Today’s reflection on a year in reading, his second for the blog, 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.
It looks like I read about a book a week in 2022. Notable also that about four books in every five or so I read last year were by women. I favored women writers by about the same margin the year before last, too. I’m not sure why I’ve been reading mostly women. I haven’t planned to do so – not as a habit. Like anyone else, I’m just following my own interests in reading. Years ago, I spent a lot more time reading men, perhaps favoring them by as lopsided a ratio. Months of reading Nabokov, Bellow, Naipaul, Coetzee. So, maybe I’m bringing things back into balance? I wonder too, as I think about reading Fosse and Knausgaard in 2023, if I might be going back to reading more men. We’ll see. It has been exciting reading more women. I think that, not being the primary beneficiaries of a patriarchy, the women I’ve been reading have tended to see the world as more dangerous than did the men I used to read more of.
The Book of Goose, and some other works by Yiyun Li
Yiyun Li and Shirley Jackson top the list of writers I read the most of last year. I had previously read only a little of both. With Li, I had read her second story collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. Then, last year, I read the first collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. [Ed. – I feel like those early collections don’t get enough love these days.] With that, I had a feeling something had clicked for me with her writing. I read her third novel, Where Reasons End, as well as her collection of memoir essays, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. These are both pretty somber books. Li has spoken in interviews about her own attempts to commit suicide and she wrote, in Dear Friend, about these attempts. In 2017 her son, at 16, took his own life. She writes, in Where Reasons End, a work of fiction, about a mother’s grieving following the suicide of her son. Toward the end of last year, I read The Book of Goose, Li’s most recent novel and my favorite of hers. More recently, finishing in January of 2023 (I’d like to call this part of a “long 2022”), I read The Vagrants, her first novel, which is very good and very bleak.
I realize this may all make Li sound like a writer of mostly bleak stories. And her work is often quite somber, at least in these books I’ve read. But it isn’t always. The Vagrants, which deals, among other things, with the oppression of free speech in China, struck me as bleak mostly for political reasons. Dear Friend has chapters about suicide, as mentioned, but is mostly about reading (Maxim Gorky, Elizabeth Bowen, Ivan Turgenev, Thomas McGahern, William Trevor, Marianne Moore, among others). The stories are terrific and varied. The Book of Goose is dark and delightful.
I like how Li describes the human predicament. She doesn’t go in much for metaphor. She uses short sentences and short paragraphs. She has written about reading Tolstoy, and her writing can remind me of his in moments when humanity seems to shine out of her paragraphs. I had that sense while reading The Vagrants, especially, but also while reading The Book of Goose. The latter has the feel of a fable. I wouldn’t describe it as a funny book. But it did, like The Vagrants, strike me as having deep wells of humor. Consider its narrator, 13-year-old Agnès, thinking here about her friend Fabienne, and questioning her own belief in god:
Fabienne loved making nonsense about god. She claimed she believed in god, though what she meant, I thought, was that she believed in a god that was always available for her to mock. I did not know if I believed in god – my father was an atheist and my mother was the opposite of an atheist. If I had been closer to one or the other, it would be easier for me to choose. But I was close only to Fabienne. Perturbatrice of god, she called herself, and said I was one, too, because I was always on her side. In that sense we were not atheists. You had to believe that god existed so you could make mischief and upend his plans.
What I love here, especially, is that “If I had…” bit. Yes, it is a little bleak how casually Li has her narrator put her religious belief up for grabs. It is as if Li is saying, Yes, that is how we build our identities. But isn’t that mostly true? And isn’t it funny that we are like that?
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and some other works by Shirley Jackson
I can’t believe I waited so long to read Shirley Jackson. [Ed. – You’re ahead of me! I know, it’s a scandal.] But here, at last, I’ve made a start. My summer last year was the summer of Shirley Jackson. It wasn’t planned, not (again) as a habit. On a whim, I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson’s last novel. I had always assumed it was a kind of haunted house story, like The Haunting of Hill House. Somehow – very likely from the Backlisted podcast, as Castle is the subject of their 52nd episode – I wised up. A house figures prominently in Castle, as in much of Jackson’s work. But Castle is about siblinghood and mass hysteria, not to mention the anxieties of adolescence. It has Gothic elements. It resembles a haunted house story. But it isn’t supernatural. Not in the least. Just a tale about the remnants of your average family getting by after one of them has murdered the others with some arsenic in the fruit salad.
If you haven’t read Castle, don’t wait. I wish I hadn’t. I followed it with a binge. I reread The Lottery, which I hadn’t read in decades. It’s still a knockout. I read The Haunting of Hill House, then The Road Through the Wall, then Hangsaman. Haunting struck me as a little dull, perhaps because its approach has been used so often elsewhere since its publication. I should have read it when I was younger. I liked Road a lot, but Hangsaman came closest for me to the thrill of Castle, which is still my favorite Jackson. I read Dark Tales, another story collection (“The Summer People” is a stunner in that one). I read The Sundial, too, in which Jackson turns her knack for foreboding tension into comedic gold. (Pitch-black comedic gold, if that makes sense.) Another Do as I Say Not as I Did? Don’t sleep on The Sundial.
Somewhere along the way, I read A Rather Haunted Life, the Ruth Franklin biography. It is a sad thing about our time with Jackson, who died in 1965 at age 49, only a few years after Castle was published. Her most popular book in her lifetime – her biggest seller by some margin – wasn’t Castle, or any of the world-famous books mentioned above. It was a book called Life Among the Savages, the best, I gather, of the comical chronicles of everyday family life Jackson wrote for the women’s magazines of her day (another collection of these chronicles is called Raising Demons). I’m not here to speak ill of comical family chronicles. I have copies of both of these books and look forward to reading them. Still, new to her work as I am, aware I’m only the latest of many to have this thought, I can’t help but wish we’d gotten more time with Jackson. I can’t help but wish she had seen her reputation rise based on the books we celebrate her for now, or other books she might have written. Had she lived even into her 80s, she would have been alive and presumably writing in the 1990s. Crazy-making, thinking of what she might have come up with in those years.
The Dominant Animal and Kick the Latch, by Kathryn Scanlan
I read two books by Kathryn Scanlan last year. Earlier in the year, after loving a story of hers (called “As the Dick Would Have It”) in Southwest Review [Ed. – Ok that is a a good title], I picked up The Dominant Animal, a collection of very short stories. I read it quickly and liked it a lot. I’d recommend it anyone who doesn’t need a story to convey a meaning of some sort that is especially clear. Some of the stories in this collection were published, I believe, in Noon, the journal Diane Williams founded. Probably everyone knows this, but Williams is famous for writing very short stories. People write of her stories that they skirt meaning in interesting ways. I find her stories interesting. Her narrators often strike me as shocking, even horrifying. Most of them I find comical. I experience the people in her stories speaking and behaving in ways I think, at first, people never speak or behave in real life. Then, sometimes, I start to think people do sometimes talk and act like that. In any case, even as I think now that Scanlan is portraying characters in a somewhat more realistic way than I read Williams as doing, or intending to do, my read of The Dominant Animal at the time (a somewhat shallow read, I hope I’m making clear, though I hope it may help readers new to her work) was along these lines – that Scanlan was doing a similar sort of thing to what Williams is doing.
Kick the Latch, which I read in September, is a quite different sort of book from The Dominant Animal. It is a kind of novel. A single, first person narrative of the life of a horse trainer named Sonia, a woman Scanlan interviewed whose voice (I’m quoting here from the afterward and the French flaps) she transcribed and amplified and “used to write the book, which is a work of fiction.” In some ways, the book reads like a memoir written by Sonia. It would feel very much like a memoir, I think, if it had included more details that identify her, like her last name. As it is, Sonia can feel at times like an everywoman. That isn’t a bad thing, to my thinking. The book is terrific. Moving, at times harrowing, odd, above all interesting. Scanlan has a wonderfully taught prose style. Producing a book in this way raises ethical questions. I can imagine someone trying this technique – producing a novel based on interviews with a working-class person who doesn’t want credit as a cowriter – in a way I’d consider exploitative. The hosts of the Literary Friction podcast interviewed Scanlan and wondered, as a kind of thought experiment, how our reaction to the book might change if Sonia were suing Scanlan over some kind of misrepresentation. That would change things for me, certainly. So, I count myself lucky nothing of the sort seems to be happening. The book is so good. Just thinking of it again now, I want to reread it. All the while I was reading it, I wished my grandparents – my grandparents! – were alive so that I might convince them to read it. If you knew them you’d get the emphasis. They were open-minded about literature, but weren’t great readers. My grandmother was a big Danielle Steel fan. But they were Texans who retired to a horse-racing life in New Mexico. They could sound at times like Sonia does in Kick the Latch. And the storytelling in the book is so naturally done. My grandparents would have loved it. I bet you would too. [Ed. – Been hearing a lot about this, but this has sold me! Thanks, Bryce.]
In Memory of Memory, by Maria Stepanova (tr. Sasha Dugdale)
I’m a sucker for the “meditation on” label in book marketing. Give me Fernando Pessoa journaling for five hundred pages about nostalgia, and his daily life at the office. Give me Claudio Magris, traveling the Danube, letting its scenery take his thinking where it will. Give me Nathalie Léger, on a three-book quest to understand herself through the lives of other artists. If the feeling of a mind letting itself wander a bit aimlessly thrills you too, you may love In Memory of Memory as I did. The book is a kind of tribute Stepanova is writing to her family. The digressive nature of this tribute may make it difficult to track what exactly is happening to her family. I could find myself losing threads. Still, I didn’t mind. The digressions are wonderful. They’re most of the book. The family history, in some sense, is a frame to support them. Stepanova writes about Sebald and Joseph Cornell, Tsvetaeva, Walter Benjamin, Francesca Woodman, among other writers and artists. She writes about history. Her family had better luck than many other Jewish families did in Russia during the 19th and 20th centuries. [Ed. – Low bar…] In Memory of Memory isn’t about the worst human suffering of those years. It’s about some people who escaped it. This is a source of some tension for Stepanova. She writes with some regret that she had no heroes in her family, that they all “appeared to live utterly apart from grinding mills of the era.” In this sense, the book strikes me a tribute to ordinary people, too, as well as to art and literature.
How can I only have read a book a week last year and I’m still running out of space for this piece? (Because I’m longwinded, that’s how.) [Ed. – Haha I’ll see you and raise you…]
I don’t want to miss saying that I read and loved J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine last year, too – a somber book of perfect sentences. You won’t read it without planning to reread it. It is that good.
I loved Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet, one of the funniest books I read last year. Did you know she was friends with Jodorowsky? I didn’t until a few months ago, when someone said so on Twitter (so it must be true). I want to read everything by her now. I want to learn all about her life, too.
I loved Elif Batuman’s The Possessed. Another book that had me laughing. It was one a very few non-fiction books I read last year. I loved Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation (tr. Susan Bernofsky), and Magda Szabó’s The Door (tr. Len Rix). I hope to read a lot more of both writers. I read, spread out over most of the year, the seasonal quartet of Ali Smith. I want to read more of her work. And Sleepless Nights – I can’t not mention Sleepless Nights! My first Elizabeth Hardwick. I see a lot more of her work in my future. [Ed. – Thanks, Bryce. So many writers, right???]