This year, my pleasure reading happened in fits and starts, in between ominous deadlines and periods of resting my brain with easy sitcoms (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, The Mindy Project, Seinfeld). In January, I was most thankful for Roxane Gay’s company in Bad Feminist, as I was in the final sprint of two years spent translating The Complete Stories, by Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, while processing an explosive breakup and the Charlie Hebdo shooting in a place where I hardly spoke to another human for two weeks. In those essays and in Gay’s columns throughout this year of turbulent events, I have found wise and generous ways of navigating vulnerability, messiness, violence, and troubling clashes of opinion.
Reading in the nowhere space of airplanes leaves a satisfyingly concentrated imprint on you. Two books to be absorbed in focused bursts are Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Marie NDiaye’s Self-Portrait in Green. I read both on a flight to Hawaii in February, for a birthday trip after turning in the Lispector manuscript and before heading back into edits and my long-derailed dissertation. Citizen, which mixes poems, visual art, and brief pieces somewhere between prose poem and essay, made me hyperaware of everyone around me in the airport and on the plane, as it tracks those barely perceptible charges of racial prejudice and consciousness of difference that seep into our everyday interactions. It also made me obsessed with Serena Williams, in time to jump into conversations about the U.S. Open and Drake.
Self-Portrait in Green, translated by Jordan Stump, was a different revelation, a crypto-memoir that swings in fragments between France and an African country that evokes Senegal. It swept me into a dream saturated in green hues (banana leaves; a woman’s bright dress; a series of mysterious, seductive yet melancholy green women) and cut with powerful, sensual images that recall the films of Claire Denis, with whom NDiaye has collaborated.
March through October became a torrent of Elena Ferrante, when I wasn’t wringing my hands and hunching my shoulders over work. I’m not earning any originality points for this pick, as one among hordes of women (and quite a few men) who’ve gotten drunk on any or all of the anonymous Italian writer’s seven novels to date — though I think of the Neapolitan Novels as four installments of one very long book. I’ve been surprised and excited to encounter this writing from inside women’s lives and bodies that’s unlike anything I’ve ever read. I also struck up an admiring acquaintance with Ferrante’s translator, Ann Goldstein, whose work has led me to read Primo Levi and Pier Paolo Pasolini.
I finished my dissertation, exhaled, and hit the road with Patti Smith in October. I listened to her narrate M Train two times over as I drove alone from San Francisco to Los Angeles and back, for a family visit and a reading. Besides Horses, the thing I love best about Patti is her uninhibited worship of heroes and talismans, intertwined with a romantic idealism usually found only in teenagers. She collects stones from a prison in French Guiana to bring to Jean Genet, swoons into a bed at Frida Kahlo’s Mexico City house-museum, joins the elusive Continental Drift Club out of a fixation on the explorer Alfred Wegener’s boots, and still fantasizes about a café of her own at the age of 67. Though the hardcover has pleasingly silken pages and includes the photographs she describes taking, I prefer the audiobook because it makes you feel like you’re hanging out with Patti, listening to her tell stories in her craggy, wry, cowboy-from-New Jersey voice, saying words like “yelluh” and “worter.”
The end of this year has taken a decidedly witchy turn. I first discovered John Keene through his translation of Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst’s Letters from a Seducer and was eager to read his fiction in Counternarratives. Who knows what book of spells Keene used to conjure these hypnotic, quasi-historical tales involving mystical convergences? Together they form a composite portrait of colonialism, slavery, and their influence in the New World, jumping between Brazil, North America, Haiti, and elsewhere, in the 17th to 20th centuries. My favorite story, “Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of Sorrows,” is populated by Haitian witches and Catholic nuns in Kentucky.
Sometimes when you go around calling something “one of my favorite books,” to the point that you name your Wi-Fi network after the title character, but can only recall it in vague outlines, it’s time to check in again. So I reread Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1926 novel Lolly Willowes: Or the Loving Huntsman, described in the 1999 NYRB reissue as “an aging spinster’s struggle to break away from her controlling family.” An admirable cause, obviously, but I’d always liked Warner’s own description of it as a “story about a witch.” Yet I had forgotten how long we have to suffer with Laura, “Aunt Lolly,” under the thumb of her uptight aristocratic family in decline (think Downton Abbey but shabbier) before she decides that single ladies have rights too and moves to the rural village of Great Mop. Never have I experienced a more tranquil, nature-loving account of meeting Satan, aka the Loving Huntsman, and joining a mild-mannered community of witches. In one of her nonchalant conversations with Satan, Lolly explains, “That’s why we become witches: to show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure.”
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