2019 Reading Round-Up!: Introduction

My round-up of “last year’s books” is coming a bit late as I’ve turned this annual tradition into quite the project, and I was busy writing book reviews. I decided to go ahead and finish it, as I mostly post this for my reader friends, and it doesn’t really matter when I get it up.

I love seeing other people’s book lists, friends and strangers alike, and I’m always so curious to see what someone is reading (on the bus, on their shelves). I started this annual round-up because I wanted to understand what I actually thought about a book, how much of it remained, and what my reading life as a whole amounted to.  I decided to post it online (on a defunct anonymous book blog) so that I would complete the thought and actually finish the exercise. Then it became a way of sharing with my bookish friends scattered around the world, who I miss talking to. They’re not quite reviews, as I think a book review actual owes more to both the readers and writer (I hate summarizing plots, for example). Just a few thoughts.

As usual, the ranking is not necessarily based on literary  excellence, but on how big an impact the book made on me (sparking new thoughts, feeling things, the lingering image); how likely I am to press it into a friend’s hand; how much of it remains months after reading it.

A note on book lists

Seeing all of the best of the year, best of the decade, best of the 21st century book lists at the end of 2019 wasn’t as fun as I’d anticipated. After these lists came the raft of lists most anticipated books of 2020. All of the lists started to feel like this endless, churning mass, or like a crowded conveyor belt of text that’s impossible to keep up with. Obviously this exclusive focus on what’s new is what keeps the publishing industry viable, but it must also be so disheartening for anyone who published a book 3 years ago, or 7 years ago, or 15 years, this feeling of only having a couple of months to make an impact.

I do love discovering a bold and new voice, who is speaking to our precise moment. But there should also be at least a little room in our shared cultural spaces (book coverage in newspapers, book sites like Electric Lit, etc.) to consider work beyond the months (weeks?) of its big debut… I saw some conversations around this on Twitter, with writers/critics attributing this myopic focus to the loss of dedicated book sections in newspapers, well paid book review gigs, etc. Books coverage being reduced to the “listification” of writing about brought by the internet.

It’s sad to lose some of the excitement around new book lists to this general sense of information overload I’ve been trying to keep my head above for the past few years. On the other hand, it’s less pressure to keep up, and maybe make my reading life more intentional.

On the subject of reading books other than what’s hot now, I’ve noticed that, since I began tracking my reading more closely, beginning in 2009, besides reading newish books I’m excited about, I’ve also kept up a steady parallel stream of books published by women in the 1970s. This wasn’t intentional.  I think it’s partly because one writer leads me to another (e.g. Mary McCarthy led me to Elizabeth Hardwick), the fact that there’s been a revival of these writers in recent years who criminally went out of print (Renata Adler, Eve Babitz). I also think it’s because the 1970s were a time of intense, deep-thinking creative production, also in film and music. (The possible reasons why are whole other post.))


I read 33 fiction, nonfiction and poetry books.  This number is higher than usual, I think in part because I broke up with The New Yorker  in the spring (it’s an up-and-down relationship) and because I tried to get a grip on my social media addiction.

General trends in my reading life in 2019: Lots more nonfiction, mostly essay collections; lots more poetry read cover-to-cover rather than dipped in and out of; a decline in my reading of books in translation and books written in other languages, which I’m not happy about. I also felt a need to re-read books I’ve loved,  so I’ve listed these last, as I’ve written about them at other times.

A few stats on the books I read:

  • 45% were non-fiction (mostly memoir/personal essays, also art/literary history, biography), 39% fiction (mostly novels), 15% poetry
  • 81% were by women, 19% by men (out of 31 total writers)
  • Authors were from the U.S.A. (18 or 58%), United Kingdom (4), France (2), Netherlands (2), Canada, Germany and Spain (1 each)
  • I read 32 books in English, 3 of which were in translation, and 1 book in Spanish.
  • 61% of the books I read were published in the past 10 years, 31% before 2010, 12% in the 1970s. Original dates of publication span 1929-2019.
  • 18% were rereads, 15% were by Rachel Cusk 🙂

2018 Reading Round-up!

In 2018, I read 21 fiction and non-fiction books. (Poetry to be dealt with separately.) I probably spent the equivalent of 10 books’ worth of time on stupid Twitter, though. I don’t know what the sum of these tweets have contributed to my life or understanding of the world yet. I can’t even remember the funny memes at the moment. OH WELL. I also tried to keep up with a New Yorker subscription, which cut into book-reading time. I’m discontinuing this in 2019 and have subscribed to Granta, which is quarterly, instead. I’m also engaging in periodic social media fasts to break addictive patterns. We’ll see how that goes!

Reading trends in 2018: more European fiction, more novels and fewer short story collections than I usually read. Each year, there’s been a single author I become obsessed with and seek out (Anais Nin, Deborah Levy, Elena Ferrante, Joan Didion), but that didn’t really happen in 2018.  The list is rather eclectic and there was nothing that made me rave and buy multiple copies and press into friends’ hands, which is my favorite thing that happens. I do want to read more by Elizabeth Strout, Rebecca Solnit and Virginie Despentes, but the desire isn’t at obsession level.

Some stats:

•  52% fiction (mostly novels), 48% non-fiction (interviews, memoir, politics, feminist theory, art theory)

• 64% by women, 36% by men (out of 22 total writers)

• Authors were from the U.S.A. (11), United Kingdom (3), France (2), Italy (2), Canada, Colombia, Germany, and Greece (1 each). I read 19 books in English, 5 of these were in translation, and 1 book in Spanish and 1 in French.

• Original dates of publication span 1946-2018. About half of what I read was published within the past ten years.

The list, ranked in order of how much I enjoyed the book, its scope of impact on the life of the mind and imagination, and how likely I am to re-read and recommend it.

1. The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton, 2018)


This is the second volume in what Levy herself has termed a “working autobiography”. The first volume, Things I Don’t Want to Know, was probably one of my favorite books I’ve read, ever, so I was excited for this one. The second volume doesn’t dive as deep as the first, but that deep dive is also something that can’t be done twice. (The first book contended with her childhood in South Africa and her first graspings of injustice as a fact of life). In this volume, she recounts starting over at age 50, post-divorce, making a new life with her daughters, losing her mother, writing through it. She does it her way, which is in a Modernist spirit, understatedly, through metaphor, and weaving in objects (a bird clock,  a necklace, a heavy e-bike), recurring phrases, and other pieces of writing (in this one, Beauvoir’s, Duras’) as way of coming at the narrative elliptically and lyrically. Her piercing analysis and sense of humor make her writing about anything a pleasure.

Provenance: Van Stockum bookstore in Leiden (RIP)
Fate: On the keeper shelf

2. My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (Viking, 2016)


A slim, absorbing, funny, affecting novel. Lucy Barton starts by remembering a period she spent hospitalized in New York and her mother came to visit. Her mother, who had never been on a plane before, who she hadn’t seen in years. The story weaves around like memory itself, making lateral, associative leaps between different episodes about growing up in poverty and becoming a writer. The narrative also mimics the writing process itself, now that I think of it. My only quibble is that this is a piece of fiction where the narrator is a writer, writing about writing, writing about writing workshops and writing about another writer. It all gets too much into itself – the premise would somehow be more acceptable to me if it were a piece of non-fiction.

Provenance: Gift from my sweet mother-in-law
Fate: Passed on to a friend

3. Fellini on Fellini, various translators (1976)


This was a re-read. Essays by and interviews with Federico Fellini. Things I take away from Fellini: his (Jungian) trust in dreams, the image as a source of creation; appreciation of artifice (the film set above reality, hyper-real characters); improvisation and a sense of humor as requisite for survival; not doing it for the money. There’s a beautiful essay about Rimini, the place he grew up, in the 1930s (essentially an essay version of Amarcord). There’s an interesting coda, when he goes back to the town in the late 60s and barely recognizes the place. He is older than the revolutionary youth, but he admires their ideas and bravery, recognizes the limitations religion and fascism placed on his own youth and how their freedom from those strictures will take them into new, unknown discoveries. Curiously, he view his own time as producing outsized artists, and the post-60s times as producing more, but smaller figures, a society of small artists. Is this true?

Provenance: a used bookstore in New York
Fate: On the keeper shelf

4. Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis (1946), translated by Carl Wildman


If you can set aside a feminist perspective and pretend you’re a pre-1970s dude while reading this, then it’s a classic. I don’t mean that facetiously – the character of Zorba is a useful point of reference in life. I think about him a lot, and the wimpy narrator, too. We all have a bit of both in us. (I am OK with reading like a pre-1970s dude at the moment, maybe because there are so many interesting women’s voices out there, it’s almost like assumed patriarchal views are historical, like feudalism, and not annoyingly ubiquitous. Almost. I also have times of only wanting to read women, insisting on our personhood, etc. With Zorba, beyond even issues with the female characters and what happens to them, there’s the basic world view it departs from, that women are like nature, religion, war, learning: one of those things in life men must contend with, rather than heroes of their own stories, too.)

So, Zorba versus the narrator: eating up life all has to offer vs. ascetic withdrawal; a life of experiences over a life of contemplation; choosing experience over morality. The spiritual life? Monks reveal themselves to be as depraved and greedy as anyone else. The simple country life? Apparently innocent villagers can transform into a killer, misogynist mob. Zen withdrawal? When a beautiful woman offers herself to you, you take her! You might as well be honest and not buy into any of those rigid life paths. But then there are the sacrifices you make if you choose to be a Zorba, too, going all the way, doing it all, leaving everyone behind at some point or another…

5. Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff (Henry Holt, 2018)


I couldn’t put this book down. I’ve figured out why it was comforting: It was a confirmation of reality, of a timeline of events in objective reality, in this awful moment when we’re spun in circles by media, social media, fake news, real news, bad news, until we’re dizzy, can’t see straight, think straight. Particularly notable was Wolff’s account of election night and the weeks that followed. I wanted it to go on and on, up through the present day. Wolff writes vividly and entertainingly. He also has a nuanced grasp of the media landscape, which shaped Trump and the people around him more than politics did, and isn’t afraid to be critical of Democrats and figures on the left, either. I wrote more about this book here. (God, it seems like this was published years ago, the scandal it caused, but it was only a year ago.)

Provenance: Purchased by Dan from a Dutch bookstore, he ordered it as soon as it came out.

Fate: Holding onto it for now.


I complain about the New York Times marginalizing poetry in their books coverage (e.g., they mention only 1-2 poetry books in their 100 Notable Books of the year feature), but I realized I sort of do that myself. I don’t recommend poetry books much to friends (unless they ask) and I don’t keep up with the constant flood of new books as well as I do with fiction and non-fiction. But probably for different reasons than the New York Times doesn’t recommend or keep up. 

There’s the fact that bookstores generally don’t keep a stock of contemporary poetry – you usually have to make a conscious effort to order and buy new volumes (and there are so many I’m behind on ordering, I’m genuinely sorry, poets!) I also find writing about poetry incredibly difficult, because of the demands I make on it. And there is, too, I must confess, the sad desire to limit my exposure because people feel so free and happy to disparage poetry and poets (and I’ve faced this down for years). It’s like we’re members of some marginalized religion, and I only want to talk to the initiated about it, not put my appreciation on display on the internet.

Anyhow, that’s not to say there isn’t a lot of poetry in my life. Sometimes it’s the only thing that will do and I dig through piles of poetry books trying to find something I can’t define until I’ve found it. There were lots of poems in my sphere in 2018, but not systematically cover-to-cover via books. However, in the interest of giving poets and poetry some of their due, here are a few poetry books that got me through 2018, linked directly for purchase!

Certain Manoeuvres by Lydia Unsworth (Knives Forks Spoons Press, 2018)


This prose poem collection is by my now-friend, but let it be known that I swooned at Lydia’s writing before I met her. Playful, at times acidic, philosophical, linked prose poetry pieces. Questions of what it means to travel, to migrate, to be in a self in body, to be a stranger, to be a city-dweller… Just some really good sentences and paragraphs, too.

Forged by Fanny Howe (The Post Apollo Press, 1999)


I have lots of books by Fanny Howe, and I’m often drawn back to this little one, I think partly because it’s little, it feels good to hold. Fanny Howe’s work contains that paradoxical mystery-plus-fulfillment I need from poetry. Faith that this is still possible with language. A short line will suddenly shine out with clarity and meaning where it didn’t before. They’re like prayers, incantantions, or that language-based thought before it slips off into the ether.

The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich (W.W. Norton, 1978)


Adrienne Rich is the poet we need in this time, right now. Her poems are the opposite of provincial, they’re global in scope; poems that wrestle with gender, with power dynamics, with being a woman in history and in the world; poems that don’t let anyone off easily. And she’s been here this whole time, you dummies! In this collection, I kept coming back to “Hunger” and “Paula Becker to Clara Westoff.” I’m angry that the Harold Bloom-influenced literary snobbery kept me away from her for so long. (In his stint as the editor of the “Best of the Best American Poetry, 1988-1997,”, he refused to include anything from the 1996 volume selected by Rich, because of her political engagement.) Fuck off, Harold Bloom.

2017 Reading Round-Up: Top 5


1. Things I Don’t Want to Know by Deborah Levy (Notting Hill Books, 2013)

I don’t know why more people haven’t read this book. It’s the kind of book avid lady readers should be raving about to each other and reading reviews of in Electric Lit and the New Yorker to see what other smart women think of it. But no, it’s actually even hard to find in the U.S., and I haven’t talked to anyone who’s read it. (She’s much better known in the UK/EU. I picked up it up in a fantastic bookstore in Galway.) I read this slim book in one afternoon – it’s a long essay commissioned in response to Orwell’s own short essay, “Why I Write.” Levy’s work touches on the first taste and shock of injustice experienced in childhood (in apartheid South Africa, masterfully from a child’s point of view in all its complexity), the experience of motherhood post 1970s feminism, travel and becoming someone else while “away”, risk-taking, the desire to write, figuring out how to write as a woman. It made me cry in a deep and satisfying way (on a bus to Dublin, no less!) that was a relief.


2. Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey by Elena Ferrante, trans. Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2016)

These interviews and essays gave me that Emily Dickinson physical feeling of having the top of my head taken off, in particular the one that gives the collection its title. (“Frantumaglia” is Ferrante’s mother’s Neapolitan word for the mass of experiences and feelings that overwhelms and fogs the mind at times, the raw, wet stuff that writing is shaped from… I think). Particularly striking: her thoughts on the Dido myth and its relationship to women’s writing (Carthage originally intended as a city built on love); her mother’s work as a seamstress, how the dresses she made were and were not her; her exploration of her childhood violent wishes and feelings; the shifts in her motivations for remaining anonymous over time; thoughts on writing itself, what it means to be truthful when writing fiction.


3. Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, the Flesh and L.A. by Eve Babitz (NYRB Classics, 2016 (reissue), originally published 1977)

Essays on 1970s L.A. by the anti-Joan Didion, voluptuous and exuberant Eve Babitz, born a Hollywood insider. She is also witty, erudite and snobbish in her own way, as she gives accounts of quaalude-fueled threesomes, and ending up in the most unexpected places, like a baseball game or San Bernardino, via her lovers. There are also her odes to other women, their talent and style, and her thoughtful takes on fame, addiction, and public image. Thank Goddess that NYRB brought her work back into print.


4. Memoirs of Montparnasse by John Glassco (NYRB Classics, 2007, originally published 1973) – John Glassco

Nineteen-year-old Canadian bisexual Glassco sets off for Paris in 1927 with his school pal, to become a poet and burn through his father’s money. Publisher and writer Robert McAlmon takes them under his sordid wing for a long bender in Luxembourg and the French Riviera. Glassco chats with Robert Desnos, sasses Gertrude Stein, judges beefy Hemingway, and writes a little bad Surrealist poetry along the way. There’s probably a lot of bending of fact, as this was written decades later, but it’s entertaining and wonderfully written.  A fun, queer counterpoint to the hacky “Moonlight In Paris” view of Montparnasse in its golden age – the drag queen bars and lesbian literary circles, the roustabouts and pornographers, the would-be artists and dilettantes, who were also hanging around the cafes, never quite finding the time to work on their masterpieces…


5. Contempt by Alberto Moravia, trans. Angus Davidson (NYRB Classics, 2004, original 1954)

I felt so anxious reading this, it was a relief when it was over. The narrator just keeps fucking things up – it’s unbearable! Really masterful portrayal of an unreliable narrator. It reminded me of Lolita, a bit, in the way that the narrator is trying to elicit sympathy in his account, while unwittingly showing the ways in which he’s monstrous. There is also beautiful vivid imagery of the Italian coastline and Capri. I enjoyed the various characters’ ruminating on possible interpretations of The Odyssey, and how they informed the narrative.

2017 Reading Round-Up, #6-10


6. The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante, trans. Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2008, original 2006)

Ferrante’s last short novel before embarking on the Neapolitan quartet. The seeds of that project are planted here – a woman trying to make sense of her life after her daughters have grown up and left home. There’s a tension throughout as she watches a Neapolitan family on the beach every day, relating to a woman playing with her daughter, and also sensing the violence that could erupt when the patriarch is around, a tension that increases as she becomes involved in a strange way. A visual theme emerges of dark insects marring a picture-perfect scene (a black moth in a seaside bedroom, a worm coming out of a doll’s mouth) that seem pointed and unflinching, like much of Ferrante’s work.


7. Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview by Jonathan Cott (Yale University Press, 2013)

A full transcription of a multi-part interview Cott conducted with Sontag in 1978, which was only excerpted at the time.  (It ends up stretching into a book of 130 pages!) Sontag seems fun, and funny, via this interview. She admits her own contradictions, because of her commitment to constant change. She talks about how rock and roll (Bill Haley and the Comets), the energy of it, made her change her life and find the one she actually wanted to live in the late 50s (leaving her marriage and the academic life behind). They toss around fascinating takes on stuff like: how and why the fragment speaks particularly to our time; what is a miracle; why ritual require silence; loving both “high” and “low” art; being fundamentally Californian or East Coast; how people want to drift towards (over)simplifying, and why complexity has to be kept alive, etc…


8. Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto (Vintage, 2013)

This was a fun history of the city – not comprehensive, as the title indicates, but rather exploring the roots of Amsterdam’s liberalism, in the widest sense of the word (including capitalist enterprise, for example). The author pipes up with his own opinions and as a character, in a way, in the history he’s telling. This personal authorial intervention isn’t too obnoxious, but I wouldn’t say is entirely necessary either.


9. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Riverhead, 2017)

This novel was definitely written in response to the migrant crisis, and I liked how he pushed it into a speculative space of new possibility, rather than simply reflecting the depressing present. I had some minor quibbles – the epilogue, for example, which I had to pretend didn’t exist, the book ended so well otherwise. I also wondered at his very deliberate choice to keep his protagonists from being specifically Syrian or Muslim (although based on the details they might as well have been described as such). I guess this was underscore their “everyman-ness,” but in a way, it has the opposite effect. It would have been a strong statement to have “openly” Muslim characters in a novel with a largely Western readership, especially when every other location and character was grounded in specifics (named cities and nationalities). I remember a beautiful passage about what prayer meant, and had meant over time, to the more devout male character, for example, that made me understand Muslim prayer better. Anyway, a powerful novel, and I’m glad it’s gotten a lot of attention and people are reading it.


10. A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit (Canongate, 2005)

Essays on what it means to get lost, both purposefully (like Baudelaire in the city), and unintentionally, as a Spanish explorer separated from his group in pre-conquest America, and what you find when you’re found. Lost in a color, as Yves Klein, lost in another person. Solnit’s a phenomenal writer. I think she’s stronger when she writes about subjects other than herself (and she mostly doesn’t write about herself), perhaps because she maintains a final filter, a  reticence to fully reveal her personal life. My favorite essay was on Cabeza de Vaca, and her own re-telling and re-contextualizing of what the “new world” was when the Spanish arrived, and how they missed it altogether. I love the way she is open to any subject, draws connections, and parallels. Her curiosity and love of history, art, anthropology, fiction, film, etc. etc. is invigorating. (She is also one of my favorite activist voices at the moment – everyone should follow her on FB.) I’ve read a lot of her work online, but this is the first book of hers I’ve read, and I’m excited there are many more to eat up.

2017 Reading Round-Up, #11-19


11. Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (Bloomsbury, 2016)

This was a book I appreciated more and more after I finished it. I think I resented the tidiness of the ending when I finished it (as I did with the other Levy novel I read, now that I think of it), but setting that aside, the atmosphere was established so vividly via the setting (a young woman and her hypochondriac mother seeking a cure from an eccentric doctor on the Spanish coast) and the young narrator’s perspective (a moment of transition, when everything is a question for her – her relationship with her family, her sexuality, her future). The novel is a collage of elements and tricks, unclassifiable, in a way. I was thrown by the surrealist touches, but they were also quite funny (the eccentric doctor and his clinic, for example), and I appreciate better in retrospect.


12. Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante, trans. Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2006, original 1992)

Ferrante’s first novel. Claustrophobic and disturbing, a slim volume. The themes of the sex and violence coursing through Naples, motherhood, the abuse of women are here in a more dream-like, turgid form than in her later work.


13. Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee (Penguin, 1999)

I still don’t know what to make of this novel. It’s absolutely bleak, a difficult read. And unexpectedly, a convincing plea against animal cruelty. It calls on the reader to ask ethical questions and come to their own moral conclusions or judgments of the protagonist, because the author never does. I’d like to talk to someone about it.


14. Man Ray’s Montparnasse by Herbert R. Lottman (Harry N. Abrams, 2001)

I was surprised to see this was published as recently as 2001. The writing style and approach feels a bit older. I would have guessed an original publication date in the 1960s (how he wrote about the women in the scene, for example, or his delicacy around more personal details). This is neither an academic book or a full biography of Man Ray, but only covers his Montparnasse years, around 1920-1941, when WWII drove foreigners out. In this account, Man Ray is depicted as a workhouse, a Brooklyn guy always working as a commercial photographer to support his art, and a natural monogamist, with fascinating women. While interested in the ideas and play of the Dadaists and Surrealists, he opted to stay out of the often petty internal fighting. A fascinating life, as he took everyone’s portrait at some point.


15. Watchmen, written by by Alan Moore, art by Dave Higgins (DC Comics, 1987)

I’m still behind the graphic novel canon, but at least I’ve read this essential volume. It holds up in our time – dark, apocalyptic, disillusioned in tone. The scenes of Doctor Manhattan on other planets, fed up with humanity, were my favorite. I also loved the integration of other sorts of writing – letters, news articles, old comics – as a way of giving information. The art is fantastic – detailed, masterful – it goes without saying.


16. Black Vodka by Deborah Levy (And Other Stories, 2012)

I like that seduction was a current through these stories. The way that another person’s “otherness” seduces, whether they are from another culture, speak another language or are entirely “other” in their way of being. Sometimes what’s inscrutable is also what spells out the end of the relationship.Levy, as a British writer, is certainly seduced by Europe. So much of her writing is set on “the continent,” perceived through British eyes.


17. Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (And Other Stories, 2012)

In my year of Deborah Levy, this is probably my least favorite of the four books I read. The set-up was a bit too contrived (two English families summering in southern France are upended by the appearance of a young woman who shows up naked in the villa pool one day), the secondary characters too secondary, and the ending  bit too easy. I know the aim in tone was for one of disjunction, an “off” feeling (in the dialogue, the uneven pacing), but this didn’t quite work for me, either. I do like how Levy explores sexual dynamics throughout her work, in particular from young women’s perspectives, and these were the parts that grabbed me in this novel; a scene, for example, of the deranged young woman viewed by the teenage daughter in the family.


18. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield (Black Irish Entertainment, 2002)

The only self-help category I read is “creativity” – I’ll admit it! This book is a good pep talk. I’m keeping it around for future consultation. My biggest takeaway was importing the “lunchpail mentality” you have towards paid work (go in even if it’s raining, even if you’re tired) to your own endeavors. Don’t bail out on yourself.


19. The Keep – Jennifer Egan (Anchor, 2006)

This was a fun contemporary take on the gothic novel, also a really clever frame narrative (I won’t describe to avoid spoilers). Egan inhabits male narrators really effectively – it’s a question always on my mind when reading (if a man is writing as a woman, and vice versa), and I stopped thinking about it in this book.

2016 Books, Part III

My top 5 books read last year…

1. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001)  – Alice Munro

I’ve read a couple other Munro story collections, but this is the one that really drove home her brilliance. The way a moment between two people contains complexity and a dozen other stories; death and illness as a part of life, not the story itself. 

2. One Hundred Demons (2002) – Lynda Barry

I read this in one setting. Memoir/autobiographical comics generated via an old Japanese method of drawing demons with pen and ink. Goofy, heartbreaking, authentic tales about dogs, the 2000 election, adolescence, betraying friends, doing acid, mean mothers…

3. Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea (1931, trans. 2016, NYRB edition) – Teffi (trans. Ann Marie Jackson)

The art of understatement. A Russian elite displaced during the Russian revolution. Witness to hunger, murder, animal fear, but told through a lens of distance and biting humor, with an eye for the feminine perspective, feminine survival methods.

4. Drawn Together (2012) – R. Crumb and Aline Kaminsky-Crumb 

An anthology of all of the comics R. Crumb and his wife, Aline Kaminsky-Crumb have created together over their decades of partnership, from psychedelic-explicit nonsensical narratives in the 70s, to accounts of their semi-retired life in the south of France. The latter are my favorite – their frank/crude wisdom about aging, their lives, America vs. Europe, having money, sticking together, commercialism, etc.

5. The Odyssey – Homer (trans. E.V. Rieu, 1945)

Weird and presumptuous to put one of the foundations of Western literature as #5 on a list of books, but that’s how I felt about it. This was a gap in my reading, though I already knew a lot about the journey, the monsters, and the various characters. The opening is cinematic, fantastic, though I was disappointed that the various monsters only took up a fraction of the book (the Cyclops episode was my favorite) and so much was devoted to Odysseus’ bloody revenge on Penelope’s suitors and his servants who helped them. Telemachus was also such a jerk to his mother. She was always weeping and retiring to her chamber and he telling her to be quiet.

2016 Books, Part II

6. The Complete Persepolis (Pantheon, 2007, originally pub 2000-2003) – Marjane Sartrapi, trans.

I liked how this wasn’t a straightforward narrative of building a new life abroad after the political and social upheaval in Iran. There were difficult times and beautiful times in both places for the author, and ultimately, a sense of dislocation that has to be reckoned with no matter where she is. The tempestuousness and sometimes-shitty oblivious behavior of youth is all there, which I also appreciated. I liked the simplicity of the art, how much she does with black. Her family members are most vivid, visually – chic mother, gentle father, dashing uncle, feisty grandmother.

Origin: American Book Centre in The Hague

Fate: On the keeper shelf

7. Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor (2012?) – Lynda Barry

Second time reading this, one of my favorite books discovered last year. I enjoyed this book more visually this time, Barry’s monkeys, her renderings of herself as Chewbaca. The generosity of a real teacher comes through in the exercises here, the enthusiasm for sticking to something and the best wishes for a breakthrough in thinking, or style, or habits.

Origin: American Book centre in Amsterdam

Fate: On the “always keep” shelf

8. La fine dell’amore (2014) – Ed. Ilaria Bernardini 

An anthology of 13 “graphic short stories” about the end of love. A big range, from sinister, to realistic, to funny, to dreamy and surrealistic. Strong enough visually that I could understand with my intermediate Italian. A beautiful collection. I’m also happy that I stumped Amazon.com with this pick! Only available on Italian websites.  http://www.hopedizioni.com/la-fine-dellamore-graphic-short-stories/

Origin: A cool film-and-art-book store in Rome near Piazza Navona

Fate: On the “keeper” shelf

9. A Room of One’s Own (1929) – Virginia Woolf

I read this a long time ago in college. It made a big impression on my budding feminist self them, particularly the part about Shakespeare’s sister. This time I was struck by the depth and prescience of Woolf’s analysis, for example, her thoughts on the rarity of reading dialogue between two women, written to a woman, the novelty of it (Bechdel test anyone?); also her centering the argument on economic autonomy – the recognition of her own privilege and how that afforded her the freedom of time and space to create. I was also struck by her ability to view women as a separate economic class and in that sense assess their poverty and unpaid work at the time – such revolutionary thinking at the time (and still is, depending who you’re talking to). Also a pleasure to read, with her wit and balanced, intricate sentences.

Origin: The uninspired English bookstore full of remaindered titles in Leiden

Fate: Somewhere in the apartment? Just an easily replaced cheap paperback edition, so I’m not concerned

10. A Place of Greater Safety (2006) – Hilary Mantel

Mantel’s MASSIVE fictionalized account of the French Revolution, from the point of view of the revolutionaries. The characters really came alive, but I confess it became a bit of a slog in the last 200 pages.

11. A Little History of the World (1935, trans. 2005) – Erich Gombrich

 I think my whole feeling about this book would change with a change in the title to “A Little History of the West”. It’s intended for young readers, and it that sense it is refreshing and accessible, and comes from an art history perspective on European history, which always gives cause for hope. 

Last Year’s Books, part I

Better late than never, posting for my friends who enjoy book lists. (MK, looking at you to post yours, too!). A round-up with quick takes on all the books I read in 2015. In order of their impact on me at the time.

12. The Folded Clock: A Diary (Doubleday, 2015) – Heidi Julavits


This book is a lot of fun, although the premise a bit gimmicky/misleading. Julavits clearly wrote this for publication, I wouldn’t call it a diary. There is still a withholding process, and the confessional feels bloggy, the last difficult veil is never pulled away. However, it’s thoroughly enjoyable and I loved the actual physical book – a soft, fabric-like cover. Highlights were her accounts of her obsessive friendships, and her relationship to the biography of Edie Sedgwick over time.

13. A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube (NYRB, 2005 ed., originally published 1977) – Patrick Leigh Fermor


Parts of this are delightful, and parts I was slogging through. The slogging could be owing to my relative ignorance about European history and architecture, as Fermor is a fiend on these two subjects, going very deep. Otherwise, it’s a charming account of his trek across Europe in the 1930s, sleeping in barns and castles, partying, reciting Shakespeare, meeting old counts, witnessing the coming dark times in Germany firsthand.

14. Just Kids (Ecco, 2010) – Patti Smith


A semiannual New Year’s tradition. The book offers permission to draw, collage, write, worship dead artists, without apology.

15. Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery (Vintage, 1997) – Jeanette Winterson


Art-affirming insights, and it made me want to read all of Virginia Woolf. At times off-putting because of Winterson’s early onset crotchetiness (dismissing all pop culture) and defensiveness. I think she’s deliberately taking up Gertrude Stein’s voice (in the mode of proclaiming her own genius) and Virginia Woolf’s opinions (e.g., trashing Joseph Conrad for not being a native English speaker).

16. Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids (Picador, 2015) – Meghan Daum, ed.


A big range of writers and views. I thought about a third of the essays were stellar (by Pam Houston, Sigrid Nunez, and Jeanne Safe), the rest a bit repetitive, the piece by by Lionel Shriver was downright offensive (I’m still drafting a rebuttal in my head). The hilarious piece by Geoff Dyer was my favorite. Terrible title, btw.

17. Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag (Riverhead, 2014) – Sigrid Nunez


Another angle, another glimpse of the fascinating, difficult and brilliant woman that was Susan Sontag. Her views, habits, influence. What an intense and strange arrangement, one that would have been difficult to resist in your 20s – sharing an apartment with your boyfriend and his mother, your boss, Susan Sontag.

18. Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers (Imperfect Publishing, 2008) – Leonard Koren


This book is always popping up in arty bookstores. I was intrigued by the idea of wabi sabi (appreciating the process of disintegration, that which is made of earth, asymmetrical… it’s complicated). The book was much shorter and simpler than I thought, although it seems to presupposes some knowledge of the tea ceremony ritual. Feel justified in loving a crumbling wall, the skeleton of a leaf. How would this relate to text/words/poetry?

19. Goodbye, Columbus (1959) – Philip Roth


Roth was a gap in my reading. The worried aunt was my favorite character in this. Overall, its time seems to have passed (the little black kid at the library, the Jewish princess, the wise-beyond-his-years young writer – do we need them anymore?).

20-21. The Walking Dead, Books 1 & 2 (2009) – Robert Kirkman


I couldn’t get into this series. Perhaps I’ve absorbed the zombie thing via cultural osmosis, but it didn’t seem to offer anything new.


Tropic of Cancer – Henry Miller (~20 pages)

An attempt to re-read this after hating it in college, because of the strong endorsement from Anais Nin. Not sure when I’ll  ever be in the mood, though.

Primera memoria – Ana Maria Matute (~50 pages)

Perhaps to return to, an account of the Spanish Civil War from an adolescent’s perspective.

Chéri – Colette (~30 pages)

Another “to return to”, was not in the right place for this world of courtesans and finery…

Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History – John Julius Norwich (~100 pages)

I purchased for a trip to Sicily and carried the damn heavy thing around, but didn’t get too far. I will return to it!

The 2014 Book List, Part II

In 2014, I read 20 fiction & non-fiction books. Here are numbers 9-15 ranked in order of my own most subjective preference. Not necessarily in order of literary greatness, but in terms of my enjoyment of the book, whether it dazzled me with language, or made me think new thoughts, or made me want to make things, or stayed with me long after I read it, or made me feel something, or all of the above.

9. The Flamethrowers (2013) – Rachel Kushner



The first half of this novel is a great ride: sexy, compelling and exquisitely, carefully written. Big and bold, and most fantastically from the point of view of a young female artist navigating the 70s art world in New York, a strong outsider. It is dazzling and blinds you to some of the structural problems with the novel, or maybe the experience allows you to forgive some of the contrived turns and slow-fizzle ending.

10. My Struggle (Book 2) (2013 in US) – Karl Ove Knausgaard, trans. Don Bartlett


I was resistant to the whole idea of this project. (From the New York Times review : “Why would you read a six-volume, 3,600-page Norwegian novel about a man writing a six-­volume, 3,600-page Norwegian novel? The short answer is that it is breathtakingly good, and so you cannot stop yourself, and would not want to.”) I generally admire and seek out brevity in novels and plays written in the 20th century and after. So much can be done in 200 pages (see Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, for example.) A big demand on the reader/viewer’s time must be justified. I also felt strongly that a woman with a similar project would never receive the sort of attention Knausgaard has gotten. (Katie Roiphe wrote a piece about this in Slate. (I’m surprised to be linking to a piece by her.)) But I realized these were not good reasons not to read it. My curiosity was piqued every time I flipped through it at the bookstore, and I was interested in its experimental approach to plot and genre – so much of what I’ve enjoyed in recent years doesn’t fit in a clear category (The Diary of Anais Nin, How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti, Speedboat by Renata Adler, Violette Leduc’s memoirs, etc.)

 I didn’t find the second volume (which is embarrassingly subtitled “A Man in Love” for U.S. audiences) as powerful as the first (ranked higher up on my list), and it didn’t make me want to read any more of the series. It explores his sudden move to Sweden and start of new life. Falling in love, having children, feeling trapped, as a writer, and feeling love and a new sort of fulfillment at the same time. The daily frustrations and tedium of child-rearing, the inherent conflicts with a dedicated intellectual life. In a way, this was like reading something from the future because it’s set in Sweden and house-husbands are commonplace, which was entertaining. One of my favorite scenes is his enraged and humiliated attendance at a baby rhythm class taught by a hot young instructor.

He breaks the essential rules meted out to beginning writers: don’t include scenes that don’t propel the action; ensure that every word is necessary. I read many reviews seeking to justify the tediousness – the boredom is part of the point, or the excruciating detail is what makes you feel like you’re living there with him. I sort of understand this, but I can’t say it wouldn’t be good if you cut that daily-life stuff out. I enjoyed it best when he dug deep, the philosophical digressions on the contemporary consciousness vs. the Baroque sensibility, on what it means to write, on the mysterious way you are either open or closed to a poem, etc. 

11. The Berlin Stories (1945) – Christopher Isherwood


A collection of two novellas, The Last of Mr. Norris (a single narrative) and Goodbye to Berlin (a series of sketches, all with the same narrator, which inspired the musical Cabaret). I almost wish I had encountered the two works separately because I wanted the second half to be like The Last of Mr. Norris and was a bit disappointed when it wasn’t. Mr. Norris was so funny – witty, absurd and dry in only the way the British can be. Great characters in both halves, extremely vivid, like the stiff aristocrat who wears a monocle, is into body-building and enjoys English adventure stories of shipwrecked boys in a pervy way. Goodbye to Berlin has a bigger emotional range and made me think of the continuity of certain aspects of city life across the ages (dive bars, class divisions).

12. Ghost World (1997) – Daniel Clowes


Brings back in full force the extreme smart-ass, sometimes super-funny, sometimes really mean spirit of the late stages of high school. I got the feeling this started as a weekly and the plan for a graphic novel came later, as not much happens for a while in the beginning, although it’s fun (the girls hanging out, going to the weird diner), and all of the action comes quickly and heavily at the end. Visually very funny, too.

13. The Jaguar Smile (1987) – Salman Rushdie 


Rushdie’s non-fiction account of being a visiting writer in the hopeful, Sandinista-led Nicaragua, recovering from civil war (pre-Satanic Verses and next-level fame). He’s a charming and sympathetic narrator and gives a vivid account of politicians, poets, midwives, children, in various regions of the country. I read this while visiting Nicaragua and it was a good way to learn a bit of history; it was also interesting to see all of the changes that have taken place since Rushdie was there. I liked that his frame of reference is another part of the “developing world” (India/Pakistan), and many aspects of Latin American life are familiar, while issues like hunger and poverty are more acute in some ways where he’s coming from, a refreshing departure from the usual Western-person-abroad travel literature. 

14. The Voyeurs (2012) – Gabrielle Bell 


Second time I read this collection of confessional, very Brooklyn comics, including an account of her relationship with Michel Gondry. I enjoyed this more the second time around as I knew what to expect and lingered in the artistry a bit more. (The first time I was surprised by how emotionally raw some of them are, examining depression and anxiety in a way that brings you close.) I often think of one particular comic about the meaning of compulsive e-mail checking, what it is you’re wanting from a new message.

15. Run River (1963) – Joan Didion


This was my year of Didion, I couldn’t get enough. This is her first novel, before her lean and rhythmic style had fully developed, which was interesting to see. What remains most clearly with me is her protagonist, Lily, so clearly drawn – passive, distracted, frail, but at the same time calculating somehow, driven by sex. In a Paris Review “Art of Fiction” interview, Didion said someone had described her novels as romances; this pleased her and she agreed to some degree, which is funny, but I think there’s also something there. The plot is a secondary concern and problematic in some ways, especially the ending, but it is a first novel, after all.