I feel bad saying it, it is a mark of my privilege and comfort, but 2020 was not the most terrible year of my life. In many ways, it was even a good year. I have secure employment, about as secure as can be found these days, and what’s more I spent half the year on sabbatical, and even before then I was working from home from mid-March and didn’t miss my commute for a minute. Thanks to the sabbatical, I avoided the scramble to shift my teaching to a fully online schedule—watching colleagues both at Hendrix and elsewhere do this work I was keenly aware of how luck I’d been to have avoided so much work. I do worry, however, that I’m hopelessly behind the curve, clueless about various technologies and best practices; I expect elements of the shift to virtual will persist.
My family spent a lot of time together last year; among other things, I watched my daughter grow into someone who edits YouTube videos with aplomb. (At not-quite ten she is already the house IT person.) As an introvert, I found staying home all the time the opposite of a burden. (Last week I had to be somewhere relatively crowded, for the first time in months, and boy am I going to be in for a rude awakening when this is all over.) I missed seeing friends, but honestly my social circle here is small, and I continued to connect with readers from all over the world on BookTwitter. Most excitingly, I had a lot of time to read. I’ve heard many people say their concentration was shot last year, and understandably, but that wasn’t my experience. For good or for ill my response to bad times is the same as to good—to escape this world and its demands into a book.
But sometimes, usually on my run, I’ll wonder if I’m mistaken in my assessment of the year. I suspect a deep sadness inside me hasn’t come out yet: sadness at not seeing my parents for over a year; at not being able to visit Canada (I became a US citizen at the end of the year, but Canada will always be home; more importantly, our annual Alberta vacations are the glue that keep our little family together); at all the lives lost and suffering inflicted by a refusal to imagine anything like the common good; at all the bullying and cruelty and general bullshit that the former US President, his lackeys, and devoted supporters exacted, seldom on me personally, but on so many vulnerable and undeserving victims, which so coarsened life in this country.
I think back to the hope I sometimes felt in the first days of the pandemic that we might change our ways of living—I mean, we will, in more or less minor ways, but not, it seems, in big ones. I feel hopelessness at the ongoingness of the pandemic, the sense that we may still be closer to the beginning than the end. And a despair fills me, affecting even such minor matters, in the grand scheme of things, as this manuscript I’m working on—could it possibly interest anyone?
I suppose what most concerns me when I say that 2020 was not a terrible year is my fear of how much more terrible years might soon become. My anxiety about the climate-change-inspired upheavals to come sent me to books, too, more in search of hope than distraction. A few of the titles below helped with that. Mostly, though, reading books is just what I do. I am reader more than anything else, and I expect to be for as long as that’s humanly possible.
For the second straight year, I managed to write briefly about every book I read. You can catch up on my monthly review posts here:
All told, I finished 133 books in 2020, almost the same as the year before (though, since some of these were real doorstoppers, no doubt I read more pages all told). Of these 45 (34%) were by men, and 88 (66%) by women. 35 were nonfiction (26%), and 98 (74%) were fiction. Sadly—if predictably—I read no collections of poetry or plays last year. I didn’t read much translated stuff: only 30 (23%) were not originally written in English. Only 4 were re-reads; no surprise, given how little I was teaching.
These are the books that leap to mind, the ones I don’t need to consult my list to remember, the ones that, for whatever reason, I needed at this time in my life, the ones that left me with a bittersweet feeling of regret and joy when I ran my hands consolingly over the cover, as I find I do when much moved. These are the books a reader reads for.
Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove
My book of the year. A road novel about a cattle-drive from the Mexican border to Montana around 1870. Thrilling, funny, epic, homely. Characters to love and hate and roll your eyes at and cry over and pound your fists in frustration at. And landscapes to swoon over, described in language that is never fussy or mannered or deliberately poetic, and all the better able to capture grandeur for that. I think about the river crossings all the time. And those last scenes in wintry Montana. Lonesome Dove is good for people who love Westerns. It’s good for people who don’t love Westerns. Recently someone asked me to recommend a 20th century Middlemarch. Crazy, I know, but I immediately thought of this book, which, albeit in a different register and in a different location, is similarly fascinated by the webs that form community, and why we might want to be enmeshed in them. (A goal for 2021 is to re-read Eliot’s masterpiece to see if this comparison has any merit.) If you read novels for character, plot, and atmosphere—if you are, in other words, as unsophisticated a reader as me—then Lonesome Dove will captivate you, maybe even take you back to the days when you loved Saturdays because you could get up early and read and read before anyone asked you to do anything.
Kapka Kassabova, To the Lake
I loved Kassabova’s previous book, Border, and was thrilled that my high expectations for its follow-up were met. Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa, connected by underground rivers, straddle the borders of Greece, Albania, and the newly-independent North Macedonia. This book is about these places, but as the singular noun in the title suggests, “lake” here primarily concerns a mindset, one organized around the way place draws together different peoples. Like Border, To the Lake is at first blush a travelogue, with frequent forays into history, but closer inspection reveals it to be an essayistic meditation on the different experiences provoked by natural versus political boundaries. Unlike Border, To the Lake is more personal: Kassabova vacationed here as a child growing up in 1970s Bulgaria, as her maternal family had done for generations. But Kassabova seems more comfortable when the spotlight is on others, and the people she encounters are fascinating—especially as there is always the possibility that they might be harmful, or themselves have been so harmed that they cannot help but exert that pain on others. In Kassabova’s depiction, violence and restitution are fundamental, competing elements of our psyche. One way that struggle manifests is through the relationships between men and women. As a woman from the Balkans who no longer lives there, as a woman travelling alone, as an unmarried woman without children, Kassabova is keenly aware of how uncomfortable people are with her refusal of categorization, how insistently they want to pigeonhole her. (No one writes ill-defined, menacing encounters with men like she does.) People have been taking the waters in these lakes for centuries—the need for such spaces of healing is prompted by seemingly inescapable violence. I’ve heard that Kassabova is at work on a book about spas and other places of healing, and it’s easy to see how the forthcoming project stems from To the Lake. I can’t wait.
Kate Clanchy, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me & Antigona and Me
Clanchy first earned a place in my heart with her book based on her life as a teacher, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. She is particularly good on how we might teach poetry writing—not by airily invoking “inspiration” but by offering students the chance to imitate good poems. These models will inspire students to write amazing poems of their own, and offer students whose background is from outside the UK (where Clanchy lives) the chance to refract their own experiences into art. Clanchy is committed to the idea that students have things to gain from their education, if they are allowed to pursue one. But she is equally adamant that students have things to give to the institutions where they spend so much of their lives. Thinking about what a child might bring to her school reminds us that education is a public good first and not just a credentialing factory or a warehouse to be pillaged on the way to some later material success. It’s an idea that might begin to redistribute the social and economic inequalities attendant in neoliberalism.
I’m sure I liked Some Kids as much as I did because I’m also a teacher. Which doesn’t mean I don’t think non-teachers (and non-parents) will enjoy it too. But I do think Clanchy’s earlier book Antigona and Me is an even greater accomplishment, with perhaps wider appeal. Antigona is Clanchy’s pseudonym for a Kosovan refugee who became her housekeeper and nanny in the early 2000s. The two women’s lives became as intertwined as their different backgrounds, classes, and values allowed them. Yet for all their differences, they are linked by the shame that governs their lives as women. Antigona’s shame—her escape from the code of conduct that governed her life in the remote mountains of Kosovo, and the suffering that escape brought onto her female relatives—is different from Clanchy’s—her realization that her own flourishing as a woman requires the backbreaking labour of another—and it wouldn’t be right to say that they have more in common than not. What makes the book so great is what fascinating an complex characters both Antigona and Clanchy are. Riveting.
Andrew Miller, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free
A brilliant historical novel. My knowledge of the Napoleonic wars is thin—though having just finished War and Peace I can say it is less thin than it used to be—and I appreciated learning about both the campaign on the Iberian peninsula and the various milieu in England, ranging from medicine to communal living, that were both far removed from and developed in response to that war. (Miller has Penelope Fitzgerald’s touch with the telling detail, conjuring up the mud and blood-spattered viscera of the past while also showing its estrangement from the present.) But what has really stayed with me in this book about a traumatized soldier on the run from both his memories and, more immediately, a pair of contract killers hired to silence the man before he can reveal a wartime atrocity is its suggestion that the past might be mastered, or at least set aside. Reading the last fifty pages, I felt my heart in my throat. Such anxiety, such poignancy. This book really needs to be better known.
Helen Garner, The Spare Room
Garner is a more stylistically graceful Doris Lessing, fizzing with ideas, fearless when it comes to forbidden female emotions. Old friends Helen and Nicola meet again when Helen agrees to host Nicola, who has come to Melbourne to try out an alternative therapy for her incurable, advanced cancer. Garner brilliantly presents Helen’s rage at the obviously bogus nature of the therapy—and Nicola’s blithe (which is to say, deeply terrified) unwillingness to acknowledge that reality. Helen is resentful, too, about the demanding and disgusting job of taking care of Nicola (seldom have sheets been stripped, washed, and remade as often as in this novel). Emotions about which of course she also feels guilty. Nicola expresses her own rage, in her case of the dying person when faced with the healthy. In the end, Nicola has to be tricked into accepting her death; the novel lets us ask whether this really is a trick. Has Nicola gained enlightenment? Is false enlightenment, if it gets the job of accepting reality still enlightenment? What does enlightenment have to do with the failure of the body, anyway? I loved the novella’s intellectual and emotional punch.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
Kathleen Jamie, Surfacing
Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future
I’ve grouped these titles together, not because they’re interchangeable or individually deficient, but because the Venn diagram of their concerns centers on their conviction that being attuned to the world might save it and our place on it. These are great books about paying attention. Whether describing summer days clearing a pond of algae or noting the cycles nut trees follow in producing their energy-laden crop, Kimmerer reminds us that “all flourishing is mutual.” We are only as vibrant, healthy, and alive as the most vulnerable among us. The past year has taught us the truth of this claim—even though so far we have failed to live its truth. Jamie observes a moth trapped on the surface of the water as clearly as an Alaskan indigenous community whose past is being brought to light by the very climactic forces that threaten its sustainability. Robinson imagines a scenario in which dedicated bureaucrats, attentive to procedure and respectful of experts, bring the amount of carbon in the atmosphere down to levels not seen since the 19th century. Even though Robinson writes fiction, he shares with Kimmerer and Jamie an interest in the essay. We need essayistic thinking—with its associative leaps and rhizomatic structure—more than ever. These generous books made me feel hopeful, a feeling I clung to more than ever this year.
Best of the rest:
Stone cold modern classics: Sybille Bedford’s Jigsaw (autofiction before it was a thing, but with the texture of a great realist novel, complete with extraordinary events and powerful mother-daughter drama—this book could easily have won the Booker); Anita Brookner’s Look at Me (Brookner’s breakout: like Bowen with clearer syntax and even more damaged—and damaging—characters); William Maxwell, They Came Like Swallows (a sensitive boy, abruptly faced with loss; a loving mother and a distant father; a close community that is more dangerous than it lets on: we’ve read this story before, but Maxwell makes it fresh and wondering).
Stone cold classic classics: Buddenbrooks (not as heavy as it sounds), Howells’s Indian Summer (expatriate heartache, rue, wit).
Thoroughly enjoyed, learned a lot (especially about hair): Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah
Best deep dive: I read four novels by Tessa Hadley this year, two early ones and the two most recent. Since I’ve read a few of her books before I now only have two more to go before I’ve finished them all. That will be a sad day, though with luck we will get a new one before too long. Hadley has been good from the start, but The Past and Late in the Day show her hitting new heights of wisdom and economy. Her characters are arty types or professionals who learn things they don’t always like about what they desire, especially since those desires they are so convinced by often turn out later to have been wrongheaded (like Proust’s Swann, they spend their lives running after women who are not their types, except “women” here includes men, friends, careers, family life, their very sense of self). I can imagine the future day when young literary hipsters rediscover Hadley’s books and wonder why she wasn’t one of the most famous writers of her time.
Did not totally love at the time, but bits and pieces of which would not quite let me alone: Tim Maugham’s Infinite Detail (struck especially by the plight of people joined by contemporary technology when that technology fails: what is online love when the internet disappears?); Henri Bosco’s Malicroix translated by Joyce Zonana (so glad this is finally in English; even if I was not head-over-heels with it, I’ll never forget its descriptions of weather. Do you like wind? Have I got a book for you!).
Loved at the time but then a conversation with a friend made me rethink: Paulette Jiles’s The News of the World. I was a big fan of this book back in the spring—and its rendering on audio book, beautifully rendered by a gravelly-voiced Grover Gardner—and I still think on it fondly. But a Twitter friend argued that its portrayal of a girl “rescued” from the Kiowa who had taken her, years earlier, in a raid is racist. I responded that the novel is aware of the pitfalls of its scenario, but now I’m not so sure.
Maybe not earth-shattering, but deeply satisfying: Lissa Evans’s V for Victory, Clare Chambers’s Small Pleasures, two novels that deserve more readers, especially in the US, where, as far as I know, neither has yet been published.
Most joyful, biggest belly laughs: Rónán Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul. That bit in the supermarket! Priceless.
Best Parul Seghal recommendation: Seghal elicits some of the feelings in middle-aged me that Sontag did to my 20-year-old self, with the difference that I now have the wherewithal to read Seghal’s recommendations in a way I did not with Sontag’s. Anyway, I’ll follow her pretty much anywhere, which sometimes leads me to writers I would otherwise have passed on. Exhibit A in 2020 was Barbara Demnick, whose Eat the Buddha is about heartrending resistance, often involving self-immolation, bred by China’s oppression of Tibetans. In addition to its political and historical material, this is an excellent book about landscape and about modern surveillance technology.
Ones to watch out for (best debuts): Naoisie Dolan’s Exciting Times; Megha Majumdar’s A Burning; and Hilary Leichter’s Temporary. Have I ever mentioned that Leichter was once my student?
Longest book: Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. Almost 1500 pages of easy reading pleasure that I look on with affection (perhaps more than when I first finished it) rather than love. Although now that I have finished War & Peace I see that Seth frequently nods to it. Wolf hunts!
Longest book (runner up): Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend A mere 900-pager. As I said back in November, “I read it mostly with pleasure and always with interest, but not avidly or joyfully.” Most interesting as a story about “revenants and ghosts, about corpses that don’t stay hidden, about material (junk, trash, ordure, tidal gunk, or whatever the hell “dust” is supposed to be) that never comes to the end of its life, being neither waste nor useful, or, rather, both.” Happy to have read it, but don’t foresee reading it again anytime soon.
Slow burn: Magda Szabó, Abigail (translated by Len Rix). Bit irritated by this at first but then realized the joke was on me—the narrator’s self-absorption is a function of her ignorance. All-too soon ignorance becomes experience. Not as gloriously defiant as The Door, but worth your time.
Frustrating: Carys Davies, West. Ostensibly revisionist western that disappoints in its hackneyed indigenous characters. I do still think of bits of it almost a year later, though, so it’s not all bad.
Left me cold: James Alan McPherson, Hue and Cry; Fleur Jaeggy, These Possible Lives (translated by Minna Zallman Procter); Ricarda Huch, The Last Summer (translated by Jamie Bulloch) (the last is almost parodically my perfect book title, which might have heightened my disappointment).
Not for me, this time around (stalled out maybe 100 pages into each): The Corner That Held Them; Justine; The Raj Quartet; Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight. Promise to try these again another time.
Stinkers: Géraldine Schwarz, Those Who Forget: My Family’s Story in Nazi Europe—A Memoir, a History, a Warning (translated by Laura Marris); Jessica Moor, The Keeper; Patrick DeWitt, French Exit; Ian Rankin, A Song for the Dark Times
Writer I read a lot of, mostly very much enjoying and yet whose books do not stay with me: Annie Ernaux. I suspect to really take her measure I would need to re-read her, or, better yet, teach her, which I might do next year, using Happening. As I said in regards to the latest Sigrid Nunez, I think I do not have the right critical training to fully appreciate autofiction. I enjoy reading it, but I cannot fix on it, somehow.
Good crime fiction: Above all, Liz Moore’s Long Bright River, an impressive inversion of the procedural. Honorable mentions: Susie Steiner; Marcie R. Rendon; Ann Cleeves, The Long Call (awaiting the sequel impatiently); Tana French, The Searcher; Simenon’s The Flemish House (the atmosphere, the ending: good stuff). In spy fiction, I enjoyed three books by Charles Cumming, and will read more. In general, though, this was an off-year for crime fiction for me. What I read mostly seemed dull, average. Maybe I’ve read too much the last decade or so?
Inspiring for my work in progress: Daniel Mendelsohn’s Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate. Mendelsohn excels at structure—and in these three linked lectures he tackles the subject head on.
Best Holocaust books (primary sources): I was taken by two memoirs of Jewish women who hid in Berlin during the war: Marie Jalowicz Simon’s Underground in Berlin (translated by Anthea Bell) and Inge Deutschkron’s Outcast: A Jewish Girl in Wartime Berlin (translated by Jean Steinberg). Gerda Weissmann Klein’s memoir All But my Life is worthwhile, with a relatively rare emphasis on forced labour camps. In her novel Other People’s Houses, closely based on her own experience as a child brought from Vienna to England on the Kindertransport, Lore Segal takes no prisoners. Uri Shulevitz’s illustrated memoir, Chance: Escape from the Holocaust, is thoroughly engrossing, plus it shines a spotlight on the experience of Jewish refugees in Central Asia. Of all these documents, I was perhaps most moved by the life of Lilli Jahn, a promising doctor abandoned in the early war years by her non-Jewish husband, as told by her grandson Martin Doerry through copious use of family letters. My Wounded Heart: The Life of Lilli Jahn, 1900 – 1944 (translated by John Brownjohn) uses those documents to powerful effect, showing how gamely her children fended for themselves and how movingly Jahn, arrested by an official with a grudge, contrary to Nazi law that excepted Jewish parents of non or half-Jewish children from deportation, hid her suffering from them.
Best Holocaust books (secondary sources): I was bowled over by Mark Roseman’s Lives Reclaimed: A Story of Rescue and Resistance in Nazi Germany. Fascinating material, elegantly presented, striking the perfect balance between historical detail and theoretical reflection. To read is to think differently about our misguided ideas of what rescue and resistance meant both in the time of National Socialism and also today. His earlier work, A Past in Hiding: Memory and Survival in Nazi Germany, which focuses on a part of the larger story told in the new book, is also excellent. Omer Bartov’s Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz is another fine example of the particular used to generate general conclusions. Considering the fate of the Galician town of his ancestors in the first half of the 20th century, Bartov uses the history of Buczacz, as I put it back in January, “to show the intimacy of violence in the so-called Bloodlands of Eastern Europe in the 20th century. In his telling there was a seemingly ineluctable drive on the part of almost every group to reduce the region’s cultural diversity, and that much of the violence required to do so was perpetrated by one neighbour against another.” Dan Stone’s Concentration Camps: A Very Short Introduction does exactly what the title offers. It covers an impressive amount of material—Nazi and Stalinist camps feature most prominently, no surprise, but they are by no means the sole focus—in only a few pages. Rebecca Clifford’s Survivors: Children’s Lives after the Holocaust skillfully combines archival and anthropological material (interviews with twenty child survivors) to show how much effort postwar helpers, despite their best intentions, put into taking away the agency of these young people.
In addition to reviews of the things I read, I wrote a couple of personal things last year that I’m pleased with: an essay about my paternal grandmother, and another about my love for the NYRB Classics imprint.
Coming in 2021:
Because my sense of how long things will take me to do is so terrible (it’s terrible), I’m always making plans I can’t keep. I should either stop or become more of a time realist. I do have a couple of group readings lined up for the first part of the year: Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel in February, and L. P. Hartley’s Eustace and Hilda trilogy in March. I’ve enjoyed, these past months, having a long classic on the go, and will keep that up until the end of my sabbatical. Having just completed War and Peace—guaranteed to be on this list in a year’s time—I might read more Russians. We’ll see. I want to read more Spanish-language literature—though I’ve been saying that for years and mostly not doing it. I want to read more writers of colour, especially African American writers. I took a course in college but have so many gaps to fill. I’m reading more nonfiction with greater pleasure than ever before—the surest sign of middle age I know; I’m sure that will continue in 2021. I read almost no comics/graphic novels last year, unusual for me, but I’m already rectifying that omission. I’ll read more science fiction in 2021, I suspect; it feels vital in a way crime fiction hasn’t much, lately. My two prime candidates for “deep dives” this year are Edith Wharton and Toni Morrison. Now that I am an American I should know the literature better!
What I’ll probably do, though, is butterfly my way through the reading year, getting distracted by shiny new books and genre fiction and things that aren’t yet even on my radar. No matter what, though, I’ll keep talking about it with you. That is, I’ll put my thoughts out here, and hope you’ll find something useful in them, and maybe even that you’ll be moved to share your own with me. Thanks to all my readers. Your comments and reactions and opinions—that connection—means everything to me.