The first three novels of Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet—Autumn, Winter, and now Spring—are constructed not as linear stories, but as literary puzzles. To figure them out is to work their pieces together.
Autumn and Winter worked: the pieces fit. Spring’s pieces, however, feel like bits and bobs pulled out of Smith’s trunk of favorite props: Shakespeare (in Spring, Pericles), the precocious child, folklore and myth, old Britannia herself, prose poems on the seasons (green stuff pushing through the damp earth and so on), a washed-up man and wise women, works by female visual artists.
As bits and bobs go, they’re not bad. They’re Ali Smith bits and bobs. But they don’t come together to form an innovative novel, and Smith’s care in constructing them precludes the graceful chaos of an assemblage.
Part of Smith’s Seasons project entails haste; apparently, she doesn’t begin writing each book until four months before the manuscript’s due date. How does she whip them out so quickly? “I’ve been thinking about them in my head for 20 years,” she told The Guardian, “and if there’s one thing I’ve learned over those 20 years, it’s that the book already exists and we have to come out to meet it and excavate it and deliver it…The pact with the book is one that means it will always be as up-to-the-moment as possible and that’s a massive risk to take.”
Smith might not be referring literally to one book that’s been knocking around in her head for 20 years and another book that’s “up-to-the-moment,” but her statement does point up to Spring reading almost like two different books feebly bound together.
One book: Richard, an acclaimed but out-of-work film director is asked to direct a biopic of Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Marie Rilke. The screenplay revolves around the schmaltzy, and fictional, premise that the two writers became lovers while living at the same Swiss residential hotel. Richard’s beloved mentor Paddy, herself a veteran filmmaker, finds the project worthy only of scorn. While Richard is waffling about whether to take it on, Paddy’s protracted illness ends in death, plunging Richard into helpless grief.
The other book: Brit, a young but crusty female security guard at an Immigration Removal Centre in England, impulsively tags along with Florence, a 12-year-old girl she’s only just met, on a train trip to Scotland. Brit is won over by, and envies, Florence’s precocious and incisive wit and her magical ability to get people to do the right thing, including liberating women from a brothel and persuading the IRC staff to scrub the toilets.
Had the Richard book been given more room to stretch its wings it might have worked. Sturdier threads connecting it to the Brit book would have helped, too; Richard does eventually find redemption via Florence, but their encounter comes about entirely by coincidence toward the end of the novel. But the real problem with the Richard book is that its characters are a bit shopworn. Richard plays Smith’s Eternally Young but Thirsty for Enlightenment Male. Paddy and, later, Alda—and Florence, for that matter—play the Nurturing and Sage Females, there to deal Richard tough love and hopefully clue him in on the more subtle aspects of being a decent and well-rounded human being. The trope of the Nurturing and Sage Female is too pat, and what this stock character says in Spring is too prescriptive to be illuminating. Richard’s story has brilliant moments, but its somewhat patronizing, at times waggish tone eclipses Richard’s voice and diminishes the poignancy of his situation. Bound together with Brit’s book, his book is simply outdone, outshone.
Brit’s narrative tackles with passion the most profound crisis in our human world, the migration of people, a crisis that will become all the more acute as climate change destroys the viability of whole swathes of Earth. It is of a piece with Smith’s long support of Refugee Tales, an outreach organization of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, which supports and visits men detained at Gatwick IRC.
As part of her work with Refugee Tales, Smith has written up her conversations and visits with immigrants to the U.K. An article by her in The Guardian tells of a young Ghanaian man whose life story, both in Ghana and in England, unfolds like a slave narrative out of the antebellum American South. Like many other immigrants in the U.K. (and in the U.S.), he lives under the constant threat of deportation and indefinite detention.
Smith’s Guardian article went a long way, especially for me as an American reader, in illuminating Spring. Though it’s foolish to long for a different book when reviewing a book, I couldn’t help but wish that Smith had included more elements like that article in her novel. Maybe she was following her own caution, expressed repeatedly in Spring, against reducing people to cozy, self-edited stories.
Florence at times reads as Smith’s mouthpiece (as does Paddy), but the author avoids casting her in the role of Magical Immigrant. She’s not there to rescue Brit from benightedness; she asserts her own agenda from the start. She has some interesting things to say, too. Entries from Florence’s journal, called the “Hot Air book,” intersperse Smith’s novel. A mashup of “Twitter language” is so true, and so ugly, it could (maybe should) make you weep. So can the offering of her immigrant face:
My being ineligible makes you all the more eligible.
No worries. Happy to help.
Also you’ll notice this face resembles the drawings on the posters that tell you to report anything you think looks suspicious.
Tell the police if you see anyone who looks like me, because my face is of urgent matter to your nation.
Not at all. No problem. Glad to be of service.
Gritty Brit, face to face with that face, suffers a few somewhat contrived epiphanies, but turns enough surprising corners to keep her voice true. Without sugar-coating the harshness of Brit’s world view, Smith affords Brit a dignity that, at times, evokes the goddess: Brit becomes Britannia. The twist of Brit being the more sympathetic character—shouldn’t it be the child Florence?—subverts the ease with which we decide who is the “good guy” and who is the “bad guy.”
To survive her job and the 24-hour news cycle, Brit fiercely guards her personal gates. Carefully cultivated cynicism helps her maintain emotional distance from the “deets,” the detainees: the man who throws his own shit out of his cell, the cancer patient forced to go without meds over the weekend, the “Eritrean self-harmer,” and
Body cams. Razor wire. Deets.
“The Machine,” Brit calls herself to Florence, riffing on the British art rock band Florence + The Machine, whose 2018 album is titled High as Hope.
Brit is anything but artsy, and she’s sure no hopeful bleeding heart. “I really am the machine,” she says. She’s Guard-the-Gates Brexit Brit: no more immigrants, no more tired and poor swarming her Emerald Isle in every shade of brown. But spring, as this book and everyone knows, promises change and renewal.
Brit can continue to harden her heart into stone, or she can open up. She can turn away from that foreign face (What my face means is not your face.), or she can look right into it (My face trodden in mud. / My face bloated by sea.). She accidentally gets possession of Florence’s “Hot Air book.” She could try to return it. “Or she could just burn the book.…”
We may never know what she decides. So far, the books in Smith’s Seasonal Quartet have not continued from each other with characters and storylines in common, though several themes—migrants, ecology and the procession of the seasons, humans versus the establishment “machine”—have been building.
Whichever choice she makes, how can it be other than heartbreaking?
What’s sending the thinnest of green shoots through that rock so the rock starts to split?
In her New York Times column “Match Book,” Nicole Lamy “connects readers with book suggestions based on their questions, their tastes, their literary needs and desires.” Some of those questions, tastes, literary needs and desires are stranger than others.
1.Dear Match Book,
like sympathetic protagonists who become slightly, but not too, unsympathetic
following some kind of loss, then gradually become sympathetic again while
coping with said loss. Close third-person narration preferred, with some epistolary
bits (email only) judiciously sprinkled in. No second person please! A strong
sense of place is a must, though that place need not be named as long as the
protagonist is—or vice versa.
advice would be to write this book yourself, and then check back in after it’s
published so l can recommend it to you.
2.Dear Match Book,
I love trilogies: Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War, Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour, and more recently, Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. My problem is I can’t stand quartets! The very thought of four books in a series—or their readers—makes me physically ill. And yet I’ve heard great things about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. Help!
I am terribly sorry to hear about your tetralogical dysfunction, which is barring you off from experiencing the wonders of Ferrante’s Naples and Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria. Has your therapist already suggested breaking the foursomes into two twosomes? (You do have a therapist, right?)
Alternatively, you could try wetting your feet with books with “four” in the title (e.g., Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason’s bibliophile mystery The Rule of Four)? I don’t know. I’m grasping at straws here.
What about Ali Smith’s in-progress Seasonal Quartet? Why don’t you read Winter, Autumn, and the forthcoming Spring, and then pretend that Smith got tired of the project? Next, hole up in a cabin somewhere. After 10 to 15 years, emerge from seclusion, visit a bookstore, and thumb through a copy of Summer. If you don’t retch, you’re cured!
3.Dear Match Book,
Is this a booty call? If so, this is a first for me at Match Book. I am indeed up, but I’d prefer to keep this professional. I can, however, recommend some saucy books to get you through the night. Philip Roth’s Deception and Nicolson’s Baker’s Vox each are dazzling verbal displays that plumb the depths of desire.
4.Dear Match Book,
I earn $400 a day working from home! Want to learn more? But first, do you have any well-observed family dramas to recommend? I loved the latest Ann Tyler.
Domestic drama has been at the core of literature since Greek tragedy, so there is much to choose from. What about the Eca de Queiros’s 19th-century epic The Maias, which tells of forbidden love in a lively Lisbon? Or for something more contemporary, try Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered, her era-spanning chronicle of two New Jersey families.
could think of more, but I’m intrigued by your offer. $400 a day you say? Would
I still have to write this column?
5.Dear Match Book,
A veritable and unrepentant gourmand, I’ve devoured Valerie Luiselli, inhaled Karl Ove Knaussgard, delected Ben Lerner and glutted on Ottessa Moshfegh in the last month alone. I really don’t need a recommendation. I was just writing to communicate how well read I am.
6.Dear Match Book,
books is simply a matter of data analysis. For example, with the right
algorithm I could tell you which novel to read based on the kind of paper
towels you buy.
You’ll never replace me with a machine, Bezos!
Sorry about Queens. And the dick pics.
7.Dear Match Book,
I’m looking for the perfect bathroom read. It doesn’t necessarily have to be thematically related to defecation—though bonus points if it did—just gripping enough to get me through my morning ritual.
I believe the best time to ingest knowledge is when one is expelling waste. The urbane musings of Joseph Epstein are my favorite companion, but perhaps it’s easiest to tell you what’s in our bathroom here at The Times: Clives James’s Cultural Amnesia, his sharp, sardonic portraits of 20th-century intellectual and artistic figures; Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives, a toilet-friendly collection of mesmerizing biographical vignettes; and The Selected Poems of Kay Ryan, whose whimsical, technically proficient verse helps to move things along, so to speak.
There’s also The Penguin Book of Similes, but that’s in Dwight Garner’s personal stall.
8.Dear Match Book,
I’ve always looked forward to reading the latest from Michael Chabon, whom I believe to be our greatest living author. This is an impossible question, but if you could choose just one masterpiece from his incredible oeuvre, what would it be?
tell you each week, I am particularly attached to The Yiddish Policeman’s
9.Dear Match Book,
been hosting a book club on the Victorian novel for several years now. Reading Daniel
Deronda, Our Mutual Friend, and the Barchester novels has taught us
the indispensability of timeless literature and great friends.
problem is I can’t stand one member of the group—let’s call him Uriah. Can you
recommend a “loose baggy monster” that will get him to quit the club?
Part of what makes Victorian literature so compelling are its villains, from Alec d’Urberville to Becky Sharpe. Why don’t you try Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White? Embrace your inner Count Fosco to lie, scheme, and gaslight the son of a bitch until the mere sight of a triple-decker sends shivers down his spine.
10.Dear Match Book,
recently murdered someone during an unfortunate encounter. I’m coping just
about as well as could be expected and devoting myself to self-care, including
reading literature about the ethics of killing a (former) friend. Any tips?
N.B. The Times in no way condones murder. Having said that, reading is a great way to begin the healing process. I would start with Albert Camus’s haunting existentialist novel The Stranger. Another book to help you come to terms with your homicidal instincts is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. And finally, for a more recent novel to help you cope with brutally ending another life, try Oyinkan Brathwaite’s delightful satire My Sister, the Serial Killer.
you don’t like these, don’t shoot the recommender! Please, don’t shoot me. I
have a family and a lot of readers dependent on my help.
11.Dear Match Book,
was a world-renowned roller-coaster engineer, but he couldn’t control the
precipitous decline of our marriage….
Dear Thrown for a Loop,
Let me stop you right there. I believe this is a “Modern Love” submission that was sent to me in error.
Image credit: Unsplash/Josh Felise.
It’s been a great year for reading! Or, at least, every year is a great year for reading, and I’ve never done as much as I’ve done this year. Strange as it seems, the year in which I’ve worked hardest is also the year I’ve read the most, by every metric. The majority of it was probably to offset the noise around me—but a not-insignificant minority was for inspiration, and for optimism.
But as I look back at my year of reading, I find some odd themes. For one, whenever I’ve been utterly bewitched by a writer, I have gone to the bookstore and bought as much of their oeuvre as possible (I know this because one, and only one, aspect of my expenses has been driven up). For another, when I think of what I’ve read—particularly nonfiction—it’s often not because of what the book is ostensibly for (insofar as books have singular purpose, which they do not), but because of something else entirely. So let’s take a gander:
1. EpistemologyI’ve spent much of this year daydreaming about how people seem to know things with such certainty. Every year is like this, obviously, but this one far more than others. Imagine my frustration at the knottiness of the answer. What is Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies about? For me, it was a demonstration of an idea that simply the act of constructing fictions about oneself (within an act of fiction) makes the fictive more real. So, of course, when Florida came out, I threw myself at it as if it were my last allowed love affair with a book—and found something very similar, because I went looking for it. Many other things satisfied the same itch. Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, Camille Bordas’s How to Behave in a Crowd were more like works of philosophy than fiction.
This was probably not altogether helped by the fact that I was simultaneously reading Seneca’s Consolations, Montaigne’s Essays, Plutarch’s Fall of the Roman Republic, and Lucretius’s The Way Things Are, and all manner of skeptical philosophers. I say this not to give myself a pat on the shoulder for being oh-so-academic: I quite literally went back to the source, so to speak, whenever things seemed even the tiniest bit off, both in real life and in literature, only to return far more confused. That, then, let me down a rabbit hole of “post-structuralist” literary theory. What that really means is: I’ve been hearing some names over and over for years now, and finally felt embarrassed enough to actually read them. And so I read Roland Barthes’s S/Z and The Pleasure of the Text, Jacques Derrida’s Writing & Difference, and although I likely understood the bare minimum, I understood enough to feel deeply suspicious that anything I subsequently read could have some actual import towards understanding the world or myself. Rachel Cusk’s Kudos, like the other two books in the Outline trilogy, then furthered the case for literature bearing no relation to reality. I wondered if I’d ever get away with a book fashioned out of a series of transcripts for every one-sided conversation I had with another person.
2. BafflementMy active search for all things baffling probably started after I read Antoine Volodine’s Minor Angels, Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp, and Marie NDiaye’s My Heart Hemmed In. I loved them all, and I spent enough time with NDiaye to be somewhat confident about what I was reading, but mostly they made me feel very inadequate, in the way that ‘intelligent’ books often do. Ahmed Bouanani’s The Hospital made me feel ill, and I’m pretty sure I skipped a doctor’s appointment because I was slightly afraid I’d land up in purgatory. Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet induced my first ever existential crisis (or, at least, what I think was an existential crisis), and then Clarice Lispector’s The Chandelier made it worse. Ali Smith’s Autumn and Winter didn’t really help me be less baffled—though inhabiting their fractured, Brexit-era semi-narratives certainly helped to distract me.
Notably, as reprieve from all this, I read Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind, and then sat and thought for a while; soon, I had finished Feel Free as well and was caught between the twin sentiments of annoyance at her seemingly-tepid politics and awe at her ability to make me doubt everything nonetheless. In other words—a reprieve it was not. Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel swooped in a bit dramatically; inasmuch as it helped me feel my ambivalence wasn’t necessarily a problem. Also, it made me feel warm and fuzzy by helping with a bit with my imposter syndrome.
All this coincided with the fact that my patience, as with many others nowadays, was at an all-time low this year. I’ve been tired of liberal narratives for quite some time, and narratives set at maximum moral outrage that insist that this age of Trump is, for the first time in human history apparently, some unique assault on truth. So imagine my surprise when—having rolled my eyes through the first story—I found myself admiring the high-wire circus tricks on display in Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It, and simultaneously irritated with the far more radical and experimental My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. The stories in Charles Johnson’s Night Hawks felt taut and sparse like Sittenfeld’s, but with fewer surprises, a lot more Buddhism than I could fathom, and fewer bourgeois settings. I liked them. The prose in Christine Schutt’s Pure Hollywood stories was lyrical and very bourgeois, but less searching than it seemed to think it was. Anyway, my collision course with all things bizarre all came crashing down when I read César Aira’s The Literary Conference. It was more ludicrous than anything I had ever read. So naturally, I bought all the translated books by Aira, apparently one of the most baffling of all living writers. By about book 8, I began to understand his ways, and felt grateful for his unapologetically-leftist bent. Then, for every subsequent book, I started to take notes on details that I found baffling, to see if the writer ever returned to them. I avoided Karl Ove Knausgaard all year, on purpose. The day before I wrote this, I devoured Amparo Dávila’s collection The Houseguest in one sitting. Once, my flat-mate knocked on my door, and what he probably saw was me: bug-eyed, and furiously turning pages which screamed sometimes like newborn children, crushed mice, like bats, like strangled cats.
3. TraditionOne of the other things I did most this year was think about what kind of writer I wanted to be. Having read some avant-garde horror novels (above), I read a little Gothic literature. I re-read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and finding in it new things to love, turned to Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. The latter weaseled its way into a story I wrote which almost scared me to death—and then made me wonder how awful I must be to have written something like that. Still, by the time I had to read Mohammad Hanif’s Red Birds for review, I had read enough stuff to wonder why in the world South Asian writers kept writing such hackneyed stories when so many other possibilities existed, and unleashed a bit of a tirade on some very famous South Asian writers for the Chicago Review. I went back to Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, which I hadn’t liked at all the first time, and forced myself to pick out some things I did like. Somewhere in the middle, I read Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us with some amount of glee, because it felt nothing like the reflexively Orientalist prose I’d gone off about. That made me very happy.
4. HistoryIt doesn’t feel right at all to talk about the books that had a major impact on my year without mentioning some of the amazing nonfiction, most of which satisfied historical curiosities whether they were meant to be historical or not. Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland and Meghan O’Gieblyn’s Interior States were expert antidotes for my irritation with tired Trump-era (ugh, even that term) tropes, and expanded my understanding of this very strange country in all sorts of empathic ways (and with O’Gieblyn, some unsettling ways, too). Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock was fascinating—though I knew in her case she had a small, not-insignificant luxury. After all, how far back one can construct one’s own family tree seems to be at least one measure of freedom. I read one very expansive history of the U.S. in Jill Lepore’s These Truths, and one over a far shorter period of time in Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies. One is enormous, the other skinny—but both are a little unsatisfying. I suppose These Truths should have satisfied my itch for epistemology too; but as it turns out that—for this American history dilettante—meeting the standards of one Howard Zinn is nigh-impossible.
So: on to kinds of history. I read Henry Gee’s Across the Bridge—about the evolution of vertebrates—and talked about it at work (my laboratory) daily. It proved infectious. Ursula Heise’s Imagining Extinction was magnificent. I didn’t want it to end. Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World was fascinating—who knew there was so much to know about the global matsutake mushroom trade!— and on a craft-level, a lesson for academics: see, you don’t have to be boring at all! Ann Blair’s Too Much to Know was utterly convincing in the way things one is already convinced about can be made even more convincing simply by becoming encyclopedic. Andreas Malm’s The Progress of This Storm and Deborah Coen’s Climate in Motion had equal and opposite effects: the first made me progressively more enraged and confused, the second made me progressively calmer and clearer. Essentially, environmental historians still haven’t quite figured out precisely how pessimistic they ought to be about climate change; but I suppose, in the Trump era, we should be happy they’re writing at all.
5. CryingI don’t prepare to cry when I read (who does?) But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the books that made me stop in my tracks and sob. Most times it had very little to do with the book and everything to do with my day or week. But sometimes it was most definitely about the book.
There is one particular moment in my editor Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State where the reader, just like the protagonist Daphne, has to process what has just occurred and cry. Anybody who has read it will probably know which moment this is (I’m not exactly being subtle), but that cry was one of the best cries I’ve ever had all year. Other similar stop-and-cry impulses happened during R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries and Porochista Khakpour’s Sick—both cries were probably more about me than the people I was reading about, but both were beautiful and cathartic and only one happened in public. Again—sometime in the middle of the year—I went to a philosopher to figure out all this crying business. The fact that I chose Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy for this task is pretty stupid when I think about it, because it didn’t make me cry at all, and I had thought it could teach me something about verisimilitude, but it did not. Anyway, that is what I did. Regardless, I read a whole lot after that to make myself cry, but nothing worked. Or at least, nothing worked as well as one particular book did; Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. I have one theory that explains why: I realized that the number of books I had read was directly proportional to how lonely I was. So take that, Barthes! Books may not resemble life, but the act of reading does.
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Over the summer, I read Charlotte’s Web to my son, and it was like entering the house of an old friend, someone you haven’t seen in years, maybe decades, but as you sit in their kitchen and drink their coffee and look out their window to their backyard view, you remember all the time you spent at this particular table, gazing idly at the photos and sticky note reminders on the refrigerator, at the slowly ripening bananas in a cracked wooden bowl, at the pebble-filled jam jars lined up precariously on the windowsill, at the embossed linoleum floor tiles…and it’s all so comfortable and comforting that it’s like no time has passed at all.
We’ve all had friends like that. And we’ve all had books like Charlotte’s Web. When I read it aloud to my son, the sentences were so overwhelmingly familiar that I felt like I was singing along with a song I’d forgotten I knew. I read Charlotte’s Web many times as a kid, so I knew the story had made an impression, but I hadn’t realized what an influence the prose style had been, that it was a music that would stay with me for life.
Of course Charlotte’s Web is a very sad book. It often gets described as a story that teaches children about death—and I guess it does—but rereading it, I found that the real lesson is that true friendship is rare and rarely lasts a lifetime. When you’re young, and you find someone immediately delightful, you optimistically think life will be full of such encounters; you don’t understand that such people are the exception, not the rule. Your second mistake is in thinking that your mutual affinity means that the friendship will be long-lasting, when it fact, any number of life events might separate you from your friend—not only tragic events like illness and death, but marriage, children, schooling, career, and the ultimate friendship killer, a change of address. Friendships have their seasons, like anything else.
Most children’s books contain simpler lessons about friendship that focus on how to be a good friend or how to keep a friend. E.B. White takes for granted that children have natural affinities for certain people and animals, and that they form deep attachments. Rereading Charlotte’s Web, I appreciated how subtle he was in his storytelling, with his emphasis on the changing seasons on the farm, and on Fern’s transition from childhood to early adolescence. At the beginning of Charlotte’s Web, Fern can understand what animals are thinking and communicating to one another, but by the end, she has stopped visiting the farm and is more interested in the attentions of a boy at the fair.
Did my son pick up on any of this? It’s hard to say. We read it twice, and he loves any story about animals, but it seems that Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is shorter, and funnier, is the one that tickles his soul. I read that book at least eight times this year. It’s basically a heist story that ends in a dinner party. I wouldn’t have guessed that it would be the novel I would spend the most time with this year, but parenthood is full of surprises.
As adult reader, the novels I loved most were Ali Smith’s Autumn and Winter, the first two in her seasonal quartet. These books are set in contemporary times and written quickly to reflect our changing politics—and even our changing seasons, as climate change skews temperatures and habitats. I haven’t read anything that reflects so well how the Internet has begun to permeate our everyday thoughts, or that gets the mood of our era so well, without getting bogged down by specific events or even names. They are witty and sad and strange and playful and kind. After I read them, I decided I would immediately read everything Ali Smith ever wrote. But life got in the way of that project and now I’m waiting for her next installment, Spring, which is due in April.
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If there’s one thing I have learned about summer reading, it’s that it should have no boundaries. Everything can be a beach read: Leo Tolstoy, John Grisham, Roland Barthes, Karl Ove Knausgaard, even massive presidential biographies if you are a grandpa or my 26-year-old brother. If you’re like me, every book that you have missed out on during the rest of the year becomes fodder for an ambitious—and somewhat behind-the-times—summer reading list.
And speaking of behind-the-times, it is perhaps unsurprising that my favorite book so far this summer was Ali Smith’s Winter. Released in January 2018, Winter is the second novel in Smith’s seasonal quartet, following Autumn. Both Autumn and Winter are lyrical and political, something akin to a modernist experiment: a pastiche of texts, news, fiction. I devoured Autumn in one sitting, sprawled in morning light on my parents’ porch (with my laptop nearby to look up pictures of Pauline Boty’s work). Winter, on the other hand, took me several lazy days of beach vacation to finish.
There was something especially delightful about a book that was so cognitively dissonant with my surroundings, an unseasonal reading: to read about a dysfunctional family Christmas in frozen Cornwall while sweaty and sunscreen-y on a beach, floating around a pool on a doughnut-shaped raft, or indoors waiting for aloe to soak into sunburns. This is of course apropos of Winter and its concern for global warming, its ending grimace at Donald Trump’s summer speech at the Boy Scout Jamboree in West Virginia: “In the middle of summer, it’s winter. White Christmas. God help us, every one.” Winter—and Autumn—remind the reader of the reality of climate change, the way the seasons slide into each other with less variegation than years past. From Autumn, “The days are unexpectedly mild. It doesn’t feel that far from summer, not really, if it weren’t for the underbite of the day, the lacy creep of the dark and the damp at its edges, the plants calm in the folding themselves away, the beads of the condensation on the webstrings hung between things.” Unseasonal reading has some of this awareness, that soon summer will bleed into all seasons, that heat is building, melting.
But along with the weather, what’s been unseasonal about my reading this summer is my lack of focus. Usually I read about a book a day in the summer, but this year I’ve been lucky to make it through one a week. Although I have read more than last year already (at 43 books at the time of writing and certainly slated to defend my title of reading the most books/pages this year in my annual contest with my dad), there’s something different about my reading lately. I put books down to nap, or to research some coastal town’s wild horse population, or to see friends. All good things, of course, but I find myself perplexed by my slowness. Has my attention span shortened from using a phone too often? Am I overcommitted? Do I have more plans than years before? Should I visit Assateague?
But when I’m not berating my lack of focus, my unseasonal summer reading reminds me of a favorite phrase from Roland Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text: He writes that “what I enjoy in a narrative is not directly its content or even its structure, but rather the abrasions I impose on the fine surface: I read on, I skip, I look up, I dip in again.” This “dipping in again” reminds me of reading Winter: a passage or two at a time, looking up, getting a drink, putting the book down to dip in the water, picking it up again. I was interrupted and unfocused. But Winter demanded to be read slowly, with frequent breaks for swimming and naps—and perhaps, if I can liken myself to Barthes, these abrasions on such a fine surface are what I enjoyed most about it.
My favorite lines in Winter remind, “That’s what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again. An exercise in adapting yourself to whatever frozen or molten state it brings you.” If that is winter, it looks an awful lot like my summer—an exercise in adaptation, in stillness that will spring to action, hopefully before too long.
Image: Flickr/Thomas Sturm
It’s the first week of February and I’ve already failed in my resolution to read more books. Between the ever-accelerating news cycle, snow days, weekend road trips, and the three-month-old baby who is smile-drooling by my side as I write this, I’ve started six books and finished exactly…one. I’m probably the last person who should be giving advice on the subject of How to Read More. But, I’m trying to do better, so I’ve compiled this list of tips to help myself—and maybe you, too.
1. Schedule Your Reading Time
For me, this has always been the most effective way to find time to read. Last year, I read for an hour in the morning right after I dropped my son at school. But now I live with a baby, so I’m trying to work with her naps. The point is to make a plan in advance: don’t wait for reading time to magically appear, because it never will. Look at your day and see where you can fit it in, and then stick to the plan, as if your book is a person who you’ve agreed to meet—don’t be late, and don’t flake!
2.Turn off Social Media
You know you’re on social media too much. Cutting back on it is a pretty obvious way to find more reading time, but that’s easier said than done, especially since most of these sites are designed to be addictive. So here’s one simple thing you can do: put your phone in another room when you’re reading. I got this tip from the podcast Hidden Brain, during an interview with Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work. Newport emphasized that it is important to put your phone in another room because even if it’s turned off, as long as it’s nearby your mind will be distracted by its presence.
3. Don’t Overschedule Your Weekends
Weekends often get filled up with activities that aren’t reading-friendly or even very leisurely, e.g. household chores, social events, family obligations, and least fun of all, all the work you didn’t finish during the week. I didn’t even realize this was happening to me until I read Katrina Onstad’s The Weekend Effect, which argues that our culture is slowly turning its weekends over to scheduled activities and paid work. Take a look at your weekend and see if this isn’t happening to you. Then start declining invitations and put off doing the laundry. You deserve a lazy Sunday afternoon.
4. Get Up Earlier
Okay, this has never worked for me, at any stage of my life, but I hear it works well for other people. Set your alarm for a half hour earlier and keep a book on your bedside table. No need to get dressed, just roll over and read.
5. Listen to Books
Audiobooks generally put me to sleep, especially in the car. But my husband loves them and has found they help him to bridge reading sessions; he’ll read at home and then listen on his commute. Sometimes he even speeds up the narrator to 1.25 reading speed, or even 1.5. (I listened to a little bit of The Power Broker at 1.5 speed and it actually felt kind of aesthetically appropriate, given the overwhelming amount of detail in that book.) My son also enjoys audiobooks and this has been great for me, because he’ll play quietly in his room for a good hour if there is a story going—which gives me an hour to read quietly in my room.
6. Set a Goal, but Not a Numerical One
It’s tempting to set a numerical goal when it comes to reading more. You want to be able to look back on the year and say: “I read 50 books!” But when it comes to reading, I’m not convinced that numerical goals are actually very motivating. For me, it’s more satisfying to tackle a difficult book or series of books. It’s something I can remember and look back on fondly; sometimes focusing on a particular author or subject can even give special meaning to a period of your life.
7. Read on Your Smartphone
You know how I told you to put your phone in another room while you read? If you found that advice annoying, you might try reading on your phone. A friend of mine reads all her books on her smart phone, a habit she developed because she’s the mother of two small children and a lot of her reading takes place in darkened rooms near sleeping kids. Her phone is like a book with a nightlight. I’ve tried reading my phone and it doesn’t work for me—though I was almost convinced by this beautiful essay by Sarah Boxer about reading In Search of Lost Time on her android phone, which she describes as “a tiny glass-bottomed boat moving slowly over a vast and glowing ocean of words in the night.”
8. Read Several Books at Once
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve enjoyed reading several books at once. If I got bored with one, I’d switch to another, and then back again. I thought this was how everyone consumed books until a teacher mentioned offhand that most people read one book at a time. I have no idea if this is true, but among dedicated readers, I suspect that habits are more varied. If you read a lot of books but you’ve never read more than one at once, try reading multiple books.
9. Don’t Force Yourself to Finish Good Books
Sometimes a book is brilliant, but it’s just not the right time for you read it. You can be sitting there, reading a book, thinking to yourself, this book is so good, and yet, you have no appetite for it. What can this mean? Are you stupid? A philistine? Naïve? Unwise? Who knows! Let yourself off the hook and read what you’re hungry for.
10. Force Yourself to Read Good Books
After 15 minutes, you might feel like you’re not “into” a book. Give it a half hour, especially if it’s a classic or comes highly recommended by a trusted source. Sometimes it just takes a while to work up the necessary concentration and your initial impression of boredom was just your brain sloughing off the anxieties of the day.
11. Don’t Substitute Writing for Reading
If you’re a writer at any stage of your career, it’s important to read at least as much as you write. You’ve probably heard this advice before, because every time you attend an author panel and someone asks for advice to aspiring writers, the answer is always: “read more.” This is not just a self-serving directive. Reading may feel like a passive activity, but it will make you a better writer. It’s almost magical. If you don’t believe me, just try it for a week: Let’s say you have put aside an hour every morning to work on your novel before starting your day. Take three of those mornings and spend those hours reading a book instead. I promise you that the writing sessions on the remaining mornings will be more productive and satisfying.
12. Be Realistic
I have to ask: do you actually want to read more? Or are you simply nostalgic for a time in your life when you had more time to do everything, including reading? Like exercise, the benefits of reading are exaggerated and understated in equal measure. If you don’t feel like reading more this year, just pick out a few books to enjoy. In a few years, you might have time for more. The books will be waiting for you.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
It’s a care, a real care, when a writer whose work you love takes on a project like a seasonal quartet. The potential for readerly woe is plain: four novels forced into a form already replete with corny allegories and tired themes.
It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That’s the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it’s in their nature.
Her Autumn and Winter do indeed fall apart; they unravel. They were never tightly constructed in the first place. Autumn and Winter are no more neatly plotted than life itself; like human life, they are constructed of stories. Ali Smith’s seasons are chockfull of other bookish treats and tricks: wordplay in a myriad of forms; luscious, textured prose; allusions galore; shifting points of view; characters who seem to jump right out of Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare and our own circles of friends and family. At times, all these goodies threaten to tumble us into a literary junk shop, but Smith exerts a literary master’s superb confidence in her readers; she trusts us to make of her glorious mess the novels she wants us to read.
The three stanzas of John Keats’s poem “To Autumn,” lend Autumn its three sections: summer’s departure, fall’s transformations, winter’s threshold. Departures, transformations, thresholds: Autumn’s people move and metamorphose in the most dramatic ways we humans know: growing up and dying. Elisabeth, the book’s female protagonist, grows from child to woman, a metamorphosis conveyed in a collage of memory and the book’s present time. Her intellectual and sentimental education is shaped by Daniel, a vital old man who befriends her as a child and teaches her how to see, deeply and subversively, art and literature. Her love for her old friend metamorphoses from that of a father-hungry child, into unrequited quasi-romantic adolescent devotion, into a mature love no less profound for being unspoken; it ripens as Daniel lies semi-comatose in a nursing home bed. With Elisabeth in vigil, Daniel’s dying dreams pare his past to essentials: he forgets the name of his beloved, Holocaust-dead sister but remembers her brilliance and that she called him “summer brother.” His memories both fall away and become evergreen; he dreams he’s a green man, rejuvenated yet unalive, helplessly mythic. Meanwhile, his and Elisabeth’s land metamorphoses, not so much under the seasonal round as from climate change, and Britain unravels, Brexit both symptom and result.
By winter, in Winter, things have finished falling apart. They’re dead. Right at the start, Winter says so:
God was dead: to begin with.
And romance was dead. Chivalry was dead. Poetry, the novel, painting, they all were dead, art was dead….
The dead continue in a fabulous list: heaps of culture, isms, social institutions, electronics, sentiments, dead; yes, dead with few exceptions, all the way through to love. Flowers are dead….
Of course flowers are dead. It’s winter. Except, says this listmaker, an omniscient who pops in now and then throughout the book:
Imagine being haunted by the ghost of a flower. No, imagine being haunted (if there were such a thing as being haunted, rather than just neurosis or psychosis) by the ghost (if there were such a thing as ghosts, rather than just imagination) of a flower.
Right away, the narrator slyly disclaims any possibility that this is to be a ghost story: “forget ghosts, put them right out of your mind.”
Winter’s two protagonists, a mother and her son, are haunted by memories they don’t always remember, and by people they loved and failed to love. And yes, by the ghost of a flower: a rose bud, dead and gone for centuries, whose impression pressed into a Shakespeare folio lives as a shapely ghost of the flower.
Sophia lives not as she wishes, not in “a story that’s thoughtful, dignified, conventional in structure thank God, the kind of quality literary fiction where the slow drift of snow across the landscape is merciful, has a perfect muffling decorum of its own,” but trapped within a wasteland of her own making, literally wasted by paranoia-induced self-starvation, spiritually wasted by her own systematic rejection of those who would love her most: son, sister, and lover.
Sophia’s son Art authors a twee and fairly popular blog, Art in Nature. He tweets to a fairly sizable following. But in a breakup battle royal, his girlfriend destroys his laptop and hacks his Twitter account; her departure severs a good part of his identity. He hires Lux, a young woman he meets at a bus stop, to pose as his freshly ex-girlfriend on his Christmas visit to Sophia. (Lux, an immigrant from Croatia by way of Canada, is engaging but rather boilerplate: the downtrodden outsider, canny and kind, who magically appears to help and heal and astonish with flashes of erudition a family privileged but benighted and emotionally needy.)
When Art and Lux arrive at Sophia’s, her physical and mental deterioration prompts Lux to insist that Art call Iris, Sophia’s estranged sister. Iris, nicknamed Ire, rushes to the house to perform what therapists would call an intervention.
Family assembled. Let the holidays begin.
The Christmas family dinner is just as awful as any you’ve ever sat through, stomach clenched on the congealing feast. People (the adults) drink. A fight erupts. Mean and mean-spirited things are said, both laughable and devastating. A revelation (not a skeleton-in-closet type secret, more the awkward clunk of a psychological veil falling off) brings a gut-shot truce: silence.
In the silence, Art:
He now knows he never wants to see another Christmas Day again.
What he longs for instead, as he sits at the food-strewn table, is winter, winter itself. He wants the essentiality of winter, not this half-season grey selfsameness. He wants real winter where woods are sheathed in snow, trees emphatic with its white, their bareness shining and enhanced because of it….
For snow to fill this room and cover everything and everyone in it.
But winter’s not performing: it’s the warmest on record and no snow will fall to sheathe the woods and cover up Art’s troubles along with his troublesome relatives. And himself.
For in Winter, in winter, under the force of family dead, living or absent, masks slip on and masks slip off. Memory reveals and conceals the past. Art, too (arty art, as Elisabeth’s mother says in Autumn—not Art, though he does too) reveals and conceals.
Autumn and Winter center on the works of two real-life artists, both of whom are dead. In Autumn, it’s Pauline Boty, an English pop artist who died in 1966 at age 28, and whose mostly forgotten works are undergoing a revival. Daniel, who knew Boty, describes one of her works to 11-year-old Elisabeth. Then:
What do you think? Daniel said.
I like the idea of the blue and the pink together, Elisabeth said.
Pink lace. Deep blue pigment, Daniel said.
I like that you could maybe touch the pink, if it was made of lace, I mean, and it would feel different from the blue.
Oh, that’s good, Daniel said. That’s very good.
What does Daniel want? Elisabeth’s mother demands. Why would a man more than 70 years old befriend a little girl? No one can answer that, Daniel least of all. Maybe he wants a daughter to teach, or maybe he longs to open the eyes of his long-dead little sister. He must want to relive his love for Boty, an affair no more physical than his relationship with Elisabeth. Both man and girl want and need what we all want and need: a true friend. As Daniel says on meeting Elisabeth:
The lifelong friends, he said. Sometimes we wait a lifetime for them.
Ali Smith’s treatment of Boty and her work could be called Feminism 101: the objectification of our bodies, the ignorance, intentional or careless, by critics and academics concerning our works, the dismissal of us as artists. (“Feminism 101” is not a slight or sneer. We all keep flunking Feminism 101, and we all need to keep taking it, over and over, until we learn it.)
Winter’s central artist, Barbara Hepworth, who died in 1975 at age 72, worked in stone, cold, hard stone sculpted into the softest forms, rounded, caressable, often shaped as that most tender icon of our iconography: mother and child. In Feminist 101 terms, Hepworth was more the exception than the rule, one of the few renowned female artists of her time.
One of Hepworth’s works, or what seems to be part of a work, takes on life as a disembodied child’s head that Sophia sees floating near her. The contact is both delusional and beautifully fulfilling, for Sophia’s evolving hallucinations of the stone “head” follow the trajectory of her own memories and needs and loves. She’s not a good mother; like most mothers, she’s the mother she is. Or she’s the woman she is, at different times. She’s the mother of a gentle, sensitive boy. She’s a woman in love with a man who looked at her through a holly wreath and owned a Hepworth sculpture. She’s a business woman for whom djellabas and Afghan coats, stuff beloved by her sister’s dope-smoking friends, are no more than trendy wares to buy and to sell at the highest markup she can get.
Both Autumn’s Elisabeth and Winter’s Sophia embrace art, but whereas Elisabeth takes a more political, intellectual route, Sophia literally embraces her artifact as a memento of lost love: the lover, face framed in evergreen, who gave her the most blissful days of her life, the child she never could embrace, “a squalling, appalling dark night of the soul.”
Save for a few, select, painful and blissful memories, the past for Sophia means no more than her shedful of faux-aged trinkets (the detritus of her closed-down business). Sophia yearns for a clean, featureless beauty, without story, unpeopled, with no possibility of fiction and its cheats.
She accuses her sister Iris of “myth-making.” Iris is happy to make story. Sophia’s austere, ideal Beauty doesn’t concern her much. She cares for the human—humans—whether in art or politics. When Art texts her to ask the difference between politics and art, she replies:
the diff dear Neph is more betwn artist and politician—endlss enemies coz they both knw THE HUMAN will alwys srface in art no mtter its politics, & THE HUMAN wll hv t be absent or repressed in mst politics no mtter its art x Ire.
Art himself is trapped in the middle. He dreams of being chased by giant flowers, metamorphosing into a stone knight so they can’t eat him. Sheltered in stone—oops! he’s captured in stone. He’s become stone. Inert under the accusations of his anima/ex-girlfriend (“dead, she said, like your political soul”), he whines:
Stop bullying me. I am political. It’s pathetic. Look at you, all mouth and stamen. Look at me, stiff as a stone. What would Freud say about this dream?
Smith leaves it to us to imagine what Freud would say: devouring females and the paradox of stones: a never-alive mineral, a man’s generative parts.
Paradox and puns are not dead.
Autumn doesn’t draw Winter’s sharp line between living and dead. The season is, after all, as Keats put it, “season of mellow fruitfulness.” Boty’s work is of paper and cloth, Hepworth’s of stone. In the underworld of dreams, Autumn’s old man Daniel is trapped inside a pine; Winter’s young man Art is locked in stone. Autumn sheds summer’s dress of green gently, passively. Winter is hard ice and death.
Not to say that Autumn holds autumn blameless. After things fall apart, winter’s unmasking is all the more brutal, all the more essential, its potential all the more thrilling. One of Winter’s ambiguous narrators—maybe it’s Iris story-telling to the child Art, maybe it’s Art mansplaining that story to Lux—tells a tale of a child captured by the god of winter.
But don’t worry. Because the child shoots through that underworld like hot blood through the veins of every cold dead person who grew up to be lost in the snow, and there are millions of them, and the child passes like warm blood through them all and what the child is seeing when it does is pure colour, the colour green, Christmas green, green at its brightest, because green isn’t just a summer colour after all, no, green’s a winter colour too.
What’s implied: But the child won’t be able to melt the ice, if we don’t get any ice at all.
Climate change threatens Autumn’s green man and Winter’s ice god alike; it threatens to extinguish the seasons themselves. Yet here Smith’s novels thin out, not because of the dreaded seasonal conceits, but because they verge on preachy. Brexit, climate change, Donald Trump and his followers, nuclear saber rattling, hard-hearted immigration policies, pollution: all are issues vital to the characters (and us), whether we demand change or justify the status quo, but at times the author’s concerns nearly smother the characters’ concerns, and the books become, at moments, just for moments, Ali Smith’s bully pulpits.
Maybe that’s exactly right. If Shakespeare’s Prospero (who looms large in Autumn) can break through the fourth wall to beg life-giving applause, why shouldn’t a novelist engage her readers in a worthy cause? Smith’s skill is to make us realize how much we miss the seasonal treasures cherished by the children of autumn and winter: the ponds and canals that used to freeze over and we’d get out our skates, the balmy gift of an Indian summer interrupting late fall’s death-grip chill.
And it’s not as if she and her characters ignore the tension between art-making and activism; art as beauty versus art as message; art versus artist.
Art versus reality, for that matter. Autumn’s Daniel owns that, for him, love is “how eyes that aren’t yours let you see where you are, who you are.” He’s stuck seeing his reflection in the eyes of his beloved, rather than the beloved itself—herself. Winter’s Art, too, is in love with the image—of himself, of his ex-girlfriend, of his faux girlfriend. Paradoxically, his self-awareness, what his ex called narcissism, and his passiveness may give him the means to break free. He reflects:
That’s what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again. An exercise in adapting yourself to whatever frozen or molten state it brings you.
Or is he eyeing a retreat?
Is it a retreat, from the hard issues of our season, to revel in the pleasure of reading passages like this, in Autumn:
The days are unexpectedly mild. It doesn’t feel that far from summer, not really, if it weren’t for the underbite of the day, the lacy creep of the dark and the damp at its edges, the plants calm in the folding themselves away, the beads of the condensation on the webstrings hung between things.
And in Winter:
That’s where the birds came in and out, they were pigeons, no, they’re called collared doves, they had their families here, several families over the years, I remember there were quite a a lot of birds in here at one point. They made a lovely soft sound. We gave them a box full of straw to nest in but they brought their own twigs and took bits of the straw and wove them together, built nests up in the rafters and only used this room when it was rainy or cold. They mate for life, you know, those birds.
I think you’ll find that’s a myth, Sophia said.
Bending and breaking national borders, disastrously vulgar world leaders, narrowing social policies, loudening militancy, expanding deserts, shrinking glaciers—is it the worst of times, the very worst of times, after which times can only end? Or can the ghost of a flower:
the life of it reaching across the words on the page for all the world like a footpath that leads to the lit tip of a candle
—or can the image of a flower’s ghost, a photo viewed on the Internet, an impression of a rose trapped in dead-tree medium of words (the Shakespeare folio)—can it really light up the world? Can art light up anything? If we’re in the worst of times, can things only get better?
Do we have to wait for Spring to find out?
I’m looking forward to spring. I don’t like the cold. Where I live, the snow comes down these days as sleet and the dust on my ice skates thickens every year. But I’m also looking forward to Spring because I love Autumn and Winter.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for November.
The Seventh Function of Language: A Novel
Little Fires Everywhere
My Absolute Darling
Haruki Murakami’s short story collection Men Without Women is off to our Hall of Fame this month. It’s the author’s third title to achieve that feat, so add “Millions readers” to the list of things closely associated with Murakami’s works. (That list also includes spaghetti, cats, The Beatles, and long distance running.) Meanwhile, two titles from last month’s Top Ten list dropped out in November: Autumn by Ali Smith and What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons.
Filling the three open spaces are works by James Salter, John McPhee, and Philip Pullman. Perhaps you’ve heard of them?
Ninth place this month belongs to Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, the first installment in the author’s new Book of Dust trilogy – itself a quasi-prequel/-sequel (it’s been called, flatly, an “equel”) to the author’s His Dark Materials trilogy. In his review for our site, Charles-Adam Foster-Simard wrote that Pullman’s latest novel is “more mature” than his earlier trilogy “because it explores psychological darkness.”
There are whispers of pedophilia and sex crimes at the fringes of the story, which heightens the sense of danger, and underscores the theme of innocence and experience, which plays an essential role in Pullman’s books.
Checking in one spot up the list in the eight spot is John McPhee’s Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process., which our own Iľja Rákoš described as “a primer in the how, the why, the who, and the humor of getting at the story without sacrificing the art.” It’s also, as Stephen Phillips argues in his review for our site, “a capsule of the charmed status of an elite practitioner during what looks today like a golden era of magazine journalism replete with extended parlays with editors, protracted fact-checking triangulation, and two weeks on a picnic table.”
And speaking of the “golden era” of publishing, James Salter’s Don’t Save Anything holds the fourth spot on this month’s list. The book collects, according to Nick Ripatrazone, “Salter’s previously uncollected non-fiction; essays that appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, People, and elsewhere. The book’s title comes from a line from one of Salter’s final interviews: ‘You try to put everything you have in a book. That is, don’t save anything for the next one.'”
Next month our list will no doubt be reshaped by our Year in Reading series, which is currently ongoing, and which reliably reorders everyone’s “to read” lists every winter.
I’ve had a good year in reading, mostly because I’ve been traveling a lot and have developed a habit of reading obsessively in airports and airplanes. In January I read Josephine Rowe’s debut novel, A Loving, Faithful Animal, and Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, and was deeply moved by both. Both are little marvels of elegance and concision.
Three of the five books I read in February warranted a little star next to the title in the notebook where I keep track of books I’ve read. Javier Marías’s A Heart So White is essentially a ghost story, except that thing that’s haunted isn’t a house or a landscape or even particularly a person; the thing that’s haunted is somehow the entire institution of marriage, and I’m still unsettled by the thought of it. I think that Ali Smith’s Autumn is her best work to date, and I’ve loved almost all of them. Autumn is utterly of this era, the first post-Brexit novel I’ve read, and yet I think it has a rare quality of timelessness, in that I am certain I’ll still find it moving and fascinating 20 years from now. Dan Chaon’s Ill Will is the creepiest book I’ve ever read, and I mean that as a compliment. It’s the kind of book that grabs you by the throat.
My favorite book of March was Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments. It’s slim and deadly. Her idea was that it might be interesting to write a book comprised solely of the quotable sentences that one underlines in more ordinary books. I found this book quite useful. When one of my European publishers sent me a proposed jacket image over the summer that involved a young woman strutting down a post-apocalyptic road with a come-hither look, dressed in a bustier and form-fitting jean shorts, I sent them this section from 300 Arguments:
After I submitted the final draft of my book about a train-track suicide, the art department produced sketches for my book cover: a needle and a long skein of red thread; a length of fluffy pinkish lace; a yellow hand mirror lying on a patch of green grass. I gave my editor a note for the designers, and the next day they delivered a perfect cover design: a photograph of the book’s subject, a man sitting on a train. This was the note: Pretend this book was written by a man.
(My publisher responded with the same jacket image, except with the girl Photoshopped out, so that the image was just an empty landscape. Fine.)
In April I read and loved Sherri L. Smith’s Orleans. I don’t read much YA, but we were about to do an event together and it was a rare moment where I was a) doing an event with another author and b) actually had time to read said author’s book. It’s a devastating and beautifully written book. The imagery stays with me.
My favorite book of May was Adam Johnson’s short story collection Fortune Smiles, which includes one of the best ghost stories I’ve ever read. I spent a pleasurable July reading everything ever published by Nicole Krauss, in order to familiarize myself with her body of work before I reviewed her spectacular Forest Dark for the Guardian. August was unremarkable, book-wise, but in September I read Nick Harkaway’s wonderful Gnomon, and then James Smythe’s gorgeous and haunting I Still Dream the month after that. Gnomon and I Still Dream are in an AI-paranoia genre that I’ve been seeing more and more frequently, with plots wherein the nature of reality is slippery.
As I write this, November isn’t over yet, but the books that have most impressed me this month are Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman and Brit Bennett’s The Mothers. The novels are in no way similar, except in their authors’ impeccable control over their material.
I’ve saved June for last, because in June I read Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing Is Monsters. I encountered the book in Montreal. I go to Montreal only under duress or when I think it will be especially helpful to my Quebec publisher, because I lived there 15 years ago, and living in that city as an Anglophone was so unpleasant that I fall into an automatic depression every time I return. People are nice to me now when I go there, no one spits at me on the street for speaking English the way that one guy did 15 years ago, I no longer see anti-English graffiti on the street, I speak French well enough now to order a coffee en français and therefore other customers in line don’t glare at me, I no longer have the kind of job where I need to worry about the Language Police, and I care much less about whether or not people like me than I did when I was 23, but one’s first impression of a place can be indelible.
In the spring I was in Montreal for 24 hours, and at the hotel between interviews, my Quebec publisher showed me a book that pierced my haze of unhappiness: My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is a dazzling graphic novel, a story about growing up poor in 1960s Chicago that’s also a Weimar Republic horror story and a meditation on monsters, on what it means to be different, on family and love. “This book will change the genre,” my publisher said, and I don’t know enough about the graphic novel genre to confirm or deny this, but I do know that the book changed me. I left the city with the sense of having encountered something truly extraordinary. Sometimes you read a book and you think, Oh. This is what a book can be.
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