NancyKay Shapiro’s Year in Reading, 2021

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).

Edward Hopper, New York Corner (Corner Saloon), 1913

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.]

Edward Hopper, Blackwell’s Island, 1928

Other stand-out books I read:

  1. Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan
  2. Piranesi by Susannah Clarke
  3. Broken Greek: A Story of Chip Shops and Pop Songs by Pete Paphides
  4. Odd Girl Out by Elizabeth Jane Howard
  5. Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
  6. Alec by William DiCanzio
  7. How To Hide An Empire by Daniel Immerwahr
  8. Bosnian Chronicle by Ivo Andric
  9. Life of a Klansman: A Family History In White Supremacy by Edward Ball
  10. Box Hill by Adam Mars-Jones

Every book I’ve read since 2008: https://bit.ly/3njPjah

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