Anne Cohen’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Anne Cohen (@aecnyc). Anne is a lifelong reader (preferably stretched out on couch or bed), retired lawyer, and former reporter. She lives in New York City with part of her family and two dogs and is firmly convinced that Book Twitter saved her from homicidal behavior 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).

Vanessa Bell, In the Other Room (late 1930s)

Most beautifully-written book: Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard was the most exquisitely-written novel I read in 2021 but also one of the most frustrating. It was as if the plot and the characters were unworthy of the prose. 

Am trying avoid spoilers, but the coyness of the last page infuriated me and even drove me to the internet for clarification.  “WTF” endings don’t bother me; reader and narrator of The Sense of an Ending share the same information and deluded memories and are equally gobsmacked at the conclusion, and Kate Atkinson, whose A God in Ruins had a similarly tricksy ending, is a master of showing but not telling. Although the language was gorgeous, the last paragraph of Transit felt cheap.

(You still should read it.)

Second most beautifully-written book: Daddy’s Gone A’Hunting written by Penelope Mortimer and published in 1958 was also the most frightening book I read this year. Daddy is the story of Ruth, an upper-middle-class woman in her late 30’s trying to navigate the potential termination of her college-age daughter’s pregnancy (whose pre-marital conception was the impetus for Ruth’s own marriage).

The scary part was not just the ordinary shivers of recognition present in most good novels about families. Perhaps it is a function of my age and gender—Daddy and I were both born in the middle of the baby boom—but I was horrified by the sight of Ruth, already feeling old at 38!, being shamed as she searched for a physician who might be willing to terminate the pregnancy on behalf of her clueless and nasty daughter. 

This year, I also read Mortimer’s biography of the Queen Mother, which is not scary, and her first volume of memoirs, About Time, which has as a central character her impious cleric father. (Maybe read it as a double feature with Priestdaddy.)  I recently located a copy of her second volume, About Time Too, and it’s on my TBR stack.

Other wonderful fiction: Cathedral, by Ben Hopkins, hasn’t gotten as much attention as it deserves.  I can’t get into The Constant Nymph, but Margaret Kennedy’s The Feast was enormous fun, beautifully written, and (spoiler alert) the right people survive; I also enjoyed her contemporaneous account of the early days of World War II, Where Stands a Winged Sentry, a country companion of sorts to a similar book about London read last year, Chelsea Concerto, by Frances FlavellDaisy and The Six made me laugh when I was sick.

Lolly Willowes entranced me [Ed. – Paging Frances Evangelista!], as did both Scenes From Childhood, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s memoir and her collected letters. (Have not yet finished The Corner that Held Them or Summer Will Show.)

Also read and liked Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker, The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins, A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr and several pieces of fiction by Tove Jansson. I was thrilled by parts of Gerard Reve’s The Evenings and wondered when other sections would end, which may have been the sensation the author intended.   

Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour offered an instructive counterpoint to Transit: annoying characters, obsessive conduct, and an ending that made me want to go back to the beginning, but without feeling as if I’d been snookered along the way.

Not fiction but an elegant presentation of how an interesting woman’s actual life was commandeered by fiction and biography: The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith by Diane Johnson.

Biggest project of the year: Diaries and letters have always fascinated me and taken up significant space shelf. Their proportion in my reading diet has increased over the last 22 months, as I’m comforted by the notion that their authors didn’t know what was going to happen to them any more than we do now. [Ed. – Nicely put!]

Someone who was often wrong about the future was Henry “Chips” Channon, an American-born writer, pal of the rich, royal and merely titled from his late teens onward, member of the British Parliament, and from 1938 to 1941 a senior cabinet aide in the Foreign Office. The first two volumes (total 2000+ pages) of his unexpurgated diaries were published in 2021 and edited brilliantly by Simon Hefner, whose dazzling footnotes include some tart asides and everyone’s courtesy titles.

“Chips” knew everyone, and everyone appears in the diaries. He was a wrong-headed bigot, a sniveling acolyte of Neville Chamberlain, a toady to almost anyone with a royal title, and a nasty, insecure, self-important snob, who occasionally recognized his reputation as a well-connected lightweight. 

What makes the diaries worth £35 each plus postage to the States is the astonishing range of Channon’s access and the detail of his descriptions— his failing marriage to a rich and titled woman, who left him for a horse dealer; events, including his dinner for Edward VIII, and Mrs. Simpson a month before the abdication; his crushes on a series of other well-connected men and his schemes to marry them off to “suitable” women; changes in society during the war, including his mother-in-law (“the richest woman in England”) doing without a cook; and the perfidy of his enemies of the moment. [Ed. – Ok, that sounds really good.]

My fascination with these books is more than historical. As someone who annually orders but doesn’t always use a big Smythson daybook, I’m reluctantly moved by dogged if not heroic maintenance of a diary for decades and even more by the willingness to write down so much of one’s deepest and often foolish feelings in real time. 

A year for letters: Love From Nancy: The Letters of Nancy Mitford; The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh; Letters from Tove [Jansson]; Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner; Letters of E.B. White; and A Whole World: Letters From James Merrill.

Not surprisingly, there were many connections among Channon, Mitford and Waugh, who lived in a small world they thought was the whole.  

But other connections were less expected—the Merrill letters were terrific, and not just because his frequently-mentioned mother and daughter Connecticut neighbors were novelist Grace Zaring Stone and Eleanor Stone Perenyi, author of both More Was Lost [Ed. – A long-time EMJ favourite!] and Green Thoughts: A Writer in The Garden, which I’d consulted only days before about dahlias.

The best connection came when I was alternating books—Hermione Lee’s biography of Willa Cather and the E. B. White letters—and suddenly realized the same “character” appeared in both: Cather’s good friend Elizabeth Sargent was also White’s sister-in-law Elsie, older sister of New Yorker editor and garden writer Katherine White. [Ed. — !]

Mysteries: Spine for spine, I probably read mysteries more than other category and can inhale a whole series of 10-15 books in a week. (Hey, I’m retired and read fast.) [Ed. – Goals!] This year, in addition to rereading half a dozen of Simenon’s Maigret books and the first few chapters of Busman’s Honeymoon, and adding to my list of books by E. C. R. Lorac, John Rhode, and Patricia Wentworth, I was introduced to Jane Haddam’s Gregor Demarkian, Craig Rice’s John Malone and pals, Delano Ames’s Jane and Dagobert Brown, and Elizabeth Daly’s Henry Gamadge.

Of these my favorite was probably the last, not for the quality of the story or the story-telling, but for the flavor of New York City in the early 1940s and the depiction of people for whom the world had changed since the turn of the century. Part of my attraction to mysteries, and especially those of the “Golden Age,” is the way they incidentally reflect the details of their time, whether clothes, food, manners, or relationships.  

Vanessa Bell, Composition, ca. 1914

Audiobooks: I’m not snobbish about the idea of audiobooks but I’m picky about both the sound of the voice generally and the rightness of it for a specific work. These are obviously very subjective criteria; most people were probably thrilled by Patti Smith’s reading of Just Kids but I ripped off my headphones during the foreword. 

I read quickly, sometimes too quickly (see possible explanation for my reaction to Transit of Venus), and so have been fascinated by my reaction to hearing books I’ve previously read. Listening to The Age of Innocence made me much more aware of Wharton’s humor and devastating nuance.  

Some books—like The Thursday Murder Club—can be aural candy, perfect for walking the dogs; this is not a put down, at least from me. It’s also when I listen to the Backlisted podcast, whose fingerprints are all over this list. 

What I Didn’t/Haven’t Finished: There are mystery tropes I can’t abide (especially the protagonist as suspect), and if one of those sneaks by my “blurb” filter, I’ll let it go. [Ed. – Almost as bad as “investigator’s loved one in danger”…]  

Books not finished in 2021 but still open are Hamnet (and I loved I AM I AM I AM), as well as Klara and the Sun, Our Spoons Came From Woolworth’s, Shuggie Bain, and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. I couldn’t get into Adam Thorpe’s 1921, which broke my heart, because his work is so varied and usually so very good. 

Best reading experience: Not the “best” book or the most interesting or important—but an almost out-of-body moment late one night propped up in bed with the five-book Percy Jackson series, which I’m reading along with an 11-year-old friend. 

The apartment was quiet. Maybe it was Percy’s adolescent demi-god angst, but for a sudden moment, I was in my childhood bedroom, trying not to wake up my sister and hearing my father’s voice at the door, telling me to go to sleep.  Sam died almost 25 years ago, and it was nice to have him back for that instant.

Paul Wilson’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 second post is by Paul Wilson (@bibliopaul), one of the nicest folks on Book Twitter. (Which is saying something.) Paul lives with his wife in a small house in Colorado filled with boys, books and a Basset.

In spite of everything, 2020 turned out to be a great reading year for me. I’ve been fortunate enough to come across some books this year that will stick with me for a long time. Here are my favorite reads of 2020.

Some Tame Gazelle – Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym has become one of my favorite authors in recent years and her first novel, detailing the lives of two sisters in a small village in post-war England, was a perfect read amidst the chaos and uncertainty of 2020.

Sons And Lovers – D.H. Lawrence

Lawrence’s ability to capture the complicated tides and eddies of family lives and relationships is staggering. I read and admired Lady Chatterley’s Lover a few years ago, but this book is on a whole different level. I’m already contemplating which of his books I’ll read next. Perhaps The Rainbow? [Ed—yes!]

My Ántonia – Willa Cather

I wish I could travel back in time and tell my slacker high school self to actually read this instead of skimming the CliffsNotes version. Then again, given its wide lens on the cycles of nature and of human lives, maybe this is one of those books you only truly appreciate with age. [Ed–Makes sense.] I plan to read it often in the coming years and I’m sure I’ll discover something new every time.

The Go-Between – L.P. Hartley       

In the wrong hands, a child narrator can be disastrous. But when done well, as in The Go-Between, it can perfectly capture the magic, mystery and confusion of being young in a world you don’t fully understand. I’ve heard people rave about this book for years, and now it’s my turn to join the chorus. Don’t ignore it any longer.

The Mountain Lion – Jean Stafford

Speaking of stunning childhood narrators… A pair of siblings get a reprieve from their cloistered routines and protective mother when they spend a summer in the backcountry of Colorado. The descriptions of landscape and pitch perfect immersion into the tenderness and brutality of childhood blew me away. This book is devastating.

Weather – Jenny Offill

There’s always a mix of excitement and foreboding when one of my favorite authors comes out with a new book. For years now, I have recommended Offill’s Dept. Of Speculation as often as any other book I can think of, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from her follow up. Let’s just say I’m now more of an Offill evangelist than ever. Have you heard the good news?

Piranesi – Susanna Clarke

Few books have made a larger impact on me than Susanna Clarke’s first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I still remember certain scenes and images I read 10+ years ago far more vividly than those from books I’ve read in the past few months. As with Offill, I was both thrilled and a bit queasy when I heard Clarke had a new one on the way. Again, I needn’t have worried. Piranesi is very much its own book, but it contains the magic, mystery, and spectacular settings that are everything I could have hoped for. It was definitely worth the wait.

The Unreality Of Memory – Elisa Gabbert

I’ve found myself reading more essays in recent years, and this is one of the best collections I’ve come across. Given the subject matter—“disaster culture, climate anxiety, and our mounting collective sense of doom”—I was afraid that 2020 might be the wrong time to pick this one up. Instead, it was strangely cathartic to stare directly into the sun, guided by Gabbert’s masterful hand.

Winter Morning Walks – Ted Kooser

I first came across Kooser through Braided Creek, a wonderful “conversation in poetry” between Kooser and author Jim Harrison that often left me feeling like I was eavesdropping on an intimate conversation between friends. Winter Morning Walks is made up of 100 poems that Kooser sent to Harrison on postcards after Kooser developed cancer in the late 90s. Written and sent over the course of 12 months, these early morning ruminations are by turns elegiac, humorous, and contemplative. Accompanying Kooser during his year of doubt, fear, and hope made for perfect 2020 reading.

Sightlines – Kathleen Jamie

Over the past 10 years, I’ve begun to collect a handful of treasured nature writers: Robert Macfarlane, Terry Tempest Williams, Barry Lopez, Edward Abbey, Rebecca Solnit. This year, I added Kathleen Jamie to the list. This collection displays an impressive range, focusing on everything from microscopic cellular landscapes to mammoth whale skeletons hanging in the rafters of museums. As with the other authors on my list, I plan to slowly parcel out Jamie’s remaining books to make them last, despite the strong temptation to gobble them up as quickly as I can. 

Hurricane Season – Fernanda Melchor

This is one of several books I read this year that felt like jumping into a raging river and holding on for dear life. Dark, grimy, violent and incredibly compulsive, it refuses to provide the reader with any relief, even once you’ve turned the last page.

Ulysses – James Joyce

As I get older, I am increasingly drawn toward what Roberto Bolaño describes as “the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze a path into the unknown.” Ulysses is all of those things and more. What can I say? It’s breathtaking. I highly recommend reading it while simultaneously listening to Jim Norton’s incredible narration.

Ducks, Newburyport – Lucy Ellman

How can a book that has received so much attention and hype still deserve more? I have never read anything like it. Even after nearly 1,000 pages, I didn’t want to leave the narrator’s troubled, compulsive, and familiar head. She was a much-needed companion during the darkest parts of this year. The fact that I can’t stop thinking about this book. The fact that I may just read it again in 2021. The fact that you should, too.

In Search Of Lost Time – Marcel Proust

Like many others, I’ve spent years warily circling Proust’s masterpiece, simultaneously fascinated and intimidated. I should have started sooner. Spending the last few months making my way through the first four books of In Search Of Lost Time has been wonderfully immersive. As I make my way through the last two volumes, I find myself slowing down, savoring every word, reluctant to see it end.

“Nothing but Land”: Willa Cather’s My Ántonia

znxuVkJ

How I’ve lived 45 years without reading Willa Cather I do not know. But now that I’ve read My Ántonia (1918)—some impulse made me slip it into my suitcase just before leaving for vacation last month—I plan to make up for lost time. Because if this book is anything to go by, Cather is the real deal. As much as I’m chagrined to have taken so long to read her, I’m excited that there’s quite a lot of her to read.

(The other night I read the first 30 pages of O Pioneers!—clearly, she was a genius right from the start. If you have a favourite, let me know in the comments.)

Two things about My Ántonia really struck me: its descriptions of the Nebraskan prairie in the late 19th century, and its unusual narrative structure.

The book is narrated by a man named Jim who shares Cather’s biography; like Cather, Jim leaves his home in Virginia at age nine or ten (unlike Cather, he is orphaned) and goes to live with relatives in Nebraska, back when the land was barely plowed and not at all fenced in. My Ántonia is filled with evocative descriptions of the landscape, in its beauty and menace.

Consider this famous passage, from the end of the first chapter. Jim has arrived in the middle of the night at the station in Black Hawk, Nebraska, where he’s met by his grandfather’s hired man. He’s tucked into a kind of bed in the straw of a farm wagon and sets out on the long journey to his grandparents’ homestead:

Cautiously I slipped from under the buffalo hide, got up on my knees and peered over the side of the wagon. There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. No, there was nothing but land—slightly undulating, I knew, because often our wheels ground against the brake as we went down into a hollow and lurched up again on the other side. I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man’s jurisdiction. I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the compete dome of heaven, all there was of it. I did not believe that my dead father and mother were watching me from up there; they would still be looking for me at the sheep-fold down by the creek, or along the white road that led to the mountain pastures. I had left even their spirits behind me. The wagon jolted on, carrying me I knew not wither. I don’t think I was homesick. If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter. Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be.

This is such a careful melding of physical and emotional geography, the featureless but evocative and powerful landscape mirroring, even inciting, a kind of acceptance of fate and loss. There’s something artless about the prose here, helped by the child’s perspective, though Cather doesn’t stay entirely within this point of view: that brilliant description of the prairie—“not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made”—seems to come from a more mature perspective. But the vivid descriptions of the landscape here and elsewhere in the book (terrible blizzards, glorious sunsets, lazy summer days by the river) aren’t simply offered for their own sake. Instead they are central to the book’s narration. Writing about a place in which indistinction or lack or differentiation is one of the dominant features seems to have allowed Cather to think in interesting ways about what it means to structure a story. Could she write a novel that didn’t follow the usual landmarks of fiction?

maxresdefault

In the introduction to the Penguin edition I read, editor John J. Murphy cites what I expect is a famous passage in Cather studies. Reflecting on her life, Cather describes how she took the advice of the famous New England writer Sarah Orne Jewett, who, when they met in1908, urged her to write about Nebraska:

From the first chapter, I decided not to “write” at all—simple to give myself up to the pleasure of recapturing in memory people and places I had believed forgotten. This was what my friend Sarah Orne Jewett had advised me to do. She said to me that if my life had lain in a part of the world that was without a literature, and I couldn’t tell it truthfully in the form I most admired, I’d have to make a kind of writing that would tell it, no matter what I lost in the process.

Reading these lines after having finished the book, I thought they helped explain the uncertainty My Ántonia had incited in me. What kind of a book is this, I kept asking myself. I loved it from the start—it seemed like a more sophisticated and less politically troubling version of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books I’d adored as a child—but once I reached the halfway point I became increasingly puzzled. Why was the book telling me what it was telling me?

Jim’s ostensible purpose is to tell the story of the oldest daughter of the other family that had disembarked at Black Hawk with him that night, the Shimerdas, immigrants from Bohemia. From the start Jim is smitten with Ántonia, who has a kind of vivacity, a life force, for lack of a better term, that almost singlehandedly allows her family to survive the difficult and dangerous first years in a new country.

But as the book continues, Jim becomes more important to the story; as a man he has opportunities the many women in the novel (the characters it actually cares about) don’t. (Although this is a novel filled with powerful female characters.) Jim grows up, becomes enmeshed in the social life of the town his family moves too when he is a teenager, and eventually, as Cather did, makes his way to Lincoln to attend university. As Jim’s experience takes center stage, I thought the book might become a kind of second-rate Bildungsroman. I say second-rate because Jim isn’t a particularly interesting character. For a time he is involved with another eldest daughter of an immigrant family, a woman named Lena who Jim and Ántonia had known from childhood. For a time I thought maybe the book was going to become about her. (She’s quite fascinating.) But when that didn’t happen, I couldn’t figure out where Cather was trying to go. There didn’t seem to be any forward momentum, and the vivid descriptions of survival on the prairie that had so captivated me faded as the characters gained greater economic and cultural security.

At about this time I was lucky enough to have lunch with Joe from Roughghosts. Over pancakes and eggs, I started complaining about Jim. Why did Cather need him as a narrator? If Ántonia couldn’t tell her own story—and her inarticulateness, which is never understood by the book as a failure, suggests she couldn’t—why didn’t Cather make someone even more like herself the narrator? Specifically, why didn’t she use a female narrator?

Joe gently pointed out that I was missing the point—through Jim’s relation to Ántonia, Cather, who loved women all her life, possibly unrequitedly, I don’t know enough about her to say for sure, had found a way to queer her tale. Jim allows her to tell the book’s real story—about her own love for women, especially women like Anna Sadilek, the model for Ántonia—in a way that is at once more socially acceptable but also ultimately more interesting. Jim never gets together with Ántonia, never gets together with Lena, who for a time seems like a more or less satisfactory replacement for Ántonia (though, as I said, who is plenty interesting in her own right and exceeds our or at least my expectations for her). In other words, My Ántonia entirely avoids compulsory heterosexual romance. Well, almost. In the last chapters we return to Ántonia, who has, after a terrible experience, found a lovely, gentle man, married him, and produced a whole brood of children who the grown up Jim, now an unhappy Eastern sophisticate, spends his summers visiting, even becoming something like a sibling to them.

But this heterosexuality is almost invisible. (It is the privilege of heterosexuality to be invisible in the sense of being normalized, that is, accepted as the default state of things, but what I mean here is that it is invisible in and unimportant to the workings of the plot.) Ántonia’s remarkable fecundity is divorced from sexuality—her magnificent brood seems to have sprung directly from her own vivacity. I was struck by this description from the scene in which Jim first re-encounters Ántonia:

Ántonia and I went up the stairs first, and the children waited. We were standing outside talking, when they all came running up the steps together, big and little, tow heads and gold heads and brown, and flashing little naked legs; a veritable explosion of life out of the dark cave into the sunlight. It made me dizzy for a moment.

If sexuality is anywhere here it is in the bodies of the children (“flashing little naked legs”), but I don’t think we’re to imagine that Jim desires them—as I said, if anything he desires to be them, and in fact does so, I would argue, at the end of the book. Indeed, sexuality is almost always bad in this book—a sub-plot involving an attempted seduction, leading to a murder suicide brings this fact home.

What is valued instead is something like friendship or admiration, ostensibly between men and women but actually, it seems, between women and women. Yet even as I say that, I don’t think it’s correct. The book doesn’t just use Jim as a way to disguise Cather’s love for women. The book’s weirder than that. It’s about intense emotional currents, strong affections that don’t have any name. Friendship is the best we have but it’s a pretty paltry term for the relationship between Jim and Ántonia, who mean so much to each other but who spend most of the book living such different lives. And yet the book never presents their relationship as a missed opportunity. It’s not that they were meant for each other and should really have got together. After all, Ántonia seems perfectly content, inasmuch as that matters, with her husband. The more I think about the book the more strange, intense relationships it seems to contain: a lot could be said about Peter and Pavel, two Russians who flee to America after a terrible (and incredibly exciting, as well as stylistically distinctive—folkloric rather than realist) incident in which a wedding party is chased and mostly devoured by wolves. What’s going on with those guys?

I suppose this interpretation, if I can grace these thoughts with that term, would need to take into account the book’s title. What’s implied by the possessive? (My Ántonia.) We tend to think of ownership as being connected to domination. Certainly Jim has a lot more conventional societal clout (money, education, status) than Ántonia. But is she really his? She doesn’t seem to need him, or to be subservient to him. How does the non-normativity I’m arguing for include the possessiveness of the title?

Writing this post has made me want to read the book again, this time with pencil in hand in a more determined effort to understand its various parts. (I was on vacation when I read it, after all.) But I stand by my sense that the book’s depiction of landscape is connected to its interest in non-normative relationships, which leads it to take up a seemingly haphazard, even careless, and ultimately fascinating narrative form. I loved My Ántonia for the way it kept wrong-footing me and entertaining me as it did so.