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A Year in Reading: Merve Emre

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I have a hard time remembering the books I have read without also remembering who I have read them with or where. Increasingly, since so much of my reading is done out loud to my children, it seems natural to me that all reading should be shared reading of one sort or another. Sifting through text messages, chats, emails, and the letters and envelopes scattered around my office, I have pieced together a calendar of the books I have read and the people who made them matter.

January, February: The Collected Stories of Diane Williams, “stories that show how the momentary convergence of yearning and surrender can make time hang still,” I shout first at Stephanie, then at the bartender serving us, before putting the thought in an essay on Williams; Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, Monkey Grip, and The Children’s Bach (“one of the best novels of the twentieth century,” Len writes to me after reading a draft of my essay on Garner)—novels built out of beautifully Brechtian tableaux. My calendar reminds me that most of February was spent at festivals and talks, reading on freezing trains. On a train to Harrogate: Dasa Drndić’s Doppelganger, which features an old lady giving an old man a hand job beat out to a Nazi alphabet primer. On a train to Cambridge: Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story, the best anatomization of how one person can colonize another’s thought after a break up. During a long weekend in New York: Drndić’s Belladonna, EEG, and Trieste for an essay about Drndić’s novels of unsuccessful self-annihilation. On a flight to Glasgow, Brigid Brophy’s Flesh, about an inexperienced, neurotic, young man seduced by a wry, charismatic, older woman.

March, April: Nightwood, The Sound and the Fury, Lolita, Giovanni’s Room, Housekeeping, Beloved, novels I re-read during the term with my students. (“Is modernism inherently depressing or do you just like depressing modernist novels?” one asks.); Siri Hustvedt’s fine and predictable Memories of the Future for a review. Obsessed with telescopes and other instruments of sight after scientists release the first image of a black hole, I read Margaret Cavendish’s mind-blowing The Blazing World and Poems and Fancies and Danielle Dutton’s enchanting novelization of Cavendish’s life, Margaret the First. I chase down some seventeenth century scholars, all of them named Katharine (why?), so I can learn how old telescopes work.

In mid-April, my friend Sarah comes to visit Oxford. A sense of civility and calm descends on my loud, disordered home. She airs out the cottage, opens a bottle of wine, roasts a chicken, and makes a salad, the likes of which my children have never seen before because I feed them only frozen peas, still frozen. We read together. The kids—The Jolly Postman, Each Peach Pear Plum, Julián Is a Mermaid, Tiny T-Rex and the Impossible Hug. She—Sally Rooney’s Normal People, interrupting her reading every ten minutes to groan at me. (I prefer Conversations with Friends.) Me—The Last Samurai, the pages of which have stiffened into little waves after I laughed so hard at DeWitt’s mad, philological genius that I dropped the book into the tub. To make Sarah happy again, I take her to Blackwell’s and make her buy her own copy of The Last Samurai, which has a nicer cover than mine because it’s the U.K. edition. She reads it in a single sitting the next day, draped over the couch in my office, and complains that Jonathan Safran Foer ripped off Helen DeWitt when he wrote Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. “Only his version was squishier,” she says.

At the very end of April, someone—I wish I could remember who, but I can’t—recommends Olive Moore’s Spleen, a forgotten modernist novel, painterly and queer, about the fearful eroticism of maternity. In Paris for work, I do an interview with British Vogue about “serious erotic fiction,” trying hard to convince the wide-eyed editor that Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons is full of practical sex tips. On the flight to Guernsey for a festival, I read the first half of my friend Rachel’s forthcoming book On Compromise: Essays on Art and Democracy, which is bracing and sensitive and funny.

May: a month consumed by gradually escalating illnesses. A sniffle, a cold, a sinus infection, bronchitis. I am bravely preparing to die of tuberculosis in a garret somewhere when I receive a copy of Guy de Maupassant’s Like Death from Nicholas at the New York Review of Books. How does he know nothing heals me like a novel about French aristocrats and artists behaving badly? Convalescing, I blow through Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head at the urging of Sarah, who is convinced that my life is always one punch in the face away from a Murdoch novel. The recommendation is seconded by our friend Gloria. “When I gave this book to my roommate when we were twenty-two, she said she felt like bread that just discovered butter,” Gloria writes. “I have never forgotten that.” On the train to Cardiff for a talk, I read Adam Sach’s debut novel The Organs of Sense, which is extremely funny on seventeenth-century telescopes, blind astronomers, and the temporary luminosity of love.

June: Fleur Jaeggy’s novella Sweet Days of Discipline (cold, gleaming), then to Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina (eddying, frantic), poolside at Cliveden House where I burn badly, convinced that the English sun is too puny to warrant sun screen; Fran Ross’s Oreo after swimming the Thames, flanked by unarousable cows; Leah Price’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Books, one of only three non-fiction books I will read this year and the inspiration for the bookish tattoo I get at the end of the month.

July: Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End, before a flight to Turkey to drop the kids off with my mother at her summer house on the coast. On the flight there, I read them the animal books they love: Just So Stories, Where the Wild Things Are, The Elephant and the Bad Baby. My last night at my mother’s, I stay up too late reading Kafka’s Letters to Milena, which I find on the shelf of the guest bedroom. I am mesmerized by how Frank—Milena calls him Frank; I will too—burdens this woman with his torment, yet how real and irreducible that torment seems. I am sad that Milena’s side of the correspondence has not survived. I like her voice as I encounter it in the appendix to the book, in a letter to Max Brod. It’s a voice that seeks reality and clarity and, glimpsing both, bends toward compassion. There’s an excellent description of how annoying it is to accompany Frank to the post office. I reread Lydia Davis’s short story “Kafka Cooks Dinner” in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis to hear the echoes of that voice, mined for its comic potential: “I am so filled with despair as the time grows near when she will come and I have not even begun to make a decision about what I will offer her. I am so afraid I will fall back on the Kartoffel Surprise, and it’s no surprise to her anymore. I mustn’t, I mustn’t.” On a flight to New York, I read over a dozen applications for the Whiting Non-Fiction Grant, though the one that I remember best, because it feels fated somehow, is a haunting new translation of Kafka’s diaries by Ross Benjamin.

August, back in the U.K., reunited with the kids: Claire Louise-Bennett’s Pond, because I have decided to include a chapter in this book I’m trying to finish writing on the short story and close reading; Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, because it’s “the new Ben Lerner” and because I used to be a high school debater. In the passenger seat on a drive to Cornwall, I pivot to read backwards to the kids—Ludwig Bemelman’s Madeleine, Ogden Nash’s Custard the Dragon, Julia Donaldson’s Tabby McTat, all of which I have memorized, so I can recite instead of reading—until I start to feel car sick. While they nap, I finish Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater and begin Nicholas Mosley’s Accident, recommended by Claire, who describes Mosely as a “bloodless D.H. Lawrence”—lots of shadowy evil, too little golden sex. On the ride home, I write a short, exorcising essay on Natalia Ginzburg’s The Dry Heart, a grim, anti-Romantic novella about a woman who murders her cheating husband. The week after in Paris, everyone gets a 24-hour stomach bug, only no one gets it in the same 24 hours. The trip becomes a relay race of illness. The kids are listless, filthy. I read them their favorites: Lost and FoundUp and DownHow to Catch a StarStuckThe Incredible Book Eating Boy, all by the magnificent children’s author and illustrator Oliver Jeffers. I read chapter 42 of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady on my phone about a dozen times because his sentences stave off nausea. 

September: On a trip to Boston and New York: Deborah Levy’s calm, aphoristic The Cost of Living—Sarah’s copy, a re-read from last December; Fleur Jaeggy’s S.S. Proleterka. Three Lives, and I Am the Brother of XX and Rachel Ingalls’s Mrs. Caliban, all courtesy of Mieke who invites me to raid her bookshelf at New Directions; the proofs for The Ferrante Letters with Kat, Jill, and Sarah, which I read aloud to us around Sarah’s kitchen table because I always read proofs aloud, though it is slow and excruciating. At a conference in South Bend, Nan recommends Susan Choi’s My Education, about a graduate student who sleeps with her literature professor’s wife, a literature professor too but also—shocking and confusing to all involved—a young mother. I read it on the plane home, and find that, like most relationships, the novel is fun and full of possibility in the first half, turns stale and falls apart in the second.

October: Len, who is on a one-man crusade against what he calls the “New Piety” in literary criticism, convinces me to read Philip Roth’s The Professor of Desire. It starts out funny—Roth is trying hard to retool Chekhov’s short story “The Lady with the Dog” as a comic novel—but Roth makes compulsive sexual desire into such a sad, annihilating thing that my laughter runs out quickly. In an afternoon, I read Isabel Waidner’s propulsive We Are Made of Diamond Stuff, a Brexit novel that manages to write about the present without making the present feel dated; in a night, Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan’s Correspondence, which, though not as intense or agonized as Letters to Milena, still crackles with Celan’s despair and Bachmann’s self-possession. On a flight to Stockholm at the end of the month: Niklas Luhmann’s Love: A Sketch, for a talk I’m supposed to give preemptively titled “Critical Love Studies.” (What does this mean? I don’t know yet.)

November is frantic with reading to crowd out the holidays, which leave me bored and melancholy. There is Hermione Lee’s engrossing biography of Virginia Woolf and Volumes 2 and 3 of Woolf’s diaries for the new edition of Mrs. Dalloway I am annotating and introducing; John Berger’s sexy, phenomenologically attentive G., on Len’s recommendation, and Alison Light’s compassionate memoir about marriage and communism, A Radical Romance, on Pam’s; The Complete Gary Lutz for an essay on the un-erotics of art and sad literary men; all of Benjamin Chaud’s gorgeously illustrated Bear books to my children and the new Oliver Jeffers book The Fate of Fausto, a parable about an angry, possessive man for whom nothing in the world is enough. “What is enough?” my younger son asks. I do not know how to answer.

In mid-November, Diane Williams, who I have dinner and drinks with after a reading she gives in London, tells me to read John Cheever’s “The Season of Divorce.” I do, ending the year more or less where it started. Though by the time this piece goes up, I may finally finish Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport, which I have been reading at a disciplined snail’s pace of 20 pages a night for the past several months.

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Year in Reading: Emily St. John Mandel

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Twelve notes for a Year in Reading essay:
1.     Do you have holiday traditions? Here’s one of mine: every December, I log into The Millions staff portal to upload my Year in Reading piece, and am somehow always astonished to discover that I haven’t written anything for The Millions since my last Year in Reading piece, a year earlier.
2.     Does anyone who isn’t independently wealthy have enough time to do everything they’d like to do? I suspect not. My affection for The Millions hasn’t dimmed since I started writing for the site nearly a decade ago, but I have an almost-three-year-old, who takes up all of the time that I don’t spend working on my new novel or chasing lecture fees to the far corners of the country. Time can be found here and there in the margins sometimes—hello from the Dallas airport!—but I do not believe that I can have it all. There are always improvements to be made in time management and efficiency—for example, you can save a lot of time in the mornings by eating breakfast standing up at the counter while you unload the dishwasher—but no matter how efficiently I work and how much coffee I drink, there are only 24 hours in the day and I need to be asleep for seven of them. Things fall by the wayside.
3.     When I give lectures I’m often asked if I’m going to start writing children’s books now that I have a child, which I’m sure is a question that male novelists who write literary fiction for adults get asked all the time too. I have no immediate interest in writing children’s books, but I do find myself considering children’s books much more closely than I used to, because there’s nothing like reading a book aloud four times in a row to gain a deep knowledge of the text. One of the books I was most fascinated by this year was Madeline, the children’s classic by Ludwig Bemelmans, which I could probably recite from memory at this point. (“In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines,” the book begins, “lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.”) The twelve little girls live under the care of a nun, Miss Clavel. In two straight lines they walk in the rain at Notre-Dame Cathedral and in the sun at Versailles; they eat at a single long table, six on each side, and even sleep in two straight lines in their dormitory. But when Madeline falls ill one night, the order is disturbed: Dr. Cohn arrives, diagnoses her with appendicitis, and whisks her off to the hospital.
I remember the book well from my childhood, but of course there are details that one only picks up on in adulthood. The book has a distinctly between-wars air about it. Cohn is a Jewish name. I checked the copyright—1939—and tried to convince myself of the irrationality of feeling a shiver of dread at the fate of a fictional character. In 1939, Dr. Cohn is still practicing medicine in Paris. The Nazis won’t arrive until the middle of next year.
4.    When the other children visit Madeline in the hospital, they gasp in amazement when they see “the toys and candy from Papa.” The toys are extravagant, in a compensatory way. Papa isn’t here in person, but he sure did arrange for a lot of toys, flowers, and chocolates. There seems to be no Maman in the picture, which is presumably why Madeline lives under the care of a nun. (One might think that a father who can buy all those toys might also have the resources to bring his daughter home and employ a live-in nanny, but it was a different time.)
5.    That night, Miss Clavel wakes to the sound of weeping. When she rushes into the dormitory, she finds all eleven of the remaining girls in tears: “All the little girls cried, ‘Boo-hoo! We want to have our appendix out too!’” My memory of reading this book as a child was that my childhood self found that last scene mildly amusing: look at those silly little kids, so desperate for attention that they wish they had appendicitis!
But all these years later, reading the book aloud to a small child, that last page provokes only distress. The children are crying because they long for what Madeline has temporarily gained: not just attention, but the attention of a parent. They are weeping in a dormitory, not a bedroom. The old house in Paris is charming, but it’s an institution. Miss Clavel cares for them, but does Miss Clavel love them?
6.     (A sobering aspect of parenting, one of many: you realize very early on that eventually, you are going to have to explain everything to your child, every detail of this world. Try not to imagine Dr. Cohn on the train to the Drancy internment camp; try not to think too much about having to someday explain anti-Semitism to your half-Jewish daughter.)

7.     The adult books I loved most this year were Asymmetry, by Lisa Halliday, and The Reign of the Kingfisher, by T.J. Martinson, which is coming out in the spring. I realize it’s obnoxious to recommend a book that hasn’t come out yet, but it’s worth making a note of this one for later.
8.     A flipside to that thing about having to explain the entire world to your child: obviously it’s not all horror. I have had the honor of introducing her to her first peacock, her first butterfly, her first ice cream. I got to be the one to tell her that anything is possible in books. The idea surprised her, so it comes up in conversations quite often: “Bears and kids can be friends in books?” she asks, just confirming. Yes.
9.     (In books, twelve little girls can walk through Paris in their two straight lines indefinitely, with the summer of 1940 forever in the unimaginable distance.)
10.     If the sense of limitless possibility is what made me fall in love with reading—a childhood and adolescence spent in Narnia, in Middle Earth, on various science fiction-anthology space stations, in the company of Asimov’s androids—I believe it’s the possibility of unexpected connections between narratives that fascinated me and kept me in love with reading over time. Consider Asymmetry: in its first section, an extended novella, a young editor and writer named Alice falls in love with a much older and very established novelist, Ezra, who’s been described as a very thinly disguised Philip Roth.* What at first seems like the story of a passing fling turns into something deeper and more propulsive; time passes and they remain together; she sits with him in the hospital when his health begins to fail. The next section is another novella, a powerful first-person account of an Iraqi-American man trapped in immigration hell at Heathrow. The two novellas would seem to be entirely unconnected, until in the third and final stretch, an interview transcript suggests a link, and that link resolves some of the pathos of the first section: Alice has forged her own path, she’s found a way to write convincingly from the perspective of a person whose life experience and worldview are completely different from her own, and she’s written something brilliant. It’s a truly elegant book. I’d say that it’s the narrative subtlety that makes the book such a pleasure, but it’s also the sheer quality of the prose.
*(11.     I completely missed the Philip Roth allusion myself, because I’ve been to a lot of literary festivals, where I’ve met a lot of writers who reminded me very much of Ezra, I mean literally dozens of them pontificating over interminable dinners and giving me unsolicited career advice, so it wouldn’t have occurred to me that he was based on a specific writer, but on the other hand I was apparently the last person in the world to hear that Asymmetry’s author and Roth had a long-ago romantic involvement.)
12.     T.J. Martinson’s debut novel is set in a Chicago that used to have a superhero. It’s one of those books that plays with genre in an interesting way: the prologue reads like a graphic novel, and the entire book reads like literary detective fiction. With a superhero in it. Back in the 1980s, a mysterious and inhumanly strong man known as the Kingfisher watched over the streets, until his mutilated body was recovered from the river. In his absence, crime once again began to rise. But did the Kingfisher really die? Or did he fake his own death? If he faked his own death, why won’t he return to save his city? Either way, the book suggests, we cannot wait for a new superhero, or for the return of the old one. We must save ourselves.

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