2017 in books

This year I read 80 books, which is up from 60 in 2016, and down from 92 the year before that.  I recall 2015 as a year when I had a lot of time on my hands.

Of these, 13 were rereads.  Twenty-two of the 80 were nonfiction — essays or history.  Twenty-seven were audiobooks.

I’m having a hell of a time writing this post.  I’ve produced a number of turgid, rather pompous paragraphs, as if I for an annual report, but I guess I’ll spare you those — you, my random reader, if you exist.

This was the year my parents lost their ability to live independently, and my father died in the fall.  For months before that, I spent a good deal of my time and most of my emotional energy on difficult tasks in their service.  I wasn’t working a good deal of the time — it a slow year for freelancing — and reading, as well as watching TV and listening to too many political podcasts — was chief escape, distraction, occupation, excuse for not doing something else.  Creative writing, always a struggle and source of constant conflict, just went completely by the bye.

The list of books I devoured is here presented in 3 screenshots.

Screen Shot 2018-01-01 at 12.01.01 PM.pngIt conceals the stretches over the summer when I couldn’t settle down to any particular book, and sometimes felt like I’d never read again.  I ambled dutifully through the magazines that come in — The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, New York.  I also subscribed to Granta and, just now, Brick, as well as, just because I’ve always wanted to even though it costs a fortune, The Times Literary Supplement.  I suppose if I’m not constantly surrounded by clamoring unread publications, life just isn’t life.

Some of the reading choices this year were for a class at The Center For Fiction with Anne Fernald, a terrific teacher, on the novels of the Harlem Renaissance — Plum Bun by Jessie Fausset, Home to Harlem by Claude McKay, Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes, the novels of Nella Larsen, Quicksand and Passing, and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.  Loved reading them, though felt always a little weird discussing them with a group composed only of other bespectacled white constant reader types.

A bunch of other titles were suggested by the podcasted Backlisted, where witty London book people talk about books from years gone by — this led me to some novels of Anita Brookner, a couple of existential WWII-era thrillers, a re-awareness of Jane Gardam, and also notably the charming bookish memoir of one of the podcast’s hosts, Andy Miller, The Year of Reading Dangerously: How 50 Great Books (and Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved my Life.  But maybe the greatest find Backlisted pointed me to is All The Devils Are Here by David Seabrook, a sui-generis memoir-essay collection, centering on the seaside towns in the English country of Kent and the very weird and disquieting if not actually occult things that have happened there in the 19th and 20th century — violent things, queer things, political things, literary things.  Reading it was like — in the best possible way — listening obsessively to The Smiths, very English, wry, dark, hilarious in a morbid way, and full of details about people and places that I’d never have known I’d be interested in without having come across the book.Screen Shot 2018-01-01 at 12.01.23 PM.png

This was also the year that, after various dud tries in decades past, I read The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell, which came along just when I needed most to be utterly taken up, and swept me duly away.

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Besides Seabrook and Durrell, the other highlights were The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy, which led to some absorbing discussion with a bookish friend and even the purchase of a biography of Percy, which of course I got distracted from 20 pages in, and books touching on Russia, one of my on-and-off fascinations which is currently ON.  Those are #31, 73, and 80, along with revisitings of Dostoyevsky, the audiobooks of whom I’ve been using as going-to-sleep companions throughout the year.  #80 in particular, a long intense, as it says on the tin saga, centered on the Bolsheviks who lived in a specially-constructed apartment building in Moscow called The House of Government, was perfectly embodied as an audiobook that kept me riveted for the last couple of weeks, and which, having finished, I went back to listening to again from the beginning.  Among much other information, this book has cleared up for me a long-held question I had about why the Soviets didn’t ban Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, which to my mind, has always seemed perverse.  Turns out, according to Slezkine’s thesis, it was perverse of the Bolsheviks to encourage their children to read those and other “treasures of world literature” and helps explain, in a small part, anyway, why Bolshevism didn’t survive into a 2nd generation.

Projections for what I want to read this year: there will probably be more Joseph Conrad this winter.  I also want to stick to my idea of rediscovering my own shelves by choosing unread books, 2 a month (roughly), in alphabetical order.  I began in December with Pitch Dark by Renata Adler and now am reading Cassandra At the Wedding by Dorothy Baker.  On my new(ish) acquisition pile I see titles by Brigid Brophy, Daphne Du Maurier, Patrick Hamilton, but that doesn’t mean other titles won’t oversweep them and come in first.

Finally, though I’d sort of promised myself a year ago that I wasn’t going to bother anymore with current books — that there were no current books that would give me more pleasure than old ones — I did turn out to read quite a few books.  Some, like the latest Elizabeth Strout and Jennifer Egan, I’d have read anyway.  The Francis Spufford was by way of Backlisted, and Brit Bennett’s Mothers just seemed to be in the air somehow.   (I liked these while I was reading them, but they were ephemeral.) In general though, my willingness to take a flyer on unknown new novel(ist)s is at a lifetime low.

 

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Sub-zero

At this point I kind of have to admire the tenacity of the single fly which has clung to life in my apartment for the last 2-3 weeks. I can’t catch it, I don’t know what it could be sustaining itself on, and yet it continues. Maybe I should consider it a second pet and name it.

Chuffey and I are both feeling cooped up; this run of freezing weather, which has at least another week to go, means that all feeling of inspiration to take a walk deserts one after half a block, even though I’ve got one of those Lands End coats that’s like a space suit and certified to 20 below.

Our solitude was pleasantly broken up by a bit yesterday afternoon when Cara and her son and Miss Lotte came down from the 7th floor to drop of some home-made lemon curd and get Chuffey so riled up that I was afraid he’d do something like rash, like bite the nose off a 6 year old over a toy. But crisis was averted.

Finished The Secret Agent, which was a page turner, albeit grim, and redolent with the sense that nothing much has changed in this line in the 100+ years since it came out.  Also finished with an audio of Lord Jim.  I’m definitely into Conrad now and will be reading more of his work this winter.

I’ve been listening with uptmost fascinating to a new book about Russia, The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution, by Yuri Slezkine, and as a result of mentions in that, my next book is going to be The Adolescent by Dostoevsky, which I own but have never read. The Slezkine book, if you’re at all interested in the whole Soviet thing, is chockfull of great characters and stories, with lots of excerpts from letters and diaries, which makes it more novelistic than most history tomes.  I need to get hold of a hard copy so I can see the pictures.  This one definitely gets filed under Morbid Fascinations; perhaps Conrad belongs there too.

I finished The Crown last night, and am not that keen on starting Black Mirror; I never watched most the previous season because it was too scary. Maybe now is the time to take up Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

 

My books read-or-heard total this year was 79.  I’ll do a post later about the highlights.

Where I’ve been

 

OutfromlibraryNov2017.jgp

What’s at home from the NY Public Library now.

I tend to organize my sense of self into patterns–I guess we all do.  One period of my life will end, another commences.  The thing I worried about for decades actually happens and I realize I was worrying about it wrong–what takes place does not completely overlap what I feared would take place.  I’ll look back and realized I coasted along on magical thinking for those eight years, or I’ll that my forties were in fact, as I was always being told, the best years, and that the happy activity and social life of that period has now slipped away, and I’m somewhere else.  Maybe even someone else.  The patterns, or eras, wrap around jobs, or places I’ve lived.

For example, I’ve been in my current apartment for 9 years in December; I left a sweet little place on an old West Village block which I loved and had assumed to live in forever, because after decades on a wait-list, I was being offered a unit in a limited equity co-op, an offer too good to turn down for sentimental reasons.  And as it turned out, as the simile always is in my mind when I look back, this was a great good fortune, like being scooped by God’s Big Dipper out of the warming pot of water.  Because it was the beginning of the financial crisis, and unbeknownst to me, my freelance work was going to abruptly dry up.  Had I not gotten the offer letter from the co-op just then, I’d never have been able to stay in New York.  It was a real rescue, but it also marked an alteration in my sense of self.  A lot of things tumbled,  Friendships ended, the scene was changed.

The pattern of this year seems to be another indelible scene shift.  In late March it became clear that my parents could no longer live independently.  With no freelance offers, nor energy to look for gigs, I began a few months of devoting most of my energy to the complexities of their problems.  There was a big move to organize, there was an assisted living situation to find for my father, and then there was assisting and emotionally supporting both parents as dad progressed from the AL to a nursing home and dwindled away to his death a month ago.  My life’s felt to be on hold all that time, and it still does; I’m not in tune with what I can or want to do next, but very much in touch with what I’d like not to have to do any more.

In the midst of all this I’ve read a great deal this year.  I always do–last year I read 60 books, and 92 in 2015, when work was very scarce.  So far this year, I’m at 73.  I want to come up here with some original and lovely phrases to describe what reading does for me and has done for especially the last 8 months of upheaval.  Everything feels like a trope–escape, yes, a reassuring sense of being part of humanity, yes, entertainment, a transport in the imagination of a master of characters and atmosphere, yes.  These describe it as if it was the thumbnail of an entire body, and I can’t think how to talk about the rest of that body.  Every book I read seems to be for me only, and I experience an uncanny flutter of disbelief whenever I encounter, either in person or the media, someone who’s praising or discussing the same thing.  I’ve always felt alone with books, not in a sense of loneliness, but in having them, deliciously, all to myself.  The one area of my life where I’m not compelled by any outside force or responsibility.

Some of this year’s fiction choices were inspired by my discovery of the Backlisted Podcast which brought me to Anita Brookner, the WWII novels of Nigel Balchin, as well as Barbara Comyns, Nella Larsen, Jane Gardem.  Others were nonfiction books about race and other topics in American history, and about Russia.  I reread quite a bit, often via audiobook listening to books I’d read before; and read new fiction by authors I already love: Elizabeth Strout, Alice McDermott; and was swept up all summer in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet.

Recently read Nov 17

Recently read

Another catharsis of the last weeks has been a nearly compulsive process of cleaning out–with the help of various friends, and on my own, I alphabetized my books, discarding many (I’m down to ~1850 volumes), purging and organizing my kitchen, my closets, desk, jewelry box, wardrobe.  Everything I get rid of makes me feel lighter, and gives me more pleasure in the things I surround myself with, my household gods as I think of them.  Handling all my books, seeing how many I own that I bought because I wanted to read them, but haven’t touched them yet, has inspired me to a reading project for 2018: I’m going to start at A, and read at least one completely new-to-me book from my own shelves for each letter, two letters a month.  Of course some letters are very overrepresented in author’s last names, and one or two letters don’t appear at all.  I’m going to begin in December with, I think, Renata Adler and Isabel Bolton.

Late august reading

 

This summer (I’m writing this in mid-August), my reading took an expected turn when I discovered a podcast that might as well have been made to order for my interests: Backlisted, which is about old books.  I don’t recall what put me on to it, but looking over their list of old episodes, I saw many writers I already liked, and sensed that whatever these folks picked out to discuss would be of interest to me one way or the other. Each episode was so full of enticing descriptions of books that even though I already had a to-read pile that was sufficient for summer, I wanted to read NOW.

The podcast put me on to “All the Devils Are Here” by David Seabrook, a Smiths-back-catalogue of a read that I’d never have discovered for myself.

A cock-eyed ramble among the seaside towns of Kent, taking in the weird, the violent, the homosexual, the  gossipy, the scandalous, the atmospheric,the  readerly and literary,  the murderous, the psychologically-twisted, imporverished, the fascistic, mysterious, pathetic, minor celebrity adjacent, in a mélange of deep inquiries and rambling anecdote given out by the kind of slightly spooky great talker whom you both want to listen to forever and back away from slowly.   I read the book again a day or two after finishing it, and then lent it to a friend.

Also read “Darkness Falls From the Air” by Nigel Balchin, a world war two story of London in the blitz, which again, I’d never have heard of, and which was compared, on the podcast, to Greene’s “The End of the Affair” much to the detriment of the latter (a book I’ve loved a time or two.)  This one is about a government official in London who’s allowing his beloved wife to have an affair with a literary twep because it’s the war and who is he to preclude her from having a life while they wait for the big bombing to begin, except that of course while he’s being very polite and repressed and civilized about it, he hates it.  It’s mostly dialogue of the kind that you long to hear coming from the black and white mouths of Bacall and Bogart, though they wouldn’t really do those clipped upperish English 1930s voices.  I imagined them though, with maybe Leslie Howard as the squirrely lover. A perfect downer of a book, which I mean in the sense that it’s melancholy, the inevitability of its surprises, and its ending, worked completely, a perfect unit of hope and despair.

With no prompt from this podcast, but because of a Meet-up reading group I really wanted to get off my butt and attend (that is, the small part of my psyche that wants to get off and usually is squashed by the larger part that wants to stay recumbent), I read The Alexandria Quartet of Lawrence Durrell.  I owned thse books, and had tried, off and on since the 1980s, to read “Justine“, always falling out in the first 30 pages with a sense that the characters and narration and apparent emotional situation of the story were overwhelmingly pretentious.  This time, with the idea that I’d go meet other people and hear what they thought of it, I persisted, and pretty much a page or so after my old falling-off point, I was gripped, and realized that in fact this book was just the kind I like best, set in a strange location, slightly overwrought, vivid, difficult to track, and soaked in all five senses.  And then as I read the rest of the quartet I was delighted to find it was one of those works that delves into point of view, into how inaccurate are our perceptions of one another, how unknowable everything is.  As the subsequent books reveal the apparent ‘reality’ that’s concealed from the narrator of “Justine”, worlds open up.  And ultimately the overwroughtness of it all was just the kind of overwroughtness that I eat up with a spoon.

What I’m reading right now: “The Year of Reading Dangerously” by Andy Miller, which makes me want to shout: “Comrade!”  (I tweeted the author my compliments), “Maiden Voyage” by Denton Welch, and “Hotel Du Lac” by Anita Brookner.

Finding exciting books and a revival of my reading intensity is this year’s one bright spot, in the midst of freelance longueurs, the collapse of my aged parents’ independence, and our appalling political dilemmas.  A cliche to say reading is a life-line, but for me it’s literally true; I don’t know if I’d have made it out of my childhood much less this far, without books.  (I may write more about why this is, but not yet.)

Finally, I’m new to the book-and-reader-blogging world, and frankly don’t know where to begin there either.  I suppose I’ll find like-minded bloggers (and readers)  bit by bit.  Meanwhile, comments welcome.

 

Blurbs! What do they do? Do they do things? Let’s find out!*

Finished “Look at Me” by Anita Brookner yesterday, and rolling it over in my mind.  If I had to describe this book to someone, how would I do it?  If I just said a few sentences about the story — it’s about a young woman living a prematurely staid solo life, who seizes an opportunity to join the entourage of a glamorous couple, even as she’s wary of giving up the freedom of the solitude in order to have a brimming social life. That really doesn’t convey much, because,  a novel isn’t so much about what as about how.

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, but “Look at Me” struck me as an especially good example because my experience of the main character kept shifting as I read.  It’s the story, told in first-person, of a young Londoner named Frances; she works at a medical picture library, seems to be socially isolated, and lives in her childhood apartment where her mother has recently died and their old housekeeper still resides. The flat is in a building full of elderly people. Frances describes herself as an observer; she sees herself as polite and correct and other people as more or less out of control; most of them are unattractive, and those who are, like Nick and Alix, are almost supernaturally superior.  Drawn into their orbit, Frances undergoes popularity and its sudden withdrawal.  The wound she suffers swings her back to her earlier impulse to live in a solitary way.

I kept asking myself how I felt about Frances; was I taking her at her word, was I willing to be in general sympathy with her, was she deluded, or trying to delude the reader, and was I over-or-under estimating how much?  In a way, was I reading this book as Brookner intended it to be read?  Frances went in and out of focus as I went along.  She also reminded me keenly of myself. The theme of loneliness and solitude, and how they push-pull against each other, two sides of the same state, something to suffer and then quickly to covet, depending on how one feels on any given day, is something I’ve endured (and welcomed, and hated, and loved and felt powerless against) all my life.

Some years back I stopped reading blurbs on fiction almost entirely.  The standard question when someone recommends a book is often “What’s is about?”  I’ve been guilty of this non-question all my life; when I was younger I often used the answer to make a snap judgment about whether I was interested in the book.  On my frequent visits to the public library, it was almost entirely the blurb (after the image on the cover, and the title) that made me decide to borrow the book; I seldom opened it at random to sample the actual writing.  Then, after reading some books that, based on their jacket copy, I would have rejected, I found my feelings about this changing.  I finally started to see that the ‘aboutness’ of a novel is often irrelevant.  It’s the ‘whoness’ and the ‘howness’, it’s the flow of the prose, it’s the ineffable, individual attraction or not to how a writer lays out her stall.  More and more I wanted to go into a novel with no preconceptions, other than having heard that it was worthwhile.  I wanted to meet the opening paragraphs, the writing and characterization, in an open state.  I’m really glad I’ve made this swerve.  Now I’ll read the blurb when I’m finished, to see how this marketing squib compares with my own reading experience.

Good blurb writing is an art — one or two paragraphs to hint at characters and their dilemmas, pique curiosity so a look turns into a purchase.  I imagine the kind of mind — which seems not to be my kind of mind — that can digest a novel, pick out its key theme and intrigue, and set it out with the tight impact of an unrhymed sonnet.

*Rewatched all of BoJack Horseman on Netflix ahead of watching the new season, and was delighted again by the subplot in which, called out of his self-imposed exile to produce a TV show about anything he wants, JD Salinger pitches “Hollywoo Celebs and Stars! What Do They Know?! Do The Know Things?! Lets Find Out!”

Why am I doing this?

I’m one of those compulsive, serious readers-for-pleasure, and always have been.  So it surprises me how much I struggle when I’m confronted by the opportunity to write something about a book.  At the sight even of something as casual as a Goodreads comment window, something in me squeezes up and says HELL TO THE NO, it’s too hard, and whatever I write will fail in any way to resemble what I actually think.  Probably this traces back to one of the many banes of my childhood, the Book Report.

These probably started in 3rd grade or so–you’d be assigned to read a particular book, or else allowed to choose one for yourself–and then you had to write a Book Report when you’d finished, and hand it in for a grade.  Now, this always seemed to me like a huge punishment for reading.  A minority, a very small one, sometimes it seemed, just me, in my school liked to read.  Not just to read in school, for school, but to read all the time, to constantly bring books back from the library, to attempt books that were too hard for me, and so on. In this was joy and wonder, excitement and curiosity.  In a required Book Report, there was Topic Sentences, Plot Synopses, and Themes (pause to shudder).  Having to come up with these, in paragraphs, seemed to snatch away all the richness and pride and secret accomplishment inherent in having read a book, in owning its story and characters inside my own mind, and replace it with a heap of dry Wheatena.  It took the book away from me and made me belong to someone else–the teacher, and his expectations.  It confiscated the marvelous story and gave me back a list of ways in which I was doing it wrong.  All I wanted to do in this scenario was squirm; get it done as quickly as possible so I could back to what was really interesting: my pile of library books.

Hence, though I went on to become a college English major, a writer of fiction, and a professional copywriter, I’ve always baulked at how to “write up” my reading experiences.  I’ll long to reach out to the world — even if only in the form of one or two randos on the internet — and share the real depths of my unique enthusiasm and appreciation for a novel, only to find myself throwing out a few dry sticks of stilted colorless description. (This doesn’t happen when I can talk about a book–a conversation with someone who has recently read the same book, or loves the same Henry Jameswriters that I do, which doesn’t happen to me as often as I’d wish, is usually lively and wide-ranging and bubbling over with information, opinions, delight.)

It was with the idea of somehow overcoming this that I began this blog.

It’s giving me a lot of unease, this blog, because it’s just bringing up all these blockages and bad Book Report memories.  There’s a tone and energy I’d like this blog to have that so far it completely lacks.  My energies feel too po-faced, and vague.  I keep changing the title of the blog, all of which strike as pretentious, and that’s a good sign that I’m still not sure what I want it to be, or how I can get it to be that way.

Maybe the title ought to just be Bad Book Report.  Hmmm.

But I intend to persist.

When I was a kid

… I didn’t finish reading my favorite chapter books.   Not because I wasn’t a good reader, or lacked stick-to-it-iveness.  (I did lack that, according to certain adults in my life, who didn’t seem to notice it wasn’t the case when it came to things I cared about.) They were my favorites because I liked their set-ups, settings, characters, illustrations, dialogues and set-pieces, but I did not like when their plots kicked in and their climaxes loomed.  I wanted to be it with the characters, not find out how it would end.  Why must it end at all?  I borrowed them from the library over and over: “Harriet the Spy” and “The Long Secret”, “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler”, “The Egypt Game”, “A Wrinkle in Time”.  Most of them — including others not listed here, I never read all the way through.  The exception is the Harriet books — as an adult I wanted to know what those were about and to understand the things in them that, as a kid, had gone right over my head, especially what all those adults out in Water Mill were really up to.