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 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.

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, #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.

The world loved the delusion more than it loved the mother

Now that we were mothers we were all shadows of our former selves, chased by the women we used to be before we had children. we didn’t really know what to do with her, this fierce, independent young woman who followed us about, shouting and pointing the finger while we wheeled our buggies in the English rain…

Mother was The Woman the whole world had imagined to death. It proved very hard to re-negotiate the world’s nostalgic phantasy about our purpose in life. The trouble was that we too had all sorts of wild imaginings about what Mother should “be” and were cursed with the desire to not be disappointing. We did not yet entirely understand that Mother, as imagined and politicised by the societal system, was a delusion. The world loved the delusion more than it loved the mother. All the same, we felt guilty about unveiling this delusion in case the niche we had made for ourselves and our much-loved children collapsed in ruins around our muddy trainers – which were probably sewn together by child slaves in sweatshops all over the globe. It was mysterious because it seemed to me that the male world and its political arrangements (never in favour of children and women) was actually jealous of the passion we felt for our babies. Like everything that involves love, our children made us happy beyond measure –and unhappy too– but never as miserable as the twenty-first century Neo-Patriarchy made us feel. It required us to be passive but ambitious, maternal but erotically energetic, self-sacrificing but fulfilled – we were to be Strong Modern Women whilst being subjected to all kinds of humiliations, both economic and domestic. If we felt guilty about everything most of the time, we were not sure what it was we had actually done wrong.

Deborah Levy, from Things I Don’t Want to Know

Long answer to “you’re a writer, aren’t you?”

When a female writer walks a female character into the centre of her literary enquiry (or a forest) and this character starts to project shadow and light all over the place, she will have to find a language that is in part to do with learning how to become a subject rather than a delusion, and in part to do with unknotting the ways in which she has been put together by the societal system in the first place. She will have to be canny how she sets about doing this because she will have many delusions of her own. In fact it would be best fi she was uncanny when she sets about doing this. It’s exhausting to learn how to become a subject, it’s hard enough learning how to become a writer.

the brilliant Deborah Levy, from Things I Don’t Want to Know