This was the year I lived in a log cabin in the redwoods and then — suddenly, crudely — I didn’t.
This year I moved back to San Francisco after moving away just a year earlier, just for a minute, a break, just for some air, and when I returned I found I didn’t love you anymore, SF.
This was the year I found wrinkles around my mouth and eyes, the year of three more tattoos because fuck it, I mean we’re all going to die/become climate chaos refugees anyway, I mean did you notice how crazy the weather was this year?
2015: It was the year of cooking more. Of jazz. It was the year of bupropion, the year of boot camps, the year I sold my first nonfiction book and didn’t finish my first novel. The year my friends all bought houses and I didn’t. A year of trying to be more like an adult, and a year of understanding how I never will be.
In the cabin, books felt realer. The woodstove replaced the TV. I started doing things like baking cookies and hanging bird feeders and sleeping all night. My partner and I stopped going out much, and when we did it was always to a dive bar and always for hamburgers. But we were lonely. We missed our friends. And so I read with friendship in mind, searching for female companionship in a way that I haven’t since junior high school. Most of the novels I read and loved this year were also books I was revisiting. I loved these books because they are at heart about women, about “little” lives, and about what it means to become oneself.
I re-read Colette’s Claudine at School; Colette was a self-mythologizer of Greek proportions, and all us lady writers today could learn a thing or two from her swagger.
I binge-read every E.M. Forster novel, and realized how key turns in each book hinge on women; characters who may be small in deed or acknowledgment but whose impact looms large. (In my head, I call them Forster’s Girls, as though they’re some sort of Pink Lady-like posse, which is probably a terrible thing to think?) Cousin Charlotte in A Room with a View; idealist Helen Schlagel in Howards End; terrified, terrible Adele Quested in A Passage to India. These women fuck shit up, for good or bad, in part because they cannot help but yield to their true selves.
For the first time, I read Department of Speculation (Jenny Offill) and The Folded Clock (Heidi Julavits) and Everything I Never Told You (Celeste Ng) — books with small interiors but tremendous landscapes, each about women struggling in some way with what I’ll call, for lack of a better word, domestication.
On the wilder side of the spectrum, I read Get In Trouble over and over again and I still have no idea how the fuck Kelly Link does it.
I got to know some new heroes a bit better in sequels — Sarah McCarry’s About a Girl and Katie Coyle’s Vivian Apple Needs a Miracle — and I felt grateful for women younger than I being stronger than I am. Then I invited over The Girls from Corona del Mar (Rufi Thorpe) and the Collected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, girls who maybe aren’t heroes but maybe I like them better that way.
Finally, I read Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck, and I remembered how the best stories are edged with grief.
In Madness, Rack, and Honey, Mary Ruefle writes in defense of sentimentality: “Nostalgia, which evokes sentimentality, belongs exclusively to culture. Because it belongs to the idea of progress and change and the idea of accumulation, accretion and storage.”
When I moved back to San Francisco this year, I did so for the fifth time in two decades. This time, though, there is a new sentimentality attached to my interactions with the city. It’s neither pure regret nor Vaseline-lensed nostalgia; more like a backwards-facing gaze, a constant awareness of what Ruefle might call the city’s “accumulation.” When I walk around this town, I can’t see it clearly, I’m so clouded with visions of lives I have lived here, things I did or didn’t do, and — most urgently — what isn’t here anymore. When I look at San Francisco now, my eye’s camera loops a constant montage of how it used to be. Jobs and apartments, lovers and friendships and grocery stores, the behavior of the clouds. How we used to be, it and me inside it. Every intersection stores a memory, and every time I cross one I have the surprising feeling that I don’t belong to this place anymore. It’s surprising mainly because I hadn’t realized I felt like I belonged.
Along with my nostalgia, I’ve been regressing into analog entertainments, to coloring books and piano lessons and young adult classics I haven’t enjoyed since girlhood. These diversions comfort me because they still feel like me. Undisrupted me. Who I was in all the thens and who I am now are not the same, as my city is not the same, but we are still ourselves.
I’m told this is a pretty typical sensation for a person to have in her 40th year of life. I’m told San Francisco is changing, has changed, will always be a city of change, so get over it. I’m in the midst of reading Ada Calhoun’s St. Mark’s Is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street and so I’m thinking about how yes, cities change. Culture proceeds. Sentiments accumulate. However, not all change is good change. That there are cycles of boom and bust on a particular parcel of land doesn’t render irrelevant the wrongs done in service of those cycles. The disappearance of my San Francisco is a big deal, to me.
4. Those Who Leave
Like everyone else, I mainlined Elena Ferrante this year, reading all four books in her epic and important Neapolitan series. After I finished The Story of the Lost Child, I was at a loss. What could I possibly read next, what act could follow Ferrante’s? I loved her so much, so unironically. I wanted to stay close to her characters, Elena and Lina. I had an inspiration: I would re-read Little Women, the novel that, in My Brilliant Friend, inspires the girls to become readers and writers, to push beyond the usual boundaries of their neighborhood and their gender.
Louisa May Alcott’s children’s classic was published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869; it follows the four daughters of the March family, each of whom embodies a neat archetype. The Marches are poor, or at least Gentlewomen In Classic Literature Poor — the girls all have jobs as teenagers, but the family still has a maid. And they are literate and progressive and loving; they do all right for themselves.
I read Little Women obsessively as a girl. I even had the book-on-tape (an actual cassette). This time around, it was a bit harder for me to roll with all the moralism. Each escapade of each sister always ends in a tidy lesson, usually summarized by their wise, perfect Marmee and immediately grokked by all the girls. Despite such antiquated conventions, Alcott’s writing shines through. Little Women is a YA page-turner, each short chapter leading addictively to the next, tears and all. Ferrante and Alcott have that in common, as well as the driving principle behind their work: I can sense in both these authors’ bracing rhapsodies an assertion of value, a celebration of the delicate plainness of la vie quotidien.
I was a Jo, I was always a Jo. Most American girls were, I think (and “most” includes Louisa May Alcott herself). Jo March is rebellious and defiant of gender norms, passionate and tortured in her writing; she is smarter and more useful than the people she loves, but still devoted to them. Mostly, she incapable of being anyone but herself.
But upon this re-read, the first in probably 25 years, it’s Amy March who is a revelation to me. Amy is the baby, the blonde, the sibling antagonist to Jo’s heroine. Amy is not as good and pure as pitiful, one-note Beth, nor as docile as Meg. She wants to be an artist, a genius artist, although she would also settle for having enough money to devote herself to just working really hard at her art, genius or no. When I was a girl, Amy struck me as a snob, shallow and insipid. Her destruction of Jo’s book manuscript (spoilers!) seemed unforgiveable — oddly, far more so than a similar act in Ferrante’s epic.
Now, however, Amy’s character has stretched and grown with age. There is something about a woman who, deep inside the drab gray of Civil War-era New England, desires elegance and then goes out and acquires it. Not the false elegance of fancy clothes and leisurely French carriage rides (although Amy gets those, too) but the elegance of good character. Throughout the book, Amy is trying to be — to become — a better person. She fails a lot and gets lucky a lot, but at least she tries. At the end, Amy gets the boy — the boy who as a girl I furiously wanted for Jo. But Amy gets the boy only because she demands the boy be worthy of her, something none of her sisters ever bothered to do.
Unlike her sisters, Amy has experience with and exists within the larger world as well as within her family. As she wishes and wills and learns and, yes, works herself into intelligence and grace, Amy stands increasingly apart from her family. She is the only character in Little Women who actually evolves.
I wonder if Elena Greco, Ferrante’s main character/cipher, imagined herself to be Jo. She’s not; she’s Amy, the one at a slight remove from all the rest, the one who leaves the swaddle of family and habit for the bigger life she knows exists out there. Elena struggles to choose art over home. Like Amy, she is always strong-willed but never too brutally so (well, mostly never). If Elena is Ferrante’s Amy, then Lina must be her Jo. Like Jo, Lina stays even when she could go. She is hot-headed enough to destroy her own chances for transformation; as Jo did, Lina chooses her community over her own brilliance, her art. And, like Jo, she is impeccably, immovably, tragically herself. Elena wears masks, she code switches, she travels between two worlds and learns to speak fluently the languages of her different existences. But Lina, although she may be at times swayed by men or money or work or tragedy, is incapable of camouflage. She does not become; she is.
When you leave and then come back, you get new eyes. In San Francisco this time, I’ve uncovered a type of grief that I do not perhaps yet fully understand. A place becomes a home without you realizing it; when it stops being so, it’s sometimes equally difficult to know. Over the course of decades, people become themselves, without note. It’s only when we look back that we see the shape we’ve taken, see its shadows and imprints. In returning to the stories that have shaped us, we see too how we have been mis-formed, which parts of us have been cast in coppery truths and which have failed to adhere.
And so to the tidy moral: My reading list this year was about growing up, I guess; about how, be we little or epic, we become.
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Last week, our crack team of literary prognosticators gave you the early scoop on 82 of the most anticipated books due out in the next six months, but most of those books were fiction. Today, we offer a preview of some of the most compelling nonfiction titles set to arrive in bookstores between now and December.
The big preview already included write-ups of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Last Mass by Jamie Iredell, The Lost Landscape by Joyce Carol Oates, Behind the Glass Wall by Aleksandar Hemon, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell, The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson, and Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens by László Krasznahorkai. Below you will find 14 more upcoming books on topics ranging from modern-day witches to the science of creating a catchy pop tune, along with biographies of Joan Didion and George Custer and histories of post-Katrina New Orleans and the 2013 gay-rights ruling that paved the way for last month’s Supreme Court decision allowing gay marriage in all 50 states.
Rethinking Narcissism by Craig Malkin: “Narcissist” may well have replaced “chauvinist” as the go-to blanket insult of the post-millennial age. Malkin, a Harvard Medical School psychologist, would like to change that, and help Americans see the positive side of self-admiration. Most people’s personalities, he argues, fall somewhere on a spectrum ranging from pure selflessness to laughable grandiosity. Those whose narcissism is extreme can be sociopaths, but those in the middle range possess a strong — and healthy — sense of self. It wouldn’t be pop social science without some news you can use, so Malkin offers tips on “how to promote healthy narcissism in our partners, our children, and ourselves.”
Barbarian Days by William Finnegan: Raised in California and Hawaii, Finnegan has journeyed through the U.S., South Pacific, Australia, Asia, and Africa in search of the perfect wave. In this memoir, Finnegan, now a New Yorker staff writer, relates tales of life in a whites-only school gang in Honolulu, riding the surf off an uninhabited island in Fiji, and his further travels through Samoa, Tonga, and Indonesia. Barbarian Days is being marketed as “an old-school adventure story, an intellectual autobiography, a social history, a literary road movie, and an extraordinary exploration of the gradual mastering of an exacting, little understood art.”
The Last Love Song by Tracy Daugherty: Pioneering New Journalist Joan Didion gets her first full-length biography from the author of Hiding Man, the 2009 biography of Donald Barthelme. The emphasis here is on full-length: The Last Love Song clocks in at 752 pages. But then Didion has led an usually full life, from promotional copywriter at Vogue, to novelist, to tough-minded chronicler of the Age of Aquarius, to screenwriter, to tough-minded chronicler of aging in The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights.
No House to Call My Home by Ryan Berg: In the U.S., according to a recent study from the UCLA School of Law, 43 percent of LGBT homeless youth were forced out by their parents because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Berg encounters the raw reality behind this statistic when he takes a job in a group home for LGBT teenagers, many of them minorities. As he works to wean his charges away from sex work and drug abuse, he comes face to face with a system that focuses on warehousing kids rather than on helping them develop skills and relationships that could lead them to successful adult lives.
Katrina by Gary Rivlin: Ten years after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August 2005, flooding 80 percent of homes in New Orleans, the city is still recovering from the human and architectural damage the storm wrought. In this deeply reported new book, Rivlin, who witnessed the immediate aftermath of the hurricane as a reporter for The New York Times, details the perfect storm of natural disaster, neglected infrastructure, and centuries-old structural racism that made Katrina so devastating.
South Toward Home by Margaret Eby: Today, we seem to prefer our literary critics to leaven their critical insights with healthy doses of travel writing. As Elif Batuman did for Russian literature in The Possessed and Olivia Laing did for alcoholic writers in The Trip to Echo Spring, so Eby does for Southern writers in her second book. A displaced Southerner now living in Brooklyn, Eby peers into William Faulkner’s liquor cabinet in Oxford, Miss., and interviews the man who feeds the peafowl at Andalusia, the rural Georgia farm where Flannery O’Connor wrote her most famous stories, all in an effort to pin down the elusive quality that makes a Southern writer Southern.
Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations by Greil Marcus: The longtime Rolling Stone critic traces the history of American music through three examples of “commonplace songs,” songs that convey the sense of having no single author. In this book drawn from his 2013 Massey Lectures delivered at Harvard, Marcus discusses Bascom Lunsford’s 1928 “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” Geeshie Wiley’s 1930 “Last Kind Words Blues,” and Bob Dylan’s 1964 “Ballad of Hollis Brown” to examine how a song that sounds as though it was written by no one can speak to everyone.
The Song Machine by John Seabrook: Can’t get that Katy Perry song out of your head? Seabroook, a reliably entertaining staff writer at The New Yorker, ventures behind the glamorous façade of the music industry to learn how teams of specialists working in digital labs create melodies brimming with “hooks,” musical burrs designed to snag your ears every seven seconds. Traveling from New York to Los Angeles and from Stockholm to Korea, Seabrook traces the growth of manufactured hits from their origins in 1990s Sweden to their omnipresence on today’s pop charts.
Witches of America by Alex Mar: When we hear the word “witch,” most of us think of black hats and broomsticks. Mar, a former editor at Rolling Stone, goes past the Halloween clichés to provide an inside look at Paganism, a nature-worshipping, polytheistic religion practiced by some one million Americans. After participating in dozens of Pagan rituals attended by a wide cross-section of society, ranging from single moms to war veterans and computer programmers, Mar comes away from her five-year journey into the occult with an unexpected take on faith in post-millennial America.
Hemingway in Love by A.E. Hotchner: In the late 1940s, at the apex of his fame, Ernest Hemingway befriended a young writer named A.E. Hotchner. The friendship has proven lucrative for Hotchner, who is best known for his 1966 biography Papa Hemingway, and valuable for readers hungering for an unvarnished glimpse at the intimate life of America’s master prose stylist. Now 95, Hotchner recounts his last conversations with Hemingway in 1961 — conversations Hotchner says he kept secret for decades out of respect for Hemingway’s fourth wife, Mary. Just weeks before his suicide, Hemingway unburdened himself to Hotchner about the romantic dalliances that ended his marriage to his first wife, Hadley, in 1920s Paris, and about the many later macho escapades that made him a legend.
Custer’s Trials by T.J. Stiles: Who was George Custer before he led his troops into the most ignominious defeat in American military history in the Battle of the Little Bighorn? Stiles, who won a Pulitzer for his last book, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, follows Custer’s public life as a soldier in the Civil War and American frontier, and offers glimpses of his private life in his tumultuous marriage to his highly educated wife, Libby. Stiles’s first book, Jesse James: The Last Rebel of the Civil War, sifted the truth from the tall tales about another legendary 19th-century American. Look for more of the same here.
Then Comes Marriage by Roberta Kaplan, with Lisa Dickey: Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer had been a couple for more than 40 years, but when Spyer died, the federal government refused to recognize their marriage, forcing Windsor to pay a huge estate tax bill. Enter litigator Roberta Kaplan, who, along with the ACLU, took Windsor’s case all the way to the Supreme Court, which in 2013 issued a landmark ruling declaring the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, thus paving the way for the more recent ruling granting gay couples the right to marry in all 50 states. A perfect wedding gift for the lawyer in your life, gay or straight, planning to get married this fall.
St. Marks Is Dead by Ada Calhoun: Once the site of Colonial Dutch Director-General Peter Stuyvesant’s pear orchard, St. Marks Place, three short blocks in the heart of Manhattan’s East Village, later came to exemplify downtown cool for generations of hippies, artists, and revolutionaries. Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk played jazz there, at The Five-Spot. Punk rockers like the Ramones and Debbie Harry shopped there, at Trash and Vaudeville. Radical feminist Shulamith Firestone raised consciousnesses there. Calhoun, herself a native of St. Marks Place, profiles local denizens from anarchist Emma Goldman to white-boy rappers the Beastie Boys in this history of the iconic street organized around pivotal moments when critics declared “St. Marks is dead.”
Dear Mr. You by Mary-Louise Parker: Anyone who has watched Parker work her lip-rippling charms on stage or screen could bet she would be whip-smart and funny, but who knew America’s favorite TV pot dealer had a literary streak? Here Parker tries a novel take on the celebrity memoir, styled as a series of letters to men, real and imagined, who have shaped her life. To judge from early reactions on social media, the people who didn’t expect to like the book because it was by a famous actress liked it, while those who picked it up because it was by a famous actress came away bored and perplexed — a good sign.