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…

The 2014 Book List, Part III

The stirring conclusion to my 2014 reading… 

In 2014, I read 20 fiction & non-fiction books. Here are numbers 1-8 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.

A couple of asides:

– I’m a little chagrined that my 2014 Didion obsession coincided with this Didion-cultural-moment thing that culminated recently (the Céline ad, the consequent think pieces in The Awl, The Atlantic, another strange one in The LA Review of Books). (Oh jesus, I just spotted another one in The Cut I haven’t read.) It felt personal and intense (as writerly obsessions tend to feel), for reasons that had to with the writing itself rather than whatever Didion the person happens to signify (contrary to what The Awl essay seems to suggest). (I avoided, for example, A Book of Common Prayer, as I, as a Latin American, wanted to avoid a white-lady-abroad account of a made up Latin American country.)

– I’m wondering if the dominance of the big novel is finally fading? Not just with me, but generally, out there? Perhaps our time requires a different genre? Didion is one of many writers that I have found most compelling, exciting, masterful, needed now, whose best work is not the big novel. Others include: Grace Paley, Alice Munro, (short stories); Sontag (essays); Renata Adler (experimental novels, I guess); Anais Nin, Violette Leduc, Sheila Heti, Mathias Viegener, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Eileen Myles (hybrid journal, autobiography, memoir type stuff)…

Anyway, the list:

 1. Madness, Rack and Honey  (Wave Books, 2013) – Mary Ruefle


A compendium of her wise and brilliant lectures, primarily for readers and writers of poetry. Ruefle is so funny if you’re paying attention, like someone with a quiet voice who is acerbic and witty, but overshadowed by the loudmouths in the room. I especially loved the essays, “My Emily Dickinson,” “On Beginnings,” “Poetry and the Moon,” and the title essay.

 2. The White Album (1979) – Joan Didion


Slouching Towards Bethlehem is maybe overall a stronger collection, but “The White Album” is an essay I couldn’t recover from. I read it at least three times. The form resembles the message. Disparate pieces, fragments, including her own anxiety and paranoia, create the unsettling picture of 1968-1969. 

3. My Struggle (Vol 1) (2012 in US, 2009 in Norway) – Karl Ove Knausgaard


There has been a lot of focus on how the tediousness of the everyday functions in Knausgaard’s project, but I think the books would be better off without that element. For example, this volume became truly powerful and moving in the last third, when he has to deal with the death of his father (not a spoiler), both the physical and spiritual details of it. That is, when something actually happens. The details, however exhaustive, serve a function. The father has been a long shadow from the first image in the book, a truly artful structure. I felt it viscerally and closed the book permeated with the experience.

But it could do without the 70-page account of buying beer and having a lame New Year’s Eve when he was 15… I also love his philosophical meanderings, thoughts on modern life, which are also not part of the tediousness. I’d like to see them as stand-alone essays (for example, the digression about the mystery of visual art, why a particular painting might move you, or another about 17th-century vs. 21st-century consciousness).

4. My Life in France (2006)  – Julia Child & Alex Prud’homme


This book is an argument for making the bold move. Julia Child didn’t start cooking seriously until she and her husband moved to Paris when she was in her late 30s (still “very young” as she charmingly puts it). They had had adventures in China and Sri Lanka, both working for the State department. They later lived in Marseilles, Germany, Norway, and found elements to love in all of those places .Her voice in this book is enthusiastic, but also no-nonsense, crisply descriptive. It makes you want to love life, live your life, love your partner. 

5. The Year of Magical Thinking (2005)  – Joan Didion


I was afraid of this book, as if coming closer to the stroke of tragedy running through it would open the door to tragedy; funny, this is the sort of “magical thinking” she’s examining. I liked this best as a portrait of a solid marriage. Happiness is described through detail, without commentary.

6. Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) – Joan Didion


 My favorite pieces were the “personals” – “On Keeping a Notebook,” “On Self-Respect,” “On Going Home.” “Goodbye to All That” is unforgettable. I found the title essay sort of pearl-clutching. I realize her point was to bring a different, sobering take on the Haight-Ashbury scene, but the lens was too small, or too filtered through her own darkness, perhaps?

7. The Group (1963) – Mary McCarthy 


This struck me as a brave act in its time, so frank and unapologetic about women’s perspectives on sex, sexuality, social classes, work, power relations with men. It’s also expansive, in contrast with the compression favored by a lot women writers. It becomes an implied declaration that it’s all worth writing about, expansively, that such matters should indeed take up some room. Vivid, carefully drawn characters. A different take on New York in the 1930s – these characters inhabit the rich stratosphere above the Great Depression. 

8. Play It As It Lays (1970) – Joan Didion


Not a word out of place, and it could not be more bleak. I love this length for a novel (about 150 pages); Didion has said she prefers novels that can be read in a single sitting.