The Year in Reading, Part I
How was it?
Happy New Year!
Welcome to my annual synthesis of a year of reading, for anyone who loves book lists and book opinions, presented in 2022, to make endless January a little more fun.
I read 35 books in 2021. The list is broken up into a countdown, Casey Kasem style. It will come in four parts, including a poetry interlude. This is part I.
The obsessive stats:
Genre: The mix has gotten to be steady over the years: roughly 40% nonfiction, 40% fiction, 20% poetry. (This isn’t through any conscious effort, interestingly.) Nonfiction usually means a mix of memoir, essays, and the odd biography or science/sociology book. Six books were comics in some shape or form, two were short story collections.
Gender: Authors were 71% women, 29% men.
Nationality: Out of 31 authors, about half (17) were from the USA. The rest were from the UK (5), Canada (2), Spain (2), Denmark (1), the Netherlands (1), Romania (1) and Chile (1).
Language: I read 1 book in Spanish, the rest were in English, of which 4 were in translation.
Cool presses: 40% of the books were from small and/or independent presses. Namely: Drawn & Quarterly, The Indigo Press (UK), Chelsea Green, Open Letter Books, Melville House, Soft Skull Press, Deep Vellum, New Directions, Parlor Press, Persea Books, Graywolf, and Canarium Books. Long live small presses!
Publication date: 70% of what I read was published in the past ten years, 25% in 2021. The oldest book was from 1905.
Part I: Fiction and Nonfiction
This is the bottom of the list, so these are the books I had mixed feelings about, though all had something to offer. The ranking isn’t intended to qualify a work as “good” or “bad” or one book better than another. Rather, these are ordered in terms of how likely I am to recommend the book, how much it changed my thinking, how much I enjoyed it at the language level, how much of it remains with me…
24. The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller (New Directions, 2010, originally published 1941
I read Tropic of Cancer when I was 20 and was mostly annoyed by Henry Miller and his self-righteous mooching. I decided to give him another chance as I’d been thinking about how he was way ahead of the curve on this current autofiction trend, and I also love Anais Nin, who admired his writing (and was of course deliriously in love with him for a time, though I was pleased to find she also got fed up with his narcissism in the later volumes of her diaries). I also traveled to Corfu, Greece, last summer and wanted to read something relevant to the trip. This book is often praised as his best, was Miller’s favorite of his own work, and is also lauded as one of the best travel books of the 20th century. It’s really not. Not a good travel book.
After several years in France in the 1930s, just at the outbreak of World War II, Miller went to Greece to join his friend Lawrence Durrell, and after about 9 months was forced to return to the U.S. at last. He was transformed by the trip and wrote this book not too long after. There are a lot of grandiose pronouncements about the Greece, stuff like feeling the pulsing “womb of the earth” in certain ancient sites, the earthy simplicity of the Greek man, etc. Miller includes an account of visiting a medium who tells him that he’s a kind of prophet, unique among millions (just as Miller had always suspected) and won’t be properly appreciated until far into the future. Ugh. I’ve always felt very attached to the 20th century, but this book made me feel an appreciation for the 21st – how we’ve left behind this idea of the (usually male and Western) artist as self-invented gallivanter, seducer and mess-maker, who must always be forgiven the harm he does because of his burning talent and the precious quality of his vision. There is a generally reduced appetite for some self-aggrandizing writer’s thoughts about his travels through “exotic” far-away lands, thank goodness.
What I actually enjoyed was his thoughts on America, and New York City, his hometown, while in Greece. Not a place he wanted to go back to, and which had much criticism for, but he’s funny about it and grounded and wonderfully descriptive, from a working class perspective.
23. FEM by Magda Carneci, trans. from Romanian by Sean Cotter (Deep Vellum, 2021)
Once I finish a book, I usually read a few reviews to have a kind of virtual conversation in my head. These are conveniently gathered at bookmarks.reviews, a wonderful site run by the good people at LitHub, which aggregates book reviews, and categorizes them as “rave,” “positive,” “mixed,” and “pan.” They labelled my review of this book (for the Chicago Review of Books) as a “rave,” which surprised me. While I think the book is worth a read, I wouldn’t say I wanted to rave about it. It makes me think perhaps in my review I was overcompensating for my puzzlement, or that I was fearing being unfair because this book wasn’t the kind of thing I was wanting to read at the time, and this wasn’t the book’s fault. It’s in a genre of its own, a poet’s novel. The narrator is a young woman who recalls metaphysical revelations she’s had at various points in her life, often centered around metaphorical images of sexual experiences. She’s addressing her lover, who it seems she’s leaving, but otherwise we don’t learn much about her external world, only her spiritual insights into the ultimate interconnectedness of all things, etc. It sounds like the kind of book I might get into if the language is functioning at the poetry level, but it didn’t captivate me that way. It occurs to me now that this was one I had to read onscreen, and I think it would have been a better experience with a paper book.
22. The Way We Eat Now by Bee Wilson (4th Estate, 2019)
I heard food historian Bee Wilson on a podcast (I think “Good Food”) talking charmingly about how, before the time of refrigerators, to properly serve a melon in France it was hung down a well so it could be served cold, and decided I might enjoy one of her books. In this one she traces how the human diet has become homogenized and industrialized at the global level and the dangers this poses to our health. This was a fascinating history at first, and I appreciated a section about we overlook the intense and grinding labor involved the sort of cooking we romanticize now (this was based on her time working with women cooks in India). Eventually, though I became consistently upset at how she completely omitted the environmental aspects of the problems she marked out as urgent (how the world’s diet depends on about four crops, the rise of processed foods, etc.). Her last chapter on “solutions” was also odd. For example, distressed by how portions have become larger over time, thus leading to the rise of obesity rates, she recommends buying antique plates at thrift stores as a way of consistently eating less (??).
21. Figure It Out by Wayne Koestenbaum (Soft Skull, 2020)
My sense of this essay collection is that it’s for long-time fans of poet, art critic, and Warhol biographer Wayne Koestenbaum, meaning that it’s probably best enjoyed if you have a sense of his interests and references, which I didn’t. The title essay, which is in the form of a series of numbered commands or exercises, ranging from the practical to the absurd, is fantastic. (“9. Buy a dollar cactus and start anthropomorphizing it. Call it Sabrina. Hello, Sabrina, would you like a little water today?”) I also appreciated his various use of essay forms and capacity to be simultaneously hyper-intellectual and super-horny, but on the whole I felt my engagement remained on the surface for many of them, perhaps because of his extreme, performative erudition, where the references almost become a kind of tic. I’d still like to read My 1980s though (an earlier collection), which I often picked up and put down at the bookstore, maybe because the cover has a gorgeous photo of Debbie Harry.
20. How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell (Melville House, 2019)
This is not a practical guide for getting off your phone, but more of a philosophical work on how to think about the world around you and how you relate to it (and how this might lead you to live less in your phone). It did make me think about this idea of local geography and paying attention to the history both human and natural, of the place you walk around in every day. I was excited after reading the introduction and first chapter, but I was less enthusiastic by the end. Odell is an academic and conceptual artist, and I felt the less savory tendencies of those roles creeping in, e.g. I found her writing at times to be self-congratulatory and over-intellectualizing of the everyday (meeting her neighbors, her bird-watching hobby, etc.)
19. Cars on Fire by Mónica Ramón Ríos, trans. Robin Myers (Open Letter, 2020)
The first third of this short story collection, a series of thematically linked shorts, is so tight and brilliant. It made me want to write and made me appreciate the author’s use of form. As the book progresses, the stories get more difficult and experimental. In my memory, the last story is a single, very long paragraph about a multi-gendered swamp slime (though this is surely not exactly right), and I had a hard time focusing on it. (Being excited about the beginning and dropping off by the end seems to be a theme here...)
I should mention that I reviewed this book for The Literary Review, and was more comprehensive and fair in my assessment there. By fair, I mean I tried not to let the difficulty of the text affect my account of it to potential readers - this snippet is more of what I would tell a friend over a drink about it.
18. Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the Table by Ruth Reichl (Broadway Books, 1999)
Ruth Reichl was the last editor-in-chief of Gourmet and remains a general powerhouse in the food media world. She has had a fascinating life, part of which is recounted in this memoir, including growing up in Greenwich Village, travels in France and Morocco, and communal living in Berkeley in the 70s. Each episode is summarized through a food lens in a single chapter, and I think this hurt the quality of the writing — the (perhaps market-driven) need to make it a feel-good experience. I think the “food memoir” genre was fairly new at the time, which seemed to urge Reichl to tie up each memory with a bow and gave the writing a sort of primness, though she touches on difficult topics, like her relationship with her bipolar mother.
17. No One Is Talking about This by Patricia Lockwood (Bloomsbury 2021)
Reading the first half of this book, I kept wondering if anyone who was not addicted to American Twitter circa 2018 would be able to make a lick of sense of it. (It was one of last year’s big fiction books - shortlisted for the Booker and one of the New York Times best books fo the year.) The narrator is a kind of Twitter celebrity known for her humor (much like Lockwood) who travels the world at panels and events about Internet culture . There are Easter eggs referring to those bizarre debates people get fired up about for a couple of days and then forget. (Like when some people said they didn’t wash their legs in the shower and other people were upset about it. I was fairly addicted to American Twitter in 2018, but missed that one.) It gave me the same feeling that starts to make Twitter poisonous to me, of watching clubby, exclusionary conversations and jokes, though Lockwood is a sharp observer and offers meta-commentary of the kind of psychic damage the Internet can inflict. The second half takes a completely different turn and is beautifully written, though I’m not convinced the two halves make a whole. I’m still thinking about it.
16. Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen by Laurie Colwin (Broadway Books, 1999)
I hadn’t heard of Colwin until this year, but she was big in the 80s, both for her novels and food writing. All of her books were re-released this year, so I think she was in the air among food/writing people, which is how I got curious about her, as she was described as a fun, forgiving kitchen companion. (I think it was via New Yorker writer Rachel Syme.) This essay collection (based on Colwin’s columns for Gourmet magazine) were a good bedtime read. They’re musings on how one learns to cook, epic kitchen disasters, comfort foods, dinner party stand-bys, etc., in a chatty tone. They felt light and effortless, which I realize in retrospect is not necessarily easy to do. I didn’t feel particularly inspired to cook any of the recipes, she includes though, except perhaps one for bread. (They are quite meat-centric: pot roast, roasted chicken, etc.)
I don’t include re-reads in the countdown, as it’s not fair to the newcomers. I do find myself re-reading more over the years, which makes me feel better about holding on to books I’ve read. Around late spring I didn’t want to take any chances and felt like reading something I knew would be well written and engaging, without fail.
I re-read Rachel Cusk’s incredible “Outline Trilogy” (three novels, Outline, Transit and Kudos, 2016-2019), which I read too quickly the first time around. I found myself enjoying Transit much more this round - that’s the one where Faye is back in London and figuring out what home means, especially when you have troll neighbors living below you. I also found that Kudos made less use of the form she innovated in Outline (the narrator hiding behind other people’s stories, while at the same time these serve as a kind of refracted mirror of her concerns). In Kudos, the other characters’ stories followed very closely on each other, to the point that it could almost be a linked short story collection. Though Kudos is particularly delicious in terms of thoughts on publishing, book festivals, writer brains and egos... If none of this is making sense, I wrote a whole piece on this trilogy in 2019, which no one asked for. I was instead motivated by my pure excitement in these books and interest in deciphering them.
I also re-read Alison Bechdel’s memoir (graphic memoir? Is that a term?) Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006), I think this was the third time around. This time I admired the non-chronological way she approached the story. It could have easily been a chronological memoir of childhood and young adulthood, but instead she centers it around assorted thoughts and memories about her father and the way he became both clearer and more mysterious over the course of her life. This takes the narrative on a kind of spiraling path, though it never feels out of control. I still found it brilliant, brave, disturbing, funny, heartbreaking.
I read a number of short stories from The Woman Who Borrowed Memories a fantastic collection of Tove Jansson’s stories for adults, which I’d read before, and several stories from Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2002) (I love “The Floating Bridge” and “Family Furnishings”).
I read the beginning of The Greek Islands by Laurence Durrell (1978). It was interesting (each chapter dedicated to a poetic short history and description of an island), but I think I dropped off because of the lack of a driving narrative.
I also read the first couple of essays in Vivian Gornick’s Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader (2020), which I was reading before bed and I think got swallowed by a wave of other bedside books, but I’d like to go back to.
If you are still here, thank you for reading, and if you enjoyed, please feel free to share this newsletter! Part II to come next week.
If you have thoughts on these books, or recommended reads from your 2021 reading, I’d love hear them.