exemplary in this regard. I read in awe, and salute his legacy:
Month on month, week on week, day by day, hour by hour, it becomes ever more impossible to give expression to the inexpressible nature of this world. The circle of lies that the miscreants draw around their crimes paralyses the word and the writers who employ it. Yet a common obligation makes you persist to the last moment: that is to say to the last drop of ink . . .
I’m gradually working my way through Juliet Stevenson’s catalog (N.B. she reads the Levy trilogy brilliantly), and she never fails to bring clarity and spirit to a text. Other major delights have been Thandiwe Newton reading Jane Eyre (I’m excited for her War and Peace), Doc Brown reading Zadie Smith’s Grand Union (underrated, I aver), Chiwetel Ljiofor’s performance of Piranesi, and Prunella Scales’ reading of The Railway Children by E. Nesbit.
I read two campus novels that were cruel about women. Lucky Jim (despite one of the great hangover scenes in 20th-century literature) was chalk on a blackboard with its hatchet job on Monica Jones. Pictures of an Institution is also extravagantly mean about Mary McCarthy, who, to be fair, probably gave as good as she got. But who needs it? I’m with Pnin all day long. [Ed. – Amen!] Haven’t read Stoner yet. [Ed. – Don’t do it.]
Alice Oswald’s Oxford Poetry Lectures on YouTube have been landmark events for me. Water, a pebble, Ainu epics: whatever the topic, she is riveting, incisively lyrical, somehow in touch with worlds beyond our ken.
This year I will be paying special attention to structure, so if you have books that you think are brilliantly structured, please do be in touch.
In addition to reading for Frugal Chariot, and I have the following projects on deck:
Re-reads of The Iliad, The Odyssey and a few other classical texts
Fiction of Joseph Roth and the forthcoming biography by Keiron Pim [Ed. — Can’t wait for that one.]
Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage (I have to admit that I’m not wowed by Pointed Roofs so far, but I am giving it a fair hearing)
The Love Songs of W. E. B. Du Bois
Lonesome Dove (you rave, I read!) [Ed. – Thumbs up emoji]
Moby Dick with #APSTogether
I wish you all wonderful years of reading in 2022, and look forward to ongoing fellowship. May we be wholly indefatigable!