Well, I think it’s safe to say this year has been kind of strange for all of us. Here in the Netherlands, we were in full lockdown for the first half of the year, and now we’re back here again until mid-January. I won’t even begin to pretend that the pandemic hasn’t affected my reading, because it most certainly has. I read fewer books; I favored fiction over nonfiction (well, I always favor fiction, but this year the balance was way off); all my nonfiction titles were music bios/memoirs, books on writing, or some form of self-help. One great pleasure for me this year was re-reading: I revisited some old favorites and read some new books for a second time right away.
I was excited to find two new-to-me authors, Katherine Heiny and Joan Silber. I read Heiny’s Early Morning Riser and then immediately bought and read her other novel, Standard Deviation. She’s somewhere between Anne Tyler and Nick Hornby, with clear, humorous prose and well-drawn characters that result in stories that are surprisingly deep. With Silber, I started with her 2017 novel-in-stories Improvement and then went on to read Secrets of Happiness, Fools, Ideas of Heaven, and The Size of the World. I read Improvement and Secrets of Happiness twice. I love novels that are connected stories, and Silber is an absolute master. She has a unique voice, an easy, almost breezy style that feels like having a long conversation with a best friend over the phone, the kind of conversation where you get off the phone and realize that someone has just shared their hidden depths with you, and you feel honored.
I read a couple of other really terrific novels-in-stories this year, Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips and Ironopolis by Glen James Brown. Both of these books were debuts, but both of them read like they were written by seasoned, assured writers. No navel gazing, no awkward autobiographical stand-ins, no instructions on how to open a browser and do a Google search (oh yeah, you know who I’m talking about). They also both felt slightly off-kilter because of where the stories were set: Disappearing Earth takes place in Kamchatka, a remote peninsula that was part of the former Soviet Union and home to its submarine program. Ironopolis is set in an imaginary housing project somewhere in North England. Both books have a bit of mystery to them as well. I highly recommend them both.
This year I finally got around to reading Kazuo Ishiguro‘s The Remains of the Day, and it’s just as stunning as you’ve heard. Stevens is an absolutely pitch-perfect unreliable narrator. I’ll be trying for years to work out how Ishiguro managed it.
Mostly I read novels this year, but I did pick up two excellent short story collections: Edwidge Danticat‘s Everything Inside and Deesha Philyaw‘s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. Danticat’s writing is so smooth, she reminds me of Mavis Gallant. Philyaw’s book is raw and deep and also funny at times, funny in that way that hurts a little. She’s a cross between Toni Morrison and Mary Gaitskill, and that was another one where it was hard to believe it was a debut.
A big surprise and some of the most fun reading this year for me was Jean Hanff Korelitz‘s The Plot. She spares absolutely nobody in the book world: authors, publishers, readers, bloggers, journalists. She also goes after tired old debates about genre and plot versus character in ways that are amusing and fun to read. She provides some not so subtle spoilers early on so you might figure out some things, but won’t know everything, and her pacing is so terrific you won’t be able to put it down. In a way, this book is also a master class in writing because it manages to be a stellar example of that (newish) thing, the literary thriller.
Speaking of master classes in writing, one of the books I picked up at the start of the year and then again and again was George Saunders‘s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life. All the authors I love revere Chekov, but I admit, he’s been sort of impenetrable for me–until now. Saunders takes a close look at several stories by Chekov, as well as works by Tolstoy, Gogol, and Turgenev, showing how they work (or don’t). Whether you’re an aspiring (or seasoned) writer or just someone who wants to be a better reader, this book is invaluable. And Saunders is generous and funny and humble, which is a rare combination indeed.
That’s all the new stuff, but I re-read a lot of old favorites as well. For the first time in probably twenty years, I decided to re-read The Secret History, which is one of my favorite books of all time. I was so, so happy that it held up for me. [On a side note, I tried listening to that podcast about Donna Tartt’s time at Bennington with Bret Easton Ellis and Jonathan Lethem, but it was so gossipy and slimy that I quit–it honestly feels like a takedown, and you don’t learn anything real about the actual writing.] And then I re-read a classic by another Southern author, Carson McCullers‘s The Member of the Wedding, which I first read when I was eleven years old (so, forty years ago!). At the time the stage play was also airing on HBO (anybody remember when HBO used to broadcast Broadway shows? I saw so many great plays that way, which was a big deal for a girl in West Texas), and I was so in love with the story. I want to say I understood it, but really I think at the time I felt like it understood me.
I also re-read Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. I’d forgotten how good it was! How could I forget? I’ll return to it again in 2022, I am sure. I also re-read High Fidelity, a book I read for the first time in 1999. I’ve seen the movie countless times (it’s one of the best movie adaptations out there, probably because Hornby was involved and also knows his way around a screenplay), but I hadn’t read the book in forever. It was as funny and melancholy as I remember, and even better there’s a Spotify playlist now with all the songs! Heaven.
That’s not all. I also re-read Olive Kitteridge and The Animators, and Alice Munro’s Open Secrets. I read Kathy Valentine‘s memoir All I Ever Wanted: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Memoir, about her time with The Go-Go’s, and Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In, Phuc Tran‘s book about trying to fit in as a Vietnamese kid in America and finding his community with punk rock.
And there was more, but I’ve gone on and on much longer than I intended. I guess it was a better year than I realized! I have no big plans for 2022; I’m not even setting a number goal. I’m just going to go where the books take me.
Happy new year to you all!
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