A Year in Reading: Parul Sehgal

My professional reading life is fairly regimented -- I have to be attentive to new, newsworthy books to assign for review or to write about myself -- and my personal reading habits have become suitably random in response, subject to mood as much circumstance, which, this year, meant the purchase of a new coat. Said coat, a voluminous and awful garment -- moss green, somehow both pilly and prickly -- has, to its credit, pockets like wells. Which meant that I, who do most of my reading on the Q train to and from work, fell in with a group of regular traveling companions. Four books (or rather, 3 and 3/4), whose slenderness was, at first, their chief qualification, took up permanent residence upon my person: a new Picador edition of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping that's about the size of a pack of cards; my friend Brenda Shaughnessy’s 2012 collection of poems Our Andromeda, a book I worship; my husband’s high school copy of Macbeth minus an act or two; and Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters. I read and reread many books in 2015 (my favorite books of the year can be found here and here), but these are the books I kept in orbit, the books I wore out. Desperate Characters, in particular, I couldn’t stop rereading. It’s the type of novel it’s become so fashionable to deride -- one of the “quiet” books about middle-aged women staring out of windows, enjoying quiet epiphanies -- when it’s really a wallop of a book, a barbed portrait of a marriage, not to mention a brilliant take on gentrification, white fears of black and brown people, the hostile insularity of the nuclear family, and how power reproduces and how power conceals itself. And from time to time, sure, the heroine stares out of a window. (It occurs to me now that these books are more connected than not -- they’re all about paralysis and ambition, about moving through trauma, trying to move past it. Reading choices can seem so random, but aren’t we always just digging deeper and deeper grooves into old obsessions?) But it was also a year of discoveries -- the late Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal was one, the poet Anne Boyer another -- and rediscoveries. I taught a class in criticism, which allowed me to go back and reread a few favorites -- The Sight of Looking at Death by T.J. Clark, Zona by Geoff Dyer, Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith, My Poets by Maureen N. McLane, Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me by Craig Seligman. Most of all I was grateful for the number of writers finding fresh and intelligent ways to think about family life -- I’m thinking of recent books like The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, On Immunity by Eula Biss, Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso, 10:04 by Ben Lerner -- but also older books, beloved books I returned to as I wrote about these issues in an essay for Bookforum, including Zami by Audre Lorde, The Salt Eaters by Toni Cade Bambara, The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel. These books position the family not in conflict with creativity but an extension of it, not a way of retreating from our obligations to our communities but a reaffirmation of them. It's a lovely thought -- that what tethers us, burdens us can somehow also set us free -- especially to one in a coat bogged down with books, standing on a subway platform too early in the day. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 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, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading: Parul Sehgal

The plan was to have an orderly Year in Reading. To finally fill the gaps, dammit, to scale The Magic Mountain and read Hollinghurst properly instead of flipping around for the filthy bits. To read sitting up for a change — like a human adult — rather than burrowing in bedclothes like a vole. But it was comfort I craved, reliable pleasures: Anne Carson and Elizabeth Hardwick, Sarah Waters’s novels, Virginia Woolf’s diaries, Zadie Smith’s essays, Martin Amis’s reviews (on Malcolm Lowry: “To make a real success of being an alcoholic, to go all the way with it, you need to be other things too: shifty, unfastidious, solipsistic, insecure and indefatigable. Lowry was additionally equipped with an extra-small penis, which really seemed to help.”). I read so much Larkin I worried I’d start sprouting anti-Indian attitudes myself. I emerged from the burrow in spring to discover a crop of terrific new books — Mary Ruefle’s collected lectures, Madness, Rack, and Honey; Sonali Deraniyagala’s lacerating memoir, Wave; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's sublime novel, Americanah. Most of my favorites of the year can be found here and here. And despite my indifference toward Victorians and marriage (although I do have a soft spot for wayward Bloomsberries), I fell madly in love with a book called Parallel Lives by the literary critic Phyllis Rose, a study of five Victorian marriages first published in 1984. It fit perfectly in my pocket and went everywhere with me; its proximity soothed me, made me feel very sensible and worldly. Taking as her starting point John Stuart Mill’s idea of marriage as “the primary political experience in which most of us engage as adults,” Rose examines the relationships of writers and their spouses including George Eliot and George Henry Llewes, John and Effie Ruskin, Charles Dickens and tragic Catherine Hogarth. She tracks the flow of power over decades — how Thomas Caryle waxed as his once fiery wife waned (until she got her posthumous revenge), how John Stuart Mill exulted at submitting to Harriet Taylor — and how Victorians might have permitted a flexibility in marital arrangements that Americans today can only dream about. It’s gossip of the highest, most instructive caliber, a tart, affectionate treatment of this flimsiest of human inventions. I’ve gone vole again for the winter. But hope springs, etc. Even Larkin agrees; from "The Trees": “Yet still the unresting castles thresh / In fullgrown thickness every May. / Last year is dead, they seem to say, / Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.” More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 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, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading: Parul Sehgal

There were many books I admired this year, books I read and reread and recommended. Salvage the Bones is every bit as good as they say it is. And there were groundbreaking narrative nonfiction books about India: Siddhartha Deb's The Beautiful and the Damned, Arundhati Roy’s Walking with the Comrades, and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers (out in Feb. 2012) are works of profound witness, kinship, artistic achievement, and moral necessity. But only one book left me breathless. I didn’t read -- I succumbed -- to The Journals of John Cheever. I picked it up one evening after the guests had gone, after the ashtrays had been emptied and the dog walked. I was lightly drunk and working on getting more seriously drunk (the Cheevering hour?); I idly opened the book -- and let it have its way with me all weekend in the spare room. It’s a disheveling, debauching book. Even a dangerous book: it invites you to contemplate -- even embrace -- your corruption. These journals, posthumously edited by Cheever’s longtime editor, Robert Gottlieb, are a 40-year chronicle of wanting health but plotting, ardently, self-destruction. Of struggling with alcoholism and bisexuality. Of wanting very much to love one’s wife and only one's wife -- but falling gratefully into the arms of any stranger who will have you. Of the soul as irredeemably “venereal, forlorn, and uprooted.” Cheever had a brain and body so responsive -- “touchy like a triggered rattrap” -- everything he sees turns him on, makes him cry, turns him rhapsodic. Desire stains everything. And it isn’t airy, “Chopinesque longing,” no -- it’s itchy and inconvenient, “as coarse and real as the hair on my belly,” he writes. "In the public urinal I am solicited by the man on my right. I do not dare turn my head. But I wonder what he looks like. No better or no worse, I guess than the rest of us in such throes.” I love this Cheever, so lust-worn, fatigued, wise. The Cheever who observes, “I prayed for some degree of sexual continence, although the very nature of sexuality is incontinence.” But I love him more when he’s cross, crass, and ornery. When he’s querulous and moaning for “a more muscular vocabulary,” his face on a postage stamp, a more reliable erection. When he carps about his contemporaries (Calvino: “cute,” Nabokov: “all those sugared violets”). But Cheever the ecstatic, who merges with the mountain air and streams, who finds in writing and sex a bridge between the sacred and the profane and is as spontaneous and easy as a child -- he is indispensable. “Today gloomy and humid. I walk the dogs in a heavy rain. Water lilies grow at the edge of the pond. I want to pick some and take them home to Mary. I decide that this is foolish. I am a substantial man of fifty-eight, and I will walk past the lilies in a dignified manner. Having made this decision, I strip off my clothes, dive into the pond and pick a lily. I will be dignified tomorrow.” The days are short and few. Stay up late with John Cheever. Contemplate your corruption with cheer. Be dignified tomorrow. Remember: “The morning light is gold as money and pours in the eastern windows. But it is the shadow that is exciting.” 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.