There were two kinds of readers this year: people who dove into pandemic fiction, and people who said, “Uhh, things are bad enough, no thanks.” I am in the former camp and I devoured Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. I already owned a copy because I am nothing if not an ambitious book collector.
The rest of my fiction list from this year is pretty erratic: The Monkey Wrench Gang, by Edward Abbey, a copy of which I had purchased years ago wanting to understand an ex-boyfriend (the relationship was over before I had time to read it). Having now read it, I feel I understand him and all passionately outdoorsy men about 10% more, but more than anything it made me long to visit the Southwest. Luster, by Raven Leilani, purchased on my Kindle after reading the famous Jazmine Hughes “Whew” review in The New York Times, was a lot more local. I was worried at first it would be too sexy for me, but what I loved was how unsexily domestic it got. (That’s me: unsexily domestic.)
In a nice bit of calendrical kismet, I read my friend Daniel Riley’s Barcelona Days, which takes place over a long Memorial Day weekend, on Memorial Day weekend this year. Reading it felt like watching a movie about good friends from college having a life-changing few days in a beautiful city. Dan has such a gift for capturing everything both clever and mundane in his scenes and dialogue. Later in the summer I read Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State and Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, both of which are deeply interior novels that do an incredible job of crafting stories around characters who are not present.
I finally got around to Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond, purchased instantly upon the endorsement of Alex Balk four years ago. I was halfway through before I realized this wasn’t a novel so much as it was a collection of short stories. I think? Safe to say, it’s a work of fiction, but, like, in the Rachel Cusk school of fiction. Also in this fiction-but-prrrrobably-not-fiction vein was Lauren Oyler’s debut novel, Fake Accounts, which comes out in February of next year. It’s like if Ben Lerner were a clever young woman, compulsively versed in Twitter and casually familiar with Berlin. Something for everyone to love and hate.
In the non-fiction realm, this year marked the ten-year anniversary of the publication of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which means I got to buy a hardcover version. I always make room for colleagues past and present: Reeves Wiedeman’s Billion Dollar Loser and Sarah Frier’s No Filter were both fun business books that made me glad I don’t work in tech or startups.
I did not read a lot of paper books with my eyes, I confess. My husband is an avid (read: every single night before bed) listener of audiobooks. He prefers Bosch novels and Stephen King tomes, and sometimes we listen to them on long drives—one of our favorites is King’s Bag of Bones. I also made a new best friend, though she doesn’t know it: Samantha Irby. I listened to all three of her books (Wow, No Thank You, We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, and Meaty) in the shower. Don’t make me do the math on how many showers—a ritual is a ritual. Before that, it was No One Will Tell You This But Me, by Bess Kalb. Before that, I used to commute to work 40 minutes each way, so that gave me lots of time to listen to Jessica Simpson’s Open Book.
As for what’s on my nightstand now, it’s The Diana Chronicles by Tina Brown. If seasons three and four of “The Crown” on Netflix were the main course, this is the liquid nitrogen ice cream for dessert: technically impressive and utterly unnecessary, but deliciously indulgent.
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