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A Year in Reading: Natalie Bakopoulos

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Maps of DaysThough I’ve always craved some kind of systematic approach to reading—whatever that might look like—my reading is often chaotic, starting six books at once, making it through one or two, starting five more, and so on. Eventually I get to them, I suppose. I know a lot of people lament not being able to read at all during these times—the overwhelming state of working from home, or homeschooling, or lots of activity in a small space, or the political distractions and dread. And I understand, my focus is often terrible—I can barely respond to email at all—but reading is one place I’ve found deep solace. Since I’ve been a child, reading has been a way I create calmness, a sort of reset—and also the way I procrastinate. It’s not just the immersion in another consciousness, though that’s of course part of it; it’s something about the slow, physical act of reading, the way my breathing slows down, my body sinks in to the language on the page.

For the past several years, I’ve been
keeping messy lists of books read, and books I buy, and books I begin. I won’t
mention the latter two here of course because my putting a book down, or buying
and not reading, rarely has little to do with quality or enjoyment and more to
do with mood and happenstance and time. I think I might have started more books
than I finished this year, though I’ve finished a lot, and my to-read pile is
tall. (As a side note: thank you, indie booksellers, for not only providing
curbside pickup and shipping but also for hosting nonstop Zoom events.)

My reading this year in particular was
its own sort of keeping time. I often associate a book with where I am, where I
read it—planes, cafes, libraries, balconies, beaches, and so on—but this year my
setting did not change. I found great relief when the warm weather arrived, and
the summer seemed to open everything up and make the lockdown more bearable. Day
65, day 100, day 254: my to-read list grew and shrank, grew and shrank. Reading
outside with a cold beer or iced coffee made the pandemic feel more bearable. Then
came the shift in the light, the sudden cold days, and I returned to reading
indoors, beneath a blanket.

I finished Emily Wilson’s excellent translation of The Odyssey in 2018 but returned to it this year on audio, read by Claire Danes—those first two months of the year, when I still had a commute. It was a nice companion to Phoebe Giannisi’s Homerica (printed side-by-side in both Greek and in English translation by Brian Sneeden), which weaves in The Odyssey and Orpheus, mythology and motherhood, nostos and the domestic and the shocking passing and chasing of time: “for years / until yesterday / I was a girl.” Here is the Sweet Hand by francine j. harris I read in late summer, outdoors: “Being alone affects the canvas under language,” harris writes, and this fantastic collection had me thinking about the link between loneliness and language. I realize in writing this that I rarely read a poetry collection from beginning to end at once—a glaring omission from my reading map—but I read Henri Cole’s Blizzard one Sunday afternoon, the first snow falling outside my window. After Louise Glück won a Nobel Prize and her lines began to flood the internet, a great respite, I returned to her A Village Life. “When you look at a body you see a history,” she writes. “Once that body isn’t seen anymore, / the story it tried to tell gets lost.”

Let’s begin at the beginning. On the first day of the year, on a train from Chicago to Ann Arbor, I read Chia-Chia Lin’s powerful novel The Unpassing, and whizzing by that gray wintry scenery seemed a good match for Lin’s grief-stricken Alaskan landscape, at least the one I imagined in my mind. It’s a beautiful exploration of exile and home: “Now we yearned for all places and found peace in none,” she writes. Kate Brigg’s This Little Art is a marvel: a smart and lyrical meditation on translation. “I think we owe translators, and perhaps also ourselves as readers of translations, not gratitude but rather some intellectual recognition of the fact that her work pertains not just to this or that part picked out for late scrutiny by the reader or the reviewer, but to every single one of the small parts forming the whole” (emphasis hers).  It’s commonly noted that something is lost in translation, but I’ve always objected to this idea of loss, and Brigg’s generous, elegant meditation shows that something can also be gained. E. J. Koh’s The Magical Language of Others is a lovely memoir-companion to it, a lyrical exploration of language, translation, and links between generations, as well as her own path to writing and translation. While translating her mother’s letters to her from Korean, Koh acknowledges the limits of her language, her own translations’ incompleteness and limitlessness: “If her letters could go to sleep, my translations would be their dreams.”

The early days of the pandemic had me reading War and Peace with Yiyun Li and A Public Space, but I abandoned it—again!—after 250 pages. Will I ever finish it? The holes in my reading used to give me great shame, but I’ve long gotten over that. Along with A Public Space, I did read Mavis Gallant’s Green Water, Green Sky, which was devastating—I love her stories but have never read her novels. Elliott Holt, who led this reading, also brought me to Anita Brookner’s Hotel Du Lac (through an Instagram post), and I was pulled in by its atmosphere, its tone, its introspection—I see that hotel lobby so clearly in my mind, as though I had been sitting there all along, having a cocktail and observing the characters. Andrew Durbin’s slim, sensual novel Skyland features a quest to find a painting of the iconic writer Hervé Guibert on the Greek island of Patmos, and I, missing Greece this summer, found relief and pleasure in entering that landscape through the page. There’s something very satisfying about this sort of quest, even if it doesn’t turn out as hoped. I mean, do they ever?

I’m writing about Greece, and various kinds of appropriations, and Johanna Hanink’s The Classical Debt is an excellent, generous, incisive examination of the tendency to always look at Greece through the lens of nostalgia for an ancient, classical past, and how this relates to modern-day debts. I also loved The Real Life of the Parthenon, by Patricia Vigderman, a ruminative, satisfying look at ruins, aesthetics, power, and ownership. On the topic of cultural appropriation in writing, Paisley Rekdal’s upcoming Appropriate is compassionate and smart, a mapping of her own lifetime of reading and teaching, an exploration of whose stories we tell—and how, and why—and the way returning to a work of art often elicits such a drastically different response from our first encounter.

“One could call this a peaceful time, I suppose,” Yuko Tsushima writes in Territory of Light (translated by Geraldine Harcourt), “but in fact I spent it on edge with something close to fear, because I no longer had any clues as to what to expect.” Tell me about it! I read this absorbing novel in the early days of the pandemic, and in my mind the narrator’s small apartment I associate with quarantine, not only because of a memorable scene where both she and her daughter run high fevers, and not only because the neighborhood experiences a succession of deaths, but also simply her astute attention to small physical spaces. Among the many pleasures of this novel is the way Tsushima writes space and the way it affects us. I felt bereft when I finished it, and when I saw Katie Kitamura compare it to the new Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami (translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd), I read, and loved, that too. Like many of the novels I’ve read this year, it’s a novel about a woman writer/artist, and though this book, too, pays close attention to physical space, it’s also keenly, hyperfocused on the female body, as well as the nuances and patterns of language.

Courtney Maum’s Costalegre is narrated by fifteen-year-old Lara, whose mother, an art-collecting heiress, brings Lara and a group of European artists to a compound in Mexico—it’s 1937, fascism is on the rise and Europe is on the brink of war. Lara is fascinated by an artist named Jack, and though the others speculate he unable to work, he’s doing so quietly, making pure and clean sculpture from the rock. Lara herself is an aspiring artist, but she doesn’t realize it’s words that might will free her from her mother’s shadow. The book takes the form of a diary, and it’s her fragmented mind, her approach to the world through language, not necessarily image, that helps her shape herself and her role in this place.

Luster by Raven Leilani and its exploration of shifting power dynamics, and sex and race and class, is also about the female artist growing into herself, and the voice was both raucous and vulnerable. Such surprising turns, both on the level of the sentence and the story. Though this novel has received many accolades, what first piqued my interest was Kaitlyn Greenidge’s excellent early review of it in VQR—I love everything Greenidge writes—where she notes that Edie, Luster’s narrator, is “a black-female flaneur,” a figure who embodies “the individual that the flaneur usually observes and categorizes.” I was hooked from her review alone.

A recommendation from Ayşegül Savaş (whose Walking on the Ceiling was one of my favorite books of 2019) led me to the charming and poignant Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami (translated by Allison Markin Powell), which also has a lot of walking through the city, but mostly takes place in a particular bar (remember bars?) around drinks and meals, and had me bursting with longing. It explores intimacy and loneliness and the slow burn, the joy and sadness, of getting to know someone.

On the topic of walking, I also read Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse, which charts her own walkings through various beloved cities, and the walks of other women writers. This might be my favorite sort of book, the sort that map the intersections between life and writing and literature. I suppose I understand the aversion to books narrated by or about writers, though sometimes it seems those books are easy targets. For me, what’s not to like? We are holding a book in our hands that has been written by someone who has mostly likely come to writing through a love of reading. Though I understand the pleasure of the suspension of disbelief, I also find great pleasure when a writer shows their work. Writers and Lovers by Lily King I read in a weekend, and her portrayal of grief and the uncertainty of youth and the hope for validation was deeply affecting, and brought back my own memories of waiting tables in the 90s, the idea of being a writer so far away. Often these books are some of my favorites, whether the story is autofictional and engaged in the actual process of writing the story we are reading—or more broadly about the creation of art, a stand-in, perhaps, for the act of writing. Or being.

A self-portrait of the female artist as x might also include some other favorites, which felt like a linked trio: Kate Zambreno’s meditative Drifts and Amina Cain’s wonderful Indelicacy and Amanda Michalopoulou’s bold God’s Wife (translated by Patricia Felisa Berbeito). I have always loved Lara Vapnyar’s work since I first read her stories in the New Yorker, but Divide Me By Zero truly captured my imagination, and made me wish I’d gone far enough in math to understand the elegance of certain solutions. Lucie Britsch’s witty and melancholy Sad Janet, though it came out in the summer, is a perfect book for the holiday season, particularly if you find this time of year less than joyous, all that forced cheer. Such wit and such heart.

“We convert ourselves into something absurd because the absurd is already living inside us,” writes Pola Oloixarac in Mona, a wonderful line that could apply to so many of the works I read this year. Translated by Adam Morris, Mona is a provocative commentary on the “Western” literary world—and also on violence, and women—and the way identity is often essentialized, even by those trying to resist any sort of harmful “othering.” It’s also about writing—“We can’t write except in drag,” another woman tells her, in the sauna, after insulting Mona’s “hyper-feminine affect”—the novel is impious and funny but also takes a surprising, disconcerting turn. With its forests and mood it brought to my mind the myth of Eurydice. The ending was astounding.

I’ve been talking mostly of novels but this year, working on my own nonfiction, I read so many wonderful essay collections. William Gass called sentences “containers of consciousness,” and the elegant prose in Donovan Hohn’s meditative exploration of place and memory, climate and coast, in his aptly named collection The Inner Coast is a gorgeous illustration of such. As is Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s lyrical World of Wonders, which also explores our relationship with the natural world, and particularly the way her own engagement—particular as a woman of color, a perspective often overlooked when it comes to nature writing—with the flora and fauna of the many places she’s lived became a sort of home all its own. As does writing: “To sense one’s presence on this earth,” she notes. In a way this whole book is a sort of ars poetica.

Sejal Shah’s artfully constructed essay collection This Is One Way to Dance is organized in the order in which she wrote the essays and circles around complex ideas of identity, belonging, and the particularities of place, and made me think about the aesthetics of form in the essay in particular. “Lyric or braided, traditional or flash, essays have granted me the space to stretch, pivot, and grow…. I worry the boundaries and borders to observe where sparks rise,” she writes in the introduction. Elisa Gabbert’s The Unreality of Memory is a remarkable immersion into a very astute consciousness, and over the months I dipped in and out of Olivia Laing’s wise collection Funny Weather, which felt like just the thing I needed; her words were like a smart and calming companion through these months, and when I realized I had read all the essays I wanted to start again. Joanna Eleftheriou’s moving This Way Back is takes us between Cyprus and New York—and other places too—and gently explores her identity as a lesbian Greek Orthodox woman who has spent her life in between; the way she combines literature with history with personal narrative with landscape is exceptional. It’s a collection of essays, but their arrangement and progression creates a wonderful narrative urgency and arc, making it feel like a memoir too.

Zadie Smith’s Intimations is another mapping of an elegant mind at work, a short collection of six essays, and though I read them in one sitting, they are certainly not light. More collections! So many wonderful essay collections this year. In Brown Album: Essays on Exile and Identity, Porochista Khakpour writes with a compelling wit and candid voice. At the time of this writing I’m in the middle of two other collections—Like Love by Michele Morano, who is funny and poignant and always so smart.  Claire Messud’s Kant’s Little Prussian Head & Other Reasons Why I Write does what some of my favorite collections do: intermingle the writer’s personal history with that of their literary one: a literary mapping.

I read more memoir than usual this year: T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls struck me with its struck me with its nonchronological way of telling a story, her look at the instability of family and home and privilege, the messiness and beauty of girlhood, time as a jumble of fragments we look for ourselves within. Heidi Julavits’s innovative The Folded Clock—defined as “quasi-memoir”—inspired me to think about how I map my days, and also about the strangeness of time.

I loved Sarah Broom’s The Yellow House about growing up in New Orleans and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and her exploration of individual, cultural, and communicated memories. Things visible and invisible, and to whom—her own neighborhood was often left of maps of New Orleans. I love the way we see how she begins to see, to further chart the map of her world. I’m in awe of Jenn Shapland’s My Autobiography of Carson McCullers. “Archives always conjure this mix of overwhelming constraint and bewildering freedom for me,” she writes, which had me writing Yes!! in the margins, and I might use these words to describe memoir too. Critics have called this work “genre-bending,” and have noted that The Yellow House too, is beyond memoir, but to me these books are illustrations of all the complex and intricate things memoir, and essay, can do. Kapka Kassabova’s wonderful To the Lake is memoir, return narrative, and an exploration of a complicated family history against a larger, complicated Balkan one.  It’s a gorgeous meditation on the link between landscape and memory and Kassobova’s own space in it.

I’m particularly drawn to short story collections linked by place, and Stephanie Soileau’s Last One Out Shut Off the Lights is simply stunning. Such heart and deep attention, particularly to the lives of women and girls and the particularities of place—in this case, Southwest Louisiana—and if these characters might be difficult we love them all the more for it. And by difficult I mean real, and complicated, and alive. Speaking of difficult, I didn’t realize how much I’d missed the cranky, lovable Olive Kitteridge and her Maine landscape until I returned to Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Again. The beloved-to-many Randall Kenan died this year, and he left behind a new, beautiful collection, If I Had Two Wings, which captures the uncanniness of reality, the sweetness of relationships, and various kinds of hauntings. These stories were moving and mysterious and structurally exciting too, and I loved the way a character named “Randall Kenan” appears here and again, just like the grounding fictional small town of Tims Creek. Apollo Papafrangou’s forthcoming We Grew Here is a novel-in-stories that explores masculinity and gentrification through a Greek American Oakland lens. Maria Adelmann’s forthcoming story collection Girls of a Certain Age is funny and irreverent, and the characters, often lost or misguided, were a delight to spend time with, going along with them as they tried to find their way.

Coming soon, but get ready, because it’s excellent: I read, in draft form, V. V. Ganeshananthan’s smart and stirring novel Movement, which explores Sri Lankan politics, loss, and the complexities of ideology, loyalty, grief, and violence.

I’ve been particularly interested in novels that play with time and space, past and present, myth and history, a mix-up of it all, as well as those that are eerily atmospheric and strange. Peter Stamm’s The Sweet Indifference of the World (translated by Michael Hoffman) was mysterious and absorbing. Though its concerns are much different, in my mind it’s linked with Charles Baxter’s new, mesmerizing The Sun Collective, which will stay with me a long time. I wouldn’t call it futuristic—it’s oddly, eerily prescient, mirroring a current reality in uncanny ways—but it’s uncanny. It explores mysterious connection, the crushing bleakness of capitalism, ideologies gone awry, and the sense of transcending physical worlds in order to live in them. To be everywhere and nowhere at once.

Though the fantastical is a small element in Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s epic A Girl is a Body of Water, it’s a memorable, important one, particularly in the way she explores the complexity of female identity. Set against the backdrop of Idi Amin’s reign in Uganda, the novel intertwines ideas of silence, seeing, disappearances, storytelling, myth and history, and both the small and large shifts of power that affect a friendship, a place, a life, and also suggests that time is not linear, nor does it move in one direction. And it’s gorgeous.

Maybe because it’s the last book I finished before sending this off, and I hate to pick favorites—but Sigrid Nunez’s What Are You Going Through is among my favorites of the year. Two nights ago, unable to sleep, I read half of it, slept several hours, and woke up and finished the rest. The way we are invited to follow the narrator’s meanderings, the way the novel felt both warm-blooded and earthy and deeply philosophical, the way I felt I was in the presence of a sharply intelligent, benevolent sensibility—I loved all this (“all this: the inexorable, the inexpressible,” Nunez writes) and felt such sadness upon having finished it. I felt so wrecked, so torn apart—yet somehow, miraculously, also shored back up.

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