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 2013 Book List, Part III

The stirring conclusion to my 2013 round-up.  I read 21 books, here are Nos. 1-7 ranked 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.



1. Speedboat (1976) – Renata Adler (NYRB Classics, 2013 reprint edition. Purchased at Spoonbill & Sugartown. On the Permanent Keeper shelf, signed by R. Adler.)

New York in the 1970s, a peek into the insomniac consciousness of a journalist, a woman. Fragmented into perfect paragraphs. Paranoia, travels, anecdotes, affairs, drinking, childhood, politics, seen through sharp eyes and vulnerable soul. Brilliant.


2. How Should a Person Be? (2012) – Sheila Heti (Picador, 2013 reprint edition. Purchased at a bookstore. Loaned to a friend.)

Ballsy. I admired Heti’s lack of fear in writing about art & wanting to make art, about sex, about obsession, about being petty, even. Very funny, sometimes. Sometimes annoying, when it aimed for grandiosity, but it annoyed me in the ways I annoy myself. It had the feeling of a graphic novel, maybe because so much of it was written in dialogue.


3. Just Kids (2010) – Patti Smith (Ecco. Purchased at a bookstore. On the Permanent Keeper shelf.)

Second time I read this. A comforting book for the winter. She makes me want to draw, write, make collages, dream, with unabashed enthusiasm. A gentle book, gentle handling of Mapplethorpe’s hustling, episodes of lice, freezing winters, getting jeered on stage, etc., seen through the burnish of nostalgia. She recognizes this aspect, though, that the book is an act of love and therefore gentle about the difficult times. This time around, I noticed many more allusions to rock lyrics hidden in her text, and I admired the writing style – spare & elegant.


4. Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking (2001)  – David Bayles and Ted Orland (Image Continuum Press. Passed on to me by a friend, who found it in a book box on the street in Brooklyn. In the art book shelf.)

A second read. Like a voice of common sense in your head, a good talk with a friend: focus on the process, not the final criticism or adulation, keep making stuff, if that’s what makes you tick.


5. A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome: Daily Life, Mysteries and Curiosities (2009) – Alberto Angela, trans. Gregory Conti (Europa Editions.  Purchased at B&N, USQ. Kept on the “will possibly re-read or loan to someone” shelf.)

The author worked in documentary TV, and the book gives this feeling, in a good way. Cinematic in its descriptions, a friendly narrative voice takes you on a tour of Ancient Rome from dawn until midnight, taking you through the homes of people of various social classes, the markets, the Senate, the Coliseum, the communal bathrooms… A social history I’ve always wanted to read: instead of focusing on battles and emperors, it brings the daily details of existence to life. A charming translation that retains the feel of Italian.


6. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006) – Michael Pollan 

Wow was this book good. A lasting contribution. It felt so fresh, even 7 years after its initial publication and all of the hype surrounding it. I like that he went beyond taking an activist, awareness-raising perspective regarding American production, consumption and attitudes towards food (although there are shades of this) and assumed a bigger point view, which includes human evolution, philosophy, ethics and his own personal perspective, which was so open and touching. 


7. Tender Is the Night (1934) – F. Scott Fitzgerald 

Glamorous, escapist stuff… The French Riviera, Switzerland, Paris. A golden couple with a secret.  Americans must have been so obnoxious, actually, taking over struggling post-WWI France. It was the first time I thought this reading Fitzgerald. Laughed at his digs at the British, they are always duds in this book.

The 2013 Book List, Part II

Better late than never, my round-up of 2013 reading. I read 21 books. Here are Nos. 8-14, ranked in order of my 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.



8. 2500 Random Things About Me Too (2012) – Mathias Viegener (Les Figues Press. Purchased as a result of submitting work to this press, via their website. Kept in the poetry shelf.)

I think this was born out of Viegener’s commitment to a conceptual art aesthetic: find out what will happen via repetition; the most important part is the commitment to that repetition. I’m often skeptical of the products of conceptual art (which only make you think about the process), but the repetition works in this case. This is a book based on that Facebook meme from 2011 or so, where people posted 25 random things about themselves. Viegener wrote 100 of those lists. 

There is something so compelling about a list (as the Internet has proven). Because there is a clear beginning and ending? Because the whole comes in digestible parts? Because it gives us a mini-puzzle to order (put together the things that look alike, separate the things that are not like the others)?

But Viegener is not just working randomly, he even admits to this in some of the later lists… The lists become a slow revelation of his life, with the death of his mother and his friend, the writer Kathy Acker, as the emotional threads. He sprinkles it liberally with funny and lurid stories about sexual encounters, conclusions and questions about art, his fascination with plants and fruit…

It would be interesting to write an essay comparing it to Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, which is similar in form and substance in some ways. I enjoyed this book so much more, maybe because he has a more generous sense of humor… Great bedtime reading – read a list & turn the light off.


9. Blood, Bones and Butter (2011) – Gabrielle Hamilton (Random House. Purchased at B&N, USQ. Passed on to a friend.)

I enjoyed Hamilton’s voice: tough, honest about her own vulnerabilities and failings, sometimes sarcastic, not afraid to be a bitch. I liked being in her head. Particularly appreciated her account of her complicated relationship with her mother. Gorgeous descriptions of cooking and of food (to be expected in a celebrated chef’s memoir), rekindles the romance of Italy. 


10. Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life (2011) – Lisa Chaney (Purchased at Posman Books, Grand Central. On the “will possibly re-read or loan to someone” shelf.)

I liked this book best for the historical and cultural context it provides on Chanel’s life. Most fascinating was the description of the socially codified role of courtesans in France as well as prostitution generally, all the way down to the shop girl or seamstress who would occasionally have sex for money to make ends meet. 

The view of Chanel is an external one. It’s hard to get a sense of her personality, her relations with the people closest to her, though, admittedly she sounds like a difficult subject as she didn’t like to write (allegedly because was embarrassed by her writing style and lack of formal education), and because she told so many different versions of her life, herself.

Chaney devotes a bit too much time to defending the ways her positions and opinions about her subject diverge from other biographies, as if the reader had some knowledge of them all. She is also perhaps sympathetic to a fault with Chanel, including her Nazi sympathies, though I prefer this to a biographer who is judgmental of his/her subject.


11. Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (2007) – Janet Malcolm (Purchased at St. Mark’s Bookstore. On the keeper shelf.)

Reading this is like sitting down and having a long talk with a really smart and entertaining literature professor about her research. More thoughts on this book here.


12. Pitch Dark (1983) – Renata Adler 

Reissued by NYRB books in 2013. A slow read about heartbreak. Wordplay is at its core. Certain sentences weave throughout like a variations on a melancholy melody . I saw Adler read and she said this was her favorite of her books. That’s why I wanted to like this better than Speedboat, but its scope is narrower.


13. Wild (2013) – Cheryl Strayed

What remains of the academic snob in me wants to take an academic snob position on this memoir, but the truth is that it made me cry twice on a long plane ride across the country, and it’s not often a book makes me more than tear up,. “Honest” seems to be my favorite word to commend books I read in 2013; that’s especially the case here. Refreshing to read a Great Adventure sort of story from a female perspective.


14. The Voyeurs (2012) – Gabrielle Bell 

Comics. Honest and depressing memoir-like graphic novellas. I liked the art.

Birthdays :( Part II

More funny pathos, on the birthday song, a passage from Speedboat by Renata Adler.

What everyone dreaded was the birthday song. Anthems are sung in crowded halls. You can stand and mouthe. Carolers and singers from the Fireside Book are volunteers. You can stand and smile at them, or go away. But when the birthday song is imminent, the group is small. There is the possibility that everyone will mouthe. Someone begins firmly, quavers. Others chime in with a note or two, then look encouragingly, reprovingly, at the mouthing rest. The mouthers release a note or two. The reprovers lapse. The thing comes to a ragged, desperate end. If the birthday person’s name is Andrew or Doris, the syllables at least come out. Otherwise, you can get Dear Ma-ahrk, or Dear Bar-barasoo-ooh, or a complete parting of the ways–some singing Herbert, some Her-erb, some Herbie, and, if the generations and formalities are mixed enough, Herbert Francis, Uncle Herbles, and Mr. Di Santo Stefano. The song is just so awful, anyway. I cannot imagine, though, from what the double shyness about singing, about being seen not to sing derives. There seems to be no early trauma that would account for it. Someone may accuse a small child of being unable to carry a tune, although I’ve never heard of this; but surely no one then insists that the poor child be seen to mouthe. Then, then, just when the song has faltered to its abysmal close, the birthday person inhales somewhere near the candles of that hideous pastel cake, inhales, perhaps singes his mustache or gets frosting on his tie, gets wax on the cake or, if it is a she, into her hair, sprays everything with the exhaling breath. Applause. But it may well be that having no respect for occasions means having no respect for the moment after all.


We may win this year. We may lose it all. It is not going as well as we thought. Posterity, anyway, does not know everything. The simplest operations of life–voting in a booth, filling out returns, remembering whether or not one has just taken a pill–are very difficult. Jim leads an exemplary life, and I can’t cook. As is clear from the parking regulations, however, there are situations in which you are not entitled to stop.

Renata Adler, Speedboat (1976)

This woman can write paragraphs like no other.