A Year in Reading

What does it mean?

Happy New Year! We made it.

Thank you for making room for these words. This won’t be a frequent newsletter and I hope it will be a fun read. In January, it will arrive weekly on Fridays (with the 2020 Reading Roundup countdown), but only occasionally after this. Future posts will feature thoughts on books, words, and my fledgling comics. If you didn’t sign up for this, it means you’re a friend off social media, and I’ve conscripted you, and I hope you enjoy! 

I don’t like Facebook for a number of reasons, but I will miss seeing replies and comments to book posts. So feel free to reply to me or comment on the post. I want to hear your book opinions and it’s nice to feel like you’re not writing into a void. Also, no hard feelings if you decide to unsubscribe. The relationship between human and inbox is complicated, and this venture is just for fun.

2020 Reading Round-Up

My annual synthesis of a year of reading, for anyone who loves books lists and book opinions.  I don’t generally plan what I read, but instead follow a finicky, unpredictable internal compass. This annual roundup is my attempt see what it adds up to and what has remained.

I read 41 books in 2020, more than usual (I average 30/year), for pandemic reasons. The books I read before the mid-March lockdown in the Netherlands seem like they’re from a lifetime ago, but I’ve still included them here. I’ve tried to keep this concise given the volume is greater. The list is broken up into a countdown in three parts, with a poetry interlude. Part I is below.

The obsessive stats: 

Genre: An even split between nonfiction and fiction (~40/40), with poetry making up about 20% of my reading. 15% were re-reads. I’ve been reading more nonfiction every year, I think because I’ve become more cautious about what fiction I pick up, as it requires a greater commitment in energy. Four books were comics in some shape or form, two were short story collections.

Gender: Authors were 69% women, 31% men. 

Nationality: Authors were from the USA (23 writers or 75%, but a diverse lot!), the UK (3), France (2), Argentina (2), and Italy, Spain, Ireland, Mexico and Pakistan (1 each). Almost all poetry I read was by American poets. The U.S. produces great poets, though it sure doesn’t love them.

Language: 4 books in Spanish, the rest in English.
Date: Most (80%) were published in the past 10 years.  Years of publication span 1940-2020.

Part I: Fiction and Nonfiction, #17-28

This is the bottom half of the list, so my responses will get more positive as the count moves up!

17) Normal People by Sally Rooney (Faber & Faber, 2018)

I came to this book post-hype, after it became an airport book and adapted for TV, so I think it was hard to not be at least slightly disappointed. Rooney is great at writing sex and dialogue, both much harder than they seem. My quibbles are maybe unfair, and have to do with what bothers me about fiction sometimes: the main characters are troubled, but always beautiful and brilliant, and ultimately successful in all they attempt. The politics are more a window-dressing for the high school and university life depicted than a coherent vision. I note this because of the noise around the book – I think too much is made of Rooney’s politics, because of her nonfiction writing, maybe. I found this to be more a love story with a 21st-century backdrop than searing social critique.

Provenance: The American Book Center in The Hague

18) The Beauty of Their Youth by Joyce Hinnefeld  (Wolfson Press, 2020)

A little volume of short stories I wrote about for The Literary Review. Realistic depictions of contemporary life, spanning the US and Europe, often from the point of view of women over 50. Quietly observant, solid writing.

Provenance: Galley copy from the publisher.

19) Future Sea: How to Rescue and Protect the World’s Oceans by Deborah Rowan Wright (University of Chicago Press, 2020)

A passionate environmental advocate lays out an ambitious plan for protecting the ocean as a whole, without regard to national claims and divisions. There’s also a great chapter on our individual impact on ocean health through consumer choices. Lots of interesting facts and opens the door to possibility, if a bit uneven in structure (very wonky in the first half, more approachable in the second). My full review is at the Chicago Review of Books.

Provenance: Electronic galley from the publisher.

20) Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain (2000)

This is an artifact of the time (1980s-1990s), both in terms of Bourdain’s tough-guy attitude and the restaurant culture he documents (before the flowering of creative, small restaurants, and before “foodie” was a common word). He notes as much in the introduction he wrote many years later. I enjoyed reading about his childhood memories of France, his openness about desperation and failure, and his characterization of restaurant kitchens as a kind of pirate ship.

Provenance: The American Book Center in The Hague

21) Whose Story Is This?: Old Conflicts, New Chapters by Rebecca Solnit (Granta, 2019)

This is a collection of Solnit’s recently published short essays, mostly in The Guardian and Lit Hub, responding to the #metoo movement and Trump politics. Solnit is one of my favorite activist voices, and while I admire her ability to be so articulate on current events so immediately, this isn’t as good as her thematic, longer-researched and more literary essay collections (which didn’t begin as quick news takes). I can’t really remember what was in this and feel like it won’t have the longevity of her works like The Faraway Nearby and A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

Provenance: Bertrand, the oldest bookstore in the world. Operating since 1732 in beautiful Chiado, Lisbon, the last place I had the fortunate to fly to in Jan. 2019. Sigh.

22) My Love Story by Tina Turner (Century, 2018)

I’d say this is for Tina fans only, as it’s mostly a tame account of her doings from the 80s to  2017 or so, including recent health problems and near-death experience. (I can’t claim to be a Tina superfan, but the intensity of her voice and performances does something to me on a cellular level. She’s channeling something big.) I liked reading about her friendship with David Bowie, thoughts on Europe, her love of interior decorating and generally living her best life. The juiciest bit is her teasing insistence that she taught Mick Jagger how to dance though he claims it was his mother. I think it’s an issue with the ghost writing, but I didn’t get a sense of Tina’s voice. Maybe it’s also because this was put together while she was recovering from serious illness.

Provenance: Gift from Dan.

23) A History of Food in 100 Recipes by William Sitwell (Collins, 2012)

This was a good bedtime read, as each chapter is just a few pages and contains some fun facts. However, it ends up being British in an unpleasant way (sorry Brits). Meaning that, over the centuries, “the history of food” becomes mostly the history of British food and the author inserts his own aristocratic family history in a couple of chapters. He also makes fun of the political rhetoric of the Italian Slow Food Movement and snarks on desperate “housewives” (the people cooking throughout much of history). So a thumbs down overall, though I loved learning about Ancient Greek foodies, medieval menus, the history of sliced bread and grocery stores, etc.

Provenance: Mayflower Books in Leiden.

24) The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists by Neill Strauss (2005)

I will admit to being a recovering book snob so this one’s humbling. But I’m also a completist, and this is an honest book list. So yes, amidst the banquet of world literature I took a heaping serving of a 500-page memoir of the geeky music journalist who became the world’s best known pickup artist. (I always thought it was an instruction manual the way people talked about it.) Strauss isn’t a bad writer, and it is a weird, twisting and fascinating story, including appearances by Courtney Love and Tom Cruise. It just needed to be 100 pages shorter. Maybe more. The author is also caught in an awkward place between self-awareness about how pathetic some of the pickup artist behavior is (e.g. wearing a dreadlock wig to seem more interesting in a crowd of “alpha” men) and wanting to brag about his exploits. There’s an interesting subtext about how the journey actually led him to spending more time with men rather than women, and also unexplored revelations about what the women out at the club actually want.

Provenance: Free little library in Leiden.

25) How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee (Bloomsbury, 2018)

I picked up this essay collection after reading this great piece by Chee on thinking about culture when writing fiction. I think I’m maybe one of five people who had mixed feelings about this book (it has had nothing but praise). He’s a good writer, and I enjoyed some of the essays (the one about his rose garden, the “autobiography of his novel,”) but I was put off by his need to come off as exceptional in some way, no matter what the subject (he was the best at learning Spanish, the most beautiful in drag, etc.) Even in a tribute to a painter who died of AIDS he finds some way to center himself.

Provenance: The American Book Center in The Hague.

26) Paseo de la Reforma by Elena Poniatowska (Seix Barral, 1996)

This is the first book I’ve read by Poniatowska, one of Mexico’s most celebrated contemporary writers, and I guess I picked the wrong one. The characters were paper-thin caricatures, the plot full of melodrama. Meh. But I would still give one of her more celebrated works a try.

Provenance: A bookstore in Merida, Venezuela (based on the price sticker). I had been carting it around unread for more than 10 years!

27) Three Women by Lisa Taddeo (Bloomsbury, 2019)

This book was widely hyped in 2019 and I was interested in the premise: the sex lives and desires of three real women are deeply researched and reported over a number of years, with the author even “embedding” in their communities at times. But the book was a journalistic fail: lacking in coherence in terms of the themes and stories being told and full of clichéd writing (a “slim, doe-eyed beauty,” etc.)

Provenance: Boekhandel de Slegte in Leiden (used).

28) We Need to Talk: A Memoir about Wealth by Jennifer Risher (Red Hen Press, 2020)

I chose to review this book because it sounded like the author, a tech millionaire, would be engaging with timely issues like massive income disparity. It’s actually a kind of handbook for the newly super-wealthy on managing sticky issues like vacationing with friends with less money than you, and a plea to readers tone down their mean rhetoric and unfair assumptions about mega-rich people. Yeah. My full review is at The Chicago Review of Books, but I’d just note that I didn’t even have space to get into how badly written it is there.

Provenance: Electronic galley from the publisher.

Books re-read

I’m relieved I was driven to re-read books in 2020. It makes me feel better about all of the books I keep around and cart around. Their time will come around again. It’s also fascinating to see how one’s perception of a book changes over time.

1 . Syllabus by Lynda Barry (2014)
This was my third read of this collection of Barry’s syllabi for her comics classes at the University of Wisconsin. I go back to this book for creative energy. Just so much exuberance and color and inspiration. Barry got a MacArthur grant in 2019, and it was one of those few things that made it seem like sometimes there’s justice in the world.

2-6. The Neapolitan Quartet by Elena Ferrante (2011-2015) (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, trans. Ann Goldstein)

I turned to these books during lockdown, during the stress of feeling the world in extreme flux and the future entirely unknown, full of too many potential horrors. I wanted to disappear from the present and knew I could immerse in this world. I also owed these books another round as I read them way too fast the first time. This time around, violence and class stood out as themes throughout. How violence shapes Lila, irrevocably, and how class remains rooted in all of the characters, no matter how they try to deny it. Lenu’s in-laws, for example, who play at being progressive, but ultimately judge her on a class basis when she does their precious son wrong. I also noticed how much the novels tell the story of the political disillusionment of the 20th century – the idealism of the 60s giving way to general corruption and indifference, globlaly.

7. Get It Done: From Procrastination to Creative Genius in 15 Minutes a Day by Sam Bennett (2014)

The most valuable lesson from this book is in the title. If you feel like you can’t manage or don’t have time for a creative project, start with 15 minutes a day, every day. This did help me with writer’s block, when I couldn’t even bear to open the file of work in progress.

Books Abandoned

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (trans. Alison Anderson) (2008)
This was a novel I frequently spotted on the NYC subway 10 years ago. I made it a couple of chapters in and knew I would only get further annoyed at both narrators. I don’t like precocious child narrators.

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If you made it this far, thanks for reading! Part II to come next week.

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