2021: February reads 16-28th

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Lengthy as it was, I’d have been happy for this to be twice as long. Highly recommend the audiobook version read by Ben Myles.

This, along with the superb TV series The Bureau on AMC+ got me through my 2 least loved weeks of the year, the latter part of February.

What the story of Thomas Cromwell in the Tudor court and of Guillaime Debailly in the French national intelligence service have in common–spies are everywhere, trust no one, and just when you think you’re home and dry …

I love spy stories. There’s some great ones as TV series: Berlin Station, Deutschland 83, Spooks, Killing Eve. I’ve read all the John Le Carres, and a couple of Mick Herron’s Slow Horses books, but the spy genre in book form is less compelling to me. I like to see the exotic or squalid setting and watch a skilled actor playing false, being two or more people at once.

I got my first Covid 19 vaccine on Feb 26, and will have my next one in 3 weeks’ time. Suddenly the prospect of spring in New York City looms up: I’m thinking of spa pedicures, and yearning to visit the Frick Breuer, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, and going thrifting.

2021: February reads 1-15th

The Bear by Marian Engel.

Again I have to thank my Twitter pal Dorian Stuber for alerting me to the existence of this Canadian classic from the 1970s. A short gem of a novel about Lou, a woman archivist who spends a summer in a remote 19th century home library that’s been left to her institute. The library is in an architecturally historic house, which, among it’s other features, has a pet bear chained up in the backyard. Besides cataloguing the library’s contents, the archivist is tasked with feeding the bear. This is a novel about nature — the remote northern Canadian lakes and mountains, the progress of the spring and summer seasons; about folklore; about the encounter between indigenous and settler culture; and the profound changes that the heroine undergoes as she discovers the secrets within the house, and within herself. No spoilers about the unnamed bear, but whatever you’re thinking is probably right.

The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper

Another book brought to my attention by the superb and all-necessary Backlisted Podcast. A fantasy, in the CS Lewis tradition–I can’t name it’s other antecedents and blood relatives as I’ve read very little fantasy at all. The elements: an 11 year old boy hero in the eternal fight between good and evil, also time-travel, Christian symbolism, betrayal, heavy weather, England in all its mystical magical medievalness, etc. I listened to the audio read by the actor Alex Jennings, well suited to the material. There are a bunch of sequels, but I’ll pass.

Devils by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Having listened over and over to the audiobook of this translation in the last couple years, just finished rereading the print edition. I doubt this will more than briefly pause my obsession with this, the most MOST of Dostoevsky’s novels. Translation by Michael R Katz that really gets the boffo humor throughout, and the audio is excellently read by George Guidell.

The Dark is Rising by Susan CooperThe

2021: January reads 17-31st

Oh God, I need to say something about these books, but my brain is incapable. It’s amazing I can read lately. OK, these were all outstanding.

Dreaming The Beatles by Rob Sheffield

Genesis: Memory of Fire, Volume 1 by Eduardo Galeano

What Happens at Night by Peter Cameron

The Dark Circle by Linda Grant

The Best American Short Stories 2020,

Curtis Sittinfeld, ed.

The stories by Ferrell and Wilson were the real knockouts, but an above-average selection over all.

Alma Cogan by Gordon Burn

Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life

by Diarmaid MacCulloch

2021: January reads 1-16th

What I read or listened to in the first half of January.

The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt.

Went into this knowing nothing except that it had a sort of cult status. Read the first half kicking and screaming, in no mood for child geniuses, people of extraordinary erudition, etc. Left to my own devices, I’d have put it down and never picked it up again, but a couple of pals on BookTwitter kind of passively nudged me into staying with it in an eat-your-vegetables spirit. The second half of the book, to my astonishment, was very exciting, both in terms of readability, ie, vivid writing, and the ideas. The set-up that made me so impatient was completely necessary.

Box Hill by Adam Mars-Jones.

A short novel about the beginning, middle, and end of a dom/sub relationship between two men in London in the 1970s. Everything about this was absorbing and unusual. Though brief, its packed with physical and emotional detail of great specificity–about one-piece motorcycle leathers, about negotiating relationship roles, and about the shock, sadness and long aftermath of a relationship that while going on was “discreet” but when finished is a secret the survivor has no way to share with anyone else.

Dread Journey by Dorothy B Hughes

Fast-moving thriller by the author of In A Lonely Place. A movie producer, some stars and various satellites take the Chief from LA towards Chicago in 1945; along the way, a power struggle plays out in the narrow corridors and cramped salons of the first-class carriage. Written in a kind of heightened language that kept raising my eyebrows even as I approved of it. One of those noirs were there’s nobody you’re really rooting for, and anyone can die.

Henry James: A Reader’s Guide by S Gorley Putt

I love Henry James. I love him early, middle, late, I love him great, good, and bad. I just love him. So does Mr S Gorley Putt, a critic who, in the mid-1960s, wrote this book-length examination of HJ’s novels, nouvelles and stories with a great deal of sympathy, humor, and insight. He both colludes and boxes a bit with the other big HJ critics; he’s no sycophant, but he discusses each work in a way that makes you want to read it yet again.

Dreaming The Beatles by Rob Sheffield

I also love The Beatles, whom I was introduced to, along with the rest of the United States, in 1964 when I was 2 and a half years old and my father brought their first album home and put it into my little hands. Of late decades I’ve taken The Beatles for granted and not thought about or listened to them much; yet their image and music remained ingrained in my consciousness. I picked up Rob Sheffield’s book–the subtitle shows what makes it unique–The Love Story of One Band And The Whole World–after hearing him have a long talk with another music critic on a podcast and admiring his outlook. This book brought me back to the heart of the Beatles’ enduring charm and uniqueness, to all the ways in which I had experienced them in my life, made me re-listen to them in a fresh way, and best of all, made me happy.

Imperial Twilight by Stephen R Platt

The Opium War between Britain and China is one of those historical things I would imagine I had a general idea about, only to learn that the general idea is wrong. (I already knew, before picking up this audiobook, that the war was not, as many think, about China trying to force opium upon the English, as many people seem to believe, but the other way around.) This history examines the entire trading relationship between China and Britain, which began in the 1600s, and along with discussing why and how it was so important to British merchants to hook the Chinese on opium, has a great deal to say about tea, diplomacy, cultural misunderstandings, imperialism, and why, though the story finishes in the 1840s, things in the world now are the way they are.

Books in 2020

Reading is (a huge part of) my life. My choices are always spontaneous, and always include new books, old books, and revisits to books I’ve read before.  More and more in recent years I’ve loved audiobooks, initially as a way to reread old favorites in a fresh way, then as a way to read books such as long histories  that in printed form would end up sliding away from me. My intention at the start of the year, before the epidemic was thought of, was, amidst whatever else appealed to me, to tackle Proust.

Strong influences on my books choices in 2020 were: A) The Backlisted Podcast, and B) Book Twitter. At any event, the part of book twitter that I found mainly through following the Backlisted people and then following the people they follow, etc. I’m very susceptible to the enthusiasm of friendly enthusiasts. (That said, DO NOT bother trying to recruit me, Scientology.)

In 2020 between reading and listening, I read 105 books, which for me, may be a record, but doesn’t feel like much of one given how high and dry I was all year. I completed 87 books in ’19, and 91 in ’18. About 20% of the 2020 books were rereads.  (I almost always finish books I begin, because I tend to reject a book very quickly; if I read more than 50 pages, I’m going to see it through even if I’m not in love with it.)

Looking over my list to pull out the things that I liked most, I’m struck by the sense, unique to this year, that a lot of stuff just rolled through me; I read these terrific books, one after the other, and at the same time I was emotionally kind of flat. I’m sure NO ONE ELSE knows what I’m talking about, so let’s leave that there.

A few fiction standouts in 2020:

  • Proust—I read volumes 1, 2 and 3 (Swann’s Way, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, The Guermantes Way). When the lockdown began, I’d just started Vol 2, and I put it down for a few months, because though my life didn’t change very much, especially compared to a lot of other people, my emotional tenor did, and there was a while when it felt like what had been going on had to stop and other things take their place. Anyway I was delighted with Proust, whom I’d tried a few times before but felt now, in my late fifties, I was really ready for, in terms of the patience I could bring to reading him, my ability to appreciate rather than endure, and all the training I’d had from repeat readings of Henry James to deal with huge paragraphs, digressions, insanely long sonorous sentences, and so on. Sometimes I found myself feeling sorry for the narrator for how obsessed he was with people who really weren’t … uh, very worthwhile. (Joke)
  • High Wind In Jamaica by Robert Hughes. I’m not sure what prompted me to read this; I’d read one of Hughes’ other novels a year ago, and I had this one, but it must’ve been something said on a podcast or writer interview that made it suddenly needful to grab it. An English child and her siblings are sent by their parents from Jamaica towards England for boarding school in the late 1800s; along the way they are, by misadventure, transferred onto a pirate ship, where they spend many months in the custody of the rather hapless pirates who aren’t having a splendid time of it. Our little girl, who has a large sensibility and ability to accept circumstances, experiences it all with curiosity and an admirable lack of concern for how her parents’ plans have been overturned: through her eyes the extraordinary things that happen before the return to civilization are never extraordinary in the way the staid adult reader believes them to be. (Though there are strong hints that her older sister, who doesn’t enjoy the immunity of pre-adolescence, is having a much darker shipboard experience.)
  • I was reminded that Katharine Anne Porter’s story about the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic was timely again, and so good was “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” that it led me to read her entire collected stories. Her profile should be higher. Marvelous writer.
  • The Judges of the Secret Court: A Novel About John Wilkes Booth by David Stacton. What it says on the tin. The lead-up to the Lincoln assassination from the point of view of, among others, Booth’s older brother, a noted stage actor whose difficult career wasn’t made any easier by his kid brother being a white supremacist terrorist.
  • Summer in Baden-Baden by Leonid Tsypkin, which is a novel about Dostoyevsky. After initially finding Dostoyevsky baffling and off-putting in my young adulthood, I’ve come to revere and spend a lot of time with him, with accompanying interest in his life as well as the work. This small novel written by another D enthusiast, is a little gem of the sui generis variety, using the occasion of D’s travels to the gambling spa with his second wife, and their other adventures abroad, to both tell his story and invoke, very powerfully, the mood of his writings and what it feels like to read him. (Honorable mention to JM Coetzee’s novel, The Master of Petersburg, which I also read this year, another fictional take on the Great D, not so rich and strange, for me, anyway.)

Other novels that I read which I won’t elucidate but would push into your hands if your hands were here to be pushed into:

The New House, by Lettice Cooper, Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy, A Pin To See the Peepshow by J Tennyson Jesse, A Wreath for the Enemy by Pamela Frankau. The latter are all green Virago Modern Classics, which I collect, shelve for years and years, and then occasionally rediscover and read. One Last look by Susannah Moore; The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing (Thanks to Dorian Stuber for that tip); Days Without End and its sequel, A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry; Disappearing Earth by Julia Philips

Authors I reread this year include: Lore Segal, Shirley Ann Jackson, Colette, Carson McCullers, Henry James, JD Salinger (entirely due to Backlisted’s sudden craze for, and I was glad to be prodded back to a writer whom I’d thought myself entirely done with 25 years ago),

Novels I read that everybody seemed to adore but which I did not: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, and Leonard and Hungry Paul, by Rónán Hession. Not telling you not to read these. Just if you did and also didn’t like them, come sit by me.

A few nonfiction standouts:

  1. Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of An American Family by Richard Kolker, in which an American family of some 10 children has 5 of them succumb to galloping schizophrenia.
  2. Time Song: Journeys in Search of a Submerged Land by Julia Blackburn; in which the author explores the old Doggerland, or Heligoland, which is the part of England now submerged beneath the North Sea.
  3. American Oligarchs: The Kushners, the Trumps and the Marriage of Money and Power by Andrea Bernstein, a reporter for WNYC radio whose extraordinary work I’ve followed by 2 decades.
  4. Lakota America by Pekka Hämäläinen,  a history that positions the Native Americans as a powerful pre-existing nation dealing with global politics, and an influx of aggressive white settlers.

The Google spreadsheet of all 105 of my 2020 reads (and all my annual reads for the last 11 years) is available here: https://bit.ly/3njPjah

#6Degrees: Sanditon

Inspired by this meme.

Sanditon, set at an eponymous beach resort, was Jane Austen’s final unfinished manuscript.

Henry James’ final unfinished novel The Ivory Tower (abandoned in 1914 at the outbreak of war) also opens at a seaside resort, Newport, Rhode Island and concerns the moral hazard of big new American money.

Working class people also inhabit beach resort towns, as in Alice McDermott’s Child Of My Heart, in which a girl’s coming of age includes babysitting for a family in a nearby seaside mansion.

Babysitting gone horribly wrong is the theme of another, maybe my second favorite (after The Awkward Age) novel of Henry James, What Maisie Knew, in which a small girl is the subject of a custody battle that is really a battle over not ever taking custody.

In Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner, a woman who has lost her children winds up with custody of her husband’s child by another woman, and in her visit to her Paris to conceive more of her own, gains not a pregnancy but a grand friendship with her husband’s new mistress, and a role to play in a revolution.

A woman up and flees her children, traveling from Russia to England, in The Beginning of Spring, by Penelope Fitzgerald, where an English family struggles to carry on as a revolution brews in Moscow … do the children reunite with their mother?  Read it to find out.

Book list link

I’ve put my list of the books I’ve read in the last decade into a Google Spreadsheet, which is here for your browsing pleasure.

Look it over if you want to know what kinds of books you ought to read to find yourself stranded socially, politically and professionally in your late fifties but with a mind still curious for stories and knowledge. (I just looked this sentence over and I’d typed ‘twenties’. So Freudian.)


New nails

Just back from the nail shop, getting my tips re-done. I got tips (extensions) for the first time 3 weeks ago, with SNS powder, and was deeply satisfied with the result and its longevity. My hands are pudgy and chillblained and wrinkled but having fancy nails makes me happy. After all, I look at my nails a lot.

What else has been generating pleasure:

“Transcription” which is Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, about a woman who works for the MI5 during WWII.  The Tara French Dublin Murder Squad series.

Riverdale on TV.

Jughead, Betty, Veronica, and Archie from Riverdale.

Nounos yogurt, a local brand I’m obsessed with since I first tried their coconut mango flavor a couple years back. That is can be hard to find adds to its glamour — the other day I scored an unexpected hat trick when, going to the rather obscure grocery store that is the only one that sells the frozen breakfast sandwiches I like, they also had Nounos AND the big bottles of Starbucks medium roast ice coffee, which isn’t at Gristedes or Whole Foods or,obviously, Trader Joe’s, so I have to go Fairway just for that. And none of those carry the breakfast sandwiches which I suspect are far too downscale for the nabe, and I know I oughtn’t to be eating them either, but fuck it, I like them. All my various preferences means that I visit about 5 different grocery stores over any 2 week period to stock up on this thing from that and then that other thing that only the other one carries. It gets a bit crazy. And somehow I never really have anything in the house I want to eat.

Recently, I quite Facebook and Instagram though I’m doubtful anyone will notice. I don’t miss, but I do miss a sort of platonic idea of it that it never really was anyhow.

I’m to going to write anything now about Individual One, or any current events, just what I do to keep the too-muchness of our times at some bay.

The 50 books of my year to date

For the last few years — alas, I wish I’d done this always from a child — I’ve kept a list of every book I’ve read.

Yesterday my list for 2018 hit 50 books, and here they are.  I like complete freedom in choosing books, so I don’t make any kind of reading plan, and often bypass my pile of recently purchased books to choose others.  I use the New York Public Library and the Brooklyn Public Library (for audiobook downloads) a lot.  I follow my interests (in the last few years, Russia, pre-and-post revolution), or powerful suggestions, such as the Backlisted Podcast, which brought me to #27, 28, 32, or books mentioned on other podcasts I listen to.  I note when I’ve listened to a book instead of reading it on paper, but I consider listening equivalent to reading.  In some cases, it’s superior to reading — for instance, hearing the audio of “Purple Hibiscus” gave me the Nigerian accents and pronunciations of names without which the experience would have been much flatter.  I also like audiobooks for history, which I’ll happily listen to all the way through instead of getting bogged down in the paper book.

I’m committed to maintaining my ability to concentrate for long bouts of reading, in physical books.  I did read a couple of these books on my iPad because e-books were the only format the public library had to lend, but while I don’t condemn it, I’ll still never prefer it.

The books that wowed me the most are in bold.


1 Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets   Svetlana Alexievich         Audiobook

2  Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine    Anne Applebaum                          Audiobook

3  The Orchid House     Phyllis Shand Allfrey

4  The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars     Daniel Beer Audiobook

5 Niels Lyhne           Jens Peter Jacobsen

6  City of Sedition: The History of New York City During the Civil War     John Strausbaugh      Audiobook

7 The Adolescent (The Raw Youth)    Fyodor Dostoevsky

8   Hotel Savoy    Joseph Roth

9   Nothing is True And Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia            Peter Pomerantsev               Audbiobook

10 Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 & How It Changed The World                 Laura Spinney             Audiobook

11 The Shooting Party  Anton Chekhov

12 The Girl From the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communist Russia Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

13 Notes From Underground    Fyodor Dostoevsky

14  The Double   Fyodor Dostoevsky            Audiobook

15 Caught in the Revolution—Petrograd, Russia, 1917      Helen Rappaport 


16  My Cousin Rachel     Daphne Du Maurier                    Audiobook

17  Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: A Essay in Contrast  George Steiner

18   Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birdbizhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region    Masha Gessen       Audiobook

19  Lincoln in the Bardo    George Saunders

20  The Unpossessed     Tess Slesinger 

21 Slow Days Fast Company  Eve Babitz

22 The Fox in the Attic     Richard Hughes

23 The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia    Masha Gessen            Audiobook

24  L.A. Woman     Eve Babitz

25  Eve’s Hollywood   Eve Babitz  

26 Elmet                   Fiona Mozley

27 Corregidora     Gayl Jones

28 The Lowlife   Alexander Baron

29 The Romanovs 1613-1918    Simon Sebag Montefiore           Audiobook

30 An Empire On the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America  Nick Bunker                 Audiobook

31  Kudos    Rachel Cusk

32 The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives       Sebastian Faulks

33  Remember Me Like This     Bret Anthony Johnston

34  American Wife  Curtis Sittenfeld         Audiobook

35 The Turn of the Screw    Henry James   Reread/Audiobook

36  A Wrinkle in Time   Madeline L’Engle           Reread/Audiobook

37  Journey into the Mind’s Eye: Fragments of an Autobiography    Lesley Blanch


38  Purple Hibiscus  Chimananda Ngozi Adichie        Audiobook

39  Trotsky in New York 1917: A Radical on the Eve of Revolution      Kenneth Ackerman  Audiobook

40 The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson: The End of a Beautiful Friendship   Alex Beam     Audiobook

41 Red Plenty       Francis Spufford  Audiobook

42 The People’s Act of Love    James Meek

43  In A Lonely Place   Dorothy Hughes        

44  The World Broke in Two: Woolf, Eliot, Forster Lawrence and the Year That Changed Literature          Bill Goldstein          Audiobook

45  Florida    Lauren Groff

46  Asymmetry      Lisa Halliday      

47  Corpus Christi            Bret Anthony Johnston    

48  The Rainbow          D H Lawrence     Audiobook

49 Days of Awe: Short Stories             A M Homes

50  The Best American Short Stories 2016           Junot Diaz, editor

The book by Lesley Blanch was so much fun for me, because it hit my reading pleasure center in multiple ways — a lot of romantic tosh about pre-revolution Russia, a transgressive love affair, enthusiasm about books, and evocative descriptions of foreign places — Blanch writes about the origins and experiences of her life-long obsession with Russia, a Russia of fairy tales, wolves chasing sleighs across stony wastes, onion domes, extravagant despots.  It’s an absolutely charming book, and it came to me at random — NYRB republished it and sent it to me as part of a subscription; I think I enjoyed it more for not having anticipated it at all.