I was going to say that the books I found most striking in 2009 were nonfiction, but as I think about it, that’s not completely true. Yes, I would say that the “best” books I read this year (whatever that means) fall into this category: William Vollmann’s Imperial and Dave Cullen’s Columbine, both of which used a combination of reporting, reflection and narrative to undercut pervasive myths about their subjects and get at the more complicated stories underneath. But equally compelling were a trio of small books — B.H. Fairchild’s poetry collection Usher, Lydia Millet’s short story collection Love in Infant Monkeys, and Ted Kooser’s brief memoir Lights on a Ground of Darkness — that each in its own way reordered my inner world. What connects all of these books, including “Imperial” and “Columbine,” is the depth of their observation, their tendency to nuance and detail, the way they have of slowing down the moment so that we can see it fresh.
For me, 2016 began -- as most years do -- in coldest Canada. “Edmonton,” as Wikipedia tells me, “is the most northern North American city with a metropolitan population over one million.” Last week, the temperature dropped so much that they made public transport free. Edmonton sprawls, and because it's always so damn cold, the transit system becomes a necessary part of staying alive. If anything, the city is as much connecting infrastructure -- tunnels, ravines, subways, indoor walkways, sprawling malls -- as it is actual living space. Here, we are constantly in motion, and we are also constantly stuck. During warmer weather, I take long walks along suburban highways with a book and often run into nobody. I read George Eliot’s Middlemarch five summers ago that way, and Edmonton's flattening landscape has since merged for me with scenes of, for instance, Dorothea crying alone in Rome. In 2016, I read for my English PhD qualifying exams -- which meant revisiting Middlemarch, though in vastly different climes. (Edmonton is obviously the more felicitous place to read about Eliot’s provincial town.) I have actual lists of what I read this year. Turns out, I love making lists. (Less loved: Following them.) The only books I read in 2016 that were published in the same year were Alexander Chee’s Queen of the Night, Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, Claire Jarvis’s Exquisite Masochism: Marriage, Sex, and the Novel Form, and D.A. Miller’s Hidden Hitchcock. More often, I was reading the greatest hits of British literature from Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814) onward. All I know about Scott is that he grows on you. During these last few months, I’ve begun describing how it feels like we’re living in historical novel time, which maybe only confirms that Waverley will never stop being relevant. I read William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847) -- another historical novel -- and for a week, fell asleep to documentaries about Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Revolution. There are a lot. Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) and George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss (1860), and Middlemarch (1863) are also about very recent history. The Victorians loved historical novels. I wonder what kinds of novels these next few years will produce. I’m not a good reader of poetry, but Arthur Hugh Clough’s historical long poem Amours de Voyage (1849) has something for everybody. It’s about the Roman Revolution, and is framed as a series of juicy letters. Speaking of, I started rereading Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Clarissa (1748) after reading Frances Ferguson’s shatteringly good essay “Rape and the Rise of the Novel” (1987). I didn’t finish Clarissa, but there’s always next year. I read a lot of Victorian sages in 2016, and for what it’s worth, a lot of their work feels relevant too. Walter Pater might be my favorite -- especially his essay “Style” (1888). William Morris is a close second. Say what you will about Thomas Carlyle, but Sartor Resartus (1833) is incredible. Due to its focus on canonicity, exam prep often involves rereading. There will always be some things, however, that one will not reread: I never revisited James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), I watched the BBC Bleak House (2005) starring Gillian Andersonand crossed Charles Dickens’s novel off my list. Alternately, there are also some things that one finally reads for the first time. In my case, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1959), Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day (1989), and Derek Walcott and Kamau Brathwaite poems. At some point I think I described Heart of Darkness to someone as “an oldie, but a goodie.” The most rigorous of critical reflection. There was literary criticism too. I learned this year that tracking and reproducing other people’s arguments is often more difficult than we know. I combed through Fredric Jameson’s Antinomies of Realism (2013), and am maybe just starting to “get” it. It’s enormously productive, I believe, but there’s a bit of Stockholm syndrome in reading it too. By the end of November, I had drunk the cool-aid on two particular texts: Georg Lukács’s The Theory of the Novel (1916) and the final chapter of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (1953). Things I never thought I’d want to do: read more Lukács over Christmas break. I read, much of the night, and go north in the winter. Two more recent novels that mean a lot to me (and which I shoe-horned onto my lists) are Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans (2000) and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (2013). They’re by no means deep cuts, but if you haven’t read them, I couldn’t recommend them enough! The night of my exams, I was celebrating with friends and two of them remarked how they despised Life After Life. This came as a surprise, but it’s also a response that I want to think more about—because I ~~love~~*~*~* it. I keep selling When We Were Orphans as the Ishiguro novel that is better than both the one about clones and the one about the English butler. If Ishiguro’s historical novel (about WWII, the opium wars, and the golden age of detective fiction) could speak, it would ask, “Girl, why you so obsessed with me?” I’m not sure if the Year in Reading tends toward synthesis or sprawl, but I know I personally incline toward the latter. Happily, some of the novels I read this year seemed to welcome this. Emily Brontë’s messy and muddling Wuthering Heights (1847) is still, like, The Best Novel. It’s just the best! It’s so bonkers!! I want someone to make a Wuthering Heights game, in which one (of course) never gets to leave Wuthering Heights. I finally finished Henry James’s The Golden Bowl (1904) and, did you know, this dizzying, late James novel can be broken down into less than 30 clearly defined scenes? This was somehow a revelation to me. So much stuff in The Golden Bowl! Metaphors upon metaphors involving -- among bowls -- other stuff! Stuff stuff stuff. Yuge, yuge objects. And yet -- static scenes, a 30-scene-roadmap for a Hollywood 90-minuter, carefully set out, as though there were some logic to all this madness. Immediately after my exams, I picked up Ed Park’s Personal Days, which both merits rereading and, really, everyone’s reading. And finally, a year in reading is incomplete without Eve Sedgwick’s crucial essay “Paranoid Reading or Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You” (2003). I’ve read this essay more times than I can count and it always teaches me something new. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
● ● ●
Edan Lepucki is a regular contributor to The Millions, and her short fiction will soon be appearing in Avery and the Los Angeles Review.An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken. McCracken's memoir is, as the New York Times puts it, "an unstinting account of the novelist's emotions after the stillbirth of her first child." It's also about the happiness she experienced before the tragedy, when she was pregnant in an old farmhouse in the south of France, and the happiness she feels now as the mother of a second, healthy child, even as the death of her first child remains an indelible fact. It's about grief: how it never fades, never heals, even as life continues. Like Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, the book's structure bears the confusion and enormity of this grief - it cannot, will not, follow chronologically. McCracken's memoir was the most moving book I read this year.Look at Me by Jennifer Egan. I've written about this terrific novel before, calling it "equal parts beautiful, entertaining, satirical and sad," and I'll write about it again because I enjoyed it so much. Egan's scenes are intricate and entertaining, her sentences enviable, surprising, and buttery smooth. She is one of my new favorite writers.The Urban Homestead by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen. In the fantasy-version of my life, I grow a garden outside my one-bedroom apartment, I compost, I make my own bread, I can food and prepare my own jelly, and I'm not too cowardly to ride a bike on the mean streets of Los Angeles. Thankfully, I now have this handbook to show me how to become such a person. Coyne and Knutzen live and farm just two neighborhoods away from my own, and their accessible guide to "revolutionary home economics" and "livestock in the city," is not only inspiring, it's also practical and useful. This time next year, I might even own a goat or two...More from A Year in Reading 2008
● ● ●
In 2011 a new baby and a new home led to a summer-long reading drought. For the last five years I’ve kept a log of all the books I’ve read. From May (The White Tiger) to October (1Q84) the log was empty -- the longest such stretch in memory. But if this wasn’t a year of quantity it was one of quality. Not at first, though. My year in reading began with David Brooks’ The Social Animal, which I reviewed for The Christian Science Monitor and, though I didn’t say it there in quite these terms, was, I thought, a nice demonstration of what happens when a writer becomes too in love with his own perceptive powers. Things got better from there, however, when I read W. Stanley Moss’ Ill Met by Moonlight, which had just been reissued by the Philadelphia publisher Paul Dry Books. It’s a first-person journal account of a daring World War II mission to kidnap the commanding general of Nazi forces on Crete. Moss and his British Special Ops colleague Patty Leigh Fermor pulled it off without so much as a blip in their pulse rates, all the while getting hammered nightly on local wine and consorting with all manner of Cretan misfits. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore. My first fiction of the year came on a friend’s recommendation: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. Like me, my friend likes good young adult fiction and Octavian Nothing was one of the most unsettling stories about slavery in America I’ve ever read. If I’d picked it up when I was 10, I wouldn’t have slept for weeks afterward and to this day might still be calling it the best book I’ve ever read. After Octavian I turned to another gut-wrenching political novel: Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, about caste inequality in modern India. In the mid-2000s I spent a year in India and left taken by the country’s kaleidoscopic culture and effusive spirituality. I knew, even then, that those views were caricature, and that they ignored or rationalized the pervasive human suffering I’d seen while traveling. But it wasn’t until reading Adiga’s novel that I gave up that rosy view altogether. After finishing the book I passed it to my wife, making The White Tiger the first book we’d read more or less together since Pride and Prejudice back at the end of George W. Bush’s first term. White Tiger was not the most widely shared book in my family this year, though. That honor goes to Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run. My neighbor gave it to me, I passed it to my brother, who passed it to my sister-in-law who passed it our brother-in-law who, as far as I know, still has it. For months we debated the merits of bare-foot running and the perniciousness of the modern sneaker industry. When we all ran a 10K in Maine over the Fourth of July, my sister-in-law brought chia seeds, mail-ordered special from the Internet. In the end, though, 2011 was the Year of Murakami. For three breathless weeks in October I read 1Q84. Following on months of transition and many sleepless newborn nights, Murakami’s rare, strange story gave me back my human shape. More from A Year in Reading 2011 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
● ● ●