Hope Coulter’s Year in Reading, 2022

Today’s reflection on a year in reading, her third, is by Hope Coulter(@hopester99), whom I’m lucky to call a colleague. A fiction writer and poet, Hope directs the Hendrix-Murphy Foundation at Hendrix College.

David Hockney, Nathan Swimming Los Angeles, 1982

2022 turned out to be a good reading year. I got a wider shot at e-book availability by joining a second public library in the adjacent city. [Ed. – “city.”] Then, by pecking through recommendation lists and hopping from screen to screen, I was able to keep my library hold shelves reassuringly filled—staving off that dire malady known as Running Out of Something Good To Read. [Ed. – Extremely bad. Jenny Davidson writes about some psychological studies done on this phenomenon in Reading Style.] Along the way I ran across some new obsessions.

Starting with nonfiction, I enjoyed and was moved by Suleika Jaouad’s Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted. It’s a cancer narrative that stands out on account of Jaouad’s youth, frankness, and writing chops, as well as the fact that the second half becomes a road-trip book. Jaouad discovered her cancer right after graduating from Princeton. In the flash of an eye the promising, carefree prospect of her twenties became a hellish ordeal. She’s still fighting cancer, and I wish her all the best for recovery. This book is a gift.

Thinking of memoirs by feisty young women, Crying in H-Mart, by Michelle Zauner got a lot of attention this year. For me it was an okay read, but not as memorable as Jaouad’s book. On the other hand, I recommend Lynne Cox’s Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer not for any particular magic in the telling but for the extraordinary nature of Cox herself—her athletic prowess, her ability to connect with people around the world, the cheerful way she greets challenges of all kinds.

Another thoroughly satisfying memoir was Marcus Samuelsson’s Yes, Chef, ghostwritten by Veronica Chambers. Samuelsson is the Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised culinary phenom who co-founded the Red Rooster restaurant in Harlem. His account of his Scandinavian upbringing; his rise through some of the most demanding restaurant kitchens in Europe, under despotic chefs; and his lifelong love affair with food and culture make this a book to relish on many levels. [Ed. – I see what you did there!]

George Saunders’s A Swim in the Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life is a terrific read for anyone who wants to dive deep into the craft minutiae of great short fiction. What questions does a story ask, and how do they pull us along? Is it what’s left in or what’s left out that makes a masterpiece? Of the analyses Saunders offers, his take on three of Chekhov’s stories were my favorite. On the other hand, if you’re not minutely interested in the technical and creative decisions behind a narrative—the tied-off loops on the back of the tapestry—you might as well just read the stories themelves.

Last but not least in nonfiction, fans of Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker, won’t want to miss his latest, Imagine a City: A Pilot’s Journey across an Urban World. Imagine a City includes lots of the lyrical, novel description that makes Skyfaring wonderful, this time swirled into memoir and a flâneur’s takes on cities around the world. By the nature of his work as a long-distance commercial pilot, Vanhoenacker often finds himself with two days to spend near any metropolitan destination that he flies. He bides the mandatory rests in exploration and writing. This book not only features slices of such urban-scapes, but recurring takes on the author’s growing-up in Pittsfield, Massachusetts: the town, his family, his coming-out, and the globe-spinning reveries that led to his vocation.

Now to fiction. One novel that blew me away this year was Julie Otsuka’s The Swimmers. As someone who loves pools and water I was initially attracted to the title and cover (I know, I know, like buying wine for the label; I confess). [Ed. – I strongly support buying books for their covers.] Then when I started to read, I fell hard for the voice. Exactly who is speaking with such quiet authority, unspooling list after list about the lap swimmers with such close, cool knowledge? A crack appears in the bottom of their pool, and it’s like Jane Alison’s Nine Island meets Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried… The novel suddenly widens into a more familiar and pain-steeped story that I won’t spoil; sprint [Ed. – missed metaphor opportunity!] to your nearest book source and see for yourself.

My enthusiasm for The Swimmers sent me to Otsuka’s earlier novels, When the Emperor Was Divine and Buddha in the Attic, which in different ways chronicle the experiences of Japanese American immigrants. They’re well worth the read, though to me not consummate in their artistry like The Swimmers.

Way different stylistically from The Swimmers was a book at least as magnificent: Anna Burns’s Milkman, the densest and strangest novel I read last year. A student in my Irish short stories tutorial recommended it, and I’m so glad she did: this book made me understand as never before what it was like to live in the middle of the Troubles, no, to live the Troubles, to contain their gaslighting and violence in one’s marrow. The narrator has one of those unforgettable voices—drenched in idiom, funny, idiosyncratic—that at first seems impossible to understand. There are few paragraph changes, and few characters are called by actual names. All these might put you off, might seem like obstructions to grasping the story… and yet. Somehow it galvanizes a world as you read, a world that tumbles around you and into you, changing you.

Another surprise and pleasure was Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, by Elizabeth Taylor, first published in 1971.It opens on a rainy Sunday in January (is there anything more depressing?) in a London lodging hotel just affordable and respectable enough for old folks not yet decrepit or destitute. You might judge this an unpromising start—till you find yourself immersed, riveted by Mrs. Palfrey and her fortunes: the aches, yearnings, miscues, and irritations of ordinary human life, rendered with nothing less than mastery.

Also of seventies vintage was Marian Engel’s Bear (1976), which Dorian has touted for years. I loved it: the boreal setting, the understated tone, a fusion of real with surreal that’s so seamless I question “surreal” even as I type it. The book is alluring and disconcerting at once—shoving me into uncomfortable encounters with my own relationships to sex, animals, and self—and resists interpretation at every turn. In fact, it’s highly entertaining to browse through reader takes on this book anywhere from Amazon to scholarly platforms. What is this thing: feminist text, postcolonial critique, an ursine-Canadian Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or a portrait of a “phallic mother”? Don’t miss Dorian’s delightful conversation with Shawn and James on Shawn the Book Maniac, which includes a clip from an interview with Engel herself. Mind you, as the interviewer admonishes, “This is no kinky, porno Pooh-Bear!” so prepare yourself for . . . something else thereof. [Ed. – Music to my ears, natch. But really 70s books are the best books…]

Thanks again to Dorian I reread Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry, and was relieved to find that it still has its magic: it had been so long (or my memory so bad) that the plot twists surprised me all over again. This big novel is good for what ails you, a bracing tonic, just like the big skies and open roads out West. [Ed. – So glad it held up! Every time I see it on my shelf I brighten up a little.]

Jonathan Evison’s Lawn Boy is about Mike Muñoz, a southern California guy who can’t seem to catch the brass ring. His voice is canny, believable, often funny, and a little hoarse with pain, and there’s never a false note or a missed beat narrating his adventures through emotional and economic labyrinths. This is a fresh take on the American dream, as broken down for disillusioned 21st century folks, and it deserves to endure. Highly recommend.

Mercy Street by Jennifer Haigh is a gritty novel that revolves around a Boston abortion clinic where the protagonist works and various other characters who intersect there. I read it before the mid-year overturn of Roe, but it’s at least as relevant now: it remains on my mind for its multidimensional treatment of people on different sides of the abortion issue. Creepy, scary, and all too credible, in the case of a couple of anti-abortionist characters; but as I said, granting a multidimensionality that at least seeks to understand the sources of the venom that animates them. As Mohsin Hamid says, one thing literature does is “recomplicate what has been oversimplified,” and a novelist’s nuance is too often missing from the violent discord around this issue.

Elizabeth Strout’s Lucy by the Sea brings her Oh William! characters forward through the first year of the coronavirus pandemic—moving those inveterate New Yorkers up to Maine. Anyone who has liked Strout’s earlier novels won’t be disappointed.

Speaking of disappointments, even though Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquillity made a lot of people’s best-of lists last year, for me it was pretty forgettable—way less gripping than Station Eleven, the post-pandemic novel she wrote a few years before Covid struck. I was likewise underwhelmed by The Flight of Gemma Hardy, Margot Livesy’s attempt at a modern retelling of Jane Eyre. I did finish it, but it annoyingly lacked a couple of key plot underpinnings as well as some of the major elements that make Bronte’s novel so great.

Edward Ruscha, Pool # 9, 1968

Last, and monumentally, I come to a series that dominated the last half of my reading year—and which I’m still devouring as we move into 2023: Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels, which chronicle the LAPD detective’s cases across more than twenty years in L.A. Formerly a reporter, including a last stint on the crime beat at the Los Angeles Times, Connelly is steeped in knowledge of the criminal legal system, LAPD culture, and police-reporter relations—not to mention southern California history and culture in general. So the books take place against a backdrop studded not only with physical landmarks but landmark events, O.J. to Rodney King to Robert Blake to COVID. Oh, and there’s also the iconic food of the greater L.A. area—specific BLTs and tacos and martinis that may have you keeping notes for the next time you make it out to the Golden State with an appetite.

In Heironymous (yes, named after the painter by his mother) Bosch, Connelly has created a laconic, jazz-listening, relationship-tending-to-screw-up hero in the best noir tradition: a SoCal Don Quixote perpetually battling the forces of darkness on his quest to put the bad guys (and women) behind bars. Fortunately, uh, but only for us as readers I mean, in the sweep of the sprawling metropolis there’s no shortage of evil out there for him to take on—from its crumbling bungalows to its gated MCM mansions, from seaside to outlying deserts, and sometimes within the halls of justice and press rooms and inter-warring police precinct headquarters themselves. The writing is spot-on: tough, perfectly paced, with lots of plot and action, of course, and salted just right with description and character. I’ve consumed these books the way I used to read beloved series as a kid, binge-reading with abandon, and now I see with dread that I’m closing in on the end of even the prolific Connelly’s output. [Ed. – Ah, that feeling! It’s really a thing, isn’t it?] He’s written several spinoff books involving sometime partners of Bosch, and a shorter series about a criminal defense lawyer who works from the back seat of his Lincoln, and those are good as well—but alas, they too are finite.

For what it’s worth, I read the series completely out of order, and it wasn’t a problem. When I did make my way back to the first couple of Bosch books, I found them a little stilted and trying too hard on the tough-guy front, in contrast to the grace and understatement of the later ones. In a way, though, the fact that the writing wasn’t impeccable was heartening: it showed that not even Connelly came to fiction-writing already with his skill set complete, but built his command over time. [Ed. — Glad to hear this, because I was underwhelmed by the first when I read it many years ago. Maybe I’ll grab one from later in the series.]

No, I haven’t watched the TV version of the Bosch books, and I doubt that I will; my mind’s-eye picture of the characters is too strong for me to want to sully it with a screen version, even though the author did consult on set. But next time I’m in L.A. I do plan to drive Mulholland Drive, and I’ll be looking for #7203, the modest cantilevered house with the deck on the back, where Bosch gazes down on the lights of the city in pensive moments. I have more to say on this topic, but excuse me, I’d rather go read now. We’re about to find out where the bodies are buried.

Short Fiction 2015 Week 4: Mueenuddin & Saunders

Click here to read this series from the beginning.

Thanks to Rosh Hashanah, it was another short week in Short Fiction. We studied two stories, Daniyal Mueenuddin’s “Nawabdin Electrician” and George Saunders’s “The Falls.”

“The Falls” was new to me, one of those last minute syllabus-making decisions to which I’m so fatally prone. (Does that happen to anyone else?) I’d been meaning to read Saunders for a while, especially after his Tenth of December got such good reviews. But when I got around to looking at the collection, the stories all seemed so long. Some rudimentary online searching led me instead to this much shorter piece. “The Falls” is an interesting story, and one the students seemed to enjoy. But I’m unconvinced I’ll teach it again.

It seems to pander to young people’s ideas of what it’s like to be older—maybe why the students liked it so much—and I can’t find a satisfactory explanation for what one of the two main characters is doing in the story, other than to make us sympathize more with the other. That’s a good enough reason, I guess, except that the other character was already fairly sympathetic to begin with: adding the other seems like unnecessary special pleading. (For those who have read it, I’m talking about Aldo Cummings—what’s he doing there? Morse is plenty interesting all by himself.) I often need a second or third teaching to really get a handle on a text, but in this case I don’t feel compelled to give it another try. Saunders lovers, tell me why I’m wrong!

“Nawabdin Electrician,” on the other hand, is a winner. I can’t remember if this is the second or third time I’ve taught it. But it keeps getting better. Mueenuddin grew up in Pakistan and the US; he published his first and so far only collection, Other Rooms, Other Wonders, in 2009. I think I first read “Nawabdin” in The New Yorker. I really hope Mueenuddin is working on something new.

The story is set between Multan and Firoza in the Punjab province of Pakistan at an unspecified date, probably in the 1980s or 90s. I don’t know anything about this place, which doesn’t reflect well on me, but the story explains it’s an arid region where water matters a lot and tube wells run continuously to provide for the crops. Nawab, the story’s first sentence tells us, “flourishe[s] on a signature capability, a technique for cheating the electric company by slowing down the revolutions of electric meters.” Additionally, he fixes the motors on the pumps and ensures that the home of the region’s largest landowner, K. K. Harouni, who lives mostly in Lahore, remains a cocoon of comfort. Nawab thrives under Harouni’s patronage, even convincing the man to give him a motorcycle. Mueenuddin is a warm writer, not above poking fun at his subjects. People are rightly, if predictably always comparing him to Chekhov. Some of his humour comes from his syntax: his sentences often have a sting at the end. Here the narrator reflects on the effect of the motorcycle on Nawab’s prestige:

The motorcycle increased his status, gave him weight, so that people began calling him “Uncle,” and asking his opinion on world affairs, about which he knew absolutely nothing.

The joke here is as much on Nawab as on everyone around him.

The first half of the story is a bit aimless, setting up Nawab’s life, his devotion to his large family, composed, and this is the great tragedy of his life, of thirteen daughters that he cannot hope to ever provide dowries for yet for whom he works indefatigably. I use the word “aimless” advisedly, because that’s the one the story uses to describe its protagonist’s movements:

Nawab’s day, viewed from the air, would have appeared as aimless as a that of a butterfly… the maps of these days, superimposed, would have made a tangle; but every morning he emerged from the same place just as the sun came up, and every evening he returned there, tired now, darkened, switching off the bike, rolling it over the wooden lintel of the door leading into the courtyard, the engine ticking as it cooled.

We can see here Mueenuddin’s genius with the long sentence, his way of unfurling clauses in leisurely but consequential fashion. The idea of the difference between a life viewed from above and from within reappears in the story’s dramatic shifts in perspective, most famously in this description of the trees that line one of the roads Nawab tears along on his bike:

Some hundred and fifty years ago one of the princes had ridden that way, going to a wedding or a funeral in this remote district, felt hot, and ordered that rosewood trees be planted to shade the passersby. He forgot that he had given the order within a few hours, and in a few dozen years he in turn was forgotten, but these trees still stood, enormous now, some of them dead and looming without bark, white and leafless.

We considered this passage for a while, lingering over its magisterial irony: the whim of the potentate that can make such a mighty and extraordinary thing come to pass even as he himself is as soon forgotten as his initial whim. Only the narrator remembers, and this move to omniscience—there’s no attempt to tie the information to Nawab’s consciousness—suggests that individuals are insignificant in the sweep of time, an idea that casts the end of the story in a new light.

Halfway through, the story switches gears, as it were, and narrates a single incident in detail. Nawab is riding home one night when a man steps out on to the road and motions for him to stop. Nawab takes pity on the man and offers him a ride. Half a mile later, the man pokes a gun in Nawab’s side and orders him to stop. Nawab loses control of the bike, the men go flying and land in a heap, but when Nawab tries to take the man’s gun the robber shoots him in the groin. After another tussle, the man fires five shots at Nawab from point blank range: they all miss. The commotion brings two other men running; one of them shoots the robber. The injured men are taken to a pharmacy. Only Nawab has the money for medical care, and he refuses the robber’s pleading: “Have mercy, save me. I’m a human being also.”

Nawab counters with a lofty, self-serving judgment—“At every step of the road I went the right way and you the wrong”—and the man dies after whispering, “It’s not true.” Then this, the story’s remarkable final paragraph:

Yet Nawab’s mind caught at this [the referent is unclear—perhaps the man’s final words], looking at the man’s words and his death, like a bird hopping around some bright object, meaning to peck at it. And then he didn’t. He thought of the motorcycle, saved, and the glory of saving it. He was growing. Six shots, six coins thrown down, six chances, and not one of them killed him, not Nawabdin Electrician.


I had begun class by referencing E. M. Forster’s classic distinction between round and flat characters. Surprisingly, Forster begins by describing flat characters at length and only then goes on to define round characters—and then mostly in opposition to flat characters. Flat characters, says, Forster, can be summarized in a sentence. We went on to consider the relation between flat characters and stock characters of types (quite similar, but not, I think, the same). Flat characters are static, maybe even simple, but they’re not dull. I asked the class for an example of a flat character in “Nawabdin Electrician” and was pleased when the immediate answer was Nawabdin’s wife. (I also offered the example of the pharmacist, whose ruthlessness about only exchanging his services for cash reminds us of certain aspects of Nawab’s character.) We briefly discussed Nawab’s wife, concluding that what best characterized her was her long-suffering attitude to her husband. I wanted students to see, though, how warm and moving a portrait of a “flat” character can be. We see that her life is hard, she always comes last in the family, but she isn’t entirely put upon, she’s shrewd and funny and seems to love her husband as much as he evidently loves her. And we learn all this in only a single scene.

I proceeded to offer a riff on what the names of character can reveal, whether through allusion (Ishmael in Moby Dick, as exiled and wayward as his namesake in Genesis) or through description, (the evasive and obfuscatory lawyers Dodgson and Fogg in Pickwick Papers: I nicked these examples from a textbook I’ve lying around my office.) Then I turned to the most interesting thing Forster says about round characters: they surprise us. Their motivations are complex, sometimes inscrutable even to themselves.


Having given this background, I suggested that Nawab was a perfect example of a round character. The ending, students readily agreed, surprised them. Did they like Nawab, I asked? The class was split, and this naïve question sparked the most open, back-and-forth conversation we’d had so far. Some students were taken by Nawab’s devotion to his family. Others were impressed by what a bad ass he turns out to be. But still others disliked him for that same reason, pointing out how judgmental and cruel he proves in the end. Indeed, I suggested, to call him a bad ass is to believe his own propaganda, which we see at work in the free indirect discourse of that brilliant final sentence. This is aggrandizement of a different sort than the prince’s whim that led to a forest. This is a man given the opportunity to reflect on his actions and simply choosing not to (“And then he didn’t.”) Moreover, though I forgot to mention this at the time, to judge the robber as harshly as Nawab does is to ignore another surprising narrative shift when we suddenly, via narrative omniscience, learn that the man had never used guns before and couldn’t bear to point at the head or the body.

There’s much more to say about the subtle ambivalence of Mueenuddin’s characterization of his protagonist. I’ll end simply by citing the passage we looked at in the last minutes of class, with time running down and still so much to say. It’s a passage from early in the story, when we are still being introduced to Nawab, still inclined to look kindly on him as a Robin Hood type. Nawab has been called in to fix the pump on a well:

Hammer dangling like a savage’s axe, Nawab entered the oily room housing the pump and electric motor. Silence. He settled on his haunches. The men crowded the door, till he shouted that he must have light. He approached the offending object warily but with his temper rising circled it, pushed it about a bit, began to take liberties with it, settled in with it, drank tea next to it, and finally began disassembling it. With his screwdriver, blunt and long, lever enough to pry up flagstones, he cracked the shields hiding the machine’s penetralia. A screw popped and flew into the shadows, He took the ball-and-peen and delivered a cunning blow. The intervention failed. Pondering, he ordered one of the farmworkers to find a really thick piece of leather and to collect sticky mango sap from a nearby tree. So it went, all day, into the afternoon, Nawab trying one thing and then another, heating the pipes, cooling them, joining wires together, circumventing switches and fuses. And yet somehow, in fulfillment of his genius for crude improvisation, the pumps continued to run.

The backhandedness of that last sentence is wonderful: is that honest praise for genuine skill, however crude, or is it a testament to an unchanged reality (not even Nawab could break the machine)? Over and over the passage undermines Nawab: his “cunning blow” fails with a thud echoed by the unusually short sentence in the midst of these glorious, sinuous lists of Nawab’s efforts, which range from brute force to tender solicitation. (Am I the only one to hear “genitalia” in that obscure “penetralia”? Not to mention his “taking liberties” with the machine.) Nawab is a master, wielding his carefully described tools with precision. Nawab is a charlatan, throwing everything at the wall and hoping something, some piece of leather dripping with mango, sticks.

The precision of Mueenuddin’s description, his genius with tempo and rhythm (we really feel Nawab’s desperation in those lovely lenthy sentences), and his through-going ambivalence about Nawab’s character: in these ways the passage offers in miniature everything that is so good about this terrific story.

In past entries, I’ve expressed some doubts about this group of students. This week was certainly our best so far. It seemed as though the students were starting to get a handle on what I’m asking them to do. Some still have that half-puzzled, half-terrified look. But in general the week was characterized by a kind of looseness and joy that our conversations had usually been lacking so far. Here’s hoping that atmosphere continues next week, when we discuss the concept of place/setting/locale in stories by Malamud and Rachel Seiffert.