The countdown continues! Below, fiction and non-fiction I read in 2021, ranked 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, etc… If you didn’t catch part I, it’s here.
15. V for Vendetta by Alan Moore, art by David Lloyd (DC Comics, 1990)
I picked this up as part of my effort to catch up on the classics of comics/graphic novels. This was originally published in serial form in the early 1980s and then published as a book (and made into the 2005 film starring Natalie Portman). I found it to be a surprisingly difficult read, meaning that my progress was slow and I often had to go back to a page to make sure I was clear, I think in part because of the art. It’s a style I don’t particularly like, extremely dark (literally, a great deal of black), and tending towards realism. The comic is much weirder than the movie, which I appreciate (for example, instead of being simply murdered, the head of the totalitarian government’s media agency is driven mad when V burns his collection of vintage dolls). V is also a great character, a kind of twisted symbol of resistance (but not a hero) for a twisted time.
14. In Search of Mycotopia: Citizen Science, Fungi Fanatics, and the Untapped Potential of Mushrooms by Doug Bierend (Chelsea Green, 2021)
I didn’t know that the U.S. was in the middle of a mushroom craze (festivals, foraging, investment in potential health and tech applications) until I read this book. Bierend gives a comprehensive view, covering not only the science of fungi, but also taking into account the history of science, and the economic and cultural context of the phenomenon. Particularly interesting is his examination of “citizen science” - how everyday people (for example, bird watching groups) have contributed, and now, via technology, continue to contribute to understanding and documenting the natural world. More thoughts in my review for the Chicago Review of Books.
13. Yes Yes More More by Anna Wood (Indigo, 2021)
This was a loan from a friend, published by a small UK press. This is a collection of linked short stories, centered around a recurring character, beginning with her tripping acid with friends in high school, and ending with her in early middle age, taking a “getting her groove back” trip to New Orleans. I appreciated the author’s capacity to pin down the details of “the way we live now,” in this case “we” is a late Gen-X London crew linked to the worlds of music and media. The books subjects are pleasure, sex and sexuality, excess, youth, friendship. Wood often willfully defies the writing class dictum that a story should contain conflict (with some exceptions, including a story about an Aziz Ansari-esque not-entirely-consensual grey area sexual encounter). This was initially confusing, but enjoyable once I accepted it - not having to brace for the bad thing to come, which is often my experience reading short stories (bracing for the bad thing to happen).
12. The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel (Mariner Books, 2008)
This book is a massive (though not complete) collection of Bechdel’s weekly comic strip for alternative weeklies, which ran from 1993 to 2008. It portrays a community of queer people (mostly lesbians), their work lives, love lives, politics and conflicts, through a wry lens. (And it’s the origin of the Bechdel test!) The characters felt real, and I appreciated that they aged over time. There were also prescient (and affectionate) send-ups of vegan restaurants, extreme left politics, lesbian haircut discourse, and equally prescient discussions of trans identity, and the metastizing power of corporations. I thought it went a little off the rails during the W. Bush years - I could tell Bechdel couldn’t contain her fury and it’s sometimes channeled in odd ways in the strip (like comparing the double-speak of the W. administration to events in the characters’ lives). By the end I felt sad there wasn’t a formal conclusion, it just sort of drops off, as Bechdel put the strip on hiatus (but didn’t return to it).
Personal aside: I feel warmly about this book as it was the only thing I could manage to read for several weeks, when I was recovering from a bad case of shingles, centering around my right eye. But for the same reason I don’t think I can ever pick it up again, as it will bring back the memory of feeling like tiny ants were crawling all over my eyelid and scalp, and smashing frozen aloe on my head in desperation.
11. Unsolaced: Along the Way to All There Is by Gretel Ehrlich (Pantheon, 2021)
I hadn’t heard of this writer until I volunteered to review this memoir. The marketing materials described Ehrlich as a more literary Cheryl Strayed, because Ehrlich also retreated to the wilderness (in her case to “cowboy” (as a verb) in Wyoming) as a response to grief, after the sudden death of her partner. But the resemblance ends there. To me this book was about the individual’s relationship to nature at its most extreme. Whereas Strayed wrote about her journey on the Pacific Crest Trail as a metaphor for her own internal battles, Ehrlich contends with the thing itself. She doesn’t dig into the reasons for her continual search for the most wild and remote places, but rather sees her responsibility as writer as presenting those places in all of their harshness, beauty, and fragility (in view of the changing climate). This is a memoir in a loose sense - it feels like Ehrlich picked random episodes in her life she wanted to explore and is uninterested in telling her own chronology or background. I was never very interested in nature writing (I’ve been ever in search of The City), but it feels like something I’m aging comfortably into. I enjoyed, for example, her description of the landscapes of ice in a North Pole journey. More coherent thoughts on this one in my review for the Chicago Review of Books.
10. Making Comics by Lynda Barry (Drawn & Quarterly, 2019)
I don’t include how-to type books in this list, but I am adding this one as the first half is a wonderful essay on drawing, childhood, creativity, and where stories and images come from. The exercises themselves are fun to read, too, and the whole book is illustrated with Barry’s creatures and doodles. I’ve only done a couple of the exercises, but it’s still a good source of inspiration. I think Syllabus will be my forever-favorite of Barry’s work, when she was figuring out how to teach comics. This is the more polished and focused sequel.
9. Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance by Ian Buruma (Penguin, 2006)
In this nonfiction account, Buruma (who is Dutch but writes elegantly in English) examines Dutch culture and politics, and by extension, the debates over multiculturalism, Islamophobia, and freedom of speech in greater Europe. He centers his arguments around the murders of filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who was killed in 2004 by a fundamentalist who objected to his short film that was critical of Islam’s treatment of women (written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali), and Pim Fortuyn, a right-wing anti-Muslim politician, who was killed in 2002 by a (white) animal rights activist. I really like this approach to a complicated subject: breaking down one or two events into all of their component details, from the biographies of those involved to the greater impact on society. Obviously the debates over these issues have only intensified since 2006, so I was impressed at how much of this book is still relevant, which is a credit to the author’s research and framing.
Buruma pins a lot of the troubles over multiculturalism in the Netherlands to the Dutch people’s latent refusal to contend with their complicity in the Jewish Holocaust (75% of the Jewish population in the Netherlands was killed in the Holocaust, generally much higher than in the rest of Europe). His claim is difficult to prove and he doesn’t offer much to substantiate this particular point, though it’s interesting to consider what contending with this complicity on a societal level might look like… It made me think about how anti-Semitism is a given in the far-right, even with the Jewish population much reduced and Islamophobia offering a handy substitution, though this apparently doesn’t go far enough in some quarters. (Thierry Baudet, who leads the Dutch far-right party, was embroiled in an anti-semitism scandal in 2020, when members of the youth faction where found to be sharing Nazi propaganda, but remains a member of Parliament, and he was recently sanctioned for comparing coronavirus measures to the Holocaust on social media.) It would be interesting to hear what Buruma had to say about the issues now, 15 years after the book was published.
8. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud (William Morrow, 1993)
This is a quite technical examination of how comics work - how comics build on our tendency towards making symbols, how we read word and text together, what the mind does between panels, how the passage of time is communicated. I loved that McCloud explained it all using comics, which made it so much more fun to read and was the perfect way to illustrate his arguments. What I remember most is his comparison of American, European and Japanese approaches to comics (to convey speed, for example), and a short section in the beginning of how art resembling comics can be traced back to ancient civilizations, medieval art, etc. I should note that he writes authoritatively, and often treats own conclusions or opinions as definitive (a tendency that bothers some of his readers), but I like a bold opinion to start off a conversation, especially if it’s based on a solid education and passion for the subject, which is the case here. This is probably one I could read again and learn more, though I see that McCloud has published a couple of books since then, so perhaps I should head there first (Reinventing Comics in 2000 and Making Comics in 2006).
7. Second Place by Rachel Cusk (Faber & Faber, 2021)
I was so curious what Cusk’s return to more traditional fiction would look like after she declared that “character doesn’t exist anymore,” when discussing her approach to the Outline trilogy. (In the sense of “character” being what determines the course of a person’s life, as in a Victorian novel, not referring to characters in a book.) Cusk is quite open that Second Place was inspired by a memoir by Mabel Dodge Luhan who hosted D.H. Lawrence at her ranch in Taos and had a bad time (Cusk mentions this in a note at the back of the book). I suspect having this source text to rely on both freed Cusk from the stress of people wanting to conflate her fiction with her own life, and gave her a foundation for characters and conflicts she could take her own way…
In this novel, Cusk transposes the memoir of D.H. Lawrence to remote marshlands in England, where a woman and her husband host a kind of informal residency for artists. The woman invites a painter she admires, and the visit does not go as she expects. I love the narrator’s voice. who can be both kind and unreasonable, insecure and demanding, motherly and childlike. She has a fondness for exclamation marks, which was geniunely funny at times. I appreciated that she was a woman in her 50s who wasn’t going to apologize for herself, her body, her age, though she was reckoning with all of this as well as other characters’ reactions to it. I also admire how Cusk worked in the pandemic without needing to discuss it explicitly… I’m still thinking about this one, but will leave it there as I will run long otherwise. I think it’s one I need to reread. Would love to hear anyone else’s thoughts on this book!
6. Real Estate by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton, 2021)
This is the third installment of Levy’s “working autobiography” of her life as a writer and woman. She’s stated that she wanted each book to cover a decade of life in middle age (40s, 50s, and 60s). They are all a pleasurable read (though the first one, Things I Don’t Want to Know, remains my favorite), I’d say this one is the lightest in terms of subjects - here she’s contending with what life looks like as an artist over 60 and living on her own. She also seems to hide more in this one, reflecting herself more through stories of others. For example, she alludes to the fact that, while she has always earned her living as a writer, wide recognition has only come later (two of her recent novels have been listed for the Booker Prize), but doesn’t explicitly write about what that experience has been like… To all three books she brings a sensual delight in living and traveling, an appreciation to the totemic/Freudian significance of objects in our lives, and the influence of other writers and artists… I wrote more about this book in my review for The Chicago Review of Books.
Thanks for reading! Poetry books to come next week. Feel free to comment!
As always, thoughtfully and beautifully written; some great suggestions to enhance my reading list for 2022!