Today’s reflection on her year in reading, her second annual contribution, is by NancyKay Shapiro (@NancyKayShapiro). NancyKay lives in New York, and reads a whole shit-ton.
Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week and into next. It’s a stellar lineup. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).
The notorious year, the second of the Big Pandemic here in New York City, was, for me, the year I really settled into the idea of being retired from my freelance ad biz career (which I’d declared at the beginning of ’20 in a wishful fingers-crossed kind of way), found other things to do than work, got my elderly mom vaccinated twice, myself vaccinated three times, counted lots of blessings, lost said elderly mom at age 89 (not to Covid), and busied myself then grieving and dealing with her estate.
I read or listened to 84 books. Looking back over the list, I find that very little has stuck with me with especial vividness, probably because there was a flatness to my emotional life for most of the year, and then, when Mom passed in early September, the whole emotional tenor changed, and everything leading up to the day of her death seemed like a decade rather than a handful of days and weeks ago.
So, having said that, let’s see which books I want to recommend from those 84.
The first book I read in 2021 was The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt, which I only picked up because of Book Twitter, and which I hated and kept telling Dorian I was going to chuck, because it seemed to be about an overly academically precocious child and an overly clever but useless-at-life mother. I thought I saw where it was going and that was to an ever-more annoying place. I would have chucked it if not for his encouragement, and I only appreciated it when I got to the last fourth or so of the text and could see what the whole thing was amounting to. [Ed. – Let this be a lesson to you all.] In the end I was glad I’d read it, breaking a habit I have of not persevering with books that, a hundred pages in, aren’t giving me much reading pleasure. The pleasure was retroactive.
Rob Sheffield, the music critic, wrote a book called Dreaming The Beatles: A Love Story of One Band and The Whole World. I’m a lifelong fan, but hadn’t thought about them much in recent years; this book delighted me because it wasn’t so much a band bio as a story of how the Beatles are perceived, and adored, across time, by their admirers. Lots of fun, gave me some new perspectives on these old favorites that sent me back to the music; a sprightly winter time read.
Quenching my desire to read dark books about grim and squalid Northern British things was Alma Cogan, a novel by Gordon Burn, in which he writes a fictional autobiography of Cogan, a singer popular in England in the 50s and early 60s, whose career was steamrollered by rock’n’roll, and who died young. In this novel she doesn’t die young, and she spills all the tea. Great and ghastly.
No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood really lit me up when I was reading it. It had an air of sui generis-icity about it that was exciting; its emotional roller-coaster effects were earned. Lockwood is very clever in the good ways of being clever, and this novel, which starts out being about online-ness, ends up being about emotions of great tenderness and subtlety. Full of surprise. A must. Just read it without reading anything about it first.
Over the summer I got into the way of wanting short stories by Anton Chekhov and William Trevor, and read great gobs of them, in the form of The Portable Chekhov and Trevor’s Collected Stories. I feel, looking back, as if I sat through hundreds of hand-wringing playlets, each story totally absorbing, a world in itself in a way that even the best novels are not, because you’re not reading them in a single sitting.
Also over the summer I had an urge to reread John O’Hara, and revisited Butterfield 8, Appointment in Samara, and 10 North Frederick. O’Hara’s merciless dissection of the manners and mores of upper-class Americans in the late 19th and 20th century is a genre unto itself for me. I can’t get enough of his snobs and tragically unself-aware nobs, all floating in cold martinis.
A wonderful discovery was the Chinese writer Eileen Chang, whose books are reprinted by the wonderful New York Review Books. I read Little Reunions for a class at the Center For Fiction, then went on to Love In A Fallen City. She writes about romance and family life in Hong Kong and Shanghai in the mid 20th century, with the political restrictions of these places hidden beneath the carefully articulated actions and thoughts of her heroines.
At the end of 2021 I listened to the audio of a new biography of poet Sylvia Plath, Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark, an exhaustive but never exhausting account of the accomplishments and anxieties of Plath’s amazing life, which lasted just 30 years. I’m always fascinated by the lives of writers. Plath was, though a genius, also exemplary of all the things society puts in the way of young women—the pressures to be pretty, nice, quiet, maternal, agreeable, nurturing. This bio impressed me afresh with her struggle to be both a great artist and a successful woman, by the standards of mid-century America and Britain.
Finally, my least-liked—really, flat-out disliked, book of 2021: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. The first novel by him I’ve read, and it’ll be the last. I only finished it because I’d been taught by The Last Samurai that things might turn around in the final third, but in this case, not so much. I know a few people who adore him and this book, but I can’t see it. [Ed. – I did not recommend this book, just FYI.]
Other stand-out books I read:
Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan
Piranesiby Susannah Clarke
Broken Greek: A Story of Chip Shops and Pop Songs by Pete Paphides
Odd Girl Out by Elizabeth Jane Howard
Harlem Shuffleby Colson Whitehead
Alec by William DiCanzio
How To Hide An Empire by Daniel Immerwahr
Bosnian Chronicleby Ivo Andric
Life of a Klansman: A Family History In White Supremacy by Edward Ball
In the next week or so I’ll be writing up my reflections on my 2021 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 contributors; let me know here or on Twitter (@ds228) if you have something you want to share.
First up is my old friend Keith Bresnahan (@designhist, follow him, he’s funny and awesome), who’s previously contributed severalterrificpieces on Zola. You can read his 2020 reflections here. Keith lives and works in Toronto.
2021, in a nutshell:
This year was strange, obviously. I was lucky, avoiding any serious effects of the pandemic: I kept my job, as did everyone in my family; no one I knew got seriously ill or passed away with Covid. But time and space felt flat. I didn’t go anywhere, and the repetitive sameness of days was best reflected in this popular image I kept seeing re-posted on Twitter. Perhaps this is why when Dorian initially nudged me to look back on my year of reading, I felt like I hadn’t read much at all: there was little to situate my reading in association with specific places or other things that were happening around me while I read them. As it happens, judging by my admittedly imperfect reconstruction (I have sworn to be better at keeping track this year!), I found I actually read 50-odd books for pleasure in 2021, not counting the 15 or so others I read for teaching and academic research. Not bad.
Here are a few of the more memorable ones.
Philip Marsden, The Summer Isles
I read this early in the year; details have faded, but my memory of reading it is of being carried along on gentle sea-waves; it’s that kind of book. A first-person travelogue of Marsden alone in a wooden boat, traversing waters up the west coast of Ireland toward the titular isles in northern Scotland, it also contains a good deal of reflection on historical lore, spiritual journeys, and local geographies. Much of the sailing-vocabulary was lost on me, but it didn’t seem to matter. Both learned and meditative, it was perhaps the most calming book I read this year. I passed it on to a good friend who owns a boat.
Enrique Vila-Matas, Never Any End to Paris (Trans. Anne McLean)
I found out about Vila-Matas this year, like most of the other authors I come across these days, from people I follow on “Book Twitter” (regular Twitter, just a nice corner of it populated by book-obsessed folks). A wry memoir of Vila-Matas’s youthful days in Paris as an aspiring writer and Ernest Hemingway wannabe. I loved it. He somehow rents a garret from Marguerite Duras, encounters Georges Perec and Roland Barthes, dates a woman who suggests he fling himself off the Eiffel Tower while on an acid trip, fends off parental intervention, and generally fails to write anything of substance. In a year where I couldn’t go anywhere, the descriptions of Paris were more than welcome. Looking forward to reading more by Vila-Matas soon, starting with Dublinesque, a kind of Joycean dream, apparently. Perfect for the centenary of Ulysses this year? (I’m also planning to give that one another shot)
Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove.
An 800-plus-page western. A western? Cowboys? A cattle drive? I left central Alberta for a reason, dude. But many folks who know better than me loved it, so I gave it a shot. Holy shit is this book great. An out-and-out masterpiece. At times it felt like magic realism – did the bull actually fight that bear? Was the cook actually back there banging the same bell with the same crowbar? Did Blue Duck fly? The book’s Indigenous characters are barely fleshed out (although McMurtry does show sympathy for their plight) — but then this is really the story of the others, the damaged settlers moving against a nascent American backcloth, seeking and grasping for any purchase with little to guide or protect them. At its heart is an emotionally blocked friendship between two former Texas rangers, and the women who speak truth to them (and whom they largely fail to understand). Plus an impressive cast of secondary characters, all memorable creations. Did I mention it’s more than 800 pages and somehow feels too short?
Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian (Trans. Grace Fick)
Another masterpiece. The best fictional evocation of the classical world I’ve ever read. Dreamlike and imagistic, with lessons on life and death to spare. I’m waiting to read more Yourcenar until the memory of this one’s brilliance fades a bit.
Ivo Andrić, Bosnian Chronicle(Trans. Celia Hawkesworth in collaboration with Bogdan Rakić)
A newish edition from Apollo Classics (Head of Zeus), this is a very long book, first published in 1945, about a French consul during the Napoleonic era living in a small Bosnian town on the extreme fringes of world events. Not much happens. I adored it.
Dominique Barbéris, A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray (Trans. John Cullen)
This was great — a short, stylish account of two sisters, one recounting to the other a past entanglement with a strange man. Felt to me at times like watching a French film from the 1970s. Enigmatic, and atmospheric as all get-out.
Three books in the “how-did-I-not-know-about-these?” category:
Margaret Kennedy, The Feast
A number of families cram into a seaside hotel in Cornwall for a week in the summer, their conflicts and idiosyncrasies build to a climax, then half of them are killed when a cliff falls on them. We know this part from the outset, though not who dies, so I’m not giving anything away. Apparently there’s a whole structure here about the 7 deadly sins, but I missed this while reading it, and it didn’t matter. Great fun. Made me want to read more Kennedy, and soon.
Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont
An older woman moves into a retirement hotel in London. The plot? Not much. But I found it utterly charming, even its descriptions of the depredations of old age, and very funny, too. Others, I’ve since learned, found it bleak. [Ed. – raises hand] Not me. Mrs. Palfrey is a plucky heroine, if a little self-deceiving (aren’t we all), and even the end, coming as it must, didn’t feel sad. I picked up a used Virago copy of this book on a whim, and then coincidentally read it the same week that it came out in a new NYRB classics edition. For once my finger was right on that pulse. More from Taylor in my near reading future.
Shirley Hazzard, The Bay of Noon
A young English woman in Naples in the 1950s falls in with a Neapolitan woman, Giaconda, and her Roman lover, Gianni. This was both evocative and restrained, with a powerful sense of the unspoken and unshown behind the minimal plot. Reminded me a bit of Antonioni, in a good way. Also made me long to revisit Naples (some strong compensatory travel-thrills in my readings this year!). My first Hazzard, won’t be my last.
Yasunari Kawabata, The Sound of the Mountain (Trans. Edward G. Seidensticker)
Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters (Trans. Edward G. Seidensticker)
Akimitsu Takagi, The Informer (Trans. Sadako Mizugushi)
Akimitsu Takagi, Honeymoon to Nowhere (Trans. Sadako Mizugushi)
Yuko Tsushima, Territory of Light (Trans. Geraldine Harcourt)
Kobo Abe, The Woman in the Dunes (Trans. E. Dale Saunders)
I enjoyed all the books translated from Japanese that I read this year, especially The Informer and Territory of Light. But it was Abe’s Woman in the Dunes that was the real revelation. A distressing, tense, fever-dream of a book, I’d put this existentialist fable of bizarre confinement, Sisyphean futility, and struggles of the will up against Camus any day of the week. I won’t be reading it again anytime soon, but I’m glad I did. Haven’t brought myself to watch the movie, but here’s an image from it anyway.
Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
Another existentialist hero, this time Philip Marlowe probing some family funny-business in sunny California. Noir perfection. I realized I’d previously conflated Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, whose hard-boiled shtick I could never really get past [Ed. – I am allowing this heresy on my blog, but I don’t like it], but this is glorious, witty stuff. The film, with Bogart and Bacall, is a deserved classic.
Muriel Spark, The Girls of Slender Means
My first Spark! I loved this small tale of young women living together and negotiating wartime, nascent loves, work, and rooftop escapes. A near-perfect short read.
Sam Selvon, The Housing Lark
Stuart Hall, Familiar Stranger
Two takes on the West Indian experience in 1950s – 60s England. The Housing Lark, by the criminally under-appreciated Sam Selvon, is a sort of sequel to his better-known The Lonely Londoners; if anything, I liked this one better. Hall’s autobiography takes him from Jamaica to Oxford to the founding of cultural studies and the New Left in the 1960s—on the one hand, a world apart from Selvon’s hustling hardscrabble immigrants, and on the other not so different, negotiating displacements and identities among the so-called Windrush generation. Suggest watching Steve McQueen’s remarkable Small Axe series alongside.
Graham Greene, The Quiet American
Ryszard Kapusćiński, Nobody Leaves: Impressions of Poland (Trans. William Brand)
Sergio Pitol, The Journey (Trans. George Henson)
Vivian Gornick, The Romance of American Communism
Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow
Purely by accident, I ended up reading a number of books this year highlighting historical communism and Cold War politics seen through individual lives. Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, a scathing indictment of Western intervention in Southeast Asia, with its shockingly amoral conclusion, was among the best books I read this year. Ryszard Kapusćiński’s Nobody Leaves, a collection of short journalistic pieces from his native Poland around 1960, is episodic, strange and beautiful, and generally short on hope. Sergio Pitol’s The Journey, has the Mexican writer traveling around literary circles in Moscow, Leningrad, and Tbilisi during two weeks in 1986, just as glasnost and perestroika were starting to peek through. It was a highly personable travelogue that makes me want to read more by him (I’ve already ordered Pitol’s The Love Parade, out in translation early this year). He writes a lot about Marina Tsvetaeva, which makes me think I should read her. In non-fiction, I was taken with Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism, recently republished by Verso. Originally from 1977, it’s an oral history of American communists from the 1920s through the 1950s and their breaks with the Party following the revelations of the 1950s. Gornick’s subjects are angry and wounded, prone to self-importance, self-deception, and self-critique, and her book is wonderful at conveying how people form passionate attachments to ideological movements, and what happens when that falls apart. Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, a cream-puff fantasy of a hotel-bound aristocrat suffering minor inconveniences during the same decades of Soviet history, which I read at a cottage just after Gornick’s bracing book, felt too tidy and cute by half. I might have enjoyed it more at another time.
James Salter, Light Years
Probably my favourite book of 2021. A couple raises two kids in a country house not far from New York City. They have affairs, they divorce, their kids grow up, they meet artists, actors, go to parties, discuss the theatre, they remarry, get ill, die. It recalled the 1970s cinematic and literary middle-class dramas I was enthralled by as a child (this was what life was, or so I thought then). Now in my own middle age, I’m both less sanguine about this stuff than I used to be, and intuitively drawn to it. Nostalgia for that insular worldview? Dunno. Whatever it was, I found it perfectly, achingly beautiful, and sad. A book I know I’ll revisit. I also read Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, which I liked but not nearly as much as this one.
In the last days of 2021, I read three quietly resonant books:
Paul Griffiths, The Tomb Guardians
I’m not sure how to classify this short book, which shifts constantly between two conversations: in the first, two figures discuss a series of three (real-life) paintings in a museum showing the sleeping guards charged with protecting Christ’s tomb; in the second, we hear the voices of the Roman guards themselves, having woken up to find one of their party missing and the stone from the tomb entrance moved. It’s clever and light, achieved with erudition and evident skill; as a professional art historian, I wish I’d written it myself.
Louise Glück, Winter Recipes from the Collective
Nobel winner of 2020. Quiet and studious poems. Felt snowy, and cold. Some folks are saying this book shows a diminution of Glück’s energies, which bodes well for her earlier work, I’d say. I’ve just bought her first four books of poems.
Aidan Higgins, Langrishe, Go Down
Another Apollo Classics reprint, first published in 1966. A woman on the cusp of middle age, living with her unmarried sisters in a declining Irish great house, has an ill-fated affair with a German scholar of no means. Just go read it already. One of my books of the year. There’s a film, too, with Jeremy Irons and Judi Dench.
One more, for Dorian:
Marian Engel, Bear. Technically a re-read, since I first read this when I was 18. But that was some time ago, and I was 18, so let’s call it a new book for 2021. Is it the great Canadian novel? Sure. [Ed. — Hmm… this is not the expression of explosive joy I’d hoped for, but I’ll take it.]
Some predictions for 2022:
– Nature-books: I’ve got a bunch of these on the shelf, and this is the year! Birds, mountains, wild swimming, I’m your man.
– More 20th-century reprints, mostly from UK writers: I’ve gathered a small heap of books from Virago Modern Classics, Persephone, Apollo Classics and others, and am eager to dive in.
– Finishing the Penguin Maigret books. I’ve got 10 left to read in this 75-volume set, and the last one has just arrived by post.
– Following a prompt from a Twitter mutual, I’ve signed on to read all the extant plays of classical Greece. Ambitious, but they’re short, right?