Victoria Stewart’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Victoria Stewart (@verbivorial). Victoria is a university lecturer in English literature, with special interests in Holocaust writing and interwar detective fiction (she’s like me, only more successful), but this post focuses on some of what she read for pleasure in 2021.

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).

Rachel Whiteread, Line Up, 2007-2008

Reading Maria Stepanova’s The Memory of Memory,translated by Sasha Dugdale, I wasn’t sure whether to be gratified or not to recognise myself as this ‘type of person’:

Notebooks are an essential daily activity for a certain type of person, loose-woven mesh on which they hang their clinging faith in reality and its continuing nature. Such texts have only one reader in mind, but this reader is utterly implicated. Break open a notebook at any point and be reminded of your own reality, because a notebook is a series of proofs that life had continuity and history and (this is most important) that any point in your own past is still within your reach.

In any case, my ‘reading notebook’ came in useful, or finally justified its existence, when Dorian kindly invited me to write this post. Looking through the list of what I read in 2021, I see that what might broadly be called ‘autofiction’ figured quite heavily. I’ve always been drawn to realist fiction, and the idea of writing a novel that could be mistaken for a factual text is one logical extension of that, I suppose. Whether The Memory of Memory, an exploration of Russian/Soviet family history, steps over the line from fiction into essay maybe only Stepanova herself can tell, though for me it demanded the kind of attention that I associate with reading nonfiction.

I started 2021 by re-reading Emmanual Carrère’s The Adversary, translated by Linda Coverdale, an account of an act of criminal deception that formed the basis for the 2002 film of the same name [Ed. – I believe it also inspired Laurent Cantet’s excellent Time Out (L’Emploi du Temps), 2001], but which, like many classic true-crime texts, weaves the story of the author’s ‘investigation’ into their account of the crime. I must have first read this soon after it was published in the early 2000s, and only belatedly realised that Carrère was the author of Limonov, translated by John Lambert, an experiment in biography that’s also intertwined with autofictional elements. I read for the first time Carrère’s nasty, brutish and short Class Trip, translated by Linda Coverdale, which, told from a child’s perspective, forms a sort of distorted mirror image of The Adversary. My Life as a Russian Novel, another Coverdale translation, is probably the one I’d be least inclined to return to. [Ed. – Of course that’s the one I own…] The story of Carrère’s quest to find out about his grandfather, who was (probably) executed at the end of the Second World War as a collaborator, gets submerged under other strands that, to me, were less engaging.

I’d resisted reading both Tove Ditlevsen’s trilogy, Childhood, Youth, Dependency, translated by Michael Favala Goldman, and Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament, translated by Charlotte Barslund, as I’m not generally keen on texts dealing with traumatic childhoods or addiction, but I was glad that recommendations from other readers persuaded me to get over that resistance. The first two volumes of Ditlevsen have a black humour that I hadn’t expected, though I found Dependency much tougher, and Hjorth’s reflections on family dynamics and being a grown-up child struck a chord:

Sybille Bedford writes somewhere that when you’re young you don’t feel that you’re a part of the whole, of the fundamental premise for humanity, that when you’re young you try out lots of things because life is just a rehearsal, an exercise to be put right when the curtain finally goes up. And then one day you realise that the curtain was up all along. That it was the actual performance.

During the pandemic lockdown, which went on for an extended period in the part of the UK where I was living in 2020-21, I probably did more re-reading than I had previously: more time at home led me to scan the bookshelves and, in some cases, acknowledge that I could remember very little about volumes had been sitting on my shelves since being bought and read maybe twenty years ago. Sometimes that re-reading turned up forgotten gems (like Elke Schmitter’s creepy Mrs Sartoris, translated by Carol Brown Janeway). On other occasions, I didn’t get past the first page, and the local charity shops got the benefit when they eventually re-opened. I’m not sure what prompted me to start re-reading Alan Hollinghurst’s novels in 2021, but I’m glad I did. I went more or less in order of publication, and I particularly enjoyed the leaps in time that structure his later novels, especially The Stranger’s Child and The Sparsholt Affair, the brief disorientation that comes from figuring out how the protagonists in the current section relate to those of the previous one.

Another author I binged on, though I think with one or two exceptions I was reading his novels for the first time, was Brian Moore, whose centenary fell in 2021. [Ed. – So good!] Born in Belfast, Moore relocated first to Canada and then to the USA as an adult. I enjoyed the awful embarrassment of school-teacher Dev’s attempt at courtship in the Belfast-set The Feast of Lupercal. That novel was published in 1958, prior to the launch of the IRA campaign which forms the backdrop for Lies of Silence. Though the politics are much more explicit here, as in Lupercal matters of political choice can’t be separated from apparently more personal ethical and moral decisions. The Doctor’s Wife, about a married woman’s relationship with a younger man, has aged less well, andMoore’s non-fiction novel The Revolution Script didn’t quite work for me, though it did bring into focus a moment in Canadian history of which I knew very little, the ‘October Crisis’. [Ed. – That was a big deal, all right. Curious about this now.]

Several other novels I read this year also took the tropes of the thriller and gave them an interesting twist. Chris Power’s A Lonely Man places Robert, its Berlin-based author protagonist, in a moral dilemma after he becomes entangled with Jonathan, a ghostwriter. Ben, the narrator of Kevin Power’s White City (the two Powers aren’t related) has a voice that one reviewer found reminiscent of Martin Amis’s early work. Perhaps they were thinking of Ben’s reflections on abandoning his PhD on James Joyce:

Now I regarded my old underlined Penguin Popular Classics copy of A Portrait as a kind of embarrassing ex-girlfriend to whom I was still attracted but with whom things had not really worked out. [Ed. – Hmm…]

But the payoff is serious, and the switch in tone subtle. I heard about Katie Kitamura’s A Separation via reviews of her most recent novel Intimacies. Like Chris Power’s novel, A Separation uses a disappearance to open up to view a disintegrating relationship. The action of Kitamura’s novel takes place on a Greek island; Alison Moore’s The Retreat has an invented island off the coast of England as the setting for what becomes a nightmarish artists’ retreat, its interlocking narratives connecting in ways that reveal the whole narrative to be as carefully constructed as a piece of origami.

I don’t generally read much science fiction or speculative fiction, but Isabel Wohl’s Cold New Climate, goes stealthily in that direction. Lydia is shocked when, after what she intended as a temporary break from her older lover, she returns to find he is ending their relationship. Her reaction seems designed to be self-destructive and to inflict the maximum amount of pain on those around her, but the ending confronts the reader with destruction of a different kind. [Ed. – Anyone know if this is getting US release?] Rosa Rankin-Gee’s Dreamland was an all-too believable dystopia that conveyed the urgency of its political concerns without ever becoming shrill. M. John Harrison’s The Sunken Land begins to Rise Again intertwines the stories of former lovers Shaw and Victoria, moving between Shaw’s life in London and Victoria’s relocation to a house she’s inherited in Shropshire. Victoria’s new neighbours are not quite what they seem, and the watery theme manifests itself in ways that veer between the fairy tale and the horror story.

Where non-fiction is concerned, it was mainly artists’ biographies that caught my eye in 2021, maybe because visiting exhibitions was more challenging than usual. Andy Friend’s biography of John Nash was so beautifully illustrated it almost made up for not being able to get to the exhibition at Compton Verney in Warwickshire that prompted it. Friend’s handling of the death of Nash’s son was especially sensitive. I was lucky enough to see a small exhibition of John Craxton’s work at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge in 2013, and Ian Collins’s biography was another gorgeous volume, benefitting from the author’s personal connection with the long-lived Craxton. And Jenny Uglow’s Sybil and Cyril was a dual biography of the unusual artistic partnership between Sybil Andrews and Cyril Power that gave a new slant on mid-twentieth century commercial art: among much else, they designed a number of posters for the London Underground.

Rachel Whiteread, Wall (Door) 2017

Next up, I’m waiting for an excuse to treat myself to Alex Danchev’s biography of Rene Magritte, and Tessa Hadley’s new novel Free Love is high on my list for 2022. [Ed. – Just finished it this morning, and it is terrific.]

Bryce Sears’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Bryce Sears (@BryceSears5). Bryce, one of the nicest people on Book Twitter (which is saying something), is an avid reader and writer who lives in Oakland.

Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week and next. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).

Paul Signac, Saint-Briac. La Garde Guérin. Opus 211, 1890

I kept up in 2021 a trend toward escapism in my reading. I’ve been on this kick about five years – a habit of reading a lot more fiction and a lot less non-fiction than I used to. I used to read a lot of history; the one piece of non-fiction I read last year was a travelogue – Kapka Kassabova’s Border. It was terrific, to my thinking, as you can see below. [Ed. – Straight up honest to God terrific, Bryce; it’s not just you!] Later, reading a few pages of its follow-up, To the Lake, I found it all a bit depressing, thinking about facts and history. It was this thing I’m dealing with. My view, I guess, is that the world is on fire. In a dozen different ways at least. So I’m voting to put it out. I’m volunteering and protesting. [Ed. – I admire you!] But also, for the sake of my own mental health, I might need more breaks from thinking about our predicament.      

Such a cheery opening! The other thing helping with my mental health is my homelife. Two years ago my wife and I bought a house in Oakland. So, we’re doing a lot of work digging up strange things in our back yard, etc. [Ed. – Uh, how strange? Like dead body strange???] We have a three-year-old son who is delightful. His interest in books has really taken off. I spend a lot of time reading with him when I’m not writing or reading books for myself.  

The Vet’s Daughter, and some other works by Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns is the writer I was most thrilled to discover this year. I was surprised. I tend to like best stories about people (to paraphrase Diane Williams in her recent interview with Merve Emre) dealing with the life we’re all stuck in. For a long time now, I haven’t tended to go in much for stories with magical or supernatural elements. If this sounds like you, too, don’t let it keep you from Comyns. Somehow, the supernatural in her stories isn’t startling (or at least I don’t find it so). It might be her prose, which is both cool and somehow scintillating. It might be the way she links the supernatural elements in her stories to the mental health of her protagonists. In The Vet’s Daughter, my favorite of the books of hers I’ve read, the supernatural in the story appears (at least as I read it) to come as a reaction the protagonist is having to a pervasive threat of violence. Which is to say it feels like a state of shock. It adds something to our sense of what the protagonist is feeling.

Or it could be my tastes are changing.

In any case, in addition to The Vet’s Daughter, the other books I read by Comyns this year are The Juniper Tree, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead. They’re all quite different from one another. I liked The Juniper Tree best, but ask me again tomorrow. Saying I like this Comyns better than this other Comyns is almost no better than saying ‘I prefer apples to oranges’.       

The Remains of the Day, and some other works by Kazuo Ishiguro

I’m not sure when I would have read Ishiguro if not for Book Twitter. Somehow, years ago, I got it into my head that I’d find his work cinematic in some off-putting way. The Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson adaptation of The Remains of the Day was so famous. Before I got around to reading that one an adaptation of Never Let Me Go came out, and it also got a big hoopla. I got the sense Ishiguro’s work must be reductive, somehow. Well, as I’m sure everyone else knew, it isn’t. The books behind these two movies are so very much better than the movies. I should have had more faith in literature.  

My first Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day, was likely the first book I finished in 2021, going by my Twitter history. And what a revelation it was. Later in the year I read An Artist of the Floating World, and Never Let Me Go. Now I have five additional, as yet unread, Ishiguros in a stack on the shelves next to me. They make me feel rich.   

Happening, and some other works by Annie Ernaux

I was a bit obsessed with Annie Ernaux in 2021. I read Happening, A Man’s Place, A Woman’s Story, and I Remain in Darkness (all translated by Tanya Leslie). I read The Possession (tr. Anna Moschovakis). Over a period of months I reread Happening, A Girl’s Story (tr. Alison L. Strayer), and Simple Passion (tr. Tanya Leslie). These are all short, auto-fictional stories that feel like memoirs.       

The confessional quality of these books is one thing that draws me to them. Another is the skepticism Ernaux displays in her writing. She tries to make clear, as she writes about events in her past, how little she knows of the women she used to be, how false it would be to pretend to walk in the shoes of these younger selves. [Ed. – Nicely put!] She goes out of her way to avoid exaggeration. And I find this humility so refreshing.    

One last word on Ernaux. My favorite work of hers is Happening. It is quite harrowing – the story of an abortion Ernaux had in 1963, when she was 23 and abortion hadn’t yet been decriminalized in France. If I could I’d have everyone in the US read this book. It strikes me we could do worse here, where many women will likely face choices soon like the ones Ernaux faced, than encourage people to understand what it was like for this particular woman – a white woman, highly educated, in 1960s France. I’m not a teacher, but I think it’d make a nice class discussion, a group of close readers considering how the situation might vary in the US for people of color, for people with less access to information of the sort Ernaux had, etc.

Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry

West Texas, where I grew up, is the part of Texas where all the worst Texas clichés come to life. The whitest, most reactionary part. I always wanted out of it. I might have become a reader in part to avoid it. Which is all by way of an excuse for not having read a western before last year. Still, I picked a great book to begin with.  

Lonesome Dove was the most absorbing book I read in 2021. It’s a big, twisty story, rich with joyful writing (I mean, it is often dark, but you can tell McMurtry enjoyed writing it). It struck me as escapist in the plainest sense of the word – it took me to a very different world from my own. The jokes worked for me. Consider the wry twist of this line that comes when Gus, the protagonist (I think, it could be Call), gives a junior partner money for a prostitute, then reminisces (in free indirect): “Best to help boys have their moment of fun, before life’s torments snatched them away.” Or this line, Gus again (he gets a lot of the best jokes), talking to Call, claiming he indulges in remorse for his mistakes so often that the pain on each indulgence isn’t “much worse than a dry shave.” Or these lines, near the climax of the story, when another character (called Pea Eye – his name is its own joke), is on the run: “His feet were swollen to twice their size, besides being cut here and there. Yet they were the only feet he had, and after dozing for an hour in the sun, he got up and hobbled on.” You can see McMurtry building out his characters with these jokes. You can see him building the world they live in, which he leans into the hardness of. One character lives with a leaky gunshot wound in his stomach. The book begins with two pigs “having a fine tug-of-war” with a rattlesnake they’ve found.

Slowly, drawn along by the humor and descriptive power of the writing, I think most readers of Lonesome Dove will find themselves hooked by its story. I did. It can worry me sometimes, the feeling I’ve been hooked. I’ve read a lot of bad writing in books after finding myself interested in a story (the writing was often bad in the beginning of these books, when I wasn’t hooked and should have given them up). Here, reading Lonesome Dove, I found myself wanting to know what would happen when the big cattle drive got underway. What would happen with Gus, who had seemed to have a pretty empty life in Lonesome Dove. I wanted to know if Newt would find out about his parentage. If Laurie would make it to San Francisco. It worried me, the sense I was getting hooked, letting my guard down. But I don’t think it should have. I read Lonesome Dove last summer. Time has passed, and now I’m flipping through it again. And already want to reread it. 

Other writers I enjoyed in 2021

Anita Brookner tops the list of writers I discovered last year, and loved, but am still just getting to know. I read Look at Me, Hotel du Lac, and Latecomers. They’re all terrific. [Ed. — “Hartmann, a voluptuary, lowered a spoonful of brown sugar crystals into his coffee cup, then placed a square of bitter chocolate on his tongue, and, while it was dissolving, lit his first cigarette.”]

Another writer I greatly enjoyed reading is Tove Jansson. I read The True Deceiver last year and The Summer Book the year before (I think). I’d really like to read Fair Play soon and her stories (and maybe the Moomin stories, too).

I reread Beckett’s Molloy last year. I read Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star. Thinking of these books gave me pause in saying Lonesome Dove was the most absorbing book I read last year. I was locked into both from the start.     

I read The Copenhagen Trilogy, the three-part memoir by Tove Ditlevsen, which is devastating. I read Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, my first Tokarczuk. And now I want to read everything she has written, or will write.

I read, as mentioned above, Kapka Kassabova’s Border last year. It is so good. I think I sold it short above calling it a travelogue. Border strikes me as meditative work. Its use of language is gorgeous. Dorian recommended this one, and I read it as a group read with Kim McNeill, Catherine Eaton, and Naguib Mechawar. I benefited greatly from their thoughts on it. The next Kassabova I’d like to read is To the Lake: a Balkan Journey of War and Peace. Just need to find the nerve. [Ed. – It’s worth it!]

I read Toni Morrison’s Jazz for the first time last year, and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Both are phenomenal. NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names is so good, and I wanted live forever in the strange mysteries of The Taiga Syndrome (tr. Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana), by Christina Rivera Garza.   

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean from a Window, 1959

I could go on – I haven’t mentioned Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon, or Grace Paley’s Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, or Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas, or Cynan Jones’s The Dig, or Andrea Bajani’s If You Kept a Record of Sins,  …, or … or …. But I have to make myself quit.

I’ve really enjoyed writing this. Thanks for reading.

Keith Bresnahan’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.

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!