Well, we are well into March and 2022 is now a distant memory, except my top five reads, which are still worth writing about. (And if you didn’t catch the rest of the list, you can also read Part I, Part II and a Poetry Interlude.)
These are the books that most stayed with me, moved me, made me think, and that I’m most likely to recommend…
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5. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal (NYRB Classics, 2008, first published 1972)
This book truly makes you feel like you’ve spent a summer in a cozy cabin on an isolated island in Finland, complete with varied islanders. (Jansson was from the Swedish-speaking minority population of Finland.) It’s made up of vignettes of a girl and her grandmother (their father/son is a distracted, occasional presence) and their adventures, quarrels, games and outings. I realize it almost sounds like a children’s book, but it’s a decidedly mature work. The death of the little girl’s mother is mentioned early on, though not centered, and grief and mortality subtly permeate the two characters’ conversations and shifting moods. The book doesn’t sentimentalize this world. It’s like life - complex, with good days and bad. The writing is simple and straightforward, but somehow also embedded a sensory experience in my mind. I feel like I slept in the wooden cabin, under a scratchy wool blanket, through changes in season and weather, visits from neighbors, news from town…
4. Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald, translated from German by Anthea Bell (Penguin, 2001)
This book was a gift from my friend Franco, and it took me (dare I say it?) over a decade to get to it. I didn’t doubt that I would read it at some point, though, as our friendship was founded on shared reading predilections. (It is exciting to meet someone who also loves Borges when you are 19, or actually, probably at any age. I remember the 5th-floor-no-stairs, cozy student garret he shared with his brother and another Latin American friend in Paris, and taking great comfort in reading a poster with the Borges poem “Yo” pinned up on the wall across from the sofa every time I hung out there.)
I think I unconsciously avoided Sebald because I associated him with men who love to talk about philosophy and was afraid it would be dry and overly intellectual. But no. I wouldn’t call it an easy read, but the writing is so alive, surprising and intimate. I mean intimate in the sense that it feels like someone choosing you to tell this story. The structure is non-linear, and hard to order as you read it, but eventually a story comes through. The image I get is of a natural network of water, the words flowing out into different digressive tributaries, but overall forming a coherent structure.
The narrator tells the story of another man, the mysterious Austerlitz, which the narrator pieced together over the course of years of random encounters in various parts of Europe. The frame narrative creates distance from the painful, core revelation of an alternate life lost, lost to time, lost to history, and most directly, lost to the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis. The slippery structure is in line with the theme of how memory is elusive and ever-changing. (These aren’t really spoilers that follow, but I guess don’t read further if you don’t want to know the plot.) Austerlitz grows up in England as an adopted orphan, in an atmosphere of coldness and distance, and it takes him his whole life to understand that he was a Jewish child who was brought to the UK from Czechoslovakia via the Kindertransport. Trains and train stations haunt the text, which is also bursting with intriguing side notes and anecdotes about architecture, European history, biology, photography, Wittgenstein, etc. I do wonder about Sebald’s process, and whether or how he worked with structure, because the trajectory feels like a spiral, or as I mentioned, more like an organically shaped branching out, rather than a linear story. I’m intrigued by how he accomplished this, while keeping the novel coherent.
I also owe this book another read, as I read it through too many interruptions and with a sometimes distracted mind. I think it’s best taken in within a short period of time, given the absence of paragraph breaks and the layering effect of the chapters.
3. In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing by Elena Ferrante, translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2022)
This is a book of essays based on a lecture series Ferrante delivered for the University of Bologna (while still remaining anonymous, someone else delivered the lectures on her behalf). She’s such an intriguing case in our oversharing age, because she has utterly refused to be a celebrity, but with her great success as a novelist, has shown herself to be enthusiastic about disclosing and exploring her own development as a writer. She exists as a public figure, but only through her words. It’s almost more intimate stuff than if she were to be photographed and featured in magazine puff pieces, TV interviews, etc.
This collection would be best appreciated by readers of Ferrante’s fiction, as she explicates the interests and themes in the Neapolitan Quartet, and her other novels, to some extent. (For example, what it means for two women to create together (like Lila and Lenu), how a central tension and intimacy between two women generates a third, more powerful force. She mentions Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in this context.) However, the essay that made the biggest impact was the last one, on Dante, whom she approaches as a fellow writer, which was such a revelation to me. To view Dante as a writer taking risks, choosing words, reacting to and reflecting his own time. Anyway, the book is a keeper, one to return to, though I would recommend Frantumaglia, another nonfiction collection, before this one, as it’s wider-ranging (and also much longer, this is a slim one).
2. How to Cook a Wolf by M.F.K. Fisher (North Point Press, 1942/1951)
This selection is a bit niche, meaning I wouldn’t recommend it to just anyone asking for a good book to read, though I should note up front that MFK Fisher is an absolutely dazzling, witty writer. This is a classic of food writing, a more recent strand in the knot of my reading life (accompanying a more recent interest in cooking). The marketing copy describes this as a guide to rationing and cooking during WWII (the wolf refers to the hunger and hardship stalking the front door), but it’s much weirder and more specific to the author’s experience than this. She evokes, for example, a memory of the French onion soup that’s served at 4 AM at dance halls in Switzerland, when everyone’s a bit drunk and tired, as if it were a relatable experience (though her audience is presumably American women). It’s also a manifesto on eating and cooking, asserting the need to make both a pleasure in life. This edition includes Fisher’s annotations and comments on the text she added in 1951, which are self-deprecating, endearing and often very funny. This is the first I’ve read of Fisher, and I definitely want more. She’s a giant I see so many writers in food media aspiring to emulate now, whether consciously or not. This was also a rare case where I got the book from the library and feel like I now need to own a copy. It’s one I’d like to be in the company of. (More common is the phenomenon of buying a book and wishing I had just borrowed it).
1. frank: sonnets by Diane Seuss (Graywolf Press, 2021)
It’s daunting to write about this book. The short version is that it’s what I want and need poetry to be. What do I want and need a poem to be? I want a poem that you don’t want to stop reading once you start it, that you want to read again as soon as you get to the end. I don’t want tidy messages, self-satisfied “meditations on.” I want some core mystery retained, but not complete opacity. I want it to raise questions, provoke new thoughts, a feeling in my body. I want the language to excite the part of me that loves words. I want surprises.
These are poems you have to contend with. I got the sense that earlier drafts would have been solid poems on their own, but Seuss worked harder, pushed further, pushed through both at the language level and whatever thought/memory/feeling the text is reaching for to arrive somewhere that is deeper, stranger, harder. (That’s how I imagine it based on what I know of the writing process, but maybe she is brilliant in early drafts!) In short, the work is consistently uncompromising, which is astonishing given how long this level is sustained (some 130 pages, long for a single collection).
The collection is intimate, piercing, unflinching, at times funny, at times uncomfortable. The book spans the poet’s life - childhood, young adulthood, motherhood, aging - with a death or a threat of death marking each stage. And the poems are all incredible sonnets, a form that is able to contain but not tame abundance and wildness, rich in images and unexpected turns. Many writers and musicians make an appearance, including Elvis, Frank O’Hara, Walt Whitman, Marianne Moore, Hall & Oates, Ravel, James Joyce and Earth, Wind & Fire. Though not mentioned, Rilke came to my mind, in that Seuss takes on the big themes (mortality and death, poetry, beauty) in a way that is so genuine, specific and brave, the outcome is a text that pulsates and speaks. I trust this work, it doesn’t lie. I’m so happy and also surprised that this book won the Pulitzer, as it’s the kind of thrilling, unsettling art that threatens Establishment in all its forms.
So that’s it for 2022…
What’s next? From my unread pile, I’ve culled the ones I’m most excited about and set them apart in a visibile place, so I will read them this year. Voilà:
Left to right: Swamp Thing by Alan Moore; Señales que precederán al fin del mundo por Yuri Herrera; Modelos de mujer por Almudena Grandes; Drama Queens par Vicki Gendreau, Pure Colour by Sheila Heti; The Candy House by Jennifer Egan, Some Trick by Helen DeWitt; The Country Life by Rachel Cusk; Stories of Your Life and Other Stories by Ted Chiang; Talk by Linda Rosencrantz; I Used to Be Charming by Eve Babitz; Varieties of Exile by Mavis Gallant; Seduction and Betrayal by Elizabeth Hardwick; Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki; A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien, Austerity Measures: The New Greek Poetry; The Word Pretty by Elisa Gabbert, On Contemporary Art by Cesar Aira; The Pleasure of the Text by Roland Barthes; 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write by Sarah Ruhl; Collected Essays by James Baldwin; and SPQR by Mary Beard.
As you can see, I have become a major New York Review Books (NYRB) stan. (Those are all the ones with the pretty colored spines in the middle). Edwin Frank, the founding editor, has absolutely impeccable taste. (Here’s a great interview with him in The Paris Review). The press uncover out-of-print gems and publish lesser-known fiction in translation. AND they also launched a comics imprint publishing alternative, exciting stuff. The books themselves are so beautifully designed, too… Now that I’m back in the U.S., I’ve gone a bit wild during their sales, which also explains this stack… (Highly recommended - you get 40% off if you buy 4 or more books. Sign up for their newsletter to get alerts).
Thank you for reading! It was enthusiastic replies and encouragement that motivated to finish up my reading round-up. If you feel like writing, please share your favorite read(s) from last year and/or what you’re excited to read this year:
And a final note: I’m working on some comics and hope to share them through this letter sometime this year, stay tuned!
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Once again, an intelligent, well-written, always thoughtfully presented descriptions of recommended reading. A list for me for 2023!