Emmett Stinson’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Emmett Stinson (@EmmettStinson). Emmett is a writer and literary critic who is taking up a position as a Lecturer in Literary Cultures at the University of Tasmania in 2022..

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).

J. S. G. Boggs

I’ll be honest [Ed. – Hadn’t occurred to me you wouldn’t be–until now…]: I had to look at my Goodreads account to remember what books I read in 2022. Not because my memory is failing (I hope), but because it’s hard to separate 2021 from 2020: they feel like one long year spent mostly in my lounge, often working, often caring for children, sometimes briefly on furlough from those activities but still in the same room. My reading, as a fact, has been rarely undistracted: our small house has been full of sounds of children playing, blaring devices, zoom meetings, google meets for primary school, complaints about maths homework…probably no-one’s ideal conditions for a life of the mind, but I’d take it over a too-quiet library most of the time. [Ed. – Absolutely agree.] Finding a few quiet hours in the evening usually involves a trade-off between reading and sleep. I am not complaining—I wouldn’t have it any other way. But I think many people still think of reading as something that’s silent or solitary, and that’s often not my experience.

I enjoyed most of what I read last year, but most of the books I enjoyed most were not ‘new’ novels. My favourite was Christa Stead’s long House of All Nations(1938), which is about the goings-on in a Parisian bank that may or may not be a Ponzi scheme. It’s amazing to me that there wasn’t more interest in this book in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. It’s a fascinating account of the way money manipulates markets (or tries to). It’s full of dryly satirical portraits of pretentious bankers and includes a massive cast of unusual characters. Stead is as technically accomplished a writer as the more famous modernists, but her writing is more restrained. When she does suddenly let loose with a perfect, rhetorically complex sentence, the effect is even more powerful. House of All Nations does have an often-compelling plot, but it is told in a serial way, and many of the details are highly technical (my favourite section is about the manipulation of the international wheat trade!). [Ed. – Neepery!] It’s an encyclopedic novel that should be more widely read, and the rare encyclopedic work that could probably be turned into a (inferior, obviously) modern television series.

I also loved Jen Craig’s out-of-print first novel, Since the Accident (2009). Her second novel, Panthers and the Museum of Fire, is a multivalent Bernhardian rant that has rightly attracted international attention, but the first book is impossible to find (it was sent to me by the author via her literary agent, Martin Shaw). It’s an exceptional work that anticipates Cusk’s Trilogy. The novel is narrated by an Australian woman just returned from Europe who visits her sister, Trude. Trude has partially recovered from a terrible car accident, but has recently decided to leave the man she was living with (Murray, who helped save her from the accident) and moves into a room in a run-down suburban Sydney pub. In order to explain this decision, Trude recounts a series of conversations between herself and other participants at an artist’s retreat she recently attended. The entire novel takes place during this conversation in the pub, which is a tense and sometimes menacing scene. Trude and her sister are estranged, and both dislike their controlling, manipulative mother, who has is responsible for the visit in the first place. It’s a layered, indirect work, technically accomplished, beautifully written, but also very human.

Two other Australian novels I really enjoyed were Michael Winkler’s Grimmish and Louis Armand’s The Combinations. I have already written about the self-published(!) Grimmish at length. It’s a hilariously funny novel that everyone should read. [Ed. – If they can get their hands on it!] Armand’s The Combinations is a bizarre baggy encyclopedic novel that is 888 pages long. Its structure is based on a chess board (an obvious nod to Perec), and the book is very much a novel about Prague, where Armand has lived since the 1990s, but it’s written in a recognizably Australian idiom. [Ed. — !]  It does have a plot involving the Voynich Manuscript and the provenance of its orphaned protagonist {Ed. — !!], but this is a maximalist book whose pleasures are to be found from page to page in its many jokes, complex sentences, and inventive textual strategies. It’s the kind of book that will cause some readers to run screaming (I mean this as a compliment?), but it’s an intense technical, conceptual, and literary achievement. As far as I can tell, it’s gone almost entirely undiscussed in Australia, which seems absolutely bonkers. More people should read and write about this novel. It’s too smart to go unread.

Most of the other books I read this year were from book twitter recommendations—and there have been very few misses in this regard. I loved Mauro Javier Cardenas’ Aphasia, which is certainly my favourite ‘new’ book I read in 2021. I read the massive recent Krasznahorkai (a lot of fun if you have enjoyed his other work), Enard’s enjoyably excessive Compass. I read Gass’s Middle C (a book that has stayed with me and which I hope to reread) and Theroux’s cult-favourite novel, Darconville’s Cat, which I found equally extraordinary and confounding. I loved the relentless accrual of that long sentence in Ducks, Newburyport up until its too-resolute ending.I particularly loved Pierre Senges’ The Major Refutation, a novel comprising a (fictional) historical treatise that refutes the existence of the new world after Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of it. It is a novel written as a joke that is carried too far and then goes for another hundred pages beyond that, and I loved every second of it. Tsypkin’s Summer in Baden-Baden is a novella about Dostoyevsky that is effectively a literary panic attack. [Ed. – Did someone say “panic attack”??] It’s brutal, painful, and funny in equal measure, but even thinking about the book makes me feel weirdly uneasy. I reread Clarice Lispector’s Collected Stories, which remains my favourite of her books. Domenico Starnone’s Truth is perhaps not quite as good as his recent Ties and Trick, but it is a fascinating account of an author who is worried about his reputation being destroyed by the revelation of a ruinous secret. Exactly the kind of book you’d probably not want to write if you were an author suspected of harboring a large and potentially career-ruining secret… [Ed. – Ha!]

I was also surprised to find myself beguiled by two better-known novels. I had just assumed that I was not the right reader for Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. I was wrong: it’s funny and I loved the way that Highsmith makes Ripley both repugnant and compelling. I also like how it (correctly) portrays the intergenerationally wealthy upper-classes of the USA as basically boring and dim people whose only extraordinary quality is their wealth. I also laughed all the way through Rachel Cusk’s Second Place. I know some readers have complained that it’s too close to its source material, but it’s such a strange, comic novel that is full of awkward and mildly unpleasant humour (and which jokes in various ways about its own unoriginality). Give me more unoriginal books like this one!

Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Échelonnement désaxé, 1934

I am currently packing all of my books in the process of moving from regional, mainland Australia (Ballarat) to the island state of Tasmania. [Ed. – Tasmania! What the devil?! I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me…] As a result, my reading will be a bit more limited for the moment and largely digital. I am about 1/4 of the way through Marguerite Young’s sprawling, discursive Miss Macintosh, My Darling, which is being reprinted by Dalkey Archive Press in 2022, and I suspect this is likely to be one of my favourite novels of this year.

NancyKay Shapiro’s Year in Reading, 2020

In the next week or so I’ll 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 third post is by NancyKay Shapiro (@NancyKayShapiro), who blogs at Reading Up. NancyKay has terrific taste, and I’m not just saying that because we agree on most everything. She lives and reads in New York City.

Reading is (a huge part of) my life. My choices are always spontaneous, and always include new books, old books, and revisits to books I’ve read before.  More and more in recent years I’ve loved audiobooks, initially as a way to reread old favorites in a fresh way, then as a way to read books such as long histories that in printed form would end up sliding away from me. My intention at the start of the year, before the epidemic was thought of, was, amidst whatever else appealed to me, to tackle Proust.

Strong influences on my books choices in 2020 were: A) The Backlisted Podcast, and B) Book Twitter. At any event, the part of book twitter that I found mainly through following the Backlisted people and then following the people they follow, etc. I’m very susceptible to the enthusiasm of friendly enthusiasts. (That said, DO NOT bother trying to recruit me, Scientology.)

In 2020 between reading and listening, I read 105 books, which for me, may be a record, but doesn’t feel like much of one given how high and dry I was all year. I completed 87 books in ’19, and 91 in ’18. About 20% of the 2020 books were rereads.  (I almost always finish books I begin, because I tend to reject a book very quickly; if I read more than 50 pages, I’m going to see it through even if I’m not in love with it.)

Looking over my list to pull out the things that I liked most, I’m struck by the sense, unique to this year, that a lot of stuff just rolled through me; I read these terrific books, one after the other, and at the same time I was emotionally kind of flat. I’m sure NO ONE ELSE knows what I’m talking about, so let’s leave that there.

A few fiction standouts in 2020:

Proust—I read volumes 1, 2 and 3 (Swann’s Way, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, The Guermantes Way). When the lockdown began, I’d just started Vol 2, and I put it down for a few months, because though my life didn’t change very much, especially compared to a lot of other people, my emotional tenor did, and there was a while when it felt like what had been going on had to stop and other things take their place. Anyway I was delighted with Proust, whom I’d tried a few times before but felt now, in my late fifties, I was really ready for, in terms of the patience I could bring to reading him, my ability to appreciate rather than endure, and all the training I’d had from repeat readings of Henry James to deal with huge paragraphs, digressions, insanely long sonorous sentences, and so on. Sometimes I found myself feeling sorry for the narrator for how obsessed he was with people who really weren’t … uh, very worthwhile.

High Wind In Jamaica by Richard Hughes. I’m not sure what prompted me to read this; I’d read one of Hughes’ other novels a year ago, and I had this one, but it must’ve been something from a podcast or writer interview that made it suddenly needful to grab it. An English child and her siblings are sent by their parents from Jamaica towards England for boarding school in the late 1800s; along the way they are, by misadventure, transferred to a pirate ship, where they spend many months in the custody of rather hapless pirates who aren’t having a splendid time of it. Our little girl, who has a large sensibility and ability to accept circumstances, experiences it all with curiosity and an admirable lack of concern for how her parents’ plans have been overturned: through her eyes the extraordinary things that happen before the children return to civilization are never extraordinary in the way the staid adult reader believes them to be. (Though there are strong hints that her older sister, who doesn’t enjoy the immunity of pre-adolescence, is having a much darker shipboard experience.)

I was reminded that Katharine Anne Porter’s story about the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic was timely again, and so good was “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” that it led me to read her entire collected stories. Her profile should be higher. Marvelous writer.

The Judges of the Secret Court: A Novel About John Wilkes Booth by David Stacton. What it says on the tin. The lead-up to the Lincoln assassination from the point of view of, among others, Booth’s older brother, a noted stage actor whose difficult career wasn’t made any easier by his kid brother being a white supremacist terrorist.

Summer in Baden-Baden by Leonid Tsypkin, which is a novel about Dostoyevsky. After initially finding Dostoyevsky baffling and off-putting in my young adulthood, I’ve come to revere and spend a lot of time with him, with accompanying interest in his life as well as the work. This small novel written by another D enthusiast, is a little gem of the sui generis variety, using the occasion of D’s travels to the gambling spa with his second wife, and their other adventures abroad, to both tell his story and invoke, very powerfully, the mood of his writings and what it feels like to read him. (Honorable mention to JM Coetzee’s novel The Master of Petersburg, which I also read this year, another fictional take on the Great D, but found not so rich and strange, for me, anyway.)

Other novels I read that I won’t elucidate but would push into your hands if your hands were here to be pushed into:

The New House, by Lettice Cooper, Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy, A Pin To See the Peepshow by J Tennyson Jesse, A Wreath for the Enemy by Pamela Frankau. The latter are all green Virago Modern Classics, which I collect, shelve for years and years, and then occasionally rediscover and read. One Last Look by Susanna Moore; The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing (thanks to Dorian Stuber for that tip); Days Without End and its sequel A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry; Disappearing Earth by Julia Philips

Authors I reread this year include: Lore Segal, Shirley Ann Jackson, Colette, Carson McCullers, Henry James, JD Salinger (entirely due to Backlisted’s sudden craze for; I was glad to be prodded back to a writer whom I’d thought myself entirely done with 25 years ago).

Novels I read that everybody seemed to adore but which I did not: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, and Leonard and Hungry Paul, by Rónán Hession [Ed–harumph]. Not telling you not to read these. Just if you did and also didn’t like them, come sit by me.

A few nonfiction standouts:

  1. Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of An American Family by Richard Kolker, in which an American family of some 10 children has 5 of them succumb to galloping schizophrenia.
  2. Time Song: Journeys in Search of a Submerged Land by Julia Blackburn, in which the author explores the old Doggerland, or Heligoland, the part of England now submerged beneath the North Sea.
  3. American Oligarchs: The Kushners, the Trumps and the Marriage of Money and Power by Andrea Bernstein, a reporter for WNYC radio whose extraordinary work I’ve followed by 2 decades.
  4. Lakota America by Pekka Hämäläinen, a history that positions the Native Americans as a powerful preexisting nation dealing with global politics and an influx of aggressive white settlers.

The Google spreadsheet of all 105 of my 2020 reads (and all my annual reads for the last 11 years) is available here: https://bit.ly/3njPjah