A Year in Reading, Part II

Fiction and nonfiction

Thank you to everyone who read part I! It was fantastic to get comments and emails in response, to be in touch about books and ideas, that human stuff that sustains us through isolation and anxiety, information overload, attempts to overthrow democratic governments, etc… Please keep commenting and responding with book opinions if you’re so moved!

A couple of links: my first book review of the year was published yesterday, it’s of a beautiful memoir by the amazing Gretel Ehrlich, who spent her life in wild and extreme places, and has witnessed their distressing transformation over decades. I’m not going to write about current events as it’s not my subject here, but like me, you might enjoy (i.e. get verklempt) seeing this 1-minute story on the sweet Irish parents of a CNN reporter covering this week’s violence in DC.

Reading Round-up, Part II: Fiction and Nonfiction, #6-16

I ranked books based on the impact the book made on me, how much of it remains now, and my likelihood of recommending. So I suspect those I read more recently have an advantage, and the ranking is not especially meaningful… I would recommend all of these books!

6) As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto edited by Joan Reardon (Houghton Mifflin, 2010)

This was such a pleasurable read, likely because cooking has become a major obsession for me. These letters tell the story of an intense, productive and literary friendship, and of the long road to the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which Julia likely couldn’t have done without Avis’s encouragement and connections. They also offer a really interesting slice of social history, of both post-WWII France and the U.S. in the McCarthy years, through the eyes of opinionated, politically engaged women in their 40s. (They both ardently hate Republicans.) I was really struck by how they sent each other articles from magazines and newspapers, sometimes even returning them via mail, as they had limited copies of everything. We’re so spoiled with access now. The book ends once the Childs move back to the U.S. The editor provides a summary of Julia’s fame and activities after this, and though she doesn’t dwell on it, but I love the fact that after many years of longing for time to hang out, Julia and Avis ended up being neighbors in Cambridge. That’s one of my fantasies, living down the street from a good friend.

Provenance: Boekenzolder, free book warehouse in Leiden

7) La invención de Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares (1940)
[The Invention of Morel]

This is a science fiction classic by one of Borges’ best friends. (Borges called it a perfect novel!) It’s in the form of a diary. The narrator is a fugitive who washes up on a seemingly abandoned island with a fabulous museum building in the center. Then an elegant party of people suddenly turn up (these aren’t spoilers, but I won’t say more). I guess the TV show Lost (which I haven’t seen) borrowed a lot from it. I loved the paranoid, formal tone, which I thought was pretty funny at times. It’s also a perfect length, around 160 pages. I love short novels.

Provenance: Boekenzolder, free book warehouse in Leiden

8) You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin by Rachel Corbett (WW Norton, 2016)

I didn’t know this book existed until I came across it in a used bookstore and snapped it up. It’s incredibly readable, I couldn’t put it down. The author was smart to stick exclusively to the relationship between the great sculptor and great poet, otherwise the narrative could have gone in a dozen different directions, or become a massive scholarly tome (though I would probably enjoy this version, too). I also appreciated that Corbett refused to judge the artists (who were both admittedly terrible to the women in their life), but rather presented them from their own point of view, using their words and deeds.

Provenance: Mayflower Bookstore (used) in Leiden

9) Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes (2015)

I tried reading this in French last year, and dropped it as a lot of it is written in verlan (which I thought was a Parisian thing, like London’s cockney slang, but I guess is more widespread now). So I was getting the gist, but it was slow-going (my contact with French has been almost all work-related the past few years). I gave in and got it in English as I just wanted to enjoy reading it. This is a true Gen-X book, documenting the collapse of the music industry, the corporatization of counter-culture and the rise of conservatism in France through the eyes of a huge cross-section of Paris characters - a washed-up record-store employee, a young Muslim university student, a transgender porn star, a white nationalist thug, an elderly lady who lost her son to drug addiction… Despentes is incredible at channeling different voices, and I love that this book was such a sensation, as she’s a kind of enfant terrible of the French literary scene, challenging the elitist status quo. She comes from the world of punk music, alternative film, and uncompromising feminist politics. This is actually the first book in a trilogy. I haven’t picked up the second one, though, I think because it is ultimately a bleak world she creates, and you end up spending time with lots of unlikeable people, so you have to be prepared for it.

Provenance: Train station in Geneva (French), The American Book Center in The Hague (English)

10) A Woman Like Her: The Story Behind the Honor Killing of a Social Media Star by Sanam Maher (Melville House, 2020)

An absolutely fascinating in-depth look at the life and murder of Qandeel Baloch, called the “Kim Kardashian” of Pakistan, who was “honor killed” by her brother for her provocative behavior and social media fame. The author, a Pakistani journalist, offers a biographical portrait, but also a broader picture of Pakistani society, and the clash between tradition and the new global world opened up by media and technology. My full review for the Chicago Review of Books is here.

Provenance: Galley copy from the publisher.

11) Black Hole by Charles Burns (Pantheon, 2005)

This is Burns’ masterpiece, the comics series published between 1995 and 2005 collected in gorgeous book form. It captures a dark and paranoid atmosphere, a horror story set at a high school in the Pacific Northwest. To me the subtext was so much about the fear and stigma sex took on post-AIDS, especially if you were an adolescent in the 90s. I need to read it again to give the art a closer look, apparently it’s a master class in using black.

Provenance: Borrowed from Dan.

12) The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing (Picador, 2016)

Part memoir, part art criticism, part psychology text, but mostly a biography of three artists through the lens of loneliness. British writer Laing examines the life and work of Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, and David Wojnarowicz, but also other New York figures like Valerie Solanas and Klaus Nomi, while suffering from intense loneliness after moving to the city. I liked the hybrid nature of the project, and enjoyed her insights into Warhol in particular (his use of technology as translator and shield, in both life and art). She also deftly articulates the complexity of the experience of loneliness, especially the strange shame of it. For delving so intimately into the life of others, parts of her own story seemed to be conspicuously missing - she describes her own painful feelings but doesn’t go very deeply into their source.

Provenance: The American Book Center in The Hague, after emphatic recommendation from my friend Richard, music journalist extraordinaire.

13) Last Look by Charles Burns (Pantheon, 2016)

Another of Burns’ comic series (a trilogy) collected into a single volume, this one in amazing full color, and also one I’d like to look at again with more attention to the art. This one goes full fantasy as the protagonists slips in and out of a dreamworld that twists his memories into grotesque metaphors (as nightmares do). The real world is one of art school and underground music and art happenings. Burns is so good at evoking the out of control sense of being too drunk or on drugs. (I’m wondering what made me rank Black Hole higher. I think it was more emotionally gripping. This one flags a bit at the end, plot-wise.)

Provenance: The American Book Center in The Hague.

14) Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz, trans. Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff (Charco Press, 2017)

Speaking literally, you could say this novel is about a woman suffering from post-partum depression and her lustful, spiteful and violent inner fantasies. But as it’s told from her point of view, it’s never clear what is real or imagined, and I didn’t really mind as the writing by Argentine writer Harwicz carries it off. It’s feverish, darkly funny, almost gothic, though it’s set in the suburbs. Also a good length of 150 pages or so, as it would be too claustrophobic if much longer. Published by a newish small press that does beautiful editions.

Provenance: Loan from my brilliant poet and writer friend Lydia.

15) Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (Random House, 2017)

A collection of linked short stories, based on the Midwestern world Strout created in the novel Lucy Barton. She really aims for an intense emotional encounter in every story and usually succeeds. I especially appreciated her exploration of the shame and stigma around poverty.

Provenance: A free book pile at a library in rural Virginia.

16) All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks (William Morrow, 1999)

This was a kind of book-length sermon on love, and I mean sermon in a positive way, in the sense that it aims to catalyzes change in thought and action (and it did for me). bell hooks seeks to provide a working definition of love, noting that it’s an active state. She synthesizes (and at times criticizes) Christian, New Age and other philosophies, through a feminist lens.

Provenance: Loan from my fellow American writer in the Netherlands, Katie.


If you’re made it down here, thanks for reading! Stay tuned for my top five, which will have their own dispatch so they can take up a little more space.

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