This January, I finally read Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight, a grim and angry novel to begin a grim and angry year. First published in 1939, the frisson of suppressed brutality its narrator encounters everywhere has started to feel claustrophobically familiar now. In some ways, it’s a novel about precariousness — economic, social, psychological, historical — and about its exhausting effects on the human soul. I think Rhys had a special genius for understanding the subtle relationship between her characters’ inner lives and the grinding machinery of world history. It’s a gift I searched for often in my reading this year.
I found it again in Jane Bowles, whose singular novel Two Serious Ladies (1943) I discovered this spring. Written in a kind of flat and gloriously weird prose, the novel loosely follows two women as they throw themselves into destructive crusades against social convention. The private lives of individuals are probably always subject to the public machinations of power, but maybe this is most obvious in periods of historical crisis. At one point in the novel, overhearing a conversation between two young Marxist radicals, the protagonist Miss Goering remarks: “You…are interested in winning a very correct and intelligent fight. I am far more interested in what is making this fight so hard to win.”
Margaret Drabble’s Jerusalem the Golden (1967) is a quiet, intimate novel about friendship, sex, and social class. I read it under beating sun in Porto this summer and it charmed me almost to tears. Featuring a wry, self-aware protagonist, a glamorous cast of secondary characters, and cheerfully staunch leftist politics, it seems to me an unfortunately neglected novel of mid-20th-century Britain, and a forerunner of much of the great feminist fiction that followed.
On the recommendation of a friend, I picked up a copy of Alejandro Zambra’s My Documents (2015, translated by Megan McDowell), a startling and gorgeous collection of short fiction. Zambra’s observations are forensic, his prose is masterfully direct, and his interrogation of form, voice, and identity feels urgent rather than playful. I practically swallowed the book whole. I’m already looking forward to reading the rest of Zambra’s work, starting right now with his new book Multiple Choice (2016).
At one point in Good Morning, Midnight, Rhys’s narrator declares: “I want a long, calm book about people with large incomes — a book like a flat green meadow and the sheep feeding in it.” I confess that I shared this desire often in 2016. I reread not only Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, but also Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, as well as Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. A wealth of writing exists on all these novels and I have nothing insightful to add here, except that they consoled me somewhat while the world descended into catastrophe. Great writing can do more, but sometimes consolation is no small task.
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The only New Year’s resolution I’ve ever kept (sorry vegetarianism!) was 2014’s: to write down every book I read. I’ve stuck with it; thus, I’m able to offer an exact accounting of my 2015 in reading. I can’t quite believe that someone has asked me to do so, but boy am I prepared.
As I suffer from tremendous anxiety of influence, I didn’t read a single book while writing my own. (To relax, I cooked; to fall asleep, I did crossword puzzles.) From June on, though, I read deliriously, hungrily, eager to make up for lost time. First, in (fruitless) search of an epigraph for my book, I reread Louise Fitzhugh’s The Long Secret and then Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, both as wonderful, indeed much richer, than I remembered.
I played cultural catch-up, reading books that had been much discussed among my circle (my circle: complete strangers I follow on Twitter) over the previous year and half: Akhil Sharma’s Family Life, Megan Abbott’s The Fever, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, Rachel Cusk’s Outline, Elizabeth Harrower’s In Certain Circles, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (in three days!), Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans, Rabih Alameddine’s devastating An Unnecessary Woman, a book that makes bookish people feel, by association, unnecessary, and Lorrie Moore’s Bark.
We went on vacation and I sat by the pool and read Mira Jacob’s un-put-down-able The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything, which was like if Mad Men had only been about Joan (that is to say: not boring).
You can never actually be well read; there’s too much out there. So sometimes it’s best to choose randomly. I picked up Günter Grass’s Cat and Mouse because my father-in-law happened to have a particularly groovy paperback edition of it. In a piece about the Argosy bookshop, Janet Malcolm wrote about one of the owners resigning Louis Auchincloss to the bargain bin. Thus, I read his The Rector of Justin. (If you spot it in a bargain bin, give it a shot; it contains a wonderful, truly hateful character.) I read Ed Lin’s slender and foulmouthed Waylaid on the recommendation of a friend, and Grégoire Bouillier’s The Mystery Guest because I’m fascinated by Sophie Calle, and Barbara Browning’s I’m Trying to Reach You because I loved the title. I read Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps and Birds of America because I never got an MFA and I have to learn to write somehow, and I read Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight because I love sadness.
I’m working on a new novel that sort of involves a poet, so I read two books that involve poets: Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift and May Sarton’s Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. This is like someone who’s never played tennis deciding to learn the game by studying Venus and Serena Williams, but there you go. I read Colm Tóibín’s characteristically wonderful Nora Webster, and Helen Dewitt’s icily smart The Last Samurai (I’ll confess a personal failing: I can’t handle children as narrators). I read Bellow’s superb Henderson the Rain King, (problematic, in the argot of our times) and then Dangling Man, the same author’s first novel.
One great perk about publishing a book is that people send you books. For free! That’s how I got my hands on Nell Zink’s Mislaid (my notes say I found it “bonkers”), and two titles that haven’t even been published yet: Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers and Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest, two excellent books destined to appear on a lot of Year in Reading 2016 lists. Jealous? You should be.
I read two works of nonfiction: Hermione Lee’s smart and comprehensive biography of Willa Cather, one of my all-time favorite writers, and Edmund White’s City Boy, a rambling and sort of disappointing document. And somewhere along the line, I read Margaret Atwood’s unexpectedly optimistic MaddAddam (spoiler: humanity perishes, the written word endures). I just counted: there are 36 volumes waiting on my bedside table (including collections of L.P. Hartley, Carson McCullers, and John Updike that contain multiple novels). Christ. The years are never long enough.
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