2019 Reading Round-Up, Part II

6. Transit and 7. Kudos by Rachel Cusk (Faber & Faber, 2016 and 2018)

Books two and three in Cusk’s brilliant trilogy. I’ve placed them together as I read the around the same time and they’re not entirely distinct in my mind. Transit gets us closer to Faye in her home territory of London, while in Kudos she’s on the road again, at a couple of book festivals, with much to subtly say about the publishing industry, other writers, etc.

Nearly a year on from reading them (and thinking of them in the midst of the global pandemic and economic crisis) I do wonder what’s left, they seemed so of the time, and now we are clearly in a new era… I think a lot of the thrill and satisfaction comes from the writing itself – Cusk is just absolutely dazzling and gets straight to the emotion heart and complexity of any situation. I wrote more a lot more about this trilogy here.

Provenance: Probably The American Book Center in Amsterdam?

8. Peregrinos de la belleza: Viajeros por Italia y Grecia by María Belmonte (Acantilado, 2015)

A nonfiction account of writers, artists, scientists from Northern Europe who found their true home in Italy and Greece, whether because of a love for ancient art, that Mediterranean light or the allure of the perfect island. Each subject covers a different “pilgrim of beauty” (all men) and span the 18th century (beginning with the German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann) to 20th century (ending with writer Lawrence Durrell). Belmonte is a charming guide, clearly in love with the Mediterranean herself, and generous to her subjects (overlooking their major deficiencies as husbands or fathers, for example), focusing on their creative output and inspiration drawn time in Italy and Greece. I also get dreamy about those countries, so this was a nice escape in the winter months.

Provenance: the fantastic Panta Rhei bookshop in Madrid, which specializes in art, design and travel books.

9. Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino (Fourth Estate, 2019)

I, like many other admirers of Tolentino’s writing in the New Yorker, couldn’t wait to get my hands on this essay collection. I was absolutely blown away by the first essay, about our life on the internet, framed by her personal experiences online, which began when she was a child (Tolentino was born in 1989). I also enjoyed her piece on the “marriage-industrial complex.” Less a fan of the essays on her experiences with religion and ecstasy (the drug), and on women in fiction. If I’m allowed a quibble with the book, I think several of the pieces were long-winded and unfocused at times (I learned more than I ever wanted to know, for example, about ballet barre classes), which is maybe evidence of the value of being rigorously edited at a major publication. But a minor quibble. It’s a pleasure, actually to see a young woman writer take up this much space, embrace her success, follow her thoughts to the end and beyond, and it also shows she has room to grow, which is exciting.

Side note on the culture buzz around this: The reception and Tolentino’s  perfect book tour and media blitz became a story itself because many of her essays touch on how our current incarnation of capitalism (of life lived online) ultimately exploits what’s unique and intimate about the self, with Tolentino consistently admitting her complicity and inability to escape the web, both in interviews and in the book. I think there’s a touch of envy to the criticism, because Tolentino is successful in every way – brilliant, talented, also young and beautiful, funny, self-deprecating, and also seems like she’d be fun to hang out with. You have to just give in and love her.

Provenance: American Book Center in The Hague.

10. Open Secrets by Alice Munro (Vintage, 1994)

I didn’t start reading Munro until about eight years ago, and began with her most recent work (thanks to my lovely mother-in-law who introduced me to her). So it was interesting to pick up some of her earlier stories. The collection as a whole isn’t the 100% masterpiece that Hateship, Friendship, Loveship, Courtship or Like Life are, but Munro will always offer something memorable, no matter what the story. I tend to like her historical stories less than the ones set in modern times. There were a couple in this collection that really stuck with me, though, “The Albanian Virgin”, about a woman traveler kidnapped by an Albanian tribe, and “The Jack Randa Hotel”, about a woman who goes to Australia in secret in pursuit of the man who left her. (The opening of the latter story, when a plane lands and is doused with insecticide before disembarking, even made it into my dreams.)

Provenance: Boekenzolder (free book warehouse!)

11. After Henry by Joan Didion (Vintage, 1992)

A lesser-known essay collection by Didion, published in the early 90s. Maybe forgotten because it’s frontloaded with topical essays full of names most wouldn’t recognize now (e.g. Reagan’s former chief of staff) and insider-baseball observations about the political class. But it has a couple of stunners that make this worth owning: a profile of Patti Hearst, and a magisterial, long piece about the Central Park Five, which turns into a portrait of New York City in the 80s, the hierarchies, the media, the governance, the collective self-delusions shared by city dwellers. A real model for the form.

Provenance: Boekenzolder (free book warehouse)

12 . Coventry by Rachel Cusk (Faber & Faber, 2019)

This is a collection of Cusk’s essays previously published in various places, so not a cohesive work, which I was disappointed to discover. Still, she’s incredible on just about any subject, including art – Louise Bourgeois, for example. The essay on her teenage daughters, called “Lions on Leashes” is also wonderful. I guess this book is a bit further down my list because a few of the opening pieces struck me as absurdly cranky – one about traffic in her small town in the countryside (or maybe I’m the cranky one – I have no interest in reading about driving as a metaphor). That being said, Cusk has set the bar ridiculously high, so one can’t really justifiably be critical about any of her work.

Provenance: The American Book Center in Amsterdam

13. Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit  by Aisha Sabatini Sloan  (1913 Press, 2017)

This book made me realize that an essay collection is a bit like a short story collection:   the author is trying out different techniques and ways in, the essays will vary in length and topic, some will be more successful than others, and there are ones you’ll like more than others. This collection had many “braided” essays – ones that weave in often seemingly disparate topics (growing up African American in L.A., the art of David Hockney, and Rodney King). She covers a lot of ground in this book: her white cousin’s experience as a cop in Detroit, the art of Basquiat, Buddhist meditation, Beyonce’s Lemonade, body memory, especially as an African American (a history of bodies subject to violence), the 2016 election … My favorite was an essay as list form about Sabatini Sloan’s father, renowned photographer Lester Sloan, which successfully employs the second person. I like her voice best when she’s ironic, funny, personal.

Provenance: Ordered direct from the publisher (my lovely publisher), 1913 Press.

14. Sabrina by Nick Drnaso (Drawn & Quarterly, 2018)

I got interested in this book when it became the first graphic novel ever to be nominated for the Booker Prize. The sound bite attached was that it’s the first book to successfully convey the Trump era. I’m not sure about that claim, but I do agree that it conveys people in places in America you don’t often see represented in fiction. The art is surprisingly simple, dull at times, even, which I think critics of the book objected to. But I think this is a conscious choice, a way to contain the grief, paranoia, disconnection of the characters. The worst events happen “off screen,” which I think places the moral responsibility, the weight of reaction on the reader… Still thinking about this one. I think I need to read it again.

Provenance: Ordered from the local comics store.

2019 Reading, Part III

15. Peggy Guggenheim: Mistress of Modernism by Mary Dearborn (Virago Press, 2004)

A sympathetic biography of Peggy Guggenheim, who was certainly smarter and suffered more than anyone gives her credit for. An amazing life filled with giants of the 20th century: she received moral support from Emma Goldman when deciding to leave her abusive first husband, had intense affairs with Samuel Beckett and Max Ernst (etc.), and a deep, complicated friendship with Djuna Barnes, among many others. Dearborn is perhaps too sympathetic at times, glossing over Guggenheim’s difficulties being a mother to her troubled daughter Pegeen, and not delving too deeply into her sexual compulsions. (I think Peggy’s often unfairly derided for her active sex life, when in a figure like Jackson Pollock it’s depicted as a sign of power and vigor, but this did veer into compulsive behavior, by her own admission. Dearborn attributes the bad press to Guggenheim’s own outrageous autobiography, which she sees as a mistake in some ways.) Fair enough, Dearborn is seeking to tip the scales of history more in Guggenheim’s favor, and perhaps felt she had to overcompensate a bit, given the reams of bad press over time…

Provenance: Impulse buy at the gift shop at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

16. Kiki’s Memoirs by Alice Prin, trans. (Ecco, first published 1929)

I’ve long been intrigued by Kiki of Montparnasse (born Alice Prin), who was muse and model to many artists in 1920s Paris, most notably Man Ray, and generally the life of the party (Queen of Montparnasse). This is a translation of her memoirs, published in 1929 when she was still young. (The original hipster snob Hemingway says in the introduction that it’s a crime not to read them in French, and undoubtedly her voice must be much distinct and charming en francais.) She tells of her poverty-stricken origins in the country, and surviving many difficult jobs in Paris before finding her home in bohemia. She comes off as self-deprecating, resilient, and fun. This edition includes lots of photos and Kiki’s own paintings.

Provenance: Ordered from Better World Books

17. Little Labors by Rivka Galchen (New Directions, 2016)

A slim, sort of uncategorizable book, inspired by Shei Sonagon’s The Pillow Book. Written in snippets, Galchen documents her daughter’s babyhood and new motherhood, mixed with musings on babies in literature, awkward encounters with her neighbor, etc. A fun read. I love an uncategorizable book.

Provenance: Van Stockum bookstore in Leiden (RIP)

18. My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (Jonathan Cape, 2018)

I was impressed by how Moshfegh pulls off the conceit: a beautiful, wealthy intelligent depressed young woman decides to drop out of life and spend a year in her apartment knocked out by sleeping pills and other drugs. Moshfegh somehow spun an entertaining novel out of this. There are some really funny moments, and sometimes the meanness of this character is a too-brutal sting. Once I finished it, though, and still many months later, I’m left casting around for the larger thoughts or point of the work, for example, the inclusion of 9/11 (and maybe there doesn’t have to be one?), but I feel like I missed something.

Provenance: The American Book Center, The Hague

19. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill (Vintage, 2014)

I wish I had come across this novel pre-hype. I think I’d read too many giddily besotted endorsements to give it a fair shot. (Offill’s new book, Weather is just out and also receiving big praise.) This book is loved because it explores art-making and its sometimes uncomfortable coexistence with marriage and motherhood, with wit and smarts in a collagey-form (that brings in, for example, facts about astronomy). I loved the first third , as a wonderfully distinct character and voice is established from the start, but I lost this sense by the last third or so, when it devolves into a story of a marriage attempting to survive infidelity, which was less interesting. No fault of the author, but the (white) Brooklyn-ness of it all put me off a little, and I also say this as a former long-time resident of gentrifying Brooklyn.

Provenance: Bought new at The American Book Center, Amsterdam

20. Gone Girl  by Gillian Flynn (Broadway Books, 2012)

I have a bad habit of taking challenging books with me when I travel, thinking I’ll have uninterrupted time to focus on them on the plane, and in downtimes during family visits, etc. I then often end up avoiding the book because I’m jet-lagged, or overstimulated/tired from exciting travel and time spent with loved ones I don’t see often, etc. and cart them around for nothing, and then end up buying other, easier books on the trip. This December I decided not to take any books with me, but the plan backfired. I ended up casting around for something to read in rural Virginia where we were staying and went searching in the nearby free book library. Gone Girl was perfect – funny, fast-paced, not too cerebral to pick up between activities or before bed. I’d seen and enjoyed the movie and was curious about the full “cool girl” monologue. Aside from the obvious success of the page-turner aspects of the novel, Flynn wrote a believable dude character, and also captured a particular post-recession time.

21. Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey (Knopf, 2020)

An impressive and ambitious debut novel, a work exploring ideas about women and power. I said more about it in a review for The Chicago Review of Books. In the review, I didn’t mention some of my lingering questions about its success as a work of fiction, as I wasn’t able to articulate them clearly, and it would have been unfair to include them. Essentially, I wasn’t convinced by the narrative voice, the reality of the narrator, her self-loathing and scorn for kindness. There are works of fiction that grab me from the first line, I’ll go anywhere with the narrator, and other times I don’t trust the fiction and keep my distance, I become skeptical about every claim; this book was right on the cusp of this line, I was never fully won over as a reader. I’d like to get better at identifying, understanding and writing about whatever magic a writer employs to make a voice “real” in this sense (both in works of fiction and nonfiction). Obviously, at some level, this becomes a question of taste, but still…

Provenance: Galley copy from the publisher

22. Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A.
by Lili Anolik (Scribner, 2019)

This sort-of biography is interesting insofar as Eve Babitz is fascinating, both her wild life and inventive work. Anolik warns in the first chapter that she won’t even feign any distance or objectivity about her subject, and generally approaches her material in her capacity as the fanatical president of the Eve Babitz Fan Club. It’s the maximum expression of the worst possible interpretation of the permission New Journalism gave writers, the centering of the journalist herself in the story.

Anolik was instrumental in reviving interest in Babitz (which eventually led to her work coming back into print) via a feature she wrote for Vanity Fair in 2014 after many years of pursuit, and while she deserves credit for this accomplishment, she sees it as giving her unique ownership over Babitz’ life and work. In the end, she does Babitz a disservice, as an authoritative biography (which she seems more than capable of as a researcher and writer) would have done much more for Babitz’ legacy than a book filled with Anolik’s opinions about key events and figures in Babitz’ life, including Joan Didion and Jim Morrison, whom she trashes. Most surprising, and disappointing, was Anolik’s curt dismissal of Babitz’ novels as essentially not worth reading. This is OK, though, Anolik explains in a digressive lesson on the history of literature, because the novel is dead, anyway… I would recommend this only to established readers of Babitz, otherwise best just to begin with Slow Days, Fast Company and go from there.

Provenance: Bought new at Spoonbill & Sugartown, Brooklyn

23. Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch (Atlantic, 2015, first published 2011)

A suspense novel by the Netherlands’ best-known fiction writer, featuring a gratuitously unlikable narrator. I could have maybe forgiven the gross views espoused by the protagonist if the novel as a whole had held up plot-wise, but the story kind of collapses in on itself. I will say that Koch is good at writing tension. I wrote more about this novel here.

Provenance: Clearance sale at Van Stockum bookstore, Leiden (RIP)

2019 Reading Round-Up: Re-read

I found myself re-reading several favorite books last year, especially in the beginning of the year. This wasn’t a deliberate decision; I think was a way to find direction (the direction of my thoughts, writing, way of thinking). It’s also a heartening confirmation that I’m not keeping all of these books, carting them across oceans and to different apartments over the years for nothing – I will get back to many of them…

I haven’t included these in my ranking as it’s not fair to the books read for the first time, and it’s also impossible to determine any sort of preference among these – I value them all, but often for very different reasons. Five re-reads listed below in the order read.


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

Playwright and novelist Levy’s account of her “origin story” as a writer, a response to Orwell’s essay “Why I Write.” It’s short, honest and powerful. This was my second read. I fell in love with this book in 2017.

The Lover by Marguerite Duras (Pantheon, first published 1984)

This was my third or fourth time reading this novella. It’s a guiding light of what can be accomplished in some 120 pages. Incredible compression, a whole life. My first read, I was around 20, and I was impressed by the assurance in the narrative voice and stunned by single paragraphs at a time, which were like incredible poems (the paragraph describing the narrator’s unstable mother attempting to raise chickens, the house falling into ruin, for example). The second time I realized how much it was a devastating love story about her mother, more than about the older man. This time I was more aware of Duras’ autobiography in the work, the kind of strength and defiance it takes to write through pain in this way. Again amazed by the authority in the voice, how I wouldn’t question it despite the drama (melodrama?).

I’ve been thinking about literary works I can’t “recover” from – their initial impact is so great, it’s hard to move beyond them to other works by the author. I just want to re-read the one, swim around in it, never move on. (Rather than happily diving into their whole oeuvre, which happens with other works.) This is one of those books. I own a couple of other novels by Duras but haven’t touched them, but maybe it’s time.

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

This book-length interview is bursting with ideas and questions from genius Sontag, it could certainly be read multiple times. The thought that stuck around with me this time is Sontag’s insight into the fragment – why the fragment is so compelling to us. It’s a sign of an old civilization, where so much has accreted that a fragment (whether visual or textual) can resonate with so much meaning… More thoughts on this book when I last read it in 2017.

Speedboat by Renata Adler (NYRB Classics, 2013 reprint, first published 1976)

You could carve at least two completely dazzling prose poetry collections out of this experimental novel. Adler puts some lazy poets to shame by collecting all of this inventive, delicious prose into a single work. And it is indeed a novel, not in an explicit way, but there’s a protagonist, you get a sketch of her biography, her love life. It’s atmospheric – a paranoid, hung-over, sweltering, wayfaring existence in New York in the 1970s.

Anecdotal, minor gossip digression: I was lucky enough to see Adler at the Center for Fiction in 2014, when she had her big comeback and NYRB reprinted her work. She was shy and self-deprecating. Eileen Myles was in the audience and during the Q&A she essentially asked Adler why she was apologizing herself, took issue with her self-effacing manner. I didn’t really think about it till I got home, as I was excited that Eileen Myles was even there, but it dawned on me that Renata Adler should be allowed to talk however she wants, what kind of question is that?…

Also, when I went up to get my books signed, Adler said my name looked like the word “begin,” and signed them “To Begin–” which I love.

My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme (Knopf, 2006)

I think I picked this up to feel better last summer. Julia Child reminds you about everything that’s great about being alive, or maybe she makes everything about being alive seem great — travel, eating, marriage, work. That’s what struck me about this read, her supreme dedication to her work, her gratitude for discovering what she really loved to do. I also realized on this read that maybe classic French food is not for me, either to eat or cook — so rich, so meaty, so many organ meats, so many elaborate preparations…


The Waves by Virginia Woolf

Woolf’s fiction is a big gap in my reading; I’ve only read Mrs. Dalloway (which was and remains important in to my reading/writing life). I must confess I abandoned The Waves just a few pages in, not because of the stream-of-consciousness style, but because it immediately introduces six characters who alternate speaking on every line. Many names on pages 1-2 immediately puts me off a book. I’ll have to return to this when my mind is calmer, maybe in like 20 years or so…

2018 Books, #6-10

6. Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit (2004)


A politics of hope. As Solnit so eloquently proposes, this doesn’t mean naive optimism about the future,  which allows for inaction, but rather acting with faith in the unexpected, unrecognized and surprising ways change for the better happens. Eruptions of the people taking power are never predictable, but they certainly weren’t born of doomsayers and “what-abouters” (e.g, the left eating itself). Her philosophy will be important to hold onto as action in the face of climate change becomes imperative.

Provenance: A bookstore, not sure which.
Fate: On the keeper shelf.

7. King Kong Théorie by Virginie Despentes (2006)


This is a manifesto. A declaration of war. A punk text. Despentes on living in a patriarchy, on prostitution and rape, based on her experiences with all of the above. In one essay she delves deep into the psychology and psyche of surviving rape, not the rape itself. It’s profound. I read several interviews with her, and she discusses how getting this book out of her body changed her life. You can feel this in the language itself, how it’s a life-transforming kind of text. There were a few assertions I took issue with, and would be curious to discuss with Despentes herself. For example, her disparagement of anything feminine (with the exception of figure skating and dressage!); her defense of prostitution based on practicing it from the position of being in control of the experience, as a white, educated woman, etc. But you don’t have a balanced discussion with a punk text, you let it stand on its own terms.

Provenance: A bookstore, I don’t remember which one.
Fate: On my keeper shelf.

8. Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self by Manoush Zamarodi (St. Martin’s Press, 2017)


I picked up this book because I was a fan of the “Note to Self” podcast it’s based on. I think it suffers from a marketing problem – I wouldn’t recommend it as a “how-to” on inspiring creativity, but more as a guidebook on taking control of the smart phone in your life and living with it consciously and productively. Lots of interesting summaries of research on how smart phones affect social dynamics, deep thinking and deep reading, childhood development etc.

Provenance: Bargain bookshelf at the American Book Center in The Hague.
Fate: Kicking around the apartment

9. The Light of Other Days by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter (Tor Books, 2000)


I read this at Dan’s urging (I don’t read a lot of science fiction) as it’s a book he often thinks about and wanted discuss. The various sci-fi premises are definitely juicy: a scientist discovers a way to traverse space and time to create peepholes into any point in the past or present (the past can be viewed, but not interfered with), and, simultaneously, it emerges that a giant asteroid is on a  fatal collision course with the earth, though the impact is not for several years. Oh and there’s also stuff about a clone. (These aren’t spoilers.) So humanity is fatalistic, nihilistic, hedonistic in the face of its likely end, while also contending with a real view of its history, and a total loss of privacy. Some of this sounds familiar, doesn’t it. There are a lot of prescient points, and some daring conjectures on the real life of Christ, and the relative poverty of great performances of the past.  There’s also a mind-blowing passage that goes back all the way back through the history of life on the planet. I have to say I would have preferred the amazing passages in an essay form, without having to bear through clunky descriptions of characters, wooden dialogue and the slog of a plot (though I guess a lot of other people wouldn’t want to read it then), which I suppose is why I avoid a lot of science fiction. It’s hard for me to choke down bad writing. I can’t drop the critical eye, snob!

Provenance: From Dan
Fate: Kicking around the apartment

10. Motherhood by Sheila Heti (Henry Holt, 2018)


I was just reading up on autofiction and came across Christian Lorentzen’s take on this book in NY Magazine, so I’m presently confusing his insightful, original thinking for my own. To paraphrase his take: the central question of this book—the Sheila character’s agonizing over whether or not to have a child—is a MacGuffin. It’s a way in for Heti the author to explore other issues, like her relationship with her partner, her family history, her mother. Not to say that the question of motherhood isn’t interesting or important (and I’d say it’s more than MacGuffin-level in this novel), but it was perhaps too exclusively the focus of reviews of the book and interviews with Heti. It makes me think it was too narrowly my own focus while reading the book, as I was also ambivalent about motherhood for many years and grateful to hear Heti’s thoughts about this. And then I was ultimately disappointed with how the novel resolved that ambivalence. Lorentzen also makes the important point that autofiction is deceptively simple. It makes you think you’re reading a kind of journal by the author, when really there’s an art and structure underneath. This book therefore merits a second reading from me, where I look at it as a novel with a structure and spanning many subjects rather than a long personal essay on ambivalence about motherhood…

Provenance: Ordered from the American Book Center in The Hague.
Fate: On the keeper shelf

2018 Books, #16-21

My annual reading round-up of fiction and non-fiction, in my personal ranking, based on how much I enjoyed it, scope of impact on the life of the mind and imagination, and how likely I am to re-read and recommend it. Here’s the tail-end.

16. The Pisces by Melissa Broder (Hogarth, 2018)


Broder is a fantastic, inventive poet, so I was looking forward to seeing what she would do with the novel form, language-wise. It is fantastically smutty, disgusting and really funny at times – all things I appreciated. At its core, this is a story about the despair of compulsion and sex addiction.

Provenance: American Book Center in Amsterdam
Fate: Passed on to a friend

17. Minor Robberies by Deb Olin Unferth and 18. Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape by Sarah Manguso (McSweeney’s, 2007)


I’m pairing these two short collections of flash fiction together as they came in a lovely little boxed set published by McSweeney’s (together with a third book of flash fiction by Dave Eggers, and no, I didn’t read his!). The Manguso pieces captured small ignoble moments of childhood – lies, envy, mean deeds. The form leads her to a flat, matter-of-factness in the prose, which works some of the time. My favorites in the Olin Unferth collections were her longer stories, which made me think her style is more suited to longer forms.

Provenance: I won this box set at a poetry reading in Bushwick in 2010 on a second date with Dan.
Fate: Unsentimentally donated it to the Boekenzolder; Dan said it was OK, he prefers to be a minimalist.

19. The Godfather by Mario Puzo (1969)


I picked this up during the Kavanaugh hearings and it was a good way to disappear from this world for a while, an absorbing distraction. I would recommend this book only to serious fans of the films. It proves the hypothesis that mediocre books make great films. It’s a pulpy, sometimes clumsily written book that was cut and shaped into elegant, visually rich cinema masterpiece. At its best it feels like novelized DVD extras of cut scenes. Like for example, Tom Hagen’s back story. At its worst there were what I can only guess were attempts to be modern and racy through multiple descriptions of Sonny’s giant schlong; gratuitous side stories of Johny Fontaine’s Hollywood debauchery; and a truly weird extended description of Sonny’s bereaved mistress’s vaginal reduction surgery, including medical terms (the implication being that her vagina was irreparably stretched out by Sonny’s giant schlong??). However, I will give Puzo due credit for putting his finger directly on what fascinates about the mob: the elaborate rituals and code of honor, the will of some men to achieve power and status despite being born to a marginalized class, coupled with the straight-up murderous violence and crime (and misogyny and racism).

Provenance: A gift from Dan to encourage me to read more fun and lighter stuff.
Fate: In the “to donate” pile

20. Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Cynthia Freeland (Oxford, 2001)


Admittedly, art theory is a really hard topic to distill into “a very short introduction,” but this book didn’t quite do it. The writing was labored despite attempts to simplify ideas, and I want to say it’s almost outdated given its focus on art controversies of the 80s and 90s. (It was published in 2001).

Provenance: Purchased at Van Stockum bookstore in Leiden (R.I.P.)
Fate: Donated to Boekenzolder

21. The Risen by Ron Rash (HarperCollins, 2016)


I have mixed feelings about saying harsh things about living writers, but this guy seems to be doing fine, while here I toil in obscurity. So: this book was terrible. I suspect some of his other novels are better – my mom recommended him because she lives in Western North Carolina and he captures life there. (That wasn’t the focus of this particular narrative.) Paper-thin characters, unearned pathos. An alcoholic protagonist – we know he’s an alcoholic because he refer to the fatal clinking of ice in a glass no less than three times in the course of the novel. A fucked-up hippie girl who initiates him into sex, drugs and alcohol and ends up a dead girl. That kind of thing.

Provenance: Lent by my mom, who got it from the library
Fate: Back to the library

Books I abandoned

Vernon Subutex by Virginie Despentes: A clever cross-section of contemporary Parisian society. I think I fell off because it’s rather bleak, and also includes a lot of French slang, so was slow-going as my French lexicon withered over the years as I mostly just use it for work. This is the first in a celebrated trilogy by Despentes and I hope to get back to it at some point.

Little Fires Everywhere Celeste Ng: I saw this book everywhere and only read good things about it, but I couldn’t get into it, I only made it about 80 pages in. The 90s references were a little too on-the-nose, the teenagers didn’t sound like teenagers, and there was a kind of emotional distance in the voice that didn’t convince me. I saw some readers on Goodreads compare this to young adult fiction in terms of its style – something to think about (what does this mean?), and maybe that’s what bothered me, the kind of psychological flattening at the expense of the narrative.

2018 Reading List

Books I’m excited to read this year:

Sheila Heti, Motherhood (coming in May 2018)
Heti is playful, restless, and does something different with every project. I loved How Should a Person Be. This is a “a fictional meditation on motherhood. The thirty-something narrator, surrounded by friends contemplating children, grapples with whether she wants to do the same.

Deborah Levy, The Cost of Living (coming in July 2018)
“A ‘working autobiography’ that comprises thoughtful dissections of life as a woman.

Morgan Jenkins, This Will Be My Undoing (just published)
“A collection of essays by Morgan Jerkins focused on ‘living at the intersection of black, female, and feminist in (white) America.’ Jerkins tackles topics from Rachel Dolezal to Sailor Moon and black female sexuality.”

(Quotes and recommendations above come from this fabulous list of 2018 books by Estelle Tang: http://www.elle.com/culture/books/g14486179/best-books-2018/)

Mary Beard, Women and Power: A Manifesto
“In this brilliant book, the classicist charts misogyny from ancient Greece and Rome to today, and issues a clarion call that it is not women but power that must change.”

Natalia Ginzburg, Family Lexicon (translated from Italian)
Autobiographical novel of her anti-Fascist family during the rise of Mussolini. Originally published 1963.

James Baldwin essays.
I have a book of his collected essays I’ve dipped in and out of, but I’d like to make a more concerted effort. He is so brilliant and prescient.

Nuestros más cercanos parientes
Anthology of Venezuelan short stories from the past 25 years. For my translation quest.

Sei Shonagon, The Pillow Book
A sort of journal from 10th century Japan, written by an aristocratic woman of the court, a document not only of life at the time, but also proto-prose poems and flash fiction.

Javier Marías, Corazón tan blanco
Marías is a gap in my reading. This is his celebrated 1997 novel.

Virginie Despentes, King-Kong Théorie
French former sex worker, punk-anarchist, writer and director of rape-revenge film Baise Moi ruminates/fulminates on pornograpy, prostitution, economics, power structures, etc.

Rebecca Solnit, The Mother of All Questions 
Solnit’s most recent book, “further feminisms”.

María Belmonte, Peregrinos de la belleza
I picked this up randomly at a fantastic art/design bookstore in Madrid called Panta Rhei. A study of writers over time whose life was changed by a visit to the Mediterranean, including D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Patrick Leigh Fremor, Lawrence Durrell.

Elsa Morante
Book to be determined. her name came up several times via last year via my reading of Alberto Moravia (her husband) and Elena Ferrante (who admires her writing). Book to be determined

Elizabeth Hardwick
Book to be determined. She’s in a generation of women writers and poets who were overlooked in favor of their male counterparts (e.g., Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger, Truman Capote, Philip Roth, Robert Lowell (her husband), Bukowski, John Berryman). I would include her in the company of Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Bishop. Don’t know much about her work, but interested in finding out.

NB: I realize this list skews heavily towards literary white ladies, and not on purpose… But these are the books that have crossed my path and made their way bedside.   I do try to be more diverse in terms of who I follow and read online. I usually try to read at least one history book per year, haven’t found this one yet – maybe will pick up SPQR again (Mary Beard’s massive history of the Roman empire).

2017 Reading Round-Up!

I made it before the end of January! My annual round-up and entirely personal ranking of books I read last year, based on: level of language thrills, new thoughts, angst/joy/love when reading it; how long it will stay with me; how enthusiastically I would press it into your hands or buy a copy for a friend. I read 25 books (abandoned 5, see below). This list includes nonfiction and fiction only. (I did read poetry, but don’t include as I don’t read poetry cover-to-cover. It’s more like periodic scavenging to satisfy some spiritual craving I find in a poem or two. I also know too many poets to rank poetry books!):

Some quick stats on the 25 I finished:

Fiction (novels and short stories): 12

Graphic novels: 2

Nonfiction – memoirs, personal essays and interviews: 9

Nonfiction – history, biography: 2

I read authors from: USA, UK, Italy, South Africa, Pakistan, Canada, South Korea, France. Five in translation.

Books by women: 16 (62%)

Books by men: 10 (38%) (one got counted twice as it was a man interviewing a woman)

Years of publication span from 1954 to 2017

Despite the fact that I’ve always been a hungry reader of fiction, and am learning to write it myself, I was surprised to find my favorite books I read last year would be classified as nonfiction. I’ve been asking myself why that is – it’s partly a testament to the difficulty of writing fiction that will stick around with the reader. I think it also has to do with the times – I consume so much media, I’m requiring books to get straight to the point rather than taking the time to ponder narratives and metaphor (I’m sorry to admit). I could blame the internet, etc., but there are ways to preserve your concentration. My feeling in the “current climate” is that I want to know what a writer has learned: be direct, we don’t have much time! 

I noticed my description of my favorites all included a physical reaction on my part. I think that’s what I’m chasing, an actual shift in my body, which I know is a tall order, and not anything you can categorize. There’s also the not-insignificant development that the memoir and essay genres have fully blossomed in the past 10 years. It’s also an exciting time in that regard.

The books I abandoned:

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado – this debut collection of short stories got a lot of buzz last year and seemed right up my alley, but I couldn’t get into it. Read about half.

Partir by Lucía Baskaran – Part of my search for an untranslated book in Spanish that will inspire me to bring it into English. This felt very much like a semi-autobiographical first novel. I wasn’t too interested in what happened and put it down – it sounded like a journal (young woman having doubts about her current relationship, alternates with the telling of her move to Madrid to study acting). Read about half.

La acústica de los iglús by Almudena Sánchez – See above. Highly recommended by a Madrid bookseller. A talented young writer, slim collection of short stories. Surrealist, sad. I read about half of it.

Corazón tan blanco by Javier Marías – I was enjoying this well enough. Not sure why I set it aside, will give another chance. I read about a third.

The Third Sex – A non-fiction book about transgender culture in Thailand, written by a UK professor who lived with a transgender performer and her family for a year. I got about halfway through and must have lost interest. It’s an interesting world, but I wasn’t keen on the writing style (a bit corny).

Without further ado, my 2017 books, with apologies for any typos, and for inconsistent graphics:

2017 Reading Round-Up, #20-25


20. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King (Pocket Books, 2001)

The first third or so of this book was King writing about his early life, and I wish it had all been about him, rather than then turning into his advice on writing, which is intended for beginning writers, I think (“avoid adverbs”). He’s an endearing character. His telling of recovering after being hit by a truck was also compelling. I read a lot of books by King in high school and admire his imagination and the way his inventions have influenced (and continue to influence) our own fears and metaphors (murder clowns, telekinetic teens, haunted hotels, etc), but I can’t say I particularly would want to write like him when it comes down to matters of style. The best advice I remember from this book is to write the first draft “with the door closed,” meaning, not to let anyone else in, to write for yourself in the first round.


21. The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy (Hachette, 2017)

A memoir of Levy’s life falling apart – losing her unborn baby, partner and house within a short period of time – and what led her to that point. The book was in part inspired by her devastating and beautiful essay that appeared in the New Yorker, “Thanksgiving in Mongolia.” And maybe she said it all in that essay. While this book provides a lot more context, it doesn’t particularly illuminate more. It was completely gripping, true, (I read it in an afternoon), but I think the rush to get a book out into the world based on the success of the essay forced Levy into a narrative (perhaps by an editor, or perhaps a magazine-reporting approach to memoir), trying to shape the outlines of her life, from childhood into the present, into a tidy story that would be satisfying to a mass audience. The issues she faced and had to reckon with are so big and complicated, but the writing itself doesn’t manifest questions or grief happening. Instead it’s simply stated. I was also troubled with her casting her miscarriage as a sort of divine punishment for putting off motherhood, her unexamined privilege manifest throughout (surprising given the empathy and insight she shows in reporting on other people, particularly women), as well as her unexamined thoughts on her own bisexuality and perspective on gender (again, surprising given how much she writes about these subjects).


22. Fear of Flying – Erica Jong (Signet, 1974)

I think this is best read as a document of its time, i.e. 1973, otherwise it feels too much like a first book in need of a more rigorous editor. The narrator (thinly disguised Jong, her autobiography lines up pretty exactly with the novel) is delightfully unashamed about her sexual escapades, both good and disappointing, and it was refreshing to witness a female character so obsessed with herself and convinced she was interesting (although she wasn’t always). It’s the kind of gutsiness needed to ignore critics and finish things. On the other hand, there was a bit too much about her family, and the change in tone too drastic, or clumsily handled at times (e.g., veering from defining the “zipless fuck” to reckoning with being in Germany as a Jew not so long after the Holocaust).


23. Marx – Corinne Maier (author) and Anne Simon (illustrator) (Norrow, 2014)

A slim, graphic novel biography of Karl Marx, for a YA audience (which I didn’t realize when I bought it). The illustrations are fun and witty, the text focused more on Marx’s life than his ideas and their effect on the world, which would have been more interesting, but admittedly that’s a tall order. I didn’t come away with any great insights, though I did learn that Marx was kicked out of a couple of countries.


24. The Vegetarian by Han Kang, trans. Deborah Smith (Portobello Books, 2016)

A novella in three parts, translated from Korean, 2016 Booker prize winner. Eerie and unsettling. My favorite part was the description of the art painted on the protagonist’s body – a vivid depiction of flowers and plants painted on a human form and transformed via video – I could see it. That section also raised questions about boundaries in art. Ultimately, though, I didn’t think the author thread the needle between the three sections, and it rather fell off at the end, not in a way that was experimental, but (it seemed to me) because of the absence of a better resolution.

Side note, of interest in terms of literary translation: Controversy followed the Booker win, as the English version was found to be stylistically vastly different from the original Korean: http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-ca-jc-korean-translation-20170922-story.html


25. Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood (Hogarth, 2016)

I’m surprised to see Atwood at the bottom of my list (The Handmaid’s Tale is a favorite), but this novel was all too tidy – there was no twist in the plotting. I can see it being useful for teaching The Tempest in a high school setting, and maybe this is the intention, as it’s part of a commissioned series of re-telling of Shakespeare plays. While the revenge set-up using a prison drama program as the setting is intriguing, and Atwood’s ideas for characterization and staging the play were marvelous, the second half didn’t live up to the first, just too pat.

2016 Books, Part 1

I read the fewest number of books this year since I began recording my reading in 2011, another thing to blame on The Election. I consumed massive quantities of news articles, think pieces, petitions, and rants. I also subscribed to the New Yorker again, an unexpected reaction to living abroad (it’s more charming when you don’t live in New York). 

Anyhow, this is the bottom of the list of my year in reading. Ranked in terms of how they affected me – images left, insights sparked, language bedazzlement renewed…

13. The Underground Railroad (2016) – Colson Whitehead


Unpopular opinion ahead, as this was one of the most celebrated novels of the year: I would have preferred to read about this subject of the novel in non-fiction form. Whitehead is passionate and eloquent on his theme, which is so explicitly slavery in a historical context, rather than the fictional characters he creates. His interest is in the way attitudes towards slavery and treatment of African Americans shifted by state, based on the laws, economy and historic moment. The main character has a too-contemporary attitude and ability to synthesize that feels beyond her moment in time. Uneducated and illiterate (until she teaches herself to read), she’s relentlessly atheist, and is able to extrapolate views on complex issues like the need for solidarity with native peoples, the reproductive rights of mentally ill slaves, and the horrors of the middle passage. While I took in the points, I wasn’t convinced it was the character who thought them. Similarly, manifesting the underground railroad as a physical rather than the real metaphor it was in history casts doubt on any real details he includes. (A novel like Beloved, on the other hand, is character-based, delving into the psychology of having a child while enslaved, and is effective in that sense. The clearly fictional aspects, like the magical realist touches (ghost baby), enhance the understanding of the people that Morrison creates, rather than casting doubt on the historical reality of slavery.)

Origin: Purchased new at Utrecht bookstore after unanimous Toastie book club vote.

14. The Circle (2014) – Dave Eggers


It captures the relentless cheeriness and blind optimism of the tech industry, blithely ignoring the sinister implications of inventions like tiny cameras, constant connectivity, and the destruction of privacy. I liked best the inclusion of the main character’s private moments kayaking alone, a more subtle nod to the way such moments are becoming more and more scarce. Also the descriptions of online activity – the constant need to react to the primitive emotional needs of a virtual audience. As a piece of fiction, it lost me in the last third, with heavy-handed metaphors (the Mariana Trench animals), the sudden escalation of the plot (Annie character), and the obliviousness of the protagonist (part of the point, but her stupidity was frustrating).

Origin: Gift from bookworm friend Shannon.

15. Unsuitable for Ladies: An Anthology of Women Travellers – Selected by Jane Robinson (1994)


An anthology of travel accounts by women, across centuries and countries. The excerpts include accounts from a Mormon missionary in Switzerland, an ambassador’s wife in Turkey, pilgrimages to the Holy Land, rich ladies on the Grand Tour (in Italy). It’s organized by continent, very fat, and the excerpts usually quite short, so it’s only a taste of each writer. In a search for comprehensiveness, the distinctive voices are lost. Though there are some fascinating journeys, you leave them too soon and you’re not tempted to read the whole book (I didn’t). 

Origin: Random purchase at a used bookstore in Gent.

16. The Talented Mr Ripley (1955) – Patricia Highsmith


I saw the film first and it rather tainted my reading of this book. The characters and their relationships were more fully developed in the film; the sexual tension between the two men runs higher and the girlfriend (played by Gwyneth) smarter and more volatile. The film is also so scenic and lush, a European fantasy, while the book is more internal, a tour inside the mind of a cold-blooded murderer, in a thriller sort of way. I wasn’t particularly inspired to read the rest of the series.

Origin: Boekenzolder, the free book warehouse in Leiden, picked up by Dan as we as we had just watched the film.

17. PornoBurka (2013) (en español) – Brigitte Vasallo


Read as part of my search for a novel I won’t be able to resist translating into English. It looked promising as it takes on very-now issues like the gentrification of cities (in this case in Barcelona), and their citizens reckoning with a new age of multiculturalism and clash of cultures. But in this novel, the parody goes so far that it’s not sure what it’s parodying anymore, or maybe what the point of the parody is. Every group and character becomes a target, to the point of being offensive (feminists, gay men, etc.), though I think the intention is the opposite. The absurdity is stretched so far it doesn’t hold together at the end.

Origin: Fantastic big bookstore in Barcelona

18. Fates and Furies (2015) – Lauren Groff

This was listed as Obama’s favorite book of 2015, possible proof the government lies. Otherwise I would say I don’t trust Obama’s taste in fiction. Although a lot of people liked this book. I did not. The protagonists are rich and beautiful and irresistible to all mortals. It features not one but two private detectives, a stolen painting, a secret abortion AND a secret baby, etc. while purporting to offer insights about marriage amid references to Greek tragedy. Writing that consciously tries to be interesting via curious metaphors (e.g. her armpit hair was like a baby bird’s nest), amid what is ultimately a schlocky plot.

Origin: Toastie book club selection, purchased at ABC Books in The Hague.

Books in Progress

Not abandoned! In progress!

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome – Mary Beard

230 out of 536 pages. I shouldn’t have put this down, should have kept plowing through while I had momentum. A nice balance between scholarly and secular. I was enjoying it for the way it raised questions about Ancient Rome rather than providing pat answers. I will finish it!

Origin: Impulse buy at Heathrow airport bookstore following a flight delay. Had been eyeing it for some time at various bookstores.

A History of the Lowlands

Another history book. But this one soooo dry. But with good tidbits if you’re paying attention. Therefore: not abandoned yet.

Clases de Literatura – Julio Cortázar

Again, I was enjoying it but put it down and became distracted with something else. A transcript of a lecture series Cortázar gave at Berkeley, with insights into his stories, development as a writer, influences, etc.

Books Abandoned

Don’t Let Me Be Lonely – Claudia Rankine

I love Rankine’s genre defiance, her use of images, her rawness. However, this was the second time I abandoned this book out of a fear of being launched into a depression.

The 2013 Book List, Part I

Better late than never, my round-up of 2013 reading. I read 21 books, here are Nos. 15-21 (plus scattered other reading and 4 abandoned books), ranked in order of 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 made me feel something, or all of the above.



15. LIT: A Memoir (2009) – Mary Karr

Absorbing account of her trajectory as a writer and recovery from alcoholism. Tough & funny. Maybe too coy about her friendships with literary heavyweights (for example, she had a relationship with David Foster Wallace, but only ever refers to him as David & glosses quickly over the affair), though it must be hard to decide what to include if you’re writing about your whole life. An unflinching account of her spiritual/religious development, a touchy subject if there ever was one.


16. Bluets (2009) – Maggie Nelson

This is labelled a memoir, but is its own made-up genre of numbered sections, which made this compulsively readable and added to the detached, cold quality. I liked how it was philosophical and wandering. A person dissecting her own pain. But maybe, ultimately, the coldness is what kept me from loving it? We get the sex with the beloved, the depression following the loss of the beloved, lots of blue, but never the beloved himself – why he was beloved. I also was averse to the voice’s awareness of the book itself, didn’t seem necessary (i.e., “I had all of these scraps I’ve been working on, I ordered them randomly, here they are”).


17. Self Help (1985) – Lorrie Moore

Lorrie Moore’s first story collection, not really fair to judge it against her later collections (all of which I read before this) because she just gets better. “What Is Seized” was my favorite in this collection. Didn’t like “A Kid’s Guide to Divorce”, & I couldn’t read the one about the woman with breast cancer, because the first paragraph made my heart stop.


18. Anywhere But Here (1992) – Mona Simpson 

Novel. This seemed to me a keen portrait of mother-daughter emotional abuse, though I didn’t see that addressed in any of the reviews I read. It was raw & disturbing in that sense.


19. Diary of a Teenage Girl (2002) – Phoebe Gloeckner

Graphic novel. Intense, intimate, difficult. Especially enjoyed the dark view of San Francisco in the 1970s, when the 60s grooviness gave way to something more frivolous and destructive.


20. Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women – Nora Ephron (1975)

Essay collection. More involved in the specifics of 1970s politics and perspectives than I had hoped, though her view of Gloria Steinem, the women’s movement as it was happening was pretty fascinating.


21. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1980) – Milan Kundera 

Crankypants Kundera in full force here, particularly the second half, in which he performs a Lars von Trier-esque extended torture of his heroine. I wouldn’t call it magical realism…. Though I did enjoy the scene among the Russian poets. Good quote here.


Short stories, but not entire books by Grace Paley and Clarice Lispector

Susan Sontag essays from Against Interpretation


Didn’t read much poetry this year, a bit of an exile year. I don’t count these as “books read” as I dipped in and out of volumes of: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Rilke, Adrienne Rich, Sandra Simonds’ Warsaw Bikini, and David Lehman’s New and Selected.


The Idiot (1869) – Dostoevsky 

I spent two months reading this novel and made it over halfway through. I will return to it!! Need more uninterrupted time.

No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood (2013)

The writers are mostly comedians, so a lot of the essays started sounding the same. I read maybe half of them.

Black Paths (2013) – David B.

Just couldn’t get into this graphic novel, even though I bought a beautiful full-color hardback edition. Oh well.

Heroines (2012) – Kate Zambreno 

In theory, I’m the ideal reader of this book, which is, ostensibly, about the women of modernism, in particular those relegated to the wifey role (Zelda Fitzgerald, Viv Eliot) or struggling with mental illness (Virginia Woolf). But I couldn’t stand the humorless narcissism of the narrator and her conflating of her 21st-century life with those trapped in much more narrow historical circumstances. Muddled arguments and muddled thinking under cover of l’écriture féminine. I actually returned this to the bookstore, which I don’t think I’ve ever done.