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.
First up is my old friend Keith Bresnahan (@designhist), who’s previously contributed several terrific pieces on Zola. He’s thoughtfully included a drink pairing with each of his memorable reads. Keith lives and works in Toronto.
I read a lot this year, for me. At least, it felt that way (I didn’t keep a strict count). Perhaps it was being shut in for much of the year, due to the extenuating circumstances of COVID-19; but I also suspect I was filling in the gap opened by my near-total lack of ‘work’ reading (academic history and the like). For now, I regret nothing.
Here are my most memorable reads of the past year (thanks, Dorian, for the prompt!):
Tove Ditlevsen, The Copenhagen Trilogy
I read this during the summer as part of #WomenInTranslation month, having become aware of these books, like much else on this list, via the fine book-folks I follow on Twitter. Thematically, this trilogy had much in common with other things I read this year: childhood, adolescence, unhappy marriages, substance abuse, obsession. And yet it was also unlike anything else I read in 2020. Maybe unlike anything else I’ve ever read, at least in its calm power to unnerve. Ditlevsen’s matter-of-fact prose (in translation, at least) placed everything—from her premature and unhappy marriage to a much older man, to her early publishing successes, to motherhood, and her eventual and lifelong addiction to prescription opioids—under the same merciless light. Cumulatively devastating, and stupendous.
Drink pairing: eschewing the obvious (Demerol), I’m opting for a shot of Aalborg Akvavit. Christ, make it two.
Irmgard Keun, Gilgi / The Artificial Silk Girl
Joan Wyndham, Love Lessons: A Wartime Diary
Young women come of age, find and lose love, and carve out a tentative place for themselves among intriguing characters in Weimar Germany (Keun) and WWII London (Wyndham). The Wyndham is apparently a verbatim diary of these years, the Keun a thinly-veiled autobiography. Both are wonderful. I also read Keun’s first novel, Gilgi, which was likewise great. Going to get around to After Midnight in the new year.
Drink pairing: gin fizz, with a bottle of inexpensive claret stashed under the sofa cushions for later (because you never know).
Etienne Davodeau, The Initiates
Edmund de Waal, The White Road
John Berger, Pig Earth / Once in Europa
In Initiates (original French title: Les Ignorants), the highly-regarded French cartoonist Davodeau and his close friend Anjou vigneron Richard Leroy, spend a year ‘shadowing’ each other in their respective jobs. Davodeau captures the journey in monochromatic images and text. Although the book contains interesting tidbits about the lives of cartoonists and wine-makers, its lesson is ultimately less about these specific jobs than the meaning and depths of what the French call a métier: the intimacies and intricacies of a particular craft, and the love it holds for those who make a life of it (also, the difficulty of conveying this to others!). What fills the space between the person who sets out to make a thing, and the final product we (the audience) engage with? Some answers here. Lovely, and fully human.
A few years back, I read de Waal’s breakthrough book The Hare with Amber Eyes, about the imbrication of his family’s history with a collection of Japanese netsuke figures: a rich archive of family lore, the broader tale of early 20th-century European Jewry, and the lure of obsessive objects. This book is both more personal and more expansive, chronicling on the one hand de Waal’s travels to locations including China, Venice, Germany, France, and his native England, in search of porcelain (he’s a world-renowned ceramic artist), and a much longer history of a 500-year-long European obsession with porcelain. I found it uneven (I could have used less of the alchemical/princely whodunit, for instance, and found the writing overwrought at times), but at its best we see de Waal working this search for porcelain into his own intimate relationships with this material, which has given form to his own life.
Berger’s books give us the lives of French peasants in an alpine village during the first half of the 20th century, their manner and means of life resist, and only partly give way to, changes taking place in the rest of the world (the first, and then the second, World Wars impinge, but do not essentially change things). It’s all here, and biblical in scope: births, deaths, dancing, sex, sorrows, outsiders, jealousy, theft, and—always—the animals who are the constant companions of daily life. In their own ways, these books are also essentially about craft and the intimacies of material knowledge: “At home, in the village, it is you who do everything, and the way you do it gives you a certain authority. There are accidents and many things are beyond your control, but it is you who have to deal with the consequences even of these.” This, from Pig Earth, could easily work as well for the Davodeau or the de Waal.
Drink pairing: for the Davodeau, the obvious choice is one of Richard Leroy’s own wines. Due to limits of my local market, not to mention my bank balance, I haven’t tried any of them. But let’s say the 2017 Les Noëls de Montbenault Chenin Blanc, which is supposed to be excellent. For the Berger, a glass of good rustic cider, not too sweet, slightly foaming, or, better yet, an alpine wine –a Savagnin vin de paille. And for the de Waal, a Chinese gunpowder tea, with a good dose of milk to obtain that translucent porcelain grey-green-whiteness. Or maybe just another glass of the Leroy.
Riad Sattouf, The Arab of the Future, vol. 4
Mieko Kawakami, Ms. Ice Sandwich
I discovered the first volume of Riad Sattouf’s graphic memoir The Arab of the Future a few years ago and have been keeping up with them as they come out in translation (they’re originally written in French). I love Sattouf’s cartoony style, and his reminiscences of a childhood spent traipsing around the Middle East and France in the 1980s with his French-born mother and Syrian father have made me laugh out loud more often than any other books in recent memory. The scenes of him discovering Conan the Barbarian on VHS, his fights with his troglodytic cousins, his difficult relationships with cute girls, teachers, and his overbearing father (whose outbursts and never-ending scheming are on full display), make for self-deprecating comic gold. There is family trauma here too – Sattouf’s father absconds with his younger brother, and his parents fight constantly – but it’s handled lightly. I can’t wait for vol. 5, scheduled to come out later this year.
Ms. Ice Sandwich, a novella by Mieko Kawakami, better known for Breasts and Eggs (on my to-read list), is another depiction of the inner life of a young boy — in this case, one who develops a short-lived obsession with the woman working the sandwich-counter at the local supermarket. Kawakami gets how children think, and conveys it in a book in which every sentence rang true. I loved the boy’s friend Tutti, too, and his friendship with his grandmother. A book to read in a single joy-filled burst.
Drink pairing: Given the childhood theme here, I’m going with a Japanese “Ramune” soda, original flavour. Seems right for Ms. Ice Sandwich boy, and I think Riad would enjoy the rattle of the marble in the empty glass bottle afterward.
Alan Booth, The Roads to Sata
Matsuo Bashō, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
In the last month of 2020, I spent a couple weeks on and off reading Alan Booth’s The Roads to Sata, his account of a walking trip he made in 1977 from the northern tip to the southernmost point of Japan. Booth, a transplanted Englishman who had been living in Japan for 7 years at that point and had a Japanese wife and daughter in Tokyo, is both the strange foreigner and the invested outsider, surveying a nation and its people through his daily encounters and struggles on the road. He is routinely refused lodging, gawked at, his feet hurt, and he drinks a lot. It seems that Booth’s generally good-natured English grumpiness and daily drunkenness are off-putting to the Goodreads reviewers of this book, but I found him a wholly amiable companion.
On the first day of 2021, I read Matsuo Bashō’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North during a single snowy morning. Bashō’s account of his own travels on foot through Japan, some 300 years before Booth’s, is interspersed liberally with haiku (Bashō is one of the best-known practitioners of this art). This book was slow to work its magic on me, but once it got going, I couldn’t put it down. Bashō climbs mountains, fears for his life on narrow passes, goes out of his way to see a pine tree mentioned in a poem, and takes unadulterated joy in seeing birds and fish and old friends as he goes.
Reading these books back-to-back in a year when travel was all but impossible, and being rewarded with the joys and pains of journeying, especially in a country I long to see more of, was all I could ask for.
Drink pairing: although Booth drinks mostly beer, and Bashō doesn’t specify, I’m going to go with a sake, something earthy, full of umami and mountain tastes. The Yamada brewery’s “Everlasting Roots” Tokubetsu Junmai, from Gifu Prefecture, should do just fine.
Books lined-up on my shelves for reading in early 2021:
Rónán Hession, Leonard and Hungry Paul
Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony
David Gange, The Frayed Atlantic Edge
Philip Marsden, The Summer Isles
Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow
Irmgard Keun, After Midnight
Bohumil Hrabal, All My Cats
Jean Giono, A King Alone
Vigdis Hjorth, Will and Testament / Long Live the Post Horn!