Born on a Tuesday: A Novel

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A Year in Reading: Catherine Lacey


This is the first year I kept an almost accurate list of what I read and, as I look over it now, I am surprised at the number of books I read and hated. Is it sacrosanct to so gleefully abandon a bad book in an airport or on a public bench? I will not mention them here because I am incapable of speaking briefly on the subject of bad books. Instead, here are a few of the memorably good ones.

Winter in Chicago—I read Sempre Susan by Sigrid Nunez hunched over my kitchen table one night, wholly absorbed. An account of the year or so Nunez lived with Sontag while dating David Reiff, Sontag’s son, Sempre Susan is an ideal memoir. I tried to recommend it to my friend Kathleen but it turns out she had been the one to recommend it to me!

In a friend’s apartment full of books in languages I could not read I found an old friend: Today I Wrote Nothing by Danil Kharms. Still just as wonderful.

A hawk book double feature—I bought the beautiful British edition of H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald at Shakespeare & Co in Paris and read it on a train. It was so piercing and perfect. Like Sempre Susan, it is a memoir focused on a single subject—in this case the husbandry of a hawk—as a way to write about broader, more slippery subjects like grief and family and solitude. H Is for Hawk led me to another hawk book—The Peregrine by J.A. Baker, a book my partner Jesse and others had been suggesting for years. Little happens—a man observes peregrines in the wild over time—and yet everything happens. It is one of those books that reminds you so emphatically that you belong to a planet of which humanity is a very small part.

Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams. Again a reread. Williams is a national treasure. These stories are especially good when read aloud— like prayers, but better.

My friend Brenda gave me a copy of Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights several months before the Nobel. What a thrilling and impossible book. It was like watching a figure skater do endless triple axels.

After a chance meeting with the writer Elnathan John, I read his first novel, Born on a Tuesday. It is gripping, terrifying, and clear. A force to be reckoned with. Not unlike Elnathan himself.

I came across a copy of Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton and enjoyed it very much. Shapton has this consistent aesthetic language across both the visual and the written; I find it very soothing.

A writer I met this year, Ayşegül Savaş, told me about Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Leger; I read it and immediately bought a copy for my friend Brenda to repay the Tokarczuk recommendation. Ayşegül & Brenda are two of my most trusted book suggesters. I put their titles at the top of the list and though they’ve never met there is, increasingly, a conveyance of books between them.

Another Brenda recommendation—Embers by Sandor Marai—was also passed along to Ayşegül. I then went on to read Portraits of a Marriage, also by Marai, which was just as captivating.

I read two unpublished books by Jesse Ball you might be lucky enough to come across in future years.

While in Berlin I read Joseph Roth’s What I Saw (another book from Brenda) which was about Berlin in the 1920s. Also I read After the Wall by Marc Fisher, an account of the years immediately following the fall of the Berlin Wall. They’re both wonderfully chatty but informative accounts of daily life in Berlin during the early and late 20th century.

An insane thing happened—I read an old interview with Vito Acconci in which he mentions Curzio Malaparte, a name I’d never heard before and that afternoon, while I was on a walk in the sculpture fields at the Omi International Arts Center, I came across a copy of a book called Malaparte by Michael McDonough that was contained within a small cube-shaped structure. The book covered the life of Curzio Malaparte and this strange home he built in Capri. I sat down and read it in full.

The Melancholy of Resistance by Lazlo Krasnahorkai was an apt companion in recent months, these doldrums of #resistance. I had tried and failed to read this book in the two years since Jesse gave me a copy, and finally the time was right. You have to be ready to lie down and be walked over, I have found—it was pleasing and discomfiting at once.

Another Ayşegül recommendation—Happening by Annie Ernaux. In fact, she recommended The Years by Ernaux, but Happening is the one that I found that day at Myopic Books in Chicago—my beloved used bookstore. Happening is about the near impossibility of getting an abortion in 1960’s France. I will soon read everything by Annie Ernaux I can find.

I read and continue to read relatively few works by Americans—which I recommend highly. Our books are often disseminated far beyond our borders and often for no good reason. I think there is a special heaven for translators in this country. I recommend you hug the next translator you meet. I also recommend abandoning books you dislike, even pushing them into recycling bins if you must. Such carnage this year. Hopefully 2020 will be kinder.

More from A Year in Reading 2019

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A Year in Reading: Leila Aboulela


Anita Desai is one of my favorite writers and I’ve been steadily rereading her novels.  Clear Light of Day took me back to a time of dutiful daughters, crumbling leafy bungalows, and afternoon tea. Moving on to Fasting, Feasting, I imagined in the first half of the novel that I was in that very same bungalow where the dutiful daughter was even more severely restricted by her bad luck and selfish parents. Afterwards the two novels flowed and merged in my mind. The calmest of language and the richness of the details made me inhabit a world that might be limited in space but is beautiful and completely believable.

Another example of a woman inhabiting a limited space (this time physically as well) comes in the debut novel The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader.  I did not know this before, but in medieval times an anchoress was a Christian nun who chooses to withdraw from the world and devote herself to prayer and fasting. Traumatized by her sister’s death in childbirth, Sarah, the 17-year-old English protagonist, agrees to shut herself up forever in a small cell on the side of the village church. That cell is symbolic of her future grave and indeed right underneath her, in the ground, a former anchoress had been buried. Sarah’s turbulent interior life and the detailed research that went into writing the novel kept me fascinated until the very end.  It also made me reflect on how the idea that “Islam oppresses women” has nowadays become endemic and with it goes hand in hand a disingenuous overlooking of the situation of women in other cultures and past historical periods. The Hindu women of Anita Desai’s novels and Robyn Cadwallader’s medieval anchoress redress this balance through expansion and empathy rather than exclusion and derision.

Another impressive debut this year was Born on a Tuesday by Elnathan John. Dantala, a young boy in northwest Nigeria, is caught up in electoral violence. He finds a home and personal advancement within the Muslim community led by the open-minded Sheikh Jamal. When the sheikh loses a major funder in Saudi Arabia to his radical rival, the former’s movement is undermined and weakened. I was carried along by the endearing voice of the young, sensitive narrator, his instinctive goodness and intelligence in making sense and finding beauty in the brutality, poverty, and oppression surrounding him. The novel manages to pull off two aims at the same time — giving the reader a sophisticated understanding of contemporary Nigerian politics and the pleasure of a tender and classy coming of age story.

Reading interviews with writers online can sometimes feel repetitive. Listening to them speak at festivals, I am often conscious that they are constrained by the particular format of the event. So I was excited when I borrowed Here & Now: Letters 2008-2011 by Paul Auster and J.M Coetzee from the public library and found in its thoughtfulness, tone, and insights everything I long to find listening to two great writers deep in conversation. Auster and Coetzee cover a wide range of topics not only literature and film, but also sport, marriage, and politics. Because they are not in opposition to each other, the exchanges are revealing rather than combative, peeling back layers and circling topics from different angles.

2016 turned out to be an exceptionally good year for Sudanese literature in English. The Book of Khartoum edited by Raphael Cormack and Max Shmookler is a contemporary collection of short stories from Sudan’s top writers, carefully selected and translated. The unifying theme is the capital city, its Arab-African fusion, and the upheavals wrought by urbanization and civil war. A more heavy-weight and inclusive anthology, as its title reveals, is Literary Sudans: An Anthology of Literature from Sudan and South Sudan edited by Bhakti Shringarpure. Also exciting in 2016 was that for the first time in its history, Banipal, the U.K. magazine of modern Arab literature, devoted an entire issue, its 55th, to new Sudanese literature. I hope this interest in Sudanese literature continues and grows in the years to come.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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