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 Horizon here.
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 email@example.com. 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 Water by 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
- Louise Erdrich
- Teju Cole
- More poetry!
I wish you all wonderful years of reading in 2022, and look forward to ongoing fellowship. May we be wholly indefatigable!